Couple determined to keep the past alive
Stumbling across a 1940s event captured the imagination of Iris Hillery and husband Allan Jones, who subsequently established the World War 2 Operations living history group. Iris was born in Barney, took up a career in bookselling and returned to the dale, becoming a self-employed HR consultant. She met Allan, who moved to the town from Cheshire for a job at Glaxo, when both were working backstage at a Castle Players production. Both are members of Gainford Drama Club and volunteering for the RAF Association (Ryedale branch), St Mary’s Church and the Friends of Richardson Hospital keeps them busy.
Have you always been interested in history?
We are both members of the National Trust and English Heritage, visiting sites usually when we are holidaying in the UK.
I’ve been interested since childhood; an early obsession with dinosaurs, school visits to Roman sites, plenty of local castles and of course The Bowes Museum.
What particularly drew you to the Second World War and 1940s?
We stumbled upon a 1940s event in Haworth about 15 years ago and it caught our imagination. Later that year we attended the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Wartime Weekend and met Ivon Baker (Sarah Fells of Castle Players’ father) who was a leading organiser of the event and joined a team of like-minded “re-enactors” portraying a range of living history personnel and allied forces.
How did World War 2 Operations come about?
Sadly, when Ivon Baker passed away in 2011 the nature of the group began to change and we decided to set up our own group developing new scenarios and talks to take to events.
Allan and I both portray Royal Air Force personnel as my father served in the RAF during WW2.
I combined this with my mother’s civilian nursing contribution to portray a Princess Mary RAF Nursing Sister and have a special interest in the Guinea Pig Club whose members were airmen such as Richard Hillary, treated by Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneering reconstructive surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital, at East Grinstead.
What are the aims of the group?
The aim of the group is to further the remembrance of those who lived during the Second World War by portraying Allied Forces and Home Front personnel with accuracy and respect.
Members of the group take part in re-enactment activities set during the 1940s and some members offer presentations, demonstrations and talks raising money for service charities.
As a “living history” group how important is it to accurately represent the period?
We believe it is very important to portray, as accurately as possible, the appearance and activities of people who lived at that time.
We use a mixture of period and reproduction costumes and artefacts to give visitors a flavour of life in England during, and just after, the Second World War.
It’s not just dressing up – what does a typical day at an event such as the 1940s weekend in Barney entail?
Planning for any event starts months before – which is why so many events were cancelled or postponed at an early stage during the pandemic.
A typical day at an event will begin early with setting up displays and organising rotas for the available personnel.
There may be opening or flag-raising ceremonies and parades, live music and demonstrations of all types, both Home Front and military.
Many events offer great opportunities for local businesses and charities to get involved with vintage fairs, refreshments, fashion shows, dances and concerts – all very popular with residents and visitors alike.
What type of other events do you attend - do you get to travel far or is it fairly local?
There are more events in the North East than there used to be, but the 1940s scene is ever-changing with some events ceasing and new ones coming along.
Most of the events we attend are in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire as we have a number of RAF re-enactors.
We regularly support events at the Yorkshire Air Museum and the International Bomber Command Centre near Lincoln.
Some of our members have travelled to events in Normandy and the Channel Islands.
What sort of audience do you attract – does it tend to be the older generation reminiscing or are younger people keen to find out more?
It is across the board; we often find that people come over because they are curious about what we are doing then share their own stories or those of their parents and grandparents with us.
It is one of the best parts of the job, hearing those accounts of family history.
Younger people tend to be fascinated by the combat and communication equipment in use before the advent of computers such as our Morse code key and Operations Room plotting table.
In recent years there seems to have been an increase in 1940s/vintage events. What do you think the reason for that might be?
I think it is partly because it is starting to pass out of living memory. People do not want the sacrifice of a generation to be forgotten.
There have been a number of significant anniversaries which have generated interest and the same happened with First World War anniversaries up to 2018.
There’s also an increasing nostalgia for the music and dances of the period though often this is fudged into a “vintage and retro” melange of anything from the 1930s to the 1980s.
Given the significant anniversaries of 2020, you must have had a busy summer planned prior to Covid – what was lined up and were you able to take part in any commemorative activities?
Yes, numerous events were planned to take account of the VE and VJ Day anniversaries and the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. We were scheduled to do a number of talks and demonstrations across the country.
Some of these events became virtual and the only live event we were able to take part in was the VJ Day anniversary in August at the International Bomber Command Centre – with a lot of hand sanitiser, face coverings and socially distanced audiences.
We did present a few events on Facebook Live and Youtube and took part in Barney’s Virtual Meet Parade.
What’s on the agenda for 2021?
We hope that many of our usual events will be re-instated but until vaccines are widely available and administered organisers are reluctant to plan too much.
A few events in the early part of the year have already been postponed because of the continuing uncertainty.
We do have accommodation booked for events in Lincolnshire over the summer and for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway Wartime Weekend. Plus we have a few bookings for Zoom talks.
Where can people find out more about World War 2 Operations?
We have a web site www.ww2ops.uk and Facebook pages for both World War 2 Operations and our RAF section RAF Hawksmere, or contact the Commanding Officer Allan Jones on 07747 825309, email firstname.lastname@example.org.