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A powerful, hard-rocking recounting of a nightmare, or perhaps a vision, performed by a band that knows far more about history than any group of (then) young rockers should. I think it’s the best of this quintessentially Canadian group’s output, and it still seems quite recent to me, though horrifyingly, it’s now well over 20 years old. It’s about something that happened in 1940, and there’s no reason for you to have ever heard of the event, nor any way for you to find out, since if you look it up you’ll find people (including, amazingly, beloved and sadly departed band member Gord Downie himself) saying it’s about the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Yet it simply can’t be, the historical facts don’t even remotely fit the narrative, and more than that, the narrative doeso fit perfectly a disaster that indeed happened just off the coast of France within sight of shore (Bismarck was well out to sea when sunk), and the lighthouse at St. Nazaire.

In 1940, the Germans overran France with a speed and facility that was, at the time, stunning. The Germans called it “lightning war”, Blitzkreig – we call it “maneuver warfare” today, and it’s now the manner in which all highly mobile armoured forces, accompanied by mechanized infantry, go about their grim business. As the vice tightened, Allied forces scrambled to abandon the Continent, and while many are familiar with the events at Dunkirk, especially following Chris Nolan’s epic movie, lost to the public consciousness is the sinking of RMS Lancastria, a singular tragedy amidst the general withdrawal of British forces from France in the teeth of the Nazi onslaught.

The Lancastria (reclassified in military service as “HMT” for “Hired Military Transport”) was part of an ongoing effort to evacuate British personnel and civilians under Operation Ariel, which continued for weeks after the Dunkirk sealift. Her ordinary capacity was about 1,300 passengers, but in the emergency she was loaded up with many thousands more, providing a fat target for the merciless German warplanes that sank her. It’s a common estimate that about 4,000 men drowned at a stroke (twice the crew of any battleship, including Bismarck, which had a complement of 2,065). Some sources claim over 5,000, even 6,000 – a huge mass of people going into the water off the coast of France, metaphorically in the pocket of a lighthouse sitting amid jagged rocks on the shoreline. It was the largest nautical disaster in British maritime history.

You can read about it here:

:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lancastria

Really, what else could these lyrics be about?

I had this dream
where I relished the fray
and the screaming
filled my head all day.
It was as though
I’d been spit here,
settled in, into the pocket
of a lighthouse
on some rocky socket,
off the coast of France, dear.
One afternoon, four thousand men
died in the water here
and five hundred more were
thrashing madly
as parasites might
in your blood

This group has other songs similarly evocative of World War II, like Scared, with its imagery of damaged destroyers limping into the bay, and 50 Mission Cap, ostensibly about the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, which repeats a phrase that evokes a cherished rite of passage for U.S. combat pilots – when their cap became so grizzled, stained and crumpled that it was said to have a “50 mission crush” to it, the mark of a wily veteran.

Since the very first time I heard this song, thoughts of lifeboats designed for 10 men, and 10 only, and paddling away from drowning comrades to the sound of fingernails scratching on the hull, have never lost their capacity to haunt.

The lighthouse at St. Nazaire
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