British soldiers huddle together

Episode 4 – Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture with Joshua Levine

World War II On Topic Podcast Series

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About the Episode

This episode is brought to you by the Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.

This week we are going back to June 29, 2020, when Museum Librarian Wesley Lucas led a discussion with author Joshua Levine on his book: “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture.”

This was the companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” the 2017 blockbuster, on which Levine served as historian and advisor on.

Catch up on all episodes of World War II On Topic and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Dunkirk
  • Winston Churchill
  • Walter Lord
  • France

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Featured Historians

Josh Levine

Joshua Levine is a British historian and author. He’s written Operation Fortitude, The Secret History of the Blitz, Dunkirk: The History of the Major Motion Picture, and much more. He was the historical consultant for Dunkirk, the 2017 film directed by Christopher Nolan.

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World War II On Topic is made possible by The Herzstein Foundation.


Jeremy Collins

Hello. I'm Jeremy Collins, the director of conferences in symposia at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This is World War II on Topic, a weekly podcast, where we highlight some of our best programs with historians and authors. We are going back to June 29th, 2020 when the museum librarian Wesley Lucas led a discussion with author Joshua Levine on his book, Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture. This was the companion piece to Christopher Nolan's film, Dunkirk, the 2017 blockbuster, which Levine served as historian and advisor on.

Wesley Lucas

Welcome to another live author talk for the National World War II Museum's official book club, Read to Win the War. I'm Wesley Lucas, a librarian at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. For June, the book club has been reading two books actually to commemorate the battle of Dunkirk, which ended 80 years ago this month. For the basic background, we read the classic history, The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord. And for more context and detail from recent research, we read Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture by Joshua Levine, who has kindly joined us today to discuss this pivotal event in history.

Just a quick intro. Joshua Levine is a bit of a Renaissance man. He's had previous careers as a lawyer and actor, and now he is an historian and author. He's written several bestselling histories, like the Secret History of the Blitz, Operation Fortitude, as well as several titles in the Forgotten Voices series of oral history collections, including one on Dunkirk. Welcome Josh, and thanks so much for joining us.

Joshua Levine

Thank you very much for having me, Wes. It's lovely, really, really nice to be here, nice to be almost in New Orleans. And I'm ready to discuss whatever you like.

Wesley Lucas

Sounds great. We'll certainly spend most of the time on your book, but since we did talk about two books, I'll start off with a question about Walter Lord's Miracle of Dunkirk. He described it basically as a series of crises that were met with a series of fortunate events and sprinkled in with some British ingenuity. Does that fit your view of the event?

Joshua Levine

I think it does. What I particularly like about Walter Lord, I like it's very, very well written. It's very easy to read. It takes really a huge... It was a complicated event, and there was so much happening, so many different kinds of things happening. And he makes it very, very understandable. And I think that is a quite a good description. What you've got to sort of remember about the evacuation, first of all, the defeat. Well, first thing to remember is it was a defeat. The battle of France was a terrible defeat, and Churchill in his speech in Parliament on the 4th of June, didn't try and hide that fact. He said, war was not won by evacuations.

He called it a defeat. But at the same time, nobody in Britain was expecting to have to evacuate the army almost immediately. So it was very much an improvisation, and it was... There's this idea, the British liked to think of themselves as best when they're unprepared, when they're amateurs, when their backs to the wall, when they're improvising. And so in a sense, it sort of played into the British idea of who they are and when they're at their best. There's this idea that British only ever start wars very slowly. They start badly, then they turn things around. But the fact was, it was an improvisation. It had to be improvised very, very quickly, the evacuation. And on that basis, it was a magnificent success, it was pulled off, but it was also pulled off with a lot of...

There was a lot of fortune involved. If you look at various different elements from the weather, the fact that the sea for most of the evacuation was calm, which allowed the little boats to come in, which allowed the ships to go. If you look at the fact there was cloud cover, even though the weather was good so the lift off for a lot of it couldn't bomb. There was also the smoke coming in, which covered again, stopped the lift off. You had the halt order, Hitler's halt order, stopping... Well, first of all Rundstedt stopping the tanks on the 23rd, and then Hitler confirming it on the 24th. So you had a lot of elements that came together, a fortune if you like that came together, but then it still had to be carried out.

