The Blitz

It’s time!

It’s time to continue the series of articles on major World War 2 events that I began with After Dunkirk: The Fall of France and The Battle of Britain!

We’ll pick up chronologically right after the last, and take a brief look at the story of The Blitz.

Observer corps
Tens of thousands of men, women and youths participated in the Observer Corps, watching for enemy planes and supplementing the still-inadequate radar systems of the day.

The British knew the bombs were coming.

With Hitler’s forces just across the Channel, attacks were inevitable.

They had taken early precautions, evacuating around 800,000 mothers and children from cities in September of 1939, but when the threat did not immediately materialize, many returned to their homes.

About a year later, on September 7th, 1940, Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe shifted its attacks from RAF facilities to civilian centers. Attacks changed from daylight runs with specific targets, to night attacks on the massive population of London.

The people endured continuous bombing raids every night until November 3.

For the first three nights, London’s few anti-aircraft guns remained silent in the hopes that their pilots would be able to engage the Luftwaffe craft successfully.

Night fighting…didn’t go as well as hoped. On September 10th the guns opened up. Winston Churchill reflected,

“This roaring cannonade did not do much harm to the enemy, but gave enormous satisfaction to the population. Everyone was cheered by the feeling that we were hitting back. From that time onward the batteries fired regularly, and of course practice, ingenuity, and grinding need steadily improved the shooting.”               (From his memoir Their Finest Hour, pg 343)

Air raid sirens (sometimes) warned the citizenry of incoming attacks- the sound became almost commonplace. Mr. Churchill also recorded his memories of watching people vacating the streets at the sound of one, “except for long queues of very tired, pale people, waiting for the last bus that would run.”

The government provided families individual shelters free of charge or for low cost. The Anderson Shelter was made of corrugated metal and could be buried in the garden. The metal Morrison Shelter could fit in place of a dining table. These protected their occupants from debris or shrapnel. They could not withstand a direct hit.

shelter3
Photo from http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

Others found public shelters or slept in the Tube beneath the city. Still others remained in their homes or workplaces when the alarms sounded, carrying on in spite of it all.

Different types of bombs brought different types of danger and damage. Time bombs and regular bombs that did not explode on impact necessitated the forming of unexploded bomb (U.X.B.) disposal squads. This tense, dangerous work left its mark.

“In writing about our hard times, we are apt to overuse the word “grim.” It should have been reserved for the U.X.B. disposal squads.” (Churchill 362)

October’s full moon brought another horror- 70,000 incendiary bombs dropped along with the regular load of explosives. Rather than taking cover, the people of London were encouraged to head to the roofs. They organized fire-watchers and fire-services to combat the destruction.

On November 3 the London air raid sirens remained silent for the first time in nearly two months. The Luftwaffe had changed focus again, dispersing their targets to various industrial centers.

Coventry suffered their blitz on November 14th. Six hundred tons of high-explosives as well as incendiary bombs dropped, killing four hundred people and seriously injuring many others.

Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool…the list of cities struck by German bombs grew.

On December 29th the Germans planned another assault on London to correspond with the low tide. Having also destroyed the water-mains, they rained incendiary bombs over London, starting nearly fifteen hundred fires.

london blitz

The bombings slowed by May of 1941, as Hitler turned his attention towards attacking Russia.

These painful eight months left tremendous damage to property and homes, 43,000 civilians dead, and Great Britain’s resolve undiminished.

Of course, the end of the ‘official’ Blitz did not signal the end of bombings. The Allies and Axis traded explosives of increasing power throughout the war, to tremendous loss of military and civilian life. Mr. Churchill reflected,

“Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!” (pg. 349)

 

NEXT TIME: It may take me a while to get my research lined up as fall is a busy time, but I’m planning on the next history article to visit the campaigns in North Africa. I hope you’ll come along!

OH, WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

This is a recording of a rather wonderful speech Winston Churchill gave during this time- worth a listen if you’ve got five minutes.

If you are interested in more detail on this period from people who have studied it much longer than I have, the following sites might be of interest.

