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Showing posts with label world war two. Show all posts
Showing posts with label world war two. Show all posts

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Operation Mincemeat - Ben Macintyre

I have become a touch wary of stories about World War Two espionage and subterfuge, as grandiose and excessive claims are often made for the value or import of certain missions or initiatives. However, "Operation Mincemeat", instigated by British Naval Intelligence in 1943, to support the impending landings in Sicily, possesses elements which make it stand out from the crowd. Ben Macintyre's book on the subject therefore became essential reading.
In short, "Operation Mincemeat" was a deception scheme arranged by British intelligence, as a means of keeping the German High Command guessing about Allied intentions in the Mediterranean region, in the wake of the conquest of North Africa. To facilitate this, an ingenious and elaborate, if somewhat macabre, operation was mounted, whereby a human corpse was washed up on the Spanish coast, bearing various "fake" and "planted" letters and documents, in the hope that said items would find their way into German hands, and impact upon the Reich's military decisions in accordance with Allied wishes.

I had previously been aware of this episode, but the book fleshes out the matter considerably, and delivers a penetrating insight into several aspects of the war . The ambiguous and complicated Spanish role, the intricacies of espionage, the various chains of command, overlapping responsibilities and the sometimes petty rivalries and jealousies which constantly threatened to hinder projects of massive importance.
Approximately halfway through "Operation Mincemeat", my judgement was still reserved, as I had a feeling of dread about the conclusions which might be reached. There is a natural tendency amongst authors to make outlandish claims for the success or achievement of the enterprise which they are championing or seeking to bring to a wider audience. I am glad to say that in this case my fears proved to be groundless, as Macintyre is realistic, balanced and honest in his assessments of how much "Mincemeat" ultimately accomplished, acknowledging that other factors contributed to Allied success, and that this was just part of a larger overall deception programme.

This is emphatically NOT one of those ".....Who Fooled Hitler" jobs which have begun to populate the bookshelves and broadcast schedules in recent times. Macintyre's approach is much more nuanced and honest. He does not pretend that everything went swimmingly from beginning to end from the Allied viewpoint.
The Axis commitment of troops to North Africa in late 1942, and the consequent number of prisoners taken by the Allies in Tunisia, had arguably left Sicily exposed just as much as any decision by the German High Command to divert resources to Greece and Sardinia later on. The author correctly observes that the "Mincemeat" information merely helped to solidify attitudes and prejudices already harboured by Hitler and some of his colleagues. At the absolute minimum, and on balance of evidence, the plan positively benefited the Allies in the Mediterranean, albeit temporarily, as the twin forces of the terrain of mainland Italy, and the astute defensive tactics deployed by their opponents, soon meant much frustration further north.
The writing style is not particularly "scholarly", and some may find the tone a little shallow and "populist" in places. I thought that the author tried a little too hard at times to make every character or key player conform to stereotypes or caricatures of loveable eccentricity on the British side or clownish venality elsewhere. Having said that, it is never less than entertaining and absorbing, and several intriguing sub-plots are kept bubbling.
It is interesting to note the implication that anti-Nazi elements in German intelligence may have knowingly and deliberately misrepresented the meaning and/or contents of the "Mincemeat" documents, in order to frustrate or deceive their superiors. To be honest, I was expecting to be told that Wilhelm Canaris played a more direct role in the affair, given some of his well-documented activities, but seemingly he did not.
If you are interested in espionage or history, or just like a jolly good read, this book is recommended. I breezed through it quickly - always a good sign!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Kelly's Heroes

