Category Archives: cvhf

Chalke Valley History Festival 2017

Our fifth visit to the Chalke Valley History Festival, on a new site this year, no less picturesque but slightly easier to get to. As ever there were all sorts of fascinating speakers, I started the day with World War II pilots Colin Bell and Keith Quilter in conversation with Will Iredale. Iredale’s splendid The Kamikaze Hunters covers the airmen of the oft-neglected British Pacific Fleet such as Corsair pilot Quilter, who was shot down in July 1945 and rescued by an American submarine where he spent the final weeks of the war. Bell was a Mosquito pilot of the Light Night Striking Force and completed 50 missions over Germany. They were fascinating, reflecting on the role of luck in their survival, both having returned from missions with flak damage that could easily have been fatal.

Around the site were living history encampments covering various eras from Romans through to World War II, the re-enactors also giving demonstrations such as missile weapons through the ages with slings, javelins, bows, a trebuchet and early artillery. Napoleonic cavalry showed their skill at arms with sword and lance:

My wife then went to see Monty Don talking about the history of British gardens, with a minor interruption halfway through as a column of Vikings marched past to (mock) battle:

This year’s air display was a little disappointing; the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster was unable to attend, and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 had engine trouble so was replaced with the Yak-3 that was there last year. On the plus side the only flying Bristol Blenheim gave a fantastic display, I hadn’t managed to catch it since its recent restoration before now.

All in all another fantastic day out, helped by the glorious sunshine unlike last year’s mud bath!

Chalke Valley History Festival 2016

Our fourth year of Historical Festivities at Chalke Valley got off to a slightly rocky start, or more accurately a slippery start; heavy rain in the preceding weeks had led to much of the site becoming something of a quagmire. Admirable attention to detail shortly after the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme but a bit of a nightmare in the car park, taking a good three quarters of an hour to get onto the site and slide into a space. Plans for a leisurely breakfast were replaced by a hasty squelch to the first talk, unfortunately missing the first ten minutes of Afrika Korps veteran and Knight’s Cross holder Günter Halm in conversation with James Holland. The logistics of translation, ably handled by German historian Robin Schäfer, inevitably meant a slightly whistle-stop tour of Halm’s career, but it was fascinating to hear his tales of the desert war.

Gunter Halm

Günter Halm

Exploring the site was rather hard work in the mud, but the usual array of reenactors spanning a couple of thousand years were there in splendid encampments. Chatting to some of the Romans, a heavy rain shower the previous day had resulted in a mini-flood but they seemed in good spirits. The valley echoed to artillery and musket fire from an American Revolutionary War battle in the main arena, and over the course of the day there were excellent flying displays from a P-40 Kittyhawk, Yak-3 and B-17 – as wonderful as Spitfires are, it was nice to see some different types.

Yak yak yak

Yak yak yak

Achilles? I hardly know... dammit, I was hoping it was an Archer.

Achilles? I hardly know… dammit, I was hoping it was an Archer.

Unsporting revolutionaries call in air support against the redcoats

Unsporting revolutionaries call in air support against the redcoats

A demonstration of weapons through the ages sounded fun, but I had to yomp over for my second talk: Who Sank the Tirpitz? A most impressive line-up took to the stage: historian Paul Beaver, Air Vice-Marshal Edward Stringer and Fleet Air Arm veteran Fane Vernon who took part in a raid on the Tirpitz as observer in a Fairey Barracuda dive bomber. An excellent presentation building up to the attacks by IX and 617 Squadrons that finally sank the Tirpitz with Tallboy bombs, and the controversy ever since: which squadron actually delivered the fatal blow? (Probably IX Squadron was the conclusion, though 617 had scored the first hits.) Vernon’s enthusiastic rendition of an 820 Squadron song extolling the virtues of the Barracuda was particularly enjoyable.

Fane Vernon

Fane Vernon

ChalkeValley2016 039

Ballista? I hardly know 'er!

Ballista? I hardly know ‘er!

Fortunately the sun stayed out for the day, there was no further rain to make conditions worse; we feared it might have needed a push or a tow to get out of the car park, but the tracks had just about dried out enough to escape. It was a shame it was so muddy, the talks and demonstrations were as excellent as ever, but it just wasn’t quite so pleasant as usual wandering around the site. Fingers crossed for slightly better weather in the run up to next year’s festival!

