Dunkirk: A Perspective Of Film and Family

Yesterday I went to see the film Dunkirk. It tells the story from the perspective of all those involved in the 1940 evacuation: the army; the navy; the airforce and the civilian people who answered the call to rescue the remnants of the British army in a flotilla of small fishing vessels.

In regard to the airforce, there was a lot of ill feeling at the time among the British soldiers that the airforce had let them down. “Where were you at Dunkirk?” would be an accusatory question levelled at the airmen, for it seemed that the sky belonged solely to the German airforce that bombed both the men and rescuing ships seemingly uncontested.

However, I watched a programme only last week called Dunkirk: The New Evidence where it was revealed that the rescue of the stranded soldiers took place because of the action of the Spitfire pilots who were engaging the enemy miles inland, winning an aerial battle that was taking place far away from the sight of those desperate men.

The film is low on dialogue but high on tension, one particular exchange, between two men looking for the sea to return, being:

“The tide’s turning now.”

“How can you tell?”

“The bodies come back.”

I watched the film with recent conversations in mind that I’d had with people whose family members were present at that historical moment, personal stories recounted to me:

the woman whose grandfather said that every time he got on a boat he ended up back in the water;

the man whose uncle was badly wounded and later died of his injuries;

the man whose grandfather stood with other men for hours with the sea up to their chest, holding aloft their rifles in the air, until in despair they threw them into the water.

But more emotional for me, though, were my own family connections:

My Great Uncle George who was captured at Dunkirk. He was in the rearguard, fighting to buy time for the men on the beach.

My Great Uncle George Worthington. This was taken in the 1920’s, as he was a reservist in the Manchester Regiment before the war.

George is the smaller man on the left, pictured here in one of the Stalag German camps where he was held for five years.

Then there was my grandfather Fred. In the scene where the screaming Stukas are bombing the defenceless soldiers who are arraigned across the beach like sitting ducks, I thought to myself My God, my Granddad went through this? 

One of the loveliest men you could ever wish to meet, you would never know what he had experienced. All that I do know is that he was one of the last off the beach at Dunkirk (he’d been salvaging equipment) and was one of the first on the beach on D-Day.

My grandfather Fred Murray, of the Royal Engineers.

It was only in 2015, during the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk, that I came to an hitherto unknown realisation: while my grandfather was stranded on those beaches of Dunkirk, his first child-my father was being born at home in Manchester. I recalled my father saying that, with his own father being away at war, they didn’t know what he wanted his firstborn called, and so they named him Fred after his father.

But I never knew it was Dunkirk where he was.

There he was, not knowing if he would survive, if he would get back to England, if he would ever get to see his child that was being born right then across the channel.

It is time, some considerable time, that have enabled me to piece these things together.

On reaching England he returned north by train to Manchester. Whilst having a pint in the family pub in Collyhurst, a local cobbler took his boots away to repair for free as they were split, feet showing, from the long, marched retreat in France

My grandfather with the cigarette in his mouth. This was in France, 1940, pre-Dunkirk. Sent back to my grandmother, written on the back was ‘Drunk again!’ Probably coloured her thinking when I remember the following exchange, when she was talking about how hard the women had it back then: ” . . . while you was off, galavanting around the world.” “Oh yes-I was having a bloody lovely time!”

These memories serve to remind me that the German army-of which we see little of in the film, was likewise made up of similar ordinary people, separated from family and loved ones, their allegiance and involvement instigated by the happenstance of the time and place of their birth.

Here’s a short trailer for the film, there are longer ones to be found on YouTube.

If Walls Could Talk, Concrete Confess

The post that was Freshly Pressed two years ago, gaining me close to a thousand new followers: family, connections, generations and ghosts.

City Jackdaw

If walls could talk.

If concrete could confess.

If soul could seep through cement.

If only one of those monochrome apparitions could reach out and take me by the hand, leading me into a world of smoke and ale and revelation.


The woman stood by the door on the right of the picture is my great grandmother. The two little girls are my grandfather’s older sisters. The guy on the far left, in the bowler hat, is my great grandfather. The other two younger men could be family, I don’t know. Will probably never know. Posing with a football and a trophy of an unknown triumph, they remain silent, anonymous ghosts. Enigmas of imagination.

The building itself, its very brick and mortar, contains more than can be revealed in a two dimensional image. It contains that which is valued in meaning.

Ancestors of mine dwelt in that place between 1901…

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Remember #1

Today, for the first time, we were unable to attend the Remembrance Sunday service that takes place at a local memorial in Collyhurst, where ancestors of mine are listed. So instead, yesterday, we took our remembrance crosses to Phillip’s Park cemetery. Normally, we place one cross at the service, then one in the cemetery where one of these ancestors lies.

