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The Role of 1950-60 Time Period in The Shaping The Popular Memory of Dunkirk

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The Dunkirk evacuation, which occurred between the 26th May and 4th June 1940, codenamed “Operation Dynamo” involved the successful rescue of 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in Northern France. The event has embedded itself in the memory of the British public, changing throughout the decades since the evacuation occurred. The period 1950-60 was key to shaping the popular memory of Dunkirk, as the immediate post-war generation reflected on the war and their experiences in it. In the words of historian Geoff Eley, “official and popular culture” in the 1950s were constantly related to the war, and how Britain performed in it. In order to assess the significance of this time period, this essay will discuss three primary sources. The first of these sources is a Manchester Guardian article on 10th year anniversary ceremonies of Dunkirk, published on the 5th June 1950, written by their special correspondent. The second of these sources is a Manchester Guardian review of Ealing Studios Dunkirk (1958), published on the 22nd March 1958, written by their London film critic. Finally, the third source is an excerpt of BBC radio programme named “20 year after Dunkirk”, which contains the first-hand account of Sargent John Bridges, who was at Dunkirk during the evacuation. These sources contain three themes which are important when assessing how key a time period is to remembering Dunkirk. Firstly, they all show the increasing focus on the men on the beaches, and how they got there, instead of focusing on the evacuation itself. Secondly, the sources show how as the decade went on, there was increased acknowledgement of the mistakes made by the military leading into Dunkirk. Finally, the portrayal of the “little ships” which aided in the evacuation varies in each source. These themes all change throughout the decade, and therefore, the sources will be approached from a chronological perspective.

In order to discuss the significance of a certain time period with regard to shaping the popular memory of a certain event, it is key to look into the popular memory of the event in the modern day. The three themes just mentioned will be used to compare contemporary sources with those from 1950-60 in order to assess how much the popular memory has or hasn’t changed. In order to do this, two small sources will be used throughout this essay in order to compare and contrast the popular memory of the modern day with the past. The first of these is a Guardian review of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), by Peter Bradshaw. The second is a BBC article from 2015, which outlines the 75th anniversary ceremonies for the Dunkirk evacuation.

Each source makes reference to the experiences of the men at Dunkirk, with some being more focused on it than others. This shows that from soon after the event, a variety of aspects were taken into account when remembering Dunkirk, instead of solely focusing on the “little ships” and evacuation itself. This focus increased throughout the decade, which in turn shaped how Dunkirk is remembered today. The Manchester Guardian’s article regarding the 10th Anniversary ceremonies written by their special correspondent in 1950 shows the level of focus on the experiences of soldiers at Dunkirk at the beginning of the decade. The intent of this source was to inform the British public on the anniversary ceremonies at Dunkirk, and therefore, how they should remember the event, making it valuable when examining the popular memory of the event. The article’s subtitle reads “Men of ‘little ships’ honoured”, putting emphasis on their role in the evacuation . This focus on the ‘little ships’ is reflected in the article, receiving much more focus than the soldiers being rescued from the beaches. Furthermore, their guest status at the mayor’s dinner is praised, as well as their honouring at the drumhead service. Alice Palmer suggest this perspective is correct for that of the time, as the civilian role in the success of Dunkirk was portrayed as “crucial” at the beginning of the decade. The soldiers rescued on the other hand, are only referenced indirectly through the war memorial, and by a medal given to a young girl which her father had died winning. This focus on the ‘little ships’ at the beginning of the decade shows how the memorialisation of Dunkirk throughout the time period changed, affecting its popular memory.

Eight years on (1958), and the film Dunkirk, by Ealing Studios, premiered. A review of this film in the Manchester Guardian shows how as the decade continued, there was increased interest and focus upon those on the beaches of Dunkirk. Geoff Eley argues that film, and entertainment media in general, was hugely important with regard to how the British public remembered the war. The production of numerous war films in the 1950 brought World War 2 nostalgia to a “monumentalised apotheosis”. This is reflected in how Dunkirk was received, with it being the second highest grossing film in Britain that year, with an estimated revenue of $1,750,000 . This shows that the context for a review of Dunkirk would be popular, as the nation was at peak interest in the war’s memory.

