How I Spent 7 Days Watching War Programmes And Survived To Tell The Tale

What happens when a man spends a solid week alone watching the History Channel? This happens

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History, it seems, is not what it was. Fifteen or 20 years ago, when themed digital TV channels filled our satellite dishes, ending the tiny, tidy, orthodox world of terrestrial television forever, the History Channel was renowned and slightly derided as the home of endless documentaries about the sinking/raising of the Titanic and the rise/fall of the Third Reich.

A mix of the austere and the sensational, it was regarded as a refuge for both the nerdy historian and Hells Angels with a questionable obsession with fascism. Either way, it was the preserve of men. Only men watched shows about war, weapons and Nazis. Whether women were too sensitive, or sensible, I wasn’t sure.

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But have today’s men changed? Have they moved on from such a potent combination of explosions and facts? We needed to find out. Has the History Channel changed? It had been years since anyone had checked.

I spent a week immersed in what I’d known as the History Channel and its rivals, Discovery History and Yesterday, to see what I could learn about history itself and what sort of men now watch it. The answer is as shocking as some of the footage. 

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The first thing to report is the History Channel has changed. It’s not called the History Channel and it’s no longer about history. Apart from that? Pretty much the same. History — as it’s now simply known — has become another victim of Reality. 

History has long been occupied by cheap American “real life” TV shows. Mega Movers is about, well, moving things. Big things. Mega things. An episode of Ax Men promised: “Difficulties lead to disaster as Shelby lifts a log from private property.” Duck Dynasty follows a family of rough-hewn millionaire backwoodsmen and Hoard Hunters is based around people with metal detectors. In American Pickers, “the Pickers’ luck changes when they meet demolition expert Johnny and a neighbour who collects oil cans.” Hold me back!

Then there are all the junk scavengers scouring the US. Gradually, it became clear that History is now one long, mostly American, episode of Cash in the Attic. “Ron and Tyler find a rare rusty pump,” the narrator boomed in American Restoration. “If renovated can it make them a fortune?” I doubt it.

In another episode, one-time Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar challenged host Rick Dale “to turn an old fridge into a rum dispenser.” Well, he would.

Thankfully, Discovery History and Yesterday have stepped into the old History Channel’s slot and still have a regular quota of drily fascinating programmes such as When Rome Ruled EgyptThe True Story of the Marie Celeste and Custer’s Last Stand as well as the occasional old school conspiracy film such as Myths of Pearl Harbour (hint: the Americans started it) or Area 51.

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Most of the material though, is still about the Second World War. Historical pre-20th century wars of Asia, Africa, China, Russia or France rarely feature, as if they are not really history at all. (There are still plenty of shows with the educational intentions of the original channel, enough to make me quickly realise that even though I’d liked history enough to take it at A level, my ignorance was shocking. Napoleon’s Obsession: Quest For Egypt would certainly have been news to me but, as I didn’t even know much about Waterloo, sounded too confusing.)

These are shows analysing obscure battles, dissecting fresh/strange “revelations” about the Allies’ 1945 victory, and serving the (in)valuable purpose of keeping alive a record of what was sacrificed.

“This is the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world,” said the narrator of The Nazis and the Final Solution, a repeat of the BBC’s 2005 six-part analysis of Auschwitz… “1.1 million people died here, more than the total of British and American losses in the Second World War.”

Programmes like Battlefield and Secrets of World War II are full of moving first-hand accounts, astonishing footage and photos and enough information to enable the most casual viewer to pass an Open University degree. But even Yesterday and Discovery History are targeting History’s new audience with some schizophrenic scheduling and juxtapositions that are both unusual and uncomfortable. 

Starting the day at 6am with The Germans Are Coming seems somewhat unnecessary — not to say alarmist. With Hitler’s Bodyguard following at 8am, perhaps it is not surprising daily daytime schedules also comprise repeats of cosy fare such as CoastTime Team and Fred Dibnah’s Age of Steam. But Trains with Pete Waterman will sit alongside a mid-afternoon slot for Nazi Hunters: Hunting Adolf Eichmann, or Nuremburg: Nazis on Trial about whether Rudolf Hess faked amnesia.

Gradually, I worked out the target audience for these history channels nowadays: it’s not simply men anymore but the elderly, people who have actually lived through some history and are watching it again. They have occupied the territory and are now locked in a battle with its previous, more violent following, whom have no interest in Richard Briers. Here’s how my week of living history with them went. 

