Dunkirk on Monday, May 20, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

German armored columns, led by General Guderian (a tank expert), severed all communication between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the north and the main French army in the south. He also cut off the BEF from its supplies in the west. The Germans now faced the sea, England in sight.

  • German Army Group A, with 38 infantry and 7 armored divisions, was the main column under the command of Gerd von Rundstedt. This group was to march through the Ardennes.
  • German Army Group B, with 26 infantry and 3 armored divisions, was to invade the Low Countries under the command of Fedor von Bock. Though strong, this force was considered diversionary.
  • German Army Group C, with 19 infantry divisions, attacked the Maginot Line under the direction of Wilhelm von Leeb to pin down the French forces there.
  • After the disaterous Battle of France, French General Gamelin was replaced by General Maxime Weygand.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, British Army Chief Edmund Ironside confronts BEF Commander Gort on strategy:

Army Chief Ironside arrived at BEF Commander Gort’s Command Post at 6am. With the War Cabinet’s order backing him up, he told Gort that his only chance was to turn the army around and head south for Amiens [instead of north to Dunkirk]. If Gort agreed, he’d issue the necessary orders at once.

But Gort didn’t agree. For some moments, he silently pondered the matter, then explained that the BEF was too tightly locked in combat with the Germans to the east. It simply couldn’t turn around and go the other way. If he tried, the enemy would immediately pounce on his rear and tear him to bits.

Then, asked Ironside, would Gort at least spare his two reserve divisions for a push south which might link up with a French force pushing north? Gort thought this might be possible, but first they must coordinate the effort with General Billotte, the overall [Allied/French] commander for the area.

Taking Pownall [Gort Chief of Staff] in tow, Ironside now rushed down to French headquarters at Lens. He found Billotte with General Blanchard of the French First Army—both in a state of near collapse. Trembling and shouting at each other, neither had any plans at all. It was too much for the volcanic Ironside. Seizing Billotte by the buttons on his tunic, he literally tried to shake some spirit into the man.

Ultimately it was agreed that some French light mechanized units would join Gort’s two reserve divisions in an attack tomorrow south of Arras. They would then meet up with other French forces pushing north. A command change at the very highest level should help: the placid Gamelin had finally been replaced by General Maxime Weygand. He was 73, but said to be full of fire and spirit.

Ironside now returned to London, convinced that once the two forces joined, the way would finally be opened for the BEF to turn around and head south—still his pet solution for everything. Gort remained unconvinced, but he was a good soldier and would try.

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Dunkirk on Sunday, May 19, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

The situation in France was unravelling fast. The Germans had now secured their breakthrough in the gap they had forced north of the Maginot Line. The great bulk of the French Army was still confined to these great fortresses and there was neither the means, nor seemingly the will, to bring them into the battle. A plan was drawn up to cut off the German Panzer thrust by the French driving north and the British driving south at the base of the German advance. It was the logical thing to do but it never materialised.

The British Cabinet was now informed that the British Army might have to be evacuated from the north French coast in order to save them – it was just over a week since they had gone forward into Belgium so confidently.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, BEF Commander Gort’s moment of truth, follow clearly mistaken orders or begin plotting an alternate course:

[The morning following General Billotte’s meeting at Gort’s Command Post], Gort’s senior officers met to begin planning the retreat. It turned out that the Deputy Chief of Staff, Brigadier Leese, had already been doing some thinking; he had roughed out a scheme for the entire BEF to form a hollow square and move en masse to Dunkirk, the nearest French port.

At 11:30 [Gort] Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General H. R. Pownall, telephoned the War Office in London and broke the news to the Director of Military Operations and Plans, Major-General R. H. Dewing. If the French could not stabilize the front south of the BEF, Pownall warned, Gort had decided to pull back toward Dunkirk.

In London it was a serenely beautiful Sunday, and the elegant Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, was about to join Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax for a quiet lunch, when he received an urgent call to see General Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Ironside, a hulking, heavy-footed man (inevitably nicknamed “Tiny”), was appalled by Gort’s proposed move to Dunkirk. It would be a trap, he declared.

Decorated WWI veterans, Commanders Gort and Ironside

Ironside’s consternation was evident when at 1:15 p.m. a new call came in from Pownall. Dewing, again on the London end of the line, suggested that Gort was too gloomy, that the French might not be as badly off as he feared. In any case, why not head for Boulogne or Calais, where air cover would be better, instead of Dunkirk? “It’s a case of the hare and the tortoise,” Pownall answered dryly, “and a very simple calculation will show that the hare would win the race.”

