“If we cannot pass over the mountain, let us go under it.” –Gimli, The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring
Yoshika reawakens to learn that her magic will take around ten days to be replenished. She accompanies Minna to a meeting where Patton and Bradley attempt to persuade the other members of command to push things back ten days, but is meet with vehement resistance. Meanwhile, Shizuka is devastated that Yoshika’s unable to fight, and when she learns that a custom Shinden unit will have to be returned to storage as a result, she is told that the plan was classified. Unable to express how she feels about Yoshika, Shizuka dissolves in tears. Before the new operation begins, Minna explains that the plan to take back Berlin has changed in light of the Neuroi’s new deployment pattern: the military have procured a Ratte, and intend to use it to smash the walls that the Wolf hive has erected around Berlin. The Witches are to provide air cover and support for the Ratte. On the day of the operation, Yoshika makes a special request, and the 501st sortie. While the 501st keep the Neuroi drones busy in the skies above, the Ratte proves its worth during combat: besides shrugging off Neuroi beams, it is able to outright shatter the Neuroi walls, forcing the hive to continue moving them. Yoshika had been given permission to board the Ratte and act as a field medic, looking after injured soldiers. Soon, the Ratte has eliminated the Neuroi walls, and Patton orders the Ratte to fire on the core. However, when it appears that the battle is won, the hive constructs a giant dome encasing the area, blocking the 501st’s access to and communications with the Ratte. Shizuka realises that she’d heard Yoshika calling out to her. The 501st realise that inside the dome, the Ratte and Yoshika don’t stand a chance, but Patton decides to make use of a heavily fortified flak tower and its telegram as a site to regroup. He informs the others they’re alright, and while Gertrude suggests using the Berlin tunnels to reach the others, Mio orders her aircraft, carrying Yoshika’s Shinden, to head for Berlin. Just like that, we’ve now hit the penultimate episode for Road to Berlin, a thrilling setup for the final fight against the Berlin hive. In this week’s episode, the highlights in combat were dominated by the Ratte, a tank of German design that in reality, never made it past the conceptual stage: the Ratte was intended to carry a pair of 28 cm SK C/34 naval guns and act as a mobile fortress gun. Of course, such a tank was never built (the designs were discarded in 1943): its immense size would have made it a lumbering vehicle vulnerable to aerial bombardment despite its armour. However, Road to Berlin has this conceptual weapon brought to life as an effectual weapon against the Neuroi, and did so in a colourful manner, by having Patton himself command it.
Penultimate episodes of Strike Witches always ended on a grim note: the Witches would make some initial gains against the hives and dealt damage to it, but they would inevitably unveil an even deadlier form. The original Strike Witches had the Warlock destroying the hive trivially before turning against its controllers and assimilating the Akagi, leaving Yoshika to take to the skies on her own. Strike Witches 2 saw the Yamato, upgraded with Neuroi technology, attempt to attack the Venezia hive unsuccessfully, forcing Mio to try and save the mission herself using what was left of her magical power. Similarly, Brave Witches‘ eleventh episode ended with Hikari rushing off to help the fight despite no longer being a formal member of the 502nd, after the Witches learnt that Grigori has a mobile core that Takami’s magic cannot detect. By comparison, Road to Berlin‘s opted to go with the grim ending during the tenth episode, and episode eleven concludes on a most confident note: Patton and Yoshika have managed to reach safety inside Wolf’s dome, Mio feels that there is something she can do to help out, and Gertrude suggests using the underground tunnels to bypass the impenetrable dome. This is a first in Strike Witches – while Wolf is presumably tougher than the Venezia hive (otherwise, other Witches would’ve dealt with it already), the 501st leave Road to Berlin‘s penultimate episode with a plan to save Yoshika and the Ratte’s crews. There isn’t any panic, consternation or fear, just resolute determination to get the job done. This change in tenour indicates that the Witches of the 501st have seen considerable improvement over the earlier seasons, and so, even something as diabolical as Wolf is merely just another ugly opponent to prevail over. As such, with this confidence and resolve, it is evident that the finale is going to see Wolf defeated; for viewers, then, the only question that remains is how the Witches go about doing so, and similarly, what bit of sorcery will be involved in helping Yoshika to recover her magic just in time for her to play the central role in Wolf’s defeat.
