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VIDEO: Theale Library collects wartime memories for Their Finest Hour project

West Berkshire recently held its first wartime memories collection day.

A two-year national campaign run by the University of Oxford is collecting and digitally preserving Second World War memories and items for future generations — before these are lost forever.

West Berkshire’s first digital collection day was held at Theale Library on Tuesday, November 14.

A team of volunteers greeted and interviewed over 30 visitors from Reading, Newbury and the surrounding villages from 10am until 2pm.

“It was a really special day, and I was amazed at the turnout,” said West Berkshire culture & libraries volunteer officer, Gemma Taylor.

“It was such a privilege to be involved and to hear these incredible personal stories firsthand or re-told by family members.”

The project team is interested in contributions from people with any family connections to the war — not just servicemen.

This includes the contribution of the Home Front, the Commonwealth and American GIs to the British war effort.

Testimonies covered all aspects of the conflict ranging from death marches; the effects of PTSD; the retreat to Dunkirk; postwar rationing; mock air assaults on West Berkshire under ‘Exercise Spartan’; and the bombings of Newbury and Reading in February 1943.

Some stories captured lesser-known aspects of the war, while others highlighted its complexity.

West Berkshire's first digital collection day was held at Theale — and two more are planned
West Berkshire's first digital collection day was held at Theale — and two more are planned

One man was conscripted to work in the mines from 1943 due to a national shortage of coal miners.

‘Bevin Boys’, as they became known, were chosen at random — and this man suffered from asthma, his daughter told newburytoday.

And despite mining becoming listed as a reserved occupation, she said her father faced social stigma for ‘not fighting’ in the war.

Another man maintained contact with his pre-war German pen friend — who unsuccessfully tried to post him his Hitler Youth knife and medals.

Objects photographed and recorded varied from ration books and postcards to a memorial service programme for the 47 Allied officers killed by the Nazis after escaping from Stalag Luft III in March 1944 — depicted in the 1963 film, The Great Escape.

Stuart Lee, a senior member of the English Faculty at the University of Oxford, is the project lead for Their Finest Hour.

Speaking about how the project started, Dr Lee said: “We’ve been running the World War One project since 2006, 2008, so we’ve been doing what we call crowdsourcing for many years.

“And a lot of the time when we were doing that, we were asked about Second World War material.

“We did a trial with the National Army Museum in 2019 and then lockdown hit, so everything went on the backburner for the next couple of years.

“And then the National Lottery Heritage Fund kindly funded us to do this.”

West Berkshire’s next collection days will be held at Hungerford Library on Thursday, November 30 (10am until 2pm) and at West Berkshire Museum on Wednesday, January 17 (10am until 2pm).

Please contact gemma.taylor@westberks.gov.uk for further information or to volunteer at a collection day.

Visit https://theirfinesthour.english.ox.ac.uk/ to share your family story.

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