ChalkeValley2016 150

Chalke Valley History Festival 2015

Since discovering the Chalke Valley History Festival a couple of years back, it’s become a highlight of the calendar; a packed schedule of talks and presentations, together with living history encampments and demonstrations from groups covering the Romans through to World War II, and aircraft giving displays through the weekend. This year’s programme posed quite a dilemma: on one day Wing Commander Tom Neil and a display from the only airworthy Bristol Blenheim, on the other seven veterans of Bomber Command. Having seen Geoff Wellum last year, I opted for the Bomber Boys this year.

The veterans covered the seven heavy bomber crew positions: pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, mid-upper gunner and tail gunner. Six had flown on Lancasters, the other a Halifax. We could’ve listened to each of them for hours; though unfair to single any one out in particular, George “Johnnie” Johnson, the last surviving British dambuster, relating the attack on the Sorpe damn from an altitude of 30 feet was quite gripping.

After the presentation, the rest of the festival was as good as ever. A bit of a downpour during the first flying visitor, a Spitfire PR XI, put a slight dampener on things, fortunately the weather cleared up after that to merely overcast, good old British summer (though some of the more heavily armoured participants probably appreciated it). Danes and Anglo-Saxons formed shield walls, medieval knights fought in a tourney, ballistae flanked a Roman camp, a Sherman tank kicked up the grass, soldiers of all periods and nations wandered around; echoes of The War Games were reinforced by the TARDIS outside the BBC tent. In the skies, a Bücker Bü 131 gave a superb aerobatic display, and a majestic Consolidated Catalina made several low passes. What a great day; roll on July 2nd 2016!

Spitfire PR XI

Spitfire PR XI

Form shield wall!

Form shield wall!

En garde!

En garde!

Fallschirmjäger? I hardly know 'er!

Fallschirmjäger? I hardly know ‘er!

Whatever happens they have got The Maxim gun and we have not

Whatever happens they have got
The Maxim gun and we have not

James Holland expounds on the Spitfire

James Holland expounds on the Spitfire

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

Consolidated Canso (Catalina)

Consolidated Canso (Catalina)

Geoffrey Wellum at Chalke Valley History Festival

QJK

My personal highlight of the Chalke Valley History Festival was seeing Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC in conversation with James Holland. The two first met when Holland was writing a book about the Battle of Britain and seeking pilots to interview; Wellum had jotted some memoirs in the 1970s, not particularly intended for publication, and after the interview offered a chapter he thought might be of interest. Recognising the quality of the writing it didn’t take long for a book deal to be offered from Penguin, and First Light was published in 2002. It’s a terrific book that starts with Wellum, aged seventeen and a half, attending an RAF selection board in March 1939; fourteen months later he’s posted to 92 Squadron with 168 hours of flying under his belt (95 solo), never having seen a Spitfire, let alone flown one. The next day the squadron is in combat over Dunkirk and loses several pilots, including the commanding officer.

There’s a brief respite after Dunkirk as the squadron moves to Wales, at least allowing some time to get familiar with the Spitfire, before they move to Biggin Hill in September 1940, right at the heart of the Battle of Britain. Wellum’s description of his first combat mission is particularly gripping, with the squadron thrown into a raid of more than 150 German aircraft; a head-on pass through the bombers, picking off a straggler, a probable kill but focused too hard on the target, bounced by an enemy fighter, desperate manoeuvring to escape, finally home, damaged but alive. As the Battle of Britain winds down at the end of 1940 the squadron move on to offensive operations over France in 1941, until eventually a posting to an Operational Training Unit to pass on hard-won skills to new pilots brings some respite, but also a sense of despair, being past it, a “worn-out bloody fighter pilot at twenty years of age”.

Wellum returns to operations in early 1942, first with 65 Squadron flying over France again, then finds himself on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. Malta has been under siege since 1940 and is critically short of supplies; fuel, ammunition, aircraft, food, beer! Operation Pedestal is a an effort to resupply the island, a convoy of fourteen merchant ships with a formidable escort including two battleships and three aircraft carriers; Furious will fly off land-based Spitfires to reinforce the Malta squadrons. Nerves aren’t helped as another carrier, HMS Eagle, is torpedoed as the Spitfires are taking off, but the flight make it to Malta safely. Over the next few days the convoy is hammered by German and Italian aircraft, torpedo boats and submarines; four battered merchant ships make it through, and, barely, the tanker Ohio, just enough to sustain the island.

