Before yours truly began writing about DVD I wrote on the subject of computer games. But long before even that I considered myself a wargamer, someone who loved analyzing the intricacies of battles and rewriting history, albeit only on a gameboard or my computer screen. In a variety of games I studied both the historical facts behind a war or battle but also how things might have gone differently. I can't count how many times in games I've been able to win playing as the Nazis in WWII or the South in the Civil War. Hindsight of course is 20/20 but historians and gamers alike have always pursued the "What if?" scenario. Great Blunders of WWII is a two-disc set from A&E and The History Channel that explores mistakes that greatly changed the course of the war. It makes for a fascinating historical study.
This set is jam-packed with authentic footage that accurately illustrates the narration of the various errors in judgment, blunders, and boneheaded mistakes made by military and political leaders on all sides. The losing side made most of the mistakes, of course. The world is certainly lucky that Hitler wasn't given the military genius to match his ability to move and influence people. One of his earlier mistakes in the war was to entrust the Luftwaffe to a bumbling and drug-besotted flunky such as Hermann Goering. The first blunder covered in the set was Hitler listening to Goering when he said he could take out the retreating British at Dunkirk by air power alone. Even today the doctrine stands that air power alone cannot beat an army; as even with our modern weaponry recent disclosures from the Kosovo campaign shows we were not very effective at hitting mobile targets. Of course the level of technology in WW II was far less and the Luftwaffe was not able to prevent over 200,000 trapped British troops from escaping back to England by sea. This chapter makes the point that had Hitler used conventional forces, which were on hand and available, to wipe out the British pocket, England would have suffered a stunning blow as early as 1940 and just might have sued for peace, securing the Nazi's western flank and greatly changing the war.
The next chapter moves on to how Hitler solved a problem for Roosevelt early on. It is important to realize that up until Pearl Harbor, and even after, public sentiment did not support our getting personally involved in the European war. Roosevelt's hands were tied and he was only able to send equipment and material aid rather than troops. All this changed when Hitler allowed himself to be swindled by his Japanese allies. Hitler wanted Japan to attack the Soviet Union, which would have probably been enough to crush them between both countries attacks. Japan had no intention of attacking Russia; preferring to consolidate their chain of islands and keep fighting China instead. Still, Japan intimated to Hitler that if he would declare war on the US then they would declare against the Soviets. Hitler fell for it and his declaration against the US untied Roosevelt's hands; allowing a much greater presence in Europe and ultimately Germany's downfall.
The next on our cavalcade of errors was one more of pure accident yet greatly changed the way the war was fought. There was an unspoken agreement early on that cities would not be bombed; only military targets. But navigation by night was very prone to error in those pre satellite days; and one German bomber accidentally bombed London while en route to a military target. 9 civilians died. This took the gloves off and led to bombing of German cities by the British, and reciprocation by the Germans in the form of The Blitz; a months long bombardment of London. Ultimately this resulted in such atrocities as the firebombing of Dresden and the utter destruction of much of German population centers and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths—much of which might have been spared but for one errant bomber.
Finally disc one concludes its main content with more errors thanks to the meddling in military policy by Nazi brass and the lack of insight of the Luftwaffe leader Goering. There was a time when German aircraft and engineering were the best anywhere, but improvements did not come in time or the wrong types of aircraft were developed due to a lack of technical insight from those with the influence to make the ultimate decisions. The lack of a heavy long-range bomber greatly hurt the Luftwaffe's ability to do the missions needed. Tactical mistakes were often made by Hitler who would overrule the generals who actually knew what they were doing with such decisions as to not first knock out radar installations before going after airfields. The idea when attacking an airfield is to catch its aircraft on the ground; but the radar gave enough early warning so they had to engage them in the air. Even so it is considered that the British had a fair amount of luck in defeating the then superior Luftwaffe. Proper prioritizing of targets and methodology might well have led to an early successful land invasion of England.
I mentioned the discs' main content. It is again ironic that the "bonus features" on each disc contain the exact same programming as the main body. In this case, each disc has two bonus chapters of more blunders. The first disc has the Battle of the Bulge and A Bridge Too Far. The Battle of the Bulge was a last ditch effort for the Germans to counterattack and drive back the advancing western allies, and A Bridge Too Far was about the disastrous allied paratroop mission to capture bridges ahead of the advancing army. A movie was made by the same title on the paratroop mission that resulted in many dead and the rest captured. Certainly both suffered from overly ambitious goals that looked good on paper but could not succeed when implemented on the ground. I've always believed the Battle of the Bulge did not constitute much of a mistake; the war was lost by then in any case. It was obvious to most besides Hitler that the only recourse by late 1944 was to surrender.
