The World at War, Taylor Downing

The World at War, Taylor Downing

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The World at War, Taylor Downing

The World at War, Taylor Downing

The World at War still stands as one of the most impressive documentary series ever made about the Second World War. Its twenty six episodes used a huge amount of wartime film, interviews with ordinary soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians, and was one of the pioneers of people's history on television. This book looks at the production of the TV series, which forty years after it was made still impresses (thankfully it isn't a re-issue of the less impressive book that accompanied the series but that wasn't produced by the same team).

We begin with a brief look at the world of the early 1970s, when the series was produced and first aired. We then move on to examine the way history had been presented on television before the World at War and the development of documentary series such as the BBC's Great War. This is followed by a section on the early days of ITV and the taxation changes that allowed them to fund the World at War.

After this interesting introduction we move onto the production of the series itself, tracing its development from the original decision to produce such a major series at ITV, the research process and the common elements of the series (music, format, attitude to archive file etc). This is followed by a look at the way in which each episode was produced, with a complete chapter dedicated to the episode on the Holocaust. Finally we look at the impact of the series and its long term success.

This book provides a useful insight into the way in which television history at its best - the choices that have to be made and the editorial freedom that is needed if high quality work is to be produced. Even forty years after being made the World at War is still one of the best series of its type, and this book helps to explain why.

1 - The Time
2 - History on Television
3 - ITV
4 - The Decision
5 - Announcement
6 - The Treatment
7 - Format
8 - The Team
9 - Music and Words
10 - Production
11 - Content
12 - The Holocaust
13 - Conclusions
14 - Aftermath

Author: Taylor Downing
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 180
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan for the BFI
Year: 2012

BOOK REVIEW: 񟬯' by Taylor Downing

Will historians ever acknowledge that the atomic bomb, despite its horrors, stands as the most effective anti-war weapon in history?

The last worldwide conflict ended in 1945. The ensuing years, to be sure, were marred by conflicts of varying intensity — Korea and Vietnam, to name two. But for 73 years, the world has avoided a major-powers conflict of the magnitude that bloodied Europe for centuries.

The most significant stand-off of the era was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a mutual antipathy and exchange of threats that could have resulted in nuclear disaster.

One particularly frightening flash point came in 1983, when events on both sides caused the adversaries to veer toward a showdown that author Taylor Downing, a veteran British TV producer, likens to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

But there was a significant difference. The showdown over Cuba was carried out publicly, with detailed media attention as American forces were mobilized because of Soviet installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

But the severity of the 1983 confrontation, with several exceptions, was known only to a handful of military and intelligence officials.

Both adversaries realized that any conflict carried serious consequence. President Eisenhower’s declared policy was “massive retaliation.” Under Ronald Reagan, the catch words were “mutual assured destruction” — MAD, in defense lingo. Mr. Reagan came into office in 198l as a hard-line anti-communist. He began strengthening U.S. weapons systems. Nonetheless, he sent friendly handwritten notes to Leonid Brezhnev, who then ruled the USSR, urging the relaxation of tensions beginning with the release of political prisoners. Mr. Brezhnev sent back “an icy reply.”

Yuri Andropov, Mr. Brezhnev’s successor, had established his own tough credentials as head of the KGB. The Reagan build-up caused fears that the U.S. would use its superiority to wipe out the Soviet political leadership.

The Soviets began developing powerful new missiles. They also strongly backed proxy “revolutionaries” in locales ranging from Central America to Angola.

Yet despite his rhetoric, one of Mr. Reagan’s first overtures was a proposal to cut nuclear arsenals by 33 percent — a move Moscow rejected. (In retirement, Mr. Reagan would call MAD “the craziest thing I ever heard of.”)

But relations were uneasy from the start. Communication glitches resulted in both the U.S. and the USSR receiving false (and quickly discounted) reports of incoming missiles — errors that contributed to mutual jitters. In both instances, preemptive counterstrikes were barely avoided.

Then the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner that had strayed off course on a flight from Alaska to Seoul, killing 269 persons. The Soviets claimed to have mistaken the commercial aircraft for an American reconnaissance plane. Mr. Reagan denounced the attack as a “crime against humanity.”

As they watched Mr. Reagan’s military buildup, Soviet officers became convinced that what they called “the correlation of world forces” was turning against them. As a psychological warfare tactic, U.S. air and naval probes tested Soviet borders.

