Everyone has image of the SAS: feats of physical endurance involving over-muscled men yomping across the landscape, soldiers in balaclavas abseiling down the side of the Iranian embassy, news stories of secret soldiers carrying out operations in farflung warzones, long on drama, but usually short on detail.

The true story of the wartime SAS, I discovered, is very different from the myth.

It is an astonishing adventure story, filled with tales of physical endurance, courage and survival.  But it is much more than that.

Many books about the SAS have focused on a single individual, consequently downplaying the impact of others; some veer towards the hagiographic; many are somewhat over-muscled, tending to emphasize machismo at the expense of objectivity, physical strength over the psychological stamina that was the hallmark of the organization in its earliest incarnation. While many members of the wartime SAS exhibited extraordinary qualities, they were also human: flawed, occasionally cruel, and capable of making spectacular mistakes. The SAS has become a legend, but the true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is a tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality and touching human frailty.

Bravery sometimes comes in unexpected forms, and in places far from the battlefield. The wartime history of the SAS is a rattling adventure story, but in my book, SAS: ROGUE HEROES, I have also tried to explore the psychology of secret, unconventional warfare, a particular attitude of mind at a crucial moment in history, and the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary wartime circumstances.

Rather to my surprise, this turned out to a book about the meaning of courage.


Ben Macintyre is the bestselling author of several books including A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award for Biography of the Year 2008. He is a columnist and Associate Editor at The Times.

On Saturday 1 July at 6.45pm, he will be at Chalke Valley History Festival to tell the story of David Stirling, the eccentric young officer who was given permission by Churchill to recruit the most ruthless soldiers he could find, thereby founding the most mysterious military organisation in the world: the SAS.

Tickets are available here.


Highlights of Knight’s Cross Winner, Günter Halm’s talk at CVHF

Günter Halm, a veteran of the Second World War, fought under Rommel in the Deutsches Afrikakorps, won the Knight’s Cross for his part in the First Battle of Alamein in July 1942 and later served in Normandy. In his talk at Chalke Valley History Festival on Saturday, 2nd July, he discussed his wartime memories in what was a truly fascinating morning.

CVHF 2016: Günter Halm Highlights from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

Deutsches Afrikakorps Knight’s Cross Winner

This extraordinary clip is from the German newsreel ‘Die Deutsche Wochenschau’ produced by Josef Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry from 1940 until the end of the war.  This particular episode clip shows Günter Halm receiving his Knight’s Cross from Field Marshal Erwin Rommel for destroying nine British tanks at the First Battle of Alamein in 1942.

Herr Halm will be appearing at this year’s festival, and will be speaking on Sunday 3rd July about his wartime career and his time serving under Rommel with the Deutsches Afrikakorps and then during the Battle for Normandy in 1944.  It promises to be a fascinating and very special occasion. You can book tickets for this event here.

CVHF presents The Bomber Crew

We had the privilege of having a complete 7-man crew who made up the different roles on a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War at CVHF this year. George ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, Jo Lancaster, Frank Tilley, Hal Gardner, John de Hoop, Dave Fellowes, Steve Bethell were in discussion with Paul Beaver.

It was the chance to hear what it was like to fly over Nazi-occupied Europe, whether pilot, bomb- aimer, navigator, flight engineer, tail-gunner, radio operator or mid-upper gunner – and from men whose combined experience amounted to over 150 operations.

CVHF presents The Bomber Crew from Chalke Valley History Trust on Vimeo.

D-Day: By Those Who Were There

Audio from a talk at Chalke Valley History Festival on Saturday 28th June 2014 with Geoff Pattinson and David Render, chaired by Stuart Tootal.

In the 70th Anniversary year of the D-Day landings in Normandy, we were very fortunate to have two veterans of that campaign talking about their experiences. Fred Glover was in 9 Para, and David Render served with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. Chairing the discussion was Stuart Tootal, former Commander of 3 Para in Afghanistan. This was a rare treat.

Rationed Fashion & Victory Rolls: Women’s Fashion in the 1940s

This year at CVHF, some hugely significant anniversaries are being marked by the 1940s themed weekend; namely, 75 years since the Battle of Britain and 70 years since the end of World War Two. You can find out more about the wonderful events taking place over the weekend here, but for anyone joining in with ‘dress up Saturday’ – and the 1945 Victory Party on Saturday night – read on for an introduction to 1940s fashion, and some tips to keep your costumes authentic!

Women’s Fashion in World War Two

During the war clothing took on new significance in women’s lives. Many donned uniforms for the first time and performed tasks it was never imagined they were capable of, such as flying Spitfires and felling trees. Yet despite adopting these masculine roles, they were also asked by the government to maintain their femininity. Magazines and films instructed women to keep their clothes fashionable and faces presentable to keep up morale, while propaganda stressed the importance of thrift, asking women to stitch, patch and darn not only their own clothes but those of their whole families. But for many the famous austerity measures were nothing new – they had been mending and making-do their whole lives.

