I don’t watch many movies, but made an exception for Dunkirk because it was touted as giving centrality to the experiences of those who were there, rather than the more usual mixture of military strategy, tactical skirmishes, and a few personal stories. The actual retreat was a complicated matter, from 28 May to 4 June 1940, at which stage Dunkirk fell. It was certainly a turning point: in a mere six weeks Germany conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and destroyed the British Expeditionary Force.
The movie? Noisy. Appropriately confusing and scary. A bit too much was packed into the narrative, until it became improbable that one motor boat would rescue one torpedoed survivor, and an RAF flyer who ditches his plane, and then a whole lot of torpedoed survivors from a sea full of burning oil, plus having the first torpedoed survivor knock out and kill one of the youngest members of the entirely civilian crew. Credibility stretched too far.
However, the explosive confusion and fog of war was vividly displayed in a way which was unbelievable in another way: unbelievable that young men would volunteer to participate, and would take part with such equanimity, when the prospect of death was evident to them in every corpse that littered the beach. The sense of duty, of restraint in the face of the clear wish to run to safety, was impressive. Coming out from the cinema, the street seemed truly strange, as if the passers-by had simply not heard the recent news from France. Walking back, I made a note that I ought to post something about my vestigial connection, in the sense that when I watched the first film of Dunkirk in 1958 I did so with a boy whose father had been there. Fame indeed. All very long ago. Does it count that although I did not serve at Dunkirk I saw that first film as an 11 year old, and thus experienced it vicariously?
Walking back home, my wife, who had found the film almost unbearable to watch, reminded me that the central scenes included every form of death survivors had told one or the other of us in our work on civilian disasters: death by fire at King’s Cross; death by drowning at the Marchioness; death by explosion at many IRA bombings and the London tube and bus bombings; death by plane crashes and helicopter crashes and road and rail crashes; and of course, the usual stabbings and assaults.
Nothing much more came to mind, except of course that I checked up on all the things the film left out. The small ships helped, but mostly by ferrying soldiers from the beach to the destroyers. Not everything went smoothly, and the official accounts tended to downplay the chaos, the loss of morale among many troops hiding in the sand dunes, and also the fate of the 40,000 troops left behind to captivity and effective slave labour, feeling that they had been forgotten, and that perhaps they deserved to be. The perspective of Dunkirk is altered by the subsequent re-telling in one film treatment after another, particularly considering Dunkirk was a substantial and almost final defeat, recast as a miracle, but in reality a total disaster. Capitulation would have seemed a sensible and rational policy.
About a week after seeing the film, my wife recalled that her father, long since dead, had been wounded while serving in France. He had been bivouacked in a farm and without warning the Germans attacked and he was shot in the back of the thigh. Lacking a stretcher his mates took him out in a wheelbarrow. He said that as he was evacuated he noted that all the civilians were moving in the opposite direction from him. When I asked him about his wartime experiences I can remember him telling me he had been wounded in France, but he made it seem a very minor incident, almost like a farm accident that could have been avoided, and an altogether inglorious episode. In his telling it seemed he had missed any event of significance, simply a 20-year-old Civil Servant who had made an administrative error in the laying out of a bivouac, and had been withdrawn to safety by the usual procedures.
This morning my wife contacted her last surviving older relative, and he confirmed that her father had been wounded and evacuated from France, meaning he did not have to go back for D Day, by which time he was anyway a skilled operator in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. His Army pay book gave his serial number, and we traced the brief summary of his military record. His regiment, the East Yorkshires, were one of the last to leave Dunkirk. Perhaps because of the difficulties of the retreat his wound was only reported in the casualty lists as “France 7th June 1940” which must have been three days after his return. We will try to find out more from detailed war records, but he never ever mentioned being at Dunkirk, and we all accepted his story as he had told it: wounded in the thigh while in a farmyard in France, brought back without incident, worked as a searchlight operator for the rest of the war, then went back to the Civil Service.