Mr. Downing contends that officials in the Reagan administration did not understand the depth of Soviet fears. He ignores a CIA analysis at the time describing Soviet leaders as “pedestrian, isolated and self-absorbed paranoid and fearful of their own people and of a world they believed [was] relentlessly hostile and threatening.” They feared a repetition of the June 1941 German invasion that almost destroyed the USSR.

As tensions mounted, the U.S. began a war-game exercise in which NATO tested its command-and-control procedures in the event of war. In the exercise — Able Archer 83 — no tanks nor troops took the field. But communications did discuss a nuclear deployment.

Responding, Mr. Andropov ordered the KGB and GRU (Red Army intelligence) to begin “Operation RYAN,” an acronym taken from the Russian words meaning “nuclear missile attack.” Officers were ordered to look for signs of an imminent launch of nuclear weapons.

Were blood banks increasing stock piles? Were lights burning late at night in military offices? Was there increased activity around air bases? Mr. Andropov drastically increased Soviet ground forces in satellite European nations.

Oddly, the Soviets ignored reports from a spy they had in NATO headquarters, one Rainer Rupp (“Topaz”) that “there was just a war game, and no more.”

As Mr. Downing states, Soviet leaders historically have chosen to ignore intelligence reports that run counter to their conceptions. Nervous, they began their own mobilization against a feared attack. As Mr. Reagan later wrote, “We were a button away from oblivion.”

Eventually, the fear of mutual oblivion subsided, and arms-control talks over the next years reduced tensions.

Did the existence of nuclear weapons prevent a war? The answer is obvious. No one loves “The Bomb.” But It does have a certain utility.

Joseph Goulden, the author of 19 non-fiction books, write frequently on intelligence and military matters.

Taylor Downing

Born Hammersmith London and attended Latimer Upper School. Studied history at Cambridge University and then as a post-graduate, film at Bristol University and wanted to find a way to combine the two disciplines. A talk by Jerry Kuehl, on the making of The World at War series helped him realise that television historical documentaries could meet his aspirations. Became a researcher at Thames Television two years later. Refers to George Brandt at Bristol, first to have a tape recorder in his department. Getting a job, especially with an ITV company would require an ACTT union ‘ticket’ [membership card] so his first job was at the Imperial War Museum film department where Anne Fleming was his first boss [BEHP Interview No 698] and he was able to get his ACTT card. He describes his work cataloguing film: an ideal job although only for 8 or 9 months. A job teaching Twentieth Century history at Leeds University followed under Nicholas Pronay, an expert on the use of film as evidence. A job came up with Thames, as a researcher on a 3-part series Palestine: Abdication, from the First World War until 1948 (producer Richard Broad). He talks about Broad, his work and his caution about using ‘other people’s rushes’ they got on well dealing with the British Mandate in Palestine where there was a biased image of Palestinians from existing archive film which created an imbalance when set against Zionist accounts. The series won an Emmy and was highly regarded. Brian Winston’s review in The Listener talked about ‘Academy award winning film research’. Made for 1978 the 40 th anniversary of Israel. Talks about the idea of balance and the radical idea of Palestinian Arabs representing themselves, rather than other governments speaking for them and how the word ‘Palestine’ was loaded at the time.

[10mins 30secs] Anecdote about the preview screenings.

Taylor refers to the differing costs of acquiring rights for clips for series, and getting the rights in perpetuity. Thames had the foresight to budget for programmes that would have international appeal and long shelf life. The World at War was the classic example of this. Palestine: Abdication was made according to the same principle, with rights bought where possible in perpetuity. Regarding The World At War he talks about the quality of the writing and how Jerry Kuehl might be part of this. Talks a bit about the rather over-theatrical Laurence Olivier narration although it adds prestige. (Olivier hated doing it). They talk a little about Jerry Kuehl being the conscience of the production. Taylor was on freelance contracts and his next was to start work on a series that eventually became a History of Northern Ireland, The Troubles, (not the one with Robert Key) but an industrial dispute blocked the renewal of his contract. The Shop Steward instructed him to leave the building. He moved to a job at Granada Television in Golden Square as researcher on a series called Camera which was a history of photography. (Maxine Baker, producer Martin Smith, director). Interviewer Murray Weston refers to Vicky Wegg-Prosser, former NFTVA Keeper and Taylor explains how Flashback Television comes about.

