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204: Dunkirk with Joshua Levine

Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle at Dunkirk, was an event that many believe kept Britain in World War II before the United States even joined the fight as it took place between May 26 – June 4, 1940. Today we’ll be chatting with Joshua Levine, who was the historical consultant on the 2017 movie from director Christopher Nolan that depicts the event.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:44

Everyone knows movies are entertainment. So we all know that they’re not supposed to be entirely accurate. And yet, a lot of people still use movies as a source for their historical knowledge. So before we chat about some of the specific plot points, if you took a step back and gave the movie, overall a letter grade on accuracy of the miracle at Dunkirk, what would it get?


Joshua Levine  02:06

It’s a very hard one for me to answer this, because you’re in a way, you’re asking me to grade my own work. And, obviously, not because it’s not my movie, and I can advise, but obviously, the director Christopher Nolan made the film he wanted to make and was, you know, made every single choice. But on the other hand, clearly, I am implicated in this in some way. But I have to say I was very pleased with, you know, I was there when it was filmed. And, you know, I was there for most of the way. And I was very pleased with with, with how it came out and how it looked. And I would give it an optimistic view plus, I think, I think he was very, you know, he took a lot of care with the things that really mattered to him. And the work, you know, there were things that were wrong. Often, funnily enough, not the things that people, you know, obviously, the film gained a lot of attention and interest, and people were very, with a lot of articles. And you know, this is, right, this is wrong. Historical Accuracy. Often those articles were wrong, you know, pointed out that were mistakes, were not mistakes. And then there were things that nobody has seen or what nice the word mistakes that nobody seems to spot. So for example, I mean, there was there was the train carriage at the end, was a good old 1970s British train carriage, you know, but the only one spot the governor revealing that, and then, you know, and then there were there were some things that weren’t, were a matter of choice and sort of Sophie, you know, the one thing that was I found really interesting, the director was keen to find out about women at Dunkirk and a lot of women on on the hospital ships, you know, nurses and the West stewardesses on some of the passenger ships that came across. I didn’t find any women on the little ships, you know, he I think he would have he would have liked the benefit of a woman a little ship. I didn’t find that. So I gave you know, funnily enough, there was an article in I did find in the Times London Times on, I think was the sixth of June 1940, talking about there having been a woman who took a boat across to Dunkirk, and the article said that she had phoned up the Admiralty, this woman phoned up the Admiralty, asking to take a ship across or take your own boat across, and she’d done it in a in a false voice and she she deepened her voice. So I go put a boat across from the Admiralty and said yes, and she done it. These were the sorts of stories that were flying around, sort of rumors that were flying around in the days and weeks after Dunkirk and days and weeks up there any kind of event like that, I suppose. So I showed him the article and said to him, I don’t, I suspect this probably isn’t true. It’s a sort of story that’s flying around. But, uh, you know, I gave it to him to, you know, do what you will with it. And then there were also, you know, I was looking for black soldiers. And this was a point before Commonwealth troops are involved. So what I found two mixed race soldiers, one who was killed before Dunkirk one who was taken prisoner afterwards. And I told him, you know, that that’s the information that I that I gave him and, and then there was the matter of the quite an interesting match, I suppose, of the of the Indian, there were four Indian companies, animal transport companies in in France.


Joshua Levine  05:48

But all those four only one was actually at Dunkirk one company, which was comprised of, I think, three officers and 298 men, the 25th annual transport company actually made it off the mall, the non Jetty on big with the night of the 28th 29th of May, but, you know, early in the morning, 29. And so the world we’re in were Indian soldiers at Dunkirk, on the beaches, you know, on making their way to the mall. And again, I told him that so, you know, and there was a lot of criticism afterwards that Indian soldiers had not been portrayed in the film. You know, that’s a whole debate to be had. And that’s the debate about where we are in terms of filmmaking culture, and, you know, what, what should be so in relation to what can be so. But again, that, you know, that’s the information I gave. So there was, you know, some things of, you know, factually, right, factually wrong, the naval men on the mall, should have been wearing helmets, they would have been wearing helmets, if he didn’t want to show them was also the point about the, the town of Dunkirk, which ended so briefly, but not being beaten up enough, which I think is true. But then, you know, the director doesn’t particularly like to use or doesn’t at all like to use CGI. And he wasn’t going to bond the the actual towel. And, and then the numbers of soldiers on the beaches, which I mean, you know, I think a lot of people said beaches weren’t messy enough, they weren’t crowded. And again, there’s some truth to that. But you’ve got to be careful with this. Because, I mean, you look at this two ways. I mean, first of all, in fact, he did, you know, he, again, doesn’t use CGI, but he did use a 1000s local people have gone, you know, young people dressed in uniforms and, and he used them, actually a lot on the beaches. So, you know, he made them as crowded as conceivably he could, I think. But then the other point is, they weren’t always crowded. And we tend to think of, you know, this idea of the the evacuation as being a certain thing, the story is one certain thing. And the truth is, that, like all history, like all stories, like everything that’s happened in the past, there is not one story. And if you look at the accounts of of different, you know, as I have looked over the years, many, many accounts and talked to many, many veteran, yes, all points when the beaches are absolutely cluttered and crowded, queues and queues disappear, ones, die, bombers came over and then reappear, and, but there were also periods. And bear in mind, also, you’ve got 10 miles of beaches, you’ve got this evacuation happening for for days and days and days, you’ve got hundreds of 1000s of people coming and going, coming and going. So there is no one story the whole world was on beaches. And there were periods when the word many people at particular places and in fact, they were empty particular places at different times different and there were times when the sun was shining, and people were having a great time, there was a man telling me about a circus performer who was on found a horse and on the back of a horse and performing tricks and men were lying in the sunshine clapping and, and searing as this man, you know, performed on a horse, which is not a picture of what was actually like. And, you know, there were times another man told me you know, I had horror stories to people coming on the beaches up and days of evacuation terrible, physical states of hungry and hadn’t eaten for days and one man who was sunk to his knees and I took his helmet off and started to try and eat the leather strap on his helmet. Because his imagination couldn’t go anywhere. He was so hungry and he didn’t know what what he could you know, mine just focused in on the first thing it focused in on and another story, some of you watching a group of metal sitting around in a circle or miming, eating over the imaginary knife or walk and just, you know, there was they couldn’t get any food that this was the closest they could come and they were all sort of engaged in this, in this sort of shared pantomime that was deadly serious. But on the other hand, I got the story of these three Royal Engineers who came off the off the retreat and came onto the, the beach and found the window boats coming in. So they went back out. I don’t think beyond the perimeter, I think, within the perimeter, but they found in Stammen, like a bar Cafe open. And this is during the evacuation. And they said, not only was it open, they were able to buy a bottle of champagne, which they drank these are ordinary Englishmen, you know, when a touch champagne before in their lives, and they drank it, and they decided they loved it, more than likely finished, it went back onto the beach, a boat came in, took them off,


