Dunkirk on Wednesday, May 29, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Day 3 saw 47,310 evacuated from Dunkirk, with the total evacuees now at 72,783.
  • Extensive Luftwaffe raids on beaches of Dunkirk as soldiers wait to evacuate.
  • Germans capture Ostend & Ypres in Belgium & Lille in France.
  • British destroyers Grafton, Grenade and Wakeful were sunk during the evacuation.

During May and June of 1940 at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing’s team–building upon the work of Polish cryptologist’s–succeeded in breaking six days of naval traffic, 22–27 April 1940. Those messages were the first breaks of Kriegsmarine (Nazi Navy) messages of the war. However, they weren’t able to provide actionable intelligence as of yet. Can you imagine the pressure felt, as news of Dunkirk and destroyers being sunk filters in.

Can you spot the likeliest candidate for the most interesting man alive?

The desire to break Enigma was widespread. An Intelligence officer who worked directly for British Naval Rear Admiral Godfrey, would soon devise an unorthodox plan. The idea was to “obtain” a German bomber, man it with a German-speaking crew dressed in Luftwaffe uniforms, and crash it into the English Channel. The crew would then attack their German rescuers and bring their boat and Enigma machine back to England.

Much to the annoyance of Alan Turing and Peter Twinn at Bletchley Park, the mission was never carried out. The plan was named Operation Ruthless and the officer’s name was Ian Fleming.

While 007 might first come to mind when you think of unrealistic movies, it might take 2nd place in comparison to the Imitation Game as a standard bearer for inaccuracy. Unexpectedly, the use of the phrase ‘Heil Hitler’ at the end of every encrypted message was one of the few accurate details in the movie. See the explanation of the cryptology behind the use of the phrase at end of post.

How the Poles gave the Brits and Betchley Park invaluable aid, from The Essential Turing by Alan Turning:

…. The result of the addition of the new wheels was that the Poles were able to read German Army and Air Force messages on only those days when it happened that wheels I, II, and III were in the machine—on average one day in ten.

In July 1939 the Poles invited members of the British and French intelligence services to a meeting at Pyry near Warsaw. Denniston and Knox represented GC & CS [British Government Code and Cypher School]. At this meeting, Rejewski relates, ‘we told everything that we knew and showed everything that we had’—a replica Enigma, the bomba [name for Polish code-breaking machine, Brits referred to theirs as bombe], the perforated sheets, and of course the all-important internal wiring of the wheels, which Knox still had not been able to work out. Without the Poles, Knox and Turing might not have found out the wiring of the wheels until May 1940, when the British captured several intact Enigma machines from the German Army in Norway.

Knox’s first question to the Poles was ‘What is the QWERTZU?’ The answer was almost a joke—the connections were in alphabetical order, with the A-socket of the plug-board connected to the first terminal inside the entry plate, the B-socket to the second, and so on. Knox was ecstatic to know the answer at last, chanting in a shared taxi ‘Nous avons le QWERTZU, nous marchons ensemble’ (‘We have the QWERTZU, we march along together’).

At Pyry the Poles also undertook to supply their British and French allies with two replica Enigma machines. The replica destined for GC & CS was couriered from Paris to London on 16 August 1939 by two men, Gustave Bertrand, head of the codebreaking section of the French Intelligence Service, and ‘Uncle Tom’, a diplomatic courier for the British Embassy in Paris.

I am free-basing on some high quality confirmation bias with the Dunkirk movie reviews I’ve read so far. One of my favorite writers John Podhoretz, cited Walter Lord’s book, in a criticism of the approach Christopher Nolan choose for the film. An excerpt below, the complete review is copied at end of post:

….You would know none of this from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is both an astonishing filmmaking achievement and an epic narrative failure. Nolan, who wrote and directed Dunkirk, made a deliberate choice to tell the story almost exclusively from the close-up perspective of individual sailors, soldiers, and pilots. This relatively short, blindingly sharp, and painfully vivid feat of impressionistic moviemaking gives one a rare sense of the horrors of war as experienced by those whose country is losing the fight. Nolan is a great director. What he is not, in this picture, is a great storyteller. His view of the events at Dunkirk is nearsighted. He misses the forest for the trees….

By making his dramatis personae so generic, Nolan’s Dunkirk becomes the story of any battle and every battle—or rather, of any and every retreat from battle with the enemy in pursuit. But the real Dunkirk was anything but generic. Walter Lord’s 1982 account, The Miracle of Dunkirk, is loaded from first page to last with colorful anecdotes of ordinary seamen and soldiers improvising to keep themselves alive, often in the most comically British of ways. Every bit of human eccentricity in the face of unimaginable peril Lord recounts in his wonderful book actually occurred. Nolan would have you believe the hundreds of thousands of men on that beach were as silent and well behaved as, well, extras in a war movie.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.29 – Glimmer of hope, Operation Dynamo succeeding beyond expectations.
  • 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.