Well, another element, which is somewhere between fortune and genius was the bringing of the Mole into action. That the Luftwaffe had bombed the Harbor basically into oblivion. All of these soldiers had retreated back into Dunkirk, which was the only port available. And then the Luftwaffe put the port out of action. So when William Tennant, who was the Naval man in charge at Dunkirk arrived on the 27th, he had this dilemma, what to do, the port actually isn't working. So immediately, he brought all the soldiers out of all their... They're all hunkered down in cellars in the town. He had his men lead them down to the beaches, but initially there were no small ships to come in to bring the soldiers off the beaches to the larger Naval ships and ferries offshore.

So the first thing he did was to get on the wireless at the French headquarters to say, bring out more ships, more small boats. We need the small boats to take people off to the bigger ships, but also we can't use the port. So what do I do? So what he did was to bring the Mole which was only ever at break water. It was a mile long, but it was to stop the harbors tilting up. And it did have a walkway on top, but that walkway had these huge banisters all the way along to stop people falling off. And it was prone to huge sort of tidal, I think it's 15 foot tidal drop. It just certainly wasn't meant, ships had never come alongside it. They weren't meant to. It'd only been recently built actually.

And then you have the fact, the Germans were doing everything to stop the British getting away. This idea that Hitler was building a golden bridge, allowing the British to getaway. Not much you can say with any certainty in this life, but one thing you can say is Hitler was not allowing the British army to get away. And you had this amazing thing again, not many people have heard about this idea of the degaussing because the Germans were dropping lots of these mines, these magnetic mines, which the ships would trigger and explode.

And just shortly beforehand, this scientist called Goodeve had discovered basically two ways of putting these mines out of action. One by sweeping the roots. So two ships basically trailing behind them things that wouldn't set off the mines and another by passing coils over the ships, which actually de magnetized them and meant that the mines wouldn't set them off. And so only two ships were sunk by magnetic mines when it could have been dozens and dozens of ships. Again, good fortune or genius, somewhere in the middle. So that's a very, very long answer for yes, I think he was right in saying that.

Wesley Lucas

Well, that's an excellent answer because I loved that you brought up improvisation, which is something I was certainly going to try to talk about. And you've already touched on now. That it was that kind of confluence of bad things that happened, then some lucky things, and then that ingenuity that you just brought up. So those are some really great points, I guess, to back up just a little bit, how did they find themselves kind of in this situation? You did a really good intro in your book that set up context that maybe the Walter Lord book was lacking.

Joshua Levine

Yeah, sorry.

Wesley Lucas

Go ahead.

Joshua Levine

No, it just seemed to me, I was in this book writing for a different audience to Walter Lord. So Walter Lord was writing a while ago for people who understood the context. They'd grown up with the context. Most of them were alive at the time. And if they weren't, then their family members. It was something that people grew up just knowing about. And I think if you are writing... Well, first of all, this was strictly speaking of film tie in. So I was going to be writing for a lot of people, kids really, who hadn't heard, didn't know anything about the second world war, let alone Dunkirk. So I had to put that in. I wanted to put it into greater context, but also even if you're writing for a relatively knowledgeable audience, I don't think you can take things for granted now, the way you could when you were writing earlier, in the 20th century about first world war, second world war things.

Because I think now things that people took for granted, it was kind of in their DNA that they knew these things. They just knew why people from that generation behaved why they behaved. Nowadays, we don't. We need a kind of introduction to that generation to explain even the simplest things, why people did what they did, why they thought the way they thought. And so I think without hammering it home, you don't want to be patronizing about it. But at the same time, you do want to create a background. You want to be as atmospheric as you can, and try and explain the thinking of why people behaved and said and did the things they did.

