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Fortress Wales Wales Report

When I moved out of Wales in 2010 and relocated to Somerset I thought that would bring to an end my association with the living history event known as Fortress Wales. I also received news from Wendy Sidney, one of the organisers, that the event was facing an uncertain future due to loss of venue. Not wishing to disappoint the various re-enactment groups who have participated since the first show, and not wishing to disappoint the public either, Wendy made enquiries about an alternative site and Caldicot Castle in Monmouthshire offered its location

for the show. Wendy contacted me to tell me the news and I thought I owed it to her and the groups to go back to see how the move went.

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

When an established event such as Fortress Wales relocates to Fortress a new site it can have dramatic consequences. Fortunately for all concerned Fortress Wales was not so deep-rooted with its connection to its former site and the transition of moving to Caldicot Castle was seamless. Held over the usual Bank Holiday weekend of Sunday 6th and Monday 7th May, I can report that the show proved a great success. It still covered the time span from Roman Britain to the Second World War and because it was in a new location it was actually reinvigorated. Once on site it was not long before I began spotting familiar faces and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed.

Caldicot castle dates from the 13th century but over the years has been rebuilt and remodelled. Nevertheless it remains very impressive and served as a marvellous backdrop to the groups portraying the earlier period such as the Mercenary Bowman and the Companions of the Longbow. They were extremely knowledgeable and each had prepared a short see is the Second World War battle. It takes time to get used to new venues because of the layout of the area to be used as a battlefield, and vehicle drivers need to know where they can go without getting stuck. Rather than go full out and throw everything into the first year on site there were only a few vehicles involved in the presentation, including a couple of Jeeps, motorcycles and a replica Panzer III with a 50mm gas firing gun which my old friend Alan Baudin brought over from Jersey. The presentation was very unusual and a far cry from the usual Normandy and Arnhem scenarios but it still had all the drama, movement and, above all, lots of noise which is what attracts visitors to watch the action.  dialogue to link them with the castle. For example, one archer who wore spectacles in the design of the period, complete with wooden frames, explained how he was in the employ of the master of the castle to train archers. A female gunner equipped with a ‘pole gun’ explained how her husband had died and she had taken over his role and used his weapon. It was a typical ‘pole gun’ with a long tiller-like stock into which was fitted a smooth barrel to give it the appearance of a small hand-held cannon. In fact it was loaded and fired in the same method as cannon of the period. The barrel was 24 inches in length and held on a shotgun certificate, which was all perfectly legal. The stories fitted in with the history of the castle as it evolved throughout later periods.

Wild West – of Wales?

The Wyoming Wild Bunch is the type of group which fits in at any site and with their colourful and lively displays they are popular with visitors. After all, who doesn’t like cowboys? It would seem everybody does and visiting their camp site which featured a covered wagon, it would have been like walking onto a western film set to most people. In the same vein the Southern Skirmish Association (SoSkAn) had set up a camp to show life of a soldier during the American Civil War and each day they took to the field to put on a battle. All around the grounds of the castle there were presentations and displays and a few traders including Phil Olden and his charming wife Jayne from West Point Albion Small Arms who are well-known to re-enactors for supplying various items from the English Civil War to the American Civil War. Phil was very pleased with the event and thought it would be successful in this new venue. More traders will come to the show as it grows and becomes more integrated in the annual calendar of re-enactment events.

A (Welsh) Family at War

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It takes courage to stand up alone in front of a crowd and put on a solo performance, especially when one is nervous. Despite her reservations the young Rhian Griffiths, stood up twice a day to present a short one act show telling how a Welsh family coped during the Second World War. Using a mix of songs, anecdotes and letters she did marvellously. It was a delightful display and is something which could actually be used in other periods. She had done her research, asking the opinions of people who lived through the war, and her presentation was witty, informative and entertaining. It would be nice to think she has started a trend if similar presentations were made by solo performers in other periods. The material is there and all it takes is for someone to follow Rhian’s lead and put it together.

WWII

Although there were other battles scheduled the one presentation everybody wants to see is the Second World War battle. It takes time to get used to new venues because of the layout of the area to be used as a battlefi eld, and vehicle drivers need to know where they can go without getting stuck. Rather than go full out and throw everything into the fi rst year on site there were only a few vehicles involved in the presentation, including a couple of Jeeps, motorcycles and a replica Panzer III with a 50mm gas fi ring gun which my old friend Alan Baudin brought over from Jersey. The presentation was very unusual and a far cry from the usual Normandy and Arnhem scenarios but it still had all the drama, movement and, above all, lots of noise which is what attracts visitors to watch the action.

Volkssturm

I took up my position at the edge of the battlefield in the care of a marshal so that I could photograph the proceedings. It was at that point I noticed the majority of the participating German re-enactors were depicting ‘Volkssturm’ troops which were Hitler’s equivalent to Britain’s Home Guard. The big difference between the two units was the fact that the Volkssturm were committed to battle against the advancing Russian army in 1945 and fought to defend the streets of Berlin. These were usually old men or semi-invalid men who had already been wounded in battle. I had previously seen small groups depicting Volkssturm but nothing on this scale.

The scenario was the last stages of the war and the Volkssturm were being sent to fight. The men wore army caps and greatcoats to give a pseudo-mix of military and civilian uniform. The distinctive yellow armbands identified them and they were armed with a mix of rifles, machine guns and Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket launchers. I was reminded of a scene in the episode ‘Inside the Reich: Germany 1940- 1944’ from the marvellous series of The World at War, which shows hundreds of men of the Volkssturm marching off to the Front, armed with all other manner of weapons. Watching the assembled force was like looking at a scaleddown version of that scene, which was made all the more realistic by the presence of the Panzer III. There were regular troops including paratroopers and together it certainly looked like the last stand.

Coming onto the field to meet them were British and American troops from a range of units. They were met with a hail of gun fire from rifles using blanks and several gas machine guns using LPG designed by John Webster of WTAC. One of his latest weapons was an MG 08 on a tripod to represent the older weapons used by the Volkssturm. Standing out amidst all this was a replica German Granatwerfer 34 mortar firing blank cartridges in a most ingenious fashion. The real Granatwerfer 34 fired an 80mm projectile out to ranges of more than 2,600 yards and remained in service throughout the war. Groups obviously want something to add extra realism and firepower to their displays and so the blank firing mortar has been developed. The person who built it explained that he had to be aware of the law governing replica imitation firearms (RIF) and had to design a method of firing the blank cartridges without fitting a firing pin to the actual weapon. (See next month’s Militaria Mart for the full story on this remarkable replica)

Alan’s tank moved forward but was ‘destroyed’ and the exchange of fire was impressive and the movement by the participants was energetic. After the battle there was time to speak to a few of the chaps involved and I enquired why they had chosen to depict Volkssturm. I was informed that the decision had come about when some of the re-enactors realised they were approaching a ‘certain age’. A group of them discussed the fact they could no longer portray fit, young grenadiers or paratroopers and so they formed themselves into a unit they have called ‘Volkssturm V-3’ which they explained was a reference to the German secret V-3 rocket. Fortress Wales was the group’s first major public event and they were pleased with the way it went. They have promised displays at other events including the upcoming War & Peace.

A Good Move!

Once again this event has been used to showcase some very interesting developments in re-enacting and judging by comments it is a show which groups like attending. It still remains a fixture in the calendar and is set to return in 2013. So, keep an eye open for details. Well done to Wendy and everybody else who participated in the show, and congratulations on your move.

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