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Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' And Brexit Or Bust

27/07/2017 12:57 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 12:57 BST
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A shallow rendering of history might lead you to think that the release of Christopher Nolan's latest movie, Dunkirk, could not have come at a better time for the Brexit or bust brigade.

Think about it: just as it has never been more apparent that Brexit is akin to jumping off the edge of a cliff without a parachute  -  an act of unadorned political and economic self-harm  -  along comes this epic dramatisation of one of the most revered events in British military history to remind the British people of how they are never at their strongest or best than when standing alone in the face of a foreign enemy on the other side of the English Channel.

Yet, in truth, it is those who are opposed to Brexit that have proper claim on the story of Dunkirk as proof of the righteousness of their cause.

In terms of drama, Dunkirk ticks all the boxes: courage under fire, survival in the face of overwhelming odds, an entire country pulling together against the unfiltered evil and bestiality of fascism, and so on. The unsung heroes of Dunkirk were the soldiers condemned to man the perimeter and fight off German attacks on the approaches to the beach, most of them French, along with the fighter pilots who, though maligned by many of the 400,000 stranded troops as the Luftwaffe caused havoc, prevented the slaughter from the air being worse than it was by engaging German bombers and fighters further inland before they were able to reach the men on the beach.

Perhaps the most enduring legend of Dunkirk surrounds the doughty fishermen and part time sailors who set sail across the Channel in all manner of small ships and boats to aid in the evacuation, in the process going into the annals of British legend like latter day Arthurian knights.

The event also confirmed the genius of Winston Churchill as the country's wartime leader. With sublime oratory he succeeded in turning one of the most humiliating defeats ever suffered by British armed forces - one that has only ever been eclipsed, and by coincidence in the same war, by the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942 - into something approximating to a victory.

His 'Finest Hour' speech on 4 June 1940 in the House of Commons, after the evacuation had succeeded in delivering 338,000 stranded British and French troops from the beaches back to Britain, is part of the nation's folklore. "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory," he said. "But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted."

Without the success of Operation Dynamo, the name given the evacuation, Britain may well have capitulated to Hitler and opted to seek peace terms. Within Churchill's cabinet his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was adamant that this was the direction that should be taken after the fall of France. He maintained that without the Americans in the war Britain did not have the strength to stand alone against the Nazi war machine, which had now reached as far as the coast of northern France. As such, the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) strengthened Churchill's hand in beating off capitulationists such as Halifax at the heart of the British establishment.

But none of this can gainsay the fact that Dunkirk, in military terms, came as the denouement of an ignominious defeat for an under-equipped and ill-prepared BEF that had been sent across the Channel in the anticipation that in conjunction with its French ally and counterpart, it would deliver the Germans a crushing defeat when the invevitable offensive came. The war diaries of British Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke, one of the BEF commanding officers in France in that summer of 1940, make sobering reading.

From the point of view of equipment," Brooke writes, "the situation was still lamentable, and we were still deficient in all the vital armaments of a modern army." He goes on, "There was little comfort to be had from our Allies. I had by now few illusions as to the fighting efficiency of the French. The Belgians still remained to be seen, but what I had heard about them was not promising.

On the other side of the Battle of France in the summer of 1940 lay superb German military leadership, tactics, organisation and equipment. The audacity of the German plan involved sucking the Allies into believing the main thrust of the offensive into France was being made through northern Belgium in a re-run of the Schleiffen Plan of World War I. It succeeded in drawing Allied forces west to meet the feint through northern Belgium, while punching into central France through the seemingly impassable Belgian Ardennes through Luxembourg with their Panzers. Wasting no time, they crossed the River Meuse, before proceeding in a wide encirclement towards the northern France to cut off the bulk of French and Allied forces against the coast.

The daring of General Erich von Manstein's plan - Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut) - has ensured him a place in military history. The Germans were also blessed with the talents of Generals Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel, whose brilliance and audacity when it came to the use of tanks in mass armoured formations was key to the astounding success of the plan's implementation. In just six weeks their Panzers succeeded in rolling up what French and Allied resistance they met during a race to the coast of northern France that still stands as a breathtaking feat of arms.

What ensued afterwards stands as one of the most grievous military blunders of the war, of which there were more than one. With the remnants of British Expeditionary Force stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, Hitler and his supreme commanders inexplicably ordered his Panzers to halt and allow the Luftwaffe to take over the job of destroying it. Seen in this light, the successful evacuation of 338,000 British and French troops at Dunkirk was a seminal event not only in the war but also in the history of Europe.

The irony is that from rubble of Hitler's defeated dream of unifying Europe under the iron heel of fascist totalitarianism emerged the forerunner of the European Union as we know it today. As the French businessman and diplomat Jean Monnet, one of the visionaries of European unity, put it: "There will be no peace in Europe if the States rebuild themselves on the basis of national sovereignty, with its implications of prestige politics and economic protection."

So there was have it: Britain's 'finest hour', when in 1940 it stood alone against the Nazi war machine, helped pave the way for the very European unity that the Brexit or bust brigade are currently intent on destroying.

As for Winston Churchill, he likewise ended the war a convert to the cause of European unity. In a speech he gave after the war, the man whose legacy burns like a beacon in the hearts of the Brexit or bust brigade, said, "The structure of the United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material strength of a single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause."

Meanwhile, for those on the left who believe that Brexit is synonymous with socialism, if Dunkirk and the Second World War proves anything it is that European disintegration and nationalism is a disaster waiting to happen, one in which the working class is guaranteed to suffer disproportionately.