DUNKIRK: DOES HISTORICAL ACCURACY MATTER?
I’ve just been to a screening of this very exciting new movie by Christopher Nolan. By all accounts, it was a long-time-coming passion project and it’s just fantastic that Nolan, an A-list Hollywood director, should have the clout to persuade a major studio like Warner Bros to back a film that does not have a single American character in it.
I know I’m not the only one out there to have been eagerly waiting for this film. Actually, I was in Dunkirk last summer when they were filming it and it was certainly slightly surreal to see war ships off the coast in the hazy distance and lots of men lined up along the beaches in Tommy helmets and battle dress. These scenes did, however, whet the sense of anticipation further. After all, it’s massively to Nolan’s credit to have filmed it along the very beaches where the evacuation took place back in 1940.
The trailer also gave good cause for hope and those I know who had been to the premier last week were also very enthusiastic in their praise. One friend said it was the most stunning film he’d seen in years.
So you can imagine the sense of eager anticipation as I sat in the IMAX theatre at Waterloo and waited for the film to begin. Immediately, I was struck by the sense of drama: pounding Hans Zimmer music, and the loud, startling crack of rifle and machine-gun fire. The young Tommies looked right too: thin, young, bewildered, exhausted and dirty. Eventually, one of the lads reaches the beaches. It’s noticeably the same beach as today, which has changed a bit since 1940, but let’s not worry about that. It is the right beach and that counts for a lot.
This movie is three stories, all interlinked but told at different times: the story of the men being evacuated from the beaches and the East Mole, the breakwater pier extending out from the harbour, takes place over one week. The story of one of the Little Ships is one day, and the story of a flight of three Spitfires flying from England is one hour. Focussing on these comparatively few people works really well too, and the action sequences, the sense of ticking clock, and the message of survival and escape is strong.
The set-up at the start makes clear that only a miracle can save the British Expeditionary Force – and that was not far from the truth. The trouble is that the film heavily suggests that deliverance is ultimately provided by hordes of Little Ships. Kenneth Branagh’s character – presumably based on the real-life Senior Naval Officer Captain Bill Tennant – mentions that they’re expecting to get away only 45,000 men. That was true on Monday 27 May, the first full day of the evacuation (and when 7,669 were lifted). In fact, that was what Tennant was told by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay at Dover at around 9.30am that morning. Ramsay, as C-in-C of the Royal Navy’s Dover Command, was also overall in charge of Operation DYNAMO, the code-name for the evacuation. DYNAMO had begun at 6.57pm the previous evening, but the first troops were not lifted until the 27th. At that time, news had just arrived that Gravelines had fallen, which meant the most direct route – Route Z, 39 miles – was no longer viable as it went straight past on-shore naval guns now held by the Germans. The alternatives were Route X – 55 miles, untested and through minefields – or Route Y – 87 miles including a dog-leg west of Ostend. Off the Dunkirk coast lay notorious shoals and sand bars. It was no wonder Ramsay was not feeling optimistic.
The game changer came in the next 24 hours, however, and had little to do with the Little Ships. Tennant reached Dunkirk at 5.35pm that day, Monday 27 May, on the destroyer, HMS Wolfhound, with 12 officers and 160 ratings, to organise the evacuation. The town was in a shocking state: no running water or electricity, the sound of guns not far away, fires raging and a huge pall of black smoke overhead. Dunkirk was France’s third largest port but it’s quaysides were wrecked and too deep into the town – and too close to German positions. Using the port itself was out of the question, which was why shallow-draft vessels seemed the only realistic option and why Ramsay’s expectations were so low. The perimeter around Dunkirk was being held by some 16 British infantry battalions behind a canal system and flooded fields. This was a good defensive position but whether they would be able to hold out a couple of days or longer was not entirely clear on that morning of 27 May. What was clear was that shallow-draft and small vessels were not going to be able to evacuate large numbers. 45,000 men seemed a realistic figure.
Around 10pm, however, Tennant noticed the East Mole was still intact. This extended from the harbour as a breakwater out into the sea some 1,600 yards – that is, almost a mile. Made of concrete piles and lattice woodwork, it was not in any way designed to be a jetty, but Tennant now wondered whether it might, in fact, be strong enough to take the strain of a boat, so asked Wolfhound to send in the Queen of the Channel. Gently, the cross-Channel ferry inched in and successfully moored alongside. This was the hallelujah moment and soon 904 men were loaded and on their way back to England. As it happened, the ferry was hit by bombs the next morning, but fortunately another passing ship was able to take everyone off successfully. At 4.45am on the 28th, a second ship left the Mole, and then at 9.55am, a third departed. Suddenly, hopes were lifting. 17,804 men were lifted on the 28th, 47,310 on the 29th, 58,823 the next day and 68,014 on the 31st. Around 70% of these were lifted from the East Mole.
