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Will Iredale

Will Iredale: In Conversation

Will Iredale is a historian and journalist who has written two fantastic books on aspects of the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945.. The latter of these, Pathfinders, won our 'Book of the Year' when it came out in hardback last year (read our review here), and it has now just come out in paperback. In between touring to promote the book and fitting in the 'day job', Will found time to talk to us about the Second World War, the pursuit of history, and about juggling a multitude of tasks.

Tell me a bit about your brilliant new book, Pathfinders

It's about a group of airmen – and women on the ground – who helped turn around the fortunes of Bomber Command. Bomber Command had a huge problem early in the Second World War, in the fact that it couldn't see in the dark. So these men, enabled with new technology produced in the UK along with aircraft and skilled airmen, were able to help Bomber Command find their targets (or at least try to).

The Allied bombing campaign is quite a controversial topic, with events like the bombing of Dresden being called war crimes. How did you approach writing about that?

Eighty years on from the war, it's potentially very easy to fall into the trap of looking at the bombing campaign through the prism of 2022. There was controversy at the time, but certainly for the airmen that I've interviewed and for the guys who were in the sky, they had no doubt that they were doing the right thing. The raw numbers are horrific: 600,000 German dead, 55,000 allied airmen killed. In an ideal world, of course, there’s no excuse for that at all. But, as someone I interviewed said, there is only one thing worse than evil, and that's to submit to evil. At the time, bombing was deemed to be one of the ways that the Allies could strike back. So, I feel that even with hindsight most of the people I spoke to certainly would have stuck by their guns. It was the right thing to do.

What really has brought it home is everything going on in Ukraine, because there are various clips that have come out about what it's like to be under shelling, and to be under enemy bombardment. There's a chapter I wrote about the raid on Kassel from the German perspective, and I looked at that through fresh eyes because it made me think even more than normal that there aren't really any winners in war. I know that sounds like a trite thing to say, but although the Allies won the war, what we had to do to get there was horrific.

Your book shows the German side and what the people on the ground were going through; are there any stories that particularly stand out in your mind?

Much of the stuff on Kassel was from the archives, which is now held in the International Bomber Command Centre. All of these eyewitness accounts were taken on the day or very soon afterwards. You always have to take these reports with a slight pinch of salt, but there is such a rawness to them. For me, although I talk to veterans, a lot of the research is about the contemporaneous material – stuff that was recorded at the time or soon afterwards – so I was really pleased to be able to present that side of things

In terms of the Allied side, there's an Australian in the book called Max Bryant who kept a diary and sent loads of letters home. His diary and letters were given to the Australian War Memorial, which is an archive in Canberra, and they'd never been looked at before. They revealed a huge amount, a lot of which was almost too personal for us to print – not only about what it was like to be a Pathfinder, but also the personal stuff that goes on with any 22-year-old. He was one of 20 Australians to join Bomber Command, who all left Australia together; by the end of the war, 15 were dead.

So many were so young, and it's one of those conversations that people tend to have over a drink, wondering whether people today would be able to match up to these very brave airmen.

They were ordinary blokes, in extraordinary circumstances. Again, it’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but it's true. I sometimes wonder that same thing – not only with the Pathfinders, but with people I've written about who are in the Pacific and elsewhere – and you wonder whether or not you would step up to the mark; I have no idea. How do you know until you're faced with it? Look at Ukraine now: look at all those people who are mobilizing against this spectre of a tyrantA cruel and oppressive ruler unrestrained by law or other people, although the early ancient Greeks used it to refer to anyone with absolute power. who wants to overtake their country. In a sense, it's not that dissimilar to what happened in 1939. We are in a different world now, but one hopes if we look back to what these ordinary men and women did in 1939 to 1945, that we would have the same sort of commitment.

You spoke to a lot of veterans for your research; how did you find it in terms of getting them to open up? Were they eager to talk?

Some were almost too eager, dare I say it – although not anyone I used in the book. But with the greatest respect to anyone who went through it, it was 80 years ago. I can't remember sometimes what I did a year ago, let alone decades ago! Also, what they went through was often very traumatic, which means that if you compare someone's memory with the facts, it can be quite distorted. So, it's about being very careful to use those accounts as the flesh on the bones: the actual facts you get from archives, from museums, from all the reports, and then you add the colour from the veterans. But saying that, it's a great honour to be able to talk to some of them because what they went through was extraordinary.

I imagine you'd have to be like a counsellor in talking to them; was trauma unearthed?

They're from that generation where at least publicly, and even just talking to someone, they’re still reasonably stiff-upper-lipped about it. But age can soften people, and as you get older, you often are more likely to talk. This is especially true if you present the veterans with certain episodes that happened or you have stories about people they served with, then they're more likely to open up and be a bit more honest. You do find with some veterans that they start talking to you in quite a dispassionate manner, and it won't take a great deal for them to shed a tear or two. For me, that is quite powerful because, 80 years on, something still has such a visceral effect to prompt that.

