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Every year, for one weekend in September, the quaint Norfolk seaside town of Sheringham turns back time to remember life in the 1940s.
Shopfronts fill with vintage paraphernalia, Union Jacks abound and visitors arrive in their hordes for a two-day festival full of costumes, steam trains, swing dancing and even, as happened this year, a World War II-era flypast.
It’s an event about celebrating the spirit of wartime Britain; it’s most definitely not about imagining the horrors that might have reached Norfolk’s shores if the bravery of so many had not kept Hitler’s troops at bay. All of which is why the arrival of one particular group of visitors last weekend brought something of a cloud to an otherwise joyous event.
For last Saturday afternoon a group of men in German military uniform, some bearing the ominous SS symbol of Adolf Hitler’s infamous elite force, goose-stepped into the town, before finding themselves at the centre of an angry confrontation with visitors who found their presence, complete with swastikas, deeply offensive.
In the ensuing rumpus outside The Lobster pub, things got rather heated and police had to wade in, culminating in an allegation of assault against one interloper. The invading forces were escorted out of town by event marshals.
Last Saturday afternoon a group of men in German military uniform, some bearing the ominous SS symbol of Adolf Hitler’s infamous elite force, goose-stepped into the town
The leader of the group is 53-year-old Jim Keeling (pictured), a father of four with a long-standing obsession with military history. His fascination with Hitler, however, is most vividly illustrated in a shocking photograph showing Keeling adopting the unmistakable stance of the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute near Hitler’s summer retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, in Bavaria
Nevertheless, the blip on annual celebrations has left its mark, not least on Sheringham’s small Jewish community.
‘It was deeply offensive,’ said one shaken witness. ‘These men were not milling about and blending in. They were marching and making a demonstration. It was frightening.
‘My father was from a Jewish family who lost his parents and brothers and sisters in death camps.
‘He was fortunate to escape with my uncle via Kindertransport, so having to see this with my son was mortally offensive and a disgraceful act.’
So just who were this band of men who felt it was appropriate to join a family-themed 1940s festival in the chilling garb of the Nazi regime?
In an investigation this week, the Mail has discovered that the group calling itself the Eastern Front Living History Group is actually more widely known as the 5th SS Wiking Re-enactment Group, a Norfolk-based unit modelled to represent the actual SS unit of the same name.
The leader of the group is 53-year-old Jim Keeling, a father of four with a long-standing obsession with military history, particularly the 5th SS Wiking — an armed regiment under the overarching auspices of SS chief Heinrich Himmler — that was largely made up of foreign volunteers, not Germans.
Keeling’s eldest son told us his father would hang a Nazi flag on the washing line of his home in Bradwell, near to Great Yarmouth, to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday, while regularly packing his SS uniform in a bag and disappearing to weekend ‘re-enactment’ events.
His fascination with Hitler, however, is most vividly illustrated in a shocking photograph showing Keeling adopting the unmistakable stance of the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute near Hitler’s summer retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, in Bavaria.
If the picture was indeed taken in Bavaria, Keeling could have been in trouble — giving the Nazi salute is illegal in Germany and punishable with a six-month prison sentence.
Nevertheless, he appears to have been happy to share the image on social media, triggering unease among fellow military history enthusiasts.
He is also said to have shared anti-Semitic artwork on his Instagram account; earlier this year his now deleted account (bearing SS Wiking in his screen name) depicted an image of a stereotypical Jewish figure wearing a yarmulke skullcap, stuffing Africa into an EU-emblazoned funnel to squeeze it into Europe.
There was no sign of Keeling this week at the large detached home where he had until recently been living with his wife Elaine and their two pet Chihuahuas named Buddy and Teddy.
Neighbours described the scuba-diving instructor turned gardener as a ‘lovely’ man, ‘a nice person, funny and jokey’, who helped them lay stones in their front garden.
Keeling’s eldest son told us his father would hang a Nazi flag on the washing line of his home in Bradwell, near to Great Yarmouth, to mark Adolf Hitler’s (pictured) birthday
In an investigation this week, the Mail has discovered that the group calling itself the Eastern Front Living History Group is actually more widely known as the 5th SS Wiking Re-enactment Group, a Norfolk-based unit modelled to represent the actual SS unit of the same name
And yet his son Jeremy Keeling, 34, gave a somewhat different account of his father, from whom he is estranged.
‘My father has been a member of the re-enactment group for a number of years, he is now the group leader. It’s not something he has hidden from people,’ he told the Mail.
‘He has always had an interest in Nazi Germany — he would make model German tanks — but re-enacting I would say goes back ten years.’
He said his father would regularly pack his uniform into a bag (uniform extending to actual German weapons, albeit no longer functional) and head off for weekend battle re-enactments. ‘I would say he was out at least once a month. He would take his uniform with him in a bag, his tent and all the rest of it.
‘It would be like a weekend away. But rather than go camping, have a few ciders and enjoy being in the countryside, they would get dressed up as Nazis. They would take their guns with them.’
Was Jeremy surprised to see his father in Bavaria? Sadly not. ‘That photograph of him doing the salute in Bavaria, his argument is ‘I was knocking Hitler’, but if you are doing that, do you have to go to Hitler’s hideaway in Bavaria to do a salute?’
