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Dig for Victory Show

Dig for Victory Show

The county of Somerset has a long tradition, which connects it with military history. During the 17th Century it became the battleground for a number of engagements during the English Civil War and in 1685 the battle at Sedgemoor ended the Monmouth Rebellion.

Over the centuries, men of Somerset have fought in many wars and the county regiment, The Somerset Light Infantry, which dates back to 1685, has gained many battle honours, including Ypres, Arras, Italy and North Arakan.

During WWII, a number of military camps were established across Somerset, including the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton. Several prisoner of war camps were located across the county where Italians and then later Germans were incarcerated. The city of Bristol was badly damaged in air raids and in the small market village of Somerton nine people were killed and 37 injured when it was bombed on 29th September 1942.

Factories across Somerset joined the war effort, such as Westlands in Yeovil that built aircraft, in the town of Street, part of Clarks shoe factory was turned over to the production of torpedoes, and the main factory continued to manufacture boots for the military. Pillboxes and defensive lines were constructed at strategic points across the county and Home Guard units were raised as Britain and the county went to war.

All this activity is remembered today in a special weekend event called Dig For Victory Show, held annually at North Somerset Showground, Wraxall, Bristol. It is the idea of military enthusiast and vehicle collector James Shopland, whose ancestors served in many wars including the Battle of Waterloo. His grandfather served in WWI, seeing action at Somme, and his father, David, was commissioned and served with 56 Regiment Royal Artillery.

A History of History

James grew up surrounded by military vehicles and it was a chance remark by him as a young boy which led to the restoration of some vehicles, that later went on to form the basis the famous ‘Shopland Collection’. The Collection has grown over the years and today numbers around 30 operational vehicles, along with other very large items including searchlights and a landing craft as used in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Several years ago James came up with the idea of organising a wartime weekend event. It proved successful and from that evolved the Dig For Victory Show, DFVS, now in its fourth year in its present format.

It was in 2013 that I attended DFVS for the first time, which was staged in the grounds of the National Trust property at Tyntesfield. Unfortunately, the vehicles were displayed statically. Also, there were restrictions on some of the presentations by re-enactment groups. Despite that, it had all the elements that marked it out as being a very good show. The following year James relocated the DFVS to the North Somerset Showground, which has since become its semi-official home. Since moving to its new location the show has grown, with more groups attending, bigger and better displays with more animation as restrictions were lifted. At last year’s show the event, in my opinion, had gone from just being good to great. As we approach the start of the ‘season’ for re-enactment events I thought it would be a good idea if I dropped in to see James and have a chat about his plans for this year’s show, which is being held over the weekend of 11th and 12th June.

There are some events that re-enactors look forward to and attend them year after year. The same goes for me and I enjoy going because there is always something fresh. One such event is the DFVS. When I attended last year’s show I was very impressed to see how it had grown even larger and more popular with re-enactment groups, vehicle owners and with visitors. My first impressions on entering the site, was that this is an event which is really going places.

It takes a tremendous amount of hard work to produce such results and James, together with his team of organisers, have managed to make DFVS a spectacular event in a very short space of time. In effect, there is nothing else like it anywhere in the south-west.

Blitz Spirit

James is a young man and very enthusiastic about the Collection, which bears the family name and the show he has created. He also works extremely hard running the family business of Shopland Sawmills based in Clevedon, just off the M5 Motorway. Putting aside all this pressure he found time to talk to me and tell me something about what this year’s show has in store. The first thing he said was the theme of this year’s show will be to mark 75 years since the Blitz.

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Other aspects will also be remembered, but the Blitz is the main subject. London was heavily bombed, as were other cities, such as Bristol which suffered 77 air raids between November 1940 and April 1941, making it the fifth most bombed city in the country. These attacks on Bristol killed almost 1300 people, injured a further 1,300 and damaged over 89,000 buildings. As reminder of this terrible time one of the central displays at the DFVS will be a recreated building, which has suffered bomb damage. Of course, there will also be many other interesting displays of nostalgia to surprise visitors.

By keeping DFVS themed to Home Front and Allied forces no one is likely to become unduly upset by anything. If anyone believes this frame is too narrow, they should think again. There is an enormous wealth of subjects to draw from and present as displays, such as ‘Make Do And Mend’ to Air Raid Wardens and much more. The name of the show is taken from the slogan ‘Dig for Victory’, which is understood to have been coined by the late Michael Foot MP whilst working as a journalist for the London Evening Standard newspaper. The phrase appeared on posters and stirred the population into growing vegetables on any plot of land. To demonstrate this, a Dig For Victory garden is created at the event, complete with growing vegetables to show food from garden to plate.

