Watching the stream of young people fill the Odeon Imax cinema to capacity this week to see the new film Dunkirk, I felt deeply touched that such distant memories should remain so relevant to the millenial generation, including my three sons.
Those remarkable cinematic scenes took me back to childhood when my late father, Lt Colonel Richard Hirsh Camrass MBE, led my brother and me down the vast deserted beach of Dunkirk and through the silent graveyards to instill in us the impact of global conflict. Amongst the one and a half million Jews who fought in the war, why was my father standing on that beach in 1940, and how did he end up as deputy commander of the allied forces in Rome?
In his very moving autobiography, my father describes just what it meant to grow up under the shadow of the world’s greatest tyranny of Nazi Germany, and how it motivated him to join the 46th Division of the Territorial Army some 18 months before the outbreak of war. He was a vocal supporter of Winston Churchill who recognised the inevitability of hostilities. He gave up a promising career as a young lawyer in Yorkshire to prepare for the inevitable. Early in 1940, after the declaration of war, he landed with the British Expeditionary Force in northern France to help stall the Nazi onslaught.
Possessing little more than rifles and a few anti-tank guns, he encamped with his battalion in a picturesque chateau in glorious spring sunshine, enjoying sumptuous cuisine to the background music of a regimental band. Then on May 10, 1940, Hitler’s troops came smashing through northern France, and the tranquility was brought to a shattering halt. Having beaten the Dutch and Belgians, and effortlessly overcome the Maginot Line, the German Panzers and Luftwaffe spread panic across France. The beleaguered French president called on the British army to support his ground troops as they massed for a final show down.
As my father advanced with his battalion towards the enemy front, he witnessed the sheer inhumanity of war. A constant stream of dishevelled refugees were retreating from the war zone whilst the Nazi troops ravaged the country behind them. Messerschmitts flew down to within fifty feet of these defenceless crowds, spraying bullets indiscriminately at women and children. This was a dark pre-warning of the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen.
My father described what he called ‘the fog of war’ where nobody knew where the enemy was, and which, if any, allied units were still in action, and which had disintegrated into a rabble and were determined to leave the field. Large hordes of fugitive Belgian, French and Dutch soldiers were now streaming through in alarming numbers. In just a few days the entire combined forces of Europe lay devastated and confused as they retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk.
He was evacuated from Dunkirk only to return to the scene of action to help save the remaining stranded soldiers. As he could not communicate from his position, the Ministry of Defence assumed the worst and sent a telegram to his parents stating ‘Your son is missing, believed killed in action’. On June 11 the Yorkshire Post published a short report: ‘Officer who returned to France is now missing’.
Fortunately for us, he was landing at Folkestone to encounter another world. To his utter amazement, children were playing on the beaches and adults were lounging in deck chairs as though nothing had happened.
Completely exhausted, he was loaded onto a train and woke up several hours later to find himself wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by curious animals at Belle View Zoo in Manchester.
Granted compassionate leave, he returned to his home town, Harrogate, to confront his parents and family who were in a dreadful emotional state.
What of the next five years of combat? Being further convinced of the great evils that beset Europe, my father set out with the reconstituted 46th Division to Northern Africa to fight Rommel in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya under the remarkable leadership of Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery. There he witnessed the treachery and deceit of the indigenous ‘pro-Nazi’ Arab population who opposed the Allied armies at every step of the war — another foretaste of events leading up to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Following the decisive defeat of Rommel in 1943, my father was asked to help plan and coordinate the Allied landings in Southern Italy. In a cruel twist of fate, he found himself orchestrating a mock landing of 2,00000 troops on the beaches of Tunisia in preparation for the forthcoming invasion at Salerno. Completing this campaign successfully, my father spent his final year of the war in Rome, responsible for the allocation of properties to victorious allied governments. This brought many perks including invitations to high profile ambassadorial events, and the accompaniment of a truly stunning Yugoslavian escort.
Some years after the armistice, my father contacted three former army colleagues and together they founded the Dunkirk Veterans Association. By 1980 this association had grown to 65,000 members and organised annual pilgrimages to Dunkirk frequently accompanied by the Queen and Prince Philip. He remained Vice President of the Association until his death at age 93.
World War II – a very personal journey by Richard Camrass is available as an e-book on Amazon