The following reports of meetings in the 2017-18 season are available:
27 Sep 2017: "Escape from Colditz” - Col. Piers Storie-Pugh OBE TD DL
This was a riveting account of the legendary attempts at escape from the Gothic castle fortress which was the maximum security Prisoner-of-War camp for 800 Allied prisoners assessed as being at the highest risk of escaping, and held Piers’ father, Colonel Peter Storie-Pugh CBE MC DL from 1940-45.
The talk was based on his “living memories” and amazing collection of photos and drawings giving an unrivalled personal perspective to some of the most intrepid, ingenious and courageous exploits of WW2.
The Colditz Castle complex was deemed to be impregnable inside and out; also having a 1:1 guard to prisoner ratio. It was Goering’s “escape-proof” prison, and yet more prisoners escaped than from any other PoW camp.
Peter Storie-Pugh was wounded in Normandy and won the MC in 1940, was hospitalized at Bapaume and escaped, was taken to Spangenberg in the Hartz Mountains, he escaped again, was severely beaten up and committed to Colditz.
Here, over 300 escape attempts were made, 130 successfully. Thirty achieved the “home run”, nine British. Peter took part in 21 escape activities and won an award for gallantry for his efforts.
Escapes involved immense physical effort and ingenuity combined with meticulous planning and diverse skills, and total mutual trust and dependence in these life-threatening exploits: drilling, tunnelling, disposal of “spoil”, scaling towers, walls and roofs and constructing a glider. Details “made truth seem stranger than fiction”. Some were caught and died in the attempt.
Diversionary tactics were brilliantly devised: disguise and other means to give cover to each attempt. All the teams possessed a heroic determination, resilience both mentally and physically and superhuman effort and courage to face each attempt.
The unique insights into the life in captivity in Colditz were intensely interesting. The huge importance of the Red Cross parcels for essential food, books for studying: Peter studied science with Cambridge University, achieving a first class honours. Many availed themselves of this facility as well as reading for leisure. Peter used coded letters for requests for parcels. Pictures illustrated some of the music and drama productions important for morale but also to “cover” for tunnelling under the chapel floor! Enormous talents and skills came into play in this long period of incarceration.
In April 1945 Colditz was liberated by the US Army. The Commandant, who had been respected for his fair-mindedness, was himself imprisoned in a gulag for 15 years. Peter became an internationally renowned veterinary scientist, resuming his career. He revisited Colditz on visits with Piers, and the account concluded with a moving picture of him laying a wreath on his friend’s grave who had died in his bid to escape.
Piers pursued a military career, retiring as a Colonel. He has devoted years since to helping service people: veterans, widows and families. He set up and organised with great success Remembrance Travel, guided tours and visits to battlefields and cemeteries world-wide. Thousands have been enabled to visit graves as far afield as Burma and the Far East as well as in Europe.
He was Chief Executive of the “Not Forgotten” association for the recreation and entertainment of seriously wounded personnel which catered for thousands each year.
His passionate commitment also extended to being a driving force for the Anglo-French Thiepval visitors’ centre so successfully completed. He is a Deputy Lieutenant for Greater London, with responsibility for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.
The capacity audience of just over 100 deeply appreciated this immensely interesting and memorable talk.
Next meeting, Friday October 20th: Jon Snow – “Living History”. Please note change of day from the usual Wednesday.
20 Oct 2017: "Living History” by Jon Snow
Jon spoke initially of some of the most significant influences determining the course of his life and career: from chorister at Winchester Cathedral to the distinguished Channel 4 News presenter today.
His boyhood and adolescence were almost totally committed to the arduous routine of being a chorister. At university in 1970, at the height of the student protest movement, he developed an interest in political and ethical issues, and his involvement led to his being “sent down”.
hortly after, he obtained a V.S.O. post as a teacher of English in a Mission School in Uganda, which became a life-changing experience.
