Wimbledon remembers WWII on D-Day anniversary

By Jaskaran Bahia

On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Wimbledon residents came together to share their memories of World War II.

New Wimbledon Studio hosted the event, which was attended by Shackleton actor Mark McGann.

“My father was a naval commander who almost lost his life on D-day on Arrowmanches beach, so there’s always a certain poignancy for me,” he said.

“To spend the day amongst people who were there, and are able to relay some first-hand experiences made it all the more special really.

“Short of going to Normandy it’s probably the best place I could have come today.”

Historian Norman Plastow, whose book, Safe as Houses: Wimbledon at War 1939-1945, purports to record every instance of bombing in Wimbledon, gave a talk filled with anecdotes on war weaponry, unexploded bombs and local spirit.

The jovial atmosphere allowed the audience joined in with their own tales, ranging from defiant mothers forgoing shelters, to visits to American soldiers stationed in Richmond.

The air of fondness in people’s stories was of particular interest to McGann, who will mine the day for inspiration when he directs the Merton Music Foundation’s Backstories next year.

“If you throw a load of people together in war time and they look back and talk about it as the best days of their lives,”he said

“There is something so unifying about having to wear your mortality so openly.

“I am sure there is a natural coming together and it’s not just about siege mentality or fear.”

Such attitudes were exemplified by Mitcham resident William Dedman, 78, whose father served as a searchlight operator and whose uncle survived a land mine in North Africa.

He said: “During the war the RAF were based at Blackbushe Airport, and the men we were with would take us – we were only young – down to the pub in the evenings.

“We used to bet the airmen we could drink a pint in a certain amount of time – they used to make some of money from us.”

In addition, Mr Dedman shared stories about learning to fish in the shadow of a POW camp and his grandmother lying about his age in order to send him to school.

However not all his recollections were coloured by youthful exuberance.

He said: “I did National Service in 1954, we came across Belsen and it’s true what they say –birds never sing there.

“The German word for dead is ‘tote’ and there were these big mounds of up to 5,000 ‘tote’buried there.”

Age Exchange, a Reminiscence Arts organisation, were also on hand to photograph and preserve any memorabilia attendants brought, including Mr Dedman’s 71-year-old active service bible.

Peter Churchill, who will compose the score for Backstories, provided music during the event, including some requested wartime favourites.

He stressed that it was important for the youngest members of a community to communicate with the oldest.

He said: “My eldest daughter said ‘I have to do diary of a teenage girl living, studying during the blitz, where am I going to find that information?’

“I said, ‘talk to your grandmother because that’s what she did!’ It’s just not seen as a resource.

“It’s living history – instead of staying at home and watching a documentary, go and speak to people while you still can.”

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