Joshua Levine  10:50

something bigger, offshore and home, they went, again, not the typical Dunkirk story. But my point is simply that there was no one story. There never is. And we’re making a mistake to think that the you know, there, there is only one story. And so it was, you know, there was good behavior, there was bad behavior, there are people standing order, in orderly lines and queues. And then there were also people jumping queues and couple of accounts for people being shot when they tried to jump the queue to get on little boats. And so, you know, there was everything going, the man found an ambulance and just just got in it and stayed for days inside, in his own little bubble in, you know, on the top of the beach inside this, there’s arguments and then sort of tried to shut the rest of the world out and pretend nothing else was happening. So there’s no one story and an equally, there’s no one picture of the beach. That is correct. So incredibly long way of saying I give it a B plus,


Dan LeFebvre  11:51

I mean, movies or entertainment, right. And you and as filmmakers, you have to choose which stories you’re going to focus on. And so it makes sense that I mean, yeah, there’s, if there’s no one story, you’re gonna have to choose. And no matter what you choose, there are going to be some people that aren’t going to like, what you choose what you didn’t pick, or, you know, in that way, what stories you didn’t tell them, because you can’t tell everything, they only have so much time you talk


Joshua Levine  12:14

to veterans, it’s always very interesting talking to veterans, because they pick they will have had their experience. And very often they are not willing to accept the experience of another veteran who had a different experience. So you know, you’re not gonna be rude. You know, I wasn’t, I would never contradict a veteran. But you had to be aware that somebody who had lived through something to them, that was the truth of the matter, that was the reality of the matter. And if you put somebody else’s reality to them, they would sometimes just say, no, no, I accept that that didn’t happen. And that, you know, that we all, we’re all like that. I mean, we all, you know, you go into, into a court and watch a case over a traffic accident, and you know, you you say what you saw, and that’s won’t be the same as what the person 30 feet away, saw. It’s just that that’s how it is. And so, you know, it’s actually quite fascinating when you do speak to, you know, large numbers of people and try and get a sense of what it was, from so many different accounts, and it becomes something far more interesting, and far less cliched really, than, you know, what it might otherwise have been turned into overtime. At the beginning of the movie,


Dan LeFebvre  13:33

there are some texts that explains the British and French armies have been driven to the sea that kind of sets up the the main trap that Dunkirk kind of hoping for the miracle, but other than the text, the movie just kind of throws us into that story, which makes sense. I mean, it’s about that story. But can you expand a little bit more on the historical side to kind of set that up? You know, why? Why were the British and the French armies, surrounded by the Germans at Dunkirk


Joshua Levine  13:59

just before I do it might be interesting. I happen to have sort of taco works gave I started I don’t want to speak for the director, but I you know, he, he we didn’t want to use too much dialogue. And so one thing that I think he found useful I told him about the leaflets that the Germans drops, and you know, allsides drops, propaganda leaflets, but the Germans dropped these. These are copies of the of the real leaflets. And it’s not to scale image much bigger than the actual leaflet but this is what he put in at the beginning. Except you didn’t put in the actual I’m you can see, say British soldiers. Look at this map. It gives you a true situation. Your troops are entirely surrounded stop fighting. Put down your arms. Real quick. Let


Dan LeFebvre  14:46

me mention if you’re listening to this and you want to see what Joshua is holding up to the camera. You can see that in the video version of this chat over at on a true story podcast.


Joshua Levine  15:00

And what he turned into for the purposes of right at the top of the film was this, which you can see I mean it filmic ly, it’s great because it cuts out the need for a lot of clunky dialogue about where are we here? Why are we here? It’s, you know, you we surround you. Actually, in reality, when I spoke to veterans, I mean, they said that this was useful for an end put this in for two reasons. One, they didn’t have toilet paper, but to also, they didn’t have maps. And the Germans got a map. And it was really, this is, this is great, thanks. So anyway, so that’s, and that kind of preempts the story. But basically, the I mean, the British Expeditionary Force, it arrived in France, right at the beginning of the war, within days started, right. Within days of the beginning of the war, you had all of these young men whose fathers and uncles and relatives are older than they knew, had been out there, just a generation previous to these same place. So it was a kind of, here we go again. And they came to France, they didn’t move into Belgium, Belgium was, even though the attack was expected to come, the Germans were expected attack through belt to come into Belgium. But the Belgians didn’t want the allies to set foot in Belgium, because they didn’t want to provoke the Germans into attack, even though expect the Germans would attack anyway, in order to actually get out the carpet more than by provoking. So the British Expeditionary Force remained in France. And then for months, what was known as well, the Americans and was that the phony, but I think the British knew it more is that the time is the boat, the ball on the ball. And Bre, as in was nothing happened. But actually the you know, they were quite a lot of things. If you think about it, we used a young British man never been abroad before a very, very few of them grow before. And they’d been brought up during the Depression. And the Army gave them great meals and income. And now adventure now, they’re actually going abroad to see how, you know how other people, you know what abroad was like. And they stay. In fact, the show that they enjoyed, I mean, I found that there was a battalion of the of the Middlesex regiment that was started misbehave, and was told that if you this was in November, December 1940, until the if you don’t start behaving, we’re sending you back to him. And they started behaving, they cut it, they cut out the part they wanted to stay. And so they the idea was that the expectation was, that would be a German attack, through Belgium that the British, and the French would move up to meet the Germans in Belgium. And that would be kind of a repeat of that federal war, a war of modern trenches, and not a great deal of movement. And the French also have this large court something called imagino law, which was a series of fortifications really heavily defended fortifications, along the border with Germany. And the French. French cry was in the past on par, they will not pass because they believed it was completely impregnable. And come through and what the Germans did, which was very audacious and hit the basically signed off on this and maybe you could argue that his part of his hubris was a result of the success of this morning, never again, doubted himself


