World War Two: 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly – Simply Media DVD Review

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In 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly, Professor David Reynolds re-examines the North African and Italian campaigns of WW2.  He starts by posing a question.  “Why did we and the Americans spend a lot of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, rather than crossing the Channel?”

If the main battleground was Russia, they surely the next key area was to be found in occupied Europe – so why was Churchill obsessed with campaigns in North Africa and Italy?  Reynolds is able to produce a number of convincing arguments.  As a man of Empire, Churchill understood the importance of Egypt – if the Suez Canal was lost, then Britain faced ruin.  But there were also more pragmatic reasons – neither the British or the Americans had the capability to launch a full-scale assault across the English Channel and into France in 1942.  But Churchill needed a victory, any victory, in order to shore up morale.

Given that defeat had already followed defeat for the British since 1939, another failure (he envisaged a bloodbath of the scale of the Somme if they attempted a landing in France) might have spelled the end.  Possibly not for the British war effort but certainly for him as leader, as the likes of Sir Stafford Cripps and Anthony Eden were circling.  The perilous state of Churchill’s own personal standing during this period is a matter of historical fact, but since it often gets overlooked it’s an interesting area to explore.

So once Monty scored a victory at El Alamein, Tunisia and Italy began to look like tempting prospects – offfering the British and Americans chances to score what should have been easy victories.  Surely Hitler would be too occupied with Russia to be able to adequately defend these theatres of war?


It wasn’t to be and Reynolds declares that Churchill’s bright idea would become a dark obsession.  Partly this was because Churchill underestimated Hitler, but the British prime minister also received faulty intelligence.  The work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park has become well known during the last few decades, but Reynolds shows that they weren’t infallible.  Often this was because they didn’t have access to the top level of German high command and given the chaotic nature of the German command structure (thanks to Hitler’s knack of micro-managing) the information they received, whilst not deliberately inaccurate, wasn’t correct either.

David Reynolds is an engaging guide.  You get the sense that he relishes being away from his day job (as a professor of International History at Cambridge) and that he also enjoys throwing some quirky scenes into what otherwise might be a fairly dry viewing experience.

He opens the first episode with a fairly conventional piece to camera, except that he’s walking along a beach, his trousers rolled up and the waves lapping at his feet!  He also can’t resist doing the voices of the various players (his conversation between Monty and Churchill is one such amusing moment) and another comic touch occurs when he describes an interesting meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Churchill was a guest in the White House and, returning to his bedroom after a visit to the bathroom, was slightly surprised to find the president in his room.  Dressed in only a towel, Churchill told Roosevelt that “the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States” and promptly dropped the towel.  Reynolds re-enacts this scene although thankfully he was fully clothed.

The occasional moments of levity don’t detract from the fact that Reynolds is an authoritative historian who seems to delight in reaching out to a wide audience.  Across the two 45 minute episodes he’s able to succinctly sketch out all of the key points from this period of the war, sometimes offering a fresh outlook on familiar topics (but always giving well argued reasons for his statements).

A ninety minute television documentary can never hope to have the same scope as a reasonably detailed book (and Reynolds’ own writings are recommended for those who want to dig a little deeper) but 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly (like his other documentaries available on DVD – 1941 and the Man of Steel and Long Shadow) are all fine examples of popular history documentaries.

1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly is released by Simply Media on the 5th of September 2016.  RRP £19.99.


World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel – Simply Media DVD Review

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Originally broadcast in 2011 (the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Russia) 1941 and the Man of Steel is a two-part documentary written and presented by David Reynolds.

It’s fair to say that the battles on the Eastern Front have never attracted the same level of interest (especially in the UK) as the conflicts in the West have.  But Reynolds convincingly argues that the Battle for Russia was just as critical – possibly even more so – than the Battle for Britain in deciding the future not only of the United Kingdom, but the rest of Europe as well.

Reynolds, a pleasingly idiosyncratic academic, makes this point with an amusing introductory speech, clearly designed to wrong-foot the viewer.  “He was a little man, about five foot five. In his sixties. Rather tubby. Enjoyed his drinks and his smokes. An unlikely hero perhaps. But in the dark days of the twentieth century he helped save Britain. And he was one of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Stalin was his party name”.

He then deftly paints a striking picture of Stalin, from his young days as a bank robber (albeit in a good cause – or at least the cause, Bolshevism, which he believed in) through to his years of terror in the 1920’s and 1930’s, where he brutally suppressed any opposition via show trials, torture and mass executions.

But Reynolds is able to argue that it was his dominant personality which helped to bring Russia to the brink of defeat in 1941.  If you create a society that functions only if the man at the top performs effectively, what happens when he begins to make mistakes?  Stalin’s first major miscalculation saw him fail to believe that an attack from Germany was imminent.  He had accurate intelligence from Britain, but his mistrust of the West caused him to disregard it – a fatal mistake.


