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Tilford Village at War

Tilford Village at War

I must admit to having a fondness for the smaller 1940s re-enactment events, with their friendly and relaxed atmosphere. The big events are great, but the smaller ones have a charm of their own, which evokes the period they are depicting. One such event I always enjoy visiting, is Tilford Village at War organised by Dave Allaway (AKA ‘Captain Dave’), which this year was held over the weekend of 6th and 7th May, near Farnham in Surrey. I have been to this event before and found it to have unexpected surprises, which make it stand apart.

The venue is the Rural Life Museum, which is located down a very quiet country road that would have been the kind of place where troops would have been camped in the build-up for D-Day. The site has a range of buildings from the period, including a pavilion, barns, garages and a school room, each of which contains a display. Because of this, the event is themed as a Home Front, involving British and American troops, Home Guard, Police and other organisations such as the WVS. Walking around the site, surrounded by re-enactors wearing civilian or military dress, is like stepping back in time. In the school room, for example, cups of tea were being served in the community spirit which brought people together and recreated the mood.

The site is by no means large, but it is what is packed into it that really sets it apart. There is a good balance between civilian and military displays and the cross over between the two combines to allow realistic live action demonstrations to be created, right in the middle of the visiting public. For example, the air raid involving all the emergency services.

This scenario began with the siren being sounded and a policeman riding his bicycle around the site warning people to take cover. He wore a sign on his chest, just as seen in wartime photographs, for added authenticity. Some re-enactors with blankfiring weapons very obligingly fired off a few shots to simulate gunfire and a couple of smoke bombs were released for added effect. The ARP warden dealt with one of these to show how incendiary bombs were tackled with the long-handled scoop. A civilian who had been injured in the raid, complete with fake blood, was treated for shock and taken away on a stretcher. The display showed how the emergency services coped for real during these raids and helped the victims of all ages.

Feature packed

The event is not so much small as being ‘condensed’, like soup, and you end up getting a lot out of Tilford. It is busy, but you can still spend time looking at everything and take it all in. For example, open tent flaps are an invitation for you to pop your head inside to look at a display of kit and personal items. So much is revealed with these collections, which have been carefully put together. Vehicles were parked between the buildings across the site and these could be examined at leisure, allowing enthusiasts to look at features. One display, with a Jeep as a centrepiece, featured an all-female group of re-enactors. Chatting with the ladies it was explained they were depicting the female war correspondents who went into theatres of operations to report on the fighting for the American readership. As it turned out, these were the ladies who also depicted the Rochambelles volunteer nurses and this was their latest creation.

This is an aspect of the war which is often overlooked and it was great to see the group remembering the brave women, such as Lee Miller and Martha Gellhorn who was married to Ernest Hemmingway, and depicting the ladies who covered the war. Around 127 women were given full accreditation by the Associated Press to report on the war and they did so in some of the most dramatic ways. They went on bombing missions, convoys and travelled in trucks to get as close to the front-line action as possible. Some of these ladies saw first-hand the realities of war in Italy and wrote of their experiences. This display was a fitting tribute to those ladies who, although surrounded by war, still managed to retain their femininity.

One such lady was Margaret Bourke- White, known to her colleagues as ‘Maggie the Indestructible’ because she survived so many near-death situations, including being strafed by German aircraft. In 1943, the ship in which she was travelling, the SS Strathallen, was torpedoed and sunk and she ended up in a lifeboat. After the war, she covered many stories, such as the partition of India in 1947. Margaret died in 1971 aged 67, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but with re-enactment groups like this to depict the work of such ladies, their legacy will never be forgotten.

Huge variety

It was great to stroll around a site at leisure, stopping to have a chat and take photographs as the opportunity arose. For example, the display of the police station put on by husband and wife team of Barry and Jackie, who between them make up The Law at War. The entrance to the station was complete with the blue lamp above the door and inside was all the paraphernalia needed to maintain law and order during the war, especially all the forms. Individual ‘strollers’ were very smart, such as a lady Civil Defence worker who looked as though she was ready to report for duty. A bit further on and I met two-star General Walter M. Robertson of the US 2nd Infantry Division, which landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, looking as if he was inspecting his troops.

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That is the great thing about the smaller events, it gives re-enactors the scope to explore new depictions and show them for the first time. Even a few members sitting around drinking tea was full of atmosphere, or a couple of chaps just sitting in a vehicle evoked the period. Civilians blended in very nicely because, after all, this was meant to be the Home Front. Lapel badges and armbands denoted their branch of service, such as the Women’s Voluntary Service, which helped raise donations for all causes and supported those families bombed out in air raids.

