Category Archives: cvhf

Of all the games I’ve known, and I’ve known some

I was streaming music while walking the dog, an assortment of reggae and dub Amazon had come up with based on my previous listening, and a really catchy tune came on. For some reason I couldn’t immediately check the phone to see what it was – probably trying to stop Lyra hurtling after some cat/squirrel/moped – and after I remembered later there didn’t seem to be a track history to consult. I’d forgotten all about it until the Chalke Valley History Festival.

Chalke Valley was excellent as ever with its combination of talks and living history – Al Murray, jousting, Ian Hislop, a Sherman tank, Michael Morpurgo, artillery firing – and we settled down to a spot of food with some suitably Second World War serenading, The Bluebirds swinging away with the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. As they launched into another song something clicked – it was the exact riff I’d been trying to track down. The lyrics sounded like they wanted to explain something to a Mister Shane, which fortunately was enough for Google to return the actual song – Bei Mir Bist Du Schön – and a bit more digging turned up the reggae version, For Me You Are by Prince Fatty and Hollie Cook.

Funny how things turn up in unexpected places. Charlie Higson was also at Chalke Valley (not unexpectedly, he’s a bit of a fixture) talking Good and Bad Kings, he has a podcast covering the History of the Monarchy, starting at the beginning, based on the old rhyme – Willy Willy Harry Stee. It’s a great listen, and while searching for it I found another podcast of his, Charlie Higson And Friends, talking classical music from Scala Radio. There’s an episode with the magnificent Bob Mortimer (including the joke “I used to play the triangle in a reggae band, but I got bored of it; it was the same ting every night…”), one of the things they covered was how, back in the day, you’d have to save up to buy an album, and when you did you’d really listen to it. Streaming is great in a lot of ways, especially for finding more music similar to previously played artists, but it’s all too easy to hit skip if something doesn’t immediately click.

That sent me off to my assortment of game launchers – Steam; Epic; Origin; Uplay; Glyph; Arc; GOG; Amazon Games; Derry & Toms; Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel… Between giveaways, bundles, sales, free to play offerings and the like there’s more than enough to last several lifetimes already in my libraries so I decided I should settle down and give something a fair crack of the whip. Especially with storage to spare – a Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece had noted that Starfield specified an SSD as a minimum requirement, combined with falling prices that nudged me into grabbing a 1TB M2 drive, which I’m pretty sure is the first upgrade I’ve made to my current PC since getting it in February 2018, pretty staggering considering in the early 1990s I would’ve had to go through two complete systems in that time just to keep up with gaming demands.

There’d been a Humble Feel The Rhythm bundle a little while back that I picked up largely on the strength of Trombone Champ; it proved exactly as silly and joyful as it appeared from watching clips, though a bit of a one-note gag, ironically. The Wii and plastic instruments had been gathering dust for years so we finally donated them to charity, and though Beat Saber on the Oculus scratches the flailing-around-to-music itch it’s not the easiest to play around other people and/or dogs, so I had a go at a couple of others from the bundle; Beat Hazard 3 is a fun enough bullet hell shooter, but from a few runs doesn’t seem to have evolved terribly radically from the original I played back in 2010; Melody’s Escape 2 is a neat Audiosurf-esque run-to-the-rhythm game, but the couple of tracks I tried didn’t quite seem to click with the beat (or at least my interpretation of it, which may have been the bit at fault). Things weren’t entirely going to plan in the “giving something a fair crack of the whip” department, but another Humble offering came to the rescue – Chernobylite from the Survival Instinct bundle. A first person shooter along the lines of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series with crafting elements and base building could hardly be more in my wheelhouse, and I got very into it. There’s an intriguing story you piece together as you explore, some interesting mechanics that play with time and memory, the early missions have that balance where every round of ammunition is precious but a bit of caution and stealth allows you to tackle your objectives without too much frustration. I have stalled, though; in so many games there comes a point where the systems that were new and exciting at the start of things become a bit of a chore. Building up a large empire in a Civilisation or Total War game and having to go around all the cities managing building work and population happiness; the later missions and quests in RPGs when you can’t even be bothered to loot opponents unless they’re carrying a +7 Vorpal Sword of Lordly Might or a Nuclear Gatling Laser. I’ve built up a base combining comfy beds, mood lighting, and entertainment facilities with extensive workshops and a small nuclear reactor, crafted all the available weapons, and recruited a posse; there’s a Mass Effectish final heist where your team can help, and there are a number of further clues and items that I could track down for further assistance, but the missions to gather them are getting a little same-y with increasingly well armoured enemies resistant to stealth attacks narrowing down the combat style. I might get back to it, I’d like to see how the story develops, but I got a little distracted.

