Dunkirk – film review

The ghost of Dunkirk has been a constant presence in Britain’s consciousness ever since the events that played out in this French coastal town in the spring of 1940. It scarred us but it has also provided a benchmark for endurance and stoicism, the ‘Dunkirk spirit’. But it’s easy to forget what exactly happened on that French beach. Now, 77 years on, we have Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk.

The tension kicks off within the first minute. It then doesn’t let go until the last. But before we get to the film, a quick paragraph of history…

Dunkirk – the background

On 10 May 1940, German forces launched their attack against France. Their advance was spectacular. By the end of the month, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk, subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come. Losses were heavy but by 4 June, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots.

A triptych

Dunkirk is a very visceral experience. You experience the fear and the vulnerability of the men stranded with little more than their rifles. Usually, whenever we have a film based on a huge event, for example, Titanic, there has to be a romantic subplot in there somewhere. Not so with Dunkirk, and it’s all the better for it. It’s also a very British experience. Although we catch a brief glimpse of a few French and colonial troops, we do not see a single German. The German is the unseen enemy, unseen but still too close for comfort. And when he does appear, hurling in his Messerschmitt towards our brave boys on the beach or on a vessel, the sound is frightening. It’s a film with surprisingly little dialogue. It’s also a war film with surprisingly little blood – there are no close-ups of limbs being ripped off, of men being blown to smithereens or in their death throes. Nolan was certainly chasing the lower age certificate here. Yet he manages to achieve this without diminishing his stranglehold on us.

The film has three distinct viewpoints – which act almost like a triptych. The first is from the ground as we follow a young British Tommy called Tommy, funnily enough. And it is through Tommy, we meet Alex, played by Harry Styles. And let’s be honest here – most of us watching this film will be on tenterhooks looking out for Harry.

The sea plot follows a man in his late fifties, a Mr Dawson who, along with his son and his son’s friend, form part of the civilian armada who, sailing from England, braved the choppy waters of the English Channel to do their bit and help rescue the stranded men.

Lastly, we see it from the air, from the point of view of three, soon to be two, RAF pilots, one named Farrier. And they’re all terribly upper crust, unlike those ruffian army boys, with their fine uniforms and Spitfires. The aerial combat scenes are stunning. Almost eighty years on and the sight of those Spitfires ranging through the air can still stir the heart.

These three points of view represent the three main elements of what constituted Dunkirk so Tommy, Mr Dawson and Farrier are each in their own way an ‘everyman’ for what happened there. We get to learn a little of Mr Dawson’s backstory but we don’t get to know them as characters, as people. Their role here is to tell the bigger story. The only additional subplot that was entirely unnecessary but still effective concerned the friend of Mr Dawson’s son.

The cast is stellar – Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson to name but a few. And yes, to answer the big question – Harry Styles can just about act.

CGI and Nimrod

As a director, Christopher Nolan is known for eschewing CGI and special effects. Understandable perhaps, noble for sure, but perhaps a bit of CGI here may not have gone amiss. We are told early on that there are some 400,000 men on the beaches of Dunkirk – yet often we see shots of an almost deserted beach. Likewise, with the civilian ships – there were hundreds of them but, watching the film, you get the impression that only about half a dozen had come across. But this is a minor quibble.

The music, by Hans Zimmer, plays its role perfectly – it’s effective, it enhances but it never distracts. It comes to the fore towards the end, naturally, with a strange mash-up of Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, the famous one, the one that stirs the patriotic heart in all Britons. Now, had it been a straight-up Nimrod, people would have decried it as too obvious, too unoriginal. Yet somehow, Zimmer does something to it that is fantastically effective.

Never Surrender 

With our boys finally and safely back in England, we have Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech, the ‘we shall never surrender’ one. But, cleverly, we do not hear it from Churchill’s mouth nor in any way presented in a Churchillian manner, but from the lips of Tommy, who reads it, mumbling, from a newspaper.

I felt a little uncomfortable with the ending – it seemed too upbeat. Alex, the Harry Styles character, fears they will be spat on but despite this caveat the ending felt a little too triumphant. Yes, these 338,226 men had survived but we had failed. Churchill referred to Dunkirk not as a victory but merely a ‘deliverance’. And the French saw it in very negative terms – with the Germans closing in on Paris, they considered the evacuation of Dunkirk not in terms of an heroic rescue, but as a huge betrayal. The British had betrayed them.

On 14 June the swastika was flying from the Arc de Triomphe and on the 22nd, France surrendered to the Germans. Four long years of occupation lay ahead for the French.

I’d been looking forward to this film for a year – and it did not disappoint. But if you want to see it, it’s one of those films for the big screen. Don’t wait for the DVD.

Rupert Colley.

To mark the opening of Dunkirk, 50+ WWII fiction authors have got together to offer their WWII novels for just 99c/99p as part of the Dunkirk Week WWII Epic Book Sale, 21 – 27 July 2017. You’ll find lots of fantastic stories of courage, bravery and sacrifices in a war that impacted the entire world. Don’t miss this chance! Visit: www.alexakang.com/dunkirk-book-sale/.

