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Surviving D-Day: Directed by Richard Dale. 138 minutes.

Airing on the American Heroes Channel; also on DVD, 2012. $14.98.

Big D-Day anniversaries like this year’s 70th inevitably surface new and old videos for an eager market. Sadly, too many recent documentaries recycle overfamiliar footage and substitute hackneyed emotions and data for information and analysis. Surviving D-Day is a rare gem among them.

Its vintage footage and you-are-there dramatizations of the action on Omaha Beach drive home the terrifying, disorienting experience of watching almost everything go wrong. Its narrative, buttressed by interviews with experts and Omaha vets from both sides, never loses its historical rigor and attention to detail. The result: a terrible but inclusive portrait of Omaha Beach that vividly depicts the nonstop heroics, screw-ups, and carnage.

Surviving D-Day closely examines the big picture: strategy, tactics, terrain, tides, key hardware, and carefully laid plans gone awry. Take Rommel’s hardened defenses—3,700 obstacles, 1,700 landmines, barbed wire, and deadly enfilading fields of fire perforating GIs trying to cross 300 yards to cliffs honeycombed with pillboxes, trenches, and tunnels filled with German defenders. Besides mortars and 88s, they were armed with MG42 machine guns firing 1,500 rounds per minute. Behind all this, Rommel flooded hundreds of square miles of fields to neutralize or kill Allied paratroopers. Scary enough, but he had inadvertent Allied help. Thanks to the thick cloud cover and fear of hitting GIs, none of the offensive support for Omaha Beach did its job as planned—except for the destroyer USS Frankford, which risked sinking to offer fire support while driving off E-boats and picking up survivors. Most of the “amphibious” Sherman tanks, tested only in calm waters, drowned in the choppier Channel. The Rangers’ mortar-fired grapnel hooks, their ropes heavily soaked, mostly fell short of Point du Hoc’s cliff top. And so on.

Murder and disaster came pouring from every direction at GIs who survived the brutal landings to get ashore. The dramatized segments use jerky camera movements and ragged editing to effectively put you in stunned GIs’ shoes as buddies drown, get shot, and are blown into pieces, leaving men inexplicably alive and somehow doggedly fighting on. As the casualties swiftly skyrocketed, General Omar Bradley thought Omaha was lost and suspended sending reenforcements. But the Rangers persevered and took Point du Hoc, while on the beach brave men like the miraculously unwounded General Norman Cota turned the tide, rallying wounded and shell-shocked GIs to attack the bluff’s daunting defenses with gritty gallows humor: “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.”

Omaha Beach is a harrowing tale of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Surviving D-Day tells that story with a riveting combination of visceral power and info-rich exposition that makes it essential viewing for this D-Day anniversary.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.