Dunkirk – film review

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.

A triptych

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.

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The Sinking of the Lusitania – a summary

On the 7 May 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.

LusitaniaThe ‘Great War’ was still less than a year old. On 18 February 1915, in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany, the Germans announced that it would, in future, be operating a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. In other words, German U-boats would actively seek out and attack enemy shipping within the war zone of British waters. Even ships displaying a neutral flag, they announced, would be at risk – the Germans being aware of the British habit of sailing under a neutral flag.

The Lusitania was certainly not the first victim of Germany’s new policy – on 28 March 1915, the British ship RMS Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland. 104 people were killed, including one American. Continue reading

Admiral John Fisher – a summary

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.

John FisherOnce 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.

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The Battle of the Atlantic – a brief summary

The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War Two, is to be commemorated in a series of events today, 8 May 2013.

According to BBC News, ‘three Royal Navy warships will arrive in London before a special evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral at 17:00 BST. The events mark the seventieth anniversary of the climax of the battle, May 1943, when Germany’s submarine fleet suffered heavy losses in the Atlantic. The milestone is also being marked in Londonderry and Liverpool.’

So what exactly was the Battle of the Atlantic? History In An Hour provides a brief summary.

The war at sea began immediately in September 1939 with the Germans sinking merchant ships in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. On 13 December 1939, the Battle of River Plate in the South Atlantic took place. The German battleship Graf Spee attacked a squadron of British ships off the coast of Uruguay but in doing so was damaged herself. Hitler ordered her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to scuttle the ship rather than let her fall into enemy hands. Langsdorff followed his orders and the Graf Spee was sunk (pictured). A week later, Langsdorff, draped in the German flag, shot himself.

The U-boat peril

In his memoirs, Winston Churchill later confessed: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” Britain depended heavily on imports – from iron ore and fuel to almost 70 per cent of all her food. Convoys of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic were escorted by the Royal Navy and, as far as it could reach, the RAF. But there was only so far the planes could travel, leaving a ‘mid-Atlantic gap” where the convoys were particularly vulnerable to German submarines, or U-boats, which hunted in groups or ‘wolf packs’.

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A Brief History of Maritime Shipping

The history of maritime shipping stretches back thousands of years to the times of the earliest humans, for as long as there have been people they have wanted to explore what was beyond the seas. Today, maritime shipping is just as important as it has ever been, although the countries benefiting from these trade routes have shifted throughout history.

Circa 45,000 BCE

It’s believed that as many as 45,000 years ago people living in modern day Australia would have used boats for travelling and to find food resources. While we know very little about how they sailed, it’s fascinating to think that even before the rise of civilisations people were using boats.

3rd century BCE – 2nd century CE – Early trade routes established

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White Ship Disaster

‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England’
William of Malmesbury.

When we think of important dates in medieval history, 25 November 1120 probably isn’t one that springs to mind. But for England this was, in many ways, a momentous day. Not only did this day witnesses the death of Prince William, heir to the throne, it also set the country on the road to its first and often forgotten, civil war…

The port of Barfleur

On 25 November 1120, King Henry I and his heir, Prince William, were in Normandy. Their purpose in France was to ensure peace in the duchy of Normandy and with this now achieved, were about to sail home.

On arrival at the port of Barfleur, Thomas FitzStephen, captain of the White Ship, approached Henry and offered his captaincy and use of his vessel. FitzStephen claimed that his father had been employed by William the Conqueror as his personal captain and had in fact taken the duke to England for the invasion of 1066. With such impressive credentials, Henry accepted his offer – not for himself but for his son. The deal was then sealed with few drinks which soon turned into a long day of partying. By the time they boarded the ship that evening, FitzStephen and the royal party were roaring drunk.

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Hospital ship Armenia torpedoed by the Nazis

On the 7 November 1941, the Soviet hospital ship, the Armenia, was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazis. It was one of the worse maritime disasters in history. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers perished on a ship designed for not more than a thousand. A comparatively modest 1,514 died on the Titanic (1912) and 1,198 on the Lusitania (1915) yet the sinking of the Armenia on 7 November 1941 is all but lost to history.

Armenia shipSunk in the Black Sea, the exact location of the wreck is still a mystery and for years, the question remained – was a hospital ship, identified by a Red Cross, a legitimate target?

A stricken city

Designed for 980 passengers and crew, over seven times that number had surged onto the ship in the Crimean port of Yalta that fateful night of 7 November 1941. The reason was blind panic. The Nazi war machine, which had invaded the Soviet Union less than five months before, had overrun the Crimean peninsula and was bearing down on Yalta. People expected the city to fall within a matter of hours. The only possible means of escape for its stricken population was by sea – the roads outside the city having been sealed off by the Germans.

