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Very Small Boats at Dunkirk

Very Small Boats at Dunkirk

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The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill. This first volume in the British official history of the war at sea covers the period from the outbreak of the war through to the first British disasters in the Pacific in December 1941. Amongst other topics it covers the Norwegian campaign, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the first two years of the Battle of the Atlantic. The text is meticulously researched, and is rooted in a detailed study of wartime records, both British and German. [see more]

Bloodless, boring and empty: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk left me cold

The subject sounds enticing: the legend of Dunkirk tells of an array of unprepared civilians assembling an armada of fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, motor launches, paddle steamers, barges and lifeboats to rescue an army from a battle-swept beach. What might cinema reveal of the logistical skills, resourcefulness, courage, doubts, arguments and fears of the citizenry involved?

Yet Nolan’s film chooses to ignore tales such as that of the Medway Queen, a paddle steamer that brought home 7,000 troops in seven round trips and shot down three German planes, or the Royal Daffodil, which returned 9,500 soldiers after blocking a hole below the waterline with a mattress. Instead, we encounter just one boat, skippered by a saintly Mark Rylance, comically attired in his Sunday best. The travails such a figure might have endured were apparently not dramatic enough. Instead, Rylance’s character is subjected to a bizarre set of events garnished with grating sentimentality.

For it is not the dynamics of the people’s armada that interest Nolan. He is more concerned with what is happening on and above Dunkirk’s beaches. What’s mainly happening, however, is that lots of soldiers are waiting around. Escapades, not altogether convincing, are therefore contrived for a few of them. Some bombs fall, some ships are sunk. Commanders mutter briefly but sagely to each other. In the skies, fighter pilots conduct what seems like an endlessly repeated dogfight. One plane runs out of fuel, although not as quickly as audiences might have hoped. And that’s sort of it.

Film-makers usually instil interest in their protagonists by giving them backstories and meaningful dialogue, thereby creating characters who can be engaged in drama. In Dunkirk, these things don’t happen.

The film also denies filmgoers any context. We’re told little about how the army has come to be beached or the threat it faces. We never see a German soldier, let alone the generals and politicians of either side who are masterminding events. We don’t even get the customary three sentences of text at the end, explaining the outcome. This is deliberate: Nolan has said he didn’t want to get “bogged down” in politics.

Another flaunted absence is CGI. Scale is the essence of the Dunkirk myth. There were more than 330,000 soldiers on the beach, and 933 British vessels, naval and private, plying the waves. It is for this kind of situation that computers were invented, but according to Nolan CGI counts as giving up.

So, in spite of his film’s $150m budget, the Royal Air Force seems to consist of three Spitfires, although real-life pilots flew 3,500 sorties at Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe, which Hitler made solely responsible for wiping out the beached Brits, seems able to summon up little more than a couple of Messerschmitts, three Stukas and one bomber. The Royal Navy appears to comprise just two destroyers in fact, it deployed 39 destroyers and 309 other craft.

Women are excluded from the action by being confined to stereotypical roles, such as providing tea for the homecoming menfolk. In real life, female Auxiliary Territorial Service telephonists – who received two-thirds of a male soldier’s pay – were some of the last military personnel to leave the beach. The evacuees also included female civilians, including girls, caught up in the turmoil.

Nothing to get … Tom Hardy in Dunkirk. Photograph: Warner Bros/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

The restrictions Nolan places on himself have been cited to demonstrate his brilliance as a director. Not for him the humdrum apparatus of lesser directors. His film must be pared back so it can home in on its true subject. Which is what, exactly? Don’t be silly, the reviewers groan: it is the horror of war as never before. OK, got that, another stab at war-is-hell. Except that Dunkirk is no such thing. It is a 12A effort that avoids blood and guts as thoroughly as it avoids so much else. In the film, people hit by bombs die discreetly, with no unseemly dismemberment. Even abandoning a torpedoed ship doesn’t seem too unpleasant. So the movie doesn’t, as claimed, make you feel the terror of those it depicts. Why not?

Well, Dunkirk isn’t actually a war film at all – Nolan tells us so. That is why it doesn’t concern itself with “the bloody aspects of combat”. Instead, it is “a survival story, and first and foremost a suspense film”, according to the director.

