Leeds nostalgia: Moving stories from WW2 archive

Robert Fleming at the World War 2 experience, Wetherby
Robert Fleming at the World War 2 experience, Wetherby
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Rob Fleming is stood in the archive room at the Second World War Experience Centre near Wetherby.

Behind him, piled neatly on row upon row of racking are stacks of grey boxes, each of which contain the personal stories of soldiers and civilians who served and lived through the Second World War.

Rob has been here for seven years and says there are still boxes he hasn’t opened and to prove it he reaches for one.

Inside it, we discover a leather-bound field camera with original glass nagative plates - a plaque on the camera reads ‘Mark I Exploder Dynamo Condenser’ and says it belonged to one GF Charleston.

“Smell it,” says Rob and there’s a slightly musty, oily scent from the object, which looks as though it could have been put in the bag just yesterday - the reality is was probably last used in earnest more than 70 years ago, prior to which it would have been lugged around Europe by a trooper and one can only imagine the kind of scenes its lens captured.

With a little cross referencing, Rob is quickly able to tell me more about its owner.

GF was a corporal, the items being donated by his widow after he died. In 1942 he was in Iraq as a metal rigger with 244 Squadron, servicing antiquated bi-plane bombers, which unbelievably were still in use right up to 1943. In 1946, he was demobbed, according to his file he didn’t like it. He eventually became a lab steward at Leeds University until his retirement in 1982. It is one of countless stories hidden inside the boxes, all of them waiting to be told.

“There are about 9,800 boxes,” says Rob. “The original collection was World War One and was started by De Peter Liddle and this came about as a result of that.

“We are re-indexing at the moment, trying to get everything on computer, which means us going through every box. Our aim is this will be a resource for families researching their genealogy - perhaps they are unable to find out details of a relative who served in the war but if they can find someone they served with, they will pretty much have the same story.

“Some boxes have eight people’s stories in them, whereas in other cases, one person takes up several.

“There are also 4,700 tapes, 45 minutes each side. We are in the process of transcribing them. We have done about a thousand. The tapes will only last so long, so we want to get all that online so it’s searchable.

“Some stories are amusing, heart-rending, some are people you know.”

Rob, a former RAF medic, whose passion is restoring and flying Second World War aircraft, became involved with the archive through a late colleague - he did not intend for it to become his job but he was hooked from the off.

“You can open some of these boxes and see what people did in the war - not just military personnel but civilians, most of whom didn’t think they did anything remarkable but their stories are full of emotional trauma, of losing relatives, working through the war and the hardship.”

Among the archive is a cache of letters sent to and from prisoners of war in Germany.

“We have last letters written by people which start, ‘If you’re reading this, I’m no longer here...’ And others which have hidden codes in, so, for example, the POW letters indicated to relatives whenever they mention the word ‘food’, if there’s a date in the following sentence, that’s when they were going to try to escape.

“The thing that gets me about all this is that the postmen at our end were delivering things to postmen at the other side - that continued despite the hostilities.

“It’s only when you read these things you realise how important it is that what happened gets recognised.”

Languishing in another box are the details of John H Gritten, a Royal Naval Volunteer Reservist, who was an official naval reporter and as Rob leafs through the box’s contents, he unearths pictures taken by him at the signing of the Japanese surrender - the pictures are clear and shiny, they could have been taken yesterday. It’s the stuff films are made of.

Another box describes the first 500 German POWs being moved out of Caen on D-Day, noting they were: “lined up seven deep on the shingle looking about as dejected as their comrades we have seen in Russian newsreels.” And this is barely scratching the surface of the archive.

Rob is keen to get more people and companies involved. They have a friends group and put on exhibitions and talks but most of all, they want to collect more memories.

Rob adds: “We want to fill more boxes. Many people think they didn’t do anything in the war but most have an interesting story.”

Contact the centre on 01937 541 274, email: enquiries@war-experience.org or log onto www.war-experience.org

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Leeds nostalgia: Bits of old Leeds sent to Germany... in 1979