Friday, November 11, 2011

TV :: D-Day To Victory

I somehow managed to go through high school having never learned about World War II.

Whether it was my own fault for mixing regular classes with "advanced" ones,
my social studies curriculum never once mentioned the atrocities that occurred all across Europe
or Hitler's name.  Once or twice I saw a horrified look on a grade 12 teacher's face when I mentioned this oversight to them.

Luckily, I have a curious nature and am an avid history fan in my own right.

Over the years, I've taught myself to some extent,
absorbing many a documentary about WWII (adding on The Great War & the Korean conflict as well).

This November, it was fated that I would PVR a stunning 6-part documentary on the History channel that changed the way I looked at World War II.

D-Day To Victory is a collection of in-depth interviews with the last surviving soldiers who fought during the war, set to painfully detailed, beautifully recreated scenes of the actual explosive armaments the men actually used and archived footage of the trenches themselves.

The slow-motion reenactments of the explosions and artillery fire interspersed with elegant close-ups of the former soldiers telling their stories are the most impressive I've ever seen, brilliantly used to tie together the soldier's narratives with countryside carnage of small towns torn apart and massive exploding tiger tanks.  So many awe-inspiring sights set to the real stories of some of the only Allied men remaining. 

According to Macleans magazine, the explosions were staged at CFB Gagetown, where historical battle sites were recreated and then blown up for the cameras.  Builders crafted replica concrete pillboxes and bunkers from the beaches of Normandy, recreated the streets of Berlin as they would have appeared, and erected fake French church steeples similar to those destroyed by bombardments.  
The sets were then blown up using era-specific weapons including grenades, flame throwers, Schmeisser submachine guns and Katyusha rockets.

 Hal Baumgarten (featured in the image above) was one of my favourites, as well as one of the most memorable.  Unabashedly truthful and spirited, he retells his stumbling journey through the battlefield of D-Day
 (injured 5 times in an hour, including having a hole blown through his cheek and teeth by shrapnel).

All and all, their stories really are the heart of the documentary.  

Omitting their current ages is one of doc's smartest tactics ( expect for military men old enough during WWII to be officers (now admirably in their 90's) ).  During their interviews, each man's personality and memories of the same events differs so drastically from the next.  Many tell stories of becoming a man in a matter of days after being dropped on the beaches of Normandy and losing their best friend, while others appear more stolid as aloof  RAF bombardiers.  I almost laughed out loud when one episode juxtaposed an RAF man talking about the exhilaration of their first assaults in the Netherlands with that of a foot soldier who had to hide under a tank while the Allied planes overhead accidentally bombed a field that was the same shape as one farther down the road.  

The black and white photos of them during duty make it clear how very few were over the age of 25 when thrown into combat.  I had to keep reminding myself that the majority of the interviewees were octogenarians who had lived decades of their civilian lives outside of those faded photographs.  They spoke as if it happened yesterday.

I finished the 6 hour long episodes feeling like I'd heard countless stories that, for many of the veterans interviewed, were told for the last time.  I found them to be a set of well produced, very moving tributes to each and every one of their sacrifices.  The series is truly a legacy and a gift to the veterans, future historians and viewers alike.  I can't say enough about it.

The D-Day To Victory website is super interactive, taking you through 3D environments to hear many of the stories highlighted in the doc.  Please do visit it below, as it's one of the most impressive sites about the war I am yet to see.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog. I've watched two parts of it so far, and I am going to get through the rest of it, for sure. It's amazing to hear the stories of these men, who fought for their countries when they were really just boys.

    While I do like the reenactments, I greatly prefer the actual footage and the interview footage.

    I know quite a bit about the politics behind WWII, and the atrocities committed by the Germans, but I don't know a great deal about specific battles, aside from D-Day and the Battle of Stalingrad. It's great to learn more about the battles, and the conditions these brave men endured.

    The parts that I've seen so far focus more on the Western European Front, and I'd love to hear accounts from Allied veterans of the Eastern European Front. The Battle of Stalingrad was a terrible battle, and the soldiers who fought were essentially on suicide missions.