S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the tag “WWII History”

Film Review – Dunkirk

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Rating – Two stars

I enjoyed the first few minutes of Dunkirk. The narrative was presented in classic cinematic design—relevant, dynamic, kinetic action void of dialogue and supported by pertinent sound effects. “Here’s a winner,” I reckoned. Unfortunately, as the film continued, I became increasingly disappointed.

I do not know what to make of Dunkirk. Is it a historical fiction film based on the rescue of the British army from France, or an avant garde experiment? Nonetheless, as a straight narrative film it is seriously flawed. Notwithstanding the numerous technical errors, several egregious, I could not willingly suspend my disbelief while viewing this film.

Dunkirk does not engender empathy for its characters. One exception is actor Mark Rylance—the skipper of a small boat that putt-putts at an agonizingly plodding pace to the beach at Dunkirk. Other than him, I’ve no one to root for.

There is no antagonist, except some vague enemy who shoots from concealment, fires artillery shells from the ether (as it were), and flies Messerschmitt 109s and drops bombs from Hinkle 119s sans aviators. I’ve no one to fear or abhor. Who is the enemy that is causing the havoc at Dunkirk? I am bamboozled by why the producers did not identify the adversary—the German Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine. Am I to conclude that the filmmakers’ cultural-correctness negates history so as not to offend—anyone? Gadzooks! Without a defined antagonist, the narrative is palpably defective.

Compounding my disappointment is the negative ambiance that pervades Dunkirk. The mise en scène focuses excessively on sinking ships, downed aircraft, and dying and dead “tommies”—dying in all manner of horrors. Bedlam is a more fitting title for this epic extant. Admittedly, war is Hell. But to linger on its savagery is ghoulish.

My most serious objection to Dunkirk is the film’s dereliction in failing to communicate the critical importance and far-reaching consequence of the “Miracle of Dunkirk”—the evacuation of 200,000 British “tommies” and 140,000 French poilus from the beaches of France. This British operation was one of Word War II’s most critical actions. The film ignores the great triumph that it was. Had this operation failed, Britain would have been without an army and probably would have had to ask for terms with the Third Reich.

Background. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Wehrmacht Commander of Army Group A during the Battle of France, said, “Dunkirk was one of the greatest turning points of the war.”

The filmmaker missed a beckoning opportunity to concoct a classic cinematic montage that would portray the frenetic activity of British naval personnel and subjects fueling and preparing private boats that could sail the forty miles from Ramsgate to France, and return with soldiers. En route was an armada of eight hundred self-propelled vessels—the “little ships of Dunkirk.” It was a mélange of trawlers, pleasure yachts, fishing boats, dinghies, Thames ferries, lifeboats, automobile ferries, and tugboats. Included also were Belgian fishing boats, Irish motor torpedo boats, and Dutch coasters.

The last scene in Dunkirk shows a rescued British soldier riding in a train, looking at a newspaper. He spots a transcript of Winston Churchill’s famous “Miracle of deliverance” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940—”We shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender.” This was the most famous speech of the war. It boosted British subjects’ sagging morale and encouraged them to carry on. To my serious disappointment, the soldier read aloud this hallmark speech. How pedestrian.

Nolan missed another golden opportunity to salvage a smidgen of this flawed film’s ambiance. After the surfeit of death and destruction that suffused through this epic, it ought to have ended on a high point, a capstone. Consider a scene that would show the “little ships” flotilla closing on the English coast. On the sound track is Winston Churchill delivering his “Miracle of deliverance” oration. Didn’t happen.

The special effects in Dunkirk are spectacular. I wonder, however, if less technology and more plot and cinematic design would have produced a more tolerable film.

FIN

Complete text of Winston Churchill’s “Miracle of deliverance” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940—the last day of the Dunkirk evacuation.

”We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

FIN

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Book Review- Killing the Rising Sun

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Rating – Five Stars

Bill O’Reilly hits a home run with his compendium of the 1940s Pacific War. He writes in an easy, sparse, and empathetic style. He paints the big pictures of the major land and sea battles and tells the stories of the “grunts” that did the fighting and dying. We know these grunts. We identify with them, we are appalled at the horrendous casualties, we share the agony with the wounded, and we attend their burials at sea, in unmarked graves, and at Arlington.

O’Reilly sets the stage for the war in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan. We learn of the building animosity in the 1930s between America and the Empire of Japan. The animus began when Japan invaded the Chinese province Manchuria in September 1931. Japan was eager to implement its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to conqueror East Asia for its natural resources. The animus increased when Japan invaded China in July 1937. The Kwantung Army captured Peking, Shanghai, and other coastal cities in a few days. French Indo-China fell to Japan in July 1941.

Responding, President Roosevelt (with Great Britain and the Netherlands) imposed an embargo on petroleum products, steel, and other natural resources for Japan. At the time, the Imperial Japanese Navy had only three months of bunker oil. General Hideki Tojo ordered the implementation of Command Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan for a surprise attack on our fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—Tora! Tora! Tora!

