I’m a firm believer that we should all have at least a cursory understanding of important international events in history so we learn from them – whether good or bad. This is especially true when it comes to probably one of the most important events on the international stage during the last century: World War 2.
The thing is, history isn’t always the easiest thing to study because of all the names and dates. But who ever said that history lessons have to be boring? There are so many films and TV shows out there that are rooted in historical events!
Of course, they’re fictionalized and by no means should be taken as an absolute source of historical accuracy, but they’re still a great place to start – at the very least to spark an interest!
In that vein, we’re bringing a list of the best TV shows about World War 2 to introduce at least some aspects of this huge part of world history.
Each series is told from a different perspective and hopefully will provide a view of the war that encompasses all aspects, even the ones we don’t normally learn about in school.
Again, the information and events portrayed in these shows shouldn’t be taken at face value as facts because as we know, creative license is heavily applied in any TV series. Still, the entertainment factor is what’ll draw you in and keep you!
Catch-22, Hulu (2019)
Hulu’s six-episode miniseries is a satirical, dark comedy adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel of the same name, Catch-22.
The term originated from the novel and is now common parlance used to describe a circuitous, lose-lose situation because of inherently conflicting conditions.
The series follows John Yossarian, a US Air Force bombardier who hates risking his life and the constantly rising number of missions he’s required to fly.
Yossarian is caught in a catch-22 himself: his continuing to fly these missions is considered insane, but requesting dismissal is viewed as a rational action and thus, makes him not insane and unqualified for dismissal.
So instead, he does whatever he can to avoid his missions – including faking illness and sabotaging equipment!
The Halcyon, ITV (2017)
The Halcyon is a period drama from ITV that is primarily set in at a glamorous five-star hotel right in the heart of London.
Despite the war raging around it, the hotel stands strong and houses the who’s who of the British society’s elite.
Where most shows about the 1940s and the war will tell their stories through those directly involved like world leaders and soldiers, The Halcyon shows what life in London was like through the eyes of its wealthiest citizens.
In particular, the series portrays the war “through the prism of war and the impact it has on families, politics, relationships and work across every social strata.”
Bomb Girls, Global/Univision Canada (2012 – 2013)
Originally envisioned as a six-part miniseries, the Canadian period drama Bomb Girls expanded into two full seasons with 19 episodes in total.
Told from the female perspective, Bomb Girls follows the lives of several women working at a Canadian munitions factory during the war.
With the men off at war, they’ve been tasked to fill up the labor shortage by building bombs – risking their lives in the process but thriving in the freedom from the social restrictions they previously had to abide by.
Each woman brings her own story to the table, from escaping suffocating homes, husbands, and fathers to a young woman just seeking connection with her newfound sisterhood.
SAS: Rogue Heroes, BBC/Epix (2022)
Next on our list is an upcoming six-part limited series, from Kudos and Nebulastar for BBC and Epix in the United States.
Based on the book of the same name written by Ben Macintyre, SAS: Rogue Heroes has been adapted for TV by Steven Knight, creator of period drama Peaky Blinders – so you know it’s bound to be great!
The series is set to portray how the British Special Forces unit, the titular Special Air Service, came to fruition. In particular, how it began with the young officer David Stirling when he was hospitalized after a training exercise had gone awry.
The show has a stellar cast already in the works, too (including Game of Thrones Alfie Allen)!
The Liberator, Netflix (2020)
Now, Netflix’s The Liberator is an absolutely fascinating series for several reasons.
First of all, even as a miniseries it’s shorter than most we’re used to, clocking in at only four episodes of less than an hour each.
Second of all, it’s an adult animated series and the type of animation still evokes a sense of realism, unlike your typical kind of cartoon.
And finally, it tells of one group of combat soldiers that many of us outside of the US (and maybe even within) don’t hear enough about.
US Army infantry commander Felix “Shotgun” Sparks led the 157th Infantry regiment – a group of white cowboys, Native Americans, and Mexican Americans – for over 500 days from Italy to France, fighting alongside the Allied forces and eventually leading to the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.
