Tag Archives: Dunkirk

The truth about Dunkirk

Image result for dunkirk images

 

Dunkirk is a word that probably means something to some Britons these days, and very little to the rest of the world. But to people of my generation the word conjures up a tragic and magic moment in British history that means courage and fortitude and dignity which transformed defeat into something shining and inspirational.

These thoughts, of course, were triggered by watching the film of that name. I’d read the rave reviews by historians I’d thought were knowledgeable, and laughed with the rest of the world with the American critic who enjoyed the film, apart from commenting that there no women or people of colour portrayed in this epic retreat from the French port of Dunkerque.

Well, there were plenty of women in the Forces at that moment but not overseas on active service. All women between eighteen and forty were called up for service, unless they had children. They had freed men up for fighting by doing all the jobs men used to do – working as drivers, cooks, clerks, interpreters, cipher clerks, aircraft plotters, signals operators, radar operators, working at ammunition depots, firing Ack-Ack guns – anti-aircraft guns – Mary, Churchill’s daughter manned such a post in Hyde Park, shooting at Goering’s planes. Women worked in munitions factories,  factories, on the land, and were nurses, Red Cross workers, and did many other vital jobs.

And yes, there were no blacks in the army either… once the Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield made his historic ruling in 1772 that any slaves arriving in the country automatically became free men, few negroes came to England for the next century or more. The fourteen thousand or so black slaves already there, now intermarried with the English, so that the ethnicity of their descendants was not obvious in the society in which they were born.

With no slave trade allowed in England, and the Royal Navy maintaining a permanent squadron patrolling the seas for sixty years to try to stamp out the infamous traffic in people – at a cost of 22,000 sailors’ lives as they fought with traders, and millions of taxpayer’s pounds – people of African descent had disappeared by 1940. The Africans rescued by the navy, chained to each other in the bowels of slave ships in horrendous conditions, were taken to Sierra Leone where an African king had sold a strip of land to the British for the purpose of re-settling them. Plenty of ‘diversity’ in the UK now, but that didn’t start until the emigration of West Indians to England in the early nineteen fifties.

So, no women or  people of colour– no ‘diversity’- as the young American critic had called it. But I had other misgivings as I watched this much- praised epic.

The ‘ornery’ Brits sailing their tiny boats across the Channel to save their fellow men were the stars in this film! The chap and his son in their fair isle pullovers and polo ribbed sweater moved me to tears… the sheer ordinariness, and utter decency and lack of pretentiousness of them, their deep in- the- bone goodness, and their amazing kindness,  forbearance and understanding of the rescued shell – shocked nut- case –  in spite of his shocking actions – were so typical of their time and class….

But some things bugged me. Anyone who’s served in the army knows that every ten men in a regiment are a section and they have a corporal to look after them. Three sections make a platoon, who have a sergeant and a second lieutenant to look after them. Three platoons means nine corporals, three sergeants and three lieutenants. Three platoons make up a company with a captain and a company sergeant major to look after them, plus all the adjutants, 2/i/c’s (second in command) plus colonel of the regiment, etc.

There was no trace of all these chaps who actually were the ones who kept the lines in order, going forward over the sandy dunes to the rescue ships, and who, importantly, kept up their men’s morale. Not to mention the staff of all the generals in an army of 300,000 (those numbers were not obvious on the beach in the film either – it was packed to the gills in real life)

Alan Brooke was there, Montgomery was there, Lord Gort, C-in-C was there, and a host of others. Most poignant of all, and what would have made a wonderful moment of film, was General Harold Alexander, who was commanding the last troops on the beach. When everyone had gone, he travelled along the shoreline in a small motor boat at two am in the morning, with a loud hailer, calling out to check if there was anyone left. Few historians ever mention this revealing moment of character.

These people, I felt didn’t get their rightful due, and the order and dignity and courage of the retreat would probably not have happened if they hadn’t done their duty…

The navy didn’t get its due either -there were over four hundred  Navy ships shuttling to and fro, and on the worst day, seven out of ten navy ships taking on troops  were sunk at the Mole… my partner noticed there seemed to be only three ships used over and over again in the film…  being a navy man himself ! Funny they didn’t do some skilled computer generated imagery to make it look more realistic ….

