How Accurate Is “Dunkirk”?

Culture Watch
tags: Dunkirk, movie review

Robert Huddleston, a regular book critic, is a graduate of the National Defense University in Washington.

Miracle: a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.

Dunkirk, a highly-acclaimed motion picture, is the story of the successful evacuation of Allied solders from the beaches of Dunkirk, France having been routed by German forces in late May of 1940. The motion picture was immediately followed by a re-issuing The Miracle of Dunkirk (1982), which made a fast rise to the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Winston Churchill, Great Britain's Prime Minister also described the successful evacuation as a “miracle of deliverance ” in a speech to the Parliament on June 4, 1940, the end of the operation called Operation Dynamo.

Churchill, of course, did not really hold to the successful operation being a “miracle.” But no doubt some did, leaving it for the English historian Stephen Bungay in The Most Dangerous Enemyto set the record straight:

'The miracle of Dunkirk' is still a standard phase in the mythology of 1940, derived from Churchill calling the evacuation a 'miracle of deliverance’ in his speech of 4 June. The only miraculous thing about Dunkirk, perhaps better called 'good luck,' was that the sea remained calm. The rest was down to excellent organization by the navy, skill on the part of the RAF, generally good discipline in the BEF [British Expeditionary Force], and a lot of human effort. Though paying tribute to those involved in the operation he went on to explain its meaning: We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not one by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was achieved by the air force.

Operation Dynamo, which began on 26 May 1940, and ended nine days later, served as a test for Britain’s Royal Air Force Fighter Command against the vastly experienced Luftwaffe.

“Hitler had many reasons, good and bad for holding back his Panzers, but divine mercy was not one of them,”noted Dr, Bungay. But Hitler did have good reason to proceed on a path that ultimately favored the British.

As the defeated British forces retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk, the German Wehrmacht was pushing Allied forces, mostly French, some British, aided by RAF fighter squadrons, towards Paris, a prime target for the Germans. Rather than splitting their forces the Germans continue the advance towards Paris while leaving Dunkirk to the Luftwaffe, as ordered by Hitler. Reich Marshal Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, had convinced Hitler that the Luftwaffe, and the Luftwaffe alone, could destroy the British forces at Dunkirk. Goering, a German fighter pilot in the First World War, was convinced that German aircraft and German fighter pilots were far superior to their British counterparts having been tested in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. He had a rude awakening in the resulting air battles. While the actual count of aircraft destroyed by each side is controversial, the best assessment is that it was about equal, just under 100. The objectives of each side, however, tell the story: the Luftwaffe failed to destroy the enemy forces on the beaches, while the RAF was successful in averting that effort. Hitler/Goering were monumental chumps.

The British losses in the air battle were Spitfires and Hurricane fighters, while most of the German losses the Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber, the Dornier Du 17 medium bomber, and the Me-110 twin-engined fighter were no match for RAF fighters. This resulting matchup between the Luftwaffe attacking aircraft and the RAF defensive fighters served as a precursor to the coming Battle of Britain.

As the Dunkirk evacuation was underway, Allied forces, supported by several RAF fighter squadrons, continued to oppose the German forces advancing on Paris. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill flew to Paris—escorted by RAF fighters—to convince the French leaders to continue the struggle. The French asked for increased British support in the form of several RAF fighter squadrons. Impossible, decided Churchill, knowing the importance of fighters to oppose an expected invasion across the English Channel. On 22 June 1940 the French resistance collapsed, the French government fled south and France signed an armistice with Germany. The remaining British Forces were evacuated from French southern ports with the RAF squadrons returning to England. Hitler's Third Reich now controlled the continent with England standing alone. The Battle of Britain was but weeks away.

One viewer of Dunkirk, the motion picture, wondered about the presence of Americans on the beach or in the air. It is known that Americans had volunteered at the outbreak of the war passing themselves off as Canadian, thus it is quite likely some were at Dunkirk serving with British units. What is known is that thirty-two Americans had been recruited for the French air force by Charles Sweeny, an American soldier of fortune. His goal was to create a squadron of American fighter pilots resembling the Lafayette Espadrille of World War I fame. None, however, had been accepted before being forced to evade advancing German forces. Of the thirty-two Americans, four were killed, eleven became German prisoners, five eventually made their way to England, and the fate of the rest is unknown.

Of the five pilots who reached England three were accepted in the RAF and, along with one other American, served in the Battle of Britain The three were Eugene “Red” Tobin, a Hollywood tour guide eager to pilot Spitfires, Vernon Charles “Shorty” Keough, who stood tall at 4 feet, 10.5 inches and required two cushions to reach an aircraft’s rudder pedals, and Andy Mamedoff, the son of a wealthy White Russian immigrant whose passion for women was equal to that of flying. The three initially came to Europe intending to volunteer their service to the Finnish air force, Finland having been invaded by Soviet forces. Before reaching Finland, however, the conflict ended, France surrendered, and Britain became the employer of last resort.

The fourth American in the Battle of Britain was William “Billy” Fiske, a stockbroker and Olympic bobsled champion who joined English society when he married the widow of the Earl of Warwick in 1948.

The four American pilots perished in the Battle of Britain.

Some viewers may have found Dunkirk disconcerting as the film jumps around to reflect what was happening on the beaches, in the air, and on the water. My take is that this approach best reflected reality. I was impressed as the film captured the calm demeanor of the British Royal Army and Navy officers in charge: it conveyed the message “if we remain calm and carry on we will see this through.” The talented British actor Kenneth Branagh fills the role of British Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey in charge of the operation.

Also evident in the film was the discipline of the troops waiting to board ships as directed by RSM Beachmasters (Regimental Sergeant Majors). Always under attack from German aircraft and wearing steel helmets anticipating bullets raining down from aerial combat. Actually, British fighters intercepted most enemy aircraft some distance from the beach, causing the troops to believe they were receiving little support from the RAF. It took several decades to correct this misconception.

The film correctly covers the devastating attacks on Royal Navy ships, the navy suffering more causalities than the Royal Army. Not overlooked are the British civilians who contributed and often manned the flotilla of small craft that joined British warships in the evacuation. Mark Rylance fills the role of the dedicated civilian skipper of his pleasure boat. And well-presented is the sterling performance of the RAF fighters. The simulated aerial combat is especially impressive by focusing on a Spitfire pilot, played by actor Tom Hardy, so dedicated that he continued to attack German aircraft to the point of running out of fuel and being forced to land on the beach, destroying his beloved Spitfire.

At the end of the film, as the last of the troops are departing, the Naval Commander in charge says he would remain to evacuate Allied troops who had been holding Germans at bay. His action raised the total evacuated to 364,628, of which two-thirds were British.

Being a combat pilot in the European conflict I was drawn to Dunkirk knowing it was the initial match-up between the German Luftwaffe, principally the Messerchmitt Bf 109 fighter, and the British fighters, the Spitfire and Hurricane. Being the first true test of the relative merits of the pilots and aircraft of the two opponents, it was a learning experience for both sides. The Battle of Britain soon followed, ending Hitler's planned invasion of the island nation. The course of the European conflict was now tilted in the favor of the Allies—if the United States became involved.

Dunkirk, a motion picture, is an excellent opening chapter to the Second World War.

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