5 Surprising Facts About the Battle of Dunkirk

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

With the release of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dunkirk, the world’s attention is once again focused on the historic events recounted in the film, when a makeshift fleet of British fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and cargo ships helped save 185,000 British soldiers and 130,000 French soldiers from death or capture by German invaders during the Fall of France in May and June 1940. Here are five surprising facts about those heroic days.

1. THE GERMAN ATTACK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE.


By Weper Hermann, 13 German Mobile Assault Unit - Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The main reason France collapsed so quickly in 1940 was the element of surprise enjoyed by its German attackers, thanks to General Erich von Manstein, who proposed an invasion route that was widely believed to be impossible. In Manstein’s plan, the main German column of tanks and motorized infantry would force their way through the forests of Ardennes in southeast Belgium and Luxembourg—a thick, hilly woodland which was supposed to be difficult terrain for tanks, requiring at least five days to cross, according to conventional wisdom based on the experience of the First World War. The French and British assumed that little had changed since the previous conflict, but thanks to field studies and updated maps, Manstein and his colleague General Heinz Guderian realized that a new network of narrow, paved roads would allow just enough room for tanks and trucks to squeeze through. As a result the Germans passed through Ardennes into northern France in just two-and-a-half days, threatening to cut off hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, with only one escape route: the sea.

2. ONE FRENCH WORD WAS BURNED INTO WINSTON CHURCHILL’S MEMORY: “AUCUNE.”


Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The German invasion of France began on May 10, 1940, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. By May 14, when he paid his first official visit to Britain’s ally, Holland had capitulated and Paris was preparing for evacuation. But an even worse surprise was in store. In one of the most famous passages of military history, Churchill recounted the moment he learned that the French didn’t have any troops in reserve:

"I then asked ‘Where is the strategic reserve?’ and, breaking into French … ‘Ou est la mass de manoeuvre?’ General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, replied. ‘Aucune.’ [There is none] … I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the Great French Army and its highest chief? It had never occurred to me than any commanders … would have left themselves unprovided with a mass of manoeuvre … This was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

3. HITLER MADE A FATAL MISTAKE.

On May 24, 1940, the Allied troops on the French and Belgian coast had been totally surrounded by powerful German tank columns, rendering them essentially defenseless against the impending German onslaught. And then came a brief reprieve, as the attackers suddenly stopped for 48 hours, allowing the British to dig in and create a defensive perimeter, setting the stage for the evacuation.

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Hitler—over the protests of his own generals and to the bafflement of historians—had ordered Guderian to halt for two days to rest and resupply. It’s true the German troops were worn out after two weeks of fighting, and Hitler may have worried about a repeat of 1914, when exhausted German troops were forced to withdraw at the Marne. He may also have been swayed by Hermann Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, who boasted that air power alone could destroy the helpless Allied forces at Dunkirk. Less likely is the speculation that Hitler purposefully “let the Allies go” to appear magnanimous or merciful as a prelude to peace negotiations (which was not really in keeping with his character). In the end we will probably never know why Hitler choked.

4. GERMAN DIVE-BOMBERS WERE EQUIPPED WITH SIRENS TO SPREAD TERROR.

Among many examples of Germany’s evil genius for psychological warfare, one of the most famous was the decision to equip its Ju 87 dive bombers with air-powered sirens that emitted a shrieking, unearthly wail as the plane went into attack. The siren, known as the “Jericho Trumpet,” was intended to spread terror among enemy troops and civilians on the ground—and it worked. To this day the Jericho Trumpet is one of the most recognizable, and terrifying, sounds of war. It was certainly one of the lasting impressions of the Dunkirk evacuation for ordinary troops caught beneath the German bombs. Lieutenant Elliman, a British gunner who was waiting to be evacuated on Malo-les-Bains beach, later recalled the Stukas “diving, zooming, screeching, and wheeling over our heads like a flock of huge infernal seagulls.”

5. THE FRENCH FOUGHT A HOPELESS BATTLE TO COVER THE EVACUATION.


By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer — Photograph H 1636 from the Imperial War Museums, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although Churchill and other Brits were quick to criticize the failure of France’s generals during the Fall of France, many ordinary French soldiers and officers fought bravely and honorably—and one hopeless “last stand” in particular probably helped enable the successful evacuation of Dunkirk.

As British and French troops withdrew to Dunkirk, 40 miles to the southeast French troops in two corps of the French First Army staged a ferocious defense against seven German divisions from May 28 to May 31, 1940, refusing to surrender and mounting several attempts to break out despite being heavily outnumbered (110,000 to 40,000). The valiant French effort, led by General Jean-Baptiste Molinié, helped tie up three German tank divisions under Erwin Rommel, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and the remaining troops of the French First Army to retreat and dig in at Dunkirk, ultimately saving another 100,000 Allied troops.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

10 Facts About Harry Houdini

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though Harry Houdini passed away more than 90 years ago, his mystique has never faded. The famed magician captured the imagination of the world with his death-defying stunts and performances, many of which still baffle modern magicians. Whether he was escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane above the streets or getting out of his famed “Chinese water torture cell” with just moments of air to spare, Houdini had a habit of leaving everyone in awe. And with performances that spectacular, it shouldn’t come as a shock that his life was just as fascinating. Read on for some interesting facts about Harry Houdini.