The reviewer recognises part of the film’s narrative focuses on a section of British infantry under Corporal John Mills, retreating to Dunkirk, and a small group of men taking small boats over to assist in evacuation. In contrast, Peter Bradshaw’s review of 2017’s Dunkirk describes the audience as being “plunged” into the evacuation, with less focus on the context and narrative of the British army’s retreat to the beaches. Whilst this might suggest the 1950s had little impact in shaping popular memory, it instead reinforces how important it was. Due to the renewed spirit in remembering the war, 1950-60 allowed for the public at the time, and for the public in the future, to have a more informed view of events which occurred. Therefore, there is now less need for context, due to the importance of the period 1950-60 in shaping the popular memory. Furthermore, the reviewer of Dunkirk (1958) suggests that the lack of “phoney heroics” from these characters contributes to the films greatest success; its recapturing of the ”Dunkirk” atmosphere. This shows, at least from the reviewer’s perspective, stories of those on the beaches and at sea play a key role in how the event should be remembered. This is reinforced by historian Penny Summerfield, stating that during the 1950s, there was a “switch” in focus from the sea to the land where the defeated army was. This review also demonstrates how that as the decade continued, focus on the men at the beaches increased, and so did their significance in the popular memory of Dunkirk.

Sargent John Bridges’ account in the BBC’s “Dunkirk Evacuation – 20 years on”, was broadcast in May 1960. Bridges’ account was some of the first in-depth personal experiences which were broadcast on air to the nation, and would have helped shape Dunkirk’s popular memory. It is important to note that Bridges is recalling events that happened 20 years prior, which does affect the accuracy of his account. Furthermore, it is key to recognise that the experience of one man cannot be extrapolated to the other 330,000 men evacuated, but the BBC’s programme used multiple interviews with the intention of painting a larger picture for the public, with Bridges’ interview being one of these. Contextually, Penny Summerfield suggests that by the end of the 1950s, the “infantryman’s” place in the story was reclaimed, and a prime example of this would be John Bridges account. As the decade went on the focus on the men at the evacuation and their stories in different forms of media increased, suggesting that popular memory of the event was changing. In the BBC’s 75th anniversary article, veterans are at the focus, with many asked to give interviews and comments on the proceedings, showing the impact of 1950-60 on how we remember the event. This shows that without the change in focus during the time period, it is possible these soldiers could’ve been forgotten, affecting the popular memory of the event.

In the words of the Prime Minister at the time, Winston Churchill, Dunkirk was a “colossal military disaster” . Whilst this was the case, attitudes amongst the public differed, viewing the evacuation as a success, and it was a kind of victory in the face of impending defeat. However, during the 1950s, much like the focus on the experiences of the men at Dunkirk, critiques and acknowledgements of the military’s mistakes which led them to Dunkirk in the first place grew more prevalent in the media, shaping how the event is remembered today. In the Manchester Guardian’s 10th year anniversary ceremonies report in 1950, the only reference to the failure of the allied forces comes when describing the destruction of Dunkirk. The article outlines how the British public who travelled across for the celebrations were “surprised” at how destroyed the town was. The author also notes that an explanation for the lack of decoration around Dunkirk was due to the fact that there were “so few” buildings left to hang banners on. Whilst not explicit, this does convey the failure of the allied forces, as they were defeated in France, and in doing so, many towns and villages were raised to the ground. The lack of mention of the BEF’s failures could be attributable to the intent of this source. Its purpose was to inform the public on the anniversary, not to inform them on why the allied forces had to retreat repeatedly until they reached Dunkirk. On the other hand, not mentioning the failures of the armed forces does align with the context of the time, where historian R. Jenkins suggest that there was “seductive tendency” to treat Dunkirk as a victory, and not a failure. Even if this isn’t the case, the beginning of the decade shows that there was not a lot of focus on the failures of the allied forces in France. The BBC’s coverage of the 75th anniversary in 2015 makes passing reference to the position of the defeated armies being “stranded” in France, but does not go into detail into how they ended up on the beaches in the first place. However, much like the anniversary source from 1950, the intent of this source is to inform the public on the anniversary proceedings, not the failures of the military which led to this point. Therefore, whilst one could argue that the time period is influential due to the similar nature of the sources with regard to the militaries failures, it is more attributable to the source type.

