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.
Professor Frederick Lindemann was one of Winston Churchill’s closest advisors during World War Two, one of the very few people who had access to him on a daily basis. Many have queried exactly how Lindemann, who was widely disliked, managed to exert such a hold over the prime minister. As a scientist, he was capable, if not brilliant. It was in this area that he was to serve Churchill, as his chief scientific advisor at the Admiralty and then at Downing Street.
Primarily a physicist, Lindemann often had unconventional ideas. One of his main areas of interest was air defence. This subject and indeed offensive air operations, were those on which he was to be the most influential.
During the late 1930’s he worked with Churchill on the Air Defence Committee and furnished him with some of his best ideas. He is also notorious, however, for his famous assertion that bombing German cities would knock Germany out of the war – supported by reams of statistical analysis. He made complacent and inaccurate predictions about the V2 rocket as well; but his research could be valuable – including fields such as anti-tank weaponry.
Lindemann was actually born in Germany, in the spa town of Baden-Baden, though educated in Britain and, like Churchill, an admirer of an Anglo-American culture. He was arrogant, opinionated and racist; he was also precocious and courageous. Famously, he learnt to fly during World War One where he was able to prove his theory as to how to recover an aircraft from a spin. He had associated with Marie Curie and Albert Einstein and indeed, undertaken work to validate some of Einstein’s theories.
Churchill met him through his uncle, the Duke of Marlborough: Lindemann enjoyed mixing with the aristocracy. By the time they met, Lindemann was a professor at Oxford. Churchill gave him a peerage and the position of Paymaster General. After World War Two, he went back to academia, but served Churchill again during the 1950s, when he headed up Britain’s nascent atomic energy programme. Lindemann has been called the ‘one man think tank’, although Churchill himself always referred to him as ‘the prof’. Lindemann died on 3 July 1957 at the age of 71.
Winston Churchill: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.
Sir Winston Churchill was a soldier, journalist, writer, Nobel Prize winner and, above all, a leader. Conservative then Liberal then Conservative again, his political instincts won him a sustained career at the summit of British government, while his resolve and politics of personality made him broadly regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century.
With his early radicalism, bold decisions regarding the Gold Standard and Iron curtain analysis, Churchill was, for many, a highly controversial figure. For others, he was Britain’s finest Prime Minister. From his career as a young army officer – serving in British India, The Sudan, and the Second Boer War, in which he won fame as a war correspondent – to his later pursuits as a historian, a writer, and an artist, ‘Churchill: History in an Hour’ by Andrew Mulholland is the perfect guide to the colorful, long and varied life of a historic titan.
This, in an hour, is Winston Churchill.
Only 99p. Buy now from iTunes, Amazon, B&N and other online stores.
Also available as an audio download
The 4th Hussars: 1895-1899
Young Radical: Early Political Career, 1899-1914
The First World War: 1914-1918
Recrossing the floor: the journey back to the Conservatives, 1919-1924
High Office: 1924-1929
In the Wilderness: 1929-1938
Birth of a Legend: 1939-41
Striding the Global Stage: 1942-45
Declining Years: 1945-1965
Born Clementine Hozier on 1 April 1885, the woman who was to become Winston Churchill’s wife came from straightened circumstances. Her parents seperated when she was young, and she grew up in Britain and France, her mother unable to afford the university education recommended by her teachers. Like Winston, Clementine Churchill had aristocratic blood, though it seems possible that she was illegitimate.
They first met when she was nineteen, and Churchill a twenty-nine year old MP, noted for his radical views and wartime adventures. The occassion was a dance, at which the rather gauche Churchill failed to impress. Four years later they sat together at a dinner, and matters turned out very differently. Clementine had been engaged several times before, always to older men. The romance with Churchill might now be described as ‘whirlwind’: within a month he had proposed, while taking shelter from a rainstorm in a folly at Blenheim Palace.
Even so, the marriage might never have taken place. Clementine was furious when she learnt that Churchill had visited twenty-one year old Violet Asquith in Scotland, to tip her off about their engagement. It seemed that there had been some kind of romance between Churchill and Violet. After learning about Churchill’s engagement, Violet became depressed and unstable.
Clementine balanced a keen political intellect with a love of children and family life and a talent for offering her husband the support he needed. She was never frightened to speak (or write) her mind. When Winston was in the trenches during 1916, the politcal Clementine urged him to stay – it would reflect well on him, while the loving wife craved his return to safety. In 1936 they argued furiously about the abdication of Edward VIII, Clementine recognising that Churchill’s position was hopelessly out of touch with the mood of the nation. She was also totally opposed to another term of office in 1951 – a view which although ignored, was astute and prescient.
