'The boat rammed the beach and down went the ramp'

15th August 2008 at 01:00
As the second phase of a national venture, `Their Past Your Future', is launched, Jean McLeish talks to veterans of the Second World War

It is 65 years ago this summer since Alex Sim took part in the Allied Invasion of Sicily, code-named "Operation Husky".

The seasick 20-year-old was a long way from his Aberdeenshire home, when he plunged from the landing craft into the shallow waters off Sicily at daybreak on July 10, 1943.

The young Gordon Highlander was already a seasoned campaigner and, in the previous October, fought in another key allied victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein, in the North African desert.

Alex is now a bright and cheerful 85-year-old, who vividly remembers the details of wartime conflicts. His accounts of battle are compelling and remarkable. He even mimics the voices of his commanding officers barking orders and recalls the tiniest detail, right down to the daily ration of seven cigarettes they prophetically described as "gaspers".

His sharp memory made him an ideal interviewee to share his personal experiences of the Second World War during the first phase of the national venture "Their Past Your Future". It included a range of exhibitions, oral history projects, and entertainments to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in 2005.

Today, Alex is among a small group of veterans at the launch of the second phase of "Their Past Your Future" at the Gordon Highlanders Museum, a popular visitor attraction set in stunning gardens in the west end of Aberdeen. This next venture - Remembering Scotland at War - will focus on more oral reminiscences, with schoolchildren gathering the memories of older generations in communities across the country.

It will include women who worked in shipyards and armaments factories, and men like Alex who fought in battles in Europe and North Africa. His recollections are included in a colourful educational resource pack for teachers, developed by Aberdeen City Council and The Gordon Highlanders Museum during the first phase. The inside cover includes a photograph of handsome, kilted Sergeant Sim (left) and the contents feature his account of the hours before El Alamein.

"It was the 23rd October. You could feel the tenseness in the air. Tonight, we were going. We were lying there ready to march off. We could hear a piper playing a tune on his pipes - it was `Back of Bennachie'."

And then later: "Bayonets fixed in your rifle and then it was fairly bloody. That night there was a lot of blokes killed. El Alamein lasted nearly 14 days by my reckoning, and we were there all the time."

People like Alex are giving youngsters the chance to gather first-hand accounts of the most significant events in recent modern history and to record the experiences of ordinary people and their response to extraordinary events.

Now Museums Galleries Scotland has announced details of a further 10 museum-led initiatives collecting similar stories at venues across the country from Orkney and Lewis to West Lothian and Clydebank. Reminiscences will come from frontline soldiers as well as those who braved the bombings and food shortages back home in everyday life.

The first of the next series of 10 oral history projects is scheduled to begin this summer with the possibility of an additional five projects to follow. The reminiscences will be exhibited on a website launched in 2010 and will include diary and newspaper extracts, old photographs and film archive, documents and paintings collected during the research.

The material will be available as classroom teaching aids via Learning and Teaching Scotland's schools' intranet, Glow.

"We are hoping `Their Past Your Future' will be an example of best practice for teachers. They can plan lesson plans with the website. It will be constructed for whiteboard use, so it will be easy for teachers to access in the classroom," explained Andrew Salmond, project manager for "Their Past Your Future".

It's hoped to include suggested activities on the website with material suitable for pupils in P6 and 7 studying the Second World War as part of the curriculum. It's also envisaged secondary pupils can become involved with projects, particularly helping younger children develop audio and video recording techniques.

The projects will be funded with Pounds 590,000 of Big Lottery Funding to help schools and communities purchase the audio and video recording equipment. Pupils will also be trained to record material, showing sensitivity towards contributors who may become emotional and may be speaking about their experiences for the first time.

"It's part of the training - you're not just handed the kit. It's how to use it and also the interview techniques," explains Joanne Orr, chief executive officer of Museums Galleries Scotland. "It's also done in a natural way, in that they are there talking about a particular theme and in some ways the veteran is contributing their knowledge of the whole subject area to begin with and then you are moving into actual personal experience coming out of that.

"Old people, young people when you get them interacting, you actually get a lot more. It becomes a very natural process rather than a set formal interview.

"It will be done in a variety of ways. It will often be a group with one veteran perhaps starting off talking to them. So you are getting them to talk to them first about a subject area. Sometimes it will be one-to-one - it just depends on how the project wants to approach it. Often it's the museum that's identified veterans that want to be involved."

