Narrow Escapes of World War II
Acorn Media // Unrated // $79.99 // November 6, 2012
Review by Paul Mavis | posted November 5, 2012
Highly Recommended
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Familiar but well-done U.K. WWII documentary series. Athena has released Narrow Escapes of World War II, a 4-disc, 13-episode collection of the 2011 U.K. television series (which has aired here in the States on The Military Channel) that focuses on battle/mission/campaign "close calls" during the Second World War. From looks at familiar operations like Dolittle's raid on Tokyo and The Battle of the Bulge, to more obscure (but no less thrilling) events such as Moore's March and Operation Hannibal, Narrow Escapes of World War II gives the viewer concise overviews of these Allied and Axis operations, with the added benefit of first-hand accounts from the soldiers that participated. A few extras help with this good-looking transfer.

To be honest...Narrow Escapes of World War II certainly isn't going to surprise fans of Second World War cable documentaries. From a production standpoint, it utilizes the now thoroughly familiar conventions and structuring you see in every other basic television documentary; Narrow Escapes of World War II doesn't look all that different, really, than The World at War (just as an easily recognizable example) from 40 years ago. Copious amounts of newsreel footage (now cropped to widescreen for Narrow Escapes of World War II) take up the majority of screen time as an off-camera narrator (here, Colin Tierney) authoritatively sets the time and place of the mission/action/battle being described, before facts and theories are presented and weighed. Inbetween the stock footage, a few new recreations are attempted (they're not of much use here, frankly) while participants in the battles are interviewed, along with authors and other experts. Animated maps, appropriately dramatic music, and fast cuts and edits fill out the 50 minute run times (which Athena advertises on the DVD box as the "uncut U.K. broadcast editions"). Anyone who's ever watched a TV documentary, particularly a war-related one on History or Discovery or The Military Channel, will instantly recognize Narrow Escapes of World War II's thoroughly conventional shape and tone.

That feeling of over-familiarity might have been a drawback for Narrow Escapes of World War II, had those conventional schematics been poorly produced. Fortunately, the opposite is true here; Narrow Escapes of World War II's tech credits are first-rate, with always interesting, appropriate (and rapidly cut) selections of newsreel footage giving the docs. some juice. I also enjoyed the overviews of some of the battles/missions I wasn't very familiar with; so many of the TV WWI docs. of the past 20 years have focused on the same major campaigns. Even a complete WWII novice like myself could repeat reams of data on D-Day, Pearl Harbor, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of Stalingrad after years and years of multiple variations on these subjects. So I was quite intrigued by the inclusion of episodes like The Black Battalion, a fascinating exploration of the all-black 333rd Field Artillery battalion that fought so bravely during the Battle of the Bulge (I don't remember hearing about "The Wereth 11" in any other docs on that battle), or Manstein Holds the Line, a gripping account of Russian General Georgy Zhukov's defeat at the hands of wily German General Eric von Manstein's "elastic defense" withdrawal, or The Siege of Kohima (which I had never heard about), where the Japanese Army tried to invade India, only to be beaten back in vicious trench warfare by "The Dirty Half Hundred" and the brave indigenous Naga people, or Evacuation in the Baltic, where "Operation Hannibal" attempted to relocate 2 million Germans from East Prussia, at the head of the advancing savage Red Army. These stories were mostly new to me, and Narrow Escapes of World War II, smoothly and professionally, brought them to life for me.

Best of all, Narrow Escapes of World War II's extensive interviews with the soldiers who fought these battles prove to be the documentary series' greatest asset. Whether it's Maxwell Sparks, pilot during the infamous Amiens Raid/"Operation Jericho", recounting flying a Mark VI Mosquito bomber 10 feet off the ground as he approached his target, or smooth Bill Smyly describing his absolutely horrifying physical ordeal as one of Wingate's "Chindits" in the jungles of Burma, or American artillery gunner George Shomo matter-of-factly describing what he had to do to survive the Battle of the Bulge (killing three men with his trench knife for starters), or jaunty Peter Doresa who joined that "cracking battalion," The West Kents, and fought so bravely during the unimaginable Siege of Kohima, or Ray Ellis of "the Rats of Tobruk," recounting a terribly moving story of releasing balloons during the trench fighting, only to have the enemy first stop in wonder, and then "play" with him by shooting them down (a story told well enough to match anything in All's Quiet on the Western Front)―these ordinary men who performed extraordinary feats of courage and endurance, these are the real attraction of Narrow Escapes of World War II. Their insights, their stories, their testimonies, are alone worth seeking out Narrow Escapes of World War II.

