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.

Continue reading

The Cleverest General: the Life and Death of Sir George Pomeroy Colley

When I was a child my parents had on their bookshelves an old red-bound nineteenth century tome called The Life of Sir George Pomeroy Colley by one W.F.Butler, published 1899.

Sir George Pomeroy Colley was a Victorian general who met his death on 27 February 1881, whilst fighting the Boers in South Africa.

(The author of the book, William Francis Butler, was the husband to the famous military painter, Lady Elizabeth Butler).

The title fascinated me because here was a book about a man that shared my family name, and an important one at that (he had to be important to have had a book written about him). I always assumed we were related because we were both Colleys. And, to add to the excitement, he was a ‘Sir’. Perhaps some great-great-grandfather.

To this day I still don’t know. It might be just a coincidence of name but then why would my father have this book on his shelves rather than a more famous Victorian general?

Colley was an all-round clever man and well thought of. He passed through his military school with the highest ever recorded marks, was fluent in various languages and was a dab hand with the paint brush. But like many a British general of the time, he underestimated his enemy – and that proved his undoing.

The First Boer War

In 1877 the British had annexed the South African state of the Transvaal, and two years later made it a crown colony. The Boers naturally resented this, and in December 1880 revolted. At the time there were only 1,700 British troops dotted around the Transvaal in small, isolated garrisons. Colley, recently appointed governor in neighbouring Natal, was ordered to deal with the situation.

Continue reading

The Battle of the Bulge – a quick summary

16 December 1944 saw the start of the German ‘Ardennes Offensive’ (the Battle of the Bulge). It was to be the US’ biggest pitched battle in their history, involving 600,000 American troops. The Allied forces were advancing towards Germany, pushing the Germans back town by town and believing the war to be almost won. But this was Hitler’s last attempt to stop the momentum. His aim was to advance through the wooded area of the Ardennes in Luxembourg and Belgium and cut the Allied armies in two and then push on towards the port of Antwerp, a vital Allied stronghold.

The Allies knew there was a build-up of German troops and equipment around the Ardennes but never believed Hitler was capable of such a bold initiative. Only the day before the attack, the British commander, Bernard Montgomery, told Dwight D Eisenhower, the Allies’ Supreme Commander, that the Germans would be incapable of staging ‘major offensive operations’. Captured Germans spilled the plans but their information was ignored. Thus, the attack came as a complete surprise.


Thick snow and heavy fog prevented the Americans from employing their airpower and the German advance of 250,000 men forced a dent in the American line (hence battle of the ‘Bulge’). Germans, dressed in American uniforms and driving captured US jeeps, caused confusion and within five days the Germans had surrounded almost 20,000 Americans at the crossroads of Bastogne. Their situation was desperate but when the German commander gave his American equivalent, Major-General Anthony McAuliffe, the chance to surrender, McAuliffe answered with just the one word – ‘Nuts’.

US soldiers near the town of St Vith were not so lucky and 8,000 of them surrendered – the largest surrender of US troops since the American Civil War 80 years before. Elsewhere, the Germans taunted the Americans, using loudspeakers to ask, ‘How would you like to die for Christmas?’

‘Lovely weather for killing Germans’

Continue reading

The Dieppe Raid – an outline

In August 1942, Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s wartime prime minister, flew to Moscow and there met for the first time the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Fourteen months before, on 22 June 1941, Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the largest military invasion ever conducted. Almost immediately, Stalin was urging Churchill to open a second front by attacking Nazi-occupied Europe from the West, thereby forcing Hitler to divert troops to the west and alleviating in part the enormous pressure the Soviet Union found itself under. Now, as Churchill prepared to meet Stalin, German forces were bearing down on the strategically and symbolically important Russian city of Stalingrad.

Churchill knew that if Germany were to defeat the Soviet Union then Hitler would be able to concentrate his whole military strength on the west. But although tentative plans for a large-scale invasion were afoot, to act too quickly, too hastily, would be foolhardy. Churchill withstood Stalin’s pressure. There would be no second front for at least another year. But, in the meanwhile, Churchill was able to offer a ‘reconnaissance in force’ on the French port of Dieppe, with the objective of drawing away German troops from the Eastern Front. Whether Stalin was at all appeased by this morsel of compensation, Churchill does not say.

Operation Jubilee

Dieppe Raid German defenceThus, in the early hours of 19 August 1942, the Allies launched Operation Jubilee – the raid on Dieppe, 65 miles across from England. 252 ships crossed the Channel in a five-pronged attack carrying tanks together with 5,000 Canadians and 1,000 British and American troops plus a handful of fighters from the French resistance. Nearing their destination, one prong ran into a German merchant convoy. A skirmish ensued. More fatally, it meant that the element of surprise had been lost – aware of what was taking place, the Germans at Dieppe were now waiting in great numbers.