A survival story, like Gravity, perhaps? But Dunkirk’s soldiers are denied the means of effecting their own survival, and it is in this that their pathos resides. Their unheroic fate is to mill around on a beach and get ferried home by non-combatants. Signaller Alfred Baldwin, who was at Dunkirk in 1940, recalled: “You had the impression of people standing waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving.”

Or is it a suspense film, like Rear Window? We all know the outcome of the event, and know that nothing terribly bad was ever going to happen to Harry Styles, Captain Rylance or our plucky pilots. Even Hans Zimmer’s manipulative score can’t make that brick out of this straw.

But at least I now understand why I didn’t get it: there was nothing to get. Nolan trades on a mystique fuelled by affectations such as mangled timeframes and Imax cameras. In the film, the complications of chronology seem silly, and the naturalistic environment exposes this. I trekked to Leicester Square in London to get the full benefit of the 70mm picture, but I didn’t notice any. Indeed, I thought the subject would have been better suited to the cold, TV-news glare of digital than the lushness of film.

Still, Warner Brothers and the world seem happy to indulge Nolan. Good luck to him, not that he seems to need it.

Dunkirk 'Little Ships' to repeat landmark journey 85 years after saving 338,000 lives

It's a revival of the Little Ships as enthusiasts restore the Dunkirk boats to repeat a landmark World War 2 rescue mission from Ramsgate to Dunkirk to commemorate the bravery of the original crews - plans which had last year been put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic

They were the “Little Ships” that took part in the Miracle of Dunkirk, rescuing 338,000 troops from the beaches of France in the Second World War.

From May 26 to June 4 in 1940, around 850 boats crossed the Channel to Normandy to save Allied soldiers from the advancing Nazis.

Last year many of the surviving boats had been due to sail once again from Ramsgate to Dunkirk to mark the 80th anniversary – and commemorate the bravery of the original crews.

But those plans were put on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships has now decided to instead make the journey in 2025, on the evacuation’s 85th anniversary.

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It says just 120 of the boats that joined the hazardous expedition remain – and fears others may be rotting away in boatyards.

However experts are aware of eight that went into yards for restorations during the pandemic and it hopes as many as possible will be involved with the 2025 flotilla.

One proud owner of a rescued Little Ship is Jodi Smith, whose grandfather William took part in the evacuation as captain of the Gainsborough Trader on May 31, 1940.

He braved German bombers to rescue hundreds of troops from the harbour mole at Dunkirk – a stone structure jutting out into water too shallow for larger vessels.

Jodi said: “There were air attacks while they were trying to get troops from the mole to the big ships.

“Grandad left the mole for the last time with 140 troops.

“One of those was a colonel but, despite all our research, we’ve no idea of his name – or of how many troops Grandad rescued in total.”

Her grandfather died in 1977, when Jodi was 13, but her father told her of his heroic exploits. Then in 2015 she was honoured to represent Captain WH Smith at the 75th Dunkirk anniversary.

Jodi said: “I went to Dunkirk to commemorate the 75th anniversary in honour of my grandfather.

“While there I had the privilege of being invited on board Gainsborough Trader by the present owner.”

Jodi said the experience of attending Dunkirk had been “very humbling”, adding: “It was there that my partner Geoff and I decided we’d like to own a Dunkirk Little Ship in honour of my grandfather.”

That summer she bought and restored the Papillon – and then joined a crossing in 2016.

The trip coincided with director Christopher Nolan’s filming of his movie Dunkirk.

It starred Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy and also featured former One Direction star Harry Styles. Jodi said: “We sailed our Dunkirk Little Ship from the Isle of Wight, via Ramsgate, to Dunkirk to take part in the filming.

“As we were approaching Dunkirk, filming was under way and in the distance we could see thick black smoke billowing from the beaches.

“Straight away I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.

“It gave me a small insight into what my grandfather and all the crews of the Little Ships experienced. As we approached the mole, we sailed past ships moored alongside which were full of ‘soldiers’ who had taken a break from filming to watch us sail past.

“The flotilla of 12 original Little Ships received a huge round of applause and a standing ovation.

“It was such an emotional experience, it made me even more proud.”

After the war the Gainsborough Trader was bought by the Pickfords shipping company and renamed Master of Foxhounds to transport goods along the Thames.

She has since been bought by new owners and had her original name restored. She took part in 2015’s 75th anniversary crossing and is now moored on the Thames.

Mick Gentry, from the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, said the organisation could help people identify whether or not a ship had taken part in the historic evacuation.