1. Harry Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss.

He likely took the first part of his stage name from his childhood nickname, "Ehrie," although some sources say that his first name was a tribute to magician Harry Kellar. His last name, however, was definitely a tribute to French illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

2. According to legend, He also named Buster Keaton, although inadvertently.

Along with Houdini, Buster's dad, Joe, was the co-owner of a traveling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. The story Buster tells (though some believe it's a myth) is that one day, when he was only about 6 months old, he took a tumble down a flight of stairs while he was under his dad's watch, but came out of it completely unscathed. Houdini remarked, "That was a real buster!" In those days, according to Keaton, buster meant a spill or a fall that had the potential to really hurt someone. Joe started calling him Buster, and the nickname stuck. His real name was Joseph Frank Keaton, if you're curious.

3. He introduced his famous milk can trick in 1908.

If you're not familiar with it, Houdini invented an oversized milk can that would be filled with water for his act. Once in the can, he would be handcuffed and sealed inside, then left behind a curtain to make his daring escape. When this became too commonplace, he further encased the milk can in a wooden crate. Perhaps building on this stunt, the folks at Joshua Tetley & Son, the brewers behind Tetley's beer, invited him to escape from a cask of their fine product. Houdini accepted and gave the stunt a go, but the task proved too difficult and he had to be rescued by his assistant, Franz Kokol.

4. Houdini probably didn't die from a sucker punch.

Houdini had long boasted of his physical prowess—and one of his claims was that he could withstand a punch from anyone. After a performance in Montreal on October 20, 1926, a student from McGill University asked him if this was true, and when Harry said it was, the student immediately punched him three times in the gut. Surprised by the blows, Houdini didn't have a chance to tighten his abs, which was part of his secret. He ultimately died of a ruptured appendix days later, which many people said was brought on by the punches. But that's not necessarily true.

Houdini had actually been suffering from appendicitis for a few days beforehand but hadn't done anything about it. In fact, he had continued to travel and do shows afterward. Finally, on October 24, 1926, he gave one last show and was immediately hospitalized. Unfortunately, he had let it go too long: on October 31, 1926, he died of peritonitis from his ruptured appendix.

5. The symbol of the Society of American Magicians is engraved on his tombstone.

Houdini was president of the Society of American Magicians when he died. And members are still invested in making sure the famed magician's gravesite at Machpelah Cemetary in Queens, New York, receives routine maintenance and restoration. Sadly, his beloved wife, Bess, is buried 10 miles away in Westchester; she wasn't allowed to be buried with him because she wasn't Jewish.

6. His wife, Bess, held a séance every year for 10 years on the anniversary of his death to see if he would get in touch.

Before Harry Houdini died, he and Bess made a pact that if there was a way to do it, Harry would contact her from the beyond. They even agreed upon a phrase that he would tell her so she would know it was really him speaking to her and not a ghostly imposter. When he failed to contact her on the 10th anniversary, she gave up, but the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, still holds the séance every year. So far, no one has gotten Harry to communicate. 

The secret code, by the way, was "Rosabelle- answer- tell- pray, answer- look- tell- answer, answer- tell." "Rosabelle" was the name of a song she sang in her vaudeville act when the two of them met, and the other words corresponded to letters of the alphabet in a language the two concocted for themselves. Combined, they spelled out "Believe."

7. Houdini was an avid aviator.

Though there's some dispute over the claim, Houdini is often recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in a powered plane on Australian soil. The flight took place on March 18, 1910, in Diggers Rest, which is near Melbourne. In June, 1920, it was reported that Houdini was even making plans to embark upon what would have been the first transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. The plans, unfortunately, never materialized.

8. Houdini could also escape from copyright restrictions.

By 1912, Houdini added another act to his routine: the escape from the infamous "Chinese water torture cell," where the magician would be lowered upside-down into a water-filled tank while his feet were locked in stocks. It was a hit with crowds, and despite the overwhelming danger, Houdini repeatedly performed the stunt without a hitch. In fact, he was the only one who could legally perform this death-defying act. That's because Houdini found a way to copyright the cell routine in a pretty ingenious way. Since you couldn't copyright magic tricks, he first performed this escape as part of a one-act play called Houdini Upside Down! Well, you can copyright a play, and by incorporating the cell escape into the script, he was allowed to copyright the effect and would actively sue anyone who tried to imitate the stunt.

9. Although the Chinese Water Torture Cell didn't do him in, one of his performances nearly did.

In 1915, Houdini was buried in a pit with just dirt shoveled right on top of him for a stunt in Santa Ana, California. While trying to dig his way out, he started to panic and use up his precious air. He tried to call for help, but that's not exactly the easiest thing to do while covered in mounds of dirt. Finally, his hand broke the surface, and he was pulled to safety, where he promptly passed out. He later wrote that "The weight of the earth is killing."

10. You can still see one of his most famous stunts.

The straitjacket escape is one of Harry Houdini's most famous acts. For this one, Houdini would be strapped into the jacket and then suspended by his ankles very high in the air, usually from a crane or off a tall building. Once hoisted in the air, he would make a death-defying escape with countless onlookers below. You can still watch it below:

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