Interview with John Leete: Author of The New Forest at War
Author and journalist John Leete has been fascinated by life on the home front during the Second World War from an early age. He has authored several history books including two on the New Forest during WW2. He took some time out recently to chat to me about the background to his research into our local wartime heritage.
1) How did you get interested in wartime history, and how did this lead to you becoming an author?
As a child in post war years, I used to make regular visits to my grandparents. They lived in the East End of London. The area still bore the scars of war. I played with local children on bomb sites, cleared of most rubble, but there were still signs of what existed before the Blitz. We used to go salvaging. From local people and from what we found on the bomb sites we managed to collect many items including helmets and gasmasks.
I took some bits and pieces home with me, the start of a small museum in my bedroom.
On a holiday visit to Milford on Sea before I reached my teens, we spent the days walking the footpaths along the cliffs, with one walk taking us to Taddiford Gap. I was fascinated by the huge blocks of concrete positioned along a section of the cliff. Inscriptions (names of soldiers and unit badges) had been carved into several blocks.
My Dad explained that these blocks were Tank Traps and they had been used during the war in case the Germans tried to invade and then move vehicles inland. The pillbox positioned above the Gap would fire on the enemy until reinforcements arrived to halt the advance. My Dad was in the Guards Armoured Division during WW2. He had told me stories about Tanks so at age 12, I was able to understand their role and how dangerous they were.
My interest in life on the home front was rekindled in the late 1990’s when my work as a Journalist led to an assignment in and around the New Forest. During lunchtime walks I familiarised myself with several sites that I knew had once been used for the business of war. Calshot, Stoney Cross and Ashley Ranges were of particular interest. I was keen to learn more.
Although I bought a couple of books written by local Historians, there was no comprehensive account of the Forests role and contribution to the war effort. It was only by talking to local people that I became increasingly aware of the extent to which the Armed Forces had transformed the area into a vast military complex. A friend of mine in publishing suggested I write a book, I thought he was joking, but after several conversations and several pints of beer, I agreed to give the offer consideration.
Subsequent visits to the Verderers Court in Lyndhurst, Lymington Library and the archives at Beaulieu proved valuable in terms of sourcing copies of 1940s dated documents each of which gave an insight into the wartime New Forest. I also spent time at the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester. This proved worthwhile given the amount of almost untouched documentation that was available.
I agreed with my publisher pal to explore more and if I had enough newly researched material within 12 months, we could discuss the book offer again. However, it was not to be that simple! I had an accident which resulted in hospitalisation and major operations. This interesting situation took me out of the picture for some time. Writing a book was not high on my list of priorities when I returned home and then finally edged back in to work after months of convalescence.
I eventually dusted off the keyboard and switched the computer on, one dreary Saturday afternoon and by the end of that day I had managed to write over 3000 words for the book. The finished manuscript was ready during late 2002/early 2003 with the required number of words and a selection of previously unpublished photographs on file.
During my book writing endeavours I have made many contacts and had met many interesting people whose anecdotes are valuable contributions to my knowledge, and to the history of our country during WW2.
I made a DVD documentary based on the manuscript not least because I wanted to ensure that some anecdotes at least were recorded and filmed live for posterity. The DVD was used by ITV/Colonial Pictures as the basis for a series called Summer of ’44 which was screened in six parts during June 2004, the 60thAnniversary of D-Day.
The New Forest at War first edition was published in 2004 and the updated version is still available today.
The National Park Authority invited me to be a Stakeholder in the New Forest Remembers project and from that I have been able to secure much new information about the role of the area during WW2.
2) You uncovered so many interesting and previously undocumented stories and recollections during your research. Of all of them, which was the most intriguing and satisfying to find out about and why?
That is an interesting question. Much of my research has been conducted by face-to-face interviews with Veterans. I have had the good fortune to meet some wonderful people all of whom shared their wartime experiences. Their anecdotes have been variously inspiring, emotional, hilarious, thought provoking and humbling. Occasionally their stories have prompted archival research to secure either photographs or additional information.
