year we are commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World
War - the war to end all wars.
was the end of the war for France and Great Britain was also the
beginning of a catastrophic disaster for Germany. The end of WWI changed
the nation, ushering in the 1918 revolution that brought down the
monarchy and installed the fractious, short-lived Weimar republic that
led, ultimately, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
Germany, the trauma and atrocities of World War II completely overshadow
the Great War and in schools, teachers often regard the events of
1914-18 simply as a prelude to the much larger disaster to come.
this year anti
Semitism was very much in the news with the Labour party being embroiled
in a row over the matter. There is also the rise in far-right political
organisations across Europe which to some have shades of Germany in the
August I came across a story of a Jewish lady who spoke of her fear
after seeing people "dressed in SS officer uniform" at a
living history event in Wiltshire.
she cried when she saw people in German military uniforms from the
Second World War.
was fascist fetishism," she said. "People were posing with
said that this was a gruesome part of history that needed to be handled
with care and there needs to be a duty of care to people attending these
descendants are from Europe, and although I don't know by name who
perished, I am sure members of my family died in the Holocaust."
seems that Nazi items were on sale at the West Wiltshire Military
Vehicle Trust (MVT) event and an original Star of David arm patch Jews
had to wear was on display. John Wardle, secretary of MVT, said there is
nothing illegal about selling Nazi memorabilia.
has led me to think about World War 2 re-enactments in general. These
seem to be popular with a number of heritage steam railways around the
country. But do these events show the horror of living through the war?
Or is the story sanitised entertainment?
will admit to some indirect personal experience. My father was brought
up in Romford and experienced the Blitz - his home was bombed by a
doodlebug and neighbours suffered casualties from these attacks. My late
mother was German and narrowly escaped the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway barred
a group who dress as German soldiers for its annual World War 2
decision not to include the Das Reich group came in response to negative
publicity in the press. For the past 12 years, the railway station at
Levisham, near Pickering, has been turned into 'Le Visham', a
German-occupied town in northern France.
Robertson, from the Das Reich group explained that the scenarios used
were aimed at educating the public and were not intended to cause
offence. The railway say their wartime events are to remember and pay
our respects to the railway men and women who fought and lost their
lives during WWII, recreating history through re-enactment.
in their publicity they say:
the three-day event families can hop on board steam and heritage diesel
trains and relive the amazing spirit and camaraderie of World War II
whilst enjoying various war-themed entertainment . . ."
take exception to that description. World War II was not
"war-themed entertainment" to be "enjoyed". There
may well have been "amazing spirit and camaraderie" but there
was also fear and real loss of life.
how to other heritage railways portray these kind of events?
Severn Valley Railway, in their publicity for their event earlier this
turn the clocks back to the 1940s with this light-hearted journey back
to wartime Britain."
somehow don't think the residents of Coventry who survived the bombing
on the 14 November 1940 would say it was a time to be light-hearted. The
operation that night involved 515 German bombers who intended to destroy
the factories of Coventry in a single night. Such an operation could not
be achieved without heavily hitting residential areas.
flares were dropped in the first wave, followed by the discharge of high
explosive bombs that shook the ancient city. That was followed by wave
after wave of incendiary bombs. This created the perfect firestorm. Many
of those who died, and there were mercifully few compared to the bombing
of Dresden in 1945, were asphyxiated - the lack of oxygen, smoke
poisoning and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Severn Valley Railway's publicity continued:
a fantastic selection of daytime attractions up and down the line, get
dressed up and join in with the celebrations with costumed re-enactors
on our stations and in our trains helping to tell the wartime
the numerous activities were Big Band Shows featuring 1940's music. But
thinking back to Coventry, their line "The
night is sure to go out with a bang . . . an air-raid is looming"
is in my opinion rather insensitive.
be fair to the railway, they do acknowledge that ".
. . the Severn Valley Railway event is, as always, primarily an event to
recall the Home Front atmosphere during World War II and the majority of
our re-enactors will be dressed for this period, there will be soldiers
in WWI uniform at this commemoration."
about other heritage railways?
Mid Hants Railway held their war time event in June.
