American audiences have the opportunity to see two films about Dunkirk this year. First up was Their Finest, a thoughtful romantic comedy, and much else, that was released in Britain in 2016 and followed in the U.S. in the spring of 2017. Second is Dunkirk, a harrowing blockbuster and an instant classic war film. Each deserves attention as a cinematic product and for what it can tell us about film audiences today. For the moment, however, let us stick to the role of these films in shaping the British narrative of World War II. This is an account that to the British focuses on 1940, a point at which Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States were not involved as combatants (outside of the Sino-Japanese stalemate in China and the Soviet Union’s brief and inglorious Winter War in Finland). The British account of themselves focuses on fortitude and heroism in 1940—on fighting on, Churchill, the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz. Dunkirk plays a major role in this account, although more for domestic than foreign audiences. And, from the late-summer of 1940 on, it was subordinated to the Battle of Britain in the account of national salvation.
The new film shrinks the Dunkirk campaign to the beach, which is fair enough in filmic terms, but not helpful for explaining the significance of what happened. However, this is the way that history is going in an increasingly visual rather than literary culture.
Combined operations are most often presented in offensive terms as successful assaults and their exploitation. This leaves out the significant role of such operations in retreats and, more particularly, withdrawals in the face of a pursuing enemy. Such withdrawals are more difficult than assaults, as there is not the choice of timing and surprise enjoyed by the latter. There is also the problem of disengagement, as for the British at Corunna in 1809 and at Gallipoli in 1915. The evacuation of June 1940 was one of the most famous withdrawals in history, that of Allied, principally British, troops from northern France, more particularly Dunkirk. Aside from the bravery and fortitude of the many involved, both those who waited exposed to the threat of German air attack before being evacuated to England, and those who rescued them, this withdrawal depended upon key British local advantages, including naval superiority and a nearby base to which to retreat.
The British had not been prepared for a fighting retreat in the face of an active and unexpectedly mobile opponent: transport, fuel, and communications all proved insufficient. In the end, simply getting the army out of France became paramount. Having exploited the strategic and operational deficiencies of the Allies, notably the French, the Germans had crossed the River Meuse at Dinant and Sedan on May 3, and reached the English Channel near Abbeville on May 21, then had widened their position to the north. They took the port of Boulogne on May 23 and besieged another, Calais. Calais held out until May 27, while Lille, defended ably by the First French Army, did not surrender until June 1. Both provided important distractions for the Germans closing in on the encircled Allied forces around Dunkirk.
The British were able to evacuate 338,000 troops, mostly British but also French, but not their equipment, from May 26 to June 3. This owed much to skill, bravery, luck, but also a lot to a German halt on May 24 which owed much to Luftwaffe [German airforce] pressure to take a leading role, to the need of German tanks for maintenance, to the necessity of allowing the exhausted German tank crews time to recover, and to Hitler’s determination to conserve his forces in order to attack French units near Paris. The ability of the outnumbered RAF, which lost 177 aircraft, to go on resisting Luftwaffe attacks was important. The weather was also a key element as the Channel was unusually calm. The Allied withdrawal, a combined operation “in reverse,” helped distract attention from the striking failure of the land campaign. Other Allied units were evacuated by sea from French ports further west, including St. Valéry-en-Caux, Le Havre, Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest and St Nazaire, although many troops were captured, including at Dunkirk.
The Royal Navy evacuated most of the troops, a point underplayed in the new films. Instead, as was vital to the public account, private boats also took off an important number. Both warships and private boats took serious punishment from German aircraft in the process. This proves the occasion for the propaganda-filmmaking that provides the plot background to Their Finest.
There were unsuccessful evacuations during the war, notably the failure to save the British forces in Singapore in 1942 and their American counterparts in the Philippines. These failures underline the significance of the successful withdrawals from Norway (1940), Dunkirk, and Crete (1941). As yet, there has been no comparative study of 1940 and 1918 when, as the Germans attacked on the Western Front with great initial success in the Spring Offensives, so it appeared that combined operations might be necessary in order to ensure a successful British evacuation from France. This would have been on a far greater scale than Corunna (1809), Gallipoli (1915), or Dunkirk (1940). British plans for a threatening future included the wrecking, without French support, of every French harbor on the Channel as far west as Cherbourg, in order to pre-empt the risk of a subsequent German invasion of Britain. Both in Operation Michael (March 21 to April 5) and in Operation Georgette, the Lys offensive (April 9 to 30), the Germans failed to push the British back on the English Channel. The likely outcome had they done so is unclear.
The quality of heroism emerged clearly in 1940, and as much as the mythologizing ably assessed in Richard Toye’s perceptive review “Bon voyage, Tommy,” published in the Times Literary Supplement on July 28, 2017. The key element is that of fortitude. Withdrawal, whether or not in terms of amphibious evacuation, is not a military activity that commands much public attention. The emphasis, instead, is on the attack, notably so in war films. At the same time, withdrawal is really an aspect of defence, indeed, in strategic terms, a key facet of mobile defence. The latter is a particular characteristic of amphibious powers. Britain was the leading one until the Americans came to share that position in 1942 and, soon after, supersede the British. In 1940, as in 1918, the decision to opt to play the role of being a Continental power was challenged by German attacks, and, in 1940, the British had to withdraw. In strategic terms, this evacuation was linked to the disaster of the overthrowing of France which, in turn, was a reflection of the German ability, thanks to the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, to repeat the one-front war of 1918. Withdrawal itself, however, is not a disaster for an amphibious power, as the Americans demonstrated with Vietnam and would do well to consider doing with Afghanistan.
The defence is usually mythologised when it involves small numbers against overwhelming odds, as for the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480 BCE or for the Revenge at the hands of Spain in 1591. It also classically involves combat: killing and being killed. Well, Dunkirk was different. That element was very much captured in the air and for the soldiers, many French, on the perimeter, but it was not the case on the beaches. Instead, fortitude, the maintenance of discipline, the orderly improvisation of response and solutions, and keeping going, were all highly significant. The psychological ability to anticipate attack without panicking was important. That many in Britain and its armed forces had experienced World War I was helpful, but air power was by 1940 a far greater threat. The film Dunkirk captures many of the physical and psychological realities of conflict and is highly evocative of 1940. The lack of CGI adds a sense of reality although the film would have benefited from more troops on the beach. Its “face of battle” approach cannot explain context or provide comparative insights. In particular, the film misses the moral necessity of standing fast against Germany. This omission is a pity as that is what makes Dunkirk, alongside the Battle of Britain, and Britain’s determination to fight on, Britain’s greatest victory.