Beyond Hollywood - Setting the Stage for Dunkirk

I just saw the recently released movie of the rescue at Dunkirk, a dark time for Great Britain when its troops were stranded on the beaches along with their French allies, soon to be overrun by German forces in the early days of World War II. In May 1940 the Allied forces had nowhere left to go except wade into the seas off the beaches of Dunkirk.

Unfamiliar with the new face of war, the British and French armies expected to fight the Germans as they did in the Great War, in large numbers fighting from fixed trenches and permanent fortifications. Little did they know that was no longer in the strategic playbook of the Third Reich, which quickly embraced the success of Blitzkrieg warfare: nonstop, keep moving, never slow down, don't give the enemy a break. Foreign borders fell within days, the Allies outsmarted and outplayed early on.

The movie doesn't go into any of that, nor does it provide the perspective of the fleet of civilian craft drafted at the last moment to help rescue nearly 400,000 troops stuck on the beaches. I am no movie critic but I think there is much to recommend the movie. It is very well done and thankfully not as gory as movies can be in these days of super graphics and the latest in movie and sound technology. But I found myself wondering that if I knew nothing about the events at Dunkirk, would I think the scenes depicted in the movie were singular events or part of a master plan? To me, the movie lacked some form of rolling narrative at the end of the movie to provide the viewer with a perspective of what they had just watched. As it was, it didn't feel complete.

We did a story on the civilian trawlers and motor yachts that took part in Dunkirk years ago during one of the anniversary celebrations Great Britain does to keep the history of these aging wood yachts alive. The sheer madness of what they took part in almost defies understanding, yet these civilian owner/operators responded as only the British can. "You're taking over my motor cruiser to pick up our troops at Dunkirk? Oh, yes. When are we going to leave?"

So I thought it would be helpful to round out the edges of the history behind the movie, and provide background details to help moviegoers understand what they saw and why it was important.

It not only set the stage for the German's poorly contested Battle of Britain a few months later, it ultimately contributed to the outcome of World War II.

When the British High Command realized the war they expected was never going to happen, and that the famed Maginot Line was a blunder of incredible proportions, things looked pretty bleak indeed. As General George Patton would later famously say, "Fixed fortifications are monuments to man's stupidity." The Maginot Line was dead center of Patton's acrid words.

The British were not completely caught off guard, however. Admiral Bertram Ramsey earmarked a fleet of 40 destroyers and 125 passenger ships to assist in a potential evacuation as things soured in Europe. And his command also issued an order that all owners of powered vessels between 30 and 100 feet make themselves known to the British Admiralty in case of additional requirements. Operation Dynamo was the name of this planned contingency of private vessel assistance.

As the troops continued to retreat from the Germans, ultimately coming to the beach areas around Dunkirk, it became clear that the shallow beaches were totally unsuited for ships of any draft to get close enough to shore to pick up soldiers, so the armada of private vessels was indeed mobilized. Four days into the evacuation this motley assortment of private boats began to arrive on the horizon, over 700 private, commercial, and fishing vessels that crossed the English Channel in hopes of rescuing the stranded troops and help them aboard ships for the voyage home. The sight of such a ragtag collection of boats appearing over the horizon, all different sizes, shapes and colors, fully 200 of them pleasure boats, must have been something. It was such an unbelievable sight that many of the hundreds of thousands of defeated British troops were reduced to tears when they realized their countrymen and women had not only not forgotten them, but, in fact, were braving enemy dive bombers and worse to come rescue them.

I can only imagine.

But things were not all rosy and teary eyed. Admiral Ramsey lost three quarters of his destroyer fleet during the evacuation, so vulnerable were they during the transfer of troops from the small boats.

The smallest boat of the civilian armada was Tamzine, just 14' 7", a wood fishing dory now on display at the Imperial War Museum in London. She showcases the sheer will and tenacity of the British people under such adversity.

I wrote about a similar evacuation for the U.S. Naval Institute, of civilians off Manhattan after the attacks of September 11th. This evacuation was on a larger scale, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people in the aftermath of the WTC attack. The unrehearsed and largely uncoordinated effort was once again conducted by ferry boats, work boats, pleasure boats and yachts, tugs, and all sorts of fishing and other working craft. It was a monumental effort that highlighted the value of civilian first responders in the crucial first hours of any major disaster. But the September 11th evacuation occurred without looming threat of bomber attacks on stopped ships trying to embark troops from small boats. While it was no less noteworthy, given the circumstances, it does not compare to the events at Dunkirk.

The critical role played by these 700 private vessels took advantage of their shallow draft to shuttle men more than a mile offshore to waiting ships. A successful evacuation frankly could not have happened without these boats, no question. And while the frenetic events of those desperate days did not allow anyone to properly capture the exploits of individual vessels and civilian crews, it is their collective contribution that remains for history to witness. 

The movie tells the tale from three perspectives: the beaches, the water, and from the air. With regard to the beaches, the first part of the movie labeled "The Mole" relates to the single breakwater pier, just like many fishing piers in Southern California, totally unsuited for landing ships or moving troops. And a grand target for German Stuka dive bombers.

Dunkirk serves to remind us that for a number of impossible days in May, 1940, the free world needed to collect its men and what resources it had left, and steel its citizenry against an enemy as yet unbeaten. An enemy wanting to conquer the world.

The fear that the Germans would make the 26-mile crossing to invade England was very, very real in 1940. In the ensuing few months that led up to the Battle of Britain and beyond, the momentum from the Dunkirk evacuation never slowed and the people never wavered. They would not lose, no matter what. Churchill would see to that.

Dunkirk gave the free world a victory, despite a mask of defeat, to carry on the fight until the time was right to turn things around.

And turn things around they most assuredly did.