Thursday, May 29, 2014

D-Day’s Sunken Secrets (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a PBS NOVA episode called “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets,” a rather odd but still compelling program that with the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion coming up in a few days, decided to tell the story of D-Day (I remember in grade school being amused by the whole concept of the name “D-Day” — the “D-“ merely stood for “day” — and extending it to “D-Day, H-Hour, M-Minute, S-Second”) in a quirky way: by profiling a Canadian expedition in the present day to explore under the waters off the Normandy coast for wreckages of D-Day ships and landing craft that got sunk (most of them by German mines — the Allies sent minesweepers ahead of their main invasion force but the Germans, having by then figured out how to drop ocean mines by air, were often able to re-mine sea lanes that had supposedly been cleared, and one of the most poignant stories was from a surviving veteran whose ship did three runs to and from Normandy, offloading men and supplies successfully each time, until on their fourth run they hit a German mine, their ship sank, 90 percent of the men aboard died and he and the others who survived lucked out only because they were rescued in time by another Allied ship). The show, written, produced and directed by Doug Hamilton and narrated by Peter Thomas (a D-Day veteran himself — he fought in the landing at Omaha Beach, the easternmost and most bloody of the five battle beaches), emphasized not only the sheer size of the operation (7,000 ships and 200,000 servicemembers) but also the extent of the technological innovations involved and the inventiveness with which the Allies worked out specific solutions to the specific problems they encountered or expected to encounter. One of the most interesting stories was about a New Orleans boatbuilder named Higgins who made his fortune during the waning days of Prohibition, building boats for the liquor smugglers that could navigate the shallow waters of the Mississippi Delta and then building more advanced versions of his design for the Coast Guard, constantly playing both sides off against each other. He was enough of a U.S. patriot, though, that during World War II he realized that his boat designs would be useful to the war effort in that they could be adapted to landing craft — and when he figured out how to design a boat with a usable front door (instead of the tapered bow virtually all boats have had since people first started designing seacraft, it had a flat one, partly to negotiate the sandbars in the Delta, and the flat bow could easily be converted into a door) he created the famous personnel landers that have become iconic in all filmed representations of D-Day. The advantage was they reduced the time needed to off-load the men and equipment (the boats could accommodate 12 soldiers and a Jeep) from 57 to 19 seconds — and those extra 38 seconds are incredibly important when you’ve got well-placed soldiers from the other side shooting at you from bunkers mounted atop the cliffs just up from the beach and you want your guys exposed for as short a time as possible. 

Another problem the D-Day invaders had was the fact that even if they seized the beaches at Normandy, if they wanted to make it inland (which was, after all, the whole point!), their access to the interior of France was dependent on two bridges, which meant infiltrating servicemembers to secure those bridges before the enemy could blow them up. The first thought was to send in paratroopers, but the invasion planners realized the airplanes paratroopers fly in would make noise, alert the Germans and thereby blow the whole element of surprise the Allies were counting on, so instead they commissioned gliders to fly in troops without making noise — though the gliders were flimsy wood, fabric and light-metal constructions and they could only remain airborne for three minutes once they were cut loose from the tow planes that lifted them up in the first place. The invasion planners were certain up to 70 percent of the people in the gliders would be killed — as a matter of fact, their casualty rate, though still high, was lower than that and the glider part of the operation was a success. What didn’t work out for the invaders was the decision to launch the invasion in the middle of bad weather (they delayed it one day because of the rotten weather but decided they couldn’t afford to wait any longer than that, partly because the tides would shift seasonally and partly they didn’t want to risk the Germans discovering a large force massed on the British coast across from Normandy instead of where the Allies wanted the Germans to think they were going to invade, Calais) and to do so with minimal air support and at low tide (to avoid the German “hedgehogs,” huge metal spikes the Germans had planted in the tidewaters to rip apart invading ships like can openers), which meant that though the Allies actually took the beaches, it cost them more time and a lot more lives than they thought it would. The show made the interesting point that the British used several technological innovations the Americans eschewed, including a weird contraption that was basically a giant thresher attached to the front of a tank — it was essentially the minesweeper principle on land, since the object of the thresher was to blow up land mines in the tank’s path without injuring the tank itself. (One invention was less lucky; an engineer worked out what was supposed to be a system of turning a tank into a floatable device by attaching a balloon to the top of it and filling it with air, enabling the tank to be driven through the water long enough to hit the beach. In calm waters this might actually have worked, but with the fierce storms off Normandy in June 1944 every tank that tried this device sank.)

One thing the planners didn’t think of was the infamous hedgerows, barriers of shrubs and stones the French farmers had erected over the decades to separate their parcels from each other and also provide a dumping ground for rocks and dead trees they had had to clear from their fields in order to plant. I remembered this because it was also dramatized in Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, The War, and the explanation Burns and his crew gave was that all the reconnaissance the Allies had done on the Normandy coast was two-dimensional — they noticed the fields and the gaps between them but didn’t realize the “gaps” were actually virtually impenetrable barriers. In the 1950’s the Israeli army would figure out a way around such barriers; they invented the armored bulldozer, which could charge into enemy fire (since it was basically a tank with a bulldozer attached) and take out both natural and artificial architectural barriers to their armies’ advance (this weapon was key to the Israelis’ quick victories in the 1967 and 1973 wars), but apparently this was one technological solution to a challenge the Allies either never knew about or never took into account. The gimmick of the underwater exploration didn’t really add much to this show — aside from some poignant scenes of aging veterans returning to Normandy for the first time since the actual invasion (a real-life version of the gimmick of Gloria Stuart as Kate Winslet’s older self revisiting the site of the Titanic shipwreck in James Cameron’s 1997 film) — but it was still a compelling re-examination of the greatest military operation in history, a sort of warmaking that is likely never going to happen again (which is one reason why the U.S. Marine Corps has to keep fighting so hard for its very existence, since the sort of war it was designed to fight — large-scale amphibious landings — is unlikely to occur anymore).