Dunkirk and the fog of war

If there is one question that has been aimed at the S&G’s hearth more than any other in the past few months, it is whether or not Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a lot of Tommy-rot. There are two ways to answer this – either ‘yes it is and it’s a damned disgrace’ or ‘yes it is and it’s a fine old film’.

Let’s stick with the latter interpretation – with apologies to Daily Mail readers in the congregation.

It’s a fine old film because it hits its marks like ducks in a barrel. It draws tears of elation. It draws squirms of mortal terror. It inspires both woe and breathless admiration. Moreover, it deploys Elgar’s Nimrod with the sort of quiet gravitas that has long-since escaped our national culture. It reeks of the right sort of Britishness.

But in a historical sense it’s a bit of shambles, yes.

The first and most glaring omission is tobacco. Not one pipe or cigarette is seen in the course of 106 minutes. According to a dear old mucker who works in the business they call show, it is now a policy at Fox to completely exclude such evils from all and any of its products, lest the studio be exposed to law suits for encouraging people to take up the cancerous weed.

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Dunkirk survivors in 1940

Yes, you read that right.

Looking at images of the real events (above), one could be forgiven for thinking that the only excuse open to the Luftwaffe for not wiping out the British Expeditionary Force was the impenetrable fog of Capstan Full Strength that hung above them. Whether it was the soldiers on the beaches, the captains of little ships, the shipwrecked soldiers hooked out of the oggin or even the wounded on their stretchers – everyone was drawing comfort from the muzzy tang of tobacco to settle their nerves and steel their resolve.

So while cinematic sinews were stretched to get the costumes and equipment right, they might as well have dressed everyone in onesies and given them Kalashnikovs thanks to that omission.

Then there’s the question of Spitfires – or more accurately the gliding Spitfire, which is the area in which most S&G regulars have shown most interest.

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Spitfires at 500 feet… give or take

Its progress isn’t easy to follow – and not helped unduly by the fact that the Spitfire scenes are chopped up and replayed from the vantage point of each different narrative within the film. By the end, the gliding Spit seems to zoom silently from one side of the screen to the other like the ball in a rally between Murray and Nadal. But here’s the gist:

Having buzzed around over the Channel at a claimed 500-1,000 feet (albeit with lovely aerobatic shots stitched in from several thousand feet higher), one Spitfire runs out of fuel. It glides the full length of the beach, then turns and glides back even faster than before to make an interception. It then appears to turn again before taking a long and lingering descent to the shore.

Right there you have an answer. A ton of Rolls-Royce Merlin is very hard to keep aloft for its own sake – and all the more so when the weight of fuel and ammunition is no longer there to help trim the aeroplane out.

Let’s not forget, also, that the Spitfire’s beautiful wing was never the most stable gun platform. One pilot memorably described it as ‘shaking like a wet dog’ when the eight Brownings were fired. Which is really not the behaviour that one needs from an aeroplane when gliding at 400mph at rooftop height. And after gliding around for half an hour or so with no fuel, what exactly is it that causes the aeroplane to burn so fiercely on the ground?

Oh, that’s right: a smouldering look from Tom Hardy. It certainly did the trick for most of the ladies in the audience, but it’s Hollywood hokum of a sort to make Errol Flynn proud.

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Spitfire pilots have a smoke and ponder their optimum glide ratio

But at least the Spitfires are there. And they did run out of fuel. And many of their pilots did drown while trying to escape their cockpits. And, yes, many irate soldiers and sailors did claim that the RAF had hung them out to dry.

In fact Dunkirk was disastrous for many Fighter Command units – not least the Spitfires of 610 Squadron, where losses among the bright young boys of Cheshire were proportionally as great as those of a Pal’s battalion on the Somme. Not many engagements were at 500-1000 feet, though. Certainly not for an entire patrol. Their job was to get up high, get behind the bombers, shoot them down before they reached the beach and scoot off home to refuel and rearm before doing it all again… three or four sorties per day.

While we’re at it, let’s address the thorny issue of the Indian soldiers serving in France in 1940. In total there were three companies of the Royal Indian Service Corps in France, who were employed in domestic roles far behind the lines. It has caused outrage in some quarters that the stories of the drivers, batmen, cooks and runners do not dominate Dunkirk as a movie. Yet the only story to be told of their war is that of their ethnicity – which is indicative of the sort of tokenism with which historical study has been besieged. It is insanity.

All that aside, and despite the lack of destruction apparently suffered by the streets of Dunkirk (it was a flaming, broken and bombed-out mess), all the women on ships large and small (they weren’t), and the soldier emotively reading out Churchill’s ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ speech from the paper (a day before he had even delivered it!), Dunkirk is a really good movie.

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Brilliant acting, ahoy!

