Sunday, 31 January 2021

FILM REVIEW - Zulu (1964)



Made in 1964 to depict the Battle of Rorke's Drift, fought in 1879 as part of the Zulu Wars in southern Africa, this is one of the greatest war films ever made. I was introduced to it by my dad. We watched it on TV whenever it was on, and once he got it as a video tape it became a staple of Christmas. I have lost count of the number of times that I have watched it.

 If you haven't seen it. Watch it now!

So, the plot is fairly straightforward. It opens at the battlefield of Isandhlwana where a British army was wiped out by the Zulu army. The film does not explain why the war was fought - it is about the soldiers and warriors, not the politics. The scene then moves to the main kraal of Zulu ruler Cetewayo [played by the then chief of the Zulu people Mangosuthu Buthelezi] where several dozen young women are marrying an equal number of retiring warriors in a mass wedding ceremony. Also present are the missionary Otto Witt [Jack Hawkins] and his daughter [Ulla Jacobson]. News arrives of Isandhlwana. Witt decides to leave to warn the handful of British soldiers at his mission station at Rorke's Drift that they are about to be attacked. 

Back at Rorke's Drift there is friction between the middle class engineer officer John Chard [Stanley Baker] and the aristocratic infantry officer Gonville Bromhead [Michael Caine in his first starring role]. Chard is using Bromhead's men as manual labour to build a bridge over the river. Chard & Bromhead are given details of the disaster at Isandhlwana by Witt and by fleeing Boer horsemen. After futher bickering over who has seniority and therefore assumes command [it is Chard] they decide to fortify the mission station with walls built of biscuit tins and sacks of grain. This work is still in progress when the Zulu hordes appear over the crest of a hill. The 150 British soldiers [many wounded or sick in hospital] are faced by 4,000 Zulu. 

Among the garrison are well-known British actors as James Booth, Glynn Edwards, Paul Daneman, Patrick Macgee Joe Powell, David Kernan, Gary Bond, Ivor Emmanual and many others.

The rest of the film tells the story of the defence. The battle rages for a day and a night before the Zulus finally retreat - but not before singing a song of tribue to the gallantry of the defenders. 

At the time the film was made it was notable for its realistic portrayal of late 19th century colonial warfare. The producer [Baker] and director Cy Endfield went out of their way to show the Zulu as a great nation and as the highly disciplined fighting force capable of tactics and strategy - as indeed they were. Compared to other movies of the time that portrayed Africans in stereotypical ways this was a great change. Indeed, tribal historians were consulted to get the Zulu side of the battle as the script was being written. The uniforms, equipment and tactics of the British and Boers were also painstakingly recreated. 

There are some great lines in the movie that I quote ad nauseam. 

Of course, the film does take some poetic licence with reality to give the film some more emotional depth. Private Hook is portrayed as a troublemaker who makes good, when in fact his service record was exemplary. Similarly Witt's daughter who in the movie is an attractive young woman who excites the lust of the soldiers was actually aged 5 years old. 

But these details are mere quibbles. This is a great movie. You can watch it HERE.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

FILM REVIEW - North West Frontier [1959]

 I remember watching this film with my dad many years ago. As I recall it, the film was set on a train on which the heroes were racing to escape the villains. I suppose that way back then the subtleties of the plot and certainly I would have missed the religious undertones and post-imperial angst. 

Anyway, the film starts in a fictional princely state on the North West Frontier of the Indian Raj in 1905. The Maharajah and most of his subjects are Hindus living in a generally peaceful agricultural state. The hill tribes are, however, wild marauding pillagers who have been stirred up to a peak of religious fervour by a Moslem fanatic preaching holy war. A somewhat stereotypical background for a film set in the Raj, but let's just take that as read. 

In what serves as a prelude to the main action, Kenneth More's Captain Scott and his men escort the maharajah's little son and heir and his American governess Catherine Wyatt [Lauren Bacall] away from the strife-stricken princely state to a British military base nearby. Soon after they leave the jihadis fight their way in to the palace and kill the maharajah. Now all that stands between the locals and religious civil war is the little boy. 

The Moslem fanatics follow the boy and lay siege to the military base. Convinced that his base will fall, the commander [Jack Gwillam] decides that Scott and Wyatt must take the prince to safety at the city of Kalapur where there is a much larger British garrison. The last train has already gone, but Scott finds a tatty old shunting engine and an equally derelict passenger carriage. The two are patched up and off they go. 

On the train are Scott, Wyatt, the prince, two soldiers plus: a Dtuch journalist [Herbert Lom], a retired British merchant [Wilfred Hyde Wight], Lady Windham [Ursula Jeans] and an arms dealer [Eugene Deckers]. The train driver Gupta is played by Inderjeet Johar, who does a wonderful comic turn as an uneducated engineer utterly devoted to his engine. This is a top class cast, and each of them plays their role to perfection.

 It becomes clear that somebody on the train is in cahoots with the rebels and is intent of killing the boy prince.

