Codebreakers, spies and double lives: World War II's secret stories

Commissioning Editor, History

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Despite our fascination with World War II it never fails to surprise me how many unusual, forgotten or relatively untold stories there still are.

An upcoming series of programmes on BBC Two takes a fascinating look at some of these lesser known tales, focusing on some of the ordinary heroes and debunking some of the myths that still surround famous events.

The series starts with one of the unsung heroes of Bletchley Park.

Although many people are familiar with the story of Alan Turing and Enigma, Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes reveals the unsung genius of mathematician Bill Tutte.

A preview of Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes

Restrictions imposed by the Official Secrets Act mean that experts are only starting to get to grips with how much his codebreaking efforts contributed to Britain's military success at the time, starting with his work cracking the Lorenz code, used by the Nazis and even more sophisticated than the Enigma code.

One of the things I find fascinating about this story is how much of his life Bill must have kept hidden.

Although he is now thought to have been one of the finest intellectual minds of his time, the secrecy of his position meant that he received very little public recognition for his efforts.

Following the war he worked as a university teacher in Waterloo, Canada (teaching the team that created the Blackberry encryption code) but it's almost certain that he continued to live a double life, using his unique number-crunching skills to benefit the British government.

It's an unusual story and one we're excited about.

Over the coming weeks there will be a series of Timewatch specials that look at similarly interesting stories.

In The Most Courageous Raid Of WWII (BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday, 1 November) Lord Paddy Ashdown (an ex-SBS commando) talks about the 10 commandos who led one of the most daring raids of WWII.

The men canoed almost 70 miles behind enemy lines to blow up enemy ships but only two men survived; the others died of hypothermia or were executed by the Nazis.

Lord Ashdown was particularly keen not to just tell this story but to bring alive the extraordinary lengths that the men had to physically go to in order to achieve their goal.

Working with the Ministry of Defence Lord Ashdown takes part in a reconstruction of events, following the route the men would have taken and explaining the dangers they would have faced on the way.

It's a really moving film and hopefully one that honours all of the brave men that devised and carried out the raid.

Next we take an exclusive look at Operation Zigzag (in Double Agent: The Eddie Chapman Story on BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday, 15 November), which is one of those 'you couldn't make it up' tales about double agent, self-made conman Eddie Chapman, aka Agent Zigzag.

He was a working class crook who - after a spell in prison having blown up bank safes in the UK - was recruited by the Nazis to put his skills to use destroying British assets.

On his first mission he became a double agent and spent years at the heart of the German military, passing information back to MI5, whilst also living as a German war hero.

Presented by Ben Macintyre (Operation Mincemeat), the programme uses previously classified MI5 files to tell the staggering story of how an average man became one of Britain's most valuable assets.

The final programme, Dam Busters: The Race To Smash The German Dams looks at the story of Dam Busters and tries to overturn some of the most common myths of what has become a legendary event.

All four programmes should give a unique glimpse into some of the lives of men in WWII.

Hope you enjoy them. Do let us know what you think.

Editor's note: The order in which these documentaries were broadcast changed after Martin wrote this post. For times and information for all four programmes, please see the Timewatch episode guide.

Martin Davidson is the commissioning editor for BBC History and Business.

You can listen to Ben Macintyre's story of Agent Zigzag narrated by Damian Lewis on Radio Four Extra - available until Friday, 4 November.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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