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Keeping an army moving

Keeping an army moving

For centuries it has been understood that armies are divided into two categories; the troops at the front who engage in the fighting and those who support them with food and equipment. These came to be known as ‘Teeth’ arms, including infantry and artillery, and the ‘Tail’ branches. Far from being non-combatant, these support elements keep the forces equipped to fight at the front and often deliver the essentials right into the battle area itself.

Ordnance Maintenance Company

This was never more important than during WWII, which the Germans called ‘Materialschlacht’ or materiel war to underline the importance of having good support. The American army understood this well and during the Normandy campaign in 1944, deployed specialist units at all levels. This is demonstrated by the re-enactment group that depicts an Ordnance Maintenance Company (OMC), serving with the 2nd Armoured Division Ordnance, which provided logistics and maintenance to the unit throughout the campaign and right until the end of the war.

Formed several years ago by re-enactors who had experience depicting other units, the OMC Group currently has some 15 members, with the aim of showing how the fighting units were supported. They regularly attend shows where they put on displays using vehicles that include GMC trucks, ‘Ben Hur’ trailers, Jeeps, Dodge ambulances and recovery trucks, all owned by members of the group. This way they can create static displays around the trucks and give demonstrations on how supplies were moved. There are items of personal equipment, such as coffee mugs and helmets, just as it would have been in such a unit when parked up.

Visitors to their display at the Tilford at War Show in Farnham, Surrey over the bank holiday weekend of April 29th to May 1st, learnt how the original 2nd Armoured Division, nicknamed ‘Hell on Wheels’, landed on Omaha Beach on June 9th, three days after the D-Day landings. It was accompanied by their Ordnance Maintenance Battalion, companies from which supplied logistic support such as food, fuel, and ammunition, as well as providing the maintenance to keep the vehicles moving. The troops of these companies were right up there with the fighting units and for that reason, they had undergone combat training to handle weapons. There were occasions when they had to defend themselves, but they were never used during an actual attack.

For example, during the fighting to clear the town of Carentan in Normandy on June 13th, in an action called the Battle of Bloody Gulch, drivers of vehicles with trucks and trailers just like those seen on the OMC display, were following closely behind. Later, during ‘Operation Cobra’, the breakout from the Normandy beachhead, between July 25th and 31st, the Ordnance were there and by that stage were handling tens of thousands of tons of supplies and maintaining hundreds of vehicles. It was explained by the re-enactors that at one point the original unit was moving so fast that it had to be supplied by the ‘Red Ball Express’.

Tooled up

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The OMC Group don’t carry weapons all the time, but some of their trucks have 50 cal machine guns mounted on race rings fitted to the roof of the driver’s cab. The uniforms they wear are a mix of what was the standard issue from 1942 to 1945, exactly as seen in wartime photographs of the unit in France and later in Holland. They wear a lot of pieces of original uniforms such as jackets and helmets, purchased from traders. For the rarer pieces they wear, such as the two-piece army pattern camouflage uniform, they use reproductions from Soldier of Fortune (www.sofmilitary.co.uk). A couple of members of the group were wearing this and they explained it was only issued between May and August 1944, but not being hardwearing it was not popular with the troops.

The group uses a range of crates in its display, marked up with the names of various contents including ammunition and food, which makes it appear authentic. Operating so close to the front line, everything had to be moved by hand, making it a labour-intensive task, which is shown in the display. Some of the trucks have hand-operated hoists mounted on the rear to demonstrate how heavier loads, such as fuel drums, were lifted into the rear of the trucks. Attention to detail is everything and the group uses proper rope made from either sisal or hemp, which is correct for the period.

During the war, everything had to be accounted for and when loading crates, one man would have stood by with a clipboard to mark off each item to keep a record of what had been dispatched. This is something that the group does for authenticity as part of its display.

Whilst not a fighting unit, the OMC can still participate in arena battle re-enactment displays by driving their vehicles to show how the supplies were brought up. Being that close to the fighting there were casualties, and their vehicles would have been fired on as they travelled in convoy. This is something the OMC has done on various occasions with different groups. Using their GMC 353 and 352 trucks, the group can also show how vehicles were recovered from the battlefield.

Fix it

Other aspects of campaign service can also be depicted at shows, such as vehicle maintenance, with engine bonnets lifted or even someone laying under the vehicle. Changing a wheel would also be another demonstration. All these things can be done without having to leave the group’s display area at an event. Members of the group can explain these work details to members of the public who visit their display area and then answer any questions.

The 2nd US Armoured Division was a ‘heavy armour’ unit, with tank battalions, artillery, and engineering units all of which had to be supported by the Ordnance Maintenance Companies. This gives the OMC a lot of scope for yet more subjects to demonstrate and work further with other groups. In turn, this will keep it interesting for members of the group, who are already sufficiently flexible to undertake many roles.

A lot of history

After Normandy, the 2nd Armoured Division, along with its Ordnance Maintenance Companies, faced more battles in the months ahead as they advanced into Belgium, crossed the Siegfried Line, and moved onwards into Germany. Such a war record provides the opportunity to depict the later stages of the war down to the very end, with VE Day. That is a lot of history to be able to choose from as scenarios. As members of the group say, they are not Rangers or Airborne elite but depict ordinary soldiers doing their part and whose role was just as vital in fighting the war.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about the group, they can be contacted through Chris Firman by emailing: [email protected]