Dogs of War: Five Days in the Mud with Military Machines

Discussion in 'Military History' started by asianobserve, Nov 9, 2012.

  1. asianobserve

    asianobserve Elite Member Elite Member

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    England's War & Peace Show is the premier concours d'elegance of conflict.
    From November 2012 issue of Car&Driver

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    John Dale’s 1944 Soviet T-34 fought in World War II and Bosnia.

    For five days every July, about 100,000 folks interested in war machines c-onverge on an old hop farm in southeast England. Depending on the weather, the place is either a mucky quagmire or a haboob of swirling dust. Swarms of jeeps and Land Rovers and small armored scout cars scurry past monstrous tanks that fling up oozy clods wherever they go clink-clanking around. All day long, things explode, smoke drifts, and machine guns hammer out a rapid dum!-dum!-dum! that rattles the sternum.

    Everywhere you look, people are in strange uniforms. Columns of German Schutzstaffel, the dreaded SS, file past British Tommies -manning “trenches” in “the Somme,” while Marine grunts roll their own in sandbag hooches from the Vietnam highlands, circa 1968. The lines are long for $5 sausage rolls and for mediocre fish and chips. At night, campfires alight and everybody drinks, the ’Nam guys in a re-plica of a Saigon booty trap they’ve built called “Juicy Luicy’s.”

    The annual War & Peace Show isn’t, as you may have guessed, a celebration of -Tolstoy.

    After 30 years in operation, now with its own radio station and daily newspaper, it has become the world’s largest and most important festival for collectors of military vehicles and paraphernalia. It is basically the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in khaki, except that here you don’t lose points for l-ittle things like bazooka damage.

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    A 3/4-scale replica World War I British MK IV tank uses a Ford Transit diesel.

    Assuming that it’s not preceded by two months of continuous rain that reduces southeast England to chocolate pudding, War & Peace typically draws around 5000 vehicles. The number of entrants this year was dampened down to around 3000, or roughly 15 times that of Pebble Beach. The show thrives largely because of an odd inconsistency in English law: You can’t own a Colt .45, but you can own a 15-ton tracked and armored tank. You can hang a license plate on it, festoon it with swastikas, and drive it to the supermarket if you like. Or, through the supermarket, if you’re not careful. The guns must be deactivated.

    Many War & Peace attendees come down the narrow lanes leading to the roundabout at Beltring, about an hour southeast of -London, on their own wheels or rubber-padded tracks or, in the case of heavy stuff, in a lengthy queue of low-load haulers whose drivers charge about $600 round trip for local pickup and delivery. Often, tank owners choose to ship even if they live nearby, one noting that although his 18,000-pound Alvis Scorpion light reconnaissance tank has passed cars on London’s M25, “it’s like driving a Caterpillar tractor blindfolded.”

    After spectators park in some distant pasture and fork over the $31 for a day ticket (it’s cheaper to buy in advance), somebody hands them a glossy program with an hour-by-hour list of events. When I arrived, something called “To Hell and Back” was just starting in the “arena,” a fenced-in field with an earthen berm for the crowd. The blurb was tantalizing: “In their push across France, a handful of men of the 29th Infantry A Company attempt to secure what at first seems to be a deserted small hamlet holding up the advance through the French countryside—little did they know they had stumbled across a German stronghold.”

    Summoning every last ounce of restraint, I hurried past the tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Daimler Ferret, a display of ex-RAF firetrucks, a field of vehicles used in the Falkland Islands campaign, and a booth hawking deactivated air-to-air missiles and headed for the arena.

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    A motley assortment of various NATO armies exits the battle arena.

    When I arrived, three German Panzers, guns booming with pyrotechnic flashes, were attempting a fast flanking maneuver to the left while a 68-year-old U.S. Army M4 Sherman tank and an M5 Stuart were driving up through the middle of the arena’s “French hamlet,” a Hollywood-style faux set made from plywood and two-by-fours. Troops were running amok and shooting madly while an American half-track laid down covering fire with a thumping .50-caliber machine gun.

    Only the Germans were falling down, however, as their vehicles, one by one, plumed smoke. At the end, there was shouting and a hand-to-hand tussle, and then the fleeing Krauts were all shot in the back. As the crowd hooted, the dead arose, clapped arms, gave a wave, and filed away from the field.

