Watching the movie, Dunkirk, on Saturday was not a traditional rendering of the epic war-story. The rescue of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops on the beach in May, 1940 was told in intersecting story lines.
But what I got out of it as a military veteran, was both the unspoken fear of many young soldiers who were looking at the empty sea for rescue, strafing, bombing and the ships they were able to find and board, being sunk. It had little dialogue- the courage of those who were defending the retreating soldiers, pilots and the naval personnel who were trying to protect these troops made the film even more desperate. At one point, one of the characters makes the observation that England was not mobilizing a lot of their navy in order to preserve it for the expected invasion from Hitler. But they were mobilizing a civilian fleet to sail for Dunkirk. That early war period, when the Germans were rolling across Europe seemed hopeless. There was courage, particularly in those who sailed across the English Channel in thousands of boats to rescue the men.
My mother grew up near Belfast in now Northern Ireland. I never heard stories about living during the war and only learned how difficult it was from history and publications I obtained when we visited there. Perhaps as she was quite young early in the war, but it might well have been that spirit the British exhibited. You see, the Germans during the Battle of Britain, especially in 1940 -41, were bombing the shipyards, factories and sinking merchant fleets to isolate Britain. The heroism of the troops that eventually defeated Hitler’s armies was not the stuff of epic war movies, but courage expressed in action of ordinary people doing the extraordinary. The scene in Dunkirk I appreciated was the young soldier riding in the train once back in Britain about Winston Churchill’s stirring words to rally the Britons. And the people far from being negative about their rescued troops, were rallying and supportive and welcoming.