So you just have to go just a little further than maybe Walter Lord had to. Give a bit of background who these young men fighting each other would've been. So that's where the first chapters came in. And I think that is actually quite important. And also then I wanted to go into really a lot of detail. Dunkirk is not just the evacuation. That's kind of a sharp end of it. That's a sexy end of it if you like, but actually it's the story of the battle of France. Why did the British army need evacuating? Why were they there? So the whole story, which I think is just fascinating of these young men joining the army, they'd been brought up British. I'm talking about British perspective for this point. I'd also talked about the Germans in the book, but they joined the army.

They'd been brought up during a depression. So it maybe wasn't quite as ferocious in Britain as it was in the states or for that matter in Germany. And most of these people have brought up... Well, first of all, they've certainly never been abroad before. This was a whole new experience for them, but they, also, many of them been brought up without regular meals, and the army actually had certain attractions maybe we don't think of today. To have regular meals and a roof over your head was not nothing back then. And then again, you joined the army, and you did get this sense of adventure. You were going to do something. Well, I mean, you have these sort of dual reasons. For some people they joined because it was security in an insecure world.

For others, it was a sense of adventure in a world that didn't offer enough adventure. So you have a lot of these young men going across to France in 1939 and into 1940, never been abroad before. No idea what is abroad. People eat differently, people talk differently. So, I've found these wonderful stories of just at the very beginning of the soldiers arriving in France so excited about what is this foreign place going to be like? Some of them ending up really disappointed that it's actually not that different from England. You had people... One officer said that when the train started rolling through the French countryside, all the men got up staring through the windows. What is it going to look like? And a bit disappointed that the houses were square, and they had roofs.

And it's kind of the same. And so there's a lot of that sort of the novelty of it. Bear in mind also, these soldiers are going out, earlier generation after their fathers and uncles had gone out to the same places in the first world war. So they were going around, while they were very basically because nothing happened initially. They just dug themselves in France and then were tourists really. they were mixing with the French people. I talk in the book about one man who married a French woman while he was out there. And they were seen as a rule, not always, but as a kind of saviors coming to France to help the French resist the Germans.

So they were very welcome. They tried new foods some, some didn't. Didn't think much of wine. They drank beer. Wine? I don't know, what is this wine? But they were also going out to these places that their fathers and uncles had fought over and sometimes talked about sometimes not talked about when they came home. And the trench lines from the first world war were still there. And they like us today, well, it's a very English thing to go out to the first world war battlefield. They did the same thing. And they went to the cemeteries, and they saw family members in the cemeteries. And that for them had the kind of added poignancy, that when we go, it's very somber. It's interesting, and it's also somber. But for them, they might face the same fate. So it had this added element to it. And so, I just thought it was worth talking about the beginning even before the fighting started. And then when the Germans invaded, they came into Belgium on the 10th of May, the same day, Churchill became prime minister in Britain.

And the British went through to meet them from France, where they'd been based into Belgium. They weren't allowed initially into Belgium because Belgium wanted to stay neutral. They didn't want to provoke the Germans. Belgium, it was an impossible position. I mean, they knew they were going to be attacked, but on the other hand, maybe if they didn't provoke the Germans, and they might not. Anyway, so the Germans came into Belgium, the British moved forward to meet them in Belgium. But of course, what nobody on the allied side expected was that this attack was going to come. That was only really a faint by the Germans. The major attack was going to come further south in the supposedly impossible Odon area. And the French had built the Maginot Line between the wars. The idea was the Germans will not pass even a Panzer party can never get through.

This was a series of forts on the French border with Germany, because French had learned their lesson. But the lesson they hadn't learned was that Ardennes actually wasn't impenetrable. And within days, really the Germans had reached the coast and virtually encircled the British army, British Expeditionary Force and the French and Belgian armies to the north and the battle was over before it had begun. So it's an astonishing story. And so much of the story comes before the evacuation, never mind had begun, but even had been decided on before Lord Gort, even who was the leader, the commander chief of the British Expeditionary Force, and he made the very brave and lonely decision, which was not supported back in England by Churchill or by the people back who didn't know quite how awful the situation was. He made the decision to retreat back to Dunkirk, but before he even made that decision so much had already happened, which set the ground. Anyway, again, another very long answer.

