DUNKIRK – SEPARATING FACT from FICTION
Christopher Nolan’s war drama Dunkirk, focuses on Operation Dynamo – The Evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France, 26 May to 4 June 1940. With all the promotions of the film as “incredibly accurate” and “true to the history,” I was cautiously hopeful and looked forward to seeing the film.
Under Fire and Under Water
The cinematography is superb and audiences are presented with dramatic depictions of what it is like to be under fire and the terror of being trapped in darkness at night, inside the hold of a sinking ship. The heroism of the civilian “little ships” – over 700 of which helped in the evacuation – is very well depicted.
Distortions of History
However, there are many serious inaccuracies and inexplicable omissions. First of all, this film makes it seem that virtually every single Royal Navy vessel gets sunk! The Royal Navy seems helpless and heartless and does not get a fair credit for the superb evacuation operation they ran. In the 11 days of Operation Dynamo, the Royal Navy succeeded in evacuating over 338,000 men of which 215,000 were British and 123,000 were French. 95% of those evacuated were on Naval vessels. This was the greatest Naval evacuation to that date.
The British Army Did Not Collapse into Chaos
The British Expeditionary Force soldiers appear leaderless, undisciplined, helpless and fearful, abandoning their rifles, while being fired upon and generally not much of an army at all. I do not believe that their depiction of the BEF soldiers is a fair reflection on what was admittedly an army in defeat and retreat, but the lack of leadership and direction by officers on the beaches, seems more anachronistic. It may be the way that young people today would react in such a stressful situation. However, the historical record is that there was tremendous order and steadfastness amongst the soldiers, patiently waiting in line for boats to evacuate them back to Britain.
No Hospital Ship was Sunk at Dunkirk
The most outrageous inaccuracy is the depiction of a Hospital ship being sunk at Dunkirk! Sinking of Hospital ships is a serious war crime. One British Hospital ship struck a British mine just off Dover, within British waters. It did not sink.
Not a David Vs Goliath Operation
The impression given in Nolan’s Dunkirk, is that the British were overwhelmed by a numerically superior enemy, which was not the case. Both the British and the French Armed Forces outnumbered the German Forces in terms of numbers of men, numbers of tanks and numbers of aircraft. The Royal Navy massively outnumbered everyone. The Royal Navy was the greatest Navy in the world. In September 1939, the Royal Navy included: 15 battleships, 7 aircraft carriers, 66 cruisers, over 200 destroyers, 60 submarines and 56 corvettes and many more were in building stages and would have been available by May 1940.
Naval Forces Engaged at Dunkirk
Although one sees little evidence of it in the Dunkirk film, for Operation Dynamo, the Royal Navy official history records that they utilised: 41 destroyers, 6 corvettes, 1 sloop, 2 gunboats, 36 minesweepers, 52 trawlers, 61 drifters, 3 special service vessels, 2 SB’s, 6 MTB’s, 3 armed boarding vessels, 40 schuyts, 26 yachts, 12 motor boats, 6 block ships, 13 landing craft and 8 dockyard fighters. The Royal Navy was also assisted by the French Navy, who provided 14 destroyers, 13 minesweepers, 12 cargo ships, 59 trawlers and 21 other vessels. The Belgians provided another 45 vessels and there were an additional 45 personnel ships (including Ferries), 8 Hospital ships and 40 Tugs.
No Shortage of Destroyers
The talk about the shortage of destroyers because High Command was keeping them safe – for the next battle – is nonsense as the Royal Navy held nothing back in evacuating British forces around the clock and at top speed. The talk of “no Destroyers for 6 hours” is ahistoric drivel.
Tides Were Not an Issue
The talk about tides adversely affecting the evacuation is also inaccurate. The East Mole breakwater made up of concrete and woodwork extending a mile into the sea was unaffected by the tides and soldiers waded into the surf to be loaded onto the smaller vessels at all times of the day and night.
Non Stop Evacuation for 7 Days
According to the Dunkirk film, the soldiers spent most of the time standing on the beach, waiting for ships without a single vessel in sight. However, the evacuation was a 24-hours-a-day operation. The mile long East Mole breakwater extended out to sea and was constantly busy with vessels being loaded on both sides, frequently with soldiers walking across one ship to reach a double-parked vessel on the other side.
