Narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier with a musical score by Carl Davis, Thames Television’s acclaimed film history of the Second World War stands as one of the most massive undertakings in television-documentary history.

The World at War contains remarkable interviews with the statesmen and military leaders of the time and it uses film from national and private sources, much of it never screened before. In fact, film research in eighteen countries yielded over three million feet of archive film and nearly a million feet of interviews and location material. Above all, it brings to the screen the memories and experiences of ordinary men and women – American and Japanese, British and German, Russian and European, in uniform and out – who lived and fought throughout the most momentous conflict in world history.

The idea of producing a definitive televisual history of the Second World War came from Jeremy Isaacs, then a producer with Thames Television. He presented an initial plan for the programme to the board of Thames in the autumn of 1970. It was a daunting project for an independent-television company to take on – 26 episodes of one hour in length, shown once a week over a period of six months. Isaacs delivered a two-line description of each episode and, amazingly, 25 of these went on to be made. Having received board approval, Isaacs set about assembling his team, and they went to work in early 1971. It is a monument to their skills and the subsequent success of the programme that many members of this team went on to even bigger and better things.

Director David Elstein would become Director of Programmes at Thames before being appointed Chief Executive of Channel 5. Writer Charles Douglas-Home became editor of The Times, while another producer, Ted Childs, is one of the most influential makers of television drama in the UK, responsible for hits such as The Sweeney, Inspector Morse and Kavanagh QC. Jeremy Isaacs himself became the founding Chief Executive of Channel 4 Television from 1981 to 1988 and later General Director of the Royal Opera House. He was knighted in 1996 for services to broadcasting and the arts.

Back in 1971 writers were selected, together with the rest of the crew, and the gargantuan research project began. One of the most difficult tasks was identifying and tracking down subjects for interview, particularly as many of those involved in the war preferred that the world forget they existed. Months of painstaking research led to some spectacular results. Among those interviewed were Hitler’s Armaments Minister, Albert Speer; Himmler’s Adjutant, Karl Wolff; Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge; Hollywood star and USAAF bomber pilot, James Stewart; then Foreign Secretary, later Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, and Head of RAF Bomber Command, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris.

Isaacs, however, was determined that the series should balance out the ‘view from the top’ with the ‘view from the bottom’ – that those on the front line and on the receiving end of bombing were equally as important as the strategists and the politicians. Thus The World at War features such fascinating characters as the torpedo-tanker crewman who drifted for weeks in the Atlantic without water but who somehow lived to tell the tale; the Leningrad housewife who endured a 1,000– day siege; the D-Day GI who was there when the ramp on the landing craft went down in front of a hail of bullets, and, of course those who survived the horrors of Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, researchers were going through a huge amount of archive film, much of it held at the Imperial War Museum in London. The Nazis were remarkably thorough in recording even their most abhorrent atrocities – much of it in colour – and The World at War would become one of the first television documentaries to exploit these resources completely.

At the same time, work was also being progressed on the script, the logo, the music and the titles. It was to be 18 months before the title sequence was perfected to Isaac’s satisfaction – those sombre black-and-white images set over burning text that would become one of the most memorable in television history.

The first programme, A New Germany, went out on Wednesday, 31 October 1973, at 9pm, and the series went on to achieve excellent ratings for a documentary. One edition, Morning, the story of the D-Day landings, made it into the top 10 that week, unheard of for a programme of that nature. The World at War was deemed a great success, and as a result further ‘specials’ were produced, narrated this time by Eric Porter. Indeed, when shown on BBC2 over Christmas 2002, The World at War received a higher rating than Friends, which was shown at the same time on Channel 4.

The World at War has since been broadcast in nearly 100 countries around the world, and, given its length, it is certain that it is showing somewhere at any given moment in time. It has won many ‘outstanding documentary’ accolades including an International Emmy.

Since its first release on DVD in 2001, which contained the complete 26– episode series and six specials, the original production team including Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Alan Afriat and Sue McConachy were brought back together in 2003 to film a Making of The World at War Retrospective. This was included in a thirtieth-anniversary special box set, which was packaged along with a facsimile of the original BAFTA The World at War booklet. The retrospective is now included in the standard box set.

The World at War endures as a monumental achievement. Most importantly, it still remains as fresh and awe-inspiring as it did when it was first broadcast. The interview and the archive footage will never change; the analysis remains correct.


The National Television Critics Award – for Best Documentary Series to producer Jeremy Isaacs

George Polk Memorial Award – for the Most Outstanding Documentary on American Television to Jeremy Isaacs

American National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Emmy Award – for Outstanding Documentary Achievements in programmes dealing with artistic, historic or cultural subjects.

The Society of Film and Television Arts Technical Craft Award – for Alan Afriat, supervising film editor

World Jewish Film and Television Festival – a silver award to Genocide, episode 20 of The World at War

The World at War is available for purchase on DVD from http://www.freemantlehome


Part One, disk one

The making of the series

Filmed shortly after the series was broadcast, this is the story behind the production process and the challenges involved in summarising years of history and millions of feet of archive footage.

