In many of the historical documentaries that I’ve been privileged to make over the years for our production company Squeaky Pedal, accurate and impactful archive is key to telling a compelling story.

Our latest TV series for Channel 5 produced in association with Content Kings entitled Sunken Warships: Secrets from the Deep explores the fates of 8 of the 20th century's most remarkable vessels. Each story is told through interviews with maritime experts and archive alone. Sadly, tight budgets mean we can’t simply recreate epic naval clashes to get the shots we need, either with CGI or utilising an Airfix kit! In spite of these limitations, the archive we select must be immersive, informative and exciting, taking our viewers to the snow covered decks of our vessels, or into the scorching heat of battle - perfectly matching the beats of our story.

Title screen for Sunken Warships: Secrets from the Deep
Title screen for Sunken Warships: Secrets from the Deep (Channel 5 produced in association with Content Kings)

The United States Government filmed a remarkable amount of footage during World War Two. It’s no accident that almost any Second World War documentary features footage of US planes, ships and soldiers even when they’re supposed to be talking about many of the other allied nations. Ships of the British Royal Navy feature heavily throughout our series, and I was determined to use accurate footage of both British ships and their crews wherever possible.

From the beginning we knew Imperial War Museums were going to be a key partner throughout the project. Not only is the volume of footage held within their archives impressive, but for me the sheer variety of subject matter uncovered is remarkable. One of my own personal favourites is the amount of training films contained within the collections. They provide unique and unprecedented access into areas of the ship and the normal day to day activities of the crew that are missing from news reports that usually are only in search of the dramatic.

Still from film, showing waves crashing over a ship
© IWM UKY 421
Still from film HMS King George V, produced in October 1942

One great example is Film Number UKY 421 which is a fascinating showcase of a day in the life aboard the British battleship HMS King George V. It features fantastic footage of Admiral John Tovey holding a conference with his senior officers, through to gun crews manning their stations and messmates eating their meals. There’s also some dramatic footage of the British Home Fleet, demonstrating the brutal realities of operating at sea all year round. For our episode on the Bismarck, our experts spoke about how the brave pilots of HMS Victorious were attempting to take off from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier that’s pitching and rolling in a heavy sea. The King George V film contains some remarkable footage of a British carrier pitching alarmingly as it battles through the waves. Dramatic visuals like this not only help bring to life the dramatic descriptions provided by our skilled experts, but they also give the viewer a true understanding of the appalling weather faced by wartime crews, and their immense bravery.

Two men operating a radio
© IWM ADM 2556
Still from RADIO LOCATION (RDF) PART 7 : operational use of Type Nos 273M and 284M (4) in a cruiser, produced in 1943

Accuracy also extends to the technology utilised at the time. One of my favourites is ADM 2556, a 1943 film which explains how radar improves the accuracy of gunnery at sea. Our episode on the cruiser HMS Edinburgh explored her remarkable gunnery hit on the German destroyer Hermann Schoemann. A strike made even more impressive as the stern of HMS Edinburgh had almost been completely destroyed when she made the strike. This fantastic documentary showcases how the gunnery team on a cruiser very similar to Edinburgh work together to make a strike. From the workings of the Radio Direction Finding equipment itself through to crewmen manning the receiver rooms this is a fascinating insight into another little seen but vital technology that helped the Royal Navy win the war at sea.

A final personal triumph is including footage that has rarely been seen before by the audience. This opportunity presented itself when telling the story of the British cruiser HMS Exeter. She provided a rare spark of good news in the dark days of 1939 when she won victory over the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. When the battered cruiser returned to Britain weeks after the action, cameras were on the quayside to capture the joy of the enormous crowds that had turned out to celebrate her achievements. Unfortunately, we could find little footage showing the rest of her career either before or after this event. However, contained within the IWM archives is a remarkable amateur film shot by Lieutenant Norman Tod while serving as navigating officer on the cruiser HMS Ajax from 1938 to 1940 as part of the South American Squadron. This film (MGH 3662) shows HMS Exeter both at anchor in Bermuda and steaming out for manoeuvres. Although Exeter’s inclusion is sadly limited, the fact that the footage is colour adds an extra shine to both its quality and subject matter.

Colour image of a ship
© IWM MGH 3662
Still from HMS AJAX IN THE SOUTH AMERICAN SQUADRON, 1938-1940, AND HMS NORFOLK IN NORTHERN WATERS, 1940-1943, produced in 1940

In many respects I always liken archive hunting to a jigsaw. The pieces are sometimes hard to find, and the finished image in your mind may change. But there’s nothing more satisfying when those pieces come together to create something which brings history to life on screen. To Fiona and the team at the Image and Film licencing department at the IWM, I can only express my thanks for your help and support throughout the process, and for maintaining what is such a remarkable and unique resource for filmmakers, researchers and the public alike.

Jason Davidson is a producer/director and co-owner of the award winning production company Squeaky Pedal. The series Sunken Warships: Secrets from the Deep is due to be broadcast on 5Select from February 2024 with all episodes available for catchup on My5.