I’ve recently being reading Quora on the internet. It’s a site which, at first reading seems to ask, and answer, interesting questions. After ten minutes of reading it begins to dawn on me that the questions are, in many cases, pointless and the answers are worse. Imagine those drink-enhanced conversations you used to have as an earnest teenager – these are probably about the same level as that, but worsened by the influence of the internet.
One I saw recently asked who would win if you pitted thirty members of elite WW2 German units against 10 modern SAS soldiers. This generated a lot of serious information about squad size, troop morale, the correct use of Special Forces troops and all sorts of stuff. Some people appeared to know what they were talking about, but only one of them grasped the essentials of the question. It would be a walkover for the SAS. It could be nothing else, as all the Nazis would be well over 90 and in no shape to put up a meaningful fight.
The other I was reading recently was about the way Hollywood portrays the Americans as winning WW2. This was particularly in relation to the film U-571. I’ve never watched U-571, and don’t really want to. That’s not because I consider it a slight to HMS Bulldog, or because it shows German U-boat commanders in a negative light (two frequent criticisms of the film), but because I have better things to do. One day it might crop up and I might watch it, but I’m not going to make a special effort.
In the end, it’s a film, and a work of fiction. If the people financing it want to alter the story, they can do that. It is, to be fair, difficult to make the history of the Enigma machines interesting without applying a great deal of rewriting. The main players in cracking the code weren’t the sailors of HMS Bulldog, or even the codebreakers of Blectchley Park – it was the Poles.
Anyway, all this talk of HMS Bulldog ignores the actions of HMS Petard and her crewmen who died retrieving an Enigma machine from U-559. Or the other 11 Royal Navy ships that captured Enigma machines. The Canadians and the Americans also captured machines, bringing the total to fifteen.
However, on Quora it quickly degenerates into an argument about the relative contributions of the USA and the UK to the war effort. If you follow that up you can soon get into questions about why the British hate the Americans and the Americans hate the British. Until then, I wasn’t aware that I hated Americans, and I’m pretty sure that most of them don’t know I exist.
The truth is that history is never as simple as it seems. I’ll leave the last word to a man called David Balme, the historical adviser on the film all the fuss is about. His obituary in The Telegraph says:
In 1999 Balme was historical adviser during the making of the Oscar-winning film U-571, which recast the capture and boarding of U-110 as an American victory. When the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, called this an affront to British sailors, Balme, the one-time chairman of Lymington Conservatives, pointed out that it was a great film, that it would not have been financially viable without being Americanised, that the credits acknowledged the Royal Navy’s role in capturing Enigma machines and code documents, and that he was glad the story had been told in tribute to all the men involved.
Balme, in case you are wondering about his credentials as historical adviser, commanded the party that spent six hours on board the U-110 unloading the Enigma machine and the code books. If he’s happy with the way the film worked out, I think I’ll take his word for it.