Lucie Whitmore - 1. 'Make do and Mend' dressmaking class, London, 1943 (C) IWM (D 12897)jpg

‘Make do and Mend’ dressmaking class, London, 1943 (C) IWM (D 12897)

There are three major influences that helped to define World War Two fashion.
The first, clothes rationing, was introduced in June 1941, when every civilian was given 60 coupons per year, though this later reduced to 48. Nearly all garments were assigned a coupon value relative to the amount of material and labour involved in production. As an example, a dress would cost between 7 and 11 coupons. The second, Utility (also known as CC41), was a scheme introduced by the government in February 1942 when shortages were becoming more problematic, despite rationing. The scheme, which eventually covered shoes, furniture and household goods as well as clothing and cloth, aimed to make best possible use of scarce raw supplies by carefully controlling manufacture processes, from fabric production to cutting techniques. The scheme also guaranteed a constant supply of good quality civilian clothing in a range of price brackets, meaning that well made garments were affordable to all, not just the elite.

Lucie Whitmore - 2. Utility fashions, 1943 © IWM (D 14818)

Utility fashions, 1943 © IWM (D 14818)

These measures were necessary not only because Britain was deprived of many of its imports and had to become more self-sufficient, but also because factories and workers were desperately needed for the war effort, and couldn’t be spared for the clothes trade. Unrelenting austerity and shortages resulted in a national obsession with repairing, recycling and re-inventing. The government ran numerous campaigns to prevent wastage and promote economy:  such as ‘Mrs Sew & Sew’ and the famous ‘Make-Do-and-Mend’ campaign – which gave advice on topics such as how to make clothes last. Though ubiquitous today, some women living through the war hadn’t even heard of the campaign; it simply didn’t apply to them. In the words of Julia Matthews, who worked in a factory in Staines during the war, ‘Times were very tough before the war… and so the need to be creative, make things out of old scraps and discarded items was not new just because of the war – it had been a necessity for many years…’ (Matthews, 2010)

Lucie Whitmore - 3. Propaganda poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6079)

Propaganda poster © IWM (Art.IWM PST 6079)

Trends in fashion during the war were largely shaped by these austerity driven schemes, and the necessary restrictions in tailoring. A notable trend was the military influence; evident in women’s tailoring, and embodied in a squared shoulder and defined waist. But clothing from the era is particularly recognisable for its ingenuity and resourcefulness; multi-coloured knitwear re-made by unravelling various worn out garments, Utility dresses with straight cut skirts and barely any seam allowance, and accessories re-modelled from something long unworn by a husband or brother. World War Two fashion does not, despite these impediments, appear frumpy or unappealing however; it has acquired a romance and nostalgia, and remains a joy to study or re-create in the present day. The three dresses pictured below, all original 1940s garments, show that colours were vivid and patterns cheerful.

Lucie Whitmore - 4. (Left) Utility dress, © Edinburgh Museums & Galleries (Centre) Blue forties dress and (Right)  printed Utility dress, © Lucie Whitmore

1940s Day Dress

Tweed or wool skirt and jacket with blouse
Skirt and blouse with knitted cardigan
Printed cotton, rayon or linen dress: narrow waists, exaggerated lapels, button down fronts, waist ties, below the knee hem, A-line skirt.
Occasionally slacks, or loose fitting trousers, for women – but only on casual occasions or for work.
Brogues flat or with low heel, clogs,

1940s Evening dress

(‘Evening dress’ almost ceased to exist during the war; the following would be appropriate for a party or evening event!)
Blouse and skirt (straight cut, peg top, A-line)
1930s dresses (possibly altered or re-made)
Day dresses – below knee/calf length, shoulder length sleeves, floral popular. Linen, cotton, rayon, synthetics
1930s accessories
Chunky heeled leather shoes – often made from wood or cork, with platform
Knitwear – cardigan, often with decorative wool embroidery

Hair and Make-up

(Also restricted due to shortages!)
Dye legs with builders sand, coffee or oxo, draw stocking ‘seam’ up back of the leg with eye pencil
Beetroot juice or cochineal for lipstick
Candle soot for a smoky eye-shadow
Victory Rolls or glamorous curls for the evening, headscarf turban for day.

Lucie Whitmore - 5. VJ celebrations in London, August 1945 © IWM (EA 75894)

VJ celebrations in London, August 1945 © IWM (EA 75894)

If you are interested in the history of forties fashion, or looking for more style ideas, the following books may be of interest:

Griffith, Suzanne. Stitching for Victory. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2009.

