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S17 Ep5

World War Speed

Premiere: 6/25/2019 | 00:00:30 | Closed Captioning Icon

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.




[ Suspenseful music plays ] -It's long been known that German soldiers used a form of methamphetamine called Pervitin in the Second World War.

-[Speaking German] -But have tales of Nazis on speed... [ Suspenseful chord strikes ] ...obscured the other side of the story?

[ Radio chatter ] [ Suspenseful chord strikes ] -Wow! That's amazing, isn't it?

-The massive use of stimulants by British and American troops.

[ Rapid gunfire ] Did total war unleash the world's first pharmacological arms race?

♪♪♪ And, in the face of industrial slaughter, what role did drugs play in combat?

♪♪♪ Now, one historian... -My goodness, look.

There's the swastika. on a quest to dig deeper... -You got the machine guns there.

You got the tools.

So you just do this, you just go...? -Precisely.

-A cannon shell is just gonna rip through.

-This soldier here that can hardly walk. -Yes.

-...and learn the truth behind World War speed.

-Stand by.

-Eight, seven, six... -The amount of dust was incredible!

[ Explosion ] -...five, four... -Oh, my goodness, me.

Look at that!

-...three, two, -Set, shoot. Fire One. -one.

[ Explosions ] -Oh, my god!

[ Suspenseful chord strikes ] ♪♪♪ [ Engine humming ] [ Static crackling ] -[ Speaking German ] -[ Speaking German ] -[ Speaking German ] -[ Speaking German ] -December 1942.

A German bomber crew struggles to keep their damaged plane aloft.

-[ Conversing in German ] [ Engine buzzing ] [ Ominous chord strikes ] [ Suspenseful music plays ] ♪♪♪ -Seven decades after it went down, this German Heinkel He 115 bomber is pulled from a Norwegian fjord.

[ Oxygen whooshing ] It's an amazing discovery.

The only aircraft of its kind ever recovered, from a time when England stood alone against fascism in Europe.

[ Poignant tune plays ] The fjord's oxygen-poor water has left the plane remarkably intact and the recovery team will soon discover artifacts inside [ Camera shutter clicking ] in near-pristine condition, including brandy, caffeine-infused chocolate, and speed.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] -[Speaking local language] -We're going to see the remains of a Heinkel 115, which is a float plane, a sea plane, that was used by the German Navy.

And, not only did they pull up this Heinkel 115, they also found lots of things on it, [ Turn signal clicking ] including, it turns out, a packet a Pervitin.

♪♪♪ For me, there's a massive difference between just being an armchair historian and actually getting out on the ground, rolling up your sleeves, and doing some proper primary research.

♪♪♪ You can't really understand a subject unless you actually seen what you're looking at for real, you know, you've touched those pieces of paper, looked at the sites, talked to other people who really know what they're talking about.

And it is amazing how it actually then prompts you to ask all sorts of other questions that you might not have thought about in the first place.

-James Holland has written nearly 30 books about the Second World War.

He's an expert on the blitzkrieg of 1940 and the Battle of Britain, which will prove pivotal chapters in his quest to understand how amphetamine use evolved during the conflict.

-[Speaking local language] -Could German amphetamine packets have survived the crash and decades underwater?

If so, they may provide unique insight into the role speed played during German bombing missions over England.

-You know, I've seen a few aircraft wrecks that have been pulled out of the water, but this Heinkel 115 that's been pulled up out of the fjord was in incredible condition, so good that you could still see the paintbrush marks on the tailplane.

So I'm looking at the bomb bay, here, aren't I?

-Yeah. Yeah.

-Okay, but this was carrying bombs when it was found?

-Yeah. Yeah. -So where would they be?

-They was in the center section.

-And this is a camouflage for going over the dark North Sea.

-You know, you wouldn't want it light, would you?

You look at that sea from above, you can see how dark it is all the time.

♪♪♪ -For German bomber crews, night missions from Norway involved a 12-hour round-trip flight over the North Sea.

[ Rapid gunfire ] Raving spitfires and flak over England, then, surviving the long trip home.

♪♪♪ German victories make the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht seem invincible.

[ Explosion ] Rumors circulate of German soldiers and airmen fueled by a super-drug that makes them fearless, energized, and able to press on without need for rest or recuperation.

[ Tranquil tune plays ] Even Nazi dive-bombers stir theories about so-called Stuka-Tablets, pills that enable fliers to withstand G-force plunges to target no human being could possibly survive.

♪♪♪ -This is the Heinkel 115 elevator.

It was cut in two when the plane crashed, so.


-In the wing, there was a dinghy.

-Yes. -And, within the dinghy, there was a rescue package.

-It's possible to look at it? -Yes.


So, when I walked in and saw the table full of objects from this escape kit, plus a few other little bits and pieces they found, I, you know, I was absolutely staggered.

And, obviously, we've got a brace of machine guns here.

These are 17s?

-MG 17s, yeah.

-You got the machine guns there; you got the tools.

You got all this, but this is the bit that's really catching my eye.

-Matches. -Yeah.

-Cigarettes? -Yeah, it is.

-This is obviously chocolate.

This has a high caffeine content, doesn't it?


-And this is the brandy.

-Yes, that's the brandy.

