One of the main characters in the much-acclaimed 2017 movie Dunkirk is based on a real-life hero who was a Selwyn House Old Boy.
James Campbell Clouston was born in 1900 to a distinguished Montreal family. His uncle was Sir Edward Seaborne Clouston, a Canadian banker and financier who became the general manager of the Bank of Montreal
, and who is said to have played in the first-ever organized indoor hockey game, held on March 3, 1875, at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal.
Campbell, as he was called, grew up across the street from the yacht club in Pointe Claire. He attended Selwyn House, LCC and McGill, departing the university in 1918 to join the British Royal Navy. In The Miracle of Dunkirk, historian Walter Lord describes him as a “big, tough, athletic and amusing” Canadian, and “a man bursting with energy.” He did not see action in the First World War, but rose through the ranks to become captain of the destroyer Isis in 1937.
In May of 1940, the German army had overrun France, and had forced over 300,000British, French and Belgian soldiers to retreat westward to the beaches of Dunkirk, where they were trapped with the English Channel at their backs and the advancing Nazis in front.
The Churchill government launched a plan to save the Allied troops from certain death or capture by sending a ragtag armada of military and civilian ships and boats across the English Channel to pick them up. Churchill reportedly hoped to rescue 50,000 of the cornered troops.
The Isis was in port for repair at the time, so Clouston and four other officers were sent across to France to aid in the rescue. The officers drew cards and Clouston was picked to organize the evacuation at the Dunkirk Mole, a pier that extended 1280 metres into the water to allow the larger ships to get close enough to shore to pick up troops.
When Clouston arrived at the scene, soldiers were being loaded aboard ships at a rate of 50 per hour. Within hours, Clouston had increased the loading rate to 2,000 soldiers per hour, but it took some persuasion. Soldiers could only fit four abreast on the pier, where they were helplessly exposed to machine gun fire and bombs from German planes flying overhead. Widespread panic was a constant threat. One account has Clouston raising his revolver into the air, threatening to shoot any soldier who broke ranks.
For five days and nights, he braved the bombardment and stayed on the pier with little food or rest, guiding his fellow soldiers to safety.
Thanks in large part to Clouston’s efforts, more than 240,000soldiers were rescued from the mole. ON the morning of June 2, Clouston joined the escaping troops and sailed to England. Once there, however, he stayed only a few hours and then volunteered to return to Dunkirk and the gunfire. With the help of an interpreter, he offered his services to help evacuate the French troops on the beaches.
On June 2, on the way back east across the channel to France, however, his boat was attacked and destroyed by a German aircraft. As he and his men clung to the wreckage of their boat, he waved away a second boat, opting to stay with his men. A natural leader, he kept his companions’ spirits up by lying to them about how soon they would be rescued. By the time help arrived, all but two of the crew had died from exposure, including Clouston, who had a young son and a pregnant wife waiting at home.
He was buried at Becklingen military cemetery in Germany.
In the years since, Clouston has faded from memory as a Canadian war hero. His only military recognition is being “Mentioned in Dispatches,” and he is remembered in an inscription at McGill.
A witness to the events at Dunkirk described Clouston as “the greatest and bravest man I’ve ever seen.”
In the movie Dunkirk, the character played by actor Kenneth Branagh is partially based on Commander James Campbell Clouston. Clouston’s family appealed to the producers of the movie to recognize him, but his name does not appear anywhere in the movie or the credits.
It does not even appear on the plaque of Selwyn House Old Boys who died in war.
Lest we forget.