War & Peace Revival Part 2
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- Last updated: 19/12/2016
Each year the grounds of the racecourse at Westenhanger where the W&PR Show is held in Kent burst into a frenzy of activity as tents are erected to resemble a small town. The number of participants onsite becomes the population of this temporary town for a week or, perhaps longer, depending on the amount of kit they bring with them for their display. The hustle and bustle as people and vehicles come and go increases as the date for the gate opening of ‘The Greatest Gathering of Military Vehicles on the Planet’ gets closer. Finally, with the trenches dug, displays erected, pyrotechnics planned and the hundreds of other details, which go to make it a success, are in place the gates open.
Depending on personal interests, visitors head off in all directions across the site, which by now looks like a series of sets for film productions. Some people immediately head towards the trade stands, others go towards the vehicles, and then there are the living history displays with re-enactors who are ready to interact and answer questions. For those who have never been before it is a question of prioritising, while for experienced show-goers they know exactly what they want and don’t waste time.
This year’s show attracted more strollers who mingled with the crowds to provide impromptu photographic opportunities. I was chatting with General George Patton (aka George Kimmins) when he was approached by a visitor who wanted his photograph for Instagram. Technology is changing the show and images are being put on social media sites instantly from the show. I chose a more conventional method and organised to take photographs with George, General Bradley and Colin Brooks-Williams, who portrays Montgomery, to recreate the famous photograph of the meeting between the three men. Unfortunately the rain prevented us from achieving a credible re-enactment. Not wishing to waste the opportunity, we recreated the meeting inside one of the marquee tents which gave a reasonable impression.
I had made contact with a group called Bersayap Tentara before W&PR and we arranged to meet and introduce ourselves. I was looking forward to the meeting because Peter Seal, who set up the group, informed me that Major David Sharp, the Korean War veteran, would be with them. I met David at Tankfest and he is an extraordinary character with an amazing history of courage and survival to tell. I went to the group’s location and met Peter who explained something of the group’s function. The name Bersayap Tentara is Malay meaning ‘Winged Soldiers’and is a reference to the SAS during the Malay Emergency which lasted from 1948 to 1961. The group also displays equipment used in Indonesia (the Borneo Confrontation, between 1962 and 1964).
A number of regiments served during these conflicts, indeed the late author Leslie Thomas served in Malaya, and to see such a display of equipment from these wars outside a regimental museum was extremely interesting. The group is small but it has a comprehensive collection of items and, together with accounts of the wars, the group fills another gap in the timeline of military history. These are forgotten post-war conflicts and it is satisfying to see groups like Bersayap Tentara stepping forward to remind us of those events. If anyone is interested in knowing more the group can be contacted through the website at: www.wingedsoldiers.co.uk.
With so many re-enactment groups onsite, a number of which, like our old friends the Second Battle Group, have their own vehicles, a number of battle re-enactment scenarios can be recreated. This year the battles included Cold War scenario ‘Tigers on the Prowl’ showing modern forces, weapons and vehicles, Vietnam and, of course, the WWII battle. The groups concerned took up position at either end of the arena and went through the battle, just like a film script, with pyrotechnics providing the special effects. In previous years I have been invited to join a group going into battle and it has always been an unforgettable experience. This year I was invited to join my friends the American Infantry Preservation Society (AIPS) for the Vietnam battle re-enactment.
The display this year was poignant because it is 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, as I had been reminded by Stuart Beeney of Rolling Thunder group before the show. It was on Saturday, fourth day of the show, that I joined the AIPS in readiness for going into battle to recreate an action near the village of Binh Hoa on the outskirts of Saigon. The battle involved both main groups and the Australians fighting off an attack by Viet Cong forces. Once kitted out I boarded one of the M113 APCs which was armed with M60 machine guns and .50 calibre machine guns.
We made our way into the arena where pyrotechnics were being laid out and Rolling Thunder’s replica REO M35A2 Gun Truck, ‘Highland Raiders’ as used in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, came in towing Stuart Beeney’s M101A1 105mm howitzer. The infantry were issued their ammunition and last minute briefings made sure everybody knew and understood what they had to do. With all preparations made and everything in place it was time to begin the battle. The machine guns on the M113 in which I was travelling were loaded and we moved forward. Holding two cameras it was difficult to keep my balance and I thought about all those famous war photographers who had done this for real, such as Tim Page, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, son of the actor Errol Flynn.
The action began almost at once and never let up. Stuart Beeney’s howitzer was blasting away to give artillery support and infantry from both sides were running everywhere. Small arms fire from M16 and AK47 rifles was added to by the machine guns from the two M113 APCs. The .50 calibre machine gun rattled away and the M60 on the M113 I was on blasted off 400 rounds. The climax of the battle is always the simulated airstrike with napalm. To achieve this effect pyrotechnics are laid out so that when initiated a wall of flame is produced. The blasts from the artillery and other pyrotechnics had pushed on my chest but it was the heat from the simulated napalm blast which swept over us like a gigantic oven door being opened.
