There’s a cliché about parachutists that it takes an insane person to jump out of a perfectly functional airplane. But after watching The Forgotten Battle a Dutch World War II film released last weekend on U.S. Netflix I changed my mind: it really takes an insane person to take off in a glider with the intention of crash landing in it.
Early in movie, a cocky English pilot steers an engineless Horsa transport glider as its towed across the English Channel by a hulking four-engine Stirling bomber. They are part of a huge aerial armada seeking to deposit airborne forces behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Holland as part of a larger operation called Operation Market Garden.
Lacking transport helicopters, World War II armies instead used gliders towed by transport planes available to insert supplies, heavy weapons (jeeps, howitzers and even specially designed light tanks) and non parachute-trained soldiers behind enemy lines.
But the gliders and their towing aircraft were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. And glider pilots sometimes couldn’t reach clear landing zones, and had to risk life in limb smashing down in rough terrain. In real life, journalist Walter Cronkite was also on a U.S.-built CG-4 glider during the Market Garden airborne landing. He later described the experience as “a life-long cure for constipation.”
That sensation is definitely conveyed in the The Forgotten Battle as things don’t go according to plan in nightmarish fashion. While over the Scheldt Estuary a German shell burst close to the glider, shredding its all-wooden wings, fuselage and canopy, and lacerating the men inside it.
The ensuing crash landing is just one of several extraordinary sequences in The Forgotten Battle, which balances intense spectacle with wrenching emotional drama, all the while conveying the unique dimensions of a campaign seldom mentioned in U.S. narratives of World War II.
Besides the glider landing, a sequence towards the end of the film depicts an assault across a flooded causeway as brutal and intense as the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The visual impact is impressive given the film’s €14 million budget—it’s the Netherland’s second-most expensive film ever, but a small budget by Hollywood action film standards.
But more ephemerally, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has his sights firmly set on the issue of moral choice in war. He avoids glorifying or sentimentalizing the struggle, while never leaving one in doubt the Nazis needed to be fought.
When the film begins in September 1944, the Germanare reeling in retreat and Dutch civilians expect the Allies to roll into town any day now. But the Wehrmacht realizes the Netherland’s dikes and rivers are strategically critical and highly defensible, so they dig in.
This leads up to the Battle of the Scheldt, a two-month struggle to kick the Nazis off Dutch islands adjacent to the newly liberated Belgium port of Antwerp. If the Nazis and their artillery aren’t removed from Walcheren and the Beveland islands, Allied ships can’t deliver badly needed supplies and troops through one of Europe’s largest ports.
As the costly battle progressed, in early October Allied bombers even busted Walcheren’s dikes, turning the island’s low-lying interior into a floodscape and devastating the local population for arguably little tactical benefit.
All of the film’s notable characters—including Zeelander civilians drawn into the Dutch Resistance, a British glider pilot, and a shell-shocked Dutch Nazi serving in the Wehrmacht—choose at various points to risk their lives to do the right thing, some brashly, others with deep reluctance.
But those acts of courage aren’t rewarded. Whenever there’s a possibility of a terrible consequence, it usually happens. And when we expect a proverbial white knight to intervene and save the day per cinematic convention, one doesn’t—at least not until the film’s final act. (For a more extensive plot synopsis you may read this review on Forbes by Sheena Scott.)
It’s an honest way of remembering the awfulness of the war and how thankless so many acts of courage and sacrifice made to win it truly were.
The film also recognizes that alongside the resistance, a significant fraction of Dutch citizenry collaborated with the Nazis, some enthusiastically, others reluctantly. The Dutch Nazi soldier character may inspire mixed feelings as he dimly begins to realize his instrumental role in violence against his own people.
Historical accuracy? (Here be spoilers!)
Unlike The Liberator released by Netflix in 2020, The Forgotten Battle gets most details right regarding historical equipment and tactics. Besides the gliders, it realistically depicts hefty British Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles (and how they’re far from ideals in close quarters combat), Bren and MG.42 machineguns, PIAT and Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets and 88-millimeter Flak guns.
That said, while it’s an excellent war film, viewers should keep in mind it concerns fictional characters and doesn’t attempt to cover the full scope of the Walcheren battle. The plot also plays a bit fast and loose with chronology: the glider crashes into the flooded-out island during Operation Market Garden in mid-September 1944 but British bombers didn’t destroy the Walcheren dikes until October 3 through 10.
Which is fine of course—even historical narratives benefit from some character flexibility and topical focus.
Here, the cinematic focus is on the assault on the Sloedam causeway undertaken between October 31 and November 3, 1944 by the5th Brigade of the 2nd Canadian Division, particularly three of its sub-units: the Black Watch, the Calgary Highlanders and the Montreal-based Regiment de Maisonneuve.
As shown in the film, the Canadians were thrown into the meatgrinder attempting to seize the just 40-meter-wide, roughly mile-long railway causeway connecting South Beveland island to Walcheren. The Canucks actually managed to seize the German side of the causeway twice, only two be driven back by counterattacks. As shown in the film, the Wehrmacht blasted a huge crater into the causeway to prevent tanks from crossing, and had artillery situated to shoot straight down its length, though Allied artillery and air support was more extensive than shown in the film.
However, the film doesn’t note the other two prongs of the Allied assault on Walcharen: dramatic D-Day-style amphibious landings at Flushing and Westkapelle involving British and Dutch commandoes, Royal Marines, and ‘funny tanks’ like mine-flail equipped Sherman Crab. These were more decisive than the battle at the causeway.
Also, while it is true that a stealthy nighttime boat landing and flanking attack by Scottish Cameronian rifles ultimately helped break the German defenses at the causeway on November 3, it wasn’t a result of intelligence from the Dutch resistance.
While the film’s specific account of resistance activities is fictional, there’s no doubt that the Dutch Resistance passed on extensive intelligence to the Allies and helped save an estimated 300,000 from execution by the Nazis. They paid a very dear price for their activities, with 2,000 killed by German forces.
The film closes by noting that a large chunk of the Netherlands remained occupied by Nazi Germany until its surrender in May 1945. In between, during the winter of 1944-1945 the Nazis cut off food shipments to Dutch civilians, causing an estimated 18,000 to 22,000 to die from starvation despite Allied efforts to airdrop food as part of Operation Chowhound.
That’s just a small example of why the stomach churning sacrifices by soldiers and resistance members depicted in the film were essential to stopping the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated on an even vaster scale.