The Aged P

…just toasting and ruminating….

08 August
Comments Off on “Dunkirk” 1958 and 2017….Two Very Different Perspectives

“Dunkirk” 1958 and 2017….Two Very Different Perspectives

Having seen Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” I remembered that way back in my uni days in Leicester at the end of the 50s I had seen a film with the same title starring John Mills and Bernard Lee (actually it was made in 1958). I couldn’t recall much about it but fortunately it’s on Amazon Prime so a day or so later we watched it on Firestick.

Being nearly sixty years old, of course, some aspects of it are a tad dated. It’s in black and white, some of the scenes are obviously studio bound and the women are either cheerful cockneys or very middle class with cut glass accents. However, at 2 hrs 14 mins the director could take a broader brush approach and not only focus on the beaches (actually Camber Sands) but also set the scene by looking at the events which led up to the evacuation

The story was told through the eyes of three individuals. Bernard Lee (who later played M in the Bond films) was a cynical journalist, John Mills a resourceful army corporal and Richard Attenborough an English factory owner making a handsome living off the Army by manufacturing belt buckles.

Unlike the current film the 1958 production showed how during the period of the “phoney war” of the early months, when there was hardly any fighting most civilians felt disconnected from the war. Government and media were complacent and there was a feeling that, in Chamberlain’s fateful words “Hitler had missed the bus”. By the end of the film, as people flocked to welcome and help the soldiers successfully evacuated from Dunkirk the mood had changed. Many more in Britain felt part of the war.

The film also recognised the actions of the rearguard, those soldiers who were ordered to defend the perimeter to the last man and the last bullet in order to protect the men already on the beaches.

The first half of the film followed the civilians as they volunteered to take their small boats across to Dunkirk and John Mills leading his squad through the countryside to the beach. Thereafter the storyline was closer to the 2017 movie with some significant exceptions.

There was a small medical post in a bar by the front staffed by a handful of doctors and orderlies trying their best to cope under extreme pressure. Eventually the chief is sent orders to evacuate the walking wounded to the ships but to leave the most serious cases to await the German forces. Three volunteers are requested to stay behind with the patients and inevitably face being taken as POWs. They decide to draw lots and one of the three to draw the short straw, when asked his name straw gives a very common Jewish name. Nothing is said but the look on his face conveys a solemn message. If the film had been rooted in the First World War there would have no concern at being a Jewish POW. The 2017 production skirted such issues about the Germans… they were just a faceless “enemy” with no hint of darker forces.

In 1958 the film picked up on a moment when a simple service was held on the beach. Most soldiers of that time were not particularly religious but closeness to danger and death often makes men more conscious of their mortality and the scene showed many of the troops kneeling for the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe by 2017 the film makers felt uncomfortable with the notion of men kneeling in prayer….

We also know that on the beaches at the time there was a feeling that the Luftwaffe appeared to be having a free hand in the skies over Dunkirk without much opposition. In fact the RAF was working very hard further inland to deter enemy planes at quite considerable cost. Bur this didn’t stop many of the soldiers feeling angry that the “Brylcreem Boys” of the RAF had let them down. This was picked up in 1958 when John Mills had to step in when a RAF driver who had got them to the beach was threatened by other soldiers. By 2017 this had been airbrushed out.

But the most glaring omission in the recent movie was something picked up in the original film where, sat on the beach, John Mills describes the whole business as a mess and ask how on earth the Germans had managed to drive Britain to the very edge of defeat in such a short time. Bernard Lee blames it firmly on the “never again” reaction to the bloodshed and suffering of the ’14-’18 war. This had encouraged an ostrich like attitude to the rise of Nazi Germany. Lee said, laconically, that Germany had chosen guns before butter while British politicians and the public had chosen the other way around.

How could any film made in 2017, in the midst of the continuous hand-wringing built into the commemoration of the First World War, dare to even suggest that it was the motif of “never again” that had led to the slaughter of even more millions during WW2?

The 1958 “Dunkirk” came from another country. Almost every adult involved with the film would have been impacted by the 1940 evacuation. Many would have actually had experienced WW2 as soldiers or civilians. Even younger folk like myself would have had memories of family in uniform and stories about the Blitz. But now there is very little connection with those experiences at first hand.

Both films have their strengths and weaknesses. Both are, on balance, artistically sound. But both are also of their moment – and if you want to get closer to how people felt at the time then “Dunkirk” 1958 wins hands down.

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20 November
Comments Off on The Aged P….Blitz Baby….

The Aged P….Blitz Baby….

Morning after...

Morning after…

I was born at Lockington Hall, an 18th century country house 20 miles NW of Leicester in the early hours of Wednesday November 20th 1940. Alas this was not my family’s ancestral estate – it had been requisitioned by the Govt as a maternity home for expectant mothers from areas being bombed by the German Luftwaffe at the start of WW2……altogether 2000 of us young Brits were born there during those war years.

Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London. My South London mum was six months pregnant when the London Blitz began. My dad had been called up into the army and was away “somewhere in England” manning anti-aircraft artillery. Imagine what it must have been like having to spend every night during the last months of your pregnancy down in a cellar hearing the crash of guns and bombs up above, never knowing if the next one was coming down on your house to blast you into kingdom come. Being evacuated to a peaceful rural mansion a fortnight before your due date must have seemed like a minor miracle.

