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  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z on BBC Three
  • 60 mins
  • 13 hours, 0 mins
  • Documentary

Behind the epic struggles of World War II, there were highly disciplined groups of fighting men and women whose achievements can only now be revealed. This series examines the relative strength of each of the world's most deadly units that gave its country's armed forces an extra edge when it came to deciding the outcome of World War II's most pivotal battles. The series also examines, in the light of newly released information and recently discovered rare archive film, some of the feats performed by individuals from these elite fighting forces.

13 episodes

1x01 Waffen-SS

  • Series Premiere

    2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

What began as an elite boydguard unit grew to become Nazi Germany's toughest and most feared fighting force. Although part of the ordinary SS, with all the accompanying horrors of the Gestapo, concentration camps and extermination squads, the men of the Waffen SS saw themselves as soldiers. Respected for their courage -- feared for their ruthlessness and fanaticism. For these were political soldiers. Men chosen for their physical perfection and their Aryan origins. They were trained inm the ideology of Nazism, and learned to see themselves as the master race and their enemies as sub-human. They became the cormerstone of German defence, and fought on long after all hope of victory had been extinguished. But they are remembered for their brutality. They killed British, Canadian and American soldiers in cold blood, and massacred unarmed Soviet, Belgian and French civilians. They were battlefield warriors who fought against insuperable odds, but the Waffen SS will be forever branded by the crimes they carried out in the name of Nazism.

1x02 SAS

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

Captured on camera, on the 5th of May 1980, the British Army's elite Special Air Service stormed the Iranian Embassy in London, where hostages were being held by Iraqi terrorists. Within ten minutes, the terrorists were killed, and the remaining hostages rescued. Who were these black-clad men in balaclavas, who resolved the conflict with such ruthless efficiency? This programme examines the SAS, from its conception as a shall, deep-penetration raiding force led by Commando Office David Stirling in the deserts of Libya and Egypt in World War II, to its work on the modern day battlefields in the Falklands and Gulf wars. Today the SAS is among the best special services in the world. Its men are the toughest of the tough, and those who have served in it over the 60 years since its inception have lived and fought unswervingly under the motto on their badges: 'Who Dares Wins'.

1x03 The Kamikaze

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

In the Middle Ages a breed of Japanese warrior known as the Samurai followed the Bushido code. Death held no fears for the Bushido warrior, who believed that if he died in battle he would be reincarnated. He was unswervingly loyal and obedient to his Emperor, whom he regarded as a God. In the autumn of 1944, as American forces began the reconquest of the Philippine islands, they face a terrifying weapon born from the Bushido codeαthe Kamikaze suicide attack. With dwindling resources at his disposal to face the American assault, Admiral Takijino Onishi could see only one way of defeating the American aircraft carriers: the "Divine Wind". Volunteer Kamikaze pilots would fly into the aircraft carriers, wearing white scarves or headbands √ the Samurai symbol of revenge. Other suicide weapons included Banzai death charges, Kaiten submarines, and the Okha, or cherry blossom, piloted bomb. Where would this Japanese fanaticism end? Their battle plan was to take as many Allied casualties with them as they could in defeat. There could be no surrender. The USA found a controversial alternative to this problem: the atom bomb.

1x04 The Desert Rats

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

21st July 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the7th Armoured Division: Dear Desert Rats! May your glory never fade! May your laurels never fade! May the memory of this glorious pilgrimage of war which you have made from Alamein, via the Baltic, to Berlin never die! It is a march unsurpassed in the history of war. The legend of the Desert Rats began with the destruction of the Italian 10th Army in 1940. When Nazi General Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya with his Afrika Korps, the ebb and flow of desert warfare pitted the two great forces against each other. As part of the 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery, the Desert Rats played a key role in the crucial battle at El Alamein which forced the Afrika Korps into retreat. On the 11th May 1943, the Axis forces in North Africa finally surrendered, and the desert war was over. After four years of fighting the veterans were still not finished. They fought their way across Europe from D-Day to the surrender of Berlin, with the spirit and determination that made them some of the most famous Gladiators in the British army.