He said: “There are Little Ships that are still being recovered, or that return to our association after a change of owners.

“We have an archivist who possesses a very comprehensive listing of Little Ships that took part.

“We’re able to quite quickly ­determine if a boat is a proven Dunkirk Little Ship.”

Mick added it is always the boat that is welcomed into the association, explaining: “It’s the Little Ship that is the member.”

During the wartime crossing, codenamed Operation Dynamo, the vessels came under near constant bombardment from the German Luftwaffe.

Around 235 were destroyed and 5,000 soldiers lost their lives.

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill hailed the feat as a “miracle of deliverance”.


Built in 1915, the Dorian served as a naval pinnace launch supplying battle ships in harbour – and powered by 38 oarsmen.

She was converted into a “gentleman’s motor cruiser” after being sold off by the Navy.

Thanks to her role at Dunkirk, she is thought to be the only boat used by the Navy in both world wars.

She became a houseboat on the Thames, but was found in decay by the Restoration Trust in 2010 and bought for £1.

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Funds dried up, then four years ago Nigel Walters spotted her.

He said: “I asked about her. It was being done extremely well, but it was a bare hull.

" So I got involved and funded the rest of the restoration. She really came alive just over a year or so ago.

“We built her back using traditional techniques – she’s probably better now than she was then.”

Regal Lady

Regal Lady, which also took part in the rescue mission, now sits fully restored in Scarborough harbour serving as a floating Dunkirk museum.

The 91-year-old vessel carried 1,200 men to safety in the 1940 evacuation.

Owner Heath Samples said: “Dunkirk was such a turning point in British history – and all our history. It was a time to be proud of, all our lives benefited from that.

“But there aren’t many Dunkirk little ships left. There were 800 that went across. It’s a privilege to have a piece of that history.”

The ADLS hopes as many boats as possible will take part in its 2025 commemoration. A spokesman said: “The flotilla usually numbers 60 to 65 Little Ships. For the 2020 return we had 75 Little Ships committed – before the Covid outbreak led to its cancellation.”

Fleury II

In a Cornish boatyard, the Fleury II has been restored to its former glory – with a few extras.

Built in Christchurch, Dorset, in 1936, the motor yacht was another of those that made the dangerous Channel crossing. But with a leaking glassed deck and rotting deck beneath, she needed structural repairs as well as a refit.

Project manager Holly Latham said: “The traditional feel of the boat has been enhanced with modern engines and electricals, a new galley and period light fittings using LEDs.

“A rewarding part of the project has been the new owner’s eagerness to respect the history of the vessel while making sure she can be fully enjoyed during the next chapter of her life.

“Practical changes have been sensitively hidden to complement Fleury II’s heritage and ensure her survival for decades to come.”

‘Dunkirk’ Fact Check: How Many Civilian Boats Came to Help?

People have flocked by the boatload to see Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” about a massive evacuation effort that rescued over 300,000 British soldiers stranded on the beaches of France in the midst of enemy gunfire.

In the historical drama, Mark Rylance plays a British sailor who traveled to Dunkirk on his own small pleasure boat. In one inspiring moment, the movie suggests that dozens — if not hundreds — of civilian boats came to help the cause.

But how accurate is that scene? Just how many civilian boats were really on hand to answer the call?

During “Operation Dynamo,” as the Dunkirk rescue effort was called, over 700 private boats – called the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” — sailed from Ramsgate in England to Dunkirk in France. The history text “Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory” says the commissioned boats included everything from pleasure boats, yachts, fishing boats and small, motorized life boat.

The British government inspected the boats to make sure they could navigate shallow waters. As in the movie, many of the boats could not land on the beaches, and soldiers had to swim out to the boats.

It’s not very romantic to say so, but for the most part these boats were commissioned by the government and were piloted by members of the Navy. It’s a myth that countless individual civilians all sailed out on their own. but a small handful of fisherman actually did.

According to the Dunkirk Association of Little Ships, which is made up of the ships’ current owners: “Very few owners took their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others. “

So Rylance’s character wasn’t unrealistic.

Navy rocks the boat with effort to debunk Dunkirk 'myth' of little ships

The Royal Navy found itself in controversial waters last night after launching an effort, 60 years after the event, to reclaim virtually all the credit for rescuing 338,000 British soldiers in the Dunkirk evacuation.

