The Real Dunkirk

May 30, 2018
Alec Harrison

This battered clipping from a London newspaper was carefully preserved by Alec J. Harrison, shown second from left. One of the last soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk, Alec lived until his 80’s. His relative Linda Rowley sent us this photo and his story, which is told here on The Dunkirk Project.

If you want to read stories of the real Dunkirk 1940 from real people who were there, people who struggled and fought for their lives and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, you’ll find many here on The Dunkirk Project. We’ve been collecting previously-untold accounts of Dunkirk 1940 over the past 10 years, and the truth is stranger than fiction, more moving than the movies, and absolutely extraordinary. Click here to read more.

Some highlight contributions:

A treasured newspaper photo sent by Linda Rowley shows Alec Harrison among the last soldiers to be rescued, on 3rd June 1940 – Towards the end

A ‘safely home’ postcard from Jimmy, Elspeth Owen’s father, on 1st June 1940 – Homeward

A birthday on the beach: Liz Archer’s father celebrates his 22nd birthday with bread and jam on 27th May 1940 – An extraordinary armada

Lt George Wilkinson’s account of his experiences as a medic begins on 26th May 1940 – A very tight corner

John Dibblee’s moving account of his experiences on board HMS Skipjack begins on 30th May 1940 – The view from the air

James Killen’s story of his grandfather Tammy Thorburn, boiler man on the Skipjack, and his return home, on 31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water

‘Back Every Friday’: Roy Martin tells of troops sent into France immediately after the evacuation on 4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk

Charlie Bonallack’s images of his Dunkirk Phossils begin on 28th May 1940 – Out there


Dunkirk, the movie

August 3, 2017


I’ve been puzzling over what to say about Dunkirk, the movie. I was excited to hear it was being made, and of course – as an artist who has aimed to uncover a multi-layered picture of that unimaginable event – I’m all for as many people as possible being given the opportunity to see a good film about it. Of course we went to see it immediately on its release on Friday July 21st, and were glad to find the cinema full. I was anticipating a triumph, worthy of the five-star ratings and praise heaped upon it. And when RN bigshot Kenneth Branagh’s eyes filled with tears at the arrival of the little ships, of course mine did too. But overall I was disappointed – though I shouldn’t have been, because what I saw was exactly what I should have expected: ‘The blockbuster event of the summer’.

Advertised as an ‘action thriller’, it succeeds far better at that than it does at ‘capturing one incredible event in modern history’ which it also claims to do. For me it completely failed as an evocation of that huge, mythic event, despite its claim of ‘bringing the Dunkirk story to heart-thumping life’. Even the appalling sight of a ship’s-hold full of weary men being blown up and rapidly submerged by the oily sea somehow failed to move after it was (seemingly) endlessly repeated – though it continued to horrify. Of course this kind of thing did in fact happen again and again – one thing that’s so terrible about the ‘Nine Days Wonder’ of Dunkirk 1940 is how relentlessly repetitive it was, how long it went on for, how many ships were blown up, how many lives were lost, how endless the series of personal disasters were for so many individuals.

And yet the complete lack of characterisation in the film seems to me to remove the potential for empathy, or engagement with the people as individuals whose lives mattered, who had loved-ones waiting desperately for news of them (people like us with a past and the longing for a future), and it reduces the whole thing to an awful spectacle – horrific, but ultimately not very affecting. I did cry at the end, but I wept for those people whose stories had been hijacked and reduced to an action thriller, rather than in response to what the film had shown me.


The suspense is certainly sustained, but the three intersecting time-lines (one week on the beach, one day on the boat, one hour in the air) make for multiple confusions even for someone who knows the plot quite well – some obviously intentional, but some not. It’s hopeless on period detail – which we’re used to seeing done extremely well in TV series like Foyle’s War or films like The King’s Speech (1940’s train? I don’t think so.) It does portray the endless repetitiveness of the bombardment well, with enemy planes picking off ships laboriously loaded with wounded men like sitting ducks. And it makes a good stab at showing the vital role our Spitfire pilots played in fending off as much of that bombardment as possible – but it misses a chance to show how woefully ill-prepared we were, how every Spitfire, every destroyer might have been our last, and how everything we had was risked in the attempt to preserve at least our army.

