The first tendrils of dawn crept slowly, but inexorably, across the horizon. Restless, I shifted my position, checked equipment for the umpteenth time and looked across at Shorty. There was a flash of white teeth and the luminous hands of my imitation Breitling Superocean Chronographe glowed faintly in the gloom. “Time to go,” I whispered. Muffled sounds of packs being hoisted onto backs, zips pulled up, clips fastened. Faces black in the half-light, we set off, hearts pounding, the rubber souls of our boots soundless on the tarmac. So, this was it. We turned left at the fourteenth sheep and headed across seemingly peaceful fields, wet with dew, full of morning smell. Others had reconnoitred before us: we followed their advice and, occasionally, took a map bearing just to be sure. One false step could take us along the wrong public footpath; this was Life at the Edge.
Our objective – the village of Ingleton in North Yorkshire. Many, including at the highest levels of Government, were unaware of any military activity in this area. However, intelligence, supported by an effective leaflet and poster campaign, alerted us to the fact that Ingleton, for one weekend in July, has an alter-ego as a French village occupied during the Second World War. It is called ‘Operation Homeguard’ – Ingleton’s 1940s Weekend.
We approached from the south, heading for the strategic road crossing over the River Greta. Out of nowhere, disaster struck. In a densely wooded rocky ravine quite a few feet deep, one member of our platoon slipped on a carelessly placed rock. He suffered a nasty fall, narrowly missing the stream which gushed terrifyingly, and with all the rapidity of poured treacle, several inches below his nose. Our rendezvous was due at 1100 hours; time, we felt, to have a mooch round and a pub lunch before the Spitfire flew over at 1425 (weather permitting). So, with our casualty fighting back the pain from a lightly grazed elbow, and the discomfort of muddy trousers, we pressed on, resolutely.
No plan survives contact with the enemy. The next setback was a sign which announced ‘Bull in field’. The presence of an extremely large, undoubtedly male, cow established that this statement was true. I like to imagine the creature gazing lazily over the top of its spectacles as it chewed the cud, daring us to enter his domain. But was the notice some kind of clumsy disclaimer, should a member of the public be gored whilst walking along a public footpath? Cursing the moronic farmer – doesn’t he know there’s a war on? – and rejecting the idea of shooting the bull on the grounds that a) it would possibly be a bit extreme, definitely unfair, and b) we did not have a gun, it was decided that cowardice was the better part of valour. This was the spirit that built an empire (and then lost it). So General Mayhem (commanding) decided that the best course of action was to retrace steps and come upon our objective from the west. By the time we got there, Ingleton dans les Dales had already been liberated. I was particularly pleased to note that the Americans appeared to have arrived early on this occasion.
Everyone seemed very happy. The erstwhile combatants – mostly members of the Wehrmacht, GIs and Free French Resistance – looked as if they were getting on rather well. Some civilians were shamelessly fraternising. There were few British troops around – apart from, oddly enough, members of Ingleton’s Home Guard. “Don’t tell them your name, Pike”. Perhaps British WWII uniforms aren’t as nice – I certainly have it on good authority that they scratch a bit when dancing, as well as at other critical moments. But it was an eclectic mix – including someone, fully whiskered and resplendent in a pith helmet, who looked as though he’d stumbled into the wrong war.
That said, there were a couple of tough-looking Red Devils - Paras. However, several of the troops looked like they had been waiting since the 1940s to be there and had, meanwhile, taken the opportunity to eat thoroughly. In general, the Germans looked somewhat fitter.
The presence of very authentic-looking German troops was vaguely unnerving. Apparently it upsets some people. I did overhear someone ask, in a slightly offended tone, “What are they doing here?” I completely get this reaction, but wanted to point out that the Second World War just would not have been the same if Germany had stayed out.
On a, brief, serious note: it’s a potentially delicate debate, but clearly this event, like any other involving people dressing up in public, was intended to be light-hearted. And it was. Staying away from the fun for another moment, I did wonder what a village in the Yorkshire Dales had been like during the War. That’s for another day; but I do suspect that an event like this would be very different if staged somewhere that had suffered heavy destruction - like Coventry, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Clydebank, or London. And I wondered if it could take place at all in countries that suffered far worse than Britain – including France and Germany. But critics should know that 48 men from Ingleton gave their lives in the two world wars. We should remember ALL who perished and at the same time be absurdly grateful if we are lucky enough to live in a reasonably liberal, tolerant, society. I won’t put up with intolerance.
Back to the Liberation; we spent an awful lot of time waiting for the Spitfire. I love these aircraft and had the perfect photo-shot in my head, imagining the sleek fighter zooming up the valley by the railway viaduct, waggling its wings as it banked off to attack a local farmer, who had been careless with his bulls. “Wo ist die RAF?” I thought I heard a captured elderly Hauptman ask. No one seemed to know. Rumours circulated: it had got lost (not great for morale); it had run out of petrol (slightly worrying); both of the above and was currently in Morecambe (possible); it had been bounced by two Messerschmitts coming out of the sun (unlikely – it was a cloudy day). We subsequently heard rumours that: it had turned up, but after sundown and nobody saw it; it did an impressive flypast over the wrong village; the pilot had left his varifocals at home.
There was a lot of amusing stuff to take in at Ingleton’s 1940s weekend, some of it intentional. For some reason, I found it hilarious that the Italian Restaurant was closed, because the proprietors had gone on holiday; that’s their story, I thought. There was period music – big band, of course – plus we were entertained by one Colin Bourdiec, allegedly on loan from ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), who did a very passable impersonation of George Formby. It’s turned out nice again.
There were stalls selling period bric-a-brac, clothing and uniforms, some of it possibly genuine and most of it over-priced. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sucker for 20th century memorabilia – ask Head Office (only a twisted mind would spot any ambiguity there) – but I’m sure some of these vendors are looking for people called Wally or Charlie.
The organisation of ‘Operation Homeguard’ was decidedly flaky in places, but you’d worry if things like this were horribly efficient, wouldn’t you? We enjoyed it so much that we returned the following day to witness the street parade. This time, we used some of our petrol ration and took the car. The parade was led by the City of Bradford Pipe Band and featured a Winston Churchill lookalike who, I must say, did a fine job. The band was great – you might initially think they originated from that well-known Bradford in the Highlands but, no, they are indisputably from the Bradford in Yorkshire, were established in 1914 and have won all sorts of awards.
As we set off back to Blighty, the cheers of the liberated ringing in our ears, I’m sure I saw a member of the Homeguard, binoculars glued to his eye-sockets, vainly searching for that illusive Spitfire. He may be there still.