I recently had the pleasure of watching Dunkirk at the Arclight Hollywood on 70-millimeter film with my friend Matthew Mishory, an accomplished film director. This movie about the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk was amazing! It was very historically accurate. The aircraft shown were British Royal Air Force (RAF) Mark 1 Spitfires, the German Luftwaffe (air force) Messerschmitt 109 fighter, the Junkers 87 Stuka dive-bomber, and the Heinkel 111 medium bomber. Kudos to the producers for giving the Stuka its infamous Sirens of Jericho – the sirens mounted on the aircraft’s landing gear that added to its reputation for terror. The Spitfires were flying in the prewar three-plane elements that were soon discarded for the reason that if one pilot maneuvered to defend another, the third would be left by himself, vulnerable to attack. The dreamlike scene toward the end of the movie, when the Spitfire, out of fuel, glides without power over the beach for a long time after shooting down a Stuka, has an element of truth to it; the prototype Spitfire “floated on landing, as if it could not bear to return to Earth.” My only beef with the air element of the movie was that the RAF’s Hurricane fighters weren’t featured. The Spitfire got most of the glory in the history books, but the Hurricane was a similar eight-gun single-engine fighter and did a lot of good work at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain.
The evacuation by sea was also well covered. It really was true that a flotilla of small civilian craft were assisting the Royal Navy’s destroyers. (The Royal Navy destroyer was accurate too; it appeared to be one of the O and P class.) It was also true that the Royal Air Force was not able to stop every German air attack on the evacuation. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command had been warning Prime Minister Winston Churchill that he had been losing many aircraft and pilots in France even before the evacuation, and that committing too many fighters to defend the evacuation would have meant none left for the Battle of Britain. Sad to say, many Luftwaffe (German air force) attacks on the evacuation went unopposed. This led to much anger at the RAF. At the end of the evacuation, Marshal Dowding had only 283 fighters left to face over 1000 German aircraft based in occupied France and Norway. It is also true that the Spitfires and Hurricanes had short range; they could not remain over Dunkirk for long.
Of course, the British were quite lucky to have evacuated all those soldiers. The only reason that Dunkirk became known for the great evacuation is that German Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was ordered to halt the advance of his ground forces because Hermann Goering, Reichsmarshal of the Luftwaffe, persuaded Adolf Hitler to let the Luftwaffe finish off the BEF. Had that not been the case, then most of the BEF and other Allied soldiers would have been killed or captured, and the United Kingdom would have been left without most of its regular army. That would have left only the Home Guard, an irregular collection of those too old or too young for regular military service, to repel an invasion, albeit with the help of the Royal Navy and the RAF. As it is, most of the BEF’s tanks and other heavy weapons had to be abandoned at Dunkirk.
Bottom line: If you like war movies that are historically accurate, go see this one!
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For further reading:
Barker, Ralph. The RAF at War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1981, pp. 36-39.
Hallion, Richard P. Designers and Test Pilots. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983, p. 73.
Kaplan, Phillip, and Richard Collier. The Few: Summer 1940, the Battle of Britain. Blandford Press, 1989; Orion Publishing Group, 2002, pp. 44-45.