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Timeline World War 2

Ballista Media, narrated by Robert MacNeil. For iOS 5.0 or later. Available on iTunes, $13.99.

 You can now hold a good chunk of World War II in your hand. Timeline World War 2, a new iPad app, cunningly mixes media and sources in a digital format that literally puts an amazing cache of history at your fingertips. It beckons irresistibly with elastic ways to sort and sift through its data, captured in newsreels, movies, photos, historical documents, capsule biographies of key personalities, battle summaries and details, large-scale operations, theater-by-theater events, interactive maps, on and on. Warning: Timeline is addictive.

Across the screen, running in chronological order from left to right, stretch four or five vertical rows of information presented in various media. Receded behind them are other data rows that you can call to the front by touching their icons. Just swipe the screen to move along. Menus and toolbars support and expand the tappable possibilities, changing the display to reflect the type of information you’re interested in: the sea battles of 1941–44, for instance, or the Eastern Front in 1942– 43. Or, since using the app is so simple and intuitive, you can just follow your nose and browse chronologically: pan the assemblage across the screen with a swipe, stop at whatever catches your eye, tap on any level to delve deeper and even deeper, chase down your focus or theme by tweaking the parameters, gather what you want, then move on.

The app’s search possibilities are exponential. Among the basic sorting options are year-by-year video overviews, battles (the 40-odd call-outs include Anzio, Arnheim, the Bulge, Coral Sea, El Alamein, Guadalcanal, Imphal, Iwo Jima, Kursk, Leningrad, Monte Cassino, Norway, Okinawa, Santa Cruz, Sicily, Stalingrad, Taranto, Tobruk), operations (24 that include Bagration, Barbarossa, Dynamo, Goodwood, Iceberg, Torch, Typhoon, and Valkyrie), photographs, films (archival footage, eyewitness accounts, famous speeches, documentaries including John Ford’s Battle of Midway; around 100 in all), key events (overviews and essential battles), theaters, locations (118 choices, both well-known and obscure, from the Admiralty Islands to Yugoslavia), modes of war (air, naval, land, politics, the Holocaust), nationalities, and people. With its ease, flexibility, and clean design, Timeline irresistibly combines intellectual game and learning experience into a do-it-yourself version of history detective.

And there are possibilities within the possibilities. Take the archival footage. You can watch the newsreel about, say, Okinawa and listen to the original narrative, which reflects contemporary knowledge, propaganda, and censorship. Or you can dial up the historical voice-over, a contextualized view of the island battle and its significance, read by famed journalist-author Robert MacNeil. Or (my favorite way to watch), listen to both versions in sequence: the differences can be pretty interesting and instructive.

Think of Timeline as an interactive, well-wrought mid-level survey of World War II that’s also serious fun—a must-have for any student or buff. Navigating the struggle’s daunting scale and scope has suddenly become as easy and seductive as a smartphone.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.