By: John Norris
John Norris reports on the 30th Anniversary of the biggest privately owned military vehicle gathering in the world
Since the end of WW II in 1945 Britain has lost service personnel killed on active duty every year with the exception of 1968. To commemorate this loss the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire was established with its walls bearing the names of over 15,000 killed engraved in the stone in chronological order. The list gets longer every year, proving that peace comes at a very high price.
The Falkands War and ‘modern’ conflicts
Thirty years ago in 1982 Britain found itself engaged in a conflict with Argentina over the question of sovereignty of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. In that same year the War & Peace Show was established and today that chapter in Britain’s military history is marked as the organisers of the largest gathering of privately owned military vehicles in the world take the time to reflect and remember the Falklands War and all the other conflicts. The world is a very volatile place, and with armed clashes usually happening somewhere, it is never entirely at peace. At the War & Peace Show veterans and their families come along to reflect and speak to those who have never served in the armed forces and put on displays to show how things were.
It is a time of reflection and to see what lengths we have striven to try in order to preserve peace and prevent war through the efforts of such organisations as the United Nations whose members have to use the equipment on display at the show. Also, nations have to protect themselves and that is also worth remembering when visiting W&P, and nowhere more so than on the display area of the South Africa Self-Defence Force. This year the group had scaled things down slightly but it was still informative to see what was happening in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, and see something of the uniforms and weapons of the period.
Walking around the site of W&P one comes to realise how the organisers of the show are ready to embrace a range of new interpretations which expand the periods of re-enactment. For example there was a display depicting the Republic of Ireland but also the show was commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War in 1982 and there were veterans from that conflict on site. It also made me remember back to when I covered the return of the Blues & Royals to Windsor with their Scorpion tanks and HMS Invincible to Portsmouth.
The show now has Northern Ireland displays as a regular feature and this year one of the groups had a female sentry in a sangar to represent the ‘Greenfinches’ of the Ulster Defence Regiment. War & Peace was also the launching base for the Croatian Forces Living History group and even the mercenaries in Africa.
It is only possible to see these presentations of history of warfare because of the veterans who are honoured guests of the show.
One does not have to look far to see something of interest at the show, such as the gun firing by The Garrison Artillery which demonstrated the 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun in action. I also saw Titus ( a French re-enactor who regularly visits the UK) who invariably turns up in an unusual uniform and this year was portraying a Moroccan Tirailleur who were French colonial troops and tough fighters. Titus is what I refer to as a ‘stroller’ because he does not have to do anything other than just be there. You know instinctively what he is meant to be and he looks good. Staying with the North African theme Alex Marsh looked the very picture of an Arab sheik in a plain white smock proving the case that ‘less can be more’.
A young, rather shy-looking girl was pointed out to me and it turned out she was depicting Princess Elizabeth, our present Queen, in the WWII uniform of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. She looked incredibly authentic and then I remembered Princess Elizabeth learned to drive a K2Y ambulance towards the end of the war. Here was an opportunity too good to miss. I ushered her along to one of the K2Y ambulances on display to recreate the image. A lady depicting Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) also joined the young girl and the effect was great re-enactment.
Recreating images of war
Rex Cadman has had full-scale replica Spitfire, Hurricane and Bf 109 aircraft built for the Battle of Britain of Experience and these are prominently displayed with RAF ground crew and pilots looking ready to ‘Scramble’. I saw this as an ideal opportunity recreate another image on my wish list - a collection of wartime images which I take with me to events in an attempt to recreate as near to the real thing as possible. One of the images shows two members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) servicing a Spitfire with a pilot in the cockpit. Wayne Ladd, who I have known for many years gathered the necessary girls together and the equipment and between us we recreated the image.
The display put on by the Desert Platoon Living History Group gave me an idea to recreate another image from my wish list and following a brief discussion the guys rallied and gathered the necessary kit together. The first image was a full ‘head-on’ bayonet charge with bared teeth gritted in determination and looked like the original. The other image they helped with looked as though it may have been taken during the Italian campaign.
Nevertheless, they got the weapons together and the three-man team recreated two riflemen and a third throwing a grenade into a building. In the original the men’s faces cannot be seen and so it was in the image they recreated.
Another familiar face was General Douglas MacArthur and this year he had an aide and a Filipino Scout who had flown in from the Philippines specifically to attend the show and also to meet the MacArthur re-enactor whom he had heard so much about. By coincidence our paths just happened to cross and as we were making our way to a location to take some photographs we met several other re-enactors portraying Filipino Scouts. I knew these chaps from previous events but here was a great opportunity to create something special using all the resources these re-enactors possessed collectively. There is no shortage of period vehicles at the show and so we requisitioned a car to reproduce the scene of MacArthur’s ‘Return’ to the Philippines and being greeted by a guard of honour made up from the Filipino Scouts. The effect was startling and better than I could have dared hope for. Once again it was another demonstration of what re-enactment is all about, which is recreating the past and keeping the memory alive.
Always something – or somebody – new!
It seemed as though there was no end of surprises at this 30th anniversary show, such as
German pilots standing by the Bf 109 fighter, looking as though they were ready to take off and invade the skies over Kent during the Battle of Britain.
There was also an Italian tank crew member in leather helmet and coat looking as though he could have been in Libya 1940. He was from the Italian Mediterraneo Group which portrays all aspects of the Italian army in WW II and this was their latest creation.
Another poignant moment was a young ‘French’ boy wearing a beret and shorts who was armed to the teeth with a German grenade stuffed into his belt along with a revolver and holding an M1A1 carbine – standing to salute American liberators just as they did in France after June 1944 when peace was restored.
Finally there was a member of the 29th Infantry Division who brilliantly recreated an exact image of ‘Oddball’ the laid-back tank commander character from the cult movie ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ who looked splendid and would turn up later in battle on top of a Sherman, just as in the movie.
War is Hell
General William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army is understood to have said ‘I tell you war is Hell’. War is indeed hell but after that is the legacy of peace, which in turn becomes history. But before that happens there are battles and fighting, and that is what next month’s instalment of this War and Peace report will be all about.
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