More troublingly, Jeremy claims that his father’s political views align with the extreme politics of the Nazi regime and that Jim was once a member of the British National Party.
Jeremy says: ‘He’s trying to wriggle out if it now, but he does have those beliefs. He makes jokes about killing the Jews and that the Nazis didn’t go far enough. He has always been like that, despite my grandfather serving during World War II.
‘When my nan was alive she told me there would be occasions they would be sat at the dinner table and my father would start running on at them about Hitler and whatever and my Grandad would give him a slap, it’s not something that has just come up in the last few years.
‘Was I shocked to learn he had been to the Bavarian retreat? In the past he has commemorated Hitler’s birthday by putting a Nazi flag on the washing line, so was I shocked, no absolutely not, I’ve seen it all before.’
What Jim’s war veteran father Cedric ‘Lofty’ Keeling, who died in 1996, aged 72, having served in World War II as a Royal Navy Commando, or indeed his brother Graham, who was a young sailor, confined to a submarine as war raged, would make of his hobby is open to debate.
Certainly Jim’s elder sister Chrissy Sitek was horrified to discover her brother had struck such an offensive pose in public.
Speaking from her home in Norfolk, Chrissy, 59, is shaken when she sees her brother standing against the backdrop of the Bavarian mountains. ‘I’m horrified, it’s not right,’ she says.
The eldest of four sisters, she says her brother’s passion for all things military took root when he was a child, growing up in the village of Ormesby.
‘Jim just took a liking to anything to do with the war, from being a toddler to his teens. He would have model aeroplanes in his room. Dad painted a sky on the ceiling for him.
‘He’s always been a fantasist around war and anything to do with soldiers. Obviously he read up on Hitler because that was part of history.
‘A lot of what he did was re-enactment. We used to laugh about it. My two eldest sons were Paratroopers, so we laughed at him playing at soldiers.’
Keeling’s daughter Charlotte, a businesswoman and mother, insisted her brother’s allegations did not line up with her view.
‘It’s his hobby,’ she said. ‘And he’s got a really strong interest in World War II and not just from the German side.
Shopfronts fill with vintage paraphernalia, Union Jacks abound and visitors arrive in their hordes for a two-day festival full of costumes, steam trains, swing dancing and even, as happened this year, a World War II-era flypast
Every year, for one weekend in September, the quaint Norfolk seaside town of Sheringham turns back time to remember life in the 1940s
‘Realistically you have a group of men who have a love for the history of World War II and they just want to educate people and raise money for anyone who was affected by it [the war]. Now he has had this picture painted to the public that he is a Nazi and goes round intimidating people.
‘The group were not intimidating people. It took so long to get from the station to the pub because a lot of people were interested to know about that side. That’s why these guys do what they do, there are parts of the war that aren’t necessarily spoken about but are still history.’
Keeling has, it is understood, previously ejected at least one extreme Right-wing member of his re-enactment group and he is certainly not alone in having an enthusiasm for looking at World War II history from the perspective of Axis powers rather than the Allies.
The West Yorkshire village of Haworth also hosts an annual 1940s weekend which has been blighted by the appearance of visitors in Nazi garb. Only this week at a public meeting to discuss various concerns, villagers spoke of the distasteful rise in visitors in Nazi uniform parading the streets.
Other historical re-enactors are split between those who think there is a legitimate call to represent both Allied and Axis troops and those who think this niche core, like the 5th Wikings, are tarnishing the whole historical scene.
‘There has always been a massive question over whether you should be doing it [SS re-enactment],’ one enthusiast says:
‘As soon as you wear the uniform, the badges, the swastikas, it doesn’t matter what you are like on the inside, you are visibly signifying something. It’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.’
Keeling did not respond to messages from the Mail this week, but asked an associate to share a statement, attributed to a ‘spokesperson for the Eastern Front Living History Group’.
It read: ‘We do battle re-enactments, displays and educational visits across the UK, raising money for charity for wounded soldiers so they can have artificial limbs. We represent the Western European nations that fought against Stalin and Communism during World War II.
‘We were wearing Waffen SS infantry uniforms displaying national shields and insignia of the countries portrayed. Not one member of the group portrayed a German.
‘As a group we’ve been attending the Sheringham 1940s weekend for four or five years running and never had any problems before.
‘We were walking down Sheringham high street and people were stopping us, shaking our hands and wanting to take photos. It was a brilliant vibe. There was no one upset or offended at all. It was good-natured fun as it should be.’
The statement goes on to describe how a ‘highly intoxicated’ member of the public launched an assault on the group. ‘As a group we do not tolerate any politics or any form of religious persecution,’ continues the statement. ‘We simply won’t have it. That behaviour disgusts us and tarnishes what we do. We were not asked to leave. We were leaving anyway to go back to our campsite.’
As for the other photograph, Keeling spoke to his local newspaper the Eastern Daily Press on Thursday.
‘My dad fought against him [Hitler] and I think if anyone has the right to take the mickey out of his Mickey Mouse stance and his silly little moustache . . . up until my father died he was picking shrapnel out. I believe I’ve got the right to take the mickey out of the silly little Austrian artist.’
But, in Sheringham, organisers are already contemplating rules for next year’s event — rules that may prevent a recurrence of SS soldiers marching on British shores.
Additional reporting: Stephanie Condron and Nick Craven