The Steam Summer Sale popped up, pretty low key this time around without some sort of meta-event or mini-game wrapped around it, but it’d be rude not to have a bit of a browse. Melmoth mentioned he’d been enjoying Vampire Survivors, so for less than a fiver I thought I’d give it a go. I mean it’s only £4 full price, but there was the DLC as well! It’s proved to be rather addictive. An “Inverse Bullet Hell” shooter where you acquire and upgrade a range of weapons until filling the screen with improbable explosions it has persistent upgrades and a mountain of unlocks to keep you coming back and trying out different combinations of characters and weapons. It doesn’t feel like I’ve spent longer with it than Chernobylite, but apparently my play time is almost double. I’ve unlocked a good chunk of the options now, and some of the remaining ones do feel a little like hard work, but I might well pop back in for a run or two now again; I’ve also picked up Halls of Torment as recommended for a similar sort of experience, I think I’ll keep that one in the library to come back to. Plenty to keep things ticking along until one or all of Starfield, the full Baldur’s Gate 3 release or Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.

Chalke Valley History Festival 2022

The Chalke Valley History Festival is a week long celebration of history, as the name rather suggests, with talks, presentations, and living history. This year we kicked things off with Caroline Shenton’s National Treasures: Saving the Nation’s Art in World War II, a superb talk on the dispersal of the collections of libraries and museums at the start of the war. Pre-war fears of a colossal aerial knock-out blow meant not just children but paintings, books and other artefacts left major cities for the relative safety of rural locations.

With cinematic influences from Went The Day Well to Their Finest, casting suggestions were provided through the talk linking the key players to characters from Ealing comedies, a nice way of bringing them to life, and the escapades often had a touch of Ealing about them – a van containing Domesday Book and other priceless documents arriving early in Somerset and being left unlocked while the armed guards went off for a cup of tea; the most important stones of the Crown Jewels being removed and stashed in a biscuit tin. Thankfully the efforts were largely successful, the majority of art surviving the war, though buildings including the British Library were hit during the Blitz; even more thankfully Britain avoided German occupation and the consequent looting widespread across Europe. I can’t wait to delve deeper in the accompanying book, Chalke Valley inevitably results in a greatly expanded ‘to read’ backlog.

Between the formal talks there are all sorts of vignettes of living history – an Iron Age smith extolling the great skill of pre-Roman metalwork in contrast to popular perception (aided by some less than flattering Roman accounts that seem to be contradicted by archaeological evidence), 18th century smugglers demonstrating how to conceal considerable quantities of contraband about their person, unsung heroes of D-Day, SOE saboteurs; it’s hard not to get caught up when walking past, and unfortunately impossible to fit everything in.

From the Iron Age firmly into living memory, our next event was Chris Patten: The Hong Kong Diaries. Current politics was mostly avoided, though the fact that Oliver Dowden had resigned as Conservative Party Chairman that very morning could hardly be overlooked considering Patten’s journey to Hong Kong began in 1992 when, as Chairman himself, he played a key role in John Major’s electoral victory but lost his own seat in Bath. Missing out as Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the possible roles available Governor of Hong Kong in the lead-up to its return to China in 1997 sounded the most interesting, albeit challenging (never mind the Mandate of Heaven, as he says in the book, he didn’t even have the mandate of Bath). He kept a diary, longhand and on tape, and the covid lockdown of 2019 afforded him the opportunity to revisit the transcripts to produce the resulting book.

A fascinating glimpse into the challenges of preserving the systems and character of Hong Kong for the future (“one country, two systems”) under pressure from both the Chinese leadership and those in Britain more concerned about the relationship with China than the people of Hong Kong; I well remember watching the handover on the news, particularly Patten and Prince Charles on the royal yacht leaving the harbour, but hadn’t really been keeping up with the complexities of the situation. As history merged with current affairs Patten’s anger at the regressive policies of the 2010s was clear, especially the hypocrisy of those implementing measures while holding foreign passports themselves.

The good old British summer then put a quite literal dampener on things with a heavy shower, but we were back under cover fairly rapidly for our final event, lightening the tone slightly with the endearingly chaotic Histrionics panel show. Chaired once again by Charlie Higson this year saw Tracy Borman and Ian Hislop take on Dan Snow and Simon Day over rounds including Name That Tomb! and the historical charades of My Kingdom for a Horse, a great way to finish the day.

