Tuesday, May 31, 2011

70 Years Ago Today 31/5/41

Atlantic: The British Merchant Ship Gravelines was traveling in convoy from Canada to Britain when it was attacked by a U-Boat approximately 100 miles of the Donegal coast. 11 crew are lost, 25 are rescued.

Iraq: British troops crush a coup launched the previous month by pro German Iraqi Army officers. On this day 70 years ago British troops retake Baghdad and the Pro British Royal Family are returned to power.

Crete: The British and ANZAC evacuation of Crete comes to an end. Following the spectacular invasion of the Greek Island by German Paratroopers two weeks previously, British troops have been involved in ferocious fighting against elite German forces. Facing defeat, the Royal Navy evacuated over 20,000 troops. However on this day 70 years ago 5000 commonwealth troops were forced to surrender although over 500 took to the hills to join up with the Greek Resistance.

Dublin: World War Two comes to Ireland. Although Belfast was severely bombed in April resulting in nearly 1000 deaths the southern state had remained untouched. However in the early hours of the 31st of May 1941 several bombs fell on Dublin City. 28 people were killed, all in the North Strand.

The reason that the Luftwaffe bombed Dublin has long been the subject of speculation. Was it a warning from Berlin to stay out of the war. After Belfast was bombed Taoiseach Eamon De Valera condemned the raid strongly and sent the southern Fire Brigade north to help. After that raid Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken went to Washington and some believe that Ireland was on the verge of declaring war on Germany. Other theories include that the bombing was in retaliation for Ireland's assistance to Britain in providing regular weather reports or because allied prisoners that ended up in Ireland tended to find their way back to Britain where as German POW's were interned. I have also heard it argued that the lone Luftwaffe pilot was lost and actually thought he was bombing Liverpool. But it is the simplest explanation as always that is probably correct. A lone Luftwaffe bomber was likely being chased by an RAF plane. In order to get away faster he probably dropped his bombs to lighten his load.


Paul said...

Great stuff Ted, I've met a few Crete veterans and the battle can be described as one the British (notwithstanding the Greek/NZ/Aus contingent) could and perhaps should have won. But an Island that the Germans could have isolated and starved into submission to achieve their aims (as happened to many Japanese held Islands).

An anecdote recounted by Antony Beevor in his work on Crete summarises the situation well. Many years after the war, a former Greek resister was tending to some of the German graves in the German cemetery. He found one visitor staring at him intensely and after a while the two old men exchanged greetings. The visitor told him how as a German, he had parachuted in and was wounded, seeking shelter in some undergrowth. He recognised the elderly Greek man as the leader of the Partisan band that had so nearly caught him and had never forgotten his face.

Anyhow later this month is the big one, the anniversary of Barbarossa. A truly horrific event on an appalling scale. I may review 'The Forgotten Soldier' for my blog by then. You should read Sajer if you have the time it’s a very powerful account and very well written.

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks very much Paul

From what I gather Churchill's decision to fight for Crete was motivated by a belief that the Germans should be made aware that the British were willing to fight them anywhere anytime. I believe many of his advisors were against the effort as it proved a distraction to the North African campaign.

Beevor is brilliant, I have read his book on Stallingrad and Spain. The anecdote you describe makes me really want to read hia book on Crete.

Barbarossa gives me the willies. Every account I have read seems so apocalyptic. Likewise I will write something on it. I have never read "The Forgotten Soldier" but I have heard it is exceptional. I must take you up on your advice. By the way, I loved your post on the late Major Dick Winters.

Paul said...

I've actually met Antony Beevor, on a separate MA I'm doing on Second World War Studies (it’s at Birmingham Google it fantastic course). I was warned not to cite Beevor as a source. I think he deserves more credit than that but one tutor did like it when I described him as a good writer but not a historian in one critique. I even give a presentation on Irish soldiers on the course.

Sajer's work is I believe generally regarded as a contemporary classic.

The final chapter when he describes his homecoming (he was an Alsatian who volunteered out of a youthful naiveté, he left what was Germany to return to what was France again) is exceptional. There has been some debate as to how authentic his account is, but eventually after a prolonged debate (details on Wiki) the GrossDeutschland Division's veterans chairman said he thought Sajer was authentic. His account is one of the few told from the German side that actually makes you empathise with the German soldiers as human beings.

Ted Leddy said...


It sounds like a fascinating MA. I would love to have seen your presentation on the Irish soldiers.

I think I will definitely read Sajer's book. I dislike it when people simplify the choices that must be made during war time. Motives for fighting can be very varied. In Europe, many people fought with the Nazis or the Soviets in order to see land returned to their people that had been taken away by previous settlements. Many people do not seem to realise that in addition to the Italians, the Finns, Croats, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Romanians and Hungarians were all allies of Germany.

I am aware of the controversy surrounding Sajer. What are your instincts? Is his account authentic?

Paul said...

I think Sajer was authentic, I think on balance had he wanted to embellish details he would have downplayed his own culpability. Not only that he did empathise with the Russians he encountered and was clearly traumatised by his experiences. The final chapters of the book is something I just find myself reading again and again. He was very lucky that when he was processed as a POW (he was evacuated from Lithuania to Denmark, where he was caught by the British, a French Officer took pity on him and discharged him to go home after a stern warning to not address him as 'Herr Kapitan'. Its little anecdotes like that that makes the book enjoyable.

There's the course:

http://www.secondworldwar.bham.ac.uk/ma2/index.htm a number of international students attend, they also do a ww1 course which is well received.

Ted Leddy said...


Very interesting and thanks for the link !