The Darkest Hours -1940 and 2018

1940 has been well served by blockbuster movies this past year. Last summer there was Dunkirk as legendary saga and then this winter Darkest Hour focussed on the Westminster drama of the political backdrop.

Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force by following what happens to some representative figures – soldiers trying to get off the beach; a “little ships” civilian captain; a Spitfire pilot; the naval officer in command of the east mole. It’s good stirring stuff – well-played with parallel plots cleverly put together to tell an epic story.

Gary Oldham as Winston Churchill

Darkest Hour is about standing up to existential threats in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the story of resistance to fascism, military aggression and dictatorship. On May 10th 1940  Hitler invaded Holland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The same day, Prime Minister Chamberlain formally lost the confidence of the House of Commons. Churchill took his place and formed an all-party government. 

It’s about some very desperate days of May and June 1940 when Great Britain was on the brink of defeat. Belgium and France fell and the defeated British army was pushed into the sea at Dunkirk. Britain stood alone and a German invasion seemed inevitable. 

The British love a good defeat (Charge of the Light Brigade) and the miracle of the little ships, the rescue of the BEF and the rise of Churchillian rhetoric are defining moments in British mythology. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour tell this story well.

Italy declared war on June 10th and the focus of the fighting turned to North Africa. The Battle of Britain and the Blitz follow on.

1940 was a busy year. And yes, very dark.

The Paddle Ship Medway Queen at Dunkirk.painting by Roy Gargett. One of the “little ships of Dunkirk”, making a record 7 trips and rescuing 7000 men in the evacuation of Dunkirk.

It made me smile when I read that Trump had arranged a private screening of Darkest Hour for selected lawmakers in December. It’s common for self-aggrandizing politicians to claim a Churchillian mantle and Trump is no different in that respect. He reinstated the Churchill bust to the Oval Office in a symbolic moment of interior decoration. I don’t know whether he had it plated with gold first. 

It made me smile because Trump is the very antithesis of Churchill in some most significant ways.

Since the 2016 election we have been plunged into our own dark time. But instead of a defiant Churchill at the head of coalition government, we have a very divisive ‘leader’ who refuses to confront the hostile actions of a foreign enemy:  the Russian interference in the electoral process that happened in 2016 and that presents an ongoing and existential threat to American democracy. 

I don’t know what parallels Trump saw in Darkest Hour.  No doubt he cast himself as the hero and not as one of the weasels of appeasement. (The film’s a little hard on Chamberlain and Halifax, both of whom were “honorable men” in their own way, Halifax proving himself invaluable in his Churchill-assigned role as British ambassador in Washington.)

As penalty for interference in the election, Congress imposed additional sanctions on Russia. The deadline for those sanctions was Monday, January 29th 2018. The law had passed with overwhelming majorities (419 votes to 3 in the House and 98 votes to 2 in the Senate.) Trump decided to ignore the will of Congress and refused to impose the sanctions. 

So much for standing up to foreign threats! So much for protecting America against a hostile nation and a foreign dictator determined to undermine and destroy western democracy. Trump is such an admirer of Churchill that he rolls over in the face of Russian hostility and ignores the will of Congress.

So Trump is not Churchill. We knew that. And while Putin is not Hitler either, he does share some of that dictator’s least appealing qualities and behaviors. 

Conservatives love their Churchill analogies so I wonder how they will spin this. 

The director of Darkest Hour – Joe Wright – has said that his film is a rebuke of Trump’s style of leadership and that it shows Churchill resisting a tide of bigotry fascism and hate. He casts the #Resistance movement in the Churchill role:

There’s a big question in America at the moment: what does good leadership look like. Churchill resisted when it mattered most, and as I travel around America, I am really impressed and optimistic at the level of resistance happening in the U.S. at the moment. –  director Joe Wright

But let’s go back to 1940.

What else was happening? How were people feeling about what they knew about what was happening?

Mass Observation data (diaries and reports) suggest that many were anxious about the invasion, concerned about food, distressed about the fate of the army, dissatisfied with the government and enjoying the lovely weather of early June. People seemed aware that the phoney war was about to be over and they were worried about the future.

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912

Many prepared for imminent invasion.  

Virginia and Leonard Woolf, for example, knew they had reason to fear. They were well aware of Nazi atrocities towards civilians during invasions and that – as prominent intellectuals – they would be targets. Additionally, Leonard was Jewish.

They had a plan to kill themselves. They stored an extra can of petrol in the garage and planned to asphyxiate themselves with exhaust fumes if Germany invaded. Virginia Woolf’s diary entry for May 15th, 1940:

“We discussed suicide if Hitler lands. Jews beaten up. What point in waiting? Better to shut the garage doors. This is a sensible, rather matter of fact talk…No, I don’t want the garage to see the end of me. I’ve a wish for 10 years more, & to write my book wh. as usual darts into my brain.”

Leonard Woolf also had a back-up plan. In June 1940, he obtained a vial of ‘protective poison’ (a lethal dose of morphia) from Virginia’s brother, Adrian Stephen, who was a psychiatrist. 

The Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. –
  The Black Book put together by
SS-General Walter Schellenberg
lists the 2820 people the
Germans intended to round up
once they had control of the country.
Rebecca West described the list
to Noël Coward saying,
“My dear – the people we should
have been seen dead with.”

The Woolfs actually were on Hitler’s blacklist of politicians, trade unionists, socialists, intellectuals, artists, scientists writers, journalists and emigres of all kinds who were to be immediately arrested if Germany successfully invaded Britain.

