Nova (1974–…): Season 45, Episode 15 - Great Escape at Dunkirk - full transcript

Archaeologists and divers recover remains of ships and planes that were lost in Dunkirk, France during World War II.

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(explosion)

NARRATOR:
It's one of the darkest moments

of World War II.

Hitler invades France, smashing
through Allied defenses.

CATHAL NOLAN:
The French army was shattered,

the British army was expelled
from Europe.

NARRATOR:
Leaving 400,000 soldiers
hopelessly trapped

on a French beach.

Mercilessly shelled,

strafed...

They couldn't miss.



NARRATOR:
...and bombed.

JEFF HAWARD:
You'd just lie on the sand

and pray.

NARRATOR:
Their only escape route blocked

by a baffling new threat
lurking beneath the waves.

They knew nothing about this.

They were going
completely blind.

NARRATOR:
But thanks to
the dogged ingenuity

of scientists and engineers...

It completely defeated
Hitler's new secret weapon.

It was absolute genius.

NARRATOR:
Through the daring exploits
of pilots

in their high-performance
fighters.

And the bravery and perseverance
of troops on the ground,



350,000 desperate men manage to
escape on a makeshift armada,

denying Hitler a decisive win

and opening the way
for America to enter the war.

HAWARD:
Only the British

can turn a defeat
into a victory.

NARRATOR:
"The Great Escape at Dunkirk."

Right now on "NOVA."

(explosion)

♪

Major funding for "NOVA"
is provided by the following:

NARRATOR:
In the spring of 1940,

long before America
enters World War II,

the German army strikes
a decisive victory in France

that many fear spells
the end of the war in Europe

almost before it has begun.

On this now-quiet beach
in the French town of Dunkirk,

400,000 Allied soldiers
are stranded

with their backs to the sea

and under merciless assault
with no hope of rescue.

Newly elected prime minister
Winston Churchill

faces the prospect of losing
the core of the British army.

The likelihood is that Britain
would have had to surrender.

(explosion)

NARRATOR:
Senior government ministers

begin to think the unthinkable.

NOLAN:
It was debated,

"Can we come to an accommodation
with the Nazi new order?"

NARRATOR:
With Churchill's leadership
hanging in the balance,

Hitler is on the verge
of conquering France

and threatening Britain.

And if Britain were to fall,

it's unlikely America would have
entered the war in Europe.

History might have played out
very differently.

Dunkirk could have been

one of the biggest military
disasters in history.

But against the odds,

most of the trapped men
do make it back to Britain

in what comes to be called
the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Now a group of scientists,
historians, and engineers

are trying to uncover the
hard truth behind this miracle.

(beeps)

IAN PROCTOR:
She was shaken

by this massive explosion,

which Hitler always referred to
as his first secret weapon.

NARRATOR:
They're examining newly released
wartime files

that shed fresh light
on Dunkirk.

SIMON PARRY:
We actually knew of the
existence of the files,

but we've never been
allowed to see them.

NARRATOR:
And archaeologists are digging
for a lost airplane

that played an essential role
in the battle.

STEVE VIZARD:
I don't think you've quite
got all of Rolls Royce.

NARRATOR:
What they uncover reveals

a combination of grit, bravery,
and technical brilliance

that snatched total victory
from Hitler's grasp.

(plane roaring)

♪

On a chilly spring day,
these beaches are empty.

But there's evidence here of
this coast's violent history.

A few miles north of Dunkirk,

two unexploded World War II
artillery shells

have been uncovered.

(radio chatter)

They are still lethal weapons.

(radio chatter)

The bomb squad sets up
a 300-yard exclusion zone.

Then they attach
plastic explosives

to carry out
a controlled detonation.

(counting down in French)

(explosion)

♪

In late May of 1940,

explosions like this
are a brutal reality of life

for the Allied troops trapped
on these beaches,

as this original
photograph shows.

They are surrounded
by Hitler's Panzer divisions.

Above their heads,

the Luftwaffe strafe and
bomb them seemingly unopposed,

while German artillery pound
them with explosive shells.

With no sign of rescue, the
men ask, "Where is the R.A.F.?"

Why are there no ships
to rescue them?

How can they get
out of this alive?

Things looked very different
just a month earlier.

(ship horn blares)
To contain the Nazi threat,

Britain sends 400,000
of its best soldiers,

called the
British Expeditionary Force,

to join with two-and-a-quarter-
million French troops

in northern France.

(marching)

The British also deploy
around 300 aircraft,

including around 70
Hawker Hurricane fighters.

Hitler had already occupied
Austria and Czechoslovakia

and then invaded Poland.

NOLAN:
The invasion of Poland,
I would say,

was confirmation that Hitler
could not be stopped

short of force.

There was no dealing with
Hitler; you had to fight.

NARRATOR:
The Allies' aim is simple--

stop Hitler in his tracks,

prevent a Nazi invasion
of France at any cost.

The Allies are convinced
Hitler will invade

through central
or western Belgium.

And that is where they mass
to stop him.

They believe the terrain at
the eastern end of the border

is impassible to tanks.

