“Amid the tremendous coverage given to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it seems strange that the BBC’s programme highlight on Saturday should have been a repeat of D-Day: The Last Heroes – a mini-series originally made in 2013,” says author AL Berridge, who reviews the programme for Historia.
Yet I think the choice was the right one. The piece runs for less than two hours, and the very short credits suggest the research budget was considerably smaller than we might expect, but I doubt that all the money in the world could have made it better.
This is not to suggest the programme was perfect, because it was nothing of the kind. The Last Heroes offers only a very limited overview with no attempt at serious analysis, and was clearly intended primarily as ‘general interest’ with a special application for schools. Even the format was tailored to that, with the two original episodes resulting in a lot of irritating repetition when shown back to back. The only ‘context’ given consisted of stock footage of swastikas and goose-stepping Nazis to reflect Hitler’s rise to power, and the relentless emphasis on the western world’s struggle against evil gave the whole thing a simplistic blur in which reality as well as detail was lost.
For whatever else it was, D-Day was the beginning of the battle to liberate France – and yet France itself was hardly to be seen. We heard from one lone Frenchwoman who remembered a British soldier giving her chocolate and biscuits, but nowhere was there any sense of a desperate people who had been waiting years for their freedom. On D-Day itself we heard nothing of the Free French forces who fought on air, sea, and land, and were present at certainly three of the assault beaches – Omaha, Gold, and Juno.
Even in the episode devoted to ‘preparation’, there was no mention of the role played by the Resistance or the Maquis, or even by our own SOE, all of whom risked their lives to photograph and identify key installations, and to create diversions at crucial points. The only intelligence discussed in The Last Heroes came from footage taken by our own planes, a viewpoint which justified repeated shots of a suspiciously clean Spitfire moving vaguely over a bright blue sky.
Of course time was limited, and it was impossible to show everything, but the effect of so many omissions was ultimately to reduce the sense of scale. Dan Snow did make a fleeting reference to Operation Fortitude, the deception plan to convince Hitler we intended to attack the Pas-de-Calais, but nothing to explain that literally thousands of civilians played their part in this and its many side-shoots, such as Operation Skye, which created a phantom army supposedly intending to invade Norway.
Instead the programme sought to convey the magnitude by a bombardment of superlatives, repeated so often as to become virtually meaningless. At the start of the second episode Dan Snow tells us D-Day was “the single greatest military operation the world has ever seen”, and when a minute later he demotes it to merely “one of the most decisive missions of WWII” he doesn’t even seem to notice the difference. If he had only spent more time showing us how big it was, he wouldn’t have needed to use so many words telling us.
And that’s where the real problem was for me. Telling, not showing, made the programme feel a little too much like a history lesson, with the ultimate effect of distancing us from its subject. There were certainly attempts to help us connect – an account of the wait was accompanied by a shot of an actor looking moody, and a description of conditions in the boats was delightfully illustrated by an actor vomiting – but while these might help the least imaginative viewers, they didn’t do much to bring us closer. On the contrary, seeing Dan Snow in military uniform accompanying a dramatized reconstruction made the whole thing feel more like a game – or a play.
The problem is almost unique to World War II, which is so recent as to be only on the edge of history. When Dan Snow talks to us about Rome or Trafalgar, his passion for the subject acts as a bridge to bring us closer together, but there are still people alive who remember WWII, and when we can hear it from the men who were there, then an interpreter is only in the way.
Fortunately, however, The Last Heroes does indeed let us hear it from men who were there, and it is in these moments that the programme is pure gold. Dan Snow does a good emotive job when he explains the black dots on an aerial photograph are the bodies of men who died on the beach, but it still can’t compare with Private Robert Sales describing the death of his friend Sergeant Wright, or even his account of giving a cigarette to a dying German sniper he himself has shot.
The British veterans are less formalised in their emotions, and while Sales tells us how he prayed, the two wonderful Chelsea Pensioners, commandos Roy Cadman and Fred Walker, are still joking about their experiences on the beaches – ‘I thought, what a ‘nana!’, ‘Got to get off that beach or you’re brown bread, aren’t you?’ – but it’s easy to see beyond the façade, and when Fred Walker stands again on the Normandy beach the emotion is plain to see. ‘You think about your mates, don’t you? That’s all. You think about your mates.’
We do indeed, and it’s only thanks to Dan Snow that we think about more than that. We do need his commentary, for much as I personally value the eyewitness accounts above all, they actually tell us very little about WWII itself. When it comes down to it, these are soldiers, and could be any soldiers over the centuries.
One moment of stark emotion comes when Captain David Tibbs of the Field Parachute Ambulance weeps to recall a wounded soldier actually apologizing to him for ‘being a nuisance’, and I was shocked to remember a Times correspondent describing an almost identical event in the Crimean War. Most powerful of all is the barely restrained distress of Sub-Lt George ‘Jimmy’ Green of the RNVR as he describes losing everyone in his boat at Omaha Beach. ‘What a waste,’ he says, as the tears spill over. ‘What a waste.’ He could be Wilfred Owen, he could be a soldier at Thermopylae or Waterloo; he is become the Universal Soldier, the man who should make us all cry.
That is why no amount of money could remake this documentary better. Its power is drawn from the living witnesses, and six years later there are even fewer of them left. It’s a shame the credits couldn’t have been updated to show this, but a little googling tells me that ‘Jimmy’ Green died in 2016, Robert Sales in 2015, Jim Wallwork (the glider pilot) in 2013, Roy Tollefson (of the US Rangers) in 2016, David Tibbs in 2017, and Fred Walker himself in 2016. Roy Cadman is still with us, still joking, but I have been unable to find any of the others. We will not see their like again.
If you love history I would really urge you to watch this programme. There are better commentaries around (I would personally highly recommend James Holland’s new book Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Battle for France) but to watch George ‘Jimmy’ Green talking about D-Day is to stand with our feet on the edge of history and see the whole tragedy of war in an old man’s eyes.
D-Day: The Last Heroes was shown on BBC One on Saturday, 8 June, 2019.
AL Berridge is the bestselling author of the Chevalier series of historical novels about André de Roland, of which Honour and the Sword was published in 2010 and In the Name of the King in 2011, both by Penguin Books. Her most recent book is Into the Valley of Death, a novel about the Crimean War.