Das Boot, Sky One (2018 – present)
Sky One brings us the Germany-produced Das Boot, based on Lother-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 book of the same as well as its 1995 sequel, Die Festung.
The series also serves as a sequel to the same-titled 1981 film, but takes place nine months after the events in the movie, in 1942.
Now on its third season, Das Boot starts out along two distinct narratives: the first is on land at the portt of La Rochelle and revolves around the upcoming French Resistance – alongside a woman’s story of torn loyalty and forbidden love.
The second narrative takes place at sea aboard the U-612 military submarine, following its young submarine crew as it prepares for its maiden voyage: a highly dangerous surveillance mission.
Atlantic Crossing, NRK/PBS (2020)
We move from the international stage to a smaller setting, though one that’s still constantly under scrutiny from the public: the American government and specifically, the Presidential family.
Atlantic Crossing homes in on both America and Norway, notably the interactions between President Franklin Roosevelt and Norway’s Crown Princess Märtha.
During the Second World War, she and her three children fled from the Nazis’ invasion of Norway and received protection from Roosevelt.
We witness how their relationship played out against the backdrop of the war – though any romance portrayed in the series has been largely criticized as having no basis in historical evidence.
World on Fire, BBC One (2019 – present)
This BBC One historical drama is aptly titled, as it really portrays the way the world was in flames and the impact it had on these ordinary citizens’ daily lives.
World on Fire takes us to various locations including France (Paris and Dunkirk), Britain (Manchester), Poland (Warsaw) and Germany (Berlin), all while unfolding the lives of civilians whose lives have been completely upended by the war.
While some of these characters are war vets themselves, we also watch the stories of a factory worker and singer, bus conductor, language interpreter, nurse, waitress, doctor, and even a petty criminal.
World on Fire shows that no matter the background or place in society, a war never chooses its casualties.
The Forgotten Army, Amazon Prime Video (2020)
The full title of this Prime Video limited series is The Forgotten Army – Azaadi Ke Liye and is told from the perspective of the soldiers in the Indian National Army as they fought alongside Japanese soldiers for independence from British colonial rule during the Second World War.
These men and women (the first women’s infantry regiment since 1918) marched towards the capital on a grueling journey full of sacrifices. However, their story was lost amidst the events of the war, thus becoming the ‘forgotten army’.
The true events portrayed in The Forgotten Army tackles identity, independence, and the cost of keeping freedom alive.
Band of Brothers, HBO (2001)
HBO’s Band of Brothers is a “visceral, intense look at the horrors of war”; it’s a ten-episode drama miniseries based on the 1992 book of the same name from historian Stephen E. Ambrose.
The series follows “Easy Company”, an elite team of paratroopers part of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, from their jump training to their exploits across Europe (including US airborne landings in Normandy and operations in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany) and through to the end of the war.
Though creative license is used, Band of Brothers are based on true events and is based not only on extensive research, but actual interviews with veterans in Easy Company.
The Pacific, HBO (2010)
After Band of Brothers and its success, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up once again for its companion piece, The Pacific.
Whereas the former focused on the airborne division of the army through Europe, The Pacific tells the story of three US Marines and the roles they played against the backdrop of the greater Asia-Pacific theater of World War 2 – one significant event being the Battle of Iwo Jima.
The series is based on the memoirs of the marines at the forefront of the characters, and each episode is split to follow their storyline – all three being from different regiments – to form a full picture of the war.
Home Fires, ITV (2015 – 2016)
Set between 1939 and early 1940, ITV’s Home Fires is similar to the aforementioned Canadian series Bomb Girls in one major regard: it focuses on the lives of a group of women and how the war changed their lives forever.
In a rural community in Cheshire, England called Great Paxford, normal civilians are increasingly becoming active in the Home Front, doing whatever they can to contribute to the war efforts.
For the women in the community, this included the Women’s Institute, an organization founded to give them a space to participate in campaigns and activities that not only address their role in the war but also women’s rights in society in general.
Land Girls, BBC One (2009 – 2011)
Yet another similar to Home Fires is BBC One’s Land Girls, a three-season drama that follows four women’s journeys as their lives are forever changed by the war.
