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D-Day Anniversary 2016

Today is the 72nd Anniversary of Operation Overlord - the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied France. On the night of 5th June 1944 the operation began with multiple parachute and glider drops behind Hitler's Atlantic wall all along the Normandy coastline. At 5:45 am the naval bombardment preceded waves of landing craft carrying Allied troops to the beaches codenamed:
  • Sword (British and French)
  • Juno (Canadian)
  • Gold (British)
  • Omaha (US)
  • Utah (US)
and the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc where at the top the Germans had built a large gun battery that threatened the Allied forces at Utah and Omaha beaches. In honour of those who served during World War 2 I thought it would be interesting to look back at some of my favourite movies and TV shows relating to Operation Overlord.

The Longest Day



The Longest Day tells the story of Operation Overlord from the perspective of the Allies and the Germans. Based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, this was the most expensive black and white movie ever made up until Schindler's List was released in 1993. It had a budget of $10 million (roughly $80 million today), included eight battle scenes and a massive ensemble cast including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum and 23,000 troops from Britain, France and the US. 


John Wayne as Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired three Directors for this mammoth project:

  • Englishman Ken Annakin directed the British and French segments,
  • American Andrew Marton directed the American segments, and
  • German Bernhard Wicki directed the German segments
Gerd Oswald and Darryl F. Zanuck did some unaccredited directing as well, Oswald directed the scenes involving the 82nd Airborne's parachute drop over Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Not only did multiple Directors make the production more expedient but it meant the movie doesn't feel like a propaganda piece. The Longest Day isn't about heroic, galant Tommies and evil, snivelling Nazis, it's about the operation and what happened on both sides.

Richard Todd (centre) as Major John Howard

Many of the cast served during World War 2, some actually took part in the D-Day invasion. Richard Todd took part in the airborne assault on Pegasus Bridge, in the movie he portrayed Major John Howard; the man who led the assault. In 1944 Joseph Lowe was a 22 year old Private with the Second Ranger Battalion, he landed at Pointe du Hoc and scaled the cliffs to destroy the German guns at the top. Seventeen years later he scaled those same cliffs again for the movie. There was some controversy over the casting of John Wayne as Lt. Colonel Vandervoort, because at 54 he was playing a man who was 27 on D-Day. Curd Jurgens - who played Major General Blumentritt - was sent to a Concentration Camp in 1944 for having anti-Nazi opinions. Oddly enough he would go on to play Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me making him one of two Bond villains to star in this movie, his co-star Gert Frobe played Auric Goldfinger. This was also the last movie Sean Connery made before filming Dr. No. 


Curd Jurgens was sent to a Concentration Camp in 1944

Zanuck chose to film in France at some of the actual locations including Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Pointe du Hoc, and Pegasus Bridge. According to IMDb; while clearing a section of beach near Pointe du Hoc the film crew uncovered a tank buried there since the invasion. The tank was restored and used in the movie as part of the British Tank Regiment.

Gert Frobe, would later play Auric Goldfinger

As good as this movie is, it's still a movie. It will never be 100% accurate, that's why they're "based on a true story". Apparently, Eisenhower walked out after only a few minutes due to the inaccuracies, which is strange considering he was willing to portray himself in the movie. But what inaccuracies were there? The Rupert dummies used in the movie as part of Operation Titanic were more elaborate than the real thing. In reality the dummies were burlap sacks filled with sand and a small explosive designed to destroy the sacks to aid the deception. SAS Troopers jumped with the dummies and played recordings of battlefield sounds to distract the Germans. When the paratroopers land in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the entire company is massacred when in reality there were less than a dozen casualties. Private Steele's parachute however, did get snagged on the church tower, he was left stranded for about four hours. The battle for Ouistreheim was filmed in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain. The Free French Forces are seen attacking a Casino, the Casino was destroyed by the Germans before the invasion and built a bunker in its place, which is what the French attacked. The building in the movie was up for demolition so the film crew used it. One of the biggest criticisms is the Omaha Beach assault and it's success by simply blowing up a wall. Omaha saw some of the worst fighting and highest casualties of the day. General Cota (Robert Mitchum) arrived on Omaha Beach with the second wave not the first, General Roosevelt (Henry Fonda) was the only General to land with the first wave and he was on Utah Beach. 


Sean Connery's last movie before Dr. No

The Longest Day is a three hour war epic designed to show the massive scale of Operation Overlord, how it affected servicemen on both sides and the great lengths the Allies went to in order to liberate Europe, including their sacrifices. It does feel dated when compared to the likes of Saving Private Ryan and Fury and it may get a few things wrong but it's a classic, full of great performances and still very entertaining.

Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman Cota

Saving Private Ryan


Steven Spielberg's oscar winning movie has become a bench mark by which other war movies are measured. It follows the story of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men from Charlie Company, Second Ranger Battalion who land on Omaha beach, and their mission to find and extract a Paratrooper who's three brothers have been killed in action. The story is fictional but it's based on real events including the story of the Niland Brothers. 


The movie has been praised for it's accurate depiction of both combat and the Normandy invasion. Filming of the Omaha beach scenes took place in Ballineskar Beach, County Wexford, Ireland. It cost $12 million and involved 1500 extras including members of the Irish Reserve Defence Forces, reenactment groups and real amputees. The actions and experiences of the main characters (although fictional) are said to follow those of the real members of Charlie Company, Second Ranger Battalion very closely. In order to make the sequence as realistic as possible, Spielberg filmed it in order, starting in the landing craft, working up the beach and finishing with the bunker attack. Forty barrels of fake blood were used to show the effect of blood on seawater. Two of the landing craft used actually saw service during World War 2. The movie has been called the most accurate depiction of combat by veterans, including James Doohan (Star Trek's Scotty) who served during World War 2 and landed on Juno beach on 6th June 1944. Veterans of D-Day and Viet Nam left theatres rather than watching the whole beach landing scene due to its realism and visits to PTSD counsellors rose after the release of the movie. One of the German voice actors hired to make the German-dubbed version was a Normandy veteran and had to drop out due to the emotional realism of the movie. Empire Magazine named the beach landing sequence the "best battle scene of all time".


Following the invasion, Captain Miller is given the job of finding Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), a Paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. This is loosely based on the story of Sergeant Frederick Niland who served with the 101st in Normandy. When his three brothers were believed killed in action he was sent home and served out the war with the Military Police in New York. In May 1945 it was discovered that Technical Sergeant Edward Niland had been in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Burma since May 1944 when his B-25 bomber was shot down. Frederick Niland was close friends with Warren 'Skip' Muck and Donald Malarkey from Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne who both featured in Band of Brothers.


Bar the opening and closing scenes filmed at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, the rest of the movie was filmed in England. A replica of a 1940's era French village including a river was constructed on the site of a former British Aerospace Factory in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. The village was used as multiple locations in the movie including Ramelle (final battle) and Neuville-au-Plain (sniper scene). This same site would later be used for Band of Brothers. The final battle was inspired by the German counterattack at La Fiere by the 1057th Grenadier Regiment and light tanks of the 100th Panzer Replacement Regiment. The tanks used in this scene are not authentic Tigers and Panzers due to the lack of functioning models in existence. In fact there is only one fully functional Tiger I left in the world, Tiger 131 is on display at the Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset and appeared in David Ayer's Fury starring Brad Pitt. The Tigers in the movie are modified Soviet T-34's and the Panzers are a modified Czech built Panzer 38(t) and a modified Swedish SAV m/43 assault gun.


Before production began, the cast went through a 10 day boot camp at the hands of Captain Dale Dye. Dye is a former US Marine who served in Viet Nam and now works as a military consultant and actor in Hollywood. The training the men received was based on that of US Troops serving in World War 2. Captain Dye was not easy on the actors and at one point there was an almost unanimous vote to quit. Tom Hanks was said to be the one who voted to keep going, Hanks is a fan of history and has worked with Dye before on Forest Gump, so he knew what to expect. They were up at 5am every day for calisthenics, slept in military issue tents in the cold and wet, the days were spent marching, learning orienteering, weapons handling and military tactics. All of the actors had to refer to each other by their character names and ranks at all times. Matt Damon was exempt from the training in order to create resentment for him in the other actors in order to make their performances more authentic.


There are those who have criticised the movie. Richard Todd who played Major Howard in The Longest Day and was involved in the actual assault on Pegasus Bridge on D-Day called it "Rubbish. Overdone". Oliver Stone, a movie director and Viet Nam war veteran said it promoted "the worship of World War 2 as the good war". Saving Private Ryan was criticised for ignoring the involvement of other countries in the invasion; the US Rangers were transported to the beaches by the Royal Navy not the US Coastguard and US navy as depicted in the movie. Historians have pointed out that not only is the story fictional, it's also highly unlikely. Units from Omaha and Utah beaches hadn't yet linked up. A Ranger squad that landed on Omaha beach would have had to either get a boat to Utah beach, cut through the German occupied town of Carentan or swim across the estuary linking Carentan with the channel in order to reach the 101st Airborne's area of operation. It would have been quicker, easier and tactically more sound to send a squad from Utah beach to find Ryan. Omaha beach was chosen because the fighting was more intense than on Utah and therefore made for a more dramatic story. The Merderet River, featured in the fictional Battle of Ramelle was an objective of the 82nd Airborne not the 101st and the 2nd Panzer Division didn't reach Normandy until July where they fought against the British and Canadians at Caen. Once again this has all been put down to artistic licence.