In the early morning on Sunday December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese aircraft, from three aircraft carriers, bombed and torpedoed our fleet in Pearl Harbor with devastating results: sunk were the battleships, USS Arizona, USS Utah, USS Oklahoma, USS West Virginia, and USS California. Five other battleships were heavily damaged. President Roosevelt declared war on the Empire of Japan with the phrase, “a date which will live in infamy.”

O’Reilly guides us our journey through the bloody campaigns throughout the South and Central Pacific, and to the Japan’s home island Okinawa—where Kamikaze pilots drove their aircraft directly into our ships—causing devastating casualties in sailors and ships.

He details the great sea battles with cogency, Java Sea, Bismarck Sea, Coral Sea, Midway, Espírito Santo (“The Slot”), Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, and the Okinawa Campaign. We crawl through the islands with the grunts: Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Buna, New Georgia, Mankin, Tarawa, Leyte, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Okinawa.

Almost seventy percent of this book discusses the atomic bomb. We follow President Roosevelt’s approval, General Groves management of this titanic project, Doctor Oppenheimer assembling his team at Los Alamos, work, innovation, breakthrough, and testing. The bomb on board the B-29 dubbed Enola Gay, Hiroshima in flames; another bomb on the B-29 dubbed Box Car, Nagasaki in flames. We see General MacArthur on board the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay signing the instrument of surrender. The greatest, most deadly, and costly war has concluded.

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The Doolittle Raid

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and five other Japanese cities—one of the most audacious, brilliant, and important actions of World War II.

Background. In a surprise maneuver, aircraft from the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, 7 December 1941 that destroyed the our Navy’s battle fleet. Fortunately, our aircraft carriers were at sea conducting exercises and were unharmed.

Following the Pear Harbor attack, allied forces were reeling backwards as Japanese forces advanced deep into China; they conquered Hong Kong, Wake, and Guam. In the Philippines, American forces had retreated to the island stronghold of Corridor in Manila Bay and it was soon to fall. In southeast Asia, they occupied Vichy French Indo-China without opposition. Their aircraft sunk the British battleships, Prince of Wales, and Repulse in the South China Sea. Shortly Malaysia and Singapore fell. Burma and Thailand fell next, and the Japanese were poised to invade India (“The Crown of the Empire”). In the naval engagement of the Java Sea, the Japanese sank our heavy cruiser USS Houston, and our auxiliary aircraft carrier USS Langley. Eastward, they captured the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Timor, New Guinea, and vast areas of the central and southern Pacific: the Marshall, Caroline, and Gilbert Islands. The Japanese’s next scheduled conquest was Australia. (Most of its army was in Egypt fighting Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Africa Corps.)

American armed forces were in retreat throughout the western Pacific. The British and Commonwealth forces fell back to India. A Japanese submarine shelled the Elwood oil refinery near Santa Barbara. American moral was at the nadir as the war news became more and more negative. President Roosevelt demanded that we strike the Japanese homeland to boost American morale and put the Japanese Imperial Staff on notice that their day of reckoning was coming. The president’s charge was an impossible task. That is until Lieutenant Colonel James (Jimmy), Doolittle of the US Army Air Corp, devised a daring plan.

In the morning of 18 April 1942, in very heavy weather and pitching seas, sixteen Army Air Corps, North American “Mitchell” B25 medium bombers launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Colonel Billy Mitchell was first off with only 400 feet of flight deck ahead of his aircraft. Flying at low-level to avoid detection, the B25s hit targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. One B25 was forced down in Japan and the crew taken prisoners-of-war (and three executed), one landed in neutral Soviet Union and the crew interned, and the remaining fourteen aircraft crash-landed in China. President Roosevelt awarded James Doolittle the Medal of Honor.

In Doolittle’s autobiography, I Could Never be so Lucky Again, he said, “… as a result of our raid, the Japanese were withdrawing fighter (airplane) units from the front lines to defend their homeland.” They feared more attacks on their homeland and wanted to push their front lines to Midway for a follow on invasion of the Territory of Hawaii. The Japanese Navy suffered a stunning defeat in the ensuing Battle of Midway. We sank four of their aircraft carriers and several other warships; and the core of their veteran aviators was lost. Historians now agree that the Doolittle raid …”induced the Japanese to extend their forces beyond their capability. (p. 293) The Battle of Midway was the turning point in the war.”

In 1959, James Doolittle retired as a Major General and returned to an executive position at Shell Oil Company. In 1985, Ronald Reagan promoted Doolittle to a full four-star general. Doolittle died on September 27, 1993, at age 96.

Short Biography. Doolittle enlisted in the Army in 1917 when World War I was in full force. He earned his wings, and despite his repeated request for overseas duty, he was assigned to training aviation cadets. He earned his Doctor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts of Technology in1925. After the first world war, he became on of America’s top racing aviators. He won the Schneider Marine Cup, 1925; Mackay Trophy, 1925; Bendix Trophy, 1931; Thompson Trophy, 1932, and many other. In 1989 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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