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Dunkirk, the new movie from director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy), is a celebrated summer blockbuster and Oscar contender. Critics have hailed it as brilliant, monumental, perhaps the best war movie, ever. Based on the incredible defense and evacuation of Allied forces in northern France in the early days of World War II, Dunkirk explores the conflict from a trio of perspectives – those of fictionalized characters from land, the sea and in the air.
The pivotal historical event it’s based upon unfolded as hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped on the coast of northern France. The situation was a strategic disaster as the German tanks tore through the largely undefended Ardennes forest, which was thought to be impenetrable. But for a (still) unclear reason, Hitler issued a controversial “halt order,” enabling the Allies to mount a defense.
“Operation Dynamo” was enacted. Around 850 British, Belgian, Dutch and French warships began evacuating troops, but this was not enough. A coordinated effort involving hundreds of private ships – fishing boats, pleasure craft and smaller commercial vessels, many of them operated by civilians – joined the mission. For 10 intense days, between May 26 and June 4, 1940, destroyers, merchant ships and these “little ships” rescued 338,226 soldiers while under frequent attack by the Luftwaffe. But German bombers met fierce opposition in the Royal Air Force, which was charged with providing air cover for the evacuation.
Nolan’s film offers a visceral, engulfing cinematic experience of these events, but for deeper, fact-based insights and perspectives on the evacuation of Dunkirk, researchers rely on curated primary sources.
During the eleven days of “Operation Dynamo,” much of the world was on edge, eager for reports of how the conflict in Dunkirk was unfolding. The outcome would have a formidable impact on the war at large; on a smaller scale, people worried about their loved ones – husbands, sons, brothers, sweethearts – cornered and stranded on the coast.
The conflict also provided an exhilarating morale boost for the Allies, particularly Britain.
International newspapers covered the events in detail, particularly efforts of the Royal Air Force guard over Dunkirk. In the midst of the conflict, a headline from the Globe and Mail proclaimed “Allies Superiority in Air Is Established at Dunkirk,” even as the article acknowledged the “gravity of the situation” and an “almost forlorn hope” of the French army as it fought its way “toward Dunkirk in a retreat that will count among the greatest in military history.”
There were notes of optimism, however, a few days later, when The Irish Times reported the record numbers of German bombers and fighters destroyed by British fighter pilots:
Huge formations of German bombers, escorted by fighters, came out and attempted to sink the craft [participating in the evacuation of all kinds], which were thick on the sea, but the fighters attacked and drove them off, most of the bombs falling into the sea...
One of the British Hurricane pilots, disabled in combat with a Messerschmitt, had to land on the beach. Carrying his parachute, he walked fifteen miles to Dunkirk, got a lift home to Folkestone in a paddle steamer, rejoined his squadron, and was out on patrol again the next day.
The unlikely accomplishments of the British Navy, and the hundreds of courageous British civilians who commandeered the small ships were also (somewhat somberly) hailed by the press.
"[The British] are as people suddenly stirred into vibrant alertness,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor:
They were given something to do at Dunkirk. They did it. The British Navy that rescued the Expeditionary Force consisted of stolid ferry boats, excursion steamers like the erstwhile flippant “Brighton Belle,” small yachts under amateur skippers. Everybody who could get their hands on a boat, it seems, pointed its bow toward Dunkirk...
The morale of the British people...is earning world-wide respect that should soon bear fruit in aid for a cause that is not Britain’s alone.
The battle at Dunkirk was, after all, only a single event in a tremendous global conflict that was just getting started.
Holocaust survivor Juliane Heyman, a Jewish refugee who had fled Germany, found herself in Brussels in the spring of 1940, as explained in a 1997 testimony provided to USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. When the Germans invaded Brussels, Heyman and her family escaped into France, traveling by foot or by cart, sometimes by bus, over the course of several days, stopping along the way to sleep in barns or an occasional hotel.
In early June 1940, Heyman and her family arrived at a hotel in Dunkirk, just in time to be hustled into a cellar along with all the other guests. There, they remained for two days as the earth shook around them with a constant bombardment that seemed like it would go on forever. “We had hardly any food,” she said, recalling how the people in hiding shared their small emergency rations.
Only in retrospect, Heyman said, did she realize she’d been there at the “famous Dunkirk evacuation.” Had she known, she added, she would have tried to get on one of the boats that was evacuating the troops.
On June 4th the Allies were forced out of Dunkirk. The Times of India reported how that morning troops were still arriving in England, as “[s]everal ships landed French officers and other ranks, all of whom have been fighting night and day without rest the last few days.” Despite the evacuation effort, 40,000 French troops were left behind, many of them quickly captured as POWs; others were killed.
The Times of India spoke to one French officer who described the scene in Dunkirk as “now nothing more than shambles.”
E.R. Noderer, a Chicago Tribune reporter who arrived in Dunkirk on June 5, observed:
Dunkirk is a pile of rubbish. The wreckage of bomb shattered buildings chokes its streets. Flames crackle and smoke swirls thru the center of town as fires spread unchecked. Dead French soldiers lie where they fell...
With no exceptions, every building in this city, the home of 33,000 persons, was destroyed. Nothing was left intact.
The civilians who had remained in Dunkirk during the attack emerged from cellars only to discover their homes – and the entirety of their town – in ruins. Refugees who were already returning were devastated when they found their houses reduced to rubble, noted Noderer. He also spoke with residents who had remained in Dunkirk throughout the attack. “Hundreds of civilians were killed when their houses collapsed around them,” one survivor told the reporter. Norderer met a police officer who “wept as he told how his wife and five children had been killed when their home was bombed.”
Gardner, W. (2014). The evacuation from Dunkirk: 'operation dynamo', 26 May-June 1940.
Grinberg, S. (Director), & Grinberg, S. (Producer). (n.d.). Dunkirk [Video file]. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved July 29, 2017, from American History in Video.
Lord, W. (2012). The miracle of Dunkirk: the true story of operation dynamo.
Martin, J. (Director), & Martin, J. (Producer). (2003). Escape from Dunkirk [Video file]. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved July 29, 2017, from Academic Video Online.
Norman, L., Divine, D., & Lipscomb, W. P. (1958). Dunkirk (1958): Continuity script. London, England: Studio Canal. Retrieved July 29, 2017, from Film Scripts Online, Volume II.
Stewart, G. (2009). Dunkirk and the fall of France.
See also: History Vault
Discover rare primary source documents related to the Dunkirk evacuation in two History Vault modules: “U.S. Military Intelligence Reports, 1911-1944” and “New Deal and World War II: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Office Files and Records of Federal Agencies.”
For further research, “The World War II: U.S. Documents on Planning, Operations, Intelligence, Axis War Crimes, and Refugees” module includes a set of World War II Combat Interviews for firsthand accounts of the individual soldiers who participated in the D-Day invasion.
"ALLIED FORCES LEAVE DUNKIRK." The Times of India (1861-current), Jun 05, 1940, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Times of India.
NODERER, E. R. "FINDS DUNKIRK IS PILE OF SHELL WRECKED RUINS." Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jun 06, 1940, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune.
"MERCILESS WAR IN THE AIR." The Irish Times (1921-Current File), Jun 03, 1940, pp. 6, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Irish Times and The Weekly Irish Times.
"Out of Dunkirk." The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file), Jun 05, 1940, pp. 22, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Christian Science Monitor.
Heyman, Juliane. “Segment#: 94.” Interview. Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, 1997, http://vha.usc.edu/viewingPage?testimonyID=36508&returnIndex=0#. Accessed 2 August 2017.
Image: This is photograph NYP 68075 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.