In a new book, an author from the navy's historical branch dismissed the popular "myth" that little ships crewed by civilians played a big role in saving troops stranded on the French coast.

But last night another writer, who has studied 100 of the small vessels, said the attempt to "airbrush civilians out of history" was grossly unfair. He called the figures on which it was based "absolutely ridiculous".

His attack came as nearly 70 surviving little ships gathered in Dover to sail to Dunkirk for this weekend's 60th anniversary celebrations.

In a new preface to the reissued RN staff history of the operation, Jock Gardner writes: "The popular view, although not entirely incorrect - has taken on the status of a myth.

"[It is] a myth because it conveys neither an accurate nor a balanced account of the real achievement. Clearly, from the angle of human interest, the mythical interpretation has an appeal. But now, some 60 years after the event, it is time for more factual material to become clearly visible."

Mr Gardner says figures in the book show that 230,446 soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk harbour - well over twice the 98,790 saved by little ships from the beaches, which were "very much a second choice". The figures were unsurprising because the harbour's capacity was much bigger than that of the beaches, where Royal Navy ships could not get close enough.

Moreover, the 500-600 mostly requisitioned civilian small ships which took part "were generally staffed by the Royal Navy and reservists rather than civilians".

David Knowles, whose book Escape from Catastrophe, is also published this week, said: "For anyone to claim that they took an accurate, detailed count of the soldiers they were loading at Dunkirk is absolute hooey".

Mr Knowles, who has interviewed scores of Dunkirk survivors, added: "We know from contemporary accounts that no satisfactory official record was possible. They were loading 2,000 people an hour.

"The whole place was in chaos. They had no time to count."

In Dover, Rob Stokes, an official of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, said: "The chaps on the beaches were standing up to their necks in water day and night waiting to be rescued.

"Without the little ships, they would not have come home. But Mr Gardner is absolutely right to say that most of these ships were manned by naval crews. I can't quarrel with that."

• The Evacuation from Dunkirk Frank Cass (£45)

• Escape from Catastrophe Knowles Publishing, Rochester, Kent ME1 2DU (£11.50), also available at WH Smith


With Dunkirk, the disastrous defense of the Low Countries ended in a brief flash of glory for the Allies. Yet the brilliance of the evacuation could not hide the fact that the British had suffered a terrible defeat and that Britain itself was in dire peril. The BEF had been saved, but almost all of its heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, and motorized transport had been left behind. In addition, more than 50,000 British troops were unable to escape the Continent of these, 11,000 were killed and the bulk of the remainder were made prisoners of war (a handful were able to evade capture and eventually made their way back to Allied or neutral territory). Especially notable among the losses was the 51st Highland Division, which had been placed under French command in an effort to prop up France’s flagging defenses. Some 10,000 troops of the division were captured when German troops overran Saint-Valéry-en-Caux on June 12. Britain was helpless in the face of a seemingly all-conquering foe that stood just a few miles away, across the open water of the English Channel.

Nevertheless, the British were undaunted by their departure from the Continent, and they began planning for their return almost immediately. In a bizarre quirk of history, Tennant would once again use a breakwater off the Channel coast to influence the course of the war. Almost exactly four years after the evacuation, he supervised the construction and operation of Mulberries, artificial harbours that would prove vital to the success of the Normandy Invasion. Tennant had personally recommended the construction of “Gooseberries”—artificial breakwaters built with scuttled ships—to protect the vulnerable structures. The Americans deviated from Tennant’s plan, and Mulberry A at Omaha Beach was destroyed in a storm just days after it became operational. Mulberry B, located at Gold Beach and protected by a Gooseberry breakwater built according to Tennant’s specifications, would remain operational for 10 months, receiving some 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and four million tons of supplies. For his service at both Dunkirk and Normandy, Tennant was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Bath and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.

'Dunkirk' Director Christopher Nolan: 'We Really Try To Put You On That Beach'

Fionn Whitehead plays Tommy, a British soldier awaiting evacuation, in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

Melinda Sue Gordon/ Warner Bros.

In England, there's something known as the "Dunkirk spirit," shorthand for coming together in times of adversity. It refers to the heroic evacuation of British troops by British civilians in small boats at the beginning of World War II — and it's a story director Christopher Nolan has wanted to tell for a long time.

