Dunkirk on Tuesday, May 28, 1940

Dear future insomniacs and internet addicts,

Unbeknownst to you, but knownst to concurrent infovores, I blew my deadline to be done with the Dunkirk blogging by the time the movie opened. I will be seeing the movie next week. But my goal of satisfying my own curiosity about how the evacuations, upon which only the outcome of WWII likely hinged, remains.

As expected for Churchill admirers as myself, the lack of historical context in the movie itself is a bit of a letdown. In effect, the early criticisms of the movie lend itself to audience members having to go elsewhere to satisfy any strategic curiosity about Dunkirk. Good for books, audiobooks, podcasts and blogs.

On the Wall Street Journal editorial page–lets all pause while I genuflect–gloriously delicious shots were taken against Christopher Nolan and his choices. Excerpt below, entire article at end of post:

… To the very end no image of Churchill defiles the sanctity of this film’s safe space. One of the final scenes does present an exhausted evacuee returned from Dunkirk, reading aloud to himself from a newspaper of Churchill’s most famous address, of June 4, 1940. The “We shall never surrender” speech is spoken by a young soldier, making it all reassuringly relevant—no trace of the man himself.

It’s possible of course that a director less apprehensive about appearing old-fashioned might have risked an actual clip of the prime minister without undue harm to the audience.

In the bleak days of 1940, Churchill told his cabinet: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking on his own blood on the ground.” If Batman ever said anything remotely as interesting, he’d have our devoted attention.

“This film’s safe space,” puts Nolan’s choices in the context of the current culture battles. It nicely captures the reason for my life-long love affair with the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Day 2 saw 17,804 evacuated from Dunkirk, with the total evacuees now at 25,473.
  • Allies learn that Italy will soon enter the war.
  • FYI – if you were born in 1959, you are closer in time to Dunkirk than the Iranian Hostage crisis.

To this point, Churchill has barely had time to react to the increasingly deteriorating position of the Allies which precipitated his becoming Prime Minister less than three weeks ago. Now is when Churchill will make momentous decisions and communicate them in a way that sets the standard for leadership in a crisis. Here’s when he becomes the Churchill that western civilization owes a debt of gratitude to for our freedoms to this day.

Churchill’s War Cabinet consisted of the following–there were other Govt ministers referred to as “Constant Attenders” who were allowed, but were not members:

  • Prime Minister & Minister of Defence: Winston Churchill (Conservative)
  • Lord President of the Council: Neville Chamberlain (Conservative)
  • Lord Privy Seal: Clement Attlee (Labour)
  • Foreign Secretary: Lord Halifax (Conservative)
  • Minister without Portfolio: Arthur Greenwood (Labour)

Numerous meetings took place between May 25th and May 28th in which it had to be decided if they were amenable to any overtures of negotiated surrender. Halifax believed that given the imminent fall of France and the encirclement of British forces at Dunkirk, the United Kingdom should explore the possibility of a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler, with Mussolini brokering the agreement.

At the War Cabinet meeting at 4pm on 28 May, Halifax pushes for a decision and had been threatening to resign if Churchill wouldn’t agree to some sort of negotiation. Aside from the obvious dire circumstances, Halifax has legitimate concerns about what the German air superiority portended for their chances going forward.

Churchill reasons for resisting were the following:

Signor Mussolini, if he came in as a mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to imagine that Herr Hitler would be so foolish as to let us continue our re-armament. In effect, his terms would put us completely at his mercy. We should get no worse terms if we went on fighting, even if we were beaten, than were open to us now. If, however, we continued the war and Germany attacked us, no doubt we should suffer some damage, but they also would suffer severe losses. Their oil supplies might be reduced. A time might come when we felt that we had to put an end to the struggle, but the terms would then be no more mortal than those offered to us now.

Halifax responded that he still could not see what Churchill found so wrong with “trying out the possibilities of mediation”. Churchill replied that “nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished”.

No decision was finalized and Churchill asks for an adjournment until 7pm, to attend a previously scheduled meeting with his 25-member Outer Cabinet, many of whom he had not seen since the formation of the Government on May 10th.

Here is how Churchill began that Outer Cabinet meeting on May 28th:

I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man [Hitler]. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our – that would be called disarmament – our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up – under Mosley or some such person. And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side we have immense reserves and advantages. And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.

Halifax had his answer and the UK had its leader and direction. Churchill would later write about that meeting:

There occurred a demonstration which considered the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.

The following 7 minute clip from the HBO movie Into the Storm, captures these very moments:

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.28 – Under Churchill’s leadership, UK commits to fight, unlike the French and Belgium governments.
  • 1940.05.27 – Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with only 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.

