ROGER CAMRASS

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HIS­TORY

WATCH­ING THE stream of young peo­ple fill the Odeon Imax cin­ema to ca­pac­ity this week to see the new film Dunkirk, I felt deeply touched that such dis­tant mem­o­ries should re­main so rel­e­vant to the mil­lenial gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing my three sons.

Those re­mark­able cin­e­matic scenes took me back to child­hood when my late fa­ther, Lt Colonel Richard Hirsh Camrass MBE, led my brother and me down the vast de­serted beach of Dunkirk and through the silent grave­yards to in­still in us the im­pact of global con­flict. Amongst the one and a half mil­lion Jews who fought in the war, why was my fa­ther stand­ing on that beach in 1940, and how did he end up as deputy com­man­der of the al­lied forces in Rome?

In his very mov­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, my fa­ther de­scribes just what it meant to grow up un­der the shadow of the world’s great­est tyranny of Nazi Ger­many, and how it mo­ti­vated him to join the 46th Divi­sion of the Ter­ri­to­rial Army some 18 months be­fore the out­break of war. He was a vo­cal sup­porter of Win­ston Churchill who recog­nised the in­evitabil­ity of hos­til­i­ties. He gave up a promis­ing ca­reer as a young lawyer in York­shire to pre­pare for the in­evitable. Early in 1940, af­ter the dec­la­ra­tion of war, he landed with the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force in north­ern France to help stall the Nazi on­slaught.

Pos­sess­ing lit­tle more than ri­fles and a few anti-tank guns, he en­camped with his bat­tal­ion in a pic­turesque chateau in glo­ri­ous spring sun­shine, en­joy­ing sump­tu­ous cui­sine to the back­ground mu­sic of a reg­i­men­tal band. Then on May 10, 1940, Hitler’s troops came smash­ing through north­ern France, and the tran­quil­ity was brought to a shat­ter­ing halt. Hav­ing beaten the Dutch and Bel­gians, and ef­fort­lessly over­come the Maginot Line, the Ger­man Panz­ers and Luft­waffe spread panic across France. The be­lea­guered French pres­i­dent called on the Bri­tish army to sup­port his ground troops as they massed for a fi­nal show down.

As my fa­ther ad­vanced with his bat­tal­ion to­wards the en­emy front, he wit­nessed the sheer in­hu­man­ity of war. A con­stant stream of di­shev­elled refugees were re­treat­ing from the war zone whilst the Nazi troops rav­aged the coun­try be­hind them. Messer­schmitts flew down to within fifty feet of th­ese de­fence­less crowds, spray­ing bul­lets in­dis­crim­i­nately at women and chil­dren. This was a dark pre-warn­ing of the hor­rors of Auschwitz and Belsen.

My fa­ther de­scribed what he called ‘the fog of war’ where no­body knew where the en­emy was, and which, if any, al­lied units were still in ac­tion, and which had dis­in­te­grated into a rab­ble and were de­ter­mined to leave the field. Large hordes of fugi­tive Bel­gian, French and Dutch sol­diers were now stream­ing through in alarm­ing num­bers. In just a few days the en­tire com­bined forces of Europe lay dev­as­tated and con­fused as they re­treated to the beaches of Dunkirk.

He was evac­u­ated from Dunkirk only to re­turn to the scene of ac­tion to help save the re­main­ing stranded sol­diers. As he could not com­mu­ni­cate from his po­si­tion, the Min­istry of De­fence as­sumed the worst and sent a tele­gram to his par­ents stat­ing ‘Your son is miss­ing, be­lieved killed in ac­tion’. On June 11 the York­shire Post pub­lished a short re­port: ‘Of­fi­cer who re­turned to France is now miss­ing’.

For­tu­nately for us, he was land­ing at Folke­stone to en­counter an­other world. To his ut­ter amaze­ment, chil­dren were play­ing on the beaches and adults were loung­ing in deck chairs as though noth­ing had hap­pened.

Com­pletely ex­hausted, he was loaded onto a train and woke up sev­eral hours later to find him­self wrapped in a blan­ket and sur­rounded by cu­ri­ous an­i­mals at Belle View Zoo in Manch­ester.

Granted com­pas­sion­ate leave, he re­turned to his home town, Har­ro­gate, to con­front his par­ents and fam­ily who were in a dread­ful emo­tional state.

What of the next five years of com­bat? Be­ing fur­ther con­vinced of the great evils that be­set Europe, my fa­ther set out with the re­con­sti­tuted 46th Divi­sion to North­ern Africa to fight Rom­mel in Al­ge­ria, Tu­nisia and Libya un­der the re­mark­able lead­er­ship of Field Mar­shall Vis­count Mont­gomery. There he wit­nessed the treach­ery and de­ceit of the indige­nous ‘pro-Nazi’ Arab A scene from the film Dunkirk, with (left) a por­trait of Richard Camrass Hitler’s troops brought the tran­quil days to an end pop­u­la­tion who op­posed the Al­lied armies at ev­ery step of the war — an­other fore­taste of events lead­ing up to the for­ma­tion of the State of Is­rael in 1948.

Fol­low­ing the de­ci­sive de­feat of Rom­mel in 1943, my fa­ther was asked to help plan and co­or­di­nate the Al­lied land­ings in South­ern Italy. In a cruel twist of fate, he found him­self or­ches­trat­ing a mock land­ing of 2,00000 troops on the beaches of Tu­nisia in prepa­ra­tion for the forth­com­ing in­va­sion at Salerno. Com­plet­ing this cam­paign suc­cess­fully, my fa­ther spent his fi­nal year of the war in Rome, re­spon­si­ble for the al­lo­ca­tion of prop­er­ties to vic­to­ri­ous al­lied gov­ern­ments. This brought many perks in­clud­ing in­vi­ta­tions to high pro­file am­bas­sado­rial events, and the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of a truly stun­ning Yu­gosla­vian es­cort.

Some years af­ter the armistice, my fa­ther con­tacted three for­mer army col­leagues and to­gether they founded the Dunkirk Vet­er­ans As­so­ci­a­tion. By 1980 this as­so­ci­a­tion had grown to 65,000 mem­bers and or­gan­ised an­nual pil­grim­ages to Dunkirk fre­quently ac­com­pa­nied by the Queen and Prince Philip. He re­mained Vice Pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion un­til his death at age 93.

World War II – a very per­sonal jour­ney by Richard Camrass is avail­able as an e-book on Ama­zon

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