Dewing now put forward Ironside’s pet solution: the BEF should turn around and fight its way south to the Somme. It was a theory that totally overlooked the fact that most of the British Army was locked in combat with the German forces to the east and couldn’t possibly disengage, but Pownall didn’t belabor the point. Instead he soothingly reassured Dewing—again and again—that the Dunkirk move was “merely a project in the mind of the C-in-C [Commander in Chief]” … that it was just an idea mentioned only to keep London informed of Headquarters’ thinking … that any decision depended on whether the French could restore their front. Since he was already on record as saying that the French were “melting away,” London was understandably not mollified.

Dewing took another tack: Did Pownall realize that evacuation through Dunkirk was impossible and that maintaining any force there was bound to be precarious? Yes, Pownall answered, he knew that, but heading south would be fatal. The conversation ended with Pownall feeling that Dewing was “singularly stupid and unhelpful,” and with the War Office convinced that Gort was about to bottle himself up.

Ironside urged that the War Cabinet be convened at once. Messages went out recalling Churchill and Chamberlain, who had each gone off for a quiet Sunday in the country, and at 4:30 p.m. the Cabinet assembled in what Churchill liked to call “the fish room” of the Admiralty—a chamber festooned with carved dolphins leaping playfully around.

Churchill agreed with Ironside completely: the only hope was to drive south and rejoin the French on the Somme. The others present fell in line. They decided that Ironside should personally go to Gort—this very night—and hand him the War Cabinet’s instructions.

At 9:00 p.m. Ironside caught a special train at Victoria Station and would be in France the following morning to meet with Commander Gort.

In his first broadcast as Prime Minister to the British people on the BBC on Trinity Sunday 1940, Winston Churchill’s speech noted the following:

… We must expect that as soon as stability is reached on the Western Front, the bulk of that hideous apparatus of aggression which gashed Holland into ruin and slavery in a few days will be turned upon us. I am sure I speak for all when I say we are ready to face it; to endure it; and to retaliate against it — to any extent that the unwritten laws of war permit. There will be many men and many women in the Island who when the ordeal comes upon them, as come it will, will feel comfort, and even a pride, that they are sharing the perils of our lads at the Front — soldiers, sailors and airmen, God bless them — and are drawing away from them a part at least of the onslaught they have to bear….

Our task is not only to win the battle – but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable….

Having received His Majesty’s commission, I have formed an Administration of men and women of every Party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all — to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. this is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain. It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield – side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history. Behind them – behind us- behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France – gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

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Dunkirk on Saturday, May 18, 1940

A summary of the WWII events of this day:

  • The German Army in Belgium captured Antwerp and entered Brussels.
  • The British and French forces in Belgium fall back to positions behind the Dendre River.
  • Twelve RAF Blenheim bombers attacked advancing German columns near Gembloux, Belgium. Eleven of the planes were shot down.
  • U.S. President Roosevelt announced plans for the recommissioning of 35 more “flush deck” destroyers to meet the requirements of fleet expansion and the Neutrality Patrol.
  • Charles Lindbergh–aviator hero and spokesman for America First Committee–accuses President Roosevelt of creating “a defense hysteria” and states, “If we desire peace, we have only to stop asking for war.”

Winston Churchill wrote the following to Roosevelt:

I do not need to tell you about the gravity of what has happened. We are determined to preserve to the very end whatever the result of the great battle raging in France may be. We must expect in any case to be attacked here on the Dutch model before very long and we hope to give a good account of ourselves. But if American assistance is to play any part it must be available.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, BEF Commander Gort’s increasingly disillusioned perspective on his French allies:

… the communications breakdown was one more item in a growing catalogue of complaints against the French. Gamelin was a forlorn cipher. General Georges seemed in a daze. General Billotte, commanding the French First Army Group, was meant to coordinate but didn’t. Gort had received no written instructions from him since the campaign began.

The French troops along the coast and to the south seemed totally demoralized. Their horse-drawn artillery and transport cluttered the roads, causing huge traffic jams and angry exchanges. More than one confrontation was settled at pistol-point. Perhaps because he had gone along with the French so loyally for so long, Gort was now doubly disillusioned.

