'They had lots of time to shoot at us. I remember it like it was yesterday."
The voice is that of a Canadian veteran. He's remembering June 6, 1944. It was Juno Beach, Normandy, and the Canadian troops were just hitting the ground. "It was kind of a dummy prize," another veteran says, ruefully. "You won the first day and you only had another two years to go."
Those voices are heard in the brilliant series War Story (starts Saturday, History, 8 p.m.). The programs (made by Barry Stevens and David York) are mostly just 30 minutes long and there are several airing between Saturday and Remembrance Day. The brilliance is the narrative heft – the programs are actual stories told only through the personal reminiscences of witnesses of the events of war. No narrator, no pundit, no professor turning up to hem and haw. It's intimate, undiluted.
D-Day + One (Sunday, 8 p.m.), about the Canadian involvement in the Normandy landing, is astonishing. The voices of the veterans, many from the Regina Rifles regiment and the 1st Hussars, are calm, rueful, occasionally overcome with emotion. One man says, "When I see war movies, I can't stand it. I just turn it off." Another says, "I don't care how many movies you make, you're not going to come near to describing war."
There was chaos and carnage on that day in June. And yet one man says with utter calm and grave understatement, "Once we hit the beach that's when we had lots of trouble. It's quite a tricky business trying to get around that type of fire." He actually calls it, facing the German firepower, "a tricky business." They took no prisoners, our soldiers. That was not their job: "Our job was to clean out anything that was on the beach and just move on."
The footage, from newsreels, is bluntly arresting. The raw sense of blood and death and scores of bodies scattered on the sand and in the fields emerges easily from the black-and-white film. A voiceover on the newsreel says of the invasion, "The foothold is small and the Hun is strong and ferocious."
Of the new War Story programs this year, the outstanding gem is Liberation: The Battle for the Netherlands (Tuesday, 8 p.m.). It's an hour-long special episode and it's very powerful. It's about the long, brutal slog to dislodge the Germans from the Netherlands and, heavens, it is visceral – the stories are of exhausted soldiers going onward and onward, seeing death everywhere and finally liberating a nation. A veteran says at the start, "I wear my medals, not for myself but for them that couldn't wear their medals, never seen their medals." There were many of those.
An officer recalls the first casualty he had to deal with, a 21-year-old from Saskatchewan. Even today he tears up at the memory of the young man who made a small, fatal error and died instantly. The place they fought to liberate had been devastated. The Dutch who were not collaborators were starving. Another veteran talks too about seeing children starving to death on the streets, the horror of it. He talks about Canadian soldiers breaking the rules by giving away their rations to the starving. "The Germans, when they realized they couldn't win, made it a killing field," a man says. And a veteran from the Lake Superior Regiment says, "How do describe one battle from another? You can't. Wicked. Terrible." The stories pile up and lead toward the climax of victory. Veteran Val Rimer, who is Jewish, describes shouting at the captured Germans, "I'm a 'Juden' and you, you are lucky to be alive." He says, "I wanted them to know there was a Jewish person there to help end that war."
And then there is, described and seen in photos, the delirium of the liberated people, that stunning, shocking joy on the streets. "It's something that is etched in your brain forever," a smiling veteran says, preferring to dwell on the victory, rather than the horrific effort to achieve it. Woven into the narrative is the story of Betty Laron, a little Dutch Jewish girl, who, like Anne Frank, was hidden along with her family by a family of Dutch Gentiles. She lives in Burlington, Ont. now.
Laron is elderly now but utterly clear-eyed in her description of her family's survival story. There is no more vivid, more compelling story told on TV this coming week when we pause to remember, as we must.