Back to the beaches of Dunkirk

Britain's lowest point of the Second World War came to define the country ever after. As Christopher Nolan's film about the evacuation is released, we travel back to the beaches in northern France with the film-makers to find out how 'Dunkirk spirit' lives on

Flying over the White Cliffs of Dover, the shores of France shimmer in a heat haze barely 20 miles away. The Big Issue is on a helicopter bound for Dunkirk, back on the radar now that Christopher Nolan’s film about the evacuation is about to hit cinemas. Above the roar of the rotors, historian (and Monty Don lookalike) Joshua Levine is hollering himself hoarse to underline why Dunkirk marked the pivotal tipping point of modern times.

“We would be living in a very different world today if they had failed,” he yells. “Germany might’ve defeated Russia as they wouldn’t have had to concentrate on two fronts. America might not have joined the war.

Because Britain was able to carry on with the war, the war carried on

“Because they got back, Britain was able to carry on with the war – and because Britain was able to carry on with the war, the war carried on.”

In the shadow of Brexit and the ongoing migrant crisis, Nolan’s Dunkirk has particular resonance at another critical time for this country – when the faces of people crammed on tiny boats, desperate to escape the horrors of war, are a too-familiar sight.

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Ferries below crisscross the Channel, and somewhere sunk beneath the sea the Eurostar zips back and forth, a permanent connection to our closest neighbours. But 77 years ago, as Levine explains, gesticulating wildly as if the evacuation is still underway, 20 miles might as well have been another world.

By May 1940, the entire British Expeditionary Force had been battered across Europe until hundreds of thousands of soldiers were pinned in the port town of Dunkirk. Churchill ordered a mass evacuation, Operation Dynamo, with the most optimistic forecasts estimating that between 30,000-40,000 troops would be rescued. Instead, from May 26 to June 4 the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ snatched victory from the jaws of defeat as a total of 338,226 soldiers were brought back to Britain.

Levine served as historical adviser on the film. Also onboard the helicopter is Nolan’s producing partner (and wife) Emma Thomas. Together they have made reverse psychological thriller Memento, rebooted the caped crusader in The Dark Knight trilogy, conceived Inception’s Russian doll-style dreams within dreams, and explored infinity and beyond in Interstellar.

Each project has been on a grander scope and scale without compromising brains for box office. Dunkirk continues this trajectory and is by far the most ambitious project from a film-maker who has never been shy about testing the limits of the Hollywood blockbuster.

“I studied history at university and Dunkirk has always fascinated me,” Thomas says. “If you’re British you grow up knowing the story of Dunkirk and in the public consciousness it’s seen as an enormous victory, yet when you look what happened here it was a terrible defeat, a retreat.”

It’s this incredibly elemental and relatable situation, being surrounded on all sides by an enemy trying to destroy you

She explains that this, and the fact America was not involved in the war at this time, is the reason the evacuation has been overlooked by major studios over the years. “Although on the face of it Dunkirk doesn’t seem like an obvious epic summer movie it’s a very universal story. Whether you’re British or not, it’s this incredibly elemental and relatable situation, being surrounded on all sides by an enemy trying to destroy you.”

As we reach France, the sense of entrapment and isolation becomes clear as the helicopter flies over the beach. On this stretch of sand, close to half a million – mostly British but many French and Belgian – soldiers were stuck between the advancing German army and the sea.

We land in an industrial part of the port, south of town, and head for the infamous beach. The production crew spent six weeks here filming in the real locations where the operation took place. Authenticity was paramount to Nolan, whose grandfather served in the war as a navigator on a Lancaster, and was killed flying his 46th mission. Dozens of real period ships and planes were procured, 1,300 locals drafted as extras. “We had to survey to make sure there was nothing unexploded under the sand,” Thomas recalls.

“Chris and I came here in the 1990s. We used to go for trips on a friend’s boat at weekends, usually around the south coast, but it was Easter weekend so we had a bit of extra time and he suggested Dunkirk. It made a big impression on us, coming on a small boat to Dunkirk, knowing the history. It’s one of the few military events in which civilians played an incredibly important part. For all the fact that it was indeed a defeat, there was victory in it – real glory in the fact that people knuckled down and made it happen. That trip planted a seed.”

From that seed grew the nerve-shredding, heart-stopping film Dunkirk. “There were 400,000 men on the beach, 400,000 stories of what exactly happened, and the film takes three different perspectives,” Thomas explains. Split into three parts, the film focuses on the action taking place on the land, in the sea and up in the air, each strand with individual, intersecting timelines.

