We Have Ways Fest is a three day festival of all things World War II which takes place in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside. Inspired by the popular We Have Ways podcast which is now in its third year and which has a loyal fanbase of historians and history buffs, the festival is a place for like-minded people to gather for a weekend of 'talks, tanks and tankards'.
The grey and drizzly morning started with Eat Lead Fritz!, a look at some of the 'best, worst and most mad missions' of World War II. Three historians regaled the crowd with tales of times the enemy received a good thrashing in some rather bizarre missions, including Saul David talking about Operation Spratt Baker, a little known mission in Sumatra in 1944 which seemed to be a catalogue of embarrassing incidents for the SBS.
Next up was a talk on the Citizen Army, a fascinating and highly intelligent debate on the role and motivations of citizens who volunteered to join armies across DUKE - a new acronym I learned in this talk which is a catchall term - Dominions, United Kingdom, Empire. Historians Johnathon Fennell and Dan Todman had a few good-natured disagreements, clearly part of an ongoing discussion, but most interesting to me was the American perspective, provided by Missouri professor John McManus. An erudite speaker, he swiftly cut through all of the US propaganda and seemed to have a clear perspective on the issues involved.
Iain MacGregor introduced his audience to The Lighthouse of Stalingrad by giving a sense of Stalingrad today - a city dominated by statues and memorials celebrating the surrender of the German army here in January 1943. Evidence of the battle is all around: approximately 300 bodies, both German and Russian, are discovered and re-buried every year - the city is synonymous with the huge sacrifice of so many Russians made in defence of the Motherland.
Using detailed research into previously unseen Russian archives which held the personal letters and testimonies of the 13 Guards Rifle Division defending Stalingrad and accounts by Friedrich Roske, Regimental Commander of the 71st German infantry division, he has been able to piece together a rather more accurate account of “Pavlov’s house”, the so-called Lighthouse of Stalingrad, than is acknowledged by the Russian historians bound to provide accounts that concur with the official diktat. Stalingrad is rightly seen as the pivotal battle of the Great Patriotic War, and the suffering of its people is beyond imagination, but the heroism attributed to one individual, Pavlov, is unwarranted, while the actions of many other courageous soldiers have been unrecognised as the accurate version does not suit the legend and propaganda perpetuated by the Russian state.
The highlight of the day and possibly the festival for many there, was the talk given by Maurice Blik. A survivor of the German concentration camp of Belsen when he was just a young boy, he talked us through the chain of events and his life in the camp which saw the murder of his father, grandmother, younger sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. This frank story, which he told with remarkable composure, was harrowing to listen to, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one wiping away a stray tear as we walked out of the tent into the bright and sunny day which had emerged from the rain. (You can read Maurice Blik's talk here >>)
The festival is not just about the talks and hardware displays, as there is so much more going on. There are stalls selling everything from army surplus to war movie DVDs and magazines from the 1940s. Various museums and organisations have stands with displays of some of their artefacts, such as a fascinating stand about Churchill's Secret Army, the Dunkirk 1940 Museum and writer Dr. Kate Vigurs who had a stand about women in the SOE, where she seemed to be permanently surrounded by people asking questions.
A large part of the festival are the living historians and re-enactors, who are passionate about their roles. For some, it is not just a case of turning out for festivals but the whole historical experience has been incorporated into their lives. The Oxfordshire Home Guard looked just like something out of BBC casting but assured me that they took their membership very seriously, tracking down authentic uniforms and equipment and regularly performing drills. They all felt a great sense of comradeship and were keen to keep the memories of Britain’s Home Guard alive.
Another great enthusiast was the purchaser of a 1944 Austin K2 heavy military ambulance. He had done all the restoration and maintenance himself, separately purchasing stretchers, blankets, medical equipment and painting it the requisite army colours. A rare hobby, but I left feeling grateful that such people existed to preserve both the vehicles and the knowledge of the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWII.