It’s hard to say when the idea of evacuation dawned on him, but the moment may well have come around midnight, May 18. This was when General Billotte finally paid his first visit to Gort’s Command Post, currently in Wahagnies, a small French town south of Lille. Normally a big, bluff, hearty man, Billotte seemed weary and deflated as he unfolded a map showing the latest French estimate of the situation. Nine panzer divisions had been identified sweeping west toward Amiens and Abbeville—with no French units blocking their way.

Billotte talked about taking countermeasures, but it was easy to see that his heart was not in it, and he left his hosts convinced that French resistance was collapsing. Since the enemy now blocked any retreat to the west or south, it appeared that the only alternative was to head north for the English Channel.

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Dunkirk on Friday, May 17, 1940

German 4th Panzer Division in France

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk:

This same day Winston Churchill for the first time began thinking of the possibility of evacuation. No one was more offensive-minded than Churchill—nobody prodded Gort harder—but every contingency had to be faced, and his visit to Paris on the 16th was a sobering experience. Now he asked Neville Chamberlain, former Prime Minister and currently Lord President of the Privy Council, to study “the problems which would arise if it were necessary to withdraw the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] from France.”

Lord again, on the humble origins of Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk evacuation would come to be code-named:

When W. Stanley Berry reported to the London offices of Admiral Preston on the morning of May 17, he didn’t know quite what to expect. A 43-year-old government clerk, he had just been engaged as the Admiral’s assistant secretary, and this was his first day on the job.

Admiral Preston was Director of the Navy’s Small Vessels Pool, a tiny blob on the organization chart that supplied and maintained harbor craft at various naval bases. Useful, but hardly glamorous…. Berry had no reason to suppose that he faced anything more than mundane office work.

He was in for a surprise. Six sacks of mail were waiting to be opened and sorted. These were the first answers to a BBC broadcast May 14 calling on “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days. …”

Stanley Berry dived into the job of processing the mountain of replies to the BBC announcement. He and the Admiral’s Secretary, Paymaster Lieutenant Garrett, sorted them out by both type of vessel and home port. Garrett, a Newfoundlander, found himself getting a crash education in British geography.

Here is a summary of the WWII events of this day:

French 4th Armoured Division with 200 tanks including the formidable Char B (under Colonel Charles De Gaulle) attacks Guderian’s Panzer Corps at Montcornet. They take 500 prisoners but make little ground against improvised German defenses and then withdraw. German tankers are shocked by the French lack of aggression.

The dominos begin to fall in Belgium. Instead of attacking the German salient into Allied territory, British Expeditionary Force commander General Lord Gort sees the danger of encirclement in the Panzer thrust to his South and orders a retreat to the Scheldt River. This allows German 6th Army under General Reichenau to enter Brussels. Churchill, likewise worried by the panic in the French command, begins to think about saving the British Army. Churchill also considers recalling troops from Narvik.

Finally an entry from the diary of Eleanor Roosevelt on May 17, 1940:

WASHINGTON, Thursday—…. No one reading the news today can fail to realize that this is a crucial moment for the world. The President is asking today for a great increase in our national defenses. Of course, it is vital as the picture develops before our eyes, for us to understand the need of the ability to produce mechanized weapons of war in order to protect our manpower. One has but to read the record of what happened to Holland’s Army—one-fourth wiped out—to realize why we must have modern weapons of war. This, of course, we must face and must pay for….

We need a united front here as well as the more tangible front of creating war materials. It requires greater cooperation and it will require greater self-sacrifice really to make democracy something for which every citizen will feel he will willingly die, because with its loss, will go economic as well as intellectual freedom.

Much has been said in this country about not wanting to participate in foreign wars and people who have said it, must now face the fact that foreign wars come very close to our own shores. We will always have not only the religious groups, but many groups who feel that war is wrong. I cannot imagine how anyone could feel otherwise with the picture before them today. But when force not only rules in certain countries, but is as menacing to all the world, as it is today, one cannot live in a Utopia which prays for different conditions and ignores those which exist….

For years I have hoped that we could stop war as an instrument for settling any national and international difficulties. I have worked for it and shall continue to work for it. However, one has to face the world as it is and, without discarding one’s ideals, meet the realities of the day and keep on working for what one hopes will be a better future.

