Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture Sõnum

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Another attraction is the sheer universality of the story. ‘Everybody can understand the greatness of it – it’s primal, it’s biblical. It’s the Israelites driven down to the sea by the Egyptians.’ This offers an ideal background for what he calls ‘present-tense characters’, anonymous individuals without unwieldy back stories. ‘The idea is,’ he says, ‘that they can be anonymous and neutral, and the audience can encounter them, and become wrapped up in their present-tense difficulties and challenges.’

Chris sees himself as proxy for the audience while making the film. ‘What I’m feeling and how I choose to record what I’m feeling – the way in which I’m acquiring the shots – fires my imagination about how to put the film together.’ If he has a visceral reaction, he feels he’s on the right track. ‘I’m sitting in the cinema watching it as I shoot it,’ he says. And for him, to tell the story well it has to be shot from the point of view of the participants – on land, in the air, and at sea. Which means that on the little ships, almost all of the shots he eventually used are from the deck, while on the aircraft, cameras are carefully mounted in places where the audience can see what the pilot sees. ‘You want things to feel real, and you want them to be experienced. Pure cinema, to me, is always a subjective experience.’

The enemy barely makes an appearance in the film. German soldiers appear only very briefly, and even then the audience barely sees their faces. But this, as Nolan points out, reflects the reality of the situation, the subjective experience of the men on the beach. ‘When you look at first-hand accounts, close contact with the enemy was extremely sporadic for most British soldiers. I wanted to put the audience in the boots of a young inexperienced soldier thrown into this situation, and from the accounts, they did not stare into the eyes of Germans. I wanted to be true to that and embrace the timeless nature of the story. The reason the story has sustained generations of interpretation and will continue to do so, is because it’s not about the Germans and the British, it’s not about the specifics of the conflict. It’s about survival. I wanted to make it as a survival story.’

In fact, the actual enemies of most of the British soldiers (at least those not defending the Dunkirk perimeter) were aeroplanes, artillery guns, submarines, mines and gunboats. And a battle against an unseen enemy that can’t be fought, touched, or often even seen, creates an unusual war film. In fact, in Chris’s eyes, it is not a war film at all. ‘It’s more of a horror than a war film. It’s about psychological horror, about unseen threats. The guys on the beaches had very little understanding of what was happening and what would happen – and I want the audience to be in the same position.’

Another enemy was time. ‘It is the ultimate race against time,’ he says. ‘But set against that, you have the length of time of the event, comprising boredom, stasis, things not happening. They’re stuck and this is where the tension comes from, where the adrenalin comes from. Making a film about people standing in line on a bridge to nowhere, time becomes everything.’

Chris Nolan may want his audience to feel as baffled and uninformed as the young men queuing under fire for a place on a boat home, but as the author of a history book on the same subject, I do not. I want to paint a vivid picture of the event, offering readers rather more clarity than two soldiers offered Pilot Officer Al Deere of 54 Squadron after he had crash-landed on the beaches on 28 May:

‘Where are you going?’ asked Deere.

‘You tell us,’ said one of the soldiers.

‘You’re evacuating, aren’t you?’

‘We don’t know.’

Before examining what happened, though, I want to place the event in its historical context, and so it is important to find out more about the lives of young people in the years leading up to the war. What, we will ask next, did it mean to be young in an age of uncertainty? Where did Dunkirk come from?

Two

Quite Like Us

The story of Dunkirk amounts to more than a frenzied month of soldiers and sailors, tanks and beaches, ambitious politicians and quivering generals. It is more, even, than an intense drama of personal and national survival. It is the story of the men and women involved, their backgrounds, and the experiences that formed them. It is a story of the approaches used by different nations to overcome the misery of the 1930s, and how these led to the evacuation of an army as another strained to destroy it. And it is a story of the rising importance of youth, politically, economically and militarily.

We begin the story in Britain. We will move to Germany, and finish in the United States. We will observe similarities and the contrasts. And we will wonder who we might have been, and how we would have coped.

