Ross and I recently had the pleasure of catching up with – Battlefield Guide & Guild Secretary – Jo Hook to find out what life’s like as a battlefield guide. We discuss how she first got involved in this area, what in particular interests her about the Second World War as well as Operation Market Garden and the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944.
It must have been fascinating growing up with a father that had fought during the Second World War; did he share much about his experiences?
Like most veterans he didn’t share a lot and mostly his stories were about the humorous side of life. My father was an accomplished artist throughout his life and he was eventually seconded from the Beds and Herts (which he loved) to the Royal Engineers and spent most of his war in Egypt drawing maps of the Western Desert. He told me the desert had never been properly mapped before. The Italians, he said, drew the most beautiful maps but all of them were inaccurate. He would often say that, as he had to go deep into the desert, they would come across German soldiers doing exactly the same thing. A “live and let live” policy was adopted and each side carried on doing their own thing. To go that far into the desert I often wonder who he went with and it is something I wish now I had asked him. My father never wanted war and up until he died he believed going to war wasn’t necessarily the solution – he did however believe he had to do his bit for his country and growing up in the East End of London he saw the kindertransport’s coming in from Europe prior to the beginning of the war he knew that there was a definite reason to fight. I once asked him how he felt when war was declared and he told me he was terribly afraid. He had grown up seeing the veterans return from the trenches of the First World War, maimed and unable to get employment and he had seen the bereavement suffered by those whose relatives had not returned and, with only that to go on, nobody knew whether this would be repeated again. He made lifelong friends from his wartime experiences. Although he never went to reunions the firm friends he made remained with him throughout his life. He said once he wished he had done more! My one ambition is to find the maps he drew. It is on my list of “things to do”.
Is this where your interest in history and in particular the Second World War first began?
Mainly yes, my mother also lived throughout the blitz in London’s East End and related her and my grandmother’s experiences. My parents had three girls. Dad, I believe would have preferred his youngest (me) to be a boy and as a bit of tomboy I would avidly watch all the iconic war films of the seventies with my dad. Battle of Britain, Bridge to Far etc. I don’t think my sisters were that interested. The ideal bedtime story would be a story from my father about his life in the army or a story from my mother about life in London during the Blitz. Obviously because my parents were from that era a lot of their friends were also World War 2 veterans. The father of my best friend who lived across the road from me was a Lancaster pilot. Therefore as a child this part of living history was all around me.
Stood by Ivor Rowbery’s grave, reading his final letter at the Oosterbeek CWGC
Did you have any other relatives that fought in the conflict?
Yes both my uncles on my father’s side were in the Services. One was in the Navy and the other was in the Royal Signals. My aunt on my mother’s side was an evacuee and was evacuated to the home of the composer who wrote “There’ll Always be an England”. She said by the time she returned to London she was thoroughly sick of hearing the song!
What inspired you to become a Battlefield Guide?
My parents I think. Growing up with this wealth of living history around me made me realise that unless there were people out there (and luckily there are) to tell the stories of these men and women accurately then there was a possibility that a lot of what happened could be forgotten. I think also the magnitude of both the First and Second World War. Unbelievable when you think about it that only just under 80 years ago and still within living memory such things could happen as the holocaust. One of the hardest things as a guide is trying to understand the mindset of the generations who fought in both wars. More so in WW1 what makes people want to enlist right up to 1916 before conscription, knowing that there was a fair possibility of not returning. However, again in WW2 knowing the horror of WW1 men and women still joined up not knowing what the future would hold. The hardship of being separated, the fear of not knowing what the next day would bring.
It is a huge satisfaction to take relatives back to the ground where their ancestors fought and to put them on the spot is the most rewarding thing. You become part of their journey.
Listening to veterans. Some of these men have now passed away but to be able to keep their history alive through their own stories makes me smile (their stories are not all doom and gloom) and hopefully that will ensure that these amazing people are not forgotten.
I find also that I never stop learning. Every day is a school day. All these things and more inspired me and still do today.
Jo receiving her badge from John Hughes Wilson in 2010
I have always been intrigued to know the process of becoming a qualified Battlefield Guide. What sort of training and experience did you have to gain?
