Victor Power has tears in his eyes as the credits fade: the 98-year-old veteran never thought he’d return to Dunkirk.
He was just 20 in 1940, when he found himself trapped on the beach as German troops closed in; a sitting duck for a deadly air assault.
He was among the last of about 338,000 men to be evacuated in Operation Dynamo — a mass rescue made legendary for the bravery of hundreds of civilians who sailed their small boats across the English Channel to come to the soldiers’ aid.
At a special Brisbane screening of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film about the evacuation, Mr Power was taken back to the beach he escaped 77 years ago.
He hadn’t been nervous before the film — “I’ve seen it all before”, he joked to the ABC — but after, just for a moment, his smile faded away.
“The picture isn’t exactly the truth of myself, because there’s some parts I wasn’t part of. But the part that I was in was enough to remind me of what I was doing at that time,” he said softly.
“I’m a little bit touched about everything. I lost a lot of great mates.”
Victor Power says Dunkirk was a “good picture” that told the truth of what happened to him. (ABC News: Monique Ross)
His trademark grin quickly returned.
“I will say too, that there was more aircraft in that film than there ever was on the beach! I didn’t recognise anybody,” Mr Power laughed.
Mr Power says the film makes one thing clear: we must avoid returning to war, at all costs.
“Remember: no more wars. We don’t want any more,” he said.
“If [young people] want to join the Army, OK, join the Army. For a sense of purpose, for an education, yes. But not to go to war.”
Constant fighting, hunger and fatigue
Mr Power was born in Manchester, and had been a carpenter before being conscripted to World War II, where he served for six months.
By the time he made it to the beaches of Dunkirk, he already felt lucky to still be alive.
Mr Power, an infantryman, was with a platoon in a defensive position at Brussels when the German advance ensnared Allied troops. On May 28, 1940, he was given the order to retreat to Mons, and then to Dunkirk.
“I hadn’t slept — we were on the move all the time, fighting all the time,” he told the ABC.
“I was buggered. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.”
About 10 kilometres from Dunkirk, he broke into a garage and found a Peugeot with the keys in the ignition.
Under constant fire from the Germans, he and a few mates drove as fast as they could to the beach.
Nine days after he began the fraught journey from Brussels, Mr Power was at Dunkirk. There, the fight for survival began all over again.
He had a gun, but it was useless against attacks that came from bombers in the sky.
“My bullets wouldn’t reach them. We couldn’t use my rifle, except maybe as a battering ram,” he says.
“We had no food. We couldn’t do anything. We just had to [wait] to get off the beach.”
‘A miracle of deliverance’
Victor Power wears his service medals, including the French Legion of Honour (top right), with pride. (ABC News: Monique Ross)
On June 4, 1940, he was rescued — but not before he was ordered by military police to make sure the Peugeot could never be of any use to the Germans.
“I had to dismantle that car by putting my bayonet into the petrol tank,” he said.
“They made me smash the distributor.”
In total, some 338,000 soldiers were rescued from the beach — an evacuation hailed by then-British prime minister Winston Churchill as a “miracle of deliverance” in a “colossal military disaster”.
Mr Power remembers wading deep into the water to reach a small rowboat that took him to a larger ship.
“I wouldn’t say we were swimming, but we were close to it,” he said of the “bloody awful” start to the journey home.
While he didn’t suffer “shell shock” like so many others, he did find it hard to adjust, and struggled at first to hold down a job.
In the 1950s he brought his wife, son and daughter to Australia, where he has lived ever since.
For the past 20-odd years, he has called the inner-Brisbane suburb of New Farm home.
“I did everything I was supposed to do. I was game for anything,” he says of his time in the war, his voice trailing off.
“But I’m happy. I’ve always been a happy person. Probably that’s helped me through my life.”
And as for Nolan’s film, which he watched at the local cinema?
“I will admit, it was a good picture, a much better picture than the other two,” Mr Power said.
“They were rubbish, because they didn’t tell the truth of what I know.”