The excitement of travel to Africa and then the culture shock in stark contrast to his own lifestyle was to require much adjustment in addition to being confronted by the daily challenge of teaching large classes “from scratch” in a totally different cultural milieu. He soon grew to love his work, the warmth and enthusiasm of all he met, and to face the reality of subsistence living. Poverty, hardship and injustice in Uganda left an indelible impression. He developed a “wanderlust”, having been able to explore some of Africa, to which he would later frequently return in his work.
When he returned to London he took a post running a Youth Centre which became the “New Horizon” centre, with which he retains close connections and has championed over the years. It was dealing with most demanding cases of the “dispossessed” and disadvantaged young people. At the same time, London Broadcasting Company was established as the first commercial 24-hour radio station. Jon became a part-time reporter but soon a full-time radio presenter, contributing to LBC’s rapid success. His personality and talents determined the clear course of his career.
With ITN burgeoning, he was recruited as a reporter/presenter, a rôle again to which he was ideally suited, and was an established success well-known to radio listeners. He was a great success on TV as well, and was soon promoted to the prestigious post of Washington Correspondent and then Diplomatic Editor. This involved worldwide travel, face-to-face meetings and interviews with heads of state, world leaders, all the US Presidents, successive UK Prime Ministers and reporting world events.
He gave many fascinating examples: the memorable release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, and meeting Idi Amin again in Uganda. He was also reporting from conflict zones and “hot spots”. He won many awards including ones for reports on Eritrea and El Salvador.
He faced relentless travel, satisfying his wanderlust; all consignments were challenging, exciting and frequently dangerous, and an exhausting schedule which could be changed at a moment’s notice. He visited many countries in Africa, also Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam. His genius for the vivid, accurate reporting of both people and events brought immediacy and reality to the TV screen as history unfolded. His last example: Nelson Mandela’s interview on release from Robben Island and his charismatic speech. Then he recalled his coverage of the horrendous Grenfell Tower disaster and tragic loss of a brilliant 12-year-old girl who had won a Debating competition only weeks before which Jon had judged, next seeing her photo at the scene where she had died. It was a most moving account.
The capacity audience of over 120 had listened with rapt attention and felt very privileged to then ask a range of questions; all were responded to with most illuminating answers. All deeply appreciated the first-hand experience of the dynamic that Jon brings to all his presentations. It was a most memorable experience – “Living History”. He was thanked most warmly.
22 Nov 2017:- "The Oldest Profession in Aldbourne - Warrening" by Alan Heasman
Following weather forecasting in the RAF, Alan joined the Meteorological Service at the HQ at Bracknell, where he retired as Manager of the National Library and Archives. He has retained his career-long interest in the history of meteorology. On retiring to Aldbourne he became deeply interested in its history, and was a prime mover in establishing the Community Heritage Group, which explores topics of historical interest and importance, e.g. industry and agriculture. It manages a small museum, which attracts many visitors, especially from the US, the famous US 101 st Airborne Division having been based with its HQ in Aldbourne in WW2.
A chance meeting with a “warrener” and his ferrets led Alan to his local history study of the 1,000 year old practice of “warrening”. The chalk downland surrounding the village is an ideal habitat for rabbit breeding; they eat the scrub and maintain the grass.
Rabbits existed in Britain at the end of the Great Ice Age. The Romans introduced them as a staple food source but the Normans developed the “industrial scale” breeding by “warrening” to provide a large replenishing supply of delicate meat and fur for clothing. Grey rabbits were bred for meat and black for fur. Warrens were established in rough spare areas of land and were contained by walls constructed from the surrounding flints and turf. Later artificial tunnels were built to divert water from flooding the rabbit nurseries.
Rabbit husbandry by means of warrens entailed a low-cost outlay and a high yield, and became very profitable in the medieval period and a major contribution to the village economy. The post of “warrener” was very important.
