A British infantryman capturing a German tank crewman at El Alamein, 1942

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Second World War

The Second World War took place between 1939 and 1945 and was the bloodiest conflict in human history.

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Explore Second World War stories

Field Marshal Auchinleck, c1947

Claude Auchinleck: The auk

After initial successes in North Africa during the Second World War, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck transferred to India as Commander-in-Chief. While there his unstinting logistical support was vital to the Allied re-conquest of Burma.

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East African soldiers with a captured Japanese flag, 1944 

Far East campaign

Between December 1941 and August 1945, British Commonwealth troops and their allies fought a bitter war across the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific Ocean against a tenacious and often brutal enemy.

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Major Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler and a colleague paddling a canoe, c1942

Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler: A Cockleshell Hero

Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert ‘Blondie’ Hasler was an inventor, pioneering yachtsman and special forces canoeist. In December 1942, he led the daring ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on Bordeaux harbour.

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Captain Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott, c1944

Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott: Covert beach surveyor

During the Second World War, Nigel Clogstoun-Willmott founded the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties to undertake covert beach reconnaissance. This proved vital for the success of Allied seaborne invasions.

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Captain Roger Courtney, 1943

Roger Courtney: SBS pioneer

Major Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney founded the Special Boat Section during the Second World War. This became one of Britain’s most important Special Forces and was a parent unit of the modern Special Boat Service.

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Lieutenant Colonel Robert 'Paddy' Mayne near Kabrit, Egypt, 1942

'Paddy' Mayne: An Irish Lion

Lieutenant-Colonel 'Paddy' Mayne is a legendary figure in the history of the Special Forces. A celebrated sportsman with a turbulent character, he played a vital role in the early successes of the Special Air Service (SAS), becoming one of its most important commanders.

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Lieutenant Jock Lewes, 1940

'Jock' Lewes: SAS mastermind

As the co-founder of the Special Air Service (SAS), Lewes played a vital role in establishing the unit’s ethos and high standards of training and discipline.

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Major David Stirling, c1942

David Stirling: The Phantom Major

Colonel David Stirling was a pioneer of British Special Forces. In 1941, he founded the Special Air Service (SAS) in Egypt to undertake small-scale raids behind enemy lines.

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Gun disguised as a pen for use by SOE agents, 1945

Special Operations Executive

Formed in 1940, SOE was an underground army that waged a secret war in enemy-occupied Europe and Asia. Its agents demonstrated incredible courage and resourcefulness in their guerrilla war.

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Special Air Service collar badge, c1973

Special Air Service

Created during the Second World War, the SAS operated behind enemy lines in North Africa and Europe. Today, its highly trained men are renowned for their skills in covert surveillance, close combat fighting and hostage rescue.

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Sergeant Herbert Chambers with fellow Special Boat Service soldiers in Athens, 1944

Origins of the Special Forces

During the Second World War, Britain created a range of special units who undertook a variety of daring operations against the Axis Powers. The bravery and commitment of these forces has become the stuff of legend.

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Bagnold sun compass used by the LRDG, c1942

Desert innovator: Bagnold's sun-compass

The Long Range Desert Group were masters of navigation. They owed much of their success to the scientific talents of Major Ralph Bagnold, whose sun-compass invention revolutionised desert travel.

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Explore Second World War events

Stories from the Special Operations Executive
Performance

25 July 2018

FREE

Stories from the Special Operations Executive

Travel back in time to meet a Special Operations Executive agent brought to life by historian and costumed interpreter Dr Kate Vigurs.

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Stories from the Special Operations Executive
Performance

29 August 2018

FREE

Stories from the Special Operations Executive

Travel back in time to meet a Special Operations Executive agent brought to life by historian and costumed interpreter Dr Kate Vigurs.

find out more
The Special Boat Squadron in the Second World War: A band of renegade cut-throats
Talk

31 August 2018, 11.30am

FREE

The Special Boat Squadron in the Second World War: A band of renegade cut-throats

Author Gavin Mortimer discusses the history of the Special Boat Squadron.

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Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma
Talk

7 September 2018, 11.30am

FREE

Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma

Philip Davies tells the story of Major Hugh Seagrim, the ‘TE Lawrence of Burma’.

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Operation Torch
Talk

14 September 2018, 11.30am

FREE

Operation Torch

Senior Research Curator Emma Mawdsley looks at the co-operation between US and British troops during Operation Torch.

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