The History Behind Dunkirk: A Reading List
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Christopher Nolan’s newly released Dunkirk has gripped and captivated audiences around the world. Interweaving several perspectives of the evacuation, Nolan crafts a horrendously personal experience embedded within a large scale historical event. Whether in the compact cockpits of Spitfires, the crowded decks of ships against the empty horizon, or the endless troops in lines on the beach, Nolan mercilessly jolts his audience from sequences of unbearable claustrophobia to those of hauntingly sparse isolation. Described as a survival film, rather than a war movie, Nolan hones in on the horror experienced by the individual participants, and highlights the triumph of the human spirit under such dire circumstances, making Dunkirk utterly enthralling, from beginning to end.
In 1940, the evacuation of Dunkirk became an important cultural image almost immediately, and it has remained an iconic symbol for the British spirit ever since. It has appeared in many films, from the war propaganda films made directly following the events, to the iconic five- minute tracking shot of the beach in 2007’s Atonement, and even becoming self-referential in the recent biopic Their Finest which portrayed the people behind the creation of the original Dunkirk propaganda. Even among such important depictions however, Nolan’s film stands out. There’s something intensely immediate about his portrayal, which draws you right into this historical moment. With such an immediate and personal experience watching the film, it can often leave the audience feeling as though they were really there. This leaves us with the question, was what we saw a fair representation of what actually happened? There have been plenty of discussions about this already, weighing out the various pros and cons of Nolan’s historical accuracy. The lack of diversity has been called into question, as has the overly-emphasised importance of the small boats, however there have also been many commendations, praising its use of real historical artefacts and the way it eschews CGI, as well as its depictions of the bedraggled and despairing soldiers. Perhaps most moving is the reaction of Ken Sturdy, a survivor of Dunkirk, who said “It was just like I was there again.” With our interest piqued to find out more about the history behind the movie, it’s a great time to dive into some books and uncover the story for ourselves. Here are our picks for the best books to learn about Dunkirk and the history surrounding that iconic evacuation.
The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord
Walter Lord is famous for his books depicting iconic moments in history, including the sinking of the Titanic in A Night to Remember and the attack on Pearl Harbour in Day of Infamy. Here the acclaimed ‘master narrator’ takes on the events on the beach at Dunkirk. This is definitely a book for anyone hoping to find in-depth historical detail. Lord gathered hundreds of accounts from soldiers on their experiences in the evacuation from Dunkirk, yet despite the enormous volume of material rendered here, Lord’s skill in reportage keeps the book eminently readable. He keeps his book in roughly chronological order, but the perspective jumps around in a manner curiously similar to that of Nolan’s film. Lord deftly conjures up the fog and the fear of the Dunkirk evacuation, and combines a wealth of historical information with the emotional heart of the personal experiences of the soldiers. Perhaps most striking is his compassion for those soldiers, who showed such courage and resilience in the face of horror and despair.
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
While it’s easy to focus on what was happening on the beaches, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s book Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man takes a slightly different perspective. The evacuation would not have been possible if it were not for those who stayed behind and fought "until their ammunition ran out.” These men laid down their lives in order that their comrades might escape. Like Nolan, Sebag-Montefiore cuts between the panoramic and the eye-witness, there’s an incredible fullness to his depiction of the conflict. He excels at conveying the broader battle tactics as well as highlighting the enormous impact of such banal aspects as channels for supplies and communication. At the same time, this bigger picture is interwoven with the individual stories of the soldiers engaged in combat. Sebag-Montefiore demonstrates that the soldiers’ success in buying their comrades time often came down to single moments and actions. What carries the book is Sebag-Montefiore’s reverence for those soldiers carrying out that most chilling of commands: ‘fight to the last man.’
Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind by Sean Longden
Having looked at the events surrounding the evacuation, we can take a look at those that occurred just after the events depicted in the film. Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind dives into some of the most overlooked stories of this historical event. While Operation Dynamo was successful in rescuing over 300,000 men from the advancing German army, there were 40,000 others left behind, those too sick to move, those who, as we saw above, remained to fight, and those lost and scattered.
Sean Longdon describes the horrors endured by those left behind, he tracks those who made their own arduous way to safety, but the majority of the book focuses on those taken by the Germans, and brought to prisoner of war camps. Where the 300,000 had found at least momentary relief, the real horror was only just beginning for those left behind. The neglect and abuse which met the British troops in the camps makes for grim reading, but represents an important and often elided aspect of the Dunkirk evacuation. It is a deeply moving book, especially for anyone who was drawn in by the incredible resilience of the British soldiers depicted in Nolan’s film.
First Light by Geoffrey Wellum
Among Dunkirk’s most memorable and breath-taking sequences are the up- close aerial dogfights. The pilots rammed into their tiny aircraft, engaged in battle against other mercurial enemies in an endless sky, are some of the best, high-tension scenes in the film. If you were left longing to return to those cockpits, then you’d do well to pick up Geoffrey Wellum’s memoir First Light. Wellum was the youngest fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, and his accounts of the roaring and tumbling aerial fights are breathtaking and horrifying in equal measure. He took to the sky just in time to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation efforts, and went on to participate in scores of missions throughout the war. Not only is Wellum’s story engrossing, but his skill as a storyteller is striking. He captures the experience in such a way as to make you feel like you are right there with him, flying 20,000 ft in the air, but he also manages to carry his story with great wit, humour and emotional resonance. It’s a gripping account of one man’s incredible story. If you were looking to get a broader historical overview of the RAF in World War 2, then Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop is an excellent account of the broader history of Britain’s aerial war effort.
The Raj at War by Yasmin Khan
One of the main points of discussion around Nolan’s film is its lack of representation of people of colour. When describing the British war effort, it’s easy to only picture the classic English Tommy, but as author Yasmin Khan notes “Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did.” Her book The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War looks at the enormous contribution of India to the war effort. The Royal India Army Service Corps were present on the beach at Dunkirk, working to transport equipment and supplies, but their contribution goes far beyond even this. India’s 2 million strong volunteer army was the largest of any in world history. Khan delves into the lives of the soldiers, nurses, labourers and many others to reveal the forgotten stories of the people who were a crucial part of Britain’s success. She also digs into the industrial and economic overhaul that India endured to make this contribution possible. It’s a truly fascinating book, and one that tells an important story, covering a staggering amount of history in a single immersive text.
Dunkirk by Joshua Levine
Finally we take a look at some of the books that have been released in conjunction with the release of the Dunkirk film. Joshua Levine is a well established authority on the history of Dunkirk, and his previously released book Dunkirk: The Forgotten Voices is highly regarded for giving a comprehensive account of the events. He also served as the film’s historian, and so his book Dunkirk offers a wonderful look at the history which informed the film’s production. Giving an excellent overview of the history of Dunkirk, Levine also gives us as an excellent interview with Christopher Nolan. This book goes far beyond the usual movie tie-in. If you wanted a greater look into the making of the film, and the process of recreating this moment in history, The Making of Dunkirk by James Mottram offers an insight into this behind the scenes world. Filled with gorgeous photographs and taking the reader through the production stages, this book shows the wealth of commitment and passion that went into the film.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published in July 2017.