It's a good plan.

It actually was
a very good plan.

It just didn't work.

(propeller chugging)

NARRATOR:
On the morning of May 10, 1940,
Hitler makes his move.

(airplanes droning)

He does exactly what the Allies
expect and invades Belgium.

Allied forces move north
to stop him.

On the evening of the same day,

Winston Churchill becomes
prime minister of Great Britain.

The good news for him is that so
far, the Allied plan is working.

(tank rumbling)

But Hitler's Belgian attack
is a feint.

Three days later, a bigger force
of German Panzer tanks

breaks through the French border
to the southeast,

where the Allies
had thought it impassable.

This two-pronged German attack

now moves with a speed
and violence

the Allies are totally
unprepared for.

The Allies were still moving
forward into Belgium

when the Germans
were coming behind them,

and the Allies are going
to find themselves trapped.

NARRATOR:
The Allies crumble under the
ferocity of the Nazi attack

and, along with
thousands of civilians,

begin a chaotic retreat.

In just eleven days, the Allies
have been completely encircled,

in a rapidly shrinking
territory,

with their backs
to the English Channel.

The new prime minister
faces a catastrophe.

To save the men, foreign
secretary Lord Halifax,

urges Churchill to open peace
negotiations with Hitler.

Churchill is dismissive.

The trapped men have no option
but to fight on.

In France,
surrounded by the Nazis,

thousands of British
and French troops

begin pouring into Dunkirk.

Their situation is desperate.

The whole of Dunkirk
was on fire.

GARTH WRIGHT:
There's this great ball
of smoke.

going up from the oil tanks.

HAWARD:
I remember the wall
falling down.

NARRATOR:
Jeff Haward was
a 20-year-old gunner.

As he reaches
the Dunkirk beaches,

he runs into two officers.

They said "Right, carry on down
to the beach,

and someone will be waiting
there to tell you what to do."

But of course there was no one
waiting there, were there?

NARRATOR:
The Allied collapse
has been so rapid

that British military officials
are still scrambling

to put a rescue plan in place
and find ships to get them home.

By May 23,
parts of the German front line

are less than 20 miles
from Dunkirk.

(artillery firing)

Death or capture
now seems inevitable.

Then something
extraordinary happens.

The German advance
suddenly stops.

NOLAN:
Once the Allied forces

were inside
the Dunkirk perimeter,

from the German point of view,
they were a defeated force.

And the Germans needed to halt,

because they were outrunning
their supplies.

They were outrunning
their infantry.

NARRATOR:
Hitler's deputy, Herman Goering,

is the commander in chief
of the Luftwaffe.

He convinces Hitler that
they can finish off the Allies

without the overstretched
German army.

NOLAN:
Hermann Goering was

an extraordinarily
vainglorious man.

He persuaded Hitler that
the Luftwaffe could move in

and solve the problem
all in one blow.

NARRATOR:
The British and French troops

have managed to hang on to some
artillery during the retreat.

Taking full advantage
of the halt,

they set up defensive positions

in a 30-mile perimeter
around Dunkirk.

That might hold back
the German army for a while,

but Goering's Luftwaffe easily
flies right over these defenses.

The men trapped on the beaches
are easy targets.

(machine guns firing)

They machine-gunned us a lot.

NARRATOR:
The aircraft they fear the most
is the Stuka dive bomber.

Stukas attack in a steep dive,

literally flying straight
at the target

and releasing the bombs
at the last minute.

(explosion)

WRIGHT:
They aimed their plane

at their target

and they couldn't miss.

NARRATOR:
Stukas have uniquely shaped

gull wings that give the pilot
a clearer view of his target.

(plane siren blaring)

And fitted to the fixed
undercarriage of the Stuka

is a siren that sounds
as it starts its attack dive.

The Germans call it
the Jericho Trumpet.

(plane siren blaring)

They used to make a terrible
screeching noise coming out.

It was psychological, I think,
to try to frighten you,

which it did.

(siren blaring)

That bastard.

Noisy sod.

I hated them.

HAWARD:
You'd just lie
on the sand and pray.

I don't think there were
many atheists at Dunkirk.

♪

NARRATOR:
One of the secrets

of the Luftwaffe's ability
to inflict so much damage

is that they are able to protect
slow bombers, like the Stukas,

with a superior fighter
aircraft, the Messerschmitt 109.

The 109 is a single-seater,
all-metal design.

It is powered by an inverted
V12 Daimler Benz engine,

producing more than
a thousand horsepower.

At Dunkirk it is armed

with a 20-millimeter cannon
in each wing

and 7.92-millimeter machine guns
in front of the pilot.

It is faster in level flight,
in turns, and in climb

than most of the British
Royal Air Force fighters.

♪

The best front-line
R.A.F. fighter in France

is the single-seater
Hawker Hurricane.

At the start of the war, it is
the workhorse of the R.A.F.

(engines roaring)

The airframe is made of
steel tube, aluminum, and wood

and covered in a fabric skin.

It is the pinnacle
of design practices

dating back to
the First World War.

