Until Mr Spielberg thought about a soldier with 3 dead brothers called Ryan there had been a number of films made about the Allied invasion through France which eventually, painfully slowly, brought World War II to a jagged end. One of these was a sort of ‘combined ops’ made in 1962, only eighteen years after the event. Hollywood contributed not a few stars and the money; Britain, France and Germany several more fine actors and the technical advisers. The final product was called The Longest Day. The finished movie used a lot of actual film shot during the Landings, an idea that provided a genuine feel, as well as horror. Above all, The Longest Day emphasised the undoubted fact that the Normandy Landings of June 1944 were a result of a brave attempt at co-ordination between the Allies – not an easy task when most generals from whatever nation can behave like a bad-tempered chorus of prima donnas and ballerinas.
Then along came Spielberg in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. Military historians and surviving veterans of the Landings were astonished to learn from this Hollywood blockbuster that the only invaders (on a couple of beaches) were the soldiers of Uncle Sam. Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary talent as a film director is demonstrated in three set-piece battle scenes: the landings themselves, an attack on a Nazi position in the gorgeous countryside, and the final shootout in a ruined town. These scenes alone make the film a masterpiece of the moviemaker’s art. But where are the British and Commonwealth troops? Where are the Free French? And the Poles? Not there. The gospel according to Speilberg tells us the Invasion, probably the whole six-year War, was America’s job. Well – it wasn’t.
‘Operation Overlord’ (codename) was a series of allied landings on selected beaches in Normandy. The sites were a good choice because the German High Command had been convinced that the attack point would be Calais and the Channel ports. The area chosen was between the Cherbourg Peninsula (St Marcouf) and the ancient city of Rouen (the River Orne). The beaches selected were, reading from west to east, codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. German-garrisoned towns like Ste-Mère-Eglise, Arromanches, Bayeux, St-Lô, Caen and Falaise would have to be secured by the Allies before a general advance towards Germany could start. It was a lot to ask.
The supreme commander was a Dutch-American called Eisenhower, with no actual battle experience. Each beach had been secretly reconnoitred by ‘commandos’ beforehand. It was assumed that German reaction and defence would be well handled. General Rommel (q.v.) had supervised the building of sea, beach and land defences, but his boss in Berlin had been convinced by the generals there that the landings, when they came, would be made in the Calais area. No panzer divisions waited in Normandy.
British and Commonwealth troops (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, South Africa, Rhodesia etc.) crossed the Channel at dawn on the 6th of June. Their targets were Gold, Juno and Sword, three to the two selected for the US – Utah and Omaha. The first four were taken, beachheads made, with fewer casualties than expected. At Omaha the Americans encountered determined, efficient and savage resistance. Soldiers were killed even as they leapt from their specially constructed landing craft. Accurate and devastating cross-fire from heavy machine guns made a terrible slaughter among the young Americans of all ranks. The invasion was bogged-down.
Meanwhile Allied airforces were destroying most of the bridges across the Rivers Seine and Loire, encountering virtually no opposition from the Luftwaffe. Only two Messerschmidts could be found to attack the invading troops, and they made sortie after sortie until ammunition ran out. This actual fact is well recorded in the 1962 movie.
Rommel, in charge of defences, was badly hurt during the fighting by an air attack on his staff car; he had to be withdrawn to hospital. On D-Day plus 14 one of the most bizarre military ideas ever to have sprung from man’s mind came into action. Under the codename of ‘Mulberry’, two vast steel and concrete ‘floating harbours’ were towed across the sea towards Normandy.
Unluckily, one sank before arrival in a freak storm, but the other ‘harbour’ was safely positioned near Gold beach, Arromanches. It was this ‘Mulberry’ that provided a landing place for thousands of tons of equipment, supplies (including tanks and heavy lorries) to be offloaded from ships crossing the Channel. Mr Spielberg’s film does not mention the three British and Commonwealth beaches, or the Mulberry, or the rest of the Allied rush inland after the landings had succeeded. It concentrates on a standard ‘our platoon is in peril’ routine adapted from every other Hollywood war film. The acting is superb throughout.
A series of oil pipelines (20) was laid across the Channel to supply the thousands of vehicles now being landed. This was codenamed ‘Pluto’. It was another brainwave, but is not mentioned in Saving Private Ryan. Nor is the beautifully-planned and executed US attack on German submarines bases in Brittany.
After months of painstaking preparations, and a great deal of jawbreaking arguments between the generals, airmarshals and admirals concerned, the greatest army assembled in history gathered itself and began the thrust east towards Rouen, Chartres, Paris and Orléans; and west towards Nantes, St-Nazaire, Rennes, Brest and St-Malo. The Americans, bloodily stopped on Omaha beach, then had terrible bad luck in the assault on Ste-Mère-Eglise, where a mistaken drop-zone landed US paratroops in the best-defended middle part of the town round the parish church. This slaughterhouse has no mention in Mr Spielberg’s film either, but it does appear in The Longest Day. Here, in classic Hollywood style, the Americans are commanded by a film star who never did any military service in his life, but sure knew how to handle a six-shooter, John Wayne, who along with Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, Mel Ferrer, Richard Beymer, Jeffrey Hunter, Sal Mineo etc. provide the Hollywood muscle, while the British came up with Richard Burton, Donald Houston, Kenneth More, Peter Lawford, Richard Todd, Leo Genn, John Gregson and – wait for it – Sean Connery and Christopher Lee! The Germans are ably represented by Gerte Frobe, Curt Jurgens, Paul Hartmann, Wolfgang Preiss and other excellent actors. Direction is in the hands of Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki.
After the Landings, the huge army moved rapidly towards the East, but for some inexplicable reason stopped: history’s greatest war machine stopped, allowing Soviet Russia to take Berlin. Several US and British commanders had wanted not only to reach Berlin first, but to carry on straight towards Moscow; if they had been allowed to so so, there would have been no Cold War, no Cuba, no Korea and Vietnam, no Berlin Wall. And that would have been another story.