 

 

Death of a Forgotten Hero

On Monday, the news came through that the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, had died. Every UK newspaper and news channel had his 1965 mugshot on their front pages or on our screens; many column inches and many minutes of airtime were devoted to his life and his notorious, foul crimes. Meanwhile, on the same day, in a hospital in East Sussex, my Uncle Edwin died. He was 94. Obviously, having done nothing newsworthy during his life, his death passed unnoticed by anyone outside his family. Fair enough – we can’t mark the death of every elderly citizen. And, like I say, he’d done nothing during his 94 years worthy of comment. Except perhaps, ensuring our continual freedom, the survival of our way of life and upholding our democracy. Oh, and along the way, he’d killed a few people.

You see, back in July 1944, Uncle Edwin, aged 21, crossed the English Channel, along with many other young men, and landed in France. Over the coming months, with a rifle in his hand, he walked eastwards across northern France, through Belgium, Holland and then into Germany. He saw and experienced things that no one should have to see or experience. He was shot at and he killed. He was a lieutenant, so had responsibility. He could also speak German, so one of his jobs on approaching terrified German households was to assure the women that his men were not going to rape her or her children.

My uncle joined up with three school friends whose surnames began with A, B and C (let’s say, Atkins, Bingham and Collins). All three were killed. For years, my poor uncle suffered terrible survivor guilt over this.

Uncle Edwin’s bravery didn’t end in 1945. In the early 1970s, he was standing on a train platform when he saw a woman jump onto the railway in front of an incoming train. Without hesitating, he leapt down and tried to pull her free as the train hurtled towards them. Unable to do so, he lay on top of her, managing just in time to drag her limbs in, before the train whooshed over them. Afterwards, they staggered to their feet, both, I imagine, in a state of shock. The woman walked away. No words were exchanged. It took a year before Uncle Edwin mentioned it to his wife. Bravery doesn’t always have to be announced. Imagine if it’d had happened today – the incident would have been caught on CCTV, it would have gone viral and Uncle Edwin would have been an Internet sensation. He would’ve hated that.

Post-war, Uncle Edwin worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One of his jobs was to help people find the graves of their loved ones, killed in action in faraway places. I remember, back in the 1970s, he helped our village shopkeeper get his wartime medals. The man had never bothered to claim them, but thirty years on, he was regretting it – my uncle came to the rescue. Such was Uncle Edwin’s status at the commission, he was awarded an MBE.

My father had died when I was quite young so Uncle Edwin, a frequent visitor to our home in Devon, became a bit of a father figure to me. He helped me with my homework, warned me not to smoke, and tried, without success, to understand the music of UB40.

In later life, Uncle Edwin was a little bit guilty of becoming one of these “I fought the war for the likes of you” men that youngsters, like me in the 1980s, used to mock. Now, with age and knowing what he and his contemporaries went through, I can understand their frustration. We, who have never known any different, take our freedom for granted.

I remember, in the eighties, believing myself to be a pacifist, I was shocked when he told me he and his peers cheered and celebrated when the news came through in August 1945 that the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But tens of thousands of people were killed in an instant, I protested. But it ended the war, he told me, it allowed Japan the opportunity to surrender, something they would never have done under normal circumstances. He and millions like him would have had to fight in Japan. The death toll would have been unimaginable.

Although Uncle Edwin talked about the war incessantly(!), he never talked about his role in it. But he did occasionally mention his friends, A, B and C. In January 2013, I phoned my uncle to congratulate him on reaching 90 (not that he was celebrating the fact) and I took the opportunity to ask him, rather nervously, if I could read his wartime memoirs, which I knew he’d written. Rather reluctantly, I think, he agreed. What I read shocked and appalled me. It is not my place to recount his tales but let’s say I saw him a different light. I thought of myself at 21 – my main worry was how to gel my hair and whether I had the latest record by Bauhaus or New Order. And here he was, as a 21-year-old, a hairbreadth from death for months on end. I’d always revered the man but now my admiration was magnified a hundredfold. What came across again and again – was his respect for the enemy. He didn’t see them as Germans or as Nazis, he saw them as young men, like himself, having to do a nasty and dangerous job on the orders of their superiors.

Luckily, Uncle Edwin retained his health right to the end. A couple of weeks ago, he had a fall and ended up in hospital. A week later, he died. His wife had died a decade earlier. He leaves behind a son, a daughter and a grandson, now aged 25 and embarking on a career in dentistry.

Seventy years on, Uncle Edwin is finally reunited with A, B and C. But what the heck – let’s read about Ian Brady – far more interesting.

Rupert Colley.

