Bringing history to life for a modern audience

Seven decades ago, a handful of top military officials listened to a crackly radio for information as Allied troops landed on the beaches of northern France. Fast forward 70 years to last summer, and billions globally will be able to watch live as emotional tributes are paid to those who lost their lives in ‘D-Day’.

“It is an example of how the media has transformed our lives, and totally changed the way we observe history,” said Dr Harry Bennett, Associate Professor of History. “We’re all playing a part in creating history, and it’s quietly become one of the most democratic and inclusive entertainment forms on the planet.”

The evidence to back that up is clear. Barely a day goes by without a nostalgic series or documentary being broadcast on primetime television, while the advent of satellite TV means you can watch history unfold 24 hours a day. Added to that is Hollywood’s continued passion for reimagining the past on the big screen.

That is strikingly apparent in 2014, as the world marks 100 years since the start of the First World War, and the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The small screen is awash with programmes about the conflicts of the early 20th century, while a swathe of public support has led to some high-profile commemorations, such as the erection of new memorials and the presentation of conflict medals.

“As the number of surviving veterans gets smaller, there’s a passion to engage with them to ensure their memories are not lost forever,”

said Harry who since joining Plymouth University in 1992, has become one of the world’s most respected commentators on naval heritage and the Second World War.

“We saw the same a few years ago with the last soldiers from the Great War. There’s no better way to piece together a picture of past events than from the people who were there.”

On how the media has altered the way researchers work and potential public reach,

For some of my research, I have been interviewed by the BBC Six O’Clock News, which instantly reaches six million people. It opens a whole range of new opportunities to enhance understanding and engage audiences.

Over those two decades, Harry’s work has involved studies of modern land, sea and air warfare, the effects of government policy on defence and foreign relations in the 20th century, military strategy, and the practical results on the battlefield.

His research has contributed to discussion on public policy for naval heritage, through his involvement with the Phoenix Think Tank - for whom he produced a paper in 2011 entitled UK Armed Forces Future Force Structure: An Outline for 2025, which argued that the UK navy has reached a critical position with potentially increased maritime/sea threats in the coming period.

Despite Britain’s position as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Harry’s research demonstrates a sea-change in both the national psyche and its continued perception as a global superpower. As recently as the late 20th century, Britain’s naval prowess was the envy of the world while the quest to guard borders and project its might globally was one of the key influences on government policy. With the conflicts on our doorstep, threatening - and in many cases devastating - towns and cities across the UK, there was an appreciation that spending billions of pounds was necessary to protect our very way of life.

However, recent decades have seen the UK engage in several conflicts further afield with the results being aired round-the-clock through the media. And while the Armed Forces largely retain public support, especially here in Plymouth, many question whether the UK should be concentrating on non-military matters much closer to home. The result, Harry says, is that the Royal Navy “has, at least for the moment, lost its cutting edge.”

“After a long passage of warfare, there is always a sense of war weariness,” he said. “Fostered among the public, it gets through to the politicians and their malaise is presently being translated as ‘sea blindness’. The primary objective of any navy is power projection, but with just 19 ships - and new aircraft carriers unlikely to be operational until at least 2020 - it raises questions about our future aspirations as a maritime nation.”

With this in mind, and at a time when there is such an outpouring of positivity in recognition of the work of our Armed Forces, can historical research and education play a role in shaping our future maritime agenda? Harry said:

“As an island nation, we rely on the sea for everything from the food on our shelves to the energy that powers our homes. But there remains a general lack of appreciation of how much we rely on ships and the sea – and the events of the past can educate for the future.”

Over the past 20 years, his research has taken him across the globe and led to him writing definitive tomes on the Holocaust, Hitler’s admirals and the American influence in the war. As a result, he was invited to become a member of the Britannia Naval Museum Trust - specifically a trustee of the historical books, manuscripts, and artefacts and guardian of their historic paintings - and was instrumental in the creation of the Britannia Naval Histories of World War II, published by University of Plymouth Press, using previously unreleased material from the archives of the Britannia Royal Naval College.

He also played a key role - alongside Plymouth geographers and mathematicians - in cracking the codes of MI9, a project that put the University in the global media spotlight and, he maintains, has the potential to redefine global understanding of the PoWs.