Transport yourself back in time to the 1940s, against the backdrop of a
Second World War railway, to experience the 'Blitz Spirit'.
unlimited train travel and mingle with civilian and military
re-enactors, hop off at each station to explore period displays, music,
dancing, vintage vehicles and stalls selling retro wares.
station provides you with a different experience of life in wartime
Britain. Help run the recreated RAF Plotting Room, dance alongside GIs,
learn about the ‘Home Front’ and wartime railway manufacturing or
have your hair styled for the 40s. There is something different at every
on the Line is as much about reliving this period as enjoying the rush
of the steam engine."
don't think anyone visiting will experience the 'Blitz Spirit'. I doubt
my elderly relatives who survived the blitz in East London will say it
was a time of music, dancing with GIs or having your hair styled. It was
about surviving the demolition of your home, spending hours in a cramped
air raid shelter and mourning lost family and friends. My grandmother
took in an 8 year old orphan boy whose mother and siblings died when
their home was bombed.
there was a blitz spirit but one of determination in the face of fear.
Can the Mid Hants Railway really recreate that?
to say ". . . come along to
soak up the atmosphere, War on the Line is a unique way to enjoy a day
on the railway."
would suggest that a line like that is disrespectful to those who
survived, not least because they can't recreate the atmosphere.
Great Central Railway in Loughborough invite you to:
to mock battles, live music and theatre- there's more activities than
ever before! Dance to the music of time gone by with live acts to
entertain you throughout the weekend . . ."
Hundreds of re-enactors will bring the stations and trains to life
wearing period clothes, giving twenty first century visitors the closest
experience to time travel they can get."
speaks for itself really. However the railway do say that:
always, remembrance is at the heart of the event. On Sunday morning
there will be a church service and on Sunday afternoon there will be a
drumhead service and a 'poppy shower' tribute as we remember."
then there was the unfortunate event on the Bluebell Railway in May
War on the Line event in May 2009, included the re-enactment of a
summary execution of a German spy at Horsted Keynes station by British
soldiers. It would appear for nothing more treasonable than carrying a
bottle of beer. The Military Police corporal administered the shot to
the back of the head.
sorry? Was that re-enacting the past?
definition for re-enactment, according to the Oxford Dictionary is:
out of a past event. As
a definition: ‘Historical re-enactment is a type of role-play in
which participants attempt to recreate some aspects of a
historical event or period’.
story was picked up by the national press including the Sun and led to
quite a debate on social media. Comments on the railwayeye.blogspot.com
website include these from people who thought this 're-enactment'
was a worthwhile activity:
"I think it was all done in
good taste, it certainly makes it more realistic."
"If people get offended by that then maybe we should outlaw all
films showing such actions which mean historic footage of WW2 going into
the bin etc..."
do think this was in good taste as even children understand the concept
of war, just that they don't have a concept of how graphic it was. And
as for the German tourists etc. well they understand that a war happened
between us and them and it was resolved.
It's not like they put up a
sign saying 'Germans are evil'."
correspondent thought these World War II events should be renamed
know, the music, the vintage vehicles, the trains, the posters
everywhere, the dress, the 'rationing', air raid precautions, etc. All
of that is what makes it a fun event! The military aspect - in my
opinion - shouldn't really go further than a few 'home guard'
were not convinced by the event:
is fine but this stuff is effectively ‘tabloid’ history and demeans
those who fought for our freedom 70 years ago".
the preservation movement come to? Summary executions as a form of
family entertainment? Thank heaven no railway has a rake of cattle
trucks otherwise we might see a 'tasteful' re-enactment of trains to...
(deleted for reasons of taste)".
for this being 'a lesson to kids' - fantastic: we now have mock summary
executions as a form of entertainment for children. It's a travesty of
the truth, history and in poor taste."
British forces (even the irregulars like the Home Guard) would not have
carried out summary executions if they had arrested a suspected
find the whole idea of a 'family' event that is centred around the
greatest loss of life in history to be idiotic in the extreme. These
events should be remembered, yes, but not used as a money spinner for a
though I agree that history should not be forgotten and that mistakes
from our past should be remembered simply to learn from - there is a
time and place for everything."
"I am certain that if anyone was there with very young kids they
would have been outraged. I have a 5 year old and the last thing I would
want to take him too is a mock execution. There seems to be a real lack
of common sense here. In an age where knife and gun crime is starting to
plague our youngsters do we really need to show kids maybe as young as 3
or 4 a 'mock' execution done for entertainment purposes?"
