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.


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.


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.

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

One of the great joys of researching my two books about special agents and pilots in the Second World War has been interviewing veterans and witnesses to that conflict, and others who knew or met those who served in it. As the human coast erodes, as it were, it feels ever more important to capture these stories. 

Hanna Reitsch with Kwame Nkrumah, from Hanna Reitsch, I Fly for Kwame Nkrumah (JF Lehmanns Verlag, 1968)

Occasionally after a book has been published, people get in touch with stories that I would love to have included in my books. With The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the dramatic and still little-known story of Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, the only women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots in the Second World War, but who ended their lives on opposites sides of history, I have been lucky enough to meet two people who knew Hanna.  

Former diplomat, Treasury official and President of the European Investment Bank, Brian Unwin, met Hanna in the 1960s when he was serving the British High Commission in Accra, Ghana. He got in touch having been astounded by the very different picture he had gained of Hanna from reading my book. Over lunch at the Reform Club, Brian told me how he had been sent to deliver a diplomatic gift of books to the head of the Ghanaian gliding school outside Accra in ‘the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah’s totalitarian regime’. He remembered a few white buildings around the field, a crowd, the hot sun, and his giving a ‘stock speech’. Afterwards the ‘attractive silver-haired director of the school, in her 50s’ offered to take him up in a glider. Slightly nervous, Brian checked that she was qualified to do so. After her reassurances she took him up for a short flight. Only when he returned to the High Commission did he learn that she was Hanna Reitsch, ‘Hitler’s pilot’.  


Brian said that he had been rather proud to include this story in his memoirs, and to think that he was probably the last Englishman alive to have been flown by Hanna Reitsch. Having read my book, however, and learned ‘how unreconstructed’ Hanna was, he has reviewed his perspective. 

Last week, after I gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary Festival, John Batchelor, MBE, introduced himself. John is a military artist and technical illustrator who met Hanna at Edwards Air Force Base in California, around 1977. Hanna had got out of her Mercedes car, John told me, and soon had a crowd of people around her. Curious as to who she might be, John identified her by the two pieces of jewelry she was wearing. One was a senior gliding award with diamonds, the other a round brooch with a border of precious stones and a swastika at its centre. The woman could only be Hanna Reitsch and the second brooch her gift from Hitler, which she said she would wear for the rest of her life – even though it was now illegal to wear the swastika in Germany.

Clare Mulley with John Batchelor. Photo c. Alan Bentley

John introduced himself to Hanna, and found her ‘very helpful’ when he asked her about her war-time test flights. Fascinatingly, she told him that the one aircraft she would not fly under power was the Me163. This confirmed my belief that although she was happy to tell the BBC in an interview that flying the Me163 was ‘like riding on a cannon ball,’ her own flights with it had been when she was towed up to test the gliding landings. 

Hanna did not discuss the Nazi regime or politics with John, but when he mentioned her jewelry she told him that she had also kept her Iron Cross but did not wear it ‘every day’. It seems to confirm that Hanna was, as the brilliant British Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown had told me during my research, ‘a fanatical Nazi’ to the end. 

John was amused, however, when he left Hanna or, as he put it, ‘got rid of her into her waiting Mercedes’. A group of young aviation people, editors and writers, who were waiting nearby, asked, ‘Who was that old woman you were trying to date’, only to be astounded to learn that it was Hanna Reitsch!

Twice during my research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler I was told that I was just ‘two handshakes away from Hitler’; once by Eric Brown, who had shaken Hanna’s hand, and once by Major General Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father Claus von Stauffenberg had led the most famous assassination attempt on Hitler; the 20 July 1944 Valkyrie bomb plot. It was an honour, as well as a great pleasure, to interview all these men, and it is always wonderful to meet other people who are willing to generously share their memories to help me gain the most accurate picture I can of my subjects. Perhaps, if I get the chance to have a new edition of The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I can add some further nuance to their stories!   


Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, is a dual biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, but who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. 


A regular contributor to TV and radio, Clare gave recently gave a TED talk at Stormont, and lectures in London and Paris on wartime female special agents. She reviews non-fiction for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. Clare was chair of the judges for the Historical Writers Association 2017 Non-Fiction Prize, and has recently become an honorary patron of the Wimpole History Festival. She will be talking about The Women Who Flew for Hitler at 2pm on 26 June 2018 at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Book your tickets here.