Joshua Levine  18:45

was that they, they did indeed attack into Belgium, and the British came forward to meet them on the river deal and two sides that but at the same time, that was only a faint, really, by the Germans a real attack was was coming through the dead, which is a hilly area. flogger heavily forested area, an area that in theory was impossible to tanks. So the Germans didn’t try and get past the mash Lola feel the puzzle on bar they didn’t pass it and try. They came instead through the den, and it wasn’t defended properly by by the French and the Germans just amazingly, sort of shot through and but anteater May, German tanks had reached the French coast and so almost surrounded, completely surrounded the British Expeditionary Corps which found itself then retreating. And so the retreat started sort of piecemeal so from one river line from deal to the river ESCO and and fighting on all these heavy fighting all these these lines and then as the retreat went further back After the British was setting up and defended areas, so first of all along the corridor, so defending canals and defending defendable areas, the Germans couldn’t, couldn’t get through. And further back further back until eventually they were, they found themselves and with long with the French as well, both British and French, were defending the perimeter around Dunkirk as the evacuation move further back, then you had a situation where bridge actually did mount a counter attack on the 21st of May. So the main attack came and attack began on the 10th of may, by the 20th of May, the Germans had reached the coast. The British then mounted this counter attack at Eros, which was surprisingly success. And actually really spooked the Germans who really only saved the day because Ron, you know, the legendary roll this is where he kind of made his name, she like, took personal control, and basically beat up the British attack. But it was sufficiently successful that it made the Germans very nervous that you know, another counter attacking force could, you know, ever effectively cut off the Panzer tight so that we were to the ghosts, because the tanks if you think about it, you know, they were now in quite a bad mechanical state, they got way ahead of the infantry way ahead of their supplies, they were coming to, you know, the area around Dunkirk, which is marshy anyway, there wouldn’t be much use in Dunkirk, the German sort of bigger fight was still coming to the south of the sun. They thought that was a big fight against the French was still coming. And so they stopped the tanks, roasted vegetable stock tanks, and then that order was confirmed by Hitler. And the back of the nation had quite a lot to do with Herman Goering basically making contact with Hitler saying Don’t let know that the generals win this, the generals will take credit for it and they will be right they will end up as rivals to you. They are not solidly knots, they will create trouble. Whereas if you’ve met the Luftwaffe, we’ve been we’ve been loyal to you from the very beginning. If you let us we can defeat the British so so let us do it. And that was a one major reason why Hitler confirm that courting the tanks order, which lasted for three days and gave the British a great opportunity to be able to move more and more and more people back through the corridors and into Dunkirk.


Dan LeFebvre  22:36

It’s fascinating to me, when you mentioned that initially, these British Expeditionary Forces are going abroad, and the punishment is going home. Just how quickly the tables turn.


Joshua Levine  22:47

Yeah, it’s a really it’s a very quick story. It’s, it is it is it is sort of remarkable. I mean, it’s quick and very slow in terms of the Boer War only. But then suddenly, everything happened and people we know, why are they attacking? I mean, turtles review. But a lot of this time, you know, why aren’t they attacked? Do they have? You know, it’s something extraordinary going to happen? Are they suddenly is Hitler suddenly going to launch all kinds of, you know, utterly terrifying, perhaps, you know, aerial attack on on Britain, or, you know, what, what is it going to be? And what it did turn out to be was this audacious, you know, attack through through the den, which, which foreigners gave, you know, an immediate victory. And then British soldiers didn’t know why they were treated. You know, they found, I mean, I think initially, lots of issues, talk to them, a lot of them said that they, you know, they thought maybe their own unit had done something wrong, and was, you know, being impact for some reason, or maybe there’d been an attack, you know, nearby, and they were having to fall back to Crete Dino to keep a line. But, you know, at first, they certainly didn’t know that, you know, what had happened, but I mean, not, the commander’s didn’t really know what was happening at first it was. And one thing I should probably mention is that the man who made the decision to retreat into Dunkirk and then evacuate was was really was was Lord Gore, who was the commander in chief of the British second judicial courts. And he’s not a man who gets much credit wasn’t very imaginative Landry very brave. But he and he, you know, he ended up being sort of shunted off to I think he became governor of Gibraltar after, after this. But he made that, I think as early as the 19th of may, you know, he was aware of, you know, the distinct possibility that they were going to have to go all the way back to Dunkirk. And, and, you know, by the 25th, he had made the decision that this was going to happen. They were going to have to save as many as possible the project was through this evacuation. And this was at a point bear in mind when you know, back in London, the generals back in London certainly took So we’re still talking about you know, no note you Mustaine you must fight and you must not counter attacks with the French we cannot afford to lose the leapfrogs we can’t afford to lose the French and, and all this kind of thing. And it was gone to very briefly sort of overrode this and said, No, no, we go back. So that’s how, you know the game, spoiling anything by saying that’s how the British Expeditionary Force will say, my couldn’t see the war would have taken a different turn. I mean, the work today live, particularly to different terms. It’s, you know, it’s when a butterfly flaps its wings, and a node God made that decision.


Dan LeFebvre  25:38

In the beginning of the movie, there’s a character named Mr. Dawson, along with his son Peter and their friend George, and we see a couple men from the Navy who requisition Mr. Dawson’s boat, it’s a private yacht, and they’re asked to empty everything out of the boats load up a bunch of life jackets, we don’t really hear exactly what the Navy men told them. But all we know, through some dialogue is they’re told that some men across the English Channel at Dunkirk need taking off. They don’t seem to know a lot about what’s going on either. But they’re they’re being asked how did the movie do showing what it was like for the citizens kind of preparing to go across the channel?


