WW2TV YouTube channel was begun by Paul Woodadge in 2018 and has grown to nearly 8,500 subscribers. His one-hour shows, posted almost daily, cover elements of World War II from Europe to Asia to America, from the technical to the individual, the strategic to the tactical. He will be broadcasting live on June 6 and 7 from the Normandy beaches for the anniversary of the D-Day invasion—Operation Overlord.
When did you become fascinated by WWII?
Growing up in England in the 1970s, it was the era of Airfix model Spitfires and Cromwell tanks, war comics called Commando, Battle and Warlord and classic war films on the TV seemingly every afternoon. I can’t remember not being interested in the war. It was almost total immersion in the past for a schoolboy at that time. Britain had rebuilt its cities from the destruction caused by the Blitz and the misery of the human impact was a distant memory.
But despite the country being in a new era, there were lots of new problems to overcome, including strikes, shortages and political unrest. This created an odd nostalgia for the Second World War, obviously not for the death and destruction, but for the togetherness and spirit. This is what led to the plethora of cultural depictions of an almost idealized version of the war. Roll forward to 2021 and there are a host of British historians who had that same upbringing and exposure to the war: James Holland, Alex Kershaw, Damien Lewis, Al Murray and Dilip Sarkar to name but five.
To understand this immersion in the Second World War I must also not discount the influence of my own family. My grandfather was in the Royal Artillery on anti-aircraft and searchlights in the UK for the duration of the war, and my grandmother looked after an evacuee from London as well as her own two children (my aunt and mother). She also served donuts to airmen on the local USAAF airfield. My great-uncle was in the Royal Ulster Rifles as a platoon commander landing on Sword Beach on D-Day, and I had other uncles and cousins who also served. One was in Montgomery’s Eighth Army in North Africa, another was a firewatcher in London and another was tragically killed piloting a Lancaster bomber over Germany. This meant that I grew up visiting relatives where war medals were on display alongside photos of handsome men in uniform. Drawers were stuffed with cap badges, bayonets and newspaper clippings. I even used a wartime British army respirator pack as my first school bag.
How did you learn so much about the war?
It has been my life for so long, I guess it happened incrementally. I have managed to build up a large database of information in my head, although accessing the data gets tricky as I get older! I own something like 1,500 books and have gigabytes of archives on my computer, so I have a large resource to fall back on when my brain fails me! That said, it is an ongoing process. Almost every day as I research new shows for my YouTube channel I discover campaigns I didn’t know about, or read about the incredible exploits of heroes whose names are new to me. No matter how much I read, I could live to be 100 years old and I’ll still be learning about the war. I suppose that’s what keeps me going.
Your show covers a remarkably wide variety of subjects. How do you select your interviews?
Since the beginning of this year I have grouped my shows into theme weeks, so I will look at armored warfare, a particular nation’s role in the war, or tackle a broad theme like resistance or disasters and tragedies. When I started the channel I called on long-standing friends to appear as guests, which got me off to a grand start. Now I find new guests by both doing my own research and putting out pleas on Twitter, which I find to be the best social media platform for historians. So, I will pose a question such as “Does anyone know a historian who has written about the Kokoda track, or radar before D-Day or sea battles in the Mediterranean?” Usually one or more of my followers will have read a book or know someone and I reach out and make contact that way. I also get historians or publishers contacting me offering a subject for discussion.
What’s very important to me is using guests from a variety of backgrounds and on different rungs, so to speak, of the history ladder. I might have a best-selling author of dozens of books on Monday’s show followed by a PhD student delivering their first thesis on the Tuesday. That blend is key to offering a balanced view of the past. I hope that a mix of young and old voices, male and female, professional and amateur, would provide the widest and most objective understanding of the war.
Who are your viewers?
More than 90 percent of my viewers are male, and most are over 40 years old. I’m really pleased that this demographic appreciates what I do, because in theory these are the deep-dive history buffs, voracious readers of Second World War books who perhaps feel that regular TV history shows are too dumbed down these days. That this group of viewers with understandably high standards trust me to deliver engaging content makes me very proud.
However, although I absolutely need the support of this important audience I definitely hope to increase the number of female viewers and bring in a younger crowd too. It’s very important to me that around 30 percent of my guest historians are female and I would like to increase that level. There are a lot of tweed-wearing middle-aged white guys in military history—many of whom are my friends. But I’d like to have a wider demographic of guests. For example, I have South Asia in WWII week coming up in July and of the seven guests lined up, all but one is Indian or Nepalese. I’m very happy about that.
Bringing in a younger audience is proving harder. Theoretically being on YouTube is a good start—there are generations of people fascinated by the past who do not use books as their primary source and instead use the internet. The difficulty appears to be encouraging them to commit to watching my shows, which are typically over an hour in length. Most history shows aimed at younger viewers pitch shows of five minutes’ duration with frequent use of cartoons, slick graphics and hip music. This clearly gets results, but it’s not for me and WW2TV. I just hope that cream rises to the top and given time the younger set will discover what I am doing.
Why is WWII important to us today?
Because it is still shaping the world we live in. Even as I write this piece, the fighting in Israel and the Ryanair hostage story are in the headlines. The effects of the war, the legacy of racism and the past histories of the many nations that make up the world are still present in our lives. It may be a cliché but I do believe the best way to avoid problems in the future is to learn from the past.
Any thoughts on future directions the channel might take?
I would like to bring more shows live from the battlefields—using multiple cameras. I’ve done several from Normandy and have more of these coming in June, and I’ve done others from Hong Kong, Stalingrad and The Netherlands, but I hope to find people willing to film for me in Italy, Poland and especially from the Pacific campaign. I don’t try to plan too far ahead in broad terms as I believe that often these things take care of themselves. I will simply continue bringing quality content to people free of charge. Keeping my channel available without a subscription fee is a promise I made at the very beginning that I will not deviate from. I do encourage people to become Patrons via a monthly donation and I make a tiny revenue from advertising but anyone with an internet connection can access good Second World War history for free.
What’s your personal background?
I come from a background of printing and design, but for the last 20 years I have been a Battlefield Guide in Normandy, France. This industry is of course going through a lean time due to Covid-19 but will pick up in due time. Meanwhile I’m focusing on WW2TV.
Paris-based American journalist and author Ellen Hampton is a frequent contributor to Military History. Her latest book is Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the World War II Front.