Screenshots and Commentary
- As it turns out, Yoshika is fine: aside from being unable to use her magic, she’s still in one piece. Shizuka is similarly just exhausted. I had been entering this penultimate episode with some apprehension – had Road to Berlin gone too dark with its progression, recovery would’ve seemed a little ridiculous, even venturing into the realm of deus ex machina. Fortunately, as episode eleven continued, it was clear that no such thing would happen: the moody lighting and rain had given the impression that Yoshika and Shizuka’s conditions to be much worse than they were.
- Road to Berlin‘s biggest difference from its predecessor was the increased presence of commanding officiers; Patton and Bradley both show up much more often than leadership had done in previous seasons, and moreover, they’re both competent, capable individuals intent on seeing the Human-Neuroi War through to the end. While Patton may be a boisterous, brash character, he is by no means incompetent. Conversely, the meeting with the other commanding officers proved to be a bit of a fool’s errand, devolving into a shouting match about who had better troops.
- It was such an unexpected surprise to see Gundula and Hikari make a brief appearance in Road to Berlin: I’d forgotten how much I liked Hikari’s character since the events of Brave Witches, and while the two never share a conversation directly in Road to Berlin, much less fly together, a second season of 501st Joint Fighter Wing Take Off! is set to come out next season, mashing the 501st and 502nd together for laughs. While 501st Joint Fighter Wing Take Off! might be a joke compared to the real series, I actually found the characterisations and interactions to be surprisingly faithful to how the Witches actually are. Consequently, whatever happens in 501st Joint Fighter Wing Take Off!‘s second season can be considered as a legitimate representation of what would happen in a proper Strike Witches–Brave Witches meetup.
- Shizuka forgets herself for the first time during a conversation with Mio: it is clear that flying with the 501st and Yoshika’s own blasé attitude towards the chain of command has rubbed off on Shizuka, to the point where she attempts to persuade Mio to postpone the operation against Wolf. The decision, as Mio says, is made by those above her, and as a soldier, she has no power in influencing any of this. As it turns out, Shizuka also walked in on something that was supposed to be classified: Yoshika’s upgraded Shinden Striker Unit is to be returned home to prevent her from doing anything rash during the operation to take back Berlin.
- Believing that she architected Yoshika’s current situation, and unable to tell her about anything, Shizuka bursts into tears, which cover the camera. In traditional filmmaking, camera crews were always told to clean their lenses and keep their cameras as free of foreign matter as possible to create clean shots. However, survival expert and filmmaker Les Stroud has stated during his Director’s Commentaries that allowing the cameras to get dirty or wet during inclement weather was a deliberate choice: watching water droplets appear on the lens during rainfall was supposed to emphasise the setting in a more visceral manner. Anime is not subject to the same realities as filming, but here, the choice to have Shizuka’s tears pool on the “lens” was done to show the extent of her pain.
- While Yoshika is resting up in Kiel, the other Witches return to Fort Erfprins, where Minna explains the revised plans for the assault on Wolf: the 501st will provide air support while the ground forces hammer the Neuroi into oblivion. Erica is surprised by this bit of news, but as it turns out, the Allied forces have an ace-in-the-hole: a Landkreuzer P. 1000, more commonly known as the Ratte. The last episode had only shown its distinct two-barreled turret, and viewers correctly speculated that a Ratte would be present.
- The original designs were submitted in 1942, and while Adolf Hitler expressed interest in such a tank, Albert Speer cancelled the project. The tank is therefore relegated to the realm of fiction: its twin 280 mm guns would’ve allowed it to destroy any tank around and act as a powerful mobile vehicle for bombardment, while its 250 mm armour would have shrugged off any fire from contemporary tank guns. However, despite its size and firepower, the Ratte would’ve been pitifully slow, crawling along at around 40 km/h, and despite its design calling for eight 20 mm FlaK 30/38 anti-air cannons, the vehicle would’ve been vulnerable to attack from the air. Against such a tank, the Allies would’ve likely called upon the Lancaster and their Grand Slam bombs, well before it could even fire its first shot.
- In Strike Witches, the Ratte is an Allied tool, and likely given considerable improvements over the designs Edward Grotte proposed. On the morning of the operation, the 501st spot the 506th in the air, headed for a target over Cologne’s hive. While it would’ve been nice to see different squadrons in the air to engage Wolf together in a titanic joint operation, the reason why Road to Berlin does not have command going this route is because the other groups are involved in their own battles on the same day: the operation to take back Berlin is one part of several simultaneous operations to liberate the whole of Karlsland.