Joshua Levine  26:16

Were ordinary citizens who did take their own boats and did go across but not many. You know, the web for example, there’s there was a senior surviving officer on the Titanic from the Titanic. Michael Lightoller went across in his own boat and stuff. And you know that I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Mrs. miniver 1941 British film there’s a Dunkirk scene with a guy just an ordinary guy Miss admit it was husband jumped in his boat comes back three days later with a shattered and that’s you know, that’s a film made, I think a year just a year after. So there was a story that developed lots of ordinary people got in but and a few days. But really what happened for the most part was that the Navy requisitioned boats, and it took them out of boatyards longtemps on the south coast, people didn’t know that their boats have been taken, son didn’t know and didn’t know why they’re butchering, taking the one that I found, you know, thought his boat was being stolen and chased it up to the blocks. And then naval rate ended up taking these boats across, and in some cases have been better the owners had to cross because the owners knew how they work was an evil raging, often, you know, wreck. So I mean, I think the the reality of the stock and also fishermen you know, the fishermen did take their own boats, and non memes, Navy took their boats ended up signing a form that made them temporary members of the Royal Navy. It was called somebody was a T. G 124, I think, and it was a form they signed and so for a month, I think they, they were members of they were considered members of the Royal Navy. So people did it, people decided to spawn people that didn’t go across. But for the most part, it was it was the Navy who took these boats across. And you’re gonna remember that’s these little known as the little chips, which started to come across in big numbers on the 30th and 31st. They were really needed for taking people off to the off the beaches to take them to the larger ships offshore to the beginning. You didn’t May I mean, it is an amazing story is amaze. You had these, you know people that were congregating in the town of Dunkirk in the cellars and looked up over Bondic so as a result of gearing up said, you know, good luck, Rafa, really one reality is that what they were capable of doing that being said, don’t they they could do. Maybe if the weather state had been different than the cloud cover, and you know, that then, and their tactics have been slightly different. And they, you know, bombed Dover and Ramsgate suddenly, you know, maybe it would have, but the fact is, they weren’t as things stood, they weren’t capable of really doing what they did with drop success with it was to bond the hub, the town and the hub, and it put the Inner Harbor, pretty much out of Acts. Now completely out of action, actually. So you had this man called William tenants who were the senior naval officer ashore at Dunkirk, who handed make this way he had all these people or these men are the soldiers in Dunkirk more were pouring in. And the harbor was out of action. So how was he going to get how are people going to get back to Dover back to round it back to Britain? What he did, because the whole thing you got to understand was a kind of constant improvisation, you know, constantly having to make it up on the go. And what he did was, I think, was it sort of the greatest improvise nation of all if anything happened, he saw these two big sort of outer on the outer harbor there’s two arms that went a mile out to see the West more than the East slot and they weren’t jetted. They were basically big arms to stop the harvest silting up. And they did have wooden walkways on the top, but that they also had large railings on the side. It was just that people could walk out there. They weren’t meant as chatty. They had huge tidal drops side of their 1415 feet tidal drops. They’re heavy on that, that no one had ever brought a ship alongside. Tennant looked at the situation. He you know, he people from the heart from the harbor from the town would move on to the beaches. But at this point early on in the evacuation, the weren’t any it was sufficient little boats to bring people from the beach to the largest ship as we’re starting to come. So you had large destroyers, naval destroyers, naval minesweepers, you had ferries,


Joshua Levine  31:04

passenger ships, but there was no wait for them to come in shore and no way for the men to get out to them. So and they weren’t yet enough little chips they call went up on them. But so what he decided to do was to use these moats, these huge, great waters, specifically for the British, the East brakeman gizmo, and he sent people, soldiers up them. And he brought him a passenger ship alongside him on that first night. Later, 28. You know, he got almost 1000 people. And he realized this is this is what we’ve got to do. And so the majority of soldiers actually got off using those breakwaters over the course of the vast majority of the cost, of course of the evacuation. So it’s an amazing story of, of improvisation. And again, I mean, I think that came across pretty well in film.


Dan LeFebvre  31:59

Another perspective we get from the film is in the air, and it starts with there’s three British airplanes, one of them the kind of the main pilot of fare years, he talks about how they have 70 gallons of fuel over the radio, they’re told to stay low to allow for 40 minutes of fighting time over Dunkirk. But also make sure to keep an eye on the on the fuel so you can have enough gas to get back. And not to skip ahead in the timeline of the movie necessarily. But there are bits of dialogue throughout where the soldiers on the beaches are just wondering Where where are our planes to fight off the Germans as as they’re coming in and bombing the beaches. So the impression that I got was from the movie, that there wasn’t a huge RAF presence in the air to protect the soldiers at Dunkirk, or at least not that they could see in you know, the areas that were watching the movie. Is that a right impression to walk away from the movie with of the RAS roll Dunkirk?


Joshua Levine  32:54

I think you got the impression the film intended to convey which is the accurate one, which isn’t the soldiers and sailors didn’t think the RAF with it. You know, they were really angry. If this is the way stories work, I mean, you’ve got dunk, the truth is that at Dunkirk, the soldiers and sailors would be furious to the point that when RAF people either crash landed or whatever is we’re trying to get off at Dunkirk, with the soldiers, often they weren’t allowed on or they had to change our clothes to pretend they weren’t Aria, people were so angry with him for not being the I mean, if you think about it, you know, we’re just talking weeks later, you’ve got the Battle of Britain, and they became


Dan LeFebvre  33:38

heroes. So quickly, things turn well,


Joshua Levine  33:41

but then what we’ve also forgotten is that after that, I mean, I’ve got I’ve found a story in guy Gibson, who’s the Dambusters, in his autobiography, about he was a night fighter, again after the Battle of Britain, so during the Blitz in November of 1940, and he’s in London and dressed up tonight Vitus and flying into bombers during the German bombers during the Blitz. And he’s in London one night in his uniform, he’s down in a shelter whilst the bombing is going on up above, and people start turning against him. And people were shouting at him saying, Why aren’t you up there getting those? You know, and he said it was so intimidating, that he would rather get out of the shelter and take his chances against the bonds, because he thought people were about to attack him down. So so this is the reality is that it’s, again, it’s not you know, it’s waves people. But the point is to get back to dunk point is, yes, that soldiers in rangriti area, but the RF also there, they were doing absolutely, as much as they felt they could do and as much as they could. And the fact is that they you know, they shot the RAF shot down more German aircraft and the Germans shot down RAF aircraft, they really worth it. But they’re also extremely good reasons why they weren’t seen. There’s quite a few reasons. I mean, you know, some Fighter Command for example, started employing very large formations, to deploy squadrons at a time. And with the limited squadron resources available, that meant there were periods where there were gaps in the RAF Sunbrella. So it added to their success rate. But it also meant that they’re really, you know, the RFP was apps for periods of time, it was that half, but it was absent the period. But then also, you have lots of here, first of all, they were flying high, for the most part, 20,000 feet, because they wanted to be, you know, above the German. So that meant that they couldn’t be seen. They also they were trying to intercept the Germans before they got to the beaches, though, a lot of times, they weren’t even over the scene over the beaches got to the point of being over the beaches, once the Germans are already there, you’ve got the Germans had air observers behind Dunkirk, so they could call aircraft up to come into the battle zone. So you know, for that reason, sometimes the bombers did show up, when the RAF went there, you had anti aircraft guns for the period, they were there, firing and everything. So the troops would look up and see everything being fired out, assuming everything was enemy, when in fact, you know, some of them weren’t enemy. And there was cloud cover for part of the time, there were lots of reasons. I mean, I was lucky with cloud cover. Because, you know, that meant that the Germans couldn’t bomb. And that thing that stupid couldn’t come down and do their bombings from 1500 feet. So there were lots and lots of very good reasons why the British couldn’t see the ARIA, even though they were there and doing an unbelievably important job. And bear in mind, there were very good reasons why not all of the Fighter Command was being used, because the British knew, doubting knew that the bigger fight was going to come. I mean, that you know, that they were going to be needed to defend I mean, the Battle of Britain, nobody objects to the fact that the the RAF Fighter Command was, was strong during the Battle of Britain, then, you know, the fact was, they couldn’t commit too much to Dunkirk, because they had to reserve strength for their battle of Britain fight for Britain, because the fact is, you know, for the Germans to come across, they were going to have to win control of the air. And that battle of the fighters, the Germans coming over and, and the British fighters over the south of England was, you know, a fight for Britain.


