The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images


Dunkirk is a word that probably means something to some Britons these days, and very little to the rest of the world. But to people of my generation the word conjures up a tragic and magic moment in British history that means courage and fortitude and dignity which transformed defeat into something shining and inspirational.

These thoughts, of course, were triggered by watching the film of that name. I’d read the rave reviews by historians I’d thought were knowledgeable, and laughed with the rest of the world with the American critic who enjoyed the film, apart from commenting that there no women or people of colour portrayed in this epic retreat from the French port of Dunkerque.

Well, there were plenty of women in the Forces at that moment but not overseas on active service. All women between eighteen and forty were called up for service, unless they had children. They had freed men up for fighting by doing all the jobs men used to do – working as drivers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, cipher clerks, aircraft plotters, signals operators, radar operators, working at ammunition depots, firing Ack-Ack guns – anti-aircraft guns – Mary, Churchill’s daughter manned such a post in Hyde Park, shooting at Goering’s planes. Women worked in munitions factories,  factories, on the land, and were nurses, Red Cross workers, and did many other vital jobs.

And yes, there were no blacks in the army either… once the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made his historic ruling in 1772 that any slaves arriving in the country automatically became free men, few negroes came to England for the next century or more. The fourteen thousand or so black slaves already there, now intermarried with the English, so that the ethnicity of their descendants was not obvious in the society in which they were born.

With no slave trade allowed in England, and the Royal Navy maintaining a permanent squadron patrolling the seas for sixty years to try to stamp out the infamous traffic in people – at a cost of 22,000 sailors’ lives as they fought with traders, and millions of taxpayer’s pounds – people of African descent had disappeared by 1940. The Africans rescued by the navy, chained to each other in the bowels of slave ships in horrendous conditions, were taken to Sierra Leone where an African king had sold a strip of land to the British for the purpose of re-settling them. Plenty of ‘diversity’ in the UK now, but that didn’t start until the emigration of West Indians to England in the early nineteen fifties.

So, no women or  people of colour– no ‘diversity’- as the young American critic had called it. But I had other misgivings as I watched this much- praised epic.

The ‘ornery’ Brits sailing their tiny boats across the Channel to save their fellow men were the stars in this film! The chap and his son in their fair isle pullovers and polo ribbed sweater moved me to tears… the sheer ordinariness, and utter decency and lack of pretentiousness of them, their deep in- the- bone goodness, and their amazing kindness,  forbearance and understanding of the rescued shell – shocked nut- case –  in spite of his shocking actions – were so typical of their time and class….

But some things bugged me. Anyone who’s served in the army knows that every ten men in a regiment are a section and they have a corporal to look after them. Three sections make a platoon, who have a sergeant and a second lieutenant to look after them. Three platoons means nine corporals, three sergeants and three lieutenants. Three platoons make up a company with a captain and a company sergeant major to look after them, plus all the adjutants, 2/i/c’s (second in command) plus colonel of the regiment, etc.

There was no trace of all these chaps who actually were the ones who kept the lines in order, going forward over the sandy dunes to the rescue ships, and who, importantly, kept up their men’s morale. Not to mention the staff of all the generals in an army of 300,000 (those numbers were not obvious on the beach in the film either – it was packed to the gills in real life)

Alan Brooke was there, Montgomery was there, Lord Gort, C-in-C was there, and a host of others. Most poignant of all, and what would have made a wonderful moment of film, was General Harold Alexander, who was commanding the last troops on the beach. When everyone had gone, he travelled along the shoreline in a small motor boat at two am in the morning, with a loud hailer, calling out to check if there was anyone left. Few historians ever mention this revealing moment of character.

These people, I felt didn’t get their rightful due, and the order and dignity and courage of the retreat would probably not have happened if they hadn’t done their duty…

The navy didn’t get its due either -there were over four hundred  Navy ships shuttling to and fro, and on the worst day, seven out of ten navy ships taking on troops  were sunk at the Mole… my partner noticed there seemed to be only three ships used over and over again in the film…  being a navy man himself ! Funny they didn’t do some skilled computer generated imagery to make it look more realistic ….

