This interview was conducted by Ian Bayley of Sabrestorm Publishing. The new book from John Leete can be purchased from online retailers and bookshops.
I was delighted to catch up with historian and author John Leete who has just published his latest book “World War Two New Forest Discovered” and gave me the time to talk about his latest book.
Thank you John for your time today. Can you provide an overview of “World War Two New Forest Discovered”?
This new book is based,to some degree on my previous title “The New Forest at War” but goes a little further. The original book was first published in 2004, but I’ve since had the opportunity of working with the New Forest National Park Authority on the “The Wartime Memories Project”.
As a result of that, there’s a lot more information coming out about the wartime forest. New sites are being discovered and investigated and I thought, Well, I can use that information and put it into a book with the permission of the National Park Authority. I spent quite a bit of time researching these new sites and visiting them as a result of the survey in the forest.
I think they discovered over 500 sites that they hadn’t appreciated were actually still in existence under the ground. So I developed a further storyline and in doing so, that led on to more information, more opportunities to speak to people that I hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to before. And I realised that there was potential for a new book.
A lot of interviews, as I say, a lot of research in the forest itself and combining the information that I already had on file that I gained from writing the “New Forest at War” book. ‘World War Two New Forest Discovered’ was the obvious outcome of that exercise.
And how does your new book differ from the original ‘New Forest at War’ because they kind of complement each other don’t they?
Yes, they do. But as I say, there’s a lot more information about the new sites that have been discovered and it adds new depth really to the story of the forest. I think one has a perception of the forest during the war as being the site of airfields and camps, which is true.
But there was a lot more of an infrastructure there which has been discovered in recent years. So we’ve built on the original story and added to that, details of the new sites, the history of those sites, the people that were there on those sites. And in a lot of cases, we’ve managed to obtain photographs of the original sites as well as photographs of the sites as they are now with, for example, remaining pillboxes, some foundations of buildings and so forth.
So it’s added a new chapter in the whole story. It’s built on and evolved over the years, and we’ve captured that and put it into the book.
We’ve added a reference section and we’ve identified other sites that are worth exploring. We’ve also identified those that were on private land and advised accordingly. But a lot of those sites are still on public land and easily accessible. We’ve also added to that sites in Hampshire adding a whole reference section identifying sites across the county that will be of interest to the reader.
Presumably, since your first book on the New Forest came out, locations are being discovered all the time, where structures were?
Yes. Very much so. And as a result of the survey that was carried out as part of the Wartime Memories Project, we have a lot more detail.
As I mentioned before, over 500 sites have been discovered. Some have been excavated, most have been marked and logged. And using those we’ve been able to develop a better picture of what the forest was like during the war. In fact, there was more infrastructure than we actually realise.
How did you go about researching the book? Was it a different process to how you worked on the previous title?
I obviously had a lot of existing contacts that I could go back and speak to. And as I said before, looking at the new sites, I was meeting new people, found out more from them, got more of the history of the sites.
So I was building on existing contacts and effectively going into new areas, new avenues really, and learning myself and understanding more about those sites, the people that were there. And so there were different elements of research, going back to the Hampshire Resources Centre in Winchester, going to various museums across the forest and across Hampshire, and just really, if you like, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
And one of the lovely features of the book is the number of photographs in there, especially in the reference sections at the back. You’ve got quite a lot of additional photographs, and that was through your contacts as well?
Yes. I mean, one very good contact in the forest, Marc Heighway, was good enough to go out and take a lot of ‘now’ photographs of those sites that we’ve written about in the book and that brings it very much to life. There are other sites where buildings were requisitioned during the war and then were returned to their owners and are now in private hands. I wrote to the owners of the properties and they sent photographs and that was quite an easy process. And in fact, some of the owners of the buildings, particularly one site in Romsey that was used as a rest home by the American pilots and crew, that process reignited their interest in the wartime history of the building. So it was very interesting from both sides.
Did you did you discover any kind of unexpected challenges or discoveries while researching and writing the book?
Not really, because I think sometimes when you talk history to people, even those that perhaps haven’t been interested in it before, but it’s relevant to where they live, where they work, it does spark their interest. And so they tend to get involved and they tend to tell you a little bit about their family history, a little bit about the area or a little bit more about the area that you didn’t know before.
Having been through the whole process of research before, I just kind of reset, reconnected with that and found it very, very straightforward. There are no particular challenges other than waiting for people to send me photographs that had been promised and then having to chase them up. But by and large, people were very, very cooperative and very, very helpful.