As the journey goes on, the train is ambushed, chases, faced by a sabotaged rail and faces all sorts of hazards. It is a dashing and exciting adventure story which in between times does touch upon the role of the British Raj in India, the role of princely states and the play off of religious and ethnic groups. No doubt a modern film [if one were ever made set in the Raj with a Britis hero] would do a better job of explaining these difficult issues, but for 1959 this film makes a pretty good fist of it. 

A great adventure movie. And you can watch it HERE.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

No.43 Squadron, RAF, become world famous


On 21 July the squadron performed a feat that made them world famous, though war time censorship meant that at the time the identity of the squadron concerned was not printed in the newspapers. A convoy of merchant ships was heading up the English Channel for London and had reached Bognor Regis when radar picked up a formation of German aircraft on an intercept course. At Tangmere, Squadron Leader Badger was at readiness along with five other pilots. They were ordered into the air and as their Hurricanes swept out to sea, climbing for height, were given a course to steer that would lead them to the German aircraft. Badger organised his six Hurricanes into two flights of three. He was leading one himself, with Flt Lt Thomas Morgan heading the second. They had not yet reached Bognor and the convoy when Badger spotted the Germans. There was a bombing formation of 40 Dornier Do17 bombers, with a close escort of about 20 Messerschmitt Bf110 twin engined fighters. High overhead was an upper escort of Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters, which Badger thought numbered about two dozen aircraft. The bombers were about 2,000 feet above the Hurricanes, which were now climbing fast.

“Huns ahead, chaps”, called Badger over the radio. “It’s like looking up at Piccadilly Circus escalator. Line ahead, chaps. Let’s upset them a bit.” He sent Morgan and his flight to tackle the Bf110s, while he led his wingmen to attack the bombers. Badger opened fire first, at the rather long range of 250 yards, but his aim was good and pieces flew off the Dornier at which he was aiming. Badger then veered to get a second bomber in his sights and fired again, this time knocking out an engine.  

 Up above, Morgan and his comrades had got in among the Bf110s. Morgan had caused one German to go down with a clearly damaged wing, while another Hurricane pumped bullets into a second German with the result that one of the enemy’s engines caught fire. There was no time to celebrate, for now the Bf109 single engined fighters dived down to join the fray.

Morgan spotted a Bf109 on his tail and flipped his aircraft up to try to evade the stream of bullets coming his way. Instantly the entire cockpit cover of Morgan’s Hurricane was covered in oil. Assuming his engine oil lines had been severed by the German, Morgan pushed his fighter’s nose down and steered north toward land. Unable to see anything through the oil, Morgan flung back the canopy hood and half stood in the cockpit so that his head poked up out of the canopy and he could see where he was going. Finding that the engine still seemed to be running, Morgan headed for Tangmere. When he landed he found that his fighter was totally undamaged, the oil had come from some other aircraft.  

 Back in the fight, Badger was also hit. A cannon shell hit his port wing and tore off the aileron. He too put his nose down and headed for Tangmere. The other pilots continued the fray, and eight more Germans were seen to be damaged by their gunfire. As each No.43 pilot ran out of ammunition or was damaged he dropped out of the fight and headed for home. Their mission had been successful for the German bombing attack so badly disrupted that the bombs were scattered over a wide range of sea and none of the ships in the convoy were damaged.

What Badger and his men did not know, however, was that soon after they had taken off an RAF staff officer from London had arrived at Tangmere with a journalist from the USA in tow. The journalist had been promised a day at a fighter base, and Tangmere had been chosen almost at random. Escorted by the staff officer, the journalist was shown about the base. He was being led to the control room when Morgan’s Hurricane came in to land covered in oil. Soon after that, Badger’s fighter came in with a chunk missing from its port wing. The American asked if he could talk to the pilots. The staff officer agreed, but said it could only be a quick chat at that point since the pilots had to attend debriefing after which they might be free. The journalist scampered across the grass and hailed Badger.  

 “How many did you meet?” the American asked.

“Oh,” replied Badger tugging off his flying helmet. “About 40 Dorniers, I should say. Plus about the same number of Messerschmitts. Yes, must have been about eighty in all.” 

 “And how many squadrons did you have?’ queried the journalist.

Badger laughed. “Not even one. I had six of our boys from No.43. That was enough.” At which point the journalist was hustled away and told he had to wait until the pilots were ready to talk to him at length. Some time later the American was allowed to talk to Badger and Morgan to get the full story, scribbling down details of the battle over Bognor. The story of how six RAF pilots had climbed to attack 80 Luftwaffe aircraft was subsequently splashed across newspapers the length and breadth of the USA, and later was repeated in neutral countries across the world.  

 The incident proved to be a turning point, for it was the first time that many people in neutral countries realised that Britain really was prepared to fight on alone. In the previous months Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and even the mighty France had all fallen to the German military machine. Some fighting had been intense, but often the panzers had simply stormed through defences as if they barely existed and then rounded up vast numbers of dispirited prisoners too shattered even to fight. Many had expected Britain to go the same way, or to negotiate a hurried peace treaty. Nobody outside Britain had really taken the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill seriously when he had stated the determination of the British to fight it out. Now people began to believe him.


