The War & Peace show 2012
By: John Norris
Part Two of John Norris report on the 30th Anniversary of the biggest privately owned military vehicle gathering in the world
If there is one thing which can be guaranteed at the War & Peace Show that is action all the way. With more guns than one could possibly wish to see in all shapes, sizes and calibres and with live action displays there is never any shortage of excitement. And if one is tired there is always a marquee with live entertainment of the 1940s period to takes one’s mind off their sore feet after all the walking around the stalls and displays. For the military enthusiast there are weapons from the basic infantryman’s rifle all the way up to some of the largest pieces of artillery and then there are the vehicles from bicycles to tanks.
Now that’s a big gun
One group giving daily displays was The Garrison which demonstrated the firing of the 3.7 inch heavy anti-aircraft gun. The group had two of these guns on their display area along with a generator to supply power for the searchlight that accompanied them.
At each firing demonstration an announcer explained to the crowds how a battery of these guns would operate and then went on to fire a series of rounds. Before one display I was invited to have a close inspection of the kit and asked if I would like to try my hand at starting the generator. Members of the group are familiar with all the equipment and take turns at starting the generator, just as members of a wartime battery would have done.
My escort fitted the starting handle and the equipment set. I was told to begin turning the handle which was a bit stiff but with a rhythm I set things in motion. Then suddenly it became very difficult and it was all I could do to turn it. I was purple in the face and my escort laughingly told me he had just connected one of the cylinders and the others would be joined in sequence. There was obviously a ‘knack’ to it which I did not know and I had to give up or risk giving myself a hernia. I was told the secret was a good, steady rhythm. In a mixed battery with gunners and women members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service the girls would have had to start the generator. They must have been strong lassies is all I can say. The display of firing just the one gun was fascinating and to think that during the Blitz there were thousands of these weapons deployed to defend cities all across Britain.
The main arena ran a continuous narrated programme of mobile vehicle displays with an almost non-stop line of military traffic filing into the arena. In between there were military demonstrations and battles by re-enactment groups, which all tended to be lively, noisy affairs just as battles are for real. At the end of each day there is a grand finale battle in the arena in with my old friends of the Second Battle Group - which portrays SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to a very high level of authenticity – take a major part. They invited me to join them in one of the scenarios and I eagerly jumped at the chance to be among the action. It has been a long time since I last participated but after getting kitted up I was ready for whatever lay in store.
In previous battle scenarios I had climbed aboard one of SBG’s vehicles but this time there was no roar of engines and I was told we were going in as infantry. This was a role I knew well from having served in the Grenadier Guards and marched everywhere. In the British army foot soldiers called themselves the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ or ‘PBI’. The German army considered the infantry the ‘Konigin Aller Waffen’ or ‘Queen of Arms’, so here I was going in with the best of the best. We formed up in column and marched into the arena and took up positions in holes in the ground which resembled shell craters and in some cases were large enough to accommodate several men.
The centre of the arena was taken up by a presentation of a bombed out and burned French village. It could have been any one of hundreds of villages wrecked in the fighting as the battle for Normandy raged across the countryside. Steps, windows, doors, telephone wires and railings were all there, to add to the authentic feel of the setting. Looking at the workmanship which had gone into creating the scene I knew I was looking at the handicraft of Danny Butler who has a reputation for building such sets. Danny who is well known to re-enactors is one of the leading figures in the group portraying the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division in Normandy. His previous presentations have become legendary such as a bunker and no-one will ever forget his full size V2 rocket.
As we waited the battle co-ordinators used the time to run over last minute attention to detail, recap on the scenario and safety points because we were going to be facing American tanks and other vehicles. This was to be a purely American versus German battle and was a reminder of just how much ground the Americans had to cover after D-Day in order to link up with the British and Canadians. The more experienced members sat around and relaxed and taking our lead from them the rest of also became rather matter of fact and chatted among ourselves. Suddenly we were jarred out of our mood of complacency as pyrotechnics were detonated to signal the start of the battle.