 

 

 

How ‘The Sixth Man’ came about

It’s strange how a new novel can materialise in a writer’s mind. Most of the time, like most novelists, I have a nugget of an idea and a setting. Then I spend days, weeks, even months, nurturing and fleshing it out – the character arcs, the plot developments, sub-plots, etc.

But not so with my latest novel, The Sixth Man. I was sitting in the garden one sunny afternoon in August 2014, cup of tea in one hand, pen in the other, a pad of paper on my lap. I was about to write a shopping list. Then, out of nowhere, came this idea – six men in a prison in Nazi-occupied France. Admittedly, I had been reading a lot round the subject – two of my novels were already set in wartime France.

So now, armed with this seed of an idea, I sketched out the whole plot – from beginning to end. Thirty minutes gone, tea finished, I had it all done.

My wife returned. The dog barked in excitement. ‘Have you done that shopping list?’ asked my wife, breezily.

‘Er, no, but I have plotted out a whole novel. Look,’ I said, handing over a sheet of paper.

I waited eagerly as she scanned it, waiting for her hearty approval.

‘Hmm, very nice, dear.’ OK, she may not have called me ‘dear’ but the tone implied it.

The following day, I re-read what I’d written and decided it was, if anything, too simple. Ideas shouldn’t come that easily. It felt wrong, as if I’d cheated somehow. And so I filed this sheet of paper, with a faint smudge of a tea stain, and forgot about it.

And I really did forget about it. Never gave it another thought.

It was about two years later, when I was looking for something else, I came across it: ‘THE SIXTH MAN’ in capital letters along the top. Reading it afresh made me think – well, why not. Just write it.

And I did. It’s a short novel, only about 53,000 words. Took me about a month to write the first draft. The novel gives equal space to each of the six men. Usually, when writing a novel, you put yourself in the mind of your protagonist and perhaps the antagonist. But here, there were six of them, all of them flawed in equal measure. It was an enjoyable experience.

So this is what it’s about… six Frenchmen in a German prison in a village somewhere in France: a doctor, postman, policeman, soldier, teacher and, most importantly, a priest. Having spent six months incarcerated, ‘this’ is their last night so they’re all feeling rather jolly. But then comes a development – a German train has been blown up by the resistance, five German soldiers killed. Therefore, in reprisal, five of these men will be executed the following day. They have to decide which five should face the firing squad and they have six hours, ‘til dawn, to decide.

And that, essentially, is what the novel is about. We hear each of their sorry tales and none of them come out of it particularly well.

The novel was released April 2017.

If you get to read it, I hope you enjoy it.

You can read the opening chapters here.

 

 

Siege of Cawnpore – a brief outline

On 27 June 1857 in Cawnpore in India, a British garrison of men, women and children, under siege, were offered safe passage and sanctuary. Instead, they were betrayed and butchered, an atrocity that shocked Victorian Britain to its core. The surviving women and children were later hacked to death. Retribution, when it came, was unrelentingly severe. This is a gruesome story of the Siege of Cawnpore.

Background

In 1857, the British, through the East India Company, directly ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. On 10 May, a group of sepoys (Indian soldiers) ran amok in the town of Meerut, killing several men and women of the British garrison based there, before heading to Delhi, 40 miles away. The Indian Mutiny had begun.

The name ‘Indian Mutiny’, as it was taught to generations of British schoolchildren, has a very Eurocentric ring to it; Indians prefer to call it the First War of Independence or the First Nationalist Uprising. But independence was not the ultimate aim of the mutineers and, confined mainly to the north-west of the country, in particular Bengal, neither was it of a national character. It was an outbreak of violence without leader and without objective beyond being motivated by a string of grievances.

The Siege of Cawnpore

siege of cawnpore Among the many sieges during 1857, was the siege and massacre at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), 250 miles from Delhi within the district of Oudh. Home to a large British garrison, the British, under Sir General Hugh Wheeler, a 67-year-old with 54 years of army service in India, had barricaded themselves within their barracks and prepared for the worse. The worse came in the form of one Nana Sahib (pictured), a man apparently on friendly terms with Wheeler and his Indian wife, promising him his loyalty in the conflict due to engulf them.

But Nana was a bitter man. His father, a prince, had been retired off by the British with a generous pension but on the old man’s death the payments stopped and his territory annexed, depriving Nana of an income. Now, in late May 1857, Sir Hugh, believing Nana’s promises of assistance, offered him possession of the garrison’s ammunition store to arm him for the anticipated siege.

On 4 June, the Cawnpore sepoys mutinied. The few that refused to mutineer took refuge with the British bringing the number within the barracks to 240 men and 375 women and children. To Wheeler’s horror, he realised that the man leading the mutineers was none other than Nana Sahib, generously endowed with the general’s ammunition.