The Manchester Guardian’s review of Dunkirk (1958), unlike the 10th anniversary report does explicitly refer to some mistakes and shortcomings made by the military, although, it is not that prevalent throughout the whole review. The review choses to highlight the portrayal of the military command in the film, who are described as “failing to manage the war”. This is also reflected in the review of Dunkirk (2017), where Peter Bradshaw describes the British army as being “dwarfed” by Wehrmacht strategy. Bradshaw also recognises the film’s depiction of the lack of air force protecting the soldiers, leaving them to be “picked off” by Luftwaffe aircraft. This acknowledgement of the militaries mistakes and failures began between 1950-60, and is still seen today, showing the impact of the time period. Perspectives such as this, suggesting the BEF in France made mistakes, were conveyed through film. War films in particular, were popular in the 1950s due to the “hiatus” taken by the British film industry during the 1940s due to sensitivity towards the bereaved, as well as the lack of cash. Dunkirk’s (1958) huge box office success, linked with notable actors such as John Mills and Richard Attenborough, meant the film was popular in Britain. This meant narratives, such as acknowledging the failures of the military which led to Dunkirk, would have spread throughout the nation.

Sargent John Bridges’ account is also able to highlight mistakes and critiques of the allied forces in France from first-hand experience. Bridges’ account mentions a “series of rear guard actions” (retreats) leading into Dunkirk, suggesting the military could not compete with the German Forces. When they eventually reached Dunkirk, Bridges described it as a “complete hell”, due to the bombing by the Luftwaffe, and lack of orders and confusion. Bridges also admits him and his men looted jewellery and fur shops, with the justification of “what we have the Germans can’t”, further damning the actions of the military leading into, and at, Dunkirk. Historian Stefen Berger suggests contextually this account and portrayal of the military does fit with its time, as he states that the questioning of traditional national storylines, such as the military performing well, despite being forced back, came about towards the end of the 1950s. The popularity of film and the interest in personal stories meant that the narrative of critiquing the military was prevalent at the time, and was able to continue to the modern day, showing the importance of 1950-60 in shaping Dunkirk’s popular memory.

The “little ships” which travelled across the Channel to aid in the evacuation of the allied troops from Dunkirk have, and continue to play a large role in how the event is remembered. The importance of these ships has been disputed over the years, with some arguing the ships merely aided a larger Royal Navy effort to save the men. All three of the sources make reference to the little ships, however, they do differ in their nature, reflecting the debate which continues today, showing how important the 1950s were in shaping how Dunkirk is remembered. The Manchester Guardian’s report on the anniversary ceremonies highlights that the “most highly” organised event of the weekend was the mayor’s dinner, to which the special guests were the owners of the fifty little ships. The report also recognises the British drumhead ceremony which took place on Sunday 4th July 1950, where volunteer crews of tugs and pleasure-craft were honoured. This focus on the praise the owners and crew received as a result of their actions implies that the public needed to remember the role they played. These owners and volunteer crews are mentioned in tandem with ex-servicemen and naval troops, further suggesting that the little ships played as large a role as the Navy in the evacuation. Furthermore, the report concludes by stating that the British troops were rescued by the “Royal Navy and ‘little ships’”, implying to the public that both groups contributions to the successful evacuation should be remembered equally.