The United Kingdom

Nineteen-year-old Thomas Myers was evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches on 31 May 1940. Recalling the event, years later, the Durham Light Infantryman remembers behaving like an ostrich, trying to bury his head (and other parts) in the sand, as bombs, bullets and shells flew down. He managed to stay calm, unlike the unlucky few whom he saw panicking and running about aimlessly.

But despite his coolness under fire, Thomas was not an experienced soldier. Five years earlier, aged fourteen, he had left school in County Durham on a Friday afternoon and walked up the pit road to meet the manager of the Dean and Chapter Colliery. At three o’clock on the following Monday morning he started work as a coal miner.

Thomas’s father and his two older brothers were miners. ‘In this area you were bred for the mines,’ he says. Asked whether he was happy doing it, he says, ‘You were born to it. You were a miner. You go in the mine. There’s nothing else.’

Thomas started work just as his father had before him. He was given no training; he was simply told to collect a pit pony and go and find an older boy. Thomas’s job, it turned out, was to collect tubs of coal, recently filled at the coalface, attach them to the pony by harness, and pull them several hundred yards to a spot where they were mechanically hauled to the surface. He would then collect empty tubs and drive them back to be filled. This cycle would repeat itself over his seven-and-a-half-hour shift.

Thomas remembers his first night in the mine: ‘Timber supports were holding the roof which was trying to come down, cracks would show, and I was frightened to death. The noises! When I was on my own! It was very frightening for a boy of fourteen to go in the mine under those conditions.’

A short while later, Thomas’s fears about safety were confirmed when a boy was killed doing the very same job. The boy had been asked by a hewer to carry a drill in his empty tub. As his pony galloped along, the tub slid off the road and the drill shot up in the air, driving itself through the boy’s body. Thomas was horrified when he heard the news. ‘I’m going there no more,’ he told his brother that evening. ‘You’re going back again tomorrow!’ he was told. ‘You’ve got to get over this!’ Shortly afterwards, when yet another boy was killed, Thomas was the first person there. ‘What a scene!’ he says. ‘There wasn’t a body. He had been pulled to bits.’

In the year that Thomas started work, an average of four miners were killed every day in Britain. Coal mining was the nation’s most dangerous peacetime occupation. And even when a miner had worked his way up to hewer, the work was no safer. Hewers had to work in tiny seams, sometimes as narrow as twelve inches wide, lying on their sides, hacking at coal with an elbow tucked inside a knee. ‘You get the coals out the bloody best you can,’ a Durham miner told BBC interviewer Joan Littlewood in 1938. ‘If you hear the ceiling coming down, you have to get out of the way. But the only way to be really safe is to let the flaming coal stay there …’

Life was difficult as well as dangerous. Miners returned, caked in coal and sweat, to small homes without bathrooms. Most washed in little tubs in the kitchen. The author W. F. Lestrange spent some time in a house, like Thomas’s, lived in by a family that included three miners. The woman of the house, he wrote, ‘spent most of her time fighting vainly against coal-dust-smeared walls and furniture and floors in the intervals of boiling water for the three successive bath-times’.

Life was no easier across the Irish Sea. Politically, Northern Ireland was (and still is) a part of the United Kingdom; geographically, it is a part of Ireland. Harry Murray started work at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast in 1937. ‘People used to earn their pay or they didn’t get it,’ he says, ‘and if they didn’t earn it, they were sacked and that was it.’ Harry worked out in the open, in all weathers, drinking tea from a can, with a half-hour break to eat, play dice or pray. And his future was dependent on the goodwill of the foreman. ‘He used to get brought in butter, eggs, money, just so people could keep their job,’ Harry says. ‘If the foreman didn’t like your face, that was good enough to put you out … and if you were unemployed, it was ten times worse to survive.’

Yet as odd as it may sound, Harry Murray was a fortunate man. The Northern Ireland government was intended, in the words of its first Prime Minister, to be ‘a Protestant government for a Protestant people’. And as a Protestant, Harry was guaranteed access to basic housing and a lowly paid job in industry. An Ulster Catholic had no such security. Harland and Wolff had not employed Catholics since the early twentieth century, and they no longer bothered applying for shipyard jobs. These had become the natural preserve of Protestants, passed from father to son, from uncle to nephew.