It is armed with eight
Browning .303 machine guns.

The Hurricane's construction
is outdated,

but it is a stable gun platform

that can inflict great damage
on bombers like the Stuka.

And with a good pilot,

a Hurricane can challenge
a German 109 in a fight.

But German pilots
have more experience

than their R.A.F. counterparts.

They have already flown
combat missions in Spain

during the civil war there.

(explosions)

In the early days
of the Battle of France,

R.A.F. Hurricane and bomber
squadrons sustain huge losses

from a combination
of less-experienced pilots,

less-advanced technology,

and overwhelming German
numerical superiority.

As the men on these beaches

are hit by wave after wave
of Luftwaffe attacks,

there is little sign
of the R.A.F.

To these men it looks like
the air war is already lost.

WRIGHT:
They were kicking up hell about

"Where's our planes?" when we
were under such terrible stress

with the endless attacks
we were getting from the air.

"Where the hell's
our air force?"

NARRATOR:
A very different story
about the R.A.F.

can be found at the
National Archives in London,

where World War II files
have recently been released.

Historian Joshua Levine
has come here

with aviation expert
Simon Parry to investigate.

We actually knew of the
existence of the files

for many years,

but we've never been
allowed to see them.

NARRATOR:
The newly released documents
are R.A.F. casualty files,

one of which
was started every time

an airman failed to return
from a mission.

Approximately 200 of them

cover the period
of the Dunkirk operation.

Here's the file for one pilot,
Sergeant Jenkins.

And you can see he's recorded
missing 29 May 1940.

Blue Leader reports
seeing Blue Two,

Sergeant Jenkins,
on fire and diving down.

Sergeant Jenkins bailed out
at 5,000 feet

and made a landing
in the sea

eight miles north
of Dunkirk.

NARRATOR:
File after file
tells the same story.

The R.A.F. is fighting
around Dunkirk,

taking on the Luftwaffe,
despite sustaining heavy losses.

The files contain
very personal evidence.

In one, a letter
from a mother in America

asking for news of her son,
a fighter pilot reported missing

after attacking enemy bombers
heading for Dunkirk.

San Diego, California,
the officer's mother.

"To date, I have received
no news or information

concerning my son,
except that he is missing."

So the other side of
the Atlantic equally,

they are awaiting
information.

JOSHUA LEVINE:
Do we know
what happened?

They've written:

"It is regretted that
no further news

"has been received
of your son,

"Pilot Officer
Richard Dennis Aubert,

since he was reported missing
on the 24th of May 1940."

LEVINE:
So it's just a blank.
Yeah.

He just ceased to exist.

NARRATOR:
Using the detail revealed in
the files about crash sites,

it's now possible
to piece together

the true story of
the R.A.F.'s role at Dunkirk

and explain why the troops think
the R.A.F. has deserted them.

Each R.A.F. symbol represents
a plane that has been shot down.

It shows that the heaviest
losses are inland,

where soldiers on the beach
wouldn't be able to see them,

as pilots fight to protect
the retreating troops

from the approaching
German air force.

Their job, their task,
if you like,

was to give the troops
on the beach

a maximum chance of getting away

and to hinder the Luftwaffe.

And so the RAF succeeded
in their aim.

NARRATOR:
The fact that the R.A.F.

is often fighting out of sight
inland of Dunkirk

isn't the only reason
the troops don't see them.

PARRY:
The battles were being fought
at great height,

four or five miles above them,

and there's no way that
the troops on the beach

could see
what the R.A.F. were doing.

NOLAN:
The R.A.F. did not withdraw
from the battle over Dunkirk.

Those R.A.F. fighters

who continued to engage
the Luftwaffe

did so under
increasingly hazardous

and outnumbered conditions.

And it was nothing
but heroism in the skies.

NARRATOR:
Although the R.A.F. is often
outnumbered and outclassed,

over Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe
is now sustaining losses too.

(machine guns firing)

(plane diving)

And for the first time
in large numbers,

a different British plane is
putting pressure on the Germans.

(fire crackling)

(soldiers talking)

♪

Aviation historian Simon Parry

believes this field
in the east of England

could be the crash site of one
of the R.A.F.'s finest fighters,

a Mk. I Supermarine Spitfire.

PARRY:
What we've been able to gather
so far from the archives is

this particular plane flew
over the beaches of Dunkirk,

and it was actually involved
in combat.

NARRATOR:
If they were to recover a
Spitfire that flew at Dunkirk,

it would be
an incredibly rare find.

(metal detector buzzing)

The experts begin by surveying
the area for magnetic anomalies.

Steve Vizard has been restoring
Spitfires for 33 years.

He knows every nut,
bolt, and rivet.

VIZARD:
Anything that's causing
the readings

is going to only be ferrous.

So it could be a piece
of armor plate,

undercarriage leg,
anything steel.

But we could be picking up
an oil drum,

or general rubbish off the farm.

That's always the risk.

NARRATOR:
When it crashed,
on July 4, 1940,

the aircraft
they are searching for

was being flown
by a rookie pilot

on a routine patrol
along the English coast.