The first few days of the German offensive saw them make substantial gains whilst Stalin seemed powerless to act.  The news was no better during the next couple of months and Reynolds suggests that this pressure brought the Man of Steel to the point of a nervous breakdown – in a rare moment of candour he bitterly admitted to his colleagues that “Lenin founded our state and we’ve screwed it up”.  This picture of Stalin – a broken man, alone in his dacha and unwilling to answer the phone – is a compelling one.  When the politburo trekked out to see him, Stalin feared the worst (a coup) but in fact they wanted him back.  And it was their faith (a bitter irony when you consider how ruthless he’d been with anyone who dared oppose him) which seemed to spark him back into life.

How he then managed to turn things around is the crux of the documentary and Reynolds, using official documents and telegrams, illuminates the key moments.  Stalin began by falling back on his old methods of terror, but he also had to learn the gentle art of diplomacy – which wasn’t easy for someone who’d risen to the top by not listening to anybody.  But listen he did – and to a most unexpected source, Winston Churchill.  The British Prime Minister had been a savage opponent of Stalin’s Russia in the past, but political expediency now meant that the Man of Steel was a vital ally for the beleaguered British.

Churchill’s trip to Moscow in 1942 is a fascinating part of the story. Stalin attempted to push Churchill into launching an early invasion of France and then angrily called the British people cowards after he failed to get his own way.  Churchill took great umbrage at this slight and considered returning to Britain there and then, but the next day Stalin suggested they retire to his apartment for the evening – where they consumed a great deal of alcohol, leaving Churchill with a severe hangover the next day!  This moment helps to paint both leaders in a very human light and is also a good example of the strange dichotomy of Stalin’s character.  On the one hand he was a brutal and utterly ruthless tyrant, but, as here, he could be approachable and amenable (and remember, it was Churchill who nicknamed him “Uncle Joe”).

Twenty eight million Soviet citizens lost their lives during WW2 – a picture of death and devastation that’s almost unimaginable.  Had Stalin not been so reckless during the first year of the war, says Reynolds, then the death toll would have been considerably less, but he did ultimately achieve a crushing victory over Germany and this victory would help to shape world politics for the next four decades.

Running for ninety minutes (two 45 minute episodes) 1941 and the Man of Steel provides the viewer with a compact overview that still manages to feel quite comprehensive.  Reynolds, who has helmed a number of documentaries (including Long Shadow), certainly knows his stuff, although he may be something of an acquired taste.  He likes the odd dramatic flourish and his quirky sense of humour bubbles to the surface occasionally.  But his arguments are cogent and well thought out and he’s a very affable guide through this complex theatre of war.

1941 and the Man of Steel is released by Simply Media on the 8th of August 2016. RRP £19.99.


World War Two: 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly – to be released by Simply Media on the 5th of September 2016

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Due in early September from Simply Media is another documentary written and presented by David Reynolds, 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly.  Review here.

The British fought the Second World War to defeat Hitler. World War Two 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly asks why, then, did they spend so much of the conflict battling through North Africa and Italy?

Reynolds reassesses Winston Churchill’s conviction that the Mediterranean was the ‘soft underbelly’ of Hitler’s Europe. Travelling to Egypt and Italian battlefields like Cassino, scene of some of the worst carnage in western Europe, he shows how, in reality, the ‘soft underbelly’ became a dark and dangerous obsession for Churchill.

Reynolds reveals a prime minister very different from the jaw-jutting bulldog of Britain’s ‘finest hour’ in 1940 – a leader who was politically vulnerable at home, desperate to shore up a crumbling British empire abroad, losing faith in his army and even ready to deceive his American allies if it might delay fighting head to head against the Germans in northern France. It arrives on DVD on 5 September 2016.


World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel – to be released on DVD by Simply Media on the 8th of August 2016

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Due shortly from Simply Media is the two-part BBC documentary, 1941 and the Man of Steel, presented by David Reynolds.  This was originally broadcast in 2011.  Review here.

In World War Two 1941 and The Man of Steel, due for release on 8 August 2016, Reynolds examines Josef Stalin’s handling of the conflict between the Soviet Union and Germany during the Second World War. The name Stalin means ‘man of steel’, but Reynolds’ penetrating account reveals that the man himself was anything but.

Releasing to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Reynolds reveals how the dictator’s mental frailties nearly caused his country to fall to the Nazis, and examines the compromises Stalin was forced to make to survive. He also investigates the events that led to Stalin eventually siding with the Allies, including Winston Churchill’s controversial visit to Moscow in 1942.

