The 1940s at Dore old school: as the Royal Engineers defused a 50kg bomb left behind by the Luftwaffe, soldiers of the Hallamshire Battalion were checking their camouflage gear and grass-covered helmets.
“Where are you?” shouted a passing motorist. “I can’t see any of you!”
The soldiers nodded cheerily. “You get a better class of heckling at Dore,” said one infantryman.
To mark this year’s 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, Dore Village Society held a Living History Day on Saturday to launch an exhibition and oral history project about the wartime memories of people connected to the village.
Historian Janet Ridler from the Dore Village Society’s archives and heritage group contacted the University of Sheffield’s History department, and over the last month, she and MA student Joe Kearns have interviewed 10 people, most in their nineties.
The recordings will be made available online, and summaries and extracts will be edited into a booklet hopefully by this summer, said Janet.
“It was fascinating to be involved with such personal histories,” said Joe. “We later found that the process of interviewing these people meant they shared details they had never told their families and friends before.”
The interviews cover stories from around the world, including the memories of a code-operator from India, who told how she had to write out her school exam papers three times while at secondary school in Rajasthan.
“Japan controlled Indian waters, so each paper was carried on a different ship in the hope that one would make it through to be marked at Cambridge,” said Joe. “It worked, as she got her grades.”
Another interviewee grew up in occupied Austria, and told how fear of the Nazis meant her family life was very secretive.
“It meant she could hardly talk to her parents, which has affected her ever since,” said Joe.
Her father was conscripted into the German army and she met him for this first time when she was six, after the war was over, but observed that this was not unusual, estimating that at least seven out of ten of her schoolfriends had no father as they were growing up.
The project will continue, and Janet hopes anyone with wartime memories who lives or lived in Dore or has a connection with the village will get in touch via the Dore Village Society, and she can then arrange a visit to take an interview.
Joe Kearns reckons that the value of oral histories lies in their facility to show the everyday circumstances of people living through periods so different to our own.
“It’s not so much about facts and figures, it’s about what people felt at the time,” he said.
“The Second World War was such an extraordinary time by today’s standards, and it’s still within living memory, so asking people about it is probably the best way to help people now to empathise with how it was then.”
Janet Ridler hoped that local reenactment societies (including Milites Reenactments, Homefires Burning and Bird Dog Group) would attract potential new interviewees to the exhibition.
“More people came in today with stories to tell,” Janet said.
“People who lived through that time are so keen to leave their stories behind.”
She’s looking forward to interviewing a man in his nineties, who told her on Saturday he was on the first boat onto the Normandy beaches on D-Day, landing at night to remove landmines several hours before the main invasion began.
Janet reflected on the day, as the camouflaged soldiers played Florence Desmond’s ‘Deepest Shelter in Town’ via a blue tooth speaker hidden in the ammunition crate for their Bren gun.
“These stories bring it home to you that 80 years ago, people the same age as them and Joe were getting ready to go to war,” she said.
Joe agreed. “One interviewee remembered running home during an air raid to get her gas mask as a German plane flew over her head so close she could see the pilot.
“She said she was astonished at how young he looked.”
Contact: http://www.dorevillage.co.uk/pages/contact-us for more information.
See Telegraph heritage – pages 58 and 59.