-I can't believe you haven't tried it.

Okay, but there's one item here that, to me, is missing.

-Yes, I guess we are missing the Pervitin.

-Yes, where's that?

-Well, when it came up and we tried to clean it, it started to dissolve and, when we looked back into the box, it was -- There's nothing left, so, it just vanished.

Well, I'm sorry, we have only a photograph of it.

-The whole reason for coming here is because Pervitin has been found on this plane when it was brought up from the fjord.

It was a little disappointing.

-Despite Jim's disappointment, the Pervitin's location on the plane may be more important than seeing the package itself.

-So this was in the -- this was in the wing?

What was really interesting is it wasn't sort of in the cockpit equivalent of the glove compartment, you know.

It wasn't found right by the pilot's seat or something, you know. It was actually found in a pre-prepared [ Camera shutter clicking ] emergency escape pack.

That made me kind of think that it wasn't used in a kind of sort of casual way, but in a quite pragmatic way.

-If the Pervitin pack was kept out of reach, it suggests the drug wasn't meant to keep men awake during flight, but to keep them alive, should their plane go down.

-So you've got the brandy, to keep the cold away.

You've got some cigarettes to keep you going; chocolate with caffeine in it; and, of course, you've got the Pervitin.

We all know what that does.

That keeps you going for another 12 hours or so, while you're bobbing around on the North Sea.

They were flying in winter, so it's going to be bitterly, bitterly cold.

The most important thing is that they don't fall asleep and die of hypothermia.

So what's gonna keep you awake?

Well, Pervitin's gonna do that.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] -Jim's Norway stop has been illuminating and frustrating, all at the same time.

[ Bell tolls ] He decides to head south, to a museum in Germany, where you can still see and hold Pervitin samples from World War II.

-And I met with Dr. Peter Steinkamp, who's an expert in this.

You know, I just really wanted to pick his brains about what this stuff was, how it came to be, and to look at Pervitin packets for the first time.

Wow. That's amazing, isn't it?

[ Suspenseful music intensifies ] -This was methamphetamine created in the 1930s by a German pharmacologist.

He called it Pervitin.

This is a version for injection and this is the version for piercing.

-And what's this say, here?

-'Inject slowly, not too fast.'

-[Laughing] Oh, goodness, me.

Imagine buying, over the counter, vials of stuff to inject yourself, you know, with a Class A drug.

I mean, it's just absolutely extraordinary and just so casual.

If I took one of those, how long would I be completely wired for?

-Well, about two nights.

-So this came out in Germany, what, in the late 1930s?

-Yes. In 1938, it was first available in drugstores.

-So I could just walk in and I could go, 'I'll have a packet of 12 Pervitin, please'? -Yeah, really. -Wow!

That's amazing, isn't it?

♪♪♪ -By 1938, Pervitin manufacturer Temmler Pharmaceutical of Berlin had launched a PR campaign modeled on Coca-Cola's global marketing strategy.

♪♪♪ And, despite Hitler's vehement anti-drug rhetoric, many Nazis, including the Fuehrer himself, were heavy drug users.

[ Cheering ] Methamphetamines seemed geared to the modern, tech-embracing Reich that was envisioned.

-The Nazi state is all about, 'If you work hard, if you strive for a better Germany, then you'll get a better Germany.

Come on, get your backbone into it and let's get working.

Let's make Nazi Germany, the Third Reich, let's make it a thousand-year Reich.

Let's make it brilliant!'

You know, and they embraced science and technology, and pharmacology is all tied in with that.

That's why it appeals.

So it's not much of a step, is it, from day-to-day domestic use to being used in the armed services?

-Yes, yes, you're right.

The officers said to the medical officer, 'Please, now, give Pervitin to our soldiers.'

♪♪♪ -By May 1940, German troops under the influence of Pervitin have already conquered Poland.

Now, Hitler's Army masses for another attack, against France.

♪♪♪ The British and French armies facing them outnumber the Germans in men, artillery, and even tanks, but the German plan is audacious: built on the use of combined arms; using air power as moving artillery; and what some will call a new method of warfare, which really wasn't new at all.

-The German way of war, what has become known as blitzkrieg, has always been traditionally depicted as something kind of new. It isn't.

It's an extension of the way of war that Germans have always been practicing and, before Germany became Germany in 1871, the Prussians before them.

And it's because they're stuck in the middle of Europe.

They don't have those resources of bauxite and copper and iron ore and, more latterly, oil, and food, actually, that you need to protract a long, attritional war.

So what do you do? Well, you get round that by fighting your wars with overwhelming force at the point of impact, where you first attack, knocking your enemy off-balance, surrounding them and annihilating them, and you do that incredibly quickly.

-At this point in the war, the German army is outgunned and outnumbered.

To win, they'll have to move swiftly, with no time for rest.

And, like the Luftwaffe, the army also has a secret weapon to help defeat the military commanders' oldest enemy: sleep.

♪♪♪ -I mean, how much Pervitin was used in 1940?

-During the war against France in 1940, there was a delivering of 35 million pills -Ha! -of Pervitin to the Wehrmacht.

-Wow. So, literally, just in sort of 10, 12 weeks, they're issuing 35 million tablets of Pervitin?

