Dunkirk on film and in print

Have you seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk? And do you now want to explore the history in more depth? There’s a great selection of books to choose from (and the 75th anniversary of the event back in 2015 added to that literature).

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man is a tremendously readable narrative which begins in early May 1940 and carries on past the evacuation to a discussion of the rearguard action and the sinking of the Lancastria. Sebag-Montefiore mixes explanation with personal testimony (extracts from letters, journals and war diaries) to put a human face on his history. His detailed accounts underscore what ‘defend to the last man’ meant to those who received the order. There are moments of humour, and examples of valour, frustration, confusion, horror, triumph and tragedy. If you want to read just one book on Dunkirk, this is probably the one.

Black and white photograph of a group of men walking alongside a train; one is wrapped in a blanket and is smoking a pipe

French and British escapees from Dunkirk (catalogue reference: FO 898/52)

Nolan’s film includes significant coverage of the RAF’s role. As a lot of the activity was back from the beaches, there was confusion among troops being shot by the Luftwaffe: they couldn’t see the work being done to protect them. Norman Franks’ Air Battle for Dunkirk provides text and original photography of the amazing achievements of the British pilots. It is a great study of this less well-covered aspect of the war.

Julian Thompson, himself a former marine, has researched the work of the officers charged with organising what was the largest seaborne evacuation ever attempted. His book Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory examines the lead up to the evacuation in considerable detail. Also worth a look is Henry Buckton’s Retreat, which considers evacuations other than Dunkirk. This includes Operation Cycle, which cleared 11,000 Allied troops out of Le Havre, and the later activities of Operation Ariel, which aimed to remove both troops and civilians from points along the coast of western France.

One of the film’s closing scenes features an evacuated Tommy reading out the newspaper report on Dunkirk; if you’re interested in a facsimile edition of the front pages, the Memorabilia Pack Company produces replica newspapers for key moments in history and there is one available on Dunkirk.

There is also another story here: that of the troops whose job it was to hold back the Germans and facilitate the evacuation. Thousands of British and French soldiers were involved, and these men were left behind. Many were killed in battle or later executed by the SS, but many more were taken prisoner. For these men, including my mother’s cousin Vic, this was the beginning of a long struggle. Vic was captured at Dunkirk and imprisoned in Germany for the duration of the war; later, as the Americans advanced, he and his fellow prisoners were forcibly marched ahead of the liberators. He did not make it back to England until a year after the end of the war and for the majority of that time his family had no idea if he was alive. Luckily he did survive, although in a terrible state. On his return he was cared for by his mother (who had been a nurse in the First World War) and went on to make a full recovery.


  1. David Matthew says:

    Sorry but ouch!, “English” soldiers, no they were British soldiers, it wasn’t just English regiments there. Some of the soldiers who were left behind are tagged in the catalogue for FO 950 (Nazi persecution claims files) under Dunkirk (although Dunkirk as spelt is in Kent) and the one in France is Dunkerque. That apart the film is very good.

    1. Sally hughes says:

      Sorry David-I did not intend to imply that only the English were involved the British forces of course involved individuals from all across the United Kingdom and indeed elsewhere. I’ve updated accordingly. Although Dunkerque is indeed the correct name of the French town, the anglicized version is commonly used to refer to the World War II operation and indeed all of the books cited use this form. I agree with the you the film is very good and certainly worth seeing.

  2. John L Dixon says:

    Unlike the original film (Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk) Nolan’s film, while good, starts two thirds of the way through the story.

    Read Tim Lynch’s “Dunkirk 1940” for a description of one of the main scandals of the campaign – the deliberate sacrifice of under-equipped Territorials – who faced Panzer columns with rifle and bayonet and died in their hundreds. Or read our Memorial Website at http://www.newmp.org.uk/70brigade which includes the War Diaries of one of those Brigades, and its three North Eastern Battalions – decimated as a result of an order from the French, connived at by Gort.

    Begin to understand the real impact of the Belgian collapse and the French failure to occupy defensive positions, reflected on the War Memorials across County Durham.

  3. Bert Reeves says:

    Hi I recently viewed the film “Dunkirk” whilst visiting Australia. Being acritical kind of person I was disappointed to see the row of Container cranes behind the sandhills in some of the scenes. Also there was reference in the dialogue of how shallow thw water was where the Hospital ship was loading they mentioned 3 feet yet when the ship was sunk she disappeared altogether under the water. The men trapped in the grounded trawler on the beach were being shot at and the bullet holes would appear and immediately start leaking water which would suggest the holes were being made underwater,,, I think not further given that the holes were therefore underwater the pressure would be such that the water would squirt in with considerable force not just dribble in. Good film though just attention to detail was a bit soft.

  4. Anthony Finerty says:

    I thought that the film “Dunkirk” was very good. It was interesting the way they introduced Churchill’s speech at the end indicating that the British would continue fighting and would not be surrendering.

  5. David Hughes says:

    Some Dunkirk veterans were invited to a screening of the film at the National Film Theatre and were afterwards asked what they thought of it. “Well,” said one, “the real thing wasn’t as noisy as the movie.” The film’s director requires that the sound be played at such a high level that complaints have been commonplace across the country, and I value my hearing too much ever to see it in a cinema. I doubt that I’m the only one.

  6. Jennifer Cook (nee Bland) says:

    My father was one off those who were left behind he was in the tank corp or armoured tank division .. in a lull he got out the tank to relieve himself and his tank was blown up .. he did the 1000 mile march. .. always said he was in a concentration camp with other services saw terrible things. ..

  7. Antony Barnes says:

    My Dad was in the RAMC attached to 151 Railway Construction Company Royal Engineers. They got away on a Destroyer. He talked about his travels through France and eventual escape usually when he had had a few beers.

  8. WiltsBob says:

    Very interesting and informative comments. I would just add that I know I am alone in my view but I thought Nolan’s film was poor from beginning to end. The contempt for the operation and the men involved is very evident, not only container cranes but yellow lines in the street, unconvincing action shots and underlined with the admission that accuracy was of no concern! He’s right, the poor story line could be set anywhere. I was bored stiff throughout, the only thing that kept me awake was the sound level.

  9. H M Ward says:

    I enjoyed the film. I understand that it in no way represents all that went on, a film that did that would really be an epic. My only ‘gripe’ is that at the start of the film the young soldiers are walking through largely untouched, abandoned streets. My husbands grandfather was killed, I believe, at Uxem on the outskirts of Dunkirk. There was fighting going on there before his regiment (2Bn Hampshire Regt) got to the beaches. I therefore believe the area would have already been much more damaged by the ground fighting as well as from the bombs being dropped by enemy planes. I’d be happy to hear differently.

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