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🎧 The Red Devils Over Normandy

A recording from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018, from a morning of exclusive talks and demonstrations looking at the story of the British Airborne Forces in #WW2.

Here is former Commander of 3 Para in Afghanistan, Stuart Total in conversation with Fred Glover who was in 9th Para on 6th June 1944, tasked with jumping ahead of the main seaborne allied landing, Operation Neptune, to secure the left flank of the invasion and facilitate the seaborne landing.

🎧 DUNKIRK

Recording from Chalke Valley History Festival 2017.
James Holland looks at one of the most iconic moments in Britain’s history. He examines the background to the German attack on the West in May 1940, challenging many of our deeply held perceptions, and explaining why the British evacuation of Dunkirk was, and remains, such a significant event.

Gold, Frank-intentions and Murder

By the summer of 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with nothing to protect her apart from the Channel.

This is an oft stated fact that has become entirely accepted by a large majority of the British population today. But is it true? Strictly speaking, yes. Geographically we stand on the edge of the European continent and always have done. There is nothing new in that claim. But the implication here when set in the context of the early summer of 1940 is that of plucky little Britain, with its population of 38 million, standing shoulder to shoulder to face the threat of a German invasion entirely alone and with no support from anyone. That is the bit that is not true and it does history a great disservice to ignore the massive contribution made by our friends and allies both that summer and in the subsequent springs, summers, autumns and winters that followed.

By the time the Battle of Britain took place, London was host to seven foreign governments-in-exile and the hot-headed French General, Charles de Gaulle, had arrived as well. None of them came empty handed. 

The Norwegian government leant the British more than 1,300 vessels from their fleet, the fourth largest and most modern merchant fleet in the world, which sailed with the Atlantic convoys for the whole war. In 1941 a British official declared that the Norwegian merchant fleet was worth ‘more than an army of a million men’. That was an enormously valuable contribution and one that was not without risk. Many Norwegian sailors would lose their lives in the heaving seas of the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, King Haakon of Norway brought 1400 soldiers, 1,000 sailors and a small number of pilots that grew rapidly over the next few months. 

The Belgians donated their substantial gold reserves and over the course of the war shipped 1,375 tons of uranium from their stocks to the USA to fuel the Manhattan project. 

The Dutch government and their magnificent Queen Wilhelmina, who was described by Churchill as the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London brought six hundred ships from its mercantile fleet and rich resources from the Dutch East Indies. 

Jozef Gabcik, one of the two assassins of Reinhard Heydrich

Jan Kubis, the assassin who threw the grenade that killed Heydrich

The Czechs’ contribution was brilliant intelligence from inside Nazi Germany. Their main agent, A54 as he was known, was a high-ranking Abwehr officer who divulged highly valuable secrets until his eventual capture in 1941. He told the Czechs about the build-up of Goering’s Luftwaffe, he gave them the code for German wirelesses in 1938. It was a sinister code: Heil 15 März and a week before Prague was invaded (on 15 March 1939) he told them that the Germans had been instructed to round up all intelligence officers and treat them with great harshness. His warnings helped the intelligence services to evacuate to London the night before the invasion. In 1942 two agents, one Czech, one Slovak, carried out the most audacious assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi to be murdered: Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš were trained in Britain and flown to Bohemia by the RAF to carry out the murder. Our past is inextricably linked to the former Czechoslovakia.

Charles de Gaulle’s contribution would take longer to materialise but his presence in London cannot be underestimated. Churchill, passionately supportive of the French, gave de Gaulle every encouragement as he gradually built up the Free French army and encouraged the development of the Resistance. Many of their agents were trained in Britain and used safe houses all over the country, including one in Sussex which features in Our Uninvited Guests, to stay while waiting for flights into occupied France.

End House, used during the war as a secret training base for Polish agents.

The Poles brought fighter pilots to the Battle of Britain. They were among a total of 8,000 airmen and 20,000 soldiers as well as hundreds of sailors manning three destroyers, two submarines and a number of smaller vessels who arrived here after the Fall of France. By the end of the war the Polish was the fourth largest Allied Force after Russia, the USA and the British Empire. Critically they also sent an early decoded version of the Enigma machine for the British security services. It was the Poles in 1932 who first worked out how to use the German Enigma machines and they had been reading German messages for the greater part of seven years by the time the war broke out. I’m not saying the coders at Bletchley Park could not have done their work without Polish help but it might not have happened so quickly. We owe the Poles more than we ever imagine. That is why I have dedicated my book to them. They might have been Uninvited Guests but they were brilliant guests to have on our side.