"You've got 400,000 men on this beach [in Dunkirk, France], pretty much within sight of England the enemy closing in on all sides," Nolan says. "And they were faced with really the choice between surrender and annihilation. And the fact that this story does not end in either surrender or annihilation is why, for me, I think it's one of the greatest stories in human history."

Movie Interviews

'Dark Knight Rises,' But Saga Ends For Director Nolan

Nolan is best known for the visually stunning and special effects-heavy Dark Knight trilogy. His new film, Dunkirk, is the first time he's tackled a true story.

Interview Highlights

On making the crossing to Dunkirk around the same time of year as the evacuation

We went into it, I think, in a pretty light fashion. You know, we jumped on the boat and we thought it would take, you know, eight or nine hours. It took about 19 hours and the weather was terrible. And the channel can be very, very fierce, and that was without anybody dropping bombs on us. We weren't heading into a war zone the way people were in 1940. And so your admiration and respect for the idea of any civilian willingly, knowingly getting on their boat and heading out into those waters to make that crossing into a war zone — I mean it's unthinkably brave.

Movie Reviews

Wartime Terror And Valor Thread Together In Nolan's Gripping 'Dunkirk'

On talking to Dunkirk veterans and making their accounts part of the film

We did a series of interviews to gather impressions and material, really look in their eyes and hear what their experiences were. Some of those things very directly made it into the film. I mean, there's a moment in particular where you see our heroes kind of sitting there on the beach, not knowing what to do, and they watch a soldier just walk into the water and swim away. And this was something that a veteran called Vic Viner, a guy I was privileged to meet, he just told me that he watched people do this. And I asked him, I said, "Well, did they actually think they could swim the channel? Were they swimming out to the boats? What?" And he said he didn't know what they were doing, but he knew that they were going to die. It was a very sobering thing, and I really wanted to put that experience into the film. That's just one example of a lot of different things that I was told by these veterans that you could only really get from first-hand accounts.

Nolan filmed Dunkirk on the French beach where the evacuation took place. Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. hide caption

Nolan filmed Dunkirk on the French beach where the evacuation took place.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

On thinking of the film as "intimate epic"

The idea was that you don't depart from a very human scale of storytelling. You don't cut away to generals in rooms with maps kind of, you know, talking about the politics or the history or whatever. You just stick with what people at the time would have seen and experienced. And so what I wound up doing is fragmenting the story into three different story lines that braid together, and broadly speaking that's land, sea and air. So we really try to put you on that beach, we try to put you in the cockpit of that spitfire above the beach, we try to put you on a boat coming over to help with the evacuation. And the idea is that as the stories cross cut, we're building up a bigger picture of the events for the audience who doesn't understand or doesn't know the story.

On his decision to film on the beach in Dunkirk, with real boats and planes, instead of relying on special effects

The tone of the film is really about immersion, it's really about first-person experience. There's very little dialogue in the film. The idea is you jump right in and you're almost a participant in what's going on. And so I wanted the clearest, most real, most tactile sensibility for everything in the film, including the visual effects. And so we sourced real planes, real boats. We shot in the real location. Several days, we found ourselves on the real beach watching the real little ships who'd actually taken part in the evacuation in 1940. They came back to Dunkirk. . We had a group of the same boats, and they came and they took part in our restaging of the evacuation.

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On prioritizing suspense over character development

My gamble with this film was to turn around and say, "What if we strip the conventional theatrics away?" I wanted to produce a film that was almost entirely based on the language of suspense, which I think is the most visual of cinematic languages, which is why I think Hitchcock has always been held up as possibly the greatest director of all time. And what Hitchcock understood — and I've tried to emulate and really learn from — is that the audience can care about a character simply by virtue of what it is they're trying to achieve onscreen in a physical sense, a task they're trying to achieve. We very immediately, as audience members, we lean into that. We find ourselves in their shoes very quickly, and I wanted to make a film that really snuck up on the emotions. The emotion . hopefully it feels earned by the end of the film it doesn't feel like something that we've been telling you to feel the whole way through the film.

Monkey See

Pop Culture Happy Hour: 'Dunkirk'

On the responsibility that comes with making a film based on real events

There's an enormous responsibility that comes with it. And that sense of responsibility — particularly for a British person working in what's really sacred ground in British culture — when you then come to screen the film, all of that responsibility, all of that pressure comes flooding back. We had a screening for the veterans that I had spoken to, their families. . Honestly, never felt quite such pressure in a professional setting as standing in front of that audience and about to, you know, show our version of what they'd actually lived through.