In a cold, autumn wind, my son placed a cross on the unmarked grave of his Gt Gt Grandfather, who died in 1919 as a result of being gassed at the front. Once a year, around the spot when other forgotten members of my family once stood, this anonymous spot is located by a marker.


It lay lost amongst the autumn foliage, barely noticeable to any passing mourners, but to those to whom this kind of thing matters, we know it is there.


Our second cross this year found a home at the memorial in this cemetery. No doubt this morning, the day after we visited, these three, lonely crosses will be joined by a forest of others, each placed in the name of people long gone. Side by side, on parade.


The sword and the cross. The suffering and the hope. Symbol and silence.


In memory of my two Gt Grandfathers, and my wife’s Gt Uncle. R.I.P


If Walls Could Talk, Concrete Confess

If walls could talk.

If concrete could confess.

If soul could seep through cement.

If only one of those monochrome apparitions could reach out and take me by the hand, leading me into a world of smoke and ale and revelation.


The woman stood by the door on the right of the picture is my great grandmother. The two little girls are my grandfather’s older sisters. The guy on the far left, in the bowler hat, is my great grandfather. The other two younger men could be family, I don’t know. Will probably never know. Posing with a football and a trophy of an unknown triumph, they remain silent, anonymous ghosts. Enigmas of imagination.

The building itself, its very brick and mortar, contains more than can be revealed in a two dimensional image. It contains that which is valued in meaning.

Ancestors of mine dwelt in that place between 1901 and 1939. A descendent of theirs also ran the pub for a short period in the 1950’s. What emotions those rooms must have absorbed. Laughter and tears resonating in time. My great, great grandmother died in there, as did her son in law, my great grandfather.

Behind those upstairs windows, in one of those unseen rooms, my grandfather was born. At the other end of life’s spectrum, two of his siblings died in there.

Happy times, sad times. The building stands in the photograph as a mausoleum of memory.

I would love to be able to go into that pub today, buy a drink and take a seat in the corner. Shift my sight and listen to echoes. Watch the ghost of an old man skip through those doors as a little boy. Perhaps whistling the tune of a song that one day, many years in the future, he would sing to another little boy.

Hand me downs of blood and mannerism and story.

Alas the pub no longer stands-it fell victim to the slum clearances that transformed whole neighbourhoods and scattered communities. I’ve been to the site where it originally stood. Ironically there was another pub there, empty and boarded up. Perhaps its own ghosts were walled up inside, caught in the shadows. Memories in a new mausoleum, waiting for people of their line to come searching and shift their sight.


D-Day And The Lost Stories Of Two Grandfathers

Today, as I am sure you will be aware, is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I intend to watch the many programmes commemorating the event today, my thoughts no doubt turning to my two Grandfathers who took part in history’s largest ever land invasion. I know next to nothing of their own, personal D-Day stories. I know very little of their time during the war full stop. Like so many, it appears that they didn’t speak too much about it. And by the time my own curiosity had grown, it was too late.

One of them died of cancer before I was born, the other died when I was twenty years old,  at a time when I had yet to fully develop my great interest in history, and in particular my own family history.

I do wish I had asked. Either them, or other older relatives who may have known more.

imageThis was my Grandfather James Brown, short sleeves, back right. He was a Gunner in the Royal Artillery.

In the months leading up to D-Day, all leave had been cancelled with plans and preparations being made, and troops undergoing training, as everybody knew that the Normandy invasion was imminent. Definitely coming, it was just a matter of when.

However, on the 28th of April James’ wife gave birth to twins-a boy and a girl. That girl was my mother. James was briefly allowed home to see his two new children, along with his wife and other son, before having to return again to his unit.

That is as much as I know of his involvement in this historic event. He would return home once the war had ended, but die from cancer in 1951, those twins being only seven years old. I never met him, but I have always wondered. My son is named after him.


This is my other Grandfather, Fred Murray. He was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers.

The only reference I ever heard about him and D-Day was from my Dad, who told me once that his Dad was ‘one of the last out of Dunkirk, and one of the first over on D-Day.’ 

At Dunkirk he was trying to salvage what equipment he could as the great evacuation was taking place. While he was on that beach, back home his first child was being born-my father, with no-one at the time knowing the danger that he was in.

There is the story too about how, when he finally made it back, while he was sat in a local pub in Collyhurst, Manchester, having a pint, a local cobbler took his boots away to  repair for free. They were in a sorry state, his toes poking out of the end, after the many days marching he had done to get to the Dunkirk beach in the retreat.

But in regard to Normandy, in 1944, I don’t know exactly what his role was, but as a Royal Engineer it could be that he was involved in the building of the temporary Mulberry harbours.