[20 mins 10secs] Next was a chance to direct at Central Television, on a series of 30-minute documentaries, observational ones about the Nottinghamshire police. Then returned to Thames as a Director on The Longest War (David Elstein was producer) on the Arab-Israeli conflicts. In 1982, Jeremy Isaacs was appointed as Channel 4’s new Chief Executive. Vicky Wegg-Prosser and Taylor submitted the idea to use film records to look at different aspects of 20 th century history. In Vicky’s absence Taylor went to a meeting with C4 and was advised to form a company to make the programmes. With reluctance and as the series was already called Flashbacks, a limited company, Flashbacks, was formed with the intent of folding it after the series. Taylor and Murray talk a little about Jeremy Isaacs, and about Vicky’s work.

Taylor talks about Jeremy Isaacs inspiring leadership, his light managerial touch and his clear crisp focus of writing.

[30mins] First were two series of ten 30-minute programmes on Images of war and pacificism beginning with the Boer War issues about faking footage etc. finishing with the Falklands War Vicky made a series on Images of the family and the state’s attitude to family and family life. A series on filming the Olympics, with the 1984 Olympics in LA, looming, got commissioned by C4. Then Vicky got an idea commissioned and the years rolled on production activities were separated (as Taylor was also freelancing for Thames TV), so Flashback Productions Ltd was Vicky Flashbacks Television was Taylor. Vicky did a series about the March of Time newsreels over 50 or 60 programmes.

Flashbacks is the story of a small independent production company through the 80s, 90s and 00, and the 1990 Broadcasting Act with its requirement for a quota of 25% from independents, showed the government taking it seriously.

35mins. Pitching to ITV and BBC ushered in second wave for Flashbacks which included diversification, so not just history but sports documentaries, drama-documentaries and new people with different skills came in. He talks about ‘poaching’ Neil Cleminson from Granada, a natural history programme maker who also made gardening programmes. David Edgar an ex-cameraman, became long-term partner at Flashbacks, with a different approach. Flashbacks originally made all Nigella Lawson’s cookery programmes [Nigella Bites]. Flashbacks had Farringdon offices with 40 to 60 staff, and Taylor felt he was reasonably successful at managing that. And in the 1990s a relationship had built up with Charlie Mayday a senior executive at Arts & Entertainment, New York who called Taylor to say they were setting up The History Channel and invited ideas from Taylor.

[40 mins] When Mayday visited the UK they went to IWM at Duxford and into the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress which led to a 40 episode series for the History Channel and over here on C4, and it was fantastic in business terms to be a pioneer in having an international arm, which is now pretty much standard. The series was written and edited in US style rather than being reversioned. Talks about the American way of seeking other programme ideas. Also worked for the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic earning lot of money in dollars, which meant less dependency on the whims of UK commissioning editors. Cites a real example of a company having 1200 proposals for just 4 programmes a year to be independently made for them and how it is impossible to run a company waiting to be successful with your bid. The American money enabled Flashbacks to give people an idea and a chance to work, even if not actual training, and built up a repertory of talents, who would move on after a couple of years, which was never a problem and all stemmed from having a broad production base to allow that to happen. He describes the independent sector as it was, with specialist companies, and how he was keen to change that.

1990s After the Olympic movement had been undermined by the major boycotts Ted Turner the US TV mogul created the Goodwill Games (initially the USSR v USA). Turner then wanted to make a history of the Cold War and wanted Jeremy Isaacs involved

[50mins] Isaacs, then running the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden was reluctant to return to TV. All the development for Cold War was done at Flashbacks

With quite a substantial budget and Taylor talks about the production of a 20-episode series compared with a BBC project which had taken a year developing one half hour programme and talks about Ted Turner. Taylor describes his own part in a production that exemplifies the quality that money can bring. A little later the access to Soviet archives began to close down with the onset of the Putin era. The Cold War series did attract criticism in America for being even handed because the producers wanted to avoid US triumphalism and is now quite hard to see, but it was cleared for DVD and is used in educational projects. Taylor reflects on the changes to accessing film and written archives in the 1990s and early 2000s in Russia and the USA.

He suggests that here [UK] official archives are now struggling with newer formats as the commercial archives acquire collections and there is an expectation of ‘one-stop shop’ aggregation.

Using annual D-Day research requests as an example, Taylor talks about the obsession with familiar shots, which diminishes their power, and when combined with cuts to research time and budgets plus the use of junior researchers with little knowledge, impacts on the quality of documentaries although some great ones are still being made.

In reverting to talk about Flashbacks the 2003 Communications Act is raised which transformed the rights situation, giving producers the rights in what was created and increased revenue opportunities for the independent sector. Cites the example of RDF making £10 million in a year for format rights in one show. This stimulated growth and some independent companies merged and grew larger than some of the ITV companies. Flashbacks was approached by a number of companies but remained independent. In 2010 their office tenancy agreement renewal was going to be a 125% increase which was unaffordable and left David Edgar and Taylor looking at their options: become smaller try and get much more work or go virtual. They decided to wind down the company and staff (everybody got work).

