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Revisiting "Britain's Finest Hour" at Eden Camp

by Nick Walton

From the early days of the Second World War, a steady stream of Axis Prisoners of War arrived in Britain. At first the numbers were small. Since officers were segregated from lower ranks, the first German officers were held at Grizedale Manor in Lancashire. So expensive and luxurious were these accommodations that one Colonel Wedgewood asked in the House of Commons, "Would it not be cheaper to hold them at the Ritz Hotel in London?"

Eden Camp

After the first allied victories in North Africa, such luxury was no longer practical and new camps were needed to hold the flood of enemy prisoners By the end of the war over 600 POW camps had been constructed around Britain. One of the few to survive is Camp 83, also known as Eden Camp, near Malton in North Yorkshire. Situated in the rolling countryside between York and Scarborough, Eden Camp exists today as an award-winning modern history museum telling the story of World War Two through the eyes of POWs and civilians on the home front.

Built in 1942 by Italian POWs, Eden Camp originally consisted of 45 brick and wood "huts." Eighteen huts housed 64 prisoners each. The other huts served as workshops, kitchens, mess halls, recreation halls, and even a hospital. Standing guard over the entrance to Eden Camp is a vehicle park with tanks, artillery, and other wartime vehicles as well as replicas of the two aircraft that have become synonymous with the war for many Britons: the Hurricane and the Spitfire.

Inside the gate, 32 surviving huts house the museum. Each hut is a separate exhibit, with an emphasis on the wartime experience using a combination of lifelike moving figures, realistic sounds, and even smells of wartime. Logically enough, the museum begins at Hut One. Here the story of Hitler's rise to power is told. Visitors can listen in as a British family gathers around the wireless to hear Chamberlain's September 3rd, 1939 broadcast announcing the state of war between Britain and Germany.

Hut Three covers the U-Boat war in the Atlantic. Many of Eden Camp's prisoners were captured submariners and this exhibit allows visitors relive the experience aboard a German U-Boat during a depth charge attack. Like several other exhibits, this one can be a little intense and claustrophobic.

Moving on through the camp you will see how Britain prepared for war and the expected German invasion. Hitler' s Blitzkrieg attacks on London are depicted in vivid detail in Hut Five. In this particularly moving exhibit the nighttime bombings are simulated, complete with Civil Defense Wardens screaming orders and the smell of smoke drifting from the crumbling remains of a home that took a direct hit.

Hut Seven shows "The Street at War." Even though the severe restrictions of wartime meant that shop windows were sometimes bare and strict rationing was in place, the people of Britain found ways to "make do." The display of a family's weekly food ration may make you wonder how you would survive in their shoes.

The life of the prisoners is examined in Hut Ten. With over 60 to each hut, the accommodations were a long way from the luxury of Grizedale Manor, but prisoners were comfortable and generally well treated. In Britain enemy POWs received the same rations as British soldiers. This meant that for most of the war POWs received a larger food ration than British civilians.

Eden CampThe Geneva Convention prevents officers from working, but enlisted prisoners could and did perform work, both inside and outside the camp. At one point there were 169,000 Axis prisoners working in agricultural positions in Britain and a further 22,000 employed in construction. They received a wage for their labor and several times during the war protests and even strikes were staged by British workers concerned about their jobs going to POWs.

Prisoners had a great deal of free time, so classes and activities were available. Eden Camp, like many others, had drama societies and orchestras performing regularly, often in nearby villages. Part of the exhibit in Hut Ten shows arts and crafts produced by Eden Camp prisoners. The level of artistry and craftsmanship in some of the work is truly remarkable.

True buffs of this period of British history may want to linger in Hut 18. Here in the War News Reading Room a copy of the front page of a newspaper for virtually every day of the war is available for browsing.

Throughout the camp there are outdoor displays of vehicles and other wartime hardware. Visitors can touch a V-1 flying bomb, face down a 25-pounder howitzer, or crawl inside a back-garden air raid shelter.

Huts 24 to 29 make up a museum-within-a-museum covering the battles and campaigns of the war. These exhibits are well executed and worth a look, but the attraction of Eden Camp is in the war at home in Yorkshire rather than the jungles of Borneo or the beaches of Normandy. An expansion of the museum for the Millennium also saw the opening of huts dedicated to World War One and Britain' s post-1945 conflicts. The World War One hut is particularly effective at portraying the trenches of France.

After making your way through the camp and seeing the stories of women at war, wartime shopping, and the Blitz, you'll find a slice of the home front after World War Two: a "prefab." These simple prefabricated homes were cheap and easy to build in the postwar years when Britain's economy and infrastructure struggled to recover. Outside the prefab is a Garden of Remembrance dedicated to a mother and daughter who lost their lives during an air raid on July 13th 1943.

World War Two was the defining event of the 20th century for Britain. The Britain of today was shaped by the events of 1939-1945. Eden Camp is almost unique among the country' s many war museums in showing what life was like for those enemy soldiers who went from the battlefields of Europe and Africa to the hayfields of Britain. For many who felt no allegiance to Hitler' s Reich, their internment was almost welcome after years of bitter combat. Some prisoners remained in Britain after the war, especially those who found that their former homes were now behind the Iron Curtain.

Eden Camp also personalizes the war by devoting so much space to the ordeal of ordinary Britons: the housewife trying to feed her family on meager rations, the grandfather digging for victory, the Home Guard ready to defend the island with pitchforks and axe handles, and the children trying to be children at a time when the world around them was thrown into chaos. It is a museum that shows that even in Britain' s darkest days the people still laughed and went on with life as best they could. This, every bit as much as the Spitfires of Churchill's RAF, made the Second World War Britain's Finest Hour.

Getting There

Eden Camp is located off the A64 between York and Scarborough, near the intersection with the A169. The museum is open from 10am until 5pm, seven days a week (check ahead around Christmas), but the last admission time is 4pm. At least three hours are recommended to see the museum. In addition to the exhibits there is a "Prisoner's Canteen" cafeteria, an "Officer's Mess Tearoom" and the "Garrison Cinema Bar" which serves Eden Camp Beer. For more details telephone Eden Camp at (01653) 697777, or visit the website at http://www.edencamp.co.uk


Nick Walton is a native of northern England, but has lived in the US for over twenty years. He is a professional pilot who has been published in several aviation magazines. He enjoys frequent visits to Britain with his wife Donna, and hopes to do more travel writing in the future.
Article and photos © 2006 Nick Walton

 

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