Category Archives: Winston Churchill

Music tells us stories as conflict begins

The years 1939 & 1940 are difficult to really put together in our story.  Britain was at war – the USA stood out of it.  On 31st August in Britain many civilians were evacuated from London while, in the USA, Bing Crosby was the leading figure of the ‘Crooner’ sound and was on his way to becoming a superstar of the 1940s.

In the USA ‘charts in 1939 at number 5 we find Louis Armstrong with ‘When the Saints Go Marching Home’ .  Billie Holiday is at number 4 with ‘Strange Fruit’  while number 3 gives us – Kate Smith with ‘God Bless America’  Number 2 delivers – Glenn Miller with ‘Moonlight Serenade’  and number 1 gives us – Judy Garland with ‘Over the Rainbow’

In early 1939s Britain still had the Depression to concern large parts of the population but a new “high society” had a developing and golden age of culture dawning.  The cinema industry was booming, with many people attending more than once a week to seek escapism from their daily struggles.

The 1939 Academy Awards saw 10 films nominated for Best Picture, among them classics that are still highly regarded today, including Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr Chips and the winner Gone With the Wind.  Britain in 1939 also had their own popular music – but in no particular order – that contained:  ‘Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant Major’ by Art Noel & Don Pelosi; ‘On the Outside Always Looking In’ with words and music by Michael Carr who also wrote ‘Somewhere in France with You’‘South of the Border’ had words and music by Jimmy Kennedy & Michael Carr as had ‘We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’.   Two more numbers – ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘There’ll always be and England’  – with words by Hughie Charles & music by Ross Parker. 

To closed off this set let us have Gracie Fields, with Harry Parr Davies’s words and music, asking us all – and especially our fighting forces – to ‘Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodby’.

Before the conflict began Britain was importing about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries and a typical breakfast for a middle-class Brit consisted of porridge and milk or bacon and tomatoes. Lunch might be veal cutlets and boiled potatoes and, for dinner, a meal of creamed chicken and vegetables with baked rice pudding for dessert.  That food importation was halted in late 1939 when German submarines started attacking British supply ships. There was a worry that this would lead to shortages in food supplies, so in 1940, rationing was introduced. The Ministry of Food drafted in the original “celebrity chef” Marguerite Patten to devise lean wartime recipes, and radio shows such as the BBC’s Kitchen Front encouraged the nation’s housewives to wash – rather than peel – vegetables to increase their nutritional value and avoid unnecessary wastage.

It was on 7th May 1940 that the British House of Commons began a debate about the disastrous British campaign against the Germans in Norway. This turned into a vote of confidence in Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. Although Chamberlain won the vote it was clear he had lost the confidence of his colleagues in the Conservative Party and the field became clear for Winston Churchill to take office. He took the post on 10th May 1940 – the same day that Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg!

It was on 7th December 1941 that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and very shortly after that the United States entered World War II

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Evacuate and fight another day

On Monday 27th May – the first full day of the evacuation – one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active and Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards seeking small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour.

In this same day the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations.  Water supplies were knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished and an estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town.

In the air the Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on Monday 27th May while losing 14 of their own aircraft. Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo.

The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

The Challenge begins

On Saturday 25th May 1940, the Luftwaffe focused their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens.  They did not attack Dunkirk.
Calais was held by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and surrendered on Sunday 26th May. 

On that same Sunday 26th May 1940, at 15:30, Hitler ordered the Panzer groups to continue their advance, but most units took another 16 hours to attack. The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defenses vital for the evacuation and prevented the Germans from stopping the Allied retreat from Lille.  The Halt Order has been the subject of much discussion by historians, many of whom considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. Another called it “one of the great turning points of the war”, and a third described it as “one of Hitler’s most critical mistakes”. Hitler himself believed that once Britain’s troops left Europe, they would never return.  The retreat itself was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction.

Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicized. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 26th May, which was declared a national day of prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers “for our soldiers in dire peril in France”. Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.

It was just before 7 pm on Sunday 26th May that Winston Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation code-named also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk – to begin.   Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation.  As it turned out only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day.