Wednesday 27 June 2018
Photographs

1. Violette Szabo GC, 'Carve Her Name With Pride'

Photographs

1. Violette Szabo GC, 'Carve Her Name With Pride'

The film Carve Her Name With Pride was released in 1958. It is based on the wartime experiences of Violette Szabo, a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent who earned a George Cross (GC) during the Second World War.

Violette Bushell was born in Paris in 1921 and moved to London when she was a schoolgirl. In 1940, she married Frenchman Etienne Szabo. In October 1942, he was killed while serving with Free French forces in North Africa and never met their daughter Tania, born June 1941. Following Etienne's death, Violette joined 'F' (French) Section of SOE. After completing her training, Violette went on her first mission to France in April 1944. Her role was a courier, working for Philippe Liewer, the organiser of a resistance circuit, codenamed 'Salesman'. They found that Liewer's network had been broken up and returned to England at the end of the month. The role of Liewer does not appear in the film; Violette works instead with 'Tony Fraser', who is based on Liewer's character.

Violette and Liewer went on another mission to France on the night of 7/8 June 1944. Their aim was to work with local resistance groups and re-establish a network of saboteurs in the Limoges area.

On 10 June, Violette and a resistance leader, Jacques Dufour known as 'Anastasie', were intercepted by German soldiers at a roadblock. A gunfight ensued, Violette was taken prisoner and 'Anastasie' escaped. Violette was interrogated and tortured by her captors and was imprisoned in Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where she was executed in early 1945. She was awarded a posthumous George Cross, which was presented to her daughter Tania after the war. Violette Szabo was portrayed by British actress Virginia McKenna in Carve Her Name with Pride. Although McKenna did not resemble the petite, dark-haired Szabo, she later said 'the more I spoke her words and hopefully felt some of her feelings the more I seemed to identify with her'. The actress has also taken part in commemorative events in memory of Violette. The movie was based on the book of the same name by R J Minney and, apart from a few changes, is considered to be a faithful portrayal of Violette Szabo's wartime heroism.

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2. Guy Gibson VC, 'The Dambusters'

Photographs

2. Guy Gibson VC, 'The Dambusters'

The 1955 war movie, The Dambusters, recreates the true events of a daring Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing raid of 1943. Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) for his leadership during the mission, codenamed 'Operation Chastise'.

An experienced pilot, Gibson was commander of 617 Squadron, RAF, which was specially formed in March 1943 to carry out the operation. The aim of the raid was to destroy three dams, the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe, in Germany's industrial heartland. They were identified as being key targets in delivering a much-needed blow to both German production and morale. British scientist, Dr Barnes Wallis, developed a new weapon to attack the dams – a 'bouncing bomb'. The film shows the issues faced by Barnes Wallis as the bomb is tested and how a solution was found to the difficulty of getting the British bombers to fly at the required low height and speed. Gibson had a crucial role in preparing his men for this top-secret, high-risk and experimental mission. 

With the final tests complete and the bomber crews ready, the raid took place on the night of 16/17 May 1943. Flying in modified Lancaster bombers, the men took off from RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire in several waves. Gibson led the first in against the Möhne dam and was the first to attack it. All three dams were bombed but only the Möhne and the Eder were breached. An estimated 1,300 people were killed in the resulting flooding, bridges and buildings were destroyed and production in the area was brought to a standstill. It was also a propaganda victory for the British. But the costs were high. Eight aircraft were lost, 53 men were killed and three were taken prisoner.

On 28 May 1943, Gibson was awarded a VC for his bravery and leadership during the 'Dambusters Raid'. The official citation noted the risks he took after dropping his bomb, twice drawing anti-aircraft fire onto himself and away from the other attacking aircraft. Gibson was killed in September 1944 when his aircraft crashed over the Netherlands during a bombing mission. The film was based on Gibson's account of the raid, detailed in his 1944 book Enemy Coast Ahead, as well as The Dam Busters (1951) by Paul Brickhill. The screenplay was written by the well-known First World War playwright and soldier, R C Sherriff, author of Journey's End. Gibson was played by actor and former Second World War soldier Richard Todd and Barnes Wallis by British actor Michael Redgrave. In the closing scenes, Wallis and Gibson reflect on the raid and its human cost in terms of the German and British lives that were lost. The film was a huge success in Britain when it opened and has endured as one of the most popular war movies of the twentieth century.

Weapons and ammunition

3. Odette Sansom GC, 'Odette'

Weapons and ammunition

3. Odette Sansom GC, 'Odette'

In 1950, the film Odette was released. It told the true story of French-born Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Odette Sansom. She worked undercover in France during the Second World War and was awarded a George Cross (GC) for her bravery.

Originally from France but living in England following her marriage to an Englishman, Odette Sansom joined SOE's 'F' Section in 1942. Although her training report was not ideal, the head of 'F' Section, Maurice Buckmaster, took a chance on her. He sent her to France in October 1942. She arrived, under her codename 'Lise', in Cannes on 31 October and was met by a fellow agent, Peter Churchill ('Raoul'). She joined Churchill's resistance group, which included radio operator Adolphe Rabinovitch ('Arnaud'). Odette and Peter were betrayed to the Germans and arrested in April 1943. Odette was imprisoned at Fresnes in Paris and was tortured, but did not give any information to the Gestapo. The movie Odette reflects some of her ordeal, which included having all her toenails pulled out and a red-hot poker placed on her back. Her endurance of this harsh treatment and refusal to tell her interrogators information on her fellow agents saved many lives, including Arnaud's. In June 1944, Odette was condemned to death. But she told her captors she was related to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, so was kept alive. From July 1944 until the end of the war, she was held at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. During her captivity, she could hear the screams from the punishment cell next to her.

