A month before she celebrates her own 100th birthday, WWII veteran Harrogate resident Sheila Pantin will be guest of honour at the launch of a programme of events to commemorate the centenary of Harrogate’s War Memorial taking place on 1st September.
Like all war memorials, Harrogate’s is of huge historical importance, proudly recording the names of 1163 local brave men and women who died in two world wars. To mark this milestone anniversary, their names are being matched with their personal stories in the commemoration’s centrepiece, an immersive multimedia exhibition More than a Name on a Memorial.
Sheila is being invited to declare the exhibition open but she is also a speaker in a comprehensive programme of ancillary events, including 15 illustrated talks, running from 1st September to Remembrance Sunday 12th November and all being held at West Park United Reformed Church.
Sheila won a scholarship to Leeds Girls’ High School aged 11, and went on to become one of the first women in this country to earn her public service vehicle licence. So when she joined up aged just 17, she trained as an ambulance and staff car driver with the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army, rising to the rank of sergeant.
She may be a few weeks short of celebrating her own centenary but Sheila is still a vivid raconteur and as one of the first British service women to enter a German concentration camp in April 1945, she has first hand experience of her talk subject The Road to the Concentration Camps.
For almost a whole year in 1941-2, Sheila was part of a touring party of 30 ATS members who travelled the length and breadth of the UK to drum up support from the public at a time when attitudes towards women and their role in society were very different to now. After seeing most of Britain in relative safety, Sheila was posted abroad after D-Day in the autumn of 1944. She was eventually detailed to lead a convoy of about ten three-tonne Bedford lorries across France and Belgium entering into Nazi Germany from Holland.
When she got there she was asked if she wanted to work in the camps. She added: “I thought they meant barracks but it turned out they didn’t mean that at all. There was the camp with this huge entrance and an awful lot of huts surrounded by barbed wire fencing. We were entering Belsen. I could see our boys digging out mass graves to give the bodies proper burials. The only people left alive were in rags and were in a terrible state. They didn’t even know how to eat.”
It was Sheila’s job to look after the survivors in the camp, to clean them, dress them, show them how to use a knife and fork, to try to restore a little humanity after the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Which is exactly what she did.
Sheila will give her moving account at 3pm on Wednesday, 27th September. The exhibition More than a name on a Memorial and all talks are free to attend.
More details of the centenary commemorations are available at https://thecenotaphcentenary.info