Heroes at Highclere Castle Event


Barry and his partner Rae enjoy some summer sunshine outside Highclere Castle.

Some of you will have seen from the last few editions of the Newsletter that an event was being held at Highclere Castle on the 3rd of August to commemorate the outbreak of World War 1 and also to raise much needed money for charities that are associated with the welfare of injured or retired military personnel. Lord and Lady Carnarvon had graciously allowed the use of their estate for the event and the organiser of the event, Candice Bauval, assistant to the Countess of Carnarvon, emailed Vulcan head office to see whether the Company had anyone available to talk at the event.

Many of you will be aware that although I retired last August from flying duties with XH558, I am still involved with trying to raise funds by travelling around the country either with my co presenter Andy Marson or solo giving talks to whomever wishes me/us to talk about the development of the Vulcan and its subsequent RAF service history.  Consequently I was approached and asked if I would speak at the event. As a lot of you know XH558 has history with Highclere Castle when Kev Rumens and his crew performed a display routine over the Castle estate a couple of years ago and it would be appropriate to revisit the estate even though this time we wouldn’t be making quite the same noise impact!

I was put in touch with Candice who explained to me what the event on the 3rd August was all about. The following day, 4th August, would be the centenary of the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany after she, Germany, had invaded Belgium. The United Kingdom had given Germany an ultimatum that if by 11pm on the 4th August 1914, the German army hadn’t started to withdraw its troops out of Belgium and back to Germany, then a state of war would be declared between the United Kingdom and Germany. No assurance was forthcoming and consequently at 11pm the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, which as we all know lasted for 4 long and bloody years costing over a million British and Commonweath lives. During the war years Highclere Castle was turned from a family home into a hospital for the badly wounded soldiers who were repatriated from the front line. Even the Countess at the time retrained as a nurse and helped out by treating the sick and returning them to the best health they could hope for. This was a lady of such compassion that despite her elevated social standing she opened her house freely to the sick soldiers to treat as their own and she even occasionally invited them to dine with the family at mealtimes. With such a relevant involvement with the First World War is it was very apt that Highclere Castle should be once again involved in the centenary commemorations.

The commemoration event was to include many different themes with a host of stalls in the grounds around the Castle displaying and selling WW1 period clothes and food from that time (bully beef and mashed potatoes!!), stalls with the type of in-service guns both large and small, and personal military arms that would have been used by the soldiers of that time. These were all displayed by people, both men and women, dressed in the uniforms and clothes of the period. There were actors who dressed up as famous people whose likeness to the originals was uncanny. Although they represented the WW2 period there were two men dressed as Field Marshal ‘Monty’ Montgomery and the Prime Minister of the period Winston Churchill. I had a chance to talk with these two individuals and it was spooky that not only did they really look like the characters they were portraying but their voices were spot on too. Quite disturbing I thought.  I found the tent which had been set up as a WW1 field hospital all too morbidly fascinating. Everything was true to the period with all the hospital staff dressed in the uniforms of the day using surgical instruments that looked as if they could have been used on a farm rather than in a hospital. The sight of the realistic injuries on the dummies was most unsettling to those of a weak disposition. This was a most realistic display and one that will stick in my mind for a very long time.

Feeling the heat of the lovely sunshine the event had been blessed with, we felt the need for some refreshment and being in need of a cup of tea we didn’t have to walk very far from the ‘hospital’ to the refreshment area next door. It was so delightful that even in the tents where one could get something to eat and a cup of tea it was served as it would be at the time of WW1 with the refreshments being served up on fine china crockery and proper metal cutlery and sugar in sugar bowls.( Plastic and cardboard cups and polystyrene had yet to be invented!). Not only that but we were treated to live band music playing 1900’s rag-time music while we sipped our tea. Away from the refreshment area for those who were more modern musically inclined there had been a massive outdoor stage erected in the main arena. This was the result of a Last Night of the Proms concert that had been held at Highclere Castle the previous evening which culminated in a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Nothing unusual in that you might say but when I tell you that the final part of the overture was accompanied by 250 canons placed in an adjacent field it puts it into perspective how loud the noise must have been when they all started firing. The big stage was in use all throughout the day with various professional bands and choirs playing and singing, Country & Western bands did a slot and finally Alexandra Burke, the 2008 X Factor finalist, was the brilliant headline act.

Despite the fact that XH558 was not in attendance this year a magnificent display was given by a display by 9 aircraft of WW1 vintage carrying out mock dog-fights and bombing runs as would have been witnessed over the heads of the soldiers fighting on the front-line. This was a magnificent sight and gave a true impression of what the aerial battles must have been like back in the day. When this was complete a truly stunning formation display was completed by a Spitfire and Mustang who, once their display was complete, departed out of the view of the crowd only to reappear a few minutes later in formation the a B17 Flying Fortress called the ‘Sally B’. To see these 3 aircraft together was awesome but all too soon the Spitfire and the Mustang broke formation and departed to leave the B17 to carry out her own display routine. She was displayed magnificently much to the delight of the 15,000 strong crowd. Although my heart and emotions are always with the Vulcan I must confess that to witness that afternoon’s display by aircraft covering a span of 100 years and two World Wars was truly emotional and a delight to witness.