Oh how the screening for veterans went

I came away feeling that we had concentrated on the right things and tried to be authentic in the right ways. . I've tried to approach it as a storyteller and I've tried to be free in that, and I came away from that screening feeling that that had allowed a bigger picture to emerge that they recognized.

Danny Hajek and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.


Key Waterway Dimensions

Local Waterway Links

Once on the VNF network, navigation is straightforward. Encounters with commercial traffic will be limited to the port of Dunkirk and the Canal de Bourbourg, especially the section incorporated in the Liaison Dunkerque-Escaut. The very infrequent movements on the other canals can lead to problems with weed and invasive species such as the water hyacinth.

Locks There are no locks on the Canal de Bergues, and only one lock on the Canal de Furnes, situated at the entrance from the Canal de Jonction. Authorised dimensions are 38.50 by 5.05m. There are three locks on the Canal de Bourbourg. The one at Jeu de Mail in Dunkerque (see plan) is 110 by 12m. The other two, situated on the section between the upgraded length and the river Aa have dimensions of 38.50 by 5.20m.

Lock connecting Darse n° 1 to the Canal de l’ïle Jeanty. Once through this lock, it is 700m south to enter the inland waterways. © Adant Frédéric

Draught The maximum authorised draught is 2.20m in Dunkirk and along the Canal de Bourbourg to PK 10.9 and 3.00m on the upgraded length incorporated in the Liaison Dunkerque-Escaut, otherwise 1.80m.

Headroom All the fixed bridges leave a clear headroom of 3.20m above the highest navigable water level (3.50m above normal level). There are no bridges on the upgraded section.

Towpath A metalled public road replaces the former towpath on the south bank from Dunkirk through to Bourbourg lock, then on the north bank through to the Aa. Good towpaths on the other sections of these canals.

Authority Grand port maritime de Dunkerque
– Terre-plein Guillain, BP 6534, 59386 Dunkerque cedex 1
(Canal de Jonction and Canal de l’Île Jeanty)

VNF – Direction territoriale Nord-Pas de Calais
Terre-plein de l’Écluse du Jeu de Mail, 59375 Dunkerque

Bassin du Commerce

Everything That's Great About Dunkirk, According to a Dunkirk Historian

Michael Korda has seen a lot. He served in the Air Force for two years in Germany, he remembers World War Two, and he's published countless books on everything from the Battle of Britain to watch making. His next, Alone, is about the Dunkirk evacuation (available September 19th). So the question had to be asked: What does he make of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, heralded for its nontraditional structure and historical accuracy? And what's the worst war movie he's ever seen?

GQ: So let's get into it: what did you think of the movie?
Michael Korda: I was very, very impressed by the film, I have to say. I suppose it would be possible, if I really put my mind to it, to nitpick about certain things. But they really would be such small things. I did not find that there were many things that were wrong. At no point did I say, "Well, that just looks totally wrong and doesn't correspond to anything that happened."

You would know. You've written books about Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, which in some ways happened because of Dunkirk.
I know a lot about Dunkirk stuff, my book about Dunkirk is being published on September 19. Dunkirk is really the opening act of the Battle of Britain, as it were. Dunkirk took place end of May, beginning of June 1940, and the Battle of Britain is generally assumed to have begun late July, early August 1940.

The Best Part of 'Dunkirk' Is the Sweaters

How does Dunkirk shape up against other war movies?
[Christopher Nolan] clearly did not want to do a slightly artificial docudrama like Saving Private Ryan. So he doesn't set up a fictional story, there's no central character or narrative to it, and I think that was a very courageous and the correct decision to make. The characters of the film are composite characters. The Kenneth Branagh character is an amalgamation of several naval people who were on the beach and speaks for the general situation at the time. Otherwise, the audience is not going to know that as the crow flies, or as the seagull flies, it's only about 23 miles, 25 miles I think, from Dunkirk to Dover. Or that there are 400,000 men on the beach. So he supplies those facts. But there's very little of that in the film and I think that that's good and impressive. You get the experience of Dunkirk without the artificiality of scenes in which you see Winston Churchill talking to General Ismay. There are none of the usual cliches of war films in here.

