From Disaster to Deliverance: Peter Donnelly on Dunkirk

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Lancaster Regiment preparing for Dunkirk. Photo courtesy of British Government (public demain).

With the release of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, Peter Donnelly (curator of the King’s Own Regimental Museum) decided to give some talks at The Dukes on the involvement of the Lancastrian King’s Own Royal Regiment in the Dunkirk evacuation. When I attended his second and final talk last night, he said he’d finally seen the film and ‘wasn’t horrified,’ but I’m sure he was speaking in terms of historical accuracy rather than filmmaking.

The King’s Own were situated at Bowerham Barracks in Lancaster, and were present in France when it became clear (probably when Belgium requested an armistice with Germany on 27th May 1940) that the German army just wasn’t going to stop any time soon. Germany had two options: it could go South, or push North towards Dunkirk. And the rest is history.

Donnelly wanted to give some background for viewers and debunk the usual Dunkirk myths. The first problem for the British was the lack of experienced men; a result of Whitehall’s ‘peace at any price’ policy – not because getting a bigger army was a bad idea, but because they tried to expand it exponentially in a very short amount of time. With war declared in September 1939, recruits were subject to the poisoned chalice of being trained without equipment and being promoted to commanding positions. After deployment in France and realizing (at one point) that the German army was just 12 miles up the road, one Captain William Shuttleworth wrote they were told: ‘Make for the sea, if possible, Dunkirk.’ And they did, covering 85 miles in 5 days. Once back in England, the King’s Own were sent to North Yorkshire via train to regroup and prepare for a German invasion.

On a smaller note, there’s this famous magazine photo (Picture Post actually) of some Dunkirk evacuees on a train in England. They’re smiling, yes, but what a lot of people don’t know is that inside the magazine were instructions on how you and your mates could attack a German tank with a train rail. In fact, the magazine was full of how-to instructions like this in preparation for the worst-case scenario.

Some didn’t make it back from Dunkirk however. One member of the King’s Own was captured and died of a brain tumour three years later in Poland. Another escaped his captors three times in German-occupied France and went to Gibraltar, where he eventually made his way back to Liverpool. Little stories like these made Donnelly’s talk authentic and informative. Much more, I’d argue, than Nolan’s film.

I asked Donnelly about the controversial portrayal of the French in Nolan’s Dunkirk. The curator remarked that that would be like him complaining there weren’t any of the King’s Own in the movie, or complaining there weren’t any Indian soldiers in the movie (members of the Indian First Battalion were present at Dunkirk), or even how one of his museum visitors complained there weren’t any Americans in the film (which of course is totally erroneous; the USA didn’t join until a year later when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941). ‘It’s a piece of entertainment,’ Donnelly said. ‘It’s not a documentary. But maybe a French film will look at it another way.’

Dunkirk is screening at The Dukes on September 10th, 11th and 12th.