Work to be led by The Gordon Highlanders Museum with schools in Aberdeen city and shire will also document the accounts of veterans of post-war conflicts and peacekeeping missions, in-cluding soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan.

"Often children have never heard of conflicts such as Aden or Korea. So the veteran actually wants to tell them about those conflicts before they even get onto their personal experiences," Ms Orr said.

Among future potential con- tributors at the launch is Gordon Highlander Lieutenant Colonel Bob Strachan, 78, a veteran of conflicts which broke out at flashpoints all over the world after he joined up - Malaya, Cyprus, Borneo, and with peacekeeping duties in Swaziland, Zanzibar and Kenya. "I then had a couple of tours in Northern Ireland," says Bob, whose father and two brothers were also Gordon Highlanders.

He admits he struggles to write or talk in detail about his own experience of battle, for reasons he's not quite able to put his finger on - perhaps a mixture of reserve and self-effacement. "Being reticent, it's very difficult to try and say to people when you pulled the trigger or created an explosion or something happened, awfully difficult," he says.

Colonel Bob, as he's known to friends, has been "soldier daft" since his schooldays in Banchory in the 1930s and 40s. Battle scenes still unravel in his dreams and wake him from sleep, but the army is in his blood and it's clear he wouldn't have changed his life of soldier's adventures for anything.

"I was a ranker. I joined in 1950 and rose through the ranks to Regimental Sergeant Major, was commissioned in 1970 and then finished up as a Colonel Quarter Master at Gordon Barracks in 1985 after 36 years service," he adds.

Bob's only son became a soldier, his two daughters married soldiers and he now has two grandsons in the forces - one a captain serving in Afghanistan, the other likely to head there shortly. This is a texting grandfather who communicates by email with his grandsons on the front line.

How things have changed since Second World War soldier Alex Sim served overseas. He recalls: "We were only allowed to send one letter per month and we had to use the green-edged envelopes. If not, the envelopes were opened and the letters were censored."

Another Gordon Highlander, Abbie McDonald, 78, remembers his desperation to join the regiment as a boy. "I joined the army cadets when I was 13- and-a-half when I was at school in Inverurie. I left school the day I was 14 and went to the recruiting office to join up as a drummer boy.

"I was accepted, but the education authority had a different idea and my parents were threatened with court action if I didn't go back to school until the appropriate leaving date. I had to go back to school and wait another year until I was accepted into the Gordons when I was 15," says Abbie, who served as a boy soldier and then as a bandsman in Malaya.

That sound of the pipes and drums has played a powerful role in combat - Alex Sim can tell you what tune was playing at key points during his war service. He remembers his ship stopping off at Malta on the way to the invasion of Sicily.

"Montgomery came to see us and gave us a wee bit of a pep talk, but he never told us where we were going. He said: `Are you all fighting fit?' So we sailed out of Valetta harbour, a fine sunny afternoon, the sea was calm - idyllic. A piper was playing `The Cock of the North', and by this time we knew we were going to Sicily. The sea was calm but, by midnight, it was very rough.

"I got very seasick and I wasn't caring what happened to me, just: `get me off this boat'. And the boat rammed the beach, and down went the ramp," Alex shouts dramatically as if he's telling his story for the very first time, just hours after the event.

"I must have tripped or something but, anyway, I went right under the water and got over the top. But my seasickness cured immediately. Great - I wasn't worried," he laughs, appreciating the irony that it was easier to face the enemy on dry land than endure one moment more of seasickness.

Evaluation of the first phase of "Their Past Your Future" showed that 76,000 people in Scotland interacted with the project in some way. Seventy six per cent increased their knowledge of the Second World War, 57 per cent changed their attitudes or values as a result and 29 per cent felt differently about younger or older generations in their community, following involvement.

Choose your venue Projects in the next phase will be at 10 museums and councils

Argyll amp; Sutherland Highlanders Museum

Stirling Hunterian Museum amp; Art Gallery, Glasgow

Kildonan Museum, South Uist

Museum nan Eilean, Isle of Lewis

Renfrewshire Council

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre

Gordon Highlanders Museum, Aberdeen

The Museum of the Black Watch, Perth

West Dunbartonshire Council

West Lothian Council


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