Tag Archives: Second World War

Normandy 44: The Battle Beyond D-Day

Many programmes about D-Day, or Operation Overlord, have been broadcast recently because of the 70th anniversary. One that took a slightly different approach was a BBC documentary introduced by James Holland called Normandy ’44: The Battle Beyond D-Day, which told the story of the entire Normandy campaign rather than just the events of 6 June 1944. Holland argued that ‘the Americans were not so dominant, the Germans so skilful or the British so hapless’ as is commonly believed.

Holland argued that the story is usually told from ”a predominantly American perspective, with the British effort often relegated to little more than an amateurish sideshow.’ He noted that there are three levels to warfare: strategy, the overall goals of the leaders; tactics, the actual fighting; and operational, the nuts and bolts, the logistical link between the first two. The third is often ignored.

His programme featured interviews with British veteran tank commander David Render of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, German veteran Johannes Werner, several historians, including Stephen Prince of the British Naval Historical Branch, Professor John Buckley of Wolverhampton University and Peter Caddick-Adams of Cranfield University and weapons experts. There were also readings from the diary of Stanley Christopherson, another Sherwood Rangers tank commander, and two German generals, Fritz Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr Division, and Sepp Dietrich, commander of the X SS Panzer Korps. Christopherson’s son David also took part.

Sea control stretching across the world was required to bring all the necessary supplies to France, as well as 2 million men from North America, 1.5 million from the USA and 0.5  million from Canada.

The Germans had 58 divisions in France on 6 June, but only six were Panzer or Panzer Grenadiers. The others were largely static infantry divisions, dependent on horse power. They had to be overcome on 6 June before the armour and mechanised infantry could reach the beaches.

The beaches were defended by MG34 or MG42 dual purpose machine guns in concrete bunkers. These had a much higher rate of fire than a British Bren light machine gun. This gave them a very distinctive sound. However, an MG34 took 115 man hours to manufacture and an MG42 75 hours, compared with 50 for a Bren.

The German machine gun’s high rate of fire meant that their barrels had to be changed frequently. The bunkers were sited on forward slopes, meaning that the Germans could not evacuate wounded or bring reinforcements or more ammunition forward once the fighting had begun. Very heavy casualties were inflicted by the German machine guns on the early waves of US troops landing on Omaha Beach, but the Germans fire died down as they suffered casualties, ran short of ammo and their guns over heated.

Panzer divisions moving to the invasion beaches were attacked continually from the air. Bayerlein reported that his division took two days and a nights to reach Caen. On 7 June it lost 85 or 86 armoured vehicles, 123 trucks, 5 tanks and 23 half tracks through air attacks.

Holland argued that, despite personality clashes,  the Allied command structure under General Dwight Eisenhower ‘was more efficiently structured’ than the German one. He also contended that the abilities of General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at this stage in command of all Allied land forces in Normandy, have been obscured by his tendency to annoy people.

The plan for Overlord was largely devised by Montgomery. He stressed the need to quickly form a continuous bridgehead and to capture Cherbourg and the high ground to the south and south east of Caen. It was a major junction of roads, railways and a river. He intended that the bulk of the German panzers should be drawn into the British and Canadians on the eastern flank, allowing the Americans in the west freedom to manoeuvre south.

Caen is the major query over Montgomery’s plan. It was supposed to be taken on 6 June, with the Allies reaching Paris within 90 days. This required a single British division to move 10 miles inland from Sword Beach on D-Day itself. Intelligence showed that German forces in the area had been reinforced in May, but a lack of landing craft meant that it was not possible to increase the British force heading for Caen.

Something that Montgomery did get right was the need to build up forces as fast as possible. The Allies did not control a port in Normandy, so they took their their own, the Mulberry Harbours. At their peak, they landed 7,000 tons a day. However, everything had to be ferried ashore by landing craft on D-Day, meaning that the men heading for Caen were lightly equipped. They were held up for a day a bunker complex, named Hillman by the Allies, which covered the Caen road and could not be by passed.

