Hot Stuff from the Cold War
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- Last updated: 19/12/2016
Since the end of the Second World War there have been many conflicts, some, such as Korea and Vietnam, are well-known, but others, like Aden and Malaya, are largely forgotten. Every year since 1945 Britain has lost service personnel on active service, except for 1968. Whilst re-enactment groups tend to depict Napoleonic Wars and both world wars, there has been a trend lately for groups to put on displays to remind visitors to events that there were other conflicts.
Collecting equipment, uniforms and weapons from these small wars has long been popular and now some groups are stepping forward to put on proper displays. For example, at Tankfest in 2015 the living history group ‘Meanwhile in China’, which portrays Chinese conflicts of the 20th Century, they put on a display of the Korean War. With them they had Major David Sharpe, a veteran of the war; he was held prisoner by the North Koreans for 30 months. It was a remarkable experience meeting him and learning of his experiences. The display overall was fascinating and really attracted a lot of attention.
Post-war re-enactment needs to be established sooner rather than later because veterans from these conflicts are ageing and becoming infirm. Like the veterans of WWII, time is catching up with them and re-enactment is the perfect way to remember these episodes not just in Britain’s history, but also in that of France, Portugal and Holland. Before WWII, these countries had overseas territories in the Far East, but had been driven out by the Japanese. After the war they hoped to regain these lands but the local population had other ideas and a series of vicious little wars were fought.
France became involved in Indo-China as it tried to go back into modern-day Vietnam. The People’s Army of Vietnam was led by General Vo Nguyen Giap and he masterminded the operation which led to the defeat of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu between 13th March and 7th May 1954. In North Africa the French army faced a war of independence in Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Today these events are remembered by the Southwest based group known as the French Army Re-enactment Group (FARG). The group is not particularly large but it has a lot of kit, weapons and vehicles, including a Panhard AML-60, which is an armoured car with a turret-mounted 60mm mortar.
I have met the FARG at several events including War and Peace Revival, Dig for Victory Show at Wraxall and various smaller events, such as the Avon Valley Railway 1940s weekend. They always have a very good display and attract a lot of attention. Unfortunately, the group does not have a website, but it can be contacted through Facebook.
After the French departed Vietnam (or French Indo-China as they described it) the American army found itself involved in the struggle to prevent the spread of Communism. It was a tough war and America brought all its high-tech weaponry to bear on an enemy, which was unlike anything the country had faced before. The battle for Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, both events in 1968, demonstrated the Viet Cong were a formidable adversary. America finally withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1975 and its losses had been great.
Today there are several groups re-enacting this period, including Rolling Thunder and the American Infantry Preservation Society (AIPS), both of which put on magnificent displays at events. They recreate battle scenarios, which are highly realistic and match any film production for realism. During the battle re-enactments the groups deploy examples of vehicles used during the war such as M113 APCs, along with artillery and recreate air support using pyrotechnics. In fact, these battle reenactments have become legendary for the amount of pyrotechnics used, especially the incredible ‘wall of flame’, which recreates an airstrike using napalm. This spectacle has become the signature trademark of a Vietnam battle re-enactment and visitors are thrilled by the sight. Such presentations require extremely high standards of safety, timing and co-ordination. Rolling Thunder can be contacted through their website at: www.rolling-thunder.org.uk.
At the time that the Americans were involved in Vietnam through the 1960s and 1970s, the British army was engaged in several operations around the world, including Kuwait 1961, Borneo and Radfan in 1964 and 1965 respectively, Oman between 19667 and 1976, Anguilla in 1969 and Dhofar in 1974- 75. There were other commitments and in 1969 the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland began, which saw the army having to deal with domestic problems. Many of these operations have been largely forgotten but just recently there have been displays depicting Northern Ireland. At the W&PR Show a group put on displays showing the vehicles such as Humber ‘Pigs’ and Ferret Scout Cars. Security barriers and observation posts signify the entrance into the display area.
Then, in 1982, the British Army faced its greatest challenge of recent years when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, which are a British territory. No one could have predicted the scale of reaction by the British Government of the day and what happened over the next few months surprised many people. The ‘Task Force’ despatched included armoured vehicles, artillery, aircraft, warships, troops including Royal Marines, Scots and Welsh Guards and the Gurkhas. The world watched fascinated as Britain fought to eject the invader and it won through.
There have been several displays to show this period at various events, including W&PR and at Cobbaton Combat Collection in Devon, where two brothers put on an exhibition of their collection. This was put on by Lee and Richard Marshall, who have long been interested in the Falklands War and have been collecting items of kit, uniforms, weapons and even vehicles from the period. They have amassed all manner of items relating to the war, some of it quite ephemeral, such as tinned food and documentation.
One piece of kit they have which is unusual is an 84mm calibre Carl Gustav anti-tank weapon. During the Falklands War a Royal Marine fired a Carl Gustav at the Argentine corvette ‘Guerico’ as it approached the harbour at Grytviken and hit it at least three times. The weapon held by Lee and Richard is one of the few examples to be in private ownership and really sets off their collection of weaponry including the L1A1 SLR rifle, Sterling SMG and other types, also.