After three weeks of siege, with the summer at its hottest, the British, already desperately short of ammunition and with their supplies dwindling, were facing starvation. Under a continual barrage of gunfire, deprived of medical supplies and with precious little food or water, the situation was desperate and disease rife. Many went insane. Wheeler’s son had been one of the victims, decapitated by artillery fire. Wheeler smuggled out a plea to the British garrison at Lucknow, the capital of Oudh, 50 miles away, ‘Surely we are not to die like rats in a cage?’ But the Lucknow garrison, also under siege, was faring little better.

Safe passage or betrayal?

On 24 June, Nana in an apparent show of mercy, permitted the evacuation of the women, children and sick under safe conduct down the River Ganges to Allahabad. Wheeler suspected subterfuge but with only a couple days of rations left, he had little choice but to accept the offer.

On 27 June, Wheeler’s bedraggled garrison, many too sick to walk unaided, climbed upon a number of thatched-roof boats, guided in by helpful mutineers. But then, as the boats prepared to depart, the British were shot at. Flaming arrows set the thatched roofs ablaze and soon bodies, shot or beheaded, clogged up the shallow waters. Those who tried to swim to the opposite shore were caught and hacked to death. Among those killed was Sir Hugh Wheeler, three days short of his 68th birthday.

The ‘House of Ladies’

The surviving women and children, 210 in number, were spared to later face an even worse ordeal. They were marched back to town and incarcerated in a single-storey house, the Bibighur, the ‘House of Ladies’, built by an Englishman for his Indian mistress. Deprived of sustenance and suffering in the July heat, the prisoners weakened. After over two weeks of torment, on 15 July, Nana Sahib received news that a relieving force of British troops was on its way. Panicked, Nana ordered the women and children killed.

The sepoys dispatched to murder their captors found the task too distasteful, and so Nana ordered in professional butchers who, wearing aprons, showed no qualms in wielding their meat cleavers and swords. Amid the screams and blood, their sword blades broke from overwork. An hour later, they had finished their pitiless task, leaving over 200 dead and dismembered women and children. The following morning, they found three women and three children, aged under seven, covered in blood, quivering beneath the piles of dead bodies. They were thrown, one-by-one, down a 50-foot deep mine shaft, and there suffocated under the weight of corpses and body parts thrown in on top of them.

Retribution

Two days later, a company of British soldiers, under the command of General Sir Henry Havelock, captured the city (Havelock’s statue can be found in London’s Trafalgar Square). On finding the scenes of murder, and inflamed with anger, they extracted revenge. Most of the perpetrators had made good their escape but no matter the British made captured Indians, whether involved or not, lick the blood stains of the dead. Hindus were forced into eating beef, Muslims pork. The latter were tied up in pigskin before being executed. Many inhabitants of Cawnpore who had played no part in the violence were summarily executed for having failed to do anything to prevent the killings. The preferred method of execution was to blow the perpetrator from the guns – hanging seemed too easy a death. The victim was tied to the muzzle of an artillery gun and blown to pieces. Retribution had been brutal.

In 1860, a memorial was built (pictured) to commemorate Britons that had been killed at Cawmpore, built over the well outside the Bibighur.

Rupert Colley.

Claim your free copy of Rupert’s novel, My Brother the Enemy

 

Max Schmeling – a summary

One of most politically-charged sporting events took place in New York’s Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938 – a boxing match between the then heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’, and the German, Max Schmeling, the unwilling darling of the Nazi Party.

Born in 1905, Max Schmeling had advanced through the boxing ranks within Germany and Europe and even impressed Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion, in a friendly fight during the champion’s tour of Europe. But to be a true star of the boxing world, one had to conquer the US. And it was to America, in 1928, the 23–year-old Schmeling travelled.

The Low Blow Champion

It was an astute move, and the young German was soon a sensation winning his initial fights on American soil. In 1930, the reigning heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney, retired and Schmeling was pitted against fellow-contender, Jack Sharkey. Schmeling won the fight but not in a manner that he would have liked – Sharkey had knocked the German to the floor but was disqualified for throwing a punch below the belt, leaving Schmeling floored and clutching his groin. Thus, with Sharkey disqualified, Schmeling had become World Heavyweight champion by default. The press derided Schmeling’s victory, calling him the ‘Low Blow Champion,’ a nickname that must have hurt. Sharkey’s team, feeling grieved, demanded an immediate re-match.

As heavyweight champion, the only German to have been so, Max Schmeling dispatched a boxer called Young Stribling, before facing Sharkey again in 1932. This time the fight went to 15 rounds, and Sharkey, to the astonishment of neutral onlookers, was given the fight on points, stripping Schmeling of his title. ‘We woz robbed,’ screamed Schmeling’s Jewish trainer, Joe ‘Yussel the Muscle’ Jacobs. The newspapers, and even the mayor of New York, agreed.

Hitler’s Boxer

The following year, Hitler came to power as German Chancellor and the persecution against Jews began in earnest. Max Schmeling’s exploits came to the attention of the Nazi Party and they took the young boxer to their breasts as typical of the Aryan ideal. The Nazis enforced a ban on Jews playing any part in boxing, whether as fighter, trainer, promoter or even fan. Schmeling was told to ditch his Jewish trainer, and to Schmeling’s credit, he refused to do so.

