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

A Tiger Tank’s Movie Debut…

A very rare German tank that I first saw many years ago down in rural Dorset as little more than a rusty hull at the beginning of what was to be a long & painstaking restoration has recently emerged from the shadows of the dusty REME (Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers) workshops into the sunlight as it was transformed from an ugly duckling into the beautiful swan of folklore legend.

Thought to be the very last working example of its type anywhere in the world, Bovington Tank Museum’s very own Tiger Tank is not only up and running but is now being hired out to the producers of the new Brad Pitt film, ‘Fury’ currently being shot in and around the village of Shirburn  in the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside here in the United Kingdom.

Along with an American Sherman M4 also on hire from this ground-breaking Museum, this superb & almost breathtaking Tiger will add a sense of realism with its sheer power & stage presence on set.. indeed Bovington’s Director of Operations, Richard Smith, said the Tiger was’ “one of the most feared weapons unleashed by the Nazis and was possessed of a formidable reputation as it could destroy an enemy tank from over 2km away..!”

When I first set eyes on it in the workshop it was a somewhat sad shadow of its former glory, completely shorn of its fearsome & powerful turret and talking back then with Curator David Willy, my understanding was that the tank was originally captured in the Western Desert in 1942 after a particularly ferocious clash between General Montgomery’s 8th Army. (the famous’ Deserts Rats’ of legend) and Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel at the head of his equally famous Afrikakorps.

This huge prize (in all senses of the word) was eventually brought back to the UK to undergo evaluation at the hands of the British Army and the Ministry of War’s tank boffins to see exactly what made this mighty German tank, (apart from its obvious & highly feared 88mm cannon), such a deadly & frightening opponent, then once its dark secrets were revealed to the British Army, the hulk was destined to become a target for the development of armour piercing shells.

But miraculously and thankfully for all of us who now either make a professional living from military history or those of us who also appreciate (or more likely ‘revel in’), the sheer power of the armoured fighting vehicles that the industrial might of Hitler’s Third Reich could produce, it survived a potentially ‘sticky end’ to later become the restoration project of today, so bringing it back to life for modern generations to once again marvel at and stand in total awe of..!.

In fact I was lucky enough to see it in all is restored glory when I drove down to Bovington last year to meet up with long-time pal Karl Friedrich Koenig from Hamburg, who was a Wehrmacht Panzer crew-member also serving in the Western Desert during the Second World War. Known to his UK Veteran pals as ‘Charlie’, Karl also features in both word & photo in my book The Military Music and Bandsmen of Hitler’s Third Reich 1933-1945.

Karl and I have been communicating for some 15 years or so and at the time of penning my book he kindly sent me a photo of himself as that young tank crewman, (far left), along with some shots of him with some of his former foes in The Sherwood Forresters, with whom he used to meet up regularly when he came over to the UK each year to resume old friendships forged from the heat of war. (In fact it never ceases to amaze me by just how many firm friendships were made, post-war, between former soldiers of the Third Reich and their Allied adversaries. Enduring friendships created through total respect for each other as honourable enemies, but all with shared experiences as fellow infantrymen, tankers, artillery gunners, fighter pilots, sailors et al.)

During our meet up Karl & I had a chance to take in this most impressive looking tank and I think the next time I see it, it will be in full moving action in the Brad Pitt movie and as David Willy said: “The Tiger was restored so that the public could fully appreciate what a truly fearsome machine it would have been during battle and now for the first time countless numbers of people will have the opportunity to see a genuine Tiger in a contemporary war film.”

Also describing it as “a unique piece of military heritage”, for those worried at how it might be used and abused by the movie crew, he said he was happy to reassure us all that its time on the set would be carefully managed and overseen by a group of museum workshop staff..which is a great comfort, having seen at first-hand how easy it is to wreck things on a movie or television production..!

(I’m told that on the movie set of the 1990 Michael Caton-Jones re-make of William Wyler’s famous 1943 war-time original of Memphis Belle, what started out as a number of rare sets of very valuable Irvine flying jackets and fur-lined trousers… and their US equivalents… all ended up as balls of torn rags after the Extras decided they could still play football in them in between takes… makes you weep doesn’t it! )

But back to today and ‘Fury’ (due for release next October), starring Brad Pitt as a US army sergeant leading an Allied mission behind enemy lines, dropped something of a clanger in that its cameras continued to roll on Remembrance Sunday.. to an obvious outcry!!

Pre-dawn stunt explosions and the use of extras dressed in Wehrmacht & Waffen-SS uniforms on Britain’s national day of Remembrance when the rest of us were spending a few quiet moments remembering those lost in action from World War 1 to the modern day was not the best way the film company could ‘win friends and influence people’! Indeed one movie extra who was filming on that Sunday told a UK national newspaper: ‘this was grotesquely disrespectful… but this is what I do and I cannot just walk off set.”

This unfortunate issue forced movie-director David Ayer (who directed the motion-picture U-571 showing Americans as liberating the Nazi code-breaking Enigma machine which, despite the gratuitous re-writing of history, I rather enjoyed), later apologised and expressed his heartfelt apologies for any disrespect caused adding  ”I am a veteran myself!”

But that said, knowing the Film & TV business as I do I am sure it would not have been beyond the wit & wisdom for somebody at the movie company Sony to wonder out loud if having a team of actors & extras rushing around the Oxfordshire countryside in a full array of WW-II German military uniforms on this solemn of all military days here in Britain was not such a bright idea?

However, we all make mistakes and I am sure by the time ‘Fury’ comes out all this will be forgotten amidst seeing Bovington’s wonderfully restored Tiger Tank in all its awesome beauty… stand aside Brad, let’s see the real star of the show..! 

Copyright@Brian Matthews 2013