Disc Two begins with the Japanese side of the war and their errors. The Battle of Midway proved disastrous for the Japanese and led to the rest of the war being fought in a defensive manner. Here was another case where brass put their fingers into a perfectly good plan and mucked it up. Even though the Americans had broken the codes and knew about the attack, the original plan by the Japanese would have called for several more carriers in the task force, and it is doubtful the US could have won the battle even with foreknowledge. A successful destruction of the US carriers at Midway, even at heavy losses would have allowed the Japanese to put the US on the defensive rather than the opposite. It should be said that even with the dilution of the Japanese forces it was still a very chancy thing that the Americans prevailed so successfully.
The next mistake concerns the Japanese decision to use suicide troops, or kamikazes, in the later stages of the war. Actually even early on the Bushido code that Japanese warriors followed led to many suicidal attacks and often meant fighting to the last man, since surrender was a great dishonor. At any rate, more and more kamikaze pilots were used late in the war to try to fly their bomb-laden planes directly into American ships. This proved disastrous to the Japanese; firstly because they lost far more planes and pilots than the damage they could inflict, but more importantly they showed Truman the resolve of the Japanese and helped make the decision to drop the atomic bomb for him.
We move on to one of the biggest debacles of Nazi Germany; the loss at Stalingrad. Hitler forgot his own historical lessons and didn't count on the two greatest soldiers of Russia; namely January and February. Starting his attack in the summer rather than spring meant his troops got bogged down in the winter before being able to accomplish their goals, and then more poor decisions were made such as again listening to Goering when he said he could keep the eastern army supplied by air when he did not have the capability of doing so. The results were the loss of hundreds of thousands of German troops and their equipment; and they never recovered.
Next we come to Operation Sea Lion, or the planned invasion of England. Had proper attention to the ships and planes needed to make this work gone forward early, a successful invasion might have taken place early in the war before Britain had the ability to thwart it.
Finally the two bonus chapters of this disc are the failed plot to kill Hitler and an allied mistake where they left a convoy hanging out to dry for disastrous losses.
Each of these chapters is about 20 minutes long, and is fairly typical History Channel fare. The level of discourse is meant for the person not intimately familiar with the history and hammers its point of just what the blunder and its consequences were. Over six hours of footage accompanies the stories, much of it not often seen. The quality of the picture varies from pretty good to very bad, but you have to keep in mind this is real footage from the battles shot with film cameras at the scene. Occasionally the picture moves to maps and graphical descriptions of the battle and the picture is sharp and clear. Overall everything is clearly visible. Sound is always clear and consists mainly of the narration, though you do hear the sounds of war in the footage as well. The sound from the footage is strained and has little to no depth as you might expect.
Being a history buff, I was greatly interested in this set and enjoyed it very much. The whole set is very professionally done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I could complain more here about what isn't here or the choices made than about the content itself. This is because it can easily be argued that far greater mistakes than these were not covered. An easy example was Hitler's decision to fight a two front war in the first place. He had a non-aggression pact with the Soviets and he could have not fought on that front until England was taken care of either by invasion or treaty. Or he could have gone after the Soviets instead of Western Europe and frankly the anti-Communist feelings of the West would have meant they wouldn't have lifted a finger to stop him. There were many variations here that could have led to a Nazi-controlled Russia or Europe. I've played many of them out in simulations and believe very different results would have happened. One thing I will say though is under none of these scenarios does the US get invaded by either Germany or Japan successfully. The key to victory here was in not getting them into the fight at all and taking advantage of the isolationist sentiment of the American people. For the Pacific theater, the biggest mistake was when the US disregarded warnings that could have prevented the destruction of the fleet at Pearl Harbor in the first place. Compared to these colossal blunders those given on these discs are minor and after the fact.
I have one big gripe with the packaging, which claims it is subtitled for the hearing impaired when in fact there are no subtitles at all. I've tried to be a voice for the hearing impaired community in calling for closed captioning on all discs, but to lie on your packaging and claim it is there when it isn't is cruel. Sometime the studios need to be held accountable for false information on their packaging.
History buffs will definitely be interested in this set. The level of detail is such that even younger viewers could learn something but there is room enough for those educated in the history to still get something from it. At retail price of over $44 it isn't cheap, but I found it for around $30 online, making a purchase more palatable.
I should say that nothing I said above should make the reader think I wished for any different outcome in the war. The good guys won and I'm glad of it. Still it is said that if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it and that is why we try to look into the mistakes and how things could come out differently. I also should mention that the Holocaust was the worst thing that happened in the war, and certainly could be called a great blunder. I wonder how Germany might have fared if they had used the minds and skills of the Jewish people in their war effort rather than trying to exterminate them.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Bonus Chapters
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