Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Chalke Valley History Festival 2018

Last month Steve M invited me to join him on a trip to the Chalke Valley History Festival, a week long event, 25th June to the 1st July, held at Broad Chalke in the beautiful countryside south-west of Salisbury.

Steve went to the show last year and based on his account of his time then, I decided to make a note to go along this year.

The event is described in the brochure as offering visitors a chance to "see, touch and feel history" in the company of expert living historians "demonstrating a wide range of activities from historic cookery to surgery to other features of day to day living  and of course, how warfare was fought and developed over the centuries."

The festival boasts honorary patrons including Sir Anthony Beevor FRSL, Professor Micheal Wood, Sir Max Hastings, Dr Peter Caddick Adams and Tom Holland, among others.

Throughout the week, each day offers the opportunity to choose particular speakers and subjects, from ancient to modern, that might be of interest, allowing visitors to attend on one or multiple days, as Steve did, to listen to what expert speakers have to offer on any given subject. Alongside the speaker presentations are displays of various other historical themes together with vehicles and weapons and an array of food and beverage stalls able to cater for all tastes.

Obviously the weekend is the busiest time of the festival and the air and ground displays together with some very well known speakers tend to be around on the Saturday and Sunday, but as two grumpy old men wishing to avoid tripping over excited kids and their weary parents we opted for the Friday where we prepaid to attend the 09.30 to 13.15 presentation entitled " Red Devils: British Airborne Forces in World War II.", followed after lunch by "Air Power: A Global History" presented by Jeremy Black in the year that the RAF celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The first part of our day, after a suitable refreshment after the drive up from Devon, was to find our way to the air-conditioned Hiscox marquis where James Holland introduced the presentation and guest speakers which took a timeline overview of British parachute forces operations from North Africa through to Arnhem with Dr Peter Caddick Adams covering the early development of the force and then a look at one of its early deployments into Sicily, Operation Fustian, where the British 1st Airborne Division came up against its German opposite numbers at the Battle for Primosole Bridge

Primosole Bridge in Sicily soon after its capture by British troops
After the first presentation we were treated to cold drinks, a must on such a hot day and moved outside to watch the guest reenactment team take the audience through a selection of the weapons and other equipment used by British paratroop forces

The weapons and equipment display team made for a very pleasant break between speakers outside in the glorious sunshine

On returning to the marquis we were all introduced to the next session looking at the personal experiences of Fred Glover, aged a sprightly 92, former member of the 9th Parachute Regiment detailed to land on the Merville Battery in three gliders on the eve of D-Day to prevent the German artillery position from interdicting the allied landings later that morning.

Guest of honour and D-Day veteran Fred Glover of 9th Para part of 6th Airborne Division

Fred was interviewed about his reminiscences of volunteering from his reserved occupation job, his thoughts about the esprit de corps that typifies these elite units then and today; and his extensive active service that spanned D-Day, where he was wounded, through to his escape from the Germans, taking part in the liberation of Paris, where he helped take out a German sniper, through to his later service on the Rhine crossing and post war in Palestine.

Colonel Stuart Tootal a former commander of 3rd Para in Afghanistan interviews Fred about his experience of joining the Parachute Regiment and his part in the attack on the Merville Battery on D-Day

I was able to record the full interview given by Fred which includes some fascinating anecdotes from his long service together with a vivid display of wit that characterises the man followed by the warm standing applause given to him by the audience making it such a memorable moment and with very few of our WWII veterans still with us, a real honour to have attended.

Restored gun casement at Merville pictured in 2011

I well remember my own visit to the Merville Battery back in 2011 and to hear Fred's description of being hit by antiaircraft fire and the shrapnel penetrating their glider as they crash landed onto the battery before going into action was very vivid.

The battery has been restored and opened to the public as a superb memorial to the men of 9th Para who captured it and knocked out the guns on the eve of D-Day.

