The Defects of Dunkirk

Posted On: Wednesday - September 6th 2023 7:10PM MST
In Topics: 
  General Stupidity  History  Movies

It seems like I just read about this movie a year or two ago, but it is 6 years old. Time does fly. The event itself was going on 83 1/4 years ago, which IS a long time.

Dunkirk is a WWII history movie. This town on the coast of France was the site of an amazing evacuation of 338,000 mostly British and some French soldiers who'd retreated there from the big German advance at the start of the real war (after the Sitzkrieg, or "Phoney War") in Europe. When I was a boy, I read a captivating semi-fictional book about this event, as narrated by a boy who sailed on one of the many hundreds of small vessels as requested* by the British Navy to cross the channel and help in the massive evacuation.

As a defensive battle against the Wehrmacht (German Army) was being fought in the towns of Dunkirk and Lille, men on the beaches and at the harbor were evacuated over a 9 day period, the 27th of May through the 4th of June of 1940. The movie in question here focused, so to speak, on the beaches, but the numbers evacuated were over 98,000 off the beaches and over 239,000 from the harbor. The biggest numbers were on the last 3 days of May and June 1st.

It was the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) that was the biggest threat to these men trying to get back to England. The movie showed the dive bombing and strafing. It also showed correctly that men were angry at the lack of visible support from the RAF (until the end, an example of which I'll mention), but much of the action in the air was out of sight of the men at Dunkirk. The RAF lost 145 planes, and the Luftwaffe lost 156. Over 200 British/Allied ships were destroyed, 9 of them (6 British and 3 French) being destroyers.

From my reading - the movie didn't have time for all this - there were 3 sea routes that the British Navy worked out, each with it's own perils. The shortest one was 39 nm. It had the peril of ~ half the route - westbound near the coast of France - being in range of German shore batteries. The 55 nm route went though an area with a big number of mines. For that reason, it could not be used at night. The 3rd one was 87 nm, taking double the time of the shortest. It took on the most danger of attacks by German ships, subs, and planes.

The biggest part of the story of Dunkirk, in popular lore anyway, was the participation of the over 300 British small craft. (That's out of the nearly 700 British and mid-800s total Allied boats that took part.) Some of the small craft made the journey back and forth, while other spent time by the beaches ferrying men from the shallow water to the bigger boats. Dunkirk the movie does a decent job of telling the story, except for a bad depiction of the numbers.

Quick summary of the history completed, this posts was not to be a review so much, as if any Peak Stupidity posts are movie reviews in the classic sense, but I'll write a few things and then get to my alleged defects. First off, I'd go see this one, if you like history and/or war movies. I don't recall much Wokeness in the movie at all - that's the most important thing to this viewer and re-viewer. There was a lot of action, of course. Lighting, casting, directing, yeah, it was fine. Even the Key Grip did a nice job, I gotta assume... seeing as I never wanted to even know what that's all about ...

However, when you make a movie about history, especially recent, well-recorded history, you want accuracy too, well, as a viewer you do, at least. In this case, I don't mean accuracy on the facts history so much as on details that otherwise cause disbelief. I noticed a couple more than the 3 (one pretty minor) that I write about here.

1) The most minor involved aviation. I enjoyed the detailed aviation scenes, in the cockpit of the Spitfire, as the flyer figures out fuel margins in his head and writes bingo fuel or time on the panel with chalk. There was this dramatic scene at the end in which this same pilot has shot down one or two German planes that were out there strafing boats and soldiers, knowing he was long out of "go-home" fuel. He glided the plane to a beach landing, after which the German army took him prisoner.

The thing is, he cranked down his landing gear by hand (we must assume that his hydraulic pump is engine driven) only seconds before touching down. MAKES! NO! SENSE! Though a good beach landing was no sure thing - can't be too wet and can't be too dry - he had this long, long stretch of beach to land on. That was waaaay too long of a glide for a plane like that, but that was to make allow the scene to include the proper musical score, I'm no director. However, that's not my beef here. Why not crank the gear down earlier? You'll have more drag and steepen your glide. So what? You're not going for a particular spot here - he was flying parallel to the beach. Just sayin'...

2) More critical was the neglect of the water temperature. There are lots of scenes of men getting pulled out of the water and others of them going in or out one way or another. I saw a few blankets, and I understand that these were men, not crybabies. Still, the water off Dunkirk, per interpolation on a table from this travel climate site, would have been somewhere between the low-mid 50s F and the low 60s. That's COLD! It's not 1/2 hour hypothermia cold, but with the wind and waves, you'd have seen much more shivering, teeth chattering, and worse. The cold water just didn't seem to be much of a factor in the movie story.

3) The number of boats shown to be involved is misleading. There were the large ships, but I don't think the view showed more than 25 small boats out there when the feel-good music came on. Maybe the average one could take on 20 soldiers - total guesswork here, so that's 500, and they could make 3-5 trips tops. (Remember the deal with the 3 routes.) At best this looked like a fleet that could take a couple thousand men in a day. Between the beaches and the harbor, there were over 25,000 men taken across on 7 of the days, and 47-68 thousand on 4 of the days. I don't belittle the civilian participants in the Dunkirk evacuation here one bit - it was heroic, and one man taken across was a guy who may have been captured or killed. Was this only a small part of the whole operation though? I can't get the numbers transported by ship type.

Out of the 311 (recorded**) small boats only a small number were shown together in the movie. This was a 9-day operation though, so perhaps this is not so out-of-whack. It just didn't make for good perspective***, as one could not fathom these boats taking but a small percentage of the 338,000 men evacuated from Dunkirk across the English Channel in late-May/early-June of 1940.

You can call the men and boys involved heroes, as the danger was large. 140 of the 311 recorded small craft were sunk.

* It was not necessarily voluntary on the part of the ships.

** Per Churchill, per Wiki.

*** I think what didn't help for me is that I don't recall anywhere in the movie anything or anyone saying this was more than a day or two operation. I hadn't known until reading more just now.

Thursday - September 7th 2023 10:28AM MST
PS Please dilate on Churchill being owned. Readers may benefit from the insights.
Thursday - September 7th 2023 8:06AM MST
PS: Ahaaa. Thanks.
The Alarmist
Thursday - September 7th 2023 7:56AM MST

US started equipping the USSR after the Germans invaded in June '41.
Thursday - September 7th 2023 7:02AM MST
PS: "He was still hoping the Brits would join the upcoming fight with the Soviets." I could see how that might have worked out a lot better, Alarmist.

How could Hitler think that if we'd been already sending the USSR all kinds of armaments? Or had we been at that time? Perhaps that was all after the German invasion of W. Europe.
The Alarmist
Thursday - September 7th 2023 6:47AM MST

The real story about Dunkirk was that Hitler gave orders to let the bulk of the BEF escape. He was still hoping the Brits would join the upcoming fight with the Soviets. He had no idea just how owned Churchill was, and overestimated the ability of the rest of the Brit government who might be sympathetic to change his mind.
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