Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed

June 10, 2019

Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed premieres Tuesday, June 25 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN

It has long been known that German soldiers used a meth-amphetamine called Pervitin in World War II. But tales of Nazis on speed obscured the other side of the story: the massive use of stimulants by British and American troops.

Join military historian James Holland on a quest to unearth the truth behind the world’s first pharmacological arms race in Secrets of the Dead: World War Speed, premiering June 25 on THIRTEEN.

Holland’s most recent book is Normandy ‘44D-Day and the Battle for France (2019).

Drug Use in the Military

Package of six Pervitin (methamphetamine hydrochloride) vials from Germany.

Package of six Pervitin (methamphetamine hydrochloride) vials from Germany.

A compelling journey in the film takes Holland to aviation and pharmacological museums in Europe, where he speaks with experts about Pervitin use in Nazi Germany, and also reveals how the Allied forces conducted drug research.

By 1941, when rumors of Nazi soldiers using a “super-drug” identified as meth-amphetamine were confirmed, British commanders launched their own classified program to find the perfect war-fighting drug. They hoped Benzedrine would help defeat the need for sleep, as well as the anxiety and fear associated with shell shock – or as it is known today, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Indelible lessons about the ravaging effects of combat stress are conveyed through visits to a modern British military demolitions range and within the belly of a restored Sherman tank.

By World War II’s end, America alone dispensed as many as 500 million tablets of amphetamines to U.S. servicemen. By the 1950s, amphetamines were marketed as diet pills and mood enhancers to the general public. Celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Jack Kerouac were avid users.

How this drug affected the course of World War II is an ongoing controversy. Holland thought its widespread use in the military was scandalous – until he viewed the situation from an historical perspective.

“World War II is taking place over six years, and a lot is being expected of the young men of the major combatant nations,” he says in the film. “Is it any wonder in this life-and-death struggle for the future of the world that people are looking at drugs that can keep people awake and improve morale? It’s absolutely no wonder at all.”

World War Speed will be available to stream beginning June 25 via the Secrets of the Dead website and the THIRTEEN Explore app. Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #SecretsDeadPBS.

American mortar crew in action near the Rhine, 1945

American mortar crew in action near the Rhine, 1945