Researching & Writing the Crete Episode for Paratrooper
(Above - two German Fallshirmjaeger on Crete during the battle)
For those of you who keep up with my social media and creative endeavours you will know I have been working hard writing the scripts for a true story drama series set during World War 2 called Paratrooper. Not just the script for the feature film / pilot episode, but for the entire series. I have several goals with this show (Apart from the obvious one of getting commissioned by a major broadcaster and finally getting paid for my work) and one of those was to write all of the scripts for the first season so that I am way ahead of the game if and when the show is picked up. No doubt they will go through many re-writes but it is important to have a strong foundation and clear direction from the outset. Although each episode of Paratrooper does link to another its a very different show from something like Band of Brothers and also each episode works as a single story which can be viewed and enjoyed alone, or as part of the series. Each episode covers a story from a perspective that hasn't been told in the dramatic narrative before and each will have portrayals of people who were actually there. (Me in Crete by the dry riverbed near Malame airfield. A number of German gliders actually landed in this riverbed. This bridge was one of the few objectives they captured on the first day)
Another of the reasons for writing all twelve episodes ahead of time is that despite my interest and knowledge of this period I knew a far greater level of research would be required on my account to ensure the stories I was telling would have the highest level of accuracy as possible. While it is completely impossible to include everything that happened even in some of the smallest actions of the war it is vital to be fully versed in all the key ingredients that form part of any story. Who was where and who did what and when, even if you cannot always include everything its important to capture the right truth of any moment you're depicting on screen. (Our actors and background inbetween takes during filming of the feature film, the process of which is ongoing and which we're still actively chasing funding for)
WRITING A STORY FROM THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE
One episode that would be very challenging in this regard was Episode 7 - The Other Side. What makes this episode truly unique is that, as the title suggests, it is told from the perspective of the enemy, that of a young German Paratrooper during the fiercely contested battle of the island of Crete. I knew about the battle of Crete in broad terms but in order to tell a more personal story I would need to drill down into the detail of the individual actions that took place back in that fateful month of May in 1941. The invasion of Crete was the largest use of German Airborne forces during World War 2 and it was also very nearly their greatest defeat and was considered a Pyrrhic victory at best. Flush with confidence from their victories elsewhere in Europe the German High Command greatly underestimated the strength on this largest of Mediterranean islands and based on the recent successful campaign on mainland Greece did not expect the islands population to actively resist their invasion. The Cretans however, fought as fiercely as the Allied soldiers who were stationed on the island. Tales of Cretan women attacking Germans with meat cleavers, farmers charging them with pitch forks and elders hutning them with shot guns can be found in numerous accounts of the battle. This mistake was to cost the Germans dearly and although ultimately they won the battle, it was more down to luck and bad decisions by the Allied Command than through strategy. They sustained an extremely high rate of casualties which resulted in Hitler forbidding a large scale deployment of Airborne forces again for the rest of the war. (A German Junkers JU52 transport aircraft falls to its doom near Heraklion during the battle for Crete)
It is an episode which on my part required a great deal of research but fortunately I had already been to Crete and walked the battlefields a few years ago (there's thinking ahead for ya!) so I already had a good idea of the terrain and climate that the events took place in and visited the sites of battle, museums and cemeteries on the island. (This was also useful from a Producers perspective in terms of knowing what could be filmed there and what couldn't!) I had prior to working on Paratrooper read a couple of accounts of the battle of Crete one of which was written by George Forty which had given me a good overview of the battle and its time line as well as including extracts from a number of personal accounts. Accounts given by those who were actually there, will often be the best source for anyone under taking a screenplay that is based on real events. Before starting work on this episode I knew a few things that I wanted it to contain so I set myself a series of objectives and rules for writing the episode which were as follows:
1) The main perspective is from a young German soldier. During the episode he will get captured which will allow us to introduce several Allied characters including that of Australian aboriginal soldier, Reg Saunders.
2) The episode would also feature characters from New Zealand
3) The episode would cover the German execution of several male Greek civilians in an olive grove just outside the village of Kondomari. A controversial event which was filmed by the German camera unit.
4) The main German character would have to be fictional, thus enabling me to place him at which ever key events I wanted him to be at, however everything he would see and experience would be all events that actually occurred.
5) There would be a heavy emphasis on the actions of the Greek civilians during the battle and both male and female Greek characters.
6) The dialogue of the main character would be minimal, with the focus being very much what he see's during the story and how his own participation in events influences there eventual outcome (Or doesn't in some cases)
7) After much deliberation the events of the story would focus in and around Chania and Suda Bay and would include the battle of 42nd Street in the episode. To a lesser degree Malame airfield
8) The episode might open with the capture of Eben-Emael fortress in Holland to contrast a previous operation the main character had been involved with, however if this were to be included, it would be written last, as the focus of the episode should be Crete and the running time of the episode might prohibit this. (Be nice though!)
So this list of itself was already forming a frame work for the content of the episode, so with this as my sign posts I began my research. (One of the best books of the battle is this latest offering written by Cretan Yannis Prekatsounakis - although ultimately my story would not cover events from this area of the battle it still gave invaluable insight into the actions of both the Cretans and Germans on the day and was rich in detail with personal accounts)
How did I reach this list of objectives?