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Dunkirk on Thursday, May 16, 1940

Normally talk of individuals saving civilization is correctly limited to summer sci-fi movies. But in those very movies nowadays, it seems that the Germans of WWII are the only universally acceptable symbols of evil. [The unwillingness to identify other evils in mass appeals a likely product of multiculturalism run amuck.] It is useful to recall the moments in history when their evil was not cartoonish, but real.

William Manchester begins his biography of Winston Churhill as follows:

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern weald is indefensible against disciplined troops. In A.D. 61, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni rallied the tribes of East Anglia and routed the Romans at Colchester, Saint Albans, and London (then Londinium), cutting the Ninth Legion to pieces and killing seventy thousand. But because the nature of the southern terrain was unsuitable for the construction of strongpoints, new legions under Paulinus, arriving from Gaul, crushed the revolt, leaving the grief-stricken queen to die by her own hand.

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI has been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.” Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw—all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted, bleeding sons.

Even today what followed seems miraculous. Not only were Britain’s soldiers delivered; so were French support troops: a total of 338,682 men. But wars are not won by fleeing from the enemy. And British morale was still unequal to the imminent challenge. These were the same people who, less than a year earlier, had rejoiced in the fake peace bought by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Most of their leaders and most of the press remained craven. It had been over a thousand years since Alfred the Great had made himself and his countrymen one and sent them into battle transformed. Now in this new exigency, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mold which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s decent, civilized Establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and historical forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichaean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was therefore wicked. A believer in martial glory was required, one who saw splendor in the ancient parades of victorious legions through Persepolis and could rally the nation to brave the coming German fury. An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty, and the supreme virtue of action; one who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and might become. Like Adolf Hitler he would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a born demagogue in the original sense of the word, a believer in the supremacy of his race and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a great tragedian who understood the appeal of martyrdom and could tell his followers the worst, hurling it to them like great hunks of bleeding meat, persuading them that the year of Dunkirk would be one in which it was “equally good to live or to die”—who could if necessary be just as cruel, just as cunning, and just as ruthless as Hitler but who could win victories without enslaving populations, or preaching supernaturalism, or foisting off myths of his infallibility, or destroying, or even warping, the libertarian institutions he had sworn to preserve. Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

Walter Lord describes why Churchill flew to Paris the very next day following his early morning call from French Premier Paul Reynaud on May 15th:

The crisis was so grave—and so little could be grasped over the phone—that on the 16th Churchill flew to Paris to see things for himself. At the [Foreign Ministry office] Quai d’Orsay he found “utter dejection” on every face; in the garden elderly clerks were already burning the files.

There was a potentially disastrous delay in the military hierarchy’s grasping the changes on the ground vs standing orders to the troops. One man who grasped the implications immediately was General the Viscount Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Walter Lord describes Gort:

A big burly man of 53, Lord Gort was no strategist, but he had certain soldierly virtues that came in handy at a time like this. He was a great fighter—had won the Victoria Cross storming the Hindenburg Line in 1918—and he was completely unflappable.

General Alphonse-Joseph Georges, his French superior, might be in tears by now, but never Gort. He methodically turned to the job of protecting his exposed flank and pulling his army back. His trained combat divisions were tied up fighting the Germans to the east. To meet the new threat to the south and the west, he improvised a series of scratch forces, composed of miscellaneous units borrowed from here and there.

Meanwhile, using a timetable worked out by the French, on the evening of May 16 he began pulling his front-line troops back from the Dyle. The new line was to be the River Escaut, 60 miles to the rear, the retreat to be carried out in three stages. Crack units carried out their orders meticulously [… but there was much confusion for most]. Dispatch riders carrying the orders couldn’t always find the right headquarters. Some regiments started late. Others lost their way in the dark. Others made the wrong turn. Others ran into hopeless traffic jams. Still others never got the orders at all.

The 32nd Field Regiment [part of the British artillery] was [advancing] toward the Dyle, unaware of any retreat, when word came to take position in a field some miles short of the river. Gunner R. Shattock was told to take one of the unit’s trucks and get some rations. This he did, but by the time he got back, the whole regiment had vanished. After a night of worry, he set out for the main road, hoping to find at least a trace of somebody he knew.

He was immediately swamped by a wave of running men. “Come on, get going,” they shouted; “the Jerries have broken through, and it’s every man for himself.” They swarmed over the truck, piling on the roof, the hood, the fenders.