General information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/the_blitz

Memories of people who LIVED it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c1161/

Information on Anderson/Morrison shelters: http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

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Watching Over Me: A German Girl’s World War II Story of Survival and a Quest for Peace

eli-francis-100644
Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

I try to resist my addiction.

With the bookshelves in our home full to overflowing, in some cases stacked triple-deep, I try to focus on using the public library for new reading material.

Still, exceptions must be made! When an acquaintance of a friend of a friend published a book, AND it happened to be a World War 2 memoir, what choice did I have?

Watching over meWatching Over Me , by Rachel Hartman, records the recollections of Elfi Gartzke, supplemented by her mother and other relatives.

Elfi was born in eastern Germany in 1940. Her family did not subscribe to the ideologies of the Nazi party. Devout Christians, they managed to lead fairly quiet lives on their acreage as war consumed the world around them.

This changed in 1944 as her father, (along with all men between the ages of 16 to 60 who could bear arms,) was drafted into the Volkssturm, or “people’s army.” He was sent away to an unknown location just before Christmas.

His family still knew nothing of his whereabouts- or even if he were still alive- when they fled their home in January of 1945 to escape the advancing Russian army.

They managed to find transport via train. The journey was interspersed with frantic scrambles to shelters to avoid falling bombs, where Elfi’s mother, ‘Mutti,’ would sing hymns in the dark to comfort her three children.

Reaching the relative safety of Harksheide, a city farther west, Elfi’s family struggled to build new lives in the rubble. As refugees, they faced negative attitudes, inadequate housing, and meager food allotments.

In spite of the challenges, this memoir is anything but bleak.  Trouble was interspersed with joys, such as the return of Elfi’s father. Elfi still experienced some of the simple pleasures of childhood: making friends, finding a place to play (even if it was only a particularly large bomb crater,) and receiving her first doll. Through all, her Mutti strove to keep their hopes alive and their faith strong.

Largely told from a child’s memories, Watching Over Me was quite different from the other books I’ve read about the same era. Elfi’s concerns were primarily relegated to day-to-day life. Her perspective was a poignant reminder of the suffering that lingers on both sides of a conflict, even after the hostilities of war have ended.

The author also interspersed some significant ‘big picture’ events into Elfi’s narrative. She dealt frankly, if briefly, with the horrible crimes committed under Hitler’s regime. She also related dates in Elfi’s life with events in the world, such as the Berlin Airlift, the conflicts in Korea, and the beginnings of the space program.

The last third of the book described the family’s emigration to the United States, sponsored by a kind stranger from Nebraska and their subsequent lives- learning a new language and a different culture. While I hadn’t expected this much post-war information, I found the stories interesting. My family left their European roots a few generations before Elfi’s, but I imagine some of the experiences were similar.

Overall, I found Watching Over Me an enjoyable and uplifting anecdotal history of faith and family, and a worthy addition to my bulging bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Britain

The school year approaches, lesson plans are coming together, and I’m finally getting around to another history article. (Pause for applause and cheering…still pausing…c’mon, you know you’re excited! 🙂 )

As promised in After Dunkirk: The Fall of France, today we’ll pick up with THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. *

spitfire

What image comes to mind when you hear the word ‘battle?’ Guns, tanks, and infantry slugging it out over a scorched and blasted landscapes?

The Battle of Britain actually prevented such scenes from reaching the southern shores of England.

Hitler’s armies had seen great success in 1940. France had fallen. Italy had joined the Axis. The continent of Europe was effectively subdued. The world waited to see if Great Britain, the last standing Ally, would capitulate to Hitler, or fight on.

According to Winston Churchill, there was never any question, even in private meetings, of giving in.

Though their resolve was strong, their position was dangerous. His volume, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour, chronicles the dire situation his country faced.

