How Accurate Was Christopher Nolan’s Film ‘Dunkirk’ in its Depiction of the Air Force?

History Hit Podcast with James Holland

4 mins

27 Nov 2018

Spitfires squadrons were operating in tandem, so you’d have 22 to 24 aircraft in it and the same number of pilots to keep 12 airborne at any one time.

You’d pairs of squadrons. 24 planes would fly over in turn and they were doing patrols over Dunkirk.

There were gaps when there weren’t any planes, but there was a lot of time where there were planes and the trick was to try and time it for when the Luftwaffe came.

The Luftwaffe, incidentally, was unable to fly over Dunkirk constantly because their airfields were still a long way back and they had very little time over the target zone.

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They were flying over, dropping their bombs and then scooting back to Paris airfields, and even some airfields back in Germany. They had quite a long way to go, and the RAF was trying to marry all that.

Air battles during Dunkirk

The problem with the flying in the film Dunkirk is that they are flying in at zero feet.

A whole point about air-to-air combat is that you try and get the advantage of height. Typically you’d be flying over at around 24,000 feet and diving down on your enemy when you saw them.

It is perfectly okay to have a plane diving down after an enemy plane and shooting up near the surface of the sea. It was not to be encouraged under any circumstances, but it certainly did happen.

Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

Most of the flying was at much greater heights than was depicted in the film. Also, Spitfires only had 14.7 seconds worth of ammunition whereas it seemed Tom Hardy had about 70 seconds in that film.

It’s a minor quibble though because I did think the flying sequences were absolutely fantastic.

Eventually, every single standing man on the beaches was lifted off.

General Alexander, who later became Field Marshal Alexander, and the supreme allied commander in the Mediterranean by the end of the war, was then a divisional commander.

He was left in charge of the BEF when Lord Gort who was the original commander in chief of the BEF evacuated on the 31 May.

We know everyone was lifted off, because Alexander went with Tennant in a launch on the night of the 2 June, calling out on a loudspeaker going, “Anyone there? Anyone there?”

They went all the way down the length of the beaches and when they were satisfied there was no one left then they said, “BEF successfully evacuated. We’re coming home.” And they did. It’s just absolutely phenomenal.

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The ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk

There were a number of reasons why 338,000 rather than 45,000 were evacuated and one of them was the infamous halt order, where they stopped the Panzers coming in, so that the BEF was never completely cut off at an early stage.

The second reason was down to the 16 infantry battalions stoically and courageously defending the perimeter. They were behind this ring of canals, about 5 to 8 miles south of the town and there were some incredible actions there.

You don’t see any of them in the film, and I don’t think I have an issue with that, but that is one of the reasons why they were able to hold off the Germans for so long.

Battle map of 21 May – 4 June 1940, the Battle of Dunkirk. Credit: History Department of U.S. Military Academy / Commons.

One of the reasons why they thought they would only be able to evacuate 45,000 people was because they thought the window in which they could evacuate them was going to be very small.

They thought it would be somewhere between 24 hours and 72 hours, at the absolute most. In fact, it was a week. That was down to the stoic defence of the British who did an incredibly good job.

The second thing was the weather.

On 28 May, the weather just closed in. It was incredibly calm so the sea was flat as a board. There was no rising swell, so that bit in the film was inaccurate.

There was ten tenths, or full cloud cover for most of the evacuation and on top of that, you then had the smoke from the oil refineries.

That meant was that if you were on the beach looking up, the only time you would ever see an aircraft was if a Stuka dived incredibly low or a low-flying Junkers 88 or something swept in, but actually, that didn’t happen very often.

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation. Credit: Commons.

Most of the time they were bombing blind.

You’d hear planes and you would see bombs coming down, and that made the people on the ground think there was no RAF above, but actual fact they were flying above the cloud base where obviously it’s nice and sunny and bright and you can see your target.

White-washing

With the problem of white-washing in the movie – you’re talking about the regular pre-war army and many of the non-white faces are in the Middle East and India.

There are obviously hundreds of thousands of them, and they played a vital role, but they weren’t really at Dunkirk.

There were a few, but this film is focusing on the experiences of just a handful of people and if you’re trying to take, a cross-section of sort of every man who was involved in that, I think that’s a completely fair depiction, to be perfectly honest.

It’s a very good movie. I thought it was a fantastic. As a spectacle, I thought it was fantastic.

I loved the aerial footage, even though it was inaccurate. It certainly is brilliant that “Dunkirk” is on the map in a major Hollywood studio movie.

I’m all over that like a rash. I thought it was really, really good, but misleading and just sort of falling a bit short. So for me, it’s a 7.5/10 rather than a 9.

Header image credit: The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Ernest Cundall. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.