Tag Archives: World War II

For the moment

For the moment movie posterFor the Moment is a 1993 film written and directed by Aaron Kim Johnston and starring Russell Crowe and Christianne Hirt. The plot revolves around airmen training in rural Manitoba, Canada, with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The main focus of the story is the wartime romance between Russell Crowe’s character and a local girl.

Johnson was inspired to write the screenplay based on the stories of his father who was an instructor and bomber pilot in the war, and his mother’s experiences as a young woman on the home front.

With principal photography taking place over August–September 1992, one of the first jobs for the production was to scout possible locations. The film was shot at former Royal Canadian Air Force stations in Manitoba used during the War, including Brandon Airport and Rivers itself.

Although there isn’t much flying in the movie, it gives a good sense of the locations. It’s possible to watch clips and match them against images from the bases. The brightly painted barracks at Rivers still feature on the town’s website.  It probably falls under the category of a ‘romance’ more than anything else, but the beautiful scenery and the yellow Harvards and Ansons offer an emotive glimpse into Earle’s world.

Watch the trailer.


Flying in Rivers

Train station at Rivers ManitobaEarle Britton was born on the Canadian prairies in a bleak little town called  Rivers, Manitoba.

The Town of Rivers, named in honour of The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway’s president Sir Charles Rivers-Wilson, was conceived when the railway was being planned and a division point was required. Construction of the roundhouse, coal shed, water system and repair shops began in 1907. The needs of the 350 railworkers and their families were met by the construction of houses and businesses. In 1911 the settlement had grown to village size and was incorporated as a town in 1913. Earle’s father worked as a locomotive foreman for the railway.

Earle’s logbook doesn’t include any mention of his earliest training (his first entries date after his transfer to High River, Alberta), but perhaps it was inevitable that he would be drawn into the air. In reading records of Rivers, it seems that there were two definitive forces that shaped the town: the railway and the RCAF.

The Federal Government established a Central Navigational School known as #1 CNS just south of Rivers, near the city of Brandon.  It was opened under the British Commonwealth Air Training plan. It quickly grew and with the construction of runways became an air-training base. Closed at the end of hostilities, it was reopened in the late 1940’s and became a Joint Training base with all three of the military branches represented. This base was considered redundant in 1968 and closed in 1969/70.

The base didn’t officially open until 1942, so it’s unlikely that it was the location of Earle’s initial training (as we pick up his log book in 1941). I suspect he may have made his start at Brandon itself before moving further West to Alberta. However, I think about his family, left behind in Rivers, watching aircraft come and go, wondering if their youngest son would ever make it home.

Resistance heroine who led 7,000 men against the Nazis

John Lichfield pays tribute to Nancy Wake, the Second World War’s most decorated woman and one of the models for Sebastian Faulks’ fictional heroine, Charlotte Gray

Nancy Wake“Ms Wake, who has died in London just before her 99th birthday, was a New Zealander brought up in Australia. She became a nurse, a journalist who interviewed Adolf Hitler, a wealthy French socialite, a British agent and a French resistance leader. She led 7,000 guerrilla fighters in battles against the Nazis in the northern Auvergne, just before the D-Day landings in 1944. On one occasion, she strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands. On another, she cycled 500 miles to replace lost codes. In June 1944, she led her fighters in an attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montlucon in central France.

This courageous and resourceful woman reminds us what unforeseen abilities may lie dormant in us all, awaiting extraordinary times to bring them to light.”

From The Independent, 9 August 2011

A new front: the importance of El Alamein

Bungay sums up the importance of El Alamein and North Africa:

“However, from a strategic perspective, even the modest level of damage inflicted directly on the Axis at El Alamein was significant. It forced Hitler’s attention back to the west and began a process of serious attrition there which, combined with the relentless losses in Russia, was to lead to total defeat. Until then, his forces had been concentrated in the east, and were beginning to be stretched. With the loss of the desert, he had to divert forces to Africa. With the invasion of North Africa, he had to occupy Southern France, and found a Vichy French army suddenly becoming a Free French army and fighting against him. After they had cleared North Africa, the Allies invaded Sicily. On 25 July 1943 whilst fighting there was still going on, there was a coup d’etat in Rome, and Mussolini was imprisoned. The Allies then invaded the Italian mainland; on 29 September Italy surrendered to the Allies and on 13 October declared war on Germany. This meant that not only did German troops have to man the lines in Russia, Italy and the Balkans to replace the Italians who had been there, but they also had a new enemy. As a result of Alamein, what had begun as an imperial war developed into a main front with broad strategic and political consequences.”

It is early in 1943, not long after the third battle of El Alamein and before the surrender of Italy that Flight Sgt E.L. Britton arrives in Africa and his war begins.

RAF in the desert

The RAF had begun to build up its strength in the desert just after the Battle of Britain and just in time for the first offensive in 1940. When it opened, the RAF had about 220 aircraft, mostly bombers, with just two full squadrons of Hurricanes (hardly enough to establish air superiority).