Soon afterwards Morgan was awarded a DFC, the citation stating that “His behaviour in action has been an inspiration to the pilots in his flight.”


A Word about Niall of the Nine Hostages


The mighty warrior king Niall Noígíallach dominates the twilight world between history and legend. He was one of the greatest of the High Kings of Ireland in prehistoric days, but one of the least known to modern historians. He gave rise to the powerful and widespread O'Neil (Ui Neill) dynasty of rulers, but even the century in which he lived is obscure. He was a pagan, but his reign prepared the way for Christianity.

That Niall of the Nine Hostages did live and did rule at least part of Ireland nobody doubts, but how powerful he really was and how he got his famous sobriquet "of the Nine Hostages" remain utterly obscure.

According to legend, Niall was the stepson of a goddess, kissed the Spirit of Ireland and had eight sons - each of whom became a king. On the last point at least the facts seem to confirm the legend. Geneticists have found that no less than 21% of men in the northern parts of Ireland share a common male ancestor who lived about 1,600 years ago. Niall of the Nine Hostages is the prime candidate for this role as progenitor of a people.

But how much of the rest of the legend of Niall of the Nine Hostages can be born out by the facts? Historians have traditionally scorned the tales of his invasion of Britain, attacks on France and assault on Scotland. But in this book I hope to show that Niall was every bit the warrior hero that the legends make him out to be, though perhaps not in quite the same way.

And the facts are there to support this.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Wycombe Railway


What is now the branch line from Maidenhead to Marlow, by way of Cookham, has had a chequered and patchy history. It is now enjoying something of an upswing even though the original purpose of the line was long since made redundant by the closure of part of the line.

It was on 27 July 1846 that Parliament approved the Wycombe Railway Act, which envisaged a route running from Oxford to Maidenhead by way of Thame and High Wycombe with a branch line out to Aylesbury. Almost at once the company announced that it had failed to raise the necessary money to build the line. Nothing much happened for another six years, when the Wycombe Railway Company announced that it had hired as chief engineer none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest engineer of his age and mastermind of the Great Western Railway. Brunel had agreed to work for the Wycombe Railway Company only on condition that he was allowed a completely free hand in the design of the railway and its works. The directors were only too pleased to agree so long as their relatively minor project got the name of Brunel associated with it.

As hoped, the arrival of the new engineer led to a change in fortunes. Construction work began, although there was only enough money to get the line from Maidenhead as far as High Wycombe. Brunel insisted on a number of special features for the new railway. The first was that it should be built to his preferred broad gauge of 7ft 1/4in, rather than the standard gauge of 4ft 81⁄2in. The broad gauge was that used on the GWR, though other railways had preferred the standard gauge.

A second stipulation was that, apart from the main station at Wycombe, all the stations had to be constructed to an identical design. These were to have a booking office at one end with an open porch or waiting area at the other. Stations that had a level crossing beside them were provided with a small house in which the crossing keeper could live. The buildings were all to be of brick and knapped flint. Brunel believed this design incorporated everything a smaller station would need, while the standardisation would help to keep costs down.

It was the third engineering decision that was to cause trouble. Brunel always had a liking for innovative design and for the tracks he chose the new and impressive, but untried barlow rails. These had been invented by William Henry Barlow, chief engineer to the Midland Railway and were being used on all the lines running out of St Pancras. 

The exciting feature of the barlow rails was that they did not need sleepers. Instead of being tied to timbers at frequent intervals to keep them in position, the barlow rails relied on inertia. They took the form of an upside down V, the hollow centre being packed with sand and gravel before the rail was buried half deep in the ballast of the road bed. The technique speeded up construction and made it easier to lay out complex patterns of crossovers and points. Experience was to show that the rails were not as stable in the long term as Barlow and Brunel had hoped, but that was for the future.

In the 1850s, all seemed well for the new Wycombe Railway. Construction was completed quickly and efficiently under Brunel’s watchful eye.

 On 1 August 1854 the line was opened from Maidenhead to High Wycombe. There then followed a pause to raise more capital before the line was pushed on to reach Thame in August 1862, Aylesbury in October 1863 and finally Oxford in October 1864.

 The Berkshire section of the Wycombe Railway was only ever a small part of its total length. From a junction with the GWR at Maidenhead, the line curved sharply north, then ran gently downhill to the station at Cookham. The lines then ran on downhill to reach the damp, boggy watermeadows of Cock Marsh. These were crossed by a low viaduct, later replaced by an embankment. The line then crossed the Thames by way of a wooden viaduct, later replaced by an iron girder bridge. The line then entered Bourne End Station before running on through Woodburn Green to Loudwater and so to High Wycombe.

 Having overseen the successful construction of the line, the Wycombe Railway Company decided to take a backseat when it came actually to running the trains. The line was leased out to the GWR, which ran it profitably until 1867 when the GWR bought out the Wycombe Railway Company.