New York, with its large Jewish population, associated Schmeling with the new German regime, not helped that Schmeling’s next fight, in June 1933, was against Max Baer. Although himself not a Jew, Baer’s father had been, which, under Nazi classification, made him a Mischlinge. Bauer came into the ring with the Star of David stitched onto his shorts. The fight was seen as good versus evil, with Schmeling cast as Hitler’s representative in the boxing ring. Baer, much to America’s delight, won.

Schmeling v Louis

Despite the loss, Schmeling was offered the chance to fight fellow-contender, Joe Louis (pictured). Louis was not only the role model of African-Americans but of Americans everywhere as the embodiment of a rags to riches tale, a man living the American dream.  Against him, Max Schmeling represented the polar opposite, the land of anti-Semitism and oppression. The Nazis were displeased that Schmeling should deign to fight a Negro but the fight went ahead on 19 June 1936. Schmeling, the underdog, floored Louis twice, knocking him out in the 12th round and winning convincingly. Schmeling was delighted but not overly surprised: ‘I wouldn’t have fought a colored man if I didn’t think I could lick him,’ he told reporters.

Schmeling returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany not by ship but by another symbol of German superiority, the Hindenburg airship. Schmeling’s victory was ‘not only sport’, crowed the Nazi weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps), ‘it was a question of prestige for our race.’ A new film was released, Schmeling’s Victory: A German Victory, and shown throughout the country. Schmeling was feted as all that was good in Nazi Germany, appearing smiling at the side of Hitler, a fan of boxing, and Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. (Indeed, Schmeling’s wife, Anny, listened to the fight on the radio in Goebbels’s living room). When later quizzed about his meetings with Hitler, Schmeling responded by saying, ‘I once went to dinner with Franklin Roosevelt; that did not make me a Democrat’. But Schmeling did attend Nazi rallies at Nuremberg and supported Nazi charities.

Schmeling returned to New York in May 1937 and had been booked onto the Hindenburg but a last minute change of plan meant he travelled instead by sea. Thus, by a quirk of fate, Schmeling missed being on the Hindenburg when, arriving in New Jersey, it exploded into flames, claiming the lives of 36.

In New York, Schmeling became a spokesman for Germany, often quizzed about life under the Nazis. For Schmeling the pressure must have been difficult especially when the pressure came from Hitler himself: ‘When you go to the United States, you’re going to obviously be interviewed by people who are thinking that very bad things are going on in Germany at this moment. And I hope you’ll be able to tell them that the situation isn’t as bleak as they think it is.’ Hence, in one interview, he said, ‘I have seen no Jews suffer… whatever pain they are undergoing they have brought on themselves by circulating anti-Nazi horror stories in New York and elsewhere.’

Schmeling v Louis: the re-match

Having beaten Joe Louis, Schmeling now wanted a chance of regaining the title from the reigning champion James Braddock, but Braddock’s camp feigned injury, not wanting to be involved with the man they considered a Nazi puppet. Instead, Braddock fought Joe Louis and lost. The Brown Bomber was now the heavyweight champion of the world.

The much-anticipated Louis–Schmeling rematch of 22 June 1938 (pictured) was billed as the ‘fight of the century’, with its politically charged rivalry between the land of the free and the land of Aryan racial purity. Among the 70,000 audience were Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. As he approached the ring, Schmeling was greeted with jeers and pelted with rubbish. The fight lasted all of two minutes and four seconds when Schmeling was knocked out. He spent ten days in hospital recovering from his injuries which included a number of broken ribs. Louis had got his revenge and democracy, it seemed, had triumphed over fascism. But ultimately it was about boxing and that on this particular occasion, the American was better than the German.

The German ambassador in America tried to persuade Schmeling to claim foul play against Louis but Schmeling refused. This time, when Schmeling returned to Germany, by humble ship, there was no celebration, no welcome party. Schmeling, now considered a loser, was shunned by the party that had been so keen to embrace him.

Schmeling may have previously appeared as an apologist for the Nazi regime but when faced with its reality, he demonstrated true courage. On the night of 10-11 November 1938, when the Nazis unleashed their battering of Jews and Jewish synagogues and businesses during what became known as Kristallnacht, Schmeling hid two Jewish brothers in his hotel suite for two days, sharing what food he had with them and refusing all visitors, claiming he was ill. Later, Schmeling spirited the boys and family out of Germany. One of them, Henri Lewin, speaking in 1989, paid homage to the boxer, saying that had they been discovered, ‘I would not be here this evening and neither would Max’.

