Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is now in theaters, shining a light on a major event during World War II that Americans know very little about. The “Miracle of Dunkirk” saw over 330,000 Allied troops evacuated from the Dunkirk, France harbor in May and June 1940. The evacuation, known as “Operation Dynamo,” was over a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the European and Pacific theaters of the war.
Here’s a look at the real battle.
1. The Germans’ Strange Decision to Slow Down Allowed the Allied Troops a Chance to Escape
The U.K. and France had been at war with Nazi Germany for several months before the Dunkirk evacuation. The two allies declared war on Germany after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, effectively launching World War II’s European theater. The Nazis invaded France in May 1940, going around the Maginot Line, which France built after World War I. Germany attacked Belgium, cornering the British and French troops.
The Battle of Dunkirk then began on May 26, 1940. Approximately 800,000 Germans were involved and approximately 400,000 Allied troops were involved in the battle, which lasted until the evacuation ended on June 4. Over 68,000 British soldiers were killed.
Historians have long debated about why the Germans surprisingly decided to stop their advance to Dunkrik, which gave the Allies amble time to evacuate. The “Halt Order,” considered a major mistake, is often wrongly blamed on Adolf Hitler himself. Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Günther von Kluge had suggested that they stop the advance towards the port so they could consolidate their forces. Hitler approved the plan on May 24.
2. Over 338,000 Allied Troops Were Evacuated From the Beaches With the Help of the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’
Since Britain’s larger Naval ships couldn’t get access to the port, 700 private boats were enlisted to help in the evacuation. This part of the evacuation takes up a significant chunk of Nolan’s movie.
The private boats became known as the “Little Ships of Dunkirk,” and there is even an Association of Dunkirk Little Ships in England to preserve the remaining boats that helped the British Expeditionary Force.
“The Association organises several meetings ‘on the water’ each year where the Little Ships may be seen and appreciated by the public. Every 5 years the Little Ships, supported by the Royal Navy, return under their own power to Dunkirk,” reads a statement on the association’s website. “Considering the youngest Little Ship is now over 75 years old, this is no small undertaking.”
There were also Dutch and Belgian ships that had escaped the German occupation of the Low Countries that helped.
After nine days, over 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk.
3. Winston Churchill Called the Evacuation a ‘Miracle’ in his Famous ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’
During the last day of the battle, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons to deliver one of his most famous speeches of the war. In his “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, Churchill had to tell the British people that he still believed they could defeat Germany, even as a Nazi invasion seemed likely after the defeats in France.
Churchill said at the end of the speech:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Churchill also referred to the Dunkirk evacuation as a “miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all.”
4. Over 100,000 Men Were Left in France After the Evacuation & Many Were Captured or Killed
Although the evacuation was mostly a success, there were thousands of British and French soldiers who were left behind. As The BBC reported in 2010, there were over 100,000 men who did not reach Dunkirk in time for the evacuation. Of the British soldiers who were left behind, 11,000 died and 40,000 were captured by the Nazis.
“You really got used to it as the days went on… taking up your positions… being ready,” John Borland, who was left behind to fight the Germans, told the BBC in 2010. “The odds were stacked against us, but we fought on. You’re not really afraid, because you know there’s a job to be done, though today I get scared just thinking about it.”
Bert Evans told the BBC that he survived because he got under a pile of bodies in a small barn. He said his regiment was fighting an elite group of German SS division soldiers and he knew they didn’t take prisoners.
“It’s an ordeal and I don’t wish to remember it, I wish to forget it,” Evans told the BBC in 2010. “It’s an ordeal just thinking about it… I don’t want to remember what happened, but it keeps me awake at night.”
5. Nolan’s Film Isn’t the First Movie About the Evacuation
Dunkirk isn’t the first film made about Operation Dynamo. In 1958, future Oscar winners Richard Attenborough and John Mills starred in the 134-minute epic Dunkirk. The movie was based on two novels about the evacuation and was directed by Leslie Norman. It was released by MGM in the U.S.
In 2004, Timothy Dalton narrated a BBC documentary also called Dunkirk, which featured dramatized scenes from the battle.
Nolan’s film is the shortest of all three projects, and is Nolan’s shortest film since his first. He told the New York Times that he decided to make a film about the Dunkirk evacuation when he was sailing across the English channel with his future wife, producer Emma Thompson, over 25 years ago. After Nolan went on to make more movies, like the Dark Knight films and Interstellar, the couple decided now was the time to make Dunkirk.
“We felt now was the time to capitalize on that trust and relationship” with Warner Bros., Thomas told the Times. “It very much felt like the sum of everything we’ve learned in prior movies.”