“For the first time in a hundred and twenty five years a powerful enemy was now established across the narrow waters of the English Channel. Our re-formed Regular Army, and the larger but less well-organized Territorials, had to be organized and deployed to create an elaborate system of defenses, and to stand ready, if the invader came, to destroy him- for there could be no escape.” (Churchill 174)

The British surmised, rightly, that Hitler’s next move would be to conquer their island nation. In the brief respite as the Germans regrouped post-France, they worked to create defenses for beaches, anti-tank obstacles, and units of mobile defenders ready to fight in front of the enemy or harry him from behind. Guards protected factories and other tempting sabotage targets. Every effort was made to build up British air power, their best chance at victory.

The last was an especially good move. The German invasion plan, Operation Sea Lion, was contingent on weakening the RAF (Royal Air Force) enough to gain mastery of the skies over the English Channel.

July 10th, 1940, marked the first heavy onslaught.

German planes
In case you don’t know and want to impress people when watching WW2 films: The black and white crosses on the wings mark these as German (Luftwaffe) planes. The circle pattern on the planes in the first picture of the post mark them as British.

The initial German plan was to attack British convoys in the Channel and the southern ports from Dover to Plymouth, weakening the areas they intended to invade. The RAF would have to come out to meet them, and would (they hoped) be destroyed.

This first phase failed. Though the British suffered losses, they made the Luftwaffe pay dearly for them.

On August 15th, the Luftwaffe launched about 100 bombers and 40 M.E. 110’s  to the north, against Tyneside,  with a simultaneous raid of over 800 planes to the south. The Germans hoped that the concentration of RAF planes would be pinned down in the south, and the northern attackers could do as they wished.

The Luftwaffe didn’t account for the provisions already made by British Air Marshal Dowding, and the seven Hurricane or Spitfire squadrons he had withdrawn from the southern fighting to guard against such an eventuality.

Final score: RAF 76, Luftwaffe 34.

Air Marshal Dowding
Air Marshal “Totally called that one!” Dowdin

In spite of the Allied successes, the Luftwaffe continued to attack relentlessly. Successful bombing raids of RAF airfields and facilities threatened to cripple the effectiveness of the defense.

Fortunately, Hitler’s own people (unintentionally) kept that threat from being carried out.

Some of the heads of the German military were intent on the destruction of British planes so that they could make their invasion happen. Nazi leader and Luftwaffe Commander Herman Goering had another focus. He believed that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, such as London, would crush British resistance.

Herman Goering
Herman “Let’s bomb cities!” Goering

In September he got his way. The attacks on London didn’t work out quite as he had hoped.

“If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against the adjacent sectors (to the airfields)…the whole intricate organization of Fighter Command might have been broken down…It was therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on London on September 7, and concluded that the enemy had changed his plan…By departing from the classical principles of war, as well as from the hitherto accepted dictates of humanity, he made a foolish mistake.” (Churchill 331)

September 15th marked the Luftwaffe’s greatest concentrated daylight attack on London.

Perhaps the results of this attack can best be summed up by what took place two days later. On September 17th, Hitler decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.

Churchill’s famous praise of the RAF pilots wraps up this bit of history nicely.

“At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Churchill 340)

While an invasion of the British Isles was off the table, the population centers remained a target. NEXT History Session: THE BLITZ

Observer corps

If you’re interested in hearing about this period from people who lived it, the BBC collected people’s recollections of World War 2 in an excellent archive. The following link is for the “Battle of Britain” section. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c55221

*As I mentioned last time, this is just an BREIF overview of the period, written considering those who may have suddenly realized (as I did) that my highschool history classes left a number of gaping holes in my knowledge. (I had great teachers, but there are only so many class periods in a year!) There is so VERY much more to all of this than I have touched on- thanks for your patience with my little sum-ups.

 

 

UNDER THE WIRE- the Stories of a POW Escapologist

I love a good survivor story.

I find tales of people who ‘beat the odds,’ ‘stayed the course, (or whatever cliché you prefer,) fascinating, as well as encouraging.

There is solidarity in suffering, and perhaps perversely, comfort in seeing that someone was able to survive much worse than whatever I might be struggling with.

I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of pretty amazing survivor stories through other bloggers. It seemed fitting to use today’s post to share one that I recently discovered.