Nit picking, perhaps, but I felt the film was somewhat one dimensional because of these omissions… Kenneth Branagh made a wonderful  character, which I felt owed much to Kenneth More in  ‘The Longest Day ‘, who played the Beachmaster on one of the British beaches on D-Day… with his bull dog!!!.

There are so many stories about this time in history that now are lost, and have never been recorded by historians. Reading Francis Partridge’s autobiographical ‘A Pacifist’s War’, I discovered one of the most intriguing and  little- known stories about the real Dunkirk. Her brother- in- law was the officer in charge of everyone landing at Dover and siphoning wounded and dead and living to their destinations. He told her he realised that so many troops had brought rescued dogs with them, that he organised a dogs’ cage on the beach where each dog was given labels and addresses before going to quarantine and then being sent to their owners!!  Such a typical story of British soldiers… reminding me of all the pi- dogs, as they were called, that my father’s tank regiment rescued and adopted in the desert in North Africa.

And then there was the story my brother’s general used to tell at Guest Nights in the officers’ mess. The general had been a young second lieutenant at Dunkirk, and when he’d got his men stowed away safely on a passenger ferry, he staggered up to the bar, absolutely exhausted, and put his elbows on the counter, his head between his hands, and asked the barman who was busily polishing glasses with bombs going off, ships sinking all around them, if there was any chance of a drink. To which the barman replied righteously: “Good gracious, no sir – we’re still within the three -mile limit “!!

Another little- known book told me of a father who woke in the night dreaming of his son. A very rich man, he donned his clothes, and drove off in his Rolls- Royce to the bewilderment of his wife. Abandoning the expensive car at a port, he wangled his way determinedly on a rescue ship returning to pick up more men at Dunkirk. Once at Dunkirk he strode off over the beaches, up into the town and onto the outskirts. On the side of a road, he found a mangled motor bike and his dead son – a dispatch rider – beside it, as he had seen in his dream. Somehow, in a daze he made his way back to England, a changed man.

These are the stories that fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude. They are stories which have now almost disappeared as those men have now disappeared too. Some will have been handed on by word of mouth to children as bored probably, as I was, in my ignorant, arrogant salad days when my father tried to tell me something of his long war. They are not stories telling of brave deeds in battle, but accounts of how people survived and coped and rose above terrible circumstances in terrible times. That famous, much derided stiff upper lip often saved them.

And the lesson of Dunkirk was that even when all seems lost, imagination, courage and determination can still save the day, even if it meant having to decide then, in Churchill’s words, to: ‘fight on the seas and oceans ….
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
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’.

Those simple powerful words were a turning point in the history of the free world and western civilisation… this is a small thank you to those men who made that history.


Food for threadbare gourmets

A grass widower for supper, so I needed not a grand show-off turn,  but something tasty and welcoming and above all simple. I prefer not cooking at night these days. I found an old recipe I’d forgotten about and have no idea where I found it.

Rice and chicken, but all cooked together. I fried an onion and garlic until soft, and spread them in the bottom of a shallow casserole with plenty of butter. Add a cup of long grain rice, and two cups of hot chicken stock, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Score skinless chicken thighs with a mix of chopped garlic, ginger and grated lemon, and add the chicken to the rice, fluffing it up. At this point I add some more knobs of butter to the rice. Bake for another twenty to twenty- five minutes, adding hot water if the rice needs it.

Served with salad, this is an easy satisfying dish. Pudding was the ersatz rum babas from a previous recipe. It went down a treat..  rum puddings never seem to fail!