I suppose your expertise and knowledge has evolved since your first book, learning new things about the New Forest?
Very much so. I mean, I didn’t realise when I wrote the first book just how important my area was, the infrastructure itself. We’ve learnt a lot more about it and about the sites.
As I said before, the discovery of emplacements and the highways is fascinating and you put it together like a jigsaw and you understand how much resource went into the forest as opposed to other parts of the country.
We hear about other parts of the country contributing to the build up to D-Day for example. And then you say, well, that was a massive effort, but then you compare that to the forest and you realise actually the forest was an even greater resource for the military. And the amount of people that were involved in bringing that resource to the area is quite staggering.
This is now your second book on the New Forest and I think it’s fair to say that the two books together form probably, one of the greater authorities on the New Forest. How did you become that expert on this area?
I don’t know that I’m an expert and I just found it fascinating. And the reason I found it fascinating was because I spent a lot of time working in the forest when I had a day job. And I was just very interested by these lumps of concrete which suddenly appear on the side of the road.
And I contrasted that with some other areas of the county, and I started to make inquiries. Why is that there? What is that? And they say, well, in the war this was used for…
Really, really interesting. Some people are coming into the forest for leisure purposes and for holidays. Do they actually realise that the campsite that they’re on was actually an airfield?
And it was this contrast between the peace of the forest and the leisure activities in the forest and the visitors coming into the forest. The visitors during the war were there for a different reason, and that contrast fascinated me.
But I think my interest goes further back when as a child we used to go to the new forest for holidays and on the beaches were these big concrete blocks and I couldn’t understand what they were doing there and carved on the side of a lot of these blocks were the names of people and badges. I couldn’t understand it. My father explained what they were doing, so I forgot about that. But then years later, I was working in the forest, I just spent my weekends, many, many weekends in the forest exploring these sites because I had tried to find more information.
I had tried to find a book about these sites during the war, and there’s nothing there. And I thought, well, if I’m interested, there must be a lot of other people who are interested. And so I started making copious notes about my visits to different sites and what I learned about them. And I think in the very early days I put a letter into several of the local papers saying, I’m very interested in this and this and this, and people would write to me and say, well, during the war my father was stationed there and would tell me about it.
As a journalist I collated all this information and realised there was a hell of a lot going on and that eventually evolved into writing a manuscript for a book.
Presumably a lot of those concrete blocks you saw as a as a youngster are still there today?
Some are, many have gone. And over the years a lot of the sites have been returned to agricultural land and some of the control towers have been demolished. The water towers have been demolished. And I think in hindsight, some of the people responsible regret actually demolishing this and demolishing that and taking up the runways. But it is what it is. But at least we memorialised much of the forest at war. And the interesting thing is, of course, that when I was researching the first book, ‘The New Forest at War’, I was actually speaking to people who were there. The people that knew the airmen, knew the servicemen and knew the contractors. And I met some of the evacuees that came into the area. So they had firsthand knowledge. And I was absolutely privileged to be able to take up that knowledge and record it.
You can still see bits of runway and even if you can’t see the runway, you can certainly see the imprints. And if you fly over the area, you get a very, very good idea as to the size of the airfields themselves. I mean, they were huge, 12 airfields. The 20,000 contractors were from Ireland, Pakistan, India, all over the world. So it was a massive exercise for a very small geographical area.
So who do you think will want to buy World War Two New Forest Discovered?
I think people that live in the forest, visitors to the forest people who have an interest in wartime Britain and the home front, historians generally who would like
to know more about the country at war, and those who are just curious. It has quite a wide appeal.
People visit the forest, perhaps whether they’re day-trippers or visitors staying over, and seeing a pillbox they’ll ask themselves, What is that? What is that about? I want to know more.
And I think in terms of what should they get from the book? Hopefully a better understanding of that history, the nation’s history, a better understanding about the generation that lived through the war, and just a better understanding of how life was in an area where they’ve gone for work or for recreation.
What would you like readers to take away after reading the book?
I’ve never thought about that. Probably a better understanding. As I said before, I think a better understanding of our history and a better understanding of the people that were there at the time and just a much more rounded view of the forest and indeed of Hampshire.
And if they still have family that were there or they have family that served during the war, a better understanding of what they did as family members, I think that’s very important.
If there are people with relatives who have written something down about their experiences in the forest, I’m sure you’d still be interested to hear from them?
Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. I’m always learning and I’m always interested in finding out more and I’m always interested in and talking to people that would like to share that information with me.
Thank you John for your time today. It’s a fascinating book and I’m sure it will be a great success.