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J. Campbell Clouston, the Canadian war hero that Dunkirk the film – and history – has forgotten

second world war

J. Campbell Clouston, the Canadian war hero that Dunkirk the film – and history – has forgotten

A Canadian officer helped rescue hundreds of thousands of troops in Dunkirk. According to historians familiar with the Clouston case, an announcement regarding an official recognition is expected to be made this week

Commander J. Campbell Clouston, Royal Navy photo courtesy Dane Clouston

He is perhaps this country's greatest war hero, yet most Canadians have never heard of J. Campbell Clouston. And although the Montrealer's role in the evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 was praised as indispensable, the summer blockbuster Dunkirk fails to mention him by name or nationality.

"He exists in a historic vacuum," said Jeffrey Street, an Ottawa-based war historian. "Which is ironic because he was witnessed by some 200,000 soldiers and vividly remembered by many. But a lot of them didn't know his name."

Clouston would die shortly after the main evacuation. After a brief stay back in England, he volunteered to return to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue of French troops there. He was in a boat sunk by a German bomber, left adrift and eventually lost at sea. And, as a Canadian officer in a valiant feat that symbolized Britain's us-against-the-world defiance, he was lost in the fog of history.

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Mr. Street has been working for years with the Canadian hero's family to right a historical oversight. And according to historians familiar with the Clouston case, an announcement regarding an official recognition is expected to be made this week.

In Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, an immersive, three-pronged drama about the rescue of British troops from the coast of France, where they were surrounded by German forces and mercilessly harassed by dive bombers for days on end, Kenneth Branagh portrays Commander Bolton, a Royal Navy officer tasked with overseeing the week-long evacuation under hellacious conditions. A blond Branagh employs a clipped British accent in the role, but the piermaster on the eastern breakwater, or mole, at Dunkirk was Cdr. Clouston, a dark-haired, 39-year-old Canadian whose calm, authoritative manner and decisive leadership were essential in saving the lives of more than 200,000 soldiers.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller “Dunkirk.”

Cdr. Clouston's oldest son, Dane Clouston, wrote to the filmmakers to protest the decision to depict the Royal Navy piermaster as a "composite" character. Producer Emma Thomas replied that all the characters in Dunkirk were fictionalized "out of respect to the real-life heroes."

Rubbish, said Dane Clouston, who spoke to The Globe and Mail from England, where he has lived all his life.

"My Canadian father was the one and only piermaster," said Mr. Clouston, the older of two boys born to the Canadian naval officer and his British wife. "He was hardly a composite character. And the way Commander Bolton was left on the pier at the end of the film was thoroughly deceitful, given the way my father died."

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A critical and box-office success, Dunkirk eclipsed the $400-million (U.S.) mark in global ticket sales over the weekend. Speaking to USA Today, the director diplomatically weighed in on the controversy, saying Cdr. Clouston had an incredible story that he could not do justice to in the film. "I am hopeful it will inspire people who are interested to look into the stories of the real people who were actually there," Mr. Nolan said.

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Meanwhile, Mr. Street is toiling away on a book that will focus on Cdr. Clouston's role at Dunkirk. According to the historian, who wrote and co-produced the 1990 CBC documentary We Shall Fight on the Beaches!, history's relegation of Cdr. Clouston to a "noble footnote" stems from a clerical omission caused by the commander's death.

His research indicates that after the evacuation at Dunkirk, the British Admiralty requested reports from all vessel commanders and important shore personnel. The reports produced a trove of detailed information, but because Cdr. Clouston was dead, his role was poorly documented.

Another Cdr. Clouston booster is Michael Zavacky, an Ottawa-based history buff who has lobbied the Canadian government to recognize the naval officer's heroism and has petitioned Canada Post to issue a commemorative stamp. According to Mr. Zavacky, the small furor caused by the film's failure to acknowledge Cdr. Clouston has raised the man's profile significantly.

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force wade through shallow water to a rescue vessel that will take them back to England. AP Photo

"People are awoke now to the story of Cdr. Clouston, a war hero who didn't kill anybody," Mr. Zavacky said. "He saved people. How much more Canadian can you get than that?"

Indeed, Cdr. Clouston was deeply Canadian. He was one of the illustrious Montreal Cloustons, whose history is tied to the Hudson's Bay Company. His great uncle Sir Edward Seaborne Clouston (1849-1912) was a long-serving president of the Bank of Montreal who, in his youth, had participated in what is considered to be the first organized game of indoor ice hockey, which took place on March 3, 1875, at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal.

His mother's sister was Matron Edith Campbell, who served with distinction in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War. Her many medals are at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

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Christopher Plummer is related by marriage to the Cloustons. In his memoir, In Spite of Myself, the actor excitedly devotes a florid (if incomprehensible) passage to the Clouston "tribe."

Growing up in Montreal, the young Clouston (whose uncle, William Stratford Clouston, was a commander in the Royal Navy) lived near the Pointe-Claire Yacht Club. After attending McGill University, he left Canada in 1918 to join the Royal Navy as an officer cadet. Over the next 20 years, he rose through the ranks as a gunnery officer and instructor. As an instructor at Portsmouth, he was known affectionately as "Father Clouston." In 1935, he married Gwyneth Lilian Vanderpump, described in We Shall Fight on the Beaches! as a "vivacious Berkshire gal."

He took command of his own ship, HMS Isis, a new destroyer, in 1937. Following the outbreak of war, the ship saw action in anti-submarine patrol and convoy defence.

With his ship undergoing repairs in May, 1940, Cdr. Clouston was transferred to Dover and eventfully sent to Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo. After the perilous evacuation of soldiers, Captain William G. Tennant (the senior naval officer ashore at Dunkirk and a future admiral, would cite the "magnificent work" of the pier party who worked with little rest for seven days. "Of these," he wrote, "no one is more deserving of praise than Commander Clouston."

After a successful emergency sealift from a beachhead at Nazi-occupied Dunkirk, France, British and French soldiers arrive safely at an unknown British port, in June 1940.

Dane Clouston does not remember his father. He was two at the time of his death and doesn't recall any anecdotes told posthumously. "We got on without him," he explained in a display of British stoicism and pragmatism.

As for the lack of recognition in the film, he imagines his father would have been "furious" about the historical inaccuracies. "But that is for the living to think about, not those who have died," he said. "I am sure he would much rather have survived for himself and his wife and family than have any recognition, however notable."

Cdr. Clouston's name endures in Memorial Hall's Book of Remembrance at McGill. His epitaph reads: "Time dims not the achievements of the brave. But worth shines steadfast even from the grave."

Mr. Street said he refuses to linger over the film's oversight. "It's not up to pop culture to get it right. It's up to us to do that now."

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly said J. Campbell Clouston’s father was a commander in the Royal Navy. In fact, it was his uncle. This version has been corrected.
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