‘Special Forces’ re-enactment groups
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- Last updated: 16/12/2016
Today we are all familiar with the term ‘Special Forces’ which includes units such as the British Special Air Service and Special Boat Squadron and their counterparts in other countries such as France. The Second World War gave rise to the creation of both the SAS and SBS, but the war also inspired the creation of other units including the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and ‘Popski’s Private Army’.
Some units which would rise to prominence had their origins dating back many years, such as the US 82nd and 101st Divisions, which were raised in 1917 and 1918 respectively and became elite parachute (Airborne) units in 1942 and served with great distinction.
The Germans also raised parachute regiments, Fallschirmjager, which were under the aegis of the Luftwaffe, as early as 1935. The first operational demonstration of this unit came during the Danish and Norwegian campaign in April 1940. They rose to further prominence during the campaign into Holland in May that year.
Unfortunately the operation into Crete in May 1941 would prove a pyrrhic victory for the Fallschirmjager. However, German parachute troops always proved a resourceful adversary and at Monte Cassino, for example, they defended the heights with great tenacity.
In the course of attending re-enactment events I have seen many battle displays and there is invariably at least one group depicting Fallschirmjager fighting as elite infantry. After the terrible losses among airborne units during the operation on Crete, Hitler declared that no more airborne assaults would be attempted. Instead the highly trained troops were used as infantry and were often to be found engaged in some of the fiercest fighting on all fronts from Italy to Russia.
Today at re-enactment events we see Fallschirmjager, such as the Green Devils of Carentan (www.fjr6.co.uk), engaged in battle re-enactments against British and American airborne units to depict the Arnhem Campaign.
The parachute units had special equipment and uniforms designed for their unique roles and the Germans also went as far as developing special weapons for the Fallschirmjager in the shape of the FG42 automatic rifle. This was a distinctive weapon and is popular with re-enactors portraying the role. It was produced in few numbers, some sources say probably only 7000 or less, but reproduction versions are available from dealers and, it has to be said, the weapon does complete the impression.
Italy also raised a parachute unit known as the ‘Folgore’, or 185th Airborne Division, which was created in 1942. This force saw some limited action, mainly in North Africa, but it never reached the same levels of strength as its German counterpart. There are depictions of Italian parachute forces by re-enactment groups such as the Mediterraneo Group, which specialises in the Italian army. This is a relatively small group but they have all the uniform, helmets and weapons to show what this unit looked like and present a remarkable display. If anybody is interested in depicting Italian parachute troops they should look at the Mediterraneo’s website for information at: www.ww2italianreenactment.com.
Groups depicting elite units do so very seriously and use the correct kit and weapons of a very high standard. The equipment for German parachute troops can be obtained from companies specialising in reproduction items, such as Epic Militaria (www.epicmilitaria.com) and Soldier of Fortune (www.sofmilitaria.co.uk) These items are fine for battle re-enactment but for static displays original items can be obtained from dealers at a range of events from War & Peace Revival (www. thewarandpeacerevival.co.uk) to militaria fairs around the country. Replica unit badges and shoulder flashes to depict units such as SAS or SBS can be obtained from specialists such as Divpatch (www.divpatch.com) or Monty’s Locker (www.montyslocker.co.uk)
The same also applies to re-enacting the British and American airborne forces and any other ‘Special Forces’ groups, such as the LRDG. The British Army created the Parachute Regiment in 1941 and formed the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions with a total of 17 battalions by the end of the war. These troops served in many theatres but they achieved fame during Normandy and the ill-fated Arnhem operation in 1944.
The Americans created three main airborne divisions, including the 17th which fought during the Battle of the Bulge, but is often overshadowed by its more famous counterparts, the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. I have seen a group re-enacting the 17th Airborne Division which was depicting Operation Varsity, the parachute jump over the Rhine in March 1945, but more often than not it is either the 82nd or 101st Airborne which is prominent at events. Perhaps it’s about time we saw more of these other units such as the 17th Airborne, nicknamed ‘Golden Talons’ after the sleeve badge showing an eagles claws in yellow on a black background.
Not counting the Royal Marines Commandos or the American Rangers, both of which are well represented by re-enactment groups, there were many other elite or Special Forces units created during WWII. The SAS, for example, was the idea of David Stirling who was serving with the Scots Guards. It also led to the creation of the French SAS. The SBS was created in 1942 and used to mount clandestine attacks on installations on enemy-held islands across the Mediterranean Sea, including Crete and Rhodes. The SAS has been re-enacted many times using Jeeps fitted with twin Vickers ‘K’ machine guns as seen in many iconic wartime photographs, and always attract a lot of attention.
To date, I have not as yet seen a group depicting the SBS, but I am sure there is a group out there which is doing just that. If anyone knows of a group re-enacting the SBS please ask them to contact me, because I am sure other re-enactors would be interested to know. These two regiments still exist and came back to prominence during the Falklands War in 1982. There are a few groups depicting this war and collecting equipment from this period is also popular.