Travelling to the sites of the main battles and using original telegrams and official documents, he re-examines how Britain and America were drawn into alliance with Stalin, a dictator almost as murderous as the Nazi enemy.


Long Shadow: The Great War – Simply Media DVD Review

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With the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme still fresh in the memory, it feels like the ideal time for Long Shadow: The Great War to be released on DVD in the UK for the first time.  Although as we’ll discover, David Reynolds (the writer and presenter) has concerns about how certain events – most notably the Somme – have come to dominate our understanding of the war.

Long Shadow was one of a raft of BBC Great War programmes announced in late 2013.  It’s an ambitious (and still ongoing) project – more than 2,500 hours of programming across television, radio and online to appear between 2014 and 2018.

This breadth of programming, covering both drama and factual, allows for a range of approaches to be taken when discussing the events of 1914 – 1918.  Long Shadow, broadcast in September 2014, asks us to both remember and reassess what we know (or what we think we know) about the Great War and how the conflict shaped the rest of the twentieth century.

Speaking to History Extra, Reynolds makes the point that the Somme, terrible though it was, has clouded our understanding of both the war and its legacy.  “Our view of the war has become focused almost on one day. We need to get out of the trenches and take a broader view of the conflict.  That’s what I mean by becoming a caricature – it’s become simplified down. A caricature is not necessarily untrue, it’s just a sharp oversimplification of what is going on.”

Reynolds, a Cambridge academic, follows in the footsteps of many illustrious predecessors.  Needless to say, presenter-led documentaries stand or fall on the quality of the man or woman in front of the camera.  Thankfully for Long Shadow, Reynolds is an engaging presence – he’s capable of deftly describing the bigger picture, but can also change gears to illuminate smaller-scale, individual stories. Reynolds rarely seems to stand still – he’s often seen walking to his next location – but this hyperactivity (and his sometimes highly dramatic intonations) doesn’t detract from the story he has to tell.

Over the decades, a certain perspective of WW1 has become solidified (“lions led by donkeys”) and this has been reflected in popular satire (Oh! What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth).  Long Shadow attempts to peel away this familiar (and, he argues, inaccurate) viewpoint in order to make sense not only of the war, but of the very different world that both the victors and vanquished returned home to.

Post 1918, the British were keen to honour their dead (Reynolds has some interesting points to make about Edwin Lutweyn’s Cenotaph) but since the public at large found it hard to visualise exactly what had happened on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918, the war slowly faded from the public’s consciousness. But a play, Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff (which debuted in 1928), would help to reignite interest in the conflict. Reynolds argues that for many, Journey’s End helped to illustrate the futility of war – “never again”.

In Germany there was a very different sentiment in the air. If the British were saying “never again”, then some Germans were of the opinion that the war had never ended. It was simply that they had been betrayed by a spineless ruling elite who had forced the country into signing a humiliating armistice. So the seeds for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power were already in place.

But if, as Reynolds argues, WW2 came to be seen as a just war – fought against an evil and corrupt regime – this would have consequences for the Great War. Post WW2, the Great War would be known instead as WW1. It was no longer “The War To End All Wars”, instead it was seen as a failed attempt to end global war (if it had been successful there would have been no need for a Second World War). Reynolds admits this renaming could seem to be a trivial matter, but it was a factor that helped to shape the modern viewpoint that the Great War achieved nothing, except mass slaughter.

Reynolds also examines the unfamiliar British landscape that emerged following the 1918 armistice.  Democracy had come to Britain for the first time with both the working classes and women eligible to vote.  Also discussed is the way that the Great War strengthened a section of the United Kingdom – as both Wales and Scotland took pride in joining with their English counterparts to defeat a common foe.  Had this not happened it’s tempting to wonder whether the union between the three nations would have fractured.  But if the war was a unifying force for England, Scotland and Wales then it was a very different picture in Ireland.  The Easter Rising in 1916 was a watershed moment for Catholics, just as the Battle of the Somme in 1918 was for their Protestant counterparts.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a documentary solely focused on the military conflict between 1914 and 1918 then this possibly isn’t the programme for you.  Long Shadow concerns itself with documenting the aftershock WW1 inflicted on the world at large, with Reynolds demonstrating how this brutal conflict helped to shape the modern world.

The series uses very little archive footage, which is a good move.  Iconic and stirring though these pictures are, the scratchy black and white images also tend to automatically distance the viewer from the events portrayed.  Running for three 50 minute episodes (Remembering and Understanding, Ballots and Bullets, Us and Them), Long Shadow is an accessible and thought-provoking documentary.

Long Shadow: The Great War is released by Simply Media on the 4th of July 2016.  RRP £19.99.