And it misses a chance to make us care about the people, through this complete lack of any engagement with personality beyond the merest stock characters. I didn’t recognise these as the people who struggled to get home, or the volunteers and seamen who gave so much to rescue those thousands, not the fathers and husbands and brothers and sons who sent those postcards home to their loved ones when they finally made it. Michael Balcon’s 1958 Dunkirk film directed by Leslie Norman, with an equally starry cast of Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee – and of course John Mills being (as ever) modestly heroic in a very English way, follows ‘the dramatic events leading up to Operation Dynamo’ (the actual evacuation) with a bunch of bewildered soldiers struggling to get back to Dunkirk, and proves infinitely more effective simply because we care about the people and what happens to them. It’s still very violent and action-packed – as it says on the DVD blurb:

‘Seen from the dual perspectives of a jaded journalist in search of propaganda and a weary soldier desperately trying to give his troop some hope, Dunkirk never shies away from the brutality of war and the bravery of its soldiers’

– and yet this 1958 version manages to be an intensely watchable, moving film as well as an authentic representation, purely by means of its characterisation.

And it’s very very good on the little ships, as it should be with David Divine (who was actually there) as one of the writers of the screenplay. The scenes showing the Navy requisitioning the boats, with their owners’ growing realisation of exactly what was going on, give us too a gradual realisation of the full scale and devastation of the event and its implications, and we recognise what it means to all of the indivuduals caught up in it. This is completely missing from Christopher Nolan’s film, replaced by endless crash-bash-action scenes, which however stunningly well-filmed are not anything like as good at actually telling the human story. And the story is ultimately more horrifying, more moving, and more engaging than any amount of clever camerawork and a relentless thudding score.

Alec Harrison

Clipping from a London newspaper preserved by one of the soldiers shown; Alec J. Harrison, second from left, was among the last soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk, and lived until his 80’s. Photo contributed by his cousin’s daughter, Linda Rowley, and more of his story can be found here on The Dunkirk Project.


If you’re interested in the real stories from Dunkirk, from individuals who struggled and fought for their lives and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, you will find many of them here on The Dunkirk Project – but not in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster – which is after all only Dunkirk the Movie.

But maybe I’m being too hard on it? My hope is that it will prove to be an introduction to the story and stimulate a whole new generation to find out more. I’d be very interested to hear your opinions – and as always, eager to hear any stories from Dunkirk that you or your family may want to share.

Liz Mathews


July 6, 2015

We stood and waited - Thames to Dunkirk p16

The Allies have flooded Dunkirk on both sides of the town; the town is in ruins; they are holding the port while men of the B.E.F., protected by naval and air forces, embark for England – that is to say, while exhausted men stagger to the beaches of Dunkirk, and there, with no other cover than the sand dunes, await their chance to get on something that will take them over water.

So Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote on 1 June 1940, in World Blackout, her record of the first year of the war.  The story of why the exhausted men were there, how many of them got away, and what happened after Dunkirk is told here on The Dunkirk Project, day-by-day as it happened – vivid eye-witness accounts and contemporary commentary on one of the most extraordinary, celebrated and misunderstood events ever to happen to over 300,000 people at once.

Click on The Dunkirk Project for an introduction and highlight contributions;

on Thames to Dunkirk for a page-by-page tour of my 17 metre-long artist’s book;

on River of Stories for the story of Dunkirk 1940 unfolding day-by-day, or on each of the day-pages in the page list above left;

and on 4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk for what happened afterwards including the unsung rescue operations that saved nearly a quarter of a million more people after Dunkirk.

Liz Mathews  2015

4th June 1940 – Beyond Dunkirk

June 4, 2015

TtoD p 22 detail

It wasn’t over yet. After the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed, many more troops were rescued from the northern and western coasts of France, and some were even sent back again…


3rd June 1940 – Towards the end

June 3, 2015

The Chateau (detail from Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews)



2nd June 1940 – Tatter’d colours

June 2, 2015

Tatter'd colours by Liz Mathews



1st June 1940 – Homeward

June 1, 2015

Lucky Weather text by Frances Bingham, paperwork by Liz Mathews



31st May 1940 – Lovely on the water

May 31, 2015

TtoD p23 detail



30th May 1940 – The view from the air

May 30, 2015

Thames to Dunkirk (Dunkirk side detail)



29th May 1940 – Nightmare

May 29, 2015

Lucky Weather text by Frances Bingham, paperwork by Liz Mathews