Picture of war lives

26th March 2004 at 00:00
The D-Day museum in Portsmouth makes the Home Front so realistic you'll believe you were there. Chris Fautley goes back to 1944

In autumn 1939, the children of Portsmouth High School were preparing to be evacuated. Sixty-five years later, another generation from the same school is at the city's D-Day Museum, reliving the experience.

Long socks, flat caps and cardigans; berets and straw boaters; favourite teddies, gas mask boxes and identity labels: Year 6 look the part as they prepare for evacuation during the museum's Home Front Experience. The session is led by actress Virginia Coppins, who calls for a volunteer from the audience. She hands her an ID card: "It must be carried with you at all times." Now a balaclava to try for size; a lunchbox, a little suitcase and a gas mask. Not forgetting teddy, of course. "I present to you, ladies and gentleman, the model evacuee."

There are several items for children to handle while Virginia plies us with nuggets of wartime information. School registration was usually taken wearing gas masks, for example; and during the first two months of the war, more people were killed through the blackout than in combat.

There is role play too. Step forward one ARP Warden to be presented with the requisite hard hat. "Put that light out!" she barks. Then a chief fire officer is put through her paces with a stirrup pump; water carriers to fill canvas buckets; fire watchers; and spotters to scour the skies.

Others assume the role of factory workers; cue a rousing chorus of "Run Rabbit" to boost morale, only to be interrupted by the air-raid siren.

"Raiders!" cry the spotters, and a forest of hairs bristle on 36 necks as we prepare to evacuate.

Eventually, the spotters declare "All clear!" and the daily routine resumes. Virginia explains that spotters and watchers, wardens and fire crew were re-enacting exactly what happened during the war: people looked out for each other. Having spent all night in shelters, the priority for most folk was to return home for a meal. Virginia assumes the role of a shopkeeper, and we have the chance to check out wartime food. An instant family is created, although "Mum" only has sufficient coupons for one egg.

Time to explore alternative delights such as powdered egg, or how to sweeten a cake usingI parsnips. There are even potato scones to taste.

So absorbing is the Home Front Experience that it is easy to forget there is still an entire museum to be explored. Portsmouth was a principal invasion embarkation point; thousands of troops passed through the port while hundreds of ships assembled at Spithead. Not only does the museum tell the story of D-Day in a compelling way, but it also chronicles events leading up to it from the outbreak of war.

Tableaux present scenes as diverse as a munitions factory and an ARP warden's living room; another portrays a crash-landed Allied glider in a Normandy field. There are surprises too: the experience of being in a pillbox is only surpassed later, when you unwittingly find yourself preparing to parachute from a glider. And you can eat your sandwiches in a landing craft.

The show's real star is the Overlord embroidery. Think Bayeux tapestry: but at 272ft, this masterpiece by the Royal School of Needlework is considerably longer than its Norman cousin. The detail is breath-snatching: troops' uniforms, for example, are made from the real thing. Churchill, Monty, RommelI all are meticulously portrayed along with scenes plotting the course of the war. It really is the ultimate in picture books.

The Home Front Experience runs from November-March. Admission pound;2.30 to museum and embroidery. Advance booking essential. A number of events during the summer term will commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

pound;35 + VAT for up to 35 students. Two sessions, pound;50 + VAT


D-Day Museum and Overlord Embroidery

Clarence Esplanade, Southsea P05 3NT Tel: 023 9229 6905


D-Day 60th Anniversary www.d-day60.co.uk

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