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Dunkirk on Wednesday, May 15, 1940

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, the moment that Winston Churchill realized that the Allied forces situation was worse than imagined:

At 7:30 a.m. on May 15, Churchill was asleep in his quarters at Admiralty House, London. The bedside phone rang; it was French Premier Paul Reynaud. “We have been defeated,” Reynaud blurted in English.

A nonplussed silence, as Churchill tried to collect himself.

“We are beaten”; Reynaud went on, “we have lost the battle.”

“Surely it can’t have happened so soon?” Churchill finally managed to say.

“The front is broken near Sedan; they are pouring through in great numbers with tanks and armored cars.”

Churchill did his best to soothe the man—reminded him of the dark days in 1918 when all turned out well in the end—but Reynaud remained distraught. He ended as he had begun: “We are defeated; we have lost the battle.”

Later that day, Churchill’s letter to Roosevelt notes the following:

… We expect to be attacked here ourselves, both from the air and by parachute and air borne troops in the near future, and are getting ready for them. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear.

Bombardier Watkin went from thinking the Allied forces were on the verge of a victory the previous day, to making the following entry in his diary:

What a day! We are due to retreat at 10:30 p.m., and as we do, we get heavy shellfire, and we thank God we are all safe. … Except for the shock I am o.k.

May 15th was Winston Churchill’s 6th day as Prime Minister.

Walter Lord summaries why all were so shocked:

It seemed incredible. Since 1918 the French Army had been generally regarded as the finest in the world. With the rearmament of Germany under Adolf Hitler, there was obviously a new military power in Europe, but still, her leaders were untested and her weapons smacked of gimmickry. When the Third Reich swallowed one Central European country after another, this was attributed to bluff and bluster. When war finally did break out in 1939 and Poland fell in three weeks, this was written off as something that could happen to Poles—but not to the West. When Denmark and Norway went in April 1940, this seemed just an underhanded trick; it could be rectified later.

Then after eight months of quiet—“the phony war”—on the 10th of May, Hitler suddenly struck at Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Convinced that the attack was a replay of 1914, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Maurice Gamelin, rushed his northern armies—including the British Expeditionary Force—to the rescue.

But Gamelin had miscalculated. It was not 1914 all over again. Instead of a great sweep through Flanders, the main German thrust was farther south, through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest. This was said to be poor tank country, and the French hadn’t even bothered to extend the supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line to cover it.

Another miscalculation. While General Colonel Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B tied up the Allies in Belgium, General Colonel Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A came crashing through the Ardennes. Spearheaded by 1,806 tanks and supported by 325 Stuka dive bombers, Rundstedt’s columns stormed across the River Meuse and now were knifing through the French countryside.

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Dunkirk on Tuesday, May 14, 1940

Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo, begins as follows:

Every man had his own special moment when he first knew that something was wrong. For Royal Air Force [RAF] Group Captain Collard, it was the evening of May 14, 1940, in the market town of Vervins in NE France. Five days had passed since “the balloon went up,” as the British liked to refer to the sudden German assault in the west. The situation was obscure, and Collard had come down from British General Headquarters in Arras to confer with the staff of General Corap, whose French Ninth Army was holding the River Meuse to the south. Such meetings were perfectly normal between the two Allies, but there was nothing normal about the scene tonight. Corap’s headquarters had simply vanished. No sign of the General or his staff. Only two exhausted French officers were in the building, crouched over a hurricane lamp … waiting, they said, to be captured.

Elsewhere Lance Bombardier Noel Watkin, with the artillery arm of the British Army, heard rumors of a great Allied victory. That night he had nothing but good news for the diary he surreptitiously kept:

Enemy retreat 6 ½ miles. Very little doing till the evening. We fire on S.O.S. lines and prevent the Huns crossing the River Dyle. Many Germans are killed [27,000 was the official count] and taken prisoner.

In Britain, a BBC broadcast called on “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days.” The call had been prompted not by recent events in Flanders [battle in Belgium], but by the ongoing magnetic [sea] mine threat from the Germans. To counter this, the country’s boatyards were absorbed in turning out wooden minesweepers. Finding its normal sources dried up, the Small Vessels Pool was requisitioning private yachts and power boats to meet its own expanding needs.

That morning Hitler had issued the following report regarding the ongoing invasion of the Netherlands:

The resistance capability of the Dutch army has proved to be stronger than expected. Political as well as military reasons demand that this resistance is broken as soon as possible….