This was unlike anything I had experienced before. Usually I had ridden into the action in a half-track carrier and shielded from the blasts of the pyrotechnic. The way we were caught unprepared must have been like that for many units when being shelled as they believed themselves to be out of harm’s way. The noise was loud but everybody was ready and already had their earplugs fitted against the sound. This is a good safety point and satisfying to see more re-enactors taking precautions. There was nothing to be done against the blast which pressed on one’s body from all sides. In reality, with shrapnel flying around it would have been devastating. Immediately troops were running to take up their positions to fight the Americans.
Looking up from my shell hole I saw an M5 Stuart Light Tank drive between two of Danny’s buildings. From the roofs and upstairs windows German troops were firing but the tank rolled on followed by an M4 Sherman. In the turret was ‘Oddball’ looking like a scene from the movie ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ and all very surreal. These vehicles passed within metres of my position and even with wide angle setting on my lens the tanks were so close they completely filled the viewing aperture. Some re-enactors were taking photographs but I noticed one or two had mounted cameras on their helmets to capture the all drama. This is something troops do operationally in Afghanistan and leaves both hands free. I am not one to say ‘I told you so’, but I did predict this feature a few years ago in this column.
With the action passing so close to me I was reminded of the brave men who served as war correspondents equipped with nothing more than a camera, the same as I was. However, the big difference was they were doing it for real and many of them were killed in the course of battle. These were men like Richard Dimbleby and the American Ed Murrow who even flew on a bombing mission over Germany and saw the war in all its rawness. There were also German journalists who ran the same risks as the troops when caught up in a battle whether in North Africa, Russia or Europe.
The Germans responded by bringing forward a recreated Panzer III tank to try and halt the Americans, but as in Normandy for real, it was too little too late. The fighting continued with machine gun fire, artillery, tank engines roaring and rifle fire cracking away. The rule for infantry in a battle is to win the fire fight by putting down as much firepower as possible. Despite being fired at from the buildings the Americans did win the fire fight and overwhelmed the German defenders.
It seemed like an eternity until the whistle was blown to signal the end of the battle. After all the noise the silence came as a huge relief. It had been an incredible experience and one comes to realise from having experienced it on the ground how hugely popular battle re-enactment has become. This is the ultimate in full contact pastimes and keeps one fit at the same time. Indeed it is unlike anything else and has to be experienced for one self to know what it is like. A word of warning, though, once tried it is hard to stop and the thrill takes over.
Even marching off the battlefield was a thrill knowing you have just taken part in a live action display which has been enjoyed by a crowd for whom it was like watching their own movie. Weapons are unloaded and declared safe by a marshal and unused ammunition handed in for safe storage. Water is gulped and finally helmets can be removed. I make my way back to the SBG display area and hand back the kit I had been loaned and all around are tired but very happy and satisfied battle re-enactors. Stepping away is an anti-climax but there is always another time.
Whether large-scale like the main arena event or one of the smaller displays, members of the groups do it because they enjoy it and the reaction is always the same.
See you next year
On the last day of the show camps begin to break up and groups pack away their kit. It is like the last day of school term with everybody knowing they have had a good time but there are more times ahead. In the case of War and Peace there is next year and the dates for that show have been set as the 17th to 21st July at the Hop Farm, Beltring. The theme for next year’s show is 50th anniversary to mark the end of National Service and 60th anniversary since the Korean War. These are two events which have sadly been over-looked by other event organisers, but for Rex Cadman and his team it is another example of how ready they are to embrace something different and in so doing they are still remembering the veterans of conflict which is what the show is all about.
As usual we extend our thanks to Rex and all his staff for being such gracious hosts. Congratulations all round for the last thirty years and we look forward to seeing you and perhaps some new faces at next year’s show and hopefully another thirty years of War and Peace Show. Keep up to date by visiting the Website at: www.thewarandpeaceshow.com
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