61: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk comes out on July 21st, but before it does let’s take a moment to learn the true story so you can judge the film’s historical accuracy for yourself when you go see it in theaters.

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Episode Transcript

When you think of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters that have come out since the year 2000, I bet you’ve got some Christopher Nolan movies on there.

Movies like Momento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar.

Collectively, those movies raked in about $1.7 billion dollars at the box office.

And that doesn’t even include movies that he helped write but didn’t direct, like Man of Steel, which was directed by Zack Snyder.

On July 21st, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster is being unleashed. If you’re listening to this episode when it’s released, you’ll obviously know that date hasn’t happened yet. So there’s no way to know how many more hundreds of millions of dollars that’ll add to impressive list of films we just mentioned.

Thanks in no small part to the success of his previous films, Christopher has been able to command a big salary for his latest big-budget film.

The largest, in fact, since Peter Jackson’s deal for King Kong back in 2005.

For his work on Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan earned $20 million dollars plus 20% of the box office gross. If Dunkirk makes anything near the $188 million that his last film, Interstellar, made at the box office that’d mean Christopher could tack on another $37 million or so on top of that $20 million base salary.

Not too bad.

That’s just a fun little fact to keep in mind as you preorder your ticket. And now that you know a small percentage of your theater ticket will be going to Christopher Nolan and with a few weeks until the movie itself is out, let’s take some time to learn the true story.

That way when you do see the film you’ll be able to judge for yourself what’s true and what isn’t.

The true story behind Dunkirk

Our story begins on May 10th, 1940. A Friday. For many Americans, it was a Friday like any other. Looking through the lens of history, this particular Friday was one that many consider to be the true start of the war in Europe.

Ever since the official start of the war on September 1st, 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin had been trying to end the German aggression through economic means instead of meeting it head-on with troops.

Of course, that’s not to say troops weren’t involved. In April of 1940, the Allies approved Plan R 4. Since Germany didn’t have a native source of iron, they’d sourced a bunch of it from France in anticipation of the war. But when that started to dry up, as 1940 rolled around a new source had emerged. About 80% of the iron that Germany needed for the steel that fed their military machine passed through Narvik, Norway.

Technically, Norway was a neutral country.

So this new idea was to mine waters off the Norwegian coast and block German supply ships while simultaneously making it accessible only for British forces.

We’ll never know if the plan would work because this plan turned out to be an abysmal failure. Certainly knowing how important Norway’s iron was to the war effort, Germany invaded before the plan could be pulled off. But their offensive didn’t stop there.

You see, before the sun had even begun to rise on Friday, May 10th, Hitler uttered a single word into the radio: Danzig. With that word, the Nazi military was given the go-ahead on an offensive known as Operation Fall Gelb.

With the new offensives from Germany, it was clear Chamberlin’s method of strangling Germany’s economy wasn’t going to be enough.

Losing significant amounts of support from the people over his failed attempts at handling German aggression, that very same day British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin tendered his resignation after the failure of the plan in Norway.

In his place, a new Prime Minister took over: Winston Churchill. And it was on this Friday, May 10th, 1940 that most historians consider to be the end of something referred to as the Phoney War—the period when many countries were technically at war, but there wasn’t much military action.

That changed with Operation Fall Gelb.

The countries in the Nazi crosshairs on this new western offensive were the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and their neighboring ally, France.

Leopold III, the King of Belgium, had pleaded with the Allies to send forces to help save his country. They did, but it wasn’t enough.

This new offensive wasn’t like anything the world had seen before. Oh, sure, the idea of a swift offensive wasn’t new—after all, the Germans had tested out these same capabilities on Poland in 1939. But this time it was different.

There was no warning. The invasion began with a devastating bombardment. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had timed things so perfectly that as soon as the bombardment was over the defending forces didn’t have time to recover from the explosions before they were descended upon by paratroopers. Then immediately after this came massive amounts of soldiers and machinery.

The result was stunning. Defending troops were chaotic and disorganized at best. At worst, they were overrun without any sort of a fight.

This sort of offensive strategy was one that made the world fear the Nazi military machine. Today, we know if it by a German term: Blitzkrieg, meaning “lightning war.”

Although technically that’s a term the Allied media came up with as they tried to describe what was happening as Germany marched into four different countries virtually unopposed through Belgium and into France.

As they did, the defending forces were pushed back. Deeper and deeper through Belgium and into the French countryside until, only about two weeks after the attack began, there was no more countryside left.

That’s when the troops found themselves backed up against the English Channel on the beaches near a small town in France called Dunkirk.

The troops were from the countries the Germans had invaded, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. But there were other troops from Allies: Poland, Canada and the United Kingdom.

In all, 400,000 men now found themselves stuck between an impassible body of water and an advancing force of twice their size. Not only were they outnumbered, but they had just witnessed the terrifying blitzkrieg of the Nazi forces. Their bodies were battered and their morale was broken.

But they had no choice.

Without ships, they couldn’t cross the English Channel. Without rest or much of a morale, it seemed only a matter of time before the beaches would become their final resting place.

