TV Programme- Dunkirk: The Forgotten Heroes ( 51st Highland)

Discussion in '1940' started by JCB, Jul 15, 2018.

  1. JCB

    JCB Senior Member

    From Telegraph-
    Everybody seems to think that Dunkirk was the end of it. They never mention the 51st Highland division,” said 97-year old Donald Smith, in Dunkirk: The Forgotten Heroes (Channel 4). This was a terrific, detailed and emotionally engaging documentary that told the sad, and shamefully uncomemmorated story of the 51st Highland Division, left stranded in France in June 1940 after the evacuation at Dunkirk.

    Good documentary shown tonight , music was a bit overpowering specially when played over survivors telling their story and there was what now seems compulsory over dramatic voice over. Could also be argued that Dunkirk title a bit misleading.
    However a good story told fairly straight featuring people who were there ( all in their late 90s) .The reason the 51st didn't get out not a dreadful anti Scottish plot by the terrible English as put forward by many people trying to sell books but simply fog stopping the boats getting in on the evacuation night.
    Was the Bren gun a useless weapon though as suggested by the 'weapons expert' when comparing it to the MG42.

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  2. Gary Kennedy

    Gary Kennedy Member

    I didn't see the programme. Re the 'weapons expert' the cynic in me would say that all Allied weapons have been deemed inferior to their Wehrmacht opponents, regardless of how many enemy vehicles and personnel they accounted for in reality.

    And the realist in me would always take a Bren over an MG42 in 1940 (think about it...)

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  3. Incredibledisc

    Incredibledisc Well-Known Member

    It was an MG34 they demoed. One of the criticisms levelled in the program was that the Bren was “too accurate” which was deemed a problem for a support weapon. The expert claimed it was better to have a spray of bullets over a wider area to keep the enemy’s heads down.

    They also showed the Boys anti-tank rifle and how ineffective it was.
  4. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    The Bren was more accurate having a small cone of fire.The MG 34 had a much wider cone of fire and thus created a greater area of impact noise that those on the receiving end would be motivated to keep their heads down.

    Fired a Bren on the range during my time in the RAF..remember the instructors who had seen wartime service in the army tell us the magazine will hold 32 rounds...don't do it...limit it to 30 rounds to avoid jamming.By the end of training we could strip a Bren down and reassemble it blindfolded and that was the actual test in handling the weapon.Then I never saw one on a Bomber Command operational station.

    From what reports I have to mind was the Bren was an excellent infantry weapon.....Bill Speakman earned the VC in Korea firing a Bren from the hip.

    As regards the Boys.I cannot understood how the weapon was fundamentally designed.One would have thought that the capability of penetrating armour known to exist in the late 1930s would have been the first consideration in its specification.
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  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Need to watch this-Anyone who states the Boyes was ineffective in 1940 hasn't read as much on the campaign IMO.
  6. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    I started to watch it but got fed up of the ''untold story'' aspect of it by the chap doing the voice over, I gave up only a few minutes in.
    That is my loss at missing the veterans tales .

    I'll always remember our visit to St Valery in 2007 & doing the Then & Now photo which a few old hands on here will remember.
  7. Incredibledisc

    Incredibledisc Well-Known Member

    They did a test showing a round from the Boys being unable to penetrate a piece of armour plate of similar thickness to that used on the Panzers of the time. They fired two shots - the first missed (presumably due to massive recoil?) and the second bounced off the target. Probably a simplistic test and I bow to your superior knowledge on the subject Andy. One of the guys who made the show is a member here (Craig51) and Mathieu Lecul (aka Jericho) contributed some research.
  8. Incredibledisc

    Incredibledisc Well-Known Member

    I think it was a bit of an unfair comparison - bear in mind I’m not an expert though - the claim they made was the Bren was “inferior” as it had a slower rate of fire and was magazine fed while the MG34 had a greater rate of fire and was belt fed. However the Bren would seem to be lighter and more portable and highly effective when you actually wanted to shoot at a target rather than just spray an area with suppressing fire.
  9. Incredibledisc

    Incredibledisc Well-Known Member

    The “Untold Story” tag does appear to be fast becoming a cliche in historical documentaries. You could also argue that putting Dunkirk in there was also a tad disingenuous but TV execs make these decisions based on marketing rather than factual considerations don’t they?

    It was good to see a less well known (to the general public anyway) aspect of the 1940 campaign get some time spent on it even if one hour wasn’t enough to go into a lot of detail.

    For me there was also the added bonus that at the very end they showed a photo of some of the 7th Argyll’s which featured my great grandad. I’ve had a copy via the British Newspaper Archive which was good but in newsprint quality. I spoke to Craig the producer on Facebook after the show and he was nice enough to send me a scan of the original.