Some years ago, I interviewed a former Officer of the National Fire Service. In conversation he mentioned that in 1943 he worked alongside Canadian firemen who had volunteered to serve in England. My subsequent archival research revealed little about these volunteers and so via the Canadian Embassy in London, I was able to make contact with an Historian for that nations Fire Service. Several phone conversations and emails later and a visit to Canadian Archives produced a wealth of information, leads to former volunteer firefighters and their families and the gift of original albums containing photographs of wartime England taken by an official photographer assigned to work alongside the volunteers.
The story of the Corps of Canadian Firefighters and their service in Bristol, Plymouth. London, Portsmouth, and Plymouth 1942 – 1945 continues to fascinate me not least because I had the privilege of spending time with former Canadian Firefighter, Jack Coulter whose recorded and filmed memories of his time in England are among my most treasured historical possessions.
3) This period in history is very emotive to people, and as we both know, holds a fascination for so many people locally. Why do you think this is?
History is a mechanism for giving depth to our lives in a world that to many appears shallow and insincere. Good History documentaries and factual Films about past generations and ‘The Way We Were’ give viewers a glimpse of a time when there was a tangible community spirit and when people ‘looked out’ for each other more so than perhaps we experience now. When trust and loyalty were cornerstones of our society.
Basic human nature requires the need for purpose, and we learn from WW2 history that the people and the nation had common purpose. It was about Survival and Victory. In post war years and more so in the 21st century the nation has become less cohesive and society is fragmented. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people consider that there is less of a sense of belonging and security in society.
So, what is the fascination with a period in our history when we were at war?
From what I see and hear, I believe that the successful campaigns to encourage people to explore their family history, in tandem with the annual Poppy Appeal which continues to raise awareness of the service of our Armed Forces in past (and present conflicts) has ignited an otherwise latent desire to understand why those who experienced war are collective known as The Greatest Generation.
WW2 as a subject continues to be used as a theme for TV and Film productions, Books and DVD’s. Specifically, the food, fashion, dance and films of the period have been the basis for the emergence of a 1940s lifestyle beloved by living history re-enactors, educationalists, historic visitor destinations such as Eden Camp in Yorkshire and Museums such as IWM Duxford.
Nick Berryman, a former Spitfire pilot based for a while at RAF Ibsley in one of our frequent conversations used the words ‘camaraderie’ and ‘a sense of belonging’ many times when telling me about a day in the life of a pilot on the front line. Within the world of 1940s history there is certainly rapport and indeed camaraderie.
Perhaps that’s what’s missing in today’s society.
4) You mentioned your face-to-face interviews with veterans and people with experiences or stories to tell. I imagine the numbers of people ranges into the hundreds – of all of those, which people have been the most interesting to interview and why – either because of their character, stories, achievements, or otherwise?
Where to begin that is the question?
Yes, I have been honoured to interview many Veterans and others about their experiences of living through WW2 at home and in service overseas. They were all amazing individuals, the Pilots, the Soldiers, the Firemen, the Ambulance Drivers, the Engineers, the Entertainers. Each, and every one, adding their piece to the jigsaw that makes up the history of our country.
Home Front stories include those of Nick the pilot who when taking a Spitfire up for the first time made a slight error of judgement and flew upside down over the town of Bournemouth at below 200 feet, scaring people below, and Jimmy who witnessed a horrific crash at Needs Oar when the propeller of a Typhoon aircraft caught the ground just before take-off, causing the aircraft to spin out of control then to be struck by a following aircraft, resulting in an inferno.
Cyril the Fire Captain who was attending a fire in London when buildings in Queen Victoria Street collapsed on a number of firemen and vehicles and Bill the Home Guardsman whose training sessions included filling empty tins with gravel which would then be thrown at a lightly armoured car standing in for an enemy Tank.