    “It’s all just a big laugh,” said a ruddy Jon Phillips of nearby Chatham as he released his middle-age paunch from his black wool SS Panzer Lehr tunic, now encrusted with mud and fake blood. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Let’s let the Germans win.’ But they never let us win.”

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    Unlike real war, I’m told, the arena b-attles are painstakingly choreographed in advance, mainly so nobody stands too close to an explosion or runs in front of a wheeling tank. The show’s organizers pay to ship in the really important vehicles and provide the vintage weapons and dummy ammo. The head armorer, Paul Dalby, told me he budgets 80,000 blanks of various calibers for the week. A single .50-caliber round costs $5.50.

    Occasionally dashing back to the arena to check out events called “Convoy Action Afghanistan,” “Military Oddities,” and “Tanks at Play,” I wandered the swampy fields of campsites for the next few days, spellbound by the show’s menagerie of mechanical (and human) strangeness. The most interesting vehicles are designed to fulfill one single, narrow tactical need. There are vehicles for climbing, swimming, towing, plowing, paving, scouting, communicating, bridging, observing by radar, and shooting everything from a 7.62-mm rifle round up to a 155-mm crater maker.

    There were SPGs, APCs, BRDMs, CVRWs, CCKWs, and Sd.Kfzs. My program indicated that more than 500 MBs, GPWs, M201s, and M38s—basically the original World War II jeep and its successors—had registered for the show. The zoologically minded British gave their vehicles the best names: the Humber Pig, the Leyland Hippo, the Daimler Dingo, and the GM-Canada Otter. The Austin Champ was England’s hideously bull-nosed answer to the jeep, and it was preceded by the fearsomely named Wolseley Mudlark. How the Russkies must have trembled.

    The Ferret is the show’s sporty crumpet catcher. It’s a compact, tidy, 10,000-pound armored scout with a miniature machine-gun turret, a Rolls-Royce inline-six mounted amidships that turns parallel propshafts that drive the left and right wheels separately, and a spare tire jauntily affixed to one side of the body. Ferrets were used to control the carnage in Northern Ireland and are still on patrol in the Third World. Production ended in 1971, yet no African coup today is complete without one. You’ll pay $10,000 to $12,000 for a decent driver.

    Timothy Rendall, a local from Eastbourne, showed me around his, which he recently repainted with rollers. The driver sits in a claustrophobia-inducing steel monocoque hull with three small, sealable portals to see out of and a large steering wheel angled down toward his crotch. Because retreat is usually done in greater haste than advance, the five-speed preselector gearbox operates fully in both reverse and forward. You drive it with hands at 11 and 1 o’clock, mindfully, because the Ferret—even with the portals open—makes a Lamborghini Aventador feel like a fishbowl.

    The two-man crew shares the intimate cell with the engine and driveline, so it’s a noisy toy. The cab-forward design, while roughly handsome, is “typical of the British,” says Rendall. “You know, muddle through. Make do and mend.”

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    The Daimler Ferret is the Jag E-type of military vehicles.

    Stepping gingerly through the mud in front of the Panzer Lehr’s campsite, I’m waved in for a round of schnapps. A heated argument is going on over the tire pressures on the Lancaster bomber. “I’ll tell ya, it was 45 psi,” says Simon Goldsmith, a.k.a. “Sigmund,” a.k.a. “Dickhead,” a postman from Kent who plays a Panzer gunner in the arena. “Onna’count all the ’eavy bombs they was carrying.” The rest of them jeer.

    Phillips is the ringleader, one of the show’s old hands who knows everybody. A professional welder, he used his skills a few years ago to convert a 1960s British FV432—a common armored personnel carrier that you can buy in nice condition for around $15,000—into a decent replica of a million-dollar (if you can find one) World War II German Sturmgeschütz III mobile gun. He didn’t have any blueprints, so Phillips bought the Tamiya plastic model kit, took measurements, and started cutting metal.

    People liked the results so much that they commissioned him to build more Third Reich replicas. With only two real—but non-running—German tanks at the show, Phillips’s shadetree blitzkrieg is the closest thing the crowd will get to seeing Hitler’s Wehrmacht in motion.

