Reopening the Gates of Britain's Bittersweet Wartime Memories

Ken Mitchell, left, who was evacuated from the tiny village of Imber at age 17, talks with visitors about the ghost town he hadn't seen in 62 years.
Ken Mitchell, left, who was evacuated from the tiny village of Imber at age 17, talks with visitors about the ghost town he hadn't seen in 62 years. (By Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 1, 2006

IMBER, England, Dec. 31 -- For the first 17 years of his life, before this tiny village died for England, Ken Mitchell spent every Sunday in St. Giles Church. Now 79, Mitchell looked up at the moss-covered steeple, secured behind a 10-foot British army fence and barbed wire, and struggled to remember life in the village that he and 150 other residents were forced to leave in December 1943.

"It's so confusing," Mitchell said as he rambled through the village, among the muddy ruins of the school where he studied and the pub where he sat under a shady apple tree and first tasted beer. He climbed the concrete steps of his old house, where he hadn't set foot in 62 years, since the War Office appropriated this entire village as a training ground for British and U.S. troops preparing for the D-Day invasion at Normandy.

Mitchell came back to Imber on Saturday, taking advantage of a rare chance to visit. This ghost town sits at the center of Britain's largest military training area, a 25-mile-by-10-mile expanse of hills and fields known as the Salisbury Plain Army Training Estate. The military conducts training here 340 days a year, and the desolate hillsides are littered with the obliterated hulks of tanks and trucks that have been used for live-fire target practice.

For a handful of days each year, including the New Year holiday, the military quiets its big guns and opens the guarded gates. That allows the public to enter Britain's principal training ground for troops preparing for duty in Omaha Beach during World War II, Northern Ireland and the Balkans in recent decades and Iraq today.

A hundred miles southwest of downtown London, and just a few hilltops west of the ancient ruins of Stonehenge, the Salisbury Plain is a vast uninhabited zone that has been generally off-limits since military operations started here at the end of the 19th century. The narrow roads are lined with bright yellow signs warning visitors to stay on paved roads to avoid "unexploded military debris" hidden in the long grass. Military officials said more than 9 million large-caliber rounds have been fired here, and they can't promise that a few live ones aren't still out there.

Mitchell recalled that when he was a boy, he watched in awe as British warplanes buzzed low overhead and men with guns parachuted to Earth, preparing to fight a war that started when he was 12.

"It wasn't dull here at all -- not for lads," said Mitchell, one of about a dozen of the evacuated Imber residents still living. His parents and grandparents are buried in the graveyard of the 700-year-old St. Giles Church.

On Saturday, a bitter cold and rainy New Year's Eve, a few dozen people made their way to Imber. Most drove the five or so miles from the military gates, some came on bicycles, and a couple seemed to have hiked here in their rubber Wellington boots. A military officer in a white Land Rover patrolled the roads, making sure the visitors didn't stray too far.

Ruth Underwood, a peace activist whose father started an organization dedicated to the preservation of Imber, organized a small rally, where she and a dozen others talked about the dangers of the Iraq war and the need for world peace. They escaped the intermittent downpours by stepping into an old horse stable, where the muddy floor was littered with spent shell casings from military rifles. Underwood said she liked the imagery of holding a peace rally in an animal shed at Christmastime.

But most who came were simply curious to have a peek beneath the heavy blanket of military secrecy.

"It's almost been frozen in time," said Nick Hibberd, who was visiting the area and came to Imber with a few friends, including a couple of schoolchildren who are studying World War II. "You can get a feeling of how things would have been back then," he said, noting the lack of convenience stores, power lines and other features of modern life.

For Mitchell, memories were rising like ghosts from the muddy ground.

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