How historically accurate is the movie Dunkirk?

Dunkirk is a 2017 movie about the evacuation of allied forces from the Dunkirk region in late May to early June 1940. Operation Dynamo, as it was called, involved a mass evacuation of British, French, and other forces after allied forces were effectively trapped in northern France. The evacuation involved military and civilian sea craft and narrowly avoided a major disaster for the allies.

The Plot

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Poster for the movie.

The movie begins in the empty streets of Dunkirk, on the northern seaside coast of France. Leaflets are falling ordering the soldiers to surrender. Soldiers trying to get through the town are killed by the Germans before we can find out who they even were. One soldier escapes, named Tommy, but as he runs he seas the sea and thousands of allied troops waiting on the beach to be rescued.German Stuka dive bombers harry the soldiers on the beach.

The movie then introduces Gibson and Alex, with Gibson being a French soldier pretending to be British so that he can escape. The soldiers try to initially get on a hospital boat by pretending to be medics carrying wounded, but they were refused after letting the wounded on. That boat is soon sunk by German dive bombers. Later, another boat becomes available and the three soldiers board it. However, that night the boat is sunk by a U-boat and the three narrowly escape with their lives. Two officers, Bolton and Winnant, lead the men on the beach as they try to keep calm and order while awaiting for rescue. At first there seems little hope that rescue would ever come.

The movie also focuses on what was happening at sea and in the air. At sea, the British begin requiring all seaworthy craft to be involved in the rescue, as large ships are soon unable to land near the beach where soldiers are. Mr. Dawson, a private citizen, sails his boat towards Dunkirk. Peter, Mr. Dawson's son, and George, Peter's friend, accompany the boat. As they head toward Dunkirk, they encountered a shell shocked soldier who survived a torpedo attack and who tries to take the boat away from Dunkirk. The soldier fails but manages to blind George.

In the air, two spitfire pilots, Farrier and Collins, engage with the Luftwaffe to provide some cover for the struggling troops on the beach. Collins is shot down but is rescued by Mr. Dawson and his ship. Farrier has to keep fighting the German planes but is unsure of how much fuel is left, as his fuel gauge is damaged. Eventually, Farrier runs out of fuel but continues to fight even as his plane glides down towards the beach. He is eventually captured. Soon, many ships begin to approach Dunkirk, and the soldiers begin to evacuate. Tommy and comrades try to take a fishing boat to evacuate at night, but it sinks due to bullet holes in the boat. Gibson drowns, but the others are rescued by a destroy which is then also sunk by a torpedo. Mr. Dawson's boat, however, arrives and rescues Tommy and Alex. George, in the meantime, has died from his injuries. However, they survivors make it back to the UK and feel grateful having narrowly escaped Dunkirk. Churchill then gives his famous speech that Britain will never surrender and continue fighting he Nazis.

Characters

All of the characters focused on in the movie are fictional. However, they represent figures that are generally accurate. For the soldiers at Dunkirk, many did have to fight off the German advance while simply waiting for nearly a week before they were rescued. They were also constantly harried by the Luftwaffe, with approaching Stuka dive bombers constantly making a terrifying noise before hitting the soldiers. The depiction of the Spitfire pilots shows only a few pilots engaging the Luftwaffe. This is because Fighter Command had decided to limit the number of fighters engaging the German planes due to the fear that Britain would be invaded soon. The call to commandeer private boats, depicted by Mr. Dawson's boat Moonstone, did occur, with many private citizens having taken their boats to Dunkirk at great risk to their own lives. The chaos in the beach and shell shocked soldiers were a constant presence during the fighting and attempts to escape. Gibson's character, pretending to be British, does reflect French and other nationalities trying to pretend to be British to escape, as initially only British soldiers were evacuated. However, that order was soon changed and any soldier that could be evacuated was, indeed, evacuated.

The commanders are shown, at the end, as being proud of the evacuation. In fact, Churchill had predicted that perhaps 30,000 soldiers could be saved, but in fact over 300,000 were saved. There was a focus on a mole in the movie which was used to evacuate many soldiers, which did occur and fighting did occur nearby this area as it was one of the links for escape.

Historical Accuracy

Among very recent movies, Dunkirk is seen as among the most accurate historical movies. While the main characters are fictional, their actions due represent thousands of people who experienced the events. This includes the soldiers on the beach, the men and women who tried to rescue the soldiers on their own private boats, and the pilots who had to fight off the Luftwaffe after being heavily outnumbered. The action sequences and conflict among characters, such as the rescued man trying to fight Mr. Dawson and his crew, is accurate, as some men rescued did try to avoid having to go back with rescue boats to get more trapped soldiers. While overall, the sequence of events, the initially seemingly impossible task of escaping, and bravery of soldiers and civilians is accurate, there are some oversights. For instance, the town of Dunkirk was heavily damaged during this time, rather than simply abandoned. The German leaflets to surrender did occur, but they looked slightly different. Soldiers generally always wore their caps when saluting, which was not always shown as such. Perhaps the biggest weakness is the lack of context as to why the Dunkirk evacuation was successful.

A major factor for the British success is the tactical decision to halt the bulk of German forces outside of Dunkirk for a period of a few days that gave valuable time for the British to assemble a defensive line and begin evacuations. The role of French soldiers, in the siege of Lille, was critical as well, as it delayed a large number of German soldiers. The Germans made a tactical error by depending too much on the Luftwaffe to finish off the remaining forces on the beach. The Royal Air Force did commit a significant number of aircraft and, to a large extent, their decision to limit some other fighter units from engaging the Germans did make sense in light of potential weakness of Britain if Germany decided to invade Britain. The Germans also used too many bombers and dive bomber and not enough fighter aircraft, resulting in relatively larger losses of aircraft. In effect, a combination of heroic actions by the British but also French soldiers fighting elsewhere was critical as well as tactical errors by the Germans. This helped lead to the successful evacuation.

Summary

The movie Dunkirk has won wide praise and cinematic awards for its story. The relative historical accuracy has also won support from veterans of the events and historians. While there are some inaccuracies, and parts of the story are not told which were significant, the story from the perspective of the characters given is accurate and represents actions that did occur during a week in late May and early June in 1940. It was a key point in the war effort, as it gave some moral to the British waiting for an expected attack and saved a large bulk of their soldiers who went on to fight elsewhere. If Dunkirk had been a failure, then Britain would have been far more vulnerable to a German invasion.

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