Under the wire book cover

Bill Ash was a Texan, who disliked bullies. Thus, hearing the stories of Hitler’s conquests overseas, Bill decided that he would join the war, even if his country would not.

He traveled to Canada, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and ended up flying Spitfires with the RAF.

Bill loved to fly. “Once in the sky, a Spitfire pilot is alone- a hunter, an acrobat, and a warrior king. The only trouble in my case was that the king was about to be beheaded.” (pg. 9)

Bill’s plane was shot down in France. He was caught, arrested, tortured, and eventually imprisoned as a POW.

For many, imprisonment would spell the end of the war. Bill, however, was an officer. It was illegal for him to be pressed into forced labor. Instead, he was sent to a camp run by the Luftwaffe, where he continued to fight from the inside.

Bill and many of his fellow prisoners considered it their duty to cause as much trouble and to keep as many of their captors busy as possible. To do so, they became “escapologists.”

The tales Mr. Ash tells in this book are extraordinary. I grew up watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, and laughing at the absurdities. Some of the stories Mr. Ash shares could have fit well into an episode.

From the well-organized ‘Escape Committee,’ to digging tunnels under latrines, to secreting hand-made radios inside of table legs, the ingenuity of the POWs reads more like fiction than fact.

John_Banner_Bob_Crane_Hogan's_Heroes_1965
So, I’m just going over here to wreak havoc on your plans. Ok, Schultz?

Some have claimed that Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape was based off of Bill Ash. He did not agree with the comparison, not the least because of his lack of motorcycle skills. He did, however, know many of the men involved in the real-life Great Escape, though he was not available to participate in it himself.

The Great Escape

(Side note, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s worth your time. And if you need some levity afterwards, the spin-off below has some nice homages 🙂 )

Chicken Run

Full of laughter and sorrow, gross abuses and courageous kindness, Under the Wire is a fascinating story of survival.

After Dunkirk: The Fall of France

history books

Watching movies with my children is an exercise in patience.

“Who’s he?”

“What’s she doing?”

“How come he’s a llama now?”

Yes, I enjoy seeing them discover new worlds and sharing stories I love. It’s just difficult to enjoy the movies themselves, now that I am narrating as well as watching.

I have to remind myself that they’re little. They don’t have the background knowledge to ‘get’ the stories without a bit of help.

I felt like I’d fallen back into that role last year- the novice without a real clue of the big picture. You see, I thought I had a decent grasp of history, until I started studying it.

“Wait, who’s Reynaud? The Battle of Britain was…what exactly? Um…I thought the war only lasted four years…”

I recently posted a review for the movie Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Before diving into personal study of the Second World War, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of the name.

dunkirk poster 2

Apparently it was kind of a big deal…

Once the movie came out, I found that I wasn’t alone. A number of people I talked too weren’t familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, or many of the surrounding events.

The teacher in me got waaaaaaay to excited about that. The first reaction was to grab some REFERENCE MATERIAL!!!

“Oooh! Well, I can tell you all about this, and then this, and then this…”

BUT, as I’d like my friends to still answer my calls, I thought I’d periodically vent these urges into my blog instead.

Aren’t you excited?! 🙂

I am NOT going to attempt an exhaustive history. If you want that, pick up Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. The abridged version is just over 1,000 pages, so it’s a hefty read, but worth it if you want a look at the period from the eyes of one of the major players.

It also won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so evidently I’m not the only one who enjoyed it.

Churchill book

Here’s my brief rundown on Life After Dunkirk: The Fall of France. *

Operation DYNAMO, the massive evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches and port of Dunkirk wrapped up on June 4th.

I’ll try to avoid ‘movie spoilers’ here, but for those of you who have seen it and wondered about the outcome of some plans mentioned by a naval officer towards the end, the evacuated included 112,000 Belgian and French troops. Ships even returned once more at the end of the operation looking for their French allies and retrieved 26,175.

While the rescue of the army was tremendously important, the evacuation cost a great deal in equipment.

7,000 tons of ammunition, 90,000 rifles, 2,300 guns, and 120,000 vehicles were left behind.