The Dumbing Down of ‘Dunkirk’

Dorothy Rabinowitz

On May 28, 1940, Winston Churchill held a meeting of his government’s ministers. “I described the course of events and showed them plainly where we were, and all that was in the balance,” Churchill later wrote. “Then I said quite casually . . .: ‘Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.’ . . . I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. . . . There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.”

“Dunkirk,” opening in theaters Friday, is noteworthy in many respects. Not least for its creator’s decision—on the interesting ground that it would make things clearer for audiences—to avoid any appearance of Churchill. Of, that is, the newly appointed prime minister central to this story: the voice of that embattled Britain whose citizens, answering their government’s call, set out to rescue its army, stranded on the beaches of northern France in May of 1940.

Director Christopher Nolan, whose credits include “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” has said he wanted to avoid making a film “not relevant to today’s audiences” and that he didn’t want to get them bogged down in “politics.”

This says more than Mr. Nolan intended about his estimate of today’s moviegoers—whose capacities, he fears, would not be equal to a film involving images of a historic figure. There were other worries. Mr. Nolan didn’t want to make a film that could be seen as old-fashioned, he informed his interviewer. It appears further that the director wanted to avoid taxing today’s film audiences with any specifics about the foe that had the British Expeditionary Force fighting for its life on those beaches.

“We don’t have generals in rooms pushing things around on maps,” Mr. Nolan explained. “We don’t see Churchill. We barely glimpse the enemy.” All true. Though there are quite a number of enemy planes, bombers smashing the troops on the beach. The bare glimpse Mr. Nolan mentions is of the insignia identifying the nation to which those planes belong. Who could it be?

On the other hand, the markings on the British fighters engaging the enemy in dogfights loom large and clear. As do the reasons for all of the above. For, as Mr. Nolan has told us, he considers Dunkirk “a universal story . . . about communal heroism.” Which explains why this is—despite its impressive cinematography, its moving portrait of suffering troops and their rescuers—a Dunkirk flattened out, disconnected from the spirit of its time, from any sense even of the particular mighty enemy with which England was at war.

When an event in history has become, in the mind of a writer, “universal” it’s a tip-off—the warning bell that we’re about to lose most of the important facts of that history, and that the story-telling will be a special kind—a sort that obscures all specifics that run counter to the noble vision of the universalist.

No wonder those German Stukas and Heinkels bombarding the British can barely be identified as such. Then there is Mr. Nolan’s avoidance of Churchill lest audiences get bogged down in “politics”—a strange term for Churchill’s concerns during those dark days of May 1940. One so much less attractive, in its hint of the ignoble and the corrupt, than “communal” and “universal”—words throbbing with goodness. Nothing old-fashioned about them either, especially “universal”—a model of socio-babble for all occasions.

The certainty of the Nazis’ threat is what preoccupied Churchill. His testament to the sterling attitude of his ministers, quoted above, kindly omits mention of the protracted arguments from those in his war cabinet who pressed for some respectable accommodation with Hitler, for some effort at least to open talks.

There was, for Churchill, no acceptable accommodation with Hitler. He knew the disastrous impact on British morale of any word of talks or arrangements with the Nazis. They would instead hear from their new prime minister only the iron determination to defeat the enemy, the confidence that it would be done—which had not a little to do with the strengthened spirit of the British public. They had been asked to fight for victory at all costs, and most knew why they must—among them those pilots of small boats braving German fire to rescue the army.

The film’s aim, as its director says, is to tell a universal story of individuals struggling for survival. A struggle for survival under terrifying assault is exactly what we see through most of the action. Left out of this saga is any other sense of the importance of Operation Dynamo, the unexpectedly successful rescue of 338,000 soldiers who could, instead of being marched off to captivity by that barely visible enemy—call it Nation X—return to an England desperate for manpower.

Continuing the fight was, to this England facing invasion, everything. To leave out of this story, in addition to Churchill, any sense of England’s peril or the might of its enemy is to drain much of the life out of history.

All this falls into the category of facts, irrelevant history, that Mr. Nolan would consider wrong for today’s audiences. To the very end no image of Churchill defiles the sanctity of this film’s safe space. One of the final scenes does present an exhausted evacuee returned from Dunkirk, reading aloud to himself from a newspaper of Churchill’s most famous address, of June 4, 1940. The “We shall never surrender” speech is spoken by a young soldier, making it all reassuringly relevant—no trace of the man himself.

It’s possible of course that a director less apprehensive about appearing old-fashioned might have risked an actual clip of the prime minister without undue harm to the audience.

In the bleak days of 1940, Churchill told his cabinet: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking on his own blood on the ground.” If Batman ever said anything remotely as interesting, he’d have our devoted attention.

Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

Appeared in the July 21, 2017, print edition.

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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
This entry was posted in Books & Reading, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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