Summers, Julie. Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War. London: Profile Books, 2015.

Tregenza, Liz. Style Me Vintage: 1940s. London: Pavilion Books, 2015.

Walford, Jonathon. Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

lucie bw picWomen’s Fashion During the Great War

On Saturday, 27th June at 5pm, fashion historian, Lucie Whitmore, will be giving a ‘Pop Up History’ talk at Chalke Valley History Festival, discussing how women’s fashion changed and was influenced by the conflict, and how we can study the garments today to learn more about women’s experience of war.

Spare a thought for the Bomber Boys: The unknown air campaign of 1940

RAFBristolBlenheimWWIIColourWhilst the troops at Dunkirk struggled to get away from the German onslaught and Fighter Command kept up dawn-to-dusk combat air patrols, spare a thought for the Bomber Boys.

Flying obsolescent aircraft, often without clear objectives, target restrictions and little good intelligence, the aircrew of Bomber Command raided Germany and the Low Countries to both support the tactical objectives and begin the fight back.

RAF Bomber Command had suffered since its inception in 1936 with the original notion that the ‘bomber will always get through’ and an early impression which made it seem that Battle, Blenheim and Wellington would be faster than contemporary fighters and therefore reach their targets even in daylight.

Photo credit: Jarrod Cotter

Designed in 1934, the Bristol Blenheim was the first ‘modern’ aeroplane in the Royal Air Force. A monoplane, constructed with a stressed-skin fuselage and powered by the latest radial engines, it was faster than all British fighters then in service. So fast, was the Blenheim that some models were indeed classed as fighters.

Group Captain (later Air Commodore) A D Panton, renowned Blenheim pilot, shot down three times in the Battle of France, captured PoW – his diaries are Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer which will feature at CVHF in our Pop Up History programme

Group Captain (later Air Commodore) A D Panton, renowned Blenheim pilot, shot down three times in the Battle of France, captured PoW – his diaries are Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer which will feature at CVHF in our Pop Up History programme

The first British aircraft to cross the German coast on 3 September 1939 was a Blenheim, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for Flying Officer McPherson of No 139 Squadron. A Coastal Command Blenheim sank the first U-Boat of the war on 11 March 1940 and by April, French-based Blenheims were mapping the Franco-German border; something which the French had neglected in the 20 years since the Treaty of Versailles.

There was great optimism that the Blenheim would be able to dent any German advance into France.

The reality was different. The losses were huge. The effect was limited.

By early 1940, the deployment of the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109, tested in combat in Spain, had proved that daylight bombing without an overwhelming fighter escort would be prone to higher loss rates than would be sustainable. The Aalborg raid on 13 March 1940 resulted in No 82 Squadron ceasing to exist as 11 out of 12 Blenheims were shot down by fighters or flak – the 12th Blenheim had returned to base early with engine problems. It was the greatest proportionate loss of any military operation in the Second World War – yet still the Blenheim crews climbed into their bombers very day and flew eastwards.

In May 1940, when Germany invaded France, the Hurricane fighters in France fully occupied with air defence by the wasteful tactic of standing patrols – France had no radar and no ground-air coordination – there were very fewer opportunities for close escort to protect the bombers against the Luftwaffe. In consequence, the bomber crews were being asked undertake flights into the unknown.

Read any account of the period – and ‘Six Weeks of a Blenheim Summer’ must be the standard against which others are judged – and the valour of every pilot, navigator and air gunner, as well as those groundcrew often left to fend for themselves, comes over.

Yet, day after day, and increasingly, night after night, bomber crews would fly off into enemy skies and make their contribution. The Blenheim was still in service in Malta and the Far East in late 1941 and still sustaining losses.

Blenheims destroyed invasion barges in the summer of 1940 and undertook perilous missions into German-occupied Europe. Bomber Command’s losses outstripped those of Fighter Command in the period and this contribution as recognised by Winston Churchill who described the Bomber Command aircrew as the Many when praising Fighter Command’s Few.

Lancaster CrewBomber Command will be remembered at Chalke Valley History festival this year with displays by the only flying Bristol Blenheim in the world and the UK’s only flying Avro Lancaster, the iconic British bomber. Paul Beaver will be commenting on the flying and the leading the discussion on Sunday, 28 June with a complete Lancaster bomber crew. It is also hoped that Victoria Panton Bacon, author of Six Weeks of the Blenheim Summer (about her grandfather’s tour of duty in France 1940) will be joining Paul in the commentary box.

Dunkirk Ace – the first Spitfire pilot to win his spurs

Stanford TuckBob Stanford Tuck was every inch the fighter pilot as if ordered up from Central Casting; brave, good-looking, a crack shot and a superb aviator. The London boy who did not excel at school and nearly made the Merchant Navy his career, was to become the first Spitfire Ace in May 1940 in the skies above northern France.