(engines humming)

But if it's the plane
they think it is,

just a month before,
under command of another pilot,

it flew at Dunkirk.

But is this the right plane?

It's not until you start digging

you actually find out what...
what actually happened.

NARRATOR:
If they're in the right place,

the loose earth used to fill in
the crater left by the crash

should show up clearly
against the surrounding clay.

VIZARD:
Well, you've got the line
coming through now.

As you can see, which is coming
round the edge here,

the more clay colored.

And you can see the darker
disturbance in the middle.

♪

Dan,
you want to grab it?

That's good.

It's a metal propeller blade.

One of the three de Havilland
blades that it had.

Three metal blades
on the Mk. I Spitfire,

and that's one part
of one of them.

NARRATOR:
It confirms that this
is the right crash site.

And more evidence appears
as they dig deeper.

That's a little bit
of the V-shaped section,

top longeron,

that goes down the spine
of the fuselage

behind the pilot's head,

from the canopy
back to the tail.

That's just a sort of
microscopic part

of the radically different way
that the Spitfire was built

compared to any other airplanes
of that time.

NARRATOR:
Unlike older aircraft,

the frame of a Spitfire
was too lightweight

to support the plane in flight.

An additional key part
of its strength

came from the aluminum skin
that was riveted to the frame.

This made the finished aircraft
lighter and stiffer

than the old wood
and canvas construction

of previous British aircraft.

Engineers call it
a semi-monocoque.

(engine droning)

The cutting-edge construction
allowed engineers

to form the skin
into complex aerodynamic shapes

to achieve greater speed
and maneuverability.

VIZARD:
We always say, working on them,

there's not a straight line
on a Spitfire--

everything is curved
or double curved,

which up to then
had never been done before.

NARRATOR:
The wing supports,
known as spars,

were also far thinner than
in any previous fighter,

and this allowed Supermarine
to design much slimmer wings

with a distinctive
elliptical shape.

VIZARD:
Where the Spitfire really did

outperform pretty much anything
of that period

was in its maneuverability.

The design of
the elliptical wing

gave it a much... much, much
better stalling characteristics,

and it could turn inside
virtually any other airplane.

NARRATOR:
In combat, the Spitfire
could turn 25% faster

than a German 109.

(engine droning)

After six hours hard work, they
reach the heart of the plane.

VIZARD:
I think that's
an exhaust stub,

which is obviously the side
of the engine.

(scraping)

Can you see the "Rolls"--
R, O, double L, S?

You haven't quite got all
of "Rolls Royce."

GEOFF:
It's actually not
in bad nick.

♪

Rolls Royce Limited England,
Merlin number three.

NARRATOR:
The Spitfire's supercharged V12
Rolls Royce Merlin engine

produced more than
a thousand horsepower.

This engine, combined with the
Spitfire's advanced airframe,

gave it a climb rate that
matched or exceeded the 109

and an equivalent top speed.

VIZARD:
The Spitfire did everything
that you wanted it to do,

almost as you thought it.

And as is often said,

you don't actually get into
a Spitfire, you strap one on.

NARRATOR:
But how did this plane, that
survived the battle at Dunkirk,

end up crashing?

From the evidence
of the wreckage

and the position of the engine,

they now believe that
the new pilot was fighting

to save his Spitfire
until the very end.

Had the plane crashed
vertically,

the engine would have been
buried nose down in the ground.

As it was, the engine was flat,

so the aircraft had gone
in at that angle.

It proves that.

NARRATOR:
Their best guess is that

the pilot became disoriented
in the clouds

and came out of them
relatively close to the ground.

Although he tried,

there wasn't quite enough time
for him to react.

You have to say

if the poor guy had probably
been ten foot higher,

he might have got away with it.

Britain had declined to send
a single Spitfire to France.

Now Churchill commits at least
fifteen Spitfire squadrons

to defend the troops.

For the first time,

the Luftwaffe faces Spitfires
en masse.

But will it be enough to allow
the soldiers to escape?

R.A.F. pilots certainly believe
they are making a difference.

During Dunkirk, squadron leader
Geoffrey Stephenson

reports that his squadron
of just 12 Spitfires

holds off an attack force
of 50 German aircraft.

(engine droning)

Stephenson is in action
near Dunkirk on May 26, 1940,

when his Spitfire, N3200,
is shot down in combat.

Stephenson survives the crash,

and for a time
in the summer of 1940,

his Spitfire
is a tourist attraction

for the occupying
German soldiers.

But France does not become
its final resting place.

In 1986 the wreckage
of Stephenson's aircraft

is recovered
and returned to the U.K.

30 years after it was pulled
from the sand,

this is the actual Spitfire
Stephenson flew over Dunkirk,

carefully restored
in every detail

to her original
1940s specification.

JOHN ROMAIN:
So here she is, Steve, N3200.

VIZARD:
Yeah, Geoffrey Stephenson,
fresh from Dunkirk.

Fresh
from Dunkirk.

NARRATOR:
John Romain has spent 28 years

flying Second World War
fighter planes.

