Trapped on a French beach as German warplanes attacked, hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops thought they were doomed.
Many were. But in the spring of 1940, the Battle of Dunkirk turned out to be one of the most successful military evacuations in history, as the British Navy and civilian ship rescued 330,000 soldiers.
Now, 77 years later, director Christopher Nolan’s new movie Dunkirk is telling their harrowing story of survival — and real-life veterans of the battle are happy to help bring attention to the history-making events.
“It is very important that people know about it,” Dunkirk veteran Garth Wright, 97, tells PEOPLE. “There are very few of us left and we have been through hell.”
96-year-old George Wagner, another British veteran of the battle, echoes Wright, telling PEOPLE it’s important for younger generations to understand how vital the battle was to the future of the country.
“Youngsters don’t realize how close we came as a nation — we would have been transformed,” he says. “We would have been a satellite of Germany. And a lot of them don’t know where Dunkirk is.”
Dunkirk veteran Garth Wright
Wright, then 20, was part of the 153 Battery and 51st Light Anti Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery, caught on the beaches of the tiny French town in the middle of World War II with only the English Channel separating the men from home.
With Nazi forces surrounding them on all sides and the shore too shallow for boats to dock, British and French soldiers were left defenseless on the open shore as they lined up in hope of rescue. The stranded soldiers were left at the mercy of the German planes flying above.
“They came over every half hour — waves of ME109s and Stuka 87s,” Wright recalls. “It was a walk in the park between the raids, but on the tick of the half hour, squadrons racked the beach with machine gun fire.”
Wright worked as a gunner during the battle and he recalled how exposed he and his fellow troops were.
“They flew their plane in a direct line towards your gun, machine-gunning all the time, and before they leveled out they’d drop their bombs, which were sure to hit you,” the veteran remembers. “As a gunner, the only target you had was the very thin line coming out of the black smoke. You could see the bombs leaving the plane and could see they were going to come straight for you. There was no protection whatsoever.”
Wright and his unit
Fearing the worst, and with all his unit’s guns wiped out, Wright decided to take shelter nearby instead of getting shot down.
“I went up into the sand dunes instead of just laying on the beach and getting picked off,” Wright says. “I dug myself a little trench up there and watched what was going on. I spent about 48 hours up there. It was hell on earth.”
In the end, Wright decided to take his chances and venture back out to the shore where he started helping transport some of the injured soldiers to the outgoing ships. Luckily for him, that act of karma was the one to save his life.
“They asked for volunteer stretcher bearers. Me and this other fellow picked up what was left of this lad, put him on a stretcher and took him out on the latched-up Mole,” Wright says of the pier-like structure that the troops had built to take them out to rescuing ships. “I took him on board to a makeshift ward they had and went to leave, but the skipper said I could stay on board. I could not believe my luck.”
Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk
Just as lucky was then-19-year-old Wagner, who was part of the retreating forces that “kept stopping and laying explosives” as they tried to slow down the enemy while making their way to the shore.
When they made it, Wagner immediately felt the dangers of the beach as “one plane came very close. He had been shot down and he came right over me and I thought he was going to land right on top. That’s when I was really terrified.”
Wagner was on the beach for two days before making his escape in the middle of the night when he saw a group of soldiers trying to row out to a waiting ship.
“I came across a naval rating who had just brought one of their lifeboats in,” he remembers. “He said to me ‘Can you row?’ I was up to my neck in water then, but I got on and we started to row. We reached a minesweeper, and got on. We didn’t get away until the next day or so.”
But while Wagner and Wright both made their way out on the bigger ships, Wright recalls how British citizens took up the call to action as a fleet of civilian boats crossed the English Channel to help transport the troops home.
“[I saw] quite a lot of little ships coming in. It was wonderful,” Wright remembers. “I saw one or two coming over before — it was a bit of a scramble out there. I don’t think there was too much panic, and no fighting for places.”
Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk
The ensuing rescue of over 330,000 Allied soldiers made for one of the greatest tales of World War II — and the veterans say Nolan stayed true to the story with his latest summer blockbuster, out Friday.
“It was a very good, the whole thing was really realistic, makes you think you’re back there,” Wagner says of the movie, which starsFionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. “Being that long ago, it was died with the memory. But when I saw the film, I was brought back.”