Dan LeFebvre  37:34

I mean, you can’t predict the future. But, I mean, you know, that what would be next? There’s the big battle coming next. And so you want to make sure that you


Joshua Levine  37:41

have you, they hope there was a big battle going next. I mean, you know, it could have been that the British army was just finished off there if the British Army had been finished off there. And then it’s very hard to see any other result than Britain having to sue for peace. And then again, we’re in that situation where, what, where would we been out and the whole German ethos would have bled throughout Europe, break the lid, and then that to defend liberty, freedom and the rule of law, etc, etc. Where would the second you know, even if America joined the war, where would the second France have come from? These are all big, big. It’s what you know, Dunkirk is, but for my don’t, it’s interesting. I was in Dunkirk quite recently, you know, and there hadn’t been there since before lockdown. And I was speaking to one of the guides, and he was saying that the Americans are now coming is part of the the tour for Americans Americans are now coming to Dunkirk, they never used to come to Dunkirk. So if this film was done anyways, it’s to increase awareness of the fact that Dunkirk wasn’t just the little prosaic British bits. That happened before America got involved was really unbelievably important in the whole bigger picture of the war. So yeah, I mean, that that, in a way, that was the most important effect of the film, to me, to make people across the world aware that Dunkirk wasn’t this, just this little localized British fight. That was passing time before America got involved. And, and it’s also really interesting, you know, you look, I’d looked at sort of the reaction that the film has had in different countries. So for example, I was reading that in China was not a popular term because it’s not about a victory. And, you know, Chinese market parents know, a film about what a defeat what that is, you know, it just nobody’s interested in watching. But it was so much more than it was it was, you know, this miracle of deliverance, which is not putting it to struggle that made victory possible.


Dan LeFebvre  39:50

There is a moment in the movie where the British soldiers are lined up along the Mall, trying to get onto the ship dock there, and we see some French soldiers coming on and they’re turned away one of the one of The British soldiers flat out says this is a British ship, you have your own ships. At the very end of the movie. One of the final lines is after the British are rescued commander Bolton mentioned that he’s staying behind to help the French. Can you clarify a little more like we’re the French not allowed passage on the ship strong on the British ships until all the British were evacuated?


Joshua Levine  40:18

I don’t think he was a rule. I think he I think it did happen. I think the French didn’t know, for a long time that the British were evacuating, they realized that they will bring. But it’s probably fair to say that the Germans man people, the French, the British were, were evacuating. And that was one reason and let’s face it, there’s a pretty valid reason why the French or you have considerable grudge against the British and also that, you know, the French did defend the privilege. And it is true, like the French were, you know, some French were not allowed onto British ships. But it’s also true that as the evacuation went on, more and more French were being allowed onto British ships and were were being evacuated back to Britain. And then it’s also true to say that Churchill made trips across to Paris during the evacuation that one he was asked how many French troops were being evacuated. And he had to admit it wasn’t any at that point. And he said that, from this point, they will go harder. Sue Potter, Sue Ahmed, on this point. And the last part of the evacuation was mostly French, Belgians, others. So somewhere between 100 and 120,000, French out of 338,000 total were evacuate. So it’s a really large number of French did come back ultimately. It’s it again, like so many of these things, just on the one hand on the other Yes, French people were I think that that is true. The French were prevented and certainly in the early stages from from coming on ships but but at the same time, overall, very, very large numbers of French were evacuated back to Britain.


Dan LeFebvre  42:11

There’s another conversation a movie with Colonel Winnett and Commander Bolton they’re on the mall and they hear gunfire in the distance then Germans are broken through the Deans dunes in the East when it says this is it a few moments later, Bolton luxurious binoculars and what do you see? And Bolton replies home and you know, very cinematic moment, you see a ton of the small ships arriving on the shores of Dunkirk heroic music swells. And then there The reception is, you know, military ships are blaring, their sirens, boats are blowing their horns, the soldiers on the decks are cheering. It seems like there’s this moment of oh, you know, the the rescue is here was there was there this moment of like, there’s this rescue, oh, we’re going to be saved in that way.


Joshua Levine  42:56

Actually, funnily enough, even though that seems completely cinematic and unlikely. The wasn’t when the con, sort of Armada small ships came, you know, was first spotted on that. And I think for a lot of people seeing that it really was genuinely a sort of a fantastic moment of oh my god, we may be alright. So again, so there is some truth, you know, the, the breakthroughs, the different points, the Germans did break through in different spots, the perimeter and you know, said the eastern end of the beaches, the in Belgium, the pan, the panna, you know, that the perimeter shrunk as time went, went by. And so by the end, you know, by the very end of the evacuation, that the Germans were very, very close. And, you know, they was challenged, I mean, you know, from outside the perimeter to, to inside and, and the route that the boats had to take and shipped out to take when they were coming into Dunkirk, you know, depending on where the Germans had placed their guns, you know, they were sometimes unsafe, because they could be shelled from the shore. So they had to change the routes they, they took. So again, all this is, to a degree true. And I think though, you know, the flotilla of little ships did appear, and did, you know, cause a lot of people to sort of think, well, you know, maybe we can get away. So again, it’s not, you know, it’s not fantasy. It’s the film, but it’s not, I mean, I doubt anyone, you know, use those precise words. How I bet you know, maybe


Dan LeFebvre  44:40

what about the timing of it because it seems like oh, the Germans had broken through the dunes and the impression I got was okay that like they’re about to attack the beaches basically. And then you see the rescue start to happen. Was it really that close of a call? They’re like that.