[1hr10mins] He talks about his writing being important and feeling that he was ill-equipped for the technological challenges. The core company is still operating. He talks about the various business and licensing models including Netflix model and how he was ‘ok’ with the shift personally from creative to business.

Looking back 1980s and 1990s independent sector was creatively the best place to be and perhaps had the edge, were a bit ‘hungrier’ than the BBC. The level of independence granted would not be possible today. Talks about his writing and about the awards his programmes earned including some for Al Jazeera. [1hr 20mins]

The trends: new platforms on which people receive material on, which will revolutionise how people access, but there will always be a place for the collective experience of watching the television in the corner.

The Beginnings of the Cold War

As the world began recovering from World War II, the first General Assembly of the United Nations met in London in January 1946, and created the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. Part of their charge was to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction, including the atomic bomb.

America's first effort to define a policy on the control of atomic energy was The Report On The International Control Of Atomic Energy (informally known as the "Acheson-Lilienthal" Report), and was published March 16, 1946. Its premise was that there should be an international "Atomic Development Authority" which would have worldwide monopoly over the control of "dangerous elements" of the entire spectrum of atomic energy.

Drawing heavily on the information in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, the U.S. proposal to the United Nations on international controls on nuclear material (named the Baruch Plan for its author Bernard Baruch) was presented. It called for the establishment of an international authority to control potentially dangerous atomic activities, license all other atomic activities, and carry out inspections.

The Soviets rejected the Baruch Plan, since it would have left the United States with a decisive nuclear superiority until the details of the Plan could be worked out and would have stopped the Soviet nuclear program. They responded by calling for universal nuclear disarmament. In the end, the UN adopted neither proposal. Seventeen days after Baruch presented his plan to the United Nations on July 1, 1946, the United States conducted the world's first postwar nuclear test.

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946

History on TV: The Great War

Taylor Downing looks at the making of the pioneering television series that launched BBC2 and marked the 50th anniversary of the First World War.

It seems incredible today but in the mid-1950s BBC Television closed down for an hour at 6pm so parents could put their children to bed. It was nicknamed the ‘Toddlers’ Truce’. ITV, when it began in 1955, ignored this and the BBC decided they had to abandon the truce and invent an entirely new format to fill the gap. Tonight, as the new programme was called, brought a new generation of broadcasters into the living rooms of the nation, such as Cliff Michelmore, Derek Hart and Alan Whicker.

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Able Archer 83: the Nato war-game that nearly spelled nuclear disaster

In November 1983, Nato troops embarked on secret war-game exercises in Europe – and paranoid Soviet leaders, convinced of imminent attack, prepared to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Taylor Downing traces the background and events of the 'Able Archer 83' incident that almost saw a catastrophic eruption of dormant Cold War aggression

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Published: May 20, 2021 at 10:08 am

The year 1983 was a supremely dangerous one. Many historians – indeed, probably most people with a knowledge of modern history – view the Cuban missile crisis, the very public US-Soviet confrontation of 1962, as the Cold War’s most fraught point. But recently released, long-restricted documents reveal that the crisis of November 1983 saw the Soviet Union come perilously close to pressing the nuclear button.

The 1970s had seen a period of détente between the superpowers, symbolised by the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Accords (intended to clarify sovereignty issues and improve relations between eastern Europe and the west) and the rendezvous of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft. After decades of mutual suspicion, it seemed that the two superpowers could, after all, enjoy a peaceful co-existence.

But during the early months of 1983, tensions again rose. President Ronald Reagan increased US defence spending at the highest peacetime rate since the Second World War. In March, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and launched his new Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed the ‘Star Wars’ programme, which aimed to develop a satellite-linked system to defend the US against attack by ballistic missiles.

In Moscow, this was seen as directly aggressive, because it undermined the principle of mutually assured destruction if either side used nuclear weapons. The paranoid Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, felt threatened. He called the US president a “warmonger”, and put the KGB on worldwide alert to watch for signs of an imminent nuclear attack. Tensions were further inflamed when a Korean civil airliner that had veered off course was shot down over a sensitive Soviet military zone. Reagan called it an “atrocity” committed by a “terrorist state”. This was interpreted in the Kremlin as the build-up to a preemptive attack by the US, and Soviet media began to warn its people of an imminent nuclear strike.

