Book Review: War Report A Record of Dispatches Broadcast By The BBC’s war correspondents June 5th 1944 – to May 1945

 

Still procrastinating from reading more Camus, my next review retains it’s Second World War theme as I noticed a new release of War Broadcast Correspondence from the BBC during the final year of the conflict from Operation Overlord ( D-Day ) through to VE Day in 1945. As a stubborn defender of the BBC in the current climate and with this historical period always proving intensely fascinating, I tucked in with my curiosity piqued.

It is in short, well worth a read. It covers all the key period’s of the fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during this period, with each segment of the transcripts contextualized by an authorial overview at its head, from the beach landings through the liberation of Cherbourg, the winter battle in the Ardennes, the march through Germany and liberation of concentration camps. With such a broad span to cover, the book succeeds through these dispatches in providing an intimate narrative of how the war appeared to be progressing from a first person viewpoint.  There are frequent references to guns being fired immediately overhead, tanks rolling by mere metres away and explosive devices landing remarkably close: italicized references to the sounds heard on the transcript provide a sense of the atmosphere these reports must have contained.

The transcripts are essentially word for word what was spoken down the line, and highlight the degree to which these reporters were embedded at the front line. They received professional army training before heading out and were welcomed pretty warmly by the soldiers themselves, for whom the value of hearing the latest reports from across the battle fields was paramount.  Furthermore of course, there was also its well known value as an aid for Resistance movements, not least de Gaulle’s Free France network, and the provision of essential communication between covert groups and alliances.

Although there is always a slight panegyric tone with books like these, it also seems hard to disagree with the notion that during this war in particular, the stock of BBC broadcasting was universally high at this point. BBC transmitters, masts and receivers that had to be transported and set up on the Normandy beaches, then taken in-land with the Allied advances,  were utilized by an international cross-section of reporters, including many American, Canadian and Australian reporters. As someone who’d enjoyed the film Good Night and Good Luck – a biopic of Edward Murrow an American anchor during McCarthyism –  it was additionally interesting to discover entries here from the same reporter during the war.

It’s influence extended to vast swathes of the populations of France, Belgium, Netherlands and even Germany too, eager to try and stay updated with the war’s progress. There is even a testament from a German citizen who valued for the BBC for being relied upon for truth –  which evidently could not be said for the inevitable propaganda propagated by the Nazi’s, and when the BBC reported an Allied victory it was accepted by many Germans, whose personal experience of the war was no longer tallying with the messages espoused by their own communications.

Perhaps of particular interest from my own perspective, is it’s revelation of contemporary attitudes to elements of the conflict, that those of us who have grown up well after the event and read about from a safe vantage point, perhaps don’t always appreciate. When they reach Germany for example there are frequent examples of many of the locals looking to welcome the Allied troops with a celebrated air of relief, at times cheering them on, or if they’re a soldier immediately surrendering and asking where the prisoner of war line started. It was, no doubt at the end of the war, but it was also fascinating to see how the Allies responded with a cool indifference to this approach, avoiding any sense of overt intimacy with an enemy, an approach that unsettled the locals. The cool response becomes more obviously understandable when the unmasking and liberation of the concentration camps occurs, and you realise you are reading the words of those who are coming across this scenes for the first time and attempting to articulate a response that convey the fury felt well before any of the testimonies of the likes of Primo Levi or Robert Antelme later shocked the world.

The book provides an accessible history and chronology of the conflict, viewed through the multi-vocal perspectives of numerous war correspondents from around the globe, interspersed with many contributions from vital actors in this combustible theatre:  pilots, commanders, soldiers and local inhabitants all contributing too. It is  a fascinating document of war journalism at it’s best and provides a useful perspective in it’s eye-witness serialization of a subject matter that is frequently read about from voices several generations removed from the events portrayed.

 

 

 

Film Review – “Come and See” ( WW2 Drama, Russia, 1985)

Remembering ones collective history’s more traumatic moments has always been a popular draw for film-makers and audiences alike. They act as cultural artefacts that can facilitate a group identity or memory in communal points of reference. Benedict Anderson utilised an image of ‘imagined communities’ that suggests we are bound to each other through various collective experience and reference points that those within our group will share and identify with.

This obviously isn’t merely a function of film, but any cultural representation, and its influence on the group dynamic is such that for example, any good authoritarian regime worth its salt is always quite concerned with how the history is told; to recall the oft quoted line that ‘history is always written by the winners.’  The ‘who’ of any author, director or artistic creator, ought to be considered regardless of broader political environments.

“Come and See” is an historical film set in Belorussia in 1943 during the German invasion and acts as a testament to the brutality of war, as seen through the experience of a twelve year old boy, Florya.  The film was made and produced in the 80s whilst the Soviet Union was still alive and kicking, yet the explicit war politics are subtlely diffused by a focus on the trauma and the suffering. The characterisation of the German soldiers is I suppose reasonably standard, but when one is dealing with the particularly horrific events that are portrayed here, it is difficult to mould a complicated image of a culprit spirit that systematically eradicates entire villages of its inhabitants through intolerably cruel methods.

However, the greater message is of the horrors of war in general. Through Florya, we are taken on a personal journey from an innocent boy playing with his friend, eagerly trying to find a gun buried in the sand in order that he can be allowed to join up with the other soldiers, to one who, alongside a young female companion who joins him early on, learns oh so quickly and graphically the reality that shatters the illusion. His performance is terrific, with eyes that age dramatically as the film goes on, indeed in one scene towards the end, a slightly blurred close up in the aftermath of  a tragic fire, paints an impression of a face that could easily be that of a 50 year old man.

The direction of Elem Klimov is masterful throughout, and he marshals a narrative brimming with a foreboding sense of doom so well that the long length of the film passes by unnoticed.  The sound is a particularly well done feature in my view, from the moment the first shells land near the young Florya, rendering him disorientated and for a time, deaf. It is contained within a brief couple of scenes yet it’s effectiveness is striking.  There are moments within the film which enable a viewer with prior-knowledge of the history of the period to guess what is going to happen next, and it doesn’t shy away from proving you right, leaving an haunting impression on the mind.

The film is a testament to the specific sufferings of communities in the East under the German advance but also the tragedy of the impact of war in general. In its cultural historical context, it sits well with other depictions of the period, offering another point of comparison to the suffering endured. As a companion to other offerings from the other side – such as the film based on an anonymous diary –   ‘A Woman in Berlin’ which charts the rape of German women by Soviet soldiers, it is an important part in reconstructing the tapestry of violence that was the Second World War.