Wellum himself is also in a poor state, suffering severe headaches while flying; an X-ray reveals fluid around the eyes, chronic sinusitis. A rather unpleasant business with what looks like a long sharp knitting needle resolves the immediate issue, but a subsequent check-up reveals he is “absolutely played out mentally and physically, no reserves left”. The book ends with an epilogue, Wellum passed fit to fly again, on secondment to the Gloster Aircraft Company and about to climb in to a Typhoon as a production test pilot.

Reading an overview of the Battle of Britain it’s easy to be swept along in statistics, sorties flown, victories, losses, tons of bombs dropped; First Light is deeply personal, taking you right into the cockpit of the Spitfire, giving a brief glimpse of how life was. The BBC made a film of it in 2010 for the 70th anniversary of the battle, I missed it at the time but must get around to picking up the DVD. The book is certainly well worth a read, and I was keen to get a chance to see the author in person.

At Chalke Valley, the tent is packed for the talk. At 92, Wellum is still sharp and clear, a very engaging speaker, self-effacing and funny; there is a lot of laughter throughout the event, often prompted by wonderfully British understatement. Holland starts with a quick overview of how First Light came about, with the effort to find Wellum to offer him the publication deal ending with him being tracked down by a phone call to the local pub! A quick run-through of initial training, and a question on how pilots were selected for fighters, bombers or other aircraft: “They probably thought I was too irresponsible to have a crew, if I was going to kill anyone I could kill myself, not take a crew with me!”

Moving on to 1940, and being posted to 92 Squadron, Holland asks about the Commanding Officer at the time, Roger Bushell; Wellum relates how Bushell was shot down over France the day after he arrived and taken prisoner, later to organise the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III only to be murdered by the Gestapo after being recaptured. 70 years on, there is still clear and understandable anger.

Happier memories, first flight in a Spitfire; characteristic humour after a run-through of the controls, the instructor about to jump down off the wing: “Don’t go anywhere for a minute… how do you start it?” A sense of immense power after the Harvard trainer, “hanging on for grim death!” Wellum’s account of his first encounter with the Luftwaffe is even more compelling first-hand, emerging from cloud to confront 150 enemy aircraft, feeling it was “a bloody stupid place to be”! There’s a brief discussion of tactics, the RAF still using the tight Vic formation, not adopting the more effective “finger four” (nothing rude, a formation where, if you lay your hand flat, each plane is positioned on the tip of a finger) until after the Battle of Britain; Wellum points out that the Luftwaffe had rather a head start from the Spanish Civil War, giving them the opportunity to develop the Messerschmitt 109 both technically and tactically in actual combat even before the first production flight of the Hawker Hurricane. Apologising for stepping on his soapbox for a moment he was emphatic that we won the Battle of Britain, it wasn’t a draw, it was the first time the Germans had been stopped, prompting a hearty round of applause; I’m not sure if that was in response to anyone in particular, there was a fine BBC programme recently about Eric “Winkle” Brown (who was at last year’s Chalke Valley festival), in which he talked about interviewing Göring who declared the battle a draw, oddly enough.

92 Squadron had something of a wild reputation around Biggin Hill, not something dwelt on in the book; Holland briefly hints toward it:
JH: “And after a day’s flying, perhaps you’d go to the White Hart?”
GW: “Yes”
JH: “After every day’s flying?”
GW: “Yes”
JH: “Perhaps drink a little too much?”
GW: “Yes. This is easy, isn’t it?”
*laughter*

It’s impossible to imagine the strain, flying multiple sorties a day, losing friends and colleagues on an almost daily basis, no great need to dig too deeply into what it took to get through a time like that; with a brief allusion to some interesting sounding “parties”, they decide they ought to move on…

Reaching 1942 and the operation to Malta, Wellum recalls going to check over his plane in the hanger to find an armourer unloading the ammunition from his guns.
“What’s all this about, then?”
“Cigarettes, sir”
“Cigarettes?”
“Yes sir, they’re awfully short on the island, so we’re going to fill the ammunition boxes with cigarettes.”
Thankfully there aren’t any enemy aircraft as they come in to land, as they couldn’t have done anything about them anyway!

