World on Fire, Season 2 Episode 5: History & Images

World on Fire presents stories that demonstrate human resilience in extraordinary times. Explore the real wartime history addressed in Episode 5 and the people involved, from veterans of The Great War fighting again in WW2 to the gritty troops dealing with ground conditions in North Africa.

  • 1.

    Conditions for Troops in North Africa

    Black and white photo of
    ‘The Rats of Tobruk’ – Australian Forces shelter in caves during an air raid in North Africa, WW2

    In episode 5, we see Allied soldiers trying to subsist on half rations of water because a nearby distillery was hit. “Water supplies were almost non-existent,” says the National Army Museum. “Water had to be transported in [special] vehicles. Half of each man’s daily ration of 4.5 liters [4 quarts] went for cooking and topping up vehicle radiators. The rest was for drinking, washing, and shaving.”

    Flies were also “desperate for moisture [and] settled on lips or sweaty shirts by the hundreds,” according to New Zealand History. “Shade was hard to find, and makeshift shelters did little to block the sun.” Troops dealt with the desert’s stifling heat while under constant artillery and air bombardment. Visibility “was hampered by heat haze, dust, and sandstorms,” reports the National Army Museum. Nonetheless, “morale remained high,” according to the Imperial War Museum, “the Australian [troops] adopting the ironic nickname ‘The Rats of Tobruk’.”

    Read a 1941 letter written by Jack Hawken to his mother about serving in the North African desert. The letter is part of the BBC’s archive of wartime memories called WW2 People’s War.

  • 2.

    British WW1 Veterans Fighting Again in WW2

    Black and white photo of an older British man serving in the Home Guard during WW2, with his wife adjusting his uniform.
    British Home Guard, WW2

    In episode 5, Kasia accuses Sir James of being cold-hearted toward war victims like the reluctant Polish spy who died by suicide. “To you, war is an obscenity, an atrocity,” he responds. “But for men of my generation, it is familiar. … You might think us callous, but it [is] really a kind of courage. An acceptance of our own lot.”

    There were many like Sir James who fought for Britain in WW1 and then became involved in WW2, though not typically at the front lines. When conscription widened to make “all unmarried women and all childless widows between 20 and 30 liable to call up … Men were [also] required to do some form of National Service up to the age of 60, which included military service for those under 51,” according to the UK Parliament website. Many older men joined the Home Guard, which “was at first a rag-tag militia, with scarce and often make-do uniforms and weaponry,” says the Imperial War Museum. “Yet it evolved into a well-equipped and well-trained army of 1.7 million men. … Over the course of the war, 1,206 men of the Home Guard were killed on duty or died of wounds.”

    The Home Guard was the basis for a late 1960s BBC television show called Dad’s Army. The BBC was terrified of offending veterans, says The Guardian (UK), “But Dad’s Army became a TV phenomenon.” Listen to the show’s theme song.

  • 3.

    Nazis and Communists

    Black and white photograph from 1933 showing the arrest of communists and socialists by members of the Nazi storm battalion (SA).
    Arrest of communists and socialists by members of the Nazi storm battalion (SA), 1933

    In Episode 5, Henriette reveals to fellow fugitive David that her brother is both a Jew and a communist. How did The Third Reich view communism?

    Due to their extreme political and ideological differences, Nazis saw communists as their most immediate competition. A protracted crackdown on communists and social democrats first began when Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933. He quickly issued a number of decrees suspending personal freedoms “for the defense of nation and state,” and “to combat treason.” The ensuing Enabling Act of March 24, 1933 let Chancellor Hitler punish anyone he considered an enemy of the state, overriding the country’s constitution. “By the end of March [1933], approximately 20,000 people had been arrested,” reports Facing History & Ourselves, an organization using lessons from history to challenge educators and students in their understanding of bigotry and hate. “And by the end of that summer more than 100,000 Communists, Social Democrats, union officials, and other “radicals” were imprisoned.”

    Listen to German civilian Hildegard Hornblower describe political street fights and the Nazis breaking up communist meetings and trade union gatherings in 1933. Her oral history is in the Imperial War Museum.

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