The Cobbaton Combat Collection Military Vehicles
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- Last updated: 15/12/2016
Lying quietly among the narrow lanes of North Devon which, in some places, are almost too narrow to allow vehicles to pass is the location that is the Cobbaton Combat Collection. For thirty years Preston Isaac and his family have been gathering together a significant collection of military vehicles and equipment, some of which are unique, and putting them on display. The area has been associated before with the military when the US Army had some units based in the area prior to the build-up for D-Day. Today the Cobbaton Combat Collection continues that connection with recent history and attracts many visitors from far and wide.
I had been aware of the existence of the Collection for many years, having seen it marked on the well-thumbed touring map I keep in the car. I have also met re-enactors and vehicle owners who had visited the site and they suggested I take a look. Now that I live in Somerset - and not far from Cobbaton - I finally had the opportunity to meet up with Preston which I did over the weekend of 13th and 14th August during the annual Victory Japan Day (VJ Day) commemoration.
The Burma Star Association
This event is held to honour and remember the men of the Burma Star Association and culminates in laying a memorial wreath during a short service. The event also raises funds for the Association and Cobbaton is one of the few sites to arrange such a gathering to commemorate VJ Day. Most people remember VE Day (Victory Europe) but Preston believes that it is only right and fitting that the veterans of the 14th Army in Burma should be remembered. During the war the 14th Army became known as the ‘Forgotten Army’ but at Cobbaton they will never be forgotten.
The British and Americans came to know the Japanese as tenacious fighters who would fight to the last, even in defence of the most desolate places. For example, when the 1st US Marine Division landed on the island of Peleliu measuring six square miles they fought a hard battle against a garrison of 11,000 men. When the last Japanese surrendered in February 1945 the fighting had cost them over 10,600 killed and barely 200 captured. To achieve their goal the Americans had fired more than fifteen million rounds of small arms ammunition, 150,000 mortar bombs, and thrown over 118,000 hand grenades. It was later calculated that taking into account naval fire support it had taken an average of 1,500 rounds of artillery to kill each Japanese soldier just to capture one small island.
The Collection which covers many topics opened to the public for visits in 1981 and so this year marked the 30th anniversary of the display. Preston explained that he had been collecting military artefacts since he was a young boy, and his interest became “…a hobby which got out of hand.” Today the result of this penchant for collecting can be seen on display in two hangar-sized buildings which houses some 65 military vehicles and pieces of artillery that forms the basis of the Collection along with thousands of other individual pieces ranging from the Boer War through to the Falklands War and more recent conflicts. As anyone who collects militaria knows it is not a hobby which one can just stop doing because it goes much deeper than that. In some cases, as with Preston, it becomes a passion and if one can also turn it into a business venture that is truly a most fortunate thing.
Located at Chittlehampton, Umberleigh, North Devon EX37 9RZ the Collection is off the beaten track but a series of small painted signs of tanks point the way to the site. Failing that, one can always use the latest in-car technology and type in the post code (EX37 9RZ) and ‘Satnav’ will take you straight there.
On arriving at the site one is greeted by the first items of the display which includes a British army FV 432 APC and couple of sea mines and a large slab of armour plate which has been used for tank target practice. Most of us have seen the effects of small arms fire against wooden and paper targets on the rifle range but this great piece of metal which has been ‘peppered’ through by armour-piercing projectiles drives home the firepower which tanks have.
The display cases are literally bulging at the seams with artefacts and the cases containing bayonets of all types will cause envy among those who specialise in collecting these bladed weapons. The vehicles include lorries of all descriptions and the armoured vehicles include Daimler Armoured Car, Bren Gun Carrier, Sexton SPG with a 25-Pounder gun, T-34 and many others. The display cases contain the bits and pieces you do not usually see in museums, or if you do one tends to pass them by because they are not considered interesting. However, with this display they take on a different meaning because they have been collected personally and there is a story behind each item. For example, ordinary hobnail boots worn by the infantry, the rifle cleaning kits and mess tins all bring to life the British soldier in WW II.
Interspersed among the clutter of tool kits - showing how vehicles were maintained by the likes of the REME and RASC - are artillery shells and ammunition of all descriptions such as hand grenades and anti-tank mines. There are even a couple of magnetic sea mines and torpedoes to illustrate naval warfare.
There are more types of weapons here than one could poke a bayonet at, including Bren, Lewis and Vickers machine guns, MG42, .50 inch calibre, Sten, revolvers and pistols. The list goes on with Japanese, German, Czech, Italian, American and British weapons including bazooka and other anti-tank weapons. There is a length of glider fuselage which was actually a film prop used in the 1977 epic ‘A Bridge Too Far’ and this is filled with original artefacts relating to British airborne units.
The exhibits are accompanied by information panels listing many useful and interesting facts and figures relating to vehicles and weapons. One of the more unusual items is a Beaverette Mk III 1941 based on a Standard Flying Fourteen saloon car chassis weighing just over two tons. It was used by the Home Guard and one of several designs of Beaverette vehicles which were named after Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production. Preston explained that he has replaced the turret so that it resembles what it would have looked like during the war, complete with a Lewis machine gun. This vehicle and other items tell the story of the Home Front along with the usual range of civilian artefacts.