Nit picking, perhaps, but I felt the film was somewhat one dimensional because of these omissions… Kenneth Branagh made a wonderful  character, which I felt owed much to Kenneth More in  ‘The Longest Day ‘, who played the Beachmaster on one of the British beaches on D-Day… with his bull dog!!!.

There are so many stories about this time in history that now are lost, and have never been recorded by historians. Reading Francis Partridge’s autobiographical ‘A Pacifist’s War’, I discovered one of the most intriguing and  little- known stories about the real Dunkirk. Her brother- in- law was the officer in charge of everyone landing at Dover and siphoning wounded and dead and living to their destinations. He told her he realised that so many troops had brought rescued dogs with them, that he organised a dogs’ cage on the beach where each dog was given labels and addresses before going to quarantine and then being sent to their owners!!  Such a typical story of British soldiers… reminding me of all the pi- dogs, as they were called, that my father’s tank regiment rescued and adopted in the desert in North Africa.

And then there was the story my brother’s general used to tell at Guest Nights in the officers’ mess. The general had been a young second lieutenant at Dunkirk, and when he’d got his men stowed away safely on a passenger ferry, he staggered up to the bar, absolutely exhausted, and put his elbows on the counter, his head between his hands, and asked the barman who was busily polishing glasses with bombs going off, ships sinking all around them, if there was any chance of a drink. To which the barman replied righteously: “Good gracious, no sir – we’re still within the three -mile limit “!!

Another little- known book told me of a father who woke in the night dreaming of his son. A very rich man, he donned his clothes, and drove off in his Rolls- Royce to the bewilderment of his wife. Abandoning the expensive car at a port, he wangled his way determinedly on a rescue ship returning to pick up more men at Dunkirk. Once at Dunkirk he strode off over the beaches, up into the town and onto the outskirts. On the side of a road, he found a mangled motor bike and his dead son – a dispatch rider – beside it, as he had seen in his dream. Somehow, in a daze he made his way back to England, a changed man.

These are the stories that fascinate me, stories of truth and courage and heartbreak and fortitude. They are stories which have now almost disappeared as those men have now disappeared too. Some will have been handed on by word of mouth to children as bored probably, as I was, in my ignorant, arrogant salad days when my father tried to tell me something of his long war. They are not stories telling of brave deeds in battle, but accounts of how people survived and coped and rose above terrible circumstances in terrible times. That famous, much derided stiff upper lip often saved them.

And the lesson of Dunkirk was that even when all seems lost, imagination, courage and determination can still save the day, even if it meant having to decide then, in Churchill’s words, to: ‘fight on the seas and oceans ….
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender’.

Those simple powerful words were a turning point in the history of the free world and western civilisation… this is a small thank you to those men who made that history.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

A grass widower for supper, so I needed not a grand show-off turn,  but something tasty and welcoming and above all simple. I prefer not cooking at night these days. I found an old recipe I’d forgotten about and have no idea where I found it.

Rice and chicken, but all cooked together. I fried an onion and garlic until soft, and spread them in the bottom of a shallow casserole with plenty of butter. Add a cup of long grain rice, and two cups of hot chicken stock, salt and pepper. Cover and bake in a moderate oven for twenty minutes.  Score skinless chicken thighs with a mix of chopped garlic, ginger and grated lemon, and add the chicken to the rice, fluffing it up. At this point I add some more knobs of butter to the rice. Bake for another twenty to twenty- five minutes, adding hot water if the rice needs it.

Served with salad, this is an easy satisfying dish. Pudding was the ersatz rum babas from a previous recipe. It went down a treat..  rum puddings never seem to fail!

Food for thought

Elegance is usually confused with superficiality, fashion, lack of depth. This is a serious mistake: human beings need to have elegance in their actions and in their posture because this word is synonymous with good taste, amiability, equilibrium and harmony. Paul Coelho
 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Old soldiers …”

Image result for 14/20th king's hussarsLeafing through an old notebook looking for a blank page to pull out to write a shopping list, I found these words I’d forgotten I’d written.