When I was young, and less wise, I developed some strange ideas about what constituted a great film. After seeing "Kelly's Heroes", for instance, I was convinced that I had just experienced the greatest war movie ever made. Little did I know that it was really intended as a "comedy", blending subtle satire, frivolity and action. Whatever my youthful misconceptions, it remains an entertaining, and occasionally thought-provoking picture.
The film centres on the exploits of a group of American soldiers in France in 1944, and their successful efforts to "steal" a haul of gold from a bank located behind enemy lines. The driving force behind the operation is Kelly, played by Clint Eastwood, who summons up his best "mean, moody and magnificent" persona for the role..
"Kelly Heroes" has much in common in many respects with the Vietnam-era war films which appeared later in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that this picture was made in 1969/70 doubtless helped to shape its aesthetic and some of the undercurrents in the script. The music is vaguely "Age of Aquarius" in nature, and bits of the dialogue are not what one would normally associate with a World War Two film.
This juxtaposition between the Second World War and later counter-cultural values is of course epitomised by the character "Oddball", played by Donald Sutherland.  Oddball's tank unit resembles a proto-hippie commune, and the "modifications" to his armoured vehicles are perhaps an insinuation that evil can be tackled without recourse to excessive violence...
I have read it suggested that "Kelly's Heroes" contains an anti-war message. I would concur with this assertion, but at the same time this is an undercurrent, not rammed down the viewer's throat, and it may not be immediately clear to those only watching casually. There is mixture of satire and "black comedy" which helps to soften any abrasiveness or preachiness which might have crept in.

I am not entirely sure whether the producers of this movie were seeking to pose deeper and more complex moral questions.  The relative "merits" or stealing gold and waging war spring to mind, although of course in reaching the bank the troops had to engage the German forces anyway.  Men died in the process. Which was the more noble "cause"?
Some of the action sequences leave a little to be desired in terms of authenticity, but then again I doubt that "Kelly's Heroes" was aimed at the "purist" audience, militarily or historically speaking. One needs to accept some of the occasional absurdity, and disregard technical minutiae, to appreciate the basic thrust of the movie.
There are, however, one or two memorable scenes. The sequence where the unit becomes trapped in a minefield is especially gripping. More levity is provided by the comical misinterpretations by the American general, who thinks that news of the appearance of Kelly's men behind enemy lines is evidence of some heroic and selfless act of initiative and aggression. Telly Savalas' performance is also worthy of praise, as the irascible sergeant "Big Joe".
It might not be a good idea to watch "Kelly's Heroes" back-to-back with a "serious" war movie, but it is still an intriguing watch.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Colditz:The Full Story

Much of the public's "understanding" and image of prisoner-of-war camps doubtless stems from watching movies and television dramas, or from sensationalist or one-sided documentaries.. It is always worthwhile to read a first-hand authoritative account, in order to separate myth from reality, and to obtain a grasp of the dynamics prevailing in the camps. A great example of such scholarship is "Colditz:The Full Story" by Major Pat Reid, a British officer who himself escaped from the infamous fortress.

Reid's account draws on his own experiences and those of his fellow POWs, as well as the diaries of key players in the story, and benefits from research conducted in the decades following the war.  Where details or facts are contentious, the author often cites differing versions of events.

One of the first things which I took from this book is how much the truth is at variance with the romantic notions which some people have about Colditz. Down the years, I have heard it intimated that the conditions there were comfortable or benign. However, this account largely discredits such theories, documenting the hardships and travails which the prisoners endured, including food shortages, illness, and endless disruptions and upheavals. Also, the spectre of the Gestapo and the SS, and their brutality, was a constant fear....

Reid provides some enlightening and detailed background information about some of the key protagonists, which not only enriches the reader's appreciation of them as people, but also aids in a grasp of the nature of the times, particularly the troubled Europe of the early 20th century. To his credit, he devotes much attention to the activities and valour of the non-British prisoners, notably the Polish, French and Dutch. The sometimes awkward relations within the national groups are examined frankly.

From reading this history, I gained the impression of a diverse group of men, and while there were some common traits and factors which bonded the prisoners together, many of them were all the while fighting their own private battles of conscience, coping in their individual ways with the privations, the frustrations and the moral dilemmas which arose. Beneath the bravado often lurked some dark forces and thoughts.

An impressive thread which runs through the chronicle of the war years at Colditz is the principled stance taken by so many of the men, presenting a defiance and resolution to the enemy at all times. There was clearly a moral dimension to this, the Allies believing in the justice of their cause, but it no doubt also served as a coping mechanism for many, enabling them to feel as though they were continuing the struggle by another means.

The battle of wills between captors and captives in POW camps is regarded as a microcosm of war itself, although it could be argued that the playing field was more level. It was a contest of intellect, fortitude and moral fibre, and not just brute force, industrial muscle and absence of scruples.

