The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.
The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…
Dunkirk – the background
On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.
Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.
The film has three distinct viewpoints – which act almost like a triptych. The first is from the ground as we follow a young British Tommy called Tommy, funnily enough. And it is through Tommy, we meet Alex, played by Harry Styles. And let’s be honest here – most of us watching this film will be on tenterhooks looking out for Harry.
Kathryn Atwood has already written two great books about women and war. History In An Hour has reviewed them both – women heroes from the Second World War and from the first. Now, we have a third – Women Heroes of World War II – the Pacific Theater: 15 Stories of Resistance, Rescue, Sabotage, and Survival.
The books are aimed at the young adult audience but readers of any age will not fail to be moved and horrified in equal measure by the stories contained within these pages. As Kathryn writes in her foreword, she’s tried not to make the stories too graphic but we’re talking about the Rape of Nanking here, young girls forced into being ‘comfort women’, and the much-feared Kempeitai, Japan’s military police. So we approach with caution because what some of these women had to endure is mindboggling. Yes, there are tales of incarceration, torture and rape but this book is not a horror-fest. Instead, what we have is a very sympathetic portrayal of these incredibly brave and resourceful women and what they went through in the name of justice and humanity.
Atwood begins with a brief overview of Japan’s relationship with the West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She reminds us that Japan fought on the side of the Allies during the First World War. But post-war Japan was treated dismissively by their European allies – much of it based on racism. She summarises Japan’s development into a fascist, one-party state, and how young Japanese boys were hardened and desensitized by brutal and compulsory military training.
We tend to think of the Second World War as having started on 1 September 1939, the point Germany attacked Poland. But some historians now consider 7 July 1937 to be a more accurate date – the ‘Marco Polo Bridge Incident’ which started the war between Japan and China.
In August 1942, Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s wartime prime minister, flew to Moscow and there met for the first time the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Fourteen months before, on 22 June 1941, Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the largest military invasion ever conducted. Almost immediately, Stalin was urging Churchill to open a second front by attacking Nazi-occupied Europe from the West, thereby forcing Hitler to divert troops to the west and alleviating in part the enormous pressure the Soviet Union found itself under. Now, as Churchill prepared to meet Stalin, German forces were bearing down on the strategically and symbolically important Russian city of Stalingrad.
Churchill knew that if Germany were to defeat the Soviet Union then Hitler would be able to concentrate his whole military strength on the west. But although tentative plans for a large-scale invasion were afoot, to act too quickly, too hastily, would be foolhardy. Churchill withstood Stalin’s pressure. There would be no second front for at least another year. But, in the meanwhile, Churchill was able to offer a ‘reconnaissance in force’ on the French port of Dieppe, with the objective of drawing away German troops from the Eastern Front. Whether Stalin was at all appeased by this morsel of compensation, Churchill does not say.
Thus, in the early hours of 19 August 1942, the Allies launched Operation Jubilee – the raid on Dieppe, 65 miles across from England. 252 ships crossed the Channel in a five-pronged attack carrying tanks together with 5,000 Canadians and 1,000 British and American troops plus a handful of fighters from the French resistance. Nearing their destination, one prong ran into a German merchant convoy. A skirmish ensued. More fatally, it meant that the element of surprise had been lost – aware of what was taking place, the Germans at Dieppe were now waiting in great numbers.
Pictured: German soldiers defending the French port of Dieppe against the Anglo-Canadian raid, 19 August 1942.
Seventy years ago this past June, the armies of the Allies — young men who had grown up in the shadow of the previous war — landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.
The connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.
And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.
Brave Little Belgium
On the morning of 4 August 1944, a car drew up outside 263 Prinsengracht, a warehouse and office building in central Amsterdam. Several men exited the vehicle and made their way inside, among them an Austrian officer named Karl Josef Silberbauer and some members of the Dutch Nazi Party. They had been tipped off that Jews were hiding on the premises. Whoever had made the anonymous phone call that day was correct: in an annexe at the back of the building, Silberbauer and his men discovered eight Jews. The youngest among them was a 15-year-old girl named Anne Frank.
The warehouse staff had pointed Silberbauer in the direction of the first floor offices on his arrival to 263 Prinsengracht. Upon entering, a pistol was drawn and Viktor Kugler, the director of the company, was ordered to show the men where the Jews were hiding. Unwillingly, Kugler took them to a bookcase, which concealed the door to what people around the world now know as the Secret Annexe. This was where the Frank family, the van Pels family and a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer had been living clandestinely since 1942, supported by Kugler and other helpers. All of them were German Jews who had fled Nazi rule in the 1930s, only to find their lives endangered once more following the occupation of the Netherlands and the implementation of anti-Semitic laws.
Otto Frank (pictured) was giving 17-year-old Peter van Pels an English lesson when the Nazis entered the Annexe. They joined their families and Pfeffer on the lower floor, where they were ordered to give up their valuables. Looking for something in which to transport the loot, Silberbauer picked up Otto’s leather briefcase, the private place where his youngest daughter Anne had chosen to keep her diaries. Her writings were unceremoniously emptied on to the floor as what little cash the Franks had was stashed away by the Gestapo.