The British Army had saved most of it’s manpower, but how would they all be armed?

The evacuated men were given 7 days leave, and the leadership wrestled with planning the next steps as the fighting in France continued- and continued to go badly.

As Mr. Churchill’s memoir states, “we were subjected by our duty to France on the one hand and the need to create and effective army at home and to fortify the island on the other…First priority continued to be given to sending whatever trained and equipped troops we had, in order to reconstitute the British Expeditionary Force in France.” (Churchill 143-144)**

These efforts to reinforce the sagging lines couldn’t last for long. June 5th marked the beginning of the final phase of the Battle of France.

The remaining British divisions, joined with the French Army, tried to hold the line north of Paris along the Somme. The German attacks continued to punish them, but more was to come.

On June 10th, in spite of British and American attempts to keep the peace, Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. They launched their own attacks on France through the Alps.

On June 14th, Paris fell.

German invasion

Hitler in Paris

The Allies’ situation looked dire, but they had not given up hope.

Churchill had declared several times that his government would not seek peace with Germany, no matter the fate of France. He and M. Paul Reynaud, the French Premier, discussed options for the French to continue their fight from a government in exile in North Africa.

Not all of the Allies were so optimistic. The French General Weygand and other were convinced that all was lost. One commented, “In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” (Churchill 213)

The negative pressure was too strong. Reynaud was replaced by Marshall Petain, who quickly sought an armistice with Germany.

This pro-German government would be set up in Vichy, France- hence that quote from Casablanca when Rick asks Louis if he’s pro-Vichy or Free French.

(You don’t remember that one? You should probably watch Casablanca again. It’s always a good choice!)

Casablanca

On June 17-18th the French troops were informed that all was over. The armistice was signed, and all fighting officially ceased by the 25th. (All fighting, that is, by the army. I hope you’ve heard some of the stories of the courageous French Resistance!)

The British troops, along with over 20,000 Poles, “repeated now on a considerable scale, though with larger vessels, the Dunkirk evacuation.” (Churchill, 193) In all, 156,000 men and 310 guns crossed the Channel.

It’s an interesting bit of ‘history hindsight’ that at this point the USSR and Germany were on friendly terms. On the same day Paris fell, Moscow sent an ultimatum to Lithuania, and the Soviet Union proceeded to use the events in the West to annex the Baltic States. According to Churchill, Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, congratulated the Germans on their “splendid success” on June 18th, after the fall of France. This was almost exactly a year before Hitler’s brutal attack on the Russian Front.

Her nearest ally out of the fight, Britain prepared her shores for Hitler’s inevitable assault.

Some writing blogs will likely come in between, but…

Coming Soon: The Battle of Britain!

spitfire

*If you like visuals, here’s an excellent animated map which shows these events.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/interactive/animations/wwtwo_map_fall_france/index_embed.shtml

**Any quotes cited above are from Their Finest Hour, the second volume of Winston Churchill’s six volume set of memoirs of the Second World War. Page numbers are from the separate volume, not from the abridged one.

 

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dunkirk

We don’t often go to the movies. It just isn’t worth it- having to manage babysitting, scheduling, and the fact that most of the newer films just aren’t interesting enough to spend ten bucks a ticket on (just think how much chocolate that can buy!!!)

It takes something special to get us out the door and into a theater.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk was one of those rare cases.

The story behind the movie caught my attention a year and a half ago. I began writing a story set in 1943, fairly confident that I knew World War 2 well enough that I would be able to flesh it out with just a little research.

Surprise! A 6 year war involving most of the world was a bit more complex than I remembered from highschool history. In particular, mentions of ‘the bracing defeat at Dunkirk’ kept appearing in my searches.

Dunkirk? What IS that- and what in the world do they mean by a bracing defeat?

I looked it up. I realized that if I didn’t know about this event, I knew nothing about the era I was trying to understand. The real research began…

For those of you who, like me, don’t know the significance of Dunkirk, I’ll try to summarize.

Hitler’s Germany, after a long period of threatening actions in Europe, invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

And…the war stalled. Little actual fighting took place as the Allies waited behind France’s defensive Maginot Line. (This time period was nicknamed ‘the phoney war.’)

