Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture Sõnum

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Other subjects referred to clothes and style. ‘Janet’s a big girl,’ said one, ‘and she doesn’t dress right; so she just isn’t accepted.’ Peer pressure was intense, and dressing right was possible because high school students had a disposable income. They lived at home, usually received money from their parents, and often had part-time jobs. Without rent or bills to pay, there was no excuse for not dressing ‘slick’, as one Elmtown girl put it. And even young people without money, living on the small amounts paid by the National Youth Administration, were keen to spend what they had to look good. American materialism, after all, has a proud history.

The Elmtown study is interesting in relation to sex and marriage, revealing that it was a badge of honour among many boys to be sexually active. ‘A boy who is known or believed to be a virgin is not respected,’ writes Hollingshead, and he describes a clique of lower-class boys calling themselves ‘The Five Fs’. This near-acronym stood for ‘Find ’em, feed ’em, feel ’em, fuck ’em, forget ’em’.

A girl, on the other hand, had to tread a dangerously thin line between ‘having some fun’ and becoming ‘free and easy’. ‘Mary’ told Hollingshead about going to a dance with a young man. At the dance, she decided that the boy ‘could have it’ but she would have to get drunk to go through with it. So the couple drove to a bar where Mary drank a double bourbon and three double whiskies, before driving to an isolated spot. ‘Oh, it was wonderful!’ said Mary. Over the next few months, she had affairs with five other men, going on at least four dates with each before ‘becoming intimate’. She was adamant that none of the boys had known in advance that ‘she knew what it was all about’. And then, at the age of eighteen, she married a twenty-year-old mill worker. Mary’s brief but intense adventures were over.

Yet for any social changes, it was the music that really marked out the new youth culture. Swing music had a terrifically fast tempo, and sounded terrifying to older white listeners. It encouraged wild, out of control dancing, even solo dancing without a partner. Numbers like Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’ had a brutal, thumping drumbeat. Hep cats (aficionados) used jive (slang) when beating up the chops (talking). They wore wild drapes (clothes) and spent hard (enjoyable) blacks (nights) in the Apple (Harlem). But despite – and because of – its edgy street culture background, Swing became hugely popular with young white audiences.

On the evening of 16 January 1938, Swing crossed over into the mainstream, when Benny Goodman’s orchestra played Carnegie Hall, New York City’s most prestigious concert venue. Asked how long an intermission he wanted, Goodman said, ‘I don’t know. How long does Toscanini have?’ And when, several months later, a hundred thousand people of all races attended a Swing Jamboree in Chicago, music seemed to be lifting the nation. ‘Swing,’ reported the New York Times, ‘is the voice of youth striving to be heard in this fast-moving world of ours.’ It was the voice of hope as America finally emerged from the depression.

But it would be a mistake to think that the young had moved beyond their elders. A poll conducted by the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1940 asked young people across the country, ‘Would you favor changing to a different form of government if it would promise you more in the way of a job?’ Eighty-eight per cent of the sample answered ‘No’. ‘Ours is the only sound form of government,’ said one respondent, speaking for most.

Young Americans may have grown more optimistic over the 1930s, they may have developed their own culture, but they were happy to remain American. And to a real degree, they were the benchmark by which the new Europe measured itself. Their culture was worshipped and copied in Britain, reviled and banned in Germany. But as detached as they were making themselves, they would not ultimately be able to escape the tensions brewing in Europe. The new world had not yet outgrown the old.

Three

The Long and the Short and the Tall

On 3 September 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. The Royal Air Force had already flown a small advance party to France. The next day, further advance parties set sail from Portsmouth. Within a week, the men of four divisions were arriving at French ports – just as their fathers and uncles had done a little over a quarter of a century earlier.

But promptness does not indicate readiness. Major General Bernard Montgomery, commander of 3rd Division, writes that the British Army ‘was totally unfit to fight a first-class war on the continent of Europe’. Britain was justifiably renowned for her Royal Navy; she had contributed fully to the development of aerial warfare. But the army that crossed to France in September 1939 was both undermanned and underequipped.

