Skip to main content

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: World War Speed

Airs Tuesday, June 25, 2019 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV + Wednesday, June 26 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2

James Holland (second from left) and a group of history buffs in accurate kit...

Credit: Courtesy of Brave Planet Films

Above: James Holland (second from left) and a group of history buffs in accurate kit, recreate a World War II overland march by British Tommies during the Battle of France in 1940.

Follow historian James Holland as he unearths the truth about amphetamine use in World War II.

Stories about drug use by Hitler and German forces during World War II have been widely told. What’s less well known is the Allied commanders’ embraced pharmacological “force enhancers” as well.

By 1941, rumors about Nazi soldiers using a “super-drug” identified as the methamphetamine Pervitin were confirmed, and Allied commanders launched their own classified program to find the perfect war-fighting drug.

During the war, one in three Allied soldiers were incapacitated without a physical scratch on them. Modern weapons and warfare proved so terrifying that almost as many men were shredded by combat fatigue and shell shock — now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — as by bullets and shrapnel.

Allied commanders believed Benzedrine, an amphetamine similar to Pervitin, was the answer, hoping the amphetamine would defeat not just the need for sleep, but anxiety and fear among troops. How this drug affected the course of World War II is an ongoing controversy.

In SECRETS OF THE DEAD “World War Speed,” join historian James Holland on his quest to understand how the use of amphetamines affected the course of World War II and unleashed “the world’s first pharmacological arms race.”

Preview | World War Speed

Follow historian James Holland on his quest to understand how the use of amphetamines affected the course of World War II and unleashed the first pharmacological arms race.

The film features:

  • James Holland – World War II historian, author, and Royal Historical Society fellow
  • Rasmus Svihus – museum director, Flyhistorisk Museum, Stavanger, Norway
  • Peter Steinkamp – medical historian, Ulm University, Ulm, Germany
  • Dr. James Pugh – historian, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
  • Edgar Jones – professor of war psychiatry, King’s College, London, UK
  • Dr. Astrid Ley – deputy director, Sachsenhausen Memorial Center, Oranienburg, Germany

Photo credit: Courtesy of Brave Planet Films

Inside the German Pharmacy Museum, James Holland (right) meets with medical historian, Dr. Peter Steinkamp of Ulm University. Cory films interaction.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Brave Planet Films

James Holland and Jim Clarke converse atop Clarke’s restored and operational Sherman Tank.

Noteworthy Facts:

  • Created in the 1930s by a German pharmacologist and manufactured by Temmler Pharmaceutical, the methamphetamine Pervitin was marketed for use by the general public using a campaign modeled on Coca Cola’s global strategy. The stimulant was then given to Luftwaffe pilots to keep them awake and alive if their plane was shot down.
  • In May 1940, German troops under the influence of Pervitin had conquered Poland and were preparing for an attack against France. Ahead of the battle, 35 million Pervitin pills were delivered to 3 million Wehrmacht soldiers within 10-12 weeks. The Wehrmacht soldiers then managed to fight and march for 10 days straight, covering an average of 22 miles per day. The Wehrmacht were able to trap the entire British army on the beaches of Dunkirk in what is considered one of the greatest feats in military history.
  • For Allied soldiers, caffeine was the primary stimulant of choice. Coffee was so closely associated with American soldiers, also known as GI Joes, that the term ‘Cup of Joe’ became synonymous with the drink.
  • In 1940, the British army discovered Pervitin in a downed German plane in the south of England, unlocking the secret to the German troops’ boundless energy, and leading the Allies to consider the same tactic for their troops. The Allied troops decided to use the amphetamine Benzedrine. Both drugs make users intensely alert by flooding them with a sense of euphoria. With its added methyl-group molecule, Pervitin races across the blood-brain barrier a bit faster than Benzedrine. Otherwise, the two drugs have virtually the same impact.
  • Following the British victory in El Alamein, American soldiers entered into ground combat in North Africa in November 1942. The troops carried with them packs of Benzedrine after U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower orders some half million tablets for them.
  • The German Navy’s mini-subs, used to torpedo Allied ships moving supplies and troops across the English Channel, required soldiers to sit in a confined space for 48 hours without sleeping or much movement. Searching for a solution to keep these submariners awake and alert, the German Navy tested out combinations of cocaine and methamphetamines by forcing prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to take the stimulant and carry sacks of rocks around its infamous shoe-testing track.
  • Following World War II, the usage of Benzedrine and Pervitin continued. By the 1950s, amphetamines were marketed as a diet pill and mood enhancer with celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kerouac using the stimulants.

Speed, Submarines, and Espionage

Members of the German navy used amphetamines in the form of chewing gum to stay awake on submarines for more than 48 hours at a time.

Buzzworthy Moments:

  • To test whether or not the Wehrmacht soldiers needed Pervitin to pull off their stunning 1940 victory in France, James Holland and a group of fellow history fanatics recreate the plight of soldiers by attempting to cover 22 miles in a single day while carrying 60 pounds of combat load with only coffee and tea as stimulants.
  • In 1942, commanding officer Bernard Montgomery is brought in to Northern Africa to boost the morale of British troops fighting in the region. In the film, Holland discovers a document from Montgomery’s medical officer, Q.V. Wallace, revealing that troops involved in the opening stages of the battle of El Alamein were given Benzedrine, providing evidence that orders for the drug came straight from the top of British command. The memo also makes clear that the British 24th Armored Tank Brigade soldiers were prescribed 20 milligrams of Benzedrine per day — twice the amount recommended to RAF pilots — prior to the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt.
  • Seventy years after going down in battle, a German Heinkel HE-1-1-5 bomber is pulled from a Norwegian fjord. The only aircraft of its kind ever recovered, the plane is remarkably intact and a rescue pack is found inside. A Pervitin pack is discovered, but dissolves when an attempt was made to clean it.

Blitzkrieg on Speed

Historian James Holland and his team attempt to walk 22 miles wearing 60 pounds of equipment just as the Nazi army did in the blitzkrieg sieges of WWII. But can they do it without the aid of amphetamines?

Watch On Your Schedule:

Episodes are available for viewing on demand for a limited time after each broadcast. Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members ($60 yearly) using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Join The Conversation:

SECRETS OF THE DEAD is on Facebook, Tumblr, and you can follow @SecretsPBS on Twitter. #SecretsDeadPBS

James Holland is on Facebook and Instagram. Follow @James1940 on Twitter.

Credits:

A production of Brave Planet Films and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. Written and directed by Steven Hoggard. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Produced by Daphna Rubin. Steven Hoggard and Daphna Rubin are executive producers for Brave Planet Films. Stephanie Carter is executive producer for SECRETS OF THE DEAD.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.