Private Schmeling

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Schmeling was forcibly drafted into the German army as a paratrooper (pictured) and, as a 36-year-old private, saw action during the Battle of Crete in 1941 where he was wounded. Schmeling believed that the particularly perilous assignment had been the Nazi Party’s revenge on him. No doubt they hoped he would be killed and provide them with a new martyr. When ordered by Goebbels to fabricate tales for the press relating to supposed British barbarity against German prisoners, Schmeling refused. He was promptly court-martialed on the personal orders of the Propaganda Minister.

Post-war, Schmeling, living in Germany and in need of money, fought five more matches, his first fights since before the war. He fought and lost his final fight in 1948, as a 43-year-old. He started working for the German branch of Cola-Cola, eventually running his own bottling plant and becoming very rich in the process. Meanwhile, in the US, Joe Louis fell on hard times, unable to pay mounting tax debts. Schmeling visited his former boxing rival in the US and helped him along financially. When Louis died in 1981, Schmeling contributed towards the cost of the funeral.

After 54 years of marriage, Schmeling’s wife, Anny, died in 1987. Anny, a former actress of Polish-Czech descent, had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film, Blackmail, Britain’s first talkie.

Max Schmeling died 2 February 2005, seven months short of his hundredth birthday.

MBtE - NGRupert Colley

Claim your free copy of Rupert’s novel, My Brother the Enemy

 

Mary Seacole – a brief biography

Mary SeacoleA keen traveller, the young Mary journeyed widely with her parents, including two trips to Britain, expanding her medical knowledge.

In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a former guest at her mother’s boarding house. Edwin Seacole was believed, without substance, to have been either an illegitimate offspring of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, or Nelson’s godson (hence his middle name). A sickly man, he died eight years later in 1844. Despite several offers, Mary never married again. As a couple, the Seacoleshad maintained the boarding house established by Mary’s mother and, as a widow, Mary Seacole’s work intensified in 1850 when a cholera epidemic struck Jamaica, killing over 30,000 inhabitants.

In 1851, Mary Seacole journeyed to Panama to visit her half-brother and while there, witnessed another cholera outbreak. Again she went to work and took a leading role in treating the sick. Among her patients were 350 American soldiers commanded by the future Union general and US president, Ulysses S. Grant. The following year she returned to Jamaica but had to wait for a British ship to take her home as the American ship she’d planned to sail on refused to take her – Seacole believed it was on account of her race.

Crimean War

In October 1853, war had broken out on the Russian peninsula of the Crimea, between the British, French and Turkish on one side and the Russians on the other. In 1854, Seacole travelled to England where she asked various institutions, including the War Office, permission to work as a nurse in the Crimea. But her request was refused by all. Again, race may have played its part.

Mary Seacole ChallenHowever, the resourceful Seacole raised the necessary funds for herself and made her way independently to the Crimea, where, near the front line, she set up the ‘British Hotel’, improvised with scrap wood and discarded building materials. Opening in 1855, the ‘hotel’sold food, medicaments and supplies to soldiers (anything, to use Seacole’s words, ‘from a needle to an anchor’); and provided meals,warmth and somewhere to sleep. Florence Nightingale, although she later praised Mary Seacole’s work, initially thought the British Hotel as little more than a brothel.

Dressed in brightly-coloured outfits, Seacole became a familiar figure as she visited the military hospitals and the battle front, assisting the wounded and dying, including Russians, moving about with two mules, one carrying medical supplies, the other food and wine.

The Crimean War ended in 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March. Within four months the peninsula had been completely evacuated of Allied troops. Mary Seacole was left with a fully supplied hotel without customers and was forced into selling her stocks and provisions at artificially low prices to pay off her debts.

Wonderful Adventures

She returned to England in a poor state, both physically and financially. While being applauded and awarded, she was declared bankrupt. Living in London, she fell ill and became destitute. A press-led campaign organised a festival in Seacole’s benefit, the Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival, which attracted 40,000 people. The same month, July 1857, Seacole published her memoirs, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which sold well enough to help, along with the proceeds from the festival, to alleviate her financial woes.

Seacole returned to Jamaica in 1860 but came back to London a decade later where she kept the company of esteemed military men and members of the royal family.

Mary Seacole died 14 May 1881, of ‘apoplexy’, at her home, 3 Cambridge Street, Paddington, aged 76. An obituary, published in The Times a week later, wrote, ‘strange to say, she has bequeathed all her property to persons of title’.

A disgrace to the serious study of history?

Mary Seacole’s place in history had been largely forgotten until the last fifteen years. Now, all UK schoolchildren know her name and she has become lionized as a positive black role model. In 2004, she was voted the greatest Black Briton of all time. Seacole herself did not necessarily view herself as black but ‘only a little brown… a few shades duskier then the brunettes you all admire so much’.

St Thomas’ Hospital, near London’s Houses of Parliament, is planning an 8-foot (3 metrebronze statue of Mary Seacole due to be unveiled this year, costing £500,000. The idea of the statue is, in the words of St Thomas’, to ‘reflect the scale, stature and achievements of Mary Seacole, encapsulating the sentiment of Mary as a Crimean War nursing heroine.’ (It was at St Thomas’ that in 1860, Florence Nightingale established her nursing school.) Seacole herself had no association with the hospital and indeed never stepped foot in the place.