Wesley Lucas

No, that's excellent. That's excellent context for some of the motivations that led the youth of Britain to joining up. And then you've also done well to set us up for, as you described, the entirety of the Battle of Dunkirk, which was not just the beaches, which is something you talked about and something that the movie focused on. So you started to describe it there really well. So maybe getting back to some of the crises and fortunate events that occurred at that point. Also, you set up well, the fact that the military was kind of ill prepared and during that Phoney War period, it kind of let everyone's guard down a bit visiting brothels, having drinks and stuff like that. So that's a great image of what we're looking at with the British kind of a young force non experienced in Northern France for the first time back on these World War I battlefields. And now here comes this newly mechanized German army just sweeping across and blowing everyone's minds.

Joshua Levine

The thing is, it's tempting to see it as this ill prepared the allies, the British, the French, the Belgian ill prepared, the Germans mechanized. And actually, it's not as simple as that. It really isn't. They were two pretty well balanced armies, actually. Actually, funny enough, a lot of the British, not a lot, but quite a fair number of the British soldiers out there were pioneers who were a lot older. These were people who some of them had fought in the first world war, and they'd been sent out to do the digging and the sort of heavy work. And so some of them were older soldiers who'd already fought. Some of them were completely untrained. They were never meant to fight. They never fired a rifle. And they suddenly found themselves as the Germans came forward in action. When to say they were unprepared is not even to begin.

And then again, there were also some very well prepared British soldiers who were expecting to fight, who just found themselves retreating immediately and never fired a shot. So it was chaos. But it's not as though I think it would be wrong to suggest that the Germans were this amazing mechanized, unbelievable, superb force that were just the better and bigger and better and shinier and newer than the allies. It's not true. They were two very well balanced. And we think of the panzers. There's this sort of, oh, the panzer divisions, wow, these up to the minute tanks that were better than anything. It's not true actually. The majority of the tanks and the panzer divisions were, they had a lot of training tanks.

They had a lot of captured Czech tanks. They had, relatively speaking, not as many of the latest panzers. And also the British, the Matilda two tanks, the later Matilda tanks were actually, the Germans found them very impressive. They couldn't penetrate their armor. There's one interesting event. There are a million interesting events, but there's one thing that actually happened during... So the Germans had sort of shot through Ardennes and then the panzers moved through towards the coast. And the British mounted a very limited counter attack at Arras on the 21st of May and that counter attack. But the fact was that the panzers had become so stretched out. They were still so far ahead of their infantry, their supplies. There was a real worry that they would be the ones who would be caught out by an allied attack.

And they would be the ones who would then need rescuing. And the whole German attack would fall apart. And the counter attack was really, it was both immensely successful and totally unsuccessful. It basically blundered into, it didn't really know where it was going, but it blundered into Rommel's Panzer Division and caused immense damage. I mean, for a while, it looked as though the panzers were going to be completely overrun. And Rommel took personal control of the situation and managed to overcome it. This was one of the places where Rommel really was building his reputation that later became so huge. And at that point, the Germans became very, very scared of the allied potential. They'd shown already they had the strength to totally defeat the German attack. So the Germans themselves believed this.

So I think it's over simplistic to think of this amazing, brilliant German force that just is totally superior to the Allies. It's not true. It was a much more even thing. And it was really circumstantial the advantage that the Germans had, tactical, circumstantial, strategic, but less so in terms of just dominance of material or better soldiers, or anything like that.

Wesley Lucas

Excellent. Yes, that is definitely something that I came to realize through reading both of these books. In fact, I know that at least Walter Lord mentioned, and you may as well, that the French army was considered the best military in the world, in the inner war period. And so no one knew exactly what the Germans had. They had the advantage of sweeping through a few, smaller countries that didn't put up as much of a fight. And it's like, as soon as they get to France, you're obviously going to see a little different tactic. So you mentioned the counter attack at Arras. It's sort of, to me reminded me of what Dunkirk is. Basically a failure, at the end of the day a defeat, but it revealed a lot of things that were actually advantageous to the allies.