Joshua Levine  44:54

I think the you know, that they were when the evacuation end you know, on On the fourth of June, they were really close. So yeah, I mean, I think, again, to a degree, it’s not. The thing is, it is absolutely true that it was a really, really close run thing. So, you know, Churchill was hoping at the beginning of the evacuation that 30,000 People would get away. Think Ramsay, who was in Dover in the Dynamo room at Dover Castle orchestrating the evacuation hens operation Dynamo thought 45,000 You know, this, and gentlemen, as often a very optimistic, you know, could had bouts of extreme optimism at time, don’t pessimism. But, you know, he thought 30,000 would be it would be good figure and that the actual figure was, you know, 338. So it really was amazing. I mean, it truly, I mean, you know, again, often, Churchill allowed language to run away with him, but to call it a miracle of deliberate is not untrue. True, what’s a miracle? But I mean, it’s not a gross exaggeration. Put it that way. And, you know, if you look at that speech that Churchill made, made on the night of the fourth you know, fight one beaches fight one landing round. It’s an amazing speech, because he’s, there’s so much honest in it. He talks about a military disaster having taken place he’s not, it’s not sugarcoating. And he’s talking, you know, he’s speaking on so many levels at once is trying to bolster the French trying to answer his own people, but he’s admitting saying, the Germans are coming, and we’re gonna have to fight them on the beaches, on the landing route, guerrilla warfare, they’re coming. And he’s calling out to the Americans to pull you out of the new world when illness power and might come to the deliverance of the old. So he finishes and the st. Larry, oh, my God, we need, you know, when we were please, please come in. But again, he’s not, you know, he caught he talks about this miracle of livers but he says was not won by evacuations. It’s a pretty honest speech to a lot of Churchill did try and cover up and different times and the point going into all that, but this speech talking to the British people, and the French and the Americans and others. It’s pretty blunt. According to


Dan LeFebvre  47:34

the movie, when I talked earlier about Mr. Dawson and his yacht that he’s taking across, throughout the movie, we we see him going across the channel, but he goes across, it’s day time. And then when it comes back to Britain, it’s dark. And so the impression I got there was he just went across once and then came back. Was that the case? Like they just went across once and back? Oh, it


Joshua Levine  47:56

absolutely depends on who you’re talking about. Yeah, the big ships went again and again and again. And again. The naval ships and the sun only went once and then we bombed and destroyed and we took like a third of the ships that to put an evacuation were either sunk or put out of action. You have the little ships whose job like I say, those small ships, their job was not to go across and bring people back. Their job was really to take people from the beaches to the largest ships ashore. So they would stay there going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. And then of course, at the end, they come back and they probably have some people on board. But you know, their job was specifically to take large groups of people. So it all depends. Some ships did it multiple times. So for example, last time I was out there, I had dinner on in Dunkirk, there’s this floating restaurant called the Princess Elizabeth, which is one of the Dunkirk ships, it’s a paddle steamer that could take you know several 100 soldiers at once. What it really is, Adelstein says one of those like a small version of what went up and down the Mississippi but but the its job was to take tourists from the south coast, Southampton to the Isle of Wight. And it was called into action and it ended up doing this. And it made four trips. And in total, it brought home 1415 1600 Men something like that. And then a very similar ship, although bigger was the picture. This one is the other paddle steamer that’s in, still in Dunkirk, and it’s called crested Eagle. And it was on the Mall one day when the sneakers came in and came down and it managed to get away. And it came parallel to the shore and then it was attacked again by stinkers, which hit it this time, and the captain brought it tried to beach it bought it in shore, and it sunk. And 300 or so people were killed died on that, if you can see it.


Dan LeFebvre  50:12

Let me jump in real quick here again and just mentioned for the audio version if you’re listening to this, you want to see the photo that Joshua has. You can see that in the video version of this chat over at On a true story podcast spill in


Joshua Levine  50:29

Dunker, you know, it’s almost the same as bigger, but it’s almost the same as the Princess Elizabeth. But one is a restaurant serving food and the other one is visible at low tide. And it’s the most graphic sort of comparison. And the princesses but also is the is the Diamond Jubilee. predestined? There’s a process called the Princess Elizabeth because it was built in 1926 when the current queen was born, so as named after her two months after the birth, and it was March 1927. And so they’re both in touch we’re still doing well on on celebrating and Golden Jubilee diamonds in the in the other one serving dinner. Towards the end of


Dan LeFebvre  51:11

the movie after the men are rescued, The movie follows some of the soldiers on the train you were talking about earlier, they arrive at woking station. And one of the soldiers mentions how he just assumes the reaction is going to be that people are going to be spitting at them in the streets. Because of this, they had to retreat that it suggests that they feel like they’ve let their nation down. But instead, the reaction that they get is either greeted, they’re handed beers and everybody just seems happy that they’re alive. What was the reaction to the returning soldiers after the rescue?


