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Posted on Jan 9, 2013 in Books and Movies

Narrow Escapes of World War II – DVD Review

By Abigail Pfeiffer

Narrow Escapes of World War II. Athena Learning, 2012. Thirteen episodes on 4 DVDs. $79.99.

Narrow Escapes of World War II, a DVD set from Athena Learning, takes the viewer on an emotional ride by showcasing daring, narrow escapes from capture or death during the Second World War. The programs originally aired as part of the Military Channel’s series of the same name, but this edition from the UK includes more than an hour of footage not seen during the US broadcast. There are 13 episodes, each approximately 50 minutes long, and each is as suspenseful as the one preceding it. From the snowy winter of Russia to a French prison to Mediterranean islands, all fronts and theaters of the war are examined. Allied and Axis accounts of escape are included, and the series demonstrates that soldiers of both sides exhibited brave and bold actions to escape what must have seemed like a certain death during the World War II.

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The series skillfully utilizes a large amount of original video footage, as well as video commentary from surviving participants, photographs, maps, and reenactments. Many of the narrow escapes detailed in the series have not been given much consideration in the historical record, while other, better-known ones are passed over. For example, the Dunkirk evacuation, while undoubtedly a well-known narrow escape of WWII, is not a part of the series.

The first disk contains the first four episodes. Episode One is “The Amiens Raid,” and details the British plan to bomb Amiens Prison in France prior to the Normandy landings to allow imprisoned Allied agents to escape. Episode Two includes one of the most well-known names of the war, Col. Jimmy Doolittle. This episode, “The Doolittle Raid,” tells of the mission he led to bomb Japan with B-25s launched from aircraft carriers close to mainland Japan; it details the aftermath of the mission and the struggle of the airmen to escape through China. Episode Three, “Wingate and the Chindits,” takes the viewer to the war against the Japanese in India and Burma, and the British Brigadier Orde Wingate and the Chindits, a special force created with British, Indian, and Burmese soldiers. The disk concludes with Episode Four, “The Black Battalion,” the all-black artillery battalion that was a critical element in the Allies holding the town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

The second disk includes episodes five through seven. “Lucky Laycock’s Escape from Crete” explores a sabotage mission against the Germans on the island of Crete. Manstein Holds the Line” chronicles a German narrow escape in south Russia, under the leadership of German field marshal Erich von Manstein, arguably one of Hitler’s most competent commanders. “The Siege of Kohima,” takes the viewer back to the war in India and the fight to keep the Japanese from capturing Kohima, which would have opened the door to the natural resources of India.

Disk three includes episodes eight through ten. The eighth episode, “Roy Urquhart’s Escape from Arnhem,” shares the suspenseful account of British major general Roy Urquhart’s mission to take the Arnhem bridge, and the nail-biting overnight escape he and his men made. “Morshead Holds Tobruk” shifts to the war in North Africa and the seven-month siege of the city of Tobruk, a strategically important area that protected the Suez Canal and the British interests in the East. “Evacuation in the Baltic” details the harrowing escape of German soldiers and civilians via the Baltic Sea as the Russians closed in at the end of war.

The final disk includes the last three episodes. “Moore’s March” is a gripping account of four soldiers from a British Long Range Desert Group who are separated from their units and forced to walk hundreds of miles in the Sahara Desert to reach friendly lines. In “Operation Pedestal” viewers learn about the Allies’ daring, week-long crossing of the Mediterranean Sea to resupply the island of Malta, a crucial tactical area for the British. The final episode, “Breakout Through Hell’s Gate,” re-visits the German front in Russia and the daring escape of tens of thousands German soldiers who were nearly surrounded by the Russian Army at the Dneiper River.

This is a highly enjoyable series, and I would recommend it for anyone with an interest in the history of World War II. The format is most definitely geared toward a general audience rather than hardcore historians, and this series is decidedly entertaining and informative for all viewers.

Abigail Pfeiffer is a recent graduate of Norwich University with a Master of Arts in Military History. She lives in Phoenix, AZ, with her husband and stepdaughter. She focuses on 20th century American warfare and American POW history, and has a special interest in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. When Abby does not have her nose in a book, she can be found hiking, swimming, running, and cooking.

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