Monday, February 19, 2018

NOVA: “Great Escape at Dunkirk” (PBS, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an episode of the PBS NOVA series called “Great Escape at Dunkirk,” obviously timed to coincide with the release of two, count ’em, two dramatic films about the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour (and both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, while Darkest Hour also won Gary Oldman a Best Actor nomination for playing Winston Churchill). Like a lot of NOVA’s World War II specials, it tries to “contemporize” the story by showing modern archaeologists digging for relics of the operation, including a Spitfire plane that flew fighter support over Dunkirk but then crashed in England, killing its pilot, when he lost control in a cloudy sky. But the real “meat” of the show was the authentic footage of the Dunkirk battle itself and the interviews with the now-elderly survivors — though NOVA’s director, John Hayes Fisher, put so little faith in his audience’s ability to understand their sometimes thick accents that they were subtitled even though they were obviously speaking English. (Some previous PBS shows on World War II have featured interviews with survivors who fought on the Axis side, and either subtitled or voice-overed them, but this one didn’t.) “Great Escape at Dunkirk” vividly dramatized just how shaky both the military and political situations in Britain in 1940 were; Winston Churchill had just been appointed Prime Minister by the British Parliament, but Neville Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was still in the Cabinet and with each new reversal in the military situation he was advising Churchill to contact the German government and sue for peace. Churchill, of course, said nothing doing; he avoided a public confrontation with Halifax for fear it would bring down his government and end his Prime Ministership just a month or so after it started.

Churchill ordered the British army to stand and fight at Dunkirk as long as possible — the Chamberlain government had sent a British Expeditionary Force of 400,000 men to fight alongside a French army estimated at 2.5 million — and they had expected the German advance into France to move through Belgium because they thought the actual border between Germany and southern France to be impenetrable to tanks. They were wrong; the Germans, using the weapons that as of 1940 had worked to provide them Blitzkrieg successes against every other country they’d invaded — Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank corps — feinted an attack through Belgium but really mounted their main drive at the border with France, got through the supposedly “impenetrable” terrain and made swift work of the French army. It got to the point where the British and French forces were pushed out of all the rest of France to that tiny beachhead at Dunkirk, and the Germans not only had more effective land forces, they also controlled the air, so the Allies who attempted to mount a resistance were out in the open manning artillery weapons and were therefore sitting ducks for the Stukas. Inexplicably, the Nazi advance halted for several days just before what appeared to be the final push, apparently because the German commanders were worried about the length of their supply lines and the possibility that they might run out of ammunition and food, and this gave the British time to coordinate the fabled evacuation that turned a military rout into a strategic retreat. (Later in the war Adolf Hitler’s refusal to allow the German forces to stage strategic retreats — “Where the German soldier stands, there he stays!” Hitler said, to the horror of his generals — helped turn military defeats into total routs and sped Germany’s defeat in the overall war.) By all conventional standards, Dunkirk was a defeat — and a humiliating one — for the British forces, who even as they were being evacuated over the English Channel were still vulnerable to German sea mines and air attacks (one of the most interesting segments of this show indicates how the British figured out how to defend their ships against the Germans’ magnetic mines, which could blow up a ship that sailed nearby without actually having to hit it; the British developed a way to turn their entire ships into giant magnets with reverse polarity to the German mines, so the ships repelled instead of attracting the mines).

One of the modern-day excavations was of a British ship with over 600 people aboard which sank from a German mine — the one person who escaped was a servicemember who’d been standing on the top deck smoking a cigarette; everyone else died because the ship’s captain had ordered them all to stay below decks to weight down the ship so it would sail lower in the water, and so when the mine blew up the ship they had absolutely no hope of getting out alive. The show also noted that the workhorse fighter of the Royal Air Force at the start of the war, the Hawker Hurricane, was built with the old-fashioned airframe of wood covered with “doped” fabric, while the Supermarine Spitfire, which was introduced during the Dunkirk battle, was all-metal and especially lightweight because, instead of constructing a fuselage that could support itself as all previous aircraft designers had done, the Spitfire’s creator, R. J. Mitchell, built structural support into the wings as well — creating the fastest and, even more importantly, most maneuverable fighter plane to that time. (Being a buff of the film Spitfire, a.k.a. The First of the Few — Leslie Howard’s last project, in which he directed as well as starring as Mitchell in a marvelous and moving biopic in which Howard the director got a far more incisive performance out of Howard the actor than most of his previous directors had — I got rankled when Fisher and his narrator, Eric Meyers, attributed the design to “Supermarine.” “He had a name! It was Mitchell!” I yelled at the TV.) The show pointed out that a lot of the British soldiers were bitter because they were under attack by Stukas, supported by Messerschmidt ME-109 fighters (whose swept-back wings made it easier than it had been in previous planes for pilots to see what they were shooting at), while they saw no signs of the RAF — the RAF was actually in action, but back attacking the advancing German columns in southeastern France, though they were outnumbered and the German pilots also had more experience.

The overall message of the show was that Dunkirk was a military defeat which Churchill and his propagandists were able to turn into a political victory, giving the British people enough confidence that they could come back from defeat and not only continue to fight but actually win the war — though Churchill, as he acknowledged in his memoirs of World War II, was well aware that the only salvation for Britain was to get the U.S. into the war on his side. He even mentions the long-standing correspondence he had with President Franklin Roosevelt, which both men signed as “Former Naval Person” because in World War I Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in which Churchill pleaded for U.S. involvement and Roosevelt said he agreed that the U.S. should fight against Germany in World War II but he had enormous political difficulties in getting the U.S. people and the U.S. Congress on his side. (Ironically, the British determination to fight on in World War II in hopes of attracting support from the U.S. was not that different from what the U.S. had done in the American Revolution — keeping the struggle going until the nascent United States could attract the support of Britain’s rival superpower in the late 1700’s, France.)