Tuck combined excellent flying skills with being a superb shot. He had grown up with shotguns and game shooting, and practiced with clays regularly throughout his service career with Fighter Command. When moved to the Hurricane-equipped No 257 Squadron, he set up a clay pigeon shoot at the squadron dispersal at RAF Coltishall. But that was six months after Dunkirk.

In May 1940, Tuck was transferred from No 65 Squadron at RAF Duxford to No 92 Squadron at RAF Croydon in Kent. During his two years at Duxford, he had proved his fighting and leadership skills making him an ideal choice for the junior flight commander slot.

Paul Beaver - history hub planesAs the Battle of France hotted-up and the Allied armies were thrown back towards the North Sea and Channel coasts, the Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command released Spitfires to operate over the Continent. Tuck led a section of Spitfires to escort Winston Churchill in one of his attempts to rally the forlorn French government in Paris; it was the first time that Spitfire fighters – as opposed to the still secret high altitude photo-reconnaissance variants – had ‘overnighted’ overseas.

Tuck’s big chance to demonstrate his training in a dogfight came on 23 May, somewhere in the vicinity of Dunkirk, which was not yet the centre of that great military evacuation for which the seaport is now famous, but it was still the centre of aerial action. The Luftwaffe was attempting to deny reinforcements to the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force and the Channel ports were prime targets.

Tuck clay-pigeon shooting (RAFM)On 23 May, British ground forces were ordered to evacuate Arras, the main communications hub in that part of France. The British commander, General the Lord Gort wanted to concentrate his forces to protect the ports of embarkation such as Boulogne which was already under assault from the German Second Panzer Division. It was against this background that standing patrols were launched from airfields in Kent and Surrey to interdict the Luftwaffe operations then supporting the Panzer assault.

Tuck opened his score with three conclusive and witnessed victories against the Luftwaffe with three Messerschmitt Bf 109s downed on 23rd May followed by two Dornier bombers the next day.

The Spitfire had first met the German fighter some 10 days before so both sides were still feeling their way in the development of fighter tactics. Unlike, Fighter Command, however, many German pilots had the advantage of previous service the Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. That lack of experience did not seem to affect Tuck’s fighting spirit.

Tuck’s career literally took off. Not only was he the first Spitfire ace but he had rapidly moved up the promotion ladder within No 92 Squadron, taking over as the senior flight commander and then assuming command when Squadron Leader  Phillip Sanders  was reported missing. Tuck was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 11 June.

Fighter Command’s commander-in-chief, Air Chief Marshal Dowding saw Tuck’s potential and promoted him to acting Squadron Leader and gave him a Hurricane squadron at RAF Coltishall in Norfolk to command. Despite being shot down and imprisoned in German-occupied Poland, Tuck finished the war with 27 enemy aircraft destroyed. After a brief spell in the post-war Royal Air Force, he left the service and became a mushroom farmer.

Paul Beaver in Spitfire sep14Paul Beaver is an aviation historian and pilot who will be speaking on “Dunkirk – the misunderstood triumph of Air Power” at the Chalke Valley History Festival on Sunday, 28th June 2015. His latest book, “Spitfire People”, the result of a talk at Chalke Valley last year, goes on sale from 18th June.

The Cockleshell Heroes And The Most Courageous Raid of WW2

Recording from Paddy Ashdown’s talk at CVHF on Tuesday, 25th June 2013.

This is the story of the remarkable canoe raid on German ships in Bordeaux harbour told by a man who himself served in the Special Boat Squadron. The plan was a suicidally daring one: to drop twelve Commandos at the mouth of the Gironde River and for them to paddle ‘cockleshell’ canoes right into Bordeaux harbour. There they were to sink the enemy ships at anchor. To do this they would have to survive terrifying tidal races, the heavily defended port, and then escape across the Pyrenees. In this compelling talk, Paddy Ashdown reveals some devastating new research that serves only to make the achievements of the ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ all the more remarkable.

STALINGRAD: Hunting the Reality of War

Recording from Antony Beevor’s CVHF talk on Thursday, 27th June 2013.

Antony Beevor’s monumental book, Stalingrad, has been one of the most read and highly praised accounts of the Second World War to have been written in the past twenty-five years. It was also the book that ignited our fascination with the war anew, published, as it was, nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and drawing on previously unseen Russian archives. It was these archives, barely examined by historians, that revealed the depths of the brutality, depravations and horror of one of the most terrible battles in history. In this talk, Antony Beevor discusses this important turning-point in the war, his own search to unlock the truth about that terrible battle, and shares some of the heart-breaking stories he discovered and the lengths he went to in order to foil the guards watching over him in the Moscow archives.