History of the World According to the Movies: Part 68 – World War II: The Western Front

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Stephen Spielberg perhaps tries to recreate the famous D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy in his 1998 Saving Private Ryan. Though he went through great pains to recreate it as the veterans remember it, he couldn’t really film on the actual beaches since that would’ve been impossible and had to settle for the Irish coast instead. Still, while Spielberg tries to go to great lengths to get out his war is hell message, some of the movies fans don’t actually see it that way and actually delight in the carnage and war scenes giving it a feel of an army recruitment commercial. Nevertheless, if the scene at Omaha Beach doesn’t convince you that war is hell, then nothing will. Nevertheless, this movie has gotten a lot of praise from vets who were there which is good enough.

The Western Front during World War II is perhaps one of the familiar images we usually see in movies, particularly if they tend to consist of the landings on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day as well as the liberation of German occupied countries as well as the actions that help bring an end to the war. There’s a very good reason for this since it takes place in a safer part of the world unlike the action in North Africa, the 1944-45 part of the war was one in which the Allies were actually winning, and it includes Americans. Still, the Western Front also saw some action early in the war as well with the Maginot Line, Dunkirk, and the Germans taking over Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and France. These aren’t nice things to remember and take place early in the war so they are rarely film but are seen on occasion like in Atonement or Mrs. Miniver. Also, you don’t have Americans and 1940 witnesses the Battle of Britain which the Brits would rather remember. Still, personalities in the Western Front would consists of favorites like Rommel, Patton, Montgomery as well as Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Battles would include D-Day, the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, the Liberation of Paris, and the final battle of Berlin. Nevertheless, movies set in the Western Front do have their share of inaccuracies which I shall list accordingly.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel:

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel carried his Field Marshal’s baton with him on the beaches of Normandy which he used to help review the beach defenses. (Yes, he was there but he didn’t carry his baton or use it to review beach defenses unlike what we see in The Longest Day, which is your grandpa’s Saving Private Ryan back in the 1960s.)

Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt:

It was Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s idea to suggest sending Bittrich’s panzers to Arnhem. (Actually it was Field Marshal Walter Model’s idea as far as the book A Bridge Too Far says.)

Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt refused to ask Adolf Hitler permission to release the Wehrmacht’s reserves and declared he wouldn’t “bow” to “that Bohemian corporal.” (Actually, Hitler had it set up so only he could order the reserve Panzer divisions to move. However, he was asleep during most of D-Day and his guards were too afraid to wake him up, so Runstedt’s basically screwed no matter what contrary to The Longest Day.)

General George S. Patton:

General George S. Patton’s controversy over his Knutsford speech pertained to him having insulted the Russians. (He did mention Russia in his speech but reporters left it out of their articles, which whipped a scandal on totally fictitious grounds. Still, it actually had more to do with Patton talking of “ruling the world,” after the war, in which members of Congress said he had no business commenting on post-war world political affairs. Others just objected to the notion of the US, Britain, or any other country “ruling the world.” However, to be fair, he wasn’t too fond of Russians or Jews for that matter. Ironically, Stalin may have admired him saying that the Red Army could neither have planned nor executed Patton’s rapid armored advance across France.)

General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army was situated to the south during the Battle of the Bulge. (Yes, but it was also one of 4 armies under the command of General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group.)

The prayer for good weather came from the words from General George S. Patton’s chaplain who said them before the Battle of the Bulge. (Actually those words came from the back of a small Christmas card that was printed for the troops on December 11th, 1944, 5 days before the Battle of the Bulge.)

General Omar Bradley:

General Omar Bradley foresaw the Battle of the Bulge. (Sorry, Patton, but Bradley dismissed the German operation at Ardennes as a “spoiling attack.” This resulted in his command to be virtually annihilated by the German attack. Eisenhower would transfer the remnants to General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group while quietly sidelining Bradley and giving him a fourth star for compensation {well, he did lead the first invasion of D-Day}.)

General Dwight D. Eisenhower:

General Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t present at the meeting when General George S. Patton to volunteer his army during the Battle of the Bulge, though other leaders present did discuss Ike’s decision. (Actually Eisenhower was present at the meeting. But he’s not in Patton at all.)

The Monuments Men:

Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man was burned by the SS. (It’s very likely to still exist, though it was stolen by the Nazis. Still, the Nazis weren’t ordered to destroy art unless it was considered “degenerate” like Picasso’s. Raphael paintings wouldn’t’ be in this category. Also, the mines weren’t destroying centers for art, but places to keep them so they could put them in German museums.)

