The Eagle Has Landed; Again.
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- Last updated: 19/12/2016
The village and estate of Mapledurham backing onto the River Thames on the border between Oxfordshire and Berkshire is best known as one of the locations where the 1976 production ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ was filmed.
Otherwise it is a quiet little spot visited by tourists who come to see the house and historic watermill, both of which featured in the film. However, one weekend a year since 2013 the village has been the centre of activity for a busy re-enactment event called ‘Mapledurham at War’.
Organised by Dave Allaway, better known as Captain Dave, who is a wellknown figure among re-enactors and is himself a keen re-enactor, this event has quickly become popular with re-enactors and visitors alike. Captain Dave has in a short space of time created an event with a good balance between the numbers of re-enactment groups and military vehicles.
This year was the fourth time he has organised Mapledurham at War of which I only missed 2014. This year’s event was held over the weekend of 16-17 April and despite the terrible weather conditions on Saturday and throughout the night, everybody ‘soldiered’on and kept the event going. These are truly dedicated re-enactors who will ride out the rain and the cold and do not mind the mud in the least. After all, it’s all part of the hobby and soldiers did it for real during the war.
I arrived early on the Sunday and found everyone in fine spirits and all ready for a full day of activities. Motivation was the word that came to mind, as I saw people moving about with a purpose. Weapons were clean, people dressed, a couple of groups were already parading with drill, and displays were prepared ready for the public. This is how it should be after all the hard work which has been put into making the event.
The site is actually deceptively spacious and this year there were some 50 different groups participating in the event. There were ‘strollers’ walking around representing General Post Office to deliver letters, fire brigade, ARP Wardens, police and Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). My attention was taken by a superb vehicle and I just had to photograph it and find out what it was. The owner very obligingly moved a few things for my photographs and he then told me some details, explaining it was an Austin K5 GS Airportable with a ‘split chassis’. It was built in May 1944 and he had it painted in the service with 22 Light Repair of the REME serving with the 7th Armoured Division for the Normandy campaign.
Apparently the vehicle type was nicknamed the ‘Screamer’ by the troops because of the noise it made when being driven. Another vehicle owner asked me if I would like to see his ambulance, which he had fully restored and explained was extremely rare. Intrigued, I accompanied him to where his vehicle was parked on display. He informed me it was a Morris Commercial CS11F30 ambulance, of which only 500 were built. Out of this, 499 had been lost in the war, leaving only this as the sole surviving example. It was immaculately presented and is absolutely unique. This is what I like about Mapledurham; you never know what is going to be on display.
It is an event where the balance is right between everything from vehicles to reenactment groups. There has been a tendency of late for organisers of these smaller events to stick to Home Front and Allies and politely request German groups to absent themselves. Thankfully, this is not the case here; otherwise there would be no battle and that is something the public looks forward to watching.
The Home Front was naturally wellrepresented with Home Guard, Jude Knight with her Ministry of Food demonstrations and the Women’s Land Army, who had a good display with Fordson tractor and agricultural implements. Whilst ladies like to retain their feminine charm at events, they understand they are depicting life as it was during the hard times of the war, when there was little if any makeup available. In wartime photographs the WLA are seen as being happy, no-one looked miserable, they were tired and certainly did not look glamorous. Events like Mapledurham are showing authentic depictions, which the ladies of the ATS did well, not the idea of some television production.
Across the field were various displays of Allied and German groups, along with the Soviet Red Army, mixing in with parked vehicles from trucks and Jeeps to motorcycles and armoured cars. Among all this was quite a large group depicting Polish Forces in exile, who were very motivated with good static display of kit. This was the ‘First to Fight’ (www.first-to-fight. co.uk) group and it was their first time at Mapledurham. Talking to them, it turned out they were real Polish nationals who now live and work here. They all enjoy re-enacting and came from all over the country to take part in the event. Having seen them in action I think we will see a lot more of them in future at Mapledurham and other events.
Among the strollers, I met my old friend Stephen Phillips, who on this occasion was depicting a German policeman. It was something different and he explained the different police forces there were in Germany during the war. There were town and rural police, motorway (autobahn) and even river or waterways police. His portrayal filled in a gap, by showing an aspect of life on the home front in Germany.
The static displays were some of the best I have seen in a long time and represent the collections built up by members of the various groups, such as the personal kit carried by a British infantryman. This was laid out to show cleaning kit and washing kit, food, ammunition and other sundries which all had to be packed into his webbing equipment. Some groups were giving short talks on aspects of the war and explaining the weapons, tactics and even vehicles with their bonnets open was an invitation for people to come and have a closer look.
I found there to be a good balance between Allied and Axis forces at the event, including Polish and Russian with the main groups portraying British, American and German. There were mostly American vehicles on site, but this is due to the fact that there are more of them, especially Jeeps and trucks. There were a few replica German motorcycle combinations and a couple of Kublewagens, as well as a few more common British types. One Jeep which stood out for me was an example, which had been fitted with armour plate and was armed with a .30-inch calibre and .50-inch calibre machine guns. Unfortunately, I could not find the owner to discover more about it.
