How accurate is the 2017 film Dunkirk?

Dunkirk is an interesting film. Its a striking piece ofcinema – a full hour using the techniques of Saving Private Ryan. All claimed to be based on historic images and using physical props and no CGI. In one sense its based on truth – but a rather distorted version of events.

Germans filming the debris on the beach.June 1940

What is true:

Dressed street Malo les Bains

The Movie Locations

One of the most amazing features of the film is that much was shot on location in the real town of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque – as spelled by the French.  Unlike Saving Private Ryan which was filmed on Irish beaches, or Band of Brothers which was filmed  in England.   The resort district of Malo-le-Bains was used for the opening sequence. Its beach, the historic embarkation beaches for British and French troops was used for the embarkations sequences.  The eastern Mole was dressed to look as it did in the 1940s. The aerial shots show the town looking something like it did in 1940.  The Queen Elizabeth paddle-steamer that appears in the film, and took part in the evacuation is still in the town as a floating restaurant.  These are the places where the events took place. 

Taking the modern conference centre and casino out of the Movie – disguised as a cement works


The Props

Silhouettes of soldiers queuing on the beach

One of the features of the movie is that it was made as far as possible without Computer Generated Images. To make the post war town disappear took some serious set dressing. The modern Kursaal conference centre and casino, was disguised as a cement works. Modern lamp posts were given an art deco makeover.  Hundreds of vehicles and thousands of soldiers were – life size models.  This was quite amazing. Some of the sets were exhibited until July 2018 in a big building near the mole.   They aren’t on display currently, but there is a plan or an intention to display them again.

The pier of trucks used in the movie
Flat 3 ton truck

The Incidents

The incidents in the film are all claimed to be based on historic events.  Hospital ships sunk,the evacuation from the beaches by little boats, and by bigger ships from the mole, and the pier made of trucks, even aircraft crash landing onto the beach.  All based on recorded or recalled incidents.

The final scene has a Spitfire gliding to land on the beaches east of Dunkirk. Could a spitfire glide to land with its undercarriage down?  Possibly.  Some pilots did.  

The pilot of this  Me109 landed his aircraft on a French beach after running out of fuel 

What is distorted?

Movies are theatre not history. That is because of the nature of movie making. Movies concentrate action in a few places and a few people in order to avoid confusing the audience.

Size and scale of the battle

Dunkirk Perimeter 26 May

The movie gives the impression that everything happens around Dunkirk.  But that isn’t what happened.  The Dunkirk perimeter and evacuation beaches stretched the best part of 18 miles from Dunkirk to east of La Panne in Belgium.  On a clear day you can see the beaches at La Panne from the landward end of the mole.

That is just the evacuation, where the troops left the beaches and the harbour.  The ground fighting during the period of the evacuation, from 27th May to 4th June took place on an area of some 5,000 square miles of Northern France and Belgium and involved over half a million men. This area reduced as the British and French fell back to Dunkirk. But even then the rear-guards were not defending a barricade a few hundred yards from the beach, but along the Furnes Canal  five miles inland.

Situation 26 May 1940 (British Official History) 
Note British shown in red, Germans in blue and French in green 

To get an idea of the scale of the battle and understand more about what happened the visitor needs to start further out.  Maybe as far as Arras. This is where the Allies mounted the only counterattack from the North. After this fails evacuation becomes almost inevitable.   

There are two good military museums in the Dunkirk area.   Both have been renovated in recent years.

Entrance to the “Dynamo” Dunkirk War Museum  

The Dunkirk War Museum on the quayside close to the Dunkirk memorial is located on the site of Admiral Abriel’s headquarters.  It tells the story of the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation DYNAMO.

The second is the Fort Des Dunes at Leffrinckouckewas defended by French soldiers  until the 4th of June. It contains an excellent museum with one of the best introductions to the 1940 campaign in Europe. The fort was damaged when a German bomber dropped a stick of bombs.

The British Army….

Because the movie focuses on the evacuation, and the story of a fugitive, it doesn’t really show a balanced view of the British or French armies. 

The British Army isn’t shown in a very good light. It isn’t an army, but a mob of individuals. There are no regimental badges. The only Regiment mentioned is the Grenadier Guards – and then only to tell the protagonist that this was a private queue. There is no military authority or discipline. No one in charge. Only two officers are portrayed.

One is a second lieutenant – the shaking man on the boat whose cowardice and murder are forgiven as “shell shock.”  The other is a Colonel who is the foil for Kenneth Branagh’s observations about the evacuations – but takes no action himself. The only authority figure is a lance corporal in charge of the pier of trucks. 

To see more you have to visit some of the other sites. 

