If you are reading this, chances are that you have allowed yourself to be floored by the gooseflesh-inducing first trailer of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, that recently hit the interwebs.
It is amply clear that the film is set during the Second World War and the association of Nolan with the project raises the bar high even by war movie standards. What is lesser known, however, is the true event that inspired the film.
Operation Dynamo, the code name for the Dunkirk Evacuation, was a large-scale evacuation of Allied troops from the coast of France, in May-June 1940.
The Allies, (France, the United Kingdom and their colonies at the time) had declared war on Germany in 1939 when the latter, under Adolf Hitler’s leadership, invaded Poland. The British Army (formally called the British Expeditionary Force or BEF) assisted France, but the combined army was pushed back by German corps who attacked France through the undefended Ardennes region.
The forces, consisting of French, English, Belgian and Canadian troops were thus driven to the northern coast of France and trapped, anticipating attacks by the German Panzer corps.
In this predicament, the Commander of the BEF, General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, decided that an evacuation of the troops was the best course of action.
The Allied troops were directed to withdraw to Dunkirk near the English Channel, where the large sand beaches and good ports would facilitate the evacuation of nearly 400,000 soldiers. The British calculated a 48-hour window in which they expected to evacuate only around 8,000 troops.
The anticipated German attack, however, was delayed for a number of reasons.
The Panzer corps, which were already obstructed by the marshy terrain around Dunkirk, were ordered by Hitler to halt, instead ordering the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, to prevent BEF troops from retreating. Then, the original plan to obliterate the Allied troops from air was replaced by a plan to capture them as Prisoners-of-War.
The delay caused by Hitler’s Halt Order allowed the British more time to evacuate their troops, a deliberation which many historians opine cost Germany the war.
It was thus that Allied troops, over a ten-day window from May 26 to June 4 1940, were evacuated from Dunkirk by the British government using hundred of destroyers, merchant vessels, even fishing boats, pleasure crafts and life boats- small vessels collectively known as the little ships of Dunkirk. Troops waited on the beaches of Dunkirk, or waded through shoulder-deep water as rescue arrived.
When the German forces finally advanced, they were held off by the British Royal Air Force in air and the defence lines set up by the Allied troops on land. In a widely celebrated act of gallantry, the remainder of the French forces fought in the Siege of Lille, wherein they fought off German units, buying the British four more days to carry out the Dunkirk evacuation.
The Miracle of Dunkirk
Operation Dynamo, thus named for the dynamo room in Dover (the British end of the English Channel) which served as the headquarters for the operation, is one of the most widely studied military maneuvers in modern history. It is also called the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ because although the evacuation was planned, the British government did not expect to execute it successfully without considerable losses.
The BEF did lose about 68,000 soldiers in the campaign, and had to leave behind all their equipment and ammunition to expedite the withdrawal. But the operation also led to the evacuation of over 3,30,000 troops from Nazi-occupied France- the alternative to which had been a conditional surrender by Britain to Germany.
Dunkirk Memorial that commemorates 4,505 BEF missing dead during the battle. wikipedia
Millennial’s first tryst with WWII-based movies has begun almost without exception with Pearl Harbour (2001). The movie (very loosely) based on the attack which marked the entry of the USA into the fray, also ensured that Hollywood, and America, dominated the cinematic discourse regarding the Second World War. It is for this reason that the Dunkirk evacuation, a crucial event in WWII, had hitherto been consigned to history textbooks.
It will be interesting to see how the triptych Dunkirk- a story told from the triple perspectives of air, land and sea- treats the subject. If you have made it this far, you can rest assured of your fundamental understanding of at least one Nolan movie before it releases on July 21!