James Holland: In Conversation
James Holland is an award-winning, bestselling historian and author who has written almost 40 fiction and non-fiction books on the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945.A global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. A global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. A global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. . In addition to his prodigious output of truly gripping books, he is a writer, producer and presenter for a number of historical television programmes, and - along with comedian Al Murray - hosts the popular We Have Ways of Making You Talk podcast. He is also Chair and Programme Director of Chalke Valley History Festival and is an organizer of, and speaker at, the second We Have Ways Fest, which will take place between 22 and 24 July 2022. Somehow, he managed to find time in his busy schedule to talk to us about the Second World War, and his upcoming and future projects.
You've had a really busy year: you've got Chalke Valley History Festival going on now, and then the second We Have Ways Fest at the end of July; you’ve got the We Have Ways of Making You Talk podcast; you always seem to be producing more and more books, and you've got the last four Ladybird ones coming out. How are you finding time to fit it all in?
Well, it can take some juggling, to be honest! I keep giving myself a strict talking to, saying ‘You've got to focus a bit more and do less.’ But it's very difficult, because when you're a one-man band, and you're working for yourself, it's hard to say no to things. But it's all really good fun. I'm incredibly lucky to be able to earn a living from studying a subject that I find enduringly fascinating, and to be able to study it in so many different ways, whether it be podcasts, books, television, battlefield tours, or whatever it might be.
The We Have Ways podcast is going from strength to strength. What's your secret to success?
I really don't know. Tony Pastor, who runs Goalhanger Films with Gary Lineker, is the podcast’s producer and although Goalhanger make mainly sports documentaries, Tony has an avid interest in the Second World War. It started off that Tony asked me whether I would be interested in doing a podcast about the war, but he thought it'd be better if I did it with someone. I'd known Al Murray for a little while – we used to meet maybe two or three times a year and have lunch or just sit in the boozer and drink beer, and all we did was talk about the war and theories about Brigadier-General Gavin at Nijmegen, or something similarBrigadier-General Gavin had been tasked with securing the bridge of Nijmegen in the early stages of Operation Market Garden (the Allied attempt to secure a bridgehead over the River Rhine in 1944). It was, however, given a low priority, which has led some to blame the ultimate failure of the Operation on this decision. – so I got in touch with him and he said he was up for it. We had a meeting together and although we didn't know whether it would really work, we thought we should just go with it. We discussed things like the name, and Al just said, ‘We've got to call it “We have ways of making you talk” haven't we?!’ So off we went!
We had this convoluted idea that once a week we were going to focus on a forgotten hero of the Second World War, then we were going to have an object of the week, and all this kind of stuff. But within about two minutes, these plans went out of the window. All we do is banter, really. Obviously, you need to do kind of quite a lot of preparation but, from my point of view, it's fantastic because it means it's massively broadening my knowledge of things outside my area of research, like the US Navy's submarine campaign in the Pacific.
We’ve done about 450 episodes now, and we've just had our twenty-millionth download, so it's quite decent numbers. Also, we started in April 2019 and found ourselves just hitting our stride at the moment of COVID. I think for a lot of people who were in lockdown, the podcast allowed them to connect to a whole community. They were getting to know one another on Twitter and social media. Then we set up a patronA person who gives financial or other support to a client, person, organisation, or cause.A person who gives financial or other support to a client, person, organisation, or cause. A person who gives financial or other support to a client, person, organisation, or cause. A person who gives financial or other support to a client, person, organisation, or cause. members’ club, and suddenly there was this fellowship. Last year it was lovely: we held a festival, which we did mainly for the members’ club, and there were a thousand people there. It was just this terrific release because suddenly everyone was meeting everyone for the first time – although everyone knew each other from the online community, they were suddenly there in the flesh. So it's been an amazing experience.
And, of course, you've got the second We Have Ways Fest at the end of July; is it going to be the same format as last year?
