David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge and fêted documentary-maker, is making a habit of asking BBC Four viewers to think anew about the Second World War. His last film, World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel, argued that Stalin’s bloody resistance to Hitler on the Eastern Front was where the war in Europe was really won (and has been shortlisted for a Grierson Award). His new one,World War Two: 1942 and the Soft Underbelly, challenges modern assumptions that Churchill was concerned only with defending the British Isles – and only then by re-invading France.
There is one central question, says Reynolds, that his film sets out to answer. “Why did we and the Americans spend a lot of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, rather than crossing the Channel?” he asks. This new programme, he explains, hinges around the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942 (and is timed to coincide with its 70th anniversary).
“People of Churchill’s generation thought imperially, so that’s part of it,” he says, explaining El Alamein’s territorial importance in protecting the Suez Canal – and its links to the Empire on which Britain still depended. He goes on to tick off a few other good reasons for the Mediterranean campaign. Churchill could not contemplate another British bloodbath like the Somme, and US troops were not ready in sufficient numbers to mount a cross-Channel attack. And while the Royal Navy and the RAF had been built up during the re-armament of the 1930s, the Army was under par – it had been intended to play second fiddle to the French Army, which was now out of the war. A North African campaign would allow Churchill to rebuild the Army’s battle-hardness for any later invasion of France.
And Churchill’s American allies had their own opinion on the matter, too. “Both Churchill and Roosevelt need a victory in 1942,” he explains. “The US have a million men out in the Pacific, fighting against the Japanese. But Roosevelt is quite convinced that in the end the critical thing is defeating Hitler. If Churchill will not cross the Channel, where else are we going to go?” And strength in North Africa allowed the Prime Minister to suggest that victory in Europe might come not from crossing the Channel, but from attacking Italy. It was, said Churchill, Europe’s “soft underbelly”.
But Hitler decided to fight both for north Africa and for Rome – contrary to intelligence reports. “Even Bletchley Park was reliant on the material they got from the intercepts of German messages, most of which did not hit the absolutely top level of German high command,” says Reynolds. “In particular, they didn’t get into the manic mind of Adolf Hitler.” So the Allied Forces’ job in that “soft underbelly” turned out to be anything but soft and, says Reynolds in the film, by late 1943 Churchill’s “bright idea would become a dark obsession”.
It’s a fine turn of phrase, but Reynolds has other storytelling techniques that are even more evocative. At one point in the programme, he does a comical impression of General Montgomery. He also illustrates how close Churchill and Roosevelt were, by re-enacting a scene in a White House guest bedroom. Churchill, emerging from the bathroom to find the president in the room, dropped his towel. “The Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States,” said Churchill. Fortunately when Reynolds drops his towel, he is fully clothed underneath.
“I enjoy doing those things, they’re bits of fun,” says Reynolds, who has been presenting BBC series – including Radio 4’s enormous, 90-partAmerica, Empire of Liberty – since 2005. They are, though, a long way from his day job. “I tell some stories giving lectures. But no, I don’t drop a towel.”
In person, he is amiably bookish, with a clear passion for his subject. Indeed Reynolds’s television projects tend, he says, to spring out of his own academic research. That synergy can even be popular with the bureaucrats at the Higher Education Funding Council. “They don’t just want to know whether six people have read your learned article in some obscure journal,” says Reynolds. “There’s more of a positive evaluation of what’s called ‘impact’. Have half a million people watched a film, or listened to a radio series?”
His next project is for BBC Two, pegged to the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and will look at both the conflict and its legacies. But viewers are unlikely to spot many similarities with that other TV chronicle of the era, Downton Abbey. “I’m not a great fan of it,” says Reynolds. “If you have a hankering for this Elgar-ian, Edwardian pre-war period, you just have to ask yourself: ‘How would I survive for three months without antibiotics?’ Most of the people in eras before our own were living in appalling pain.”
Contrary to the harmony portrayed in Downton, Reynolds argues that Edwardian Britain was riddled with class rivalry. “We had massive strikes before the First World War, and a huge problem with the suffragettes. So life in a country house was just
a small part of that,” he says. “It may make very effective, prize-winning drama. But if people go away with the feeling that’s what Britain was like before the First World War, I have a problem with that.”
He sounds, uncharacteristically, a little irked. But if modern perceptions of 20th-century history need to be challenged, then at least Reynolds is the man to do it.
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