Each day ended with the grand finale battle with vehicles, but somehow I found the battle for the Watermill to be the scenario with more audience appeal. Throughout the day the group depicting the German Volkssturm, the V3 whom I have seen before and are very good, had their display set up inside the watermill. At the set time they vacated the building and allowed the Polish group to take over and defend it against German attack.
As usual, I wanted to be in with the action to report on events as they happened. I thought the best place to be would be inside the mill and so I asked permission from Captain Dave. He agreed but on the condition I did not move from where he put me. I was tucked out of the way where I would not get involved, but still have a good view of things.
My wife Elizabeth was outside with another camera to capture what was happening outside. Pyrotechnic charges were set in the water and safety checks were made. Captain Dave ensured I had my ear plugs fitted and everyone knew what was happening.
The Polish troops came in and took up post and then the whistle was blown to signal the start. Suddenly gunfire erupted from outside and the defending Polish troops responded. This was the exciting part of re-enactment, the full-on action with noise and movement. The pyrotechnics were detonated and the building shook with the vibration. The attacking Germans entered and there was a short fire fight. I was glad to be wearing my Auritech (www.auritech. info) ear protectors against the noise. I have been using these for the past couple of years and they really are marvellous; comfortable and not in the least bit obtrusive.
The Polish troops, as laid out in the scenario, surrendered and the building was taken over by the Germans. It was not long before the Americans attacked and made and assault against the building and the positions outside. They fought their way into the building, which now resembled a film set. I could not help but think ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and, through my choice, I’m smack in the middle of it. Some Germans ran from the building, others were ‘killed’ and the remainder were taken prisoner. Scenarios such as this must have happened across Europe as the Allies advanced after the Normandy landings.
For the public, it was just what they wanted and have come to expect at reenactment events. For the re-enactors themselves, this is what the hobby is about. Lots of action, a good scenario and a realistic battle re-enactment. With such a combination everybody is happy. As the firing died down, the whistle was blown to signal the end of the display. Everybody who had taken part formed up in their groups and weapons were unloaded and carefully checked they were safe. Then all the spent cartridge cases were collected, just as on the ranges where you have to tidy up after yourself.
I noticed that most, if not all the re-enactors who had taken part in the battle, were wearing earplugs also. Noise is the invisible enemy and the sound of a gunshot registers in the range of 150-decibels and the effect on your hearing can be instantaneous. Experienced shooters have always worn hearing protection and today there are small ear plugs to suit all situations. As battles become ever-more loud with tanks, artillery, small arms fire and pyrotechnics, these little pieces of latex or other material, make taking part in the re-enactment more comfortable. Vehicle drivers could also wear these, especially when the battle develops, as it does sometimes, immediately around the vehicles. After having worn my Auritech ear protectors for so long now, I would never think of going into a battle re-enactment without them.
One of the old stables was used as a convenient and very secure armour store for weapons being hired to re-enactors for the battle. With a single entrance and exit, everybody could be monitored and there was no chance of anything getting past the armourer. The company supplying the weapons was London-based Foxtrot Armoury Services Ltd. (www.armouryservices.co.uk), which supplies weapons for film and television work, also. They have a comprehensive range of weapons from historical WWII weaponry through to modern weapons including machine guns and assault rifles. The director, Tom Webster, told me that details are logged, documentation checked and once everything is in order, then the weapon is hired out. Naturally the person hiring the weapon has to be a member of a group at the event and it was his responsibility at all times until it is returned. Ammunition was also available through the armourer and the weapons are all in excellent condition.
Among the traders was Hampshire-based Divpatch from Odiham (www.divpatch. com), who have developed a new line called ‘Something Different’. During the war there were numerous fund-raising organisations, from welfare to war effort, and in order to raise funds they sold badges, which were then worn to show support by the donor. It is a range of these badges which form the line Something Different and re-enactors depicting Home Front scenarios can wear these for an extra touch of authenticity. The badges look very good and cover most fund-raising appeals including Spitfire. The range is being added to and even more modern types are available for vintage/retro periods of the 1970s. As a finishing touch to a blazer or WVS uniform these badges really are Something Different.
Captain Dave is to be congratulated for creating an event, which, in a short space of time, this is only its fourth year, has grown to become a well-balanced show, with many good displays. It is well supported by groups, strollers, vehicle owners and traders alike. It is a family event that allows excellent interaction between public and re-enactors. Vehicle owners always enjoy the attention their pride and joy receives and the strollers have a good time with the public taking lots of photographs. Mapledurham at War has a good, relaxed atmosphere, is lively and, all in all, a real treat to visit. Thank you to Dave Allaway and his team for inviting me along and hope to see you all again soon.