-Yeah, yes.

-You know, all-in, there's only about 3 million troops involved in the whole thing.

[ Rapid gunfire ] -In the end, the German army pulls off what seemed impossible, even to Hitler.

[ Rapid gunfire ] Wehrmacht tanks and foot soldiers managed to fight and march for 10 days straight... ♪♪♪ ...trapping the entire British army on the beaches of Dunkirk.

♪♪♪ [ Gunfire ] German troops move an average of 22 miles a day, [ Flames crackling ] under fire.

It's considered one of the greatest feats [ Flames crackling ] in military history.

-So, obviously, Pervitin keeps you awake, but what else does it do to you?

[ Rapid gunfire ] -When you're taking it and you have to do a duty... ♪♪♪ are focused on it.

There was no fear and you don't think about anything else in that moment.

-What other side effects are there?

-I talked to some veterans who used Pervitin and they said, after doing the duty, they sometimes got frightened -Oh. -because 'We were in fear that we could never, ever, sleep again and, when we could not sleep anymore, we must die.'

♪♪♪ -However the drug affects individual soldiers, the larger outcome is clear: German troops, fueled by methamphetamine, crushed the combined arms of Western Europe in little over a week.

Nazi tactics and technology seem unstoppable.

[ Suspenseful chord strikes ] But did the Wehrmacht truly need a stimulant to achieve victory in 1940?

Was marching 22 miles in a single day an amazing pace or has the blitzkrieg tale, like the word itself, been warped into legend over time?

♪♪♪ Today, Jim's gathered a group of fellow history fanatics to put this question to the test.

-The idea is that, rather -- -They start by comparing British and German infantry gear, to see if one was better than the other.

-Much more. Just asking.

-Taff Gillingham has served as a military consultant for feature films and TV series.

-You then don't need to take your eye off the target until you've knocked him over.

-He's an expert on Second World War paraphernalia.

-Well, Taff, you know, we've got this all laid out.

We've got British here, German here.

Presumably, this is an ammunition pouch?

-That's right. That's the ammunition pouch.

You've got three clips in each of those pouches.

-I mean, they do love leather, don't they, the Germans?

I mean, every bit of it is.

It's just leather, leather, leather.

-The British had a simpler idea, which was to carry a cotton bandolier, and then you just pull the clips out, ready to push into the rifle. -Hm.

♪♪♪ -The British kitty is actually pretty quiet because it's all cotton, it's canvas.

It doesn't make much noise as you move around.

Whereas, the veterans always had this story that you could hear the German Army coming because they sounded like a loose cutlery drawer with all this stuff clinking and clanking away [ Laughter ] as the German -- Exactly.

The gas mask tin bouncing around.

♪♪♪ -I'll take this back.

-Next, they'll set out to see just how hard it would've been to cover 22 miles while carrying a 60-pound combat load, with only coffee or tea to keep you going.

-That's quite heavy. [laughs] ♪♪♪ -I can't believe that they'd have walked a long way with a kit like that.

-I mean, this is the reason for doing this.

It's only when you actually start using this practically that you can understand how people would operate with it back in the day.

So the real point of this entire experiment is, after walking 20 miles around here with all this kit, if you've got a drug that can keep you going, can we understand why they're using this in 1940?

-Okay. Let's do it.

-Let's do it.

♪♪♪ -My feet are -- Oof.

♪♪♪ -How's that? -That looks good.

-Feels better. Oh, post.

♪♪♪ Ooh!

That's my feet.

Now they hurt.

♪♪♪ [ Grunts ] ♪♪♪ -Ah! [ Metal clinking ] [ Laughter ] We'll maybe leave that bit out.

[ Laughter ] -Two hours and seven miles in, the group breaks for tea.

-It's heating up pretty quick, isn't it?

-For many Allied soldiers, caffeine was the stimulant of choice.

Coffee was so critical to American GI Joes that, today, cup of Joe is synonymous with the drink.

-All right, cheers.

-I've got my foot out.

-Peel your heel off.

Where is it? -Just there.

-Wiggle your foot.

How much am I getting paid for this is all I wanna know.

-So, because we're able to take caffeine, we're on these lovely, delicious-looking chocolate, caffeine-enhanced chocolate.

So, James, this should send us around the next bit of the march a bit quicker then, eh?

-Should do.

-Come on, let's go. -Yeah.

♪♪♪ -They may not be in combat... -Hello, Woofit. -[Barking] -...but they are carrying the same 60-pound load that German and British soldiers would've humped, back in 1940, and it's proving no easy task.

-Where's the shortcut, then?

♪♪♪ -If it's not 100 yards, I'm gonna collapse in a pile, there.

[coughing] Oh!

Oh. Oh, [bleep] Ow.

My feet are broken.

♪♪♪ My ankles are broke.

So, I reckon that 20 miles is achievable, but, day after day, that's a very hard thing to ask for a platoon of soldiers.

-Despite bruised ankles, they've logged 14 miles in just under 4 hours.

At this pace, they'd have easily hit the 22-mile mark of the Wehrmacht.

-You know, they're all trained up for doing this kinda stuff, so you have to think that walking 22 miles a day, over consecutive days, for those guys, really shouldn't have been a massive problem without drugs.

