The World at War

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The World at War
Created byJeremy Isaacs
Directed byDavid Elstein
Narrated byLaurence Olivier
Opening themeThe World at War Theme
ComposerCarl Davis
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series1
No. of episodes26
ProducerThames Television
Running time22 hours 32 minutes
Original networkITV
Original release31 October 1973 (1973-10-31) –
8 May 1974 (1974-05-08)
External links

The World at War is a British 26-episode documentary television series chronicling the events of the Second World War. It was at the time of its completion in 1973, at a cost of £900,000 (equivalent to £11,000,000 in 2019), the most expensive factual series ever made.[1] It was produced by Jeremy Isaacs,[2] narrated by Laurence Olivier and included music composed by Carl Davis. The book, The World at War, published the same year, was written by Mark Arnold-Forster to accompany the TV series.

The World at War attracted widespread acclaim and is now regarded as a landmark in British television history.[3] Among many other aspects, the series focused on a portrayal of the experience of the conflict: of how life and death throughout the war years affected soldiers, sailors and airmen, civilians, concentration camp inmates and other victims of the war.[2][4]


Jeremy Isaacs had been inspired to look at the production of a long form documentary series about the Second World War following the BBC's broadcast of its series The Great War in 1964. However, the BBC series, which had been produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum, featured a mix of contemporary film footage from the period, and film recreations, which caused a souring of relations between the BBC and the Imperial War Museum.[5] As a consequence, Isaacs was determined to have his programme be as authentic as possible.

The World at War was commissioned by Thames Television in 1969. At that time, the government had halved the levy it took on television advertising revenue, with the proviso that the money the independent television companies saved had to be reinvested in programming. Thames had a pot of money available from this tax break, which Isaacs persuaded them to use on his Second World War documentary.[5] The series eventually took four years to produce at a cost of £900,000 (equivalent to £11,000,000 in 2019). At the time this was a record for a British television series. It was first shown in 1973 on ITV.

The series featured interviews with major members of the Allied and Axis campaigns, including eyewitness accounts from civilians, enlisted men, officers and politicians. Among these were Sir Max Aitken, Joseph Lawton Collins, Mark Clark, Jock Colville, Karl Dönitz, James "Jimmy" Doolittle, Lawrence Durrell, Lord Eden of Avon, Mitsuo Fuchida, Adolf Galland, Minoru Genda, W. Averell Harriman, Sir Arthur Harris, Alger Hiss, Brian Horrocks, Traudl Junge, Toshikazu Kase, Curtis LeMay, Vera Lynn, Hasso von Manteuffel, Bill Mauldin, John J. McCloy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, J. B. Priestley, Saburo Sakai, Albert Speer, James Stewart, Charles Sweeney, Paul Tibbets, Walter Warlimont, Takeo Yoshikawa, and historian Stephen Ambrose.

In the programme The Making of "The World at War", included in the DVD set, Jeremy Isaacs explains that priority was given to interviews with surviving aides and assistants rather than recognised figures. The most difficult person to locate and persuade to be interviewed was Heinrich Himmler's adjutant Karl Wolff.[6] During the interview he admitted to witnessing a large-scale execution in Himmler's presence. Isaacs later expressed satisfaction with the content of the series, noting that if it had been unclassified knowledge at the time of production, he would have added references to British codebreaking efforts.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes compiled by the British Film Institute during 2000, voted for by industry professionals, The World at War ranked 19th, the highest-placed documentary on the list.


The series has 26 episodes. Producer Jeremy Isaacs asked Noble Frankland, then director of the Imperial War Museum, to list fifteen main campaigns of the war and devoted one episode to each.[2] The remaining eleven episodes are devoted to other matters, such as the rise of the Third Reich, home life in Britain and Germany, the experience of occupation in the Netherlands, and the Nazis' use of genocide. Episode 1 begins with a cold open describing the massacre at the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane by the Waffen SS. The same event is referenced again at the end of Episode 26, while the "Dona nobis pacem" (Latin for "Grant us peace") from the Missa Sancti Nicolai, composed by Joseph Haydn, can be heard. The series ends with Laurence Olivier saying "Remember".