 

So although Ulster Protestants received lower wages than their English counterparts, and often lived in houses without mains water and gas lighting, they could be considered – in relative terms – privileged. It was, after all, better to be second than third class.

Even in London, the beating heart of the British Empire, ordinary life was hard. In 1939, the average Londoner lived to the age of sixty-two, compared with eighty-two today. Two per cent of Londoners attended university in 1939; today, the figure is 43 per cent. In 1934 Sister Patricia O’Sullivan arrived in east London, where she lived among the families of sailors. One of her chief memories is of the importance of pawn shops to local people. When a man went to sea, he would not be needing his suit for a while, so he would take it to the pawn shop. On his return, he would redeem it, and pawn items brought back from distant parts of the world. Sister Patricia would often furnish poor homes with the things sailors had brought home and pawned.

One of those homes belonged to Doris Salt. Doris’s husband had been killed by a drunk driver in a stolen car. The circumstances meant that she received no insurance money. ‘It was just make-do with me for years,’ she says. ‘I had to learn to make a good meal out of more or less nothing. People pooh-pooh sheep’s head, oh no, they wouldn’t eat that, but we used to thoroughly enjoy it.’ Florence Muggridge, from Poplar, knew a woman whose husband was killed working in the docks. ‘Miserable bugger, we were going out tonight,’ said the woman on hearing that she was now a widow. But, says Florence: ‘You didn’t expect anything, you see? That’s the whole point. People had to fend for themselves in ways that are unheard of now.’

It is possible to view modern life – from a western perspective, at least – as a succession of choices. But for most young Britons living in the first decades of the twentieth century, fewer choices existed. They followed their father’s trade, lived near their birthplace, and married for convenience as often as for love. Yet in Britain in the 1930s – as in Germany and the United States – economic tremors would begin to shake social foundations. Young people’s attitudes and expectations started to change, and a generational gulf would emerge.

But for change to occur, a catalyst had to appear – and that catalyst was, as elsewhere, the depression. As author Ronald Blythe points out, Britain’s inter-war years took place against a huge, dingy, boring and inescapable backcloth – unemployment. All sorts of people suffered as a result.

Trevor, a seventeen-year-old from south Wales, had wanted to become an engineer, but when his father lost his job, he was forced to leave school to become an errand boy. This was intended to be a temporary arrangement, but Trevor’s father had failed to find another job, and now Trevor too was out of work. He spent his days playing table tennis in an unemployment centre.

In 1933, the number of unemployed in Britain reached three million, and it remained high until the outbreak of war. Alfred Smith, from south London, lost his job in 1935. Three years later, despite being in his mid-thirties, he was described in Picture Post magazine as having a lined face, sunken cheeks, and looking down as he walked – ‘the typical walk of the unemployed man’.

Alfred lived with his wife and three young children in a two-room flat, of which one of the rooms was partitioned. On a typical day, the family ate bread and margarine for breakfast, stew or boiled fish with potatoes and bread for dinner (the midday meal), and more bread and margarine in the evening. The Smiths rarely ate fresh fruit or vegetables – not because they were too expensive, but because they were less filling than bread and potatoes. Unemployed people in Britain were more likely to be malnourished than underfed.

In 1935, 45 per cent of British army recruits were considered unfit to serve. Five years later, when American journalist William Shirer was working as a special correspondent with the German armed forces, he was introduced to a group of British soldiers taken prisoner shortly before the Dunkirk evacuation. Describing them as a cheery lot (one said, ‘You know, you’re the first American I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Funny place to meet one, ain’t it?’), Shirer writes that what struck him most was ‘their poor physique’. The depression affected Germany and the United States with equal (if not greater) severity, but the young British male seems to have showed the effects most visibly. Military training had not, believed Shirer, made up for bad diet, and lack of fresh air and exercise.

