—— Original title: “D-Day – Tag der Entscheidung : Protokoll einer Invasion” ——
In early June 1944, 1.5 million Allied soldiers stand ready in southern England to embark on the largest amphibious assault in military history: Operation Overlord.
For tens of thousands of young U.S. soldiers, this war against the Nazis seems almost like an adventure. Very few, if at all, have any combat experience. The sixth day of June 1944 is “D-Day”, “Decision Day”. American troops land on the coast of Normandy to bring the Third Reich to its knees. Platoon after platoon go ashore without any cover. Only now does the horror awaiting them begin to dawn. From the dunes above them, the Germans open fire on the GIs from bunkers and foxholes. They have orders to keep their positions whatever the cost. The bloody carnage continues into the afternoon hours. Two to three thousand American soldiers are killed or injured on the “Omaha Beach” landing section alone.
But the successful landing in Normandy accelerates the downfall of the Third Reich. Eleven months later, the Germans are defeated. SPIEGEL TV filmmaker Michael Kloft meticulously records the sequence of events by means of original footage, photos and documents. He visited the original sites in Normandy and interviewed the last surviving witnesses. Expert analysis is provided by Antony Beevor (D-Day, Stalingrad, Berlin) and German military historian Peter Lieb.
The Battle of Normandy is seen through official and amateur footage from both sides, much of it in colour and some of it shot by Hollywood legends such as George Stevens, who joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and headed a film unit from 1943 to 1946 under General Eisenhower.
D-Day: The Soldiers’ Story follows the story of Operation Overlord from the beaches and drop zones and into the hedgerow country of Normandy. Here the Allies fought a brutal battle against elite Waffen-SS units, in which both sides were accused of killing prisoners. For the British, the losses sustained made it comparable to some of the worst days of the First World War. But when the breakout came, it sealed a decisive victory which had far-reaching implications for the future of Europe.
Written and Directed by Michael Kloft ; A Spiegel TV Production
In 1943 the British and Americans plan the opening of a ‘Second Front’ in Northwest Europe. Huge numbers of troops, aircraft and ships begin to assemble in England for the invasion of France. They train relentlessly for what will prove the largest amphibious operation in military history. Meanwhile across the Channel the Germans also gather their strength. Hitler sends one of his best generals, ‘the Desert Fox’ himself Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, to supervise the construction of coastal defences known as ‘the Atlantic Wall’. But the Allies retain one crucial advantage that even Rommel’s genius cannot compensate for – only the Allies know where and when they will strike.
D-Day suffers a last minute postponement when the weather over the Channel deteriorates. For Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower these are moments of extreme anxiety. Many of his men will be experiencing combat for the first time, and there is much that could go wrong. When meteorologists promise Eisenhower a brief window of improved weather, he takes the gamble and orders the invasion to proceed. Airborne divisions lead the way, parachuting into the darkness over Normandy. Shortly after dawn landing craft approach the coast. At Omaha Beach the Germans are waiting for them. The carnage that follows is described here with vivid personal testimony from both sides.
D-Day is underway, but at Omaha Beach, ‘the Bedford Boys’, volunteers of the US 29th Infantry Division, find themselves thrown into freezing surf and a murderous German cross-fire. As the first assault waves are mown down on the ramps of their landing craft, it looks like the Allied invasion of Europe might be careering towards disaster. But at other beaches the British, Canadian and US troops are soon able to advance inland. For the local French population it is a moment of joy, but also great danger. Hundreds are killed when the RAF bombs the Norman town of Caen – one of their D-Day objectives. The fighting inland is no less fierce than on the beaches. As ‘the Longest Day’ draws to a close, rumours circulate on both sides that the enemy is shooting its prisoners.
D-Day is a success, but now the Allies face the challenge of breaking out of the dense hedgerows of Normandy and into open country. They face highly motivated and experienced German soldiers, including Waffen SS units, who make them pay dearly for every yard they advance. The savagery of the fighting also takes a high psychological toll on Allied soldiers – much more so than on German troops who have been subjected to years of indoctrination. But in the end, Allied material superiority takes its toll. General Patton arrives to lead the charge into open country. German soldiers start to surrender in ever greater numbers, and the road to Paris is suddenly open.