Like you mentioned, it held up their attack. The Germans realized they weren't invincible. The British realized that the Blitzkrieg had limits. There was a lot of learning going on at this point. And so you also mentioned the halt order, which was debated about being about Goering's, desire for glory, for the Luftwaffe and Hitler's emotional decision making. But it was a practical military decision. They had stretched their [...].

Joshua Levine

I think that's right. It was a practical... I mean, if you think of it made a lot of sense, initially to halt them. The tanks had got so far ahead of the infantry and far ahead of their supply lines. They were vulnerable to counteract. Arras had shown them how vulnerable they were to counter attack. The tanks were still needed for what was thought would be a big battle south of the Somme against the bulk of the French army. A lot of the tanks were now worn out. They were out of action. The area getting towards Dunkirk was marshy, not ideal for tanks. And what use for tanks be inside Dunkirk. So there were good practical reasons for halting them for a while. Having said that, there were many German generals, Halder, for example, who was a chief of staff for German High Command was just, what are you doing?

You've almost beaten them. Why are you stopping now? And so, I mean, kids like these it's not, there's no clear cut. And it's absolutely right to say that Goering got involved, and Goering knew how to play Hitler. And Goering wanted the glory and said to Hitler, don't leave this to your generals. And it's true. They weren't solidly Nazis. And Goering said to Hitler, let us do it. Luftwaffe, I've been with you from the beginning. Luftwaffe is solidly Nazi. We can do this. We can destroy the British army. We can bring it to its knees.

Wesley Lucas

Going back to your original point about how this is a multifaceted event over a couple weeks, we've been out in the countryside, we've learned through Arras and the halt that there are some limits to this. But one thing they did learn the British was that they were going to have to evacuate. They would not be able to push out and do the counter attack like they would fully like to. So at this point, another aspect of it that's really crucial is the defense of the corridor, the escape corridor, and then the perimeter around Dunkirk. And you involved to give those folks a lot of attention.

Joshua Levine

Well, because they were being asked to sacrifice themselves, and they knew it. Well, first of all, the French were looking after the Western parts of the perimeter. And the British were looking after the remainder of it and then as the corridor in. And these people were being asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. And they were under no illusions about that. And they were chosen, and they did the job. And they did it very well. And I found these incredible stories of people who were looking up... Because if you think about it, I mean, the way that it worked for the British, they started off to Belgium where they were defending the river Dyle, line on the river Dyle. There was some fierce fighting on the river Dyle.

And then they were told, when the attack came in the Ardennes, the soldiers up in the river Dyle were told to retreat. They had absolutely no idea why they were retreating. Some of them thought that maybe our battalion has done something wrong or there's been a breakthrough nearby. So they retreated and they went back to the river Escaut, and then there was fierce fighting on the river Escaut, and then they had to retreat again. What's going on? And then they started pouring down this corridor, which was being defended and the perimeter of Dunkirk, which was being defended. And in the meantime, you have Lord Gort, who is the commander chief making that very brave decision, send them through Dunkirk. What is Dunkirk? You're going to Dunkirk. What is Dunkirk? A lot of the British never heard of it.

Lot of them thought it sounded Scottish. They thought they were being sent back to Scotland. They had no idea. They didn't have maps. So I talked to some who said the leaflets that rained down and which I told Christopher Nolan about and he'd put into the film at the beginning. First he said, we didn't have a map. This was useful. Germans were sending us, oh, good, that's Dunkirk. We got to go this way. Well, they were using them as toilet paper. That was the other thing they used them for. So two useful, two ways. And so they start, first of all, retreating as units, and then they became more bedraggled, and some were on their own in terrible conditions, some weren't in terrible. Yeah, it was no one story.

And on the corridor and in the perimeter, it's amazing stories of people, what people do, just extraordinary stories. And the stories are the things that I wanted to put into the book. I wanted to tell it, the whole thing through the experiences of these individuals who a lot of the time had no real idea what was going on. They were just fighting their little corner of the battle. And these were unsung heroes, I think because everybody remembers the evacuation. Very few people remember those who sacrificed themselves to allow the evacuation to take place.

