Today the movie “Dunkirk” is released in all movie theaters in France. Quite a good news, as most people have no clue what this name means. And though, it means a lot, as it remains in the English culture as the symbol of resistance to the last drop of blood. In France on the contrary, Dunkirk is linked to the memory of a shameful defeat.
What happened and why does it mean two opposite things in UK and in France?
May 1940 : the German army invades in a few weeks Belgium, the Netherlands and the north of France. At the end of the month, 400 000 men, mostly French and Brits, are trapped along the coast near Dunkirk: on one side the German divisions, on the other side the Channel.Let’s be clear: Hitler’s Wehrmacht could have crushed and destroyed them under it’s artillery and bomber planes. For reasons that historians still debate, it did not happen. The Germans stopped a few kms away, and let the French and the Brits a few days to organise their escape by sea. 400 000 men on a beach. How to embark them on war ships anchored 2 miles away for fear of running aground? This is precisely when the miracle took place: hundreds of small embarcations, sailing ships, trawlers, motor yachts, anything floating and able to cross the 30 miles wide Channel, sailed over to rescue them, carry them from the beach to the big ships waiting offshore or shipping them directly across the Channel. Within 9 days, from May 25 to June 4, 200 000 British soldiers and 140 000 French could be evacuated to England, under the constant attacks of the German Luftwaffe and the shelling of German artillery.
A shameful retreat , but a miraculous rescue operation, thanks to the mobilization of the whole population of sailors of the southern coast of England.
Dunkirk remains in French collective mind as the symbol of a crushing defeat . For the Brits, it illustratestheir capacity to resist collectively and never surrender, even in the most desperate situations.