As recently as April 1938, the government had determined that Britain’s response to a European war would be chiefly naval and aerial. Her land forces would not be sent to Europe; they would defend Britain and her still widely spread Empire. But by the start of war, a desperate reappraisal and a frantic burst of rearmament and troop training had taken place. Conscription had been introduced. There was a massive amount of catching up to be done.

In fact, the nation’s soldiers were to be engaging in modern warfare against armoured divisions, yet most of their anti-tank rifles would prove useless, knocking out more British shoulders than German tanks. And though the British army had been the first to use tanks, on the Somme in 1916, 1st Armoured Division would not be ready to cross the Channel for many months. Through the period to the Dunkirk evacuation, the British had very few effective tanks. Only the Matilda Mark II – with its 2-pounder cannon, impressive speed and thick armour – was a match for the best French and German tanks. Montgomery, a divisional commander, wrote that he did not see a single British tank throughout the winter. Put simply, when the British Expeditionary Force sailed to France, it was not ready to go to war.

Despite this, in November 1939, Lord Gort, commander-in-chief of the BEF, told journalist James Lansdale Hodson, ‘I have never had the smallest qualm about the outcome of this war.’ Gort was a buoyant man and he was doing his best to buoy the country. But beyond the state of his army, he had another major problem. As head of the Expeditionary Force, he was answerable to the local French commander, General Georges, who was in turn under the command of French supreme commander General Gamelin. On the face of it, this was acceptable given the relative size of the forces, but in practice it meant that the BEF could be treated in a subordinate fashion. The latest plans and reports could be withheld, advice and opinions could be ignored. Gort had a responsibility to keep a close watch on his ally.

The British Expeditionary Force, as we have seen, was chiefly made up of young men whose attitudes were formed during the depression, who were influenced by the growing youth culture, and who joined up for reasons ranging from a search for excitement to an escape from unemployment. But the BEF was a broad church. Cyril Roberts, a lance sergeant in the Queen’s Royal Regiment, was the son of a black Trinidadian father and a white mother from Lancashire, disowned by her family for marrying a black man. At a time when roughly 0.0003 per cent of the British population was black or mixed race, Cyril was unusual not only in the BEF, but in British society as a whole.

Growing up in south London, Cyril and his brother, Victor, learned to stand up for themselves. ‘If you were the only black kid in the class,’ says Cyril’s daughter, Lorraine, ‘you just had to get on with it.’ But the boys had a role model. Their father, George, had served with the Middlesex Regiment in the First World War, becoming known as ‘The Coconut Bomber’ for his grenade-tossing ability, a skill he inadvertently picked up (so the story went) while knocking coconuts out of trees in Trinidad.

An apprentice telephone engineer before the war, Cyril followed his father into the army, joining up under age, and finding himself promoted above older, more experienced men. ‘He was very calm and organised,’ says Lorraine. ‘He had an air about him. He could take command and people did as they were told.’

Cyril’s battalion sailed from Southampton, reaching Le Havre early the next morning. These young men, like so many others, were travelling abroad for the first time. What should they expect? What would France look like? Would it be different?

Second Lieutenant Peter Hadley, of the Royal Sussex Regiment, noted an atmosphere of undisguised excitement among his men as they crossed the Channel. They were like children on a Sunday school outing. But after only a short time in France, Hadley began reading letters from his charges to their parents and girlfriends, expressing disappointment that the people and the houses seemed very much the same as those in England.

Cyril Roberts’ battalion had a similar experience. At first, the soldiers crowded the train windows as they sped through northern France. But they were very soon bored, and drifting away to play cards. Arriving at their destination at Abancourt in the Pas de Calais, the men were set to work building railway lines. It was hard, physical labour, carried out with pick and shovel, without any mechanical assistance. And this, as far as they were concerned, would be the extent of their role. They were not trained for fighting.

 

Shortly before its outbreak, most people in Britain were strongly in favour of war. And once it had begun, the majority believed that Hitler’s bluff had now been called. We have heard what Lord Gort told a journalist in November 1939. Victory was certain, and everybody from the commander-in-chief to the man on the Clapham omnibus thought so. Of course, many of these people had also believed that the last war would be over by Christmas.