Joshua Levine  51:43

I think that’s very accurate. I mean, you, you know, the other people I spoke to and the characters that I came across I mean, I think a lot of them felt that they were the sort of put in the battered remnants of a defeated arm and, and they came back completely expecting no Welcome at all just and they found that they were treated as a lot of them were treated as heroes, they were, you know, people were sharing them and slapping them on the back and giving them sandwiches as they came in and buying them drinks in pubs and, and, and it was I mean, I suppose what that was was a kind of, you know, people haven’t talked about Dunkirk spirits that thing, Dunkirk spirit that’s come down to us as often slighted, you know, to us in every sort of, you know, during Brexit on both sides, people talking their mind, forget all that. What the instinctive Dunker experience was the kind of relief that’s, first of all, Uncle Bill is home, relatives, friends that are coming home here. But beyond that, that the country is so tight, that you know that we’re not finished. And I think there was a real outpouring, if you look at the Mass Observation, metalization disorganization, that ordinary people kept diaries, and they went to places to look at the sort of social anthropologists looking at Britain time. And it noted that there was a lot of immense relief people, you know, suddenly buoyed by the fact that countries still still fight. So there was this instinctive sense of really, I think, that was then taken up by the authorities. So we’re trying to instill a sense of that, which we’re still in this was, and that was, you know, so there were broadcasts on the radio and JP priest lay, right. The ominous, you know, broadcasting, you know, trying to instill this the sense in people and newspapers, we’re doing it, but but I think also, you know, the country, if you look at, this was one of the things in the literally days after Dunkirk factory hours went up, people were putting more time in and sleeping in the factories and, you know, getting getting more done in the furtherance of getting the wall, you know, keeping this going, you have in government that they’re still talking in the days, weeks after Dunkirk, they’re talking about the government is actually discussing WarGames, which is made, you know, what, what are we fighting? And that’s pretty amazing, considering, you know, what, what’s actually happening. And the fact is, you need both these members of the government, you know, real old, nor Halifax, who’s just dinosaurs, who are discussing, you know, how, what are we fighting for, and the fact that, you know, people are going to have to have more consideration for each other. And financial gain isn’t the be all and end all, who are genuinely talking about. It’s quite a big sort of changed shift in emphasis. And so, you know, I think this, you know, like I say Dunkirk spirit is some degree imposed by the authorities, but you have great debris was absolutely organic. And it came out of this. Yeah, we’re still going and we can still keep going. And what is it that we’re actually voting for. And you find that a lot of things that we take for granted in this country now, Education and the National Health Service and things that came in at the end of the war after the war, had their roots at this time, when we Sunwear people suddenly started looking around, and who are we? Why are we fighting? What do we stand for, as opposed to what they stand for? So I think this little period is really important in the sort of social and cultural story of the war from a British perspective,


Dan LeFebvre  55:40

correct me if I’m wrong, but the impression I get from from that is they’re going abroad to you know, to see abroad, right, they even though there’s, there’s war going on, and now all of a sudden, they’ve basically been snapped into, okay, this is war, what are we what are we fighting for? What is this is serious?


Joshua Levine  55:56

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think, of course, these things, you know, in reality, do, you know, turn around quickly, and attitudes and reactions do change? Very quickly. And, you know, it’s all very well talk about this, you know, the shift and Stanford experience, that doesn’t mean it lasts forever. These changes in atmosphere, changes in attitude changes, expectations, you know, these can all happen very quickly, like, we were talking about the attitude to the area, you know, people can, you know, duck hooks for blood spirit, but these things change in people who’s, you know, one minute in it, but, you know, seeing the world and their place in it in a particular way can relatively quickly stops, he exceeded completely difficult way. We’re talking about in in relation to look at the way we all look at Ukraine at the moment. And there’s a sense that well, the state has a sense in Britain, you know, we we are all looking at it in a particular way. And we’re all, you know, very, very interested in Ukraine going. But there’s also a realization that things can you know, if this war goes on for a long period of time, people can put it on the curb, people get bored, and people can start looking elsewhere. And people can forget, you know, how keen they were to support to support Ukraine at an early stage attitudes do change in a relatively short period of time, towards things that we think are immensely important in the short term. So in the same way, you know, attitudes towards attitudes that were changed by Dunkirk could chain back very quickly, people could, you know, by blood spirit was another thing, just organic, it was real, I believe, but it didn’t necessarily last that you got to be aware of that when when you’re looking at the reactions and people’s attitudes. They’re not carved in stone. Just like the you know, the the RAF was painted in love. These things change.


Dan LeFebvre  58:04

Throughout the movie, some of the characters that we’ve talked about a farrier, Mr. Dawson, Tommy and Gibson on the beach. Were these characters based on real people? Or were they amalgamations to tell the overall story?


Joshua Levine  58:16

They were amalgamations. I think it’s fair to say. The I mean, there was no real story of light on, for example, was definitely something that the director was aware of. And there were so many stories, real stories that were out there, that he fouled, or I found, you know, went into the mix. I think that I think it’s right to say there were amalgams. There was no real need to take anybody’s story. You know. And in same way the naval officers were, you know, inspired by different people that they, you know, that was part of the real story. But there’s no way that anybody was representing a particular verse. So it wasn’t my film, but I suspect, you know, to make anybody too close to the real person, there’s almost a limit. In the end story is a fiction based in a real in real theater, and to tie one character down to reality, which would not be fair on it.


Dan LeFebvre  59:25

We have talked about some of the impressions that I got while watching the movie, but I think everyone walking away from a movie gets different impressions from the story that was told. So what’s something that you want to make sure that someone watching this movie walks away


Joshua Levine  59:38

with? Well, I suppose I’ve already said it really? What I’d like anybody who sees the movie, to be at least aware that there’s no one story and then never is, you know, his. The world life doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t. There’s so many interesting dramas nowadays that are because I’ll just say this, I’ve just been watching it, there’s an American seems called This Is Us. Next, a farmer and looks at them over a period of years. And it goes backwards and forwards and plays with time. And it plays with Fisher Nolan famously plays with time. But it looks at the same event from different people’s perspective, and you realize it does it well, because you realize, we don’t see things different. We don’t see things the same. We all interpret everything differently. And, and the real story is different. If and depending on when, what time and where you’re at the beach, you know, you’re going to have a different perspective, I’d want you to come away with that. It’s a broad, it’s not just about Dunkirk, it’s about everything you’ve ever done. One thing that I was very, I mean, slightly worse, I find this quite interesting, your view is going to decide if they agree, but one thing that I when I was in Dunkirk, I always find that being somewhere can really inform you about an event that took place that however many years before it was so, so I found the story which fascinated me was that there was a signals can naval signals command called names Emerson, who wrote upon all this in the British National Archives at a Marconi transmitter had been brought to Dunkirk because it was one of the big problems sky 10 was talking about how he was communicating with ships or shore communicating with Ramsay back in Dover can basically communicate, because obviously, none of this has been planned in advance communication has been set up a while there was an undersea link between pan and Dover, there wasn’t anything where he was, which is actually in Dunkirk. So for part of the time, he was using the French transmitter, which is back to the French headquarters, part of the time, he was going to ships that were on the mole and using their transmitters to talk to Dover or to other ships. What none of this was ideal. So he had a tragic Makani transmitter for Oak, and it was bought into bt. And I read this account, and it said, it was bought over and then it was in use for a few hours. And then it broke, stopped working, because he got sand in the generate. So fascinating. Because I thought, you know, they’ve gone to the effort to bring this huge, great state of the art Marconi transmitter and get sad, you know, the, it’s only in use for a few hours, because it’s get all sanded up. And I was struggling, well, how do they? How are they so complacent to let you know, almost this picture of a couple of naval ratings, moving it, and dropping it in the sand and not admit it and order. No. And I really, I mean, it’s like Laurel and Hardy, I couldn’t. And then when, when I was there for a period long period of time. And you realize that when the wind, the wind really gets up, even in South and when the wind gets up, it becomes like a sort of desert sand store. Where quite sounds odd, but it becomes pretty fierce. And so people everyone was sort of walking around goggles, and with some, you know, pre COVID masks around them and, and things wrapped around their faces. And it was really, really difficult to, to hoax. And it occurred to me that was probably what happened, it probably the wind blew, and, and it just silted up the thing and then couldn’t be used. And that’s what I mean by sometimes you have to be at a place to really, you know, the, the location actually informs the history. And I found that very moon, actually, to be there. At the same time of year. The weather was particularly bad, but there were periods when it just got so windy. That it was it became almost unbearable. It’s whipped up and and I think the lesson there if there is one is sometimes you have to go to the place to really begin to understand what might have happened back in the day.