Nancy Morrell, Joyce Fisher, Annie Barratt, and Bea Holloway – the titular Land Girls – may have joined the Women’s Land Army from different walks of life and for different reasons, but they all have one intention: to do what they can from the home front to help Britain win the war.
They cross paths at Pasture Farm on the Hoxley Estate, where they balance the laborious work they do on the farm with the extravagant lifestyle up at the Hoxley Manor.
Spies of Warsaw, BBC Four (2013)
BBC Four itself calls Spies of Warsaw a “classic tale of spying, intrigue and romance”.
The series is based on the book of the same name by Alan Furstt, a spy novel published in 2008.
Though there are only four episodes, Spies of Warsaw tells a gripping story of espionage and love during what is the most difficult period in a person’s life during that era.
Jean-François Mercier is a military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw… or so it seems. In reality, he’s there as a spy for the Deuxième Bureau – the French intelligence agency.
While undercover, he falls into the world of abduction and deceit, and also falls in love in the process.
Foyle’s War, ITV (2002 – 2015)
Foyle’s War is a detective drama that takes place both during and shortly after the Second World War, and it really focuses more on the exploits of the eponymous Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle as he attempts to stop the criminals who are taking advantage of the chaos left by the war.
While his son fights as an RAF pilot, Foyle fights on the ground and uses his skills and intuition to help the war efforts in his own way, investigating cases involving profiteering and the black market.
After the war, he even became a senior intelligence officer to continue his assistance to the British government.
Generation War, ZDF (2013)
Our first foreign-language series on the list is ZDF’s Generation War, a German miniseries where each of its three episodes ran for roughly 90 minutes.
The series follows a group of five friends in their early 20s: Wilhelm, Charlotte, Great, Viktor, and Friedhelm, and their separate journeys throughout the war.
It starts with their last night together before parting ways with the promise to meet up again the next year.
However, one year turns into four as the war continues and their paths never diverge until it ends – and even then, their lives have already been changed forever.
My Mother and Other Strangers, BBC Northern Ireland (2017)
My Mother and Other Strangers is another series that shows how the lives of even ordinary citizens were completely upended while the war raged on, even when they and their families were not directly involved.
In the fictional town of Moybeg along Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland, the Coyne family and their neighbors have lived away from the chaos of war, but this soon changes when 4000 American USAAF servicemen arrive and set up a base within their rural community.
The Coynes are put under further strain when their matriarch Rose, the parish school teacher, finds herself in a love triangle between her husband and USAAF soldier, Captain Dreyfuss.
X Company, CBC Television (2015 – 2017)
The plotline of X Company may sound like something fictional out of an action movie, but the premise is actually based on a real-life place.
The Canadian/Hungarian spy thriller series follows a group of five highly-skilled individuals from America, Canada, and England who have been recruited to train as agents at the super-secret facility called Camp X (actually a real training camp for covert agents during the war!).
Once their training was done, they’d be sent out into the field on dangerous missions that would put them at risk of capture, torture, and even death.
X Company is a series about the origins of espionage, based on true stories.
Above and Beyond, CBC (2006)
As we said, there are so many aspects to war beyond the fighting on the front lines, many of which we probably have no idea about.
CBC’s historical miniseries Above and Beyond covers one such example: the Atlantic Ferry Organization.
Never heard of it? Well, the unit was born out of a need to transport necessary aircraft from Canada and the United States to the United Kingdom, Europe, and other areas at the front lines of the war.
In its two episodes, Above and Beyond chronicles how the organization (eventually becoming the RAF Ferry Command) became instrumental in the development of transatlantic flight.
Island at War, ITV (2004)
Finally, ITV brings to the table Island at War, a six-episode miniseries that documents the German occupation of the Channel Islands that began in June 1940.
Though the fictional setting is called St. Gregory, this serves as a combination of the Guernsey and Jersey islands; the events in Island at War are also based on real-life events from both islands.
Island at War focuses on three families from different social classes and their interactions with four German officers, and how their lives intertwined against a local community that continued to clash amidst the ongoing war.