When defining what it is, or perhaps increasingly, what it was, to be British, courage under fire and Churchillian intransigence rank highly. Stiff upper lip, staying calm and carrying on. Much of this identity is born out of World War 2, when Britain, so it was claimed at the time, stood alone. Alone, of course, apart from its vast Empire. There is no question, I hasten to add, that the evacuation from the northern French town of Dunkerque was an incredible undertaking. However, for understandable reasons of wartime propaganda, there are prevailing myths associated with Dynamo that continue to this day; etched in stone within the British consciousness and collective memory.
How will Christopher Nolan’s 2017 summer blockbuster, Dunkirk, handle the realities and address the myths of Operation Dynamo? It will be intriguing to see how far Nolan goes in telling the harsh home truths about 27 May – 4 June 1940. Little is known about the project, which is in keeping with Nolan’s closely guarded filmmaking process. The first trailer for the film looks gritty enough. We see abandoned vehicles, a woebegone soldier walking into the sea to end his life, and the horrified reaction of a terrorised Cillian Murphy when informed that his rescue vessel is returning to the beach. Indeed, Operation Dynamo was, quite literally, far from plain sailing.
Will we see the spat between the army and the RAF, which arose as a result of the former wrongly believing that the airmen had not taken to the sky to combat the Luftwaffe? Churchill, in his voluminous memoirs of the war, noted how much it upset him to hear that misinformed rescued soldiers were furious with the RAF, unaware that a great struggle had indeed taken place above the channel. Will the bravery of the French to hold the line be featured? Will we see scuffles on the beach between the English and French over the precedence in evacuation? Nolan did much to make Batman real, so I imagine realism will dominate myth in his telling of the real story of Dunkirk.
Certainly, the fortuitous decision of the Germans not to press the assault on Dunkirk with tanks and artillery, and to instead rely on Herman Goering’s confident posturing that his Luftwaffe could finish the job, was the primary reason 340,000 personnel made it off the beach. The Allies were heroic, no doubt, but the Germans had made a huge tactical blunder.
Another aspect of 1940 which remains little known is that Britain was not as united in its desire to fight to the end as popular imagination tells us. Indeed, Churchill’s defiance was not even shared by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who considered attempting to topple the Prime Minister to pursue an armistice with Hitler. Another enduring myth of the evacuation is the apparent eager acquiescence of boat owners to assist in the withdrawal. Whilst it is true that many bravely answered the call, many certainly did not. One can quite understand their reluctance.
Another film set during the opening months of World War 2, due for release a year from now in December 2017, is Darkest Hour, in which Churchill is portrayed by Gary Oldman. Could either film be bold enough to explore the claim that three of Churchill’s famous radio speeches were actually read by the actor, Norman Shelley, including the legendary “Fight them on the beaches” oration? In truth, this is unlikely for reasons of disputed evidence, and moreover, because the most prominent historian to make this claim is David Irving. To put it mildly, Irving has a less than stellar reputation, and is perhaps best known for his denial of the Holocaust and the famous libel trial that resulted from it.
In any case, as a massive fan of Nolan’s work – especially Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige – and a proponent for the teaching of history in as many forums as possible, I look forward to seeing Dunkirk when it hits cinemas on 21 July 2017. Much of the reality of Dunkirk has been glossed over for the benefit of national pride, but Dynamo is doubtless an incredible story, especially when told accurately. The harsh realities of Dynamo, for my money, make the event more engaging, not less. The proud flag-waving propagated at the time and since cannot be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, war is war. But the truth is that Dynamo was something of a disaster. The British Expeditionary Force was saved, but its equipment was lost to the shores of a defeated France.
There is no question that Churchill sincerely believed what he said when voicing a willingness to continue the struggle; to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. However, what equipment Britain would have had to do such fighting is, fortunately for the United Kingdom, something that never required an answer.
The late comedian, Spike Milligan, who was serving in the British army on the English side of the channel during the evacuation, offered a frank summation of the real Dunkirk in his autobiography. Milligan could have spoken for many when he wrote, “As the immensity of the defeat became apparent, somehow the evacuation turned into a strange victory.” Milligan further noted the striking words of a Bombardier, Kean, who had made it off the beach and was posted to Milligan’s regiment thereafter. When Milligan asked what the operation had been like, Kean responded, “Like, son? It was a fuck up. A highly successful fuck-up.” Churchill, for all his celestial talk of deliverance and miracles, did offer a similarly grounded, though more refined, conclusion when he told Parliament on 4 June 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”