The Americans on Hell’s Highway – DVD Review
The Americans on Hell’s Highway. Produced by WW2 Reflections. Running time 56 minutes. $23.95USD.
The Americans on Hell’s Highway is the second DVD in a planned trilogy of battlefield tours from WW2 Reflections, bookended by The Americans on D-Day and The Americans in the Bulge. Each DVD is a one-hour tour of the actual battleground, conducted by battlefield guide and living historian Elliot von Siebold, a spry middle-age Englishman living in France.
First-person recollections are always welcome, and the ones collected here are some of the best
"Hell’s Highway" is the nickname given to Holland’s Highway 69 and the bridges that carried it over six major waterways that were the objectives of Operation Market Garden in September 1944. The strategic objective of the British-planned campaign was to drop American and British airborne forces along Highway 69 to capture its bridges and open a route over the Rhine in order to outflank the German Siegfried Line defenses. Once the bridges were in airborne hands, tanks of the British XXX corps would advance along the highway, relieving each airborne force in turn until reaching the British 1st Airborne Division and the Rhine River Bridge at Arnhem. Delays along the highway, however, prevented a XXX Corps linkup with the British Airborne at Arnhem, leading to that unit’s surrender and a failure of the campaign.
The Americans on Hell’s Highway, unlike most documentaries and the 1977 film, tells the story of Operation Market-Garden strictly from the American point of view. Siebold begins his virtual tour from the American Airborne division’s drop zones and then on to each of the American objectives along "Hell’s Highway" to Arnhem.
Traveling up Hell’s Highway in a vintage Dodge command car, Siebold takes the viewer to each of the bridges from the Son all the way to Nijmegen; the objectives given to the American paratroopers. Siebold, often dressed as an American and supported by reenactors, presents a vignette of the action at each bridge crossing, at the same time of day the events occurred in 1944.
These vignettes are supported by clever editing that melds period photos and film with action performed by modern reenactment groups. These groups are particularly effective. Their uniforms, equipment, and weapons add an air of expertise and authenticity to the vignettes-though not without occasional slips such as the German paratrooper I spotted carrying a British STEN submachine gun.
Siebold and his reenactors have also contributed several period vehicles for the film and use them effectively with original combat photography and computer-generated models to recreate the action. This technique is mostly effective, though at times the computer-generated vehicles and explosions superimposed over modern background scenes can border on the absurd-below even Sci-Fi Channel standards. Overall, though, these moments don’t detract from the enjoyment of the show.
The highlights of the DVD are the contributions by Market Garden participants T. Moffatt Burriss of the 82nd Airborne Division, Karl Beck of the 101st Airborne, two flyers from the 8th and 9th air forces, and Germany’s Echart Schukany, a former Fallshirmjager. These first-person recollections are always welcome, and the ones collected here are some of the best. The ex-soldiers are articulate and give unvarnished and powerful accounts of what they witnessed. Beck and Burriss, in particular, are very forceful. Beck is firmly of the opinion that the battle was an American victory since the American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions met their objectives – even if the British did not. Burriss is of a similar mind and opines that British adherence to an overly cautious dogma prevented a successful rescue of the British at Arnhem.
Our tour guide, Elliot Siebold is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide but sometimes appears uncomfortable in front of the camera. He occasionally misreads a cue card and adds an odd pause now and then. One last quibble involves how some scenes were framed by the director. Several times Siebold comes into the scene and describes how such-and-such "happened right here" and points to the ground or some point behind him, but the camera is zoomed on Siebold to such a degree that you can’t really see what he’s referring to. Pulling back to give a perspective of the terrain would have helped.
But these are mere quibbles; The Americans on Hell’s Highway is still a unique tour of a European battleground that few Americans will have the ability to visit in person. Unlike other documentaries you may see on the Military Channel, this DVD is a low budget but very personal view of one of WW2′s most famous battles. Extra features on the DVD include a "making of" video; video of the 65th anniversary reunion; a video on the German 88mm cannon and the Sherman tank, two iconic weapons of the battle; and a collection of still pictures.
About the Author
Neal West is a retired USAF E-7 and has a BA in American Military History. His TV cycles between the History and Military History channels, and he can recite most of George C. Scott’s lines from Patton.