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.
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.
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
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.