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Wartime play stirs up childhood memories for veteran actor

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By Nick Brunger

A wartime drama set against the background of the D-Day invasion has stirred up powerful memories for the oldest member of the cast.

Patrick Howell, aged 84, a long-time resident of Slimbridge, is playing the part of the Electrician in this month’s performance by the Cotswold Players.

“Pressure” by David Haig is a tense drama exploring the key decision behind the timing of the D-Day landings in 1944 when advice given by experts on the weather was crucial to the mission’s success or failure.

The play covers key events in the four days leading up to the invasion and is set in the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, where the vital last-minute preparations for the D Day landings were taking place.

Bad weather and rough seas risked overwhelming the troop carriers transporting the allied soldiers to the Normandy beaches, while delaying the huge operation until conditions were ideal could have meant the invaders losing the vital element of surprise.

Patrick, who was just six years old at the time of the landings has vivid memories of the event.

“I was born in Surrey the year before World War II was declared and during the Blitz my mother, sister and I were evacuated to Boscombe near Bournemouth on the South Coast, where we stayed for much of the war.”

“My father was away serving with the RAF so I didn’t really get to know him until after the war was over.”

“As a young boy I had no knowledge of life before the war so I just accepted that seeing dog fights in the sky above the town or a doodlebug falling on the village smithy and killing the blacksmith was quite normal.”

“We used to go for walks, either along the sandy shore or on the cliff top. I was not allowed to go into the sea because of all the defences to stop the German invasion; concrete blocks, large steel structures, barbed wire and mines, but I loved walking along the cliff top where the views were stunning.”  

“I always looked forward to that first glimpse of the sea, still do, and I would run towards the cliff top so that I could see it before my mother and sister.”

“One sunny day I couldn’t believe my eyes; the sea was covered as far as I could see with ships, most of which were not moving.  There were hundreds of them and most of them were quite small.”

“I found out years later that they were landing craft and what I saw was the Normandy invasion fleet before it set off to the French Coast.”

“It made a fantastic impression on me and, although I have covered over twenty thousand miles as an ocean sailor, I have never seen anything like it since.”

“I have often wondered if, instead of being a 6 year old boy, I had been a German spy with a radio.  I could have told the German High Command that the invasion fleet was definitely heading for Normandy and not Calais.”

“It still surprises me that, right up until the last minute, the Germans did not know what part of the French Coast was going to be attacked.”

“Since that amazing experience, I have been fascinated by the invasion and it is a real privilege to be a part of a stage drama about it.”

“I saw the play about five years ago at the Theatre Royal in Bath, with the play’s author and actor David Haig in the lead role, and I was blown away by it.  I knew it would be an ideal play for the Players, and so it has turned out.”

Mr Howell is a former chairman of the Cotswold Players and is the author of “Consistently Brilliant on a Breezy Hilltop:  A History of the Cotswold Players – The First Hundred Years” which is available to buy from the theatre.

“Pressure”, by David Haig, is at the Cotswold Playhouse from 22nd-26th NovemberThe production is supported by Stroud Arts Festival.

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