The German Tiger tank was feared by the Allies. It was a formidable opponent, but it used 5 litres of fuel per kilometre, compared with 2 for the American built Sherman, the most common Allied tank in Normandy. The Germans were short of fuel, the Allies were not. Additionally, the Tiger’s complex transmission system was vulnerable to breakdowns.

The German 88mm gun, fitted to the Tiger, fired its shells at a fearsome velocity, but so did the British 17 pounder, fitted to some Shermans, termed Fireflies. This made the normally undergunned Sherman a threat to the Tiger. However, Tigers could wreak havoc, as at Villars Bocage on 12 June, where the SS tank ace Michael Wittmann massacred a British column.

David Render, a British tank officer in Normandy, said that the Allies had a more team based approach. Troops of tanks would work together, with the destruction of an enemy tank being attributed to the troop rather than to an individual commander as was the case with the Germans.

Villars Bocage was of little strategic significance in itself, and it cost the Germans several Tigers, fighting in an urban area without infantry support. However, it signalled the start of a lengthy battle of attrition for Caen. Wittman and his crew were killed by a Sherman Firefly later in the Normandy campaign.

At the same time the Americans were being held up by difficult terrain of the bocage, small fields surrounded by high hedgerow. Shermans could not get through the hedges to support the infantry. If they tried to go over them, they would expose their poorly armoured undersides.

The problem was solved by the ingenuity of Curtis Culin, a US National Guardsman who had worked in a garage before the war. He came up with a hedge cutter that could be fitted to a Sherman. It was made from German beach obstacles and did not require great skill on the part of the welders, meaning that it could be manufactured quickly in the field. Culin’s prototype was ready to be demonstrated in a week, and 60% of US Shermans were fitted with his hedge cutters a fortnight later. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and survived the war, but lost a leg in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.

Culin’s invention and its quick adoption showed the combination of ingenuity and fast moving flexibility that gave the Americans an advantage at the operational level.

The Germans concentrated large numbers of tanks near Caen. The British had advanced less than 10 miles from their beaches.  This looked unimpressive on the map, but gave them a major logistical advantage. The battles around Caen are usually portrayed as the British battering their heads against a brick wall, but Holland argued that it was the other way round. The Germans had a reputation for tactical excellence, but they could always be relied upon to counter attack. The Allies had only to probe forward, wait for the German counter attack and destroy it with their superior firepower.

Allied units, unlike German ones, could be resupplied and kept up to strength. The Sherwood Rangers were part of a brigade of three regiments each with 50 tanks. It received 1,073 new tanks during the campaign in order to keep 150 in the field. The Germans built only 1,500 Tigers during the war. David Render came out of three tanks in the campaign. Stanley Christopherson used five in a day in the desert campaign.

Stephen Prince argued that the Allied system built up and sustained larger numbers throughout the campaign. They had complete air superiority. The millionth Allied soldier arrived in Normandy on 12 July. The Germans started strong, but had to solve crises by taking troops from support functions. This worked for a while, keeping the Allies closer to the beach than they had intended. However, by late July the Allies had built up their forces and were able to break through the Germans, who could no longer stop them.

A major British offensive, Operation Goodwood, was launched on 18 July with huge air, naval and artillery support. It was to be followed by an American attack at St Lo. However, it advanced only seven miles, one for every 1,000 tons of bombs dropped. Montgomery had claimed that it would be a massive killer blow in order to get the air power that he wanted. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy, tried to get Montgomery sacked.

Holland argued that Montgomery was good at speaking to troops and the press, but bad at dealing with his peers and superiors. Goodwood would not have been so controversial had he explained his plan properly. 400 British tanks  were knocked out in Goodwood, but 300 of them were repaired and back in action in days. Montgomery was focussed only on Normandy, but Eisenhower had to look at a bigger picture, including the need to capture V1 launch sites and the greater progress being made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

The Americans launched Operation Cobra, the follow up to Goodwood, on 25 July. The Germans, over-stretched at Caen, were unable to resist the US offensive and were forced to retreat. A counter attack with all remaining German reserves was launched on 7 August. It failed and the Germans were forced back to Falaise. There were so many corpses that Werner had to walk on them. On 12 June he was part of a company of 120 men. Nine of them survived the campaign.