There were other wartime units which undertook extremely dangerous missions and their toughness and success grants them the right to be considered an elite force. For example, the Moroccan Goums, which were formed into the Corps Expeditionnaire Francais, served in Italy. These were used in the mountains and were engaged in some of the hardest fighting. Although I have not seen it, I understand that a group in America has been created to re-enact the Goum troops. The French Foreign Legion is an historic force which has become legendary for many reasons and some re-enactors have turned out to depict this elite unit.
In February 1940 a special unit known as the 13th Mountain Half-Brigade of the Foreign Legion was raised and were deployed to serve in the Norwegian campaign. The following year these troops were fighting Italians in North Africa and continued to fight throughout the remainder of the campaign. Their action at Bir Hakeim added to the history of the Foreign Legion. One French re-enactor who makes occasional visits to the UK is the character known to many re-enactors simply as ‘Titus’, and he has turned out as a French Foreign Legionnaire. In post-war years the French army was involved in operations in Indo- China and I have seen such a Foreign Legion display a few years ago.
The British army used a number of specialist units during the North Africa campaign during WWII, including the LRDG and ‘Popski’s Private Army’. Both these units were very small but the importance of the role they played cannot be overstated. For example, in March 1942 the LRDG had around 350 men and 110 vehicles of all types, such as Bedford and Chevrolet trucks along with jeeps. These vehicles carried all the equipment and supplies needed for extended patrols and with supply dumps they could remain on patrol for weeks and cover thousands of miles. Peter Saunders and his colleagues have an incredible collection of vehicles to depict the LRDG at events such as War & Peace Revival.
Some of these vehicles are fitted out with weapons such as Italian Breda 20mm machine guns, Vickers and one project produced a replica of the famous ‘flamethrower jeep’ known as the ‘Wasp’ as devised by ‘Popski’. Other recreations displayed include a Chevrolet truck mounted with a Bofors 37mm calibre anti-tank gun, and it really attracted a lot of attention. The members of the group and vehicle owners turn up dressed in the appropriate uniforms and shemagh headdress as worn by the locals to protect against sun and sand. When wearing standard berets the Scorpion badge of the LRDG is prominent. Anyone interested in keeping up to date with the activities of the LRDG Preservation Society can visit the website at www.lrdg.com.
Reproduction parachute smocks for British and German units are available, and the Yorkshire-based company of Stand Up Hook Up 1941 specialises in replica US airborne forces equipment. Other items to portray specialist units would either have to be specially made for the purpose, or, if for a static display, the real thing just might be available from a dealer.
Weapons used by Special Forces in WWII were usually standard infantry firearms such as Thompson, Sten and other forms of SMGs, rifles, mortars and machine guns. These are available from traders dealing in either deactivated or blank-firing weapons which are on site at various events such as Military Odyssey or War & Peace Revival. Items of kit collected make for good static displays and military enthusiasts are always interested in seeing equipment of Special Forces.
Of course there are some units which cannot be fully recreated, such as X Craft midget submarines. However, that does not prevent individuals from turning out, like Titus, to depict the group. Several friends may join together to wear the uniforms of elite units to remember their role.
The USAAF created the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the ‘Red Tails’ which was an all-black fighter escort squadron. They were some of the finest pilots of WWII and today they are remembered in a reenactment group based in America. They can be contacted through Facebook.
Specialist or elite forces can be found being re-enacted in other periods, such as the Napoleonic Wars with the 95th Rifles in their distinctive green uniforms and armed with Baker rifles. Cavalry units during the English Civil War were elite and this was the case, again, during the American Civil War 200 years later.
More up-to-date, there are groups depicting elite forces from the Vietnam War, such as the Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group or MACV-SOG which always have an impressive display at War & Peace Revival. The MACV-SOG was a highly classified unit at the time and undertook extremely dangerous missions to rescue pilots from behind enemy lines and conducted long-range patrol to gather information. This group puts on displays to show how they were trained and operated, together with weapons and kit of the time.
We are now also beginning to see depictions of more recent conflicts such as the Gulf War and although much of the information is still classified, re-enactment groups put on displays of modern weapons and vehicles used in that war. It is interesting to see how the weapons have changed in all that time from WWII to present and how communications have also changed.
One aspect shown in these presentations is the role of the sniper. During WWII the Lovat Scouts were an elite specialist force with sniping being a particularly important skill. They used rifles fitted with telescopic sight in this role which is demonstrated by the re-enactment group A Very Special Regiment (www. averyspecialregiment.co.uk). By comparison, snipers during the Gulf War were using the heavy .50 inch calibre Barratt rifle to hit targets at ranges of a thousand metres or more.
So, when out and about at events it is worthwhile looking out for the smaller specialist or elite forces. They may not be as familiar as the larger groups, but their role in war has made a huge difference. Theirs is a fascinating history to discover and perhaps even encourage others to join them.