"Unlike certain other world
powers at the time, the British were keen to ensure that the unwritten
rules of warfare were followed. That's not to say that there weren't
regrettable incidents (e.g. Bomber Command's targeting of the German
last comment is well intended but I am not sure that accurate.
Command did bomb many residential areas in the Ruhr and other industrial
areas of Northern Germany and these were not regrettable but deliberate
attempts to destroy the munitions factories to reduce the Nazi's
Dresden was not considered 'regrettable'. Whilst by February 1945 the
end of the war was in sight, Bomber Command, under 'Bomber Harris'
deliberately set out to destroy a beautiful city with no meaningful
industry that contributed to the German war effort. The wisdom of this
action is still debated to this day.
people see Churchill as the great war hero who stuck to the rules and 'fought for Britain'. But going back to the Coventry bombing of
November 1940, there is the strong suspicion that Churchill and the Air
Ministry knew in advance about the target and chose to keep it to
themselves. The reason being to protect the Bletchley code breakers from
has been suggested that he took the philosophical stance of
utilitarianism, whereby the sacrifice of the few could be sanctioned in
the name of the greater good.
these thoughts in mind, I wonder whether the British were that keen to
"ensure the unwritten rules of warfare were followed" or
whether pragmatic decisions were taken to ensure victory?
am not advocating that heritage railways should stop these World Ward II
re-enactment events. They can be educational and give a younger
generation a glimpse into that period of this country's history. Some
railways do turn the spotlight on the war's unsung heroes and tell the
story of the drivers and firemen driving trains loaded with hundreds of
tons of munitions in black-out conditions through the night.
of these railway workers were civilians and their courage should be
recognised. We should be telling the story of railwaymen like Benjamin
Gimbert and James Nightall. But alas this doesn't make a good show
that can attract the punters.
two world wars are a major part of our history. The Nazi's were
particularly brutal and what they did to Jews and other 'undesirable'
minorities was sickening and memorials such as the Auschwitz camp in
Poland are a permanent reminder.
that is not to say all Germans in the 1930's or even during World War I
were bad or evil. I'm sure you know the story of Shindler's list and the
danger this brave German put himself in to help and protect his Jewish
workers at his factory. Other Germans had no choice but to join the
there was a choice - fight for the Nazis or take a bullet in the back of
backdrop of death and destruction on both sides, I do find the World War
II events on heritage railways do to a large extent trivialise history.
And, it would seem I am not alone. Newly-released National Archives files released this month for the planning for the
50th anniversary of the 1944 Normandy Landings were criticised by
veterans groups as the government was planning "trivial
than sombre reflection. Sandcastle building and spam fritter
cooking contests were planned.
I will leave the
last word with the North Yorkshire Railway. In their guidance notes to
re-enactors, they say:
note that we do not allow anyone wearing German uniforms on any of our
stations or trains. They are also not welcomed in the towns along the
Railway. Please show consideration as we have many original veterans
attending the event.
remember the reason we have the event is to remember and pay our
respects to the railway men and women who fought and lost their lives
during WWII, recreating history through re-enactment."
script - Benjamin Gimbert and James Nightall
Gimbert and James Nightall were driving an ammunition
train (June 1944). As
they approached Soham station, Gimbert noticed the wagon behind the
engine was on fire. He made Nightall aware of it and stopped the train,
but by the time it had come to rest the wagon was enveloped in flames.
instructed Nightall to uncouple the rest of the train. Without
hesitation, he uncoupled the wagon, knowing full well it contained
explosives, and then rejoined the driver on the footplate. The blazing
wagon was close to the station building and Gimbert realised it was
essential to move it into the open.
He set the engine in motion and as he approached the signal box he
shouted to signalman to stop any trains that were due and indicated what
he intended to do.
that moment the bombs in the burning wagon exploded and a massive crater
some 20ft deep and 60ft wide was blown in the middle of the railway and
all the station buildings were destroyed.
many as 600 buildings in Soham was damaged. Nightall was killed outright
and Gimbert was severely injured. The signalman, Frank Bridges died
later from his injuries.
(c) Des Shepherd 2018