Timing isn’t always everything I decided, and though I’m late, these words still count…

Parade on Armistice Day

Behind that stern moustache

And row of clinking coloured medals

And Desert Rat insignia,

Service dress, and highly polished Sam Browne belt and sword holster

Stood a man.

 

A man who loved and laughed and grieved and swore and smoked and drank,

And played poker sitting on a petrol drum

Beside his tank in the desert.

He hated the beat of the Funeral March from ‘Saul’,

And he never forgot the ones who were ‘brewed up’.

This was the nightmare he fought most nights for the years of peace.

 

It had been a daily nightmare back then.

It had loomed while he shaved in half a mug of water,

And haunted his thoughts as he drank a mug of strong tea

To cut that terrible desert drought.

And he never forgot the spring flowers that bloomed in Tunisia.

 

Just like five weary years before,

He had never forgotten the women of Plymouth,

Who waited with steaming mugs of tea

For the cold, hungry men who landed at dawn

After escaping from Cherbourg,

Three long weeks after the miracle of Dunkirk.

 

In all the years between, he had been there,

And the names of his battles had

Reverberated through my childhood:

Bardia and Benghazi, Sidi Rezegh, and Sidi Barani,

Tobruk, Tunisia, Salerno and all the others…

He loved his friends and didn’t hate his foes.

Like Abou Ben Adhem, he loved his fellow men.

This was my father.

 

He was a cavalryman, and proud of the history of his historic regiment – an officer from his regiment was dispatched by the Duke of Wellington to take the news of Waterloo to London. It’s the regimental  cap badge at the top of this piece.

Though he survived the war, he didn’t live to old age, and like his other children I still miss him, and I regret not talking to him when I was old enough, or mature enough, to appreciate him the way his friends and his soldiers did. Both groups loved him.

One soldier in the British Army took leave from his posting in Gibraltar to come to London and find my father in his office at Whitehall to give him a watch. Ten years earlier, when we  were in Malaya, this man had been fighting the British. My father on patrol in the jungle, captured him, starving and nearly dead from scurvy.

My father helicoptered the ‘bandit’, as the insurgent communists were called, out of the jungle, and rushed him to the only grocery store for miles around, where we happened to be shopping at the time. He leapt out of the army vehicle, calling to my stepmother to buy a box of oranges. While she did this, he carried the soldier from the jeep into the back of our saloon car. Peeling an orange, he fed segments to the nearly unconscious ’bandit’, and then, as he began to revive, gestured to him to go on eating the oranges.

The man was taken to a rehabilitation centre, where he regained his health, renounced his communism, learned English, and finally joined the British Army. He never forgot my father and came to London ten years later to thank him for saving his life.

Armies and soldiers are sometimes reviled, often by people who do not know soldiers. But like most of his fellows, my father was a good and courageous man, a kind and tolerant man  – like most of the men of all ranks, that I grew up knowing on army camps around the world. Honor virtutis praemium.

Food for threadbare gourmets

For a celebratory birthday lunch the other day that wouldn’t take hours to cook, even though I felt roast chicken would be appropriate, I compromised. I had a couple of chicken breasts in the deep freeze, so after de-frosting slowly in the fridge, I trimmed them open a bit more, and spread a stuffing of whole grain breadcrumbs, onions and mushrooms chopped and cooked in butter, and lots of chopped sage and parsley, salt and pepper on one breast.

Placing the other breast on top, I wrapped them in rashers of bacon, making a parcel, and holding the rashers in place with toothpicks. Scrubbing a couple of Agria potatoes, I pricked them all over, rolled them in olive oil, and cooked them in their skins at the same time as the chicken. (Hot oven for about 45 minutes, or until ready). When cooked, the potatoes were mashed with lots of butter, salt and pepper.

Spinach and carrots completed the meal, along with good gravy made from chicken juices in the pan, while the chicken was ‘resting’ in a warm place. It was as good as if I’d cooked a whole chicken, and took half the time to cook

Food for thought

I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. … The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.

Mark Twain. American writer, publisher, river boat pilot and many other things. One of his claims to fame was that he was born when Halley’s Comet showed up in 1835 and died, as he predicted, the day after it came back in 1910.

 

 

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War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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