Allied casualties averaged 6,500 killed, wounded and captured on each of the 77 days of the Normandy campaign. Peter Caddick-Adams argued that in that time the Allied armies underwent a learning process the equivalent of which had taken four years in the First World War.

The campaign did not go to the initial plan, because the Germans tried to hold the Allies closer to the beaches than they had expected. However, the Allies moved very quickly once they had broken out of Normandy. They had planned to take Paris after 90 days, but were actually in Brussels 90 days after D-Day.

 

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BBC Coverage of D-Day 70th Anniversary

I was going to write a longer blog post on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but I have been so impressed with the BBC coverage that I have instead posted a series of links to its website.

Throughout 6 June 2014, the BBC has shown live coverage of the events being held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day on BBC News 24, its 24 hour news channel, including many interviews with veterans. It has also broadcast significant coverage on BBC1, its main channel.

This is the main page from the BBC website’s coverage. The  TV programmes on the I-Player are generally not available outside the UK, but I think that the videos on this link will work globally.

Other articles on the BBC’s website include:

D:Day in the words of BBC journalists at the time.

A story about an 89 year old veteran who was reported missing by the care home that he lives in. He had gone to Normandy. The head of the local police tweeted that:

“Love this: 89yr old veteran reported missing by care home who said he can’t go to Normandy for #DDay70 remembrance. We’ve found him there!”

The coverage obviously concentrated on British veterans, but it made it clear that people from many countries participated.

Coverage from other British media outlets include:

The Guardian (left wing quality newspaper).

Daily Telegraph (right wing quality newspaper: there is a restriction on the number of articles you can read per month).

Sky News (the other UK 24 hours news channel, owned by Rupert Murdoch).

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Generation War: Fact and Fiction – BBC2

Generation War, the German WWII TV drama series, has now finished on the BBC. Its German title is Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, which translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers. As described in this blog post, it tells the story of five German friends from 1941-45: two brothers, Wilhelm and Friedhelm, who are soldiers, Charlotte, a nurse, Greta, a singer and Viktor, a Jew.

The BBC showed a discussion programme titled Generation War: Fact and Fiction immediately after the final episode. For viewers in the UK it is available on the I-Player until 17 May, and is described by the BBC’s website as below:

Following the final episode of the award-winning German drama Generation War, Martha Kearney is joined by a panel including the programme makers, leading historians and cultural commentators, to examine the historical facts behind the series, the controversy it has caused and why now Germany is confronting the difficult issues of its past.

The members of the discussion panel were: Benjamin Benedict, producer of the series; Prof. David Cesarani, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, London and author of several works on the Holocaust; Prof. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and author of a three-volume history of the Third Reich;  and Dr Eva Hoffman of Kingston University, London, whose Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in hiding in the part of Ukraine that was then Polish.

Other contributions to the programme came from Witold Sobków, the Polish Ambassador to the UK, the scriptwriters of two recent British war dramas, Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War) and Sarah Phelps (The Crimson Field) and Anne McElroy, a writer and broadcaster who has written extensively on German history.

Horowitz said that he had ‘no responsibility necessarily to inform, to educate people…but to entertain.’ However, if he were ‘to twist history, to tell lies’ he would be ‘letting down the viewer.’ Phelps asked ‘whose historical accuracy are we recording?’ Different accounts ‘put a different spin on it.’ She thought that a drama could not give the complete picture of what happened to everybody. A dramatist should tell ‘the complete picture of something that’s deeply personal…[Her] obligation… is to send [her] characters there and then ask what it does to them.’

McElroy argued that the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust means that other crimes of  Nazi Germany have been overlooked until recently. She argued that this drama was a way of asking ‘where would you have stood, who do you identify with and what would you have done.’ She added that there will not be living German witnesses who can talk about it for much longer.

Note that the rest of this post includes spoilers.