Months later, in the spring of 1940, Hitler made his move. The Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war,’ smashed the French and British defenses. The Allies were driven back, and back, and back. Finally, the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force ended up marooned on Dunkirk beach, waiting for Hitler’s troops to capture or kill them, or for rescue to arrive from across the Channel- a miracle that would get them home.

This is the point of the story where the film begins.

dunkirk poster 2

Without giving anything away, (though, if you know the history, you know the overall outcome,) here are a few of my impressions.

Rather than tracking the broad military strategies and leadership of the day, Nolan choose to follow a few of the ‘regular people’ of the conflict: young soldiers trying to survive, RAF pilots flying their Spitfires across the Channel, hoping to have enough fuel to be of some help to the troops and evacuation ships, and a civilian sailor doggedly facing challenges at sea as he heads across to help in the evacuation.  I liked this choice. Since I knew how the battle came out, following individual characters kept the suspense high as I wondered whether they would survive.

I haven’t really cared for dogfight scenes in other films; Dunkirk surprised me. The aerial scenes were well done- it was, as my husband said, the most successful attempt we’ve seen to put the audience into the cockpit. Of course, I also like Spitfires 🙂

The writing and dialogue impressed me. Having just watched a few movies with chronic over-explaining in them, (Revenge of the Sith…shudder,) the carefully placed words and silences gave the feeling of observing actual events rather than of sitting through a movie.

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is also worth noting.  I didn’t find it musically interesting- it’s not the sort of thing I’d buy and listen to for fun. However, he used a variety of sounds to punctuate and accompany the action. In particular, a sound of a ticking clock in the background created a sense of urgency, of time slipping away.

On the negative side, the chronology of the film was somewhat confusing. The section of the film about the soldiers covered one week, the section about the boats one day, and the section about the planes one hour. Each of the sections was interspersed with the others so that the audience wasn’t away from one group of characters for too long, until the end when all of the threads came together. This was an interesting idea, but I didn’t feel that it was executed well. Some of the scenes became a bit repetitive since they had already happened in another timeline, and I was sometimes confused by what had happened and what would happen, as the timeline kept moving back and forth.

I’m not well versed enough in the uniforms and vehicles of the day to bring up critiques on misplaced or misapplied straps or webbing with any credibility- I’ll leave that to others. Overall I liked the ‘look’ of the film, though yes, I suppose the troops were still a little too clean, and their teeth were certainly too good for the era. 😀

SO, I’m giving Dunkirk my personal rating of 8 out of 10. (It’s a bit higher than it might be otherwise, because I like the era.) Chronologically confusing, it was still an interesting, well done ‘slice of history’ film, and worth the watch.

 

 

 

The Big Parade: A Silent Story

 

Big parade posterI must admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.

I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.

With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!

By the time I unwrapped The Big Parade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?

I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.

The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France, and the two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.

the big parade 2

While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers. I wonder how much time it took to distill the text to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing. Text that fit the situations would have to be chosen carefully, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…) However long it took, it was time well spent.

The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from imdb.com describes it very well.

“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.

The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.

Another nod to the skillful writing of the film- it manages to be anti-war without diminishing the courage and the sacrifice of those involved. I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!

Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?

 

Up Front by Bill Mauldin: Finding Humor in the Darkness of War

Bill Mauldin

Thus far I’ve lived a quiet life, and I’m thankful for it.

Of course there have been sorrows and troubles, and ongoing struggles that may not end this side of heaven, but once I started studying history again, I quickly remembered to be grateful for these. At least my family has a home. At least my loved ones can get medical care. At least I’m not wondering where my next meal is coming from. At least…

However, living a quiet life and writing about unquiet times proved a challenge. If I were going to try to portray a difficult time- for instance life in the slit trenches and foxholes of the 1940s- how was I to do it well?

I focused on finding books and sources written by people who lived through the conflict. I devoured first-hand accounts, and books which used first hand accounts as sources.

