The Parachute Regiment was formed in June 1940 and eventually raised 17 battalions. It would see service in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Arnhem and would cross the Rhine as part of the largest airborne assault ever undertaken.
To discuss the formation of the regiment and its history through WWII, I’m joined by historian and broadcaster Mark Urban, who has written an authorised history of the regiment called Red Devils: The Trailblazers of the Parachute Regiment in World War Two.
During WWII, the whole of Britain’s coastline was involved in the struggle against the Nazis. In 1940-41 invasion was the main threat. Many towns and cities around the coast, such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, Hull and Great Yarmouth, were the targets of devastating air raids. The East Coast was pivotal to North Sea operations against enemy mining and E-boat operations, and the Western ports, particularly Liverpool, were crucial to the vital Atlantic convoys and the defeat of the U-boat threat.
In this episode, I’m joined once more by the cultural and social historian Neil R Storey to discuss Britain’s Coast at War, which is also the title of his book Britain's Coast at War: Invasion Threat, Coastal Forces, Bombardment and Training for D-Day.
In this episode, we’re going to be looking at US Navy combat divers. The Combat Demolition Unit would land on D-Day with the first wave of troops. It was their job to clear coastal defences that might get in the way of landing craft.
In the Pacific, Underwater Demolition Teams were carrying out similar tasks on islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
I’m joined by Andrew Dubbins. Andrew managed to track down one of the surviving divers who landed on Omaha beach, then was shipped to the Pacific to land on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. His book is Into Enemy Waters: A World War II Story of the Demolition Divers Who Became the Navy SEALS.
In late 1944, as a precursor to the invasion of the Philippines, U.S. military analysts decided to seize the small island of Peleliu to ensure that the Japanese airfield could not threaten the invasion forces.
It was estimated that the island would fall in a week or so. In fact, the fighting on Peleliu would go on for 74 days. The US would pay a heavy price for capturing the island with a higher casualty rate than the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In this episode, I'm joined by Pacific War historian Joseph Wheelan, author of Bitter Peleliu: The Forgotten Struggle on the Pacific War's Worst Battlefield.
After the failure to take Moscow in the autumn of 1941, the Germans were left with a large salient bulging into the Russian lines, extending to the town of Rzhev.
The battles around Rzhev were some of the bloodiest battles of the war for the Russians. Though millions of men would fight and die in the vast tract of forests and swamps, the Rzhev Salient does not have the name recognition of Leningrad or Moscow.
I’m Joined by Prit Buttar, author of Meat Grinder: The Battles for the Rzhev Salient, 1942–43.
Prit was last with us discussing the defeat of Army Group South in 1944 in episode 136.
I seem to have had a good run of episodes this year looking at operations from the German perspective. In this episode, we are off to the Pacific to look at the Japanese perspective of the war.
I'm joined by Peter Williams.
Peter lived in Japan for four years. Whilst he was there, he interviewed Japanese veterans of the Second World War. His book 'Japan's Pacific War' collects together over 40 interviews with veterans who predominantly fought against the Australians.
At the outbreak of WWII, the ancient gothic castle of Colditz was converted into a prisoner-of-war camp. Its location on a rocky spur overlooking a river made it the ideal location for a high-security prison, or so the Germans thought.
Sent to Colditz were some of the most difficult allied prisoners-of-war.
Made famous after the second world war in memoirs, films and TV, Colditz was known for its multiple escape attempts, some of great derring-do, others were feats of ingenuity and engineering.
In this episode, I'm joined by Ben Macintyre.
Ben is the bestselling author of books including Agent Sonya, SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Spy and the Traitor, Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and A Spy Among Friends. Ben's new book Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison takes a new look at the Colditz and really fills out the story.
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940 is one of the iconic moments of the Second World War. The miracle of the 'little ships' plucking soldiers off the beaches is regularly played out in the popular media, including the 1958 and 2017 films 'Dunkirk'. But, this is very much the British narrative. What if we turn the tables to look at the fighting from the German perspective?
Joining me once more is Robert Kershaw.
Robert was last with us to discuss D-Day and the landings at Omaha beach (in episode 92). He has a new book, 'Dünkirchen 1940: The German View of Dunkirk'.
In this episode, we are looking at the closing weeks of the war in 1945. August would see the Russians enter the war with Japan, the atomic bombs dropped, and an attempted coup in Japan. The culmination of which would be the final declaration of surrender by Japan’s Emporer Hirohito on the 15th of August, followed a couple of weeks later by the formal ceremony on the USS Missouri presided over by General MacArthur.
I am joined by Barrett Tillman.
Barrett specializes in naval and aviation topics and has a prestigious back catalogue. His latest book is When the Shooting Stopped: August 1945.
