The three soldiers awake at dawn and leave the French farm. They march north towards Dunkirk and come across an exodus of villagers with some other regimented British soldiers. Turner loses his cool trying to steal a vehicle from one of the villagers. Corporal Mace stops him from doing so. The men are then approached by a Scottish Major and ordered to join a team that is going to launch an offensive on some German artillery near the town. Before they can leave on their special mission, Turner notices a German fighter plane approaching the convoy of soldiers and villagers. Before anybody else is able to notice or respond, Turner yells, runs, and seeks shelter beneath a turned over lorry along with Mace and Nettle. Machine gun fire sweeps over the road, injuring many and killing a small boy. Turner, Mace, and Nettle avoid injury. They bury the fifteen-year-old boy before moving on.
After the aerial assault, Turner denies the Major’s orders to sneak-attach the German machine gun location. Surprisingly the Major accepts this refusal. As the men continue their march towards Dunkirk, Turner postulates the lost relationship between himself and the Tallis’s (save Cecilia). His mind then focuses on his relationship with Briony and struggles with the notion of whether or not he will ever be able to forgive her. Turner then recalls a summer day in 1932, three years before the fatal night of Lola’s rape. He remembers teaching Briony how to swim in the lake at the Tallis park (at the time, she was ten and he was nineteen). Briony fakes a drowning to test Robbie to save her, which he does. When he questions and scolds her for her actions, she replies that she loves him.
Turner begins to piece his thoughts together. Regardless of the fact that after the day in the lake, Briony did nothing else to demonstrate her “love” for Robbie (which he rights off as a silly school girl crush), he realizes her vindictiveness towards him was a result of assumed betrayal. Briony loved Robbie and he fell in love with her older sister. Briony’s love transformed to “disappointment, then despair, and eventual bitterness” (220), which explains her motives for carrying on with her accusations and statements against him all the way through the courts.
The men and the other Belgian villagers continue their march towards Dunkirk. The German bombers continue heavy with their attack. Turner attempts to rescue a boy and his mother who is unable to flea for proper cover as the bomber nears. At first, he is successful, throwing the two of them to the ground and protecting them with his body. Next, as they run through a field for wooded shelter, the mother and child refuse to go and there is little Turner can do. Another bomb hits, Turner is thrown to the ground, and the mother and child are completely obliterated.
Turner eventually makes it to the forest where he is reunited with Nettle and Mace. The three, along with a few hundred other survivors from the attack, wait until the assault is over, and continue with their march towards Dunkirk. As he marches, Turner postulates his fatherless life, his relationship with Jack Tallis, and the necessity that he, himself, become a father. As the convoy reaches the edges of the town, a bridge leading into the town is being prepared for defense from an inevitable German ground attack. Knowing that the commanding officers of the defense squad will summon Turner as he enters through the gates, Mace and Nettle implore him to fake a leg injury to avoid being selected as one of the defending soldiers. The plan works and Mace and Nettle carry Turner into the town.
Eventually the three soldiers reach Dunkirk, the English Channel. When they arrive, they notice hundreds of soldiers and civilians on the beach awaiting the British Navy for rescue before the German armies arrive. There are no signs of a naval fleet anywhere. The men join other soldiers in looting through the town looking for alcohol, food, and a place to sleep. The town is in a state of general chaos. In one bar, there is a mob of soldiers surrounding and threatening an RAF officer with his life for the lack of support from the British Airforce. Turner debates getting involved, but doesn’t. As it nears the point of a mob-led murder on their fellow countryman, Mace appears out of nowhere and says he is going to drown the man. He picks him up and runs out of the saloon towards the water. In the mayhem, he is lost and separated and it is at that point Nettle and Turner are aware Mace just saved the poor man’s life.
Separated from Mace, Turner and Nettle search the town for food and shelter. They come across a “gypsy” woman who will allow them some food if they rescue her pig that has escaped its sty. Nettle thinks it is absurd, but Turner feels differently and forces the two to do the very act. The reward is some wine, bread, sausage, and sugared almonds as well as some cleaning up.
The two men pass a hotel that is being rummaged for sleeping gear. They witness another mobbing where one soldier breaks his back and no one else stops to help him. They hear the battle going on at the edge of town (that Robbie luckily avoided) and know that soon the defense line will break and the Germans will be amongst them. Shortly thereafter, at the insistence of Nettle, Turner and Nettle find a cellar in and old home to sleep in. There are already some soldiers there, but they manage to find room enough to sleep. Turner drifts into nightmares where his mind battles with guilt for not doing more to save those people along his walk to Dunkirk. He also debates whether Briony will come through on her word to vindicate him.
Nettle is forced to wake Turner from his screaming nightmares. He notices how ill Turner appears and implores him to “hang in" (249) because he saw a British Naval fleet coming through the channel and heard they are being marched down to the water the next morning. The reader can imply that Turner’s shrapnel wound may be the cause of gangrene, hence his disillusionment. Turner drifts back off to sleep and recalls Cecilia’s words for him the day he was arrested at the Tallis household. They are the same words that end all of her letters to him at war: “I’ll wait for you. Come back.” (250) Turner promises Nettle he will say no more in his sleep and to wake him when they are ready to march to the boats.
Just like the lost twins in the forest that night in England, Nettles and Mace recognize Robbie as "their lucky ticket." In a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern way, Mace and Nettle help push the story along and are the only way into any historical accuracy for the story (it is revealed later that it is Nettles with whom Briony communicated to get this part of her tale correct). When Robbie daydreams while marching about coming home to Cecilia and the "prospect of a rebirth" he compares it to that night when he walked along the Tallis lawn, "in his best suit, swaggering on the promise of life."
Even as Robbie walks, he walks in a literary, rhythmic beat (page 206). No matter where Robbie goes, he is unable to escape Briony's unrelenting metaphor to literature.
The flashback to the scene where Robbie is teaching Briony to swim is quite obvious in terms of analysis. Again, we have water; and again, it is an object that deceives Robbie (Briony was fake-drowning) and leads to Briony's rampant imagination (being in love at age 11 with an older servant boy). In the end, neither of them 'benefit' from this lake experience.
When Robbie and the men arrive at Dunkirk, the scene is total chaos. Robbie has time to consider all of what English civilization has to offer him. He has experienced mass bombing and wartime (WWII), knows rapacious businessmen (Paul Marshall), seen its repression of women (his mother, Cecilia, and Emily Tallis), and lived first class though an archaic and enslaved feudal system. Dunkirk symbolizes everything that is wrong in this world: "A dead civilization. First his own life ruined, then everybody else's." Like the vase that was broken at the beginning of the novel, ancient relics that survived WWI were cracked at first, but have now been totally shattered.