George Orwell, that unsurpassed chronicler of British working-class life, noted that almost the worst evil of unemployment, beyond even financial hardship, was ‘the frightful feeling of impotence and despair’. Trevor, the seventeen-year-old from Wales who now spent his days playing table tennis, was a case in point. ‘I’m here every day at ten and play till dinner-time,’ he told W. F. Lestrange, ‘and there’s nothing to do in the afternoon, either, so I come up here and play whenever the table’s free. Ping-pong. Knocking little celluloid balls about. That’s my life! All I’ll ever do is play ping-pong. When I was a kid I thought I’d be … wanted to be …’ At that point, tears welling up, Trevor ran from the room.

Life was made harder still for the unemployed with the introduction of the Means Test, ensuring that the jobless would have regularly to justify themselves to a stranger, a government employee, who would stand in a family’s front room asking questions about a suspiciously new-looking overcoat. The unemployed man could afford neither secrets nor pride.

People sometimes tried to evade the Means Test; a young person living with parents might give a false address in an attempt to claim a separate allowance. On the other hand, assistance was sometimes mistakenly withdrawn. Orwell tells of a man seen feeding his neighbour’s chickens while the neighbour was away. It was reported that the man now had a job, and his money was withheld. And there was little official sympathy for those who slipped through the net. When a man travelling the country looking for work was caught stealing two loaves of bread, he told the bench that temptation was difficult to avoid. ‘That is what you say,’ said the magistrate. ‘I will teach you something different. You will go to prison for two months with hard labour.’

Arguably, though, it was the women who suffered most. The wife of an unemployed man still had to try to maintain a home. She often ate too little so that the children had enough, she dealt with the debt and rent collectors, and she had to manage her husband’s diminished sense of self-worth. And as Orwell noted, the average working-class man never did a stroke of housework – even when at home all day. Yet such women were not above being patronised; Sir F. G. Hopkins, president of the Royal Society, delivered a speech to fellow members in 1935, declaring that ‘what the English housewife in the poorer classes needs most is to be taught the art of simple but good cooking’.

With the dearth of any workable system of welfare, and the lack of understanding between society’s classes, it was to be expected that extreme political parties began to attract support. The British Union of Fascists, led by the opportunistic Oswald Mosley, consisted overwhelmingly of young working-class men under thirty. Its members marched through areas where they were sure to provoke local people. In October 1936, a huge mob, headed by Mosley, marched through the East End of London, where they were predictably confronted on Cable Street by a young mob of anti-fascists, enraged at the invasion. The ensuing fight led to the arrest of more anti-fascists than fascists, allowing Mosley to present his men as victims of aggression. The result was an increase in new members.

At the end of the march, Mosley spoke to his followers. ‘The government surrenders to Red violence and Jewish corruption,’ he said. But the fascists would never surrender. ‘Within us is the flame that shall light this country and later the world!’

Interviewed on BBC radio in 1989, Mosley’s widow, Diana (one of the eccentric, entitled Mitford sisters), claimed that her husband had not really been anti-semitic at all. Rather, by preventing him and his followers from marching, the Jews had provoked him. (In the same interview Diana remembered Hitler – ‘He was extremely interesting to talk to … he had so much to say …’)

Shortly before Cable Street, Diana’s father, Lord Redesdale, had given a speech to the House of Lords, protesting at ignorant British attitudes towards the Nazis. The most common mistake, he claimed, related to the Nazi treatment of Jews. The reality was that no Germans interfered with the Jews so long as they behaved themselves. And if the Germans felt that the Jews were a problem, Redesdale said, they should be allowed to deal with that problem as they thought best. Had the Nazis arrived in Britain, they would clearly have had ready-made support among the upper ranks, as well as the lower orders.

Another extreme – communism – was gaining support among young Britons. One of these, Winston Churchill’s nephew, Giles Romilly, wrote, ‘Youth has a clear choice. Either they must side with the parasites and exploiters … or with the working class to smash the capitalist system and lay the foundations of the classless society.’

