“There are some great interviews, with great characters, and each episode dramatises real-life ripping yarns” says senior producer Gary Scott.
“In some ways the series has been inspired by tales that I have heard from my own grandfather” says Scott, who is also a New Zealand historian. “Ordinary people did the most extraordinary things, showed great courage, and went on epic adventures in the middle of all the horrifying things going on around them.
” Some of Kiwis At War action heroes are already well known. Lady spy Nancy Wake is a living legend - nicknamed ‘the White Mouse’, Wake was one of the most effective secret agents the European campaign, while two-time Victoria Cross winner Captain Charles Upham is the most highly decorated Allied soldier of the War.
But Scott says the series deliberately includes the stories of unsung heroes.
“Over the series we have several Kiwi soldiers and pilots who won very rare honours, medals that rank them among the very best in the world.
” The seven half-hour series opens with the exciting tale of fighter pilot Jack Rae – a Spitfire Ace whose luck ran out when he was shot down high over France. Jack saw out the rest of the War in the notorious Stalag Luft III and witnessed the famous ‘Great Escape’ in which 76 prisoners broke out of a 300ft long tunnel.
“Before his capture, Jack had been one of the best dogfight pilots in his squadron” says Scott. “He won the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, and had 12 or 13 confirmed kills, and a couple more that were probably his.”
“He’d also survived nearly a year on Malta, which was the most heavily bombed place on earth, and narrowly escaped death when his plane fell into a deadly spin and the control column came off in his hands. It is truly a Biggles story.
” The series continues with the extraordinary tale of Nancy Wake – a New Zealand born journalist who married a French millionaire and lived the high life in Marseille, while secretly working for the resistance and helped over a thousand people escape from German occupied France.
‘Nancy was finally exposed, and had to walk over the Pyrenees herself – saying goodbye to the man she loved and everything she held dear” says Scott.
“But she did the most extraordinary thing. She’s top of the Gestapo’s ‘most wanted list’, she’ll probably be tortured for the rest of the war if she’s ever caught. But she gets to England, immediately joins the secret service and volunteers to go back!”
Lady Spy - Nancy Wake features her biographer, noted Aussie commentator Peter FitzSimons.
The fifth episode in the series covers the most famous of reluctant heroes, Charles Upham. Captain Upham is the most highly decorated Allied soldier among the millions who fought in WWII, and the only infantry officer to ever win the Victoria Cross twice. But this great Kiwi hero was painfully shy, and hated the adulation and recognition that came with his awards.
“Until he died, Upham always claimed that he did no more than many other soldiers, and certainly no more than his duty” says Scott.
“But I think you’d call that typical Kiwi modesty. He put himself in danger to save others, he helped secure the retreat of tens of thousands of Kiwi troops from Crete, and he did it with almost single handed attacks on strong German positions.
” Other episodes include escape artist Allan Yeoman, whose war ended early, when he was captured after a huge blunder at Tobruk (Libya) when his battalion continued an aborted night attack against German forces. Yeoman spent the rest of the war concocting desperate, and sometimes very successful escape plans from prison camps in Italy, Austria and Germany.
Bomber pilot Geoff Rothwell flew spies into Europe before he was captured after a terrible crash in Holland, and fighter pilot Jim Sheddan proved virtually ‘unsinkable’, surviving a horror-run of crashes and near misses that culminated in a 20 hour ordeal in the middle of the English channel. Both Rothwell and Sheddan were winners of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The series finishes with real unsung hero, Eric Batchelor, a simple Sergeant who like Upham is one of the world’s most highly decorated soldiers. Batchelor twice won the Distinguished Conduct Medal after a series daring front line patrols.
“The amazing thing about Batch” says Scott, “is that his bravery medals are among the highest awarded to any front-line soldier in any war. From WWII there are literally one or two guys in this league. He’s a legend. But does he show it? Not bloody likely, mate.”
It is that last episode in a real life series that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Production Year: 2006
Description: 7 x 1/2 hour
Outline: Kiwi spies, escape artists, survivors and heroes all take their place in Kiwis At War, an all-action, all-Kiwi documentary series.
Episode 1: Spitfire Ace - Jack Rae
Episode 2: Lady Spy - Nancy Wake
Episode 3: The Unsinkable - Jim Sheddan
Episode 4: Escape Artist - Allan Yeoman
Episode 5: Reluctant Hero - Charles Upham
Episode 6: Spy Pilot - Geoff Rothwell
Episode 7: Soldier’s Soldier - Eric Batchelor