It was the 1940’s War Weekend at Wansford, and I forsook my usual role of ticket inspector in order to carry out a secret assignment under cover. Away went my TTI uniform and out came the pinstripe suit and trilby that would allow me to mingle with the crowds throughout the event. Well, a man has to earn a crust, and with a supply of knocked off ration cards, petrol coupons, cigarettes and the finest line in ladies nylons from a source in the NAAFI, I had the opportunity to line my pockets with ill gotten gains through the black market.
As well as selling dodgy goods I was also recording the event through video and photos, for various outlets. I began on Friday evening; this was the set-up period and everyone who arrived was greeted with entertainment in the form of a German Bier Keller night. Karl’s Bavarian Brass provided the music and got the crowds going with thigh slapping ‘oompah’ music and singalong that seemed to create a good atmosphere. I needed some video footage of this for the promoters of the music acts, so I wasn’t oompahing or thigh slapping myself, but it was fun to watch.
Saturday dawned after two hours sleep, as I’d popped into Spike’s studio on the way home for a quick meeting and didn’t leave until Sian had force-fed me an entire Princess cake. Not that I took much forcing, and I hadn’t had any dinner …
My pre-dawn run to Wansford was promising with clear blue skies that pretty much lasted all day; a huge bonus for an outdoor photography event! I took in one of Jayne’s full English breakfasts to set myself up for the day ahead before starting filming. The café crew had outfitted themselves in dungarees as land girls; it was great to see everyone getting into the atmosphere of the occasion.
The railway was using two rakes of stock for the busy weekend; a British set of Mk1 coaches hauled by the 4F, plus the European rake with the Polish PKP tank loco. This enabled a number of scenarios to be played out over the weekend as we could represent both home and occupied Europe. I started off with a train journey on the Mk1’s; the train had plenty of 40’s era soldiers and civilians on board who could purchase my knocked off goods and then pose for pictures. As the train neared Ferry Meadows a contingent of British soldiers came along checking the ID cards of passengers. They came into my coach, and seemed to find an issue with a well-dressed man. After some deliberation he was questioned before being manhandled into the Guard’s van. On arrival at Peterborough he was found to be a spy after some ‘robust’ questioning on the platform, which created an interesting cameo scene!
I returned to Wansford for one of the highlights of the day; a fierce gun battle that recreated events that took place in the assault on Arnhem in 1944 as part of Operation Market Garden. This event features in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’; an extremely bloody and full frontal series of attacks by Allied Forces attempting to break through German lines and seize several strategic bridges over the Rhine. I had a great vantage point of the battle – a benefit of working on the railway – and managed some good video clips of the intense battle. I was better prepared after last year, and went for close ups of the action shot from a high vantage point. This enabled me to avoid filming 21st Century backgrounds and the audience as the aim of the film is to create an authentic atmosphere to the scene whenever possible.
Although I recalled how loud the gunshots and explosions were from last year, it still comes as shock when the battle gets going. We had about 20 minutes of close up fighting as the allied soldiers attempted to take the railway yard but were driven back, slowly but surely, by the German forces. The body count escalated on both sides and brought to home the reality of the war in sharp contrast to the various home front activities on display throughout the weekend.
With the battle over I resumed spivving and photographing cameo scenes around Wansford. Performers were singing wartime songs on the platform, including Katie Spitfire and The Forces Sweethearts, and that provided a pleasant soundtrack to work with on the station. Other activities included sales stands with clothing and memorabilia, wartime food in the café and various displays of vehicles, command posts, tank rides and a vintage bus service to Sacrewell Farm.
By now it was time to proceed to my next observation post – the signalbox. The area around the River Nene rail bridge was now France, and the resistance had set up a plot to blow up the bridge as the train approached. The small team laid charges, but were thwarted by a German patrol. The train (the European set) was halted on the bridge, and as the troops on board alighted to see what was wrong they were ambushed by concealed allied troops. All hell broke loose, and in the melee the resistance managed to detonate the explosives on the bridge. Intense fighting took place under the smoke screen before the Germans regained control of the situation.
After the battle the soldiers could chill out in the traditional manner – go down the pub! They had a special Routemaster bus laid on for them and were kind enough to welcome me onboard for a great set of photos (going out) and video on their return a couple of well-oiled hours later on! Quite what the regulars at Wansford village made of a busload of armed troops turning up for a pint or two is not yet known …
The day didn’t end there by a long chalk; in the evening I was filming The Spitfire Ball; a real 1940’s dance with live performances from the excellent Katie Spitfire, Forces Sweethearts and compered by the witty cockney banter of Keith Cross. During the interval, swing DJ ‘The Professor’ kept the music and dancing going with bomb songs and boogie-woogie music (it says here). The show ended at 11pm with a firework display that I managed to catch – just! My memory card ran out minutes before final burst, but never mind, I had plenty of material to get to work with.
So, back to Grantham for some much needed sleep. I wish! Before bedtime it was upload time for the video and photos that took ages to transfer across. Then respond to the day’s banter about the event on Facebook … another late night!