The Home Guard and emergency services played their part also as Somerset braced itself as the war continued. In the more rural areas, some Home Guard units were mounted on horses for mobility. Units of the Somerset Home Guard were involved in many incidents, such as the event on 27th August 1940. On that day a Ju 88 bomber on a photographic reconnaissance mission was shot down over Somerset and crashed on the beach at Porlock. The pilot, Helmut Ackenhausen, was taken prisoner by the Home Guard who escorted him to the police station in Minehead, where he was held in the cells. The episode may have been brief but it showed the value of the Home Guard. This role is remembered by Kevin Drake who attends DFVS to depict the Weston-super-Mare unit with all his kit and puts on a good display.

The DFVS is set in a rural location, which provides a perfect backdrop to the many displays ranging from horse-drawn farm equipment to the military vehicles. To help with the farming displays, there is a good turnout by the Women’s Land Army who handle the horses and some of the farm machinery from the period. James knows he can trust each of the participating groups to put on the best display and he knows they can be relied on to interact fully with the visiting public. There is a lot of space to fill at the showground and this means plenty of room for vehicles to manoeuvre. In fact, the area set aside for vehicle mobility displays is a large open field with uninterrupted views from all angles. This is great for photographs and, without any obstacles in the way, vehicles can really pick up speed to demonstrate their capabilities, which increases the thrill.

Wartime Farm

The Showground area is divided into plots where various displays are established. At the 1940s wartime farm, where horse-drawn wagons are put through their paces and, together with other equipment of the period, it is possible to see how agricultural work was done to feed the country. Complementing this are the various Home Front displays showing home life and everyday items. Live cooking demonstrations of the period show how rations of the day were used in recipes. This will be presented by Jude Knight, who is attending the show for the very first time. Jude is well-known for portraying Ministry of Food, and her presentations are far more interesting than anything seen on television.

The static line-up of vehicles ranges from classic wartime civilian models through to military types of the period, including many American designs, such as the amphibious tracked M29 ‘Weasel’, Jeeps and various designs of Dodge in the ‘WC’series. The owners enjoy talking about their vehicles and answering questions. Some of the vehicles on display come from the Shopland Collection, such as the Bedford ‘QLR’ and the Austin K5 truck in the unusual configuration of having a 2-Pounder anti-tank gun mounted ‘portee’ style on the rear.

Some of these military vehicles take part in the exciting mobility display, which is held in the open field. In previous shows, participating vehicles have included the heavy M20 Diamond T981 truck with a Rogers M9 trailer transporting a Sherman tank. This is a massive vehicle and there are not many places where it can be seen in action in its complete combination. At the DFVS it makes a remarkable appearance to satisfy vehicle enthusiasts and model makers alike. More vehicles from the Shopland Collection also take part in this drive past, such as the Chevrolet Field Artillery Tractor, Canadian-built Fox armoured car and the Australian-built Bren Gun Carrier. Gun firings also feature in the live action displays, with demonstrations by 25-Pounder Field Guns and even a 17-Pounder anti-tank gun complete with prime-mover vehicle. All this happening again and much more.

Re-enacting Up

The re-enactment groups set-up tented encampments and each one puts on a static display of equipment and weapons. These are like open-air museum exhibitions and allow interaction and members of the groups are always on hand to answer questions. Kevin Drake usually gives short talks on the history of the Home Guard, including weapon demonstrations. On a larger scale, a gun crew for the 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun, complete with searchlight, will show the air defence around cities such as London and Bristol, which fits in with this year’s Blitz theme of the show.

For the mobility display some of the groups get into the troop carrying vehicles, such as the half-tracks and trucks, to show how they were taken into battle. The vehicles stop to allow the infantry to dismount and deploy on foot as though taking part in a training exercise. It is the kind of scene, which would have been common during the war as the troops trained across the area. For those who wish to relax, James has arranged for period entertainment with singers and musicians performing songs to keep the atmosphere moving along. In the large marquees there are displays of life on the Home Front, which prove fascinating to all ages. During the war the ladies of Somerset rallied to the cause and thousands joined the Women’s Voluntary Service and formed knitting circles. In fact, so many woollen items were produced for the armed forces that the Royal Navy kindly requested “...please, ladies, no more mufflers”! At the DFVS lessons are given in learning how to knit, with even men joining in and finding it enjoyable.

The show has always had traders on-site and this year there will be many more. These offer a wide range of items from vintage civilian clothes, to reproduction military uniforms, militaria for the collectors, as well as many other items including books. Various Allied forces such as Polish, French and, of course, Americans, which no event would be complete without, can all be seen at the show. The event is friendly and relaxed with quite a number of ‘strollers’ dressed as civilians, police, ambulance, WVS and WI, who all mingle with visitors. James has told me about some surprises he has planned, but I can’t say because I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say, you won’t be disappointed.

The DFVS has something for everybody and all interests. Its popularity has grown as the supportive comments on social media sites such as Facebook prove. Full details of the event, ticket booking and how to get there can all be found on the website at: www.digforvictoryshow.com