No.TitleOriginal air date
1"A New Germany (1933–1939)"31 October 1973 (1973-10-31)
The rebirth of Germany and growth in power of the Nazi Party leading up to the outbreak of war. Interviewees include Konrad Morgen, Hugh Greene, Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist-Schmenzin, Werner Pusch, Christabel Bielenberg, Siegmund Weltlinger and Emmi Bonhoeffer.
2"Distant War (September 1939 – May 1940)"7 November 1973 (1973-11-07)
The invasions of Poland, the Winter War, the sinking of the Graf Spee, the "phony war" and failure in Norway and the elevation of Winston Churchill to Prime Minister. Interviewees include Lord Boothby, Lord Butler, Bernard Kops, Lucy Faithfull, Lord Chandos, Admiral Charles Woodhouse, Sir Martin Lindsay and Sir John "Jock" Colville.
3"France Falls (May–June 1940)"14 November 1973 (1973-11-14)
French politics, the Maginot Line, the Saar Offensive, Blitzkrieg warfare and the Nazi invasion of France and the Low Countries. Interviewees include General Hasso von Manteuffel, General André Beaufre, Lawrence Durrell, General Siegfried Westphal, Gordon Waterfield, General Walter Warlimont, and Major General Edward Spears.
4"Alone (May 1940 – May 1941)"21 November 1973 (1973-11-21)
The Battle of Britain, retreats in Greece, Crete and Tobruk, and life in Britain between the evacuation at Dunkirk and Operation Barbarossa. Interviewees include Anthony Eden, J. B. Priestley, Sir Max Aitken, Lieutenant General Adolf Galland, Sir John "Jock" Colville, Robert Wright, Ray Holmes and a group of survivors of The Blitz.
5"Barbarossa (June–December 1941)"28 November 1973 (1973-11-28)
After dominating southeastern Europe through force or intrigue, Germany begins Operation Barbarossa, the massive invasion of Soviet Union. Despite several quick victories, the invasion ultimately stalls after a failed assault on Moscow during Russia's harsh winter. Interviewees include General Walter Warlimont, Albert Speer, Paul Schmidt (interpreter), Grigori Tokaty, W. Averell Harriman and Sir John Russell.
6"Banzai!: Japan (1931–1942)"5 December 1973 (1973-12-05)
The rise of the Japanese Empire, the Sino-Japanese War, the Soviet-Japanese border conflicts, Pearl Harbor and the early Japanese successes in the fall of Malaya and Singapore. Interviewees include Kōichi Kido, Toshikazu Kase, Minoru Genda, Mitsuo Fuchida, Masatake Okumiya, Takeo Yoshikawa, J. G. Smyth and Ichiji Sugita.
7"On Our Way: U.S.A. (1939–1942)"12 December 1973 (1973-12-12)
The opposition by various factions to the United States of America entry into the war, Lend Lease, U-boat attacks on Atlantic convoys and America's graduated responses, the mobilization of America after Pearl Harbor, the loss of the Philippines, the Doolittle Raid, Midway and Guadalcanal. Interviewees include W. Averell Harriman, George Ball, Norman Corwin, J. K. Galbraith, John J. McCloy, Edison Uno, Paul Samuelson, Isamu Noguchi, Jimmy Doolittle, Richard Tregaskis, Minoru Genda, Mitsuo Fuchida, J. Lawton Collins, and Vannevar Bush.
8"The Desert: North Africa (1940–1943)"19 December 1973 (1973-12-19)
The desert war, starting with Italy's unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and the successive attacks and counter-attacks between Germany and Commonwealth forces, and the Afrika Korps's eventual defeat at El Alamein. Interviewees include General Richard O'Connor, Major General Francis de Guingand, Siegfried Westphal, Field Marshal Lord Harding and Lawrence Durrell.
