Monday, 24 July 2017

My thoughts on Dunkirk

As regular readers will know by now, this blog isn't usually in the business of film reviews, so please don't expect a Mark Kermode or Barry Norman style appraisal. As readers will know, I belong to the generation brought up on the classic British war films of the 1950s and 60s and have an in-built suspicion of anything made later than about 1977. In my opinion at least, many of the more recent films of the genre are pretty ordinary and I struggle to take them seriously. It's difficult for me as a military historian and guide to watch these films without forever nit-picking about the accuracy, or lack thereof concerning the uniforms, the equipment, the aircraft, the ships and so forth, at which point my long suffering friends who have been dragged along to watch the film, usually begin to lose the will to live!

However, the new Dunkirk directed by Christopher Nolan is an important work that has attracted much attention and it was because of this that I decided to go along and watch it for myself at the cinema with (hopefully) an open mind.

I still had a fair amount of trepidation and maybe even some misgivings as I entered the Barbican Centre yesterday and perhaps this was because subconsciously, I was allowing comparisons with the 1958 Ealing Studios version of Dunkirk, which starred Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee and John Mills to prejudice my thinking and was wondering whether the new film would measure up to this British classic.

Firstly - and this doesn't give away any spoilers - the new Dunkirk cannot be compared to the 1958 film as they look at the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in completely differing ways. The old film tells the story of the whole campaign and covers the fighting withdrawal through Belgium and northern France to the coast and the subsequent evacuation, as well as telling us something of the mood in Britain, of the complacency of the 'Phoney War' period and how people were shaken out of that complacency with a jolt. By contrast, Nolan's work establishes where the British and French allies are inside the opening shots of the film. They have already been defeated and pushed back inside the Dunkirk perimeter, where the armies await evacuation back to England.

The new film contains very little dialogue and is a series of three separate threads that gradually become interlinked. Firstly we follow the stories of two British soldiers, Tommy and Alex played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles (who can act and does so very well) and their various attempts to get home. Next we see the evacuation through the eyes of a small boat owner, Mr Dawson who is assisted by his son Peter and a deck hand, George. Mr Dawson is a plausible character played with great authority by Mark Rylance as are his two young helpers played by Tom Glynne-Carney and Barry Keoghan. The last of the three stories shows the evacuation through the eyes of Farrier and Collins,  two Spitfire pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden respectively. In a nice nod to British war films of an earlier era, we hear the voice of Michael Caine as the RAF Fighter Controller coming over the radios of the Spitfires. As would be expected, the Royal Navy features strongly in this film and one of the major supporting characters is Commander Bolton, played by the excellent Kenneth Branagh, who is the Naval Beachmaster in command of the evacuation through the East Mole (a breakwater) in Dunkirk Harbour.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the film follows the attempts of the two soldiers to get away as various ships they are on board are sunk by bombs, torpedo and gunfire in some harrowing and suspenseful scenes before they are eventually rescued by Mr Dawson and his small boat, the Moonstone. On their way to Dunkirk, Mr Dawson and his son rescue a soldier played by Cillian Murphy, who appears to be the only survivor of a destroyer that has been sunk and who is not surprisingly, suffering from severe shock. He at first unwillingly, becomes part of their crew and we see how the Moonstone is first on the scene when one of the Spitfires is shot down and ditches in the sea adjacent to the small boat. Collins the pilot, is rescued just before the aircraft sinks with him inside it and he too ends up helping the others with the evacuation. The Moonstone, along with the remainder of the armada of small boats eventually reach Dunkirk harbour, where they assist in rescuing Tommy and Alex from their sinking minesweeper, as well as the remaining small craft lifting men from the beaches and from the Mole.

There is much more to the plot than this but I do not want to spoil the film for those wishing to see it for themselves. There are, in my opinion, one or two slight holes in the plot and there are some minor criticisms as to the equipment and the look of some of the scenes. For example, we never see more than one large ship alongside the East Mole at any one time and we know that in reality, the breakwater was used extensively by multiple numbers of destroyers, minesweepers and requistioned ferries. This can probably be explained by budgetary restraints and the director's aversion to using CGI in his films, so this criticism can be tempered by Nolan's quest for realistic looking scenes. Another small gripe is that the beaches never quite looked crowded enough for me, although this can probably be answered in a similar way - you can only have so many extras and the days of a "cast of thousands" are probably long gone. Some of the equipment is not quite right but it is not possible to find an authentic 1940 vintage destroyer or minesweeper without resorting to CGI - the vessels used do by and large, have the right look to them. Also, in one scene, we see container cranes in the background when we are supposed to be in 1940, some thirty years or so before the invention of the shipping container - could these not have been airbrushed out of the picture?