Iron Age Smith
Just the axe, ma’am
Vickers MG
More tea, Vickers?
2 pounder AT gun
2 pound’er? I hardly know ‘er!
Histrionics Panel Show
Snow joke

Chalke Valley History Festival 2021

We’re not out of the Covid woods, with a third wave brewing and the prospect of further variants, but after both doses of vaccine we’re confident in getting back to events with suitable precautions in place – like the Chalke Valley History Festival. 2020 would’ve been the tenth festival, but obviously Covid put the kibosh on that; this year’s festival would’ve been after the lifting of restrictions, after that was delayed it was still able to proceed with reduced capacity (being mostly outdoors), with open-sided marquees for the talks. Tickets sold out quickly for a lot of the talks, so I branched out (slightly) from the Second World War – no bad thing.

First up was A Marvel to Behold: Gold and Silver at the Court of Henry VIII with Timothy Schroder, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Though few of the actual objects remain, the majority of Henry’s collection being melted and remodelled numerous times during and after his lifetime, archive records give a vivid picture of the role of precious metals; gifts for wives (when in favour) and the court, a means of impressing, then in later life as he became more vindictive a way of exercising power, exemplified by the destruction of the shrine of Thomas Becket with a large ruby from it turned into a ring.

Next was The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves with biographer Andrew Lownie. Archive material was a vital element again, in revealing the less edifying predilections of Louis Mountbatten, though Lownie is still battling for the full archives to be opened in the face of Cabinet Office opposition. Quite the astonishing cast across decades and continents, from Charlie Chaplin to Jawaharlal Nehru, and mysterious circumstances in both of their deaths – seems like there might be further revelations to come.

Finishing up the formal talks was Codebreaking Sisters: Our Secret War, the story of Pat and Jean Owtram. Unfortunately Jean was unable to make it, but Pat’s conversation with Simon Robinson was wonderful. Growing up their family employed Austrian Jews as housekeeper and cook, a lifeline after Kristallnacht, so Pat and Jean learned German from them (with a Viennese accent, still identifiable 75 years later in an interview with German radio). After taking a secretarial course in London at the height of the Blitz, Pat rejected the advice of a relative who suggested joining the Foreign Office whose secretaries were a “jolly bunch of girls”; Pat’s preference was for “a jolly bunch of sailors” so enlisted in the WRNS, where her knowledge of German was invaluable for the “Y” Service who collected signals intelligence from German transmissions. Post-war Pat moved into media, producing University Challenge and The Sky at Night as well as developing Ask The Family. The rest of the family had an equally eventful war; Jean joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and worked with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Middle East and Italy, while their father was captured at Singapore and became Camp Commandant at Chungkai, a prison camp on the river Kwai. It’s always a privilege to hear first hand accounts from the ever-dwindling number of veterans.

Around the site there’s living history from the Iron Age to the Cold War with constant talks and demonstrations at the forges, kitchens and camps. Particularly good were the Time Traveller’s Kitchen and the Romans of Leg II Avg (who also recently assisted Phil Wang with his invasion of Britain).

Finishing off the day were a couple of events at the open stages. James Holland and Al Murray’s Second World War podcast We Have Ways Of Making You Talk started shortly before the 2019 festival, and has grown into quite the Patreon-supported behemoth; a live recording attracted a large crowd for a whistle-stop run through Britain’s worst blunders and greatest triumphs of the war (lubricated with a few pints). Murray was then on the panel for Histrionics, a panel show chaired by Charlie Higson, teaming up with Alexandra Richie against Harry Enfield and Dan Snow in a raucously ramshackle quiz. Historical charades were particularly entertaining, especially with the host seeming to have different answers on the card. A fine way to end the day as the sun set over the rolling Wiltshire countryside.