America’s longest serving, President, Franklin D Roosevelt, proved an absolutely crucial ally to Winston Churchill and Britain during the early years of World War Two. Later disagreements about strategy meant that the relationship between the two men cooled from 1943, and Churchill declined to attend Roosevelt’s funeral. They shared an understanding of the threat posed by Nazi Germany, although in Roosevelt’s case, operating in a society deeply isolationist in sentiment. Despite this, he facilitated American rearmament, lend-lease, and a robust naval policy towards Germany that came very close to war.
It was Roosevelt who struck up the personal correspondence with Churchill which proved so productive. In those years they had a strong rapport, sharing an interest in naval affairs. Like Churchill, Roosevelt had been responsible for naval policy prior to and during World War One. Hence, once he became Prime Minister, Churchill’s famous ‘former naval person’ sign-off. In fact, they were both former naval persons.
Roosevelt came from a wealthy New York family and was a lawyer by profession. Both he and his wife Eleanor were active Democrats. In 1910 he entered the New York Senate and in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary for the Navy. By 1920 he was on the vice-presidential ticket for the Democrats, though they lost the election. The following year he contracted the polio which was to partially paralyse him. Roosevelt tried to hide his condition whenever he could, yet it changed him psychologically as well as physically. Many around him noted a much more compassionate, less arrogant man.
As Governor of New York state during the Great Depression, Roosevelt was critical of the Hoover administration and introduced a raft of policies to actively tackle unemployment. Notwithstanding this, he fought the 1932 Presidential election on a platform of national deficit reduction. It was only once in office, as the 32nd US president, confronted with the enormity of the economic slump, that Roosevelt was persuaded by his advisors to change tack. His famous New Deal measures included employment programmes, bank reform and public works. He also scrapped the Prohibition laws.
When Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, he quickly grew to rely on the services of a former First Sea Lord, by then supposedly retired: Admiral John Fisher. Between them, Fisher and Churchill were to revolutionise the Royal Navy, just in time to facilitate its successful prosecution of World War One. Fisher had predicted a 1914 war with Germany as far back as 1911.
Once war broke out, he returned to the position of First Sea Lord in a formal capacity, though he resigned after less than a year. He and Churchill had fallen out over the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, about which he was never an enthusiast. Fisher is regarded as one of the most influential admirals of his generation. His partnership with Churchill is an often neglected aspect of the pre-war period.
John ‘Jacky’ Fisher came from a colonial family who had fallen into debt. He therefore joined the navy at the age of only thirteen, by when his father had died. He grew estranged from his mother. He married, and had four children, three of whom were in turn to marry admirals. He was a forward thinking, sometimes impatient man, frustrated by the conservatism and patronage that was rampant in the navy. He was also extremely religious, an aspect of his make up which could sometimes affect his judgement.
First Sea Lord
His first tenure as First Sea Lord had been between 1904 and 1910. It was a period of retrenchment and transformation. Amidst much outcry, Fisher freed up resources by scrapping or mothballing dozens of elderly ships, and instead invested in new technology. Modern turreted ‘Dreadnought’ battleships and the new concept of battlecruisers were the result.
Randolph Churchill, father to Winston, exerted a profound influence on his son in a number of ways which he perhaps would not have envisaged. First, their difficult personal relationship, characterised by Randolph’s high expectations and Winston’s initial failure to meet them, clearly left its mark. Second, Randolph’s political career can be summarised as one of unmet potential. This too, coupled with Randolph’s early death, influenced his son. Close to his own death, Winston was to confide to his daughter Mary that his one regret was that his father had not seen him make a success of his life.
Active in the Conservative Party from a young age, Randolph Churchill entered Parliament in 1874, shortly after his marriage. Within a few years he had a reputation as a trouble-maker – sharp tongued, and as critical of his own party as he was the Liberals. He was impatient with what he saw as the elitism and naivity of the Conservatives. Randolph was anxious for change, arguing that the party needed to represent the ordinary members of society or face permanent opposition. Liberal reforms should be considered on merit, rather than rejected out of hand. This series of ideas coalesced into what he termed ‘Tory Democracy’, and initially made him few friends. Arguably, his most important legacy was to shift the party’s centre of gravity in this direction.