In the film there are long periods when the Mole is empty of ships and there is even mention of tides affecting the speed of evacuation. More destroyers are needed says James D’Arcy’s character. This is nonsense. Tides did not come into it – the Mole could take ships 24/7, and pretty much did; often they were lined up and double moored with troops passing across one ship onto another. The Royal Navy had 202 destroyers at the time, of which 41 were available – and used in the evacuation. In all, the Royal Navy provided the following:
3 special service vessels
3 armed boarding vessels
13 landing craft
8 dockyard lighters
The French Navy also provided 14 destroyers, 13 minesweeping trawlers, 12 cargo ships, 59 trawlers and MFVs, and a further 21 other vessels. The Belgians provided 45 ships, the Polish, Dutch and Norwegians one each. In addition there were some 45 personnel ships (ferries etc),8 hospital ships and 40 tugs. Most of these were large enough to moor up along the Mole and did so. The Mole was not hit during the entire evacuation.
Then there were the Little Ships: 202 of them, plus 19 RNLI Lifeboats, 25 sailing barges, 8 auxiliary barges, 56 further lifeboats, 16 sherries and punts, 7 steam hopper barges and 6 RAF sea plane tenders. Of the losses – and there were 231 in all – the vast majority – around 70% – were due to ‘collision and misadventure’ and most were the smaller vessels. Only 37 were sunk because of aerial attack, 7 by torpedo, 9 by mine and 7 by onshore gunfire.
In other words, there was a lot of mayhem caused by congestion of ships and by too many small vessels trying to cross an expanse of open sea as wide as the Channel. For all the big-budget and the obvious cost of some of the very impressive set-pieces, the film simply did not have enough ships out at sea and certainly not enough alongside the Mole. I suspect this was because of Nolan’s dislike of CGI and as a result of that, budgetary constraints, but it meant the beach and Mole scenes looked too thin. It also meant he had to show another way of getting the men off the beaches and the implication in the film – and the one I suspect most people will come away with – is that it was these ordinary Mark Rylance characters who saved the day. How the expected 45,000 becomes more than 300,000 by the film’s end is never really explained, but it is implied. And the implication is wrong. The Little Ships lifted perhaps 5% of the total at most, while day and night men were being taken off the Mole. Only after 1 June were daylight operations halted as the weather improved, the clouds lifted, and the Luftwaffe returned with a vengeance. Night time operations were largely unaffected by air. Even so, 64,429 were lifted on 1 June, and the last British troops, some 24,000, were taken off after dusk on 2 June.
So why was the evacuation such a success? The other game-changer by 28 May was the weather. Low cloud covered the beaches throughout the rest of the evacuation and added to the mass of oily smoke rising some 10,000 feet from the oil refinery bombed by the Luftwaffe and burning. The smoke, flames and sheer numbers of ships in the painting above is a much more accurate depiction of the height of the evacuation than any seen in the film, even thought there is some artistic licence in the patches of blue in the sky (otherwise there would not be the wonderful light on the sea). In the film it’s sunny one moment then rainy with a vicious swell the next. In fact, the sea became flat as a board – another key reason why so many were still lifted from the beaches. On top of that, the defence around the perimeter was superb. Well trained mostly professional British soldiers fought brilliantly, and the perimeter only really began to collapse in the east around 31 May and directly to the south of the town on the 1st – it was directly to the south, for example, where Captain Marcus Ervine-Andrews, commanding a company of East Lancashires, won a VC for his leadership, sniping, and resilience on 1 June in keeping the advancing German infantry at bay. The French, covering the west part of the perimeter also defended tenaciously and with great determination. Instead of a narrow window of 48-72 hours, the evacuation of the BEF finally ended on the night of 1/2 June, by which time every fit and walking soldier was lifted. None of this features in the film – and nor would that necessarily matter were it not for the completely misleading nonsense about tides, the lack of sizeable ships along the Mole, and the over-emphasis on the Little Ships. The miracle of Dunkirk was due to the continued existence of the East Mole, large numbers of ships shuttling back and forth across the Channel, stoic defence of the perimeter, ten tenths cloud and smoke for much of the evacuation, and the efforts of the RAF. The Little Ships – although undoubtedly courageous and wonderful – were the least decisive factor in DYNAMO’s success.