There’s a nice long opportunity for questions and answers at the end of the session. Some questions can be a little disjointed or rambling; “What’s the précis of that, James?” Fortunately Holland is a dab hand at paraphrasing, every query yields further interesting answers. Someone asks how he used his experience when he became an instructor at an Operational Training Unit, he explains that the training programme at the time was fine for teaching students to fly, but not to fight; he’d had no combat training before being posted to his squadron, never fired his guns, hadn’t been taught how to properly use the reflector sight, so he tried to teach his pupils to use their aeroplane as a weapon. Asked if he’d had a chance to fly a Spitfire since the war he replies that indeed he had, a few years ago in a two-seater; once up in the air the pilot in the front seat asked if he’d like to take control, he answered in the affirmative. “Are you sure?” said the pilot. “Oh yes” replied Wellum; “are you sure?” After all the years, he said it was like he’d never been away; testament, I think, to both the man and the machine. Had he met any German pilots after the war? Yes, a few; he didn’t seem too keen on Adolf Galland, but talked more warmly about Gunther Rall. A lady in the crowd says that her father desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot but his work on aero engines at Rolls-Royce was deemed essential and he wasn’t allowed to join the RAF; Wellum is thankful, as the Merlin engine never let him down, no matter how much he thrashed it in combat, a tribute to the Rolls-Royce team.

On the differences between flying in Malta and England, Malta was tougher; the heavy bombing, the heat, and the lack of supplies (more difficult to get hold of beer!) Someone asks if it’s not true that the Luftwaffe found that best way to attack bombers wasn’t from above and behind, but from underneath; “I wouldn’t know about that, I wasn’t a German and I wasn’t shooting at Lancasters!” His technique was more just to “get in and at ’em”. There’s a question about ammunition; after unsuccessful trials with 19 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, 92 Squadron received cannon-armed Spitfires just after the battle, and resolved most of the issues by rotating the cannon mounting, the additional power of the cannon was appreciated, though the early versions only carried 60 rounds per gun. Asked about differences between Spitfires, Wellum said he hadn’t flown any of the Griffon-engined variants, his favourite was probably the Mark XVI, with cut-down fuselage and clipped wings; he was fond of the Mark VB, but it was a little outclassed at times.

I would’ve liked to ask about his time testing Typhoons, or the rest of his RAF career (he stayed in the service until 1961), I’ve been able to find very little about that; perhaps it just doesn’t compare to 1940. Time flies by and I don’t get the chance, many hands are still raised but things have to be wrapped up to give a quick chance for signing books before getting out to see the flying display from a P-51 Mustang. A thunderous standing ovation, and we file out into the warm Wiltshire sun. Wonderful.

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC

Chalke Valley History Festival 2014

Chalke Valley History Festival is, as could be surmised from the name, a week-long history festival held on a farm in Wiltshire’s Chalke Valley, combining historical talks and presentations with living history encampments spanning the centuries from Anglo-Saxons to World War II. We’d thoroughly enjoyed the event last year, after finding out about it the day before, and with sufficient forewarning booked tickets in advance for a couple of talks this year.

Wandering around the site we happened across a column of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons waiting for troops of the American Revolutionary War to clear the arena (a noteworthy occurrence anywhere else, just another day at Chalke Valley), and needing to make a bit more room for a gun carriage they started shuffling backwards. One wag at the front called out “Beep! Beep! Beep!”, and soon the whole lot were beeping along to the cry of “Attention! These Vikings are reversing!” Once in the arena, they set about each other with sword and axe:

Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol...

