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5 Surprising Facts About the Battle of Dunkirk

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AFP/Getty Images

With the release of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dunkirk, the world’s attention is once again focused on the historic events recounted in the film, when a makeshift fleet of British fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and cargo ships helped save 185,000 British soldiers and 130,000 French soldiers from death or capture by German invaders during the Fall of France in May and June 1940. Here are five surprising facts about those heroic days.

1. THE GERMAN ATTACK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE.


By Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit - Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The main reason France collapsed so quickly in 1940 was the element of surprise enjoyed by its German attackers, thanks to General Erich von Manstein, who proposed an invasion route that was widely believed to be impossible. In Manstein’s plan, the main German column of tanks and motorized infantry would force their way through the forests of Ardennes in southeast Belgium and Luxembourg—a thick, hilly woodland which was supposed to be difficult terrain for tanks, requiring at least five days to cross, according to conventional wisdom based on the experience of the First World War. The French and British assumed that little had changed since the previous conflict, but thanks to field studies and updated maps, Manstein and his colleague General Heinz Guderian realized that a new network of narrow, paved roads would allow just enough room for tanks and trucks to squeeze through. As a result the Germans passed through Ardennes into northern France in just two-and-a-half days, threatening to cut off hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, with only one escape route: the sea.

2. ONE FRENCH WORD WAS BURNED INTO WINSTON CHURCHILL’S MEMORY: “AUCUNE.”


Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The German invasion of France began on May 10, 1940, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. By May 14, when he paid his first official visit to Britain’s ally, Holland had capitulated and Paris was preparing for evacuation. But an even worse surprise was in store. In one of the most famous passages of military history, Churchill recounted the moment he learned that the French didn’t have any troops in reserve:

"I then asked ‘Where is the strategic reserve?’ and, breaking into French … ‘Ou est la mass de manoeuvre?’ General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, replied. ‘Aucune.’ [There is none] … I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the Great French Army and its highest chief? It had never occurred to me than any commanders … would have left themselves unprovided with a mass of manoeuvre … This was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

3. HITLER MADE A FATAL MISTAKE.

On May 24, 1940, the Allied troops on the French and Belgian coast had been totally surrounded by powerful German tank columns, rendering them essentially defenseless against the impending German onslaught. And then came a brief reprieve, as the attackers suddenly stopped for 48 hours, allowing the British to dig in and create a defensive perimeter, setting the stage for the evacuation.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Hitler—over the protests of his own generals and to the bafflement of historians—had ordered Guderian to halt for two days to rest and resupply. It’s true the German troops were worn out after two weeks of fighting, and Hitler may have worried about a repeat of 1914, when exhausted German troops were forced to withdraw at the Marne. He may also have been swayed by Hermann Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, who boasted that air power alone could destroy the helpless Allied forces at Dunkirk. Less likely is the speculation that Hitler purposefully “let the Allies go” to appear magnanimous or merciful as a prelude to peace negotiations (which was not really in keeping with his character). In the end we will probably never know why Hitler choked.

4. GERMAN DIVE-BOMBERS WERE EQUIPPED WITH SIRENS TO SPREAD TERROR.

Among many examples of Germany’s evil genius for psychological warfare, one of the most famous was the decision to equip its Ju 87 dive bombers with air-powered sirens that emitted a shrieking, unearthly wail as the plane went into attack. The siren, known as the “Jericho Trumpet,” was intended to spread terror among enemy troops and civilians on the ground—and it worked. To this day the Jericho Trumpet is one of the most recognizable, and terrifying, sounds of war. It was certainly one of the lasting impressions of the Dunkirk evacuation for ordinary troops caught beneath the German bombs. Lieutenant Elliman, a British gunner who was waiting to be evacuated on Malo-les-Bains beach, later recalled the Stukas “diving, zooming, screeching, and wheeling over our heads like a flock of huge infernal seagulls.”

5. THE FRENCH FOUGHT A HOPELESS BATTLE TO COVER THE EVACUATION.


By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer — Photograph H 1636 from the Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although Churchill and other Brits were quick to criticize the failure of France’s generals during the Fall of France, many ordinary French soldiers and officers fought bravely and honorably—and one hopeless “last stand” in particular probably helped enable the successful evacuation of Dunkirk.