Food for thought

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality, fashion, lack of depth. This is a serious mistake: human beings need to have elegance in their actions and in their posture because this word is synonymous with good taste, amiability, equilibrium and harmony. Paul Coelho








Filed under animals/pets, army, british soldiers, cookery/recipes, films, history, life and death, military history, slavery, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

44 responses to “The truth about Dunkirk

  1. Thank you for these precious & priceless stories, Valerie. I wanted to see this movie though some friends warned me that they found it too hard to bear. My childhood English penpal’s father was rescued form Dunkirk & I was privileged to meet that jolly man 19 years later when I visited the family in Felixstowe. He was charming & seemed to have really enjoyed his life in the years after the war. After Dunkirk he had served in India & loved curries,& made a delicious one for me. I have seen the movie & loved best the bits with the two great actors, Mark Rylance on his small pleasure craft & Kenneth Branagh, the Naval officer still waiting at the end for the French. It was a horrendous experience, but moving & powerful in parts, though disjointed story-telling & hard to hear or understand at times. I hope this is not the future of cinema. Thank you again for your interesting commentary. I don’t know if read Ellen Moody’s blog but I think you will find her Dunkirk post thorough & insightful:


  2. Thank you so much for your long and interesting comment. I agree with you about Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, great actors are always such a joy to watch…
    I went straight over to the blog you pointed me to… and found it very thoughtful and interesting, thank you, a blog I shall enjoy reading in the future too…
    So good to hear from you, best wishes…


  3. Thanks for this very interesting post especially the Services background. The emphasis is always on “the little ships” .
    I was in Dunkirk town last October and read the inscription on the memorial. Very eloquent and giving great credit to the British. I didn”t realise how many French were evacuated too.


    • Thank you so much for your comment, much appreciated. Yes, there were many French rescued, and many went back to France to fight again, or join Vichy… Many didn’t want to join de Gaulle and the free French..


  4. I prefer to read these stories and love the few you shared here Valerie,


    • I find film with its accompanying mood altering music overwhelming, so it’s unlikely I’ll be watching this any time soon, the imagination is quite enough. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and especially the anecdotes.


    • Thank you so much Claire … if only someone had collected the stories of those who returned … I can understand your misgivings about the film… I certainly found it disappointing after the write up a reputable historian like Max Hastings gave it…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed this post with bits and pieces of real life. Movies often trim out the most interesting parts.


  6. Valerie, I am so glad you wrote about this topic because you offer an educated and valuable analysis of the film that will teach “Dunkirk” to the masses. Too bad everybody watching the movie can’t read your critique! I have not seen the movie as I rarely go to the movie theater. But I will remember what you have written here.


  7. Thank you for your wonderful, chilling, and very educated analysis of the film. One of my children just went to see the film and thought it was outstanding. I always approach film with the thought…this will not be totally real. ever… it will be what the movie people want us to think…an alternate reality, so to speak.
    Thank you for the recipe and the quote…so often we forget what true elegance really is!
    Love you


    • Linda , as ever you give me such encouragement – and thank you… you’re so right about an alternate reality in films… so often facts are tampered with or ignored in the interests of drama in the film !!!
      I’m glad you liked Paul Coelho;s quotes, it really rang a bell with me…
      That letter will be on its way!!!!
      with love, Valerie

      Liked by 1 person

  8. There are so many stories of brave men and women that are hidden in the folds of history. May we remember those who lived, who sacrificed. I look at my father’s photo in his WWII uniform. He was so young and inexperienced. He had begged his father to let him enlist early at the age of 17. But his father remained firm and said the must wait until 18. All his friends who went early, did not come home. FranklinD. Roosevelt said in a speech on August 14, 1936: “I have seen war.. I hate war.” May we learn to live in peace and seek positive outcomes for all. It starts within our families and local communities. Thank you for a marvelous post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rebecca, so good to hear from you. I loved your phrase about the stories hidden in the folds of history… so true.
      Yes, peace can only come when we are at peace in ourselves and within our communities.. which takes much wisdom!!!


