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The battle on Lytham Green at the 1940s Festival

PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 October 2017

World War 2 re-enactment in Lytham *** Local Caption *** World War 2 re-enactment in Lytham

World War 2 re-enactment in Lytham *** Local Caption *** World War 2 re-enactment in Lytham

John Cocks

Troops clash in the seaside town as Allied forces attempt to capture a German fuel dump. Paul Mackenzie reports from the front line.

The crack of a rifle rips through the smoke-filled air and a soldier falls. He is a young man, perhaps about 20, whose face contorts with pain as he slumps to the ground. His comrades drag him to cover as the bullets continue to fizz past them. In a lull in the firing, they help him back their camp, near a bombed out hotel.

This is France in June 1944 and the Allied forces are attempting to secure a fuel depot close to Rommel’s ‘Atlantic wall’, the Nazis’ extensive network of coastal defences.

The Allied attack is three-pronged. British commandos are assisted by American troops in jeeps and have aerial support from Spitfires.

The Wehrmacht soldiers repel the first Allied attack but gradually they are weakened but after persistent bombardment from a booming six-pounder gun and an almost constant barrage of clattering rifle fire, they find themselves cornered.

As the thrum of Spitfire engines gets louder, panic seems to spread through the threadbare German lines. In a rattle of the planes’ guns the battle is all but over and the fuel depot – vital to both sides’ chances of ultimate success – is saved.

Survivors are captured and the Allies are pleased with a job well done. But as a German officer is led away, he breaks free from his guards just long enough to lob a stick bomb among the barrels. Soldiers hurl themselves to the ground and behind any cover they can find in the seconds before an almighty explosion sends a ball of fire and thick black smoke high into the air and the crowd begins to applaud.

Once the smoke has cleared, troops from both sides line up to observe a minute’s silence before the young German felled in the early exchanges of the battle walks away towards Lytham windmill, chatting with the British soldier who shot him.

The troops come from all walks of life and they are all members of the Northern World War Two Association (NWW2A), a group with more than 350 members who take part in living history events and re-enactments such as this one at Lytham’s 1940s Festival.

The battle on Lytham Green was just one part of the weekend-long event which also saw wartime entertainment, a parade of military vehicles and scores of stalls displaying memorabilia from the front line and the Home Front.

For Steve Turner, such events are vital if the memories of the horrors of the conflict are not to be lost with the rapidly dwindling numbers of veterans.

He is a teacher whose passion for history led him to start collecting World War Two artefacts at his home near Ulverston but, he says: ‘It was no use having it and then keeping it all locked away so no-one could see it.’

Steve been involved with the NWW2A for about five years and represents a soldier with the 13th (Lancashire) parachute battalion, British 6th airborne division. He adds: ‘It’s all about educating people and keeping the memory alive. If just one person goes away with a piece of new knowledge, then that makes it worthwhile. We have got to tell people because as time passes people forget what war is like.

‘Most people get involved in re-enactments through a love of history. We are not pretending to be soldiers, we know we’re not. Those people were heroes and we’re just portraying what they went through and the equipment they used.’

Steve attends events with his wife Linda – who portrays a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry – and their dogs Bramble and Cody. ‘Not many people know that dogs were parachuted into France,’ Steve says. ‘But Bramble the para dog wears a parachute and that’s often a talking point that means people leave having learned something.’

Nick Richards from Bolton is chairman of the NWW2A and portrays the commanding officer of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company (Pathfinders) British 6th Airborne, but just a few years ago he was the Federal Army commander in the American Civil War Society.

He confesses that his own military career went no further than 18 months in the Boys Brigade as a child in Bolton but adds: ‘I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Hitler. I was born in a house for evacuees from the Channel Islands in 1945.’

The former doorman is another who was attracted to re-enactments through his interest in history. ‘We do this to honour the people who were there. For us, it’s tongue in cheek and a bit of fun, but for them it was life or death and it means so much to us when veterans come to see us and tell us they appreciate what we do to keep those memories alive.’

And Dave Gledhill, from Burnley, stresses the importance of remembering the sacrifices made on both sides. He appears in the re-enactment as unit commanding officer of the 352nd Infanterie division, of the German army. He says: ‘I grew up hearing stories about how evil the German soldiers all were, but as you learn more you realise a lot of them were conscripts, just like many of the British. We are not political at all, we are just portraying the uniform and the times. We’re not excusing anything, but trying to show some balance.’

Event organiser Paul Hilditch provided commentary on the battle from a trailer beside the battlefield, from where the sound of those Spitfires was also broadcast. Paul, another teacher who came to re-enacting through a love of history, says: ‘What we do is all about the drama and the theatre and that was a really good battle.’

Among the troops of the German 352nd Infanterie division gathered around the façade of the bombed out hotel is one with a genuine – if slightly odd – connection to the Nazis. As a young soldier working as a guard in Spandau Prison, Glaswegian Steve Martin once ate a salad made for Hitler’s former deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess. ‘It was for his lunch but he was away at hospital,’ Steve says. ‘It was very nice.’

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