VIZARD:
She's exactly
the same markings now as...

Yeah, as she was then.
...as she was.

Exactly, down
to the last detail.

And of course
this airplane was lost

with one bullet going
through one of these pipes.

And, um, that was
enough to...

Causing it
to overheat and...

Overheat,
and he then knew

he wasn't going
to get back to England,

so that's why
he bellied the airplane

down on the beach.

NARRATOR:
As Spitfire pilots
learn to get the best

out of their new aircraft,

they quickly
add personal modifications

to keep themselves alive.

ROMAIN:
The early airplanes,

they didn't have
rear-view mirrors in them.

So once they started
to get into combat,

they realized that
they needed a mirror.

And so before
they could start

putting them on the airplanes
in production,

all the pilots
started running around

producing
their own mirrors,

and this was
Geoffrey's mirror

from his MG.

NARRATOR:
Kesselring,
the general in charge

of the German air force
at Dunkirk,

admits that the Spitfires were
making Luftwaffe air operations

difficult and costly.

But it still isn't
an even fight.

The British have to hold back
most of their fighters

for the expected invasion
of the U.K.

NOLAN:
Had the decision been made

to deploy everything
the R.A.F. had,

they could have gone in there

and provided
much more extensive air cover.

Would that have
saved some lives?

Probably.

But how many planes
would have been lost?

And that calculus had to be made
that these planes

were critical to the defense
of Britain itself.

The logic I think is impeccable,
and the decision was correct.

(alarm ringing)

NARRATOR:
Resources are so limited that
fewer than 200 R.A.F. pilots

have to fly nearly 2,800
missions across just nine days.

Over the course of
the Dunkirk defense,

they shoot down
78 German aircraft,

but at the cost of
a roughly equal number

of their own planes and pilots.

The sacrifice of
the R.A.F. pilots alone

cannot save the soldiers
trapped at Dunkirk

in a rapidly
deteriorating situation.

I can remember for
the first time smelling death.

NARRATOR:
In May 1940, Garth Wright
was a 20-year-old gunner

in the Royal Artillery.

It was this smell
of rotting corpses.

NARRATOR:
Don Hall was
just 19 years old.

The smell, oh, terrible.

What with bodies
have been laying there

for some considerable time.

NARRATOR:
Getting rescue ships to the
trapped men will be tough.

For nine months,
Hitler has been laying

secret undetectable sea mines

that have already sunk hundreds
of thousands of tons

of Allied shipping.

By the time of Dunkirk,

over a thousand
of these deadly weapons

had been laid in the waters
around Britain.

Today the light cruiser
HMS Belfast

is preserved as
a floating museum in London.

She entered service
in August 1939.

Three months later,

she encounters
the new Nazi secret weapon.

Dunkirk expert Joshua Levine
has come here

to meet curator Ian Proctor.

PROCTOR:
HMS Belfast on the
21st of November 1939

was leaving
the Firth of Forth.

At 10:58 in the morning,

she was shaken
by this massive explosion.

The ship lifted
out of the water,

and then as it settled down

there was a really
big shuddering.

And when she lifted out
of the water,

she broke her back,

which basically means
that the keel was distorted.

The power went out,

the engine room,
which we're in now,

started filling with water,

and the captain in his report
assumed, that there had...

well, naturally, that
they had been struck

by a torpedo fired
from a submarine,

but as it turned out,
that wasn't the case.

What was going on,
what had happened?

The ship had actually
accidentally detonated a mine,

primarily...
or specifically a mine

which Hitler would refer to
as his first secret weapon.

NARRATOR:
Belfast suffers no blast damage.

Instead she's been hit
by a powerful shockwave.

This gives scientists
a vital clue.

(explosion)

The mines can sense a ship
is close without touching it.

Churchill orders the recovery
of one of these deadly weapons

at any cost.

And the day after
the Belfast is hit,

the British have
an astonishing stroke of luck.

A German aircraft accidentally
drops one of the secret mines

on a Thames mudbank.

Scientists from
the Naval Mine School,

HMS Vernon, are scrambled
to defuse it.

This is D.E.M.S.,

the British military's center
for explosive mines.

Dr. Simon Foster, a physicist,

is here to discover the secrets
of the Nazi supermine,

using a rare example
of an original German mine.

Petty Officer Nigel Froude
has 27 years of expertise

in the technology
of naval mines.

FOSTER:
Did they have any idea
of what's inside?

Absolutely not,
so they knew nothing about this,

so they were going
completely blind.

NARRATOR:
Their first task was
to defuse the mine

by removing the detonators
designed to trigger

its 660 pounds of explosives.

FROUDE:
So they removed
this plate.

It was obviously more
than hand tight.

So it literally was
a big screwdriver, hammer,

just slowly tapping it,
to loosen it up,

until they
were physically able

to undo it
with their hands.

So, they-they had decided,
with a live mine,

the best way to get inside it

was to hammer away
with a screwdriver?

It was gentle taps,
but, yes, effectively,

it was a hammer
and a screwdriver.

And had they
any kind of inkling

as to what
this mine was doing?