Warrens would be sold or rented out in terms of rabbits and at one time silver “tokens” were used with embossed rabbits, acknowledged as a local currency! In 1389 John o’ Gaunt ordered “30 pairs of rabbits fresh, reasonable and best quality” for the King’s House at Savoy Palace”, and the estimated equivalent income in the 13 th /14 th centuries was £500,000 pa; rabbits were a major input to the village economy. In 1730 rabbits would sell in London for the equivalent of £95 a dozen.
There had been an extensive “diswarrening” to curb the rabbit population from the 18 th /19 th centuries as land utilization for arable farming growing food crops and enclosing the land for sheep and cattle was incompatible with “warrening”, and a vast rabbit population which was a threat to food production. They were shot and culled.
By 1940, it was estimated that there were over 100 million rabbits nationally and this was a threat to the more intensive food production. In 1970 the policy of culling by the dreaded myxomatosis disease was imported from the US It drastically reduced the population and 99% were wiped out. Rabbits today are culled by shooting and ferrets. Rabbit is no longer a staple of the country diet.
The talk was most interesting, illustrating the centuries-old warrening tradition in the downland landscape with residual walls, enclosures and “pillow mounds” and local warren fences added to the interest of this most impressive illustrated account of a local history project.
24 January 2018:- "Motoring Emergencies – A History of the Automobile Association” by Roger Day
Today, the Automobile Association has a membership of over 10 million. Originating in 1905, it now provides a comprehensive role often described as “The Fourth Emergency Service”, giving a 24-hour nationwide service to give help to motorists facing emergencies and problems with their vehicles on the road or at home. This service also gives motorists reassurance that it can always be relied upon if needed.
In the early 1900s, as vehicles came on to the roads increasingly capable of higher speeds, roads were still used by horse-drawn vehicles, and cars posed great alarm to all other road users, creating clouds of dust in their wake. Legislation was passed to limit speed to 20 mph. This was frustrating for motorists but was the first “road safety” law. It was difficult to enforce by police officers on foot or bicycle. Motorists formed the Motorists’ Union to represent their interests. In 1910 it amalgamated with the Automobile Association. Membership cost 2 guineas.
Speeding motorists were targeted by police with primitive “speed traps”. The AA had uniformed patrolmen “scouts” who would salute the AA member’s badged car but not raise their arms if there was a police patrol ahead! A compromise to resolve the police v. motorist tensions!
The AA “scouts” were issued with a semi-military uniform, bicycle, saddle bag, chain and whistle similar to that of a police officer. With increasing numbers of cars, garages sprang up selling fuel but also combining this with repairs, and would proudly become registered as “AA recommended repairers” and sport the large distinctive AA sign. From 1924-1939, the Motorists’ Union having now become exclusively involved with motor insurance, the Royal Automobile Club was a rival organisation to the AA.
By 1932 the AA had half a million members. The distinctive black and gold wooden AA boxes were a feature of roads every 10-15 miles, fitted as shelters for patrolmen, but they also had a phone, maps, and a fire extinguisher. They lasted from 1927 to the 1960s. Roger had some most interesting photos of local boxes and patrolmen. In 1968 the wooden boxes were replaced by “pillar” phone boxes which were more advanced and have duly been superseded by the ubiquitous mobile phone.
Patrolmen’s transport advanced from bicycle to motor cycle, adding a well-equipped sidecar. They then used vans, cars, transit vehicles, low-loaders, and today not only a large fleet of vehicles but also two fixed-wing aircraft for essential mapping. After initial training there is frequent updating and specialised training “in service” to provide a highly skilled workforce.
The AA has always had a major role in “signage” and has provided an invaluable source of information for motorists. The AA mapping service provided essential routes countrywide on request, vital information adding to the interest and pleasure of much less stressful driving and journeys. The excellent AA annual members’ handbook was always carried in the car! The AA also produced some excellent guide books.
Roger’s enthusiastic and most informative account was enlivened by photos, newspaper cuttings and diary extracts gleaned from local sources, and gave rise to many interesting questions. Members had clearly much appreciated his engaging talk, a follow-up to his previous, enjoyable “Motoring in the Kennet Valley”.