The Secret War (1977 BBC WW2 documentary). Simply Media DVD review

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In retrospect, the 1970’s was an ideal time to be making documentaries about the Second World War.  Some thirty years or so had passed since the war had come to an end, which was long enough for people to be more candid about some events and particularly (in the case of this series) for certain facts, hitherto not in the public domain, to be discussed.

Several years before, Thames Television’s The World At War had covered many areas of the conflict in detail, but one omission was the role played by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.  At the time The World At War was in production this information wasn’t public knowledge, which meant that The Secret War was one of the first programmes to describe this vital part of the war.

The Secret War was narrated and presented by William Woollard,  a familiar face from Tomorrow’s World.  It was comprised of six episodes.

Episode 1 – The Battle of the Beams.  Early in the war, British Intelligence became aware that the Luftwaffe were using a series of radio navigational aids to accurately pinpoint targets, even in the dark.  This first episode describes these developments as well as the  jamming countermeasures developed by British scientists.

This episode, like several others, relies heavily on the input of R.V. Jones.  Jones played a major part in the development of the jamming beams and his book Most Secret War is not only a fascinating read in its own right, it was also a useful guide for the programme-makers in the early stages of The Secret War’s production.

R.V. Jones
R.V. Jones

Episode 2 – To See A Hundred Miles.  This episode discusses the development of Radar as well as British Intelligence’s efforts to discover German developments in the same field.

R.V. Jones appears again, as does Albert Speer – Hitler’s Minister of Armaments.  Another key interviewee is Arnold Wilkins, co-creator of Radar.  The presence of pioneers such as Wilkins is certainly one of The Secret War’s main strengths.

Episode 3 – Terror Weapons.  The creation of Hitler’s vengeance weapons – the V1 and V2 – and the countermeasures taken to combat them.

Interviewees here include Duncan Sandys (Chairman of the War Cabinet Committee responsible for defence against flying bombs and rockets) and Raymond Baxter, Woolard’s Tomorrow’s World colleague, who describes his exploits as a spitfire pilot and his unsuccessful attempt to shoot down a V2 rocket.

Episode 4 – If.  This episode describes numerous inventions that never came to pass.  These include the Messerschmitt Me 321, a large cargo and troop aircraft which was intended for use in the German invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation Sealion.  Also discussed are German bouncing bombs.

As well as further input from R.V. Jones and Albert Speer, also interviewed were Frank Whittle (creator of the turbojet engine) and Hanna Reitsch. Reitsch was a German test pilot and the only woman to be award the Iron Cross First Class. As might be expected, her unique status makes her a fascinating interviewee.

Hanna Reitstch
Hanna Reitstch

Episode 5 – The Deadly Waves.  Episode 5 looks at the hazards of magnetic mines and the methods used to counteract them, including degaussing.

Lt Cdr John Ouvry, who defused a German mine on the shoreline at Shoeburyness is interviewed and this actual mine is used in the programme to re-enact the event.

Episode 6 – Still Secret.  As previously mentioned, when The Secret War was in production the first information about the code-breakers at Bletchley Park began to emerge.  So whilst this programme is far from complete (as much more information would emerge in the decades to come)  it’s still a very interesting watch.

Discussed are the efforts to break the Enigma Code and the role played by the Colossus computer, designed by T.H. Flowers.  In 1977 the Colossus was still on the secret list, so details are fairly sparse, but the programme benefits enormously from an interview with Flowers.  And there are also valuable contributions from others present at Bletchley Park during WW2 such as Gordon Welchman, Harry Golombek and Peter Calvocoressi.

T.H. Flowers
T.H. Flowers

Whilst there are numerous WW2 documentaries available, The Secret War is noteworthy for several reasons.  The interviews with key pioneers on both sides is a major plus as is the wartime footage, some of which had not been widely seen until this programme.  The series was produced in association with The Imperial War Museum, so the programme-makers were able to make full use of their archives to locate interesting material.

And finally, the series helps to tell some of the less familiar stories of the Second World War.  Whilst the key battles and individual acts of heroism were already well known, The Secret War was able to explain that some of the real breakthrough moments of the war came not at the front, but in laboratories, far away from the fighting.

This is a first class documentary series and hopefully Simply will delve in to the archives again to unearth similar treasures.

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