But war was also welcomed for personal reasons. Fred Carter had been an unemployed concreter before joining the Royal Engineers. He viewed the war as an opportunity to return to his old trade – or something very similar. John Williams of the Durham Light Infantry felt actively sorry for the ‘poor sods’ not in the army, condemned to their ordinary little jobs while he and his mates got the glory and the girls.

Listening to Chamberlain’s announcement in his Surrey mess, Jimmy Langley, a Coldstream Guards subaltern, admits that he half-expected a couple of armed Germans to burst through the door. And for a very few Britons, the action did begin straight away. Winifred Pax-Walker was an eighteen-year-old Londoner who hoped to become a movie actress. She was travelling to Montreal with her mother on the Anchor-Donaldson ocean liner Athenia.

That evening, as the ship was sailing two hundred miles west of Ireland, a note was posted announcing that war had been declared. At dinner, an authoritative-sounding man, who had been gassed in the last war, told Winifred and her mother that Athenia would be safe from attack. The Germans, he said, would not attack until the ship was returning from North America packed full of armaments. Travelling away from Britain, they had nothing to worry about. Just as the man finished speaking, the first of two German torpedoes struck Athenia.

Hitler had given orders that no passenger ships were to be attacked; but it seems that the commander of U-30, a German submarine, mistook Athenia for an armed merchant cruiser, zigzagging as she was with all lights blacked out. Fearful of the consequences for a peace settlement, German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly denied any German responsibility.

Winifred and her mother had been hoping to escape the war. And yet it had found them within hours. As Athenia began sinking, stern first, their lifeboat failed to lower properly, and nobody could find the plug for its bung-hole. These problems resolved, passengers started to descend two at a time, causing the lifeboat’s ladder to break. Seamen had to fish people out of the water with boat-hooks. Winifred’s mother was picked up off the ship’s deck by a sailor and thrown into the boat. Winifred made her own way down.

In the dark, the lifeboat encountered a Norwegian freighter, Knut Nelson, and the passengers were brought on board. As they sailed towards Galway in Ireland, the freighter’s captain told Winifred, ‘You British! You’re always at war! Be like Norway! Keep out of all these things!’ A little later, as the freight’s tender approached Galway harbour, Winifred overheard two middle-aged English ladies chatting away as though at a Women’s Institute meeting. ‘Of course, my dear,’ said one, ‘you have to pour the pink icing over the cake …’

One hundred and twelve of Athenia’s passengers were killed in the attack. In its aftermath, a few ocean liners continued to cross the Atlantic. On board the Cunard liner Aquitania, it was said that American passengers nervously prayed for the crossing to end peacefully – while British passengers sat in the Palladium Lounge determinedly discussing the weather.

By 27 September, 152,031 British soldiers (and 60,000 tons of frozen meat) had safely reached France. John Williams was surprised to see so many bright lights in French towns, utterly different from blackout conditions in England. ‘All these bars and brothels with lights on!’ he remembers. William Harding was touched by the warm welcome the Royal Artillery received. Marching through the streets of Cherbourg, the soldiers were showered with flowers by people leaning so far out of windows they seemed about to fall.

And once they had reached their destination, east of Lille on the French side of the border with Belgium, the men started to dig in, and to consolidate houses and pillboxes. They behaved as though they were settling down – even though they were not intending to remain. Once the anticipated German attack began, they were to move seventy-five miles east to take up new positions on the River Dyle in Belgium. There were a number of reasons for this; the French wanted to keep the fighting away from their industrial areas, the British did not want the Germans to establish airfields within striking distance of southern England, and both nations wanted Belgium as a partner. But because Belgium professed neutrality, the French and British were not permitted to enter Belgian territory until the start of the attack, and so, for the time being, they built entirely pointless defences.

For Winston Churchill, Belgium’s position was a source of frustration. In January 1940, he compared neutrality in the face of a sabre-rattling Germany with feeding a crocodile. Each neutral country was hoping that feeding the crocodile enough would ensure its being eaten last. Still, it is hard not to sympathise with Belgium; had she gone to war, the Germans would have used that as a pretext to invade. As Oliver Harvey, British minister in Paris, observed in January 1940, ‘Germany will invade Belgium if it suits, whatever Belgium does.’