Undone Dunkirk | The Weekly Standard

The Weekly Standard

There are few events in the history of war comparable to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the French beach at Dunkirk in the late spring of 1940. It is an episode that repays close attention to its every aspect—the terrifying Nazi triumphs in combat that led to it, the halting and contradictory behavior of both the Allies and the Nazis during the week when 400,000 British and French soldiers had retreated to the sands by the English Channel, and the awe-inspiring improvisatory response by the British both on the beach and on the home front that turned the tide.

You would know none of this from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is both an astonishing filmmaking achievement and an epic narrative failure. Nolan, who wrote and directed Dunkirk, made a deliberate choice to tell the story almost exclusively from the close-up perspective of individual sailors, soldiers, and pilots. This relatively short, blindingly sharp, and painfully vivid feat of impressionistic moviemaking gives one a rare sense of the horrors of war as experienced by those whose country is losing the fight. Nolan is a great director. What he is not, in this picture, is a great storyteller. His view of the events at Dunkirk is nearsighted. He misses the forest for the trees.

The men he shows us are, as they were in real life, almost entirely unprotected. They are sitting ducks on the beach, on the piers, and on the rescue boats they board. We watch them get strafed, bombed, shot through boat hulls, crushed and drowned as ships topple into the brine. And we live through their anxiety before, during, and after; the movie is, at times, almost unbearably tense.

And yet oddly, for a movie about the sufferings of ordinary people, we are told nothing about any of the uniformed soldiers and sailors we see—not their names, not where they’re from. They have no recognizable or interesting personality quirks. They are just bodies moving through Nolan’s space, from beach to water to boat or in the air. They are practically interchangeable.

I found myself straining at several points to figure out just who that guy is in the Channel on whom the camera is focusing: Is he the kid from the first scene we see running down a street avoiding German bullets or the kid we see burying a dead man and stealing his boot in the second? Nolan wants us to view the war from the perspective of characters he doesn’t bother to characterize.

By making his dramatis personae so generic, Nolan’s Dunkirk becomes the story of any battle and every battle—or rather, of any and every retreat from battle with the enemy in pursuit. But the real Dunkirk was anything but generic. Walter Lord’s 1982 account, The Miracle of Dunkirk, is loaded from first page to last with colorful anecdotes of ordinary seamen and soldiers improvising to keep themselves alive, often in the most comically British of ways. Every bit of human eccentricity in the face of unimaginable peril Lord recounts in his wonderful book actually occurred. Nolan would have you believe the hundreds of thousands of men on that beach were as silent and well behaved as, well, extras in a war movie.

Indeed, if what happened during those days had been a classic retreat with disastrous consequences, the French placename of Dunkerque would not have been supplanted by its English spelling in the history books, Dunkirk would not have become one of the most written-about moments of the Second World War, and the word Dunkirk would not have been memorable enough to serve as the name of a $150 million major studio release 77 years after the fact.

No, Dunkirk was a singular and strange event. It was at once a horrendous disaster and a breathtaking triumph, a wonder and a tragedy. And the only way to show this to audiences would be to tell it from a more Olympian perspective. Kenneth Branagh plays a British leader on the beach whom the credits name as Commander Bolton. He corresponds to no real-life figure and seems to be in the movie only to provide a few pieces of explanatory detail—so, in the manner of Michael York’s Austin Powers character, Nolan really ought to have called him Commander Exposition. Branagh practically turns and looks into the camera and tells the audience that 400,000 men are trapped defenseless on the beach. But the occasional shots Nolan provides of the beach from above simply do not capture the astounding masses of men that were actually assembled there—which would have given the viewer a powerful sense of the holocaustal slaughter the Germans might have visited upon them.

That wider storytelling lens would have allowed for depictions of the British and French troops nearby desperately holding the line so that the advancing Germans didn’t swamp the beach and massacre the trapped men. It would have taken in the shifting views of the British High Command, which was loath to commit all its resources to save the men at Dunkirk because it needed to preserve the nation’s strength for the coming German assault on England. And it would have devoted some time to the perplexing question of why the Germans didn’t move heaven and earth to destroy the British Army when they had the chance.

To say the stakes could not have been higher is to understate the case. Western civilization arguably hung in the balance on that beach. The decimation of the first British effort to fight the Germans on the European mainland would have made a second effort unlikely if not impossible—and it was that second effort, after D-Day, that ensured the destruction of the Third Reich.

