I spent most of 2011 working on Dig WW2 for BBC Northern Ireland and 360Production. The series, devised by producer/director John Hayes-Fisher and presented by Dan Snow, was made especially for BBC Northern Ireland and aimed to look at ‘what was left behind’ from WW2 and tackle the subject from a Northern Irish point of view. As historical consultant I worked with John and the team and in Northern Ireland we had historian Johnny McNnee to build on the stories there. It was an amazing year that took the team from Normandy to Arnhem, all over Northern Ireland and off to Italy, too. Digs on aircraft in Ireland resulted in much media interest; a news story on the Spitfire dig in Eire had nearly a million hits on the BBC News site. The series was shown on BBC NI earlier this year and tonight a BBC1 version will be shown at 17.30 UK time.
The series has been re-branded ‘WW2 Unearthed’ and the main overseas dig featured in it will be the one we filmed on the Hitler Line at Cassino, in Italy. The Hitler Line was the last line of defence at Cassino, and it was assaulted in May 1944 by British and Canadian troops, supported at one point by tanks from the North Irish Horse. We worked in Italy with the Gustav Line Group, a team of Italian battlefield archaeologists. They carried out an amazing dig on two different types of bunkers on the Hitler Line; one which in 1944 mounted a Panther tank turret and another which was a machine-gun position. At the MG bunker we had traced in the archives the story of the assault on the bunker by Canadian troops, and during the course of the dig the team unearthed the whole archaeology of the skirmish; cartridges ejected from the Canadians weapons on one side, remains of Canadian kit and a helmet from one of the casualties, and discarded German cartridges from the bunker. As with many of these digs it captured a moment in time, all the more moving as we knew that there were men still alive who had taken part in the battle here.
In many ways Dig WW2 and WW2 Unearthed are way ahead of the game – this is the first time on national television that a wide range of WW2 battlefield digs have been filmed, and while many consider the Second World War as perhaps too recent for archaeology there is a certain fascination with seeing just what the series set out to do – to discover what is left from those key events of seventy years ago.