In actual fact in November 1940 the area was not too peaceful. Just a few hours before I was born the Germans launched a devastating raid on nearby Leicester.

Before November was out mum and I were despatched back to South London and further air raids. Dad was granted some leave at times but in early 1942 he was sent off to North Africa and Italy and the next time I saw him was in 1945 when he was demobbed….

Mum, Dad & me...1941

Mum, Dad & me…1941

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11 April
Comments Off on When he Entered Belsen Sgt Major Seekings Abused An SS Guard’s Human Rights By Punching Him In The Face….Good For Him!!

When he Entered Belsen Sgt Major Seekings Abused An SS Guard’s Human Rights By Punching Him In The Face….Good For Him!!

Reg Seekings 1920-1999

Reg Seekings 1920-1999

H/T for picture

John Randall is 94 but in April 1945 he was a young SAS officer operating forward reconnaissance in Germany. I challenge anyone to read his account of being the first Allied officer into Belsen without a shiver down the spine and a tear in the eye.

But there was one aspect of his story which gave me food for thought and it concerned Sgt Major Reg Seekings.

After 30 minutes alone in Belsen, Randall and his driver were joined by another SAS Jeep carrying the squadron commander, Major John Tonkin, and his squadron Sergeant-Major, Reg Seekings, an SAS veteran of North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France. ”Seekings was a very tough man,” Randall says. ”He had been with the regiment almost since it was formed and had been an army boxing champion when in the Guards.”

While the four of them were walking around the camp (along with the Camp Commandant Kramer) Reg Seekings saw an SS guard beating up a prisoner with his rifle butt

“Reg Seekings turned to John Tonkin, and asked permission to intervene and teach the guard a lesson.” This was granted without hesitation. ”So Reg went over and hit the guard in the face. He got up and was then knocked out by another punch to the head. Then Tonkin ordered Kramer and Grese into the guardroom, and said, “We are now in charge, not you, and any guard who attempts to treat a prisoner with brutality will be punished.”

Maybe it’s fortunate for Reg Seekings that he died in 1999. But even now a bunch of lawyers might still be trying to track down that SS guard or his descendants to get some compensation for the abuse of his human rights…..

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01 October
Comments Off on The Fearless Surgeon Who Won The Victoria Cross Twice – In 1902 & 1914

The Fearless Surgeon Who Won The Victoria Cross Twice – In 1902 & 1914

Victoria Cross and Bar

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry in battle for British and Commonwealth service personnel. It was introduced at the request of Queen Victoria in 1856 and it was her wish that it should be open to all ranks, not just officers. It is sparingly awarded for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy” It is usually presented to the recipient, or, in the case of a posthumous award, to a recipient’s family, by the monarch at a special ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

To be awarded the VC is a singular honour, recognition of courage above and beyond the call of duty – so to receive it twice is the mark of something extra special, so special that it has only happened three times in just over 150 years.

One such man was Arthur Martin-Leake (1874-1953) of Ware in Hertfordshire. He was a surgeon who volunteered to join the British army during the South African Wars. He was originally a trooper in the Imperial Yeomanry. After his year service was completed he stayed on in South Africa as a civil surgeon. A few months later he volunteered again, this time as a surgeon captain in the South African Constabulary attached to the 5th Field Ambulance.

He won his first VC during an action at Vlakfontein, on the 8th February, 1902. Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake went up to a wounded man, and attended to him under a heavy fire from about 40 Boers at 100 yards range. He then went to the assistance of a wounded Officer, and, whilst trying to place him in a comfortable position, was shot three times, but would not give in till he rolled over thoroughly exhausted. All the eight men at this point were wounded, and while they were lying on the Veldt, Surgeon-Captain Martin-Leake refused water till every one else had been served.

In 1903 he left the army to work as a medical officer with a railway company in India but in 1912 he volunteered for the British Red Cross in Montenegro during the Balkan War and was awarded a medal by the Red Cross of Montenegro for his efforts. He returned to India but in 1914 he volunteered once more for the British Army, this time with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Belgium.

Within a few weeks he won a bar to his original VC for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty throughout the campaign, especially during the period 29th October to 8th November, 1914, near Zonnebeke, in rescuing, whilst exposed to constant fire, a large number of the wounded who were lying close to the enemy’s trenches.

Later in the war he commanded a Field Ambulance unit and then a Casualty Clearing Station where he was once again commended for his conduct during action.

After the war he returned to his job in India until 1937 when he retired to his home in Hertfordshire but at the outbreak of WW2 he commanded a local ARP unit which was charged with organising safety and security during air raids.

He died in 1953 of lung cancer and his ashes are buried at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, High Cross, Near Ware, Hertfordshire.

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11 November
Comments Off on On November 11th Remember The Price….

On November 11th Remember The Price….

Today is Armistice Day in the UK…

Millions of people across the UK have observed a two-minute silence to mark Armistice Day.
Starting at 11:00 GMT, the event mirrors the time guns along the western front fell silent for a final time at the end of World War I in 1918.
The ceremony also remembers those who died in two world wars and later conflicts, including 385 UK personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

Remembering those who have paid the price for our freedom…

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