My husband encouraged me to pick up some fiction again in the midst of this when the heavy topics made me gloomy. He also gifted me one of my favorite books from this era, Up Front by Bill Mauldin.

Published in 1945, Up Front isn’t exactly a history book. Bill Mauldin was a cartoonist for the Army newspaper The Stars and Stripes. This book is a compilation of his comics, narrated by the author. It almost reads like an interview, written in first person and giving his perspective on the time.

As far as his comics, Mr. Mauldin says:

“I haven’t tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I’m not old enough to understand what it’s all about, and I’m not experienced enough to judge its failures and successes. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings. Since I’m a cartoonist, maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on. The only way I can try to be a little funny is to make something out of the humorous situations which come up even when you don’t think life could be any more miserable. It’s pretty heavy humor, and it doesn’t seem funny at all sometimes when you stop and think about it.”  (pgs. 7-8)

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He doesn’t paint war as clean and shiny with everyone behaving properly, (i.e. these aren’t comics for the kids! The text of the book isn’t either for that matter) but he doesn’t paint a bitter picture either. Mr. Mauldin focuses on the people, the camaraderie, the respect, (or lack of) they show each other, fear and courage and small acts of kindness.

‘Joe’ and ‘Willy,’ two scruffy infantry ‘dogfaces,’ are the stars of Mauldin’s comics. The book follows their progress, (though not exactly chronologically,) from the muddy mountain slopes of Italy, to the embattled Anzio beachhead, up to Rome, then over to France.

His comics and views of the war weren’t always popular. General George S. Patton’s hated Mauldin’s cartoons. The ‘spit and polish’ general objected to Mauldin’s portrayal of tired, sloppy soldiers, and to jokes at the officers’ expense. Mauldin himself admitted that he liked to poke some fun at the ‘brass.’ However, he qualified this tendency.

“Not all colonels and generals and lieutenants are good. While the army is pretty efficient about making and breaking good and bad people, no organization of eight million is going to be perfect.” (pg.16)

“I never worry about hurting the feelings of the good officers when I draw officer cartoons. I build a shoe, and if somebody wants to put it on and loudly announce that it fits, that’s his own affair.” (pg. 180)

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While he may have stirred up a little fuss with some of these comics, in the end, Mr. Mauldin’s hope for his characters was for them to find their own quiet life. A hope for peace.

“I’ve been asked if I have a postwar plan for Joe and Willie. I do. Because Joe and Willie are very tired of the war they have been fighting for almost two years, I hope to take them home when it is over. While their buddies are readjusting themselves and trying to learn to be civilians again, Joe and Willie are going to do the same. While their buddies are trying to drown out the war in the far corner of a bar, Joe and Willie are going to drink with them. If their buddies find their girls have married somebody else, and if they have a hard time getting jobs back, and if they run into difficulties in their new, strange life of a free citizen, then Joe and Willie are going to do the same. And if they finally get settled and drop slowly into the happy obscurity of a humdrum job and a little wife and a houseful of kids, Joe and Willie will be happy to settle down too.

They might even shave and become respectable.”  (pgs. 17-18)

It takes a gifted writer, and in this case cartoonist, to find real smiles in the middle of terrible situations. For those who appreciate this gift, those who are interested in this period of history, or those who just want to appreciate their quiet lives a bit more, Up Front is an excellent choice.

 

A Taste of History: The Fabulous Carrot in World War 2

Having a hard time getting your kids to eat their vegetables? Maybe Doctor Carrot can help!

dr. carrot

Believe it or not, this goofy cartoon character had a serious role in history.

The summer of 1940 found London suffering under the German Blitz. Europe was overrun, the British Expeditionary Force having barely escaped annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. The United Kingdom relied heavily on imported goods; now the German U-boats threatened to isolate the British completely. (Prime Minister Winston Churchill recorded in his History of the Second World War that the only thing that ever really frightened him during the war was the U-boat peril.)

At risk of being starved out of the war, the Ministry of Food, steered by Lord Woolton, instituted a large scale program of rationing and conservation, and encouraged the people to plant their own ‘Victory Gardens.’

