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The subject of a major new film, the mass evacuation of troops from France was a pivotal moment in World War II. Julian Humphrys tells the dramatic story


EPIC SCALE “Dunkirk is not a war film,” says director Christopher Nolan. “It’s a survival story”

Charles Lightoller was used to danger at sea. He was the most senior crew member to survive the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and, during World War I, he had been in command of HMS Garry when it rammed and sunk a German U-boat off the Yorkshire coast. So, when he was informed by the Admiralty that his steam yacht, Sundowner, was needed to help evacuate the beleaguered British army from the beaches of Dunkirk and told to hand it over to a naval crew at Ramsgate, Lightoller had other ideas. Sundowner would take part in the rescue - but he would be at the helm. On 1 June, with a crew of his eldest son, Roger, and an 18-year-old sea-scout called Gerald Ashcroft, the 66-year old Lightoller sailed across the Channel, just one of the armada of small boats that would go down in history as the ‘Little Ships’.

To those accustomed to the static warfare of World War I, the events of the previous two weeks had happened with an almost bewildering speed. When the Germans began their attack in the West on 10 May 1940, French and British forces were rushed into Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) took up a position on the River Dyle, east of Brussels, and on 14 May they halted the first German assault. Although the British successfully repulsed further attacks, matters on their flanks weren’t going so well. The Dutch Army had already surrendered and, when the French First Army retreated, the BEF was pulled back as well. As further withdrawals followed, the ordinary British soldiers, who thought they’d given a good account of themselves, became increasingly frustrated. One artilleryman glumly wrote in his diary that he and his comrades couldn’t understand why they had to keep retreating and irritably observed “some twit is singing ‘We’ll hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line’ but if he doesn’t stop singing that particular song someone will be hanging him on a line”.


British Expeditionary Force

In Autumn 1939, for the second time that century, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sailed to France to join a war against Germany. Led by Viscount Gort (pictured), a Victoria Cross winner who, as Chief of the General Staff, had been the professional head of the Army, they moved into north-east France ready to help their French allies combat the expected German attack on neutral Belgium. But years of underfunding following the end of World War I had left it ill-trained, undermanned and ill-equipped for the job. In May 1940, while the French boasted around 2.5 million men in the field, the BEF could contribute a mere 394,000, of which only two-thirds were available for combat. Some equipment, like the Bren machine gun and the 25-pounder field gun, was of a very high quality, but there was a serious shortage of both air support and the kind of tanks capable of taking on German armour on equal terms.

FIRST STEPS British artillerymen disembark at Cherbourg in September 1939
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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

Discover the daring escapes and rescue missions of the Dunkirk evacuation, find out how the Victorians revolutionised British summers with the creation of the seaside holiday, and meet the exotic dancer-turned-World War I spy, Mata Hari.