Well number one was easy, the perspective was going to be German and I wanted this German character to meet some other unique characters and the actions of Australian soldier Reg Saunders was fascinating to me and someone I came across as part of my research. I know Saunders personally took part during the battle of 42nd street where a number of German Paratroopers were killed and captured, so I thought a scene between my German character and Saunders after this battle would be interesting. So already I knew two scenes in the script - a depiction of the battle and its aftermath where our German would be a prisoner. He would of course be freed again later, so now I knew that would be another scene. New Zealanders also took part in several battles in and around this area, so that would work for objective 2. You can see with number 4, I have stated the German character would be fictional. Although with Paratrooper I was extremely reluctant to create any fictional characters as there were plenty of true stories to go round, for this episode I felt it was the best approach. German accounts of the battle of Crete are fairly few in number and even less so from the youngest soldiers who took part, plus with information being so vague on the entire actions of any one individual it was a safer decision to make the character fictional but base all the events in which he becomes a part of on things that actually occurred. This means although the German character is fictional, the actions of his character and all he bares witness to come entirely from a place of truth, thus ensuring the narrative is an honest depiction of what took place during the battle. This is also my reasoning behind number 6, keeping his dialogue to the minimum. It is best the story is told through his eyes and not his words. However to some degree this is at odds with how we arrive at his story. In a previous episode his diary is recovered during the battle of Sicily and it is through his diary being translated by a British soldier that we come to learn of his account of the invasion of Crete. So the words from his diary would naturally form a voice over narrative, but never the less I decided to use these sparingly and primarily to introduce or book end scenes or enable a time jump in the narrative to occur. Number 5 on the above list for me was a no-brainer from the beginning. If I was writing a separate feature film script about the battle of Crete, I would almost certainly make my leading character a Cretan Civilian. Their participation in the battle is well documented and so I was determined to show it from the get go, so Cretan supporting characters had to be included in the story. This is also led to me including number 3, the reprisals from the Germans against the Greek civilian population. I didn't want to risk the entire portrayal of the German character here to be too sympathetic and I also wanted to show how someone in his position would come to take part in such a terrible crime against humanity. I felt very strongly this event must be depicted and I knew it would be the final scene in the episode and the last entry in his diary where I could show the first tilt towards personal doubt on his moral compass. With these sign posts firmly in place before I had even written a single word of dialogue of the episode I had plenty of research to be getting on with and this research would determine which other supporting characters and actions would be depicted in this episode.
(Image below is Sgt Reg Saunders from the Australian 2/7th Battalion)
I knew when it came to write episode 7, rather than write it in chronological order I was going to start with the battle of 42nd street and the meeting between my German character (Private Frederick Weber) and Reg Saunders, a person who was actually there. It is a golden rule for me, and a good one for other writers that you should always write the scene or chapter first that you see most clearly in your head. People so often get stuck at the beginning and draw a blank. Although I rarely get writers block and can normally write in sequence, even if other elements of a script are very clear to me, if there is something that stands out that I know is going in my story, I attack that first and get it on the page as soon as possible. So I immediately began researching that action and various accounts given by both sides and also find out as much as I could about Reg Saunders, even though his appearance in the episode would be limited to a couple of scenes. I recently spoke to Reg's daughter and he sounded very similar to Sidney Cornell in terms of his persona. The battle of 42nd street, as it became known, was interesting for a number of different reasons. It took place 7 days into the battle, when the Allies were already in full retreat and consisted of a bayonet charge along the Allied line at close quarters with the approaching German Alpine troops, who were mixed in with still scattered units of German Paratroops. One account tells of Maoris soldiers doing their Harka war dance before fixing bayonets and charging at the Germans and so the basis for the capture of my German character would be drawn from this event. This event taking place on the 27th of May determined for me that this would take place in the third act of the episode and ultimately would be the final action sequence. So I decided to write the third act first and go all the way to the end of the episode before going back and writing the rest of the story. As I researched the events and actions I could tell that one of my earlier ideas of opening the episode depicting the capture of the Belgium fortress of Eban-Emael by the Germans in 1940 would probably have to be dropped. There simply wouldn't be enough screen time to do it justice, unless the episode was broken into two parts, but at this stage I felt I had to keep it to just one. If a commissioner at some later stage said 'Hey, we should make that episode a two-parter!' - then happy days, it would be what's known in the industry as a champagne problem! I also extensively researched the Allied units that would be involved in the scenes I was depicting. I deliberately avoided the actions conducted by the British, simply because I wanted to explore the contribution made by the other forces of the Commonwealth during the battle as the British are getting more than their fair share of other episodes. (Image below shows German Paratroopers rounding up male villagers after the battle. Many of them were executed, including the man in this picture)
One of the New Zealand units which would feature heavily in the story was the 21st Battalion and the internet had a number of useful websites with detailed accounts of their actions throughout the battle, which again, was extremely helpful. This meant I was at last able to write a character for an actor from New Zealand that I had wanted to work with for a long time. As we're attaching cast to this project ahead of time to give it a greater chance of being commissioned, I knew it would also be worth sending the script to this Kiwi actor once finished, to see if I could secure his interest. The actor concerned may well have written this book, or this picture may have just been posted here entirely by accident!
The Crete episode proved the greatest challenge to write so far and it also took longer than any other before it. Unlike some episodes which I wrote in under a week, I had to spend several weeks researching this one and then the script itself was written on a start-stop basis. Do a bit, research and then do a bit more. Even as I type its not entirely finished yet and it hasn't helped that I have been rather seriously ill during the process. I was used to being able to bomb along but instead had to contend with just a single page or two a day as opposed to what I can be capable of when I am at my best.. I am on page 42 of what will be around 55 pages at the moment but as I have written this article it reminded me of the scenes missing and a cracker of an idea which will round out the episode so pretty soon I should be able to knock it out the park! Now all we need to do is get the series commissioned and find £200,000 from somewhere to complete our opening film of course! Fun times.