[ Band plays march ] I am not convinced that the Germans needed it, at all.

♪♪♪ -Whether the Wehrmacht needed Pervitin or not, the Nazi victory in France is a stunning one.

♪♪♪ By June 1940, France has been brought to its knees.

♪♪♪ The British army lies in tatters and, soon, London itself is ablaze.

[ Explosion ] ♪♪♪ [ Explosion ] [ Flames crackling ] The English are desperate to learn the source of Germany's success... ♪♪♪ and, when a German plane goes down in the south of England, they find the answer.

[ Flames crackling ] Inside, they discover a packet of an unknown substance that holds the key to the Nazis' boundless energy.

Lab analysis will soon reveal the substance is methamphetamine, Germany's super-drug. [ Suspenseful chord strikes ] To find out more about the British side of the story, Jim's meeting pharmacology historian Dr. James Pugh.

-So, what have you got here?

-So I brought some files along which I thought you might be interested in seeing. -Mm-hmm.

-The first is a letter to Winston Churchill, in fact. -Oh, really?

-And it's actually from his physician, Sir Charles Wilson, letting Churchill know that the British have discovered that Germany is making use of amphetamines in a military context.

-Mm! -And suggesting to him that, perhaps, this is something the British need to consider.

-I mean, this is a really interesting line: 'In short, it was concluded that the drug would be useful to the majority of men if it is desired to keep them strenuously and dangerously active for 24 hours at a stretch.'

-Germany has occupied France, by this stage, -Mm. -so anything that the British feel they can do to gain an advantage or to level the playing field again is something that they need to consider and I guess you could characterize this as maybe the beginning of a chemical arms race, I suppose.

One of the other ways that the drug was used is in its inhaler form.

-Gosh, look at that.

God, it's like a Vicks inhaler.

So you just do this, you just go...? -Yeah, I probably wouldn't do that, at this point, but.

-[laughs] No, but I mean, that's the process? -Yeah.

-The Allied version of Pervitin was called Benzedrine and, like German speed, it was already used by civilians before the war began.

Both drugs make users intensely alert, 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.

♪♪♪ During the battle of Britain, exhausted Spitfire pilots were getting Benzedrine, unofficially, from local pharmacies, but Churchill seems to push things to another level.

-So one of the very interesting things is that this is being sent to Churchill and what's important about that is he's a man of science.

He's very interested in novel developments and new technologies and stuff and so drugs kind of fit that bill for him.

-Soon, the Royal Air Force begins testing Benzedrine under combat conditions.

They turn to a 30-year-old flight surgeon, named Roland Winfield, to administer the drug to British air crew and record the reactions.

♪♪♪ By late 1941, Allied bombers are hitting back.

[ Bombs whistling ] [ Explosions ] ♪♪♪ Long night missions over Nazi Germany, with a fatality rate of more than 45%, are a terrifying ordeal.

♪♪♪ -You know, that's one of those things where, obviously, so if that can keep you awake and keep you alive, then, you know, clearly, that's a good thing.

-I suppose, on the other side of it, too -- -Later, Jim and James head out to explore a British Lancaster bomber, the same type of aircraft in which Roland Winfield conducted the only known combat tests of amphetamines during the war.

♪♪♪ -These bomb bays are pretty impressive, aren't they?

-My goodness. [laughing] That's gigantic.

-They can take 6.5 tons.

-6.5 tons?! -Yeah.

And they can be adapted to take a Grand Slam, which is 10 tons. -10 tons.

-I mean, it is incredible, the lift of this.

-Just absolutely overwhelmed by the size of it.

This is gonna be tight, I reckon, for you, James.

-I mean, look at it.

[ Knocking, hollow ] It's a tin can, isn't it?

-So there's no armor here or anything like this.

-No. No. -This is just thin.

-And, you know, a cannon shell or a bullet's just gonna rip through. -Rip straight through.

-On that Lancaster, you're just thinking, 'This is a piece of tin.

I'm gonna be shot at. I'm gonna be scared.

If I need to escape quickly,' [laughs] you know, it's just next to impossible.

There are very few concessions to human comfort. -Yeah, yeah.

-For me, this is designed for one thing, and one thing only, and that's dropping large amounts of bombs.

-Goodness, me, yeah. [ Bomb whistling ] [ Explosions ] -Physically exhausting and terrifying.

In the air war over Europe, aviation technology pushes men beyond the limits of human endurance.

♪♪♪ -You know, I can understand why you would take a Benzedrine pill, you know? -I think I can as well.

Just going past the navigator's desk, here.

-Again, I mean, look how cramped it is.

-It is. And, as you emerge into the cockpit, there's a little bit more space here, I suppose, [laughs] until you try and get in the seat.

Case -- Oh, my goodness!

This is snug.

-Yeah, it really is, isn't it? -[laughing] Yeah, this is snug.

-So tell me about Winfield's tests that he was doing.

-Yeah, he actually flies with the crews.

He administers the drugs in flight, you know; he also administers placebos.

And then, yeah, he reports back on the experiences the crews have.

♪♪♪ -In all, Winfield observed troops who were given amphetamines on 20 RAF missions.

♪♪♪ -[Indistinct] -I mean, just imagine this, James.