We also see the three Spitfires buzzing across the Channel at wavetop height - this is absurd, as for them to enter into any sort of air combat with the Luftwaffe, they would need to be at height in order to have any sort of advantage with the Bf109s that they were likely to encounter. This was the main reason for the perception amongst the soldiers of the BEF that the RAF were not there to protect them. Of coure, the RAF were there but much of their combat with the Luftwaffe took place at high altitude or inland from the beaches. The Spitfires in the film also seem to have an unlimited supply of ammunition for their machine guns, when in reality the Mark 1 only had enough for fourteen seconds firing. There is also too much emphasis placed on the role played by the 'Little Ships', which in reality were only responsible for lifting between five and seven percent of the total number of 338,226 British and French soldiers evacuated, although they did perform vital work in ferrying men off the beaches. The vast majority of those evacuated were lifted from the Mole at night by the Royal Navy destroyers and minesweepers, as well as the requisitioned ferries and excursion steamers of the Merchant Navy and in this respect, the film does perpetuate the myth of the Little Ships of Dunkirk. My only other very slight criticism is not specifically aimed at this film but is a more general complaint in that it is extremely loud. I know war is loud but whenever I see any film in the cinema these days, the volume in the theatre does always seem to be set at level eleven but perhaps this is more to do with the vagaries of my ears rather than anything else!

However, the above are minor criticisms in the scheme of things and there are a whole lot more positives than negatives about this film. Much of the location filming was shot in and around Dunkirk and that counts for much with me, at least. The three Spitfires we see are all Mark 1s, absolutely authentic for the period. Amongst the ships used for the film, we see MTB 102, which in reality was one of the final vessels to leave Dunkirk in June 1940 and some twelve of the surviving 'Little Ships' were also used in various scenes to recreate the evacuation.

The film is also extremely respectful to the period as well as to the people of this time and succeeds in capturing something of the real spirit of 1940. Also, although there are some understandably harrowing scenes of battle and of ships sinking - it would be impossible to make a film of this nature without showing people getting killed - it is done in a restrained way. There is no gratuitious blood and gore in the way that some recent war films seem to delight in. 

In one important respect, this film does resemble the 1958 version of Dunkirk, as well as many other British war films of the period, in that it is extremely understated and almost modest in the portrayal of events that helped shape history and director Christopher Nolan together with his cast and crew are to be congratulated on having achieved this, especially as this is an American production that covers events from a British perspective during a period that was long before America entered the war.

As has to be the case with any film portraying real life events, much of the action is compressed and many of the characters are amalgams of several real people. For example, Branagh's character, Commander Bolton appears to be a mix of Captain Bill Tennant, the Senior Naval Officer at Dunkirk and of Commander James Campbell Clouston, a Canadian officer in command of the East Mole, who was drowned when his motor launch was bombed and sunk whilst returning to Dunkirk from Dover after a short rest period. Mark Rylance's character, Mr Dawson seems to be at least in part based upon Charles Herbert Lightoller, one time Second Officer of the Titanic, who survived that particular disaster and who in retirement, took his yacht named Sundowner, across to Dunkirk with his son as a deck hand and rescued the implausibly large number of 130 soldiers, squeezed into the cabin and on deck. On arrival back at Ramsgate, the men filed out in a seemingly never ending stream, at which point a bystander suddenly said to Lightoller "God's truth mate, where did you put them all?" a line that is repeated in the film. Some of the exploits of the Spitfire pilot played by Tom Hardy appear to be at least in part based on Al Deere, the New Zealander who became a Battle of Britain 'ace' and who also took part in fierce air combat over Dunkirk.