9"Stalingrad (June 1942 – February 1943)"2 January 1974 (1974-01-02)
The mid-war German situation in Southern Russia resulting in the Battle of Stalingrad, and its ultimate German catastrophe.
10"Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic (1939–1944)"9 January 1974 (1974-01-09)
The submarine war emphasizing mainly the North Atlantic. Tracks the development of both the convoy system and German submarine strategy. Interviewees include Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, Otto Kretschmer, Captain William Eyton-Jones, Captain Gilbert Roberts, Vice Admiral Sir Peter Gretton, Air Vice Marshal Wilfrid Oulton, Peter-Erich Cremer, and Raymond Hart.
11"Red Star: The Soviet Union (1941–1943)"16 January 1974 (1974-01-16)
The rise of the Red Army, mobilisation of Soviet production, the Siege of Leningrad, the Soviet partisans and the Battle of Kursk. Interviewees include General Ivan Lyudnikov and Ivan Chistyakov.
12"Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 – April 1944)"23 January 1974 (1974-01-23)
The development of British and American strategic bombing in both success and setback. Interviewees include Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, Albert Speer, Brigadier-General James Stewart, Hamish Mahaddie, William Reid, General Leon W. Johnson, General Curtis LeMay, Wilhelm Herget, Werner Schröer, Lieutenant General Adolf Galland and General Ira C. Eaker.
13"Tough Old Gut: Italy (November 1942 – June 1944)"30 January 1974 (1974-01-30)
Emphasizes the difficult Italian Campaign beginning with Operation Torch in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily; Salerno, Anzio, Cassino; and the capture of Rome. Interviewees include General Sir Kenneth Strong, General Mark Clark, Field Marshal Lord Harding, Bill Mauldin, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Siegfried Westphal.
14"It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma (1942–1944)"6 February 1974 (1974-02-06)
The jungle war in Burma and India—what it "lacked in scale was made up in savagery". Interviewees include Mike Calvert, Sir John Smyth and Vera Lynn (the episode title is the name of one of her songs), and Lord Mountbatten of Burma.
15"Home Fires: Britain (1940–1944)"13 February 1974 (1974-02-13)
Life and politics in Britain from post-Battle of Britain to the first V-1 attacks. Interviewees include Lord Butler, Lord Shinwell, Lord Chandos, Tom Driberg, Lord Avon, Michael Foot, Cecil Harmsworth King and J. B. Priestley.
16"Inside the Reich: Germany (1940–1944)"20 February 1974 (1974-02-20)
German society and how it changes as its fortunes of war are reversed. Censorship and popular entertainment, the transformation of German industry, the recruitment of female and foreign labour, allied bombing, German dissent—including the 20 July plot, and the mobilisation of the Volkssturm towards the war's end. Interviewees include Christabel Bielenberg, Friedrich Luft, Albert Speer, Emmi Bonhoeffer, Otto John, Traudl Junge, Richard Schulze-Kossens, and Otto Ernst Remer.
17"Morning (June–August 1944)"27 February 1974 (1974-02-27)
The development and execution of Operation Overlord starting with the failed Dieppe Raid, followed by the allied breakout and battles in the Bocage and at Falaise. Interviewees include Goronwy Rees, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Kay Summersby, James Martin Stagg and Major General J. Lawton Collins.