You know, you're sitting here, you're piloting this plane.

-We're over the lake now.

-You know, this is unpressurized, this cabin.

-Yeah. -You know, -45°, freezing cold.

♪♪♪ You've gotta watch out for night fighters and you've got lots of flak coming up.

-Yeah, yeah. -The whole thing is terrifying.

[ Rapid gunfire ] [ Explosion ] [ Explosion ] -So, after crews have dropped their bombs, they will experience what's known as the post-adrenal crash.

So their bodies have been flooded with adrenaline for an extended period of time.

That adrenaline starts to leave the body at that point and they become extremely fatigued.

This is one of the things that Winfield concludes and he recommends in his reports, is, if you take the drug about an hour and a half before you're going to drop your bombs, the drug will start to sort of act upon your consciousness at that point.

♪♪♪ -Of all Winfield's findings, perhaps the most influential are his reports describing how air crews high on speed show increased aggression under fire.

-One of the things that he notes in his report is an example of an attack, which the air crews actually dive down to a very, very low height and attack a flak [indistinct] -Really, they start shooting it up?

-Yeah, yeah.

Of course, Winfield is also simultaneously concerned by some of this, too.

Ultimately, when the RAF come to think about this drug, they're actually concerned about those effects... -Are you all right? You get any of the baddies?

-...where the crews will start to lean on the drugs, as opposed to using them as a tool to help manage their wakefulness.

♪♪♪ -But if the RAF sees these side effects as a potential problem, the British army sees them as a benefit.

♪♪♪ Even more than keeping troops awake, British ground commanders want a pill that can make the men fearless.

[ Explosions ] ♪♪♪ By 1942, the Allies are losing massive numbers of soldiers to a byproduct of industrial warfare: shell shock, known today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Over the course of the conflict, as many as one in three frontline soldiers will be incapacitated by it.

-Oh, God, listen!

-Benzedrine, it is hoped, might offer a solution.

[ Suspenseful music fades ] [ Piano plays melancholy tune ] For this hidden side of the story, Jim's traveling to a small museum connected to a hospital that first treated thousands of shell shock victims during the previous World War.

♪♪♪ -Well, I suppose, when we think of, well, the concept of war neurosis, shell shock, it really goes back to the first World War, doesn't it?

And is that the first time that it starts to become recognized?

-I think the stress of combat has always been recognized, certainly from the Crimean War onwards, but what happens in the first World War, is that industry has intensified killing power, so large numbers of soldiers, 60%, are killed by shrapnel, by artillery, by mortars.

♪♪♪ After the Battle of the Somme, when there's been something like 420,000 casualties, a significant number of those, maybe 50,000 to 60,000, would be shell shock.

So it's not only a medical problem, it's also a military problem because this is a war of attrition and, if you're losing large numbers of men to battle exhaustion, to psychiatric breakdown, and you're not able to treat them, then it's eroding your fighting strength.

-So, in the treatment of combat fatigue, when do they start looking at drugs?

When do they start looking at pharmacology and Benzedrine?

-Well, Benzedrine has been introduced to the UK in 1935, but as the war gets closer and closer, senior doctors and commanders recognize that this could have a major beneficial, you know, use, in all three services, in keeping soldiers awake, alert, and boosting their morale in times of stress, so I think the British army used Benzedrine to keep people awake, but also to lift spirits.

-So Dr. Jones was very interesting about the use of Benzedrine, not just as a wakey-wakey pill, which is what is was sometimes referred to, but also one that would improve morale, that would give those who took it a sense of kind of well-being and greater physical courage.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] -Jim's Glenside visit has given him critical insight.

By using the drug as a tool to heighten aggression and lift morale, Britain is raising the stakes in the pharmacological fight against the Nazis, who still primarily see amphetamine as a way to offset fatigue.

By 1942, British troops in North Africa are in desperate need of a morale boost.

They've retreated across 600 miles of desert, chased by Germany's renowned Africa Corps, and are dug in around a tiny trading post: El Alamein.

But in October, a feisty new commander, who is likely familiar with the RAF amphetamine tests, arrives: Bernard Montgomery.

He is ready to go on the offensive.

-When Montgomery took over, morale in British 8th Army was at rock-bottom and it was one of the things he realized that he had to turn around, by the way he was talking.

-I want to impress on everyone that the bad times are over.

-And, you know, 'There'll be no more retreats,' you know, 'You're really well-equipped.

We're gonna smash the Germans and the Italian forces,' and trying to give them a greater sense of self-belief.

-We can't stay here alive.

They'll never stay here dead.

-But if there's a pill that could do part of that job for you, then it's gotta be worth taking.

♪♪♪ -It's always been a bit of a mystery whether Monty, himself, brought Benzedrine to the desert and whether he truly saw it as a morale builder, but Jim's recently discovered a document from Montgomery's medical officer, QV Wallace, which proves orders for Benzedrine came straight from the top.

[ Suspenseful music climbs ] -I've never before seen any direct, written reference in any official capacity, to the mass use of Benzedrine, but Brigadier Wallace's memo absolutely knocks that into touch because there it is, absolutely spelled out.