Right, you never even see a German properly.
Yeah, you see two German soldiers at the very end of the film, but you only see them as shadows. If you were not of an age to recognize a German helmet from somebody's else's helmet you wouldn't know who they were. Germans are never mentioned, nobody in the film ever mentions the Germans! That also makes sense because [the movie is] not about that. It's about survival on the beach, and I don't suppose that anybody gave a thought about the Germans. They were simply the people who were shooting at you. [Nolan] does all that very, very well.

You were in the Air Force for two years, so I have to ask, what did you make of the arial sequences with Tom Hardy's character?
I think more important to me, is that they were overwhelmingly visually amazing. It's just that dramatic expanse of sky and the smallness of the aircraft. I've not seen aerial or photography of aerial fighting done that well ever before. The overriding concern of the Spitfire pilot with his piece of chalk and so forth—the amount of fuel he has left. [Nolan] makes you understand that perfectly well that the very basic thing is how much fuel you have left because it determines how long you can stay over the beach and if you decide to stay longer, then you're committing yourself to not being able to return to England. He does that without any tedious explanation at all. I also think his handling of the small boats is absolutely wonderful. You have a complete sense of what it was like to be in the English Channel with a 25-foot long motor boat going to Dunkirk.

Out of curiosity, has there been a war film you can remember that got a lot of things wrong?
Well, I didn't much like Saving Private Ryan. I didn't think it was a bad film and Spielberg is a wonderful director. I didn't much like it. Partly because you would think looking at it that the British and the Canadians had not been part of D-Day. Whereas in fact, on the first day three-quarters of the soldiers who were landed on the beach, I think were either British or Canadian. There's also an enormous amount of contrivance there to make you understand what's happening.

My preference, but that's a question of age, is for a different kind of war film. My father was the art director Daryl Zanuck for The Longest Day, and I published A Bridge Too Far and was involved, of course, with that and A Bridge Too Far. I thought was a wonderful war movie. But that's a whole different era of war movies, with stars playing cameo roles and explanations of what Monty's strategy was and sequences in which we see the German generals planning. My preference is certainly for that, but seeing Dunkirk makes me think that for that particular episode, this was probably the right way to do it and it is a more modern way of making a war film.

So you really enjoyed it, then, history and all?
I would not have believed that anyone would make a big movie about Dunkirk at this particular time and would not have believed that it would have been this kind of success, so I'm astonished and pleased by that. I'm sure the French will complain it gives them short shrift, and that's true. But we think of Dunkirk as an English story, as a British story I should say, and that it presents brilliantly.

I went to see the movie in Red Hook, New York–It's a very small place–at three in the afternoon on Saturday and it was sold out. Not only was it totally sold out, but at the end of it the audience stood up and applauded and a substantial number of people in the audience were in tears. If you had told me that you could put together an audience of people in Red Hook, New York on a Saturday afternoon to see an event in English history that took place 77 years ago and that has no Americans, hardly any women, and no story, I would have said, "You're out of your fucking mind!"

Moving quotes about Dunkirk from men who were there

Actor Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk Credit: Rex

'I never thought I would see that again. It was just like I was there again.'

Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk is proving to be a critical and commercial success, with rave reviews and £81 million box office sales generated in its opening weekend alone. The film follows the true events of the World War II Dunkirk evacuation (code-named ‘Operation Dynamo’) which took place in May and June 1940. The operation saw over 300,000 Allied troops, in retreat from the Nazis, rescued from the beach and harbour at Dunkirk on the French coast by a fleet of 800 boats – a portion of them small fishing boats, dinghies and pleasure craft pressed into service by the military.

Nolan tells the story of Dunkirk from four perspectives: a naval Commander (Kenneth Branagh) boarding soldiers onto ships from the beach’s mole (pier), a British fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) in pursuit of Nazi dive bombers who harried the rescue ships, a British civilian (Mark Rylance) sailing across the channel in his yacht to help with the rescue effort, and a motley group of young soldiers stuck on the beach, attempting to slip onto anything that floats (this group includes Harry Styles, making a more-than-competent acting debut).

Real accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation were used by Nolan to make the film – which has been praised by historians for its accuracy – and the Interstellar director opted to use real naval Destroyers, rather than green screen CGI, to make the movie feel as close to the reality as possible.

It is now 77 years since the evacuation, meaning the handful of remaining Dunkirk survivors are in their late nineties. Recorded in interviews and books in the years since World War II, here’s a picture of what it was really like from the veterans who experienced Dunkirk first hand.

