Dunkirk is already being lauded by some critics as ‘the best war movie ever made,’ and has spent it’s first two weeks at the top of the box office. With the stellar cast of Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Harry Styles, Christopher Nolan direction and the source material so close to Britain’s heart, how could it not be? The film tells the story of how thousands of Allied troops were evacuated off the beaches of Dunkirk, France during the beginning of World War II.
In 1940, the Allies sent troops to northern France operating on the assumption that the Nazis would invade from Belgium as the Germans did in WWI. Instead, they invaded through the south of France, effectively surrounding and trapping the troops where they were in Dunkirk.
It is unclear why–some say the order came from Hitler, though that hasn’t been substantiated–but the Nazis slowed down their advance on the Allied forces at the last minute. Since the Allies were outnumbered and surrounded, the only option for Britain was to stage an evacuation of the beaches but the shallow water and bomb debris would make it impossible to get large ships in to save the soldiers. Instead, the Brits initiated Operation Dynamo to save as many men as they could.
‘When it got dark, I happened to look out towards the sea and there was a small boat in between the waves and sand,’ recalls WWII veteran and Battle of Dunkirk survivor, Michael Bentall, 96, ‘And I said, ‘It looks as though it might be okay.’’
The boat was most definitely okay. Over the course of a week, small civilian vessels like fishing boats and pleasure craft were used to shuttle soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk to larger vessels waiting further out to sea. In total, 338,226 men of the 400,000 trapped were shuttled back to Britain, including soldiers also from Canada, Belgium and France.
The battle and evacuation wasn’t a victory or a pivotal point in the war, it’s main importance was the affect it had on the British consciousness. Historians theorize that it was a huge moment simply because the homefront needed some good news and saving that many men was exactly that. It also led to some good reunion photos like the first famous WWII kiss:
‘This [movie] has brought [the Dunkirk story] back into public consciousness again,’ says Cameron Graham, the owner of one of those crucial small boats, ‘It wasn’t epic. It wasn’t a victory, we must never make that mistake. It was a gigantic defeat which was turned into a moral victory on the part of the Brits.’
‘I think it’s amazing,’ says Bentrall, ‘I don’t know how you could do it because there were so many different things happening. Everybody was split up… and we never met again. This is why I think it was so wonderful we actually made it, any of us.’
Though it might not have been a technical victory, the success of the evacuation saved thousands of human lives. That can definitely be considered a victory in itself.