D-Day: The Unheard Tapes - Unmissable television brings to life the voices of D-Day soldiers in a stunning BBC success - TV Review

Watch it for instruction on both the past and possibly the future

Harry Parley (Ethan McHale) on the Normandy beaches
Harry Parley (Ethan McHale) on the Normandy beaches

From even the relatively short distance of 80 years, the significance of the Second World War is easily forgotten.

Some younger generations may know nothing of it as they busy themselves with more prosaic problems.

Sixty million people died in a conflict across six continents that ended with Japan as the only nation to have suffered a nuclear attack.

Everything we take for granted is predicated on the Allies winning the war.

And young men, like the soldiers of the British, American and Canadian armies on D-Day, had to go out and win it, with many giving up their lives for the victory.

In his mesmeric single volume history of the war, Anthony Beevor tells the remarkable story of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean soldier.

In 1939, at 18, he was conscripted into the Japanese army in Manchuria. After he was captured by the Russians he was drafted into the Red Army in 1942.

At the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine (once again a battlefield), Yang was taken prisoner by the Germans and press-ganged into a Nazi uniform.

In 1944 he was sent to the Atlantic Wall defences and based inland from Utah beach where he would face the US army as the Allies attempted to force their way back into France for the first time since the British fled from the beaches of Dunkirk four years earlier.

Yang survived it all and after time in a prison camp in Britain, settled in the US where he died in 1992.

His story reflects both the global nature of the conflict but also, as Beevor notes, the helplessness of ordinary people in the face of unstoppable forces.

D Day soldier James Kelly (Mitch Morgan)
D-Day soldier James Kelly (Mitch Morgan)

D-Day: The Unheard Tapes brings us closer to the humanity of these young soldiers than ever before.

Broadcast across three nights, we heard the voices of the D-Day soldiers, brought together from archive recordings around the globe.

Actors, selected for their resemblance to the real people and dressed in the clothes of the time, lip-sync to the recordings.

There’s British soldiers like James Kelly, a Liverpudlian of such clear Irish background that you can hear it in his mixed accent.

He came from a family of sail-makers in the great port city and joined the Royal Marines at 17 at the start of the war.

Tony Porcella was from New York City and joined up because “something had to be done”.

Major John Howard was a NCO from a poor background in central London who ran the best unit in his division.

He was proud to lead his men, flown in by glider, on the important mission to secure Pegasus bridge for the surging British forces coming from Sword Beach.

Taking the bridge was “the most exhilarating moment of my life” he says, before he found out that his best friend, whose wife gave birth to their first child two weeks later, had been killed in the opening seconds of the fight.

Mr John Howard (Daniel Tuitte)
Mr John Howard (Daniel Tuitte)

It’s not just the Allies we hear from. There’s the young Germans in beach top bunkers, French resistance fighters and civilians caught in the middle.

What’s incredible is that knowing they were facing a perhaps 50:50 chance of surviving, most of the men were excited rather than afraid, or just possessed of a ridiculous positively about their own wellbeing.

Wally Parr, who was part of Howard’s 6th Airborne, explained how you kept going among the blood, death and destruction: “The fellas were so keen but at the same time so ignorant of true warfare. It’s one of the things that keeps a man going in battle. He can always imagine his mate being killed... but despite seeing men die left,right and centre, they always seem to get this idea that it’s never going to be them.”

Unfortunately, we may one day need these qualities of creative ignorance once more as another 80 years without a major world conflict seems unlikely.

Watch The Unheard Tapes for instruction on both the past and possibly the future.