Eight years after the Falklands War the British army was once again in frontline action, this time against the Iraqi army as part of the Coalition Force during ‘Desert Storm’. The armed forces from America and Britain were joined by France, Canada, Italy, Saudi Arabia and other countries, as they moved to liberate Kuwait, which had been invaded by Iraq. This operation is now 20 years old and truly a historical event, which makes it perfect for re-enactors to portray at shows. We now see HUMVEEs, Land Rovers and other vehicles marked up with the distinctive inverted ‘V’ recognition symbol, along with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems, weapons and uniforms.
From the same period we also had the war in Yugoslavia, which tore that country apart. A small number of dedicated reenactors, some of whom served in the conflict, have joined together as the Croatian Forces Living History Group and put on displays of equipment and weapons from that period. Other groups depict events involving Israel; the South African Defence Force is also represented including, for the first time at the 2015 W&PR, two ‘Buffel’APCs. These displays allow some unusual weaponry to be displayed, such as the Israeli developed Galil assault rifle, as well as sniper rifles and machine guns.
There are many other groups depicting any number of post-war conflicts, including the Suez Crisis of 1956. Delving into the pages of history gives the idea for a subject to depict, then further research to get it right and then collecting the equipment, vehicles and weapons.
Fortunately, there are hundreds of traders dealing with the full-range of items from the 1950s, right through to the modern day; this makes it relative easy when it comes to buying the uniforms, boots and webbing. For groups depicting a new period they get the uniforms and other personal items together first and then, as funds become available, they add vehicles. Vehicles can be bought either through classified adverts in specialist magazines or websites such as: www.milweb.net. On this site there are trucks, motorcycles, AFVs and all the tools for their maintenance.
Coming by items of clothing is a question of going to large events such as W&PR or militaria fairs, where there are many traders and having a good look round. Taking your time is the order of the day because you may overlook something you really need. Talking to dealers is good because they may have something in stock, which you want, or they can point you in the right direction. Look at the adverts in Gun Mart to see where these militaria fairs are being held and visit them. The bi-annual Northern Military Expo, held at the Newark County Showground in April and November each year is a great place to visit in order to get equipment for postwar re-enactment. There are many traders on site with everything needed for a good display. Details of the show dates can be found at: www.northernmilitaryexpo.co.uk.
The monthly militaria fair at Chatham in Kent offers a wide range of traders, dealing in all types of equipment and it’s also a great place to talk to people. Details of these events can be found on the Website at: www.chathammilitariafairs.com.
The classified adverts in the pages of Gun Mart also turn up unexpected surprises, as readers have a clear-out and put items up for sale. Obviously eBay is another point of buying items from the period and I have known re-enactors who have obtained everything they need without leaving home. Personally I have nothing against this form of collecting, but, if, like me, you are a traditionalist, you will still want to get among the dealers and handle the merchandise for quality and suitability for purpose. In such cases the militaria markets and large shows, such as W&PR with traders from all over the country and Europe, are the places for you. For example, Johnsons of Leeds attends most large events and offers an extensive range of items in uniforms and equipment.
This includes everything from combat clothing to ceremonial uniforms if you want to show how the Guards appear in bearskin caps and tunic. The full range offered by Johnsons can be seen on their website at: www.johnsonsofleeds.co.uk.
Weaponry of most post-war conflicts is now available also from a range of dealers who offer legally deactivated examples of rifles, pistols and machine guns. D&B Militaria is one of the largest dealers in the country, trading in an extensive range of deactivated weapons, which covers all post-war conflicts. Pistols, rifles sub-machine guns, as well as inert ammunition, bayonets and ancillary items, such as cleaning kits, are available. D&B Militaria attend most of the large re-enactment events and they also have online sales available through the website at: www.dandbmilitaria.com.
As always, it comes down to making choices about what period, war, regiment or country to represent in re-enactment displays. There are some re-enactors who like to attend events as individuals, who I refer to as ‘Strollers’, because they prefer it that way. They certainly turn heads and attract attention and I have seen some excellent presentations like this. Others prefer to keep their group small, while larger groups, such as Rolling Thunder and the AIPS, can muster enough members to participate in battle re-enactments.
The years from the end of WWII are being filled gradually by new groups and interpretations, but I’d much rather see them take their time, and get things right, than try to hurry and get it wrong. It’s great to see new groups extending the displays. The veterans from WWII are getting rather frail but they enjoy seeing their old regiments being remembered at re-enactment displays. As time moves on, these displays of post-war conflicts now attract veterans from the period. I am one of those veterans, something I was made aware of when I saw Northern Ireland. I can tell you from experience, it’s quite something to see a display and know you were part of it for real. So, let’s see more post-war events recreated; there is certainly plenty of choice to be had.