There was also a discernible undercurrent of "give and take" at times in the relationship between the prisoners and the Colditz authorities, both sides tacitly accepting that an agreeable rhythm of life and some semblance of equilibrium had to be maintained. This is often cited as a pervasive phenomenon in penal institutions generally. This is not, though, to imply that a code of chivalry existed between the adversaries...

The dedication and diligence with which the POWs went about their escape activities, and engaged with their enemy, is a reminder of the zeal with which a generation united, put aside minor differences, and fought a virulent threat to freedom and civilization. Would the same happen today, if a malign force comparable to Nazism emerged?  I sometimes find myself wondering whether the world has changed too much, but remain optimistic that ultimately the values of humanity and decency remain much the same as they were back then. Hopefully, my theories will never have to be put to the test.....

Reading this work, it is remarkable how much initiative and autonomy the captives exhibited, partly a consequence of so many officers, serial escapees and robust, energetic characters being thrown together in the same place. The amount of planning, intelligence gathering and ingenuity involved in the escapes and general organization was staggering, combining savvy, patience and obduracy. Persistence and perseverance were also essential, given the likelihood that the bulk of escape attempts would not result in a "home run".

The chapters which deal with the closing months of the war are absorbing and sobering. Chaos reigned in Germany, and the POWs became acutely aware of what might befall them in such a scenario. It is often overlooked just how precarious and uncertain their position was shortly before Colditz was liberated by American forces in 1945.

Reid also underlines the role played by the Red Cross, neutral countries and voluntary organizations in supporting and advising the prisoners, these efforts regularly conducted in perilous circumstances. The people, including resistance movements and ordinary civilians, who rendered assistance, deserve enormous admiration and respect.

My chief emotions after reading "Colditz:The Full Story" were those of being humbled by the courage, finesse,tenacity and stoicism shown by the prisoners. Even in the direst of adverse circumstances, they rarely wavered in their resolve and focus. An example to us all.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Longest Day

I often find it illuminating to revisit the films, music and books which I admired during my youth, to see whether they still warrant that praise when subjected to the scrutiny of my older, more analytical and critical mind and worldview.  One such example is the 1962 war movie The Longest Day, which I recently watched in its entirety for the first time in years.

As a teenager, I tended to regard The Longest Day as in some ways the definitive war movie, but looking back the reasons for this viewpoint were quite superficial.  The film's big budget and impressive cast seemed to my callow mind to automatically confer greatness on it, and I did not delve beyond these factors to analyse things in greater detail. So, how did my now more discerning, forty-something eye see things?

The Longest Day tells the story of the Normandy D-Day landings of June 1944, from the point of view of Allied and German servicemen, and French civilians and resistance fighters. The whole theater of operations is covered, from paratroops and glider-borne forces, to fighter pilots and those men landing on the invasion beaches.

One of the first things to observe is the impact of the black and white stock used. This lends proceedings a certain gravitas, as well as conveying in places a sense of pathos and foreboding, and the grim and scary truth about war and combat.

Another wise touch was the decision to have the dialogue in German and French as well as English, with subtitles being employed. This imbues the film with a touch more authenticity.

The format of the movie, whereby the story is related from the point of view of various participants, in a multiplicity of roles, helps to bring across the sheer scale and magnitude of events.  I suppose one could argue that this may leave the picture feeling more fragmented, and less intimate, than other ones of this genre.  However, the skill and care employed in characterization and editing means that this is not a massive drawback overall.

This movie by necessity places more emphasis on the preliminary and preparatory phases than most other war films. We gain a hint of the apprehension, excitement and stakes, as well as being introduced to the various characters. These days I tend to find these aspects more interesting than the battle scenes themselves...

Despite the big-budget "Hollywood" status of The Longest Day, I did not get an impression of any major sensationalism, or excessive embellishment or over-inflation of characters. Their trepidation and insecurities seem very "human" and natural.  The general atmosphere is, I would suggest, mildly understated, rather than gung-ho...