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SATURDAY

I seized an early opportunity to try and learn something and took in Discovery History’s 9am breakfast screening of Battlefield: Battle for Caen Part One. In the week ahead, I would become a connoisseur of such shows about a localised three-month struggle during the Battle of Normandy that was only tagged “Part One”, especially if its remit was “the early events of Operation Overlord” (note “early”). 

The most striking things were that, considering it was nearly 70 years ago, A) how much footage had actually been shot on the frontline and, B) how much more evocative the ghostly black and white film is compared to today’s reportage. In a way, its sheer simplicity brings home the incredible, chaotic violence of the strafing and gunfire the troops faced.

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These scenes are interspersed with incongruously cheerful ads for laser surgery and package holidays, though not to France or Germany. 

Over on Yesterday, Saturday consisted of five repeats of Lovejoy (in a row), two 1991 Catherine Cookson dramas, Keeping Up Appearances and New Tricks, before the sudden arrival of Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Resisting Lovejoy, I settled down for Discovery History’s 11am–4pm bonanza of Wartime Secrets With Harry Harris, a London cabbie driving round Britain doggedly “uncovering the secrets, lies and untold stories of World War II”.

Its five consecutive episodes included Outwitting Hitler, about Eddie Chapman, a British safe-cracker first trained by the Nazis before working for MI5 as “Agent Zig Zag”. His missions included disguising British fighter-bomber factories to fool the Germans into thinking they’d been sabotaged.

In Flirting With Hitler, our Harry wanted to know why in 1944, downed Luftwaffe airmen were buried with full Nazi honours in a churchyard in the East End (which, inevitably, is where Harry comes from). He also examined 148 recently discovered photos of a 1935 peace mission in which a delegation of First World War veterans laid wreaths to the German dead.

Harry’s outrage at the images of the British Legion’s vice-chairman Major Francis Fetherstone-Godley meeting Hitler and shaking hands with his deputy Rudolf Hess was obvious and, I have to say, infectious.

“Was it a genuine attempt to keep the peace? Or a sinister plot to use ex-British servicemen for Nazi propaganda?” Harry demanded, sounding as if he already suspected the latter. “And why were Nazis invited to sail up the Thames — on a pleasure boat?” A current British Legion press officer showed Harry the very cupboard where the album, emblazoned with a Nazi swastika and dagger, had been found, commenting, “And the first page I opened it up to was...”

“Oh, God…” said Harry, at the very sight of a photo of Hitler. Mind you, it was pretty shocking, as was the story of “the German bomber shot down on 14 March 1944 at 11.15 at night in Gants Hill, crashing into an empty building behind me on Ilford Avenue.” (No one can question Harry’s attention to detail.)

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He met Derek Bruce, in charge of the graveyard in Eastbrook where the fliers were “buried with dignity, their coffins draped in Nazi flags”. “How does that make you feel, seeing a swastika on a coffin?” Harry asked, a leading question if ever there was one.

Five hours in, Harry’s company may have felt like being trapped in the back of his cab in a bad traffic jam, but with stories like these, I could already feel myself turning into a history bore.

One of the more noble, important facets of the history channels is their role commemorating and celebrating individuals and their historic contributions for today’s generation and for posterity. Some of the subjects of Heroes of World War II make you feel ashamed you’ve come this far in life knowing nothing about them, like The Men Who Invented Radar, for instance.

Admittedly, others, such as Secrets of World War II’s look at “how Norwegian freedom fighters succeeded in blowing up the Norsk Hydro electrochemical factory in 1943”, I could probably carry on without knowing about.

Scotsman Alistair Urquhart, 92, was the subject of World War Two’s Luckiest Man. Alistair still attends the weekly tea dance in his local village hall. “When I’m dancing, I’m in a different world,” he said, performing a nifty Foxtrot. “I enjoy every dance.” By the end, you realised why.

This was the sort of memoir to remind you what the Second World War actually entailed; how lucky and spoilt we all are to have avoided anything like it; and to make you feel even more shallow and worthless than you probably already do.

Urquhart was conscripted at 19 and while serving in Singapore was taken prisoner by the Japanese. Put to work on the Burma Railway, he suffered cholera, torture, and a tropical ulcer. He recalled how the doctor told him to go to the latrines and collect some maggots: “He said, ‘They will eat the rotten flesh until they come down to the good flesh’.