Here are the 13 episodes of the U.K. WWII documentary, Narrow Escapes of World War II, as described on their individual slimcases:


EPISODE 1: The Amiens Raid
In advance of the Allied landings at Normandy, the British plan the aerial bombing of Amiens Prison, where a hundred Resistance fighters await execution.

EPISODE 2: The Dolittle Raid
Seeking to hit back at Japan, Col. Jimmy Dolittle puts B-25 bombers on aircraft carriers for a mission that the crews have little chance of surviving.

EPISODE 3: Wingate and the Chindits
To take on the undefeated "supermen" of the Japanese army advancing toward India, the British call on Orde Wingate, who forms a special "Chindits" unit for sabotage inside Japanese-controlled Burma.

EPISODE 4: The Black Battalion
When Hitler launches his final major offensive on the Western front, everything turns on the ability of the U.S. Army to hold the town of Bastogne. Outnumbered 10 to one, an artillery unit of African American gunners must stand fast against the battle-hardened troops of the Waffen-SS.


EPISODE 5: Lucky Laycock's Escape From Crete
After the German invasion of Crete in May, 1941, Winston Churchill orders the 25,000 British and Commonwealth troops stationed there to defend the island at all costs. A force of specially trained commandos under Col. Robert Laycock arrives to sabotage the Germans, but their mission soon changes.

EPISODE 6: Manstein Holds the Line
By the spring of 1943, the German army is on the run across southern Russia. Gen. Erich von Manstein has plans for a new, highly mobile form of defensive warfare that might reverse the course of the war in the East. But first he has to convince Hitler, who is adamantly opposed to any kind of retreat, strategic or otherwise.

EPISODE 7: The Siege of Kohima
In a bid to topple the British Raj, the Japanese invade India from neighboring Burma in March, 1944. Their route takes them through Kohima, a sleepy village in the Himalayan foothills. The troops in Kohima's tiny garrison know that if the village falls, the wealth of India's natural resources will be in the hands of the Japanese.


EPISODE 8: Roy Urquhart's Escape From Arnheim
In September, 1944, 40,000 Allied troops descend on occupied Holland to secure the bridges over the country's many waterways, pave the way for an invasion of Germany, and bring about an end to the war. But for British soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, the new mission is one of survival.

EPISODE 9: Morshead Holds Tobruk
By Easter, 1941, all that stands between Afrika Korps commander Erwin Rommel and Egypt's Suez Canal is Tobruk. Australia's Gen. Leslie Morshead and his defenders are ordered to hold the Libyan port for eight weeks while the defenses of Egypt can be strengthened. The "Rats of Tobruk" are convinced that if they fail, the war against Germany will be lost.

EPISODE 10: Evacuation in the Baltic
As the war enters its final months, the nearly 2 million Germans living in East Prussia flee an advancing Red Army no longer distinguishing between German soldiers and civilians. Hundreds of thousands make for the Baltic ports―the start of the single biggest evacuation of WWII.


EPISODE 11: Moore's March
With the Italians preparing to invade Egypt in the summer of 1940, the British army's Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) causes havoc far behind the front. But after an LRDG patrol is attacked, a tough New Zealander named Ron Moore leads the survivors barefoot through the desert, 300 miles from Allied lines.

EPISODE 12: Operation Pedestal
By 1942, the fight between the Allies and the Axis for control of the Mediterranean is focused on tiny Malta. From there, British aircraft and submarines have been preying on enemy supply ships. When Hitler and Mussolini decide to crush Malta, Churchill dispatches a huge convoy to run the gauntlet of Axis air and naval power to reach the beleaguered island stronghold.

EPISODE 13: Breakout Through Hell's Gate
With their backs to the Dnieper River in January 1944, 60,000 German troops face encirclement by the Soviets. After an airfield supplying the defenders falls to the Russians, the Germans head for a corridor flanked by Russian soldiers, tanks, artillery, and cavalry―known thereafter as Hell's Gate.

The DVD:

The Video:
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen video transfer for Narrow Escapes of World War II looks good. Purists, of course, won't like the old newsreel footage cropped for widescreen, but when you watching this on a big, big monitor, it is nice to have some continuity with the newer-filmed widescreen materials. Still...that does blow up the grain a bit on the original materials....

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio mix is quite healthy, with no hiss and a hefty bass line. English subtitles are included.

The Extras:
Text bios for some of the escapees are included on each disc, along with a 16-page color booklet that gives a brief overview/timeline of the WWII, for context.

Final Thoughts:
No new ground broken here, but tech credits are top shelf, the material is put over with some snap, a few lesser-known events are highlighted, and best of all, the men who actually took part in these astounding military campaigns get to tell us their story in their own words―and well-spoken they are. I'm highly recommending Narrow Escapes of World War II.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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