It will be pretty much the same, although we've expanded a bit, we've got a third tent, and we hope to have more members of the general public. It's a bit like Chalke Valley History Festival in as much as it's got lots of talks and other things going on, but serious amounts of hardware as well. I’m looking forward to the whole thing: the whole weekend is a total blast. It's great fun, because you're talking to like-minded people.
The Blackpit Brewery at Silverstone’s a really good location for it: close to the M40 and M1, it's central, not too far from London – or from anywhere else. Tobin Jones, who runs Track and Wheel and who is in charge of all the hardware, is just down the road and obviously, you're not going to travel very far with a tank!
What is it that first attracted you to the Second World War?
I was in my late twenties, and I had never really studied the Second World War at school or university. I was playing cricket and I was at the non-striker's end, and suddenly this thing appeared over deep mid-wicket, up in the sky, pirouetting around. I remember turning to the umpire and asking, 'What's that?' and he told me it was a spitfire. It seemed the most amazing thing ever, almost a Damascene moment. The following weekend I went along to Flying Legends at Duxford, where I bought a book called Spitfire Pilot by David Crook. It just so happened that he flew spitfires for 609 Squadron in the Battle of Britain and his base had been at Middle Wallop, which is the closest fighter command base to where I live. It all seemed incredibly propitious, and I was completely hooked.
At the time I'd written two really embarrassing chick lit novels to try to get myself out of London and away from publishing. I did get paid for them – although why, I don't know! – but sadly, it wasn't enough to give up the day job. I wanted to do something that I was really interested in, and so I thought up a plot for a love, loss and war novel set to a backdrop of the Battle of Britain, which I did eventually write. I interviewed loads of people for it: all these Battle of Britain veterans and someone who'd been a secretary for Ismay Hastings, Churchill's chief military advisor in the war.
One of the guys I interviewed happened to have flown in Malta later on during the war. It piqued my interest but when I tried to get a general history about the siegeA military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender.A military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender.A military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender.A military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender. of Malta, I couldn't find one. So, I asked my agent what he thought about me doing a book on it. As he'd just been there, he said it was a really good idea, and told me to go off and write a proposal. So I did. Again, I got really into it, spending weekends and evenings going off to interview Malta veterans and, to cut a long story short, I got a deal and that was enough to give up the day job at long last. Chick lit wasn't my future!
You do a lot of work with oral history; what are the pitfalls, and how do you work around them?
The pitfalls are that memory changes. For example, I remember the spitfire over mid-wicket: that definitely happened, and I remember the umpire saying what it was. But how far away was it; was it a dot in the sky? You can't remember these things: memory does play tricks, and it does distort. That's no failing on anybody, it's just the way it is. But I'm increasingly using letters and diaries rather than oral histories. So the next book I'm doing is on the Battle of Cassino in Italy, and I'm trying to make it about 80 per cent original, contemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time.Someone or something living or occurring at the same time. sources. Even if I'm using a secondary sourceInformation about the event or person that wasn't from the event or person in question (such as history books).Information about the event or person that wasn't from the event or person in question (such as history books).Information about the event or person that wasn't from the event or person in question (such as history books).Information about the event or person that wasn't from the event or person in question (such as history books). – a memoir or something like that – I'm trying to find one that was written within 15 years of the war rather than going on memories that are decades old.
There are still books that I intend to write using interviews. I've got Lynn MacDonald's 1918 archive. She was a great chronicler of the First World War British experience, and she was intending to write a book on 1918 but never finished it. She only got as far as spring 1918, and so never did the Hundred Days Offensive or any of the rest of that year. She bequeathed all of this to me and asked me to write a book. So I've got over 120 interviews with First World War veterans that have never seen the light of day. They're just sitting in my archive.
Another project you've had on the go for a long time is the third volume of The War in the West.