The programs were successful, but required the people to adapt. Many foods that had previously been staples were unobtainable.

The carrot was one instrumental filler food. Carrot recipes ‘cropped up,’ everywhere, from carrot curry to carrot ‘lollies,’ to Woolton Pie.

The carrot’s popularity was bolstered by hints the government publicized that perhaps one reason for the success of the RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain was their improved eyesight from large carrot consumption. Perhaps, posters speculated, carrots could even help members of the public see better during blackouts!

eat carrots

While the vision-enhancing powers of carrots may have been exaggerated, the programs were successful. The UK held on, and the Allies eventually triumphed.

Interestingly enough, (according to some sources,) the necessity of rationing and of food programs provided improved nutrition, health and I.Q. scores – blessings amid the trials.

If you are interested in finding out more on this topic, the following are a couple of my sources.

As for me, I’m craving carrot sticks!

Stolarczyk, John. “Carrots in World War 2.” World Carrot Museum. Copyright 1996-2015. http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/history4.html

Waller, Maureen. London 1945: Life in the Debris of War. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. Print.

On the U-Boat threat: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/battle_atlantic_01.shtml

 

Writing Inspiration: Revisiting Memory

IMAG0471Childhood summers meant one thing: Up North.

Every summer, my family would pile into our car, carefully crammed with fishing poles, coolers, baseball caps and bug spray. As the youngest, I always had the middle back seat, with most of the items stashed under my feet.

Our destination was the house my great-grandpa built, tucked into the sweet-scented pine forests off the coast of Lake Superior.

We’d go up with my grandparents and visit my great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and various other relatives who bleared together in my childish memory. Sometimes my cousins and aunts and uncles would all cram into the house with us or camp out in the yard. It was great fun, but numbers sometimes made things complicated, as my great- grandpa also dug the ‘sewer’, such as it was, himself.

Busy and messy, full of card games and mosquito bites and fishing and laughter, those sun-streaked days are some of my dearest memories.

As the years went on, our ‘Up North’ family dwindled- our losses, heaven’s gains.

The responsibilities of adulthood and moving out of state limited, then eliminated, my summer visits, until last year.

I was finally able to bring my children back to the old house last summer.

We stepped out of the car and I was a child again, ready to run through the ferns and forget-me-nots and to build tee-pees in the clearing.

Everything held a memory. The shriek of the bedsprings in the upstairs room that 2 (or was it all 3?) of the sisters who grew up in the house shared. The steep staircase that Grandma descended, holding the lilacs and daisies her sisters picked, to marry my Grandpa when he came home from the war. The birdhouse reserved for ‘Chippie,’ Grandpa’s semi-tame chipmunk. Great-Grandma’s old treadle sewing machine that mom taught me to use.

It was painful joy to play with my husband and children in the woods, to hike and throw rocks into the lake, to relive small moments of childhood memory, while knowing that things had changed irrevocably.

The things were still there, but the people were gone, their stories and laughter an echo in the past.

Still, though bittersweet, dusting off the memories and saying the names of people I missed allowed them, for a brief while, to walk again. Alive in memory.

One of the greatest treasures I discovered when I began serious research for my book was BBC’s “WW2 People’s War” archives.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/

From 2003-2006, BBC sent a call out to everyone who had memories from the wartime years. The memories were written down, sorted by category, and archived.

47,000 stories reside here. Memories of joys and sorrows and day to day life. Memories of soldiers, wives, children, doctors, ambulance drivers and teachers. Memories told first hand, and memories passed on by surviving children. Memories that take some patience to sort through, that may be distorted by the years between, but that give a better picture of the texture and flavor of the life of these people than the most carefully researched textbook.

I visited the archives frequently, hunting for memories that would illuminate my research. I would always end up reading through pages of unrelated material, entranced by the voices of people who lived history.

For anyone interested in this era, I can’t recommend a visit to this site highly enough.

Summer moves too quickly. Our family’s visit to the north woods ended, but the kids still talk about it, reliving memories of their own.

What memories fuel the stories you share?