A great escape of immense magnitude, where 338,000+ UK, French, and Belgian soldiers were evacuated from the choked pocket around Dunkirk. Director Chris Nolan has created what looks to be an extraordinary film using as much 'in camera' footage as possible, including real aircraft. The whole movie evokes a 'being there' sense that transports the viewer back in time. Dramatic, emotional, triumphant -- for saving the British army. On the eve of the Battle of Britain and what many feared would come next, the invasion of England itself.

There has been some rancour in the day (one story of RAF being kicked out of a pub by returned soldiers) regarding the RAF being there in sufficient force to prevent the casualties. As the German tanks stopped to let the Luftwaffe decimate the forces below, it became very desperate. The RAF did respond, in numbers, and as one source (Ellis) quotes "during the nine days from May 26 through June 3, the RAF lost 177 aircraft destroyed or damaged; the Germans lost 240 (including from flak). For much of the Luftwaffe, Dunkirk came as a nasty shock." There was success in the air, but also losses.

Allied pilots generally had less experience than their adversaries. The German pilots had just finished three major campaigns including Spain where the Me109 ruled the skies. Additionally in the early days of 1940, Spitfire numbers were limited. On top of that, Boulton Paul Defiants were used over Dunkirk, some squadrons with great success when they flew in circle formation to protect each other. However, once they were identified as not being Hurricanes, Luftwaffe tactics swiftly changed with devastating effect. This resource on the Dunkirk Air Operations gives more. Another link compares Hollywood to history, and, adds in lots of interesting facts, such as that 700 private vessels assisted in the evacuation. For some specifics on the 15 out of 19 Southern England Spitfire Squadrons activated for Dunkirk, check this spitfire related site.

In watching the making of Dunkirk with Chris Nolan being interviewed (youtube), he indicates how actual Spitfires and one Me109 (Buchon) were used to give the viewer the sense of the air battle from the cockpit. Chris and other film staff flew in the two seat Spitfire to get that perspective and then translated it to film. The result, a film with adrenalin and visceral force that promises to deliver a great historical drama as the air, land, and sea narrative merge. For me, as always with war films, also a chance to think about how stupid humans can be. The senselessness of war itself. Dunkirk provides plenty of evidence of that.

Separate reading gives stories of outright murder en masse of POWs, and, the enduring hell of 5 years in prison camps, slave labour, forced marches, disease, and hardship. There are plenty of references and books on the subject, it's possible that this film will not just ignite the "spirit of Dunkirk" which Mr. Nolan says is about communal heroism, but also invite us to examine other facets of this event and war itself.

I enjoyed separately (online) finding and reading the story of a young 20 year old Canadian naval officer still in gunnery training near Portsmouth England who was quickly assigned Lord Astor's yacht, guns affixed. They made several return trips along with smaller boats in tow, saving over 300. On one trip, damage from enemy fighters was so significant, the ship lay stranded on the beach until she could be repaired. A tipsy soldier, fortunately drunk enough to zig zag through the barrage delivered a case of brandy as his ticket to board, after which he promptly fell asleep in the wheelhouse. The story of Robert Timbrell RCN from Vancouver who later became an admiral is easily googled. He died at the age of 86 in 2006.

All this side reading on Dunkirk and I haven't even seen the movie yet!! (update: I have now). It opens tomorrow. As we know now, Christopher Nolan has been waiting many years to tell this story and tell it well. He even took a small craft in rough seas to Dunkirk years ago when the concept was forming, so we know this movie means a lot to him.

Please leave your comments here on this blog if you enjoyed it, felt compelled to research related stories, have a family story to tell, agree with the portrayal of the air battle, or, wanted more. It's set to be a summer blokbuster, an epic that may not be just a war movie, although it promises to be all of that.

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by: kurtis opening night 2017-07-22 08:34:37

.. gripping ... you could feel it, see what they saw. kept away from overdoing it with CGI, it was a series of stories woven together, excellent.

by: Ron Powell Tear-inducing Spitfire Action 2017-07-22 14:45:07

Saw the film yesterday, Kurt, and your blog set it up nicely. I think you could quibble about some of the aviation aspects - the height and proximity to the beaches of the aerial combats, a Spitfire with seemingly unlimited ammunition and fantastic gliding characteristics - but overall a great story, brilliantly told. Hans Zimmer's score over one of the final scenes of a Spitfire force landing on a beach brought a tear to my. I made scant mention of Dunkirk in my book, Wings Over Summer. Perhaps I should have started my series with Wings Over Dunkirk!
Thanks for the blog, Ron Powell