The troops that were involved in the opening stages of the Battle of Alamein were given Benzedrine, not just to keep them going, not just to keep them awake, but also to give them resolve, to give them confidence, to bolster their morale.

♪♪♪ -By late 1942, the Americans still have not put any boots on the ground in the West, but they do provide a new tank, which will give the British a technological edge in battles to come.

♪♪♪ -The Sherman is incredibly important when it comes in.

They get 300 of them straight into Egypt and they're kinda tested up and made battle-ready.

At the time, it is the best tank on the battlefield.

You know, it's got this incredibly accurate gun.

It's pretty well-armored.

It's very easy to maintain.

This is a very good tank, which is now entering battle on the British side.

-Just like long-range bombers, modern tanks, like the Sherman, were now pushing men to the limits of human endurance, so how welcome would a pill that could offset these conditions be, to those who served?

Jim visits an old friend who might be able to help him find out.

♪♪♪ -Okay, so Jim Clark is a restorer of wartime military vehicles and he's got a whole host of stuff.

He's got Jeeps; he's got trucks.

But he's also got a Sherman tank.

♪♪♪ So Jim, one of the things I'm trying to find out a bit is, I mean, obviously you know, when you're in a tank, you're gonna get shot at and that's quite traumatic, but the other thing I'm quite interested in is just what it's like, sort of existing and operating in these tanks 'cause -Yeah. -it's a confined space.

You know, man's not really designed for this.


-All right? -We're in!


[ Engine wheezing ] [ Engine starts ] [ Engine revs ] [ Whimsical tune plays ] ♪♪♪ -It's not an environment that is comfortable, in any shape or form.

♪♪♪ The smell of the fumes was immense.

Very quickly, you start to kind of catch your throat.

Oh, dear, I gotta say, the amount of dust is incredible!

-The fan that cools the engine -Yeah.

draws the air in through the crew compartment.

-it gets drawn over you, -[Laughs] -so you get covered in it.

♪♪♪ -If I'm feeling this amount of grit going into my eyes and up my nose, just from going down a short stretch of track in the middle of winter in England, what's it gonna be like in the desert?

It must've just been absolutely impossible.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] -'Tank men,' wrote one veteran, 'fought their war in an enclosed, suffocating, noisy metal box, fearful of being struck and burned alive by an enemy they could not see.'

[ Explosion ] [ Explosions ] ♪♪♪ -You really do get a feel of how physically draining it must be to just operate one of these things.

♪♪♪ So, you can see, can't you, the stress and strain -Yeah.

-of doing that? You know, quite apart from the fact that you're, almost on a daily basis, been in battle. -Yeah.

The toll of fightin' all day long and then no proper sleep, no rest.

Um -- Even if you're sleeping at night, there's probably shelling goin' on, so you probably didn't have much decent rest.

[ Gunfire ] -[laughing] And this is just stuffed full of highly explosive material. -Yeah.

In the turret basket, I think there's about 15 or rounds.

There's probably 20 or 30 on each side.

-Yeah, it's a good number. -Yeah, a good number, yeah.

Then, there was .50-cal rounds in the base.

Then, you got your 160 gallons of fuel.

Like a mobile bomb, basically.

[ Explosion ] ♪♪♪ -At El Alamein, the British 24th Armoured Tank Brigade is given the job of punching through German defenses.

As the Wallace memo makes clear, on the eve of the attack, each man is given a huge dose of Benzedrine: 20 milligrams per day, twice he amount recommended to RAF pilots.

-I know that the 24th Armoured Brigade were issued with Benzedrine because he wanted them to keep going.

You know, what he said was the first bit of the battle was gonna be the dogfight.

It was gonna be the grinding, attritional battle, and, for that grinding, attritional battle, he wanted his men to keep going.

[ Explosions ] -Unlike modern pills, Benzedrine tablets in '42 have no slow-release coating.

The full dose will hit all at once.

For some soldiers, alertness and euphoria will give way to a false sense of power.

♪♪♪ In the coming days, the men of the 24th will prove exceedingly aggressive, fatally so.

Because, for crewmen of either side, the use of amphetamine will do more than make them more alert.

It may suppress a natural reaction in combat: fear.

-Fear is about self-preservation.

You're scared because you don't want to die.

If you take that away and you sort of don't care quite so much, you're not quite so careful.

The problem of being charged up on Benzedrine is that your ability to make rational decisions and that normal preservation instinct which kicks in as a result of fear might be absent if you're absolutely pumped on speed.

[ Suspenseful chord strikes ] ♪♪♪ -Even with their new Shermans, hopped-up British soldiers face an array of lethal German anti-tank guns.

[ Blast ] [ Explosion ] -What the Germans have is the infamous 88-millimeter, which is a dual-purpose antiaircraft gun.

This is something that can hurl a shell 24,000 feet, vertically, into the air and can also be used as an anti-tank gun on a horizontal position, straight at something, and this is firing at 2,900 feet per second.

♪♪♪ -If their judgment was impaired by high doses of Benzedrine, what kind of fate awaited them?

Jim's visiting a military explosives range for a demonstration.

♪♪♪ Trevor Lawrence runs the COTEC live-fire range on Salisbury Plain, where they test all new ordinance for the British military.

-Trevor Lawrence had been there, seen that, done it.