When I started doing The War in the West, I was very keen on doing an overarching narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis.A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. A story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. because I really felt there was a message that needed to be out there which hadn't previously been told. The way we tell the Second World War predominantly has been on two levels of war: the strategic and the tactical overview, the coalface of war, the actual fighting bit. But the third level, the operational level, hadn't really been told or certainly hadn't been told in those terms. If you think about the great narrative historians of the Second World War – Max Hastings, Antony Beevor, Carlo D'Este, Rick Atkinson and these sort of people – they focus very much on the human experience of war and high strategy. They don't talk about logistics and how it all fits together. But the problem is that when you take logistics out, a very different version of the Second World War appears, which is slightly distorted. You really need to understand how nations are fighting and how they go about their business, because that then explains why they're fighting in the way they're fighting at the tactical level. Once you reinterpret it, it's a completely different story. I felt a lot of irritation that there was no one doing this, which is why I wanted to. But through the combination of doing those first two volumes and subsequent books and the podcasts, I feel I've got that message out there now. There has been a change. People do think about things in a different way now, the books are really seriously changing how people view stuff, which is great.
There were also very good reasons for postponing The War in the West and doing a book on Normandy: there was an anniversary coming, it was a big moment and I suddenly had a lot of new material on it. It just seemed crazy to hide that within a bigger volume. That was quite successful, and then there was a case for doing a book on Sicily. The second volume ended in May 1943, but now I've already done Sicily and Normandy, a lot of the air war – the Battle of Britain, the Dambusters, Big Week; I've done the last year of the war in Italy and I'm now doing Cassino. A lot of it’s been covered. So actually the last book is going to be End Game: The War in the West, 1944-1945. It will be everything after Normandy – so Market Garden in September 1944 through to the end of the war – but it'll just be Northwest Europe and the air war. So, the third volume of The War in the West is happening, it's just not happening as I originally conceived.
There is a monograph to be done on the entire Second World War – a short 100,000-word book – which is not on human experience, but about what happened and why. One of the things I'm planning to do with Al is the history of the Second World War in 24 hours. We’ll do 24 hour-long episodes which we've worked out, plotted and paced, which will just sit on its own, forever, as a podcast that anyone can download. Another thing I really want to do with the podcast is ‘the road to war’, which everyone does at school. My daughter was studying it the other day but found the textbook boring and thought it didn’t explain it well. So I would like to cover all the big themes, all the big academic thinking, but do it in a really digestible, readable way. I would have that as a 10,000-word essay, like a small book, but also do videoed podcasts in Munich and Berlin and put it on a website as a resource.
Of course, you should be used to condensing some really quite complex things into tiny word counts and making them accessible, because you're doing that with the Ladybird books.
I've now finished all 12 of them, and they’re coming out as a single volume next year as An Illustrated History of the Second World War, so that's really exciting. It's difficult, because there's not much human drama in it, it's just saying what happened. But the great thing is that you can have an opinion: I've absolutely made it clear that shipping was important, and food production, supplies and logistics at the operational level were the key to the whole thing. It's been really useful to spend that time on them and get a steer on exactly what's going on in all the different parts of the war. It's slightly Anglo-centric, so there's not an awful lot on the Balkans or what's going on in Yugoslavia, for example, but they're Ladybird books so you can't cover absolutely everything.
If you could go anywhere in history and come back again, but not catch smallpox or get blown up, where would you go?
I think it'd be quite exciting to go to Cairo during the war. I think it would be quite interesting to see what that was like. Just out of intrigue, I'd be interested to go to Normandy or perhaps witness Dunkirk.
Who from history would be your ideal dinner guests?
Well, I'd definitely have Field Marshal Howard Alexander. I'd like Lee Miller, the photographer, and I think Admiral Lord Nelson would be good.Field Marshal Howard Alexander was a veteran of both the First and Second World Wars, and oversaw the evacuation of Dunkirk, as well as holding commands in Burma, North Africa and Italy; Elizabeth 'Lee' Miller was an American photojournalist who covered the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris and the concentration camps for Vogue. I could go for Elizabeth I, but I think she'd be too scary, too intimidating: you would want to have somebody you could properly chat to. I'd also go for Audrey Hepburn and Errol Flynn.
Cover photograph © WIlky Wilkinson