Wesley Lucas

Definitely just great that you draw attention to them. Of course, we love our oral histories here. So that's another reason that your book stands out for us. Yeah. I learned through that a lot of them did not make it to the evacuations. Like you said, they fought to the last and sometimes tried to join up with the French and continue to fight. But many of them were taken prisoner, which is a part of this that a lot of people don't realize. Before we get to the beaches, I was going to bring up that among all this, there was a leadership change in England. Chamberlain stepping down and Churchill stepping in. You want to talk about Churchill some and his role in all this?

Joshua Levine

Well, all I was going to say, I'll do that quickly.

Basically, he says, Churchill had this extraordinary power. He said, Churchill made you feel as though you were a great actor in great events. Leadership is dulling the rational faculty and substituting enthusiasm for it. In 1940 on a careful evaluation of the odds, nobody would've moved. And that's the point here. This is what Churchill, this is why he was the man for the time. My goodness me, Churchill made mistakes. He contradicted himself. He flip flopped. He did all sorts of things in other periods of his life as his leadership.

At this point, my goodness me, he was the man for the job because things were so grim. And what the country needed was somebody to do precisely that. Dull the rational faculty and substitute enthusiasm. And he got everybody moving and believing and acting. And I think, while I've got you there, I'll make the bigger point, which I think this ties into. Which is if the British expedition force hadn't got away, if it had been destroyed, the army had been killed, captured, then Britain would've had to basically seek terms with Hitler. And Churchill told his cabinet that Britain would become a slave state if they made peace with Germany.

Because can you imagine, I mean, the world would be living in today where Europe would be nazified without... I mean, these are such big topics at the moment, anyway. But without Britain to preserve freedom, the rule of law, then you'd have had these norms, these totalitarian norms, just bleeding across Europe, barbarism, coercion, intolerance. These would be the order of the day, default settings, if you like. And I'm speaking now, big admission, I'm speaking as a Jewish person. I mean, my goodness, me, Jews would've long since have disappeared from Britain if the Germans got a foothold. Would America entered the war? And if they had entered the war, where would the second front have come from? So it's tempting to think of Dunkirk, particularly in America. That's why I wanted Americans to see this film, to read this book.

It's tempting to think of Dunkirk as the bit before the Americans, the Russians got involved. It wasn't. It was absolutely crucial. It was more than just this sort of nostalgic echo of former British glory. It was absolutely internationally important that the British army got away, that the war continued. And all that we know that came later was able to happen because of this period. So it's a big story. It's not just a little English parochial story. And that's why I was so happy to come on board the film to write this book, to try and get these points across. And I just can't believe the Internet's held up for long enough for me to say that. Absolutely.

Wesley Lucas

Well, that was an excellent overall arching point that certainly reading your book, I started to think about how huge this was for the world. Not just a little British story, as you said. I guess, there was two things I was going to get to, but I'll jump ahead to this. It's kind of like the legacy and the meaning of it today. When the soldiers returned, they felt like they had betrayed their country, they retreated. And all the civilians were lauding them and saying, no, you've lived to fight another day. And it truly did create this new communal volunteerism movement there that even stretched on for years where the government actually did more civil service programs and social programs.

And so all of that made me think about today with Brexit, with COVID 19, with the civil rights movements, the black lives matter movements, all these things kind of wrapped up together, started coming to my mind at the end of this thinking, wow, here was a period where everyone was together about this, not just Britain, but as you said, in an international coalition. We are now facing maybe for the first time since world war II, a truly global crisis. So talk about, do you see any parallels with…

Joshua Levine

I mean, absolutely. I mean, I think, it's a brilliant point. I think, where to begin with this. So the Dunkirk, as you say, the evacuation gave rise to this idea of which we still have in Britain today, still banded around this idea of Dunkirk spirit. It's used very casually today. It's sort of what it means in England is fighting, coming together when your backs are against the wall. So when a few years ago there were floods all over Britain and people were helping each other out, this is Dunkirk spirit. Events like that, that's when it's pulled out. And some people are cynical about it saying, well, it was very much a government construct after Dunkirk. But actually, I don't think it was. I mean, I've really looked into this.