Had they seen
any other mines

that they had
a kind of understanding

of what they might find?

These guys were trained
in bomb disposal,

but this was
completely new to them.

So a lot of it
was just trial and error.

The bravery of these guys
is just phenomenal.

NARRATOR:
The defused mine
was taken by truck

to the Naval Mine School
and disassembled.

This is the key to it all.

Inside here, this mine is going
to reveal its secrets.

Yeah.

The grand reveal.

This would have been
the moment of truth.

And there
we have it.

This is the trigger

that's going to make
the whole mine go bang.

If we now remove
this plate here,

we can see the trigger
just inside there.

If I just move it
with this screwdriver,

you can see the movement
of the switch there.

And that's
just like a seesaw.

Exactly,
just like a seesaw.

It moves,
makes the circuit,

and the mine would go bang.

Now, what's making
that seesaw move?

Magnetism,
that was the big secret.

NARRATOR:
Scientists and engineers
investigating the mine

knew that understanding exactly
how the magnetic trigger works

was the first step

in neutralizing Hitler's
deadly weapon.

FOSTER:
The seesaw inside
the German magnetic mine,

is a dip compass,

and we've got
our own version here.

Now, unlike a normal compass
that moves left or right

to indicate the magnetic field,

this actually moves up and down.

NARRATOR:
A dip compass measures

how much the earth's natural
magnetic field points downwards

into the ground.

This field is generated by
the earth's molten metal core.

In Europe, the earth's north
magnetic field

points down, into the earth,
at an angle towards the core.

Simon uses a steel plate to
represent the hull of the ship.

FOSTER:
The earth's magnetic field
that's all around us,

it finds it easier to pass
through this steel plate

than it does
in the surrounding area.

And this plate here

is actually concentrating
the magnetic field lines.

The magnetic field passing
through this

is going to be more concentrated
here than it is out here.

This, this is almost like
a lens for magnetism.

And as you can see,
as it passes over the compass,

(beeping)
it's going to trigger the mine.

NARRATOR:
This concentrating effect

turns a steel ship
into a gigantic magnet

with its north pole
under the ship.

It is this strong north pole
which triggers the mine.

If they create
an artificial magnetic field

that generates a south pole
under the ship instead,

the mine will not go off.

The first method that they came
up with was called degaussing.

If you have a line
of cabling like this

and run some current through it,

it's going to create
a small magnetic field

in the opposite direction
to the earth's magnetic field.

Now, if I take my bit of steel
and place it over the mine

as we did previously,

hopefully the mine
will no longer be triggered.

And this is how
they solved the problem.

They wrapped
a long line of cabling

around the outside of the ships,

and run huge currents
through them,

creating a magnetic field

that actually countered
the concentrating,

the lensing effect
of the ship's hull

and prevented the magnetic mine
being set off.

♪

NARRATOR:
But there is neither the cable,
nor the time,

to fit magnetic equipment
to enough ships

to evacuate 400,000 men
from the Dunkirk beaches.

But there is a solution.

It comes from a Canadian
scientist at HMS Vernon,

Charles Goodeve.

He is a brilliant inventor

and comes up with a simpler plan
to magnetize an entire ship.

He calls it wiping.

FOSTER:
If it take this coil

and pass more power through it,

I can create
such a big magnetic field

that I can actually magnetize
this piece of steel.

And this was done
to ships in the fleet.

They dragged huge cables
around the outside of the ships

and actually
magnetized the hull.

Now, when I pass this over
our triggering mechanism,

it won't trigger off the mine.

And just to prove that I've
actually wiped this,

I'm going to use
our original piece of steel

as an unwiped ship
and pass that over,

(beeping)
and you can see it's still
setting off the mine.

This actually prevented
any of the mines going off.

Degaussing and wiping

completely defeated
Hitler's new secret weapon--

it was absolute genius.

♪

NARRATOR:
This rare wartime color footage

shows a ship actually being
wiped using Goodeve's technique,

with a huge cable

carrying thousands of amps
of electricity.

The protection
only lasted six months,

but it was quick
and it was easy.

To save the men at Dunkirk,

400 ships are wiped
over just four days.

With enough ships
protected from mines,

there is now a fighting chance
of getting them out alive.

♪

On May 26 at 18:57,
Churchill rolls the dice.

He orders a full-scale
evacuation at Dunkirk.

It is called Operation Dynamo.

Churchill is gambling
vital Navy ships

in order to save
the trapped soldiers.

It is the biggest maritime
evacuation in history.

It doesn't come
a moment too soon.

On the same day,
after a two-day pause,

Hitler rescinds
the German army's halt order

and the tanks begin to advance
towards Dunkirk again.

As the Germans realize that
the evacuation is underway,

they begin to pressure
the perimeter increasingly.

So of course, the defense
of the perimeter

becomes critical to the success
of the evacuation.

♪

NARRATOR:
From the defensive ring

the Allies have built around
Dunkirk during the halt order,

using what is left
of their equipment,

French and British troops
put up fierce resistance

in a rapidly deteriorating
situation.

