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WWII Re-enactment Groups

WWII Re-enactment Groups

When it comes to viewing the Second World War it is all too easy to see it as being fought between the four main belligerent forces of Russia, Britain, America and Germany in the European Theatre of Operations. Re-enactment groups do their very best to remind us that there were other forces engaged in the conflict and these, such as the Italian Army, are portrayed at events. Even the odd French soldier occasionally turns up and looks very good.

This may seem like an imbalance, but over the years a few re-enactors have turned up at events to depict the forces of the less well-known armies which fought in the war. Unfortunately they do not parade in large numbers, which is probably the reason why they have not been recognised. When they do turn out, and somebody identifies them for what they are, it is a true ‘Eureka’ moment as their faces light up. For the re-enactors it is just as rewarding because they know they have done a good job.

It is not easy for a re-enactor to collect together the equipment and weapons to put on a good display, but for the less well known armies it is even more of a challenge. But true to the spirit of re-enactment they rise to the challenge. During my time visiting events I have encountered Finnish troops, French, Dutch, Polish and Japanese. Even Sweden, which was neutral in WW II, has been represented by a small group which had all the right uniforms, weapons and even period bicycles. Rex Cadman had even loaned them a Swedish Stormartillerivagn m/43 from his collection to put on a display at the War & Peace Show when it was at Beltring, and this was my ‘Eureka’ moment.


One of the members of the group was Craig Appleton whom I had known for many years and he explained the purpose of putting on the display. Although Sweden was neutral it had to maintain the integrity of its borders with neighbouring Norway, which was occupied, and Craig’s display depicted one of the border guard units. He explained that a search on the Internet turned up a lot of equipment which he was able to obtain at quite reasonable prices. This success proves that it is possible to portray armies other than the more obvious ones.


I have spotted depictions of French troops at various events including an officer portraying a soldier serving on the Maginot Line in 1940. Another one was depicting General Leclerc who looked just like the photographs one sees of him. Several re-enactors form a small group and come over from France especially for the occasion, and being from France they can obtain the correct equipment and weapons from local traders. With today’s Internet access British re-enactors could achieve the same results and French traders attending the larger shows make it easy for re-enactors to buy items.

French weapons can be purchased through dealers but not even the largest traders hold stocks of them such as the Lebel rifle. One reason is because French de-activation methods are different to British standards and someone wishing to buy a French rifle will have to check that it complies legally. That is not to say it is not worth making enquiries and checking through the lists which traders publish in the pages of Gun Mart. It pays to look in the classified adverts for private sales too. But do ask if the weapon is deactivated to British standards.


Several years ago I met a young re-enactor called Ryan Thomas who collected Japanese militaria and weaponry, who began turning up at events to display his collection. This led to him setting up a small group and they attended some events including Military Odyssey in Kent. Then suddenly he became conspicuous by his absence, which was a great pity because his display was unusual and made people stop for a better look. I then heard he no longer participated in re-enactment, so I contacted him to find out. He told me that he has stepped back from mainstream re-enactment for the moment but might return to it at some future date. He still holds all his collection and the Website he established for the Japanese group (www.japanesereenacting.co.uk ) is still active. This is useful for anybody researching Japanese army in WW II and contains a lot of information. Ryan also informed me the group is still going in a small way and does attend some events, so it might be worthwhile looking out for them.

At some of the larger events traders can be found who specialise in Japanese items and some of these even travel over from Japan. Close to home is Tomas Termote who trades as ‘Yamato’ military antiques and collectables and he can be contacted by Email on: [email protected]

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The Denbighshire-based company of Soldier of Fortune based in North Wales (www.sofmilitary.co.uk) specialises in reproduction equipment for re-enactors and has a range of Japanese Army equipment. This includes leather webbing, uniforms, caps and helmets, bayonets and flags. Replica Japanese weapons such as mortars and grenades can be obtained from specialist sites and for display purposes are perfectly adequate. Deactivated Japanese weapons sometimes come on the market and an Arisaka rifle was recently offered by Harrogate-based Chris Johnson in North Yorkshire (www.chrisjohnsons.co.uk) proving that it pays to look at Websites and lists of weapons in adverts.