In 1936 and 1937, thousands travelled to Spain to fight against Franco with the International Brigades. Once again, the vast majority were young working-class men – though not all. Penny Fiewel was a nurse working in Hertfordshire. A colleague asked her if she would volunteer for Spain: ‘I said I knew nothing about Spain – I didn’t know anything. She said I wanted educating, so she told me all about Spain, how the nuns were taking Franco’s side, and of course, it grabbed my heart – I was young and very emotional.’

Penny soon found herself in a field hospital on the front line, treating terrible injuries and teaching Spanish nurses to do the same. When bombs first fell near her operating theatre, it was invaded by civilians desperate for shelter. One man collided with her in the dark, and as she pushed him away, her fingers became sticky. When the lights were back on, she saw that half of the flesh on the man’s face had been blown away. Long before Hermann Goering launched the Luftwaffe’s raids against London in September 1940, Penny Fiewel was experiencing the brutality of area bombing. The Spanish Civil War – as illustrated by Pablo Picasso – was teaching the world to dread the bomber.

Months later, Penny was badly wounded during a raid. Waking up in a barn, naked except for bandages wound tightly around her chest and abdomen, she was in terrible pain. And as she lay recovering in hospital, the raids continued. ‘These were nightmare days,’ she says.

The war was ultimately won by Franco’s nationalists, with help from the Germans. This was a clear violation of a non-intervention agreement signed by Germany – and a warning of the dangers of trusting Hitler. But just as Britain’s leaders were tentative in their handling of the economy, so they were tentative in their handling of the Führer.

This was understandable. Britain had won the First World War – but her economy had been badly damaged. (As of 2017, astonishingly, the country still owed a large amount of First World War bond debt.) The greatest loss, however, was human. Much of Britain’s young male generation had been killed, wounded or traumatised, and the nation’s leaders were desperate to consign the war to history. They wanted to believe in a new peaceful world order based on the League of Nations – and were reluctant to focus too closely on events in Germany. Equally, they did not want to impose the high taxes that would be needed to rearm. Overall, therefore, it was easier for collective heads to remain in the sand where they could ignore the war cries of men such as Winston Churchill.

And although Britain’s politicians disapproved of Hitler’s methods, they did not initially identify him as an existential threat. As future United States President John F. Kennedy explained in his 1940 book, Why England Slept, ‘It is only fear, violent fear, for one’s own security … that results in a nation-wide demand for armaments.’ Such fear did not exist in Britain until it was almost too late.

 

Germany, by contrast, could hardly rearm quickly enough. And the two nations’ respective pre-war attitudes, one conservative and placatory, the other radical and ruthless, would come to a head in the events of May and June 1940.

But for all the difficulties Britain and her people faced in the years leading up to war, there was another – more positive – story emerging. Just as in America, and, in its own dark way, Germany, a distinct youth culture was forming. ‘Youth has broken out like a rash,’ stated a Picture Post leader in early 1939. Everybody, it claimed, was talking about ‘youth’, from journalists to politicians to church leaders: ‘What causes all this present chatter about “youth”? It is partly that we are in an age of transition, and older people are stamped by the institutions in which we have lost faith. We hope that youth will do better!’

Here is a striking similarity between our three nations. The depression and the apparent failure of the previous generation were allowing the young to forge a new identity. But in Britain, this new identity was being exercised by single wage-earners, aged fourteen to twenty-four, who had more expendable income than any other sector of society. The nation’s burgeoning youth culture would not have grown so quickly had it not offered such a boost to the economy.

A survey conducted in 1937 in a deprived area of Manchester concluded that working children from even the poorest families ‘would have holidays and outings and new clothes, while probably the parents, the mother certainly, stayed at home and wore old clothes’. We are witnessing the birth of the teenager – before the word was even coined. For, by keeping a considerable amount of their earnings to themselves, these young people had a far superior standard of living to the older members of their family.