When Allied forces entered Germany, Ravensbrück's camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, wanted to escape. Believing Odette to be related to Churchill, he took her with him. But when they met American forces on 3 May 1945, Odette told the Americans to take Suhren prisoner. He was later hanged for war crimes. Soon afterwards, Odette returned home to England and her family. In 1946, she was awarded a George Cross for her protection of others. Odette became a national heroine. The movie about her was based on Jerrard Tickell's book Odette: The Story of a British Agent. She was played by Anna Neagle, Peter Churchill by Trevor Howard and Maurice Buckmaster appeared as himself. Odette was a technical advisor for the film and worked closely with Neagle to ensure accuracy. The movie was a box office success and cemented Odette as a wartime heroine. Despite this, she disliked fame and made a point of dedicating her GC to the memory of her wartime comrades who did not survive.

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4. Geoffrey Keyes VC – 'The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel'

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4. Geoffrey Keyes VC – 'The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel'

The opening scenes of the 1951 film The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel portray a real-life daring commando raid in Libya in the Second World War. Leading the British commandos is Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, who earned a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC) for his bravery.

Keyes was the son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes and followed his father into the military. He joined the Army and in 1940 volunteered for special service. He later joined the new British Commando organisation and went into action in the Middle East. Keyes, at 24 the youngest lieutenant colonel in the British Army, led the 11th (Scottish) Commando. He was involved in planning several operations in North Africa in late 1941. He chose to lead the most dangerous of all the raids himself. It was codenamed 'Operation Flipper' and its aim was the assassination of Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Axis forces in North Africa. British reconnaissance had identified what was believed to be the headquarters of Rommel, known as the 'Desert Fox', in Libya. Keyes' raiding party was landed by dinghies on the North African coast on 14 November 1941. He led his men at night across difficult terrain towards their objective. They reached the HQ – a villa compound – on the night of 17/18 November and went into attack.

Keyes and his men silently crept through the perimeter wire and towards the house. They encountered a German sentry and Keyes shot him – the element of surprise was now gone. The commandos now rushed into the villa, shooting at any Germans they met. Keyes led them in, searching the rooms for his target, Rommel. He flung open the door to one of the rooms and was immediately shot at from within. One of his men threw in a grenade and the commandos retreated. Keyes died several minutes later. In June 1942, Geoffrey Keyes was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Rommel had not in fact been at the villa – or even in the country – at the time of the raid. When he heard of it, he expressed admiration for Keyes' courage. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, 'I would far rather have Geoffrey alive than Rommel dead.' The 'Rommel Raid' is recreated at the start of The Desert Fox. The action is tense as the commandos are shown landing on the coast, approaching the headquarters and gaining access to the compound. Following the gunfight that ensues, the character based upon Keyes is shown being shot and the raid ends in failure. The movie stars James Mason as Rommel and portrays his role in the last years of the Second World War.

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5. SS River Clyde Landing – 'Tell England'

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5. SS River Clyde Landing – 'Tell England'

In 1931, the movie Tell England was released. It was based on a 1922 novel of the same name, in which two British men join up and serve in the Gallipoli Campaign. The film included recreated scenes of the SS River Clyde landing at 'V' Beach, Gallipoli in April 1915, when George Drewry, Edward Unwin, William Williams, George Samson and Wilfrid Malleson each earned a Victoria Cross (VC).

At dawn on 25 April 1915, the SS River Clyde approached 'V' Beach on the Gallipoli peninsula. The plan was for the ship to run aground and for a smaller vessel to form a bridge so that the 2,000 men aboard could run across onto the shore. Commander Edward Unwin was the captain of the River Clyde and had come up with the scheme. Midshipman George Drewry was tasked with guiding in the smaller boat – a long, flat vessel called a hopper – to bridge the gap between the ship and the beach. Also on board the hopper, helping Drewry, was Seaman George Samson. From the outset, the plan went awry. The River Clyde ran aground, but the hopper swung to the left while attempting to connect with the beach. Working quickly, Unwin managed to get two rowing boats, or lighters, in position in front of the ship. With Able Seaman William Williams, he held them in place while the troops went ashore. But, as the British soldiers surged onto the beach, they were pinned down by heavy Turkish fire. Dead and wounded piled up and Unwin recalled they soon 'were literally standing in blood'. For an hour, Williams and Unwin stood in the water, holding the boats in place. Then, hit by a shell fragment, Williams fell and died. Unwin soon collapsed with exhaustion.

Drewry waded across to help his stricken captain. Despite receiving a head wound, he worked on the lighters, encouraged men ashore, brought in the wounded and kept the landings going. He was helped by Midshipman Wilfrid Malleson. When Drewry attempted to secure the boats around the River Clyde together, Malleson went to his aid. He leapt into the water and managed to get a rope out, but soon had to give up owing to exhaustion. After a brief rest, Unwin returned to the boats and kept trying to secure them together so men could get across. He also went out in a boat to fetch in wounded men from the beach. Samson also worked to bring in the wounded, despite suffering multiple injuries himself. He had earlier assisted in the attempts to establish a bridge from the boats.

The disastrous SS River Clyde landing is recreated in the 1931 British drama film Tell England. Directed by Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas, it is based on the novel Tell England by Ernest Raymond. The movie merges the fictional story of two young men who join up to fight in the First World War with the real events at 'V' Beach of April 1915. Asquith corresponded with Unwin about the making of the film and the reconstructions of the landings are held to be largely accurate.

Watch extracts from OdetteThe Desert Fox and Tell England in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery: Extraordinary Heroes at IWM London.

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