    Ever since a BBC documentary a few years ago about “the Nazis in Kent,” which used hidden cameras to uncover a few reenactors who weren’t necessarily faking it, those who play Germans are skittish about talking to reporters. Actual Germans can be arrested back home for donning Third Reich regalia, but the British treat it as part of their cultural obsession with history.

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    “We’re not Nazis, we’re family people from Kent,” Phillips says. “Somebody has to play the bad guy.”

    The whole dress-up aspect of the show strikes me as a nudist colony in reverse: Instead of stripping, for five days people put on whatever they want without fear of being judged. Actually, the arena battle reenactments seem more about recalling movies than actual events, and owe more in their staging to Steven Spielberg than Patton or Rommel.

    It also seems coincidental that, at the time of the show, the Olympic Games were about to start 30 miles away. The ancient Olympics began as combat conducted as sport. In the modern reboot, the old wars are forgotten but the javelins and vaulting poles remain. “The reality of war is death, disease, starvation, amputation,” says Phillips. “Nobody wants to relive that.”

    For many years, the best place to find vintage military vehicles was in the scrap yards where they were tossed once the armies of the world lost interest in them. Farmers, metalworkers such as Phillips, and others who make a living getting their fingernails dirty were the first to begin rescuing and restoring them.

    Only recently have values shot up on trading websites such as Military Vehicles on Milweb: the marketplace for jeeps, tanks, landrovers, artillery, especially for World War II equipment, which sits at the top of the collector’s food chain. Whereas a decent, running Sherman might have been $25,000 a decade ago, a 1944 U.S. M36, a tracked tank destroyer that was America’s answer to the German Tiger, sold two days before the show for $242,000. “I bought at the right time” is a common refrain heard around the show.

    While I was examining a 1943 Dodge WC54 field ambulance, a giant shadow suddenly blotted out the daylight. I spun around to see what looked like a Mississippi River coal barge, half a block long and three stories tall, rolling on tires that were each the width of a Smart Fortwo. Following the knee-deep ruts of its tracks, I came to a campsite filled with machines from the land of the giants. A fellow describing himself as “just the oily rag” introduced me to Louis Parsloe, himself something of a giant at 6 feet 6 inches, with a Viking’s beard and ponytail of blond hair.

    “I like unusual things, and they tend to be big,” he said. A forester by trade, Parsloe owns the “barge,” actually an EWK-Gillois, a 31-ton mobile amphibious bridge unit built by Germans for the French army in the late 1950s. At about 40 feet long and 10.5 feet wide, and with what looks like an enormous outboard boat motor down its nose, it requires a special permit to be driven in England, where the country lanes make a Ford Focus seem corpulent.

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    EWK-Gillois

    Near the Gillois sat Parsloe’s Russian KrAZ-225, which looks like a 1930s pickup truck scaled up to three times the size, plus his MAZ-537, a true Cold War icon. A half-century ago, the 8x8-drive MAZ was built by the Russians with a staggering 75-ton towing capacity to haul tanks and missiles at 35 mph to far-flung reaches of the Soviet empire. Dozens paraded through Red Square every May Day and starred as black hashmarks on U2 spy photos, instilling night sweats in successive residents of the White House.

    Parsloe bought his, sans owner’s manual, from a company that smuggled it as machine parts out of the former Eastern Bloc, where nowadays “there’s lots of vodka drinking and deals done over tables” to extract prized vehicles from derelict military bases.

    After fussing with a bad alternator on the 38.9-liter diesel V-12, mounted about a foot behind the driver, he offered me a ride. The MAZ’s cabin is wide enough to fit five across, and its horizontal steering wheel was etched in Cyrillic letters with the name “Sophia,” no doubt the babushka-wearing wife or girlfriend of the last Red Army conscript to drive it. The engine’s noise was as epic as the blue fog from its side stacks was toxic.

    But everybody in camp stared as we trundled past, six feet off the ground, the soft-spoken Parsloe occasionally waving as he drove the biggest stick in a show of big sticks.
     
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  3. asianobserve

    asianobserve Elite Member Elite Member

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