Then, in early November, Nato started a war-game exercise, codenamed Able Archer 83, to rehearse procedures for the launch of nuclear weapons. Though the Soviets had been informed, it caused panic in Moscow, which believed the exercise was a case of maskirovka, or ‘disguise’ – a military deception. The Soviet leadership issued orders to ready the nuclear arsenal for war.

American perspective

Towards the end of the 1970s, the US right wing began to feel they had been duped – that the Soviets were using the period of détente to build up their weaponry and stir up trouble in the developing world. Ronald Reagan exploited this theme in his campaign for the presidency in 1980 and, after his election, authorised a massive build-up of arms including new bombers, missiles and tanks, along with a dramatic increase in naval power. The Pentagon got almost everything it wanted. Reagan hoped ultimately to negotiate with the Soviets – but only from a position of strength.

Reagan was known for being deeply hostile to communism. As president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s and 1950s he had fought against what he saw as a communist conspiracy to infiltrate Hollywood. He viewed Marxism-Leninism as an ideology that put the state before the people, and which always used the end to justify any means. In his eyes, the end was nothing less than world domination, and he regularly quoted the words of Soviet leaders, from Lenin to Brezhnev, who had predicted the ultimate victory of world communism. In his first press conference as president, Reagan described Soviet leaders as criminals, liars and cheats, claiming that they hid their real ambitions behind a language of peace and reconciliation. He would not be fooled by them.

Everywhere he looked, Reagan saw the forces of communism advance in a plot orchestrated by the Kremlin. After the humiliation of US withdrawal from the Vietnam War in 1973, that country – along with neighbouring Cambodia and Laos – fell to the communists. In Africa, Cuban-backed guerrillas grew in numbers, and Angola and Mozambique fell to Soviet-backed regimes. Moscow further expanded its influence in Central America with the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan that year, Reagan came to believe that they also threatened Iran and the Middle East. He thought that unless America took a stand it risked losing the Cold War.

Reagan knew that the economy of the United States was fundamentally strong. The 1980s witnessed the birth of a technological revolution that would transform society and create great wealth. This was what Reaganites believed free enterprise was about – enabling individuals to achieve their ambitions. In Reagan’s view, the role of government was to provide a lead but then to let the free market bring the best economic outcomes for the largest number of people. He was suspicious of big government, and believed that its role needed to be cut back, especially in areas such as health and welfare provision.

The struggle against communism

So Reagan set out his stall: he aimed to defend freedom and democracy, and to lead the free world in a struggle against communism. He saw the conflict between democracy and communism as the battle between right and wrong, good and evil. In March 1983, he described the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world”.

But neither Reagan nor his security and intelligence advisers had any idea of the impact of their words and deeds on Moscow. Though the CIA had accrued a mass of information about their rival’s weapons systems from spies and surveillance, they had no insight into the thinking of the Soviet leaders. They carried on their anti-communist crusade without any sense of the panic they were generating in the Kremlin.

Reagan believed, with the strength of a religious faith, that the Soviet system was deeply flawed – so many resources were allocated to military expenditure, while low priority was given to the manufacture of consumer goods or the welfare of the population. In the Soviet Union, as he saw it, people did not matter and human rights meant nothing, because all efforts were devoted to building the strength of the state.

As the US president said in a speech to the joint Houses of Parliament in London in June 1982, “the constant shrinkage of economic growth, combined with the growth of military production, is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people”. Reagan was confident that the socialist system faced collapse, and that the “march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history”. His aim was to bring about this collapse as soon as possible.

In this tense, febrile atmosphere, Nato began the exercise codenamed Able Archer 83. In this communications war game, an imaginary conventional war against Warsaw Pact forces [the Soviet Union and seven satellite states] went wrong, leading Nato commanders to request permission to escalate the conflict and deploy nuclear weapons against a major Soviet Union target. In the war game, permission to use nuclear weapons came on 9 November. By that night the Soviets were convinced this was no exercise but the build-up to a real pre-emptive nuclear strike.

Soviet perspective

The situation looked very different from the Kremlin. In the early 1980s, the new US president was seen by the Soviets as aggressive and threatening, hurling out abuse in speech after speech. Soviet leaders were proud men: they presided over a vast country extending from the Arctic to the deserts of Central Asia, and from the border of Europe to the farthest points of east Asia. They controlled a huge nuclear arsenal of tens of thousands of warheads and a military of five million men and women.

To Moscow, the west represented an essentially individualistic, greedy, aggressive ethos. Marxism-Leninism, by contrast, was committed to collective action for the good of everyone. Education and healthcare were free. There was no unemployment, and supposedly no crime. Even if the reality was far from the ideal, they believed that it was a better and fairer system than that of the west.