And as you say, it was that the army came back, and the army, my God, the army was in a terrible state. And they were angry a lot of them, they felt they'd been let down. They felt they'd shamed the country. Some people felt they'd been sent into something they were incapable of achieving. They'd been let down by their leads, all these kind of different views. And there were certainly a lot were ashamed, and they came back and they were treated as heroes. And that wasn't on the government hadn't created that. That was totally instinctive. That was organic. And I think partly it was because people were just relieved on two grounds, one that their brothers and sons were coming home. I mean, thank God he's actually home, but two, we're still in this, we can still fight.

It's a massive organic outpouring of relief, which was what Dunkirk spirit was. Which then Churchill's speech on the fourth and all these things built up and played into. But my goodness, it was real and it was organic, and people felt it. And then, you found that in the weeks afterwards, if you look at the Times newspaper, and you look at the editorials, if you look at the way people in public life were speaking. They were talking about, we were all in this together in a way they hadn't done before. This idea, people were already starting to think, even though the war was actually lost, people were starting to think about what they wanted from the post-war world. There was a sort of reconstruction committee in the government formed and what we want. Lots of people who you never imagine it were talking about it must be a fairer world.

It must be a world where everybody has a stake in their future. This is where the postwar government came from. This is where it started to be built at this time. And again, you had also, with the Americans, the Americans came in slightly later. The Russians came in June of '41. And we are starting to think globally now. Our allies are people that we rely on, are just people who necessarily think the same way that we do. So all of this was absolutely building up and in Britain got its culmination at the end of the war. But I think there's so much. Now we're sort of tearing down the idea of globalization. We're sort of returning to the idea of nationalism, which was something that actually you'd think that a war would increase our sense of nationalism.

In some ways, it actually, in this particular war in some way worked the other way. But we're starting... I think, the fact is there are very few people around now who remember that time. And so a lot of the ideas that came out seem relevant anymore, important anymore. We just cherry pick what we want, what backs up our own worldview nowadays from that event. So I think if you look at it more closely, you'll find, as you say, a world where certainly in Britain where suddenly volunteerism became a word, what can I do to help? How can we work together? And so many of the post-war ideas that in Britain, it's funny the national health service is such a funny one. In Britain, it's a religion.

I mean, I don't know if you remember the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, whenever it was, 2012, and the opening ceremony had this great big sort of Mary Poppins dance number with hospital beds and all these. And it had an actor playing Churchill, appearing, Timothy Spall, out at the top of Big Ben and talking about... It was an absolute get back to this time when people pulled together and that created the Britain that we... About the last time Britain was unified at all was 2012 Olympic, but that was what it was looking back to. And you had this idea in Britain of the National Health Services being a unified fact, something that everybody loves. To a lot of Americans, it makes no sense at all. It's a socialist measure. Why would you love something that...

And it's a sort of the divide between the two countries, but in Britain, we do love the National Health Service. And it came out exactly out of this period of, we must look after, we all have a stake in each other's futures. So it's a strange time. And it's a time that I do think of a lot now that we are so polarized, basically in Britain, as well as in the states. Everybody just, you take your side and that's it. You can't agree on anything. You wish nothing but the worst on your enemies who think differently to you. And this was not that time. This was a very different time to that. So yeah, again, another very long answer.

Wesley Lucas

And a great answer, because some of my favorite parts of doing these book club selections is to look for larger themes like that, because why would we read about these events that have passed if they weren't still influencing things today? And your example of the National Health Services is just perfect because it's something that grew out of that time and that spirit. And it's something that is actually visible today on the front lines of our current crisis.

Joshua Levine

And that volunteerism, you can really, really see how it evolved out of Dunkirk. Out of the evacuation in the weeks following the evacuation, you can kind of see its birth. 1940, people, some will assure you of that was post-war, the roots are right here.

Wesley Lucas

Yes. I had several little examples pulled out that you mentioned that during Dunkirk, that volunteerism really came about. Women's Institute collected food, Women's Voluntary Service created canteens, a citizen's advisory bureau gave welfare guidance. And then I love these, the local defense volunteers or home guard, including the first American motorized squadron, a group of well to do Americans in Britain who were all on board with this before America and FDR decided to jump into the war. And they were like, hey, send over guns, money, whatever you can. And I thought that was a pretty cool example.