1x05 Norwegian Resistance Fighters

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

For five years during World War 2, the Nazis occupied Norway. They were plagued by organised resistance; relatively small numbers of brave men and women, operating in the bleak and mountainous countryside. Theirs was a war of small actions and narrow escapesαthe threat of capture, torture, and death was constant and successful attacks could result in reprisals on civilians. Fishing boats slipped in and out of the long Norwegian coastline, carrying agents and information. Radio Spied monitored the German fleet in the distant and isolated fjords, and provided weather reports for the D-Day landings. Specially trained commando forces prevented the movement of heavy water, vital to Hitlers atomic bomb project. With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the 60,000 members of Milorg, the resistance network, took the surrender of the German garrison, now swollen to 365,000 men. One of the greatest achievements of the Norwegian Resistance had been to tie down large numbers of Nazi troops, who would otherwise have been fighting in mainland Europe.

1x06 RAF Fighter Command

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. In the skies over Southern England in the summer of 1940 the Gladiators of RAF Fighter Command duelled with the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Winston Churchill called it Britains finest hour. Heavily outnumbered, Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires confronted Junkers Ju87 Stuka divebombers, Messerschmitt Me109 fighters over the English coast in one of the most crucial battles of World War II. To lose the battle would have meant Nazi invasion of the British Isles, and the end of the war. Led by Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, "The Few" successfully defended Britain against the Luftwaffe, who were superior in both numbers and pilot experience.This is the story of RAF Fighter Command. From its birth during World War Iαexpansion into World War II its crucial role at Dunkirk and the fight against Hitler's V-weapons. Former pilots remember some extraordinary stories from their battles with Goering's men, while archive footage brings the excitement and the terror of the dogfights back to life.

1x07 Special Operations Executive

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

In July 1940, when Axis forces occupied Western Europe, the Special Operations Executive was set up by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to set Europe ablaze. SOE deployed secret agents to support resistance movements in Occupied Europe and worked with them to prepare for Liberation. Although they worked far from the battlefields, the men and women of the SOE were among the bravest Gladiators of World War II. From an anonymous building in Londons Baker Street, agents were provided with cover stories, false identity cards, ration books and clandestine weapons like exploding cigarettes and itching powder for German underwear. Young men and women were sent alone into enemy occupied territory, knowing that they could be shot as spies if captured. This program examines SOEs most successful raid on the Norsk-Hydro plant in Telemark, Norway, and its most disastrous episode Englandspiel in Holland. Former agents tell remarkable stories of bravery and sacrifice in the face of capture, torture and death as they operated under the very noses of the enemy.

1x08 The Free French Forces

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

Led by the inspirational General Charles De Gaulle, the Free French refused to accept the armistice that their country had signed with Germany. They were branded as traitors by the official Vichy French government in France, but a few thousand men crossed the Channel to join the fight in Britain. In the Libyan desert in June 1942, Rommel and his Afrikakorps were driving the British Eight Army back towards Egypt. But at Bir Hacheim they met a pocket of fierce resistance: less than 4,000 Free French troops held the Germans for several weeks, before breaking out of the Axis encirclement to regain the British lines. It was a typical act of courage from the Free French. They were determined to free France from the Nazi thrall, and on their crusade, they fought in Central and North Africa, Italy. and North-West Europe. Thanks to the Free French gladiators, French representatives proudly took their places at the formal German surrenders at Rheims and Berlin with their American, British, and Soviet allies.

1x09 The Royal Navy

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

In World War II the Royal Navy saw action in every one of the worlds oceans. At the beginning of the war it was the largest navy in the world, and with Winston Churchill as the First Lord of the Admiralty, it was a fearsome opponent. From the Home Fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, and the Mediterranean Fleet base at Alexandria, the sacrifice made by the Royal Navy during World War II was great: 5 capital ships, 10 carriers, 31 cruisers, and 146 destroyers. Over 50,000 of its personnel perished. With archive footage and computer graphic reconstruction, this program shows a selection of the crucial battles and missions of the Royal Navy in World War II, including the Battle of the Atlantic, the Arctic Convoys, the Battle of the River Plate and the Sinking of the Graf Spee. Also featured: the battle between HMS Hood and the Bismarck, and the story of Convoy ONS5, which proved that the Navy-escorted convoys were a match for the U-boat menace.

