At the end of June, I made the pilgrimage down to Wiltshire to catch the final few days of the week long Chalke Valley History Festival. Having visited the show for the first time last year, I was very keen to see what the CVHF Team had planned for 2015 and I certainly was not left disappointed. Packed full of living history re-enactments, fly-bys and talks from leading historians and also veterans, it was another terrific event from the word go.
After a very early start and long drive, I just about had enough time on arrival to get my tickets before having to hurry over to the Waterloo Tent for the first talk, one which I had been very keen to attend. With 2015 marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, James Holland had fittingly organised for former Hurricane pilot and fighter ace, Tom Neil to speak to us about his experiences during this pivotal period of British history. I will do another full and separate post on this moving talk, as safe to say listening to Tom speak that it truly made you appreciate the extraordinary actions and braveness of these young pilots who were chucked piecemeal into the fray day after day to protect Britain from Goering’s marauding Luftwaffe bombers.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. Sir Winston Churchill, August 1940. (Photo taken by Cecil Beaton, September 1940)
The air-show and fly pasts were again a terrific experience. First up was a firm favourite, the Hawker Hurricane. Robust, maneuverable and capable of speeds in excess of 300 mph, it elegantly whirled through the Wiltshire skies high above the gathered crowds of admiring onlookers, even doing a few victory rolls to top off an excellent display.
Designed by Sydney Camm and flown for the first time in November 1935, the Hawker Hurricane entered RAF service in December 1937 with No. 111 Fighter Squadron receiving the first batch just before Christmas. The Mk I with its armament of 8 machine guns and Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was arguably the RAF’s primary fighter plane during the Battle of Britain and it is estimated that its pilots accounted for four fifths of all enemy aircraft destroyed during these months.
Following the impressive Hawker Hurricane display, I met up with top aviation historian and CVHF’s aerial commentator, Paul Beaver. Full of amazing facts about the planes participating in the day’s airshow, Paul was kind enough to show me around the commentary box and also introduce me to one of his special guests, former Blenheim pilot and WW2 veteran Bill Neilson.
We then listened to Victoria Panton Bacon talk about ‘Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer.’ It was a fascinating tale about her grandfather’s experiences flying a Bristol Blenheim during the Battle for France in the summer of 1940. She also discussed her campaign for further action and recognition for those that perished when the Lancastria liner was tragically sunk in 1940. This is something I am hoping to discuss further with Victoria in due course, so stay tuned for more on this!
We were then given a real treat in the form of a beautiful and rare Bristol Blenheim. This particular short-nosed model actually has a road tax disc in the cockpit, because the nose of this aeroplane was originally chopped off and converted into a car before eventually being reverted back.
Originally designed as a high speed transport plane, the twin-engine Bristol Blenheim was adopted by the Air Ministry as a light bomber with the first models arriving with No. 114 Squadron in March 1937. Powered by two Bristol Mercury engines the Blenheim had a top speed of just over 250 mph, a range of around 1400 miles and an estimate ceiling of 27,000 ft. Capable of carrying a normal bomb load of 1000 lbs, it saw widespread service in many different theatres during the war, including in the Middle East, over Germany, Norway, France, Crete, Greece and North Africa.
A new feature at the show this year was the ‘Pop-up History’ stands. I went to quite a few of these mini & informal talks throughout the day which I thoroughly enjoyed. Two of my favourite had to be James Holland talking about the history of the Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft as well the talk by Mike Peters and Captain Graham Goodey on Sicily 1943. The passion that these chaps have for their subject area is great to see and it was certainly infectious for the crowds that had gathered around to listen.
But the day was not just about listening to historical talks, there was a variety of WWII-related encampments and exhibits to explore including an Anderson Shelter, the British Under-Ground Resistance Army display tents and a US Army encampment.
However there was one exhibit that I thought deserves special mention, ‘The Last of the Few’ by artist Anna Redwood was a real treat and a moving tribute to those that had fought in the Battle of the Britain.
Pictured above, the exhibit showed the portraits of six of the RAF Fighter Command’s last surviving veteran pilots as well as explained a little bit about the Battle of Britain. The portraits are of Wing Commander Paul Farnes (DFM), Squadron Leader Keith Lawrence (DFC), Wing Commander Tom Neil (DFC, AFC), Squadron Leader Tony Pickering, Squadron Leader Geoff Wellum (DFC) and Flying Officer Ken Wilkinson.
There was certainly a WWII related theme running through the event and decor this year, for there was a whole host of war-time period vehicles and weaponry on display as well as a number of living history and re-enactment groups. Such as these top chaps below…
People were able to get up close and personal with two of Britain’s most beloved and iconic fighter planes, the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane. You could even clamber aboard and into the cockpit of this replica Spitfire…suffice it to say I did not need to be asked twice!
There were also a few anti-aircraft guns (including a Bofor AA Gun), American and British armour in the forms of an M4 Sherman, Half-tracks, trucks, jeeps and a Universal Carrier as well as a British 17 Pounder anti-tank gun which was even fired a few times during the afternoon.
Having recently spoken with Captain David Render about his experiences as a Tank Commander in the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry during the Second World War, I was dying to get a closer look at the Sherman that was on display at the show. It was absolutely amazing to get up close with this fully restored M4 Sherman and see this incredible piece of Allied armour in action in the flesh. Its speed and agility were evident as it raced and manoeuvred around the fields.
This petrol model, affectionately nicknamed Lily Marlene by Jim Clark the owner and restorer was acquired in 1999 and following some serious repairs having previously been used by the military as target practice on the Salisbury plain. Unfortunately speaking with a couple of the guys connected with the vehicle, they were unable to identify its history or service record owing to that fact that the identity ‘T’ numbers which had been painted on (unlike the American’s which were cast on) had been blown off.
Unfortunately the American C-47 Dakota that was due to be the final plane on display at the CVHF Airshow that day was unable to make it owing to engine damage incurred during one of the BOB Memorial Flights. So another later model of the Hawker Hurricane stepped into the breech to fill the void and it certainly did not disappoint.
The day was capped off nicely with the final pop-up history talk of the afternoon. Serving Captain Graham Goodey & battlefield guide Mike Peters having recently returned from visiting the island of Sicily and having walked the terrain, provided a fascinating examination of the Allied campaign in Sicily in 1943.
All in all it was a terrific day out. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and it was great to meet up with quite a few top history tweeters in the form of James Holland, Paul Beaver, Mike Peters, Jo Hook and Dr Peter Caddick-Adams.
I am already planning for next year’s visit…roll on 2016! I cannot wait to see what the CVHF team have lined up for us, it would be great to hear the likes of battlefield guides and historians Paul Reed, Rob Schafer and Professor Peter Doyle doing a ‘Pop-up’ history talk on their respective fields which I think would be fascinating to listen too. But we shall have to wait and see…
There was one lesson though I clearly had not learnt from last year’s event, which was do not forget the sun cream! In my haste to get down in time for the first talk, I forgot it for the 2nd year running and by the end of the day I resembled a lobster. Even this did not put a dampener on the day’s events!
Anyhow on that note, I will leave you with this image, a personal favourite of mine from the day and an absolutely magnificent aircraft to behold….