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At the south end of the beach, wind sweeping in from offshore whips up sand that pulverises our party. It really is ruthless, relentless and cutting, slipping grains inside ears and under eyelids, sifting into pockets to form mini-dunes. It is a reminder of a factor that contributed to the evacuation’s success: the conditions – unlike today and, by all accounts, what they were like during filming – were perfect.

“It was an evacuation but it was an improvisation as well,” Levine explains. “The original idea was to use the main harbour but the Luftwaffe completely destroyed it, so they had to find other ways of doing it.”

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Hundreds of vehicles were parked perpendicularly to the coast to form improvised jetties that could be used at high tide, and a fleet of ‘little ships’ piloted by volunteers plucked soldiers from the shore and transported them to bigger boats like destroyers, minesweepers and passenger ferries moored further out.

Levine points at a slim sliver of pier that extends out to sea, known as ‘the mole’, that played a hugely import-ant part in the evacuation. “Effectively it’s a break-water to stop the sand filling up the harbour, which you see may have been a problem,” Levine says, as we spit sand from our mouths. “The mole was not meant for anyone to climb off. It was very inconvenient to use as a jetty but it was all they had. Day and night, troops were filing up here and getting off onto ships. Thank God for it. On some days 45,000 got off on the mole.”

All kinds of sea craft were involved – one Isle of Man ferry could hold 3,000 while, at the other end of the scale, three soldiers tried to paddle their way home on a wooden door. In all, 800 boats came to aid the operation. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that emerged evolved into the ‘Blitz spirit’ and gave substance to the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mantra that still fuels the country’s mindset.

The small, human stories really ring out, both in the history books and in Nolan’s film. A starring role goes to the Moonstone, captained by Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, on which the sea section of the film is largely set. Although that boat is authentic to the period (before production it spent its entire life living on Loch Ness, hunting monsters) another seen in the film, the New Britannic, is one of the actual little ships, noted for rescuing more soldiers from the beach than any other.

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Another veteran, the Princess Elizabeth, is a paddle steamer from the 1920s that made four trips across the Channel in 1940 and now sits permanently in Dunkirk’s harbour where it has been converted into a restaurant, in time for the film’s release. It forms part of the city’s heritage route, and signs along the beach displaying photographs from filming show that Dunkirk is proud of its starring role.

Will the film increase tourism to the area? “I hope so,” Thomas says. “It’s not always like this,” she grimaces, sand blasting into her face. “Sometimes it’s raining too.”

Onno Ottevanger from Dunkirk’s Office de Tourisme explains that visitor numbers are already increasing, with tourists now including Dunkirk in more traditional tours of Ypres and the Normandy beaches.

For a very long time, the battle of Dunkirk was considered a shameful defeat in France

“We expect an increase not only in foreign tourists but also French visitors who weren’t really aware of what happened in Dunkirk,” he says. “For a very long time, the battle of Dunkirk was considered a shameful defeat in France, something you would rather forget than commemorate.”

After the war 80 per cent of Dunkirk had to be rebuilt, and today ample, conveniently located parking is the legacy of entire streets being wiped off the map by bombing. But besides the history and thorough exfoliation on a blustery day, Ottevanger is full of reasons we should think about going back: “Dunkirk-Malo les Bains is a very nice, relaxed and family-friendly seaside resort. The wide sandy beaches stretch over 10 miles, from Dunkirk to the Belgian border. There are also several museums – as well as the Dunkirk war museum there are two very nice contemporary art museums and the impressive port museum.”

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Other visitors have been passing through the town. Dunkirk hit the headlines earlier this year after the refugee camp at nearby Grande-Synthe, which had been built to house refugees removed from the demo-lished Calais ‘jungle’, was destroyed by fire. Last week there were reports of toddlers and babies among those sleeping rough in the same area of northern France.

The irony of Dunkirk still being a holding place for people desperately trying to cross into Britain was not lost on the film-makers. Nolan told Levine that he thought one of the misfortunes of our time was the migrant crisis, people overloaded on boats seeking salvation: “With that going on in the world today, I don’t think you can in any way dismiss the events of Dunkirk as being from another world or another era.”

Thomas agrees. “I see the parallels but our intention was never to make a ‘message’ film,” she says. “If people see resonances with what is going on today then that’s a great thing. The fascinating thing about this story is it’s a feeling we can all identify with – a ticking clock, a race against time, trying to escape danger.”

Dunkirk is out now in cinemas