Leonid Brezhnev had led the Soviet Union for nearly two decades. He wanted peace with the west, while maintaining Soviet authority over the regimes of Eastern Europe. He supported national liberation movements across the developing world, seeing an opportunity for the advance of socialism. He had witnessed the destruction of the Second World War, and was determined to avoid a nuclear confrontation. He believed that the American leadership shared his view that a nuclear exchange would be suicidal.

But, as the economies of the west grew dramatically, the Soviet Union under Brezhnev slid into a long period of stagnation. It relied upon central control, with a dependence on heavy, traditional industries. Consumer goods such as cars were rare. Soviet cities teemed with citizens on bicycles and buses. Queuing for even basic goods was endemic. The media were state controlled, and no public expression of discontent was allowed. The only thing that was abundant and cheap was vodka, and its use affected productivity, with millions of days lost each year through absenteeism. Yet despite the economic torpor, Brezhnev accepted stagnation as a form of stability.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982, the Politburo unanimously selected Yuri Andropov as leader. He was a hardliner who had led the Committee for State Security – the KGB – for 15 years and had the full support of the military. He would introduce economic reforms, but would only tinker at the edges.

Andropov believed that Reagan’s aggression was a prelude to a surprise attack. KGB agents started to find evidence that caused growing concern in Moscow. After a truck bomb in Beirut killed 241 marines and sailors, the US military put its bases worldwide onto a state of high alert. This was interpreted by the KGB as clear evidence an attack was being prepared. So when Nato began a war game that included practising the launch of nuclear weapons, Andropov was convinced that this was a deception. After all, the Soviet Union had itself developed plans to attack the west under the guise of military exercises.

By November 1983, Andropov was suffering from kidney disease. No doubt his physical illness did not help his mental condition. Always paranoid, he became convinced that a nuclear attack was imminent. He knew that if American missiles were launched on Moscow he’d have only minutes to respond.

Then, on 9 November, Nato began to use an unknown code – apparently to launch its missiles. The Kremlin was convinced this was no exercise but the real thing. The entire Soviet nuclear arsenal was put onto maximum combat alert. Huge SS-19 missiles were readied submarines armed with nuclear weapons were deployed mobile SS-20s were sent to launch positions hidden in the Russian countryside aircraft in Poland and East Germany were put on strip alert with their engines on. The planet had come to the brink of World War Three.

But there was no Nato attack. Able Archer was a war game, and no more. The Soviets kept their nuclear forces on high alert for some weeks, but the moment of maximum danger had passed.

Aftermath of the incident

On 11 November, the Nato exercise ended – and Soviet fears abated. The nuclear arsenal was then stood down.

When Reagan heard of the scare, he was astonished that the Soviet leadership could believe he would actually launch a nuclear attack against them. He decided to adopt a more conciliatory tone, and in his re-election campaign in 1984 he softened his anti-communist rhetoric. Moreover, when Mikhail Gorbachev – a new, younger Soviet leader – was appointed, he decided he must meet him face to face to ensure that no misunderstanding on this scale could arise again. Subsequent US-Soviet summits in Geneva, Reykjavík, Washington and Moscow opened a dialogue that helped bring an end to longstanding tensions. The terrifying scare of November 1983 proved to be the last paroxysm of the Cold War.

Taylor Downing is a writer, historian and television producer. His latest book is 1983: The World at the Brink (Little, Brown, 2018)

Science and technology, and the people behind them, are the stars of Taylor Downing's World War I history 'Secret Warriors'

One hundred years on, our dominant impression of the First World War remains the stalemate and mass slaughter along that conflict's Western Front. Wilfred Owen, a British officer who died in the war's final week and the greatest of the "trench poets," captured this image of futility and carnage perhaps better than anyone in his work, emphasizing what he called "the pity of War."

Many books about the Great War -- including those pouring off the presses as part of the current centenary observation -- adopt this somber trope. One that doesn't, however, is Taylor Downing's "Secret Warriors: The Scientists, Spies, and Code Breakers of World War I" (Pegasus, 464 pp., $28.95).

While Downing doesn't minimize the war's horrors, much less glorify them, he focuses on the wizard war that took place in laboratories, workshops and offices far removed from Flanders fields and no man's land.

Downing, a British television producer and author of several other popular military histories, sets the stage in an introductory chapter depicting the march of science and technology from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. People back then felt as if they lived in an age of marvels.