One of the gun positions in the casement pictured back in 2011

Fred demonstrating the peculiarities of using the Sten Mk V that he carried into Normandy 

Next up we had Al Murray taking us through a very particular day in the Arnhem campaign, 'Black Friday' when it seemed everything that could go wrong for 1st British Airborne Division fighting for its existence around Arnhem and Oosterbeek reached a crescendo.

Al Murray covered the Arnhem history with an interesting look at one particular day in the battle, 'Black Friday' the 22nd September
Taking personal reminiscences and sections from the various unit war diaries, Al weaved an account of the fighting and suffering that the airborne troops were experiencing on that one day and, for me, was a very moving experience to hear recounted.

I carry my own personal reminiscences from the Arnhem campaign and couldn't help but recall the accounts from my father from those times and the utter desolation that a setback like Arnhem could leave with those that took part, all be it that the Market-Garden operation closely followed by the Ardennes campaign very likely accelerated the collapse of the Nazi regime in the following spring.

The presentation moved its focus over various parts of the battle around the bridge to the attempts by 1st Airborne to force their way past the German stop line in and around the town and railway, to events at the headquarter in Oosterbeek as the break down in communications and command made it more and more difficult to influence events.

Both Steve and I are very familiar with this battle and the places mentioned, but both felt that it would have been greatly enhanced had we been treated to some maps put up on the giant screen seen in the pictures. It seems strange that presentations on military history are starting to mimic the books we read, either no maps or very poor ones! As the saying goes a picture, or in this case a map, is indeed worth a thousand words.

With the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Airforce in 1918 under Lord Trenchard that took over the mantle of providing British air power on land from the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps, it was not surprising to see the festival having a bit of an air theme to this year's proceedings.

The prolific author Jeremy Black from Exeter University was our next presentation that we attended straight after lunch.

The talk which coincided with a book on the subject was an overview of the development of military and importantly naval air power from its early days through to modern times charting how the use of air power has changed based on the demands put upon it in several distinct times.

Thus we had the early periods of the first world war very much focused on using air power as an adjunct to land based artillery and to some extent naval reconnaissance, with the importance on reconnaissance and accurate mapping of targets, with very limited thoughts of strategic bombing as the allies and Germany started to look at large multiple engine bombers. Tactical support was in its infancy and likewise developed late in that war

The second period looked at the development of the bombing force as a tactical support over the battlefield and as a means of winning a war outright without the need of land or naval forces to compel the enemy to give in. This idea took shape in WWII and reached its climax at the end of the war into the early 1950's with the nuclear bombing forces to be made redundant by the development of intercontinental missiles as the delivery system of choice.

Missile systems and space technology presaged the third age of airpower with next generation aircraft now straining the limitations imposed on them by being a maned or 'womaned' craft and all that might mean for unmanned remote aircraft especially when you also consider the huge cost imposed on states by next generation aircraft.

The presentation also ranged over the other nations impacts on the development of world air power and with a particular emphasis on the maritime and naval aspects of the arm.

A very thought provoking presentation that would have been enhanced had our speaker included more time to allow more than one question.

Following our time in the tent both Steve and I were keen to explore the outdoor exhibits and my only regret about this time was that given the journey home, we had to crack about to see as much as we did and yet there were still some extremely interesting exhibitions such as one looking at the newest historical finds from Waterloo that we didn't get to see.

What follows is some pictures of the WWI aircraft and a Spitfire mock up which, out in the open on grass, really capture the look of these planes in their natural environment when on the ground.

This Airco DH2 would have been operational from the summer of 1915 though to the autumn of 1917 and was the first operational effective RFC fighter designed to counter the 'Fokker Scourge' of late 1915 which saw the German fighters using interrupter mechanisms to allow their aircraft to fire a machine-gun through the forward propeller, allowing them to point the aircraft at the target they wished to engage.

