Over 25,000 World War II artefects and objects discovered and made accessible online
Over 25,000 World War II artefects and objects discovered and made accessible online

Oxford project discovers over 25,000 World War II artefacts and makes them accessible online

Their Finest Hour, a project at the University of Oxford has safeguarded the memories of the Second World War for future generations through mass digitisation of WW2 stories and objects.

A top-secret D-Day map, a souvenir from Hitler's private yacht, and a piece of the first German plane brought down on British soil.

These are some of the strange and startling discoveries preserved by an Oxford University project that has digitised over 25,000 previously hidden artefacts from the Second World War.

Photos of the objects and stories associated with them will be available to view on the project website (theirfinesthour.org) on 6 June 2024 to complement events commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

The archive and its contents will be free to view, share and reuse, enabling the stories and experiences of the past to move into research and education today.

The archive contains a remarkable range of stories and objects that capture both the extraordinary and everyday lives of those who experienced the war. From the heartfelt letters of soldiers and families to unique memorabilia like Calvados measuring tankards gifted by a grateful farmer, each item in this diverse collection tells a powerful story.

Noteworthy items include a necktie that belonged to Chiang Kai-Shek, a photograph of Churchill visiting troops in the desert, and a photo of Field Marshal Rommel in Derna off the North African coast. Additional fascinating objects include a handwritten note authorising embarkation at Dunkirk, a cigarette lighter made from a rifle cartridge, harrowing letters from Auschwitz, a football season ticket from a tournament in India, a French bayonet, and shrapnel from a Coventry factory bombed during the Blitz.

Dr Stuart Lee, Project Director of Their Finest Hour, at the University of Oxford said: ‘Very few families in Britain and across the Commonwealth were untouched by the war. We knew from previous projects that people have so many wonderful objects, photos, and anecdotes which have been passed down from family members and which are at risk of getting lost or being forgotten. We’re delighted that we have been able to preserve so many of these stories and objects and make them available to the public through our archive of memories.’

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and based out of the Faculty of English at Oxford University, ‘Their Finest Hour’ worked with hundreds of volunteers to organise up to over 70 free events in 2023 and early 2024. Over 2,000 people attended the events, called ‘Digital Collection Days’, to share their war-related stories and mementos and have them recorded and digitised (i.e. photographed) by volunteers. Those who could not attend a Digital Collection Day in person were able to submit stories and photos via the project website.

Dr Matthew Kidd, Project Manager of Their Finest Hour, at the University of Oxford said: ‘The success of the project would not have been possible without the voluntary effort of thousands of dedicated volunteers and contributors. Thanks to their efforts, we’ve been able to create a ‘people’s archive’ of the Second World War that showcases both the extraordinary and everyday objects passed on by those who lived through the war.’

Digital Collection Days took place in all regions of the UK, from the south-west corner of England to the far north of Scotland. Events were held in libraries, schools, colleges, universities, museums, churches, mosques and temples, with several being run in collaboration with major institutions such as the National Memorial Arboretum, Wiener Holocaust Library, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Dr Lee has been leading a series of digitisation projects since 2008 as joint initiatives by Oxford’s Faculty of English and its IT Services department. In doing so, he and others have developed the Oxford Community Collection Model (OCCM), which has been tested not only in the United Kingdom but also across Europe.

You can explore the archives here.

You can explore some of the visual elements of the collection on Flickr.