Events on Sunday were broadly similar, but with an interesting and glamorous twist. I brought Sian and Spike down for the day, and Sian looked absolutely stunning in her 40’s outfit. In the true spirit of wartime make do and mend, she’d fashioned together her outfit from what was available the night before, added subtle accessories and borrowed a hat to set off the effect. Using make up techniques and bright lipstick from the period, Sian turned heads and lenses all day long. Although she wasn’t working as a model as such – it was her day off as she was keen to constantly remind me – we created some set pieces that we’d planned beforehand – and they worked brilliantly. Naturally I wanted some sexy poses with the loco, and the all-important waving her lover off on the train as he went to war.
The battle scene in the yard followed as it had done on Saturday, before a first time event for the war weekend – Miss Peterborough 1940’s. I’d been asked to officiate at the contest as photographer, and who’s going to turn down a job like that? Sadly the compere didn’t turn up as planned, but it’s wartime and so the show must go on! A stand in hastily took over, and the 11 ladies did their stuff and answered a couple of questions before I took their pictures and the next contestant came on.
For the first time in my photographer’s life, I was actually nervous about my role! It’s a daunting task taking official pictures for somebody else, because they have to be top-notch quality and I wanted to do the girls justice. It wasn’t the contestants themselves who put me on edge – they were all charming girls. The audience was also fine – what put me off was the bloody professional photographers with huge paparazzi lenses and grumpy faces who were clearly annoyed that I’d got this gig. Most sat in the front row of the audience, and their under the breath comments and remarks didn’t exactly help as I tried to pose each girl and take a clear shot in low light. I know this for a fact, because one of them was kind enough to tell me later on that he is the best re-enactment photographer around and has the biggest camera to prove it. He travels all round the country photographing these events, and modestly assured me that his pictures were better than everyone else’s because … yadder, yadder, yadder. I really needed that just before doing my first ever official gig, thanks a lot mate. And why do you need a 1200mm zoom lens to photograph a girl standing less than 20 feet from the audience? You could photograph every individual hair on her head with that – creepy…
Fortunately most of my pictures seem to be okay, which is a huge relief. The group shots were tricky, as I had no idea what was happening. The organiser kept adding various people into the group so that it got larger and larger, meaning that I had to arrange them to create an artistic group rather than the overcrowded tube train look that I started with. We got there in the end, and it gave me a taste of what wedding photographers have to cope with! They were lovely people to work with; I wish I could have had more time to create some really great group shots and portraits, preferably without the backchat from the audience as I mentioned.
Sian had entered the contest, and although she sadly didn’t win, she enjoyed herself a lot and it gave her a new experience to try out. She was the first girl to be called up and coped well with nerves as it’s not easy getting up in front of a marquee full of people. I was really proud of her. The judges couldn’t decide on a winner, so chose to split first place between two of the contestants, which I thought was very fair. There was a cash first prize, but the highlight is to attend a 1940’s photoshoot at Duxford Air Museum in order to create a calendar. And guess who’s been asked to do that job? I hope to have more on that exciting opportunity in the future.
Time was not on our side at this point, however, as the bridge battle was about to commence and I had to free up the participants to go to war. We watched from the signalbox although this time I was taking stills instead of video. It meant shooting through glass, as some of the 39 – 45 Living History Society were filming through the open window and as I’d had it to myself on Saturday it was the chivalrous thing to do. Despite this, I got some rather good shots in.
The end of the battle signalled the wind down of the weekend, and people began to pack up and drift away. But there was still time for one last shoot. Spike suggested that I get arrested by some Germans and create a scene of my own! It was easy enough to find a patrol of soldiers, and as the station was nearly empty, we could film without interruption. I boarded the European coaches and alighted from the last coach. A German patrol demanded to see my papers and the contents of my suitcase. They weren’t satisfied, so I was arrested at gunpoint and led down the platform with hands up while being barked at in German. It attracted much attention from the remaining audience and Spike took a great set of pictures.
And there ended the day. It was exhausting but great fun and the people were fantastic. I have hundreds of pictures, and a huge thanks to everyone who posed for them. People are used to being photographed at these events, but then they never get to see their photos unless they stumble across them by accident. My approach is a simple one based on nothing more than good manners. Ask people if they mind the picture being taken; create a scene and shoot. I give them a card with the gallery address so they can view it as part of the set, and they can request a high-res copy by email. Everyone I spoke to really appreciated this; most of them told me they never get to see their own photos, which is a pity given the amount of trouble they go to dress up and perform throughout the day. A little bit of manners goes an awful long way in creating goodwill I have discovered.
The battle scenes and military displays were all created and performed by members of The 39 – 45 Living History Society. It is important to explain that they do not in any way glorify war. Re-enactments are well-researched events based on actual conflicts during World War 2, and bring to life in dramatic form the reality of armed combat in difficult circumstances.
Evening entertainment and the beauty Contest was provided by More Muzic, and featured Katy Spitfire; The Forces Sweethearts; Keith Cross and The Professor.
The 1940’s Event will return to Wansford next year. In the meantime, the photos will be posted to my Living History Gallery in due course, with video to follow. Now I have to go and edit some pictures …