The secret pigeon service: Heroes who risked all for the birds dropped behind enemy lines who flew home with vital intelligence and left the Nazis flapping

This article was previously published in the Daily Mail on 18 February 2018

Enemy searchlights had caught its outline as the RAF Whitley reached Nieuport on the coast of Nazi-occupied Belgium, and the German batteries opened up. But unscathed, the pilots pressed on, heading inland as instructed.

Just minutes later, passing above the darkened fields of Flanders, the crucial moment had arrived. The flaps of the aircraft were lowered and, from a height of between 600 and 1,000ft, a British ‘agent’ parachuted gently to the ground.

This was July 1941, and an extraordinary new development in the intelligence war with the Wehrmacht was in full swing. So important was the information gleaned from this particular mission, it would end up on Churchill’s desk.

A member of a Royal Air Force aircrew holding a carrier pigeon taking part in Operation Columba beside a Lockheed Hudson of Coastal Command around 1942

An RAF pilot takes a carrier pigeon on board his Halifax bomber before a raid in World War Two – the pigeons were useful – among other things – to take home SOS messages if the plane’s radio was shot up (June 1943)

Secret messages were packed into cylinders that were attached to pigeons’ legs

Yet the figure floating down through the Belgian night was no normal operative, vulnerable to capture, to torture or to worse. For this was Operation Columba, a largely forgotten yet essential weapon in the fight against Nazi Germany, and one that played an important role in turning the fortunes of the War.

And the spy it was despatching behind enemy lines? A pigeon.

I first stumbled across this remarkable tale by chance one morning, while covering a quirky news story for the BBC. The boney leg of a dead pigeon had been found in a chimney in Surrey and attached to it was a message which, after investigation, had stumped even the top code-breakers of GCHQ, unable to decipher a seemingly random series of letters. What might this strange relic mean? No one seemed entirely sure. Could pigeons have been used in the Second World War, perhaps? Again, information was scarce.

My interest piqued, I spent a morning in the National Archives in Kew, West London, pulling up any and every relevant file – and one of the bundles that landed on my desk immediately stood out. Marked with the words ‘Secret’ and ‘Columba’, it contained compelling details of an operation, including tiny pink slips of paper that transpired on closer inspection to be messages from ordinary people living in occupied Europe.

They had clearly been brought back to Britain by pigeon. Filled with the day-to-day realities of wartime, the slips offered an intriguing insight into the small frustrations and dark tragedies of life under occupation.

None of them, however, compared with the one labelled Message Number 37. More like a work of art than an official document, it contained tiny, beautiful inky writing, too small to read with the naked eye and densely packed into an unimaginably small space. And detailed, colourful maps. Who had written it? And what had happened to them? There was little to work with as the message was identified with no more than a code-name – Leopold Vindictive.

After three years of searching, I finally found my answer in rural Belgium. The story of this unlikely spying mission began in April 1941. There had been attempts to drop secret agents behind German lines since the summer of 1940, but they were perilous. Some agents died before they hit the ground. Others were captured all too quickly.

So slim were the intelligence pickings that the secret services were even instructed to see if a Yorkshire astrologer and water diviner known as ‘Smokey Joe’ could help. MI6 had agents abroad, but the human networks were a mess.

In 1940, it was even claimed that German troops in Norway were practising the bagpipes and training to swim ashore wearing green watertight suits. And so an unlikely new strategy was devised – of dropping homing pigeons into occupied Europe in the hope they would fall into the hands of sympathisers who would send them home with information useful to the Allies.

Each bird would be placed in a special box with a parachute attached, and a tiny green Bakelite cylinder – about the size of a pen top – was placed around one leg.On the outside of each container was an envelope with a questionnaire, written in Dutch or French, some rice paper for the return message, a pencil, and a bag of pigeon food.

The latest edition of a resistance newspaper printed in London was enclosed, or sometimes a copy of the Daily Mail, to prove the bird had come from England.

Details of the operation were kept secret from the pigeon fanciers who volunteered the birds. So who was behind this outlandish mission?