In 1877, however, his career was almost derailed when Churchill was implicated in a scandal involving the Royal Family. He had fallen out with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whom he threatened to expose as an adulterer. In those times, such behaviour from a public figure was completely unacceptable. He was marginalised by Prime Minister William Gladstone, being sent to work as Viceroy in Dublin for the next four years.
But by 1885 Churchill could no longer be ignored. He was brought into government as Secretary of State for India. Within a year he was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House – more or less dictating his own political terms. It seemed nothing would stop Randolph Churchill; here was a prime minister in the making.
As a schoolboy, Winston Churchill was clever enough but his downfall was that he had particular interests such as geography and history, which he excelled at, while other subjects, Latin and mathematics in particular, held no interest for him whatsoever. His apparent lack of drive and his poor results angered his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, greatly and set them further apart.
In 1882, Winston was sent to a boarding school at the age of seven years and eleven months – quite normal in upper class families of the time. However, the forbidding and hostile atmosphere he encountered came as a severe shock to the boy. He instantly detested the severity – the birch flogging brutality, the dreadful lessons and the utter strangeness of his new life.
He became extremely unhappy and lonely. The lonelier he became the more troublesome and moody he was; to him the school was a cruel, vile, hostile world he did not wish to be part of. His health deteriorated drastically, so much so that the family doctor advised that he should be removed from the school.
Winston’s second school was in the seaside town of Brighton, run by two sisters. They were much kinder, sympathetic, and the school was smaller, less pretentious and much less expensive. During the three years he spent there Winston almost died of double pneumonia, but he gradually regained his strength and enjoyed studying the subjects he was really interested in.
Winston Churchill rather enjoyed war. In July 1914, as Britain prepared for the oncoming catrastrophe, Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife, ‘I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And in 1916, in a letter to David Lloyd George’s daughter, Churchill admitted: ‘I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it’.
Churchill had been appointed to the Admiralty in October 1911, and had continued the policy established by his predecessor of keeping Britain ahead of the Germans and strengthening the navy by expanding the number of Dreadnoughts, the most powerful battleship of the time.
But despite these preparations, Britain suffered a number of setbacks during the first months of the First World War – on 22 September 1914, the German navy sunk a number of British ships at Dogger Bank (sixty miles off the east coast of England in the North Sea), killing 1,459 sailors; and on 16 December, German ships penetrated close enough to British shores to attack Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby causing 137 fatalities. Churchill, in his role at the Admiralty, took the brunt of the blame and the public’s anger.
In October 1914, with German forces bearing down on Antwerp, the British government dispatched Churchill to Belguim. Although, through his efforts, he helped delay the fall of the city by about a week, allowing the Belgian Army to escape and the vital Channel ports to be saved, he was still heavily criticised at home for failing to save Antwerp.
Stung by the criticism, Churchill offered to resign from the government in return for a post as an army officer in the field. His offer, met with derision and loud guffaws, was refused.
Winston Churchill had a younger brother, to whom he was very close. When they both had their own families they became practically one large family. The two brothers were both soldiers but were complete opposites; Winston enjoyed the limelight and a manic lifestyle, whereas Jack stayed quietly in the background.
Shortly after Winston had joined the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade in 1908, he was invited to one of Lady St Helier dinner parties. She was the great-aunt of Clementine Hozier whom Winston had met briefly four year previously. He remembered the beautiful young woman instantly and was delighted when he was placed next to her. Indeed, Winston was so smitten he asked his mother to invite Clementine to Salisbury Hall. Their romance began slowly with polite letters until Winston finally plucked up the courage to propose. For the rest of their lives, when not together, they wrote letters and telegrams to each other almost every day.
Meanwhile, Jack Churchill had married Lady Gwendeline Bertie, (Goonie) on 7 August 1908. Winston and Clementine followed them only thirty-five days afterwards; they were married in St Margaret’s, Westminster; and it was a marriage that lasted Winston’s death fifty-six years later.
Clementine was a great help for Winston, accompanying him occasionally when he was giving speeches or electioneering. But more often he went alone and so encouraged her to keep up with friends and interests so not be lonely. She suffered with nervous depression and since Winston had experience of depression he was extremely considerate; he would send her on holidays or to friends, preferably into warmer climates, which always cheered her greatly. Whilst she was away he would take over in the household and in return, his children, Sarah and Marigold (and later Mary), would take turns to keep him company; probably more likely interrupting his work, but he enjoyed their childish chit-chat and never sent them away. Continue reading