It’s 2017, Buzzkillers, 77 years after the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation of allied troops from that area between the 26th of May and the 4th of June 1940. The evacuation has become a very famous and celebrated event in World War II history and especially in British history. “Dunkirk Spirit,” the British refusal to give up in the face of disaster, and to keep plugging away at a problem until it’s solved, comes from the whole Dunkirk experience. As you now know, however, 2017 has also seen the release of a major motion picture, entitled “Dunkirk,” directed by Christopher Nolan. The Dunkirk evacuation was first celebrated in film in 1942 in the multiple Academy-Award winning “Mrs. Miniver,” and again in the 1958 film, “Dunkirk,” as well as being mentioned and used many times in other films since the 1940s.
I had hoped, Buzzkillers, that most of the elements of the famous “Dunkirk myth” would have been dropped by the time the filmmakers got around to producing this 2017 version, but I was wrong. Many of the myths are still there, but by concentrating on the evacuation itself and depicting the shocking nature of the battles to secure that evacuation, 2017’s Dunkirk film provides a stunning and impressive interpretation of how awful it must have been back in 1940. Like Saving Private Ryan, it has its value as an historical picture, and I encourage you to go see it. But Dunkirk history and Dunkirk myths are very important parts of World War II and the subsequent ways in which it has been taught.
The evacuation of Dunkirk became necessary because the German invasion of France in May and June 1940 was so successful, and because that invasion cut the northern tip of France off from the rest of the country, leaving British, French, and Belgian forces stranded and in danger of being wiped out by being pushed into the Atlantic Ocean. The British forces were very large, and had been sent over to France after the Germans had invaded Poland in September 1939. Throughout the winter of 1939 and the spring of 1940 the British Expeditionary Forces joined the French in defending France against a German invasion in the east, but especially in the north east in case the Germans came through the Low Countries, which they did.
But the German invasion included a kind of “sickle cut” which went around some of the Allied forces, made it to the Somme Valley, and then pushed its way down river to the Atlantic coast south of Boulogne by mid May, 1940. This is what left the pocket of northern France and Belgium cut off from the rest of France and surrounded by the newly-emboldened German Army. Inside that pocket was the majority of the British Expeditionary Force, Canadian forces, three French armies, and some remnants of the Belgian and Dutch armies.
Things happened very quickly from about the 15th of May onwards, Buzzkillers. The German forces began pressing in towards the coast from three sides — the north, the east, and the south (the west, of course, was the ocean). Despite fighting extensive rear-guard action, the Allies kept having to retreat further back. Dunkirk was not only the furthest from each of the two advancing wings of the German military, it had very large and wide beaches, and was surrounded by marshland. Therefore, on May 20th, Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force began planning to use Dunkirk as the central evacuation point.
The British and the remaining Allied forces then dealt with two problems. The first was figuring out how to make Gort’s planned evacuation from Dunkirk possible. Dunkirk’s large beaches made it easier for massive armies to gather and wait for evacuation (eventually, more than 350,000 soldiers would gather in the town and on the beaches), but that evacuation would take a very long time and would almost certainly take place under fire from German fighter planes and from land forces closing in on Dunkirk. So, as pedestrian and unimportant as this might sound, the Dunkirk evacuation would have been a massive planning and logistics problem, even without a major battle going on trying to stop it. That leads me to the second problem, Buzzkillers, and it’s one that’s sometimes overlooked when concentrating on the story of the Dunkirk evacuation itself.
That’s the Battle of Dunkirk, which was the culmination of the German advances and closing in on the French port town, while the Allied armies were retreating there. This happened more or less from the 22nd of May until the 4th of June, and the evacuation was going on for the final week of the battle, and, as I’ve said before, under heavy fire. It took place while the British and French were retreating until May 26th, when the battle was concentrated in Dunkirk and the evacuation beaches. Initially, it looked as if the Germans were going to push the British and allied forces right into the sea, but their main tank advance halted on 23rd of May. Nazi General Gerd von Rundstedt was worried that his tank divisions might outrun their supply lines, and that once they got to Dunkirk they might get trapped in the marshland surrounding the city (there weren’t enough solid passages across the marshes to handle all the tank divisions).
Further, these tank crews (and their supporting divisions) were exhausted from more-or-less non-stop fighting through the Low Countries and northern France. Hitler was a bit apprehensive about this strategy, but once he was told that this now-famous “halt order” would also allow German forces to consolidate and become even more powerful once they reached Dunkirk a few days later, he approved the order. So the German tanks stopped. Crucial fact, Buzzkillers.
Among other things, the fact that these Nazi tank divisions stopped allowed the BEF and the Allies more time to organize and execute the evacuation.