Some historians are now beginning to question the legitimacy of Seacole’s recent status, especially when it directly mirrors the decline in the reputation of Nightingale. Guy Walters describes Seacole’s status as a role model ‘good politics, but poor history.’ Walters, in his article for the Daily Mail, quotes a spokesman for the Crimean War Research Society who states, ‘The hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman (Seacole) is a disgrace to the serious study of history.’

Reality Check

Historian, Lynn McDonald, writing in History Today, states, ‘Keenness for a heroic black role model is understandable, but why the denigration of [Nightingale]?’ McDonald accuses St Thomas’ of perpetuating a ‘makeover myth [that does] not survive a reality check.’ McDonald has even written a 270-page book on the subject: Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth.

Crimean MedalFor example, McDonald talks about the Crimean medals worn by Seacole. (In the images above of Seacole, taken around 1873, and Seacole’s comforting portrait painted in 1869 by Arthur Charles Challen, she can be seen wearing miniature versions of three medals, including, on the left, the Crimean Medal). Seacole never won the medal, nor, in her writings, did she ever claim to have done so, saying she was, by wearing the medals, merely displaying her solidarity with the veterans of the war.

Such is the concern over the misrepresentation of the Seacole story, that the Mary Seacole Information Website aims to redress the balance: So much misinformation about Seacole is now available in print, on websites (including those of highly reputable organizations) and in the social media that a source using reliable, carefully documented,material is badly needed.’ 

They go on to say, ‘Mary Seacole, we believe, deserves recognition for her work. A fine bronze statue [at St Thomas’] is a laudable means. However the campaign for Seacole should not be based on misrepresentation of her life and work, or a vilification campaign against any other person, certainly not Florence Nightingale. Our complaint is not with Seacole, however, but with the supporters who misrepresent her, and, so often, in the course denigrate Nightingale.’

But despite these caveats, Mary Seacole deserves her place in our history books and certainly deserves to maintain her place within the curriculum but within the proper context. As Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, told The Independent, Seacole was one of the only black people in British history whose life was not talked about ‘through the prism of racism It is fantastically important to have people such as Mary Seacole taught in our classes’.

MBtE - 3DRupert Colley

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Adolf Hitler and his women

Hitler was never truly comfortable in the company of women, but women found him strangely attractive. 

Hitler’s First Love

Adolf Hitler‘s first love, in Vienna, was a Jewish girl called Stefanie but, lacking the courage, he never spoke to her. Instead he wrote love poems about her which his youthful friend, the poor August Kubizek, had to endure.

Hitler extolled the virtues of men remaining celibate until the age of 25. He was both repulsed and fascinated by prostitutes and although he preached that only men of inferior races went to prostitutes he obliged Kubizek to accompany him on numerous trips into Vienna’s red light districts. Rumours persisted that Hitler caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute. In the early 1920s Hitler’s driver spoke of them cruising the Munich nightclubs.

Once he had become a national figure, Hitler’s relations with women were always marred by his belief that he was wedded to his mission. A wife would not only be a distraction; it could damage his popularity in the eyes of his female fans. Evidence of Hitler’s popularity amongst women first surfaced during his trial following the failed Munich Putsch in which daily the courtroom was jammed with female admirers. On the day of sentencing it was festooned with flowers.

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The Amritsar Massacre – a brief outline

On Sunday 13 April 1919, the occupants of the city of Amritsar in the Punjab were preparing to celebrate the Sikh New Year. Three days previously, six Britons had been indiscriminately killed by an Indian mob and the British, fearful of further violence during such a potentially volatile occasion, sent in a man ‘not afraid to act.’ That man was 54-year-old Reginald Dyer, and act he did.

Reginald DyerReginald Dyer (pictured) issued a proclamation banning any gatherings of four or more men and imposing an eight o’clock curfew. Those failing to comply risked being shot. Yet word reached Dyer that a gathering of about 5,000 men, women and children (Dyer’s estimate) had converged in a square at Jallianwala Bagh for a public meeting. The square was accessible only via a narrow gateway and otherwise was surrounded by walls. Dyer approached with a unit of about 90 soldiers, mainly Indians and Gurkhas. Although the gathering was unarmed and, it seemed, peaceful, Dyer feared that his small contingent of men would, if things got out of hand, soon be overwhelmed. Deciding attack was the best form of defence, he ordered, without warning, his men to open fire. Bedlam ensued.

With the only entrance blocked, there was no escape from the withering fire that lasted an entire quarter of an hour. People hid behind bodies, others were killed in the circling stampede. Dyer only ordered a stop when he feared his men would run out of ammunition. Without sanctioning any medical aid, Dyer ordered his men out. 379 were left dead, over 1,200 wounded. Dyer did not stop there; in the days that followed Dyer subjected miscreants, as he saw them, to public flogging.