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Generation War – BBC2

The BBC has recently started to show the German WWII drama series Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter. Its title translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers, but it is called Generation War in the English speaking world. It tells the story of five friends from Berlin from July 1941 until Christmas 1945. The BBC are showing it on the mainstream BBC2: usually subtitled foreign language dramas are shown on the more niche BBC4.

The first episode begins with the five having their last meeting before three of them head off to the Eastern Front: Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch) is an infantry officer; his bookish brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) is a private in the same unit; and Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a newly qualified nurse known as Charley, at least on the English subtitles, has been assigned to a hospital behind lines.

Greta (Katharina Schüttler) is an aspiring singer, whilst her Jewish boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) is a tailor. His father, a WWI veteran, still refers to Germany and its army as ‘we’ despite being stripped of his civil rights and business by the state.

The five promise to meet again at Christmas, which they assume will mean Christmas 1941. If anybody is wondering why I did not give the female characters’ surnames, the answer is that the cast list does not.

Warning! There are spoilers for the first episode in both the reviews linked below.

None of the characters is a Nazi, and the others have remained friends with a Jew despite having been educated almost entirely under the Nazis: I assume that they are meant to be about Trepte’s real age of 25 at the time of filming, although Bruch, Schilling and Schüttler are in their 30s.

Some have criticised this; e.g. the Daily Telegraph review  described it as ‘never less than compelling’ but thought it unlikely that the others would not be ‘openly…associating with Jews’ well after the Nazis came to power. However, the deportation of the German Jews to the East is still a rumour at the start of the series, and they were not required to wear yellow stars until September 1941, about half way through the first episode.

The Telegraph also thought that the characters were too optimistic after two years of war, but in July 1941 the Germans were unbeaten on land and RAF bombing raids were causing only minor damage.

The Arts Desk, an arts review website, notes that:

 its detractors don’t buy the series’ portrayal of five photogenic young German friends as largely innocent victims of Nazism.

The attitudes of the characters may well not be those held by the majority of Germans of their age in 1941. It is a common fault of films set in the past to give the sympathetic characters modern day attitudes and the unsympathetic ones the attitudes of the day.

However, in my view making them seem more like 21st century Germans makes it more powerful when they become complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. By the end of the first episode all four of the non-Jewish characters have betrayed their principles.

On the basis of the first of three episodes, this is a well made, compelling and thoughtful drama, which shows how the crimes of the Nazi regime involved ordinary Germans, not just Nazi fanatics. Its main area of controversy is in its treatment of the Poles, which comes in a later episode.

The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player for UK residents until 10:59 pm on 3 May, which is unusual: normally series stay up for a week after the broadcast of the last episode, but the first episode is available only until a week after it was broadcast. The second episode in on BBC2 at 9:30 pm on Saturday 3 May.

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Test Site of Biggest British WWII Bomb Explored

Archaeologists are investigating a concrete structure at the Ashley Walk Bombing Range in the New Forest in the south of England. On 13 March 1945 it was used for a test drop of the 22,000 pound Grand Slam bomb, the largest bomb dropped until the first atom bomb.

The survey is using ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity and electrical resistivity tomography  to study the damage done to the large concrete target building.  The bomb was dropped by a Lancaster bomber from 16,000 feet and hit the ground at 700 mph. It achieved its objective of creating a large but localised earthquake, leaving a crater that was 70 feet deep with a diameter of 130 feet.  It has subsequently been filled in.

The archaeologists want to find out how much damage was caused by the bomb.. The Independent newspaper reports that:

oral history research recently carried out by the New Forest archaeological team suggests that the entire structure was seen to physically move when the bomb exploded some 250 feet away.

The Grand Slam had been conceived by Sir Barnes Wallis five years earlier as a deep penetration bomb. It was first used against the Schildesche railway viaduct near Bielefeld Railway Viaduct on 14 March 1945, the day after the only test drop. The viaduct, which was a vital communications link for the Ruhr and had survived several previous bombing raids, was brought down.