Backing up for a while, let’s learn what was going on across the Channel where a newly-appointed Winston Churchill had to hit the ground running. Three days after becoming the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill tried to muster support from the House of Commons in a speech that’s now referred to as the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech.

In that speech he showed off his brilliant talents as a speaker as he spoke with brutal honesty saying, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

After giving this speech, Winston Churchill would tell his chief military assistant, General Hastings Ismay, “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”

And everyone knew perhaps the first disaster might’ve been just around the corner. Or, more accurately, across the Channel. Those words were spoken on May 13th, 1940 and just the day before the Germans had started launching their blitzkrieg on the main French defenses in Sedan, which is a small city on the northeastern border of France, about six miles from Belgium. That’s about ten kilometers.

Three days after the assault began, Sedan fell. With it, the Germans had a way around the Maginot Line—the defensive line built in the 1930s along the French border with the intent of keeping German forces out of France.

Instead, after only three days of fighting, the Germans went around the Maginot Line instead of going through it.

Once that happened, Winston Churchill knew it was only a matter of time before the whole of France fell.

And so, on May 15th, as Sedan fell, Churchill also knew this was just the beginning of the war. If the Allies were to have any hope of fighting back against the Germans, they couldn’t afford to lose the 400,000 men making their retreat across France as they were being chased by a German force.

On May 20th, the main bulk of the German tanks and mechanized forces had cut off the Allied southern escape as they positioned themselves along the English Channel at Noyelles-sur-Mer. That’s about 65 miles, or 100 kilometers, to the southwest of Dunkirk.

After a vicious few days, the Germans had managed to do something in less than two weeks that they couldn’t do in four years during World War I—reach the Channel’s coast.

It was a morale boost for the Germans, many of whom, as we now know, had been able to postpone sleep for the duration of the offensive push thanks to methamphetamine use.

This meant the hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers on the beaches near Dunkirk were effectively surrounded—held by the ground forces and easy targets for the German Luftwaffe that had been slaughtering anyone in their way since the offensive began.

Then something incredible happened. As the Allied forces were bottled up on the beaches, Field Marshal von Kluge and someone who had just recently been promoted to Field Marshal during the French offensive, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt issued an order, sanctioned by Hitler, to halt their advance. It was an order that started to go into effect on May 24th.

The real reason for this halt is something that many historians still debate today. After a successful push through France, the Germans could’ve finished off their victorious offensive push and dealt a devastating blow to the British at the same time. If they had, the outcome of the entire war might’ve been quite different.

The rationale for this halt, according to von Kludge and von Rundstedt, was because of something they both remembered well from when they fought in the first World War.

After an impressive offensive push, the Germans had made their way through Belgium and northeastern France. The results were very similar to what was happening in 1940. Except in September of 1914, a vicious counter-offensive had halted their attack near the Marne river.

If you’re not familiar with French geography, that’s near Champagne, about 85 miles or 140 kilometers east of Paris.

This same sort of counter-offensive is what they were trying to avoid now that they’d managed to back up the bulk of the resisting Allied forces left in France to the beaches. It was also a chance for the German troops to catch their breath and get some rest.

The German Army’s Chief of Staff, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, tried to repeal the order, but Hitler refused. He sided with von Kludge and von Rundstedt. And that decision is something we don’t really know why. Maybe it is true that they didn’t want history to repeat itself.

Or maybe it was something else.

Hitler himself would later say it was because of the rain. With natural marshes near the town of Flanders, just to the south of Dunkirk, rains would make it nearly impossible for the tanks to move.

Or maybe it was something else.

Years later, one of Hitler’s last statements before taking his own life in 1945 was to explain his decision. According to him, he had halted the forces in hopes of getting the new British Prime Minister to come to some sort of a peaceful agreement with Nazi Germany.

The truth is that we simply don’t know the real reason. What we do know is that Hitler’s decision to halt the advance was one that helped ensure something miraculous.

On May 26th, 1940, Operation Dynamo went into effect.

The idea was, quite simply, to get as many of the Allied forces off the beaches at Dunkirk as they could.

To make matters worse, the beach at Dunkirk was too shallow to let large boats get anywhere near the land. And, of course, those smaller boats couldn’t make it across the Channel very well. So that meant they’d need to have smaller boats take the men out to larger boats who could then take the men to safety.

Might sound like a simple plan in theory, but that’s easier said than done when you have about 400,000 troops surrounded by the enemy and still within range of the brutal Luftwaffe. Not to mention the fact that the Allies had no idea why the deadly Panzer divisions were sitting and waiting just a few miles away. For all they knew, it was only a matter of time before the order came from Hitler to advance and finish them off.

Most of the military high command for the British believed they might be able to get between 40,000 and 50,000 people off the beaches. They’d be lucky if they got that many.

Even though it was a military operation, Dynamo involved more than the military. As the operation began, King George the VI of Great Britain called for a national day of prayer across the entire country, something that helped alert the public to the dire situation in France for the first time.

Meanwhile, at 7:00 PM on May 26th, Churchill officially gave the order to begin Operation Dynamo. Although it’s not like people waited until the official order was given—evacuations had already begun—the official order just intensified the operation.

