Sam Willis

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Samuel Bruce Adlam Willis
Sam canyon.jpg
Born (1977-04-24) 24 April 1977 (age 44)
Known for
  • TV/Media work
  • Books
Academic background
Alma mater
ThesisCapability, control and tactics in the eighteenth century Royal Navy (2004)
Doctoral advisorNicholas Rodger
Academic work
Sub-disciplineNaval history

Samuel Bruce Adlam Willis (born 24 April 1977) is a British historian, television presenter and writer. He is a visiting Fellow in Maritime and Naval History at the University of Plymouth, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He is the editor of Navy Records Online, the online-publishing branch of the Navy Records Society. He has published fourteen books and numerous academic articles on maritime and naval history.


Willis studied History and Archaeology at the University of Exeter, graduating in 2000. Willis went on to earn a PhD in Naval History from the same university, studying under Professor Nicholas Rodger. He also went on to research for an MA in Maritime Archaeology from the University of Bristol where he studied under Professor Mark Horton.


Since 2017, Willis has co-organised and delivered several onsite lectures in The History Masterclass project, a series of seminar sessions delivered by well-known public historians.[1]

He made numerous appearances on TV and Radio as an expert contributor before he presented Nelson's Caribbean Hell-Hole, a 2012 film for BBC4 about the excavation of a mass burial site near the British naval dockyard at English Harbour in Antigua.[2]

In 2013 he presented a three-part series for BBC4 on the cultural history of Shipwrecks[3] and was one of the nine-man crew that recreated John Wesley Powell's epic uncharted 1869 voyage down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in Whitehall boats, that was filmed and broadcast by BBC2 in January 2014.[4] In October 2014 he presented a three-part series on castles for BBC4: Castles: Britain's Fortified History.

In October 2015 he presented another three-part series for BBC4 Britain's Outlaws: Highwaymen, Pirates & Rogues. In 2016 the BBC broadcast The Silk Road, a series following Willis's journey from Xi'an to Venice. Willis's first series for National Geographic, Nazi Weird War Two, was broadcast in December 2016. The show in which Willis teams up with Robert Joe, an Urban Explorer, has been described as 'one of the oddest partnerships since Mulder and Scully'.

Since 2016, Willis has hosted the Histories of the Unexpected podcast with Professor James Daybell, and wrote several books based on the series with his co-presented. The podcast is part of the "History Hit Network", created by Dan Snow, with whom Willis had travelled down the Grand Canyon.[5]

In early 2017 Willis presented another three-part series on the evolution of British arms and weaponry, in the same format as his 2014 series on castles, again for BBC4: Sword, Musket and Machine Gun: Britain's Armed History. In 2017 Willis presented two other 3-part TV series: Maritime Silk Road Reborn for National Geographic and Invasion! for BBC Four.


His first book, Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare was based on his PhD thesis and was a revisionist study of the history of tactics in the Age of Sail. It explained in greater detail than ever before how battles were won or lost in the Age of Sail. His subsequent books include the Hearts of Oak Trilogy and the Fighting Ships series.

In 2011 he was awarded the Society for Nautical Research's Anderson Medal for his biography of the naval battle The Glorious First of June, the final instalment of his Hearts of Oak Trilogy.

In 2010 he made a discovery in the British Library of previously unpublished naval dispatches from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which became the subject of his 2013 book, In The Hour of Victory.

  • Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: the Art of Sailing Warfare, Woodbridge, 2008 ISBN 1843833670
  • Shipwrecks: A History of Disasters at Sea, London 2009, ISBN 1847247628
  • Fighting Ships from the Ancient World to 1750, London 2010, ISBN 1847248802
  • Fighting Ships 1750-1850, London 2007, ISBN 1847241719
  • Fighting Ships 1850-1950, London 2008, ISBN 1847244165
  • The Fighting Temeraire, London 2009, ISBN 1847249981
  • The Admiral Benbow, London 2010, ISBN 1849160368
  • The Glorious First of June, 2012, ISBN 1849160384
  • In the Hour of Victory: The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson, London 2013, ISBN 0857895702
  • The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, New York and London 2015, ISBN 978-0-393-23992-8
  • The Spanish Armada, Ladybird Expert Series, Illustrated by Paul Young, London 2018, ISBN 978-0-7181-8857-3
  • The Battle of the Nile, Ladybird Expert Series, Illustrated by Paul Young, London 2019, ISBN 978-0-7181-8858-0
  • The Battle of Trafalgar, Ladybird Expert Series, Illustrated by Paul Young, London 2019, ISBN 978-0-7181-8873-3

Alongside his podcast, Willis has co-written a series of books with James Daybell.

  • Histories of the Unexpected: How Everything Has A History, Atlantic Books 2018, ISBN 9781786494122
  • Histories of the Unexpected: The Romans, Atlantic Books 2019, ISBN 9781786497710
  • Histories of the Unexpected: The Tudors, Atlantic Books 2019, ISBN 9781786497697
  • Histories of the Unexpected: The Vikings, Atlantic Books 2019, ISBN 9781786497734
  • Histories of the Unexpected: The World War Two, Atlantic Books 2019, ISBN 9781786497758


  1. ^ "History Masterclasses". Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  2. ^ "Nelson's Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered". BBC Four. 2012. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  3. ^ "Shipwrecks: Britain's Sunken History". BBC Four. 2013. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  4. ^ "Operation Grand Canyon with Dan Snow". BBC Two. 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
  5. ^ "Histories of the Unexpected". Retrieved 25 February 2018.