In this episode of the podcast, we shine a light on the naval conflict in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
This proved to be a prolonged conflict, waged at differing times against the combined forces of Italy, Germany and Vichy France over a wide area stretching from the coastal waters of Southern Europe in the north to Madagascar in the south and Africa's Atlantic coast in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east.
Utilizing a variety of weapons, including surface warships, submarines, and aircraft along with sizable merchant fleets, the British and their subsequent American partners would maintain vital seaborne lines of communication, conducting numerous amphibious landings, interdicting Axis supply activities, eventually eliminating all semblances of Axis maritime power within the theatre.
I’m joined once more by Brian Walter.
If you recall, Brian joined me in episode 127 to discuss the battle of the Atlantic. Brian has a new book Blue Water War: The Maritime Struggle in the Mediterranean.
The German offensive to capture Stalingrad began in August 1942, using Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army. The attack was supported by intense bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The battle quickly degenerated into house-to-house fighting, as both sides fought for the city on the Volga.
By mid-November, the Germans were on the brink of victory as the Soviet defenders clung to a final few slivers of land along the west bank of the river. Then, on 19 November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, targeting the weaker Romanian armies protecting the 6th Army's flank and the Germans in Stalingrad were surrounded and cut off.
Hitler was determined to hold the city insisting that Paulus hold out and the 6th Army would be supplied by air. With the airlift a disaster, in February 1943, without food or ammunition, some 91,000 starving Germans surrendered.
In this episode of the podcast, I'm joined once more by Jonathan Trigg. Jon specialises in looking at aspects of the war from the German perspective so in episode 147 we looked at Operation Barbarossa, in 115 Jon and I discussed the end of the war and in 102 we talked about D-Day.
Jon's new book is The Battle of Stalingrad Through German Eyes: The Death of the Sixth Army.
I've been trying to slip in an extra episode of the podcast for a while but never seem to manage it! I hope you find this interesting.
Running at the Alexandra Palace Theatre this summer is Tom, Dick and Harry, a play telling the story of the great escape. I thought it might be interesting to talk about how you take a story so familiar to many of us - growing up watching endless re-runs of the film - and change that into a stage play. How do you deal with the fantastic, which is true, but on top of that, you need to deal with the legend, which might have little relation to what actually happened?
I’m joined by Theresa Heskins.
Theresa is the artistic Director of New Vic of the Theatre and also the Writer and Director of Tom, Dick and Harry.
You can find details of the play here:
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In December 1944 the Germans launched the battle of the Bulge, their last major offensive in the west. Commencing in the depths of winter, with the hope that the weather would neutralise allied air superiority, three German armies attacked through the Ardennes.
We have looked at part of the Ardennes offensive before but from the American perspective. In this episode, I’m joined by Anthony Tucker-Jones and we are going to reverse the tables and look at the operation from the German point of view.
Anthony has joined us before in episode 156 when we discussed Winston Churchill. This time we are looking at his book Hitler's Winter: The German Battle of the Bulge.
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The usual historical narrative of the U-boats during WWII usually revolves around the 'Battle of the Atlantic', and the struggle over the convoys bringing vital supplies to Britain.
But the story of the U-boat war is much more complex, they went into action on the first day of hostilities with Britain and France and operated in nearly every theatre of operation in which the Wehrmacht served, and within all but the Southern Ocean.
To discuss the global U-boat war I am joined by Lawrence Paterson, author of The U-Boat War: A Global History 1939–45.
Operation Foxley was the name of the secret plan supported by Winston Churchill to assassinate Hitler in 1944-45. Different methods of assassination were considered, such as a sharp shooter or poisoning, through to a more elaborate plan that included hypnotism.
I'm joined by Eric Lee.
Eric has been with us before, in episode 130, to discuss the Georgian uprising against the Germans on the Dutch island of Texel at the end of the war. His new book is Britain's Plot to Kill Hitler: The True Story of Operation Foxley and SOE.
In episode 158, I talked to Henry Sledge about his father's experiences with the US Marines in the Pacific, which led me to rewatch the 2010 TV miniseries The Pacific. The show revolves around three lead characters, Eugene Sledge, Robert Leckie and John Basilone.
Basilone received the Medal of Honor for heroism above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle for Henderson Field in the Guadalcanal Campaign and would go on to be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
In this episode, I am joined by Dave Holland.
Dave is a former marine and battlefield tour guide on Guadalcanal. On his youtube channel, Guadalcanal - Walking a Battlefield, Dave takes the viewer to Guadalcanal and explains the battlefields and shows you what exists today from WWII.
Rodolfo Graziani, Marshal of Italy, Viceroy of Ethiopia and one of Mussolini's most valued generals remains to this day a divisive figure in his homeland. Revered by some Italians as a patriot and vilified by others as a murderer.