Pictured: German soldiers defending the French port of Dieppe against the Anglo-Canadian raid, 19 August 1942.

What followed was a disaster as the Germans unleashed a withering fire from cliff tops and port-side hotels. A Canadian war correspondent described the scene as men tried to disembark from their landing craft: the soldiers ‘plunged into about two feet of water and machine-gun bullets laced into them. Bodies piled up on the ramp.’ Neutralised by German fighters, support overhead from squadrons of RAF planes proved ineffectual. Only 29 tanks managed to make it ashore where they struggled on the shingle beach, and of those only 15 were able to advance as far as the sea wall only to be prevented from encroaching into the town by concrete barriers.

Continue reading

The Battle of Kursk – an outline

The Battle of Kursk, Germany’s last grand offensive on the Eastern Front and the largest ever tank battle the world’s ever seen, began 5 July 1943.

The industrial city of Kursk, 320 miles south of Moscow, had been captured by the Germans in November 1941, during the early stages of the Nazi-Soviet war, and retaken by the Soviets in February 1943. Now held by the Soviets, Kursk and the surrounding area comprised a salient, or a ‘bulge’, 150 miles wide and 100 miles deep, into German-held territory.

‘My stomach turns over’

Battle of KurskGerman Field-Marshall Erich von Manstein wanted to recapture Kursk as early as March 1943 by ‘pinching the salient’ from the north and south, thereby cutting it off from the rest of the Soviet territory. ‘Operation Citadel’ would also provide, argued Manstein, an immediate morale booster following the German humiliation suffered at Stalingrad, but Hitler wanted to have a new generation of tanks ready before doing so. The normally bellicose Hitler was unusually nervous about the planned offensive, confessing to his general, Heinz Guderian, ‘Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over’. Three times he delayed the date of attack. The delays were to prove fatal.

Continue reading

The Battle of the Somme – a brief outline

Within the collective British and Commonwealth psyche, no battle epitomises the futility of war as much as the Battle of the Somme. Almost 20,000 men were killed on the first day, 1 July 1916, alone.

Battle of the SommeIt started with the usual preliminary bombardment. Lasting seven days, and involving 1,350 guns and 52,000 tonnes of explosives fired onto the German lines, British soldiers were assured that the 18-mile German frontline would be flattened – it would just be a matter of strolling across and taking possession of the German trenches.

The Battle of the Somme was designed to relieve the pressure on the French suffering at Verdun. The British army at the Somme consisted mainly of Kitchener recruits. Most had received only minimal training and many had still to grasp the skill of shooting accurately.

‘Dead men cannot move’

battle of the sommeAt 7.20 am on Saturday 1 July 1916, the first of seventeen mines was detonated; a huge explosion on the German lines at Hawthorn Ridge (pictured). The explosion was captured on film by official war photographer Geoffrey Malins and the Hawthorn Crater is still visible today.

The advance started ten minutes later, at 7.30 am. The massive explosions certainly alerted the German defenders to what was about to come.

To the south of the British, a smaller French force, transferred from Verdun. As ordered, the men advanced in rigid lines. The bombardment combined with heavy rain had ensured that the ground was akin to a sea of mud and many an advancing soldier, lumbered with almost 70 lbs of equipment, drowned.

Battle of the SommeFar from being decimated by the artillery, the German trenches ahead were brimming with guns pointing towards the advance. What followed went down as the worse day in British military history and perhaps in the history of modern warfare – 57,000 men fell on that first day alone, 19,240 of them dead. In return, the Germans suffered a ‘mere’ 8,000 casualties that first day. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, for example, suffered ninety per cent casualties – of the 780 Newfoundlanders that advanced on 1 July, only 68 were available for duty the following day.

One of Britain’s generals at the Battle of the Somme, Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, wrote, ‘It was a remarkable display of training and discipline, and the attack failed only because dead men cannot move on’. Despite the appalling losses, Britain’s commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, decided to ‘press [the enemy] hard with the least possible delay’. Thus the attack was resumed the following day. And the day after that.

Cavalry and tanks

On 14 July, following a partially successful nighttime attack, the British sent in the cavalry – a rare sight on the Western Front of World War One and one that stirred the romantic notions in old timers such as Haig. But the horses became bogged down in the mud, the Germans opened fire and few survived, either horse or man.

On 15 September, Haig introduced the modern equivalent of the cavalry onto the battlefield – the tank. Originated in Britain, and championed by Winston Churchill, the term ‘tank’ was at first merely a codename to conceal its proper name – ‘landship’. Despite advice to wait for more testing, Haig had insisted on their use at the Somme. He got his way and the introduction of 32 tanks met with mixed results – many broke down but a few managed to penetrate German lines. But, as always, the Germans soon plugged the hole forged by the tanks. Nonetheless, Haig was impressed and immediately ordered a thousand more.