During pre-production Hanks and Spielberg discovered Stephen Ambrose' book Band of Brothers. Their interest in this story and the success of Saving Private Ryan inspired them to make it into a miniseries. In general, Saving Private Ryan inspired new interest in World War 2, including books, movies and games. It also revolutionised the way war movies are made.

Band of Brothers



In 2001 Band of Brothers hit our screens. It tells the story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (P.I.R.), 101st Airborne from their initial training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia through their involvement in D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, Operation Market Garden in Holland, the Battle of the Bulge and occupation duties in Germany and Austria.

Lt. Buck Compton (Neal McDonough)

Although Band of Brothers is mainly based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, other sources were used to research Easy Company's story such as the diary of Private David Kenyon Webster. Webster was a member of Easy Company and went on to become a writer and Journalist after the war, he was played by Eion Bailey in the miniseries. Surviving veterans were also consulted on the project, they were interviewed, the result of which provided an interesting opening to each episode as they weren't identified until the end of Part 10. Where possible, cast members were put in contact with the individuals they played, Ron Livingston - who played Lewis Nixon - spoke to Nixon's widow Grace as he'd passed away in 1995.

Sgt. Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes)

Once again Captain Dale Dye was brought in as a military consultant to put the actors through a 10 day boot camp, they had to stay in character at all times and the Officers were treated just as poorly as the enlisted men by the instructors. Days began at 5am with calisthenics and a three to five mile run, the rest was spent learning how to wear their uniforms, drill instruction, military tactics and manoeuvres and basic jump training. Damian Lewis described it as "a 24 hours a day, 10 day method rehearsal". During training David Schwimmer (Herbert Sobel) twisted his knee and Neal McDonough (Buck Compton) cut his lip on the but of an M1 rifle which required stitches. The course ended with a visit to the jump school at RAF Brize Norton which included a jump off a sixty foot tower. Ron Livingston was asked to keep a video diary of this experience which was included in the DVD boxset as a special feature. Dye also played Colonel Robert Sink, commanding officer of the 506th P.I.R.

Lt. Harry Welsh (Rick Warden) and Pvt. John McGrath (Stephen Walters)

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg returned to Hatfield Aerodrome, the site where they built the village for Saving Private Ryan. This time the crew built an even bigger village which was used to portray multiple towns and villages by filming it from different perspectives. Hambleden in Buckinghamshire stood in for the 506th P.I.R.'s UK base of operations. The first three episodes cover the unit's involvement in the invasion of Normandy. Each episode follows one character closely. Currahee (Episode 1) focuses on Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer) and covers the unit's training, deployment to England and preparations for the invasion. Day of Days (Episode 2) is all about D-Day itself, it follows Lt. Winters and the attack he led on the German gun battery at Brecourt Manor. Carentan (Episode 3) follows Private Albert Blithe, the assembly of the Company after the chaos of D-Day and their attack on the German held town of Carentan. At the end of the episode it's stated that Blithe died of his wounds, this is what his friends believed. In reality, he survived, stayed in the army (reaching the rank of Master Sergeant) and served in Korea with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team. He died of kidney failure in 1967.

Sgt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg)

Sgt. John Martin (Dexter Fletcher)

Every effort was made to be as accurate as possible. Writers were encouraged to research the story beyond Ambrose' book by consulting with veterans including Dick Winters, Bill Guarnere, Frank Perconte, Edward 'Babe' Heffron and Amos Taylor. Tom Hanks would show scripts to the veterans, they were also shown previews in order to check the accuracy. Hanks pointed out that it wasn't possible to cast every member of the Company and sometimes characters would say things they didn't actually say. In order to show when this was happening the actors were told to take off their helmets. David Webster's book based on the diary he kept during the war was another good source of information, Stephen Ambrose quoted it frequently in his own book. There are some mistakes in the miniseries, I've already mentioned Albert Blithe. Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall) is portrayed as Jewish when in reality he was raised Roman Catholic, his parents were of German-Jewish decent. Like the supposed death of Blythe, this mistake is based on the beliefs of other members of the Company, the reason for this being Liebgott's utter hatred of the Germans. Liebgott was apparently aware of his friends incorrect assumption and found it amusing. Liebgott was also a barber by trade not a taxi driver, in fact he's seen shaving a soldier's head during the preparations for D-Day.

Lt. Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle)

Lt. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis)

At the time of production this was the most expensive TV show ever made with a budget of $125 million. On top of that $15 million was spent on the promotional campaign. In 2003 it became the top selling TV series on DVD. It's popularity inspired Hanks and Spielberg to make a follow up called The Pacific, it's based on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and Marines: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and follows their experiences and that of John Basilone with the US Marines in the Pacific theatre of World War 2. Another follow up is in development called The Mighty Eighth, it's about the 8th Airforce and their daylight bombing campaign over Europe.

What are your opinions of these productions? Please leave a comment below.

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