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.
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.
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
From Missouri farming stock, Harry S. Truman was at one time the least popular US president on record, yet is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s more successful leaders. Truman never went to university, the last US President not to have done so. Nonetheless he was a widely read and largely self-taught man, modest in his demeanour and habits.
The ‘S’ in Harry S Truman actually stood for nothing, for he had no middle name, but, following the example of Franklin D Roosevelt (D for Delano), Truman felt the additional S gave his name a degree of gravitas or respectability.
After a series of menial jobs and work on his father’s farm, Harry S Truman went to the Western Front in the First World War as a member of the Missouri National Guard. He had cheated his way through the sight test, so anxious was he to go. The war brought out the leader in Truman, who was a popular and successful artillery officer.
In 1919 he married Bess Wallace, also from Missouri. Various business ventures came to nothing and the Trumans fell into debt. It was only through the sponsorship of a local contact that Truman found his niche in public office. Tom Pendergast, a wealthy ‘fixer’ for the Democratic Party, was to secure Truman’s nomination for minor elected roles and, in 1934, as a senator for the state. By this time he had become a keen advocate of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, befriending the President’s close advisor Harry Hopkins.
Paul Joseph Goebbels was the third of five children born to a Catholic family in Germany, on 29 October 1897. An educated and intelligent man, he swiftly rose through the ranks of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, ultimately becoming the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and one of Hitler’s closest associates. A man of below average height, Goebbels was occasionally referred to as ‘the Poison Dwarf’ and was the force behind the indomitable National Socialist propaganda machine. As the Third Reich crumbled in the final days of World War Two, the Führer named Goebbels as the next Chancellor, a position he held for just one day.
Rise to Prominence
Although of an eligible age to fight, Joseph Goebbels had a club foot that prevented him seeing action during World War One and gave him a permanent limp, facts he resented greatly throughout his life and endeavoured to disguise. He wrote a novel, and studied philosophy and literature and was awarded his doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1921.
Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and after ascending to the rank of Gauleiter of Berlin within four years, he was appointed the party’s propaganda minister in 1929. He edited a weekly newspaper called Der Angriff (The Assault) and also drew attention to National Socialist principles through provocative speeches. In 1933, following Hitler’s assumption of power, he became the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
In spite of his own club foot and diminutive stature, Goebbels ardently preached the physical superiority of the Aryan master race. With control over all media channels and cultural output in the Third Reich, Goebbels oversaw the dissemination of Nazi racial ideology to the masses; from celebrations of classical German culture and history, to warnings about the dangers that Jews and other supposedly subversive peoples posed to society.
Goebbels’ Anti-Semitism Continue reading
Oskar Schindler was born into a German family in the Czech Sudetenland on 28 April 1908. He joined the Nazi Party at the age of 30, following the absorption of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Nearly forty years after his death, he is remembered as a ‘good Nazi’ who saved an estimated 1,200 Polish Jews from almost certain death in concentration camps during World War Two. His posthumous fame is largely due to the 1993 blockbuster film Schindler’s List.
The Emalia Factory
An enterprising businessman, Oskar Schindler recognised the lucrative opportunities that war could present and took over an enamelware factory in Krakow in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. This was within the Generalgouvernement area of Poland, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly resettled by occupying Nazi forces. Officially named the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, his factory became more commonly known as Emalia.
Anti-Semitic feeling and action in Poland escalated swiftly following the Nazi invasion. Mass shootings were carried out throughout the country and those Jews who survived the exodus from their homes were crowded into sealed ghettoes. Although Schindler remained a member of the Nazi Party, he became increasingly opposed to the violent persecution of Jews and by late 1942, 370 Jews from the Krakow ghetto were among the workers employed in his factory.
Besides enamelware, Schindler’s factory also manufactured ammunitions. As ammunitions were vital to the German war effort, Schindler argued that the Jews employed in Emalia were indispensable if high production levels were to be maintained, thus preventing their deportation to labour and extermination camps. He protected his workers while the Krakow ghetto was liquidated in March 1943 by allowing them to remain in the factory overnight and subsequently established his own sub-camp, so they would not be subjected to harsh forced labour in nearby Plaszow.