- Erica, Francesca and Charlotte look on while the Ratte lumbers on below, accompanied by a group of Tiger I escorts. The Tigers were amongst the largest tanks deployed in World War Two, but here, they are dwarfed by the Ratte. Until now, I believe Girls und Panzer held the title for portraying the largest German tank (real or conceptual) on screen with its Maus, but as of Road to Berlin‘s eleventh episode, Strike Witches now holds this title. The Ratte’s presence in a Panzerfahren match would be impermissible: only vehicles dating before August 15, 1945 are allowed, and must have at least been constructed with period materials, and since the Ratte only existed as drawings, even if a school produced a functional Ratte, it would step outside the bounds for what is allowed.
- Against modern tanks, a Ratte would be devastating should the 280 mm shells find their target, but in practise, modern armour are highly mobile and would simply flank the Ratte before pounding it to oblivion with their guns: the Ratte’s armour is inadequate for dealing with modern tank shells. The Witches begin carrying out their mission: drawing fire away from the Ratte and keeping the skies clear. As it turns out, the Ratte is also equipped with an anti-beam coating, which allows it to take direct hits from the hive without suffering from catastrophic failure.
- While Strike Witches has always been about Yoshika, Road to Berlin has placed a greater emphasis on Shizuka’s growth as a Witch. The Shizuka entering the 501st likely would’ve been wiped out, but spending time training and sortieing alongside Yoshika and the others have also helped her to improve, as well. By this point, viewers are confident that, contrary to how she views herself, Shizuka is capable of holding her own against the Neuroi and fighting alongside the 501st as an asset, rather than a burden.
- Previous Strike Witches seasons chose to have the final battles over the ocean and rural fields, while in Brave Witches, the final fight was set over the taiga in Russia. Strike Witches began its life as a thinly-veiled excuse for pantsu shots, and so, did not have a particularly impressive animation budget: oceans, being big expanses of blue, were comparatively easier to animate. By Road to Berlin, the fight is set over the city of Berlin itself, and in the skies, buildings and avenues can be seen clearly.
- The firepower conferred by the Ratte comes partially from the size of its cannons, but also from specially-designed shells that are designed to maximise damage against the Neuroi. After the Ratte reaches the designated point, Patton orders the gunners to open up, and in a single salvo, destroys one of the walls in one shot. However, the Neuroi respond by rebuilding the wall. While this seems unfair, an aerial view shows the Neuroi as drawing materials from another wall section. Armed with plenty of ammunition and determination, Patton continues to fire at the walls, smashing them one at a time until all of them are destroyed.
- In the skies above, the 501st tirelessly engage the smaller drones to keep them away from the Ratte: between the Witches’ efforts and the Ratte’s own armour, Patton is able to succeed with the first phase of the operation. Here, I note that writing about Road to Berlin on an episodic basis in conjunction with GochiUsa: BLOOM had been very exhausting. While it’s been fun to really push my mind in finding interesting things to say about each episode, the fact is that such posts take time to write, and doing episodic posts for anime that air on weeknights is particularly rough. In the next season, Yuru Camp△ will be airing on Wednesdays starting January 6, and while Yuru Camp△ is one of those shows where each episode offers much to discuss, same-day reviews will be tough. Conversely, Non Non Biyori Nonstop airs on Sundays, starting January 10, but the show is a bit slower paced and would be trickier to do episodic reviews for.
- While the Ratte’s armour is tough, it can still yield when hit in the same area repeatedly. Yoshika had made a request earlier: to help out in whatever way was possible for her, she was allowed to board the Ratte and act as a medic, helping injured operators using conventional methods. Sustained fire from the Neuroi means even Patton sustains an injury, but Yoshika manages to patch him up. With the Neuroi walls eliminated, Patton prepares to use the Ratte’s cannons to fire on Wolf’s main body, but Wolf manages to form a massive dome covering the area. Undeterred, Patton proceeds anyways, knowing the battle is won once the core is destroyed.