I didn’t have any training. I started whilst in the Territorial Army organizing trips to the battlefields. As such, I had to do the research, the tour manager bit everything that a trip like this entails. Eventually I managed to get a job as a guide through the Company I had used to organize my military trips. I put in an awful lot of unpaid hours in learning the battlefields on my own. Through previous clients and recommendations I began to build up my “battlefield guiding profile”. Through word of mouth from other guides I was recommended to various companies. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to build up a decent profile – it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a job that not only encompasses the historical, technological and geographical detail you also have to be a people person. A lot of guides take on the whole business of guiding including tour managing, navigating, ensuring dietary requirements are met, all the little elements that make it a hopefully unforgettable experience for the client. If you are on a battlefield with clients and something goes wrong you have to be prepared to be able to deal with it.
You have to pitch your historical knowledge to the level of your audience which is not always an easy thing to do and understand that the tour you provide is what the client wants and not necessarily where you want to go. You have to be prepared to accommodate clients who want to visit specific sites and ensure that this does not have a detrimental impact on other clients. There is a lot more to battlefield guiding than initially meets the eye and I would advise anyone who wants to follow this route not to look at it through “rose coloured glasses” but to think about the bigger picture, be prepared to put in a lot of hard work and research and understand that it doesn’t happen overnight.
I am lucky to be successful today in that I work for a number of different UK and Australian battlefield tour companies as well as doing free lance work of my own. The WW1 centenary has helped in that battlefield guiding is now quite a high profile business compared to what it was six or seven years ago. As a female guide I have been told that this is a unique selling point. I would agree and disagree. I think sometimes as a female and especially as an Arnhem guide you have to really know what you are talking about and be prepared to back up what you say with solid and accurate references. I am also a member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.
Most of all you need passion, enthusiasm and empathy. If I won the lottery tomorrow I wouldn’t stop guiding but possibly (depending on how much I won) I would do it for free!
Jo in front of the 10th Parachute Battalion memorial
Having been trekking the battlefields since 2006, you must have met some incredible people along the way, including a host of veterans from the conflict itself. I know you have worked closely with the Normandy Veterans Association as well as with Arnhem veterans, which must have been a real honour.
It was a real privilege. Sadly these men and women are passing away very quickly, week by week. Just recently we lost Tony Hibbert who fought at the bridge at Arnhem and over the past couple of years I have lost some very good friends who were in 10th Parachute Battalion. The Normandy Veterans as well are sadly fading fast. I think with all the commemorations surrounding the First World War this has been pushed out of the limelight which is sad because before we know it they will all be gone and we will be regretting not soaking up their history more than we should have done.
Talking to Tony Hibbert at Brummen where he escaped after being taken POW at the bridge.
However, all, I think, is not lost. I have a lot of friends who live in Holland, some of whom were growing up when the Arnhem battle took place. I recently had the chance to interview Sophie Ter Horst, Kate Ter Horst’s daughter which was extremely interesting and, although she was a child at the time, she is still part of the living history of that important era. It is also important to tell both sides of a story – those that fought and those that lived through it. All of them were, in some way, touched by the events of more than 70 years ago.
Jo interviewing Sophie Ter Horst daughter of Kate Ter Horst Angel of Arnhem.
Is there a particular WW2 place, period or site that holds any personal connection or significance to you more than others?
I would say Arnhem. It was the first battlefield I really studied in depth. Originally I didn’t want to study it but as I lived in Germany at the time the company I was working for needed a guide who could take German based military groups. I spent every weekend walking the battlefield, reading and learning and it gripped me and still does. It is a battle of what if’s. Right down to the last what if – which is what if the Allies had defeated the Germans at Arnhem? It is a great battlefield to relate the story to, for example, a military group and then ask them what they would have done. It is a battlefield (even if you do the whole of Market Garden including XXX Corps) where the ground is easily covered. It was a battle where journalists such as Stanley Maxted was embedded with the troops. To stand in the Oosterbeek Perimeter not far from the very spot Stanley Maxted related his narrative regarding resupply and play that clip is extremely emotive.
Having said all that each battlefield I guide has its own uniqueness, its own stories of courage, humour and extraordinary endurance. So I enjoy every battlefield I guide.
