saw the 75th anniversary of D-Day whilst last year we commemorated
the centenary of the end of the First World War - the war to end
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
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
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 1930's.
August last year (2018) 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 these 'soldiers'."
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 events.
descendants are from Europe, and although I don't know by name who
perished, I am sure members of my family died in the
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.
couple of years ago, the 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
in their publicity for this year's event, 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
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 publicity for their event this summer,
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 British bombing of Dresden in 1945,
were asphyxiated - the lack of oxygen, smoke poisoning and carbon
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
the numerous activities planned are 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.
about other heritage railways?
publicity on the Mid Hants Railway website for their "War On
The Line" event in June says:
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 will provide visitors with a different experience of life
in wartime Britain, from running an RAF plotting room, to dancing
alongside ‘Now That’s Jive Company B’.
Ropley Station, visitors will also be able to undergo a 40s
makeover at Pearl’s Pin-up Parlour . . ."
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
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 promises to
be a truly unique and memorable experience."
would suggest that a line like that is disrespectful to those who
survived, not least because they can't recreate the atmosphere.
publicity for this year's 1940's Experience weekend, the Isle of
Wight Steam Railway say:
music and dance … Silk stockings and military machines … Men
in uniforms and spivs doing deals – pure nostalgia!"
our ‘Finest Hour’ - Experience the exciting and most dangerous
not sure you can experience the horror of the true danger on the
1940's and this publicity for this event appears to glamorise the
music, the clothes etc. I'm sure that's not the railway's
intention but that is how it appears to me.
then there was the unfortunate event on the Bluebell Railway in
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’.
This 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..."
"I 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'."
thought these World War II events should be renamed '1940's
"You 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
"The military aspect - in my opinion - shouldn't really go
further than a few 'home guard' patrols."
Others were not
convinced by the event:
"Nostalgia is fine but this stuff is effectively
‘tabloid’ history and demeans those who fought for our freedom
70 years ago".
"What's 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
"As 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
"The British forces (even the irregulars like the
Home Guard) would not have carried out summary executions if they
had arrested a suspected spy".
"I find the
whole idea of a 'family' event that is centered
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 heritage railway."
"Even 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
"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 civilian
This last comment
is well intended but I am not sure that accurate.
Bomber 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
Even 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.
Many 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 German intelligence.
It 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.
With 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?
I 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.
Many 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.
The 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.
But 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 army.
Well there was a
choice - fight for the Nazis or take a bullet in the back of the
backdrop of death and destruction on both sides, I find the World
War II events on heritage railways do to a large extent trivialise
And, it would seem
I am not alone. Newly-released National Archives files released last year 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.
wasn't just veterans who were unhappy. According to the released
files, none other than Forces' Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn
threatened to pull out of events for the D-Day anniversary in
I will leave the
last word with the North Yorkshire Railway. In their guidance
notes to re-enactors, they say:
"Please 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 2019