Over 40 Grand Slams were dropped in nine raids, with other targets including railway bridges at Arnsberg, Arbergen and Neinburg, submarine pens at Bremen and gun emplacements on the island of Helgoland.

The Lancasters that dropped Grand Slams had to be stripped of their gun turrets and the armour plating behind the pilot’s seat in order to increase their bomb capacity from its normal 14,000 pounds. Their bomb bay doors were also removed because of the size of the bomb.

Grand Slams were also made in the USA, which but the USAF had not used any by the time that it dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

See the BBC website for a film report and the Daily Mail one for pictures of the results of Grand Slam raids. YouTube contains a news film from Movietone on the Bielefeld and Arnsberg raids.

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Japanese attack on Shanghai 8 December 1941

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is extremely well known, but far fewer people know that the Japanese also attacked British and US warships at Shanghai without declaring war. This took place on the same day, although it was 8 December in Shanghai because it was on the other side of the International Date Line.

Britain and the USA both then maintained small naval forces on the Yangtze River in order to protect their interests in China. These included the Shanghai International Settlement, an autonomous district of the city inhabited by Westerners. It was originally protected by British soldiers, US Marines and Royal Navy and United States Navy gunboats, but most of these had been withdrawn by December 1941.

Japan and China had been at war with each other since 1937, when China began to fully resist Japanese encroachments into her territory that had begun in 1931.

By 8 December 1941 the British and US military presence in Shanghai had been reduced to the gunboats HMS Peterel and the USS Wake, which both had skeleton crews as they were being used primarily as communications stations. Even at full strength they would have stood no chance against the Japanese forces present, which included the cruiser HIJMS Izumo;

The Wake displaced 350 tons, normally carried a crew of 59 and was armed with two 3″ guns and eight 0.3″ machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 14, most of them reservist radiomen. Her captain was Lt Cdr Columbus D. Smith, USNR.

Peterel displaced 310 tons, normally carried a crew of 55 and was armed with two 3″ AA guns and eight machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 21 British sailors, plus 19 Chinese locals. Her captain was Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR, a 62 year old New Zealander. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he would have been a merchant navy officer in peacetime.

Neither ship could use her 3″ guns because their crews were small and consisted mostly of radiomen rather than gunners. They could fire the machines guns, but lacked the specialist training needed to operate the bigger guns.

Izumo, sometimes called Idzumo, was an elderly ship that had fought at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. She displaced 9,750 tons and in December 1941 was armed with four 8″ guns, eight 6″ guns, four 3″ guns and one 3″ AA gun. The website linked at the start of this paragraph gives her armament when built.

The Japanese attacked Wake 2 hours after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had not been informed of events in Hawaii, so was taken by surprise and her crew captured.

Peterel was warned by the British Consulate of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so was at action stations. Polkinghorn had orders to scuttle her if the Japanese attempted to capture her, and she was rigged with demolition charges.

A launch full of Japanese Marines approached Peterel. Polkinghorn, trying to win time in order to scuttle his ship and destroy his code books, allowed their officers on board and invited them to discuss matters. They refused to talk, so he ordered them to ‘Get off my bloody ship!’

The Japanese officers returned to their launch, and Izumo, other Japanese warships and shore batteries opened fire. Peterel could return fire only with machine guns, but killed several Japanese, presumably in the launch. Her crew was ready to repel borders with pistols and cutlasses, in the style of Nelson’s navy.

Peterel was sunk, and her crew abandoned ship. Six were killed, some in the water, but 12 managed to get to a Norwegian officered and Panamanian flagged merchant ship, the SS Marizion. The Japanese took them off, and they became PoWs, along with two of the three crewmen who were ashore at the time. Two of the PoWs died in the appalling conditions of Japanese prison camps.

The third man, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist James Cuming joined an American Chinese spy ring and remained at liberty for the rest of the war.