Do you think that it helps that you're not related to, or connected with, them?

I think it does, actually. I sometimes get asked whether I’ve been in the armed forces, or in the RAF. I’ve had the question with both Pathfinders and with The Kamikaze Hunters, although I wasn't at all. Distance helps sometimes, because occasionally when writers have family or other connections, the books can end up being a bit deferential. I don't blame them, because, of course, they would be. But I like to think I can remain reasonably neutral and hopefully present stories that show the warts and all: you can end up giving a bit more of a balanced account.

This reflects on wider questions about writing outside one's own experience. What would be your views on historians tackling those boxes into which they don't necessarily fit themselves?

If you're pushing your comfort zone, that can only be a good thing. The problem we have is that it’s also what the audience and the publishers expect. For example, there's a book I wanted to write about women in the armed forces in the war, but a number of people said that because I’m a guy, publishers might not want me to write it: they’d prefer a woman to do so. So, you can push your comfort zone and write on things about which you might not be deemed the obvious expert, but would you be allowed to write it? It's got to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Being a historian is not your only role?

I run a PR consultancy when I'm not writing books, which is all to do with my background in journalism. I have to remember that I love writing the books, but they don't pay the mortgage: writing books alone is a tough way to earn a living! So, I'm a journalist, really. I'm someone who's just very nosy and likes telling stories about people. It just so happens that conflict is very good at bringing out fascinating stories.

The Second World War is particularly good, because it's so vast, so much happened and there are still people around who can talk to you about it. But we are only a decade or so away from that link disappearing. There is going to be a big moment for people who do write about the Second World War, who are going to have to rely on just the primary sources and not the face-to-face interviews we’ve used in the past. It was a bit like that with the First World War: poor old Harry Patch was wheeled out everywhere. I say poor Harry Patch – for the record, I'm sure he loved it – but every year another book came out saying it was 'the last book from the last survivor', and then he went on for another year, so it was ‘almost the last book…'! As these veterans get fewer and fewer, there is a danger that some of them might end up being slightly exploited for their stories, for commercial gain. I know I've just written a book and it's got loads of first-hand accounts, but you tread on eggshells to make sure the veterans are happy. In fact, at the moment I've got a project to photograph four or five of the last remaining Pathfinders, which hopefully I'll have sorted for publication by the time the paperback of Pathfinders comes out. But again, it was all about making sure they feel comfortable. I don't want to be seen to be trying to take advantage of them.

So, what are your next projects going to be?

So, my first book was about the sea and the air; this book is obviously about the air. My next book, I hope, is going to be returning to the sea. Hopefully it's going to be a book about, again, ordinary members of the public who had some extraordinary tales, and a part of the naval war in the Second World War that hasn't really been given the treatment I think it should be.

When do you think that might start?

When I pull my finger out! I need to do some more research: I’ve done enough to write a proposal so the publishers will agree to the idea, but at the same time I didn’t want to go mad writing a proposal only for them to turn around and say ‘No’, so it's slightly chicken and egg. But also, the veterans aren’t getting any younger. So, I've got to try to get to them, which is itself an interesting job because you never quite know how they're going to react or what they're going to be like when you interview them. Time is what's needed, really.

How do you find the time?

I have an extraordinarily understanding wife! I'm lucky because I run my own business so I can take weekdays off and go to archives and all that sort of stuff. But writing a book is an extremely selfish thing to do. You've got to find someone who's either willing to accept that, or you've got to be willing to pay the consequences: 'How much does history mean to you, darling?!' You’ve got to balance it with kids as well. My daughter is five and a half, so it's a slightly easier age now. But she doesn't give a hoot: Pathfinders is dedicated to her, and she just says, 'Oh, you're not going off to do your silly book stuff again?!' She just wonders why there are so many books with her name in them.

If you were to have a safety bubble and could go to anywhere in the past and be able to come back again, where would you go?

I think the 1920s quite appeal to me. I like periods before the big events, so the late the 1920s and '30s in the run up to World War Two interest me; the time just before August 1914 interests me – that summer which was gloriously sunny. I probably wouldn't want to end up on the Western Front or in the Battle of Britain – I'll leave that to others who aren't going to sh*t themselves doing it! It's all very well writing about it and hopefully writing in a way that makes the reader think that they're there, but when you actually do see warfare – and again, it's only through the screen or hearing from people I know – it can sometimes be exciting, but war is awful. Most veterans have said something like that, because they had to experience it and what they saw was pretty grim.

If you could invite anyone from history as a dinner guest, who would you have?

It would be a slightly mixed dinner party and they'd all hate each other. I'd have Don Bennett, who was the commander of the Pathfinders; I'd have Ian Fleming; I'd have Keith Moon from The Who – I love him, although he would probably leave quite soon because he'd annoy everyone, I expect. I'd also like Rita Hayworth, the Hollywood actress. She can sit next to me…

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).