Dunkirk: A Perspective Of Film and Family

Yesterday I went to see the film Dunkirk. It tells the story from the perspective of all those involved in the 1940 evacuation: the army; the navy; the airforce and the civilian people who answered the call to rescue the remnants of the British army in a flotilla of small fishing vessels.

In regard to the airforce, there was a lot of ill feeling at the time among the British soldiers that the airforce had let them down. “Where were you at Dunkirk?” would be an accusatory question levelled at the airmen, for it seemed that the sky belonged solely to the German airforce that bombed both the men and rescuing ships seemingly uncontested.

However, I watched a programme only last week called Dunkirk: The New Evidence where it was revealed that the rescue of the stranded soldiers took place because of the action of the Spitfire pilots who were engaging the enemy miles inland, winning an aerial battle that was taking place far away from the sight of those desperate men.

The film is low on dialogue but high on tension, one particular exchange, between two men looking for the sea to return, being:

“The tide’s turning now.”

“How can you tell?”

“The bodies come back.”

I watched the film with recent conversations in mind that I’d had with people whose family members were present at that historical moment, personal stories recounted to me:

the woman whose grandfather said that every time he got on a boat he ended up back in the water;

the man whose uncle was badly wounded and later died of his injuries;

the man whose grandfather stood with other men for hours with the sea up to their chest, holding aloft their rifles in the air, until in despair they threw them into the water.

But more emotional for me, though, were my own family connections:

My Great Uncle George who was captured at Dunkirk. He was in the rearguard, fighting to buy time for the men on the beach.

My Great Uncle George Worthington. This was taken in the 1920’s, as he was a reservist in the Manchester Regiment before the war.

George is the smaller man on the left, pictured here in one of the Stalag German camps where he was held for five years.

Then there was my grandfather Fred. In the scene where the screaming Stukas are bombing the defenceless soldiers who are arraigned across the beach like sitting ducks, I thought to myself My God, my Granddad went through this? 

One of the loveliest men you could ever wish to meet, you would never know what he had experienced. All that I do know is that he was one of the last off the beach at Dunkirk (he’d been salvaging equipment) and was one of the first on the beach on D-Day.

My grandfather Fred Murray, of the Royal Engineers.

It was only in 2015, during the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk, that I came to an hitherto unknown realisation: while my grandfather was stranded on those beaches of Dunkirk, his first child-my father was being born at home in Manchester. I recalled my father saying that, with his own father being away at war, they didn’t know what he wanted his firstborn called, and so they named him Fred after his father.

But I never knew it was Dunkirk where he was.

There he was, not knowing if he would survive, if he would get back to England, if he would ever get to see his child that was being born right then across the channel.

It is time, some considerable time, that have enabled me to piece these things together.

On reaching England he returned north by train to Manchester. Whilst having a pint in the family pub in Collyhurst, a local cobbler took his boots away to repair for free as they were split, feet showing, from the long, marched retreat in France

My grandfather with the cigarette in his mouth. This was in France, 1940, pre-Dunkirk. Sent back to my grandmother, written on the back was ‘Drunk again!’ Probably coloured her thinking when I remember the following exchange, when she was talking about how hard the women had it back then: ” . . . while you was off, galavanting around the world.” “Oh yes-I was having a bloody lovely time!”

These memories serve to remind me that the German army-of which we see little of in the film, was likewise made up of similar ordinary people, separated from family and loved ones, their allegiance and involvement instigated by the happenstance of the time and place of their birth.

Here’s a short trailer for the film, there are longer ones to be found on YouTube.

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20 thoughts on “Dunkirk: A Perspective Of Film and Family

  1. What a beautiful post, Andy! This makes Dunkirk all the more real. To think that you had family who lived through this horrible experience!

    Did you like the movie? Did it seem accurate? I’ve heard good things about it. Christopher Nolan’s movies are usually good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Linda, yes I enjoyed the movie. I heard Nolan wanted to avoid making the movie political, so instead he focused on the people present, not those making the decisions behind the scenes. From the responses I’ve seen it seems to be a pretty accurate portrayal.

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  2. Hubby has been asking me to go with him to see this film…I’ve been a bit hesitant because it *is* a war film…but curious also. Your post really got to me and I sent the link onto him. He was very interested in your perspective as a Brit with deep roots in ‘Dunkirk’. He, too is a history-phile…especially (you’ll like this) Winston Churchill auto/bios…
    Decided to take the emotional plunge and am gearing up for a Dunkirk movie date this coming week.
    😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good old Churchill! And the shock of his ousting in the election immediately following the war-it appears the people just wanted change after those six difficult years. There are other stories remembered from my grandmother, a new mother during the Blitz. Maybe for another time. I am thankful that I listened-regretful for the stories I’ve forgotten.
      I’m glad that you are taking the plunge and watching the movie. Look out for the spitfires-I don’t think there’s anything as iconically British than those.
      In the meanwhile, here is a single, five minute scene from Atonement, another take on the Dunkirk beach of the time. A bit more crowded than the ‘Dunkirk’ depiction, but you still get a sense of the chaos of the time. And those poor horses.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I liked that story. I only learned that a couple of years ago from a Gt.Aunt who was present at my Grandfather’s return. There is a book about family history called (something like) I Wish I’d Asked My Granddad. It is a feeling I share. By the time
      I was mature enough to develop an interest in family history I had hardly anybody left to ask. To put meat on the bones, as they say.

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  3. How wonderful to understand the history of a time through family connections, even though wartime experiences are rough.

    I heard a review of the film yesterday and I hope to see it at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve seen the film twice now and think it is fast becoming one of my favourites. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying it must have been to be involved in these events. The stories about your family are amazing and heartwarming 🙂

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  5. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to WriterBeat.com? There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I enjogyed reading your work. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.

    Autumn
    AutumnCote@WriterBeat.com

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