Even today, I can sometimes feel them nibbling!” This memory was one of the rare occasions to bring Alistair out in a smile.

He was put on a “hell ship” to Japan, where prisoners endured dehydration and even cannibalism. Alistair survived the ship being sunk by a US torpedo and spending five days afloat on a raft. Then, when the second atomic bomb hit Nagasaki, he was in a labour camp 10 miles away. At this point, the title World War Two’s Unluckiest Man would have seemed more appropriate.

The downside of the History obsession with war is a kind of reverence for anyone who made such sacrifices. Battlefield Mysteries featured Michael Wittmann “also known as the Black Baron”, a highly-decorated German Waffen SS panzer officer who met his end in Normandy in 1944. Any show featuring the term “tank ace” is bound to be compelling but this went further, claiming “controversy has raged for 60 years as to which unit killed him”. 

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Basically, it was an exciting episode of Time Team set in the French bocage country. A US historian pored over Wittmann’s remains (only discovered and identified as recently as 1983) and re-examined the reports of the British, Canadian and German tank crews at the time to map their positions.

Undoubtedly fascinating and painstaking — Canada’s Sherbrooke Fusiliers got the credit for destroying Wittmann’s Tiger tank (startlingly, its unit number was 007) — but some of the commentary was unsettling. Hauptsturmfuhrer Wittmann was described as “a fearless leader”, and a hero of the Third Reich after “his tally soared to an amazing 138 kills.” He was “decorated by Hitler himself”.

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The narrator could also have shown more discomfort when we were shown the military cemetery at La Cambe in Normandy where, “Wittmann’s grave stands out because it’s surrounded by fresh flowers.” The conclusion that “Wittmann’s legend lives on” was surely questionable — or would be without shows like this.

MONDAY

With serious history at a premium during the week, I rose early for the 8am screening of Battle for Caen Part Two. This opened with the narrator summarising that “after seven days, the Allies had got precisely nowhere”, making my viewing of Battle for Caen Part One feel slightly less worthwhile. Still, if I’m on Mastermind, my specialist subject will no longer be The Wire or The Clash but the Battle for Caen. Facing Rome: Power & Glory (9am), and Secrets of the Pyramids (10am) reminded me of double history at school. 

It is hard to resist the appeal of another genre these channels love — weapons porn, with shows like Combat Countdown and Weapons of Fear. Future Weapons starred ex-Navy Seal and Ross Kemp-lookalike Richard “Mack” Machowicz having a go in an A-10C ground attack plane equipped with six smart bombs and a seven-barrel 30mm gun that, he frothed, is “the most powerful cannon ever put on an aircraft”.

Colonel Kent Laughbaum explained: “The gun shakes the aircraft in a way the 20mm doesn’t,” with an unnerving enthusiasm reminiscent of Bill Kilgore, Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now. “The smell of the gun actually joins you in the cockpit.” If you like planes and war that would probably be even better than the smell of napalm in the morning.

Next, Mack moved on to talking about military rifles. “Here’s the bullet of the .556. It’s a good bullet doing a good job overseas,” he said, talking about the rounds as if they were comrades. “During the Vietnam War, the M16 came up against the AK-47 and the debate over which is better has continued to this day.” I’m sure you and your mates have had this very discussion.

The Grendell tactical assault rifle is a cross between the AK-47 and US M4, firing a 6.5mm round. To demonstrate its effectiveness, Mack set a crash test dummy dressed in uniform (an armed crash test dummy to boot) behind a car to re-enact an imaginary shoot-out, before showing how the Grendell could take out the mannequin by shooting straight through the car.

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“Essentially, this guy is no longer a threat,” he said proudly, neatly overlooking the fact that he never was.

“The Grendell is a mythical beast that strikes terror into the hearts of its enemy,” he said with enough fervour to make Jeremy Clarkson sound subdued. Amid so many shows commemorating the horror of war, such celebrations of weaponry were incongruous, if not totally wrong.

TUESDAY

Yesterday was offering another day watching repeats of Turn Back Time, Ballykissangel and All Creatures Great and Small before the midnight screening of Auschwitz: The Nazis and The Final Solution and an episode titled bluntly “Factories of Death”, which just didn’t strike me as something I — or anyone else — would want to watch before turning in for the night.

