Wednesday, August 9, 2017

World War Wednesdays: Dunkirk in Memory and Onscreen

Troops wait in line for their turn to be rescued from the beach of Dunkirk
     This summer's blockbuster film, Dunkirk, has taken the world by storm, including the historical community. In the past few weeks we've seen numerous articles and stories emerge, and it's been interesting both to read how the memory of that important moment in history is being remembered and how we reflect on it in the present day. This week, I've decided to compile some of my favorites from the news, and I hope they complement what you've seen and heard of the film!

     One of the most widely-shared ones concerns the story of real-life Dunkirk hero James Campbell Clouston, a Canadian who grew up in Montreal and attended McGill University. Credited with saving close to 200,000 soldiers as German planes bombed the pier, he calmly ushered troops onto ships for five straight days. University of Ottawa professor Serge Durflinger reflects: "He's one of those great unsung Canadians who, in a pivotal moment in time, does extraordinary things, dies, and then goes completely forgotten."

     After the release of the film this year, Clouston's son protested its lack of recognition of his father, saying that Kenneth Branagh's character should have had a Canadian accent and that his father warranted at least a mention in the credits. His efforts are being joined by other fellow Canadians who are lobbying Canada Post to issue a commemorative stamp, and for official government recognition of Clouston's role in the evacuation. War historian Jeffrey Street is also working on a book about Clouston.
Ottawa resident Michael Zavacky has designed this image as a proposed stamp commemorating Clouston.
     The National Post article summarizes Clouston's life and legacy: "Clouston grew up in Pointe-Claire across the street from the yacht club, an avid hockey player who attended Selwyn House and Lower Canada College before enrolling in engineering at McGill University. At the age of 17, he enlisted to join Britain's Royal Navy in 1917, hoping to serve in the First World War. He spent the next 23 years with the navy, rising to the rank of commander. In the last week of May 1940, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force and their French and British allies, 338,000 men, found themselves encircled by the German army, trapped at Dunkirk in northern France. Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorized Operation Dynamo to rescue them. Early estimates predicted only 50,000 men would be saved from death or capture. Clouston was among eight men chosen to oversee the evacuation. He was given the responsibility for a ramshackle pier extending one kilometer out into the English Channel on which only four men could stand abreast, which would prove pivotal to the evacuation. He arrived to find hundreds of thousands of hungry, exhausted troops and  only 50 men an hour being evacuated. Through organizational brilliance and force of will, Clouston was able to increase the rate to 2,000 an hour, shuttling the men along the 10-foot wide pier, mainly to naval vessel destroyers that would bring them across the channel to safety in Britain."

     Serge Durflinger elaborates: "Like clockwork, he would have 500 guys aboard in 45 minutes, and the vessel would take off. He had six to seven vessels lined up doing this all at the same time."
     The article continues: "Veterans interviewed for the CBC documentary remembered him as a beacon of calm amid the terror, as German planes targeted the troops. 'He was like a policeman... on a busy intersection, just guiding people,' recalled one. 'And all the time the Stuka bombers were going over and scaring everybody to death and then they would give you a couple bursts of gunfire, but he just never moved, he just stood there, and he was jollying everyone along...'"

     "After five straight days on the pier, Clouston went to England for a planning meeting. He could have stayed, but chose to return because close to 100,000 troops remained, and Clouston spoke French because of his Montreal upbringing. His 15-person motor launch was bombed on the way back, and he opted to stay with his crew instead of taking an early offer to be saved. He died along with 12 other crewmen of hypothermia, telling 'white lies' to the end to keep up spirits, one survivor recounted. He left a wife and two infant sons."

CTV News Montreal
     Dunkirk was also a personal story for Montreal sisters Renee Reich, 98, and Allie Kropveld, 94, but one that they decided to keep to themselves for 77 years. They revealed their experiences at a recent family dinner, when the table discussion turned to Nolan's film. The conversation brought back memories the two had pushed aside for decades, and they revealed to their children that they had lived through the events.

     According to the article, "Renee and Annie say they had been living with their parents in Antwerp, Belgium in the spring of 1940 when German forces invaded. Renee was 21 at the time; Annie was 17. Within days, the family decided to flee to Paris, but became trapped just across the French-Belgian in a town they'd never heard of before: Dunkirk. They spent the night in a small hotel, where Renee and Annie remember being so tired from the journey, they didn't hear a thing when German planes began bombarding the town. 'We woke up the next day and there was no roof on the hotel,' Renee told CTV Montreal. As the fighting between the Allies and German forces intensified, the locals of the town directed Renee and Annie's family to the beach where they had heard that French, English, and Belgian soldiers were being evacuated on ships that might be able to take along some civilians too.

     But, by the time the family reached the beach, the ships were already steaming away for England. As the family stood on the beach, watching the ships leave, they found themselves in serious danger. German forces were still raining bombs and bullets down onto the beach, and Renee and Annie and their parents were trapped in a 'No Man's Land.' They took cover on the sand dunes, as bullets flew over their heads. 'You think about yourself, not others. It's not nice, but you think at the moment, 'How can I survive?' Annie said. The four eventually escaped the fighting and the beach with the help of two British soldiers who came to the aid of the exhausted family. When the battle ended, Germany had seized control of France. So the family decided they had nowhere to go but back to Antwerp, Belgium. The journey had to be made on foot and took a full three weeks. The family managed to survive the rest of the war, thanks in large part to the French resistance. The sisters moved on with their lives and had families of their own. But they say the release of the film brought back memories of what they'd seen on the beach in those days."

     Finally, to give your eyes a break, I highly recommend checking out this interview with Dunkirk veteran Ken Sturdy, who saw the film recently:

     Content credits to National Post, CTV News Montreal, and Global News. If you haven't seen the film yet, please do, and let's keep the conversation going!
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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