Peter Caddick-Adams was warmly welcomed to the stage. His credentials as a military historian are legendary - he will only go to print when he has walked the ground himself and used his professional experience in the British army to guide him. He gave us a detailed history of Victory in the West, taking as his starting point the German failure at the Battle of the Bulge which severely weakened their resistance to the relentless Allied advance.
He took us through the collapse of the Siegfried Line, the crossing of the Rhine, and the move eastwards, all now made possible by the vast superiority of Allied weapons and the ability of the commanders over the huge front of Western Europe to coordinate attacks. He ended with the dramatic moment at Torgau when West met East as Russian and American soldiers connected for the first time. It was a powerful and dramatic story told with his usual enthusiasm and extensive knowledge, and an appropriate ending to the three days of sometimes unbearably sad, sometimes very funny but always informative and thought-provoking talks given at this year’s Festival.
The festival ended with James Holland and Al Murray taking the stage just after Peter Caddick-Adams had left to enthusiastic applause. Seeming somewhat baffled by the success of the event, they thanked everyone involved in its creation and production, and the tent echoed with vigorous clapping for all who had worked so hard to create such a fun, friendly and fascinating history festival.
The Saturday saw an increase in numbers of visitors, and with a much more diverse crowd, particularly in terms of their attire, as Hawaiian shirts seemed to be the dress code for the day.
My day started with a War Movie Quiz run by the people behind the Fighting on Film podcast. One of the wonderful things about this festival is just how friendly everyone is and I was one of many tables of strangers who joined together for the quiz - we were soon chatting away about our interest in the war and debating the finer points of war movies. We came a very average 37th out of 50 something, but I was able to hold my head up high by knowing at least some answers that the others didn't. It was a fun and entertaining way to start a busy Saturday.
The talk by Alex Richie, Waitman Wade Beorn and Bastiaan Willemstad about Berlin in the last months of the war made for grim listening. The situation for civilians became increasingly desperate. There was a wave of violence as German soldiers, hardened veterans of brutal warfare, came back and interacted with civilians. The SS carried out summary executions on anyone considered to be a deserter. The Allies’ insistence on unconditional surrender left each man with unpalatable options of fighting to the end, committing suicide or facing probable harsh imprisonment and execution in Russia. As the Red Army closed in, and it was known that Stalin encouraged rape as a weapon of war, there was utter misery for women and girls while teenage boys were forcibly drafted into the army and sent to almost certain death in defence of the city. The large audience was understandably subdued on exit.
Katrin Himmler, in conversation with James Holland, came across as a truly amazing woman. As a child she gradually became aware of the notoriety of her great uncle, Heinrich Himmler, his role in the brutality of the Nazi regime and as the architect of the Holocaust. Even worse, she discovered that her own grandfather and other great uncle were also committed Nazis. She has, with tremendous courage, turned her dreadful heritage into the creation of something positive. She now speaks to both school and adult groups about her family’s history to ensure that it is not repeated. Her audience was fully appreciative of her openness, her courage and her integrity and she received lengthy applause.
Historian Sir Max Hastings is a major coup for the festival and he gave his talk on Churchill's Finest Years to a packed marquee. The enthusiastic applause which he received when he ended his talk went on so long it had to be stopped by James Holland, but soon started again after the questions, especially when he was asked his opinions on current prime ministers. Very diplomatically he said that, 'Anyone who compares the enemy to Hitler should not be in power, neither should anyone who compares themselves to Churchill,' subtly making his opinions known to this very politically aware crowd. The queue for him to sign books afterwards was extensive, with some people clutching handfuls of books.
The reason behind the excess of Hawaiian shirts soon became apparent, with a stand set up next to the sleek Citroen Traction Avant which naturally attends the same festivals as James Holland. The charity DKMS were registering and collecting swabs from attendees to add them to a database as potential donors for blood cancer sufferers. It is an illness close to the hearts of the We Have Ways podcasts faithful, as Al Murray's nephew recently died from the illness. The Hawaiian shirts were being worn to raise awareness and provided cheerful colour amongst the khakis and camouflage.