I have war records. I have lists of dates and countries. But the personal stuff, the human stuff, will probably be forever lost.

I wish I had asked.

I will watch as many of the commemorative programmes that I can today, with both of these men on my mind and in my heart.

Today We Remember: A Personal View

On the way to Manchester, in Collyhurst, there is a war memorial that lists the names of local men who died in the First World War.

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Among that obscenely long list of names are two which have a personal and emotional connection to myself-two of my great grandfathers.

One is my mum’s grandfather-Albert Cartwright.

Here he is pictured with his wife Ada as he is about to leave for war. Tall and proud in his Lancashire Fusiliers uniform.

Albert and Ada

I cannot help but contrast the image of Ada here, bidding farewell to her husband with all the fears and uncertainties that that must have involved, with the strong, confident, formidable woman she appears as on another photograph I have of her. (On the right).


Albert did return home, but died the day before new year’s eve in 1919, as a result of being gassed when at the front.

photo (44)

The other name is my Dad’s grandfather: Timothy O’Sullivan.

He died on 10th January 1917 and is buried in Thessaloniki, Greece. A local orphan who was destined to lie in foreign soil.

In those days, family members had neither the means nor the opportunity to visit the graves of their loved ones who died overseas. A family notice, placed in the local newspaper by his older half-sister, spoke of ‘the pain of an unknown grave.’

On the 90th anniversary of Timothy’s death, I stood at that grave. Conscious that his widow and children never made it there, I felt the ghosts of my gran and my great aunt looking over my shoulder. Two women who often spoke of the man they never knew. I felt I represented them, along with my Dad, and my children. All the descendants of the chain.


photo (45)

Every year on Remembrance Sunday, I take part in the service at that memorial, conscious of the links and the sacrifice and the blood that runs in my veins.

I let my daughters place a cross that holds the names of their two ancestors, along with the name of my wife’s great uncle who was worked to death as a prisoner of the Japanese, building the notorious Burma-Siam railway in World War Two.

Fred Dyson

My wife’s great uncle is the tall, strapping guy stood on the right. Fred Dyson, he died 15th Nov 1943. A generation on, a different war, the same sense of loss.

I have posted all of these photographs here to serve as a further memorial.

Every Remembrance Sunday, as well as the men who are represented by those cold, carved letters in stone, my thoughts turn also to my two grandmothers who are no longer here. Two women who I was close to, two women who as children both grew up without their fathers because of war.

That is reason alone for me, and my children, to remember.

poppy cross

Coronation Streets

As I write this, there is a service taking place at Westminster Cathedral to mark the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

I would not consider myself a Royalist, or a Monarchist, or any other such ist that you may attempt to attribute to me (careful) but I can appreciate the sense of history and the sense of occasion. I know people of other nationalities who tell me that they envy the history and tradition that we have with our monarchy.

Marrying a post on national history with a little family history, I share with you this photograph from the 1953 coronation taken on Birtles Street in Collyhurst, Manchester. In that sea of young faces, among that wild throng, my Dad stares out. Also present are his two brothers, along also with two of his cousins.

As well as being a visual document of a historic occasion, I treasure this for being one of only a handful of photographs that exist of my Dad’s younger brother Frank, who was to die just twelve months after this was taken aged not quite four years old. That is him dead center, wearing the coat, his head turned to his right.

present are Dad,Brian,Frank,Richard Hamnett,Pat Curran

Another photograph being shared by Manchester Down Memory Lane today is this one capturing the women of Walter Street, Manchester, getting ready for their street party.

Look at that for elbow grease! How times have changed.

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I have photographs from the Silver Jubilee party I was at in 1977, but I decline to include them  here as I do not want to inflict upon you the unsightly vision of my young, knobbly knees, laid bare in shorts.

Back then nearly every street held a celebratory party, with everyone contributing to the decorations, food and drink. I can recall one of the neighbours rolling out an out of tune piano to add to the caterwauling.

Come the Diamond Celebrations of 2012, and only a handful of the streets in my local area bothered to hold such parties. The national flags and bunting were as sparse then as they were this year for St.George’s Day. But when we have a World Cup or European Championship year, or for events such as the recent London-held Olympics, you can see them in abundance.

It seems that up here, in the north of England at least, there is a dearth of national pride until a sporting event awakens that slumbering sense of patriotism and brings the people together in a mutual air of hope.

But that hope inevitably disappoints, and the mood of the nation takes yet another dip.

Or, as of recent days, the death of a local serviceman calls the community to come together in a mutual need for solace, and comfort, and hope.

But parties? Royal celebrations? The jury is out.