Why We Shouldn’t Neglect the Role of the Royal Navy at Dunkirk | History Hit

Why We Shouldn’t Neglect the Role of the Royal Navy at Dunkirk

The French destroyer Bourrasque sinking off Dunkirk loaded with troops, 30 May 1940. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

We shouldn’t neglect the role of the Navy at Dunkirk, which is unfortunately what Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk does.

There are a few things that are catastrophically wrong with the movie, historically speaking. Kenneth Branagh plays someone who I think is supposed to be Captain Bill Tennant, who was a senior naval officer. He was sent over by Ramsay to oversee the naval evacuation, and he arrived there at about 5:30pm on 27 May 1940 which was a Monday, via the HMS Wolfhound.

He is standing on the jetty with the James D’Arcy character, who plays a generic British officer. Neither of whom are wearing tin helmets which is almost a court-martial offence. You wouldn’t be in the middle of a war-zone wearing soft caps. It’s slightly by the by, but it really grated. I wanted to say, “Ken, come on. Put a helmet on.”

This article is an edited transcript of How Accurate is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk? with James Holland on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. 

Captain Bill Tennant arrives at Dunkirk

There’s actually a really nice story about Bill Tennant’s arrival. He had been working at the Admiralty the night before, and suddenly he’s told to report to Ramsay that morning of 27 May.

Then Vice Admiral Bill Tennant in 1945. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

He gets there about 9:30 and goes to the Dynamo room inside Dover Castle’s secret tunnels, which is incidentally why it’s called Operation Dynamo. Ramsay says to him:

Look, I have to be frank with you, if we get 45,000 men off we’re going to be doing well. There’s so many things against us. The Germans have taken Gravelines which means they’ve got onshore, coastal guns, so we can no longer take the shortest route, which was just 39 miles.

We now have to take over an 87 mild dogleg off Ostend or we’ve got to go for an unknown route of 55 miles through minefields. We’re going to have to lift them off the beaches. There’s no other way of doing it, the harbour’s absolutely wrecked, so the chances of getting more than 45,000 are frankly pretty slim.

This is really bad news.

When Bill Tennant gets over there the first thing he realises is that because he’s left in such a rush, he only has a tin helmet which doesn’t have any identification of rank or what he is.

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

He realises that he needs everyone to know very clearly that he is the senior naval officer, so he tears out an S, an N and an O from a cigarette packet and sticks it onto his helmet with fish oil. Now, I think that’s a really good scene and it could’ve been fantastic having Kenneth Branagh arriving and doing all that, and they choose not to, but that’s by the by.

But the real thing that grates is when James D’Arcy’s character thinks that the tide comes in every three hours, and hopes that the next one will bring a wave of ships, and Kenneth Branagh responds with a wry smile that they’ll have to wait six hours, and that “It’s a good thing that you’re army, and I’m navy, isn’t it?”

The whole thing is just absolute nonsense. It’s really bad history because the tides didn’t come into it at all. The jetty extended nearly at best part of a mile out into the sea and tides had no influence whatsoever.

The bottom line is that once Tennant quickly recognised that ships could possibly be moored up against that jetty, against that mole, everything changed and it happened successfully.

The Queen of the Channel came up and 904 men were disembarked on that night, and that had happened twice more by about 9:30am the following morning. There was just this constant shuttle of ships. Ships would come at two abreast, with people walking across one ship onto another ship as it was moored up against the east mole.

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The Royal Navy’s role in evacuation

The idea that somehow the Royal Navy wasn’t pulling its weight and there weren’t enough ships involved is just ridiculous. There was no evidence that these were only being unloaded at night. The shuttle of ships was going on 24/7.

The only time there was no day line operations from the mole, was on the very last day of the British evacuation because the sky started to clear and so the Luftwaffe could see their target more.

But in actual fact, the mole was never ever hit by the Luftwaffe, not once. That’s the bit that really grates and the net result of that is that, ‘Oh, gosh. We can’t evacuate people from the mole very successfully, so, therefore, what are we going to do? Oh, I know. We’ll resort to the little ships.’

Well, there were 202 little ships and they did an absolutely amazing job in actually shuffling people from the beaches.

Three of the armada of ‘little ships’ which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships and other vessels. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

No-one should belittle the part they play in our national heritage and the national story of Dunkirk, but they were just 202.

The Royal Navy also provided vast numbers of yachts and motor boats and landing craft and dockyard lighters and drifters and trawlers and all sorts of other things and it’s just misrepresentative.

It’s suggesting that somehow from the bleak prognosis of 45,000 men being evacuated at the beginning of the operation to over 300,000 in reality was largely down to the fact that the little ships came to the rescue. That is just completely and utterly wrong.

While it’s fantastic that people come away with a better understanding of Dunkirk, it’s a bit of shame that their understanding is then jaundiced towards thinking it was all about the little ships because it wasn’t.

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History Hit Podcast with James Holland