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Museum on the trail of lost memoirs of war
9:30am Wednesday 20th February 2013 in News
THEIR tales of torture, anguish and pain are often the most harrowing of human experiences.
But a new museum hopes to ensure the stories of Oxfordshire’s prisoners of war are never forgotten.
The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock is appealing for members of the public to come forward and help it build its archive.
Currently under construction, the new £3m building in the grounds of the Oxfordshire Museum is scheduled to open next year.
The museum wants residents to raid their dusty lofts and hunt out trinkets and lost memoirs of war.
A pair of dog tags and a soldier’s necklace were the most recent donations.
Fundraising assistant Kate Burrows said: “The necklace was given to a young girl during the Second World War having been made by a German prisoner of war held at a local camp.
“The dog-tags are a reminder of one young man’s time in the Stalag Luft III camp, infamous for the Great Escape.”
One of the stories already collected by museum staff is that of Sgt Leslie Mitchell, from Woodstock, who was captured aged just 19 after his plane came down in 1940.
Miss Burrows said: “He remained a prisoner until 1945, moved from camp to around the German occupied territories. All the time he kept in touch with home, and the letters sent to him provide a fascinating insight into war-time Oxfordshire.”
There were several recorded Second World War prisoner of war camps in Oxfordshire including Eynsham Park, in Eynsham; at Harcourt Hill Camp in North Hinksey, West Oxford, Bolero Camp, Graven Hill, in Bicester; and Horgard Barracks, in Shrivenham.
Formed in 1881 as the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, the 1st and 2nd Battalion ranks swelled and in 1901 became the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Those who served knew it as ‘the Ox and Bucks’.
Hugely active in the First World War, the Regiment also served many vital roles the Second World War.
It saw action in France and Italy, North Africa, the Netherlands and Germany, amongst other countries.
Of its most famous and daring missions in 1944 during the D-Day landings, five of the 2nd battalion gliders landed as close as 47 yards from Pegasus Bridge. They poured out of their battered gliders, completely surprising the German defenders, and took the bridges within 10 minutes. The object of this action was to prevent German armour fromcrossing the bridge and attacking the eastern flank of the British D-Day landings at Sword Beach.
Of the 181 men that took part in the French bridge holding operation, only 40 were left in active duty after the rest died or were severely injured.
Final figures put the numbers of officers and other ranks of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry killed during the Second World War at 1,408.
After the war the Regiment served in Greece, Cyprus, and was sent to the British-controlled Suez Canal Zone in Egypt.
The British Army underwent many re-organisations in the years that followed, and the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry eventually became incorporated in the Royal Green Jackets.
Rose Hill resident Bill Buckingham, who joined the 4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in 1938, said many of the captured soldiers he knew took their secrets to their graves.
The 91-year-old said: “I was lucky; some of my mates not so. Most if not all of those who were prisoners of war have sadly died. There are not many of us who served then still left. Of the two in Rose Hill they never ever spoke about what terrible things happened to them when they were captured in France.”
And Korean war veteran Grenville Toomey, 79, said stories he heard from comrades chilled him to the bone.
The Appleton resident said: “I don’t think I could have hacked it if I got caught. If captured they would be made to march for three or four days a time. If they were lame, or injured, they would be shot and left to die.”
Museum trustee David Innes, added: “We are asking all the ex-Ox and Bucks Light Infantry or their families to send in their names and numbers and when they served to add to our archive.”
Anyone who can add to the project is asked to contact the museum on 01993 813832.