Exaggeration of the Role of the Little Ships Ignores the Role of the Royal Navy
Nolan’s Dunkirk film also greatly exaggerates the role of the little ships. While undoubtedly heroic, the impression given is that most of the soldiers were evacuated by little ships, when actually only about 5% were.
The Missing Royal Air Force
The power of the German Luftwaffe is greatly exaggerated in Nolan’s film. The Royal Air Force had dominance over the beaches of Dunkirk as they had far shorter distances to fly from their air bases than the Luftwaffe had. In the film it seems that all the RAF could spare were 3 Spitfires. Actually Air Vice Marshall Keith Parks’ Fighter Command Eleven Group in South East England, were sending over squadrons of 24 Spitfires at a time to provide constant combat air cover for the Royal Navy evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. At no time were just 3 fighters sent out alone.
A Long 20 Miles
The maximum speed of a Spitfire is 362 miles per hour, yet they seemed to take an awfully long time to make the 20 miles from Dover to Dunkirk. One Spitfire in the film ran out of fuel (although not ammunition) and could not make the 20 miles back to Britain!
Fighters Did Not Approach Dunkirk at Sea Level
It is no doubt visually more impressive to see Spitfires screaming at virtual sea level hopping over the waves towards Dunkirk, but no fighter pilot worth his salt would have approached a combat zone flying at zero feet. Fighters need to come in from a height advantage and that would provide a speed advantage on the descent to target.
Inexhaustible Supply of Ammunition
Each spitfire was armed with 8 machine guns and each was loaded with 350 rounds (the origin of “the whole nine yards” terminology). A Spitfire could fire continuously for less than 15 seconds per flight. Pilots would rarely be able to shoot down more than a single enemy plane on one mission. However in Dunkirk one pilot shoots down four enemy aircraft, using up over 70 seconds worth of ammunition! (This must have been a real special issue Spitfire with an inexhaustible supply of ammunition, just for the film!)
No Pilot Would Land on a Beach with His Wheels Down
Incredibly the film concludes with a fighter pilot gliding his, out-of-fuel, Spitfire to land on a beach, using his under-carriage! Under no circumstances would any pilot attempt to land on a beach with their under-carriage down. The danger of the wheels sinking into the sand and tipping/crashing the plane into its nose, would be too severe. In such a circumstance, a belly-landing on the sand, or sea, would have been the only real option for the pilot.
Facts Ruin a Good Story
Encyclopaedia Britannica lists 78 Luftwaffe planes lost over Dunkirk and 84 Royal Air Force aircraft shot down. This fairly even record is not reflected in the Dunkirk film, which makes out that the 3 RAF Spitfires devastated the Luftwaffe.
Land, Sea and Air
The Dunkirk film interlinks 3 stories: Land, Sea and Air. The story of the evacuation of the soldiers, from the East Mole of Dunkirk is set to take place over one week. The story of one of the little ships takes place over one day and the story of the flight of three Spitfires is one hour.
Schizophrenic Screen Editing
Yet, somehow, these all interlink and, in the confusing manner of modern film editing, we are somehow to believe that the multiple events of the soldiers on the ground over one week, coincided at key times with the same aircraft, which were only over them for one hour and the little ships that took a day to travel from Britain and back. The timing doesn’t add up.
The Absence of Naval Helmets
Kenneth Branagh’s character, based on Naval officer, Captain Bill Tennant, spends the whole time standing on the Mole overseeing the evacuation, wearing his officer’s cap. No Naval officer in an operational area, subject to aerial bombardment would have been without his helmet. Nor was there any reason why Captain Tennant would be supervising the evacuation personally, by standing on the Mole, instead of from the bridge of a Naval vessel with his telecommunication systems and staff around him. There seemed to be no radio, or signaller, stationed on the Mole, making one wonder what possible difference this officer thought he could be making.
It is Not That Easy to Sink a Destroyer
The impression given in the film that virtually every Royal Navy vessel at Dunkirk was sunk by bomb, or torpedo, is false. Of the over 900 vessels that took part in the evacuation, 231 were lost. 70% of that was due to collision and misadventure in the channel. Only 37 vessels were sunk because of aerial attack, 7 by torpedo, 9 by mine and 7 by gunfire from the shore.
