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The Myth of Dunkirk in Wartime and Post-Wartime British Film

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940

Miracle at Dunkirk?

The evacuation of Dunkirk took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940, when approximately 336,000 British and other French and Belgian troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France by the combined efforts of the Royal Navy and civilian crews in what was called 'Operation Dynamo'.

Some 30,000 individuals were left behind who became prisoners of war, evaders of the German Army or were killed on the beaches. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force or BEF, and the First French Army was due to the rapid advance of German ground and air forces through Belgium and France, the Belgian surrender and the collapse of the Allied defences.

The following day many newspapers carried stories about the “small ships” at Dunkirk, many of these privately-owned pleasure crafts, which had never been beyond the estuary of the Thames. Hundreds of such craft had indeed been co-opted, and had sailed across the Channel, but most had Royal Navy reserve crews, and had been used for ferrying men from the beaches to the destroyers.

The newspapers, however, were not interested in the reality. The story of the “little ships” was soon enshrined in British popular consciousness and an example of a people coming to the rescue of their army.

The 'spin' given to the evacuation of the British army set off a wave of euphoria throughout Britain and it was a very British story – a gallant escape from disaster at the very last moment, making a defeat into eventual victory- and one that the public liked to be told.

The Dunkirk evacuation marked the end of the so-called 'phoney war' and were followed within weeks by the capitulation of France, the Battle of Britain and later the Blitz.

Dunkirk was an early trial for the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill

Dunkirk was an early trial for the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill

One of Churchill’s most memorable speeches to House of Commons on 4th of June, related the success of the Dunkirk evacuation, where he stated, “we shall fight them on the beaches”.

He also, however, depicted the truly desperate nature of Britain's situation. He reminded his countrymen that wars were not won by evacuations, and that 'what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster'. But the beginnings of a myth was constructed and people at the time wanted to believe it.

'We Shall Fight Them On The Beaches' speech by Winston Churchill, June 4, 1940

People's War

Richard Titmuss in 1950, a sociologist who published some early accounts of the war, saw Dunkirk as the point at which the 'real' Second World War began, characterized by a society geared functionally and ideologically to mass mobilization in support of the war effort.

Dunkirk's position at the threshold of the 'people's war', coupled with the relative success of the evacuation, which was widely interpreted as a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, have given it iconic status in British culture.

The so-called people’s war was a term that came into use during the war, even referred to in the 1942 film Mrs Miniver, which will be discussed further later, and was attributed to J.B. Priestley. Priestley had already won notoriety as a novelist, columnist and playwright, and the BBC offered him a Sunday evening slot in what was to become the radio programme Postscripts.

Here, Priestley developed the vision of a “People's War” - one championing not only the military conflict against Hitler and the Nazis, but also the struggle to build a society where the "festering sores on the body of a diseased world" would not return. In the process, he became a champion of the principles underlying the welfare state established at the end of the war.

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At the programme's peak, about 40% of the population tuned in to hear Priestley's broadcasts. Winston Churchill, who had more control over official government channels such as the Ministry of Information, had less control over the BBC.

In contrast, Churchill argued Priestley's message was a diversion from the need to focus on the military effort, and leading Tories were angered by Priestley’s "socialist ideas".

Although there is an enormous literature on the naval and military history of Dunkirk, few historians have made more than passing references to the process by which it acquired its formidable position in national memory.

Among those who do, Angus Calder in The Myth of the Blitz (1991) chastises his younger self for accepting 'almost without question the mythical version of "Dunkirk"', which he now seeks to debunk in his critical analysis of the war. The 'correct' account that Calder presents in The Myth of the Blitz is as follows:

  • German strategy was not to destroy the BEF
  • The British and French failed to help the Belgians
  • The British abandoned the French
  • The BEF was poorly equipped and British troops were frequently badly behaved
  • Small boats crewed by civilians made an insignificant contribution to the rescue
  • The long working hours associated with the 'Dunkirk spirit' were 'fruitless'
  • The British population was willfully blind to the threat to the nation after Dunkirk.

Mark Connelly likewise argues that Dunkirk encapsulates features of British history that are enduringly popular: British isolationism, patriotic sacrifice and the success of the few against impossible odds due to intrinsically noble qualities plus a capacity for improvisation.

He concludes that attempts to debunk Dunkirk will never be successful in Britain, because the understanding of it as a story 'about heroism and a miracle' is 'too entrenched in the national psyche', which will be addressed further.

Evacuated troops arrive in Dover, June 1940

Evacuated troops arrive in Dover, June 1940

'Mrs Miniver' (1942)

Based on the 1940 novel, Mrs Miniver the film shows how the life of an unassuming upper middle-class British housewife in rural England is touched by World War II. She sees her eldest son go to war, finds herself bravely confronting a German pilot who has parachuted into her village while her husband is participating in the Dunkirk evacuation, and loses her daughter-in-law as a casualty.

The film began production in 1940 as part of a campaign to help bring the United States into the war, and the plot evolved as the war unfolded. It portrayed the struggles of ordinary people, and its namesake, one of several characters depicted as a strong woman of the upper class doing her best to keep her family together.

The reference to Dunkirk is very brief, perhaps alluding to the conflicted role this event had at this point in the war. The film instead perpetuates these struggles, sufferings, and occasional triumphs of the characters. The suffering of the people is accentuated. Throughout the film, fear alongside stoicism are portrayed, and the film shows that military servicemen are not always those killed in war.