18"Occupation: Holland (1940–1944)"13 March 1974 (1974-03-13)
Emphasizes life in the Netherlands under German occupation, when citizens chose to resist, collaborate or remain passive. Interviewees include Louis de Jong (who also served as adviser for this episode) and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
19"Pincers (August 1944 – March 1945)"20 March 1974 (1974-03-20)
Operation Dragoon, the liberation of Paris, the Allied breakout in France and the failure of Operation Market Garden, the Warsaw Uprising, the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine. In the East, the Romanian coup and the Soviet advance through Ukraine to East Prussia. Interviewees include Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, General Hasso von Manteuffel, Major General Francis de Guingand, W. Averell Harriman and Major General J. Lawton Collins.
20"Genocide (1941–1945)"27 March 1974 (1974-03-27)
Begins with the founding of the S.S. and follows the development of Nazi racial theory. It ends with the implementation of the Final Solution. Interviewees include Karl Wolff, Wilhelm Höttl, Rudolf Vrba, Primo Levi, Richard Böck, and Anthony Eden.
21"Nemesis: Germany (February–May 1945)"3 April 1974 (1974-04-03)
The final invasion of Germany by both the Western and Eastern allies, the bombing of Dresden, and the events in the Führerbunker during the fall of Berlin. Interviewees include Albert Speer, Traudl Junge, Elena Rzhevskaya, Heinz Linge and Major Anna Nikulina of the Soviet Army.
22"Japan (1941–1945)"10 April 1974 (1974-04-10)
Japan's society and culture during wartime, and how life is transformed as the country gradually becomes aware of increasingly catastrophic setbacks including the Doolittle raid, defeat at Midway, the death of Isoroku Yamamoto, the Battle of Saipan, Okinawa and the relentless bombing of Japanese cities. Interviewees include Toshikazu Kase and Naoki Hoshino.
23"Pacific (February 1942 – July 1945)"17 April 1974 (1974-04-17)
The successive and increasingly bloody land battles on tiny islands in the expansive Pacific, aimed towards the Japanese heartland. Following the bombing of Darwin, the over-extended Japanese are progressively turned back at Kokoda, Tarawa, Peleliu, the Philippines, Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa.
24"The Bomb (February–September 1945)"24 April 1974 (1974-04-24)
The development of the atomic bomb, the ascendency of President Harry Truman, emerging splits in the Allies with Joseph Stalin, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, ultimately leading to the surrender of Japan. Interviewees include Toshikazu Kase, Yoshio Kodama, Marquis Koichi Kido, Major General Charles Sweeney, Brigadier General Paul Tibbets, Alger Hiss, W. Averell Harriman, Lord Avon, McGeorge Bundy, John J. McCloy, General Curtis LeMay, Hisatsune Sakomizu and Kiyoshi Tanimoto.
25"Reckoning (April 1945)"1 May 1974 (1974-05-01)
The situation in post-war Europe including the allied occupation of Germany, demobilisation, the Nuremberg Trials and the genesis of the Cold War. The episode concludes with summations about the ultimate costs and consequences of the war. Interviewees include Charles Bohlen, Stephen Ambrose, Lord Avon, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Hartley Shawcross, Noble Frankland and Alger Hiss.
26"Remember"8 May 1974 (1974-05-08)
How the war – both good and bad experiences – was experienced and remembered by its witnesses.

