The World of Battle Re-enactment…

A recent report from somewhere ‘up north’, where a local council, (no doubt Labour- controlled as they are always seemingly politically-correct, utterly hidebound by their own prejudices and love to get upset on behalf of other groups..who aren’t usually in the least bit upset themselves!), had announced that nobody dressed in German uniforms would be allowed to attend a local recreation of a World War Two event. Excuse me?

So apart from making me wonder who these loons were and how it was that they could hold down an important council job whilst being so ignorant of WW-II history, (in that they apparently had no idea who the Allies were fighting in Europe between the years 1939 and 1945..Noddy perhaps?), it led me onto thinking about how far battle re-enactors have actually come in the 27-odd years that I have been running The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive here in the UK..

Since I last appeared in a war-time television drama series myself with a very 1939 ‘four-penny all off’ hair-cut, I have noticed, merely as an innocent by-stander watching from the wings these days, just how far the standard of latter day war-time re-enactment has come, both from the male and particularly the female perspective. The amazing progression has been to such an extent that these wonderful re-enactors are now, to my eyes, all but full-time professionals in their approach to this work… No longer are the recreations I’ve witnessed made up of little fat blokes with decidedly non-military hair-cuts running around like a group of little Cub Scouts full of e-Numbers on a excited day out, but are 9 times out of 10 well honed, well drilled and well disciplined groups of individuals determined to ‘get it right’ and do justice to those that went (and, tragically, often fell) before them..

As such it is therefore no wonder that TV & Motion-picture producers now actively seek out these wonderful enthusiastic hobbyists who, (with all their often expensively acquired uniforms & accoutrements), so accurately portray their historical counterparts as a result of which they bring nothing but an authentic historical touch to the expensive & important filming at hand.. Brad Pitt’s new Hollywood movie ‘Fury’ being just the latest example of their dedication.

I almost wish I was young enough to be involved once again now that such battle re-creations are very a highly skilled, polished, (and as I say) almost professional undertaking… so how these blinkered little ‘Town Hall Hitlers’ can object, (and in so doing exhibit exactly the ignorant & almost fascistic little prejudices that they purport to hate), is totally beyond me… but perhaps best for my blood pressure that I don’t venture any further down that particular path of thought..!

However on a happier note… members of our smashing group of Tomahawk Films‘ customers occasionally drop us an e-mail and recently Leon, did just that and wrote to generously talk about his enjoyment of our output and in one of his missives he very kindly attached a couple of photos of him and his colleagues in battle re-enactment mode and I was incredibly impressed and asked him if I could include them in this Blog about re-enactment and he kindly agreed and replied:

“I actually took part in a special re-enactment at Cornet Castle, Guernsey and we re-enacted the German surrender which features in your documentary. I’ve include 2 photos, one is of us at Cornet Castle representing flak troops…plus a photo as what we normally represent, Fallschirmjäger…at Mapledurham where they filmed ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, you may recognise the water wheel” (pictured at top).

I hope those of you who kindly read my musings here in these Tomahawk Blogs (and manage to stay awake through the experience), will be as impressed as I was… in fact talking of the Occupation, if you do follow these Blogs you will know that in addition to being the producer of ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, (my 50’ TV documentary on the German occupation of the Bailiwick of Guernsey & Alderney between 1940 and 1945), I also spent a very happy 5 years as the Media Consultant to the Guernsey Tourist Board, helping them promote their story of the German occupation, riding shotgun on other producer’s films to make sure the story told was the correct one, (as liberties were often taken, especially in terms of the subject of the imported foreign slave labourers used by the German occupying forces), and generally being their Occupation Story spokesman on both Television & Radio…

As a part of this happy work it was my job to help promote Guernsey’s two superb Occupation museums, the wonderful underground U-boot refuelling tunnel museum in St Peter Port owned by Peter & Paul Balshaw and Richard Heaume MBE’s stunning museum collection at Forest, plus his case-mate bunker out on the West Coast and Pleinmont Tower out on the Pleinmont headland… The reason that I mention the case-mate bunker is that during my tenure as Guernsey Tourism’s Media Consultant, a superb German battle re-enactment group representing the former Wehrmacht Pioniere Btl 146 from nearby us here in Hampshire (led by Lee Attwells) actually came over to Guernsey and spent an authentic weekend living in Richard’s casemate bunker.

Fully dressed in the correct uniforms of the time, they lived as former Naval Marineartillerie troops, and I’m indebted to them for these superb photos which I hope they won’t mind me re-posting here… I’m not sure if their Pioniere Btl 146 alter-egos have ever been back to Guernsey, but it certainly looked good ‘back in the day’

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

Stand-up, Hook-up & Hit the D.Z..!