I mean, you know, this is a guy who's been clearing mines, clearing IEDs, you know, explosives, in Northern Ireland during the, kind of, height of the Troubles but he also served in, you know, Bosnia during the civil war there; and in Iraq, so, you know, he knew a thing or two about explosives.

So, Trevor, what we're trying to replicate is the first Sherman tanks. They're arriving.

They're in action at the Battle of Alamein in Egypt in October 1942 and they're under attack from German anti-tank guns, either the 75-millimeter Pak 40, or the 88-millimeter.

And what we want to do is replicate what it would be like being in that tank, if you were hit by one of those shells.


♪♪♪ I've arranged a metal framework.

-Yep. -What we're gonna attach to that is a sheet of armored steel and that's the sort of steel that you would've seen on a Sherman tank.

Now, rather than actually firing a hardened steel projectile into it, what I'm going to do is I'm going to attach an explosive charge to the plate here.

-So, for all purposes, Trevor, that is an 88-millimeter anti-tank round?


As the shock wave runs through the explosive, where it hits the plate, it will produce the same sort of force that you'd get from a kinetic energy round striking the plate.

-Wow. Okay. And can we put anything behind here, so you can see, actually, the effect of falling shrapnel?

♪♪♪ -Well, here comes the tank crew.

-Here they are, and little do they know the fate that awaits them.

We can put some dummies close to it.

-These are our tank crew.

-Close in the tank crew, but also to get a better idea of what fragmentation we've got, what we tend to use is a sheet of aluminium and the fragmentation that's falling will go through, punch holes in that, and it'll give us a good idea of just how much has been produced.

-Wow, that sounds amazing.

[ Birds chirping ] -At Alamein, imperceptible desert ridges often concealed German 88s.

If Benzedrine led British tank crews to abandon caution and charge recklessly into hidden enemy guns, the results would've been devastating.

-Go ahead. -Stand by.

[ Birds chirping ] -Three, two, one.


[ Explosions ] -Whoa!

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Oh, my goodness, me. Look at that!

-It does not look very well for our driver, does it?

-No, it doesn't. Ouch.

♪♪♪ So, really interesting, when we got there, we had a look at it.

You could see that it was just this little kind of marble, small, little kind of circle where it had actually punched all the way through, but then, you look on the reverse side.

Oh, my goodness, me.

So a huge bit of metal has just disintegrated and it's just shattered.

-There we go. -Oh, my god!

-Right in the center of the chest.

-And look at all these. -But also, look at, see all this other fragmentation. -On the head.

-'Cause, although it's come off in one big scab, it's also sent all these other, smaller fragments out.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] -Both of them had been absolutely covered with little splinter marks all over, each one of which could've been entirely lethal.

That's just the -- -That's just the blast has just smashed his chest in.

-Shrapnel melted onto the aluminium, and you can just imagine your crew member, behind these two, all into me, into the shells.

-Oh, it would be impossible to survive.

Absolutely impossible.

-I've interviewed so many people that have been in this situation, that have been in tanks, have served in tanks.

♪♪♪ What I never fully appreciated was the pressure blast from the force of a shell like that hitting another and penetrating and transferring that huge force into the confined space of a tank.

If you're in an environment like a tank, that shrapnel that's falling would've just pinged all around here and you think about all that ordinance we've just been talking about. -Yeah.

You know, it's only got one of those that's gotta penetrate one of the propellant charges on one of those shells and it's you're in big trouble, -Yeah. -aren't you?

[ Rumbling ] -Having taken huge doses of Benzedrine, the 24th Armoured Brigade sets out for battle.

♪♪♪ With new Sherman tanks leading the way, troops exhibit hyperaggressive behavior some historians attribute to the drug.

♪♪♪ By battle's end, the brigade suffers 80% casualties and ceases to exist.

♪♪♪ -By the end of it, they're absolutely shattered.

Where's the escape hatch?

Oh, there.

-There, yeah.

-Jesus. -But you've got seconds to do it. If you think -Yeah.

-you may be on fire and maybe your crew members are also in agony and you [indistinct] to save them or save yourself. -Yeah.

♪♪♪ -Yeah, you know, it's -- [sigh] There's protection here, to a point, but, I don't really wanna be in a tank crew.

-No. It is sad. -Yeah.

♪♪♪ -So, can you see if someone's -- If the medical officer of the regiment said, 'Look, here you go.

Here's a Benzedrine pill.

This will keep you going,' you'd be quite tempted to take that?

-Yeah. I think, if it works, I think I'd be well up for it.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] ♪♪♪ -On November 8, 1942, a month after Alamein, American GIs finally enter ground combat in North Africa.

[ Blasting ] [ Explosion ] [ Gunshot zips ] They carry with them packets of Benzedrine.

[ Blast ] After the British victory at Alamein, US General Dwight Eisenhower orders some half-million tablets for American troops.

♪♪♪ But, just as the Allies are doubling down on speed, the Nazis are reconsidering its use.

Ironically, Hitler's Reich health leader has concerns about the addictive nature and dangerous side effects of amphetamine and, although German soldiers will continue to use it sporadically, the drug is severely restricted, especially for civilian use.

Still, Hitler's infatuation with science and technology remains strong.