Monty's Men are a group of living historians who are renowned for the strict accuracy with which they re-enact the past. Portraying British infantry they live under one regimental cap badge for a few days, living as soldiers actually did. Here at We Have Ways Fest they have an area amongst the woodland to call home, their bivvy tents lined up against the tall pines. Monty's Men don't just use period equipment, they live off period rations, do regular patrols, keep watch day and night and operate under a full military command structure.
In a talk given by D-Day historian Paul Woodadge, Monty's Men demonstrated the use of a Vickers machine gun to a crowd of enthusiasts. As we watched the soldiers being trained in its use, other soldiers from the unit lounged in the long grass, resting after the exercises they had just taken part in, looking every inch the picture of the British tommy between battles.
The highlight for many visitors was the battlefield re-enactment - a demonstration of how artillery, tanks and infantry coordinate an attack. Firstly, four 25 pounders from the Gunners Artillery Volunteers fired their shells, followed by smoke to obscure the battlefield from the enemy. Secondly, the audience were invited to move to the tank arena to watch an advance by a Sherman tank (described by the presenter as a “big, angry metal box”) and infantry from Monty’s Men equipped with rifles and bayonets.
We watched their steady advance up the slope. The presenter then reminded his audience that a similar scenario had taken place at Hill 112 in Normandy in July 1944 and that 70% of the men had not come back. The applause that followed was only partially for the re-enactors, more poignantly it was for all those men who had fought with such bravery in the war for Britain’s freedom.
James Holland gave a brilliant talk on Dunkirk to a full house. It is easy to see why he is so highly respected as a historian as he kept the entire audience on the edge of their seats for the whole hour, giving a blow by blow account of the single week from 26th May - 2nd June 1944. With a remarkable memory for detailed facts and figures he talked through the events of that week at breakneck speed. Moving swiftly between the action in the air, on the beaches, in the war cabinet and able to recite exact times, dates, figures, names, even the weather at a particular time of day yet without a single note in front of him, it was a masterclass in public speaking.
The day ended with live music and War Movie Gogglebox with James and Al, an entertaining and lively evening for those lucky enough to be camping on site. Day 2 has reinforced the belief that this event is set to expand and grow exponentially. The tents were packed with enthusiasts well before the scheduled speakers arrived and hay bales were put outside for those unable to get a seat. The food stalls had lengthy queues, the merchandise and book shops had regular trade and the re-enactors were surrounded by small groups wanting answers to their many questions.
Day 1 - Friday
The event is situated in the open countryside of Buckinghamshire between Blackpit Lake, the 12th century stock pond for Luffield Abbey, and the Blackpit Brewery. It began with a bang with Al Murray and James Holland, the stars of the podcast, cheerfully doing a circuit of the arena in some American hardware as they saluted the crowds and fired a field gun to welcome them to the site and open the three day festival.
The We Have Ways History Fest is a nostalgic excursion into the military history and hardware of WWII. While it glories in the past it is no supporter of war per se, sensitively changing its name in February from the original “WarFest”, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which brought the reality of war to Europe. Ukrainian flags fly over some of the tents in the very orderly camping area (who would expect anything other than neat rows of tents from war historians) and we spotted a few t-shirts amongst the crowds saying 'The Fighting Farmers 2022, 1st Ukrainian Farmoured Division' and 'F**k you Russian Warship', leaving no-one in any doubt where loyalties lie.
The festival is a mix of historical talks and hardware, with famous historians, veterans and reenactors putting on events and displays to entertain and educate the crowds. Military vehicles are a large part of the festival with regular displays in the arena of some serious tanks and armoured vehicles, the sound of explosions and the waft of smoke permeating the air.
The festival attracts a certain type of individual, and probably about 90% of the attendees are male. Mostly wearing cargo shorts, khaki t-shirts and clutching a pint of real ale, they are a friendly crowd, 'a bunch of nerds' as one of them told me with a sheepish grin. Another said how even though he was camping alone, he had made friends with his neighbours almost immediately, as they brought him a beer and were all talking history within a matter of minutes.