It’s just as green and beautiful as I remember!”… the first words of former Private Billie Taylor of the US 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment as he stepped down from the coach that had brought him back to the former World War Two RAF air-base at Chilbolton near Winchester in Hampshire one beautiful Autumnal Saturday morning some years ago…

In late 1943 Chilbolton had became the home to members of the US 17th & 82nd Airborne Divisions, in advance of their deployment in the assault on the Normandy coast and in support of full-scale Allied operations on the ground; and for Billie and his wife Frances this long trip from their home in Indiana marked an emotional return to British soil for the first time since war’s end!

It was also to be just the start of an even longer pilgrimage to the Belgian Ardennes, the location in 1944 of the cauldron that was the Battle of the Bulge thence to the Rhine and ultimately on to Berlin, arranged through MilSpecTravel in association with Libertyroad.com, a specialist travel company offering battlefield & military tours for US veterans of World War Two under the expert eye of specialist tour guide Mr Patrick Hinchey.

In fact it was Patrick who was later to be the expert guide on the 2000 ‘Friendly Convoy’ when as the only journalist invited along, I had the real & most emotional honour of travelling back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and on into Alsace-Lorraine in the wonderful company of Veterans & Widows of the US 79th Infantry Division; thence later with Patrick as my own personal guide, when I travelled to Bad Kreuznach in Germany to interview former Musikmeister of the Musikkorps 12.SS-Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’  SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Weissenborn, for my book‘The Military Music & Bandsmen of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945’…

But back to Billie’s pilgrimage and, arriving in England soon after its formation in mid-1943, under the motto ‘Thunder from Heaven’, the 17th Airborne, (boasting one parachute & two WACO glider regiments), first saw combat in Europe in December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, thence in March 1945, the division had the honour of making America’s first & only airborne assault into an enemy heartland as they crossed the River Rhine into Germany in Operation Varsity….

As Billie’s memory-laden return to England continued to unfold before him, I was able to quietly observe this modest man from a distance as he took in this former war-time British airfield spread out all about him; and I could see that faraway look come into his eyes, a look that I have seen on so many occasions with many combat veterans, Allied & German, both here & overseas.

In my journalistic experience, it is a look that only men who have actually fought in combat take on… and I’ve come to realise that when I see it, it’s sometimes best not to say a thing as all their thoughts come flooding back: action seen, good buddies lost, life perhaps that could only have minutes more to run as mortal danger threatens to envelope them!

Some combat soldiers, like Al Sepulveda, a heavily decorated US 82nd Airborne Veteran from Los Angeles, who parachuted into Occupied Europe at 2.25am on the morning of ‘D-Day’ 6th of June 1944, again later at St Mere Eglise, (a jump immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day’) and at Nimegen and who was awarded a Silver Star at Oosterbeck, will want to talk about their war and share all its details… whilst others will just want to slowly slip away from the crowds and quietly relect on their own.

Billie was in the latter camp, so I just stood silently in the shadows under the trees watching him as he cast his gaze slowely around the former combat glider airstrip around him and so obviously recalled a previous life spent here in a small part of the beautiful English countryside.

Then after a long while alone with his prized & personal memories, the reflective mood of the afternoon was broken as party of British combat veterans wearing their prized airborne forces red berets respectfully appeared and offered their personal welcome to all of the American veterans present at a small ceremony of remembrance.

In a ceremony befitting such a WW-II Veteran visit, both American & British Unit Colours & Honours were presented and wreaths laid at the memorial commemorating the vital role that this former World War Two airfield played in the build-up to the D-Day assault on the French coast of Normandy and thence all future Allied airborne drops over Occupied Europe…

Then the formal mood of Remembrance lifted as the American party was escorted by their former British paratrooper compatriots into the nearby village of Chilbolton; here they were able to finally enjoy a rare treat that many of them had not tasted since 1945: a traditional cream-tea that is now a regular custom laid on by the Hampshire locals who regularly play host to many returning former US airborne troops whom, as younger men, had become a regular & much-loved part of the village fabric back in those turbulent & momentous years of 1943 & 1944.

Then following a few precious hours in the Britain’s ancient capital, the nearby City of Winchester, and a moving Vin d’Honneur, (a simple but truly heartfelt formal ceremony of welcome), by the City’s Fathers to these returning WW-II Veterans, at which I was proudly made an Honourary Member of the 17th Airborne Division Association, it was back on to the coach in preparation for their trip across the Channel and onto the continental leg of their European pilgrimage….

As in the final months of World War Two these former US airborne warriors would once again be facing another reception by German parachute forces… though on this occasion it would be a much anticipated, (and this time friendly!), reception in the lovely small German town of Wesel… and by the very Fallschirmjäger ground troops they last met and fought when they jumped & glided in on top of them during Operation Varsity in March 1945!

Where once their one and only aim was that of killing each other, now these Allied & German veteran soldiers would embrace each other as firm friends… truly, war is a strange thing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013