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WW2 Re-enactment Events - Sanitising History?
(14 June 2019)

2019 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 all wars. 

What 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. 

In 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.

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 1930's.

In 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 told The Sun newspaper she cried when she saw people in German military uniforms from the Second World War.

"It was fascist fetishism," she said. "People were posing with these 'soldiers'."

She 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.

"My 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."

It 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.

This 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?

I 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.

A couple of years ago, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway barred a group who dress as German soldiers for its annual World War 2 re-enactment.

The 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.

Neil 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.

However in their publicity for this year's event, they say:

"Over 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 . . ."

I 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.

So how to other heritage railways portray these kind of events?

The Severn Valley Railway, in publicity for their event this summer, say:

"We turn the clocks back to the 1940s with this light-hearted journey back to wartime Britain." 

I 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.

Marker 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 monoxide poisoning.

The Severn Valley Railway's publicity continued: 

"With 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 story!" 


Amongst 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.

What about other heritage railways?

The publicity on the Mid Hants Railway website for their "War On The Line" event in June says:

"Transport yourself back in time to the 1940s, against the backdrop of a Second World War railway, to experience the 'Blitz Spirit'.

"Enjoy 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. 

"Each 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’.

"At Ropley Station, visitors will also be able to undergo a 40s makeover at Pearl’s Pin-up Parlour . . ."

"War on the Line is as much about reliving this period as enjoying the rush of the steam engine."

I 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. 

Yes, there was a blitz spirit but one of determination in the face of fear. Can the Mid Hants Railway really recreate that?  

And to say ". . . come along to soak up the atmosphere, War on the Line promises to be a truly unique and memorable experience."

I would suggest that a line like that is disrespectful to those who survived, not least because they can't recreate the atmosphere.

In publicity for this year's 1940's Experience weekend, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway say:

"Inspired music and dance … Silk stockings and military machines … Men in uniforms and spivs doing deals – pure nostalgia!"

You can "Relive our ‘Finest Hour’ - Experience the exciting and most dangerous 1940s"

I'm 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.

And then there was the unfortunate event on the Bluebell Railway in May 2009. 

Their 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.

I’m sorry? Was that re-enacting the past?  

The definition for re-enactment, according to the Oxford Dictionary is:

noun: reenactment

the acting 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'."

One correspondent thought these World War II events should be renamed '1940's weekend'

"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 event! 

"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 taste)".

"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 taste."

"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 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 civilian population)."

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 destructive capacity. 

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 head. 

Against this backdrop of death and destruction on both sides, I 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 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 entertainment" rather than sombre reflection. Sandcastle building and Spam fritter cooking contests were planned.

It 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 1994.

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.

Please 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."

Post script - Benjamin Gimbert and James Nightall

Benjamin 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.

Gimbert 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.

At 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.

As 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



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