T-34 at Chalke Valley
Cold War Armoured Brigade HQ
We Have Ways of Making You Talk – Live!
The Histrionics Panel Show
Al Murray re-enacts… I’m still not quite sure what

Chalke Valley History Festival 2019

After last year’s automotive issues the car thankfully behaved itself to reach Broad Chalke without any problems for the 2019 Chalke Valley History Festival. The festival goes from strength to strength with another terrific schedule of talks and speakers; we went on the Sunday and started the day off with Major-General Stuart Watson, who commanded an amphibious Duplex Drive tank on D-Day, and finished with James Holland talking about Big Week, the culmination of the RAF and USAAF’s strategic efforts against the Luftwaffe in February 1944. An hour is scarcely enough to do some subjects justice; it’s always humbling listening to veterans and was fascinating hearing about training and the D-Day landings but there was no time for more on the subsequent operations of the 13th/18th Hussars, which would’ve been interesting. James Holland only just got to Big Week itself with all the (vital) background; he’s a tremendously engaging speaker, vividly bringing to life the experiences of the crew of a B-17 to open the talk. If you’re after a wide-ranging ramblechat about World War II then We Have Ways of Making You Talk, his podcast with Al Murray, is well worth a listen, there was a live episode recorded at Chalke Valley but sadly on the Saturday so I couldn’t be there.

In addition to the formal talks there’s always a packed programme of “pop-up” presentations and living history covering everything from Viking navigation to Tudor cookery to steam threshing to a re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar (with volunteers as ships of the line). Everything seemed very well organised this year with printed programmes, amplification for speakers, and events happening where and when they should (apart from some minor confusion over one location). Some of the demonstrations featured current soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment in World War II kit as their predecessors of the Suffolk Regiment, including an infantry platoon attack with the support of a Sherman tank and firing period weapons. Though many re-enactors do a fine job with uniforms and such, inevitably they tend to be a bit older than conscript infantry and not always in peak physical condition. Active soldiers lent a touch more authenticity to proceedings and allowed for some interesting comparisons between kit and tactics.

A minor disappointment was no flying display, but splendid as it always is to see a Spitfire or two there are only so many warbirds to go around the various shows. To make up for it an oversize model of a Hawker Typhoon was erected on a hill overseeing the site, and there was a stall and volunteers from the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group who are striving to return one to flying condition, which would be something to see at a future festival, fingers crossed.

All in all a superb day, roll on 2020!

Panzer? I hardly know ‘er!
Sam Willis and Vikings
Suffolks on the attack
Thresher? I hardly know ‘er!
Chalke Valley


Usually around this time of year there would have been a post about the Chalke Valley History Festival and I was particularly looking forward to this year’s festival, booking tickets covering two great passions: military history (John Nichol on his latest book, Spitfire: A Very British Love Story, and James Holland in conversation with a veteran of the Burma campaign) and Terry Pratchett (who lived in the Chalke Valley; his writing studio was replicated on site along with various Pratchett-ian talks and events).

Unfortunately the car decided it would be an excellent day to pack in, so we had a slightly less exciting morning of Standing By The Roadside then being towed home. Gutted is an understatement. Still, shortly after I noticed that a new documentary about the Spitfire was on the way and would be in cinemas for one day, so I snagged a couple of tickets for that, some minor recompense.

It’s an excellent documentary that worked both for me (owner of a medium-sized pile of books about the Spitfire, banger-on at tedious length about all things Battle of Britain) and my wife (tolerantly puts up with being dragged along to such things). It combines archive footage, interviews with veterans, and modern air-to-air sequences with restored aircraft (mostly Spitfires, obviously, but there’s a Hurricane in there as well so they’re not completely overlooked). The modern footage was stunning on a big screen; I believe it was only on general release for a day, but if you spot it at the cinema again I’d highly recommend it, or it’s available for download now. A word of warning for it or other documentary/event screenings: there wasn’t the usual interminable collection of adverts, trailers and suchlike before it started, and the first quarter of an hour was slightly disrupted by late arrivals, in particular a whole row of septuagenarians who took some time to ascend the steps and find seats in pitch blackness.

The interviews are incredibly moving, not just RAF pilots who flew in combat but also female ATA (Air Transport Auxilliary) pilots who flew Spitfires (and a great many other types of aircraft) from the factories to operational airfields. They’re all the more poignant as a number of the participants have passed away since filming; Nigel Rose and Joy Lofthouse last year, Tom Neil the week before the film came out, Geoff Wellum just days after, and most recently Mary Ellis who was 101 years old, beating the RAF itself by a year. As The Few get ever fewer I feel very fortunate to have seen Geoff Wellum at Chalke Valley in 2014, he was very sharp, extremely engaging, and funny. I’m looking forward to the line-up for the 2019 festival, and will be giving the car a thorough check-up beforehand.

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



Consolidated Canso (Catalina)

Consolidated Canso (Catalina)

Geoffrey Wellum at Chalke Valley History Festival


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?”

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”
“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!