Improvise Or Die

Image: Warner Bros.

Hal Wilson is a two-time finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s contests with his stories The Cod Squad and The Flying Circus. Hal graduated in 2013 with first-class honours in War Studies and History from King’s College, London, and now works in the aerospace industry. Hal, a member of the Military Writers Guild, has been published by the Center for International Maritime Security, and is also launching a Cold War-themed naval-warfare board game.

Lost and listless, a squad of British infantry meander through a deserted French town. Enfield rifles slung, scrounging for fag-ends, they look up as leaflets flutter earthward. Each is a map. But for one bone-white pocket, hemmed against the English Channel, the maps show all France cast in carmine.

WE SURROUND YOU, the maps intone.

Gunshots suddenly split the air, unbelievably loud, and a khaki-clad soldier goes down. His mates scatter, fleeing down the street. Only one of them reaches the fence at the far end, vaulting it even as it splinters under German gunfire.

Thus opens Dunkirk, perhaps Christopher Nolan’s greatest film yet – and likely the year’s finest.

Dunkirk tells the story of Operation Dynamo, the Royal Navy’s last-ditch evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. Over 106 minutes, we are truly immersed in this death-grapple across air, sea and land. Nolan tells the tale by blending taut narratives and visual spectacle. No time is wasted on back-story: we are given a cast of ordinary men rising to extraordinary challenges. We are placed among them – in the gangways of ships and in the cockpits of Spitfires. We watch awestruck as they fight on where azure seas and cotton-wool skies meet, where Messerschmitts swirl and dive.

Most striking of all are the impeccable production standards and sound engineering. The first shriek of Stuka dive-bombers becomes unbearable as they swoop on the evacuation beaches. Harrowing moments aboard sinking ships channel the darkest nadirs of The Cruel Sea. Set to the strains of Sir Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, and narrated by Churchill’s most famous peroration, the catharsis of the final scene reaches the truest heights of cinema.

But is Dunkirk relevant to the modern day, beyond its inspirational retelling of British heroism?

Dunkirk relates closely to modern war-fighting concepts such as “Multi-Domain Battle,” the new US Army concept of coordination across diverse forms of warfare. Today, these could range from land to sea and space – and Dunkirk gives us an early example of it in action. It also offers a timeless lesson: improvisation is key.

Indeed, improvisation has been at the heart of Britain’s most successful – and difficult – amphibious operations. For instance, scarcely a year after the frantic evacuation at Dunkirk, the Royal Navy carried out another unexpected rescue. This time, in the Mediterranean’s dead heat, the fleet was called on to evacuate 22,000 British and Imperial troops from Crete.

Specialist Luftwaffe anti-shipping squadrons made lethal any daytime movement around the Greek island: Crete would cost the British fleet three cruisers, six destroyers and two thousand naval casualties.[1] But Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, declared, “It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. The evacuation will continue.”[2] Combining perseverance with improvised stopgaps, such as using an assault ship’s landing craft to speed the evacuation,[3] 16,500 men were successfully rescued.

Forty years later, the Falklands War took the British defence establishment by complete surprise. On the eve of the Argentine invasion “there were still no plans for dealing with a “Falklands Crisis.”[4] Unsurprisingly, the amphibious taskforce that retook the islands was driven by improvisation.

Requisitioned civilian ships were central to its sealift capacity;[5] its Naval Air Squadrons devised fixes for faulty radar kits even as they sailed south;[6] its escort ships created new plans to offset shortcomings with their radar systems.[7] As I was once told over a pint by Michael Clapp, the task force’s former Commodore Amphibious Warfare, even Dunkirk-era machine guns were scrounged to bolster his air defences.

Against this, the Argentine armed forces deployed well-armed surface task groups[8], buttressed by a determined Air Force equipped with deadly anti-ship Exocet missiles. Once close to the islands, British ships were challenged by not only land-based Exocets, but also Argentine 155mm artillery.[9] And yet, despite this, the war concluded with a decisive British victory.

Why? Why did the amphibious operations of Dunkirk, Crete and the Falklands succeed?

After all, each ran into the teeth of sustained and coordinated long-range attacks – forerunners to today’s Chinese Anti-Access Area-Denial networks. Each prevailed, not because of superior equipment or overwhelming firepower, but because these operations leveraged perseverance and professional skill: foremost the basic ability to innovate and improvise under deadly pressure.

With Dunkirk reminding us of these historic feats, modern-day concepts like “Multi-Domain Battle” should take note of these very human factors. After all, war is often a case of improvise or die.


[1] Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Volume III ‘The Grand Alliance’ Chapter XVI        p.268-269.

[2] Ibid, p. 265.

[3] Jon Sadler, Operation Mercury: The Fall of Crete, 1941, p.178

[4] Michael Clapp & Ewen Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands: The Battle of San Carlos Water, p.11

[5] Ibid, p.209

[6] Commander Sharkey Ward, Sea Harrier over the Falklands, p.174

[7] Michael Campbell, The Royal Navy’s Cold War Posture and Operation Corporate, Chapter 2, ‘Anti-Aircraft Warfare’

[8] Mike Rossiter, Sink the Belgrano, p254

[9] Clapp & Southby-Tailyour, Amphibious Assault Falklands, p247