  10. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    A) Forgotten, secret, true, uncovered, hidden--nonsense. If the 51st are forgotten, it's only by dint of the fact that all but a handful of details of the war are forgotten by the majority of the public.

    B) I've seen video of trained soldiers (a team of two required) shooting an MG-34 at 'appearing targets'. Woefully inaccurate, constant reloading, vast expenditure of ammunition--frequent changes of overheating barrels. Its value was firing from established positions on fixed lines and terrifying the enemy with that high-pitched buzz.
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2018
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  11. papiermache

    papiermache WO 356 Mechanic

    The Daily Telegraph gave this a "terrific" review, which it did not deserve, but the leading player, Donald Smith, did say in this "documentary" :

    " People must realise just how chaotic everything was."

    That summed up his search for a French hospital in June 1940, having suffered the loss of a finger, shrapnel wounds to the head, and having seen his best friend killed beside him by the same blast that wounded him.

    The music was awful, probably written by a computer, and the volume control was the usual digital mess, no level to it. It didn't need music, it tended to induce nausea, but according to this programme the 51st Division never put to sea. It said that 11,000 were taken POW and no further reference was made. It was all supposed to be without War Office consent, but any sense of historical authority was almost completely absent, barring the words of the veterans.

    The camera work, in taking very close pictures of the survivors, two of whom have, sadly, died since being filmed ( as acknowledged at the end) , was almost distorted. This was incomprehensible to me, when other shots were more normal. It was done by design, but it was simply wrong.

    To emphasis the veteran's words, although some were so severely edited they were hardly allowed to get a sentence into the final version, there was writing on the screen. I suppose if you've got the gadget you've got to use it, but it detracted, and I usually watch TV with subtitles on.

    The voice over bloke was miscast.

    The stock historian was James Holland who was seen in the usual " Oh look I'm in the stack of an archive" looking like he was the plumber come to mend a leaky pipe. No authority whatsoever. Nice enough bloke, but can't he afford a shirt, tie, and jacket ? I am delighted that the veterans managed to look a lot smarter than he did.

    The other historian was on "ML 1387" somewhere off some cliffs with a drone carrying a camera reading bits from a book by Admiral William James ( he wrote several ). But, wait for it, the film makers have a gadget which lifts text from a book and prints it on the screen ! So just because they've got a gadget they have to use it as if to say, look we've edited this bit. And all the rest.

    It was about 42 minutes, 12 minutes of normal adverts for stuff like "medicine" for female teachers so they can avoid constipation, and sponsored by the Mitsubishi company who state: "Absorbing Life with Documentaries on Four." Very hard to absorb this production.

    There was a strange cameo from a "weapon's expert" who made no reference to anti-aircraft ( usual stock footage of bombers, high and low level ) and demonstrated the accuracy of the Bren gun using a wonderful tripod which enveloped him, except that they usually just had two sticks at the front. ( I shot a Bren on "automatic" once using these and it jumped about all over the place compared with a Lee-Enfield.)

    Without any sense of irony he declared that the German MG 34 " at the time...probably was the Rolls-Royce of machine guns." I bet it weighed a ton with yards of bullets in belts. His contribution about the anti-tank rifle was interesting to me, because I've never seen one.

    The Germans came to see the French on the Maginot line bearing bottles in the early days. Interesting from one of the veterans, now sadly departed. R.I.P.

    Donald Smith was apparently found in a pub after an Armistice day, and he was an absolute gem. He's got an interesting medal:

    Dunkirk’s forgotten heroes reveal heroic sacrifice after Churchill ordered them to fight on

    The Admiral had a long and distinguished career: William James (Royal Navy officer, born 1881) - Wikipedia.

    The real lesson here is not so much why was it so bad but an acknowledgement that at least the producers recorded the veterans who were all potential stars, and hopefully they got a lot more recordings of them than we saw.
  12. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    An insight to the performance of the Boys anti tank rifle.

    The Boys Anti Tank Gun » Dunkirk 1940 - The Before, The Reality, The Aftermath

    Incidentally a number escaped from St Valery down to Marseille where they were put up, secretly, by Louis and Renee Nouveau ...... overall 150 escapees from all services found refuge with them before being spirited away to Gib.

