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Montreal-born James Campbell Clouston recognized for efforts at Dunkirk

Last Updated Sep 21, 2017 at 1:00 pm PDT

Cmdr. James Campbell Clouston is shown in a Parks Canada handout photo. Clouston, the Montreal-born Second World War hero whose efforts at Dunkirk in 1940 saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, is being recognized today in his hometown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada MANDATORY CREDIT

MONTREAL – The Montreal-born Second World War hero whose efforts at Dunkirk in 1940 saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers was recognized in his hometown on Thursday.

Parks Canada unveiled a plaque in honour of Cmdr. James Campbell Clouston, who oversaw the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British and other Allied troops from northern France as German forces encircled them.

Clouston’s exploits were portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie, “Dunkirk,” released earlier this year — even if his name wasn’t uttered in film.

One of the main characters, a Royal Navy officer played by Kenneth Branagh, was inspired in part by Clouston’s role as pier master during the Dunkirk evacuation.

Milo Clouston, grandson of the hero, said the family wanted Nolan to formally recognize the commander in the film, as the character was obviously based on his grandfather.

“My father wrote to Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas (Nolan’s wife) and they replied saying that they were not looking to portray individuals apart from Winston Churchill,” Milo Clouston said. “So they were making composite characters for the other actors to play in the story.”

Milo Clouston said Thursday’s ceremony in the west-end borough of Lachine served to ensure his grandfather’s name is always remembered.

“That’s what (Nolan) said when he was interviewed about it,” Milo Clouston said. “He hoped that the film would inspire people to find out more about the individuals involved and that’s certainly been achieved this.”

The plaque, located in a park along the Saint Lawrence River, notes that as German forces approached, Clouston worked for six straight days under enemy fire as he oversaw the evacuation of British and other Allied troops from northern France.

Although expectations were for 45,000 people to be brought back to England, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” resulted in more than 338,000 troops saved in May and June 1940.

Clouston died in June 1940 on his return to Dunkirk to help co-ordinate the rescue of French and Belgian troops.

On his way back from England, German aircraft attacked his boat and he died of exposure at sea.

Clouston was survived by his wife and two sons — the younger of whom was in attendance Thursday for a ceremony.

Moray Clouston was born six months after his father’s passing.

“Obviously very honoured,” he said in a phone interview.

John Thomson, director of national celebrations at Parks Canada, said Clouston’s story is one of many being told through the department’s “Hometown Heroes” project, which celebrates Canadians who’ve made important contributions to the country’s efforts during the two world wars.

Thomson said Clouston’s relatives had lived in Montreal for several generations and the war hero attended local schools Selwyn House, Lower Canada College and McGill University before enlisting in Britain’s Royal Navy in 1918.

He was athletic, winning a dingy championship as a teen that made the local papers in 1913. He was also an avid hockey player.

Parks Canada’s Hometown Heroes project runs until 2020.

Thomson said the idea to honour Clouston came from the 2017 film.

“(Clouston) is the quintessential example of a hometown hero and why this program exists,” Thomson said.