There was one scene towards the end of the film that even had this cynical old military historian slightly moist eyed. As they disembark from the Moonstone at Dover, one of the young soldiers we have been following and who is by now caked in oil and dirt says to an elderly man who is handing out blankets "I'm not a hero, all I've done is survive." The old man, who we assume is himself a veteran of the previous conflict replies "Well, that's good enough - well done!"

If you haven't yet seen this film, I urge you to do so as I feel it is a respectful and moving tribute to all of those who took part in the real life evacuations some seventy seven years ago.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Wrens and The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

A familiar view (author's photo)

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, I'm a Southeast Londoner, born in Greenwich and continue to be a proud resident of the Royal Borough of Greenwich as we are now honoured to be called.

Centrepiece of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, built between 1696 and 1712 and originally designed to serve as the Greenwich Hospital, a home for retired and disabled sailors, in which role the magnificent buildings served until 1869. It was established as The Royal Naval College in 1873 and was designed to act as a centre for further education of officers - indeed it was described as "The University of The Navy" and over the years became an established part of officer training within the Senior Service. In October 1939, it gained a new function when the training of officers of the Womens Royal Naval Service, the WRNS or Wrens as they were affectionately known, began to be undertaken here.

The WRNS had originally been established in 1917 during the First World War and having been established solely as a wartime expedient, was disbanded in 1919. The coming of a new conflict in 1939 saw the WRNS re-born with a greatly expanded list of duties on offer for new recruits, which included piloting aircraft on ferry duties, acting as mechanics for a vast range of equipment and serving aboard small boats such as harbour launches. In their new incarnation, the Wrens made an invaluable contribution to the running of the Royal Navy.

They were again perhaps seen as a temporary expedient for wartime and one of their wartime recruiting posters which proclaimed "Join the Wrens - and Free a Man for the Fleet" tended to support this feeling. This time however, the sterling work done by the Wrens during wartime, ensured that they had a role to play in the peacetime Navy and the training of new officers continued at Greenwich until 1976. Over the years, the WRNS gradually became more and more integrated within the main service. The first Wrens served at sea from October 1990 in HMS Brilliant and in 1993, achieved complete integration with the Royal Navy when the WRNS was abolished as a separate service. 

Join The Wrens (author's collection)

Sadly, since the war, a succession of governments have suffered from "sea blindness" and have taken any possible opportunity to slash the defence budget, especially that of the Royal Navy and one of the consequences of this was the closure of the Royal Naval College as a service establishment in 1998. Fortunately, the buildings continue to serve in an educational function, today being home to the University of Greenwich as well as the Trinity Laban College of Music.

To mark the centenary of the establishment of the WRNS and acknowledging the important role played by the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, a special exhibition - WRNS Untold Stories: The Women's Royal Naval Service at Greenwich - is being held at The Visitor Centre until 5 December 2017 and I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to this fascinating exhibition last week.

The exhibition tells the story through a mixture of film, still photography and oral histories of how the Wrens overcame initial skepticism and sometimes downright hostility in a predominantly male environment, to win the respect and affection of their colleagues. During the First World War, they were given menial tasks such as serving as cooks, drivers and telephonists, thus releasing men to serve with the fleet but as mentioned previously, during the WRNS' second incarnation, in the Second World War, the roles given to the Wrens were far more varied and responsible.

W/T Operator (author's image from the exhibition)

Torpedo Wren (author's image from the exhibition)

To emphasise this growth in the range of roles available, the exhibition is illustrated by some delightful drawings showing some of the new roles given to the young Wrens, which must have seemed completely alien to the vast majority of the new recruits. We also see some newsreel footage of the time shot at Greenwich showing the Wrens in some of their more traditional roles, such as cooking and being taught how to cater for large numbers of hungry sailors. Other new responsibilities for the Wrens included jobs such as Radio Operators, Meterologists, Cypher Officers and Boat Crews.

Sadly, as with all service personnel in wartime, there were casualties and the worst incident came when the ss Aguila bound for Gibraltar, was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of twenty one Wrens who were heading for their first overseas posting as Cypher Officers. The author Nicholas Monsarrat, aluded to this tragedy when he included a similar incident in his masterful novel on the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea.