Wartime trio

From previous visits to Tilford, I knew this would be a perfect place where I could recreate a famous wartime photograph featuring Winston Churchill, General Omar Bradley and General Eisenhower; ‘Ike’. I had seen a photograph, which showed these three men together firing M1 carbines just before D-Day and I added it to my list of historical photographs I would like to recreate, thinking how Tilford would be the perfect place to stage it. I mentioned it to Alan Daws, who depicts Omar Bradley and knew the photo to which I was referring. Between us we agreed to set it up.

Onsite, we had Stan Streather, who depicts Churchill extremely well and whom I had met before. Ike was proving elusive, even on this small site, but eventually I tracked him down. I explained the photograph I was trying to recreate and he readily accepted the invitation to join the enterprise. Next, I was faced with the challenge of borrowing three M1 carbines. Re-enactors are such very helpful people and asking a couple of members depicting American troops the weapons were supplied. Lining up Churchill, Bradley and Eisenhower, with a bit of instruction, and the effect was complete. The result was better than I could have imaged and I was very satisfied. Best of all, we had great fun doing it and, after all, re-enactment is about having great fun. According to the caption on the original photograph, Churchill’s target was discretely removed. Did he miss or was he a better shot than the others? We will never know. Having done it, I could ‘tick off’ from my wish list.

Time for a brew!

Parked between some buildings the 43rd Wessex Division had set up a small camp, including a Daimler Dingo Scout Car, where they were brewing up a pot of tea to depict the British army. It just went to prove that even being static, a group can put on a very good and convincing display. There were Jeeps and other trucks around the site and looking very much how such rural scenes would have been during the war. There was even an American Red Cross van serving coffee and donuts, not only to the American re-enactors but the Allies, also, just like the wartime photographs seen in magazines.

A couple of vehicle owners were taking the opportunity to do some maintenance work on a vehicle, which gave the impression of a field workshop. Looking across to another group of parked vehicles, my attention was taken by an unusual version of an M16 half-track. I wandered over to have a closer look and met the owner, who explained that he had just completed it in time for this event. The reason for my interest is because it was a self-propelled gun version armed with a 105mm gun. Despite having visited many shows over the years, this is the first time I had seen an example of this type.

It was explained to me that it was a variant known as a T-19 Howitzer Motor Carriage, with unit markings for the 1303 Engineering Company of the 39 Armoured Engineers. The vehicles were built by the company of Diamond T, which produced a total of 324 between January and April 1942. Some saw service in North Africa, whilst others were engaged in heavy fighting on Sicily against German units. Mostly, however, they were used during the campaign on the Italian mainland. The main gun was the M2A1 version of the 105mm gun, which was later to be fitted to the M7 ‘Priest’, which eventually replaced the T-19. The vehicle was served by a crew of six men and carried eight rounds of 105mm ammunition ready to use. Secondary armament was a .50-inch calibre machine gun for self-defence, along with personal weapons of the crew.

To a T

I have seen photographs of T-19s being driven past General Patton at a parade at Rabat in Morocco, where one of vehicles is named as ‘Ironsides’. Never having seen an example of the real thing, I thought the version at Tilford was a very good representation of the type. The owner explained how he had the M16 half-track vehicle and the 105mm barrel from an M7 Priest and he decided to mount the barrel on the vehicle to produce a T-19. Apparently, conversions like this were not uncommon and engineer units could produce them ‘in field’. Certainly, we see in photographs some very unusual and strange vehicle combinations, which were not standard equipment. This is the great thing about the smaller events, where time can be spent talking about such matters. I have the distinct feeling we will see more of this vehicle at other shows.

It made a change to just take time wandering around looking at things and spend time photographing items of interest, such as the displays of equipment and weapons which had been laid out. Dropping into the RAF plotting room to see how control was maintained of aircraft in the skies as they battled the Luftwaffe, was all fascinating stuff. There really is a lot to do at this event. For anyone wishing to join a group of re-enactors, or discover more about the hobby, the quiet events like Tilford are perfect places for such discussion. Without an arena timetable to commit to, members of groups can spend time explaining matters to prospective recruits.

Tilford is a welcoming event and whilst a true re-enactment event in every sense, it also has the charming air, which makes it feel that you are going to a special club, where you can have a good time. Before I left the site, Dave Allaway told me that he is going to host his popular Mapledurham event again, but in August this year. If you are on Facebook, you can catch up with details, but I will publish details in plenty of time. Tilford will return next and if you are friends with Dave on Facebook, then I’m sure you’ll be kept informed with all the details.