The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.
The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…
Dunkirk – the background
On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.
Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.
The film has three distinct viewpoints – which act almost like a triptych. The first is from the ground as we follow a young British Tommy called Tommy, funnily enough. And it is through Tommy, we meet Alex, played by Harry Styles. And let’s be honest here – most of us watching this film will be on tenterhooks looking out for Harry.
D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.
The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.
At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.
From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their flat-bottomed landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to traverse the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly-packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen-miles per hour winds. At 6.30, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, entered the war on the side of the Central Powers and on Christmas Day went on the offensive against the Russians, launching an attack through the Caucasus. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II sent an appeal to Britain, asking for a diversionary attack that would ease the pressure on Russia. From this came the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign.
The British planned its diversionary attack, to use the Royal Navy to take control of the Dardanelles Straits from where they could attack Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. By capturing Constantinople, the British hoped then to link up with their Russian allies. The attack would, it hoped, have the additional benefit of drawing German troops away from both the western and Eastern Fronts. The Dardanelles, a strait of water separating mainland Turkey and the Gallipoli peninsula, is sixty miles long and, at its widest, only 3.5 miles. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, insisted that the Royal Navy, acting alone, could succeed. On 19 February, a flotilla of British and French ships pounded the outer forts of the Dardanelles and a month later attempted to penetrate the strait. It failed, losing six ships (three sunk and three damaged), two thirds of its fleet. Soldiers, it was decided, would be needed after all.
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The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, part of the Scottish Wars of Independence, proved to be a symbolic but short-lived victory for William Wallace and the Scots against the might of the English and their king, Edward I.
Scottish leaders, William Wallace and Andrew de Moray, had arrived at Stirling in early September 1297, and immediately took up positions on the north side of the river close to the imposing heights of the Abbey Craig, a vantage point overlooking the snaking river Forth and Stirling Bridge.
Edward I’s English army arrived in fine style and must have been a splendid sight, with its banners fluttering in the breeze, vast baggage trains and knights in full regalia on their huge war horses. Vastly outnumbering the Scots, they took position to the south, somewhere between Stirling Castle and the approach to the bridge. (Pictured: Edward I).
Sides are drawn
Much has been written about the battle, and a great deal remains shrouded in mystery. Some estimates put the English force at 50,000 strong but this is unlikely given that the same source believes their casualties to have been around 5,000. This would still have left the English with an impressive force, easily capable, in the right conditions, of defeating the Scots. More likely is a figure between 10-18,000, with about 500-1,000 heavy cavalry. This included a contingent of Welsh bowmen, recently recruited to Edward’s army after his conquest of Wales. They were equipped with the most up to date weaponry of the day, the longbow, which gave them a huge advantage with their accuracy and range.
D-Day, 6 June 1944, marked the start of Operation Overlord, the long awaited Allied offensive to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe.
The writing of history, we are all too frequently reminded, is the prerogative of the victors. That may or may not be the case but what I suspect is much closer to the truth, writes Alex Gerlis, is that there is a tendency to oversimplify the outcome of historical events and to view them through that one perspective alone. All too often history is presented in headline terms, ignoring the subtle nuances that invariably shape it. It is rather like reporting a football match solely in terms of the final result, disregarding what happened during the game.
Operation Overlord is a good example of this. The facts and the eventual outcome of the campaign are impressive and not in doubt: 156,000 Allied troops landed on D-Day, along five beaches on a fifty mile stretch of Normandy coastline and in airborne operations. By the time all the beaches had been secured on 11 June, more than 325,000 Allied troops had landed on them. The Battle of Normandy would last until late August: Paris was liberated on 25 August and the way was then open for the Allies to move into the Low Countries and from there into Germany itself. At the same time, the Red Army was advancing from the east. There was a clear continuum from Normandy to the German surrender almost exactly eleven months later.
A closely fought battle
But behind this reality of D-Day lies a complex tale. In fact, the Battle of Normandy was a much more closely fought battle and its outcome far from certain.
The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War Two, is to be commemorated in a series of events today, 8 May 2013.