    The most notable escapee from St Valery was Captain Ian Garrow,a Seaforth Highlander,he made his way south taking four Glasgow Highlanders with him to Marseille where he with began with others to lay the foundations for accommodating escapees for the next stage of escape to Spain.
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  13. JCB

    JCB Senior Member

    You didn't like it then Papiermache !
    I thought it was OK except for OTT music and voice over , have to remember this was for Joe public not 1940 obsessives. Open neck shirts don't fill me with horror either. :)
    Donald Smith was a star , taking us back to his defensive position outside St. Valery and describing the action.
    Drews comment on the Boys rifle, I agree not as useless as made out, there are many first hand accounts of it stopping vehicles and light armour ( a lot of 1940 armour was light) and it could be carried by an infantry section.
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2018
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  14. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I know Mathieu and have the utmost respect for his work. We met this year and he is very knowledgeable and dedicated to research on 51 Div. for sure.

    As for the Boys I've read numerous accounts of Panzers being knocked and not knocked out by them, the problem is with the tank you are shooting at and most of the soldiers in 1940 didn't know what a tank looked like let alone the model, I've even read German reports referring to carriers as tanks (technically they are but you know what I mean). The trouble is there is a massive difference in quality between the Panzer I and Panzer IV and all in between used in the campaign. I'd agree they struggle with a IV but there wasn't may of them around during the campaign compared to earlier models and as for the Mk I I would argue they would knock these tanks out with little trouble.
  15. Len Trim

    Len Trim Senior Member

    May I draw your attention to Saul David's excellent book
    'Churchill's Sacrifice of the Highland Division'.
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  16. Incredibledisc

    Incredibledisc Well-Known Member

    Cheers Andy.

    If I remember correctly the armour comparison for their test of the Boys was based on the Panzer III.
  17. Incredibledisc

    Incredibledisc Well-Known Member

    I see the latest edition has been slightly retitled - After Dunkirk: Churchill's Sacrifice of the Highland Division

    To be honest either version is a tad “click-baitey” as David pretty much dismisses the idea that Churchill purposely “sacrificed” the division.
  18. Roy Martin

    Roy Martin Senior Member

    Not being a military man, and never having fired anything any bigger than a Lee Enfield .303 I can't comment on the armament. I did have something a bit heavier than that fired at our ship coming into Oran, when I was on the forecastle head; so I do know why soldiers need spare underwear.

    There were a couple of things that aggravated me: Operation Cycle was by no means a total failure, 14,557 British and 921 French troops were saved. That said 9,000 of them were taken to Cherbourg and had to be saved again a week later. The other point is that Cycle was only a warm-up for Aerial, when 139,812 British, 24,352 Polish and 4,938 Czech troops were saved, along with many civilians. Alright regulars, I know I keep harping on about this - but no b****r will listen!
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2018
  19. Len Trim

    Len Trim Senior Member

    Tells the story well though.
    One wonders if Churchill would have survived politically if it had been the Guards 'sacrificed'?
  20. papiermache

    papiermache WO 356 Mechanic

    One of my uncles, RASC, ( died 1998 ) came out through Dunkirk, the other, (RAOC), ( killed at sea 1944 as POW of the Japanese ) was evacuated from France further south, but I haven't applied for his records, so do not know how he escaped. I know very little about the BEF. My father served as a liaison officer with the Free French on board a British-built submarine, and was inspected by De Gaulle. The Free French despised the Vichy French.

    I have a copy of " The Sky Was Always Blue" by Admiral Sir William James, Methuen, 1951, which was once in the stock of " Royal Naval Museum, H.M. Naval Base,Portsmouth" which body sold it to me for £2 ! His account includes these brief extracts:

    " Having received no order to evacuate by the morning of the 10th, I became restless and decided to go over and see what was happening.....On arrival at the military Headquarters at Havre - ablaze with fires and full of refugees-I found that the situation was as bad as it could be; the French were giving way everywhere and our 51st Division would soon be forced on to the coast near St. Valery. I hastened to the headquarters of the French Admiral, who was the supreme authority in the area, and urged him to allow me to evacuate our soldiers before it was too late. He was in a very excited state and was under the delusion that the French Army was disputing every inch; Weygand had ordered a retreat to the Somme and he could give no orders for evacuation.

    I then went down to the harbour and told the senior officer to take all his craft to a position off St. Valery and await orders. I had telephoned my appreciation of the situation to the War Office from Havre and on return to Portsmouth I again rang up Bob Haining to find that Weygand had assured them that the French Armies were conducting a fighting retreat to the Somme-and, which was worse, that as the 51st Division had been placed under French command, the War Office could not independently order evacuation."

    He later says: " Authors of books about the war, including Mr. Churchill, ascribe the loss to other causes, such as the misty weather, instead of to the true reason-that French affairs were then in flabby hands."

    Sir John Dill wrote with his admiration and appreciation of the "immense and gallant efforts made by you."
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