  9. I love your selection of snippets on Dunkirk. My views of it have always been fired by a book written in the year of my birth: Paul Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose’. To this day, that story moves me to tears.
    The story about the rich man and his son — I wonder how well vouched-for it is? When you think about it, enough events like that properly authenticated and documented would silence forever all those who deny any possibility of ‘spirits’ or ‘supernatural’ etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you as ever for your pertinent remarks… I still have a battered copy of The Snow Goose – beautiful isn’t it…
      I can’t remember the name of the book ( grrr) I read about the rich man – it was by a family member of his, and I’ve never forgotten it, precisely because of your thoughts about the supernatural…
      I read with interest and agreement your remarks about Lewis Carroll and age differentials in another blog… again, so true…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. It is not correct that there were no Black servicemen or women. True, numbers in the UK were small, but there were substantial communities in major seaports like Liverpool and Cardiff. There were other minority communities such as Chinese and the Yemeni community of South Tyneside (seafaring again). Black men served in the army in the First World War and one became the first Black officer in an English regiment before being killed. While there was plenty of informal racism, by the Second World War there was no formal discrimination and call-up papers took no account of colour. What is true is that you can see film of hundreds of British soldiers of this period without seeing a Black face, something that wouldn’t happen today.


  11. Oh, and I forgot to mention – a friend of mine, researching family history, found out the location of the First World War grave in Flanders of a relative, a young Australian soldier who was entirely ethnic Chinese.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m a little put-off the film by the presence of Mark Rylance. His classist drivel about Shakespeare may be irrelevant – or not, depending on your own idea of the essence of Britishness – but I can’t put it out of my mind any more, watching him.


    • I know what you mean… it feels ridiculous… none of their candidates for authorship seem valid… Francis Bacon would seem the most likely – if you hadn’t read his essays and other stuff ( which I had to do for A levels back in 1955) and realised that he no more had the mind and imagination to write those plays or ‘feel’ those sonnets, than John Lennon !!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Still worse that the OUP has given credence and validation to these spurious attempts at usurpation. We live in increasingly retrogressive, socially immobile times, and any privilege and prestige is tenaciously clung to. And now, we have enclosure of intellectual property by those with no legitimate title to it. Down with the workers, that should be the cry now.


  13. ellenandjim

    Thank you very much for this. I would not know these details even if I was born in 1946 and my parents told me stories of World War Two from the American perspective: my father was 4F — he learned he has a rheumatic heart when he went (as he did) to volunteer. I think that Nolan did not mean to make a film that memorialized fortitude, courage, gallantry and British culture except as this impinged on the perspective he was determined to keep to: how from the experience of the average British soldier this experience would have been felt and seen. At the end of the film he does turn to the emotions and behaviors you so eloquently describe, but he is probably right about the opening phases of the retreat. You make telling points that he is inaccurate in his depiction of the organization of platoons; the budget was not as small as I thought and one of the comments I got was about this. So why he chose just to have one example epitomizing the small boat and a very few spitfires might be in the interests of a minimalism. There was very little dialogue.

    I am a strong fan of Mark Rylance since I saw him in Wolf Hall. For me he did embody the spirit you have memorialized. I’ll put the URL on my blog on my comments and my reply.

    Thank you to Judith for telling Valerie of my blog and sending me the URL.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughts on the whole Dunkirk thing !!! I do feel though that Nolan skewed the average soldier’s experience of Dunkirk as there was no way he could have avoided being organised by the NCO’s and officers who were paid to do just that – and it must have given him a sense of security as far as it was possible.
      My father did not escape until three weeks later, from Cherbourg, and his regiment and the organisation was what held them all together in the awful panic as they were deserted by their French allies when they capitulated to the Nazis, with no warning…


  14. ellenandjim

    I’ll add that on our listserv the movie prompted a number of moving autobiographical memories of Dunkirk:


  15. Ellen, I don’t know what a listserve is ( technologically incompetent), and would love to read the stories you mention. How do I get there?