Today, everyone is familiar with MI5 and MI6, but few have heard of MI14, let alone its sub-section MI14(d). Its job was to understand the German occupation of Western Europe. Working out of a basement room in the War Office in Central London, it initially comprised just two officers: Brian Melland, a former theatrical actor, and ‘Sandy’ Sanderson, who had served with the Highland Division in the First World War. This was the unit in charge of the Secret Pigeon Service.

Operation Columba got under way on the night of April 8, 1941. A Whitley crossed into Belgium near Zeebrugge then headed for the French border, where the pigeons in their containers were pushed out. Two days later, in the bowels of the War Office, at 10.30am, MI14’s phone started ringing. The first bird had made its way home to its owner in Kent. Columba message number one was phoned in.

It had come from a village called Le Briel in northern France and contained real information. ‘Pigeon found Wednesday 9th at 8am,’ it began. ‘The German troop movements are always at night. There are 50 Germans in every Commune. There is a large munitions dump at Herzeele 200 metres from the railway station. Yesterday, a convoy of Horse Artillery passed towards Dunkirk… The Bosches do not mention an invasion of England. Their morale is not too good. The RAF… should come to bomb the brick works as the proprietor is a …’ The next word was marked as ‘illegible’.

The message ended with ‘I await your return, I am and remain a Frenchman.’ At 3pm, message number two arrived, this time from Flanders.

‘There are only a few troops here and no petrol dumps,’ it read. ‘But yesterday some artillery arrived and the men say they are going to Yugoslavia where other troops and wagons are also moving.’

After three months, 221 birds had been flown into occupied territory, many from Newmarket racecourse – home to a top-secret RAF squadron whose job was to carry out ‘Special Duties’ for British intelligence – and released over Flanders, Normandy and Brittany. Forty-six had returned, 19 with messages, of which 17 contained information.

Often people were fearful at discovering a spy pigeon, and understandably so. Many decided it was better the pigeon died than they did. Some villagers even made the choice more palatable by roasting and eating the bird. Others went straight to the local police station or Nazi occupiers in return for a reward.

The people responsible for the remarkable Message 37 were braver than that, and fiercely anti-Nazi. The pigeon and its container had been retrieved in July 1941 from fields near Lichtervelde by an unnamed Belgian farmer. Concealing them in a sack of potatoes, he took them to the Debaillies, a patriotic family of two sisters and three brothers who ran a corner shop.

One of the brothers, Michel, was a pigeon fancier. The Debaillies summoned two family friends, Hector Joye, a former soldier with a love of military maps, and a Catholic priest, Father Joseph Raskin, who had worked as an intelligence gatherer sketching German military positions during the First World War to aid allied reconnaissance. Brothers Arseen and Gabriel drove along the coast and through the neighbourhoods around Bruges, taking notes.

Joye gathered intelligence on a chateau occupied by German troops. Raskin tapped church-goers for information.

After a few days, the priest set about transferring the maps and the wealth of information to the two tiny sheets of rice paper. He worked through the night of July 11 using a magnifying glass and a fine-tipped pen until all the space was filled.

The rice paper was folded and placed inside the cylinder attached to the pigeon’s foot. Then the group did something contrary to every rule of spycraft: they stood for a family portrait in a courtyard behind the shop. At first sight, it could be any other family picture, but look more closely and you can see that Marie, the elder sister, is holding a resistance newspaper, Margaret is holding the parachute. Arseen holds a pencil, Gabriel the British intelligence questionnaire, and Michel clutches the pigeon.

In front of them, is a chalkboard with the dates of the bird’s arrival and departure, its ring number and the phrase ‘Via Engeland’ to mark its destination. And at the top are three capital V’s – the symbol of Victory. Climbing up on to the roof, Michel then released the bird. At 8.15am the pigeon rose high into the sky, circled to get its bearings, then made for the Channel and home. By 3.30pm, it was back at its loft in Lattice Avenue, Ipswich, with the canister arriving in the War Office on July 13.