This “halt order” is one of the most debated aspects of the early years of the war. Some historians (amateur as well as professional) have argued that Hitler approved the halt order to allow the British and other Allies to escape back to Britain so that he could present Churchill and the war cabinet with the idea that he spared them and therefore they should agree to an early peace with him. But this interpretation has largely been abandoned in recent decades because the idea of Hitler offering the British an olive branch in June 1940 doesn’t square with his long held plans to defeat the British comprehensively. It also doesn’t fit with what he did immediately after approving the halt order on May 24th.
What he did was this. In consultation with Göring, Hitler then ordered the Luftwaffe to wipe out the BEF and Allied forces in Dunkirk from the air. (That’s one reason why you see so many scenes of dogfights in the film, although more on the accuracy of that later.) The idea was that German bombers would destroy the Dunkirk fortifications, as well as the town, and would try to sink Allied ships arriving to evacuate the troops from the beaches.
From the 28th of May until the 4th of June, the Luftwaffe executed this plan. One of the first things to be destroyed (or at least damaged enough to put it beyond effective use) were the docks in the Dunkirk harbor, which would have provided a much more “normal” process of loading men onto the ships and, presumably, much faster, easier, and safer. But since the docks were destroyed, the beaches seemed to be the next obvious place from which to load the soldiers onto the ships. As you can imagine, Buzzkillers, ships large enough to hold thousands of soldiers were too big to get to the beaches, so the overall evacuation plan changed drastically. Along with the German halt order, the intense bravery and backbone of the French armies providing the rear-guard defense of Dunkirk and the area surrounding it, the decision to use two long Dunkirk breakwaters to line the soldiers up and get them on the evacuation ships was one of the three most important factors in the success of the evacuation.
These breakwaters, called the East Mole and the West Mole (a kind of specialized term for breakwater), were pressed into service by Captain William Tennant (the British naval officer in charge of organizing the evacuation at the site itself, and the man whom the Kenneth Branagh character, Commander Bolton, from the Dunkirk film, was based on). The mile-long East Mole proved more easy to convert into a massive dock, and so that’s the one that was used. Eventually, nearly 200,000 troops got onto large military vessels from the East Mole. That means that, although the rescue from the beaches via the famous Little Ships is much more celebrated and genuinely heart-warming, two-thirds of the Dunkirk evacuees were saved from the East Mole.
First of all, let me remind you of a few Dunkirk facts that have been more or less forgotten, leading to a kind of myth that the evacuation was a complete success. The casualty rate was quite high. The British lost 68,111 killed, wounded or captured (an estimated 3,500 were killed) in the Battle of Dunkirk. The numbers of French troops killed and wounded is unknown (but I’m sure it’s very high), but 48,000 were captured. And an estimated 20,000 German soldiers were killed and wounded. (We don’t have statistics for Belgian and Dutch troops.)
In addition, the loss of equipment, for the British anyway, was colossal. Remember, most of the British army was in France in 1940, as was most of their equipment. 63,879 military vehicles (including tanks) were abandoned. 2,472 field guns (those big artillery pieces) were left behind. 6 Royal Navy destroyers were sunk. 200 other ships were lost, as well as 100 aircraft. By any standard, in any way, that’s a devastating total. And what’s often forgotten because the popular attention is usually concentrated on American industrial might and its contribution to the Allied war effort, is that British industrial production during the war was massive. For the most part, it was British industrial might from Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and countless other places that attempted to recover from Dunkirk. And they succeeded.
Perhaps the theme and message that’s supposed to come through most strongly in the new Dunkirk film is that the job of rescuing Allied forces clinging to the northern edge of France was so massive and fraught with difficulties that civilian boats and civilian boatmen and sailors volunteered en masse and joined the effort. In fact, one of the movie posters has the tagline, “400,000 men couldn’t get home, so home came for them.” The “home” in the second half of that line refers to the story of the “Little Ships,” civilian craft that, literally, came to the rescue and made the full evacuation possible.
Before I go into details of this story, Buzzkillers, let me assure you that what I’m about to convey not only comes from the testimony of those involved in the Dunkirk evacuation, and the intense work of professional historians over the past few decades, but also is in no way a criticism of the “average civilians” who did, in fact, rescue some soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches.
The problem with what’s come down through the decades as the story of the Little Ships is that a lot of it isn’t true, most of it is greatly exaggerated, and that exaggeration (and the imagery of “average” people providing the key to the Dunkirk miracle) covers up the stories of most of the true heroes of the civilian aspect of the Dunkirk evacuation.