Broadcast history[edit]

The series was originally transmitted on the ITV network in the United Kingdom between 31 October 1973 and 8 May 1974, and has subsequently been shown around the world. It was first shown in the US in syndication on various stations in 1974.[7] WOR in New York aired the series in the mid-1970s, although episodes were edited both for graphic content and to include sufficient commercial breaks. PBS station WNET in New York broadcast the series unedited and in its entirety in 1982 as did WGBH in the late 1980s. The Danish channel DR1 first broadcast the series from August 1976 to February 1977 and it was repeated on DR2 in December 2006 and January 2007. The History Channel in Japan began screening the series in its entirety in April 2007. It repeated the entire series again in August 2011. The Military History Channel in the UK broadcast the series over the weekend of 14 and 15 November 2009. The Military Channel (now American Heroes Channel) in the United States aired the series in January 2010, and has shown it regularly since. BBC Two in the UK transmitted a repeat run of the series starting on 5 September 1994 at teatime. In 2011, the British channel Yesterday started a showing of the series and it has been shown continuously since. The series was shown in full on SABC in South Africa in 1976, one of the first documentary series broadcast after the launch of the first television service in South Africa in January 1976.

The series was shown in Australia in 1979 and has been shown on various TV stations at various times since then. It has also been shown on Australia's Pay TV Provider Foxtel in the early 2000s and a number of times since.

Each episode was 52 minutes excluding commercials; as was customary for ITV documentary series at the time, it was originally screened with only one central break. The episode "Genocide (1941–1945)" was screened uninterrupted.

Additional episodes[edit]

Some footage and interviews which were not used in the original series were later made into additional hour or half-hour documentaries narrated by Eric Porter. These were released as a bonus to the VHS version and are included in the DVD set of the series, first released in 2001.

  1. "The Making of the Series: The World at War"
  2. "Secretary to Hitler – Traudl Junge"[6]
  3. "From War to Peace – Professor Stephen Ambrose"
  4. "Warrior – Reflections of Men at War"
  5. "Hitler's Germany: The People's Community (1933–1939)"
  6. "Hitler's Germany: Total War (1939–1945)"
  7. "The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler"
  8. "The Final Solution: Part One"
  9. "The Final Solution: Part Two"
  10. "Making of the Series – A 30th Anniversary Retrospective"
  11. "Experiences of War"
  12. "Restoring the World at War"

Home media history[edit]

The series was released in various territories on VHS video as well as on 13 Laservision long-play videodiscs by Video Garant Amsterdam.

In 2001–2005, DVD box sets were released in the UK and US. In 2010, the series was digitally restored and re-released on DVD and Blu-ray. In the latter case the image is cropped from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio down to 1.78:1, to better fit modern widescreen televisions.[8] The restored series was re-released on DVD and Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio in the United Kingdom on 31 October 2016.[9]

From 2004 to 2005, A&E Home Entertainment, under licence from Thames, talkbackTHAMES and FremantleMedia International released all 26 episodes of the series on Region 1 DVD, uncut, uncensored and remastered.


The original book The World at War,[10] which accompanied the series, was written by Mark Arnold-Forster in 1973. In October 2007, Ebury Press published The World at War, a new book by Richard Holmes, an oral history of the Second World War drawn from the interviews conducted for the TV series.[11] The programme's producers shot hundreds of hours of interviews, but only a fraction of that recorded material was used for the final version of the series. A selection of the rest of this material was published in this book, which included interviews with Albert Speer, Karl Wolff (Himmler's adjutant), Traudl Junge (Hitler's secretary), James Stewart (USAAF bomber pilot and Hollywood star), Anthony Eden, John Colville (Private Secretary to Winston Churchill), Averell Harriman (US Ambassador to the Soviet Union) and Arthur "Bomber" Harris (Head of RAF Bomber Command).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Memories of a world at war". Royal Television Society. Retrieved 31 March 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Anna Tims (28 October 2013). "Jeremy Isaacs and David Elstein: how we made The World at War". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 March 2019.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 September 2011. Retrieved 19 December 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ Rosenthal, Alan (1 July 1980). The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Film Making (first ed.). University of California Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-0520040229. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  5. ^ a b Hennessy, Mark (27 September 2013). "Forty years on, 'The World at War' has lost none of its power". The Irish Times. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  6. ^ a b Jeremy, Isaacs (23 November 2006). "Susan McConachy". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  7. ^ "Tonight's television: 7:30 pm". Free-Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. 13 September 1974. p. 18.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "The World at War in correct aspect ratio on Blu-ray & DVD in October". Cine Outsider. Retrieved 28 March 2019.
  10. ^ Arnold-Forster, Mark (2001). The World at War. ISBN 0-7126-6782-2.
  11. ^ Holmes, Richard (October 2007). The World at War: The Landmark Oral History from the Previously Unpublished Archives. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-191751-7.

External links[edit]