Skol, Skol, Skol, Skol…

The day was punctuated with fly-pasts from classic warbirds. Unfortunately the scheduled Spitfire PR XIX was unable to fly, but an extra display from a P-51 Mustang from the Hanger 11 collection wasn’t a bad replacement:

P-51 Jumpin' Jacques

P-51 Jumpin’ Jacques

Hurricane R4118 has had a rather tough life, being shot down during the Battle of Britain, suffering a few prangs when used in Operational Training Units, then used for engineering instruction in India. Painstaking restoration work has brought her back to flying condition with impressive results:

Hawker Hurricane Mk I

Hawker Hurricane Mk I

Last but by no means least, Sally B, the only flying B-17 in the UK (don’t worry, the smoke is part of the display):

B-17 Sally B

B-17 Sally B

Giving impressive displays throughout the day were Destrier, demonstrating the skills and armour of medieval knights. In the morning, skill at arms: male and female riders dishing out violence to unfortunate fruit and veg, setting about cabbages and apples with sword, axe and warhammer, quite a sight as they thundered past at speed. They also picked up rings with light lances, flung javelins at targets and a straw-stuffed Yorkist (bonus points for an amusing kill), and hunted boar from horseback (just a dummy, no animals were harmed during the making of this festival).

How To Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit

How To Defend Yourself Against Fresh Fruit

A second presentation showcasing armour of the period in fascinating detail built up to the grand finale, jousting. No script or hokey story, just the spectacle of fully armoured riders thundering towards each other, quite amazing.

It's Only A Flesh Wound

It’s Only A Flesh Wound

Thing didn’t quite finish according to plan with dented armour, trouble with a caparison and a skittish replacement horse conspiring to prevent the final rounds to determine the grand champion, but the eloquent and witty master of ceremonies managed to hold everything together despite the unprecedented setbacks. Dispersing, we followed a German mortar platoon, who set themselves up for a Normandy ambush in the main area, which looked set to be quite a spectacle, though we had to head off before it got underway.

Mort 'ar?  I hardly know 'ar!

Mort ‘ar? I hardly know ‘ar!

Unquestionably, though, the highlight of the day was a talk from Geoffrey Wellum, a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, which deserves a post of its own that should be coming soon!

Chalke Valley History Festival 2013

The Chalke Valley History Festival is a week long combination of a literary festival, featuring talks and debates with many leading historians, and living history encampment, with re-enactors from Romans and Vikings to World War II and myriad periods between. I saw a piece about it on the local news; sword fighting school, a World War I trench and an air show with Spitfires? Perfect!

Unfortunately, only finding out at the last minute, many of the talks were sold out; I would’ve particularly loved to see Eric “Winkle” Brown in person. Still, we toddled off through beautiful rolling countryside to the festival site in the depths of Wiltshire, and the English weather was good enough to to forget it was supposed to be turning Glastonbury into a mudbath.

Not all of the talks were completely booked, there were spaces in many of the morning sessions, so I went along to see “ACHTUNG! Commando Comics”, editor Calum Laird talking about the history of the comic from its first issue in 1961 to present day digital distribution (with great foresight, the comic is about the same size as an iPad screen), and how an issue is put together. Taking advantage of the venue, a parade of re-enactors covering just about every theatre of World War II lined the stage, including a couple of Commandos able to display the real Fairbairn-Sykes dagger present on the cover of every issue of the comic.

Wandering around the festival presented some fantastic scenes, I’m not sure where else you’d see a troop of Napoleonic soldiers marching past a group of Regency dancers being watched by a Waffen-SS Hauptsturmführer eating an ice cream. A group of Plantagenet re-enactors demonstrated weapons and armour from various phases of The Hundred Years’ War:

Is there someone else up there we can talk to?

Is there someone else up there we can talk to?

It was quite warm enough wandering around in a pair of shorts, I can’t imagine the heat under the padding and multiple layers of armour they were in. If you were inspired by what you saw there were plenty of stalls selling all manner of arms and armour, from full size helmets and pikes to wooden swords and shields for kids.

Lunch was accompanied by a Hurricane IIc of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and a couple of hours later the airshow kicked off with a Hawker Sea Fury, followed by a World War I dogfight between a Junkers CL1, Sopwith Triplane and a couple of SE5As, then three Spitfires Mk IXs, one solo, another pair arriving in formation with a Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf 108. Jon from How To Murder Time had a suitably large lens and got some magnificent shots:

Sopwith Triplane

Sopwith Triplane

A pair of SE5As

A pair of SE5As

Messerschmitt Bf 108

Messerschmitt Bf 108

Hawker Hurricane

Hawker Hurricane

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX

All in all a really excellent day out, and I’ll be keeping a close eye for announcements about next year’s event.