After the war, a copy of the  Sonderfahndungsliste G.B.  (Special Search List Great Britain) – was discovered among the papers of Heinrich Himmler. You can see and search the list here.

So the tense dark hours of May and June 1940 see Churchill ascend to leadership of an all-party government – resist entreaties to make a deal with dictators – determined to wage war, by sea, land and air – preferring to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of the nation –  offering blood toil, tears and sweat – with victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival –  refusing to flag or fail – resolved to fight on the seas and oceans –  to defend the Island, whatever the cost may be – fighting on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills – never surrender.  And Etc.

As Edward R. Murrow was to say later about Churchill:  “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle…” (CBS broadcast, 30 November 1954)

And millions of quite otherwise ordinary people found themselves caught up in the greatest and most perilous drama of their lives, one that they did not seek but that changed them forever.

It wasn’t necessarily that they all admired or even liked Churchill. It was more a sense of resignation that war had arrived. It had to be fought and there was no choice but to carry on. Some may have been inspired by the rhetoric. Others just thought he was drunk. But many were reassured and rallied by the confidence and the defiance of his leadership. It provided some glue to the collective narrative of resistance against all odds and whatever the cost. That spirit was of course to be sorely tried. That it ultimately held together and prevailed was only something we can know in hindsight. The majority had the wisdom to vote Churchill out of office five years later.

My parents were among those millions of ordinary people caught up in world events. 

Government Evacuation Scheme
for school children.

My mother was a teacher and when the war began she was teaching the youngest children at St Michael’s School on Buckingham Palace Road Victoria –  not far from the royal residence but a world away in terms of privilege and wealth. She had stories of children who shared shoes and families who paid into boot clubs.

The evacuation schemes to take children out of the city kicked into gear as soon as war was declared. Children were to be packed up and labelled like parcels and sent to safety. 

It so happens that news photographers from the Daily Mirror captured scenes of children from St. Michael’s School packing, rehearsing and being marshaled in the playground.

Headmaster Mr Rixon gives last-minute instructions to children at St Michael’s Church School Buckingham Palace Road, Victoria.

Children from St. Michael’s School,
Buckingham Palace Road,
London packing for evacuation.

Evacuation rehearsal
September 4th 1939
St Michael’s School, .

Children at St Michael’s School rehearse for a possible evacuation. September, 1939

When the children were evacuated she went with them.

In a testimonial some years later Selina Brougham – headmistress of St. Michael’s Infants LCC School wrote:

Mrs Edith Holford, nee Sims, worked on the staff of St Michaels Infants School 1938-1942 .

When she came to St Michaels she was a very young teacher, full of enthusiasm and proved herself a very valuable addition to the staff. Children in her class were always happy, well cared for and she gave willingly of her own time to further the education of the children and maintain interest in the “skills” of learning.

Special mention of Mrs Holford’s work was made by the Inspectors in a Report on the school in 1939 as follows: –

Concerning number an enlightened attempt was being made to give significance to the number work through the interest aroused by a shop built and stocked by the children.

Mrs Holford accompanied children to Farnham on evacuation 1939-1942, and during that time she was in charge of a group of Infants separated from the main group working with the headmistress in Sunningdale. She proved an able and loyal colleague under difficult war circumstances.

My father had been in the Territorial Army before the war and was one of the first to be called up in September 1939. He was part of that ill-fated British Expeditionary Force that was sent to France to stem the German onslaught. 

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940:Charles Ernest Cundall..On the left sand-dunes covered with groups and long lines of troops. Small boats loaded with troops move out towards larger vessels on the right. Across the centre men queue along a makeshift jetty towards the waiting ships. In background huge black smoke clouds from the town fill the sky.

He’s somewhere on that beach and among the 338,000 troops rescued between May 26th and June 4th.

He returned home to the news that his father had died on May 26th

In November 1940 they were married at the Registry Office in Spilsby, Lincolnshire where my father was stationed before shipping out for North Africa.

Not everything was dark in 1940. And if we all get out and vote next November, 2018 won’t be either.


  1. David Held:

    Thank you Josie. What a great inspiring story for the times. A what a beautiful tribute to your mom and dad.

  2. Thanks David. I especially love the detail about kids building and then running a shop as a way to teach math. They would have been 5 and 6 year olds. (Nothing new about making and good progressive education!)

  3. Liz Vinogradov:

    Josie – what a wonderful piece, both the connection of those films to their historical context and our current situation – and the spotlight on your mother!

  4. So interesting to read her testimonials from the 1930’s. I’m going to mine them some more. My mother was very good with five year olds.

    Thanks Liz. The pieces just came together. What really got me going was the notion of tRump having a private screening of “Darkest Hour” and imagining himself in some Churchillian role when in fact he’s clearly sold out to Putin.

  5. John Fields:

    Up Yours, Hitler! That’s what Trump should be saying to Putin. Instead he licks his boots and gets his strings jerked. History will not be kind.

    Both these films are brilliant. Would be really interesting to see them spliced to tell the story of Dunkirk while mix and matching with the battle in London.

    Amazing that a man made up of equal parts champagne, whiskey and bacon fat could function so well.

    The train scene hits a really false note though and I find it hard to believe that Churchill was not familiar with the Up Yours hand gesture,

  6. Agreed that it would be unlikely that a worldly man such as Churchill would not have been familiar with the classic British two finger salute.

    Agreed also on the false note of the underground scene. Although he was known to go rogue/ awol occasionally and did like to imagine himself a man of the “people”.

    And lol on the equal parts! I wonder how many careers have died on that recipe.

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