Having actually served on operations in Bosnia with the British Army yourself, do you feel that this has given you an enhanced understanding and perspective of what these veterans actually experienced and had to go through?
Of course it has. I have also had the opportunity of being on both sides of the fence. Being on operations myself and also waiting for a loved one to come home from operations. I think we quite often forget those who carry on with their everyday mundane duties always living in fear of a knock at the door or a hand delivered telegram.
Having served on operations I think it has helped me to understand what life is like in some (not all) situations. British service men and women have a unique skill, to moan a lot but at the end of the day they get the job done with a stoicism that I think is a particularly British trait and very unique to our nation. The one thing I would say however, is I remember when I went to Bosnia, I knew at the end of seven months I would hopefully be going home intact. My father once said to me the one thing about the Second World War was “we just didn’t know when it would end”. I think that is something we don’t (luckily) have to contend with today and hopefully never will.
You have also obviously tried to give a lot back by doing things such as the 2010 Help for Heroes Bridge Too Far Bike Ride, what motivates you and drives this incredible passion?
Soldiers, their black sense of humour, the ability to get things done, the sacrificial acts they do that earn them Victoria crosses, the little stories equally worthy of a Victoria Cross but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. As a guide I believe I have to give a lot of information out, historical, technological, geographical and personal. Throughout all this technology changes, as does the geography in some cases – soldiers however don’t change. They are still the same today as they were in 1914 or 1939.
There has only been one year, 1968 when a British serviceman or woman hasn’t been killed on some kind of operation or another.
Their stories are part of our history, our nation and in some cases what makes us who we are today and I don’t believe that should ever be forgotten. If, in some way, I can pass that on to future generations then hopefully I have done my bit to ensure that their history remains alive.
The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum
Having walked the battlefield at Arnhem as well as heavily researched the events of Operation Market Garden, how big an influence did the battlefield itself have on the eventual outcome of the Operation and also on the Battle of Arnhem?
Operation Market Garden had a huge influence on the eventual outcome of things at Arnhem. For a start the British XXX Corps never got to the bridge at Arnhem despite it being held by the men from the 1st Airborne Division (not only paratroopers but Signallers, Engineers and men from the Glider Pilot Regiment). Who knows what would have happened had they made it and had the bridge been in tact. I don’t necessarily think the war would have ended before Christmas 1944 but had they made it it would undoubtedly have saved lives. In addition the Germans evacuated the whole of Arnhem and in an effort to punish the Dutch for their part in the battle and other attempts at resistance they stopped huge amounts of supplies getting to Holland. As such the Dutch underwent a winter where thousands starved and is still known as the “Honger Winter”. My brother in law who is Dutch was a newborn baby at the time and his grandmother walked something like eleven miles in order to find milk for him. Additionally in Germany people were still being killed in the concentration camps, had the war ended by Christmas as was hoped again possibly lives would have been saved. Operation Market Garden is a battle of what its – what if Urquhart had done this, what if Frost had done that, what if the airborne troops had gone a day later… the list is endless. Having said all that lessons were learned and eventually the British and her allies would be successful in crossing the Rhine.
Given the battlefield’s unique location, being in the heart of a town rather than some remote field, how well preserved has the battlefield been kept for future generations?
You have to look at the British Airborne Battle at Arnhem really as two halves. The fight to take the bridge and hold it and the eventual fight to alleviate those at the bridge before the withdrawal to the perimeter at Oosterbeek. The town of Arnhem itself has changed dramatically, the bridge itself is not the original bridge but the bridge supports are. Where Frost had his headquarters is now a new 1970’s style office block. However the actual layout of the town has not changed a great deal for example the battle of the 2nd South Staffordshires on the Oonderlangs by St Elizabeth’s hospital is very much as it was. The Dutch have been on the whole sympathetic with retaining and also commemorating many of the features whilst having to rebuild their own lives after the war and move forward with the times. For example although St Elizabeth’s Hospital is now apartments it still retains the original façade. Moving along the line of the withdrawal (when it was eventually realised that the bridge was no longer a viable objective and the Germans were effectively outflanking and completely blocking the British) the point where Sgt Baskeyfield was awarded his VC can still be traced.