The Blitz of Rotterdam

Later in the day, the Dutch city of Rotterdam was the target of an aerial bombardment by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. This would result in Britain changing its policy of not bombing civilian industrial targets. The Germans objective was to support their troops fighting in the city, break Dutch resistance and force the Dutch to surrender.

The Dutch surrendered the next day under the threat of having another city, Utrecht, bombed next.

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Dunkirk on Friday, May 10, 1940

Some days in history kinda put other days in history to shame. Take for example May 10th, 1940:

On this day in 1940, Hitler begins his Western offensive with the radio code word “Danzig,” sending his forces into Holland and Belgium. On this same day, having lost the support of the Labour Party, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigns; Winston Churchill accedes to the office, becoming defense minister as well.

As British and French Allied forces attempted to meet the 136 German divisions breaking into Holland and Belgium on the ground, 2,500 German aircraft proceeded to bomb airfields in Belgium, Holland, France, and Luxembourg, and 16,000 German airborne troops parachuted into Rotterdam, Leiden, and The Hague. A hundred more German troops, employing air gliders, landed and seized the Belgian bridges across the Albert Canal. The Dutch army was defeated in five days. One day after the invasion of Belgium, the garrison at Fort Eben-Emael surrendered, outmanned and outgunned by the Germans.

The Dutch and Belgian governments immediately appealed to Britain for help. Neville Chamberlain pleaded to Parliament that a coalition government, of Liberals and Labour, would be necessary to generate support for a war effort, especially given the lethargy that infected Britain, still reeling from World War I. Labour demonstrated no support for Chamberlain, preferring Churchill, who they thought better able to prosecute a war. As one member of Parliament put it: “Winston—our hope—he may yet save civilization.” Great Britain had finally come to take the Nazi threat seriously.

Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, opens on July 21st. The combination of a great filmmaker in his prime taking on a film about his country’s most perilous moment in their long history is more than enticing.

Nolan’s thoughts on the film’s subject:

It’s one of the great human stories, and it’s one of the most suspenseful situations that I had ever heard of in my life. You have 400,000 men – the entire British army – trapped on the beach at Dunkirk. Their backs to the sea, home is only 26 miles away and it’s impossible to get to. The enemy is closing in, and there’s a choice between annihilation and surrender. I just think it’s the more extraordinarily suspenseful situation. That, I think, speaks to a lot of things that I am interested in with film.

That really should be enough. But on top of that, we have the equivalent of a young Ali saying, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Nolan on his use of IMAX technology for the film:

The entire film is large-format film photography, and I’ve never done that before. Very few people have ever done that before, and no one has ever shot as much IMAX as we’re doing. Most of the film is IMAX. With every film we’ve learned more and more how to maximize our ability to use those cameras, and we found ways to get those cameras into very unusual places for a camera that size, but the image quality speaks for itself. I think it’s going to be an extremely exciting presentation, particularly in those IMAX theaters.

The flip side of a filmmaker giving us a “visceral experience,” is that there won’t be much, if any, efforts to give the historical context. For example, on the film’s IMDB page, there are no acting credits for historical characters, i.e. Churchill, General Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, etc.

Bloggers often admit that they end up blogging about topics they would have enjoyed reading elsewhere, but couldn’t locate. In my case, using Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo, I will be blogging about how the history of Dunkirk unfolded from May 14th through June 5th, day by day. Should be done right around July 21st.

See the entire Nolan interview at end of blog post.

Continue reading

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Movie music review – Zodiac

I read recently about why one should pay closer attention to characters names in books, or the music choices in a movie, or the props in a scene, etc. Artists are always trying to signal. When I caught myself starting to rewatch a favorite film I had already watched frequently, I figured, at least try to pick up some of those other signals this time.

It’s not even a small list. The list of movies I can’t stop rewatching once I’ve been exposed for more than a few seconds. That’s more than enough time for dopamine and other neurotransmitters to signal the limbic system. At which point, my Dale Carnegied will power is as useless as a Bernie placard at a monster truck rally.

Like with most, cable television’s premium channels were my entry drug. Streaming video services now lay in wait behind multiple blue screens. The search feature robs me of the excuse of randomness that channel surfing provided the psyche in those wistfully innocent days of yore. Nowadays, the blue screens view my efforts at resistance like those Publix bakery employees who ignore my initial ‘just looking’ reply and patiently (and contemptuously?) await the order.

