Christopher Nolan's new film Dunkirk might have introduced some theatre-goers to the most stunning rescue operations in history for the first time, but for Nancy Timbrell-Muckle it was a story her father recounted throughout her childhood.

Timbrell-Muckle's late father, Robert Timbrell, was only 20 years old when he participated in the 1940 evacuation that would later be known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Allied forces rallied every kind of boat to rescue nearly 340,000 soldiers stranded at the beaches and harbours of Dunkirk in northern France.

Private vessels like fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and ferries sailed through enemy waters to France with no weapons to complete the mission.

Robert Timbrell

Robert Timbrell in June 1940, aged 20, in his naval uniform as an acting sub-lieutenant, one week after he returned from Dunkirk. (Submitted)

The young Vancouver-raised sailor was in the middle of gunnery training with Canadian navy when he was pulled away and ordered to skipper a luxury yacht called the Llanthony across the English channel.

"He was ordered to proceed to Dunkirk and evacuate as many soldiers as he could," Timbrell-Muckle said.

"He zig-zagged across ... and the first thing he saw was this huge black cloud of burning fuel. He came around the corner through the sandbars and his first impressions of the beach were masses and masses of soldiers patiently waiting, sitting, standing. They looked like ants, dark specks on the beach."

Listen to Nancy Timbrell-Muckle describe her father's story on CBC's The Early Edition:

Timbrell is credited with saving 900 men and became the first decorated Canadian naval officer of the Second World War for his bravery in Dunkirk.

After the war, he went on to command several other ships and eventually served as the head of Canada's naval forces before retiring in 1973 and settling in Nova Scotia.

He passed away in 2006 at age 86.

A powerful film

Nolan's movie which depicts the rescue operation has received rave reviews, with CBC reviewer Eli Glasner hailing the sense of clarity with which he captures the action of Dunkirk using real boats, battleships and planes.

Timbrell-Muckle also praised the movie's "documentary-like" realism.

But more important, she said the film brings attention to an important, positive rescue story that had a tremendous impact on the course of the war.

"On the other side with the rescue operation and these returning troops, the people of Great Britain were so infused with this buoyancy of the recovery of their troops, they were motivated [for the rest of the war]," she said.

"When I look back as a student of history and of course as the daughter of my dad, it's really powerful."

With files from The Early Edition