That signalled the end of the battle display and weapons were unloaded and the infantry left the arena. Once they were clear the M113s raced around to give a mobility display. We went into the water course spraying up mud and water with the second vehicle following us doing the same. Hanging on as tight as I could, yet still taking photographs, I was thrown around and bouncing off the sides. It was thrilling and is exactly what re-enactment is all about, which is having fun, but at the same commemorating those who did it for real. Rolling Thunder can be contacted through their website, which also has links to other groups depicting Vietnam including the AIPS. Website details: www.rolling-thunder.org.uk.
The WWII battle scenarios were no less exciting and allowed more armoured vehicles to go into the arena, and the infantry could put into practice the tactics and other drills they have learned in training. This included deploying from APCs, working with a range of vehicles and firing weapons from rifles to machine guns. Each of these battle re-enactments is like a mini-feature film in its own right. Even in the skies there was something to see with fly past by Spitfire, Hurricane and several other types of aircraft.
There are plenty of traders onsite to satisfy most wants and needs in all areas of interest and collectors were busy buying items. The diversity in traders means that should a member of a group forget an item of kit they can search among the stalls and buy a replacement item. Similarly, should somebody feel so inclined to join a group and wish to take part in the show with them, they can buy everything at once. Traders specialising in high-quality reproduction items had a wide range of uniforms for British, German and American forces and reproduction kit and deactivated weapons could also be bought. For example, Stand Up Hook Up, based in Keighley in West Yorkshire, specialises in US Airborne Division items along with other items and even Women’s Land Army. The company can be contacted through the website of: www.milweb.net.
Epic Militaria in Ceredigion, Wales, has an extensive range of reproduction uniform types from WWII to Vietnam and much more as well. New items are being added to their list all the time, including equipment and badges, and new recruits could drop in, buy their kit and walk out. Epic Militaria also operates an electronic newsletter to send out updates on their range, which re-enactors can sign up to through the website at: www.epicmilitaria.com.
There were several traders offering de-activated weapons either for collectors or re-enactors, such as D&B Militaria from Grinsted in West Sussex. The company offers a wide range of historical weaponry from the 19th and 20th centuries, including pistols, rifles and machine guns. They also hold stocks of more modern types and a full range of ancillary items such as cleaning kits, brackets and magazines. The website offers the chance to buy online and browsers can also sign up to an electronic newsletter to receive all the latest news. Details can be found at: www.d&bmilitaria.com.
The show is about the vehicles and this year there were plenty to satisfy even the most discerning of interests. To begin with the show celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Jeep – there were some 637,000 built during the war – and the 40th anniversary of the Land Rover 101. Other milestones in military history marked by this year’s show included the 200 year anniversary of the Gurkha Regiment and seventy years since the end of WWII. Veterans were, as usual, welcomed and they held a short service along with Chelsea Pensioners who looked very smart in their scarlet coats and distinctive hats.
The vehicles at the show are what is termed an eclectic mix, ranging from WWI to more modern types. There were also some unusual types, such as the Soviet-built BA64b armoured car used during the war. It was explained to me that it was an original vehicle which had been refurbished and it provided a rare opportunity to see one outside of a museum or book.
The South African Forces living history display group have attracted my attention in the past with the vehicles they have on display. This year they did it again with a pair of Buffel APC trucks, built in the 1980s and used during the counter-insurgency wars in South Africa. The Buffel design had a hull shaped to deflect the blast from mines and set very high to protect the men in the vehicle. I was informed the South African Forces is the only such group to have two vehicles of this type.
There are thousands of vehicles at the W&PR show, some of which are recognisable, such as the ‘Tilly’ or Utility vehicles, but some have to be explained. For example, at the Home Front display there were two ambulances on display, one in civilian markings and the other in RAF colours. I was told they were Morris ‘Y’ and only about 500 were ever built. The RAF version was actually driven by civilians and the two at the show are the only examples capable of being driven on the road. The show is on for five days and it would take that long just to look at each of the vehicles in turn.
The W&PR show is a complete family experience with something for all interests and all ages. Every display attracts attention, from the vehicles to the Home Front. The live action re-enactment displays and battle scenarios are as good as, if not better, than any documentary or film.
Suddenly, after five days, it’s all finished and time to pack up and go home. This year’s show is the last time it will be organised by Rex Cadman and Barbara Shea, but do not fear because the show will return in 2016 under new management. The new owner is John Allison an experienced event organiser and military vehicle owner and collector. See the news pages for our interview.
We wish a fond farewell to Rex and Barbara and all their team and thank them for their support and giving us such memorable times. We welcome John Allison and his team of organisers and look forward to the many great times which lay ahead. The date for next year’s show is 19th to 23rd July and the countdown has already started, so make a date in your diaries. The official website for the show is still the same, so if you want to keep up with developments visit:www.thewarandpeacerevival.co.uk.