Young Tom Hall (Art Parkinson) and his misfit friends fight to save “Buster” the baby elephant during the German air raid bombings of Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1941.
Genre: Action & Adventure, Kids & Family
Language: English (CC available)
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Professor Charles C. Ludington, PhD, FRHistS, Teaching Associate Professor of History, North Carolina State University
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Professor Ludington: The film was not explicit about the amount of time that Buster was kept by Tom and his friends, but we can deduce that it was it probably about one month. The first German raid on April 7, 1941 was really more of a reconnaissance raid, to test Belfast’s defenses, and that was the raid that prompted the authorities to shoot some of the animals (and prompted Tom and his friends to get Buster out of the zoo), because the British military commanders knew that a second, stronger raid was coming. The last German raid of Belfast occurred on the night of May 5-6, and soon after that the Blitz was over, the Luftwaffe had been defeated, and the threat was gone. At that point, Buster was no longer in danger, and the film suggests that his whereabouts were discovered right after that, and returned to the zoo.
Professor Ludington: As you surmised, the answer to that question mostly depends upon whether the zoo was in a city that was being bombed. Where bombs were falling, the dangerous animals were likely to be moved to the countryside if possible, or killed. The London zoo moved some of its larger predators, but all the venomous animals, which meant mostly snakes and a few mammals, were killed by zookeepers in order to protect the public. The Berlin zoo, like Berlin itself, was mostly destroyed, first by British and American bombs and then by fighting between German and Soviet soldiers. British bombs killed nearly a third of the animals on the night of November 22-23, 1941 (bombings that were in revenge for the Blitz), and in reaction to that zookeepers in Berlin shot the remaining animals that were deemed dangerous to the public. Most of the rest of the animals were killed when the zoo became an actual battlefield in the spring of 1945. By the end of the war, only 91 of Berlin zoo’s 3,715 animals at the beginning of the war had survived. Perhaps the most famous zoo in World War II, however, was the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) zoo, which became a symbol of Leningrad’s survival against the German assault. At the beginning of the siege of Leningrad, in September 1941, many of the larger animals in the zoo, including a tiger, a black panther, a rhinoceros, and some polar bears, were moved to Kazan, in central Russia. The American crocodile, however, who was too difficult to transport, was set free in the Daugava River, south of Leningrad, although its fate is not known. Meanwhile, back at the zoo itself, most of the remaining dangerous animals were shot by zookeepers. Leningraders mourned the loss of Betty the elephant, who was spared by the zookeepers but killed by a German artillery shell. Most famously of all, though, was Beauty the hippopotamus, who survived the shelling and came to be seen by Leningraders as emblematic of the city’s resistance and resilience. The siege did not end until the Germans retreated in January, 1944, and Beauty lived until 1951.
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