Dunkirk – film review

The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.

The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…

Dunkirk – the background

On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.

A triptych

Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.

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The Fall of France – an outline

On 11 November 1918, the French and British allies accepted Germany’s surrender and, between them, signed the armistice that ended the First World War. The signing took place in a railway carriage in the middle of the picturesque woods of Compiègne, fifty miles north-east of Paris. The humiliation of that event ran deep into the psyche of Germany, and none more so than in Adolf Hitler, at the time a corporal in the Imperial German Army.

Hitler in ParisOn 22 June 1940, Hitler, now the German Führer, got his revenge – it was the turn of the French to surrender, and Hitler made sure that it was done in the most demeaning circumstances possible – in exactly the same carriage and in the same spot as the signing twenty-two years earlier.

The Fall of France

Following the 1914-1918 war, the French had built a defensive 280-mile long fortification, the Maginot Line, all along the Franco-German border as protection against a future German attack. The Battle of France began on 10 May 1940. The Germans rendered the Maginot Line obsolete within a morning by merely skirting round the north of it, through the Ardennes forest. Because of its rugged terrain, the French considered the forest impassable. Reaching the town of Sedan on the French side of the Ardennes on 14 May and brushing aside French resistance, the Germans pushed forward, not towards Paris as expected, but north, towards the English Channel, forcing the French and their British allies further and further back. In 1916, the Germans had failed to take Verdun despite ten months of trench warfare; in May 1940, it took them but a day.

Elsewhere, Hitler’s armies were enjoying victory after victory – the Netherlands capitulated on 15 May, followed two weeks later by the surrender of Belgium. Allied forces, with their backs to the sea in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, were trapped. But the Germans, poised to annihilate the whole British Expeditionary Force, were inexplicably ordered by Hitler to halt outside the town. Between 26 May and 2 June, over 1,000 military and civilian vessels rescued and brought back to Britain 338,226 Allied soldiers. But not without scenes of panic, broken discipline and soldiers shot by their officers for losing self-control. Meanwhile, Hitler’s generals watched, puzzled and rueing an opportunity missed.

Winston Churchill may have viewed Dunkirk as a ‘deliverance’ but the French considered the British cowards for what they saw as a betrayal at Dunkirk. Hitler too thought little of the British soldier: ‘They can certainly beat their colonial subjects with a whip but on the battlefield they are miserable cowards’. Continue reading

Charles de Gaulle’s Appeal of 18 June 1940: a summary

Charles de Gaulle’s L’Appel du 18 Juin, the ‘Appeal of 18 June’, is of huge symbolic importance for the French. Former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, once said “We (the French) are all children of the 18 June”.

Charles De GaulleHere, below, is a brief resume of the fall of France and the first of Charles de Gaulle’s many broadcasts from the BBC in London.

On 14 June 1940, Hitler’s forces entered Paris, a city largely deserted with over two million Parisians having fled south to escape the Nazi invasion. Soon the swastika flag was flying from the Arc de Triomphe.

Charles de Gaulle

On 15 June, the French general, Charles de Gaulle, escaped from France to begin his life of exile in London. At the age of 49, De Gaulle was the youngest and most junior general in the French Army and although he had fought at Dunkirk and had met Winston Churchill he was generally unknown.

In London de Gaulle sought permission to broadcast to France from the studios of the BBC. The British government refused until Churchill stepped in and granted the Frenchman his wish.

“I speak for France”

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Henri Philippe Petain – a brief biography

Few men over the last century can have experienced such a change of fortune as Philippe Pétain. During the First World War, Pétain was hailed as the ‘Saviour of Verdun’, helping the French keep the Germans at bay during the 1916 Battle of Verdun. In May 1917 he was made commander-in-chief of French forces. His first task was to quell the French mutiny, which he did through a mixture of discipline and reform.

Pétain’s popularity improved even further when he limited French offensives to the minimum, claiming he was waiting for ‘the tanks and the Americans’.

Pétain and World War Two

World War Two and on 10 May 1940 Hitler‘s troops invaded France. A month later, having swept aside French resistance and dispatched the British forces at Dunkirk, the swastika was flying over the Arc du Triomphe.

France surrenders

On 17 June, the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, resigned, to be replaced by the 84-year-old Philippe Pétain. Pétain’s first acts were to seek an armistice with the Germans and order Reynaud’s arrest. On 22 June, 50 miles north-east of Paris, the French officially surrendered, the ceremony taking place in the same spot and in the same railway carriage that the Germans had surrendered to the French on 11 November 1918.

Northern France, as dictated by the terms of the surrender, would be occupied by the Germans, whilst southern France, 40 per cent of the country, would remain nominally independent with its own government based in the spa town of Vichy in central France, 200 miles south of Paris. Pétain would be its Head of State. A small corner of south-easternFrance, around Nice, was entrusted to Italian control; Italy having entered the war on the 10 June.

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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – book review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

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Battle of Verdun – a brief summary

As 1914 drew to a close, the Western Front had become a permanent fixture of trenches stretching 400 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. Stalemate ensued. A year later, the situation was no better. Each side looked for a ‘Big Push’ that would break the opposing line of defence and bring about victory. Rupert Colley summarises one such push – the Battle of Verdun.

‘France will bleed to death’

At the end of 1915, the German commander-in-chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, decided that Germany’s ‘arch enemy’ was not France, but Britain. But to destroy Britain’s will, Germany had first to defeat France. In a ‘Christmas memorandum’ to the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, Falkenhayn proposed an offensive that would compel the French to ‘throw in every man they have. If they do so,’ he continued, ‘the forces of France will bleed to death’. The place to do this, Falkenhayn declared, would be Verdun.

An ancient town, Verdun in northeastern France, was, in 1915, surrounded by a string of sixty interlocked and reinforced forts. On 21 February 1916, the Battle of Verdun began. 1,200 German guns lined over only eight miles pounded the city which, despite intelligence warning of the impending attack, remained poorly defended. Verdun, which held a symbolic tradition among the French, was deemed not so important by the upper echelon of France’s military. Joseph Joffre, the French commander, was slow to respond until the exasperated French prime minister, Aristide Briand, paid a night-time visit. Waking Joffre from his slumber, Briand insisted that he take the situation more seriously: ‘You may not think losing Verdun a defeat – but everyone else will’.

‘They shall not pass’ Continue reading