All of the movement didn’t go unnoticed by the Germans. Even before Churchill officially began Operation Dynamo, at 2:30 PM on May 26th, Hitler reversed his halt order and instead ordered the panzers to continue their advance. He also ordered the Luftwaffe to pin down the Allied soldiers, stopping their escape until the panzers could arrive.

Those panzers, by the way, weren’t necessarily expecting the order to continue the advance right away. It took a full 16 hours after Hitler’s order on May 26th before they began rolling again.

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27th, and initially there were only about 35 ships involved. A call for help was put out, and civilians responded. Hundreds of small leisure and fishing boats were put to use.

While there have been some conflicting reports about the exact number of boats used, most estimates are somewhere between 650 and 800 civilian ships. On the military side, we have more accurate numbers: 220 military ships would be used throughout the course of the evacuation.

In an event that many religious folks throughout the decades have called providence or if you’re not religious maybe it was just luck, but rescue ships weren’t the only thing that arrived in Dunkirk during the beginning stages of the evacuation. Sudden storms and heavy rains slowed the panzer advance while keeping the Luftwaffe out of the skies for extended periods.

But not permanently.

As the ferrying continued, the storms subsided and Royal Air Force got involved by trying to combat the Luftwaffe. On May 27th, the RAF managed 38 kills compared to only 14 losses.

Still, the Luftwaffe had managed to do extensive damage to the troops without any form of cover on the beaches. Thousands died. From their perspective, most of the troops had no idea the RAF was even involved because in the chaos, they only saw the bombers that brought death and devastation. There’s many reports of British soldiers bitterly cursing the RAF for not being there to help.

But they were. In fact, for the week of the evacuation, the RAF flew over 3,500 sorties to support Operation Dynamo.

On May 28th, the evacuations continued amidst rumors of another kick to the morale. The King of Belgium had issued a full and unconditional surrender, which mean the Belgian Army at Dunkirk also surrendered. This left a huge opening for the forces trying to defend the beaches, and British troops filled their place.

Meanwhile, the first of the soldiers evacuated from the previous day began arriving at British ports. Remember the initial estimates at the time of the Allied high command hoping to be able to evacuate between 40,000 and 50,000?

Some men had been evacuated before Operation Dynamo officially began, but on May 28th, an additional 17,804 troops had been rescued.

The next day, 47,310 troops. On May 30th, 53,825 troops. On May 31st, 68,014 more. 64,429 were rescued on June 1st. And on June 2nd and 3rd, an additional 79,000 troops were rescued.

In all, 338,226 men were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk before, on June 4th, the remaining 40,000 troops were forced to surrender.

That same day, June 4th, Churchill again addressed the British House of Commons. It was a speech that would go down in history as one of the greatest speeches of all time. But it was also a long speech, so I won’t include it all here word for word.

To give the spirit of the speech, though Churchill began by explaining that he had scheduled the speech a week before, and he had thought he’d have to explain the greatest military disaster in the history of the British Empire.

After all, in his first speech to the British people as their new Prime Minister on May 19th, news had just spread that the Germans had broken through the Sedan.

Churchill went on to explain that despite tough weather, a hail storm of bombs and intensely concentrated artillery fire—not to mention mines and torpedoes that were in the Channel—that the valor of the men who were involved in the rescue shone through.

As a result, over 335,000 French and British soldiers were clutched from the jaws of death and shame as they made their way back to England. Sadly, over 30,000 perished during the evacuations.

Still, Churchill was very careful to explain that wars are not won through evacuations. Despite this massive victory, it’s not going to end the war. The war has just begun.

If you want to hear the actual speech, I’ll make sure to include a link to where you can listen to it in the show notes over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.

As Churchill eluded to, many lost their lives. Not only that, but sorely-needed equipment and supplies were lost as well. In fact, since the beginning of the German offensive onslaught on May 10th, throughout the duration of their retreat the British had been forced to leave behind almost 100,000 vehicles and motorcycles, over 416,000 tons of stores, nearly 100,000 tons of ammunition and over 160,000 tons of fuel. Not to mention about 445 tanks that were forced to be abandoned along the way.

Not only was all of this abandoned, but you can bet that ammunition, fuel and other equipment was repurposed by the Germans.

During the evacuation, 18 ships were sunk by constant bombing from the Luftwaffe, most notably nine destroyers—six British and three French. Another 19 destroyers were damaged and well over 200 civilian ships were sunk. In the air, the RAF lost a very precious 145 aircraft while taking down 156 Luftwaffe airplanes.

Despite all of these losses, the evacuation at Dunkirk was a decided victory for the Allies. Historians have surmised that the amazing number of men rescued was due in no small part to the heroic effort of those Allied forces involved in the evacuation, but also because of the halt order given by Hitler.

“The Miracle at Dunkirk” as it would become known was something that many consider to be a pivotal turning point for the Allies during the war.

Seemingly supporting this was something written by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt in his memoirs after the war was over. If you remember, Field Marshal von Rundstedt was one of the men who had advised the halt order to Hitler. Still, he wrote in his memoirs that Hitler’s failure to order a full-scale attack on the troops on Dunkirk was the first fatal mistake of the war.

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