Presented by Jeremy Isaacs, directed by Peter Tiffin

A New Germany: 1933–1939

Germany, a nation stricken by humiliating defeat and emerging from crippling economic depression, looks to one man for a resurgence of hope and dignity. That man is Adolf Hitler.

Written by Neal Ascherson, directed by Hugh Raggett

Distant War: September 1939–May 1940

In eastern Europe, the full force of the Nazi machine rolls on – but, in Britain, an uneasy calm settles on the nation. It is the ‘phoney’ war, with the sound of distant guns thundering ominously on the horizon.

Written by Laurence Thompson, produced and directed by David Elstein

France Falls: May–June 1940

France discovers it is woefully unprepared for modern warfare as the Nazi war machine easily skirts around the Maginot line. Britain retreats and prepares for invasion.

Written and produced by Peter Batty

Part One, disk two

Alone: May 1940–May 1941

After Dunkirk, Britain faces the German onslaught. Although the RAF wins the Battle of Britain, the cities are blitzed and on the Continent the last Allies are conquered. The outlook is grim.

Written by Laurence Thompson, produced and directed by David Elstein

Barbarossa: June–December 1941

Hitler at last turns his tanks towards Russia. After a succession of devastating victories, the Germans delay and the fierce Russian winter takes a grip.

Written and produced by Peter Batty

Banzai: Japan 1931–1942

At war since 1931 on the Chinese mainland, the Japanese hope for easy victories over the British and Dutch. And then on 7 December 1941, Japan makes their infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.

Written and produced by Peter Batty

On Our Way: USA 1939–1942

Americans are divided between fighting the Japanese and the Nazis. Hitler solves the problem by declaring war on the USA.

Written and produced by Peter Batty

Part Two, disk one

The Desert: North Africa 1940–1943

For two years the Eighth Army and Rommel’s Afrika Corps fight in the wastes of North Africa. Finally the tide turns at El Alamein.

Written and produced by Peter Batty

Stalingrad: June 1942–February 1943

Hitler’s early successes in Russia made him reckless and he resolves to capture Stalingrad. The battle lasts six months with the Russians emerging as victors. The Wehrmacht never recovers.

Written by Jerome Kuehl, directed by Hugh Raggett

Wolf-pack: U-boats in the Atlantic 1939–1944

In a war of high technology and animal courage: the German U-boats fight Allied merchantmen, hounding them in packs.

Written by J P W Mallalieu, produced and directed by Ted Childs

Red Star: the Soviet Union 1941–1943

For two years the Soviet Army fights the Germans almost alone. After one of the greatest land battles in history, the Soviet Union survives and triumphs – but with a loss of no less than twenty million of its people

Written by Neal Ascherson, produced and directed by Martin Smith

Part Two, disk two

Whirlwind: Bombing Germany September 1939–April 1944

Bomber Command begin bombing German cities by night and the Americans reinforce the attacks by day: a whirlwind of terror and destruction that will win the war.

Written by Charles Douglas-Home, produced by Ted Childs

Tough Old Gut: Italy November 1942–June 1944

Churchill called Italy the ‘soft underbelly of the crocodile’ and thought the Allies could cut through it to the heart of Germany. But the soft underbelly turned out to be a ‘tough old gut’.

Written by David Wheeler, produced by Ben Shepherd

It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma 1942–1943

Vera Lynn sang of a lovely day tomorrow, but the war in Burma was mud and monsoon. Britain’s largest Army learned to master the jungle and fought the Japanese to a standstill.

Written by John Williams, produced and directed by John Pett

Home Fires: Britain 1940–1944

Finding strength in unity at home in Britain during the war, it was a time of gas masks, Winston Churchill, Dig for Victory, evacuation, George Formby, the Land Army, ITMA, the Squander Bug and the Beveridge Report.

Written by Angus Calder, produced by Phillip Whitehead

Part Three, disk one

Inside the Reich: Germany 1940–1944

Initial victory in Europe turns sour after the defeat at Stalingrad, yet Germany prepares to fight to the end – even after an assassination attempt on the Führer.

Written by Neal Ascherson, produced by Phillip Whitehead

Morning: June–August 1944

The Western Allies resolve to invade Europe. England becomes a floating supply dump and the British and Americans assemble the largest invasion fleet in history. It is 6 June 1944 – D-Day.

Written by John Williams, produced and directed by John Pett

Occupation: Holland 1940–1944

Though a neutral country, Holland is attacked by Germany without warning in 1940. During the next four years, life carries on seemingly without incident, but underneath Resistance never dies.

Written by Charles Bloomberg, produced and directed by Michael Darlow

Pincers: August 1944–March 1945

The end of the war appears close at hand with the liberation of Paris in 1944, but the British and Americans disagree on how to advance. Meanwhile, Poland suffers devastating losses to achieve victory.

Written and produced by Peter Batty

Part Three, disk two

Genocide: 1941–1945

The Nazis are racist; the Aryans are a master race, others, particularly the Jews, are sub-human. Himmler’s SS sets about ridding Europe of millions of Jews.