For those who wanted to get away from the main arena there, adjacent to the Castle, had been an area reserved for several large marquees, one of which was for the WW1 field hospital I mentioned previously, and another one where the crowds could listen to talks and short plays in The Speakers Tent. It was in this marquee where I was due to give my talk at 12pm. I had been assured by Candice that the IT set-up was in place and that there would be a technician on hand to lend a hand should I need it. I was to be the first speaker and possibly the ‘warm-up’ act for the renowned Kate Adie who was to speak immediately after me. Having given many talks before I have yet to attend one where there hasn’t been an IT glitch and so anticipating that this occasion would possibly be no different I decided to go to the Speakers Tent an hour earlier than my start time to make sure everything worked tickety-boo. I had already sent the IT company a DVD of my presentation in order for them to load up on to their system so that they could make sure that all my video and audio files worked when they were supposed to. However, when I entered the tent I could see the two big video screens with the opening slide of my talk already displayed on them but the colour of the print which was in red on my slides was barely visible in the quite bright ambient light. It was obvious that I was going to have to change all 65 slides from red print to white.  Panic not I thought. This won’t take me more than 30 minutes but then I hadn’t anticipated the arrival of Kate Adie. She had arrived armed with a memory stick containing her talk ‘Fighting on the Home Front’ and she too wanted to make sure that it would work ok with the resident IT set-up.

Although my laptop was connected into the IT system there was no reason why I couldn’t disconnect it while I was changing my slides and let Ms Adie use the system. Of course, while in the process of doing all this it would have been rude not to have struck up a conversation with her while the IT techie was sorting out her talk. I must say that she is a totally engaging lady and with her breadth of experiences conversation was easy despite us being total strangers. I didn’t really have to say too much. Just listen in total fascination at what she had to say. However, time was flashing by and I had to excuse myself from her company and get back to resetting my slides. By the time I had finished the tent was already filling up and we had yet to test my laptop with the resident IT system. With only a couple of minutes before the start of my talk the IT technician declared that there was a mismatch between my laptop and his system and that the high resolution graphics that I wanted to be to be shown wouldn’t work. With my heart now dropping into my shoes he calmly set up my laptop in such a manner that I didn’t need to use his system after all and he just connected it directly in to the video screens using a cable that I had fortunately brought with me.  I was panicking at this stage but Chris the technician was calmness personified and assured me that all would be well. As 12 o’clock came the tent was now full with 250+ people waiting to hear what I had to say.

My talk was entitled ‘The Cold War Vulcan and The Falklands War’. Because I was only allowed 45 minutes to give my presentation plus15 minutes for Q&A and any book signing that I may have to do, time was going to be my enemy and as a consequence the content of the talk needed to be fairly broad-brush. If the audience wished me to go into greater depth then I could do so at the Q&A at the close of the session. The talk commenced with why the Vulcan came into existence in the first place and how it was developed over the years until we ended up with the finalised version of the airframe which is how we see XH558 today. I continued on by talking about the various bombs and missiles that it had carried and finalised that part of the talk by taking the audience through a typical bombing mission into the USSR and showing them the likely threats that would be encountered en-route and how the AEO would counteract them electronically when defending the aircraft.

The second half of the presentation was how, in 1982, the Vulcan was used in combat for the one and only time in its service life when the Falklands War was raging. I explained that up until that time the Vulcan had been finely tuned to combat Soviet missile and gun radars by using electronic warfare jammers. However, the armaments that the Argentine military possessed were all Western technology against which the Vulcan was almost defenceless. A period of 3 weeks passed by during which the Vulcan was modified ready for battle and how in those 3 weeks the crews went through an unprecedented training regime practicing using all the new stuff until it was assessed that they and the aircraft were ready to go to war. The talk finished by explaining how the Black Buck bombing mission was flown using the most complex in-flight refuelling plan ever devised which all resulted in the Vulcan piloted by our own Martin Withers successfully dropped a stick of 21 one thousand pound bombs across the runway at Port Stanley thereby denying the future use of the runway to the Argentine fighter aircraft. Job done.

Needless to say that with all this information being imparted time was running out on me. With no clock in the auditorium my partner Rae was my time keeper and she was giving me a count-down of time remaining. With only 5 minutes of my 1 hour left I finally finished talking but had unfortunately left no time for Q&A. I apologised to the audience and explained to them that if they had any burning questions that they wanted to be answered then I would be available either immediately outside of the tent or at 2-30pm at the Vulcan sales tent where I would be happy to answer them.  I didn’t really expect anyone to turn up but many did and they asked the most searching of questions which I was only too pleased to answer. Of course, when sitting in front of the Vulcan tent with this assembled crowd it was a perfect opportunity for Graeme Miller and his Berkshire area team who were running the memorabilia sales to engage with the people and help them to part with their cash by buying the Vulcan goods and books. Graeme and his team worked like Trojans and I believe they had a very financially successful day. Without teams like Graeme’s and the monies that they help raise we would be hard pushed to keep XH558 flying. I believe that we should all give them a well deserved vote of thanks for their sterling efforts.

As the day was drawing to a close and with a long drive back to King’s Lynn ahead of us we decided to bid Graeme and his team goodbye at 6-30pm and make the journey back home. It had been a really enjoyable day made even better by the lovely sunshine. On reflection I could have done things a bit better but for me that’s always a good thing. Always leave room for improvement I say. It had been a great experience to have been asked to talk at such a prestigious event and one which I will remember for a long time to come. The success of the whole day was down to a massive team effort by people such as Candice Bauval of Highclere Castle, Christopher Milnes of Liquid Media Group and finally Graeme Miller and his hard working team from the Berkshire area. Finally thanks must go to Lord and Lady Carnarvon for allowing the event to have taken place in the first place for such a noble cause.