As mentioned, Mrs Miniver’s daughter-in-law, who is married to her son an RAF pilot, is killed in a Luftwaffe raid while her husband survives his own aircraft being shot down.

Film clips from 'Mrs Miniver' (1942)

The war represented in Mrs Miniver is therefore very much the people’s war and is highlighted as such in a memorable final scene where the congregation of the village is assembled in the bombed-out church.

The vicar describes the suffering but addresses the congregation with these words:

“This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom…we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them... This is the People's War. It is our war. We are the fighters.”

The film closes with a glimpse of fighter planes and bombers departing, presumably to the front lines continuing the attack. At this point in the war when the film was made, with the absence of substantive victories, the incarnation and nourishing of the myth of Dunkirk and the ‘People’s War’ celebrated in film in order to sustain the people.

'Dunkirk' (1958)

Filmed in the UK at Ealing Studios under Sir Michael Balcon with money from American film giant MGM, Dunkirk’s world premiere was in London on 20 March 1958 and was the second most popular production at the British box office that year, earning only $310,000 in the United States and Canada but $1,750,000 elsewhere.

Producers attempted to synthesize previous emphases on the “miracle of the little ships” and strived to achieve agreement about the representation of the evacuation. The film promoted the public prominence of the memory of Dunkirk, yet its reception was fractured along class and to a lesser extent gender lines, indicating the instabilities of Ealing's negotiated consensus.

Trailer for 'Dunkirk' (1958)

In the film, two of the main characters are portrayed with flaws, namely reluctance to assume responsibility and reluctance to engage in the war effort. The character of John Holden played by Richard Attenborough is a successful businessman making profits from a war he still views largely in the context of the “phoney war”.

He eventually becomes involved, partly through shame and a recognition of his duties of manhood and departs in the armada of little ships. Likewise, the character of Cpl Tubbs played by John Mills is equally reluctant to assume command of his small group of soldiers now separated from the main army, their isolation and the sense that things were fouled up at a higher level is accentuated.

Throughout the film, episodes of stubborn British resistance by a few against a numerous foe are portrayed. There are also scenes that seemingly revisit important wartime decisions, namely the Navy recognizing the need to save the army for the defence of the homeland and that of British Generals to disengage from the fighting to Dunkirk as the only rational choice for the BEF to continue the fight.

The plight of civilians is briefly illustrated while that of the French Army receives no commentary.

In the 1950s, authors and filmmakers were aware of the relationship of their representations of the Second World War to popular memory and were explicit about it, thus making its interpretation hotly contested.

Some were offended by its refusal to reproduce a model of a well-oiled military machine under the confident control of its officers; for others it was too 'reassuring'. It challenged Churchillian triumphalism and the perspective of the military leadership—populist and realist, but not as angry as later films of the ‘50s and ‘60s which were critiques of the establishment.

Ealing Studios' desire was to achieve a consensus about how the war incorporated left-wing critiques without alienating right-wing sensitivities. This, Mark Connelly argues, meant the film managed to strike a balance between a controlled representation of events, while still being critical.

Thus, Dunkirk did not disrupt, even if it elaborated, the definition of 'the Dunkirk spirit' as the capacity of the British people to unite to overcome adversity, which was exploited by successive politicians, such as Margaret Thatcher much later, and is still invoked periodically in popular British culture.

The film gave public prominence to the events of Dunkirk and offered a distinctive interpretation. It perpetuated Dunkirk's place in popular memory as a landmark wartime event. At the same time, the history of the process of which it was a part indicates the constructed and contested character of popular memory.


The films discussed represent the evolution of Dunkirk in popular and respective cultural memories. Popular characterizations of the war reinforced by the post-war films of the '50s reinforced the ideas of the generations that fought and lived through the war, even the very young, about the “Just War”.

Filmed in black and white evoking the war time films, and frequently interspliced with actual war footage, the common focus of these films focused frequently, in the case of British films, on the struggles of small groups of British soldiers against a might foe.

Angus Calder suggests that each generation feels the lapse of time which would make a difference to the people’s response to the memory of the war. As each generation becomes further removed from the direct input from relatives and living veterans, the view will change from those who didn’t live through it or indeed had contact with those who did.

The historiography of World War II continues to be revisited by historians, and it is likely that more historians will attempt to engage with the past based on new evidence or to challenge the interpretations of popular beliefs about the war. How then does an event like Dunkirk stand up to reinterpretation?

Connelly argues that few historians have bothered to further debunk the popular account of the Dunkirk story as it has become too entrenched in the national psyche. For the British, he states, Dunkirk is about heroism and a miracle.

They also further serve to reinforce British notions of apartness from Europe, otherness, self-reliance, insularity. Backs to the wall, we will always come out on top.

While others in a similar fashion as Calder may wish to revisit and critically analyse events like Dunkirk, Connolly states, might wish to present evidence to the contrary, but this retelling of a popular memory cannot overtake what people “know” about the history of the entire nation in miniature.

Notes on Sources for this article and further reading:

  • Calder, Angus, The Myth Of The Blitz, (London: Pimlico Press, 1992)
  • Calder, Angus, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945: Britain, 1939-45, (London: Pimlico Press, 1992)
  • Connelly, Mark, We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War, (London: Routledge, 2004)
  • Noakes, Lucy, War and the British: gender, memory and national identity, (London: I B Tauris & Co Ltd, 1997)
  • Noakes, Lucy and Juliette Pattinson, British Cultural Memory and the Second World War, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)
  • Rose, Sonya O., Which People's War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

FIlms discussed:

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