Homing pigeons played an important role in both world wars – their homing ability, speed and ability to get to high altitudes meant they were often used as military messengers

Melland pulled out the first sheet of paper, nine inches square, and the closer he looked, the more astonished he was. The transcript came to a remarkable 5,000 words and took up 12 pages. It was gold dust. It indicated hidden German emplacements, munitions depots and fuel dumps. It highlighted a telephone exchange and nearly a dozen factories playing a role in the German war effort.

There were precise battle damage assessments of recent British raids in Brussels. A map showed a château that was the central communications installation for German High Command in the whole sector. Message 37 rapidly made its way around Whitehall and was shown to Churchill himself. It represented more than just a collection of useful facts. It summed up a spirit of resistance, confirming to Britain’s leaders that some of those living under the tyranny of Nazi occupation were willing to risk their lives to help.

Mary, a carrier pigeon, was hit by shrapnel, wounded by pellets and attacked by German war hawks as she flew over the Pas De Calais

The message was signed with the codename ‘Leopold Vindictive’ and asked for a response on the Dutch and Belgian BBC radio news. On July 15, only three days after Michel had set the bird free, the Belgians heard this on their radio: ‘Leopold Vindictive 200, the key fits the lock and the bird is in the lion’s cage.’ Sadly, the Leopold Vindictive story does not have a happy ending.

The group of amateur spies gathered more intelligence but future pigeon drops failed to reach them. In growing frustration, they trusted a chain of resistance contacts but the Germans closed in. They arrested and tried Raskin, Joye and Arseen Debaillie. On October 18, 1943, in Dortmund, all three were guillotined.

But still Operation Columba pressed on. Between April 1941 and September 1944, a total of 16,554 pigeons would be dropped in an arc from Copenhagen in Denmark to Bordeaux in the South of France. Only one in ten made it back alive. Some were lost on planes shot down before they had a chance to be released. Some lay unfound in a field.

The Germans responded of course. Rewards were offered and punishments were draconian. An MI6 agent reported that a notice displayed in one Belgian town offered 625 francs to anyone who delivered a British pigeon. Rumours began to emerge that the Germans were planting false pigeons to trap people.

Marksmen were stationed on the coast of northern France while a Columba report from the Loire Valley said that pigeons fell into enemy hands after a German observation post spotted the RAF flight passing overhead.

But Operation Columba’s most deadly foe proved to be a natural one. It was the hawk. German hawks were flown along the coast from Belgium, France and the Netherlands to catch and kill Columba birds as they headed for Britain.

Yet the ones that survived more than proved their worth, helping to pave the way for D-Day and victory.

And for the French and the Belgians living under Nazi occupation, there was something else besides: the hope that these remarkable birds, released up into the freedom of the skies, would race back safely to their homes and help free their nation from tyranny.

© Gordon Corera, 2018

Gordon Corera is a journalist and the author of several books on intelligence and security issues. Since 2004 he has been a Security Correspondent for BBC News, where he covers terrorism, cyber security, the work of intelligence agencies and other national security issues.

He will be speaking at CVHF on Friday 29th June about the Secret Pigeon Service – tickets are available here.

Pilots And Spies, Enablers And Resisters.

Clare Mulley talks about why she has chosen to focus her books on women in conflict.

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were the only two women to serve as test pilots for the Nazi regime. Truly remarkable women, both were made Honorary Flight Captains and both were awarded the Iron Cross… yet they ended their lives on opposite sides of history. I am delighted to be talking about their beliefs, decisions and actions as told in my new book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, when I return to the Chalke Valley History Festival this June.

I was last at the festival in 2013, speaking about The Spy Who Loved, my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. You can hear a recording of that talk here. These days the questions that I am most often asked are; why the focus on women in conflict; and why the shift in perspective from the story of an Allied heroine, to that of two women serving the Nazi regime…

For a historian, the seismic upheaval of war brings fascinating stories not only of honour, courage and duty, betrayal, sacrifice and horror, but also of shifting priorities and perspectives. For women in Britain, the Second World War brought an end to many hopes and dreams but also new opportunities, notably in the workplace. For some, the conflict also brought the chance to serve both at home, and behind enemy lines. It was of course preconceptions about gender that made female special agents so unexpected and inconspicuous in the field, and therefore so effective when they were trained, armed, and sent to work in Nazi-occupied Europe alongside their male counterparts.

