War on the Line..!

Your papers please..!”  barks the Military Policeman from the US 101st Airborne at the hapless passenger cringing in his 3rd class seat: the carriage goes quiet as the soldier then casts his eyes over the proffered Identity Card… “That’s OK!”.. then, in a cloud of Blanco dust and bristling military efficiency, he’s gone and the passengers breath a collective sigh of relief!

War on the Line the annual recreation of the momentous Summer of 1944 had once again returned to Hampshire’s famous Watercress steam railway line…

Battle re-enactment once something of a ramshackled hobby practiced by a few well-meaning but somewhat disorganised enthusiasts has, in recent years, very much become a recognised branch of the entertainment world, particularly in today’s TV documentary-making business, where original film footage is either non-existent or, if it actually still exists, then almost certainly prohibitively expensive. Therefore commissioning one of the many semi-professional specialist groups across the country to re-enact a particular scenario from an important point in history for the cameras is, if undertaken professionally, with the correct look, feel & sound effects, is more often than not a quite satisfying substitute..!

So completely taking over a renovated steam railway-line for the week-end to act out a specific war-time theme is no longer a total surprise, but simply further evidence of the growing range of scenarios that these amateur, highly knowledgeable enthusiasts like to re-create and so arriving at Alresford’s old station one lovely sun-drenched Hampshire Saturday morning in summer as I did, with a genuine a steam engine, idling contentedly at the platform in a cloud of happy steam, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered onto the set of a major war movie..!

American military policemen sitting in their jeeps cradling their carbines expectantly, ramrod-straight Grenadier Guardsmen in sentry-boxes with their Lee Enfield Mk IV rifles gripped tightly, station windows taped-up as protection against bomb blasts and barbed wire strewn across the station entrance: then suddenly the station forecourt comes alive as a small, bedraggled field-grey group of helmet-less ‘German soldiers’ are marched from the station door under escort towards the waiting jeeps..!

This was a scene that must have been re-enacted countless times for real across the whole of Southern England in those summer days immediately following the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day June 6th 1944.

Back then and less than 50 miles away, paratroopers from the U.S.101st & 82nd Airborne Divisions had jumped into Normandy as British & Canadian Infantrymen were fighting their way off the UK-designated invasion beaches of Gold, Juno & Sword and the Americans similarly from their allocated beacheheads of Utah & Omaha… and in the ensuing and very bloody melee that followed, many thousands of German soldiers were swiftly captured by the rapidly advancing Allied forces.

Rounded up and brought back across the Channel in the returning landing craft, these stunned & defeated soldiers of Hitler’s army would arrive at Southampton Docks under the stern gaze of British & US military policemen, many of whom had just taken part in the first wave of assaults on the Normandy coastline but who were now being sent back on ‘R&R’ only to find themselves pressed back into service as P.o.W. escorts. Now from the quay-side at Southampton the mixed bags of German prisoners would be marched onto waiting trains and escorted to the stockades on the Kempton Race course, their war well and truly over!

Today, at several stations all along Hampshire’s famous Watercress Line such scenarios from that Summer of ’44 are now faithfully acted ever year: ‘downed’ Luftwaffe fighter & bomber pilots and captured SS infantrymen from the SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment ‘Theodor Eicke’ are paraded on the platforms, under the watchful gaze of amazingly authentic-looking regular Grenadier Guardsmen and older Home Guard soldiers.

At Medstead & Four Marks station, local re-enactor Bryan Webb had spent over 6 months on the war-time transformation of this country railway station and now found himself dressed as a private in the Home Guard unit of the 21st Battalion, (4th Southern Railway), Hampshire, who would have actually been responsible for guarding the railway lines across Southern England at that stage of the Second World War.

Bryan explained how his friends like to recreate the less glamorous side of the British Home Front: “My Dad served in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Blitz, so I thought I’d like to show that side of the war”. His friend, Italian P.o.W. ‘Benito’, better known as Mick Burkenshaw from Britain’s Blacked Out Museum, agrees: “All re-enactors want to portray the glamour, but our group prefers showing what our parents went through on the Home Front”.

His parents should be justly proud of their work, for there on the platform everybody was accurately represented: young Land Army girls with their long auburn hair sitting on a bale of hay eating their sandwiches, an ARP warden busy dealing with unexploded incendiaries whilst the station master in waistcoat & steel helmet stands patiently awaiting the next train..

Everywhere the standard of re-creation is quite extraordinary and the efforts of these young actors is well-received by the older audience, but was this emotional week-end just a trip down memory lane? Mid-Hants Watercress Line company secretary Mrs Jo Boait explained: “ As a company we are here to keep the image of the old steam railway alive for everybody, but an important event like ‘War on the Line’ not only helps to capture the atmosphere but also shows a younger generation just what those days were like”.

Then, as if right on cue, another sullen group of captured German infantrymen are escorted from this beautiful old Victorian-style railway station by stern-faced US Military Policemen, past a small group of small wide-eyed children, who can only stand & stare, open-mouthed… no doubt very much the same reaction that would have been exhibited by their young counterparts nearly 70 years ago, I’ll wager..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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