This account of the sinking of Peterel  is based on an account on the website of the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War, a list of casualties and survivors given on the website of the Force Z Survivors Association and a newspaper obituary of Peterel’s last survivor, Able Seaman James Mariner, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. It describes him as being the first British serviceman to fire on the Japanese during WWII

Lt Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross when he returned from captivity after the war. Other members of the crew may also have deserved medals, but the RN is not generous with gallantry awards, and often decorates the captain of a ship as a tribute to the entire crew. Britain has no award equivalent to a US Presidential Unit Citation.

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The Nazi Killers – UK Channel 5 TV

Channel 5 in the UK broadcast a documentary called The Nazi Killers on Friday 22 November. For UK viewers it is available on the 5 Demand online catch up service until 22 December. According the filmmakers’ website, it has been shown in other countries at various film festivals and on the Discovery and History channels under the title The Real Inglorious Bastards.

Channel 5’s website describes the programme as follows:

Documentary exploring one of the hundreds of undercover missions launched by the US government’s Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Operation Greenup consisted of two young Jewish refugees and one Wehrmacht officer, who parachuted one winter night into the Austrian Alps and risked their lives to strike back at Nazi Germany.

It featured a few re-enactments, but most of the story was told by the two Jewish refugees, Hans Wijnberg and Fred Mayer, with the widow and son of Franz Weber, the Wehrmacht officer, also contributing.

Mayer was the son of a German WWI veteran. He and his family escaped to the USA in 1938. Wijnberg was sent by his parents, along with his twin brother, from the Netherlands in 1939to live with his father’s business partner in the USA in 1939. His parents and younger brother were all murdered in the Holocaust.

Both men joined the US Army, and were then approached to join the OSS, the US intelligence service, because of their language skills. It trained them for operations behind enemy lines. Mayer was put in command of Operation Greenup, with Wijnberg as his radio operator.

Their mission was to gather intelligence in the Tirol region of Austria. It was feared that the Nazis would establish an Alpine redoubt in order to make a last stand there. The team  needed somebody with local knowledge, and Franz Weber, an anti-Nazi local who had deserted from the German Army to the Allies, volunteered to join it.

The three were to be dropped by parachuted near Innsbruck in February 1945. It was difficult to find a suitable drop point, as the obvious places were all occupied by the enemy. A pilot called Billings volunteered to drop them on a glacier. All three landed safely with most of their equipment, but the canister containing their skis was lost. They therefore had to walk in deep snow to Oberperfuss, Weber’s home village. There they were helped by his family.

Operation Greenup’s purpose was intelligence gathering. Mayer obtained a German uniform and impersonated a wounded officer. This enabled him to pick up information from other German officers, which Wijnberg relayed back to the OSS. One of their pieces of intelligence enabled the Allied air forces to bomb a large number of trains in a nearby marshalling yard.

Mayer was then ordered to investigate a nearby underground factory that was building Me 262 jet fighters. He infiltrated it by obtaining work as an electrician, using a French translation of his own name, discovering that supply problems with parts meant that no aircraft were being completed.

Mayer was then betrayed and captured. Wijnberg and Weber had to flee, whilst Mayer was tortured by the Gestapo. His two interrogators discounted the possibility that he might be Jewish, because their anti-Semitism meant that they refused to believe that a Jew could be brave enough to withstand their tortures.

The interrogation was watched by a third man, who eventually took Mayer to the house of Franz Hofer, the local Gauleiter [Nazi Party boss]. By this time Hofer, like many Nazis, realised that the war was lost and was interested only in surrendering to the Western Allies rather than the Soviets. Mayer was allowed to send a message to the OSS. When US troops approached Innsbruck he met them and informed them that the city was willing to surrender.

The documentary ended with Fred Mayer talking to Hans Wijnberg via Skype. Wijnberg died shortly afterwards.

Both programme titles are somewhat misleading, since the members of Operation Greenup were tasked with gathering intelligence rather than directly killing Nazis, and the only connection with the film Inglorious Basterds is that they were American Jews operating behind enemy lines.

It was a good documentary. There were some contributions from historians, mainly to set things in context, and some re-enactments in the absence of archival footage, but the story was told largely in Mayer and Wijnberg’s own words.

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