Holding your ground

Thinking about the brave defenders of Ukraine, especially in Kyiv, who include numerous civilians I suddenly remembered an old post about a friend I met in Brighton many years ago, a Jewish man of Austrian extraction who went by the name of Solly. He had been sent by his parents to live in England a few years before the start of World War 2 when he was still a teenager.

To cut a long story short, in 1940 Solly ended up joining the Local Defence Volunteers (the Home Guard) in Brighton. This is something he told me reminiscing abut those times. over dinner many years ago.

On 7th September 1940 the War Office issued the following communique:

Message to all UK units: codeword CROMWELL. Home Defence forces to highest degree of readiness. Invasion of mainland UK expected at any time.

After being informed of this signal Solly and his comrades turned up to be issued with the equipment with which they were expected to stop the imminent invasion. In his case it was an ancient pre-WW1 rifle, three rounds of ammunition, and two improvised grenades. With these meagre supplies, they were supposed to hold their positions until reinforced, possibly for up to 7 days.

As they walked to their posts, all the volunteers were certain that they had no chance and that none of them would survive the night. In such a grim situation they were understandably quiet, but what talk there was exclusively concerned the need to make all their shots count. If each of them could kill at least one invader before he himself was killed then the invasion might be thwarted.

After an agonizing wait, and several false alarms, dawn broke. The Germans never came.

Solly clearly found this recollection difficult. Few of us are ever faced with such a stark prospect of death. But I remember one thing he did say, which at the time I didn’t really understand, which is that it was in a way quite liberating – accepting that you are certain to die means that you no longer feel afraid. He had previously worried that he might lack the courage to fight if called upon to do so, but that doubt disappeared on 7th September 1940.

I think we’re already seeing this attitude in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has emerged as a heroic figure . He must know that he is a marked man, and that his days are probably numbered, but he has refused offers to get him out to safety. The contrast between his courage and another so-called leader, who ran away from reporters to hid in a fridge, could not be greater.

Anyway, as the Russians enter the city of Kyiv, many civilians will be trying to summon up their courage right now. Received wisdom is that in urban fighting, the attacking force needs a numerical advantage of at least five to one and even more if the attackers are poorly trained conscripts, as seems to be the case in some parts of Ukraine. The defenders hold many cards, not least that it’s their land on which they’re fighting.

I fear that there is a bloodbath coming, but it seems to me very likely that the Russians will suffer worse. Not that Putin will be bothered. To him, his soldiers are mere cannon fodder.

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