In Their Finest Hour, the 1949 second volume of his war memoir, Churchill recounts the meeting he held in Paris during the Dunkirk crisis with, among others, Marshal Pétain (who would soon surrender France to Germany and serve as Hitler’s political lickspittle). Churchill spoke with total seriousness that day of England being overrun by Germany—of being “prepared to wage war from the New World, if through some disaster England herself were laid waste.” He went on to envision a similar disaster being visited upon America and—in words that reveal the existential desperation of the time—told the French that “it would be better far that the civilization of Western Europe with all its achievements should come to a tragic but splendid end than that the two great democracies should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living.”

What we cannot fathom today about World War II is that it was a conflict Germany truly could have won. That is why Dunkirk was such a horror. The destruction Germany might have visited upon the British would have knocked them out of the war entirely. In his Periclean speech after the evacuation was completed, Churchill told his nation that it had suffered “a colossal military disaster,” and it had—but in experiencing 40,000 casualties instead of 10 times that many, a nation and a civilization had been spared the hangman’s noose. It was a national humiliation to have to abandon the continent to Nazi rule, but the process of the British Expeditionary Force’s escape demonstrated national reserves of pluck (the “Dunkirk spirit”) that gave heart and strength to the five-year effort ahead. Had the worst happened, the words Churchill spoke that will live as long as our English tongue is spoken—“we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”—could never have been uttered.

It is this, all of this, that Nolan’s Dunkirk leaves entirely to the side. Instead, it concentrates on only one of the many gobsmacking aspects of the week of May 25, 1940: the participation in the evacuation of hundreds of small boats from all over England summoned into service to help ferry men to larger craft that could not make it near the shallow waters and long sand shelf of the beach.

It was a singular glory of the saga of Dunkirk, to be sure. But even here, by zooming in on one boat (skippered by the glorious Mark Rylance in the movie’s only notable performance), Nolan’s epic once again fails to capture the sheer scale of the makeshift armada of deliverance—with some 700 watercraft of every size and shape joining 300 Navy vessels, putt-putting their way across the Channel and into the line of fire and then back again.

We do see Branagh smile delightedly as the civilian craft appear, but that is not enough. Since Nolan doesn’t show us the mass mobilization of these nonmilitary boats back in England and the stalwart response to the call for aid of those who owned and crewed them, the scene depicting their arrival doesn’t have the force it should. In this way, as in others, the intimacy and immediacy Nolan seeks is damaging to his movie’s intentions and purposes.

It is difficult to make a great war movie. The larger context I’m talking about here has all too often been reduced on screen to ludicrous scenes between famous actors playing famous generals using pointers to show army movements on wall maps so that we can follow the battle. I sympathize with Nolan’s effort to do it all differently and in a new way—it is not as if this very thoughtful and literate filmmaker is unaware of the larger geopolitical issues at play. Several snatches of dialogue (often hard to hear, alas) do suggest he has a true understanding of the civilizational stakes that were on the line at Dunkirk. But in his effort to do justice to the suffering and sacrifice of those men on the beach, Christopher Nolan proved himself unable to do justice to the cause for which they suffered so greatly and for which so many were forced to sacrifice all.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

———————————————————————————————————

Geek out on the logic behind the cryptology from The Essential Turing by Alan Turning:

From the autumn of 1938 until May 1st 1940 the German Army and Air Force used the following—as it turned out, highly insecure—method for sending the message setting to the recipient. The sender would select two trigrams at random, say RBG and VAK. RBG is the message setting. VAK specifies the starting positions of the wheels that will be used not when encoding the message itself but when encoding the message setting prior to broadcasting it to the recipient. VAK would be broadcast to the recipient as part of an unencoded preamble to the encoded message. (The preamble could also include, for example, the time of origin of the message, the number of letters in the encoded message, and a group of letters called a discriminant, identifying the Enigma network to which the message belonged (e.g. Red). The preamble might also contain an indication that the message was the second (or later) part of a two-part or multi-part message).

The Indicator and Indicator Setting

Having selected the two trigrams, the sender would first set up VAK in the windows of his machine. He would then type RBGRBG. The group of six letters that lit up, say PRUKAC, is called the indicator. VAK is called the indicator setting (or ‘Grundstellung’). The indicator would be broadcast immediately before the enciphered message. The reason for sending the encipherment of RBGRBG, rather than simply of RBG, was to provide the recipient with a check that the message setting had been correctly received, radio reception sometimes being poor.

Once the sender had enciphered the message setting to form the indicator, he would set up RBG in the windows of his machine and type the plain text. Then the whole thing would be sent off to the recipient——preamble, indicator, and enciphered text.

The authorized recipient of the message would first rotate the wheels of his machine (already set up in accordance with the daily key) until VAK appeared in the windows. He would then type the indicator PRUKAC and the letters RBGRBG would light up at the lampboard. Now equipped with the message setting, he would set his wheels to RBG and retrieve the plain text by typing the encoded message.

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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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