In comparison, the BBC’s article on the 75th anniversary does also make reference to the “little ships”. Much like the 10th anniversary sub-heading reading “Men of ‘little ships’ honoured”, the title of the BBC’s article is “Dunkirk flotilla sails to France for 75th anniversary events”. Furthermore, the BBC’s article makes explicit reference to the civilian boats, and their “incredible courage”. This shows that 1950-60 played a role in shaping the popular memory of Dunkirk as remembering the little ships has been a narrative which has grown since its beginning in 1950, with the 10th anniversary and reports of it.

The Manchester Guardian review of Dunkirk (1958) on the other hand, makes smaller reference to the roles of the “little ships”. Acknowledged in only one sentence as a plot narrative, the review outside of this fails to mention the owners, crew, or craft taken over the channel. This therefore, implies that either they did not feature in the film enough to warrant discussion, or their role in the film was omitted by the reviewer. Should the former be true, it is interesting that the reviewer choses to not question this choice by the filmmakers, to have the “little ships” play a minor role, when they have been recognised across the country so much. This implies maybe the rememberance of the event was changing, from a focus on the little ships to that of either the navy, or the troops on the beaches. Historian John Ramsden states the 1950s were the last period where British cinema could hold the attention of a “national audience”, with around 15 million people still attending cinemas in 1959 . This therefore, suggests that a change in focus from a cinematic perspective would have had an impact on a national scale. This more minor reference in the review of Dunkirk (1958) contrasts with that of the review of Dunkirk (2017). In the review of the modern interpretation, Peter Bradshaw highlights the “legendary flotilla” of small boats, putting emphasis on their significance in the film, and the event itself. This suggests that the 1950s may not have had a significant role in shaping the popular memory of Dunkirk, as films from both periods differ in their approach and focus of the evacuation, and the role of the “little ships”.

Sargent John Bridges’ account continues this chronological trend of making smaller reference to the “little ships”. Briefly mentioned towards the end of his account, Bridges recalls seeing a small pleasure-craft a Dunkirk harbour, with three boys in it punting away with “no more than 4 soldiers aboard”. Apart from this mention in the harbour, the little boats are not mentioned throughout the account. This however, is not Sargent John Bridges’, nor the BBC trying to influence the memory of the event. The majority of Sargent Bridges’ account is either from their retreat, or the beaches themselves, where they could not see many boats. Furthermore, Sargent Bridges’ consistently states throughout his account about the ”confusion” and “chaos” which filled every moment of their time on the French coast, which can explain for his lack of focus and description of the small ships.

On the other hand, Sargent Bridges’ does make reference to a few Naval boats which were involved in his evacuation, implying that the Navy played a larger role than the small ships. Overall, it is important to recognise that this is a personal account, which therefore makes it quite narrow with regard to events that happened during the evacuation. Just because Sargent John Bridges only had one memorable interaction with the “small ships”, it doesn’t mean others who escaped that day did too. However, with that being said, this account would have influenced the memory of Dunkirk as it would’ve shown from the perspective of a Sargent who was evacuated, that the “little ships” played a smaller role than was previously thought. It appears that as the decade went on, the focus on the little ships lessened, or focus on other aspects of the event increased relative to it. The seemingly legendary status given to the little ships in modern day sources, in comparison with the lesser mentions in the latter sources from 1950-60, suggests that the time period wasn’t as important in shaping the popular memory of Dunkirk.

In conclusion, the time period 1950-1960 played a critical role in the shaping the popular memory of Dunkirk to a large extent. This can be seen through the themes propagated at the time, which can still be seen today in more modern sources. The moving focus from the evacuation to the men on the beaches, as well as acknowledging the failures and mistakes of the military are themes central to the three sources. These themes are reflected in more contemporary sources, suggesting the time period was critical to shaping the popular memory of the event. Interestingly, the portrayal of the “little ships has changed, from one of less focus in 1950-60, to legendary status in the modern day. This therefore implies the time period was not as critical as thought, and the influence of other time periods may have shaped how the event is remembered today.   

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