In Depth

Dunkirk: 10 fast facts about the WWII drama

'Astonishing' film captures the evacuation of trapped Allied forces from Nazi-occupied France

Christopher Nolan's blockbuster Dunkirk opens in UK cinemas this week to glowing reviews.

The World War II film, billed as a "facts based" account, features a stellar cast, including Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles. It lacks "heroes" or a clear central narrative, but has nevertheless impressed critics with its spectacularly rendered immersive action.

Robbie Collin, in the Daily Telegraph, calls it an "astonishing" retelling of the Allied evacuation of occupied France in 1940, that is a "work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur that demands to be seen on the best and biggest screen". 

Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, says Dunkirk is a "powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell" and praises it for avoiding "war porn" in favour of "something desolate and apocalyptic".

In Empire, Nick de Semlyen dubs Dunkirk a "spare, propulsive, ever-intensifying combat thriller" and the "tensest beach-set film since Jaws".

However, Kevin Maher in The Times disagreed, saying that while the wartime evacuation of Dunkirk has been "crying out for a classic film interpretation", this "just isn't it". 

Maher argues that Nolan's interpretation is "106 clamorous minutes of big-screen bombast" and noise that forgets about true drama in favour of creating a video game-style "immersive" experience.

Here are ten fast facts about the real Dunkirk evacuation.

The Battle of France

After an eight-month period at the start of WWII known as the Phoney War, during which there were no major military land operations on the Western Front, the Germans mounted a major assault on France in May 1940. They swept through Belgium and northern France in what became known as the Battle of France

Retreat to Dunkirk

Following the swift and well-organised German invasion, British, Belgian and French forces were pushed back to the sea and risked annihilation. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, ordered the British Expeditionary Force’s commander, General Lord Gort, to withdraw to the area around the port of Dunkirk.

Operation Dynamo

On 20 May 1940, the British began formulating Operation Dynamo, a plan to evacuate the trapped troops, led by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. The code name was said to have come from the dynamo room in the Dover cliffs where the operation’s HQ was based.

A few good men

At the planning stage, military organisers made gloomy predictions of rescuing a small proportion of the total number troops trapped in Dunkirk. It was initially estimated that only 45,000 men could be evacuated from the area in 48 hours. Instead, the operation was to become the biggest evacuation in military history.

Calling all boats

The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces on 25 May 1940. A call was sent out on 27 May for as many vessels as possible to help the Royal Navy, including small craft that could get close to the waiting soldiers in the shallow waters. British civilians responded by sailing across the Channel in everything from private yachts to lifeboats, paddle steamers and barges. In total, some 933 boats, including Royal Navy vessels and civilian craft, took part in the evacuation, with 236 lost in the process.

The lucky ones

In the nine days from 27 May to 4 June, a total of 338,226 men escaped from the Dunkirk area, including 139,997 French, Polish and Belgian troops, along with a small number of Dutch soldiers.  

Hitler calls halt

The evacuation was aided by Hitler calling a halt to the full-scale assault on Dunkirk by the Panzer tank division on the advice of his field marshals. They suggested that the German forces around Dunkirk should consolidate to avoid an Allied break-out. Hitler believed that his air force could stop the Royal Navy on its own.  

Battle of the skies

The RAF was also sent in to deal with a brutal air assault by the German air force that rained bombs down on the troops waiting on the beaches. British pilots flew a total of 3,500 sorties and lost 145 aircraft while the Luftwaffe lost 156.

Lest we forget

On 29 May the Royal Navy destroyer Wakeful was torpedoed and sank in seconds, with the loss of 600 lives. In total around 3,500 British troops were thought to have perished at sea or on the beaches, along with more than 1,000 Dunkirk citizens in air raids.  

Miracle of Dunkirk

The Dunkirk evacuation became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. This was because the escape of more than 300,000 troops from the beaches of France as the Nazis advanced was considered so fraught with danger that its success was deemed by Churchill himself to be a "miracle of deliverance".

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