The pre-war era witnessed the advent of new power sources such as electricity and petroleum advances in chemistry and physics and dazzling new inventions including the telephone and radio, moving pictures, automobiles and airplanes.

The book progresses through five distinct parts, addressing aviation, code-breaking and intelligence, weapons development, medicine and propaganda. Most, although not all, of this centers on the British experience. These multichapter sections are largely unrelated, but several unifying themes emerge.

One is a reminder that necessity is the mother of invention.

Downing repeatedly illustrates how "technology and procedures advanced rapidly under the demands of war." For instance, aerial observation of the enemy led to the development of specialized lenses and cameras, which in turn fostered the art and science of photo interpretation.

The German employment of poison gas required French and British scientists to devise immediate countermeasures. Horrific facial wounds resulted in British doctors "pioneering . nothing less than a new form of plastic surgery."

A second truism driven home is that not only is war too important to leave to the generals, so is preparing for war. All bureaucracies tend to conservatism and only grudgingly accept change. This is especially so with military hierarchies. Time and again, Downing adduces examples of military mulishness.

On aircraft, he quotes a British general's verdict that "These playthings will never be of use in war." With machine guns, the brass, "as so often with new devices, were unimpressed, commenting, 'Why use fifty bullets when one will do?' " They dismissed tanks as "pretty mechanical toys."

Third, Downing explains how radical innovation did eventually occur in the British Army and also suggests how it takes place more generally. The crucible of war provides its own urgency. Additionally, military mavericks -- often young enthusiasts -- push new ideas from below.

Persistent and influential outsiders bring added pressure industrialists, press barons and filmmakers were key advocates for adopting new weapons and modern propaganda techniques. And tough-minded political leaders demand change.

Informed of his army's typically hidebound proposal for equipping its battalions with machine guns, Prime Minister David Lloyd George scoffed he would take their figure and "Square it. Multiply by two. Then double it again for good luck."

Finally, the book highlights the transition to total war -- a struggle requiring the ruthless mobilization of all elements of society. In many ways, Britain's initial response to war's outbreak was, well, quintessentially "British," in the sense of being almost touchingly amateurish and eccentric.

Old-boy networks and leagues of extraordinary gentlemen -- Oxford dons, literary figures, even clergymen -- pursued varied initiatives as part of doing their bit for king and country. As the stakes rose, the approach became deadly serious and rational, as evidenced by undertakings such as conducting a "census" of British scientists in order to bring the nation's brainpower to bear.

Readers may quibble with Downing's assertion that the war laid "the foundations for much scientific and technological progress" in the decades after. After all, the stunning peacetime advances preceding 1914 that he himself describes seemingly contradict him.

Rather, one might as easily argue that the massive diversion of resources -- including the lost generation that perished in the inferno -- occasioned by war impeded progress. Nevertheless, "Secret Warriors" succeeds as a lively, informative account showing that World War I was a contest of imaginative thinkers and doers behind the lines as much as soldiers.

Downing College and the First World War

On July 28th 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist. As Russia mobilised, Germany declared war on Russia and France, invading neutral Belgium and Luxembourg on the way to France. As a result, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th and so began over four years of fighting which had a devastating effect on many people, changing the world forever.

Following the declaration of war, the grounds and buildings of all the colleges in Cambridge were placed at the disposal of the War Office. Downing College, along with King's, was chosen to house the influx of nurses to staff the newly established First Eastern General Hospital (on the current site of the UL - see below). They started moving into College in the second week of war, staying until term began. The Michaelmas 1914 issue of the College magazine, The Griffin, referred to a 'Downing crammed with nurses', commenting 'we hear many strange rumours of the College during the days of the Long, and our rooms bear traces of occupants other than ourselves. It must, indeed, have been an unusual sight!' However, the same editorial gave an indication of the subdued atmosphere in College at the start of the new academic year:

"Looking back to the end of last term, we remember that every prospect seemed good this year there was no hint of the trouble to come. With four Blues and six May colours intending to be in residence, we looked forward with confidence to great happenings, whilst a fair crop of academic distinction seemed probable. But it was not to be. In August the call came, and the call was answered. One by one the rest came up in little groups we foregathered, discussing the all-compelling topic, and watching to see who would be with us, and who would not. But those who came up were few on every hand, we miss the wonted number of our friends. Daily we are reminded of them in untenanted room and silent stair, and the empty seats in Hall speak eloquently of their numbers. So many have gone, so many of those whom the College could ill spare and still others go. Our thoughts are of them, and, whether on the field of battle, or bearing their part still near at home, our good wishes go with them."