    • Valerie, I mentioned your unanswered request to Ellen, who is leaving for Scotland in a few days. She said she must ok you, so hopes you will request a membership in the next few days, if you want to get in & read Dunkirk comments. I copied her response to me (below). (I joined to read War & Peace with her online literary 19thc novels group last summer. And I’ve hung about reading their interesting emails & will read again with them when they get to Anna Karenina later this summer after her return.) Judith

      Here is her message:
      A lot of people seem not to know the older term: listserv is what lists used to be called; as blogs are a short form of web-logs. The first web-logs were columns about the writer’s experience on the web that day. I don’t have the time this morning. Just send her the URL for this listserv: the one on top of the page when you come to the home site. The trouble is I won’t be here to approve the membership and am not sure I can do it from far away, so if she subscribes next week it would be best.


      Liked by 1 person

  16. I didn’t watch the movies for the reasons you’ve so eloquently and specifically described in your post. Dunkirk or Dunkerque for the French received tons of praise, but I didn’t like what I read beyond the main stream media. Also, as much as we must remember history in order to learn from it I am a little tired of movies about the war, all kinds of war. As always a thoughtful post, Valerie.


    • Hello Evelyne, apologies for very belated reply, have been away….thank you for much for what you say, – and I also hurriedly corrected my spelling of Dunkerque – I was most grateful !!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I didn’t want to correct the spelling at all:)
        I know both!
        The French spelling makes it tough word to pronounce for an English speaker.
        Love all of your posts, Valerie! Unfortunately like you I’m not always able to comment. But I appreciate their depth.


  17. Patty B

    terrific article and like you those stories “fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude.” and the British people during that time had courage unlike we have ever seen before or since. This story needs to be told and others like it – in the hopes we stop repeating the same mistakes. As an American I am ashamed of that critic – you can’t change history to be political correct. Valerie, your posts always educate us and are well written and researched.


    • Patti, so lovely to hear from you, and thank you for your beautiful words…
      Don’t worry about the American critic – there are plenty of uninformed people around apart fro him !!!! He just gave me an opportunity to put the facts straight !!!
      You’re so right about being politically correct !!!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Oh, I did love that and so did Mr S who found it equally fascinating. I love the humanity in the tales you tell and have enjoyed the comments too.
    I always enjoy reading your Threadbare Gourmet paragraph and today made your Rice and Chicken for our supper – delicious! Thank you. That will indeed become a firm favourite.
    With love, Sally


    • Dear Sally, I so loved your enthusiasm. Knowing your high standards and erudition, I always value your comments. So thank you yet again.. you warmed the cockles of my cliched heart !!!!
      Glad you enjoyed the chicken and rice recipe… now I’ve remembered it, it’s become a staple for us too !

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Dear Valerie,

    From one nitpicker to another, I really enjoyed the minute facts you brought to light. When it comes to movies, one thing out of sync can ruin it for me. The most memorable thing in one critically acclaimed movie we saw was a scene where a woman is on the telephone circa early 1960’s. She’s in the kitchen and in her hand is a piece of Tupperware that didn’t come out until the mid 70’s. I could go on, but I found that bit jarring and wondered why the makers of the film didn’t do better homework. See where you sent me. 😉
    History meant nothing to me as a young girl, but now that there’s so much it behind me, I find myself scrambling to learn as much as I can. Thank you for your informative and entertaining piece. You never disappoint.




  20. Hello Rochelle, thank you for your long chatty comment… though I felt the facts I explored were important rather than ‘minute ‘!!!!
    I know what you mean about history – it never fails and never dries up – there’s always more, and it’s always intriguing !!!!
    Your tupperware mention brought back the tupperware parties I attended as a young bride back in 1963…I hated them, was bored out of my tiny mind, and spent money I didn’t want to !!!!
    Good to hear from you as ever,
    love Valerie


    • Dear Valerie,
      I suppose minute was the wrong term. I hope you know that I didn’t mean to minimize them in any way. I love those nuggets that we never hear of otherwise…perhaps obscure would be a better word.




  21. Autumn Cote

    Would it be OK if I cross-posted trhis article to There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and thought this was insightful. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. If “OK” please let me know via email.


    Liked by 1 person

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