Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a powerful portrayal of the rescue of over 330,000 soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk in northern France. The film pays tribute to the role of the French and British rearguard, the RAF and the little ships all of who played their part in the evacuation. Following the events of a single day the film compresses into two hours the heroism and tragedy of the events of the nine days between 27 May – 4 June, 1940.
Researching an event like Dunkirk in the newspapers brings you into the front row of events as they unfolded. You can recreate day by day the news that was being released to the public at the time.
To start our search we used our advanced search to confine ourselves to newspapers published during the nine days of the campaign, 27 May – 4 June, 1940.
27 – 28 May German Claims & Belgian Surrender
On the 27 May Dunkirk is reported as being ‘firmly in the hands of the allies’, but that the German army claimed to have destroyed the port. Papers such as the Gloucestershire Echo published reports of these ‘wild claims’
The following day the Belgian Army surrendered on the orders of their King. A move that was unpopular with the Belgian government.
Dunkirk is just six miles from the Belgian border and several articles make reference to the evacuation from Flanders, rather than France.
The loss of the Belgian Army opened a gap that was now threatened by the German army, as one report stated ominously:
29-30 May Rearguard Action
What the public could not have known at the time was that British government had already realised that an evacuation would be necessary. On 29 May news of the rearguard action by the French and British troops started to filter home. Their withdrawal to the coast was reported as favourably as possible. The army were described as ‘intact’ and ‘powerfully entrenched’.
31 May – 4 June Evacuation
Evacuation had in fact been taking place in the preceding days but it was on the 31 May that news of the ’embarkation’ of troops made its way to the majority of newspapers. The newspapers mostly still led with stories of the fighting and praised the British Expeditionary Force for holding Dunkirk. By 31 May however more stories began to appear about the withdrawal of forces.
The number of articles about Dunkirk increased dramatically between the end of May and the beginning of June. From around 600 mentions in the last two weeks of May to over 3000 in the first two weeks of June. There are of course rousing tales of heroism…
…but the papers did not shy away from the reality of the situation. On the 2 June the Sunday Mirror asked readers not to forget those left behind to fight the rearguard action to allow the escape of others.
The sands are covered in troops and things are getting worse for them… They are in a terribly exposed position to gun and air attack. The best they can do is to dig holes in the sand while they await their turn to be embarked, and while they do so, they are attached by artillery, air bombs, and air machine-gunning.
Honours & Homecomings
For good services in organising the withdrawal to England , under fire and in the face of many and great difficulties of 335,490 officers and men of the Allied Armies, in about 1000 of His Majesty’s ships and other craft between May 27 and June 4
In the weeks and months after the evacuation the names of those to whom medals were awarded were published in the newspapers. One report reproduced in The Scotsman in August printed 668 names. They included Distinguished Service Crosses for Capt T. Aldis of the Royal Sovereign and Capt. G Johnson of the Royal Daffodil. The Royal Daffodil made seven trips to Dunkirk, and rescued almost 10,000 soldiers, as part of the civilian fleet of ‘little ships’.
In the weeks after the evacuation, as villages and towns across Great Britain received news of the return of their servicemen from the beaches of France local newspapers reported on the triumphs and tragedies of the evacuation. They reported on the return of their ‘boys’. The papers reproduced letters written by the soldiers to their families describing the evacuation.
Newspapers can also be a valuable resource when looking to discover how national events affected your local town. Use Newspapers to discover the dramatic events of Dunkirk for yourself, and tell your home town’s stories of a military disaster which was transformed into a triumph.