Dunkirk tells the story of one of the most extraordinary events of the Second World War: the evacuation of 338,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France, against incredible odds.
In May 1940, the Nazi Army was on the offensive. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium rapidly fell, then they set their sights on France. The British Expeditionary Force that had come to support its Allies was forced into retreat. By late May, 400,000 British, Belgian and French troops were trapped on beaches along the northern French coast. They represented the last real hope of opposing the Nazi advance. But to do that they needed to be evacuated to Britain to regroup.
The men were sitting ducks on the Dunkirk beaches, facing Luftwaffe air raids. In the UK, military advisers told Prime Minister Churchill that at best they hoped the could evacuate 20-30,000 men. Nowhere near enough to carry on the War. Not to mention the terrible loss of life.
The Royal Navy's warships couldn't land at Dunkirk. They needed small boats to collect men from the beaches and ferry them to the larger ships. A call was put out on the BBC for civilian boats and a flotilla of 1000 miscellaneous fishing and sailing boats joined "Operation Dynamo". Some were piloted by Royal Navy sailors but in many cases, the owners were roped in to help.
We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is superficially as different as could be imagined from his previous films such as The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar or Inception. Not an ounce of science-fiction or a super-hero in sight. But it's a rich cinematic tale, told from the points of view of the three forces involved: the Army marooned on the sand, the Navy in similar danger trying to approach the beaches, and the RAF trying to give some protection from Luftwaffe attacks in the air.
Dunkirk features a stellar cast with Nolan stalwarts Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy and established stars like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. But Nolan trusted the main role to newcomer Fionn Whitehead, playing a modern Everyman as a footsoldier stranded on the beach.
Don't miss our downloadable B1 resource on Dunkirk the film and the Dunkirk evacuation.
Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat
Dunkirk is fondly remembered in Britain as an example of true grit, and the sense of solidarity that many people continued to experience on the Home Front during the War. Militarily, objectively, it was a defeat. Almost all the Army's heavy equipment had to be abandoned in France. Artillery had to be taken off display at the Imperial War Museum to be pressed back into service.
But in terms of morale, Dunkirk was an amazing boost. Thanks to civilians and military pulling together, 338,000 men were evacuated in a week, more than 10 times the original estimate. Britain and its allies lived to fight another day. And the whole of Britain threw itself behind the war effort. As Churchill told the Commons on 4 June munitions factories were working full tilt, "Work is proceeding everywhere, night and day, Sundays and week days. Capital and Labour have cast aside their interests, rights, and customs and put them into the common stock. Already the flow of munitions has leaped forward."
Churchill concluded with a rousing rallying cry, "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!"
On general release 19 July
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