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

Stand-up, Hook-up & Hit the D.Z..!

It’s just as green and beautiful as I remember!”… the first words of former Private Billie Taylor of the US 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment as he stepped down from the coach that had brought him back to the former World War Two RAF air-base at Chilbolton near Winchester in Hampshire one beautiful Autumnal Saturday morning some years ago…

In late 1943 Chilbolton had became the home to members of the US 17th & 82nd Airborne Divisions, in advance of their deployment in the assault on the Normandy coast and in support of full-scale Allied operations on the ground; and for Billie and his wife Frances this long trip from their home in Indiana marked an emotional return to British soil for the first time since war’s end!

It was also to be just the start of an even longer pilgrimage to the Belgian Ardennes, the location in 1944 of the cauldron that was the Battle of the Bulge thence to the Rhine and ultimately on to Berlin, arranged through MilSpecTravel in association with Libertyroad.com, a specialist travel company offering battlefield & military tours for US veterans of World War Two under the expert eye of specialist tour guide Mr Patrick Hinchey.

In fact it was Patrick who was later to be the expert guide on the 2000 ‘Friendly Convoy’ when as the only journalist invited along, I had the real & most emotional honour of travelling back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and on into Alsace-Lorraine in the wonderful company of Veterans & Widows of the US 79th Infantry Division; thence later with Patrick as my own personal guide, when I travelled to Bad Kreuznach in Germany to interview former Musikmeister of the Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’  SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn, for my book‘The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945’…

But back to Billie’s pilgrimage and, arriving in England soon after its formation in mid-1943, under the motto ‘Thunder from Heaven’, the 17th Airborne, (boasting one parachute & two WACO glider regiments), first saw combat in Europe in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, thence in March 1945, the division had the honour of making America’s first & only airborne assault into an enemy heartland as they crossed the River Rhine into Germany in Operation Varsity….

As Billie’s memory-laden return to England continued to unfold before him, I was able to quietly observe this modest man from a distance as he took in this former war-time British airfield spread out all about him; and I could see that faraway look come into his eyes, a look that I have seen on so many occasions with many combat veterans, Allied & German, both here & overseas.

In my journalistic experience, it is a look that only men who have actually fought in combat take on… and I’ve come to realise that when I see it, it’s sometimes best not to say a thing as all their thoughts come flooding back: action seen, good buddies lost, life perhaps that could only have minutes more to run as mortal danger threatens to envelope them!

Some combat soldiers, like Al Sepulveda, a heavily decorated US 82nd Airborne Veteran from Los Angeles, who parachuted into Occupied Europe at 2.25am on the morning of ‘D-Day’ 6th of June 1944, again later at St Mere Eglise, (a jump immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’) and at Nimegen and who was awarded a Silver Star at Oosterbeck, will want to talk about their war and share all its details… whilst others will just want to slowly slip away from the crowds and quietly relect on their own.

Billie was in the latter camp, so I just stood silently in the shadows under the trees watching him as he cast his gaze slowely around the former combat glider airstrip around him and so obviously recalled a previous life spent here in a small part of the beautiful English countryside.

Then after a long while alone with his prized & personal memories, the reflective mood of the afternoon was broken as party of British combat veterans wearing their prized airborne forces red berets respectfully appeared and offered their personal welcome to all of the American veterans present at a small ceremony of remembrance.

In a ceremony befitting such a WW-II Veteran visit, both American & British Unit Colours & Honours were presented and wreaths laid at the memorial commemorating the vital role that this former World War Two airfield played in the build-up to the D-Day assault on the French coast of Normandy and thence all future Allied airborne drops over Occupied Europe…

Then the formal mood of Remembrance lifted as the American party was escorted by their former British paratrooper compatriots into the nearby village of Chilbolton; here they were able to finally enjoy a rare treat that many of them had not tasted since 1945: a traditional cream-tea that is now a regular custom laid on by the Hampshire locals who regularly play host to many returning former US airborne troops whom, as younger men, had become a regular & much-loved part of the village fabric back in those turbulent & momentous years of 1943 & 1944.

Then following a few precious hours in the Britain’s ancient capital, the nearby City of Winchester, and a moving Vin d’Honneur, (a simple but truly heartfelt formal ceremony of welcome), by the City’s Fathers to these returning WW-II Veterans, at which I was proudly made an Honourary Member of the 17th Airborne Division Association, it was back on to the coach in preparation for their trip across the Channel and onto the continental leg of their European pilgrimage….

As in the final months of World War Two these former US airborne warriors would once again be facing another reception by German parachute forces… though on this occasion it would be a much anticipated, (and this time friendly!), reception in the lovely small German town of Wesel… and by the very Fallschirmjäger ground troops they last met and fought when they jumped & glided in on top of them during Operation Varsity in March 1945!

Where once their one and only aim was that of killing each other, now these Allied & German veteran soldiers would embrace each other as firm friends… truly, war is a strange thing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013