- Patton and Yoshika both react in surprise to Wolf’s new devilry; this is a scene I’m sure that historians would roll their eyes at, as Patton never shared the copula of a conceptual tank with an anime girl, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, it is only through anime where such fanciful scenes can occur. The Neuroi puts up a few walls in a bid to stave off total destruction, absorbing the Ratte’s 300 kilogram shells to prevent them from reaching the main body; readers have pointed out Wolf’s resemblance to Die Glocke, a mythical Nazi weapon of unknown function and whose existence is dubious. With the situation rapidly deteriorating, and cut off from the 501st, Patton orders a tactical withdrawal after Yoshika spots a flak tower and asks if it is a safe spot to regroup.
- Shizuka narrowly misses getting hit with a stray segment of the Neuroi, and Lynette rescues her just in time. Meanwhile, the Witches outside unload on the barrier, only to find their weapons ineffectual. Bradley wonders if the operation is lost, but is shocked to learn of a message being sent in Morse code from Patton. It suddenly strikes me that Road to Berlin has not done anything too outrageous in its final battle yet: even Wolf constructing a massive dome isn’t particularly egregious, especially when compared to what the first two seasons had pulled off. Of course, I could find myself eating my words next week, so we’ll have to wait and see pertaining which direction Road to Berlin takes in its finale.
- Germany did build three massive flak towers in Berlin with the intent of providing heavily fortified positions from which to mount anti-aircraft guns, including the 12.8 cm FlaK 40, which could hit Allied bombers at high altitudes. These flak towers were successful in their purpose, and Berlin never suffered the same level of devastation as did other cities during Allied strategic bombings. As World War Two progressed, the flak towers were used to house national treasures, and eventually became a bomb shelter. The towers had been so heavily constructed that they resisted demolitions after the war, and in particular, the Zoo Tower is famous amongst the flak towers for being demolished in a controlled manner in 1947. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen flak towers in an anime before, and the last time one was in fiction, it would’ve been in Sniper Elite V2.
- Ursula catches Patton’s message and learn that there’s a Witch inside the dome: this surprises all of the 501st, who had assumed Yoshika remained behind in Kiel. However, Yoshika’s decision here speaks volumes about her personality; while she may not be able to fight, she still finds a way to help out in her own manner. Mio, upon realising the gravity of the situation, orders the aircraft to turn around and head for Berlin. There’s only one way this is going, and that’s to deliver the Shinden to Yoshika. It is likely the case that during next week’s finale, viewers will have to live with the fact that Yoshika’s magic will return unexpectedly, otherwise, there’d be no point in bringing the Shinden.
- What I do know of the next episode is that we’ll be getting an Ace Combat style tunnel run, which is what motivates the page quote, sourced from The Fellowship of The Ring. It is a surprise to see that we are almost at the doorsteps of Road to Berlin‘s finale, especially when it only feels like yesterday that I’d finished writing about the first episode and remarking that I’ll never write about a series after its pre-airing. Next week, the soundtrack for Road to Berlin will release alongside the finale, and because it is the finale, I have plans to make the post a little larger than usual so that I can cover off everything that happens leading up to, during and following the 501st’s successful defeat of the Wolf hive.
The outcomes and themes of Road to Berlin are no different than those of its predecessors, speaking to notions of trust, camaraderie and teamwork as being sufficient to overcome almost any challenge, in conjunction with a healthy side of doing what one believes to be right, as opposed to following orders. By this point in time, it becomes clear that the Strike Witches franchise has definitely hit its stride, and that a 501st story using lessons learnt both from Operation Victory Arrow and Brave Witches can be told in an effective manner. Road to Berlin has definitely managed to showcase more of the Strike Witches universe, incorporating Patton and Bradley and an increased presence of conventional forces, to show that while the Witches are powerful, ultimately, it is the combination of leveraging the Witches’ unique talents and experience that will allow humanity to prevail over this alien monstrosity. By Road to Berlin, conventional forces are given a chance to shine and appear more efficacious than they had previously: whereas Strike Witches and Strike Witches 2 both utilised unstable Neuroi technology, Brave Witches and Road to Berlin use vastly upgraded technology that is purely human in origin. It is unsurprising that the human weapons are more dependable than anything derived off the Neuroi, and this suggests that, as Strike Witches matured into the series it is today, the series is becoming clearer on the idea that defeating the Neuroi entails entrusting faith to the Witches and armed forces to work together, rather than counting on untried technology reverse-engineered from an enemy that still remains as enigmatic as it did when it was first introduced some twelve years ago. Road to Berlin, then, is on an especially exciting course as it enters its finale, and I’m rather looking forwards to seeing how this third season of Strike Witches chooses to wrap everything up.