Guns and Gear

Guns & Politics: Dunkirk

For decades Hollywood was a source of unending joy for America, and later the entire world, in its products of joy and wonderment.  Now, after its years of veering leftward, and accompanying McCarthyite entrapment of anyone in the entertainment industry in its leftist maws, its products are not so joyous anymore.  Movies out of today’s Hollywood seem to be out of a morose, politically correct, factory, where every film, whether it’s relevant or not, has to have a black guy, a gay guy, a ball-buster woman, no wit, scatological humor, lots of f-words, anyone who’s a bad guy either be a smoker (not weed, though, just Marlboro or a redneck equivalent), with a British accent, or Christian, and no subtlety of any kind.  Idiotic optimist though I am, though, I still hope that the occasional film, about a subject dear to my heart, escapes this tiresome regularity and returns to what used to be the great Hollywood film that used to appear often.  That’s actually why people used to go to the movies all the time, because Hollywood made movies people enjoyed and wanted to see!

I am hoping this about the film, referred to as a ‘blockbuster,’ “Dunkirk,” (Dunkerque in French) about one of the great military events in history.

It is somewhat anachronistic to say that a retreat was one of the great military events in history, but it is the actual truth.  In May, 1940, when the Nazis were basically blasting through Europe to take it over, they started by advancing through the Low Countries of Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium on their way to invading France.  The defending forces of these nations, including the 200,000 soldiers of Great Britain, known as the British Expeditionary Force, who had not been killed in this effort, found themselves on the beaches of the Belgian coast, with no escape.  The Luftwaffe had destroyed the ports of the city, and the only ships who could evacuate the nearly half a million forces, which included Belgian and French soldiers who had refused to surrender, were far out in the English Channel.  The Nazi Panzer troops, later known as the Blitzkrieg (lightning strike) forces, had moved so fast that there was no way to protect, defend or evacuate these Allied soldiers, who were also not in a position to fight the Nazi troops, who were not only spectacularly better armed but also fighting from inside impenetrable steel tanks.

The port of Dunkirk was, effectively, the last port in Europe.

England now stood alone.  The British Admiralty had to have those troops who stood defenseless across the English Channel, ‘to fight another day,’ so it made the decision to put out the call across the nation for any vessel in England to cross the water to transport the troops back to England.  So, from May 24th to June 4th of that year, British men, women and children, in “motorboats, sloops, fishing boats, yachts, ferries, barges, (no matter how big or small), guided by the smoke and flames filling the sky (above) the burning city of Dunkirk,” crossed the Channel under “German attack and in treacherous waters” to pick up and transport as many men as they could hold in their boats. They braved mines, torpedoes and bombs in doing so.  Englishman Arthur D. Divine said of his crossing:

“It was the queerest, most nondescript flotilla that ever was, and it was manned by every kind of Englishman, never more than two men, often only one, to each small boat. There were bankers and dentists, taxi drivers and yachtsmen, longshoremen, boys, engineers, fishermen and civil servants.

(When we picked them up from the beaches) through all the noise I will always remember the voices of the young subalterns as they sent their men aboard, and I will remember, too, the astonishing discipline of the men. They had fought through three weeks of retreat, always falling back without orders, often without support. Transport had failed. They had gone sleepless. They had been without food and water. Yet they kept ranks as they came down the beaches, and they obeyed commands.

There was a stiff upper lip: as they waited for rescue in the controlled chaos that engulfed the beach, Yorkshire infantrymen sang such songs as ‘Oh, I do like to be by the seaside.’”

And according to another witness, U.S. officer George Fielding Elliot:

“No purely military study of the major aspects of the war could do justice to the skill and the heroism of the evacuation from Dunkirk. Suffice it to say only that, when it began, members of the British imperial general staff doubted that 25% of the British Expeditionary Force could be saved. When it was completed, some 330,000 French and British troops, together with some Belgian and Dutch forces who refused to surrender, had reached haven in England.

One of the most motley fleets of history—ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft—took men off from the very few ports left, from the open beaches themselves, for German air attacks had virtually destroyed most port facilities.

The royal air force, including planes from the metropolitan force in England, met and asserted at least temporary air superiority over the tremendous German air forces, and the royal navy, with daring and precision, assisted by courageous French naval craft, stood close in shore and not only covered the evacuation, but took off thousands of men in overloaded destroyers and other small craft.”

So, it was expected that only 50,000 men could be saved.  But through the courage, pluck, perseverance, and stunning effort of the British people, close to 400,000 men, against astonishing odds, were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, and did, indeed, live to fight again.

In speaking about Dunkirk, the best of the leaders of World War II, the inestimable Winston Churchill said of Operation Dynamo, (Dunkirk’s military moniker), though calling it a “miracle of deliverance,” said:

“Wars are not won by evacuations.”

The great man further said:

“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.”  Britain would “ride out the tyranny of war, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”

Which is exactly what they did, until we came to their aid.

I am hoping that Hollywood does this great man, and this greatest of historical events, the justice it deserves.

Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.