Joshua Levine

Well, you've also got another thing I've been looking at recently, the Eagle squadron, the Americans, these volunteers who came to Britain. I mean, some of them originally went out to France and then were forced to come to Britain, but who fought in the Battle of Britain or shortly after the Battle of Britain and were absolutely inspired, well inspired by a lot of things. I mean, it was too simplistic to say. They were inspired by freedom, and some of them wanted adventure. But the fact is, here they were, Americans who were coming over before America was in the war. And when in fact, I think it was illegal for them to actually come, whatever illegal means. But here they were fighting because don't forget after Dunkirk, you had the Battle of Britain and then the Blitz coming in close. These were all really part of a single parcel, a sort of turn of event, a single sweep of events and a fascinating one, as far as... I don't know if you can hear me, but I certainly can't hear you.

Wesley Lucas

You're back. I got you.

Joshua Levine

You're back. Yeah.

Wesley Lucas

But yeah, so right. I think I know where you left off there. And I think that's something that maybe we can definitely take away from this at the end of the day is a little bit of that Dunkirk spirit, something that we should all take going forward with this current situation. If we can just remember back to this time that you so well describe your book, perhaps we could work together a little bit more. Well, I guess we're just about out of time. I had a full list of things, but an hour's never enough, right.

Joshua Levine

Rather brilliant is we managed to talk all the time without actually talking about the evacuation, which…

Wesley Lucas

I know. And I had a whole list of things around the beach itself because everyone talks about the beach. And I was like, well, let's get to everything first, and then we'll get to the beach. But something that you left us with and a big takeaway of the book was the varied experience on the beach. That it's not a monolithic experience. That it's something that each individual went through. There was panic and starvation and injuries and deaths. And then on the same time on the same beach, there was people reading books and drawing and making drink rides and getting drunk.

Joshua Levine

That's a story. That's a bigger picture. There's never any one story. It's one of the things I loved about the film actually, is that it, again, it's so easy to be simplistic about these things. Here's the story of X. Well, no, it's not. And the fact is that Dunkirk is a great example because it's going to involve the evacuations, enclosed event, 10 miles of beaches, hundreds of thousands of people, over 10 days, every kind of behavior was there. Anything you want to look for, it was there. So don't ever say, it was like this, or it was like this, it was like this. It was all of human life was there.

Wesley Lucas

Yes. I loved your description in the book. You said it as the whole world was on that beach. You had hundreds of thousands of people, which is like a city or multiple cities. And when you go into a city, you get every kind of human being. So again, to kind of dovetail with our discussion, it's something to remember that we all experience things differently, but we try to survive in the end, which is what kind of film I think came out of this was a survival film.

Joshua Levine

It's a survival film. Exactly.

Wesley Lucas

Exactly. So, well, man, I can't think of a better way to wrap it up. Actually, like you said, it's funny that we didn't even talk about the beach itself as much, but again, not a lot of people know a lot about that. So I'm glad you…

Joshua Levine

That's quite nice, actually. It's quite nice to do it, to talk about this without doing this, doing the obvious. We could do another hour on the beach if you like, but that…

Wesley Lucas

I would love to do that. That would be great, man. And like I said, I really hope in the future, we can get you down here to New Orleans for an in person.

Joshua Levine

I'd love it. I'd love it.

Wesley Lucas

We will keep the lines open for that. And again, thank you for taking the time out of your day to do this with us and appreciate your work. And stay safe and everything.

Joshua Levine

And to you. Very nice to meet you. If we have met, I don't know if this counts as meeting, but if it does then lovely to meet you, Wesley.

Wesley Lucas

I'll take it, you as well. Thanks, Josh.

Jeremy Collins

Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please consider visiting for more episodes. Again, that is Don't forget to rate and subscribe. We truly appreciate it. This series is brought to you by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein charitable foundation, which supports content like this from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. I'm Jeremy Collins signing off.