And so British troops built their meaningless Gort line. The winter trenches were so wet, and the water table so high, that infantrymen ended up digging breastworks practically naked from the waist down, with canvas wrapped around their feet. Richard Annand, a Durham Light Infantry officer, found that if he joined in with the digging, his men responded and worked harder. His brigadier quickly ordered him out of the trench. His job, he was told, was to supervise his men – not to become one of them. By blurring the lines, he was queering the pitch for members of his class. Nevertheless, Annand returned to the trench and continued to muck in. Eventually the brigadier reappeared, murmuring angrily to the colonel, ‘I notice you have some well-spoken private soldiers in your battalion.’

The winter of 1939 was particularly cold, and soldiers’ living conditions were poor. Finding their barn overrun by rats, men of the Royal Corps of Signals built raised beds out of materials they had to hand – wood and telephone cables. Colin Ashford remembers washing and shaving in a freezing algae-filled pond as cattle drank from it. Percy Beaton of the Royal Engineers had to clean up a billet that French soldiers had been using. ‘There was excreta all over the place,’ he says. ‘The French had obviously wiped their backsides with their hands and wiped it down the wall.’

And once British soldiers started to wear battledress, replacing the more formal service dress worn previously, their overall discipline declined. Battledress had no buttons to shine, and although boots still needed polishing, and cotton webbing still required blanco, soldiers were no longer, says John Williams, ‘the smart, button shining people we’d been the month before’.

For some it was difficult even to look presentable. ‘My battledress was very dodgy,’ says Royal Engineer Fred Carter. In the quartermaster’s stores he had been issued with a uniform several sizes too big, and he tried to make all the necessary alterations himself. He was, unfortunately, not much of a tailor.

Battledress consisted of a greenish-brown jacket and trousers in wool serge, worn by officers and men alike (although officers wore it open-necked with a tie). At this early stage of the war, it bore very few distinguishing marks or insignia. Officially, the only insignia allowed were slip-on titles on the shoulder (with a regiment’s name in black letters on khaki cloth), a plain fabric rank badge, and a plain fabric trade badge. Reflecting their elite status, Guards regiments were allowed to wear coloured shoulder titles. Helmets, meanwhile, could be worn with or without hessian camouflage covers.

Such standardisation of uniform was intended to offer as few clues as possible to a curious enemy. (The only evidence of personal identity were the green and red identity tags worn round the neck, bearing the soldier’s name, number and religion.) This being the army, however, the rules were quickly tested. Some regiments continued to wear old-style metal shoulder titles, others wore coloured shoulder titles, and others still wore sleeve ‘flashes’ in different patterns and colours. So while the majority of British soldiers at Dunkirk would have looked uniformly spartan (particularly when wearing the plain, heavy greatcoat), there would have been plenty of exceptions.

One exception was the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the only British Expeditionary Force regiment to wear the kilt in France – despite being officially forbidden to do so. The tartan was known as Cameron of Erracht, although it would often have been obscured by ‘kilt aprons’. These were plain kilt covers, tied round the waist. With their prominent frontal pouches, they gave the wearer the air of a khaki kangaroo.

Army food was rarely savoured. There was no Army Catering Corps until 1941, and according to George Wagner, the thickest bloke was usually picked to do the cooking. Wagner’s company cook, known as ‘Mad Jack’, was known for his indigestible curry. ‘Anybody who volunteered could become a cook,’ says Norman Prior of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who has memories of the unenthusiastic volunteers dolloping out lumps of Maconochies stew – that unloved, tinned staple of the last war.

An alternative existed. British soldiers, raised on plain diets, were now in a country where food was savoured and celebrated, and where unusual animals were eaten with rich sauces. But, according to James Lansdale Hodson, the British were mostly unwilling to try anything new: ‘Some … who have the opportunity of having a lunch such as soup, sardines, veal and coffee, much prefer egg and chips. They don’t like omelettes much … It’s fried eggs the soldiers want, not scrambled eggs.’