As British and French troops withdrew to Dunkirk, 40 miles to the southeast French troops in two corps of the French First Army staged a ferocious defense against seven German divisions from May 28 to May 31, 1940, refusing to surrender and mounting several attempts to break out despite being heavily outnumbered (110,000 to 40,000). The valiant French effort, led by General Jean-Baptiste Molinié, helped tie up three German tank divisions under Erwin Rommel, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and the remaining troops of the French First Army to retreat and dig in at Dunkirk, ultimately saving another 100,000 Allied troops.

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12 Solid Facts About New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain
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On May 3, 2003, the craggy rock face known as New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain tumbled to the ground in spectacular fashion. For a landmark that had been in the state's DNA for generations, its collapse was like a death in the family to some. The day after it fell, people left flowers at the base of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park as a sort of funeral tribute, and plans were immediately launched to create a longer-lasting memorial. So what was so great about the Old Man of the Mountain, pre- and post-crumble? Read on for the stone-cold facts.

1. THANKS TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, THE OLD MAN WAS ALSO KNOWN AS “THE GREAT STONE FACE.”

Although not explicitly named, it’s widely believed Hawthorne based his 1850 short story "The Great Stone Face"—which was set in an anonymous state that happens to look like New Hampshire—on the Old Man. At that time, the mountainous figure was already a tourist draw to the Granite State. Hawthorne described it as an “enormous giant, or a Titan,” with a “broad arch of the forehead,” a long-bridged nose, and having “vast lips.” Eventually Hawthorne’s nickname stuck, along with other loving titles like “Old Man” and “the Profile.”

2. THE "FACE" WAS ACTUALLY A SERIES OF LEDGES.

These granite cliff ledges, 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide, when viewed from the north at certain angles looked like a jagged face. Hawthorne corroborated this, writing in “The Great Stone Face”: “If the spectator approached too near, he lost the outline of the gigantic visage, and could discern only a heap of ponderous and gigantic rocks ... Retracing his steps, however, the wondrous features would again be seen; and the farther he withdrew from them, the more like a human face, with all its original divinity intact, did they appear."

3. HE COULD HAVE BEEN 12,000 YEARS OLD.

An 1856 postcard of The Old Man of the Mountain
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Old Man was first discovered and recorded in 1805 by road surveyors Francis Whitcomb and Luke Brooks, which put the landmark at nearly 200 years old by the time it fell. But it likely first formed when water inside cracks in the granite bedrock froze and thawed following the retreat of glaciers about 12,000 years ago. (This freezing and thawing process was what hastened its eventual collapse.) According to geologist Brian Fowler in a research report by the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, the lower ledge—or chin—of the Old Man is assumed to have fallen first. Once that support was gone, the rest of the rock fell in formation.

4. CANNON MOUNTAIN WAS SO NAMED BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE ANTIQUE ARTILLERY.

The Old Man jutted from a cliff in Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, within Franconia Notch State Park. Originally named Profile Mountain, it took on a new name since its granite dome resembles a cannon from select vantage points. There are even three sub-peaks, nicknamed “The Cannon Balls.”

5. SOME OF THE STRONGEST SURFACE WINDS EVER IN THE U.S. WERE RECORDED ON TOP OF CANNON MOUNTAIN.

The gusts measured 199.5 mph on April 2, 1973. While impressive, they were likely even higher since 199.5 mph was the limit of what the researchers' instruments could record at the time. The highest surface wind gust in the U.S. still belongs in-state, though, with New Hampshire's Mount Washington recording 231 mph winds in 1934.

6. A SERIES OF TURNBUCKLES AND IRON TIES WERE PLACED WITHIN ITS FACE TO KEEP IT TOGETHER.

By 1916, as it became clear the Old Man might not live forever, the first efforts to protect the rock formation were made. By the 1920s, a crack in the Old Man’s "forehead" was clearly noticeable, and residents who were worried about its safety used chains, turnbuckles, and iron ties to keep the crack from separating. Many of those metal rods used to hold the Old Man together were still attached to the mountain years later.

