Their Finest Hour: John O’Gaunt Students record local residents’ World War II memories

A group of Year 11 History students from John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford had a deep and unique immersion into the lived experience of World War II recently. In a collaboration with the University of Oxford’s ‘Their Finest Hour’ project, students listened to and recorded first-hand accounts and memories (many passed down) of those that lived through the conflict. They received and handled historic photographs, personal effects and period objects that included items from the battlegrounds to the homefront. The memories and objects were digitalised by a team of staff and volunteers from the Hungerford Hub, the community, West Berkshire Museum and the University of Oxford, in part of an ongoing national scheme.

In pairs, the students – trained by their Head of History and Humanities Miss Adams – welcomed members of the community and, working with historians and journalists interviewed them in a historic ‘show and tell.’

Zac Devlin and Euan MacLeod said ‘there were illuminating and hair-raising tales, from dogfights, to Landgirls and the Homeguard. We had no idea what was coming next! But ‘normal’ things happened too – we even heard about crimes! Everything was intensified by the belief that we were going to be invaded, anyone’s life could be lost at any point and we really could lose the war. We saw incredible photos of Palestine before Israel existed, photos of Churchill and even Rommel.’

Oscar Xavier and Aidan Flanagan acknowledged the importance of recording memories of ‘ordinary’ lives in this extraordinary time ‘because of course, no one is ordinary, and war affected everyone in some way. This was an incredible insight. We heard untold stories about bravery and tragedy, hard work and freedom, here at home and on the battlegrounds.’

Fraser Wallis-Dunning (in Year 10, but allowed to join the Year 11s because of his enthusiasm and knowledge of history) brought a treasured World War II helmet that he longs to know the history of.

James Cox and Stanley Jones ‘learnt things that really brought history lessons to life. Things we could imagine happening to us. From Prisoners of War, to a Naval Officer, RAF Pilots, and a driver in North Africa, it was like looking through a window in time.’

‘History is real, it involves real people. We all felt very tired afterwards as we felt we’d lived through these experiences with people that relived them. It was a real honour, and something we’ll never forget.’

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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale