Unsung Heroes of World War II: Europe

Course No. 30100
Historian Lynne Olson,
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Course No. 30100
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Look beyond the well-known eople and events of World War II to find the stories behind the story, in the shadows of history
  • numbers Meet some of the most courageous and interesting figures whose names you likely never have heard before
  • numbers Gain new insight into the war through the eyes of everyday heroes, including soldiers, spies, and freedom fighters

Course Overview

World War II was one of the most harrowing and impactful events in human history. As an unparalleled international conflict and a major turning point in the 20th century, it has long engaged historians and storytellers alike. And the story of war is not just one of military might and panoramic battles. It is the story of humans, everyday people trying to do their bit in a world falling apart around them. When you dig around in the cracks of history, you can find an endless well of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

In France, you’ll find a young, unassuming mother who became the leader of the largest and most important Allied spy network in occupied France. In Poland, a brilliant, young mathematician successfully broke Germany’s Enigma code, laying the groundwork for the famed British codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park. In Belgium, a 23-year-old nurse from Brussels created an escape line that smuggled hundreds of shot-down British and American airmen out of enemy territory and back to freedom.

What did these three very different people have in common? They were all unsung heroes of war, men and women of courage and conscience who helped change the course of history but who, for various reasons, have slipped into history’s shadows. Unsung Heroes of World War II: Europe is your chance to meet these and other everyday heroes who have rarely been given the credit they deserve. Taught by historian Lynne Olson, author of seven acclaimed books about World War II, these 12 scintillating lectures offer a trove of stories across Europe and America that you have likely never heard before.

Delve into a world of citizens holding onto illicit radios so they can listen to broadcasts from the BBC, a beacon of liberty for those living in occupied territory. Mingle with spies listening to secrets, gathering intelligence, and taking risks to share information with the Allies. Meet the politicians behind the scenes who bucked their party to orchestrate great events, such as the ousting of Neville Chamberlain in the spring of 1940.

With a storyteller’s true gift for setting a scene and an eye for interesting details, Professor Olson takes you into the shadows of history to illuminate the stories behind the story. Unsung Heroes of World War II: Europe is a marvelous introduction to some of the most courageous figures in the war—all of whom did their best to defeat tyranny and restore freedom in their own countries and the world at large.

Peer into the Cracks of History

Professor Olson has written numerous books about World War II, and she acknowledges the temptation for historians to focus on the panorama of the war. But in trying to cover such an immense story, historians often must paint with broad strokes, dedicating a few lines here and there to a sprinkling of individual stories.

This course reveals dozens of seldom-told stories that get lost in the sweeping histories. For instance, you will:

  • Witness the stunning parliamentary debate on May 10, 1940, in which Leo Amery gave a fiery speech that denounced his fellow party member Neville Chamberlain.
  • Follow the lucky escape of King Haakon VII of Norway after a ghostly German armada found its way through the fjord that led to Oslo.
  • Meet the swashbuckling Earl of Suffolk, who helped French scientists and engineers escape the clutches of the Nazis—and possibly prevented the Germans from developing a nuclear bomb.
  • Learn about the development of the P-51 Mustang, one of the most important fighter planes in the war.

Politico, Pilot, Soldier, Spy

One interesting aspect of studying history is putting yourself in the story. What would you have done if the Nazis had invaded your country? Would you have been brave enough to join the resistance? Would you have the wherewithal to serve as a spy or harbor stranded soldiers in need?

Professor Olson takes you behind enemy lines and introduces you to ingenious individuals who stood up for human rights, even at great personal cost:

  • Find out why presidential contender Wendell Willkie sabotaged his own campaign to support FDR in the war effort.
  • Go inside the struggle of the Polish 303 Squadron, who took to the skies with the British RAF to fight the Luftwaffe.
  • Consider three Dutch sisters who, despite having no prior involvement with the resistance, nursed a stranded British general back to health so he could get home safely.
  • See how French resistance spy Robert Douin hand-drew a 55-foot map—showing German gun emplacements, fortifications, and various obstacles—that helped the allies successfully take the beaches at Normandy.

From tennis stars to mathematicians to anonymous pilots, Professor Olson shares dozens of stories of people going above and beyond the call of duty, often at a very young age.

Stories of Our Shared Humanity

Great stories often start with small details—a headstrong nurse affronted by the Nazi invasion, an Olympic athlete who wanted to buoy spirits, Polish fighter pilots struggling with the controls of modern aircraft, an ambassador negotiating a labor dispute—and digging into these details can reveal an entire new vantage on history.

The heroism and ingenuity of these figures is inspiring for the way everyday people rise to the demands of their time. Their stories are crucial for understanding our humanity, which is why Unsung Heroes of World War II: Europe gives you a fresh and captivating take on the European Theater.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Andrée de Jongh and the Resistance
    When the Germans began their lightning-quick invasions across Europe, many ordinary citizens were stunned. Others, however, stood up to fight back. In this first lecture, meet Dedee de Jongh, a 23-year-old nurse who built an escape line through Belgium and France to rescue stranded British airmen. Witness her courage and ingenuity. x
  • 2
    The Tory Rebels Who Helped Save England
    In hindsight, it may appear inevitable that Winston Churchill would take command of the British and lead them into victory. At the time, however, it seemed unthinkable that the powerful Neville Chamberlain would step down. See how a few brave politicians orchestrated one of the most striking political transitions in history. x
  • 3
    Victor de Laveleye and V for Victory
    History is filled with ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things. As an Olympic athlete, Victor de Laveleye was not your ordinary man, yet there was no reason to think he would come up with one of the most popular symbols in the war, helping to buoy spirits and wage psychological warfare against the Germans. Uncover the story of the V for Victory campaign. x
  • 4
    Wilhelmina and Haakon: Royalty Fight Back
    When the Germans invaded the Netherlands and Norway, Adolph Hitler wanted to secure not only the land, but also the leadership of these nations. In this lecture, Professor Olson shows you the wrenching decisions and harrowing escapes of Queen Wilhelmina and King Haakon—and how these royal figures fought the war from Britain. x
  • 5
    Polish Pilots and the Battle of Britain
    The RAF’s air battle to defend Britain from Germany in 1940 is one of the most iconic—and dangerous—periods in the war. Few people know that roughly 20% of the RAF was comprised of non-British pilots. Here, witness the stunning courage and successful maneuvers of Polish fighter pilots who saved the day. x
  • 6
    Wendell Willkie: "A Godsend to This Country"
    It might seem impossible, today, to discover a politician willing to sabotage his own presidential campaign for the good of the country, but that is exactly what Wendell Willkie did in his 1940 run against President Roosevelt. See why he went against his own party and supported FDR's plans to help Britain. x
  • 7
    The Earl of Suffolk and Heavy Water
    Despite his comically aristocratic name, Charles Henry George Howard, the 20th Earl of Suffolk, was a swashbuckling, unshaven, dark-haired Englishman who seemed unlikely to be responsible for the future of the free world. See how he smuggled French scientists to England and foiled Nazi efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb. x
  • 8
    Marie-Madeleine Fourcade: Spymaster
    For years, the official history books suggested there were no women leaders of the Resistance in France, and even today the role of women is often underplayed. The story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade blows this theory out of the water. Meet this extraordinary woman and see how she led a massive spy ring throughout France. x
  • 9
    John Winant and the Special Relationship
    Winston Churchill allegedly once said that you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have exhausted every other option. Until John Winant became the Ambassador to Great Britain in March 1941, the British were distraught by the Americans’ lack of support. Trace the beginning of the special relationship between these two countries. x
  • 10
    Marian Rejewski and Breaking Enigma
    The story behind the story is often more interesting than the dominant narrative. You likely have heard of the British codebreakers at Bletchley Park, whose Enigma machine helped win the war. Here, meet several Polish mathematicians who developed a prototype Enigma machine and broke much of the German code years before Bletchley Park. x
  • 11
    Tommy Hitchcock and the P-51 Mustang
    After being turned down to be a fighter in the Army Air Force, Tommy Hitchcock—a famous American polo player—was recruited by Ambassador Winant to support the British RAF. There, he worked on designs for the P-51 Mustang, a fighter plane that went on to become one of the most important weapons of the war effort. x
  • 12
    The Dutch Sisters Who Saved a General
    In September 1944, while France and Belgium were celebrating their liberation, Holland was filled with desolation and death. When Brigadier General John Hackett was trapped behind enemy lines, he found salvation in the home of a trio of middle-aged Dutch sisters who nursed him back to health. x

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What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Ability to download 12 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Lynne Olson

About Your Professor

Lynne Olson
Lynne Olson is a historian and New York Times best-selling author of eight books, most of which focus on World War II. She earned degrees in Political Science and Journalism at the University of Arizona (with Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude honors), followed by a master’s degree in Literature at American University.   After graduation, Professor Olson worked as a journalist for 10 years. She worked with the...
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Unsung Heroes of World War II: Europe is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 16.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Never Forget Loved this course! Ms. Olson is a wonderful speaker and her enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. These people should be household names. Thanks Ms. Olson for introducing them to us so their contribution will not be forgotten.
Date published: 2020-11-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth Your Time At first, I thought this would be a light diversion but as I got into it, I found it was more substantive than that. It is a counter-narrative to the Great Man Theory of history. This course teaches that you may not be a great man and you may not be a great woman but you *can* make a difference in this life. This course consists of twelve short biographies, vignettes really, of people that we have no reason to know about. Dr. Olson describes the courage and ingenuity of each subject and how that subject made a difference in peoples’ lives. They did not change the course of history like Douglas MacArthur did, but they did make a difference, often saving people’s lives. This course was an encouragement in the midst of the dark times of 2020. Dr. Olson is knowledgeable and her lectures are well-structured. She was easy to listen to. I used the video version but I think just audio would be quite sufficient. I bought another copy of this course to give to my mother, who lived through World War II and who married a World War II veteran.
Date published: 2020-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a wonderful course this is! Historian Lynne Olson led us on a most remarkable journey into the telling of the unsung heroes of World War 2. What a great job she did. She is a most prolific storyteller with the utmost warmth and charm - uncovering her findings of true heroes who might remain anonymous if not for her research. I was deeply fascinated and deeply moved by her classes. Thank you.
Date published: 2020-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Oh, what a beautiful experience! I have started, and finished, so many courses. I have wanted to learn, learn everything I could. Course after course after course. The subjects of the courses so different from each other. But “Unsung Heroes” was a different kind of course. This was not for the mind’s accumulation of more wonderful information. Using the topic of World War II that is very familiar to millions of us, this course was for the heart. In this era of pandemic and dislocation, this course speaks to the greatness within each heart. It speaks, “Like these heroes that I picture for you, what is in your heart that can be done for the blessing of your nation and your world.” These names and dates might be forgotten, but the inspiration will remain, and blossom, and bear fruit.
Date published: 2020-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unsung Heroes This is beautifully presented set of very moving stories of people who made WW II victory possible.
Date published: 2020-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific course! Historian and noted author Lynne Olson has done a marvelous job of identifying various people who accomplished great things during World War II but who received little acclaim at the time or, if they did, have since largely faded from our collective memory. She brings real passion to her task, and these entertaining lectures not only expertly relate each unsung hero's story but are powerfully delivered and rarely fail to draw an emotional response. The production qualities of this course are top-rate and are similar to those in the Great Courses' other recent WWII courses. My only criticism is that there were only 12 (and not 24) lectures. This one is well worth your time and investment; highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Very Best Of The Very Best I have purchased, viewed, and listened to many, many courses by TGC on subjects of History,  Science,  Social Sciences, Music, and others.  I have also read many books on the same subjects. Obviously,  some are better than others and once in a while I run across a real gem, something special, and this course is it. It is well researched and told in a compelling manner.  I ask myself as I viewed and listened what I would have done given the same historical context.  Would I measure up and be a hero? I will never know. But the message here of heroism combined with it being mostly forgotten creates a fascinating combination that we all should consider as we go through life. I highly recommend this course to everyone. Thank you Professor for putting in this enormous effort.
Date published: 2020-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lecturer This is my most recent purchase and I found it one of the best courses I received. Dr. Olson is an excellent lecturer, combining factual information with just the right amount of affect to bring life to the subject. I've read a great deal about World War II prior to this program yet I found a lot that was new. I'm looking forward to future courses featuring this lecturer.
Date published: 2020-10-22
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