There was the Royal Engineer who had many tasks including removing time expired explosives under airfield runways and refilling the pipes with new material and Fred who as a young lad set up a business repairing, and servicing bicycles used by American flyers and crew at an airfield in Hampshire.
Jimmy the Typhon pilot, mentioned above, used to regale me with stories of his aerial exploits before and after the launch of Operation Overlord. Amongst his fellow pilots he became known as the Abbeville Kid for his successful raids over Northern France.
Nick, also mentioned above, spoke about his time flying Walruses in his Air Sea Rescue role and his memories of living and sleeping in damp billets and wearing clothes that were never dry.
All interviews were memorable however, two that are particularly poignant and memorable are those conducted with Joan, an evacuee and Ted a former Fireman. Joan was evacuated from London to Cornwall for the duration of the war. She saw her Mum infrequently and her formative years were spent with the couple in whose home she was given shelter. She made many friends among the local children and other evacuees and her new Mum and Dad did the best they could to make her stay as stable and as comfortable as possible. She was on her own but within an environment that she later said gave her the confidence to ‘deal with anything that life throws at me’.
Her reunion with her mother five years after leaving London was very strange at first, yet she maintained a lasting friendship with her foster Mum and Dad which helped with the transition in her life. It is impossible to understand what it must be like for a mother and child to be parted for any length of time, let alone five years.
Ted the London firemen attended many incidents especially during the Blitz era. One memory he shared with me was when his crew were called to a fire at a London Hospital, following an air raid. There were survivors thankfully. One was a young girl who was waiting on a stretcher to be lifted into an Ambulance. She was according to Ted about seven years of age.
‘My mate and I lifted her up and made our way towards a waiting Ambulance which was helping to transfer survivors to another Hospital. We started chatting to the youngster who was quite cheerful despite what had just happened. I noticed the blanket falling off the stretcher. The girl was laid prone and could not grab it, so we put the stretcher down and I picked up the blanket ready to wrap it back over her. To my utter disbelief, I realised she had one leg missing. I momentarily froze but realised I must not make a fuss or a comment. I quickly replaced the blanket and spluttered a few words about not worrying and getting her to safety as quickly as we could. That incident has stayed with me ever since. I wonder how she got on in later life’.
Both these stories are about bravery and about facing and dealing with challenges. Lessons for us all.
If I had to select one person whose stories of their wartime service left me amazed and overwhelmed, it would be Captain Jerry Roberts MBE one of the foremost WW2 code breakers based at Bletchley Park. His work included breaking Hitlers personal codes. I knew him from my involvement with Bletchley Park. He was a person of great integrity who earned my respect from our first meeting.
Early in the Second World War, his tutor at University College London, Prof. Leonard Willoughby, who had worked during the First World War in Room 40, the main cipher-breaking unit of that time, recommended the twenty-year-old Roberts as a German linguist to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park where he was interviewed and accepted by Colonel John Tiltman as a codebreaker and linguist.
Roberts was one of the four founding members of the Testery at Bletchley Park; the other two senior cryptanalysts were Major Denis Oswald and Captain Peter Ericsson, whilst head of the unit, Major Ralph Tester, was a linguist but not cryptanalyst. The Testery was tasked with breaking the Lorenz cipher code, named “Tunny” by the British.
This was the Nazis’ highest-level communications cipher system, which was used for communications between the Germany Army High Command in Berlin and their Army Commands in the field throughout occupied Europe, some of which were signed “Adolf Hitler, Führer”. The cipher was Adolf Hitler’s most secret code system and had 12 wheels against well-known 3 wheel Enigma; it was declassified in 2002, compared with Enigma in the 1970s.