1x10 The Anzacs

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

The Anzacs - the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, first saw active service in Libya with the British, when they forced an Italian army to surrender. The real test came when Rommel and his Afrika Korps entered the desert arena. At Tobruk, the largely Australian garrison, know as "the rats of Tobruk", held out against overwhelming odd to repel the Axis forces. Initial defeats in the Mediterranean in Greece and Crete against the German Blitzkrieg might have disillusioned lesser troops, but not the indomitable Anzacs. The war took on new meaning for them after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese invaded Malaya, and Australians and New Zealanders suddenly found their own terrirtory under direct threat. A typical Anzac victory occurred in the jungle of Papua, New Guinea. Half trained Australian troops fought a desperate battle against superior Japanese forces on the 150 mile long Kokoda Trail, both sides suffered from disease and supply line problems, but against all the odds, the Australians emerged triumphant. The contribution made by the Anzacs to ultimate victory in World War II was out of all proportion to the size of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, but the cost had been high.

1x11 Free Polish Forces

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

In September 1939 Poland was overrun by the Germans and Russians, yet the Polish fighting spirit remained unbroken. Under the leadership of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Free Polish Army was formed. They were a displaced fighting force, which would exact revenge for the occupation of Poland, fighting first in France, and then alongside British forces in almost every campaign in the desert and western Europe. When Hitler invaded Russian Poland found itself in a new alliance with its former aggressor, but the historical antogonism between the two countries was always lurking.Tragically, the loyalty and courage of its armies on the battlefield, did not win Poland the independence its people hoped for. After 8 years of fighting, many of those Free Poles who returned home from the war were arrested, murdered, or deported by the Soviet troops who now occupied their country. Many never saw their home country again. The Free Polish Forces will be remembered as the Gladiators who were willing to sacrifice everything to rescue their country. Poland, it's democracy and true independence finally won in 1989, stands as a testimonial to those who gave so muchfor what seemed like so little.

1x12 The Chindits

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the start of a formidable campaign in the Pacific. Within a few months, the Allies were driven out of Malaya abd Burma. As teh British survivors limped across the Chindwin River back into India, they despaired of ever bearing the Japanese - The masters of jungle warfare. But Lieutenant Colonel Orde Wingate had other ideas. He proposed a special force which would penetrate deep into Burma, maintained entirely by air resupply, and disrupt Japanese communications. Wingate named his force after the "Chindie", the mythical beast that guards every Burmese temple, and the Chindits were born. In their first operation the Chindits cut the vital Mandalay-Mytikyina railway. During the long march back through the jungle, Malaria, dystentary, and typhus struck the men, as they struggled through appalling weather and over rough terrain. Of the 3,000 who set out, nearly a third did not return, and 600 of those who did never returned to active soldiering. Their next operation was to precede the Arakan offensive in Burma. After three months behind enemy lines, they captured the Burmese town of Moguang in a remarkable feat of courage and endurance. This is the story of the Chindits - The Gladiators of the jungle; the first to show that the British could match the Japanese in the Pacific.

1x13 The Paras and Commandos

  • 2002-01-19T05:00:00Z — 60 mins

Occupied Europe endured four long years of Nazi domination in World War II. Angered by the defensive strategy which had brought disaster to Allied forces in 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demanded an elite raiding force √ specially formed to take the fight back to Nazi-occupied countries, and bring hope to the people enslaved there. The result was the Commandos, initially ten units, each of 500 men, recruited from every regiment and corps in the British Army. They were supremely fit, and highly skilled, experts in unarmed combat and trained to use a variety of weapons. They operated behind enemy lines in intense danger, any Commando taken prisoner was to be executed immediately, on Hitlers orders. From the Commandos came the Paras, a troop of men trained to use parachutes to drop them into enemy territory. Archive footage from the Paras and Commandos' greatest raids, and interviews with former commandos are brought together in this program to bring their famous exploits back to life: Bruneval, Saint Nazaire, Dieppe, Pegasus Bright and Operation Market Garden.