Nor was there anything like enough smoke in the movie. When I saw the filming there last summer, I was impressed that smoke machines were pumping the stuff over the town, but even then I was thinking it was nothing like enough. The second picture below gives a far more representative image of Dunkirk during that week as described by a number of pilots flying over at the time. Cocky Dundas, for example, a Spitfire pilot in Fighter Command’s 616 Squadron, flew a number of sorties over Dunkirk during the evacuation, and recalled seeing an enormous pall of smoke many miles before they got there. ‘The black smoke rose from somewhere in the harbour area, thick, impenetrable, obscuring much of the town,’ he wrote. ‘As it rose, it spread in patches, caught up in layers of haze and cloud. But still the greater part thrust upwards to a height of between twelve and fifteen thousand feet, where it was blown out in a lateral plume which stretched for many miles westward, over Calais and beyond, down to the Channel.’ Julius Neumann, a German fighter pilot, told me much the same. ‘I could see Dunkirk from many miles away,’ he said, ‘the smoke from the oil tanks was burning continuously.’ This is why very few men on the beaches saw them and why they felt they had been abandoned by the air force. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth, although Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, commander of Fighter Command’s 11 Group in south-east England, was sending over squadrons in pairs – that is, twenty-four, not vics of three – rather than keeping inefficient standing patrols over Dunkirk.
This brings me to the flying sequences, which are stunning. It was lovely to see a perfect vic of three Mk I Spitfires roar across the scene, but there were some horrible inaccuracies. One of the key features of air-to-air combat is trying to gain the advantage of height and yet from the moment they leave England behind them they are flying at zero feet and rarely seem to go higher than 2,000 feet. This is just ridiculous and there is no reason for it at all. A Spitfire can still land in the drink and be seen doing so by a ship on the water no matter at what height it started its dive. It’s also OK to have a pilot follow a stricken aircraft down to zero feet – although he’d have been torn off a strip for doing so – but they would not have started their combat at that height. Tom Hardy’s pilot also seems to have an inexhaustible supply of ammunition – I counted around 70 seconds’ worth in all – when in reality Spitfires and Hurricanes both had 14.7 seconds in which to shoot down enemy aircraft. Nor would any pilot who knew what’s what land with his undercarriage down onto a sand beach. It would have been impossible to gauge precisely how soft or hard the sand was and the risk was that as three tons of aircraft touched down the wheels would dig in and flip the aircraft over on its nose with potentially fatal results. Rather, the prescribed action in such circumstances was to glide in on its belly with the undercarriage up. I’ve been assured a Spitfire was landed wheels down onto Dunkirk beach but this would have been a very foolhardy action. A belly-land would have been far more dramatic too. So why wasn’t Nolan advised better?
And why are Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy’s characters wearing caps rather than tin hats? It is inconceivable that they would not have been wearing helmets with bombers overhead and with them in range of enemy artillery fire. In fact, when the real-life Bill Tennant arrived at Dunkirk, he cut out the letters ‘SNO’ – Senior Naval Officer – from cigarette foil and stuck them to his tin hat with fish oil. That would have made a wonderful and brief scene had Kenneth Branagh done the same.
Do these imperfections matter? Possibly not. It’s still a cracking movie and very entertaining and yes, Harry Styles, is more than all right. Everyone in it is brilliant and there are some truly stunning and edge-of-your seat scenes. It’s great that Nolan does depict the part of the RAF, who played a key role. The truth was that Stuka dive-bombers were only really effective when the Luftwaffe controlled the air space – and they absolutely did not over Dunkirk – and when attacking a large and stationary target. Stukas were flying over Dunkirk at around 12,000 feet to begin with then realised there was too much cloud and so began starting their dives closer to 6,000 feet but even at the point of release a destroyer packed with troops looks like a pencil and pilots had a nano-second in which to hit their target. In other words, it was incredibly difficult – which is why, of course, only six out of 41 destroyers were sunk and 338,226 men were successfully evacuated. I have argued in my book The Battle of Britain and again in War in the West Vol I that the Battle of Britain began over Dunkirk because Britain’s sovereignty was in jeopardy during that extraordinary week more than at any time in its history and because Fighter Command – created to defend Britain – entered the fray for the first time during the evacuation and shot down 219 Luftwaffe aircraft. That was no small amount.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is terrific – and with a truly fantastic denouement. It was gripping from start to finish and an incredible spectacle. Yet as an accurate depiction of those events it falls short, and ironically, Dunkirk the movie felt to me to be just too empty: not enough men, not enough aircraft, not even enough mayhem (although there is a lot); not enough smoke, not enough cloud – and, of course, the misleading emphasis on what brought about DYNAMO’s ultimate success.
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