Separate what is essential from what is not – or in other words: if Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance or Cillian Murphy are in shot, pin your ears back and savour the moment. Don’t forget to whoop and cheer for Sir Michael Caine’s cameo. And be bloody impressed not only by the inspired move by Harry Styles’ handlers to place their teen warbler amid this chaos, but by as strong an acting debut as can be remembered… from within an entirely credible and brutally-told sub-plot. Apparently this boy’s got it all.

And don’t forget Nimrod. Ever.

The Real ‘Piece of Cake’ Part 2

A chance encounter on the Rally of Wales and memories of an old model Spitfire made by my Dad led me to try and find out more of the story of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron – a glamorous pre-war unit for well-to-do young gentlemen that found itself in the thick of the action during the darkest days of World War 2.

610 Squadron awaiting the call to arms, 1939

610 Squadron awaiting the call to arms, 1939

So what happened? When it comes to the Battle of France… rather a lot.

When the Germans unleashed the Blitzkrieg upon France and Belgium on May 10 1940, 610 Squadron was based at RAF Prestwick in Scotland. It was immediately pulled south to RAF Biggin Hill the same day, joining the incumbent 32 Squadron, whose Hurricanes were already heavily engaged in patrols off the Belgian coast.

It soon became clear was that the part-time volunteers of 610 Squadron were paired up with the old sweats of 32… not the sort of detail that you get from most books. And a wise move, as it transpired.

610 Squadron notched up its first recorded ‘kill’ on May 21, when a flight intercepted what they believed to have been a Junkers Ju88 bomber some five miles north of Boulogne. In fact it was an RAF Bristol Blenheim bomber – one of two lost by 18 Squadron that day. This aircraft, serial number L9185, was lost at sea but her crew – Pilot Officer V. Rees, Sergeant N.V. Pusey and LAC K.E. Murray were rescued from the sea and returned to their unit.

Blenheims suffered heavily throughout the war, including several 'own goals'

Blenheim squadrons suffered several ‘own goals’

As the situation in France worsened, 32 and 610 Squadrons were transferred from Biggin Hill to Gravesend in Kent on May 26 in readiness to defend the troops as they attempted to escape the German advance on the beachhead at Dunkirk. 610 Squadron flew into action the same day, encountering a Heinkel He111 bomber with 40 escorting Messerschmitt Bf110 fighters. The squadron claimed to have shot down three Messerschmitts and the Heinkel but lost two of its Spitfires, these being:

Spitfire L1016 – Flying Officer Albert Rupert John Medcalf missing (age 26)
Spitfire N3284 – Sergeant William Thomas Medway killed (age unknown)

The squadron’s next major encounter came two days later – and it was a disaster. Meeting a strong force of Messerschmitt Bf109s over Dunkirk, four aircraft were lost with their pilots. These were:

Spitfire Unknown – Squadron Leader Alexander Lumsden ‘Bonzo’ Franks, killed (age 32)
Spitfire L1000 – Flying Officer Gerald Malcolm Theodore Kerr, missing (age 30)
Spitfire N3289 – Flying Officer John Kerr Wilson, missing (age 32)
Spitfire L1062 – Sergeant Peter Douglas Jenkins, missing (age 20)

As was pointed out in Derek Robinson’s novel Piece of Cake and its TV adaptation, much of the blame for such losses can be placed on the tactics employed at the time. It was intended that RAF fighter squadrons should fly in close formation and concentrate their combined firepower on the large bombers in the so-called Area Fighting Tactics.

This was fine in theory, but took no account of the battle-hardened and successful German fighter formations which flew in loose groups of four and remained fluid at all times. While a dozen RAF fighters wheeled in an ungainly unit, with each man doing his best not to hit the aircraft next to him, the enemy fighters could dive in and cause havoc. Hawk-eyed aces like ‘Sailor’ Malan saw this very clearly, but many squadrons, 610 among them, were struggling to keep their heads above water and were not going to demand a rewriting of official policy.

Close formations looked impressive but cost lives

Close formations looked impressive but cost lives

The last day of May brought 610 Squadron back over Dunkirk, and again they took a mauling at the hands of the Bf109s. Another two aircraft were lost, one pilot killed and the other rescued from the sea by one of the ‘little ships’ as they fought desperately to pull British and French troops off the beaches.

Spitfire N3274 – Flying Officer Graham Tim Lambert Chambers, missing (age unknown)
Spitfire Unknown – Flying Officer G. Keighley, wounded (age unknown)

By the time that the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed, it was clear that 610 Squadron had been changed forever. Almost half of the original squadron members – all of whom had been local men from Cheshire and Lancashire – were killed, missing or wounded by the time the last of the little ships got away in the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’.