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Sink the Bismarck

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched in February 1939 by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1909-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.” 

On 24 May 1941, the Bismarck, on its first operation, had helped sink the HMS Hood. But in return, it had been damaged, and had set a course for northern France to attend to its wounds and repair the leaking fuel tanks. “The Hood was the pride of England,” said the German Fleet Commander, Admiral Günter Lutjens (pictured), over the ship’s loudspeakers, “the enemy will now attempt to concentrate his forces against us. The German nation is with you.”

The crew was nervous but for now at least the ship had slipped away from battle and had managed to remain at large, undetected by the British.

But then Lutjens made a fatal error – he broke radio silence. He radioed back to Germany announcing his intentions. The signal was picked up by the British and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did their work and roughly located the Bismarck’s position. Then, a RAF reconnaissance plane spotted the trailing oil leak.

Swordfish

26 May 1941 – the British closed in. The aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, launched 15 bombers, known as Swordfish planes, to attack the Bismarck, swooping in low, firing torpedoes. To their annoyance every torpedo missed and, equally, to their surprise the Bismarck failed to fire back. They soon learnt why – it was not the Bismarck they were attacking, but one of their own fleet, the HMS Sheffield.  Fortunately for the commanders responsible, there were no casualties.

A second batch of Swordfish was dispatched and this time they located the Bismarck – 600 miles from its intended destination, Saint-Nazaire in northern France. Again the planes flew in low – and twice hit their target. The damage was significant – a torpedo had jammed the ship’s rudder. The ship was no longer steering and could do nothing but move around in giant circles.

The Germans dispatched a number of U-boats to assist the flailing ship but Lutjens knew they were too far away to be of any use. The ship was doomed.

“All of Germany is with you.”

Bismarck shipHitler sent a consolatory message which must have offered little by way of consolation, “All of Germany is with you.”

As night fell, the crew upon the stricken ship knew that for most it would be their last night. Captain Lindemann allowed his men a free hand to whatever food and drink they could consume. For others he set the task of building a fake funnel, with the idea that when planted on top of the ship it would alter its silhouette and trick the British into thinking that the ship was not the Bismarck but another vessel. His men must have realised the absurdity of the captain’s plan but, nonetheless, thankful for the distraction, threw themselves into the task with gusto.

As dawn broke on 27 May, the battle resumed. The Bismarck, battered, impotent and alone, stood little chance. The British fleet pounded her while all the time closing in. At first, the Germans fired back but to no avail. Fires erupted throughout the ship, shells destroyed every lifeboat, and men jumped into the sea to avoid the rising flames as the ship began to capsize.

And still the British closed in. The HMS Rodney fired from a distance of less than two miles – in effect shooting from point blank range.

Finally, at 10.39 am, the Bismarck sank. She may have been scuttled. Men in water swan frantically away, trying to avoid the suction as the ship went under.

Survivors recalled looking back and seeing a heroic and poignant sight – there, on the deck, his hand raised to his white cap, Captain Lindemann saluting as the once mighty ship went down.

Rescue

Two of the British ships were close enough to pick up survivors. But as they went about their noble work, the captain of one of them, the HMS Dorsetshire, thought he spied in the distance the telltale puff of smoke from a U-boat. Being stationary, his ship presented a sitting target to a U-boat attack and he had no choice but to make a hasty exit. 110 men had been plucked out of the water (pictured), but many, many more were left stranded, screaming for the Dorsetshire to come back.

The following morning a German U-boat and a weather ship did appear on the scene but by then all but five of the remaining men had succumbed and died.

1,995 of the Bismarck’s crew of 2,200 had lost their lives.

WW2 in an hourRupert Colley

Read more about the war in World War Two: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also the sinking of HMS Hood, and the Battle of the Atlantic.

Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during the First World War, is now available.

 

The Sinking of HMS Hood – a summary

On 24 May 1941 two mighty ships engaged in battle – the respective pride of the German and British navies: the Bismarck and HMS Hood.

It started six days before when, on the evening of Sunday 18 May 1941, the Bismarck, accompanied by the Prinz Eugene, set sail from the Polish port of Gdynia. It was the Bismarck’s first mission.

“There had never been a warship like her”

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched just two years earlier, in February 1939, by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1909-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.”