Written by Charles Bloomberg, produced by Michael Darlow

Nemesis: Germany February–May 1945

Hitler retreats to the Führer bunker in Berlin as Germany crumbles around him and his lieutenants abandon him to a fate of suicide. Meanwhile, the Russians raise the Red Flag in Berlin.

Written by Stuart Hood, produced by Martin Smith

Japan: 1941–1945

Initially apprehensive about the outcome of declaring war, the Japanese quickly turn to celebration with early victory. In the end, their worst fears are unimaginably exceeded.

Written by Courtney Browne, produced by Hugh Raggett

Pacific: February 1942–July 1945

The Americans fight their way across the Pacific towards Japan and the Philippines. Perhaps the bloodiest campaign of all: each island has to be taken by storm – and the Japanese fight to the last man.

Written by David Wheeler, produced and directed by John Pett

Part Four, disk one

The Bomb: February–September 1945

Western scientists have developed a new, immensely powerful weapon – the atomic bomb. On 6 August 1945, the Enola Gay delivers the world’s first atomic bomb to Hiroshima. The world would be altered for ever.

Written and produced by David Elstein

Reckoning: 1945 . . . And After

The war ends slowly and messily. Britain is victorious but exhausted and the superpowers confront each other as they decide the fate of Europe.

Written and produced by Jerome Kuehl


For many, the Second World War was the most significant experience of their lives. Heartbreaking first-hand remembrances from a vast array of survivors on both sides of the war.

Written and produced by Jeremy Isaacs

Part Four, disk two

Secretary to Hitler

Traudl Junge found herself in Berlin during the war because she wanted to be a ballet dancer. A friend told her about a job vacancy in Hitler’s Chancellery; she applied for it and, looking like Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, she became one of his private secretaries. Traudl Junge saw Hitler at close quarters, shared his public life and was with him in the bunker at the end.

Produced by Susan McConachy

From War to Peace

Renowned historian Stephen Ambrose examines the aftermath of the Second World War. Was peace truly gained? Or did a new war with weapons of policy take its place? An interview with Professor Stephen Ambrose.

Produced by Jerome Kuehl


Reflections of men at war, compiled from interviews and archive film obtained for The World at War series. A measured and decidedly unromantic look at the heat of battle, Warrior weaves together eyewitness accounts and rarely seen archive footage to reveal the deadly realities of combat.

Edited and produced by Alan Afriat, poems by R N Currey, Sean Jennet, Ruthven Tod. Executive producer, Jerome Kuehl. Production manager, Liz Sutherland

Part Five, disk one

Hitler’s Germany: the People’s Community 1933–1939

The harsh outcome of the First World War left Germany ripe for Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party’s swift rise to power, promising a devastated nation’s return to international prominence. See how the Germans worked, played and organise themselves for war as the Third Reich set the stage for the Second World War.

Written by Jerome Kuehl. Produced by Raye Farr. Production manager, Liz Sutherland. Associate producer, Alan Afriat. Executive producer, Jerome Kuehl

Hitler’s Germany: Total War 1939–1945

Continuing the in-depth look at Hitler’s regime through the lives of ordinary citizens, this special presentation shows how they coped with mass bombing, invasion and ultimately, defeat.

Written by Jerome Kuehl. Produced by Raye Farr. Production manager, Liz Sutherland. Associate producer, Alan Afriat. Executive producer, Jerome Kuehl

Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler

Years after his death, mystery still surrounds the circumstances under which Adolf Hitler ended his life. Did he die from a self-inflicted gunshot? Or did he swallow cyanide with his recent bride Eva Braun?

Executive producer, Jerome Kuehl. Produced and directed by Martin Smith. Production manager, Liz Sutherland. Associate producer, Alan Afriat

Part Five, disk two

The Final Solution: part one

Examining the growth of the Nazi racial doctrines from their origins to 1939, we see the terrifying and unforgettable stories as told by death-camp survivors and also compelling interviews with German participants.

Written and directed by Michael Darlow. Associate producer, Jerome Kuehl. Production manager, Liz Sutherland

The Final Solution: part two

Archive photographs and shocking footage, filmed by the Nazis themselves, capture the full horror of Germany’s systematic extermination of millions of Jews and other non-Aryan civilians. Unflinching and often disturbing, this is a profound and necessary examination into the darkest corners of humanity.

Written and directed by Michael Darlow. Associate producer, Jerome Kuehl. Production manager, Liz Sutherland

30th Anniversary Disk

Making of the series

In this two-hour thirtieth-anniversary retrospective, we commemorate the original 1973 broadcast with new interviews with the makers of the programme.

Experiences of war

Prominent scholars and military figures recount specifics of the war, from firsthand accounts of Okinawa to the D-Day landings and analyse key wartime actions in these previously unseen and extended interviews taken from the archives at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Produced by Fremantle Home Entertainment, music by Carl Davis

DVD Extras: Imperial War Museum Photo Gallery, Biographies, Brief History of The World at War, Episode Summaries, Speeches/Songs & Newsreels and Maps

Series producer, Jeremy Isaacs. Narrated by Eric Porter. Chief historical adviser, Dr Noble Frankland DFC. Music, Carl Davis