According to BBC News, ‘three Royal Navy warships will arrive in London before a special evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral at 17:00 BST. The events mark the seventieth anniversary of the climax of the battle, May 1943, when Germany’s submarine fleet suffered heavy losses in the Atlantic. The milestone is also being marked in Londonderry and Liverpool.’
So what exactly was the Battle of the Atlantic? History In An Hour provides a brief summary.
The war at sea began immediately in September 1939 with the Germans sinking merchant ships in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. On 13 December 1939, the Battle of River Plate in the South Atlantic took place. The German battleship Graf Spee attacked a squadron of British ships off the coast of Uruguay but in doing so was damaged herself. Hitler ordered her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to scuttle the ship rather than let her fall into enemy hands. Langsdorff followed his orders and the Graf Spee was sunk (pictured). A week later, Langsdorff, draped in the German flag, shot himself.
The U-boat peril
In his memoirs, Winston Churchill later confessed: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” Britain depended heavily on imports – from iron ore and fuel to almost 70 per cent of all her food. Convoys of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were escorted by the Royal Navy and, as far as it could reach, the RAF. But there was only so far the planes could travel, leaving a ‘mid-Atlantic gap” where the convoys were particularly vulnerable to German submarines, or U-boats, which hunted in groups or ‘wolf packs’.
||23rd October 1642
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|Cropredy Bridge, Oxfordshire
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|Marston Moor, Yorkshire
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See also our articles on the English Civil War, all written by Simon Court:
Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I;
Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War; and
The New Model Army: why Parliament won the English Civil War.
The Battle of Barnet, which took place on 14 April, 1471, was one of the most important engagements of the Wars of the Roses. These were a series of civil wars fought in England during the later fifteenth century, with the rival houses of York and Lancaster vying for the throne. The battle also determined the ultimate outcome of the personal conflict between King Edward IV and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – former allies who had by then become implacable foes.
Ten years earlier the Earl of Warwick, at that time a Yorkist, had helped Edward (pictured) – then still in his teens – to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and seize the throne. Warwick became the greatest man after the king. By the end of the 1460s, however, despite numerous attempts at reconciliation, the relationship between Edward and Warwick had broken down. Edward and Warwick clashed over the direction of foreign policy. Edward’s controversial marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was another key factor, as Elizabeth’s relatives gained increasing influence at court. Warwick was the driving force behind two rebellions; his supporters included Edward’s own brother, George Duke of Clarence. But ultimately Warwick’s plans failed; both he and Clarence were forced into exile in France.
Incredibly, through the agency of King Louis XI, Warwick now formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s formidable queen. (Margaret had earlier fled to France with her young son, Prince Edward.) In September 1470 Warwick invaded England with French support, accompanied by Clarence, and quickly raised a large army. Crucially, Edward was betrayed by Warwick’s brother, John Marquis Montagu – who had hitherto remained loyal to Edward – and he was forced into exile in his turn. Queen Elizabeth, who was then heavily pregnant, sought sanctuary at Westminster. Henry VI, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, was restored to the throne. But Henry, never strong, was by now a broken man: Warwick was to rule.
If the Scottish armies’ glorious victory at Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, was a spectacular affront to the superpower of the day, then the defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298, was normal service resumed as far as England’s king, Edward I, was concerned.
Infuriated by the defeat at Stirling, the English monarch mustered another army, larger than before and extremely well organised.
William Wallace (pictured) knew that the English forces were far superior. He would probably have known that achieving such a success as at the Battle of Stirling Bridge was unlikely, as Edward I himself was in command now and it is doubtful that he would be drawn into a similar trap that lost him the battle at Stirling.
Wallace, then, contented himself with a scorched earth policy. He burned the villages of his own country, destroyed the crops of the farms and moved the people and their animals to the north, out of the reach of Edward.
Scorched earth was an effective, if not extreme, solution to the military problem Wallace faced. His army was more disciplined than the Scots rabble that had faced John de Warenne at the Battle of Dunbar, but it was still little match for the English in a pitched battle on equal terms.
See full article on the Battle of Kursk here…
Apologies for the re-direct.