When in Oosterbeek and on the outlying landing zones and drop zones at Heelsum and Renkum the scenery has hardly changed at all. Standing on the drop zones you can imagine the gliders determinedly flying down to the get to the very corners of the landing zone to make way for the paratroopers with their canopies opening as they descended upon Holland for the first time in four and half years. The scene of the recce ambush is still there and hardly changed. And then you come to the perimeter itself. I always (if possible and dependent upon who my clients are) walk most of the Perimeter. The Tennis Courts (still there) provides the perfect back drop to show the picture of craftsman Roberts and his men. The spot where the iconic photo of Cpl Tierney firing a three inch mortar can still be found if you know where to look. The buildings which provided necessary sanctuary and medical care are still there although now used for different purposes. Kate Ter Horst’s house and the Old Kerk in Oosterbeek are both still there and bear the scars of the battle. Of course the Airborne Museum the building that provided Urquhart with his headquarters is still there. In recent years this has been refurbished and if I am honest I preferred it the way it was – it seemed to breath atmosphere which has now somewhat disappeared. Again if you know where to look the American foxholes can still be found of the men of the 82nd AB Division and the 101st Airborne Division as you move up the corridor. Another fascinating part of the battle is what happened to those who either became POWs or were injured. You can still visit the place where Major Tony Hibbert made good his escape whilst on the way to a POW camp. Apeldoorn was the town where many injured British POWs were treated. To the north of Oosterbeek you can still walk the routes of the famous operations Pegasus 1 and 2 where many men who were offered shelter and sustenance by the brave Dutch people made good their escape in October 44. Operation Pegasus 1 was biggest allied escape attempt of the war. By the time Operation Pegasus 2 was planned unfortunately this had already been compromised by the German army.
2014 saw the 70th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem. It must have been pretty special for you to witness these commemorations?
You are correct 2014 witnessed the commemorations of Arnhem and coincided (as will 2015) with a huge amount of other military commemorations. I really enjoy chatting to the old boys. Most of the true veterans head for Oosterbeek – it’s a time to reminisce, joke, drink beer, and possibly shake each other’s hands for a final time. As I had said these men are fast fading and before very long their stories will be history and no longer living history. If I am at a commemoration I usually just soak up these stories – you may (and I have done) just find a snippet that you can use a story that if you were not a guide would be lost forever. I have one caveat to that however and I am sure most guides would agree with me. Memory is a funny old thing and stories become elaborated or a veteran may think he was in one spot and saw something when all the evidence tells us he couldn’t have been there. You have to be very careful and make sure that what you are going to tell corroborates with the facts. For me the commemorations are about the men who were there and giving them the chance to visit old friends both British and Dutch. My perfect spot in Operation Market Garden as a guide is standing in the perimeter at the spot where Stanley Maxted reported on the BBC vividly relating the colours of the resupply parachutes as they came down in an attempt to help the men trapped in the perimeter. In the background on the recording you can hear the German guns booming away – Maxted’s voice fades and all you hear are the guns booming out around the Perimeter. I haven’t taken one client to Arnhem/Oosterbeek who hasn’t been profoundly moved by that one battlefield stand with its recording
Ross and I recently put together a WW2 related travel wish list for 2015. What places are you planning to visit during the course of this year?
As a guide my time is taken up with just that Guiding so getting to places where personally I would like to go is quite difficult and as the battlefield guiding season gets longer and longer I don’t have much chance to indulge myself. However if I had a year off this would be my wish list.
Egypt where my father fought. Salonika where my grandfather fought. Verdun. Bastogne. Auschwitz – not a battlefield I know. The Channel Islands and the occupation during WW2.
I am at the moment reading a book about a RFA Battery in World War 1. Luckily for me at the back of the book every single place they went to is listed. I hope to this year follow their journey from 1915 to 1918.
Thank you to Jo for talking with us in what I am sure you will agree, has been a fascinating insight into the life of a battlefield guide.
If you wish to find out more about Jo, or any tours she is working on this year, you can follow her on Twitter @JoJohook2003
Ever visited Arnhem?
We would love to hear your views on this incredible place in the comments below