Posts Tagged ‘Dunkirk’

How Kitchener inspired the nation for Dunkirk

August 4, 2017
Picture Post for the week of 1 June 1940

Kitchener leads the nation again in the week of Dunkirk from the cover of Picture Post (1 June 1940)

Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk has certainly brought the legend of the ‘Little Ships’ armada that rescued so many Allied troops back into the world’s imagination. In 1940, the media that the British will have turned to was BBC radio and Picture Post magazine.

And the image that editor Stefan Lorant chose to put on his magazine’s front cover the week of Dunkirk was Alfred Leete’s Your Country Needs You. It was a cover that will have gone to press before May 29, when the evacuation was announced to the British public. But then Lorant may well have known what was happening to the British Expeditionary Force through his contact with Churchill.

Boat owners certainly responded to the call – making up the bulk in number of the 860 vessels that were involved.  Some 200 of the small craft that epitomised the Dunkirk spirit were sunk. However, by the time the operation ended on June 4, 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops had been saved. Another 220,000 troops were rescued  from other French ports.

The presence of this force was undoubtedly a factor in forcing Hitler to rethink his invasion plans, but the war was not going well for Britain – its allies were dropping like nine pins – and Lorant must have been in more fear for his life than most people in Britain. Lorant was a Hungarian Jew who had been imprisoned by Hitler for his work on weekly papers in Germany. In Britain, he promoted the work of many other Continental exiles, including Walter Trier, who drew the Lilliput covers for 20 years, the photographer Bill Brandt and the photomontages of John Heartfield, probably best remembered for his Elephants Might Fly reaction to the Munich agreement (15 October 1938).

Lorant had lambasted the Nazi regime in his book, I Was Hitler’s Prisoner, which was turned into a BBC Radio play; in the pages of Weekly Illustrated, which he had launched for Odhams in 1934; in the delectible Lilliput, which he founded, as well as Picture Post. So he must have been well up on Hitler’s hit list.

Walter Trier's cover for first Lilliput magazine in 1937

Walter Trier’s cover for first Lilliput magazine in 1937

Soon after Lorant went to America in mid-1940, Picture Post‘s two most important cameramen – Felix Man and Kurt Hutton, both German emigres – were interned on the Isle of Man. The magazine set about negotiating for their release, but their fates will not have assuaged Lorant’s fears and he emigrated to the US. As Lorant told his deputy Tom Wilkinson, who went on to become editor of Picture Post:

‘You British citizens will be all right – all you’ll lose is the freedom to say what you think. But we bloody foreigners will be handed over … I’ve been Hitler’s prisoner once in Munich, I’m not waiting for him to catch up with me a second time.’

The Kitchener-covered Picture Post issue was larger than usual and was focused on Britain’s leaders, with 32 pages devoted to government members. Lorant was a big fan of Churchill. The section starts with photographs comparing a ‘grimly determined’ Churchill in 1914 with him ‘grimly determined again’ in 1940.

Back in February 1939, Lorant had sent Wickham Steed, a former editor of The Times, and cameraman Felix Man to Chartwell and interview Winston Churchill at his home. As David Marcou writes in his thesis, ‘All the Best’:

‘Churchill – the man the Tories didn‘t trust – was no more than a backbencher under the Chamberlain administration. He‘d held no office since being Chancellor of the Exchequer under Stanley Baldwin a decade before. Steed concluded his profile: “His abiding care is the safety of Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth. Should some great emergency arise … his qualities and experience might then be national assets; and the true greatness, which he has often seemed to miss by a hair‘s breadth, might, by common consent, be his.” In its introduction, Picture Post added its own prophetic comment: At 64, the greatest moment of his life has still to come.’

Picture Post covered the German offensive with a dramatic story―’Blitzkrieg’ in the June 8 issue.

‘The lightning war smites Europe. It blisters its way between the Allied Armies, cleaving them in two. It carves out a charred road to the English Channel. It scorches the Belgian Army and stuns the Belgian King into surrender.’

Alongside the words is a full-page photo of a man with a girl lying nearby, which tells the story of what war was doing to innocents. The picture caption reads:

We dedicate this picture to the Fuhrer. We dedicate this picture to the ‘moderate’ Goering. We dedicate this picture to those of our own politicians who promised us that Germany would never be allowed to attain air-parity with Britain; that they had secured peace for our time; that they were abundantly confident of victory … It shows a Dutch father wounded all over, but forgetful of what he is suffering. The dead girl on the corner is his daughter.

It’s no wonder that Lorant decided to put the Atlantic ocean between himself and Hitler. However, he had burned his bridges well before. As I point out in A History of British Magazine Design, Tom Hopkinson identifies the seven pages of ‘Back to the Middle Ages’ (26 November 1938) as ‘the finest example of the use of photographs for political effect’. He describes how Lorant drew up the pages to hit back at ‘This bloody Hitler. These bloody pogroms!’