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'Dunkirk' Battle Is A Point Of Pride In Britain Today

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The new movie "Dunkirk" immerses its 21st century audience in a pivotal moment of 20th century British history early in the Second World War. In late May and early June of 1940, as German forces plowed through Belgium and France, hundreds of thousands of British and Allied soldiers were forced to retreat from the European mainland to England.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A curtain of darkness hangs over the coast of Britain. The dark shadow of...

SIEGEL: They lined up on the beach at the French seaside town of Dunkirk, often under German bombardment. They were evacuated not just by naval vessels but by hundreds of small boats - pleasure boats, ferries, lifeboats, you name it.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're on their way home, home from the hell that is Dunkirk.

SIEGEL: For more on the story of Dunkirk, we turn to historian Andrew Roberts, who joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

ANDREW ROBERTS: Thank you very much indeed.

SIEGEL: The Second World War began in September 1939. The movie "Dunkirk" and the story of Dunkirk takes place in May and June of 1940. First, what happened in the early months of the war to lead up to Dunkirk?

ROBERTS: Well, very little. Actually, there wasn't anything, really, that happened on land at all in Western Europe until the 10 of May, 1940, when Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on the West and invaded on that day France, Belgium and Holland.

SIEGEL: The story of the evacuation of British troops and also other Allied forces - this is not a story of a military victory but of a very successful retreat across the English Channel. How important was it to the people of wartime Britain?

ROBERTS: It was absolutely vital. We had an army that we needed to get back. Two hundred and fifty thousand troops were, in fact, evacuated from Dunkirk back to Britain. And of course, they formed the kernel of the new army that we were going to build, which eventually was to go back into France at D-Day.

SIEGEL: At that time, the late spring of 1940, the United States was not yet in the war and wouldn't be in the war until Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941. British resolve at Dunkirk and later during the bombing of London, the Blitz - this must have strengthened the hand of those arguing that U.S. entry would have a real effect, that Britain wasn't finished after all.

ROBERTS: Churchill thought this was tremendously important and mentioned the United States a lot, including in his great speech of the 4 of June, the we shall fight them on the beaches speech, in which he said that Britain would carry on fighting until, in God's good time, the New World would step forward to the savior and deliverance of the Old. And so America was in the forefront of his thinking pretty much all the way through this period.

SIEGEL: Yeah, we should point out the ambassador from the New World, Joseph Kennedy, was among those who felt that Britain was a lost cause and democracy was finished in England and we shouldn't get involved.

ROBERTS: Yes. We didn't have much immediate support from Joseph Kennedy. However, luckily, you also had Ed Murrow, who was the great broadcaster who was also in Britain at the time, and throughout the Battle of Britain was broadcasting, saying exactly the opposite, saying that the British people did have the resolve to carry on fighting.

SIEGEL: Obviously, for many years, Dunkirk was a symbol of British resolve and also of cleverness, of figuring out how to get all of these men back across the channel. Does it still resonate with younger people in Britain? Or are they as far removed from this as Americans would be at their age?

ROBERTS: Oh, no. All the young people who I've spoken about, including my children, are very excited by this movie. They both loved it. And you're seeing a lot of people coming partly, I think, maybe because one of the actors, Harry Styles, is a famous pop star, but also the story is so gripping. And it's one I think that will last down the generations. It doesn't really require that much knowledge of the period to appreciate what an extraordinary event Dunkirk was.

SIEGEL: And interestingly, it's not a great battlefield victory. It's a recovery from defeat. It's what you do when your back is to the wall, not when you're triumphant.

ROBERTS: Precisely. The wars are not won by evacuations is what Winston Churchill said in that great speech I mentioned earlier, that this was a, in his words, colossal military disaster. However, the fact was that we lost 40,000 and saved 250,000. And so in all, it was what he also called the miracle of deliverance. And survival was, in itself, a form of victory.

SIEGEL: Historian Andrew Roberts speaking with us about Dunkirk, what actually happened there, the subject of a new movie. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN WALLFISCH, EDWARD ELGAR AND LORNE BALFE'S "END TITLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.