The Missing Smoke
The brilliant skies make for great cinematography, but veterans who were at Dunkirk described enormous palls of smoke rising from the harbour area, thick and impenetrable, obscuring visibility over much of the town. Both German and British fighter pilots reported seeing Dunkirk from many miles away from the smoke from the oil tanks burning continuously in the harbour. The Stuka dive bombers were not able to perform as impressively as depicted in the film. Stukas approached Dunkirk at 12,000 feet and released their bombs at closer to 6,000 feet. Which is why only six of the 41 Royal Navy destroyers at Dunkirk were sunk.
Without a Prayer
Some of the most important aspects of the Dunkirk evacuation that were left out of the movie include King George VI’s call for an Empire-wide Day of Prayer and Repentance, to be held on 26 May 1940. When the British Expeditionary Force was in defeat and retreat, the King made an international broadcast, instructing the people of the British Empire to return to God in Repentance and humbly seek for Divine intervention to enable them to rescue their army from total destruction. Many millions of people across the British Isles and throughout the Empire flocked into churches, praying in shifts for deliverance. Churches were so packed that people were lined up for hours waiting to get into church, to take part in organised national Repentance.
Answers to Prayer
The record reports two events following this extraordinary Empire-wide call for Prayer. A violent storm arose over Dunkirk, grounding the Luftwaffe. Secondly a great calm descended on the English Channel, which fishermen said they had not seen for a generation. This allowed many hundreds of small boats to sail across and help rescue British soldiers. This led to most participants referring to the “miracle of Dunkirk.” The King appointed Sunday, 9 June as an Empire-wide Day of Thanksgiving.
This spiritual dimension is more honestly depicted in the 1942 film, Mrs Miniver (nominated for 12 Academy awards and won 6), which concluded with a church service and the congregation singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
Why Did the Panzers Stop?
Also, not mentioned in the film, is why the victorious German Army stopped on the outskirts of Dunkirk. After a brilliant Blitzkrieg campaign of only two weeks, both the French and British Armies had been routed and flung back by two German armies, General Von Bock’s Army Group B to the East and General Gerd Von Rundstedt’s Army Group A to the South.
The Stop Order
Against the advice of his generals, Adolf Hitler then gave his famous and controversial “Stop Order,” 24 May 1940. His point was that the battle was won and the British “are not our natural enemies.” Hoping for peace with Britain and future cooperation in fighting communism in the East, Adolf Hitler told his High Command that the British have an Empire to care for and they must allow their forces to withdraw.
Abandoned Military Equipment
Also not depicted in the Dunkirk film was the colossal loss of military equipment. The British left behind on the beaches of Dunkirk. 45,000 motor vehicles, 20,000 motor cycles, 700 tanks, 11,000 machine guns, 850 anti-tank guns, 2,472 artillery pieces and some 76,000 tonnes of ammunition and 417,000 tonnes of stores – enough equipment to field 10 divisions. The Dunkirk film just depicts a pile of helmets.
Redefining Reality and Distorting History
Dunkirk illustrates again the modern tendency to redefine reality through dramatic and gripping presentations which claim to be “inspired by true events”, or “based on a true story.” However, the bias against Christianity, of all too many scriptwriters and film producers, leads to dangerous distortions of reality in the minds of those many people for whom Hollywood is their primary source of knowledge about the past.
The censoring out of the spiritual dynamics surrounding Dunkirk and the urgent call by King George VI for an Empire-wide Day of Repentance and Prayer is inexcusable. It is delusional to pretend that people of that era were as secular as society is today.
Facts are Stubborn Things
A correct understanding of the past is an indispensable aid in making a better future. The truth is not only stranger than fiction – it is more gripping and impressive.
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” Philippians 4:8
Dr. Peter Hammond
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
The Miracle of Dunkirk, by Walter Lord, 1982, Viking Press.
Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940, by Ronald Atkin, 1990, Berlina.
Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, by Ian Kershaw, 2008, Penguin.
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory, by Major General Julian Thompson, 2009, Pan Books.