The well-connected daughter of a Polish count and Jewish banking heiress, before the war Krystyna Skarbek got her thrills from smuggling cigarettes by skiing across her country’s mountainous borders. Arriving in London towards the close of 1939, she was desperate to put her skills and experience to good use in the fight against Nazism. Being British and male were then the fundamental requirements of the Secret Intelligence Services, but Krystyna offered a unique opportunity to see how the enemy was organizing in an occupied territory. Deployed before the year was out, she became Britain’s first – and longest serving – female special agent, and was ultimately awarded the OBE, George Medal and French Croix de Guerre for her service in three different theatres of the conflict.

Krystyna’s principle motivation was her deep sense of patriotism. The conflict had enabled her to live a life of freedom, action and significance, but it had also left six million of her compatriots dead, and her ravaged country under the control of a Soviet-backed Communist regime. For her, surviving the ‘terrible peace’ that followed the war was harder than responding to the call to action.

Pioneering German aviators Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg not only made their names in the male-dominated field of flight in the 1930s but, with the onset of the war, also became test-pilots for the Nazi regime. They, too, were motivated by both their sense of honour, duty and patriotism, and their love for personal freedom. Their understandings of what these words meant, however, were very different not only from Krystyna Skarbek’s conception, but also from each other’s.

With her blond curls and blue-eyes, Hanna looked the perfect ‘Aryan’ woman, which suited both her inclinations and her ambitions. Firmly aligning herself with what she considered to be the dynamic Nazi regime, when war came she proudly put her life on the line to test prototypes including the vast Gigant troop-carrying glider, the Me163 rocket-powered Komet, and even a manned-version of the V1 flying bomb or doodlebug. As a brilliant aeronautical engineer, Melitta, helped develop the Stuka dive-bombers, even insisting on testing her own innovations. She knew that it was only by making herself uniquely valuable to the regime that she might protect herself and her family – her father had been born Jewish. On 20 July 1944 Melitta supported the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life. Conversely in the last days of the war, Hanna flew into Berlin under siege and begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety.

The Nazi regime and its enormously powerful armed forces led to the suffering and death of millions of people, Jews of all nations, Poles of all religions, Russians, British, French, American, the list goes on. The Women Who Flew for Hitler searches for the truth about two female pilots, asking why they were so successful and how they felt about serving the Nazi regime. I hope that what it reveals – the good and the bad – will contribute to a better understanding of the ways in which Hitler was able to harness the resources of his country for his terrible purposes. It is no less important that we seek to understand these questions, as that we remember the courage, achievements and sacrifices of the brave men and women whose service in so many fields helped to defeat that threat.

Clare Mulley is the award-winning author of The Woman Who Saved the Children, which won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize, and The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, is a dual biography of two extraordinary women at the heart of the Third Reich, but who ended their lives on opposite sides of history. 


A regular contributor to TV and radio, Clare gave recently gave a TED talk at Stormont, and lectures in London and Paris on wartime female special agents. She reviews non-fiction for the Telegraph, Spectator and History Today. Clare was chair of the judges for the Historical Writers Association 2017 Non-Fiction Prize, and has recently become an honorary patron of the Wimpole History Festival. She will be talking about The Women Who Flew for Hitler at 2pm on 26 June 2018 at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Book your tickets here.

VIDEO: Al Murray: Monty

Al Murray may be best known for his comic creation, the Pub Landlord, but he is also a serious and passionate historian and student of  World War Two. In this event, filmed at Chalke Valley History Festival 2017,  he brings that immense knowledge to bear in defence of Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, talks about the life, career, great victories and controversies of Britain’s most famous wartime general.

Al Murray: Monty (CVHF 2017) from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

Al Murray Highlights: Monty

Highlights from Al Murray’s excellent talk on Field Marshal Montegomery of Alamein on Monday 26 June. In this event he brought his immense knowledge to bear in defence of Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein, discussing the life, career, great victories and controversies of Britain’s most famous wartime general.

CVHF 2017: Al Murray Highlights from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

🎧 Schools Festival Audio: Was Hitler a Popular Dictator?

Audio from Chalke Valley History Festival for Schools 2017 with Chris Culpin.