"When the Tigers Broke Free," a song written by Roger Waters for the film version of The Wall, gives a vivid account of events surrounding the death of his father, Eric Fletcher Waters, in World War II. But, how much of this account is factual, and how much is fanciful storytelling?
To be brief, Roger's lyrics are more or less factual. And if we grant him a little poetic license, then I'd say it's a fairly accurate account. This holds for the lyrics, but not Alan Parker's depiction of those events in the movie. No matter how you slice it, the film version is way off the mark. But first, let's take a hard look at the lyrics.
It was just before dawn
One miserable morning in black '44
When the Forward Commander
Was told to sit tight
When he asked
That his men be withdrawn
Okay, which morning was that? Why was it so miserable? Who is this cowardly commander requesting permission to retreat? Or was retreat the prudent thing to do and his superiors were too stubborn to admit it?
Whoa! That's some tough questions right out of the box. But, with a little peek at the rest of the verses, and some knowledge of military history, we can piece together some answers.
This is Operation Shingle, the Anzio campaign in World War II. This was the Allied effort to outflank the Germans, after their march up the Italian peninsula had become stymied. But Roger's focus is much narrower than that. He's describing a single battle. Although just one of many in that great conflict, this is the one that matters most to Roger. This is the one that took the life of his father.
On that cold winter morning, in the heat of battle, who made a request to retreat? Was it Captain Harry Witheridge, leader of the Royal Fusiliers Company "Z"? Or was it his boss, Lieutenant-Colonel J. Olivier-Bellasis, commanding all four companies of the 8th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers? Or was it his boss, Brigadier C. E. A. Firth, head of all three battalions that comprised the 167th Brigade? Or was it Major-General Gerald Templer, commander of all three brigades of the British 56th Infantry Division?
And the Generals gave thanks
As the other ranks
Held back the enemy tanks
For a while
And the Anzio Bridgehead
Was held for the price
Of a few hundred ordinary lives
Did the Allied line hold against the German tank attack? How many lives were lost in the engagement? Did the Generals congratulate them for their success? Was Eric Fletcher Waters one these other ranks that lost their lives?
Eric Fletcher Waters' number was counted amongst these dead. But Eric was not an "other rank," a specific British term that excludes officers. As a 2nd Lieutenant, Eric, along with a full Lieutenant, would have led a platoon of other ranks (enlisted men).
And kind old King George
Sent Mother a note
When he heard that Father was gone
It was I recall
In the form of a scroll
With gold leaf and all
The British government of King George VI sent Mary Waters a certificate to inform her of her husband's death in battle. Although I haven't seen one personally, I trust Roger's description is accurate.
And I found it one day
In a drawer of old photographs
And my eyes still grow damp
His Majesty signed in his own rubber stamp
Did the King have the time to sign (stamp) each death certificate for each soldier that died in the war? Again, I don't think so. Some lower official would have done this for him.
It was dark all around
There was frost in the ground
When the Tigers broke free
And no one survived
From the Royal Fusiliers Company Z
|Did German tanks exploit the Allied lines? Was it dark and cold that miserable morning? Was everyone from Company "Z", including Roger's father, killed? Am I sure it's Company "Z", rather than Company "C" as it is commonly known among Floyd fans?
In the early morning hours of February 17, 1944, using infiltration tactics, the Germans made a hole in the Allied lines. Sixty Tiger tanks then came pouring through that hole. These tanks plunged two and a half miles into the heart of the Allied Beachhead before nightfall and a new Allied line stopped them.
The fact is: not everyone was killed from Company "Z". The battle on February 18, would find Company "Z" completely surrounded. Most would die. But a few, like Captain Witheridge, would be taken prisoner.
Holding the line next to the 8th Battalion was the 9th Battalion. The 9th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers contained four companies: "A", "B", "C", and "D". But this Company "C" didn't see action during this battle. No one from Company "C" was killed on that black day. It is well documented that Eric F. Waters was in the 8th Battalion, not the 9th. The misconception is because the two letters sound extremely similar when sung or spoken.
They were all left behind
Most of them dead
The rest of them dying
And that's how the High Command
Took my daddy
How did Company "Z" become surrounded? Had the High Command left them behind? This goes back to the first verse, where Roger blames the Generals for not allowing his father's Company to withdraw.
Again, this is fiction. Company "Z" was part of the last line of defense against the German assault. There was no place to withdraw to. There were no reserves to take up their positions.
But Roger had suffered a terrible loss. It is within his right to place blame on someone. I'll grant him this poetic license.
The lyrics in this song are powerful poetry. They paint a strong image in the listener's mind. Roger succeeds in getting his point across. Now let's get on to the film.
Although Roger wrote the screenplay for the film, director Alan Parker insisted on making some changes. Many of the battle scene images are based on photographs Alan had seen of the Normandy landings. The result is a finished product that is almost completely inaccurate, historically speaking, with regards to Anzio.
However, the film's depiction of Roger's (Pink's) father being killed here works. It's cinematic. The visual images get the point across, too. War is hell; and it is within this kiln that Pink's first brick is fired.
|Here's a quick synopsis of the Anzio battle as depicted in the film:
It's daylight, probably morning. Fresh troops, reinforcements, have arrived. Their amphibious vehicle has driven up the beach. The men disembark, and rush over the dunes to find shelter in the trenches. Their timing is awful, an enemy air raid is in progress. Many are killed and wounded.
Pink's dad is in the trenches. He's not one of the newcomers - we've seen him earlier, cleaning his gun to the sound of incoming artillery shells. During the air raid, he races to the radio. As he makes his call, the bomb from a German dive-bomber finds its mark, killing him.
Later in the day, with the enemy action over, the dead soldiers are shown where they fell and the wounded soldiers are collected for medical attention.
Now for the facts:
Yes, knowing too much about something can spoil it. The battle scenes in the recent film Pearl Harbor had too many inaccuracies for me to enjoy it. But I did enjoy the fictional love story in that film very much. If Pink Floyd's The Wall were a documentary on World War II, I'd hate it. Although based on Roger's past, it's fiction, and I think its great.
(This article was first published in Spare Bricks - The Pink Floyd webzine (http://sparebricks.fika.org/) in September 2001. All rights reserved by the author.)