Of all the daytime reality shows on History, the only one with any charm — and any history — was Pawn Stars, and some Saturdays up to 18 episodes are screened. The show is set in the “world-famous” 24-hour Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas operated by Vic Mackey-lookalike Richard “Old Man” Harrison.

Pawn Stars reminded me of Four Rooms with hopeful customers bringing in cool memorabilia like one of Elvis’ necklaces, a signed Babe Ruth glove, and “two massive Laurel and Hardy costume heads.” Well, it’s modern history, I suppose.

Customers also brought in some bizarre artefacts: a piece of Apollo 11, a Second World War submarine hatch, a signed copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a gaming wheel from a speakeasy, and a hand-cranked corn-sheller from 1900. You can’t win ’em all.

A guy called Jeff had a signed print of Abraham Lincoln, although he undermined his negotiating position by saying, “I thought Abe was bald”. Besides being on every American dollar bill, Lincoln had a full head of hair on Jeff’s print.

“Did you ever hear of Joseph Cosey?” Harrison asked Jeff, the kind of opening gambit that is never going to go well. For a moment, there was a suggestion that a forgery by Joseph Cosey could be even more valuable than a signed Lincoln but Jeff’s was a copy of a Cosey forgery of Abe’s signature.

A shaven-headed dude called Tom had two diaries from the American Civil War that his great, great, great grandfather (a captain at Gettysburg) had kept, albeit virtually illegibly. “They’ve been passed down to the males [in the family] for generations,” explained Tom — an only child — who had thus decided to sell the family legacy “to get my car fixed.”

At least items like these gave you a cursory historical fact. Most of the soldiers in the Civil War were farmers — 90 per cent of the Confederates and 74 per cent with the Union. Maybe they should’ve settled it differently — with a country fayre and prizes for biggest marrow or best bullock.

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WEDNESDAY

One day, a scheduler at Yesterday must have had a eureka moment: mixing two of its staple genres — weapons and Nazis. That said, you’d have to be, well, mad not to feel the lure of Hitler’s Mad Weapons, which, boomed the narrator with definite excitement, included some of “the most revolutionary and terrifying instruments of death,” most notably “the supergun” and “mega tank”. Adolf Hitler, it turns out, was personally in charge of Nazi weapons development and obsessed with “wonder weapons”. As the Germans turned east to battle the Russians, they were outnumbered by three-to-one.

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“Hitler wanted something that was massive, almost phallically powerful,” Professor Brian J Ford said. The Krupp family was described as “one of Germany’s finest makers of weapons” although whether you would use the word “finest” here is debatable, as was the Top Gear-esque guitar music rocking out over footage of Germans enjoying blowing up British tanks.

The Krupp K-5 gun could fire a shell 40 miles “but Hitler wanted something bigger”. The monster Krupp Schwerer-Gustav became the biggest piece of artillery ever used in combat, weighing 1,350 tonnes with a barrel 30m long, and firing a shell weighing 10, 500lbs. Luckily, the downside was the supergun needed a crew of 2,000 men, required three days to assemble and could only fire 14 rounds per day. Its specially laid railway tracks made it easy prey from the air.

Similarly, when Germany’s Ferdinand Porsche (designer of the VW Beetle car and fearsome Tiger tank) came up with a 190-tonne mega-tank (complete with 9in thick armoured plating), Hitler wanted to add a bigger gun (of 150mm).

The giant panzer — cover-named Maus [mouse] to conceal its development — was hopelessly slow and so heavy most bridges couldn’t take its weight so that, the programme claimed without explanation, “it had to be fitted with a snorkel.” The only completed example was captured at the factory by the Russians in 1945.

The World’s Weirdest Weapons was even more like an episode of Brass Eye. The US was looking for unorthodox ways to respond to the Pearl Harbour attack. Pennsylvanian dentist and inventor Lyle S Adams proposed strapping bombs containing tiny amounts of napalm to one million bats and releasing  them over Japan.

Without any sense that this plan was bizarre, the narrator explained admiringly that Adams had deduced bats were “easy to transport and handle” and could carry more than their own bodyweight. “Most importantly, in daylight, bats seek out dark crevices, perfect for getting incendiary bombs into cracks, and under the roofs of Japanese buildings, many of which are made of flammable paper, wood and bamboo.”