Mistaken concept of duty

Amritsar MassacreAt the resultant enquiry, General Dyer was censured for ‘acting out of a mistaken concept of duty’ but survived unpunished. The British press was outraged – not by the lack of punishment but that the British establishment had failed to condone his actions. The Morning Post launched a campaign, raising over £26,000 for the beleaguered general, as they saw him; Rudyard Kipling being one such giver. Reginald Dyer quietly took early retirement and died eight years later humbled perhaps but unrepentant. Indeed, his only regret was that ‘I didn’t have time to do more’.

(Pictured, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial).

Amritsar was systematic of all that was wrong in post-First World War British India. Mahatma Gandhi wrote of the massacre, ‘We do not want to punish Dyer; we have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.’

Amritsar confirmed an uncomfortable truism – that ultimately British rule in India was dependent on force.

The Savage YearsGathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century. Also available in paperback and ebook formats.

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World War Two’s RAF Bomber Command

On 28 June 2012, the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, unveiled a new memorial, the Bomber Command Memorial, to the airmen of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command who fought during the Second World War.

The Bomber Command Memorial, made of Portland Stone and situated in London’s Green Park, has, as its centrepiece, a nine-foot-high bronze sculpture of a typical seven-man crew, five of them gazing into the distance as if waiting for their comrades to return.

Many never did. 55,573 British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and other Commonwealth pilots and crewmen lost their lives and 8,403 were wounded, a sixty per cent causality rate, far higher than most other forms of armed service during the war. A further 9,838 were taken prisoners-of-war. Allied crewmen who survived being shot down in Germany, if not taken prisoner, were often lynched.

With only one in four aircrew surviving their allocated thirty missions, the attacks were eventually halted. Yet following the war, it took 67 years to officially appreciate what these men did. (The crews were even denied a campaign medal for their dangerous work.)

Designed by architect, Liam O’Connor, the Bomber Command Memorial cost almost £6 million to construct, the funding coming from public donations and private sponsors, such as Lord Ashcroft (a generous man for sure but could be accused of being overly greedy in his purchasing of so many Victoria Crosses for his own collection) and Bee Gee, Robin Gibb, who died in May 2012, but not, it has to be said, the government.

Initially, Dresden, the German city interminably linked with the destruction wrought by Bomber Command, objected to the memorial but an inscription commemorating all the lives lost during the bombing raids eased their concerns. The RAF’s last flying Lancaster Bomber flew over the proceedings releasing a shower of red poppies in a sign of remembrance for the fallen. Some 6,000 veterans and their families attended the ceremony, for whom the occasion was an emotional one.

‘The Few’

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Nikolai Bukharin – a brief summary

On 15 March 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading members of the post-Russian Revolution politburo, was executed.

Nikolai BukharinBorn in Moscow on 9 October 1888 to two primary school teachers, the 17-year-old Bukharin joined the workers’ cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and, the following year, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Like many of his radical colleagues, he was arrested at regular intervals to the point that, in 1910, he fled into exile.

At various times he lived in Vienna, Zurich, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Krakow, the latter where he met Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and began working for the party newspaper, Pravda, ‘Truth’.  In 1916, he moved to New York where he met up with another leading revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

‘Favourite of the whole party’

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar, Nicholas II, Bukharin returned to Moscow and was elected to the party’s central committee. Bukharin clashed with Lenin on the latter’s decision to surrender to Germany, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the First World War, believing that the Bolsheviks could transform the conflict into a pan-European communist revolution. Lenin got his way, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky was duly signed in March 1918.

Bukharin was a thinker and produced several theoretical tracts, works that didn’t always meet with Lenin’s full approval. In Lenin’s Testament, in which he passed judgement on various members of his Central Committee, Lenin wrote that Bukharin was ‘rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party,’ but ‘his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him.’ (Lenin’s Testament was particularly damning of Joseph Stalin but, following Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, was quietly suppressed).

‘Not a man, but a devil’

In 1924, Bukharin was appointed a full member of the Politburo. It was here, during the immediate post-Lenin years, that Bukharin became an unwitting pawn in Stalin’s deadly power games. Bukharin had opposed collectivization and believed agriculture was best served by encouraging the richer peasants, the kulaks, to produce more. In this he was supported by Stalin – but only in order for Stalin to marginalise then remove those he saw as threats, men such as Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Kamenev and Zinoviev soon caved in to Stalin. Trotsky, who did not, was exiled, first within the Soviet Union, then to Turkey and ultimately to Mexico where, in August 1940, he was killed by a Stalinist agent. Having defeated his opponents, Stalin then took their ideas and advocated rapid collectivization and the liquidation of the kulaks, criticizing Bukharin for holding opposite views.

Bukharin realised what Stalin was doing: ‘He [Stalin] is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to his appetite for power. At any given moment he will change his theories in order to get rid of someone.’

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