In mid 1941, the RAF’s newly appointed AOC-in-C Middle East, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, sat down with Auchinleck (Montgomery’s predecessor) to work out how the RAF and the Army should work together to defeat a common enemy. The RAF would bomb ports to disrupt supply lines and attack the lines of communication behind the battlefield. Casting pre-war RAF doctrine aside, it was also agreed that the army would receive air support directly on the battlefield (Bungay 104-107).

Disruption of supply lines was critical to winning the Battle. Fighting at desert war has been likened to a battle at sea- where the actual territory counts for nothing (waves of a salty ocean or windswept, featureless sands), and advancement cannot be made without machines (ships or tanks…). In this hostile environment, survival meant supplies. In theory, a mobile infantry unit needed 350 tons of supplies a day, including water, i.e. about 10,000 tons a month (Bungay 44).

Tedder re-organised his Command, turning his forward group into Air Headquarters, Western Desert, which soon became known as the Desert Air Force. In July, the Desert Air Force also got a new commander in the form of the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Connigham, who was known as ‘Mary’ (a corruption of ‘Maori’).

The British desperately needed Spitfires to stem their fighter losses in 1942, but they did not arrive. Keith Park acidly observed:

“Early in 1942, Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had 75 fighter squadrons in England, carrying out massive sweeps over France, as compared with only 52 squadrons when the Luftwaffe was at its full strength during the Battle of Britain. When the C-in-C Middle East asked for Spitfires for Malta,Fighter Command refused…when as few as five Spitfire squadrons could have saved Malta from the terrible blitz of spring 1942. This all arose from the mania of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory for Big Fighter Wings.”

Douglas intended to tie down the Luftwaffe and force it to withdraw fighters from Russia, but instead pointlessly lost many pilots and planes over France. The only Luftwaffe units ever to be withdrawn from Russia were sent to the Middle East because of the RAF’s activities in Malta and the desert. The Desert Air Force had to wait until May 1942 before it got it first operational squadron of Spitfires.

Following the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was eventually driven back into the a strip of land between an outcrop of hills and the Tunisian coast. The battle for North Africa did not end until May 1943.

One of the lessons Rommel was to take from Alamein to his later role as commander of the German defences in Normandy was the significance of air power. During the battle, the Allies had flown 11,586 sorties and had lost 97 aircraft. The Axis air forces had managed to put up 3,000 sorties an lost about 84 aircraft. The Desert Air Force hounded the retreat until it ran out of targets, but the Luftwaffe was unable to have any impact on the pursuers (Bungay 196-98).

Stephen Bungay’s Alamein

Alamein coverHaving decided that it was crucial to start building an understanding of the situation in North Africa before 1943, I was glad to discover that Stephen Bungay had written a significant work on the subject. As with The Most Dangerous Enemy he interrogates the reasons why a battle can be won or lost far from the actual front. He considers logistics, supply, training, chain of command, politics and chance as factors in determining an outcome. I think this review sums up the text rather well:

“Following his acclaimed history of the Battle of Britain, Bungay now turns his attention to the other great British triumph of the Second World War – El Alamein. In the North African desert in autumn 1942, the British Eighth Army under General Montgomery defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps in an epic battle.

For anyone who has any military experience or memories of the Second World War this is an unputdownable account. Indeed, it should be required reading for everyone, especially for the fourth chapter, entitled ‘The Soldiers’ War’, which provides a graphic and realistic account of the conditions experienced by front-line troops. This book is not just an account of a battle, but provides a broad sweep of the events which led up to it, and a less sweeping account of its aftermath. It also puts the whole desert war in perspective in relation to the war as a whole.

Bungay shows how compared with the Wehrmacht the British (and Commonwealth) armies were ill-prepared and undertrained. Montgomery was a prickly egotist, and few will disagree with Bungay’s critical summation, but none who encountered him will ever forget his dynamic and inspiring leadership. His ruthless weeding out of the incompetent went far below senior commanders and transformed the Eighth Army. While Rommel was expert at exploiting opportunity, Montgomery’s genius lay not only in his preparation for battle, but in sticking to his intentions.

Of course, and quite rightly, much is made here of supplies and air superiority, but in the end battles are won by the bloody clash of infantry. If there is a criticism to be made of this gripping analysis, it is in a neglect of those whose bayonets and raw courage actually did the job. The British soldier, at the worst of times, never lost confidence in his own ability, only in those who led him. Montgomery restored his belief.

This is a brilliant account of Alamein and all the issues surrounding it – political, military and technological. Highly recommended.”

-UK Kirkus review

One Author’s Personal Tribute to the men of RAF Bomber Command

“Although author George Stratford’s  novel, Buried Pasts, consists entirely of fictional characters and events, his inspiration to create this story came from an all too real source – his Canadian father, a pilot who was killed in action on the 19th July 1944 whilst serving with 78 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. George was just six weeks old at the time.”

Read a sample chapter.