K Battery RHA at Hondghem

The hilltop town of Cassel dominated the area south ofDunkirk. You can see it from the motorways as well as from the top of the Fort des dunes. Some 4,000 British troops – a reinforced brigade, held the town.  At the foot of the hills to the south east the town of Hazebrouck was defended by infantry and the village of Hondeghem by K battery RHA. There are plaques, monuments and graves in the locations and the course of the battle can be traced.   One of the most poignant sites lies between Esqelbecq and Wormhoult a few kilometres north of Cassel.  Here is the reconstructed barn where some 70plus British prisoners  of war were executed by the Liebstandart SS after particular stubborn resistance defending  Wormhout.

The Lessons from the Dieppe Raid- and where to see these in on the D Day Beaches

The raid on Dieppe on August 19th, 1942 is a controversial episode in World War 2. An Anglo Canadian force with some 50 Americans landed around dawn in an attempt to seize and temporarily hold, the port of Dieppe. A few hours later the force withdrew, losing 5,000 casualties, of which around 3,600 were Canadians. The operation was closely studied by American as well as British commanders and played an important part in shaping how the Allied lands on D Day.

In May 1943 Headquarters European Theatre of Operations US Army held a conference on Assault Landings in London. Before the US Army started to train troops to cross channel, the commanders wanted to ensure that doctrine and procedures would reflect the latest evidence from assault landings and the special circumstances of the English Channel. The conference started with presentations on the Dieppe Raid.   The papers from this conference are available online (Assault Landings conference US Assault Training Centre ETO, 1943)

Commodore Hughes-Hallett, one of the naval commanders said that the Dieppe raid was intended as a small-scale rehearsal for a major cross channel operation, which would eventually have to be undertaken. He went on to say that the “lessons learnt caused a drastic re-casting of our ideas concerning amphibious operations in face of a heavy scale of resistance… A major disaster would have occurred had we proceeded to attack in North West Europe on the lines hitherto visualised.” Major General C J Haydon from Combined Operations spelled out the implications. Any assault would need the same level of fire support as an assault on a fortified position on land and mentioned El Alamein as a bench mark – one 25 Pounder per 17 yards. This could be provided by field artillery firing from their landing craft and specialist fire support craft mounting field guns and lighter cannon. The navy had been asked to build fire support craft, but the numbers required would mean revising naval constructions schedules and fighting for priority against demands for more landing craft or light craft as escorts or minesweepers.

Dieppe at dawn from the Western cliffs 2012
Dieppe from the western Cliff 1942

Until Dieppe the British had relied on surprise and aggressive commando tactics to carry out raids on occupied Europe. This was to a large extent out of necessity. There weren’t enough landing craft, nor small warships. Using these swashbuckling tactics British Combined Operations carried out a spectacular raid on the German held port of Saint Nazaire, sailing up the river Loire, seizing the docks and destroying the facilities. The same techniques of night approach and landings worked well in the Mediterranean. If half of the small craft needed to be fire support craft fewer soldiers could be landed.

 There were lots more “Lessons learned” in the report made in Autumn 1942. Extract from Combined Report on the Dieppe Raid, Combined Operations HQ , Whitehall , October 1942. -paragraphs 324-376 “Lessons Learned.

The conference also heard presentations by British Major General Hobart on specialized armour, on drills developed by combined arms teams of infantry, specialized tanks and engineers tackling a typical German defence position. It wasn’t just British talking. Colonel O’Bare USMC added the US Pacific experience, in particular deploying Army Divisions to the Aleutian Islands.

Dieppe was also a stimulus to an important armoured vehicle used on D Day. Shortly after the raid a Canadian Engineer was looking at the problem of protecting engineers working to clear routes for tanks. The Churchill tank was adapted as an engineer vehicle, capable of carrying engineer stores and mounting a 165mm petard mortar for demolition work. Although the British had developed a family of specialist armour – flails and bridge laying tanks, The Churchill AVRE was a more versatile platform. An entire assault brigade of three battalions would be used by the British and Canadians on D Day.

The Germans also learned lessons. It confirmed OKW’s optimistic view that an attempt at invasion could be destroyed on the beaches and reinforced the view that the Allies would attack a port and encouraged the Germans to waste resources in the wrong places.

The lessons from Dieppe are controversial.  Many people argue that these lessons were obvious or could have been learned from other operations such as the Allied landings in the Mediterranean or Pacific.  However, these arguments are  counter factual. We can never know whether the D Day planners would have learned from other peoples experience, or whether they would have deduced the level of fire power for what Combined Operations argued were the unique circumstances of the Ciorss Channel Assault. 