Much of their money was spent watching (mainly American) films. Most young people watched at least one film a week, some watched many more. And not only did they watch films, they learned from them. They copied fashions and hairstyles, accents and attitudes. Boys wore slouched fedoras, girls delivered Scarlett O’Hara-style putdowns. According to the diary of a girl from a working-class Manchester suburb, an average 1938 Monday evening was spent watching a George Formby film with a friend, discussing the film (as well as boys and clothes), and then returning home to listen to dance music and talk to her family – about films.

Plenty of teen money was spent in dance halls. George Wagner (a sapper who would be evacuated from La Panne in May 1940) was sixteen in 1936, when he became a regular dance hall attendee. Despite being a shy boy, dancing was his chief hobby. ‘It was a place where you met all the girls,’ George says, ‘that was the main thing.’

Wearing suit, tie and waistcoat, bought by his mother (he had only graduated to long trousers at fourteen), George would walk a few miles to the Palace Ballroom in Erdington with three of his closest friends. The dances were run by Harry Phillips, who would walk around the floor, partnering boys and girls. No alcohol was served, so any of George’s friends who wanted a drink would have to go to a local pub and lie about their age. A five-piece dance band played popular American music – George’s favourite song was ‘Deep Purple’ – as young men plucked up their courage to approach young women. George says:

You used to chat them up, see if you could take them home. I didn’t have a particular girlfriend, not in them days, I was too young. I would walk them home and probably have a little snog when you got up to the gate. But they were very looked after in them days. Sometimes parents would be watching out of the window in the lamplight. ‘Come on! You’re late!’

So what were the differences between young wage-earners of this period and those of previous generations? Their instincts had not changed, but their behaviour had. They were now keeping far more of their wages to spend on themselves, and they had their own interests and pursuits. Before the First World War, there were very few – if any – pursuits that appealed only to the young. The music halls and cheap theatres were equally popular with all ages. It is hard to overestimate the growing independence and importance of youth at this period – and without the depression, it is hard to imagine how such developments could have taken place.

But at the same time, we should be careful not to ascribe our own modern attitudes to 1930s teens. We may want to imagine that they were ‘just like us’, but the truth is more nuanced. At the same time as he was learning about girls, George was very much a boy of his own time. He and his friends loved nothing more than pitching a tent in a field, pinching a bit of coal from the railway to start a fire, and cooking whatever they found in the fields. George would find an acorn, poke a straw into it, fill it with cigarette ends, and use it as a pipe. ‘If my mother had known,’ he says, ‘I would have got a thick ear.’ Youth attitudes may have been changing, but most young people remained innocent by today’s standards.

And we should also remember that young people were not alone in experiencing new pleasures and entertainments. Entirely British in flavour, accessible to all ages, a popular culture was also developing. It took the form of cheap luxuries and diversions available to people who could not afford the essentials. This, according to Orwell, was the logical result of the depression, as the manufacturer’s need for a market coincided with the half-starved populace’s need for cheap distractions:

A luxury nowadays is almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence but you can get a lot of fish and chips … And above all, there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope by having a penny on a sweepstake.

These trends are still with us today – although many of the specific diversions have now disappeared. Two British dances, enjoyed by all ages, in the late 1930s, were the Lambeth Walk and the Chestnut Tree. One was a pastiche of cockney culture, the other was based on a nursery rhyme. Compared with the primal danger of Swing, that edgy American import, these dances were cosily British in their eccentricity.

In Blackpool, the country’s favourite seaside resort, the diversions were equally British. One involved a woman named Valerie Arkell-Smith. Masculine in appearance, Arkell-Smith had spent years passing herself off as a retired army colonel – and had married an unsuspecting woman in the process. Following Arkell-Smith’s release from prison for making a false statement on her marriage certificate, an impresario signed her up to feature in a Blackpool sideshow. Billed as a woman who had recently had a sex-change operation, Arkell-Smith lay in a single bed, while a young woman lay alongside her in another bed, the two beds separated by flashing Belisha beacons. The conceit was that the pair had recently married but Arkell-Smith had placed a £250 bet that, for twenty-one weeks, they would not touch one another. Spectators paid twopence to view the odd, sexless bedshow, shouting obscenities at the ‘couple’.