(artillery fire)
(explosion)

On May 27, 1940, with little
good news from Operation Dynamo,

Lord Halifax once again
tells Churchill

that to save the troops,

they must begin
peace negotiations with Hitler.

Again, Churchill resists.

Halifax threatens to resign,

a move that could
bring down Churchill.

Britain now faces losing
its greatest wartime leader,

and, on the beaches of Dunkirk,
most of its army, as well.

Operation Dynamo
does not start well.

The Luftwaffe has destroyed
Dunkirk harbor.

Only the harbor's
mile-long breakwater,

known as the Mole,
is still standing.

It is barely two yards wide,

and its wooden structure
back then

was not designed
for mooring large ships.

Evacuating hundreds of thousands
of men this way will be tough,

but it's all they have.

Of all the snap decisions
that were,

that were made on the spot,

for me, that is
the greatest decision,

the idea to, to call
this great big breakwater

into service as something
it was never meant to be.

NARRATOR:
On May 27, ships begin
loading men from the Mole.

By the next day, more than
18,000 men have been taken off.

The Luftwaffe realizes
what the British are up to

almost immediately.

Heinkel bombers and the Stukas
target the Dunkirk Mole

and the ships
moored alongside it.

WRIGHT:
It was bombed
and shattered in places,

but the bridge with makeshift
planks and things like that.

HALL:
Half of it had been blown away,

so you went in single file
down that,

straight onto the boat.

NARRATOR:
Despite the repeated attacks,

two-thirds of those
who escape Dunkirk

do so via the Mole.

Not everyone is lucky enough

to scramble onto
the overcrowded breakwater.

Instead, those men must evacuate
from the beaches.

But the Dunkirk shoreline
is too shallow

for large ships
to get close in to shore.

PAUL REED:
When we see the iconic images

of men on beaches like this,

we do see, well,
almost orderly queues of men

going out to the ships,

going out to the point where
they can swim out to a vessel

and get away.

NARRATOR:
Getting troops out this way
is slow and dangerous.

Loading just 600 men
is taking up to eight hours.

The desperate men in the water
are an easy target.

These queues going out
to the small boats,

they were just bombing them
all along the beaches.

Their job was to get rid of as
many as they could, I suppose.

NARRATOR:
The Allies have been forced to
abandon their heavy equipment--

just getting the men out
is tough enough.

Army engineers realize

they can use
some of the abandoned trucks,

known as lorries,

to save the men.

REED:
They came up with the idea

of a lorry pier, where they
drive lorries onto the beach,

and we've got
a captured German photo here

showing such a lorry pier.

They drive the lorries
onto the beach,

line them up side by side,

front of the lorry here,
rear of the lorry here,

and then put planking
on the top,

so the planking enabled them

to walk across the roofs
of the lorries,

get down there quickly.

At high tide, the water
would be lapping up both sides,

and there'd be lots
of little boats available

to then ferry them

from the far end
of the lorry pier

out to sea
to the bigger boats.

NARRATOR:
It all helps, but by May 28,

the Germans are closing in
on Dunkirk,

and only 25,000 of the trapped
men have made it to Britain.

As the crisis grows,

the conflict between Churchill
and Halifax reaches its climax.

Churchill goes for broke,
with an impassioned speech

to his cabinet
to fight on regardless.

His gamble pays off--
the cabinet falls into line.

Halifax is neutralized.

He never demands negotiations
with Hitler again.

♪

But if the evacuation fails,

the finger of blame will point
squarely at Churchill.

To prevent that,

every available British ship
is now racing across the channel

carrying troops away
from Dunkirk.

WRIGHT:
The feeling is indescribable.

I thought, "Dammit,
I'm going to make it."

NARRATOR:
But just getting off the beaches
doesn't guarantee safety.

Even if you get on
a large warship

that seems stable and solid

compared to where
you've been standing

on the beach for several days,

that warship is under threat.

That warship might hit a mine.

That warship can be bombed.

♪

(anti-aircraft gunfire
booming)

(explosion)

The Luftwaffe is just as content
to kill you on a ship

as they are
to kill you on the beach.

♪

NARRATOR:
Just before midnight
on the 28th,

the destroyer
HMS Wakeful leaves

with around 640
rescued soldiers aboard.

They have gotten off
the deadly beaches.

But they never reach
the safety of home.

♪

This is HMS Wakeful today.

She lies 80 feet below the
surface of the English Channel.

77 years of marine growth
hides much of the destroyer,

but it is still possible

to make out unopened crates of
ammunition for the ship's guns

and even an old gas mask.

Inside the wreck are the bodies
of more than 600 men.

Around 1:00 a.m., already badly
damaged by air attacks,

Wakeful is hit by a torpedo.

Wakeful was basically
broken in half.

She, she broke into two pieces.

And what you were left with,

had you been there,
what you would have seen,

were two ends of the ship
poking out of the water.

The upshot of that was that
when the ship went down,

these people basically
didn't have a chance,

and they drowned
almost immediately.

There was one soldier who had
been on deck having a cigarette.

He got away--
all the rest were drowned.