Auxiliary Units trained at Coleshill House near Swindon from the summer of 1940 until they were stood down in late 1944

Closer to home we had the Auxiliary Units, young men and women recruited in the summer of 1940 to act as a sabotage force to work behind the lines in the event of an invasion. They were told their work was so secret that they could not tell anyone about it outside the tiny groups of six or so who would man an observation post, underground, and plan their attacks on bridges, railway lines, petrol stores and so on. The life expectancy of an Auxilier had the Germans invaded was estimated to be no more than fourteen days. Their training centre was based at Coleshill House, home of the Pleydell-Bouverie family, just outside the village of Highworth in Wiltshire, close to the railway hub of Swindon, meaning that trainees from all over the country could reach Coleshill with relative ease. The man who developed the training programme to turn vicars, poachers, farmers and schoolteachers into saboteurs and silent killers was Brigadier Sir Colin McVean Gubbins, the man who would later be in charge of Special Operations Executive.

When you next hear somebody misusing history, please suggest they might like to read Our Uninvited Guests and remind themselves of the real behind the scenes story of the summer of 1940.

 

 

 

 


Julie Summers is a bestselling author and historian. Her books include: Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine; The Colonel of Tamarkan, a biography of her grandfather, the man who built the ‘real’ bridge on the River Kwai; Stranger in the House, a social history of servicemen reuniting with their families after the Second World War, and When the Children Came Home, which tells the story of returning evacuees. Her book Jambusters was the inspiration for ITV’s hit drama series Home Fires, which ran for two seasons in 2015–16.

Julie will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Friday 28th June about Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Lives of Britain’s Country Houses. Tickets are available here.

🎧 LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF HIMMLER

Recording from Chalke Valley History Festival 2017.
Katrin Himmler is a German author and political scientist. Her great-uncle was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and one of the principle architects of the Holocaust. Katrin has confronted her family legacy with a book, Die Brüder Himmler, translated into English as ‘The Himmler Brothers. A German Family History’. She has also edited, together with the historian Michael Wildt, private letters from Himmler that had been only recently discovered in Israel. The Private Heinrich Himmler: Letters of a Mass Murderer was published in the UK last year. Here, in conversation with James Holland, she discusses Himmler, his brothers, and reveals the burden of this Nazi family legacy.

🎧 BRITAIN’S GREATEST BATTLE: IMPHAL AND KOHIMA, 1944

Audio from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018.
This epic battle was voted Britain’s Greatest Battle in a poll by the National Army Museum, yet few know or understand why this brutal but decisive engagement was so significant. As James Holland reveals in this talk, it deserves greater recognition not just for the extraordinary leadership of General Bill Slim but also for epic heroism and the dogged determination of all those who fought there.

🎧 THE SECRET SPITFIRES

Audio from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018.
Salisbury and the surrounding area has a proud wartime heritage for thousands of Spitfires were built here in sheds, garages, bus depots and even a hotel. Norman Parker, one of the last surviving Spitfire engineers, talks about the top-secret wartime construction of the RAF’s most celebrated fighter plane with Ethem Cetintas, director of the acclaimed film, The Secret Spitfires.

🎧 BURMA VETERAN: ARAKAN, KOHIMA AND BURMA

Recorded at Chalke Valley History Festival 2018
Robin Rowland was an officer in Slim’s Fourteenth Army, fighting at the Battle of the Admin Box – the first significant victory against the Japanese – and then at the hell of Kohima and on through the final battles at Meiktila in Burma in 1945. His is an absolutely extraordinary story in which he saw truly terrible things but also witnessed immense courage, tragedy and camaraderie. Here he is in conversation with James Holland.

🎧 ARNHEM: THE BATTLE FOR THE BRIDGES, 1944

Audio from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018.
The battle of Arnhem, the great airborne fight for the bridges in 1944, was a courageous strategic gamble that failed. In this talk at CVHF 2018, Britain’s best-selling historian Antony Beevor, using often overlooked sources from Allied and German archives, reconstructs the terrible reality of the fighting and questions whether this plan to end the war could ever have worked, or whether it was always doomed to become the last German victory.

🎧 CHURCHILL: THE ORIGINS OF GREATNESS

Audio from Chalke Valley History Festival 2018.
Michael Dobbs, Conservative Peer and author, explores Churchill’s passion, fragility and power, and he is no ordinary investigator of power. He was with Margaret Thatcher when she took her first steps into Downing Street, and with John Major when he was kicked out. But he remains most famous for creating the ultimate in Machiavellian politicians, Francis Urquhart, star of the global phenomenon that is House of Cards.
He is in conversation with Sir Michael Pakenham.

Sponsored by The Churchill Society

🎧 Battle of Britain Spitfire Hero

Audio from Geoff Wellum’s talk with James Holland at Chalk Valley History Festival on Saturday, 28th June 2014.

Geoff Wellum was a spitfire pilot throughout the Battle of Britain, flying and fighting in some of the fiercest aerial battles of that summer of 1940. More recently, he became the celebrated author of First Light, an astonishing memoir of those days. This was a rare public appearance and a very special event.