Dan LeFebvre  1:04:21

Now that makes sense that the location is also a character in in history for sure. Since you got to work on the movie, what’s it? What’s your favorite story from your time on the production?


Joshua Levine  1:04:35

Oh, well, my favorites story. One is that there was a screening before the film was actually out there. Released. There was a screening for veterans. It was done in London, and a small cinema. And my god that was moving. I mean all of these and yeah, that there really aren’t any left. I mean the Maybe none that I know. And I don’t know how many 2025 of the veterans with their families came and sat there watching this attempt to create, demonstrate their experience. And the director Christopher melanin was so much more nervous about how they reacted to the film than how any critic or any, you know, any, anybody else, he wanted it to be acceptable to them. And I found that very moved. And the fact that, you know, these people who had been a lifetime, they, we, they were kids, and they were there. And here, they were now with, you know, their great grandchildren, some of whom were now in the military was wondering man who’s, who’s got a great grandchild who’s in uniform, and you just, it’s, it’s almost too much to get your head around. And now they were sitting in the audience watching it. And that was very rude, which was another thing that I, because the day that the director first showed up at my house, and what my flat, I got on the flat in London, and he showed up and we chatted, and he showed me that script, and he left the script with me overnight, which is I need to realize it’s not something he tends to do. It’s very, it’s quite secretive, over over scripts like, and it was an all happened quite quickly came as a, you know, it was sort of not something I was expecting. And so it was, and it you know, do what I do to write books, and you do. It’s an interesting life, it’s not particularly, you don’t know what’s coming next. Could be good, could be bad. It’s always interesting. And this was a particularly interesting little period of our working life. So yeah, it was. I’m very grateful to have that.


Dan LeFebvre  1:07:02

Well, thank you so much for coming on to chat about Dunkirk. Speaking of books, not only were the historical consultant in the movie, he also wrote the book adaptation, called Dunkirk, the history behind the major motion picture. So for someone listening to this, who wants to learn more, maybe can you give us one of your favorite stories from the real history that didn’t make its way into the movie from the book that and where they can pick up a copy of it?


Joshua Levine  1:07:24

Oh, gosh, oh, real.


Dan LeFebvre  1:07:27

Tough questions at the end.


Joshua Levine  1:07:30

Remember, oh, god, there’s there’s so many, just, you know, fantastic stories of, you know, all the way through running from the well, I mean, I sort of running from the, you know, the political, the fact that there were people in cabinet and wanted to make peace, they wanted to approach Hitler through through the Italian Ambassador, who certainly was not not yet in the war, and how different things would have turned out if, if, if that approach had been taken to, you know, God knows how many personal you know, unbelievably personal stories? Yeah, okay. Here’s one. Here’s one I This to me is, sums up how strange it was, you had these passenger ships that we’re coming. And coming alongside them all is large. You know, I’ve talked about crested eagle and others, but even bigger than that, you know, these really big fairies really, that were coming to pick people up. And this one, and they’re full of, you know, people working on board who, when they were fairies were working on board. And so one man talks about the patient officer talks about the fact that you were in terrible state, they’d gone up the mall, they walked over dead bodies to get on board, the ship they planted on his man said he collapsed in the corner. Because the quiet and just, you know, post up and he said he was woken up almost a movie by a man in a white coat, who came up to him and said, Would you could I get you anything? And he looked up and he said, You’re not? Are you a steward? And the man said, Yes, sir. I am. So this was a passenger ship with it stuffed a waiter come up to the beauty. And that asked him if he wanted it. He said he just couldn’t believe after that the hell he just experienced the weight. And he said, Well, I don’t suppose get a glass of beer. And the man said, Well, I would separate I’m sure you know, the rules. I’m not allowed to serve alcohol till we’re three miles offshore. And he said, he said at that moment, I thought with people like this, how can we lose the war? I mean, you know it. It was a moment Florida, where he stepped out of the hell of Dunkirk, that onto this ship where a man said, Well, I’d love to get a beer sir, but I can’t do that until we’ve moved offshore and And he said, Yeah, I just kind of sums up the weirdness of the whole event that the improvised nature, the fact that everyone was called to pull in to help. And even the way to who absolutely got Stickler love to get a beer can’t get.


Dan LeFebvre  1:10:23

I mean, that’s even similar to what we’ve been talking to contrasts, you know this from beginning to end. I thank you again, so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I learned a lot.


Joshua Levine  1:10:35

I’m glad Yeah, no, I mean, it’s nice. It’s great talking about I mean, I was you know, I’d like it’s, I was just, I wasn’t done a week ago, and the first time I’ve been that courageous, and it really, it was, it was wonderful to be to go back and to to, you know, have all the memories sort of the film and have the veterans and, you know, the whole story sort of stood up again in me and, and I strongly recommend, you know, if people want to go and visit, it’s a, it’s a very, very emotive place to visit that I strongly recommend.



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