TEN THINGS YOU CAN SEE ON THE  NORMANDY BATTLEFIELDS THAT ILLUSTRATE THE LESSONS FROM DIEPPE

1.   Unfinished Bunkers on Gold Juno and Omaha Beaches 

This German gun was captured outside theincomplete concrete emplacement
Incomplete concrete gun emplacement Mont Fleury Gold Beach

The Germans drew some important lessons from Dieppe: the wrong lessons. The incomplete bunkers on Gold and Omaha beach are reminders that the invasion coast was fourth out of fifth in the German defensive priorities for the Calvados coast.  The Germans poured ten times as much concrete protecting ports that would not be attacked. 

2.   Juno Beach 

The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer tells the story of the Canadian experience in the Second World War and of the preparations for D Day. The terrain on Juno beach was similar to Dieppe. As at Dieppe the assaulting soldiers were faced with fighting though a series of seaside towns.  Despite the extensive fire support and technology deployed, the fight on Juno beach was tough,

3.    Armoured Engineer Vehicles

The AVRE engineer tank at Greye-sur-Mer, on the western end of Juno Beach  was one of the many from the Assault Engineer Brigade that supported the British and Canadian landings. This particular tank was buried for half a century. 

4.    Ranger Memorial Pointe-du-Hoc

Dieppe was the first action in which US troops participated against the Germans 50 Rangers were attached to No 3 and No 4 Commando. The US Army was impressed with the aggressive tough training of the Commandos to set up their own version.

5.   Le Grand Bunker – Observation Bunker   Riva Bella Battery

No 4 Commando which landed on the eastern side of Queen Beach had participated in the Dieppe raid where it achieved its objective of capturing the Hess battery. Captain Pat Porteous awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry at Dieppe was one of the commandos who attacked the observation tower at Riva Bella on D Day.  “The observers in the medieval tower were communicating with the gunners at the inland battery. There was a single staircase up the middle of the tower and these Germans were on top.  They were as safe as could be; the walls were ten feet thick.  One of my men tried to climb the staircase, but the Germans dropped a grenade on him.  Another fired the PIAT at the tower, but it failed to penetrate – it was useless.  We tried to give the Germans a squirt with the flame-thrower, but they were too high; we couldn’t get enough pressure from those little backpack flame-throwers that we had.  We couldn’t touch the observers and were starting to take casualties from rifle fire from the tower,so I decided to leave it for someone else and set off for Pegasus Bridge.”

6.   Mulberry Harbour

Remains of the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches-les-Bains 

The idea of a floating prefabricated harbour was developed before the Dieppe Raid.  However, the realization that it would not be possible to capture a harbour intact led the Allies to develop techniques and technology to support landings over a beaches. 

7.   Centaur Royal Marine Armoured Support Group

Eighty obsolescent Centaur tanks were landed on the British and Canadian beaches to thicken up the fire on the defences particularly for the last ten minutes of the run in.  These were originally intended as the turrets for close support Armoured Landing Craft, part of the armada of fire support craft for D Day.  The variously gun and rocket armed support craft do not have the iconic status of the  LCVP or LCA.  There are models of the different types of modified landing craft in museums covering the landings at Arromanches and Utah Beach. “Seawolf” at Hermanville-sur-Mer bears battle damage. A second Centaur is in the Memorial-Pegasus museum.  

8.     Point 67 Memorial  

The 2nd Canadian Division provided the bulk of the troops for the Dieppe Raid.  It was spared D Day, but landed in Normandy in early July. They were one of the formations that captured Caen and heavily engaged in the fighting between Caen and Falaise. The Point 67  memorial on Verriers ridge overlooks the battlefield of Operation Spring 25-27th July 1944. The 2nd Division attacked over this open ground South of Caen to keep the SS Panzer Divisions pinned on the Caen front while the US 1st Army attacked west of St Lo.  This fighting cost the Canadian forces over 1,300 casualties, their worst loss since Dieppe. 

9 Omaha Beach

The coast along Omaha Beach is rather similar to the Dieppe beach front, Regardless of whether Dieppe could or should have been attacked from the front or the flanks, for large stretches of the French coastline there were only a few places where an army could land.  These were obvious to the defenders and heavily defended.  It was obvious that any attack on the Calvados coastline would  include landings on Omaha beach.  

10 Operation Aquatint Memorial 

About half way along Omaha beach there are two prominent memorials, the concrete Liberation memorial and the steel Les Braves sculpture.  About a hundred yards to the west, on the seawall is a bronze plaque to the memory of Major March Phillips and his men who fell in Operation Aquatint on 12th September 1942. After Dieppe Combined Operations was ordered to focus on preparations for the cross channel assault.   No 62 Commando was left to stage small scale raids, which they did off the Channel Islands.  On 12 September a navigation error resulted in the raiders landing in the middle of what would become known as Omaha Beach in the face of an alert defence.  Three commandos were killed and others captured.