Though the Monuments Men stumbled on Nazi gold, it wasn’t seen as relevant to their mission. (Maybe in The Monuments Men, but this accidental discovery did more to end World War II than almost any soldiering on the part of the Allies since the world was still on the gold standard at the time. When word got out there was nothing backing the Deutschmark, the Third Reich had no way to fund their war effort anymore. This is why you see Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley getting their picture taken.)

Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges were recovered in haste before the Soviets arrived in Germany. (Actually they were recovered with leisure Altaussee salt mine, which was under American occupation.)

There were 8 Monuments Men. (There were actually 400 but it wouldn’t make an entertaining movie.)

Leonardo Da Vinci was referred to as “Da Vinci” during this time. (He was simply known as “Leonardo” even today by art historians because “Da Vinci” simply means “from Vinci.”)

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery:

General Bernard Montgomery was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff around the same time as General Patton was relieved of his command in Germany. (Montgomery became head of the CIGS in 1946, after Patton had died in December 1945.)

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Force during the Battle of the Bulge was the 8th Army. (He was in command of the 21st Army Group. Also, during the Battle of the Bulge, the British 8th Army was stationed in Italy at the time.)

Dunkirk:

Tiger tanks were present at Dunkirk. (Dunkirk happened in 1940 while the first Tiger tanks saw action in 1942.)

The evacuation of Dunkirk was a last-minute effort with a huge fleet of little ships bringing the soldiers home. (Actually unlike what Mrs. Miniver depicts, most of the men evacuated at Dunkirk were brought home by destroyers, not a bunch of little boats. Also, the evacuation lasted more than a week. However, the British government deliberately created the myth of the little ships to boost morale after the disaster in France.)

Occupation of France:

The Gestapo ordered Parisians not to act when the German trucks arrived the next day. (Contrary to Casablanca, Paris issued absolutely no warning about the German advance at all. The German blitzkrieg overwhelmed the French so completely that all communications were either stymied or went astray.)

D-Day:

The US Marines stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. (It was the US Army, yet The Desert Fox has the storming of the Normandy beaches to the tune of “The Marine Hymn” when it should be “The Caisson Song.”)

Germans Colonel Josef “Pips” Priller and Sergeant Heinz Wodarczyk attacked the Allies at Gold and Juno Beaches during D-Day. (They were both at Sword Beach at the time yet the attacked the Allies by themselves and were both badly hungover at the time.)

The Germans’ 159mm guns on Pointe du Hoc were gone by the time Colonel Rudder’s Rangers got there. (Yes, but The Longest Day doesn’t show that Rudder’s Rangers continued inland, found the guns, and destroyed them.)

During the Normandy invasion, the men from the Higgins boats leapt from their watercraft into the water, rushed through the waves, threw themselves behind the sea wall, and started firing on the enemy. (This is a scene from The Longest Day that distresses veterans of D-Day the most since it seems like a scene out of Rambo or some other action movie. In reality, the soldiers actually plunged in over their heads, inflated their life jackets, struggled to shore, hid behind the beach obstacles, crawled toward to the sea wall, and exhaustively threw themselves down. Sorry, Darryl Zanuck, but the landings at the Normandy beaches didn’t play out like Rambo.)

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt III made the decision to attack from Utah Beach. (It was Colonel James van Fleet who actually made the decision. Yet, General Roosevelt was the highest ranking officer on Utah Beach that day. Interestingly, he’s also the son and namesake of President Teddy Roosevelt, too so badassery was in the blood. Still, he knew that the improvised landing was a better idea than the planned one and even reconned the area with minimal cover, risking his life as well as insisted on leading the landing himself. Sadly, he wasn’t in the best of health then and would die a month later.)

The dummy paratroopers on D-Day were highly elaborate and lifelike. (Yes, they did drop dummies at the Normandy beaches. A total of 500 of them by the SAS in fact, for Operation Titanic. They also played recordings of battle noise, set off smoke grenades, and used their weapons to further enhance deception. But the dummies didn’t look as realistic like you’d see in The Longest Day. According to Imdb: “The actual dummies were fabricated from sackcloth or burlap stuffed with straw or sand and were only crude representations of a human figure. They only appeared human from a distance during the descent and were equipped with an explosive charge that burned away the cloth after landing to prevent the immediate discovery of their true nature.” )

British Captain Colin Maud spurred his advancing soldiers up the beaches of Normandy accompanied by his bulldog “Winston.” (This incident took place on the “Canadian” Juno Beach. Also, his dog was a German shepherd.)

General Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat carried a Mannlicher Schoenauer Model 1903 carbine on D-Day. (Contrary to The Longest Day, he always carried his old Winchester rifle into battle, and D-Day was no exception. It was one of his well-known quirks.)

The Ouistreham casino was destroyed by the Allies during the landings at Normandy. (It had already been destroyed and replaced with a bunker by the Germans before that.)

British pathfinders landed on the headquarters of the German General von Salmuth, commander of the 15th Army. (Contrary to The Longest Day, they landed on the headquarters of General Reichert who was commander of the 711 division at Normandy. Von Salmuth and his 15th Army were at the Pais de Calais at the time, perhaps waiting for Patton’s fake invasion {the guy was basically the only general whom Hitler ever feared}.)

French civilians assisted the Allied troops during D-Day. (Sorry, but The Longest Day gets it wrong. For one, it’s unlikely that the Germans would allow any civilians to live to such close proximity to the ocean where it would be possible to signal to passing ships. Second, the bombings and other action at the Normandy beaches would’ve severely damaged if not, demolished any house there which would result in civilians getting killed on impact. Third, I’m sure that French civilians were more likely heading for the hills than assisting the Allied troops at Normandy mostly because they’d have to be complete idiots to do the latter.)

The USS Fremont was at the Normandy beaches during D-Day. (Actually it was in the Pacific during this time and would be involved with the Battle of Saipan 10 days later.)

During D-Day, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Vandervoort and Brigadier General James Gavin were both in their 50s. (Actually Vandervoort was only 27 while Gavin was in his mid-30s. Yet, in The Longest Day, they’re played by 50ish John Wayne and Robert Ryan respectively. Also, John Wayne was twice the age of his own character so what the hell casting agency? Seriously, my negative bias of John Wayne aside, the casting director for The Longest Day could’ve certainly have selected a much younger actor to play a 27-year-old like Paul Newman for instance.)

German machine gunners fired continuous rounds from their MG42s on D-Day. (Actually they were trained to fire at shorter bursts to avoid overheating their guns. To fire continuously would’ve resulted in their barrels to melt. Yet, you see this in Saving Private Ryan.)

Before D-Day, World War II was still going Hitler’s way. (Mr. Attenborough, by the time D-Day rolled around; the Germans have already had their asses beaten by the Allies. By June 6, 1944, the Germans had already suffered crushing defeats by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front like Stalingrad and they’ve also been kicked out of Africa and later Italy. Furthermore, by this time Mussolini had been deposed by his own people and Italy had joined the allies. Thus, by mid-1943, the Germans were already on the road to inevitable defeat and D-Day was just going to make it a whole lot worse.)

The Normandy Invasion:

The “whack the mortar shell to initiate the fuse and throw it like a football” scheme happened on the beaches of Normandy. (There are two incidents of this but they were in Italy and Okinawa, not in Normandy.)

All but one of the Niland brothers died in World War II. (Though Private James Ryan was loosely based on Sergeant Frederick “Fritz” Niland, two Niland brothers actually survived the war and died in the 1980s. The other brother was Edward who was in a Japanese prison camp in Burma during the Normandy invasion and he died a year after “Fritz” {but at the time Edward wasn’t expected to make it knowing what POWs in Japanese custody faced and was deemed as missing and presumably dead}. However, contrary to Saving Private Ryan, “Fritz” Niland didn’t need to be rescued by Tom Hanks because he had gone to the 82nd Airborne Division several days following the Normandy invasion to see his brother Bob and found out Bob had been killed on D-Day when he arrived. He was shipped back to England and later to New York where he served as an MP during the rest of the war. However, the notion that Edward Niland died during the war is even in Stephen Ambrose’s books as well as by other WWII scholars.)

The HMS Repulse was among the bombarding ships at the Normandy beaches prior to the D-Day landings. (The ship was sunk in December 1941 and D-Day took place in 1944.)

The Germans used Tiger tanks on the American front during the Normandy invasion. (There were no Tiger tanks at Utah or Omaha Beach. There were Tigers used at Juno Beach but it was the one with Canadians and Brits.)

During the invasion of Normandy, 2 British paratroopers landed by mistake in a courtyard and chateau where a German general was staying. They were later captured and overwhelmed by 2 dozen German guards. (This actually happened but instead of a squad of guards it was one of the General’s middle-aged staff officers who successfully rounded up the British paratroopers only armed with a pistol, contrary to The Longest Day.)