Initially, the Jews were told they had just a few minutes to pack a small bag, but Silberbauer then saw Otto’s trunk, evidently the property of a German war veteran. He was astonished that a Jew had served in the German army and subsequently told everyone to take their time. Similarly astounding was Otto’s revelation that they had been in hiding for over two years. As proof, Silberbauer was shown the pencil lines where Otto had charted Anne and Margot’s growth since 1942 and a map studded with colourful pins, charting the progress of the Allied invasion. D-Day, on 6 June 1944, had been jubilantly celebrated in the Annexe, as everyone had believed that the liberation could not be far away. Now, however, it was evident that for them, the Allied invasion had begun too late.
Deportation Continue reading
Hannah Szenes was one of thirty-two Jews from Palestine who parachuted into Europe as members of the British Army in the spring of 1944. Their goal was to rescue other Jews, although their British leaders emphasized that this objective must be secondary to reconnaissance tasks and enabling the escape of captured Allied airmen. After working with partisans in Yugoslavia, Hannah attempted to cross the border into her native Hungary, but was captured and executed five months later, aged just 23. A passionate Zionist and a gifted writer during her brief lifetime, Hannah is remembered as a national heroine in Israel.
Hannah Szenes (also known as Hannah Senesh) was born in Budapest on 17 July 1921. Her father, a journalist and playwright, died when she was six, but Hannah inherited his gift for writing, becoming a talented poet and regular diarist as she matured. Although the Szenes family were assimilated Jews, Hannah experienced anti-Semitism first-hand when she enrolled at a private high school in the early 1930s and was forced to pay triple tuition fees because of her religion. An intelligent and studious pupil, she became increasingly interested in Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Emigrating to Palestine
In September 1939, the same month that the Second World War broke out, Hannah’s dream of travelling to Palestine became a reality. Despite her strong academic performance, she chose to enrol in the Nahalal Agricultural School instead of a traditional university, as she firmly believed that Jewish youth should build the new country. She became particularly interested in poultry farming and after two years of study, joined a new kibbutz near the ruins of an ancient Roman city, between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
As news of the war and the increasing persecution of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe trickled through to Palestine, Hannah grew ever more concerned for her brother George, who was studying in Paris, and for her mother, who was still living in Budapest. Despite the natural beauty of the kibbutz’s location, Hannah failed to find contentment in her new work and longed to actively assist her compatriots in Hungary. In 1943 she joined the Haganah (an underground Jewish military force) and was subsequently accepted for a British Army mission that would enable her to travel back to Central Europe. Her seemingly fearless nature, particularly when it came to parachute training, earned the respect and admiration of her fellow volunteers.
D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.
The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.
At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.
From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their flat-bottomed landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to traverse the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly-packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen-miles per hour winds. At 6.30, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
One of the most spectacular Allied successes of World War Two was the evacuation of more than three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4, 1940 . The men had been cut off and surrounded by the German army, and would have been slaughtered or captured if not for a hastily assembled flotilla of more than eight hundred military and civilian vessels, which achieved what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.
Among the troops fighting to hold off the Germans and make the evacuation possible were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. Their officers read them these orders: “You will hold this position; you will either be killed, wounded or made a prisoner of war.” (Pictured: Jocks of the 51st Highland Division in France 1940).
At 3 p.m. on June 5, twenty-six-year old Lieutenant J. E. M. Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, surrounded by German troops who had just shot off his wristwatch, surrendered near the French town of Saigneville. He was not alone. After Dunkirk, the 51st Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme, but they were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties, and on June 12, their commander Major General Victor Fortune surrendered at St. Valéry-en-Caux. In The General Danced at Dawn, George Macdonald Fraser tells of the remnants of his regiment of the Gordon Highlanders singing “We’re No Awa’ to Bide Awa’” “as they waited for the end.”
‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’
Considered one of the greatest war photographers, Robert Capa’s images, especially those taken during the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings, are among the iconic images of the twentieth century.
Born Andre Friedmann in Budapest on 22 October 1913, Robert Capa had, by the age of eighteen, turned into a political radical, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy. In 1931, Friedmann was arrested and imprisoned by Hungary’s secret police. On his release, after only a few months, he moved to Berlin where he studied journalism and political science while working part time as a dark room apprentice. In 1933, alarmed by the rise of Nazism, Friedmann, who was Jewish, moved to Paris.
Famous American photographer
Two years later, while in Paris, Friedmann met Gerta Pohorylle, a German Jew who had also fled Hitler’s Germany. Together they worked as photojournalists, fell in love and, in an attempt to make their work more commercially appealing, pretended they both worked for the famous American photographer, Robert Capa. Friedmann took the photos, Pohorylle hawked them to the news agencies and credit was given to the fictional Robert Capa. (The name ‘Capa’ was chosen as homage to the American film director, Frank Capra.)
The Falling Soldier Continue reading