Hobbyists re-enact wartime battles

GREG BRUCE
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2014
Michael Chong
LAWRENCE SMITH / Fairfax NZ

Michael Chong, founder of Deutsches Afrikakorps military re-enactment group.

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As Dave Philips took his Tiger Moth biplane into another terrifying spin at the New Zealand Warbirds open day at Ardmore Airport last month, the commentator made clear just how possible it was for the stunt to end in death. He said the plane was flying just a few degrees off and just a few miles an hour faster than ‘stall speed’ – the speed at which a plane will plunge out of the sky and into the ground.

“This is death-defying stuff,” the commentator said, and you could feel that he was right. Then, as Philips finished his routine and brought the plane into land, the engine appeared to sputter out.

It had to be a stunt, surely – just part of the routine.

After the series of successful mad tricks he’d already nailed, what could go wrong with a simple landing?

But then the commentator said, “This’ll be interesting,” in such a way that it was obvious “interesting” meant ‘what the hell is happening?’ And then he went silent.

The thousands thronging the runway seemed to freeze.

Everything seemed to freeze, including the plane, although it was far enough away from the spectator area that it was hard to tell. It edged closer and closer to the ground, then the commentator said, somewhat anticlimactically: “And he’s landed,” then paused, as if unsure what to say next. “I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen there myself,” he said finally.

While Philips was up in his Tiger Moth, doing his loops and dives, defying death, the men and few women of New Zealand’s three main military re-enactment groups – the Military Re-enactment Society, the Historical Re-enactment Society and the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) – were setting up alongside the runway, preparing for the big finale to their day – a re-enactment of the D-Day landings at Normandy.

Military re-enacting is relatively new in New Zealand, having first begun in the mid-90s. But the commitment of its participants is impressive. To get a uniform alone costs between $1000 and $1500.

And then there are arms licences, weapons, assorted equipment, and vehicles.

A member of the WWII Historical Society recently bought a German MG42 machine gun for around $4000. A Wellington re-enactor owns a Vickers machine gun worth about $10,000. And the Volkswagen Kubelwagen (a light military vehicle) owned by Michael Chong – founder of the DAK re-enactment group – is valued at roughly $100,000.

These are people who are serious about what they do and who are so sick of being portrayed in the media as Dad’s Army that they now specifically ask the media not to portray them as Dad’s Army. The question, then, is how should they be portrayed?

ACTION AT ARDMORE

The re-enactors arrived at Ardmore early in the morning, pitched their tents, parked their armoured vehicles and laid out their weapons.

There was a display board through which children could stick their heads and have their photos taken. It featured a cartoon picture of two allied soldiers kicking Hitler’s bum and read, “Kick Hitler in the Panzers.”

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Most of the displays were roped off, presumably to prevent kids from touching anything important, especially the guns, many of which were genuine working firearms.

People flocked to the ropes, looked at the equipment and asked questions of the re-enactors, who took obvious pleasure in answering. One re-enactor, holding two frightening-looking shells, thrust one forward and said to a father and son: “This one was better. That one could go through 40mm of armour, which isn’t much. This could go through 55-70mm.”

All along the rope, such discussions took place.

Guns were omnipresent and especially popular, and were held up for discussion and comparison.

There was talk too about past wars: tactics, bravery, loss of life.

It was possible to see wonder on the faces of the children and on those of adults, too. Being able to hear these stories, from people dressed in authentic uniforms, holding authentic weapons, surrounded by authentic vehicles – it was easy to see it come alive in the minds of the crowd.

For nearly five hours, the re-enactors passed their time this way, then, approaching 3pm, they formed up into units, climbed aboard troop transports and combat vehicles and shipped out to the runway for the finale: a re-enactment of the 1944 D-Day landings.

They waited out there while Dave Philips took his Tiger Moth through its death-defying manoeuvres. They set up behind barricades and in makeshift trenches, then at 2.55, as a formation of six fighter bombers flew overhead, the battle began.

The allies advanced on the German position both on foot and in armoured vehicles. There was loud gunfire from the blank rounds in their rifles, bursts of flame and coloured smoke. Planes swooped low over the troop positions.

The re-enactment raged for about 10 minutes, the Germans eventually falling back and being overrun by the allies. There was noise and motion, colour and action, but not much gravity: near the end, as the Germans were overrun, one of their soldiers ran forward and was ‘shot’, and as he fell to the ground theatrically, the crowd burst into laughter.

At 3.06pm, the commander of the allied troops gave three blasts on his whistle and yelled, “Clear the enemy area,” and the battle was over.

The crowd applauded and the dead soldiers stood with the others, and bowed.

A small girl of maybe six or seven turned and said to her mother disdainfully: “People kept rolling over and over, and it’s like, ‘How can you be dead when you’re still alive?’”

President of the Historical Re-enactment Society, 52-year-old account manager Philip Hobbs, lives in Hamilton and rose at 5am to drive to Auckland for the Warbirds event, not returning home until deep into the night.

During the day, he stayed strictly in character: drinking from an old-school enamel mug and eating WWII-style sandwiches, wearing period glasses and a period watch with his Kiwi uniform. While he was at the show, he was a corporal of the 21st Battalion of the Fifth Brigade and he behaved as such.

