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Still from Narrow Escapes of World War II. Read more about "'Elephant Man' who staged daring WWII rescues" here on BBC.co.uk.
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Narrow Escapes of World War II

(BBC / The Military Channel; US DVD: 6 Nov 2012)

A group of British special forces get trapped behind Japanese lines in Burma, and must wend their way through hundreds of miles of dense jungle to freedom. In Russia, Germany’s crack Panzer battalions fight a desperate rearguard action—as well as the obstinance of Hitler, who forbids them to retreat—in order to avoid being encircled by the Soviet Union’s resurgent Red Army. In eastern India,  British and Indian troops struggle tenaciously to retain the hill station of Kohima, which has the bad luck of lying directly in the path of the Japanese advance.


And in North Africa, a quartet of British and New Zealand troops must attempt a 300-mile trek from Libya to Chad in order to avoid being taken by Mussolini’s army. The four men have one jug of water between them, and two are wounded. Oh, and they’re all barefoot.


Narrow Escapes of World War II is another of an apparently endless stream of British television programs focusing on the 20th century’s defining conflict. This 13-episode series manages to pull yet more unfamilar (to me at least) archival footage off of some dusty shelf somewhere in order to convey a series of white-knuckle moments in the war in which small bands of soldiers faced desperately long odds. Not every story has a happy ending, as “The Black Battalion” makes clear, but in general, these episodes are remarkable for the strength and courage—and unbelievable luck—of the men involved.


The 13 episodes are well-paced and lively, utilizing a mix of black-and-white archival footage, brief snippets of reenactments filmed in color (not really necessary, but they do serve to break up visual look of the episodes), and talking-head interviews of the soldiers involved. These men are quite elderly at this point, of course, but their experience has shaped them and at times scarred them, and it is quite moving to see these dignified gentlemen become, at times, rather choked up.


Both general-history buffs and students of World War are both likely to be impressed by the four-disc set, which wisely eschews the better-known events of the war—The Battle of Britain, for example, or Dunkirk—in favor of more obscure but equally riveting episodes. Australian general Leslie Morehead held the Tunisian port of Tobruk for over eight months, despite the concerted efforts of Hitler’s best general, Erwin Rommel, to take it away from him. The tactics used by Morehead in the face of Rommel’s superior numbers and superior equipment are nothing short of brilliant. (He allowed the swiftly-moving tanks to overrun his positions, for example, so that his camouflaged foot soldiers could then engage and bayonet the German infantry following behind, leaving the tanks isolated and without support.) Had Tobruk fallen, Germany would have been well placed to sieze Egypt, and with it the Suez Canal, which would have had far-reaching implications; at least one of the interviewees opines that in such a case, the Axis would have won the war.


A less vital but equally gripping episode concerns the the air raid planned against Amiens Prison, where a hundred French Resistance fighters were being held. The plan was to blow holes in the walls big enough to allow prisoners to escape, without killing them in the process. Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, the German occupation of Crete—a strategically positioned island—gave the British colonel Robert Laycock an opportunity to engage in guerilla warfare. However, as circumstances changed, the guerilla war devolved into a simple battle for survival against a vastly superior force.


Perhaps inevitably for a British produced, Anglophone television program, the majority of protagonists in these episodes are British, with a handful of Commonwealth troops—Aussies, Kiwis, Indians, Sherpas—thrown in. There’s one episode focusing on an all-black American artillery batallion, and a couple of episodes about German troops facing the Russians. There are no episodes concerning Russian narrow escapes, nor those of the Japanese, Italians or anybody else. This isn’t a huge criticism, but it does represent something of a lost opportunity. Surely there were some little-known, nail-biting incidents that took place in say, Greece or Poland, Belgium or Singapore. Maybe they will be included in the next series.


There are a few surprising omissions. Considering the many attempts on Hitler’s life, it’s rather surprising that none of his “narrow escapes” are chronicled here. Ditto the long march of “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, the American general who led more than a hundred of his men to freedom through Japanese-occuped Burma. Perhaps these incidents were thought to be too well-known to be included.


Extras in this four-disc set are thin, although with the 13 episodes clocking in at close to eleven hours of viewing time, viewers are unlikely to feel cheated. Each disc contains “Profiles of WWII escapees”, which are simply one-paragraph blocks of text that can be read onscreen. A 16-page booklet is also included, which serves as a basic primer for the war. This might prove useful to someone with very limited knowledge, but for anyone with even a passing understanding of the conflict, it’s pretty rudimentary.


This is a solid set for the history buff who needs a stocking stuffer. Beginners to WWII will learn much, but even seasoned amateur historians are likely to appreciaate these off-the-beaten-track tales of real-life heroism, struggle, and sacrifice.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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