Armies in exile

After France, Holland and Belgium surrendered many troops from these countries escaped and continued to serve in exile including Czechoslovakian and Polish troops, a fact which presents re-enactors with more scope. I have seen a few Belgian troops turning up at events but these are very few and far between, which is a pity because if more was done to depict Belgian Army units there would be a better understanding of their part in the early stages of the war, when Belgium troops fought as well as they could, given their outdated equipment and lacking in modern armour. Perhaps someone reading this may be prompted to turn out with a display of either Dutch or Belgian equipment. Scarce, hard to obtain, weapons such as the Dutch Army Model 1895 6.5mm calibre rifle are expensive, but it is worthwhile to look right for the final impression and in order to do so one has to spend the money. 

The Poles fought well in 1939 and after the surrender some troops escaped to France. After Dunkirk they moved to Britain and were equipped with British Army uniforms and weapons, which makes it relatively easy to depict these groups and requires only the unit badges which can be obtained from companies such as ‘DivPatch’ (www.divpatch.com) which can also supply reproduction badges for Indian and African units. Monty’s Locker (www.montyslocker.co.uk) has a range of reproduction formation unit badges including Belgian, Dutch and Polish. A few re-enactors together who put on static displays may choose to wear original, but for reproduction items a search on Websites will turn up the required items.

The Poles fought with great distinction in Europe and I have seen the occasional display of Polish equipment as used during the campaign of 1939 with re-enactors carrying wz.98 or wz.29 rifles, grenades and other items of kit and the later campaigns such as Arnhem. An outstanding Polish display is put on by the Odwach Group, actually based in Poland (www.odwach.aplus.pl) which often travels to Britain and has members in this country. This group also depicts Polish troops in Normandy 1944 and on my trips into the area I have seen Polish units with jeeps looking very authentic. Individual re-enactors sometimes stroll around at events to depict someone who served in Italy with the Polish II Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders. This unit fought at Monte Cassino and during the campaign suffered 11,379 casualties. More often, though, re-enactors depict Polish airborne troops serving with the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade (Polish) commanded by General Stanislaw Sosabowski which fought at Arnhem in September 1944. These depictions close a gap and present a wider understanding of armies in WW II.

Some years ago a group depicting units of the Dutch Army in 1940 used to come over to Britain to take part in events, including Dover Castle, but sadly I have not seen them recently. They had obviously obtained all their equipment, including period bicycles, from suppliers in Holland and they looked as though they had just stepped out of a newsreel film of the period. In 2012 I attended an event called ‘Maiden Newton at War’ in the Dorset village of the same name. There I saw some Dutch Naval aviators in full kit. They had been part of the group which had depicted the army but now they were turning out as Dutch fliers in exile serving with the Royal Navy. They were wearing a mixture of British and Dutch equipment which made them truly authentic.

Axis allies

It is not just the troops in exile fighting with the Allies because if one looks hard enough they will find there are rare appearances by Germany’s Finnish ally. Admittedly, I have personally only ever seen them a couple of times, but when they are present they stand out because of the unusual nature of the uniform. Germany did supply much equipment and weaponry to Finland but the uniform was different. A Website in Finland has been created by a local re-enactment group (www.kevos4.com)  which has a lot very useful tips about Finnish equipment and uniforms as well as information about where to get kit and weapons along with tactics and history of the Finnish Army in WW II. Germany’s other allies Bulgaria and Hungary used a range of equipment but I have yet to see examples of either of these armies. However, I am sure someone will make contact to tell me there are groups out there depicting these troops.

Far East and Africa

Of course there are many other nationalities whose armies fought at some stage in the war, including China, India and various African nations. I have spotted a Chinese Nationalist at an event many years ago and there are Indian troops depicted by members of the Far Setting Sun group, which also depicts Chindits and Royal West African Frontier Force. Equipping these depictions with weapons and uniforms is quite straightforward because British and American equipment was used. They carry various types of weapons from Sten and Thompson SMGs and No4 rifles or No 5 ‘Jungle Carbines’. Australian troops used the Owen and Austen SMGs that are available but not in large numbers and because of this they can be expensive.

Alternative weapons

Obtaining the correct weapons can turn into something of a detective work for units trying to depict French or Japanese because these are not main stream items held in stock. I made enquiries with several dealers concerning standard service weapons from WW II who said that the differences in standards of accepted levels of deactivation between countries in the EU often means that imports have to be checked to meet British standards. All is not lost, however, and it might be worth depicting French forces serving in Europe after the Normandy landings because they used American weapons, such as Garands and M1 Carbines, the Finns used German K98 and Dutch and Polish troops in exile were equipped with British weapons which are readily available from dealers in Britain. So, it is possible to portray the other armies of WW with a bit of effort, which no re-enactor ever minds.