Twenty students matriculated in 1914. Some of those who had been offered places - including Lionel Whitby (who would return to Downing after military service in 1918 and later became its Master in 1947) - did not matriculate, instead volunteering immediately for military service on the outbreak of war. Of those who did begin their courses at Downing in 1914, most would go on to serve in some capacity: eighteen served in the Forces, of whom five were wounded, and three students would sadly not return from the war at all. (For those who did enlist before the completion of their degrees, students were allowed to claim three additional terms in lieu of military service, so could graduate after completing six terms of residence). Those who remained in College generally joined the Officer Training Corps and, in 1916, new Officer Cadet Battalions were introduced across the country, providing a compulsory four month intensive course to improve the training given to new officers. Three of the national OCBs were based in Cambridge and Downing and Peterhouse were home to 'E' Company of No.2 OCB, run from Pembroke College. As a result, some of those who were resident in Downing during the war were not necessarily undergraduates at the College. Numbers of actual students understandably dropped as the war continued - The Griffin, Lent 1917, reported 'There are sixteen in residence this term: we shudder when we contemplate the next.' That Autumn, just eight new students matriculated, including several medics. By January 1917, over half of the country's qualified doctors had been called up and, amidst growing concerns about the loss of doctors in military service and the continued need for doctors to replace them and provide care for the civilian population, medical students were exempt from military service from early 1918.

In total, 363 members of Downing College (students, Fellows, alumni and staff) served in the war. They served in the forces of fifteen countries and colonies and in most theatres of war across Europe, Africa and at sea. Forty-one of these died and fifty-five were wounded. A Roll of Honour commemorating those who died is now online. At the Remembrance Service on 11 November 2018, exactly 100 years after the end of the First World War, a new plaque was unveiled to commemorate Joseph Andrew Martin Blogg, a member of staff who died during the war.

The majority of records relating to the First World War are open to researchers, by appointment. The previous Archivist mounted a large exhibition on the war several years ago and compiled a full list of all Downing men who served. A new major exhibition was unveiled for the Remembrance Service in November 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the war. (Available to view by appointment for external visitors). Private Blogg's war medals and tag were kindly loaned by his family for the exhibition. Anyone with a particular interest in Downing during the First World War, or a particular individual, would be welcome to contact the Archivist for further information.

The University of Cambridge has produced a short film on the history of the First Eastern General Hospital, which can be viewed here. Downing alumnus and Honorary Fellow, George Wherry, was Lieutenant-Colonel and Surgeon at the Hospital throughout the war. The catalogue of his papers, deposited with the College Archive, can be searched here.

The Downing College Association has published a history of 'Downing and the Two World Wars' (2010) by Gwyn Bevan, John Hicks and Peter Thomson. This can be ordered direct from the Association, further details here.

Image: Officer Cadets on parade outside the Hall at Downing, c.1917 (DCPH/2/4/7, Downing College Archive)

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir - Iceland

Bernard Annebicque/Sygma/Getty Images

In 1980, as a divorced, single mother, Finnbogadóttir won election as Iceland’s𠅊nd Europe’s𠅏irst female leader, becoming the first woman in the world to be democratically elected president. (Argentina’s Isabel Perón, the first woman to hold the title of president, had been sworn in only after her husband died in office she was his vice president.) Known for championing Iceland’s cultural heritage at home and abroad, Finnbogadóttir was overwhelmingly popular: She was reelected three times, running unopposed in two elections and winning more than 96 percent of the vote in the other. At 16 years, Finnbogadóttir’s tenure was the longest of any elected female head of state in history, and her success jump-started her nation’s impressive record of gender equality.

The Failed Summit

Before the world leaders opened their Paris meeting, the Eisenhower administration took responsibility for the spy flights and admitted that the weather plane explanation was false. But the president’s confession could not save the summit. The U-2 incident had convinced Khrushchev that he could no longer cooperate with Eisenhower, and the Soviet leader walked out of the Paris meeting just hours after it began. Soviet negotiators also abandoned talks on nuclear disarmament the following month. These events, which unfolded during Eisenhower’s final year in the White House, brought a new chill to relations between America and the USSR and set the stage for further confrontations during the administration of Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy (1917-63).

While world leaders squabbled about the spy flights, Powers remained in a Soviet prison. In August 1960, he was put on trial for espionage, convicted and sentenced to 10 years of confinement. He ultimately spent less than two years behind bars. Powers received his freedom in February 1962, when he and Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (1903-71) became the subjects of the first “spy swap” between America and the Soviet Union.

Watch the video: The World At War


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