Tuesday, 29 March 2011


The pressures of a wife and child is a sub story in teh excellent Michael Balcon-Leslie Norman film of Dunkirk released in 1958 at a time when the second World War was still at the fore of most families whose men had served, survived or not and also experienced the Blitz themselves.

In this instance Richard Attenborough plays a garage owner who own a small boat, just under 30 feet and moored on the River Thames. he had a wife who finds it difficult to cope with her child and is terrified of being left on her own and by having to place the baby in the special gas mask which was provided for infants in addition to those for children which I remember mine and those for adults. As a garage owner he has greater access to petrol than everyone else and is making money from a small engineering business under contract with the government. His apparent self satisfaction with his position galls Bernard Lee who plays a journalist, who lives in the same community and belongs to the same boat club but which a much large craft. He is pessimistic about the situation and complacency at home during the phoney war.

When Attenborough takes a complacent view of the situation at the local Inn he is pulled up sharp by a Merchant Navy man who tries to educate him about the reality, the posses and that he had been wounded. When all the boats are commandeered and the owners told to take their boats down the Thames to Sheerness his first reaction is to place his craft in the hands of his 17 year old assistant but then decides to take the craft himself much to the horror of his wife.

Having delivered the craft they are told to go to the harbour office where they will get a receipt for the boat and a train warrant to return home. On their way they encounter some of troops being brought back, many wounded and most looking forlorn and exhausted. This affects the journalist who says he wants to take his boat across the channel, and other including Attenborough also support his move. They are told it will not be allowed a being too dangerous but they persist and after the admiralty is consulted it is agreed.

While is happening and the volunteers are told to sleep over and then travel with the dawn, in France we follow the experience of John Mills a Sergeant, left in charge of a small platoon after the officer is killed as they are making their way to find their unit having been on one flank and finding that the order to retreat had been given.

John was a reluctant Sergeant beforehand and he admits to finding the situation beyond his experience but the other men insist that he leads them and tells them what to do. The first challenge comes when they encounter refugees being attacked by the German airforce and John insists that they continue their mission rather than stay and help the wounded and bury the dead from the attack. They then come across a small British gun battery and are given food before being sent away as the senior office has been ordered to hold off he advance German artillery for as long a possible. As Mills and the remaining men make their way from the site it is obliterated by the German airforce. The men comment that the decision to order the battery to remain was akin to murder.

The unit find a deserted farmhouse where they are able to stay the night but then observe units of the German army approaching and they have to fight their way out during which one of the unit is badly injured and Mills takes the decision to leave him to the enemy to assist as they continue to make their way. One has concussion from an explosion and as he is helped across the road they encounter a British vehicle heading for the coast. He gives the unit a lift as far as the outskirts of the town where they are told to disable the vehicle and make their way to beach. Here there are hundreds of thousands of defenceless men waiting on the beaches systematically bombed and fired on by the German airforce.

The unit make their way as ordered as a column into the sea or it may have the Mole to board a British destroyer but this is bombed and sunk and the men escape into the water. Some are picked up by the small boats and taken to larger ships while others including Mills and the remainder of his unit make their way ashore back to where they had been before.

The craft owned by the Journalist is bomber and sunk but he survives and is picket up by Attenborough, but the colleague assisting him is killed. The trio attempt to take more men from the column waiting in the water but the vessel develops a fault and is beached just as Mills and his unit arrive to see if they can get passage. While Attenborough remains with one of Mill’s unit truing to repair the boat, the Journalist and the 17 year old go ashore and experience life on the dunes. The following morning, Sunday, they are again bombed while participating in a service and the Journalist is mortally wounded telling the 17 year old to tell Attenborough to tell his widow what happened. The boat is repaired and Mills and the unit take off but they encounter further engine troubles and drift back towards Calais which is the hands of enemy. Fortunately the decision has been taken by the admiralty to risk more naval warship and they encounter one and return home.

The evacuation of British, French and Belgium troops took place between May 26th and June 3rd 1940. While only 7000 were rescued on the first day a total of 338226 soldiers -198229 British 139997 French were rescued using 43 British Destroyers and 850 small civilian boats of various sizes, the smallest 4.6 meters called the Tamzine and now in pride of place in the Imperial War Museum. There were also a large number of Merchant Navy vessels utilised, Thames barges and 17 Lifeboats of the RNLVR Two. The 850 small boats rescued 22698 men with only the loss of seven boats. No one was left on the beaches but two French Division left to defend the retreated were captured.

However in total 200 craft were sunk including six British Destroyers and the three French. The Royal Navy claimed 35 German planes and the damaging of 21 others. The RAF made just under 5000 missions over the area losing 100 aircraft in the fighting and 177 overall from all fighting against 959 loses during May of which 477 were fighters. Most of he battles took places away from the beaches which led to the troops believing they were left unprotected. The RAF claimed to have destroyed 262 German planes. 2472 heavy guns were abandoned in France with 65000 vehicles and 20000 motorcycles, 377000 tons of stores 68000 of ammunition and 147000 of fuel.

Two French division stayed behind to defend the departure and were captured with their efforts enabling 100000 more men to depart over the 4 days they held out. Controversially about half the French forces who escaped quickly return to France to become prisoners of war. It is estimated that of the 400000 allied forces involve din the battle of Dunkirk only about 34000 were killed or wounded or declared missing at the time, against German forces of 800000 of which it is said 150000 were killed or wounded.

In addition to the 1958 film, the most moving fiction story is that of the Snow Goose by Paul Gallico about a lonely artist who participates in the evacuation and loses his life played by Richard Harris also featured Jenny Agutter. More recently Atonement included a four and a half minute segment of the evacuation shot on the beach at Redcar while in 2004 the BBC produced a television documentary drama.

No comments:

Post a Comment