Roberts worked in the Testery until the end of the war, by which time it had grown to nine cryptanalysts, a team of 24 ATS women, and a total staff of 118. Work was organised in three shifts working round the clock. Roberts was one of the three shift-leaders. For the first year, the messages that were broken by hand amounted to 1.5 million pieces. The Newmanry, which became active in July 1943, developed and used machine methods to help speed up one stage — breaking of the chi-wheels but the psi-wheels and motor-wheels were still broken by hand in the Testery. From mid-1943 onwards, the Testery is credited with breaking over 90% of Lorenz traffic.
Tens of thousands of Lorenz messages were intercepted by the British and broken at Bletchley Park by Roberts and his fellow codebreakers in the Testery. These messages contained much vital insight into top-level German thinking and planning. Tunny provided vital information that changed the course of the war in Europe and saved tens of millions of lives at critical junctures. On one occasion over lunch at his home he was very matter of fact when he told me about the time, he broke Hitlers personal code. To him it was exciting, but just another day at the office.
Post war Jerry was a member of the War Crimes Investigation Unit. I am sure that for every story Jerry told me there were several more stories that went untold.
5) When recording stories from people you interview, do you ever have to revert to your journalism background and make sure that everything you are told can be verified? Is that important in your line of work when documenting WW2 history? Have there been examples where you think a story has been too fanciful to include?
There is a limit, time wise and practically as to how far one goes in fact checking. Even the usual reliable sources such as Museums and national archives often throw up discrepancies in the information they hold when matched against verified personal accounts. My template has always been to check the contents of interviews when possible with one known source and one independent source.
For example, a story I was told about the crash of a Junkers in April 1944 close to Exbury, was cross referenced with the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz and the Hampshire Record Office. I was also able to trace one of the two pilots of the RAF who was scrambled when the aircraft was first sighted off the Isle of Wight. Story confirmed however, to this day the mystery remains as to why, the aircraft was flying low over the coast, making no attempt to attack.
Not all stories and anecdotes can be corroborated and their use for publication may subsequently be decided on nothing more than the balance of probabilities. Including material in a book on this basis, can be covered with a caveat such as ‘All information is correct at time of publication. Any notified amendments will be made in a subsequent edition of this title’.
Documenting WW2 History and placing it in the public domain is challenging because those consuming such information place much trust in accuracy whereas it’s arguably its widely held that you can’t believe everything you read in the papers. Some of the more colourful stories I have been told, include enemy parachutists hiding in a barn near the coast and then being taken away by submarine. This later translated from a local legend to a Home Guard training exercise. No parachutists and no submarines.
6) The New Forest was home to a range of wartime airfields, buildings, structures, and areas that all played hugely important roles during WW2. If there was one place you would like to have been present at during the period to get a real insight into the time, which place would be it be?
Stoney Cross – station AAF 452 – built as a permanent airfield, has always fascinated me. I have filmed there several times, have met flyers based there during WW2 and during a couple of sunset visits found it to be incredibly atmospheric and poignant. A large site spanning some 900 acres it served both RAF and the USAAF and was known not by location, but simply by station number. A very busy station flying a record number of sorties during Operation Overlord.
7) And similarly, would there have been one wartime meeting, or planning room in the New Forest you would have liked to have been a fly on wall in?
Probably the meeting at Exbury House – known at HMS (His Majestys Stone Frigate Mastodon) – when the creation of a portable harbour, which became known as Mulberry – was discussed.
8) And lastly, I’ve read two of your books about the New Forest during World War 2, but knowing you as I do, I can’t imagine you’re resting on your laurels. What do you have planned currently and are there any projects you are working on right now?
Yes, I am about to begin researching the logistical planning for D-Day in particular the vast effort that was needed to provide storage facilities for supplies, everything from food and fuel to bombs and bullets. Across the south of England some 57 million square feet of space was needed, some of it comprising underground bunkers, tunnels, and disused gravel pits as well as in dense woodland, specially built structures and literally in roadside dumps and fields. A staggering 450.000 tons of ammunition was stored by D-Day for example.
I am also exploring the viability of writing another book about the Home Front.
All photos in the interview supplied by the author John Leete.