[ Birds chirping ] [ Melancholy tune plays ] By late '44, with his navy in tatters, the Fuehrer looks to a bizarre wonder weapon, that, with the help of amphetamines, might turn the tide.

♪♪♪ In the end, Jim returns to Germany, to visit the site of one of the first Nazi concentration camps.

♪♪♪ -In November 1944, some 40,000 men are stuck in this camp.

-What's it designed for?

-10,000? -Okay, so four times more than there should've been. -Four times more.

♪♪♪ Germany had lost the war -Of course.

-already and the sphere of influence of the German navy was reduced to the Baltic Sea.

Everything else was controlled by the British.

So these small submarines were constructed, mainly for espionage.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] -In addition to espionage, Hitler's minisubs were also equipped with single torpedoes, designed to sink Allied ships moving supplies and troops across the English Channel.

-They were very small.

Only one or two soldiers could sit in it and they have to sit there for 48 hours, without sleeping, without getting up, without anything, so they needed a drug to keep them awake for that time.

-God! It's just unimaginable, isn't it?

So you need this drug to keep you going and to keep, but also presumably to keep your spirits up as well.


They were testing different drugs and comparing it, wanting to find out which drug keeps the people awake for the longest time with the smallest side effects.

This is the secret report on the experiments and this gives the four different substances: A, B, C, D.

The first is cocaine, [speaking German] in different doses.

Second is cocaine in chewing gum.

Pervitin in a chewing gum.

-But 100 milligrams, I mean, that's a huge dose! -Yeah.

It's a huge dose, indeed.

The men must have been completely stoned.

100 milligrams is really a lot.

-I mean, can you imagine it? You know.

You're a young member of the German navy, you've been singled out to man one of these submarines.

You're chewing on gum that has been laced with cocaine and methamphetamines.

I mean, we're talking crystal meth, here, and you're chewing away on this thing in this tiny, tight little cockpit, and, you know, you're high on speed.

I mean, it's just, it's insane.

I mean, it is absolutely insane.

-To test the stimulants, the German navy decides to force Sachsenhausen prisoners to take the drugs and then carry sacks of rocks around the camp's infamous shoe track.

-So this is the testing track. It was.

-This one, here? -This, here.

It was once around the roll call area and it was covered with different materials.

So here you would have sand, the next one is concrete, small gravel.

And the reason for setting it up was the testing of artificial leather.

♪♪♪ Germany did not have leather; they always imported leather -Right. -and, when they started the war, [laughing] nobody wanted to sell them leather, so they ordered companies to develop artificial -- -Fake leather.

-Artificial leather, yeah.

-God, it's absolutely fascinating.

I had no idea.

-And it's quite hard to walk on here, isn't it?

-It is, yeah. -If you have to march, it's not so easy.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] Sachsenhausen was designed by an architect and the architect wanted to give a message with the architecture of the camp.

With the one tower as the highest point, every morning, the prisoners had to stand on the roll call area, being counted, and, up here, there was a huge machine gun.

For the prisoners down there, looking into the eye of this machine gun up here, the message was, 'You're completely in our hands.

You're completely helpless and we can do whatever we want.'

[ Buzzing ] -I mean, it's doing exactly what it's designed to do.

I mean, you can feel it, even just standing up here.


♪♪♪ -What a grim place.

♪♪♪ -After the minisubs fail and his army falters, Hitler, who may himself have been addicted to drugs by war's end, takes his own life.

Luftwaffe commander and heroin addict Hermann Goering does the same.

[ Rattling ] But Benzedrine and Pervitin live on.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] -During the Second World War, one of the things that it certainly does do is it familiarizes hundreds of thousands of individuals with a drug that perhaps they otherwise wouldn't have used.

So it sort of normalizes the use of that drug and it sort of reinforces its position as a useful tool.

♪♪♪ -By the 1950s, amphetamines are being marketed as a diet pill and mood enhancer.

Bennie inhalers are offered on airplane menus.

Celebrities, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Jack Kerouac, are avid users.

Soon, millions are abusing speed, in what is now considered America's first prescription-drug epidemic.

[ Applause ] One likely user is a young combat vet from Massachusetts, named John F. Kennedy.

-Picking this country of ours up and sending it into the '60s.

[ Cheering ] -When I first embarked on this investigation, I was a bit scandalized that so much speed was taken during the Second World War and how outrageous that was.

-World War II military leaders saw amphetamines as simply another technological tool, like rockets and radar, tools that changed the world forever.

-For us, in the 21st century, drugs are bad, amphetamines are bad.

Speed is a dodgy word.

You've got to see this in the light of the 1930s and the 1940s.

World War II takes place over six years.

A lot is being expected of the young men [ Gunshots ] of the major combatant nations, and, is it any wonder, in this life-and-death struggle for the future of the world, that people are going to be looking at drugs that can keep people awake, that can keep morale improved?

It's absolutely no wonder at all.

[ Suspenseful music climbs, chords striking ] Next time... Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius one of the most important books in history.

It changed the way that we think about the cosmos.

A rare signed copy came on the market in 2005.

Instead of being the etchings, these were obviously watercolors.

But was the book genuine?

He's committed fraud on a massive scale.

And he's done it for money.



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