It is significant that, on the Allied side especially, the film pays most attention to those at the "sharp end", including both commanders and the rank-and-file "on the ground", as well as civilians.  The scene portraying the conference involving Eisenhower, Montgomery and company is almost an afterthought, with relatively unknown actors playing the relevant parts.

One thing which I pondered on after watching the film was whether it overplayed the extent of German "complacency" and surprise concerning the landings, particularly among the higher echelons of command. On the other hand, there is some attempt to illustrate the nature of the German command structure, the degree to which localised autonomy was constrained from the top, and the recriminations which all this provoked.

The scenes in the hours of darkness, during the early stages of the operation, are perhaps the most evocative and gripping in the entire movie. The monochrome works to powerful effect here. We can begin to get some impression of just how bewildering and frightening it must have been for those people involved.  The sequences featuring  the parachute and glider troops, and special forces and commandos, are very dramatic and compelling.

There is vivid depiction of the improvisation which occurred in the formative stages of the operation, when the best-laid plans had gone awry.  Snap decisions having to be taken by commanders on the ground, and stragglers, or those who were simply lost, joining up with other units. We also see how the Germans reacted to the confusion of those early hours, as the scale of events began to dawn on the high command.

The battle scenes in The Longest Day are not particularly graphic in comparison with more recent war movies. They are though frenetic and intense, admittedly.  There is also some clever and inventive camera-work, with long and wide shots affording a panoramic view of some of the engagements.

Of the acting performances, one which stands out is that of Richard Todd, as Major John Howard. Quietly authoritative and purposeful.

One of the notable features of this film is the number of what might be described as "cameo" or relatively minor parts undertaken by major stars.  The likes of Richard Burton, Henry Fonda and Rod Steiger are among those who perform these roles, and their presence and talent helps to instill real authority and weight.  Another example of this phenomenon which stands out is that of Kenneth More, as an eccentric but fearless beach master.

Of the more substantial roles, a couple really linger in the consciousness.  Robert Mitchum is superb and plausible as an American infantry commander embroiled in the chaos on Omaha beach, showing determination, presence of mind and humanity in his efforts to extricate his men from their predicament.  John Wayne is in his element as the injured parachute commander, being wheeled around on a cart, but displaying a kind of laconic determination and persistence.

I feel that the dialogue in The Longest Day still stands up reasonably well.  There is plenty of dark humour and bathos in there, alongside the standard military discourse, but it rarely descends into the realms of being corny or trite.

A few of the scenes in the picture stand out.  There is a memorable sequence where a group of nuns walks through the middle of a savage battle in order to render medical assistance to Free French soldiers.  Towards the end, there is an encounter between an inexperienced American soldier and Richard Burton's character, a wounded RAF pilot who has killed a German infantryman.  Their conversation, in a relatively tranquil setting towards the end of that momentous day, helps to place the events in some kind of perspective.

The Longest Day has a real scope and sweep about it.  It therefore does not quite have the emotional pull, or pose the distilled and condensed moral or philosophical questions which are characteristic of movies such as The Bridge On The River Kwai.  However, it is a superbly polished and compelling piece of work, with many poignant and fascinating moments.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Guns of Navarone

There are certain films, particularly war movies, which were staple viewing for people of my generation, who grew up in the 70s and 80s.  It is always intriguing to gauge how much my attitude towards these films has altered with the passage of time, and with the shifting sands of my own outlook and attitudes.  One such movie is The Guns Of Navarone.  I recently watched it, for the first time in quite a while.

Firstly, I had forgotten just how lengthy the film is!  Much scope is allowed for the preliminaries and preparation, the tortuous build-up and the operation itself.  I have not read Alistair MacLean's novel, on which the movie is based, but the running time may reflect a desire on the part of the film-makers to do full justice to the book.  It also permits some concentration on the "human" aspects of the story.

I have always had a penchant for the kind of war movies which look at the more "niche" areas of conflict, and the less publicised theatres of war, and those which concentrate on special or clandestine operations, rather than the grandiose ones featuring mighty clashes of arms.  A healthy dose of political intrigue, and room for plot twists and improvisation, are also very appealing.  The Guns of Navarone combines elements of this, and also those of the "blockbuster", with its all-star cast and the sheer opulence of some of the visuals. This duality works well.