Small crowds spontaneously gathered to discuss the details of a particular battle or talk through the hardware on display and the reenactors seem to be permanently engaged in serious in-depth discussions with people who really know their military history. This is one of the few places where a speaker can say to his audience, 'Of course you all know about the Heydrich assassination,', and the whole audience nods its head in agreement and understanding.
The first talk of the festival was with Jack Mann who served in both the SAS and SBS during World War II. In conversation with historian Paul Beaver and doing their fifth talk together this year, they formed quite the double act, with Jack speaking with much humour about his experiences, clearly feeling more comfortable in front of this audience of like minded people than he had at other more formal history festivals, and laughter filled the air at regular intervals.
Historian Andy Chatterton gave a talk in the new Arsenal Tent about Section 7, the most secretive of agencies during the war, which trained unlikely civilians how to kill and cause massive disruption should the UK ever be invaded by the German forces. Many of the people recruited to Section 7 had only told families of their roles when they were on their deathbeds, leaving their families thinking they were suffering from senility and so it had been a difficult story to research.
In the Briefing Tent Al Murray introduced his Dad, Lt-Col Ingram Murray, who had a distinguished career between 1956 and 1989 and was clearly very knowledgeable about the role of the sappers at Pegasus Bridge in 1944. He spoke to a packed audience, people standing at the back and sides of the tent, themselves clearly enthusiastic and well informed about this critical event.
The operation to take Pegasus Bridge was outlined, the planners using detailed research from holiday postcards sent in by the public and tremendous help from the French Resistance. The vital question was whether it, and also the swing bridge at Ranville, would be strong enough to take the weight of a Sherman tank - assuming that the Germans had not already booby trapped them both. Lt-Col Murray described the landing of the gliders and the successful capture of the bridges, then the rapid building of the eight Bailey bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal, all done under heavy shellfire, to enable the troops breaking out from Sword Beach to advance.
He extolled the virtues of these British designed bridges saying that, when the Americans discovered them, “they thought it was the best thing since Spam”. He paid tribute to the sappers who had done such vital work in 1944 and, thanks to their efforts, by the end of the war the efficiency of their bridging played an important part in the final victory.
In The Arsenal, Giles Milton spoke about Churchill’s Ministry of UnGentlemanly Warfare. He described how the original establishment of Military Intelligence Research eventually led to the formation of the Special Operations Executive. The Special Training School at Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland specialised in training operatives for guerrilla warfare, while an innocent looking house called The Firs near Bletchley Park was the home for the design of many of the ungentlemanly weapons of war. Both units produced brilliant individuals, many of them women, whose contribution to the war effort is not always recognised.
Among other characters there was specific mention of Cecil Clarke whose purchase of a metal bowl from Woolworths, some aniseed balls and some condoms led to the invention of the limpet mine which was responsible for the destruction of many German ships. Cecil Clarke was also responsible for the manufacture of the bomb that was used to kill Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942: the assassins were trained in Arisaig. Tommy Macpherson was another exceptional operator whose decision to simply fell trees along the Germans’ route to Normandy in 1944 held up the German advance, particularly that of an elite SS Panzer division, for 17 days. His part in the Jedburgh Units, so successful in carrying out sabotage in guerrilla warfare in Europe, was highly praised. Churchill’s support for the unconventional, the innovative and - definitely- ungentlemanly was extremely significant in the overall victory of the Allies in WWII.
By the final talks of the day, many were sporting their new 'merch' - t-shirts displaying the festival details, or carrying brown paper bags containing the new history books they had bought. There is a book shop on site which seemed to be doing a roaring trade, and there were lengthy queues to get the books signed by their authors.
The gin and wine bar stood utterly neglected while the pints of ale only increased in quantity and I have no doubt that there will be a few sore heads in the morning. Knowing this crowd though they will soldier on rather than miss any of the upcoming talks and events, their love of history overcoming any possible hangover.