7. THE STATE EVENTUALLY SPENT A SMALL FORTUNE TRYING TO SAVE IT.


Julius Hall, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the New Hampshire state legislature passed a $25,000 appropriation for the necessary repairs to slow the Old Man's deterioration. These steps included quick-drying cement and steel rods meant to fill in and fortify cracks. The rocky Band-Aids were maintained every summer.

8. THE CARETAKERS’ MAINTENANCE ROUTINES WERE METICULOUS.

One longtime caretaker, Niels Nielsen, took great pains to keep the Old Man clean since 1965. Nielsen would spray bleach on the rock face and in its cracks, then carefully remove moss and lichen in an effort to prevent cracks from spreading further. He would even clean out the Old Man’s ear with a garden hoe. When Nielsen retired, he passed the job on to his son, David. The face continued to be groomed until its collapse.

9. NIELS NIELSEN SAW THE OLD MAN AS A GIFT FROM GOD.

According to Yankee Magazine, Nielsen was rather enchanted by the rock formation. “I had sailed around the world as a merchant seaman, yet I had never seen anything like the Old Man," he said. "I don’t believe anyone can be up there and not feel the presence of God."

10. BUT EVEN NIELSEN KNEW IT MIGHT FALL SOME DAY.

Nielsen was asked by Yankee what would happen if the Old Man ever fell. “The Lord put him here, and the Lord will take him down," Nielsen replied. Research concluded its collapse was natural—that the freezing-thawing process and subsequent erosion over time caused its downfall.

11. YOU CAN STILL "SEE" THE OLD MAN.


Rob Gallagher, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The image of the Old Man has lived on as a state emblem since 1945, appearing on highway signs, on the back of drivers licenses, and on the reverse of the state quarter. But residents weren’t done with honoring the now-deceased rock face. At Old Man of the Mountain Profile Plaza and Historic Site in Franconia, special viewfinders and steel “profilers” at vantage points near Profile Lake offer a glimpse of what the formation used to look like.

12. THERE’S EVEN AN OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN FLOWER.

Old-Man-of-the-Mountain, or tetraneuris grandiflora, is found in the Intermountain Regions and Rocky Mountains in states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. It’s sometimes called an alpine sunflower and got its common name from the wooly hairs that cover its leaves.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Take a Closer Look at the $17 Billion 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

Feast your eyes on these new images of the treasure among the wreckage of the Spanish ship San José, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks." When it sank on June 8, 1708, it was carrying gold, silver, jewels, and other precious cargo worth roughly $17 billion today. Now, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is revealing the major role it played in the 2015 expedition to find the San José.

The three-masted, 62-gun Spanish galleon exploded and sank at the hands of the British during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was carrying its riches to the Colombian city of Cartegena to finance the war. Archaeologists had been trying to find the San José for decades before it was finally located on November 27, 2015, during an expedition organized by Colombia, Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), and WHOI. The multibillion-dollar treasure, which still sits nearly 2000 feet below the surface of the ocean near Cartegena, is just now being revealed.

WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS 6000 was responsible for finding the elusive wreck. REMUS has been with the project since the beginning: The machine created the first side-scan sonar images of the site. After that, REMUS journeyed to a point 30 feet above the site and captured high-resolution photos of the ship's distinctive bronze cannons, which are engraved with dolphins. REMUS's documentation of this defining feature allowed scientists to positively identify the wreck as the fabled San José. (Thanks to whoever had the idea to put dolphins on the cannon in the first place.)

WHOI also released REMUS's photos of the wreckage, which show details of the horde, including ceramics and those famous cannons. "This constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said back when the treasure was discovered.

The San José's treasure is the subject of a legal battle for ownership between Colombia and U.S. salvage company Sea Search Armada, which helped look for the wreck. In 2011, four years before the San José was even found, the court ruled that the booty belongs to Colombia, but the dispute is ongoing. Because of the legal drama, the exact location of the wreck remains a government secret.

Below, check out the newly released pictures for a closer look at cannons, teacups, and other ceramics.

cannons from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

pots from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

teacups from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

REMUS 6000
REMUS 6000
Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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