From the allied perspective, he was the Italian general whose troops surrendered en masse to the British during operation Compass, which almost knocked the Italians out of North Africa in 1941.
But what is the true story of Rodolfo Graziani?
Today I am joined by James Cetrullo.
For the first time, James has translated from Italian the biography Rodolfo Graziani: Story of an Italian General written by Alessandro Cova.
In 1940 the British Purchasing Commission approached North American Aviation (NAA) to build under license Curtis P-40 fighters. NAA suggested that rather than produce an old design they proposed a new design, this would become the P-51 Mustang.
When fitted with the Roll-Royce Merlin engine, the Mustang would be one of the most important fighters of the war. With its ability to carry tremendous amounts of fuel, the plane was able to fly deep into Europe providing fighter escort for the bomber groups. Over the skies of Germany, it proved more than a match for what the Luftwaffe could throw at them.
Joining me is Chris Bucholtz.
Chris is an aviation historian with a prolific body of work. He previously joined me in episode 110 to discuss the P-47 Thunderbolt. His new book published by Osprey is P-51B/C Mustang: Northwest Europe 1943-44.
On September 1, 1939, the day World War II broke out in Europe, Gen. George Marshall was sworn in as chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Ten months later, Roosevelt appointed Henry Stimson secretary of war. For the next five years, from adjoining offices in the Pentagon, Marshall and Stimson headed the army machine that ground down the Axis.
In this episode, we’re going to be discussing the relationship between the two men as they negotiated the war.
Joining me is Edward Farley Aldrich author of The Partnership: George Marshall, Henry Stimson, and the Extraordinary Collaboration That Won World War II.
The expansion of British industry to cater for war production began to be put in place in the 1930s. But still with the outbreak of war Britain needed to stretch every sinew to harness, coordinate and maximise its resources. Firstly to defend itself and then to help liberate Axis-occupied countries.
In this episode, I'm joined by Neil Storey.
Neil is an award-winning social historian and lecturer specialising in the impact of war on twentieth-century society. His new book is Wartime Industry.
Tobruk was one of the greatest Allied victories – and one of the worst Allied defeats – of the Second World War. Almost from the start of producing the podcast I’ve wanted to do an episode looking at Tobruk. I think it probably first gets a mention in episode 11 when we looked at Richard O’Connor, since then the town has come up in numerous episodes.
I'm joined by David Mitchellhill Green
David is the author of Tobruk: Rommel and the Battles Leading to his greatest victory. It is a fascinating read which places Tobruk in a wider history to help explain why it was strategically important.
At the end WWII 473 men had been honoured by the United States for their bravery and sacrifice by receiving the Medal of Honor. The Medal was awarded to men of all ranks - from Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright at the top all the way down to 18-year-old Private Joseph Merrell. Although 1 million African Americans served in the military during the war, not one was awarded the Medal of Honor, this being despite some extraordinary acts of valour.
In 1993 a US Army commission reviewed cases from recipients of America’s second-highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross, and determined that a number of these men had been denied the Army’s highest award simply due to racial discrimination.
In this episode, I’m joined by Robert Child author of Immortal Valor: The Black Medal of Honor Winners of World War II.
When we think of the allied war effort it is all too easy to overlook some of the junior partners. In this episode, we are going to be looking at Mexico’s commitment to the Second World War. The Mexican Expeditionary Airforce would serve in the Philippines as the 201st Fighter Squadron known as the ‘Aztec Eagles’.
I’m Joined by Walter Zapotoczny whose new book is The Aztec Eagles: The Forgotten Allies of the Second World War.
In September 1944 a young Marine name Eugene Sledge landed on the Pacific Island of Peleliu. As a mortarman, stretcher-bearer and rifleman Sledge would fight his way across Peleliu then the Japanese island of Okinawa, arguably two of the fiercest and filthiest battles of the Pacific campaign.
After the war, Eugene Sledge became a professor at Montevallo University and turned his diary notes from the war into a memoir of his experiences titled With the Old Breed. The book relates the dehumanising brutality displayed by both sides and the animal hatred that each soldier had for his enemy. Sledge writes of the conditions on the islands that meant the Marines often could not wash, stay dry, dig latrines, or even find time to eat. Suffering from constant fear, fatigue, and filth, the struggle of simply living in a combat zone was utterly debilitating for the Marines.
With the Old Breed has proved to be highly influential and has been used as source material for the Ken Burns PBS documentary The War (2007), as well as the HBO miniseries The Pacific (2010), where Eugene Sledge was played by Joseph Mazzello.
Joining me today is Henry Sledge, Eugene’s son.
You can also find Henry presenting the podcast What's the Scuttlebutt.