The wartime training at Greenwich had to contend with the Blitz and the building attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe on several occasions. Perhaps the most notable incident came on 20 January 1943 during one of the so-called Tip and Run raids following the main Night Blitz of 1940-41, when the Admiral's House in King Charles Court was bombed with the loss of life of a Royal Navy Officer, Commander Alexander Reginald Chalmer. This was a day when for some unaccountable reason, the capital's balloon barrage was not deployed and the FW190 fighter-bombers used on the raid were also able to bomb Sandhurst Road School in Catford at low level, killing thirty eight children and six staff. The attackers also machine-gunned the streets of Greenwich and Charlton, with one eye-witness claiming that he could "see the pilot grinning as he gunned up the tram yard."

The Admiral's House after the bombing on 20 January 1943 (author's collection)

In 1949 with the war over, it was decided that the WRNS would continue as a part of the peacetime Royal Navy and the exhibition continues to tell the stories of the peacetime training that took place at the Royal Naval College right up until 1976, when the training of Wren officers was transferred to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

A group of Wrens being shown around the Painted Hall in 1961 (author's collection)

In closing, I feel it appropriate to include below, the following piece which was written by Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS in 1945 about her experiences in joining the Wrens during the winter of 1940/41. The experiences Nancy Spain refers to are relevent to the exhibition and as I was born and grew up within a stone's throw of the Royal Naval College, I make no apologies for repeating it verbatim below, with acknowledgements of course.

"The lorry stopped inside a courtyard, I think, where dusk was already falling and I saw nothing but a dark hall and cold grey stones and a strip of carpet and the superintendent of the OTC reading out names from a list held in the left hand.

This moment was not altogether a shock to me. The superintendent had once taught me history at school when I was eleven years old and I was prepared for her to be there, as she was for me.

She nodded at me as she called my name and I knew that the years had not impaired her perception, nor the war her kindliness, nor circumstances her friendly interest in human nature. Just the same, I felt she knew there was a hole in my stocking. But the moments that followed. They were like a blow between my eyes.

Like many people in England, many Wrens indeed, I was still unaware of much of the inheritance that Nelson, Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and the rest, fought for and held for us serenely and splendidly over five centuries."

Second Officer Nancy Spain WRNS

"Until the moment that I walked out into the January dusk and saw the white Palladian colonnades and domes of which Samuel Pepys wrote "The King (Charles II) is mightily pleased with his new building", I was almost unaware of Greenwich.

But that evening, rising from the snow, like a conception of God rather than of man, all English history spread itself before my eyes.

The history of England, of which Nelson is a part and which I, and so many others like me, had taken for granted. And I knew that I too, should in future feel a sense of responsibility.

So, with Pepys, to dinner.

A joy, the selection of a table napkin from the pigeon-holed erection under the blind, marble stare of Nelson and St Vincent....and then....the Painted Hall, for which no contemporary eulogy, nor nineteenth century engraving, had wholly prepared me.

How could I know what I ate, under the lovely, silly paintings of Sir James Thornhill, from the perfect copies of Queen Anne tables, carved from the timbers of ships that had fought at Trafalgar, that had sailed against the enemies of England. The lights blazing from a thousand points in silver candlesticks, again 'after' Queen Anne, seemed limelight as much as illumination. The echoing floor, the lofty grandeur of the high tables under rarer, sillier paintings recalled the cold to me.

It certainly was cold.

And what was that?

We had to sleep in the air raid shelter?


And sure enough, through the Painted Hall there echoed the sound of the guns from Woolwich. England's enemies, at it again.

The Blitz punctuated the whole of that fortnight. It held up our trains, it disturbed our sleep, it smashed the buildings around us, it sent us to bed at 2200 hours like a lot of gloomy, eiderdown-trailing sheep, but it did one good thing, for me at any rate. It made me appreciate still more the beauty and power of those buildings which mere Luftwaffes could not damage."

The exhibition encourages visits from past members of the WRNS and features a 'Memory Board' at which former Wrens who trained at Greenwich are asked to share their reminiscences and experiences.

The exhibition, to which entry is free and which runs until 5 December 2017, is well worth an hour of anyone's time and I would thoroughly recommend a visit either as part of a wider day spent in Greenwich, or as a stand alone visit.

Internet Sources:

WRNS Untold Stories website 

Printed Sources:

Red Alert - Lewis Blake, self-published, 1982
Thank You, Nelson - Nancy Spain, Hutchinson 1945