Here’s what happened. It became very clear very early at Dunkirk itself that, even with the majority of the soldiers being evacuated via the East Mole, that the entire evacuation wasn’t going fast enough and that many evacuees would have to be taken off the beaches or they’d be captured by the fast-encircling Germans. Ships big enough to take soldiers in large enough numbers couldn’t get anywhere near the beaches. These were big navy ships, troop transports, and the like. They would have run aground. So there was this gap between soldiers waiting on the beaches and the means of their delivery back to Britain. Only shallow-draught, small boats were able to get close to the beaches.
The military planners back in Britain realized this immediately, and they ordered the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Shipping to go around southern England (particularly the Thames and other rivers) and commandeer as many sea-worthy small boats as they could. This took place mostly over the 27th and 28th of May. Nearly 700 civilian boats were pressed into service almost overnight. Just organizing that process must have been an immense job, Buzzkillers. But it was helped greatly by the fact that Britain is an island nation, that it lived (and lives) to a great extent from the sea, and therefore that there were a lot of these types of ships around.
Since the crossing distance from England to Dunkirk is less than 20 miles, more or less anything boat that could make the crossing but also get close to the Dunkirk beaches was taken. These included cross-channel ferries that worked in peacetime, lifeboats, coastal and deep-sea fishing vessels, as well as pleasure craft owned by private citizens. And it is the last type of boat that has gotten the most attention in popular depictions of the Dunkirk evacuation, especially in feature films.
Older Buzzkillers may remember that Clem Miniver, the husband of Mrs. Miniver in the 1942 Hollywood film of the same name, is notified that he and his boat are needed for the Dunkirk rescue. Mr. Miniver and dozens of other pleasure boaters are shown volunteering for this job and making their way down the Thames. The film doesn’t actually depict these civilians rescuing soldiers at the Dunkirk beaches, but we do see Mrs. Miniver anxiously waiting for her husband to return back home. When he does, he’s exhausted, and his little river fishing boat is banged up pretty badly. We certainly are meant to get the impression that he was at the Dunkirk beaches, rescuing soldiers amid German artillery fire.
The same idea of average civilians heroically pitching in is conveyed in the 1958 film, Dunkirk. In that picture, actors Bernard Lee and a young Richard Attenborough play civilians who agree to let their boats be used in the evacuation, but insist on piloting them themselves despite initial opposition from the Naval Inspectors. In this year’s film, actor Mark Rylance portrays Mr. Bolton, a civilian with a nice, medium-sized pleasure boat, who slips away from those Naval Inspectors commandeering civilian ships, and sails off to Dunkirk himself, with his son and another local boy aboard as crew. The Mr. Bolton character is supposed to symbolize the “hundreds” of ordinary civilians who pilot their boats themselves and make the difference between British soldiers being truly stranded on the beaches and them actually making it to the rescue ships.
Before I go any further, I want to stress that, in no way am I, or Buzzkill Institute researchers, seeking to denigrate the heroic work done by the average civilians who piloted their boats to Dunkirk and rescued soldiers off the beach. It must have been harrowing, and they certainly displayed immense courage. But the truth is that there were very few of those types of civilians at Dunkirk. The Naval Inspectors who rounded up the little boats in England in the early days of the crisis more or less refused to let men like Mr. Miniver pilot their own boats. It was simply too dangerous. The authorities requisitioned civilian boats (sometimes without the owners’ permission or knowledge) and turned them over to crews from the Royal Navy and His Majesty’s Coast Guard. The majority of the Little Ships were skippered and crewed by these type of seamen.
There were, however, 700 or so Little Ships and some had to be piloted by “civilians.” But in terms of the “Dunkirk story,” I think what’s happened in the immediate aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation, and in succeeding decades. Members of the public have developed an understandably narrow conception of what was meant by “civilian” when talking about Dunkirk. People tend to think of Mr. Miniver or the Mark Rylance character when they hear “civilian,” whereas it really meant anyone not actually in the military. For the purposes of the Dunkirk Little Ships story, the broader and more realistic definition of “civilian” is vital to understand what actually happened and who did what.
The Naval Inspectors rounding up the civilian craft knew that they didn’t have enough Royal Navy personnel to adequately man all the ships. So they pressed civilians into service. But, at the risk of repeating myself, these weren’t Mr. Miniver types. In fact, the number of Mr. Minivers and Mr. Boltons was very small. The overwhelming majority of “civilians” were professional mariners who had lots of experience piloting and manning ocean-going vessels. These included Royal National Lifeboat Institute men, skippers and deckhands from Atlantic fishing boats, captains and crew from Channel-crossing ferries, and the like (that is, serious mariners used to dangers conditions). These men made up the vast majority of civilians who got the Little Ships to Dunkirk and back. In other words, they weren’t in the Royal Navy, but in terms of their seamanship and abilities, these civilians were professionals.