“From a public perspective, we’re trying to re-enact it as accurately as we can,” Hobbs says. “It’s a double whammy. It’s education for the public but it’s also showing respect to the people that wore the uniforms.”

“If you ask me why I do it, part of it is that I’ve always had this passion, so now I’m playing with the real stuff I used to pretend I had when I was 10, 12, 14. That’s part of it. The other bit is the Ode of Remembrance. There’s a line in the ode, ‘Lest we forget.’ That’s the other part of it.

“We’re educating another generation of New Zealanders about what people did for us. Lest we forget.”

Forty-seven-year-old business banking manager Michael Chong, who wasn’t at the Warbirds open day, formed the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) as a breakaway group from the Historical Re-enactment Society in 2010. The DAK represents the German troops who fought in the deserts of North Africa in WWII and who were in frequent skirmishes with New Zealand troops. “Ever since I was little, I was interested in history,” Chong says. “I was most interested in WWII because WWII changed warfare completely – a lot of vehicles, tanks. WWI, they only fought each other in the trenches. When you come to WWII, you’re involved with aircraft, paratroopers and more modernised warfare.”

Chong sees himself as a collector first, but he says re-enacting is about sharing that passion for collecting in a way that brings it alive for others. “I’ve got weapons, equipment, uniforms. You’re trying to share with someone else. We’re not just doing re-enactment of a battle. We’re doing a display, bringing cars and setting up tents, trying to show how people lived in the army, sharing information with people.

“We’re lucky. We have a lot of resources and display and vehicles. We put everything on display and amazingly we can get a lot of people come and talk to us and listen to what we’re saying. They’re so interested, especially the younger generation. I enjoy that part.”

The Warbirds event was the first re-enactment for 15-year-old Eva Brodie. Her mother’s boyfriend has been re-enacting for several years and this year her whole family became involved: mother Tracy, 12-year-old sister Amelia and nine-year-old brother Daniel.

Eva was meant to play a French civilian like her brother and sister, but she spilled sauce on her dress, so ended up in a US mechanic’s uniform. She rode in a US Army jeep and took photos. “I thought it was interesting and cool,” she says. “It’s all quite in-depth and well done. “I’m quite interested in history, and WWII especially... The nature of it all – how people could do that and kill others like that.”

None of her friends do re-enacting. She says they think it’s funny: “Weird but cool.” But during the Warbirds event, she met a boy from her school who was also there for his first re-enactment and they talked about getting a group together and going again.

“I’ll carry on with it definitely,” she says.

“A lot of the people who are re-enactors are like amateur historians,” says 56-year-old company director Steve Goodman, of the Military Re-enactment Society. “And further to that, you’ll find a lot of them are vehicle collectors, [or] they collect uniforms, or the equipment that goes with it, and by re-enacting they get to use all those items. And going hand in hand with that is they get to educate the public on New Zealand’s military history.”

Steve Goodman at home in Cambridge.

MARK TAYLOR / Fairfax NZ

Goodman grew up with Commando comics and developed an interest in military history early in life.

He became a collector of military memorabilia and his collecting led him to re-enacting. Collectors don’t necessarily become re-enactors he says, but they often do. He relates it to car enthusiasts: “Some people like to build a hot rod and just drive it to shows. Other people like to build a hot rod and drive it to shows and drag race it.”

The Military Re-enactment society carries out regular displays at places like MOTAT in Auckland andGoodman says a surprising number of people don’t know about the events being re-enacted: “A lot of the wartime history isn’t covered in schools,” he says, “so there are an awful lot of holes in people’s knowledge.

“Having an interest in history and displaying and talking about the things you have, everything goes hand in hand, because when you do that, you educate the public on the wartime stuff – on New Zealand’s involvement.”

That’s important, he says, “because the sacrifices people made in the past need to be remembered”.

PASSING QUICKLY

"WWII veterans are passing very quickly," says Philip Hobbs. “We’ve got very few left. Obviously WWI veterans are gone. Members of the RSA are all older people, and slowly those people are disappearing. So they need somebody to keep that memory alive and to keep reminding the public of these important moments in history."

Military re-enactors aren't just grown-up kids playing at war. They’re a mixed bunch of history buffs and collectors, and mostly they’re people who want to honour past soldiers and make sure we never forget what happened at Normandy or Gallipoli, or in the deserts of North Africa or anywhere else New Zealanders have fought. And in the hours before their battle re-enactment at Ardmore – in which the public were able to see their authentic equipment, uniforms and weapons, and imagine how they might have been used – that’s what they did.

So it was hard not to feel for them, and to feel that their message had become a bit muffled at Ardmore when the crowd laughed at the soldier feigning death by gunshot. An event so profoundly affecting in the imagination took on an unwitting air of comedy in its re-creation.

Of course, it’s sometimes said that the horrors of war are unimaginable. But that’s not totally true. Once you’ve heard the stories, maybe even from someone wearing the uniform and carrying the weapons of those who fought, it’s pretty easy to visualise – be it the stinking trenches at Passchendaele or the carnage of the beaches at Normandy. No, the hard thing isn’t trying to imagine what war was like. That part’s unavoidable. The hard thing is trying to recreate it. 

- Sunday Magazine

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