How Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is highlighting heroism and sacrifice

Cinema-goers have been flocking to see Dunkirk.
Cinema-goers have been flocking to see Dunkirk.

Too soon we forget the events of the past, no matter how dramatic or historically important they are.

So it’s good to learn that the new blockbuster film, Dunkirk, is drawing the crowds, and highlighting the heroics of servicemen and civilians that culminated in the British Expeditionary Force being plucked off the beaches of France in order to fight another day.

A scene from the blockbuster movie Dunkirk.

A scene from the blockbuster movie Dunkirk.

It is particularly encouraging to hear of so many young people going to see the movie, no doubt attracted by the role played by One Direction star Harry Styles.

Having gained rave reviews by cinema-goers and critics alike, the film is doing what many a text book often strives but fails to achieve, namely reminding the present generation of the past – and of the heroism and sacrifice of our own troops and their French allies (who fought a brave rear-guard action) along with the crews of the many civilians boats who risked their lives during the evacuation of Dunkirk in May, 1940.

Talking of the past, it is 100 years today since the sinking of the SS Belgian Prince by the Germans in the First World War.

I was reminded of the anniversary by solicitor Michael Laffey whose great, great, great uncle Harry (Henry) Hassan was the Master (captain) of the ship.

“He is commemorated at the top of the First World War memorial at St Aloysius,” writes Michael.

“He lived at 3 Park Road, Hebburn. I remember my nana telling me all about it when I was young and I asked ‘if anyone in our family had been in the war’.

“A while ago I got a blue plaque erected for Robert Saint, on Victoria Road. I think its time a blue plaque was erected for Master Hassan too.”

The captain’s story was told a few years ago by my predecessor Janice Blower.

“A while ago I got a blue plaque erected for Robert Saint on Victoria Road. I think its time a blue plaque was erected for Master Hassan too.”

She wrote at the time: “As enemy atrocities go, the First World War witnessed few worse than the sinking of the merchantman Belgian Prince. Even now it engenders a sense of horror and disbelief.

“Thirty-eight men died, washed to their deaths from the deck of a German U-boat as she submerged without warning.

“The sense of callousness behind their loss still shocks.”

“But she also left a mystery – “The not-inconsequential matter of what happened to the ship’s master, Captain Harry Hassan,” says Jarrow man Peter Hoy, who has explored the Belgian Prince’s story as part of the building of his massive database of South Tyneside men who served during the Great War.

Janice went on to reveal that on July 31, 1917, SS Belgian Prince was torpedoed by u-boat U-55, under the command of Oberleutnant Wilhelm Werner.

Although the stricken ship’s crew were taken back to the submarine, they were left on deck when it submerged, leaving just three survivors to tell the tale.

One of them, Able seaman George Silessi told how he had at first attempted to keep afloat the Belgian Prince’s third engineer, Richard Thornton, whose home was in St Vincent Street in South Shields. But after a time, the exhausted Thorton had said: “Oh, let me go now and look after yourself.” Thornton, who was 23 and a well-known footballer in Shields, had earlier served his time at Middle Docks.

“He is commemorated today on the St Mary’s Church memorial cross in South Eldon Street. George Silessi subsequently swam back to the Belgian Prince and boarded her. A third man, the American second cook, William Snell, survived by hiding his lifebelt under his clothes. He also returned to the ship. Nine hours later, the three were picked up by a British patrol boat. Among those who died was the Belgian Prince’s 18-year-old apprentice, Ralph Henderson. Another apprentice, Cyril Joseph Hoey, aged just 17, also lost his life. His parents were master and mistress of Morpeth Workhouse and he is commemorated on the memorial at St Simon’s Church at Simonside. Wilhelm Werner went on to be charged with war crimes but fled before he could stand trial. Captain Harry Hassan was never heard of again.”