Scottish NCO Alexander Frederick paid five francs each evening for the same meal – a plate of egg and chips, a bowl of café au lait and a chunk of bread. Spending most of his spare time in a Normandy café run by a widow, John Williams had only one complaint: she could not fry an egg. ‘So I went into the kitchen one day and asked whether I could show her.’

Not everybody conformed to the stereotype. Colin Ashford enjoyed trying new foods in Lille; the local cakes, he says, were far better than anything he ate at home. And he tried horsemeat and chips. ‘It was all right …’

There were unfamiliar drinks on offer too. Estaminets were cafés serving alcohol where some men learned to drink wine and lager, while others settled for their usual dark beer. It was almost effeminate to drink light ale or lager, remembers John Williams. ‘Nowadays, I see Marks and Spencer full of wines and it makes me laugh when I think of the days when wine was something rather strange that the French liked.’

And while Williams claims that British soldiers never caused any trouble, sometimes, of course, they did. In December 1939, a twenty-three-year-old military policeman, Lance Corporal Rowson Goulding, was charged with murder following a fight in an estaminet. A study of the court-martial transcript reveals some undisputed facts. Goulding and four colleagues were drinking together in the Café de la Mairie in Drocourt when they became involved in a brawl with locals. Chairs and bottles were thrown, and minutes later shots were fired in the street, and a local man, Fernand Bince, was killed.

French witnesses to the brawl claimed that the soldiers were very drunk. They had started pouring their own drinks, breaking glasses, and taking cigars from behind the counter. When asked to pay, said the French, the soldiers resisted and started a fight. They were all eventually thrown out of the estaminet, but not before some of the locals – including Fernand Bince – had been injured.

The soldiers, on the other hand, denied being drunk. They claimed that one of their colleagues had been injured in an unprovoked attack by a local man – which had led to the brawl. They said that they had helped to carry their injured colleague outside, and that Goulding had been particularly angry about the incident.

 

Whichever version – if either – is accurate, it seems that Goulding then hurried back to his billet and seized a revolver from a colleague before returning to the café. Bince may too have fetched a gun before also returning to the café. There were no witnesses to subsequent events – but several shots were heard, and Goulding was seen dragging Bince down the street by the ankles. Bince died shortly afterwards in a British casualty clearing station. He had been shot once in the chest.

The court martial found Goulding guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. But two letters in mitigation sit on the court file. The first was dictated by Bince’s mother and translated into English. She expresses the greatest sympathy for Goulding, and begs the authorities to show him mercy. ‘I would not have his mother weeping for her son as I do for mine.’

The second letter, from the local mayor, also urges a reprieve. In touchingly flawed English, he writes: ‘It certainly is not because a man has committed a grave fault that we shall cease to love the British Army. In taking into consideration my request, you will foster further the love and, this is why, with my respect, I would ask you to be as clement as possible for this poor Corporal.’

In the event, Goulding was reprieved. His sentence was commuted to life in prison. And these letters reveal a period when the French could forgive the British a great deal. As George Wagner says, ‘They used to look on us as though we were saviours.’

But this attitude was not universal. When subaltern Anthony Irwin offered to mend a farmer’s roof after a piece of ack-ack shell had fallen through, he was rewarded for his thoughtfulness with a hysterical tirade from the farmer’s wife. Blaming the war on the British, she threw a pewter mug at Irwin’s head.

The same officer was left in little doubt about French attitudes towards Germans. Billeted with a wine merchant and his family near Lille, one of the man’s daughters, a woman of about thirty, angrily described her experiences in the last war when two German officers had been billeted with them. Whenever the Germans were dissatisfied with their food or wine, they would grab her, force her to sit inside the washing boiler, and threaten to burn her until they received something better. She endured this treatment for two years. John Williams, meanwhile, found himself billeted with two elderly sisters who ran a post office. They too had housed a German officer during the last war, a man who would regularly get drunk and vomit on the stairs. When one of the sisters had called him a drunken pig, she had been hauled in front of the commandant and imprisoned for several weeks. Her sister, she said, had come to the jail every day and dropped bread through the bars.

