I could be losing my mind. Or it could be a curious echo of the love and admiration I had for my uncles, who all fought in World War II.
One jumped at D-Day and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. One was a pilot with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma. They came home, limping and wounded, with bureau drawers crammed with medals. The medals meant nothing to this jaunty group because everyone they knew had the same decorations.
They gave us their medals to pin on our hats.
Now, I sit before my television watching a disturbing amount of coverage of World War II, especially the brilliant “Battlefield.” I can’t stop. Last week I spent six hours nonstop watching the siege of Stalingrad — and loved every minute.
My television routine now consists of a quick visit to ESPN to watch another Yankee loss, then off to the Military Channel to watch another World War II battle. Blue Eyes secretly thinks I have lost my mind.
We are certainly the whining generation, bemoaning the failure of the Starbucks economy, the Bush recession-depression, the failure of Detroit automakers, for God’s sake. The invasion of Iraq continues, year after year with no end in sight.
Certainly there are problems, but compared to the dark days of World War II, these are the good old days. We fought titanic wars against Germany and Japan at the same time — and beat them both. We didn’t do it alone of course. Russia suffered an (estimated) 10.4 million military deaths and another 11.4 million (estimated) civilian deaths. That’s 20 million dead for one country within a few short years.
By contrast the U.S. suffered 416,800 military and 1,700 civilian dead.
It’s hard to imagine, but the prolonged horror of that war has faded over time.
The BBC show “Battlefield,” narrated by Tim Pigott-Smith, brings it all back like a punch in the mouth. The show breaks down each engagement by comparing and contrasting leaders, strategy, commanders and weapons before analyzing the actual battle, action by action, sometimes day by day.
It was the Stalingrad episode that first caught my attention. Naturally, I knew that the battle was ferocious and became the turning point of the war. I guess I had forgotten how ferocious it was. It was, in fact, one of the bloodiest battles in modern history, with casualties of more than 2 million. It was one of the first major defeats of the German army in the war.
The battle started on sunny June 22, 1942, and ended in the frozen Russian steppes on Feb. 2, 1943. The capture of Stalingrad would have severed vital transportation lines and been an ideological and propaganda coup, since the city bore the name of the Russian leader, Joseph Stalin.
The German air force quickly leveled the city and the rubble became the battleground for months as each destroyed building became an individual war. One German victory came over Soviet women who were operating an anti-aircraft battery. The German soldiers were aghast that the women fought so well.
During the battle, the life expectancy of a Russian soldier was less than 24 hours. It was only a little better to be an officer, with the life expectancy of three days.
The Soviet 13th Guards Rifle Division of 10,000 was ordered to retake the railroad station. More than 30 percent of the division were killed in the first 24 hours, and only 320 men survived the entire battle.
Imagine that report on the 6 o’clock news.
The combination of the Russian winter, massive Soviet counterattacks, frostbite, malnutrition and disease finally sapped the strength of the frozen German army, after it had taken 90 percent of Stalingrad.
By contrast I thought the fall of Berlin was a cakewalk, a mere mop-up action with the Russians overrunning the Germans within a few days. The “Battlefield” show on that battle provided some startling information.
That bloody battle raged from March 20 to May 2, 1945, and ended with the suicide (one hopes) of German leader Adolph Hitler. To celebrate Hitler’s birthday on April 20, Soviet forces started an intense bombardment that did not stop until the final surrender. The weight of the ordnance exceeded that of all bombs dropped on Berlin by Allied planes.
Despite the heavy odds against them, the Germans fought bitterly, knowing that capture by the Soviets meant certain death.
In a brutal attempt at a breakout from the encircled city, the Hitler youth divisions on April 28 suffered 30,000 dead. “Battlefield” reported that an estimated 20,000 Soviet troops died stopping the breakout. It has been estimated that 10,000 civilians were killed within a few days in the intense crossfire.
Imagine hearing that over your morning Corn Flakes on the “Today” show.
In the climactic battle, German losses were estimated at 458,000 and Soviet deaths were estimated at 81,000.
I had no idea, until “Battlefield.”
I have no idea why I find World War II so compelling all of a sudden. But I cannot wait for the episodes on D-Day, Midway and Iwo Jima. And I appreciate my heroic uncles even more.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at firstname.lastname@example.org.