NARRATOR:
The captain of the Wakeful

had sent all the evacuees
below decks

to keep the ship's weight
low down

and make her more stable
in fast avoidance maneuvers.

This is standard practice for
ships trying to evade attack.

Because Wakeful sinks
in less than a minute,

the 600 soldiers locked below
decks have no chance of escape.

This is part of the human cost
of Operation Dynamo.

♪

(explosion)

Across the whole evacuation,

the Allies lose
more than 230 ships.

Some are sunk in the channel,

but many never make it
off the beaches.

Even today, after winter storms,

when the tide is unusually low,

the remains of some
can still be seen.

This is the Crested Eagle,
a paddle steamer

built to carry sightseers
down the River Thames.

It was destroyed
by Stuka dive bombers.

Around 300 men were killed
in the attack.

♪

Despite the continued
loss of shipping,

Churchill has rolled the dice,

and there is no option
but to press on.

Even with the improvised
lorry piers,

ships are still struggling

to get troops off
the shallow beaches.

To save as many as possible,
the Royal Navy sends in

a flotilla of
small pleasure crafts

that can get closer in to shore.

Yachts, fishing boats, launches,
even a Thames fireboat,

risk all to save
the trapped men.

They shuttle them
from the shallow beaches

out to larger vessels
before returning to the U.K.

with as many survivors
as they can carry.

They become known as
the "Dunkirk Little Ships."

HAWARD:
Those little boats came,

and when you read of what
they did, it was marvelous.

NARRATOR:
More than 100 of the original
Little Ships used at Dunkirk

still survive today.

Although the Little Ships

saved relatively
few soldiers themselves,

they become a powerful symbol

of Churchill's determination
to beat the odds,

using anything and everything
he can lay hands on.

It's also a sign of just how
desperate the situation is.

♪

For nine days, sailors, airmen,
and civilians risk life and limb

to save the trapped men.

And Churchill's gamble pays off
beyond all expectations.

Operation Dynamo saves
200,000 British troops

and nearly 140,000
French soldiers

who were trapped at Dunkirk.

HAWARD:
I could feel the boat

going up and down
with the waves.

I was so tired, I fell asleep.

Next thing I knew, someone was
shaking me, saying,

"Wake up, we're coming
into Folkestone."

NARRATOR:
The survivors receive
a hero's welcome.

But the British lose
68,000 soldiers in France,

17,000 in the evacuation alone.

40,000 troops, mostly French,
are taken prisoner at Dunkirk.

NOLAN:
As an historian,
I have to tell you

it was a crushing
military defeat.

The French army was shattered.

The British army
was expelled from Europe.

If you are German,
and you look at that,

you don't say, "Oh, my God,
we didn't capture 300,000 men."

You say, "We smashed Britain,
we smashed France.

We've won the war."

Which is what many of them
did think.

NARRATOR:
But given how much worse
it could have been,

the British consider it
a triumph of sorts.

HAWARD:
Only the British can turn
a defeat

into a victory.

NARRATOR:
Winston Churchill
has got his win.

Instead of reporting

the greatest military disaster
in Britain's history,

he tells the British people

that it is "a miracle
of deliverance."

It is not by any measure
a military victory,

but it is a victory over those

that wanted to give in
to Hitler.

♪

NOLAN:
Churchill's greatness is

that he persuaded the cabinet
and the country

not to quit the war,

that even though we cannot see
a path to victory,

we must stay in this fight
until, frankly--

and he was right about this--

other great powers
came to their senses

and saw the Nazi threat
for what it was.

Therefore, fight on
until the Americans

take their head out of the sand

and realize that they must come

and rejoin the fight,

that their security
lies along the Rhine

just as the British does.

(engine starting)

NARRATOR:
In 1940, Geoffrey Stephenson's
Spitfire, number N3200,

was shot down while
protecting British soldiers.

Now, for the first time
in nearly eight decades...

(plane engine roaring)

...it has returned to the scene
of its most famous battles:

Dunkirk.

In his speech after Dunkirk,

Churchill acknowledges the
human cost of the evacuation.

He praises the success

of the R.A.F.'s Spitfires
and Hurricanes

against the Luftwaffe.

And he talks about the dangers
of the magnetic mines

that science and technology
had overcome.

Less than a month
after becoming prime minister,

the courage of sailors,
soldiers, and airmen,

and the dedication
of scientists and engineers,

hand Churchill
the propaganda victory

that he so desperately needs

to maintain the fight
against the Nazis.

That is the true miracle
of Dunkirk.

We can say objectively
and analytically

that the phrase "Miracle of
Dunkirk" is a propaganda phrase,

because it is.

It's not a bad
propaganda phrase.

And if you're intending
to fight on against Hitler,

and this helps you
rally the nation,

it is a pretty darn good
propaganda phrase, actually.

WRIGHT:
We were beaten and we came back.

We lived to fight another day.

It was a miracle at Dunkirk,
all right.

♪

(plane engine roaring)

This "NOVA" program
is available on DVD.

"NOVA" is also available
for download on iTunes.

♪