The mission set for the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugene was to head for the Atlantic and cause as much damage and disruption as possible to the British convoys shipping vital supplies across the Atlantic into Britain. On board the Bismarck were two of Hitler’s most senior and able seamen – its captain, 45-year-old Ernst Lindemann, referred to by his crew as ‘our father’, and Fleet Commander, 51-year-old Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

From Poland, the two ships passed Norway where their presence was picked up by the British. British aircraft and ships, keeping a safe distance, monitored their progress as the German ships skirted north of Iceland and then south down the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland.

It was here, in the Denmark Straits, that the British fleet, led by the HMS Hood and Prince of Wales, was ordered to intercept.

“The embodiment of British sea-power”

Built in 1916, the Hood was, according to Kennedy, “the embodiment of British sea-power and the British Empire between the wars.” But the Hood had been built at a time, during the First World War, when enemy shells came in low and hit the sides of a ship near the water line. But in 1941 shells were more likely to arch across the sky and fall onto the upper decks. The decks of the Hood had never been reinforced and therein lay its weak spot. The “embodiment of British sea-power” had been built for a different war.

The Battle of Denmark Straits

In the early hours of 24 May, the opposing fleets with their imposing ships engaged. Thirteen miles apart the ships fired one-ton shells that, travelling at 1,600 miles per hour, took almost a minute to reach their intended target. The noise, which could be heard in Iceland, was horrendous.

The battle lasted merely twenty minutes and both the Bismarck and the Prince of Wales took direct hits, but it was the fate of the Hood that stunned the world. A shell from the Bismarck hit the Hood on its vulnerable upper deck, tore through the ship and penetrated its ammunition room, causing an almighty explosion.

The ship sliced into two, its front end dramatically lifting out of the water. A huge fireball rocketed into the sky, followed by plumes of dense black smoke, with pieces of molten metal shooting like so many white stars, as one German sailor described it. (Pictured is a painting by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt capturing the moment of the Hood’s sinking. In the foreground is the HMS Prince of Wales)

Within five minutes, the HMS Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, had sunk. It was no more. Of its crew of 1,421 men, all were killed – except for three.

The crew of the Bismarckwas jubilant. For this they would be the toast of Germany. The Prince of Wales was also struggling, having been hit seven times. The German crew wanted to give chase and finish her off but Lindemann, as captain, not wanting to expose the Bismarck unnecessarily, erred on the side of caution and resisted the temptation.

Also, of greater concern for Lindemann, the Bismarck had been hit by a shell that failed to explode but had caused damage to her fuel tanks. Serious damage.

Leaking oil at an alarming rate, Lindemann knew he had to get her back to safety. He decided on Saint-Nazaire, northern France, a distance of 1,700 miles, a journey of some four days.

The Prinz Eugene and the Bismarck parted ways. The joy of the Bismarckcrew had evaporated. Now there was nothing but concern – could they escape the British, could they make it all the way to France? The ship was limping – the fuel leak had forced the captain to greatly reduce speed. France seemed a long way away.

Sink the Bismarck

Meanwhile, in Britain, a nation reeled in shock, stunned by the loss of the Hood. It demanded retaliation. Churchill, reflecting the public mood, issued his famous battle cry: “Sink the Bismarck!”

A fleet consisting of four battleships, two battle cruisers, two aircraft carriers, 21 destroyers and 13 cruisers was dispatched.

The chase was on.

Rupert Colley

Read more about the war in World War Two: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.

See also Sink the Bismarck! and the Battle of the Atlantic.

Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during the First World War, is now available.

 

Admiral Byng – the Execution of a Scapegoat

John Byng was born on 29 October 1704 in Bedfordshire, England. One of fifteen children, John, like his father, Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng, joined the Royal Navy and by the age of 23 had reached the rank of captain.  

Admiral ByngUntil 1739, Byng was stationed around an uneventful Mediterranean. Then, perhaps due to his father’s influence, John experienced a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. In 1742, he was given the governorship of the colony of Newfoundland. In 1745 he was appointed Rear Admiral, followed by Vice-Admiral in 1747, all of which he obtained without having seen any military action.  His father, George, had been victorious in a number of naval battles, but when his son was finally to be tested it resulted in disaster.

Minorca

Admiral John Byng is mostly famous for his notorious execution by the British authorities in 1757 following the loss of the Mediterranean island of Minorca to the French at the start of the Seven Years War. Hostilities began in Europe only two days after the declaration of war in 1756 with a French attack on Minorca on 20 May. After a fierce yet inconclusive naval battle with the French fleet, the cautious Admiral Byng, charged with relieving the garrison at Minorca, decided to move his fleet to the safety of Gibraltar and from there recoup. But by 28 June, the French had captured the island.

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