The Battle of the Somme ground on for a further two months. Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded on the first day alone; another 41 by the end of the battle. Soldiers from every part of the Empire were thrown into the melee – Australian, Canadian, New Zealanders, Indian and South African all took their part. The battle finally terminated on 18 November, after 140 days of fighting. 400,000 British and Commonwealth lives were lost, 200,000 French and 400,000 German. For this the Allies gained five miles. The Germans, having been pushed back, merely bolstered the already heavily-fortified second line, the Hindenburg Line.

As AJP Taylor put it in his First World War, first published in 1963, ‘Idealism perished at the Battle of the Somme. The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer’.

The Battle of the SommeRupert Colley.

For more, see Rupert’s new book, The Battle of the Somme.



D-day and Omaha beach – a brief summary

D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.

Five beaches

The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.

At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.

Continue reading

The Sinking of the Bismarck – a summary

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched in February 1939 by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1919-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.” 

On 24 May 1941, the Bismarck, on its first operation, had helped sink the HMS Hood. But in return, it had been damaged and had set a course for northern France to attend to its wounds and repair the leaking fuel tanks. “The Hood was the pride of England,” said the German Fleet Commander, Admiral Günter Lutjens (pictured), over the ship’s loudspeakers, “the enemy will now attempt to concentrate his forces against us. The German nation is with you.”

The crew was nervous but for now at least the ship had slipped away from battle and had managed to remain at large, undetected by the British.

But then Lutjens made a fatal error – he broke radio silence. He radioed back to Germany announcing his intentions. The signal was picked up by the British, and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did their work and roughly located the Bismarck’s position. Then, a RAF reconnaissance plane spotted the trailing oil leak.


26 May 1941 – the British closed in. The aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, launched 15 bombers, known as Swordfish planes, to attack the Bismarck, swooping in low, firing torpedoes. To their annoyance every torpedo missed and, equally, to their surprise the Bismarck failed to fire back. They soon learnt why – it was not the Bismarck they were attacking, but one of their own fleet, the HMS Sheffield.  Fortunately for the commanders responsible, there were no casualties.

Continue reading

The Sinking of HMS Hood – a summary

On 24 May 1941 two mighty ships engaged in battle – the respective pride of the German and British navies: the Bismarck and HMS Hood.

It started six days before when, on the evening of Sunday 18 May 1941, the Bismarck, accompanied by the Prinz Eugene, set sail from the Polish port of Gdynia. It was the Bismarck’s first mission.

“There had never been a warship like her”

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched just two years earlier, in February 1939, by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1909-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.”

The mission set for the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugene was to head for the Atlantic and cause as much damage and disruption as possible to the British convoys shipping vital supplies across the Atlantic into Britain. On board the Bismarck were two of Hitler’s most senior and able seamen – its captain, 45-year-old Ernst Lindemann, referred to by his crew as ‘our father’, and Fleet Commander, 51-year-old Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

From Poland, the two ships passed Norway where their presence was picked up by the British. British aircraft and ships, keeping a safe distance, monitored their progress as the German ships skirted north of Iceland and then south down the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland.

It was here, in the Denmark Straits, that the British fleet, led by the HMS Hood and Prince of Wales, was ordered to intercept.

“The embodiment of British sea-power”

Continue reading

Gallipoli – a brief outline

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, entered the war on the side of the Central Powers and on Christmas Day went on the offensive against the Russians, launching an attack through the Caucasus. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II sent an appeal to Britain, asking for a diversionary attack that would ease the pressure on Russia. From this came the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign.

Naval Assault

Gallipoli mapThe British planned its diversionary attack, to use the Royal Navy to take control of the Dardanelles Straits from where they could attack Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. By capturing Constantinople, the British hoped then to link up with their Russian allies. The attack would, it hoped, have the additional benefit of drawing German troops away from both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

The Dardanelles, a strait of water separating mainland Turkey and the Gallipoli peninsula, is sixty miles long and, at its widest, only 3.5 miles. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, insisted that the Royal Navy, acting alone, could succeed. On 19 February, a flotilla of British and French ships pounded the outer forts of the Dardanelles and a month later attempted to penetrate the strait. It failed, losing six ships (three sunk and three damaged), two thirds of its fleet. Soldiers, it was decided, would be needed after all.


Lord Kitchener put in charge Sir Ian Hamilton, but sent him into battle with out of date maps, inaccurate information and inexperienced troops. A force of British, French and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915. The Turks, who, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had had time to prepare, were waiting for them in the hills above the beaches and unleashed a volley of fire that kept the Allied troops pinned down on the sand. The ANZACs managed to gain a foothold on what became known as ‘Anzac Cove’ but under sustained fire and faced with steep cliffs, were unable to push inland. The British, likewise, were unable to make any headway. Continue reading