There is always help. IMDB is leading the way by offering a workaround method to get around the non-non-GMO snack-inducing replay binges. For example, say Zodiac (2007) is reaching for your gonads and just not watching is not a realistic option. Try this at home. Say to yourself, ‘I’m jusgonna stop and check out where I’ve seen that Vallejo police officer on IMDB, I’ll be right back …’

That’s him James LeGros.  Sure enough, he’s got 119 acting credits. Knew I knew that guy! Now when the heck did he climb into the vortex. Let’s see, was it The Rapture (1991) with the always underappreciated Mimi Rodgers? More likely it was in Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992).

About that other Vallejo police officer, Elias Koteas (87 credits), I just saw him in The Killing (2013). Oh, and that other guy with the key witness Cheney, named Sandy Panzarella, that’s Paul Schulze (84 credits). He was in Nurse Jackie [make your own jokes]. Was he a cop? If not, why was he part of the Cheney interview?

Classic pitfall. If careless, one can google oneself down a wormhole worse than just rewatching the movie. The one website which answered my question in effect answered every question about the movie, Zodiac Killer Facts.

Holy Oliver Stone! The movie made up a bunch of stuff about Arthur Leigh Allen. I didn’t go there for that. I was OK thinking the heavyset white guy did it [who isn’t]. In effect, that website represents vicodin for your can’t stop watching back pain. Just say no, or at least be prepared to make unflattering admissions like, ‘I’m OK with the white guy being framed,’ and move on. [But they do make make a convincing argument about why the guy who called Melvin Belli’s housekeeper could not have been killer, as the plot of the movie is reliant upon].

Back to the character actors, Chloë Sevigny is a worthy successor to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mantle of having the most interesting and varied female roles.  Her character’s 1st date with the Graysmith character was great. I was pleasantly surprised to read that Ms. Sevigny is a practicing Catholic.

Which reminds me, I’ve been looking to begin and end an IMDB-based contest. What scene in movie history has the most IMDB acting credits totaled by actors appearing in one legitimate scene (it can’t be a stadium type deal)? Time’s up. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the answer. I’ll tabulate and offer the proof in a future blog post.

Man, I never got to the music.


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Good spirits

I just had my 1st Harvey Wallbanger.  I watched my attentive host, Santiago, go about the task of preparing it in a diligent manner. He began by pouring Grey Goose vodka into tall glasses from an upside down rack and pour bottle system.

As Santiago ensured the 3 drinks he was preparing had similar amounts of vodka, my sights pulled back to a full view of the corner of his living room. Numerous vacation memorabilia plates fastidiously lined the walls, past the curved bar and stools, behind the ‘Santi’s Bar’ sign, testaments to apparent trips taken.

It would be tempting to describe the setup as a man cave. But man caves evoke images of people who’d like some privacy, even if just for televised games. If I would have dared asked and the elderly Santiago would have been magically able to respond in the vernacular of the day, I feel certain the response would be, “Brother, privacy is overrated.”

As Santiago reached for the sweet herbal liqueur Galliano, which he assured me was the key ingredient, my sights wandered across the room. Pictures of weddings and family adorned the opposite walls. Most prominent was a large portrait of his lovely wife named Nora–Santiago and I have that in common. Although Nora was in the room, her Alzheimer’s prevented us from being able to enjoy her company. She sat silently staring ahead, her trademark makeup impeccably applied courtesy of Santiago that morning. To not have done so would have been unthinkable, given that company was expected.

While Nora is nine years into her illness, its the last four have been really bad Santiago confided. The company they were expecting was the surviving wife of his life-long friend who passed a couple of years ago. I brought her, along with her life-long friend, my Mom.

Soon after I was served the brightly-colored Harvey and imbibed, my ‘that’s polite enough’ internal clock went off in my head. I get up to leave. Santiago asks, “Do you have to leave so soon?” I do, I explain, due to work. While it was true that I had work to do, there was no urgency requiring me to leave that soon.

I wish I could say that I realized that only after I left. That the opportunity to alleviate someone’s loneliness only occurred to me when Harry Chapin’s ‘Cats in the Cradle’ began streaming in the car afterwards. Nope, I felt something right at the moment he asked me to stay, and then left.

The irony of one day facing a similar scenario as Santiago and wondering why people can’t just give a little more of their time in moments like that, that haunting thought did come later. At Mass tomorrow, the Penitential Act will get my full attention:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do …

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