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Incredibly, early tests were encouraging and the Americans spent $2m on them, mostly because Doctor Adams had a friend in a high place. We saw a letter received by a Colonel Donovan, recommending the idea. “This man is not a nut,” it declared, signed “FDR” — the American President.

THURSDAY

I resolved to have a break from the Second World War and escape the Nazis. So, you’ll forgive me for not feeling up to the day’s episode of Auschwitz: Nazis and The Final Solution, subtitled “Frenzied Killing”.

Other subjects are rare to find on the competing channels, though, and are mostly used as light relief from Hitler’s antics, mostly history juiced-up or made modern. I satisfied my daily fix for combat analysis with The Battle of the Alamo.

Later, The True Story had a nifty format the BBC should steal, asking whether films such as Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart and Apollo 13 are historically accurate.

Unsolved History offered an episode titled “Who Killed Tutankhamen?”, but anyone feeling ashamed (as I did) they didn’t know the answer — or even have a list of suspects — will be pleased to know the answer isn’t general knowledge even after all this time. Luckily, “two US homicide detectives believe they’ve solved the mystery”. Colombo, eat your heart out. Their answer, by the way, was Tut’s prime minister Ay — in line to be the next Pharoah. 

They deduced King Tut was killed by a blood clot following a blow to the back of the head, although he didn’t die until several months later, making Ay either a pretty inept assassin or a very good one.

Ninja: Shadow Warriors sounded silly but, be honest, what do you know about the ninja apart from the fact they went round in black pyjamas like the Phantom Flan Flinger? Like a lot of these shows, it promised “the untold history”, “astonishing secrets” and “a television first”, namely an interview with one of the last living ninja masters.

The main revelation was the claim that “not many Japanese would admit to having ninja ancestry” because “ninja have a mixed reputation as thieves and murderers”. This, as it turned out, wasn’t that mixed.

In the 16th century, warlords hired ninja for assassination, espionage, arson and infiltration in combat, “causing chaos in battle disguised in enemy uniforms.” They worked in almost total secrecy, even from their own families, and were regarded as the flipside of their noble employers. “Samurai didn’t want it to be known they used ninja,” a historian said. “Because it was considered dishonourable to have your enemy assassinated or have his castle burnt down.”

It still sounded pretty cool to me.

FRIDAY

To be honest, I had seized on any alternative to avoid watching Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, as you might, partly on the grounds I had seen enough programmes to know the full (appalling) truth already. Not for nothing was the first episode called “Surprising Beginnings”. In it, I learned that Auschwitz was originally built to hold Polish political prisoners, who were worked so hard by the Nazis that over half of the first 23,000 Poles sent there died within 20 months.

Of all the six parts, “Liberation and Revenge” sounded as if it might not be that harrowing and could even have been faintly redemptive, positive even. But immediately, this assumption of mine also was rubbish.

Interviewees included former SS personnel who took part in the atrocities (“We knew the actions that happened there did not comply with human rights”) and Soviet officers who first liberated the camp. The Nazi guards knew the Red Army were nearing, so only a few thousand prisoners remained with most forced to march West. Photos such as the huge piles of victims’ clothes indicated the horrors they found.

The dead were sombrely numbered: 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 23,000 gypsies, 70,000 political prisoners, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, and nearly one million Jews, at least 200,000 of them children. What Auschwitz represented, the narrator said, was “a reminder of what human beings are capable of”. 

You would think by now that the first commandant of Auschwitz, the Lieutenant-Colonel who arrived in 1940 and remained in charge until November 1943, overseeing the enforcement of the Nazis’ Final Solution policy, would be as well known as the men he took orders from — Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann. “Liberation and Revenge” revealed the story of Rudolf Höss, pronounced, appropriately, by the presenter as “Rudolf Hearse.” The revenge element of the title came when Höss was tried and sentenced to hang on a specially constructed gallows at Auschwitz after the war.

At the end of my week, I may not have been converted into a history buff, but the importance of keeping history in our schools and our interest in it alive, and not allowing our obsession with celebrity and brainless reality shows to usurp it, appeared obvious.

The over-riding lesson from the programmes on these channels is that like other aspects of history, the Second World War and the Nazi era may have been erased from what was the History Channel. But they are still this country’s obsession. As is probably only right.