US troops from the 82nd Airborne F Company were all mowed down as they parachuted into a village square surrounded by German troops during the Normandy invasion. (Actually contrary to The Longest Day where everyone from that company is wiped out as if they were fish in a barrel, 30 paratroopers from the 82 F Company managed to successfully land in or around the square with less than a dozen killed or wounded.)

French nuns treated the French wounded at Ouistreham during the Normandy invasion. (Actually contrary to The Longest Day, this didn’t happen in real life. Also, Ouistreham’s hotel and casino were already destroyed and converted to German bunker use.)

Colonel Vandervoort had a compound fracture on his ankle during the Normandy invasion. (Contrary to The Longest Day, he didn’t because he was a healthy 27 year old man unlike his John Wayne portrayal. Sorry, but a 54 man like John Wayne at the time is way too old to play a guy who was only 27 at the time. Interestingly, British actor Richard Todd played his own commanding officer Major John Howard in The Longest Day and there’s a scene where he’s next to a guy who’s playing him as a soldier.)

“Crickets” frog like devices that were used by the 82nd Airborne during the Normandy invasion. (It was only issued to the 101st Division at the insistence of General Maxwell D. Taylor after his experience of the assault on Sicily. Still, as Movie Mistakes states, “It should also be noted that the cricket was not shaped like a frog but was made mainly from brass by the Birmingham based THE ACME company, founded by the maker of the original London Police Force’s whistle manufacturer, and they did a special run of over 7500 for the order. This makes telling original D-Day crickets from fakes easier due to die marks and press marks.” Also, it’s unlikely that John Wayne’s character in The Longest Day would know the code.)

The Liberation of Paris:

German soldiers set conventional explosives on Paris bridges. (It’s seen like this on Is Paris Burning? but the Germans used surplus naval torpedoes under the Paris bridges to burn them up.)

After the liberation of Paris, Lieutenant Henri Karcher called his father on the phone to tell him he’s just captured a general. (Unlike Is Paris Burning?, the real Karcher would more likely to have called his father using a Ouija board because his dad had been dead since 1914.)

Liberated Paris didn’t have any blackouts. (The city still did and so would Bruges.)

Operation Market Garden:

Lieutenant General Frederick Browning was mostly responsible for the failure of Operation Market Garden. (There could be a number of things why Operation Market Garden failed, but unlike in A Bridge Too Far, if there was anyone to blame, it would probably be Montgomery.)

The tower of Sint Stevenschurch in Nijmegen was standing tall during Operation Market Garden. (It was destroyed by American bombing in February 1944 and wouldn’t be rebuilt until the late 1960s. Of course, A Bridge Too Far was made in the 1970s.)

The Battle of the Bulge:

The Malmedy massacre happened on a snowy day. (There was no snow during the Malmedy massacre. The snow came later which covered the bodies of 80 American POWs that were killed.)

The Malmedy massacre was carried out by specially prepared machine guns hidden in the back of trucks. (This is how it’s portrayed in Battle of the Bulge, but the Malmedy massacre was actually conducted by guards surrounding the prisoners.)

The Battle of the Bulge was fought on semi-arid mountainous land that was devoid of trees. (It was fought among the thickly forested and hilly Ardennes Forest. The 1965 depiction of the Battle of the Bulge makes it clear that the movie was filmed in Spain. Still, the 1965 Battle of the Bulge was a film former President Eisenhower hated so much he denounced it during a press conference. Also, WWII buffs, model makers, and historians hate this movie for the inaccurate tank designs, which are painted wrong.)

The Battle of the Bulge took place during a mild winter in Belgium. (Actually it took place during a bitterly cold Belgian winter. Yet, the filmmakers made a half-hearted attempt at recreating what would’ve been seen as a bitterly cold winter if the Battle of the Bulge had taken place in Florida! Heck, the terrible wintry weather during the battle was what actually allowed the Germans to operate while it negatively affected Allied air superiority. A historical reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge would’ve been more accurate in the form of a snowball fight in my neighbor’s wooded hunting grounds during a snow day {like in bitterly cold weather with at least over 6 inches of snow} than in this movie. May not be the most accurate rendition but at least the terrain and weather would be right.)

During the Battle of the Bulge, large numbers of American tanks sacrificed themselves against the heavy Tiger IIs until the enemy ran out of fuel. (The Tiger II tanks were already stranded by this point even without effort from the US, which is perfect for Allied aircraft to hit the Germans hard in the event of clear weather. Yeah, lack of fuel wasn’t the only weakness the Allies were willing to exploit from the Tiger tanks. Not to mention, the Germans only had 100 available for the Bulge operation. Also, the reason for the high Allied casualties in the Battle of the Bulge had more to do with a Nazi counteroffensive catching the Allies by surprise and the confusion that followed.)

