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In the seemingly endless parade of things to watch, I want to recommend a recent addition to Netflix: “Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.” Originally aired on BBC2 this past spring as “Secret Agent Selection,” the 5-part series is a wonderful mash-up of the best kind of history documentary with the best kind of reality show (think Great British Baking).

Admittedly, my Army brat childhood (with a father who was in Intelligence, to boot) and my lifelong fascination with all things WW2 make me sort of the ideal viewer of this show. But seriously, it’s great summertime viewing, even for you civilians, because it’s fun and you can also excuse giving several hours to it because, well, “learning.”

So what’s it about?
“Churchill’s Secret Agents” chronicles the story of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), a secret group, set up just as WW2 was starting, to do clandestine work: spying, helping the resistance, carrying out missions to demolish various things (roads, bridges, depots, etc), establishing communication networks. Significantly, both men and women served—people from all walks of life–and these ordinary folks, dropped perilously behind enemy lines, were then involved in some of the war’s most dangerous missions–from the destruction of Norway’s heavy water plant to Operation Anthropoid in Czechoslovakia, the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official.

Their survival rate was incredibly low, so training was essential. And this is where “The New Recruits” part of the show comes in. Rather than simply narrate the history of the SOE and its many, many missions, the documentary decides to show just what it took to become members of the SOE (or for Americans, the OSS) by cleverly weaving in that history—and the individual stories of SOE officers—with an immersive “living history” experiment.

We follow, then, fourteen participants who gather in the remote Scottish Highlands to go through intense training that replicates the original 1940s SOE syllabus. They do everything to period (including dress and food) and are put through their paces and evaluated by people like Nicky Moffat CBE, who during her time in the British military achieved the highest rank ever by a woman: Army Brigadier.

Let’s just say there’s not much hugging.

For me, the show grew stronger over the five episodes as the original fourteen are whittled down by the demands of the training. Surprises await—and judgments about various of the participants have to be revised.

So lest you think this is just a very frivolous mid-summer blog, here are a few of my own “learnings”:

1. What men and women did—and were willing to do–in WW2 really is incredibly impressive. It’s easy to gloss over exactly what we ask combatants to do. This doesn’t sugarcoat it. Even more respect now for the people who did and do this work.
2. Average people—then and now—can do amazing things. Of course, we all “know” this, but seeing it demonstrated was a good reminder, especially when I’ve spent too much time reading the news and I despair. And the documentary’s insistence on connecting the modern-day participants with historical ones emphasizes not only that past heroes were not 9 feet tall, but that we modern people needn’t feel dwarfed, either.
3. You never know which students will really soar—predictions are meaningless. Invest and encourage.

Finally, the series is clear: it took many people, doing small missions everywhere, to make a difference. We never defeat evil alone, but only in small steps and at very great cost. That’s worth a few hours of TV to remember.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

5 Comments

  • Gloria Stronks says:

    Thank you. This is really helpful.

  • George E says:

    I appreciate the recommendation, Jennifer. Agreed, dedicated and sometimes heroic soldiers are underneath it all regular people, albeit regular people willing to do difficult things. Your endorsement of “Churchill’s Secret Agents” is persuasive.

  • James C Dekker says:

    I also thank you, Jennifer. We shall plan to watch that series in our basement family room on nights that are too hot to do much else but complain about the heat. A note: Late Calvin College President William Spoelhof was involved the OSS, particularly gathering intelligence for the liberation of the Netherlands. Soon after the war’s end, he was decreed by Queen Wilhelmina as a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau. But no one I know would ever call Spoelhof as “ordinary man”!

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