Yet for all the stories of German brutality, some of the current British troops could behave atrociously – not least of all those in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. In December 1939, the British adjutant general noted that the pioneers’ behaviour was causing a deterioration in British relations with the French. The unit’s men were old (with an average age of almost fifty), they lacked discipline (they had more courts martial than any other unit in France), they were often led by second-rate officers, and they worked as untrained labourers.

Percy Beaton, a Royal Engineer who worked alongside a company of pioneers, was both protected and intimidated by them. ‘They looked on us as young and inexperienced soldiers,’ he says, ‘and they used to father us.’ But he was extremely careful not to cross them after witnessing their treatment of an unpopular sergeant who was bundled out of an estaminet and dragged face down along a cobbled street. Afterwards, says Beaton, you couldn’t recognise him. ‘Only two slits and a little bit of mouth.’

Months later, during the latter stages of the retreat, John Williams halted a pioneer company as it hurried towards the coast; it was fleeing when it should have been fighting, and he said as much to the sergeant major running at its head. Unsurprisingly, the sergeant major disagreed. ‘We’re bloody well getting out of here!’ he said.

‘You should be bloody ashamed of yourself!’ said Williams. ‘You’re a sergeant major in the British army and you’re talking about getting out in the presence of all these men?’

Several pioneers aimed their rifles at Williams; they threatened to shoot him. Shaking with fear, he raised his own rifle. ‘The first one who shoots, you won’t stop me firing this! Now which one of you wants to die?’

Slowly, the pioneers backed down, and they took part in the defence.

A while later, Williams saw the sergeant major lying on a stretcher, with half a buttock missing. ‘You said you were bloody well getting out of it, Sergeant Major?’ he said. ‘Well, I’m glad to see you are getting out of it!’

Yet for all the problems they would face in the future, a theme can be deduced from soldiers’ accounts of the phoney war: it was a kind of holiday. ‘We didn’t think there was a war on,’ says Williams.

British Expeditionary Force disciplinary records reveal very low rates of desertion throughout the period. In fact, after a warning was issued that troublemakers would be sent home to England, the behaviour of the Middlesex Regiment improved suddenly and noticeably.

For Anthony Rhodes, an officer with 253 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, an understated individual, the phoney war was ‘amusing and interesting’. But he remembers a medical officer, an older man used to working hard in civilian life, for whom the period came as a great relief. It simplified the man’s life, which now consisted mainly of ‘eating, drinking, and what he called the carnal verities’.

Jimmy Langley remembers his platoon’s delight, one Friday afternoon, on receiving their pay before the other platoons. Minutes later he was approached by his col-onel, who expressed surprise at having seen No. 3 Company on a cross-country run. Langley stayed quiet, because what the colonel had actually seen was the company – with Langley’s platoon in the lead – running to the nearest brothel. It was a race that nobody wanted to lose.

David Elliott, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, remembers Rue ABC in Lille as a narrow cobbled street with brothels lining both sides. The doorways were cut in half like barn doors, with the lower half closed. Venturing inside one such establishment, Elliott found a dance hall and bar, where girls in G-strings drank with soldiers before taking them upstairs. ‘It was a revelation to me,’ says David, ‘and to see two women together! Because even though I was nearly twenty-one, I don’t think I’d ever heard the word lesbianism …’

‘Human nature being what it is, you just couldn’t help yourself really,’ says Royal Artillery gunner William Harding. He gave ten francs to a woman at the bottom of the stairs (twice the cost of a plate of egg and chips) and found the experience disappointing. ‘The human touch wasn’t there.

‘I don’t want to sound vulgar or anything,’ Harding adds, ‘but what the girls used to do before you went in, they’d come out of a room, and with a bit of a rag, she’d open her legs and wipe herself out. And she’d throw the rag down amongst the blokes waiting to go up. And there’d be a scramble for that piece of rag.’

There were clearly good reasons for staying away from brothels. Above all, there was the danger of venereal disease. Alexander Frederick had been warned by his father and other veterans of the last war to be careful about ‘using the facilities’. But when a medical officer showed him a series of pictures of infected male genitals, his enthusiasm for the facilities seemed to vanish completely.

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