This type was flown by Major Lanoe Hawker VC, CO of 24 Squadron, the first squadron to be equipped with them. Major Hawker was later shot down and killed by Manfred von Richtofen on the 23rd November 1916 after a lengthy dual.

The DH2 had a maximum speed of 93mph and a ceiling of 14,000 feet and was armed with one Lewis Mk. 1 machine-gun

This particular replica was built over an eighteen month period and is a great memorial to an aircraft of which their are no surviving wartime airframes.

The Spitfire replica is easily given away by those sadly drooping elevators, probably where some over enthusiastic kids have looked for somewhere to sit.

That said if you remove the white tents and 21st century visitors, with the RAF tractor close at hand you might think you were on a 1940 airfield waiting for the bell to signal a scramble.

The S.E.5a was perhaps one of the finest fighter aircraft to emerge from the first world war and was flown by notable aces such as Albert Ball VC, Mick Mannock VC, James McCudden VC, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC and Cecil Lewis MC.

Albert Ball in the S.E.5. Interestingly, Ball wasn't very impressed with the plane on first impressions but went on to score 11 of his 44 victories in it.

Armed with a single synchronised Vickers machine-gun and a wing mounted Lewis machine-gun on a Foster mounting designed to enable firing at an enemy aircraft from below, the S.E.5a could fly at 138 mph and reach a service ceiling of 20,000 feet, although 17,000 feet is the quoted maximum.

Following the aircraft displays we headed for the vehicle park which had some lovely restorations on view, plus some other examples still requiring a bit of TLC.

I have included a few all round and interior pictures for those nerds like me who like to reference this stuff for when it comes to modelling the thing.

One of the highlights was to visit the 17lbr anti-tank gun and limber, which was decked out in the arm of service serial code and unit badge of the 21st Anti-Tank Regiment, Guards Armoured Division.

As soon as I saw this marvelous gun and its tow, the picture below flashed into my mind of the regiment with one of its 17lbr guns set up on the approach to Nijmegan bridge following the battle to capture it.

21st Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, Guards Armoured Division 17lbr set up on Nijmegan Bridge

The Morris C8 AT towing vehicle is equipped with a linked set of breaks on the gun operated by the lever above the steering column in the picture below.

This was an aspect of using a large gun like this on any sort of an incline that I had not considered. The lever can allow the driver to apply the breaks fitted to the gun when pulling up and before unlimbering.

The owner, who was present to conduct some blank firing demonstrations, explained that the gun is surprisingly mobile and so well balanced, that it is easily turned onto a new facing.

As well as the vehicles and big guns on display, there was also an interesting array of small arms and machine-guns.

If you were thinking those are some rather large vehicle or anti-tank mines in the picture below, you're wrong. They are in fact two air filters that were used in German WWII bunkers to prevent the occupants from being overcome in a gas attack.

German bunker air fliters

The rather battered and unloved Grant seen below looked like it had just arrived from one of the ranges out on Salisbury Plain and would probably prove the ultimate in restoration projects!

The really great thing to see was plenty of youngsters getting enthused about history and hopefully a few new budding wargamers of the future catching that bug that never ever lets you go.

These kind of events make for a great distraction when the sun shines and a little inspiration is required away from the painting desk, so I think I might be checking out the program for next year's festival.


  1. Great read and photos. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Nice report JJ.

    I particularly liked the pics of the WW1 aircraft. This has always been a period that interests me and has given some good games over the years. Reading about the aircraft and men who flew them has left me with a deep respect for both men and machines. The advances in aircraft and aerial combat over a few short years is truly astounding.

    Albert Ball is a personal hero of mine. A quiet, shy man who fought and died for his country, with no great love of the killing involved, but a true sense of duty.


  3. Really enjoyed that report thankyou! :-)

  4. Thanks for your comments chaps, glad you enjoyed the read.

  5. Thanks for the report and to share all these photos

    1. A pleasure Mark, glad you enjoyed the read