The VJ Day event was also an opportunity for a small number of vehicle owners to gather and display their vehicles in a static show. Supporting them were several traders offering a range of services as well as selling some collectables. I fell into conversation with David Smale from the Bude-based company of Dinscott Restoration where they have complete workshop facilities. They have recently completed restoration work on several vehicles including a Chieftain MBT, FV432, Sultan and Sabre CVR(T). The company also trades in militaria, army surplus, vehicle sales and even scale models. From the sounds of things they cover a wide range of interests when it comes to militaria. They can be contacted by telephone on either 07855 261169 or 01288 321556 or visit the Website at: www.dinscottmilitary.co.uk
Another exhibitor on site was Chris Golding, who, although retired, has established a very nice business enterprise manufacturing replica machine guns to mount on vehicles. Based in Bristol he produces weapons to order and currently makes .50 inch calibre Browning machine guns for £950 and .30 inch calibre machine guns to order. The top cover and main body are made from cast aluminium and the barrel is turned on the lathe and the finished article is spray-painted black. The finished result is very good and would complete the look of a range of vehicles which carried the weapons, from Jeeps to half-tracks and armoured cars. They have no working parts and are purely for show. I have seen other reproduction weapons but it must be said that Chris Golding’s work really is first class. He can be contacted by telephone on either 07977 057333 or 01179 877238 or by Email at: email@example.com
There were a small number of vehicles on show including Jeeps, Weapons Carriers, GMC ‘Deuce-and-a-half’ trucks, motorcycles and an M3 Scout Car. A very smartly turned out WC56 Command Car and ‘Pink Panther’ Land Rover showed that surprises can be discovered at even the smallest shows. A rare treat came in the form of a Bedford MW 15CWT as used by the British army in WW II. It was fitted with a 3.5 litre six-cylinder engine and was governed to a top speed of 45 mph with a fuel consumption of between 10 to 12 MPG. The particular example on show at Cobbaton was in the markings of the 3rd Infantry Division which was a red triangle with broad base uppermost set onto a background of a black triangle the point of which was set uppermost. It also carried a badge denoting that it had been taken to Guernsey to celebrate the 60th and 65th anniversaries of the island’s Liberation which was codenamed ‘Operation Nestegg’.
I must admit to being more than a little confused when it comes to identifying the different types of half-tracks, and seeing the couple of examples at the show, I asked how one tells the difference. As it turned out the vehicles were International M14 half-tracks, one of which had been used in the film A Bridge Too Far and bore the divisional badge of the Guards Armoured Division which was part of XXX Corps. The owner, Adrian Snell, had done a terrific job in restoring the vehicle and it was he who told me how to tell the difference between a White and an International half-track. The White design had mudguards which had small flap-like extensions, while the International had ‘open’ mudguards on the front. Adrian was dressed as a Grenadier Guardsman, my old regiment, and I have to thank him for his time. Half-tracks were versatile vehicles on both sides and the American versions were developed into as many roles as the German designs. In the post-war period many were used by a number of overseas armies and one of the half-tracks had formerly been used by the Israeli army. It was fitted with .50 calibre machine guns and a 120mm mortar. It had been restored to look like a WWII vehicle and to be honest it did look the part. The vehicles were displayed statically which was not a problem because it allowed close inspection.
The ‘Cobbaton Clearout’
The site is quite an experience and after visiting it one could very easily be set off on the route to either vehicle ownership or collecting militaria. In fact the chance of this happening is increased because the site hosts what it calls the ‘Cobbaton Clearout’, another annual event where excess items are sold off to make way for new artefacts and traders are also invited to attend to sell collectables. The date of the event to put in your diaries is Sunday 6th May 2012.
In addition, the Collection ‘shop’ has a range of items on sale and these could not be more different from the usual ‘run-of-the-mill’ things one is usually offered at museums. There is a good selection of legally deactivated weapons such as AK47s, MG42, PPsH and No 4 Lee-Enfield rifles each complete with certificates, inert ammo in a range of calibres from .303 inch to 30mm along with military surplus including webbing and other items of kit.
Visiting the Collection
Cobbaton is much more than just simply a collection of militaria which has been put on display; it is a veritable treasure trove for weapons enthusiasts. The hours of opening changes according to the time of year and so if anybody is planning a visit it is best to telephone first on 01769 540740 or even better still visit the Website at: www.cobbatoncombat.co.uk
I would like to extend my thanks to Preston for being a wonderful host and allowing me to wander around taking photographs, and wish him the best of luck for the future.
I would also like to run a competition, sponsored by me entirely. In the image showing the infantryman’s kit there is a ‘D’-shaped brass device and the competition is who can identify the object. The answer is; it is a hasp for a man’s kit bag. He would put that around the opening and secure it with a padlock. Answers should be sent to me and the first correct answer will receive a signed copy of my book History of Artillery. What do you think? I would cover all costs of P&P.
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