The heroes who saved Exeter

The news was alarming, to say the least.

At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue –  Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April –  this promised to be the worst attack yet.

Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.

In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.

Always faithful

The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a  new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived  in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.

The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.

The Night Owls remembered

The Night Owls remained  in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.

2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.

Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?

The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May  1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.

Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.

Blu-ray review: Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

Cert: 12 Out: now

Dunkirk

We Brits are good at turning our disasters into triumphs. Dunkirk, was, after all, a total catastrophe from a British viewpoint but somehow by adopting phrases like “Dunkirk spirit” it has come to be viewed almost as a source of perverse national pride. Perhaps one day Americans will come to feel the same about the Fall of Saigon in 1975? Perhaps not.

This is not, of course, to denigrate the bravery of those who fought and died in 1940 or those who helped in the celebrated mass evacuation. And, just to be clear: Christopher Nolan’s film certainly has no illusions about the horrors of the conflict either. The film was probably the key cinematic experience of 2017.

But does it work as well on the small screen? Essentially, the answer must be yes and no. What the transfer to Blu-ray adds with one hand, it takes away with the other.

One thing is not in doubt however: Dunkirk’s place in the cinematic history books is assured.

Bodega Bay

Book review: Ardennes 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor

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As 1944 neared its end, a spirit of optimism seized the Allied forces. Following the D-Day landings in June (detailed in Antony Beevor’s last book) the Allied advance towards Berlin looked unstoppable. Many predicted a repeat of 1918 and a second internal collapse within Germany ensuring Allied victory before Christmas 1944. This was not to be.

Hitler’s surprise counter-attack on the relatively undefended area of the Ardennes failed in its ultimate aim to split the Allies by driving them back to Antwerp. But it did succeed in prolonging the war, provoking a fit of squabbling among the Allied generals – notably Montgomery, Patton and Eisenhower and cost many lives. Among the US troops on the ground were the established author and adventure-seeker Ernest Hemingway and the future novelists JD Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut. Trapped in the notorious Hurtgen Forest, the future Catcher In The Rye author Salinger was present for one of the bloodiest engagements endured by US forces during the entire war.

Few topics have proven more an enduring a source of fascination than the Second World War and few have continued to chronicle it as masterfully as Antony Beevor.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor. Published by: Viking.

Winston Churchill: alternative lives

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Winston Churchill died fifty years ago this week in January 1965. Born in 1874, four years after Charles Dickens died, Churchill, who was nearly thirty when the first aeroplane flew, lived into the space age, the nuclear era and the time of Beatlemania. Perhaps more importantly, he has perhaps greater claim than anyone to have saved Britain, perhaps even western civilisation. For had not Churchill become Prime Minister in 1940 and without his decisive leadership in the dark years that followed, the liklihood of the world sucumbing to the evils of Nazism would have been very real indeed. Let us consider, for a moment, how things might have gone differently…

He might have died in 1931
Churchill rarely shunned danger and might, of course, have been killed many times during his long life, for example, while fighting at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 or on the Western Front where he fought in the trenches during the second half of the First World War. In 1931, however, while serving as an MP, he was struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York. Churchill was entirely to blame. He had been getting out of a taxi in a rush (he was running late) and had stepped out without looking, forgetting that cars drive on the opposite site of the road in the US. Churchill survived, receiving only a scalp wound and cracking two ribs. The car had been travelling at thirty five miles an hour. Had it been going a few miles faster, the implications not just for Churchill but for the world as a whole since 1940 and everyone alive today are almost unthinkable.

He might have quit politics in the 1930s
Who would have blamed him? Like his father, he looked like “a man with a great career behind him”. He had already resigned from Stanley Baldwin’s National Government over their position on India. Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence looks more wrongheaded now but his dire warnings over the dangers of German rearmament were being ignored too. These were his “wilderness years”. He was 61 at the time of the December 1935 election. Nobody would have been surprised at all if he had stood down. In truth, he probably needed the money to keep Chartwell going.

He could have died during the Second World War
Though it was covered up at the time, Churchill suffered a mild heart attack while visiting FDR in Washington in December 1941. Had he passed on, his designated successor Anthony Eden would have succeeded him (as he eventually did in 1955). Would the rest of the war gone as well under Eden? Would he now have a far better reputation than the one he currently has, tarnished irrevocably by his poor leadership during the 1956 Suez Crisis? We will never know.

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