British soldiers evacuate the beach at Dunkirk

A British soldier’s encounter with a brave French woman before reaching the beach

‘It’s a really hot day and I’m looking around behind me and I could see at the house a door opening and a woman came out in all black, an oldish [French] woman with grey hair. She looked over and she saw me and I was dying for thirst, I needed water. And I was going like this, “aqua” […] And she went and closed the door and went in and I thought, “that’s bad luck for you”, but the next minute the door opened again, and from the pump I could see inside, she brought out a tray with cut glass and a jug with water and walked across the farmyard. And there are bullets, “ptew! ptew!”, going over and a few mortars crashing, and I thought ‘she’s mad.’ And she came over to me, I couldn’t speak French, she couldn’t speak English. She said something about, you know, “my bon ami” or something and she gave me the water. I said, “get going, get going – go”, and she got up and walked straight across, and halfway across she stopped and spit and turned and waved her fist at the [enemy]. I thought, “she’s some woman.'”- James Bradley, gunner in the Royal Artillery (James tells his full story in the BBC Archives)

A Private describes the scene on the beach

‘Obviously the main job was to get out to the boats, because when we finally decided to come down out of the sand dunes, you’ve got to remember that we’re running across the beach and you’re jumping over blokes, you know, that are no longer with us, and dodging and diving because they’re coming down machine-gunning you and everything else. You’re trying to keep an eye on [this plane] while there’s another one coming that way… like the Red Arrows. Anyway, as I say, that was my feeling. To come down and find some way across. Because we certainly couldn’t have swam it. They [the boats] were too far out for that, for me anyway. Some of them did. They just stripped off and got away and good luck to them. But the other thing is that they [the enemy planes] were diving down, machine-gunning the boats and everything else, and bombing the ships you were trying to get to. You might get halfway there and there’s no ship there, because it’s been bombed.’ – Reg Rymer, Private in The Cheshire Regiment (Reg tells his full story in the BBC Archives)

A hungry soldier returns from Dunkirk

A rescuer makes his journey across the English channel in a fleet of small boats

‘[Setting sail from England in a group of small boats that had been called upon by the military to make a rescue] It was the queerest, most nondescript flotilla that ever was, and it was manned by every kind of Englishman, never more than two men, often only one, to each small boat. There were bankers and dentists, taxi drivers and yachtsmen, longshoremen, boys, engineers, fishermen and civil servants […] It was dark before we were well clear of the English coast. It wasn’t rough, but there was a little chop on, sufficient to make it very wet, and we soaked the Admiral to the skin. Soon, in the dark, the big boats began to overtake us. We were in a sort of dark traffic lane, full of strange ghosts and weird, unaccountable waves from the wash of the larger vessels. When destroyers went by, full tilt, the wash was a serious matter to us little fellows. We could only spin the wheel to try to head into the waves, hang on, and hope for the best.

[Arriving on the beach] The din was infernal. The 5.9 batteries shelled ceaselessly and brilliantly. To the whistle of shells overhead was added the scream of falling bombs. Even the sky was full of noise – anti-aircraft shells, machine-gun fire, the snarl of falling planes, the angry hornet noise of dive bombers. One could not speak normally at any time against the roar of it and the noise of our own engines. We all developed ‘Dunkirk throat,’ a sore hoarseness that was the hallmark of those who had been there. Yet through all the noise I will always remember the voices of the young subalterns as they sent their men aboard, and I will remember, too, the astonishing discipline of the men. They had fought through three weeks of retreat, always falling back without orders, often without support. Transport had failed. They had gone sleepless. They had been without food and water. Yet they kept ranks as they came down the beaches, and they obeyed commands.’ From Arthur D. Divine, in The Story of the Second World War by Henry Steele Commager

A soldier catches one of the last boats

‘I was standing on the beach looking across at England when I heard a voice say “are you coming? It’s your last chance”. I saw a sort of fishing boat that was picking up stragglers and I boarded it and lay back with my hands dangling in the water. I fell asleep and the next thing I knew I was at Dover.‘ Romeo Jenkins, speaking to the Daily Mail in 2010

A Dunkirk veteran watches Dunkirk

97-year-old Dunkirk veteran Ken Sturdy, who was 20 and working for the Royal Navy when he helped evacuate soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk, broke down in tears at a screening of Nolan’s Dunkirk in Canada (where he now lives). Sturdy wore his full military regalia to the screening and told Global News afterwards:

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