Combat Ships is a new 10-part series that shows how technology transformed naval warfare and tells the stories of the greatest maritime battles, escapes and disasters. From the deadly 18th century Ships of the Line, the primitive submarines of the American Civil War, the landing craft of the D-Day beaches, the fearless hospital ships of the First World War, to the might of nuclear warships - these vessels have shaped world history. Each episode includes powerful eye-witness accounts, interviews with veterans and maritime experts, reconstructions, intriguing technical data and fascinating historical detail.
Warships of the World Wars
At the start of the 20th century the battleship was the preeminent warship; yet during the Battle of Jutland failed to deliver the killer blow. In the waters of Scapa Flow we find sunken dreadnoughts and tell the story of how a U-Boat sank HMS Royal Oak. On HMS Cavalier, we explore how new technologies such as radar and asdic won the Battle of the Atlantic. A daring raid by commandos called Operation Chariot once more showed the vulnerability of the battleship. But on the USS Massachusetts we discover how the battleship found a new role as a gun platform.
Submarines: War Beneath the Waves
The episode begins with the story of HMS Conqueror sinking the General Belgrano during the Falklands War. Then the beginnings of submarines – the Turtle in the War of Independence, and the Civil War craft the Hunley. Resurgam was a Victorian submarine that sank off the Welsh coast. We tell the story of Charles Fryatt who used his ferry to ram a U-Boat rather than surrender. We explore the US submarine Becuna and the story of the giant I-400 Japanese subs. A crewmember from the USS Nautilus describes what it was like to serve on the world’s first nuclear submarine.
A chronological telling of the dramatic D-Day story, focusing on the vessels that made the landings possible. From the X-Craft lying on the seabed in the days before the invasion, to the battleships such as USS Texas and HMS Belfast who bombarded the Normandy beaches. We sail on the Medusa – a harbour patrol boat that played a crucial role guiding the invasion fleet through minefields. The episode explores the technology behind the most unseaworthy vessel of the invasion – the Duplex Drive tanks and pays tribute to Andrew Higgins whose landing craft brought so many men to the Normandy shore.
The First Metal Warships
The episode opens in 1845 with a tug of war between HMS Rattler and HMS Alecto to test which was better - paddle or propeller. We reinstate HMS Warrior’s place in history - in 1860 she was the largest, fastest ship in the world. The Civil War battle between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads changed naval warfare. We pinpoint the moment the USA became a global superpower when we recreate how the USS Olympia won the Battle of Manila Bay, and we show how the revolutionary British HMS Dreadnought brought ship design into the 20th century.
The Smallest Ships of War
Ships don’t have to be large to change the course of history. The Smithsonian has a small 1776 wooden gunboat, built to stop a British invasion. At a reunion of some of the small ships that rescued hundreds from Dunkirk, we celebrate their contribution and hear the stories of the veterans. Two years later the tiny canoes of the Cockleshell Heroes led an audacious attack on German ships. On the other side of the world two Japanese midget submarines were part of the attack on Pearl Harbour. We tell the remarkable story of the surviving sub HA-19.
We explore two submarines – former Cold War enemies now moored in a Kent river, and tell the story of Vasili Arkhipov a Soviet submariner who refused to authorise a nuclear launch. On board the USS Joseph P Kennedy we hear about the role that she played in the blockade of Cuba.
The Cold War spilled into the Far East, and we hear from a Vietnam vet and crewmember of aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, and tell the story of USS Midway whose captain ordered valuable helicopters to be pushed into the sea so a civilian pilot fleeing Saigon could land.
Torpedo Boats at War
The episode begins in the tranquil setting of Chiswick on the River Thames where the very first torpedo boat was constructed. Although pioneered by the British, it was the Germans that built some of the deadliest torpedo boats, known as schnellboots. They showed their capabilities when a group of S-Boats stumbled on a D-Day rehearsal off the coast of Dorset - over 700 men were killed. John F Kennedy first made headline news in 1943 when as a skipper of a motor torpedo boat in the Pacific, he and his crew were shipwrecked. We tell the story of their rescue.
Lois Langhans who served on hospital ships in World War 2 gave us a moving interview: ‘you don’t sit home and wonder what you can do. You go and do it.’ We tell the story of two rescues that ended in tragedy – the sinking of the Titanic’s sister the hospital ship Britannic, and the Lancastria, rescuing soldiers and civilians from France in 1940. The Gerda III carried scores of Jews down in her hold taking them from persecution in Denmark to safety in Sweden. In the 19th century, USS Constellation chased down slave ships and freed their cruel cargo.
Secrets and Lies
In 1939 the German raider Atlantis was equipped with fake funnels and her sailors dressed as women pushing prams to fool Allied merchant ships. Mystery surrounds the sinking of HMS Hampshire in the First World War – how did the Germans know Lord Kitchener was on board? The innovative submarine known as the Holland Boat was financed by Irish revolutionaries, hoping they could be used against the British. We look at how merchant ships were painted with bizarre shapes to fool U-Boats and the tricks used by SOE agents to cross the channel to France.
Mighty Wooden Warships
We investigate life on a Tudor combat ship by studying the artifacts collected from the Mary Rose. On HMS Victory we learn her secrets and the battle-winning tactics of Admiral Nelson. On the USS Constitution the story of her defeat of the Royal Navy’s HMS Guerriere is told, and in a fascinating postscript to the episode, the British schooner Kathleen and May shows that wooden ships had a role in warfare right up into the 20th century. She and others carried gunpowder in the Second World War as sailing ships were silent and efficient and key to the war effort.