The Battle of the Bulge was solely American operation. (What about Montgomery’s effort who took temporary command of two American armies on the northern half of the Bulge though his British troops were usually kept behind the Meuse River and were thus almost entirely out of the fighting. Still, it kind of counts. Also absent in Battle of the Bulge besides Montgomery’s role is Eisenhower’s decision to split the Bulge front into two as well as Patton’s response whose 3rd Army relieved the Siege of Bastogne. No wonder Eisenhower hated this movie.)

Miscellaneous:

The Italians and French and Italians were utter incompetents and total war cowards who couldn’t fight. (Oh, sure they could, and did. For God’s sake Mussolini was overthrown and later killed by his own people as well as joined the allies as soon as they got fed up with Il Duce. Yet, there was a civil war in Italy between resistance and fascists forces which would continue until near the end of the war. As for the French, while there was a resistance movement, most of those who supported Marshall Philippe Petain’s coup in Vichy France either were fascist to begin with or saw no hope of Germany ever being defeated. Yet, when it was clear that Germany would lose, resistance groups formed and they were ready to welcome the Allies’ return with some of the best espionage work the world has ever seen. General DeGaulle’s Free French Forces also contributed thousands of combat troops in Bir Hakeim, Monte Cassino, and Ouistreham. Once France was liberated, they formed an army of 100,000 strong to take over support roles for British and American troops at the front lines.)

There was a real Battle of Romelle. (Contrary to Saving Private Ryan, there wasn’t.)

No one knows what happened to Glenn Miller’s plane. (Yes, but it’s very likely that Glenn Miller died from a combination of boarding a plane with a defective carburetor, piloted be a guy who wasn’t really qualified to fly the aircraft, and bad weather that would be a terrible obstacle for the Allies during the Battle of the Bulge. Sorry, conspiracy theorists.)

American pilots joined in the Eagle Squadron. (Sorry, Michael Bay, but there were a grand total of zero USAAF pilots who joined the RAF’s Eagle Squadron. Active duty US Army airmen would’ve simply not been allowed. Only US civilians served as Eagle Squadron pilots.)

Letters of transit signed by General Charles DeGaulle carried great weight in Vichy France and its territories. (Charles DeGaulle was a leader of the Free French movement so any letters of transit signed by him would’ve been meaningless, but don’t tell Captain Renault that.)

The Netherlands was under German occupation in April of 1945. (Most of the country had been liberated by this point, contrary to the movie Black Book.)

Dutch sheep managed to survive in the fields during the “Hunger Winter” of 1944. (Contrary to the movie Black Book, there were no sheep in the field by the spring of 1945. Also, people weren’t traveling by train at this point in the war either.)

French girls always preferred American GIs over their own countrymen. (If there’s a love interest in World War II movies set in the Western Front, she’s usually French and she’ll end up with the American GI protagonist. It’s the other way around in I Was a Male War Bride with the French guy being played by Cary Grant who marries an American servicewoman portrayed by Ann Sheridan. It’s the one he dresses in drag.)

The German-Swiss border was open during this time. (It was closed completely so you couldn’t travel by train between Germany and Switzerland anyway. Besides, the Germans knew that so many POWs would’ve wanted to escape there.)

Helicopters were used in the Western Front during World War II in 1944. (Except in Burma and a bit in the Coast Guard, helicopters weren’t around in military use during 1944. Yet, you see one in Eye of the Needle, which is based on a Ken Follet novel. Still, the Germans did have them.)

In 1940, Norwegian Lieutenant Thor O. Hannevig was abandoned by his soldiers and forced to face the Germans alone. (Actually he disbanded his unit and a small staff remained with him until he surrendered to the Germans. Not to mention, the German POWs he captured were still held and were handed over to the German forces directly unlike in The Last Lieutenant.)

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3 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 68 – World War II: The Western Front

  1. Wow- a lot of movies- and misconceptions- about this part of the war. I still don’t know what “crickets” were!

  2. Google josepf pips priller + glenn miller . Priller died in 1961 in Indiana USA. I strongly suspect that Glenn Miller was a victim of the Luffewaffe on December 15, 1944 hours before the start of the German Counter offensive on December 16, 1944.
    Very bad day to be in a slow C-47 Norseman transport headed to Paris if the Luffewaffe was hunting air transports that day. A plane spotter’s journel exists reporting the departure of a C-47.

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