Dig WW2 - Paul Reed

Posted on Tuesday 28th August 2012

Military historian and author Paul Reed worked as series consultant on the new 360 Production documentary, Dig WW2, presented by Dan Snow for the BBC. A team of military historians and archaeologists investigate battlefield sites across Europe, uncovering little-known stories of the Second World War. Here Paul talks about his role and the work that goes in to researching and producing historical documentaries.
So, you were involved with Dig WW2 as Series Consultant, how did that come about and what did it entail?
The series was devised by former BBC producer John Hayes-Fisher, who now works for leading documentary makers 360 Production. I've been working with John for more than a decade so he brought me in at an early stage to work on potential ideas for the series following on from a successful project we did for the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk called Dig 1940. As the ground warfare historian for the series (we had historian Johnny McNee working on RAF related material) I drew up a wish list of locations where we could potentially organise digs and spent several months taking John round locations in Belgium, France, Holland and Italy meeting contacts and seeing what could be done. Our remit was 'World War Two - what is left behind' so we really spent time in seeking lesser known locations as well as the obvious ones. Once the series was in production I was there to act as historical advisor on the shoots, as well as a multitude of other tasks when working on a big project like this. Dig WW2 took up nearly a year of my time, but it was a dream series to work on when your passion is military history!

Was there a team of behind-the-scenes experts and will we be seeing you on camera?
We spoke to a lot of people in the set-up phase who were incredibly generous with their time and expertise. Few of these people feature as the series was commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland who understandably wanted it populated by Irish voices - a reason why I'm not on camera in this one either. What we did do was find Irish WW2 veterans - and they really bring something to the stories.

How did you like working with Dan Snow - the show's presenter - had you worked with him before Dig WW2? It sounds like there was lots of potential for an unbeatable quiz team I must say, lots of historical brain power milling around on set!
I've worked with Dan for several years on numerous projects and we've become good mates, as well as work colleagues; his enthusiasm for projects like this is infectious and makes the whole thing a pleasure to work on. And yes, on some of the shoots we had such a great collection of knowledge, it made for some interesting conversations and debates! Especially with 'what-ifs' at locations like Arnhem!

Dan Snow at the White House, Arnhem.

What kind of areas are covered in the series, were you traveling lots during filming, can give us an idea of which sites you visited?
With the Northern Ireland connection a large part of the series was filmed there, on aircraft crash sites, diving off the Irish coast and seeing the sites of airfields and training areas. In each programme is one 'big dig' which takes places overseas and for that we ended up covering sites at Arnhem, in Normandy and at Monte Cassino. So it did involve a lot of travelling and making the most of the time we had.

Filming at Cassino War Cemetery, Italy.

Entering the Juno Bunker.

Did any surprises crop up during filming, did you learn anything new from it? Did the archaeology aspect add an extra angle for you or are you used to working alongside archaeologists on the battlefields?
In each of the 'big digs' we were able to use them to tell a story, often of aspects of these battles that are lesser known. At Arnhem the obvious thing to do was the Bridge, but as most of the battle was in Oosterbeek we centred on the story of the 'White House', a hotel and bar, defended by 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers during the battle. Few watching will have heard of it but it typifies the real Arnhem experience and here we found new material around the foxholes dug by the troops and brought in the family of a soldier killed in the fighting here. All this made it a fascinating and moving experience for us, which I hope the viewers get a sense of too.

The Dutch recovery team.

Paul Reed on a dig.

What was the highlight for you, do you have a favourite story from the show?
The highlight for me was getting the Italian Campaign into the series. My father fought in Italy and the 'D-Day Dodgers' are among the forgotten men of WW2. We chose a well known location like Monte Cassino but the dig took place in the Liri Valley, on a defensive line captured by British and Canadian troops, which brought the fighting at Cassino to an end. The archaeology here was among the most amazing we followed: it literally uncovered the story of the battle, almost bullet by bullet. The Gustav Line Archaeology group we featured are among the most dedicated and professional I've ever worked with.

Filming in the Liri Valley, Monte Cassino.

Was there anything that didn't quite go to plan, any times you were expecting to find something and didn't, or came across something unexpected, that kind of thing?
One of the Normandy digs was perhaps the most disappointing, although it turned up a huge amount of archaeology. We commissioned a dig at Brecourt Manor, a gun batty site captured by Richard 'Dick' Winters and the men of Easy Company 506th PIR - made famous in the 'Band of Brothers'. We had expert local historian Paul Woodadge there to help us but both he and I were amazed when the dig found some of the gun pits but not a single piece of airborne archaeology was found! The site had been used post D-Day as a field hospital and the gun pits used as a rubbish pit - and were full of military medical archaeology, not what had happened there on 6th June! It was interesting, but from the angle of the story the archaeology was 'polluted' so wasn't as big a part of the series as we hoped.

Using technology to map Brecourt Manor.

Dan and Paul Woodage with a US Poncho found at Brecourt.

We know you from your many books on WW1 and WW2, among other things, and regular readers will recognize you from your author interview about Walking the Somme, how does TV history differ from researching and writing books?
There is a lot less than can be covered in a TV hour than you could cover in a single chapter of a book. In that respect it is a compromise, but working with a good producer like John Hayes-Fisher and a serious company like 360 Production that compromise doesn't have to mean dumbing down. I think Dig WW2 will prove that you can bring a lot of new material to a TV audience, get them engaged to find out more and tell some untold stories, as well as the more famous ones, and do it in a professional and meaningful way.

What else have you been up to, any projects in the pipeline at the moment? Can we look forward to any more of your Battleground Walking guides in the near future?
Since the filming for Dig WW2 ended last year, I've been been busy working on the hugely successful War Hero In My Family which was broadcast in the spring, and currently am just finishing a very exciting series following a massive WW1 archaeology project in Flanders. This will be on Channel 5 in October. Book-wise I have a new edition of my Ypres guidebook to finish this autumn and am also working on some very interesting book and TV projects for the centenary of WW1 in 2014. Watch this space!

All images courtesy of Paul Reed, Battlefield Historian. For more information on Paul's range of Battlefield Guide, click here. Dig WW2 is a 3-part series being shown over 3 nights on BBC 2 at 7pm starting on Monday, 27 August. For more information or to catch up on any episodes you have missed, click here.

Further Reading

Walking D-Day
(Paperback - 272 pages)
ISBN: 9781848848368

by Paul Reed
Only £15.99

Paul Reed's latest battlefield walking guide covers the site of the largest amphibious invasion of all time, the first step in the Allied liberation of France and the rest of northwest Europe. The places associated with the landings on the Normandy coast on 6 June 1944 are among the most memorable that a battlefield visitor can explore. They give a fascinating insight into the scale and complexity of the Allied undertaking and the extent of the German defences – and into the critical episodes in the fighting that determined whether…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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