Salt to the Sea
The unit that we just completed was a study of World War II (WWII) through our driving question: How do stories of survival deepen our understanding of WWII? We started by doing research on some of the main battles in the war such as The Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, and Battle of the Atlantic. We went over Hitler’s rise to power through gaining political position in Germany by becoming Führer. I have another blog post that covers the rise of Hitler in detail if you are interested. Here’s the link Hitler – how to deceive a nation. This post also covers some more detail about how WWII started.
We talked about how the Allied powers were helping France fight the Axis powers and got pushed back to Dunkirk, and then pushed into the Battle of Britain. Throughout this we talked about the important roles Canada played in these battles. We watched a short video and took notes. We discussed how if it weren’t for the Canadians, Britain would have been limited in how many planes from the airforce they were able to launch to fight Germany. This was especially key in the Battle of Britain as it was primarily an aerial battle. The main plan that Hitler had in this battle was to have planes go over Britain, especially London, and drop enough bombs to incapacitate Britain and make way for an amphibian assault, similar to the Allied invasion on D-Day. This would have allowed him to take over the island of Britain. This didn’t happen thanks to the Canadians supplying the Royal Air Force (RAF) with aircraft, including spitfires and other aircraft. Canadians were the first to make an assembly line to produce aircraft in mass quantities very quickly. This supply of aircraft allowed the British to take over the air battle in the Battle of Britain.
Additionally, the British were cut off from their supplies for their troops by the German forces. The Canadians and other Allied forces sent ships over to supply food and ammunition, which resulted in the Battle of the Atlantic as the Axis forces tried to cut off this supply line on the Atlantic Ocean. Hitler’s plan was to cut the supply line to force Britain’s surrender. He tried to accomplish this using bombs to take out the ships, including a remote control bomb that was dropped from a plane and then directed by radio frequencies to strike the ships. These bombs were initially very successful in taking out large numbers of supply ships. Until the Canadians made a naval radar disrupter that interfered with the radio control that directed the bombs after they were dropped and eliminated this threat, allowing the supply ships to continue and the Allies to win the Battle of Britain. And eventually defeat Hitler.
To return to our driving question of how stories of survival deepen our understanding of WWII, I think these stories are so important because it gives us a different perspective than what we get reading the history books. Facts about events that happened in history books only tells part of the story and it is a more distant perspective of an objective observer. Stories from people who lived through traumatic events, who were there and saw first hand the events unfold, hold a lot of power and emotion and enable us to put ourselves in the survivor’s shoes. Even when the stories are put together into a book that is “based” on true events, the stories allow us to see what they would have seen, experience what they would have experienced. It helps us more deeply understand what happened in hearing how it impacted an individual. I found this to be especially true when I participated in the Juno Beach 75 Student Pilgrimage this summer. I had a chance to meet and speak with a few WWII veterans in person prior to my trip. When I was on my trip, I found it almost surreal when we visited places they had mentioned in stories. I could feel how they must have felt and it impacted me deeply. In studying an event as big and broad as WWII, without survival stories, we miss the little pieces that happen and consequences seem minimized.
Like the disaster that happened when the Russian’s torpedoed the civilian ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Although it is not well known, the sinking of this ship is the largest maritime disaster in history. Maybe people didn’t pay a lot of attention because it was near the end of the war, or maybe because it was a common occurrence for submarines to torpedo civilian ships since civilian ships were often used to carry military supplies. But it is sad that this disaster has been almost forgotten. The book we read as one of our assignments during this unit is about this disaster, but told from the perspective of several stories from survivors. These stories help us to understand the horror of what happened.
The other consequence that gets lost when studying something as large as WWII is the massive death toll worldwide. We lost a lot of Canadians and other Allied forces, and Russians and Germans suffered massive losses as well. The most deaths occurred on the Eastern Front, including large civilian losses. There were also large civilian losses with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The numbers lost in WWII are staggering, especially the losses of Russians at 8.6 million soldier casualties alone. A lot of countries were devastated and took a long time to recover from these losses and it had a long term impact on the economies of all the countries involved. I am including below a short video that I had found in my research, and that Ms. Maxwell showed us in class. I agree with Ms. Maxwell that it really puts the losses into perspective.
Moving into our project we had to read a book, as I mentioned above, and then make a book video trailer. The book I was assigned was Salt to the Sea, which has 4 main characters and is based on true events. The author tells about true events that happened that he learned about from listening to the stories of survivors of the migration from German occupied areas surrounding Germany at the end of the war, through the stories of these fictional characters . I don’t want to give away too much of the book because it is a really good book and you should read it, but I will mention a little bit about these characters. Joanna is from Lithuania and was a doctor in training and her skills provide one main storyline in the book. Florian from Prussia is an artist and stole a famous art piece that Hitler really liked, and this supplies another storyline. Amelia is a fifteen year old girl from Poland and we learn more about this really interesting character later in the book. Finally, Alfred, who is a Nazi in the German Navy and a psychopath, which you figure out as you read the book.
A bit of historical background. At the end of WWII, Russia was advancing on the German forces that were occupying the areas surrounding Germany in Poland, Lithuania, and Prussia. The German military and some German civilians who had moved into the occupied areas were trying to flee back to Germany to escape the Russians and became refugees. This was a dangerous plight because at the beginning of the war, Hitler gave the command that on the Eastern front his forces could to do whatever they wanted to the Russians and they would not be brought up on charges for anything they did. Horrible things like rape and killing any Russian were allowed without consequence.
Hitler’s forces advanced pretty quickly into Russia and were doing really well. However, it was taking longer than Hitler had expected. They used a technique called Blitzkrieging to make this fast advance. This technique is an encircling manoeuvre where they have a large number of armoured tanks approach the area to be taken and surround the area and then move in towards the centre. The resupplying trucks would follow behind the tanks to supply the troops, allowing for continuous advancement to the next area. Here is a picture to try to explain it better.
While this allowed the German troops to advance very quickly, Hitler wanted this invasion completed before winter so he pushed his troops to the breaking point. Of course when you are working with very tired troops that have been fighting for a long time, its very hard despite the drugs they were supplied with to give them the energy to keep fighting and not stop. It got to a point where they couldn’t advance any further and they had to stop just as winter set in.
Hitler’s troops did not have winter clothing so they were ill prepared to defend their new territory. This allowed Stalin to send in troops from the Siberian front who were specially trained in winter warfare. These troops were able to push Hitler’s troops back at the same time that D-Day happened with the Allies pushing back from the French front and liberating the German occupied areas on the coast. Hitler is now surrounded and it is the beginning of the end for him. This is when the book takes place on the especially brutal Eastern front as the Germans are fleeing back to Germany so they don’t suffer at the hands of the Russians like the Russians did at the hands of the Germans. This brings us to my favourite part of the book which involves the Wilhelm Gustloff, which is a civilian ship in WWII that was used to transport these refugees back to Germany.
My group for this book were Anikah, Jordyn, and Alex. We filmed a short trailer for the book, which we were all very pleased with and looks really good. I think it is one of the best videos I have ever worked on. We put a lot of planning into making the trailer. In class we came up with a script first, and then created a screen play that outlined what scenes we had to film. We did most of the actual filming over a couple of weekends in Deep Cove, which provided us with the maritime background we needed for our setting. We had to do two sessions of filming to get all the shots we needed with working around everyone’s schedule. It was worth the effort and Alex did a fantastic job of editing the footage together and adding in the sound track that we created in Garage Band. I hope you enjoy watching it, and I hope you have a chance to read the book.