The Battle of Normandy: 85 Days in Hell

Soldiers on Utah Beach. Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel.

First airing on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, The Battle of Normandy: 85 Days in Hell is a way-too-brief documentary.

The turning point in the was an unprecedented operation. Some details from the Battle of Normandy went untold for some 75 years. Many of us have seen the films and documentaries about D-Day. But what about the subsequent Battle of Normandy that would rage on for the next three months? To say that D-Day was just the beginning on June 6, 1944 is not an understatement. Two years of work would finally pay off during Operation Overlord.

Under Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command, troops would land at land at five beaches. The Americans would take Utah and Omaha Beach. Meanwhile, the British would focus on Gold and Sword Beach. Finally, the Canadians would land at Juno Beach. After landing at the beaches, the Allied invasion would head further inland to retake Normandy and France from the Nazis. Thousands of soldiers would die on the first day alone. Troops would regroup shortly thereafter.

First up was sieging and capturing Caen–something that would not be easy with facing off against Erwin Rommel. Carentan was a key to capturing the Cherbourg harbor. It took a week to take it but the Americans were successful. Slowly but surely, the Allied forces were retaking France. It took three US divisions ten days to reach Cherbourg before starting their attack against the 30,000 Nazi troops. Between ground and seas, they would liberate the city shortly thereafter. Thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded by this point.

The Americans head south towards Saint-Lô for one of their most dangerous battles yet with hedgerows ranging 8-13 feet high. More soldiers would end up dying. It’s already July and the British-Canadian forces are not at Caen yet. They decide to bomb the city heavily and finally entered on July 9. Unfortunately, this decision would lead to the killing of thousands of civilians. By July 18, it had been 43 days and three weeks of relentless fighting prior to taking what is left of Saint-Lô.

Reinforcements would arrive at Omaha Beach by late July and go to the front lines. The launch of Operation Cobra led to carpet bombing the front lines to put a gap in the German lines. Unfortunately, it came with a risk because the bombers had a tendency to not be accurate. At this point, the rewards outweighed whatever risks came with the operation. Some of the damage included several hundred dead American troops in the assault division. The next phase of the battle came about with thousands of German troops taken prisoner. On July 28, the Allies would Coutances right as Gen. George Patton takes command of the 3rd US Army. Patton advanced US troops 50 km south towards Avranches at a remarkable pace.

By July 31, Patton’s troops reclaimed the Pontaubault bridge. At this point, it is 56 days into the battle. US forces would arrive at Mont-Saint-Michel and find it abandoned. In early August, the Germans would begin to launch a counterattack against the 30th US Infantry Division. A massive amount of US forces would force the Nazis back from Mortain. Hitler threw in the towel by August 15th, ordering his troops to flee Normandy. With the Nazis falling back, areas in Normandy would see freedom from Nazi control as the US, British, Canadian, and French forces march and close the gap. Further bombings from the air would help fill the gap to prevent the Nazis from escaping. At this point, it’s 75 days into the campaign. People would refer to the battle as the Stalingrad of Normandy.

All in all, 220,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded. There would be 20,000 civilian deaths. The Nazis lost 200,000 men with the same amount captured. By the end of August, the Battle of Normandy would end.

There were some 50 cameramen embedded within Allied forces–some were led by Oscar-winning filmmaker George Stevens. They left behind hundreds of hours–over 100 hours of unseen footage has been identified by World War II archival expert Dominique Forget. A good amount of footage would remain in the vault for decades. In any event, there is a good amount of 20 hours just from the Battle of Normandy alone. Not all of the footage makes it into the 44-minute special but one can make a case for a lengthier documentary series. Obviously, war is war so it would not surprise me if any of the surviving footage is brutal. But what we have here has been meticulously converted from 16mm film to high-definition.

The Battle of Normandy: 85 Days in Hell is too short but the footage allows audiences to take in an unprecedented battle in the campaign to free France and later, the rest of Europe.

DIRECTOR: Guilain Depardieu
SCREENWRITERS: Dominique Forget and Thibaut Martin
NARRATOR: Alan Sklar
FEATURING: John McManus, Antony Beevor, Tim Cook

The Battle of Normandy: 85 Days in Hell premiered June 6, 2019 on the Smithsonian Channel. Stream it on Paramount+. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.