A major motion picture’s debut inspired one Columbus man to share the story of his grandfather’s involvement in a significant moment of world history.
“Dunkirk,” directed by Christopher Nolan, tells the true story of a World War II rescue mission in the French port of Dunkirk.
After watching previews for the “Dunkirk” film, which topped box-office sales in its debut last weekend, 77-year-old Andy Smithson looked at the framed photographs hanging along his basement wall.
One image depicts a large motor vessel carrying hundreds of people. Another shows Smithson’s grandfather, the former Lord Mayor Frederick Joseph Spickernell of Portsmouth, England, welcoming King George VI alongside a young Elizabeth II, the current Queen of England, to the British port city of Portsmouth.
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What isn’t as evident when simply glancing at the photos is that they all tell a small piece of a larger story.
“One of Grandfather’s passions was the sea and boats,” Smithson said, sharing the story behind the picture of the 120-foot vessel, known as the ALOHA II.
Smithson grew up in England during the World War II era, and was able to spend time with his grandfather as a preschool-age youth — recalling some of the stories.
He moved to Canada as a young adult, then to the U.S. for career opportunities — and landed in Columbus in 1974.
But paging back in world history, the Royal Navy commandeered his grandfather’s two boats, including the ALOHA II, for the Dunkirk rescue mission, Smithson said.
In May 1940, the German army surrounded British and French armies on the beaches around Dunkirk in northern France, where more than 330,000 men were trapped.
To avoid a massive attack, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, a British naval commander, and Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, aimed to evacuate as many Allied soldiers as possible within a nine-day span and transport them to a southern Britain port.
The Royal Navy gathered all boats, ferries and ships — anything that could float, Smithson said — to evacuate the Allied troops to safe ground. Between May 29 and June 4, 1940, more than 330,000 men escaped on more than 850 vessels, ultimately avoiding a large-scale attack from German forces.
“It was a time of major crisis,” said Smithson, who said his grandfather was happy to help. “Tiny boats, big boats, pleasure cruisers, they even had boat ferries going over there — anything that would float. The ALOHA II was a prize. It was brand new, it worked and it was a big boat. Perfect for the channel, which can get very rough.”
Smithson said it took the Navy crew two days to travel from Portsmouth to Dunkirk.
British troops stationed at Dunkirk waded out as far as they could in the ocean as smaller boats, such as the dinghy from Spickernell’s ALOHA II, ferried them to larger vessels in the channel, Smithson said. The ALOHA II made several round trips, carrying more than 100 troops at a time, he said.
The boat managed to avoid any bombs set off by the Germans, and was eventually returned to Spickernell following the war. The smaller boat, however, did not survive, sinking after it was hit by a bomb during the rescue mission.
Spickernell sold the ALOHA II for “literally pennies” after the interior had been damaged from transporting so many troops for so long, his grandson said.
Smithson said he wants to do all he can to keep the Dunkirk evacuation, a significant point in history, ingrained in the minds of generations to come.
“I think this movie is critically important because for the current generation, it is just a name in the history book,” Smithson said. “The second World War is still very, very vivid in the memory of people like me. The second and third generations after, it’s just a footnote.”
The “Dunkirk” film garnered $55.4 million last weekend in its international box office opening, the Washington Post reported.
British-American film director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” tells the true story of British soldiers trapped by the German army in the harbor and on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in late May and early June 1940.
The film stars Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Harry Styles.
The movie is now playing at AMC Classic Columbus 12, 555 Creekview Ct., and the non-profit YES Cinema, 328 Jackson St.
For a list of showtimes or to purchase tickets, visit amctheatres.com or yescinema.org.