There are cliches aplenty throughout, although in fairness this picture probably invented quite a few of them!  I found a few bits of the story a touch implausible, mainly the intricate ways in which the commando unit continue to evade capture by the Germans, but this is likely just the pedant in me making itself felt. These relatively mild reservations are counter-balanced by the cold reality which occasionally afflicts the raiding party.

Of the acting performances, Gregory Peck brings authority, gravitas and depth to his role.  By contrast, I found David Niven a touch overwrought and unconvincing here.  The real revelation for me is Anthony Quinn, both brooding and humane.

Even when subjected to my more exacting latter-day criteria, The Guns of Navarone still stands up reasonably well.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Battle of Britain (movie)

One of the drawbacks of some war films from the 1950s and 1960s is that they promote an excessively sugar-coated or jingoistic view of the subject matter.  Genuinely insightful and accurate examination of the historical issues can be obscured by the urge to pander to the prejudices of a mass audience.

Just recently I watched Battle of Britain, a 1969 movie telling the tale of the grim struggle between Germany and Britain in 1940.  I had seen this film several times when I was younger, and now, equipped with greater historical knowledge and a more nuanced political appreciation, I was pleasantly surprised at what a relatively sensible and mature account of events it is.

The cast is impressive to say the least, with prominent roles for Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Trevor Howard, Kenneth More and others.  The sets and effects are lavish, but employed tastefully and sparingly, and scenes which in other films might have been excessively showy or grandiose are thankfully not much in evidence here.

Rather than simply deal with the air battle itself, the film seeks to apply some context, and so matters begin with the impending fall of France, and the atmosphere of despondency, retreat and chaos. This is swiftly followed by images of Britain bracing itself for possible invasion.  There are some imaginative bits of sequencing which appear to contrast British stoicism with German triumphalism and perhaps over-confidence.

One of the things which I admired about this film is that it celebrated the courage and defiance of Britain in facing up to its plight without being overly sentimental or trite. The "stiff upper lip" is much in evidence, but in an agreeably understated manner.  For me the script flirts with the notion that much of this was a case of "putting on a brave face".  This theme is continued with the often fatalistic or sarcastic humour displayed by the RAF pilots, masking their genuine fear.

This movie was justifiably praised for its action sequences, and it is fair to say that they were impressively done.  The impact of these sequences was magnified for me by the quality of the film stock.  Effective camerawork and judicious use of music also contribute in this regard.

As well as the flying excerpts, the parts where British airfields are attacked are also very powerful, and occasionally graphic, as in the scene where Susannah York's character is faced with a line of the bodies of her subordinates, covered in blankets.  A reminder of the human cost, in a type of war which often seemed relatively impersonal.

One of the scenes which I noticed, but which might not have garnered the credit which it deserved, was one at the height of the battle, where RAF and Home Guard personnel appear in the same location. The producers may have seen this as symbolic, and hinting what was at stake if the battle was lost, and invasion became a certainty.

There were signs that some thorough research had been undertaken, with regard to tactics, the disposition of the respective forces, and so on. I found myself cross-referencing nuggets of information in the film with my own knowledge of the events of 1940.

Laurence Olivier delivers what appears to be a fine portrayal of Air Chief Marshal Dowding. Taciturn, matter-of-fact and a realist, not given to hyperbole.  Solid as a rock and level-headed when such qualities had never been more essential.

My one criticism of this movie is the decision to have a Hitler speech scene, and also some scenes featuring Hermann Goering.  These bits were quite superfluous, and my opinion is that they should have confined the dialogue and characterisations to the men and women at the sharp end, as it were.

Interestingly, there is no real attempt at a stirring climax. There is some symbolism, with empty seats at a dinner for German airmen, and moves in France to suspend invasion plans.  The British looked and sounded more philosophical than elated or euphoric.  At the end, Olivier looks out from his headquarters at the English countryside, and this subtle and gentle, but incisive imagery is in keeping with much of this film's tone.

Overall, I thought this was a credible, well-judged and balanced telling of the tale, possibly a definitive "mainstream" cinematic take.