The Little Ships reached Dunkirk and started to work immediately, ferrying soldiers from the beach out to the larger ships. In some parts of the beach, infantry officers had constructed improvised jetties by driving abandoned military vehicles (mostly trucks with high roofs and canopies) out into the water in a line. Even though they could only build these out a length of hundred yards or so, this made the difference between medium sized ships (such as ferries) getting closer to the beach. Many more soldiers were evacuated more quickly this way than if they had had to wade out far to the medium-sized craft. Most soldiers on the beach did have to wade out at least a short distance even to get to the pleasure boats and small fishing boats that were coming in to rescue them.
Even still, and again, when relating this fact, I don’t anyone to get the impression that I’m undercutting the bravery and self-sacrifice of the people involved, less than 10% of Dunkirk evacuees were actually rescued by civilian boats. Of course, when we’re talking about roughly 350,000 men waiting for rescue, 10% is a lot of men — 35,000. In fact, Churchill (the new prime minister), the war cabinet, and the military brain trust back in London thought that, if they were lucky, they’d get roughly that number back from Dunkirk. They thought the rest, 315,000, would be killed by the advancing German armies and by the Luftwaffe from the air.
And, think about it, Buzzkillers. If only half (that is, 17,500) of those men rescued off the beach got married and had two children later in life, that’s 35,000 British post-war baby-boomers who wouldn’t be here without the Little Ships. And if only half of those post-war generation people got married and had two children, that’s another 35,000 grandchildren, people my age, who wouldn’t be here without the Little Ships. We could do this kind of survivor math forever (imagine the numbers in subsequent generations who are here because of the 350,000 total Dunkirk survivors), but you get the picture.
But what did you think of the film, Professor, I hear you asking. Well, I thought it was pretty good and it’s certainly well worth seeing. The battle scenes in the beginning are severe, loud, and dramatic. But they go on for very long and are, frankly, somewhat repetitive. In some ways, in fact, the first two-thirds of the film became kinda boring because of it. In fact, about an hour or so in, Lady Buzzkill started knitting a sweater. The last third of the film, however, is quite good. And the juxtaposition of the dejected soldiers coming back and being very surprised to welcomed as heroes was very well done. There was a lot behind the symbols and character actors that Christopher Nolan, the director, chose to portray in that dichotomy between depressed soldiers and grateful civilians, but it seemed to me that you had to already know the full story of how that unfolded historically in order to appreciate those scenes. Perhaps that whole Dunkirk experience is worth another episode. I’ll let you Buzzkillers decide, and tell me via firstname.lastname@example.org
There is one thing I’d like to leave you with before I go, however. And to do it I have to return to the question of what “civilian” meant when talking about the Little Ships and civilian volunteers at Dunkirk. As I intimated earlier, expert mariners and sailors from the Merchant Marine, the Atlantic fishing fleet, and similar groups made up the vast majority of Little Ships “civilian” heroes. And I very briefly mentioned something called the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which, if you’re not British or Irish, or haven’t spent a lot of time there, you’ve probably never heard of. The RNLI was founded in 1824 as a rescue organization for anyone in difficulty at sea. They’ve saved close to 150,000 lives since their founding, and more than 600 RNLI crew members have lost their own lives in doing so. There were more RNLI ships and lifeboats in Little Ships fleet used in the Dunkirk rescue than from any other organization. It’s estimated that the RNLI alone saved over 3,000 lives at Dunkirk.
The RNLI is not a government or military institution, although it kind of serves as an additional Coast Guard service for Britain and Ireland. They’re supported entirely by contributions from the public, and they raise a lot of money from tiny individual donations put in their lifeboat collection boxes. If you’ve visited Britain, you may have seen RNLI personnel on street corners or outside shops collecting money in this way. As many of you Buzzkillers know, I lived in Britain for many years. And one of the most impressive things about the British is the way they go about founding, funding, and maintaining groups such as the RNLI. They do it modestly, by shaking donation boxes in public spaces. And the British public donate their pound coins or 50p pieces and they don’t brag about it.
And one final final thing, the vast majority of RNLI crews are made up of volunteers. Yes, you heard right, Buzzkillers. Volunteers. Highly-trained and immensely dedicated volunteers, but volunteers nonetheless. They’ve been rescuing people, saving lives day in and day out, for nearly 200 years, in highly dangerous conditions, without fanfare and without feature motion pictures being made about them. Now that’s Dunkirk spirit.