It was originally called “Operation Overlord”. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, a combined Allied force of over 150,000 American, British, Canadian and French troops launched an aerial, land and naval assault upon five designated beaches along the Normandy coast of northern France.
The mission of Overlord was to break through the Germans’ heavily-fortified “Atlantic Wall” coastal defences and begin a second front in western Europe by carving out a trail that would lead them to Berlin and along with the Russian Red Army (whose was rapidly smashing their way through eastern Europe towards Berlin) end six years of violent Nazi occupation across most of the continent.
75th anniversary of D-Day
This all-out invasion, which was also known as “the longest day” and its more familiar “D-Day” moniker, is probably regarded as one of the most famous – and most important – battles in modern history. The subject of countless books, movies and documentaries, D-Day marks its 75th anniversary this year with a new documentary called “D-Day in 14 Stories”, which is produced by YAP Films and will air on June 1 on the History Channel.
The documentary tells the story of the D-Day invasion through the points-of-view of 14 people who personally experienced the invasion from all sides, whether they were Canadian, American, British or German soldiers, French civilians or members of the French Resistance.
“There have been so many films about D-Day, but they mainly focused on the preparations for the invasion, the strategies, and the points-of-view from the generals and politicians. With our documentary, we wanted to offer a different way of appreciating the story of D-Day by living it again. And this year, with the 75th anniversary, it’s a special milestone and yet sadly, it’s the last commemoration of D-Day in which any of the original men and women who participated in the battle are going to be still alive,” said Elliott Halpern of YAP Films, who co-produced the documentary.
“We originally had 18 people who were about to participate in the documentary, which we later narrowed down to 14 due to health issues,” said co-producer Elizabeth Trojian. “It was quite emotional for these 14 people to go back to that day. It was asking for a lot to have them relive what happened because D-Day was the most important, yet most violent and horrific, battle in modern warfare, and many of them were in their late teens or early 20s at the time of the invasion; yet, we were so grateful to them for telling their stories to us.”
Mr. Halpern admitted that it was an intense six-month period to search for the 14 people whose stories made up the documentary. “The veterans we selected had to fill one simple piece of criteria: they had to be there in Normandy on the first day of invasion,” he added.
One of those veterans who was there on June 6, 1944 was Okill Stuart from St. Lambert, who was part of the first wave to land at Juno Beach as a member of the 14th Canadian Field Regiment, 81st Battery, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. He joined the Canadian Army in the spring of 1940, a year after he was called back home by his family while he was studying in Scotland in order to write the entrance exams for Oxford University; from there he worked as a surveyor at a lumberjack camp in Chicoutimi in the summer and fall of 1939, and because of its isolated location, did not know that World War II began until weeks after Britain and Canada declared war on Germany.
“My regiment landed on Juno Beach around 9:25 on the morning of June 6, in which we were the support team for the Queen’s Own Rifles infantry regiment,” said Mr. Stuart, who is currently 98 years old. “We had quite a few anxious moments as we made our way to Juno. Our landing craft, which was carrying six self-propelled vehicles as well as artillery, hit a mine while it was in six feet of water and blew off the ramp. Thankfully, the extended sides of the craft weren’t damaged and it helped us towards a successful landing in deep water. As we made our way to the shore, I couldn’t help but remark ‘A fellow could get killed around here!’,” he said.
One of the more interesting stories that Mr. Stuart recounts for the documentary was the time when his regiment was making their way though the French village of Bernier-sur-Mer to place their armored vehicles and artillery at a pre-determined gun position, which was taken over by another artillery group … and all the while, they were being bombarded by a hidden German 88 artillery gun, when something unusual happened.
“Because we had to turn back and find another position along the narrow streets of the village, it caused quite a traffic jam,” he said. “As we were making our way to a new gun position through a field that was just off the beach, a young French boy who was between the ages of 12 and 15 and wore a black beret, jumped in front of us and told us not to go through that field, because it was a mine field. I asked the boy how he knew it was a mine field and he replied that the Germans made him lay down the mines there. I then pulled out my pistol and ordered him to show us the way through that field and avoid the mines. As a result, we never lost a vehicle!”
In order to tell the story of the D-Day invasion to a younger generation and make it interesting for them, Halpern and Trojian utilized a number of measures to give the documentary an air of authenticity. This included hiring actors who were the same ages of the participants in question for the battle recreations, newsreel footage, special visual effects and even using actual World War II era tanks, vehicles and one of the last functioning landing crafts that’s available in North America.
“When recalling a moment in history to a younger generation, it’s quite a challenge to tell such amazing stories to them; it’s like you have to compete for their eyeballs,” said Mr. Halpern. “Which is why we had to give it so much authenticity, so that we could generate a high level of quality for the documentary.”
“We were able to give a fresh perspective to the story of D-Day and give a new way to experience the battle, in which the viewer can personally experience what these veterans experienced,” added Ms. Trojian.
Mr. Stuart, who still recounts his experiences in Normandy on D-Day every year to students at Bishop’s College in St. Lambert, believes in the importance of keeping the younger generation informed about the legacy of World War II by recalling his experiences on the battlefields of western Europe. “It’s also very important to record these experiences, because if we don’t do it now, it won’t be done at all, because the remaining veterans won’t be around anymore in a few short years,” he said.
“D-Day was probably one of the major turning points in human history. It was an epic battle in which the stakes were quite high; it was the ultimate Hail Mary pass of human courage,” said Ms. Trojian. “And the 14 stories that form the basis of this documentary will keep the story of D-Day and its impact on the world alive.”
For more information about “D-Day in 14 Stories”, go to www.yapfilms.com.