How to support the Their Finest Hour project
Dr Matthew Kidd of the University of Oxford reveals more about a project preserving stories and memories of the Second World War
One of my most prized possessions is a letter that my grandfather received from admiral of the fleet Sir John Tovey, commending him for “outstanding zeal, ability and devotion to duty while engaged on maintenance work at the LST [Landing Ship, Tank] Base at Tilbury”. Ron – more officially, ‘Petty Officer Motor Mechanic Ronald Bloomfield’ – worked in the engine room of LST 322, which formed part of Assault Group S1 during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944.
This experience was just one of many fascinating stories that he used to share with me about his life during the Second World War. Many were connected to wartime mementos – war medals, a cigarette tin, old photographs, and Royal Navy badges and patches – all of which I was entrusted with and continue to keep hidden in the safest place in my home.
Millions of us in Britain and across the world have similar treasured stories and objects from the war that have been passed down to us by our parents, grandparents and other beloved relations. Over time, these stories and objects are in danger of being lost to history as people move house, declutter, pass away or simply forget.
This is why those of us involved in ‘Their Finest Hour’, a project based at the University of Oxford and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, have launched a campaign to preserve as many of them as possible in digital form, before it is too late.
To help us to achieve this, we are urging people to share their Second World War-related stories and photos of objects with us through our free online archive, due to launch in June 2024. We are also encouraging people to organise and attend local Digital Collection Days in which volunteers record people’s stories and photograph their objects, and upload them to the archive.
A number of Digital Collection Day events have already been held, and many more are planned in libraries, village halls, schools, colleges, universities, museums, churches, mosques and temples. As well as holding events in major cities such as Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, we have been working closely with volunteers to support events in, among other places, Bradford, Dover, Dumfries, Fort William, Glasgow, Jersey, Leamington Spa, Leicester, Malvern, Oxford, Porthcawl, Wigan and York.
Over the course of 2023 and early 2024, we are also organising events in collaboration with the Museum of Liverpool, the National Library of Scotland, the National Sikh Museum in Derby, The Linen Hall in Belfast, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth.
We have already collected a remarkable range of stories and objects. In addition to medals, ration cards, pocket manuals, letters and memoirs, we have received photographs of a rupee that saved the life of a soldier in Burma, a pair of clogs crafted by a Dutch family for a Canadian soldier’s niece, and even a piece of clothing worn by notorious Italian dictator Benito Mussolini!
We have personal accounts covering all of the major theatres of war, as well as stories that present highly personal, often emotional insights into life on the home front. One of my favourites concerns a 16 year old who bravely ventured into Norwich to see the dentist the day after the Luftwaffe had destroyed several of the city’s buildings. The surgery had had its windows blown out, but the appointment went ahead.
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We are extremely grateful to everyone who has already organised events and helped to spread the word, including all of the family and local historians and members of the u3a (formerly the University of the Third Age). However, there is still work to do if we are to build an archive that truly reflects the diverse experiences of all those affected by the Second World War.
We are especially keen to work with the descendants of those who have traditionally been excluded from accounts of the conflict, including men and women from South Asia, the Caribbean, and East and West Africa. We are also interested in preserving children’s and evacuees’ experiences, and would even like to find out about any relatives who refused to talk about their wartime experience.
Finally, we would love to hear more about men and women who worked in industry or on the land, who refused to go to war for political or religious reasons, or who ran households and fought the daily battle of rationing.
Indeed, just as I have uploaded Ron’s stories and objects to our archive, so I should also share the story of my grandmother Catherine, who left Blitz-ridden London with her daughter (my aunt) for the assumed safety of coastal Lowestoft. Catherine’s story, like all other personal accounts, deserves to be preserved and remembered.
You can upload your family stories and images of the Second World War on our website homepage. If you want to organise a Digital Collection Day in your local community – and, in the process, develop your skills in event management, interviewing, digitisation and public engagement – you can also register your interest on the website. If you can find a venue, a camera or two (smartphones will be absolutely fine), stationery, furniture and a small group of volunteers, we will provide you with free online training, all of the necessary forms and materials, regular support via email or face-to-face calls, and, if required, some financial support. The deadline for hosting a Digital Collection Day is 31 December 2023, so it’s good to get started as soon as possible. We look forward to working with you.