A few days ago Prince Harry, himself a military vet, met Dunkirk vets at Kensington Palace ahead of the London premiere (on 21 July) of Dunkirk, the story of the evacuation of troops from France that Winston Churchill called “a miracle”.
The film is an international co-production between the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and the Netherlands and shows the events of Dunkirk from three perspectives – land, sea and air. It uses actual boats and planes from the Dunkirk evacuation.
It opens in Sydney on 20 July.
In 1939 and 1940 the German military swept through Europe utilising their strategy of blitzkrieg (“lightning war”). This military tactic used a concentration of offensive weapons (such as tanks, planes, and artillery) along a narrow front. Once the enemy defences were breached, armoured tank divisions swept through, creating havoc behind the enemy lines. German air power ensured that the enemy could not resupply or deploy enforcements to the breached areas, permitting the Germans to encircle and force surrender.
Rather than protracted engagements, the strategy of the German military was a series of short campaigns. These forces would drive a breach in enemy defenses, permitting armored tank divisions to penetrate rapidly and roam freely behind enemy lines, causing shock and disorganization among the enemy defenses. German air power prevented the enemy from adequately resupplying or redeploying forces and thereby from sending reinforcements to seal breaches in the front. German forces could in turn encircle opposing troops and force surrender.
Germany successfully used the Blitzkrieg tactic against Poland (attacked in September 1939), Denmark (April 1940), Norway (April 1940), Belgium (May 1940), the Netherlands (May 1940), Luxembourg (May 1940), France (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941), and Greece (April 1941).
The German invasion of Poland, blitzkrieg in action
Dunkirk is located in France across the English Channel, opposite Dover.
It was also the place of final retreat in May 1940 for large numbers of British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops, forced back by the German offensive. By 22 May, German forces had driven those allied soldiers towards the northern coast of France. On that date, with the ability to wipe out the allied forces, the Germans inexplicably halted their attack by order of the German High Command and approved by Adolf Hitler. It has been speculated that Hitler was still hopeful of making peace with Britain and that wiping out a large part of Britain’s army, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), would not be helpful. Big mistake.
Commander of the BEF, General Viscount Gort, planned a withdrawal to Dunkirk and from there an evacuation across the English Channel.
In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France "a colossal military disaster", saying "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured.
The British Admiralty formulated a plan, code named Operation Dynamo, to save the 338,000 soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Large boats being unable to reach those men because of the shallow waters, the Admiralty recruited every small craft they could find to ferry troops from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. 800 craft, dubbed the “little ships of Dunkirk”, took part between 26 May and 4 June 1940, rescuing 198,000 British troops and 140,000 Allied troops, mainly French. It was a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats called into service for the emergency. The BEF had lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and abandoned nearly all of their tanks, vehicles, and other equipment at Dunkirk.
On 4 June 1940, with the evacuation of Dunkirk successfully complete, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the House of Commons.
These are some excerpts:
“When, a week ago today, I asked the House to fix this afternoon as the occasion for a statement, I feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history. I thought - and some good judges agreed with me - that perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be re-embarked. But it certainly seemed that the whole of the French First Army and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force north of the Amiens-Abbeville gap would be broken up in the open field or else would have to capitulate for lack of food and ammunition.
. . . .
At the last moment, when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his brave, efficient army, nearly half a million strong, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat to the sea. Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.
. . . .
The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead.
. . . .
The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . ."
Soldiers queue to be rescued.
Some of the "Little Ships" being towed up the Thames after their rescue tasks were complete.