Saturday 29 July 2017

On manoeuvres with the lads' army

There's more to military re-enacting than just "walking about looking good", as Ronan Abayawickrema found when he joined WWII club Battle Group South for the weekend ...

Ronan Abayawickrema

'What have I got myself into?" That's what I'm thinking as I crawl along the ground in battledress, my rifle held out in front of me, as an officer barks orders in German.

It must be about 25 degrees, I'm parched and I'm rapidly falling behind the rest of the squad.

"Das ist scheisse!" shouts the officer, and even with my rudimentary German, I know what he means.

Why am I doing this? No, I'm not embedded with NATO troops. Instead, I'm spending the weekend with Axis WWII re-enactors Battle Group South as they put on public displays at the Carrigtwohill Medieval Festival in Cork.

The officer is Noel McCarthy (40), a historical researcher from Cork, who, while a friendly, helpful presence off the battlefield, is a fierce one on it.

I had thought this re-enacting lark would involve dressing up in period uniform, and maybe a bit of square bashing, but I've got more than I bargained for.

Battle Group South takes physical fitness very seriously, with every member having to do a two-day training course given by ex-military instructors twice a year.

"Some of the guys here would give any (army) reserve unit a run for their money," says member Mark Keeley (30) from Tullamore. He ought to know -- he's in the Defence Forces.

And this desire to "get it right" also extends to the members' uniforms and equipment.

"You're looking at a good grand and a half for the uniform, kit and weapon," says Canice Pollard (38) who's dressed as a military policeman, and tapping away at an original 1940s typewriter as we speak.

"It's all about authenticity; some of the pieces in our kit are originals, others are realistic replicas. We're nerds," the IT risk assessor adds, cheerfully.

The sheer level of enjoyment the group's members get from re-enacting is evident throughout the weekend.

"You get away from everything, you never think about the outside world -- it's a great de-stresser," says Canice.

The German re-enactors are part of an umbrella organisation, the Munster Military Vehicle and Re-enactment Group, which includes the Allies who will be our foes on Sunday.

Emmet Kennedy (50), the leader of WAR (WWII Allied Re-enactment), says: "We have everyone from a doctor and a Protestant minister to an undertaker and a grave digger."

I mention that I've noticed guys in the Munster group double up and help out the other re-enactment clubs in attendance.

"Yes," laughs the farmer from Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, "We cross-dress as necessary."

He says that he and Joe O'Toole, Battle Group South's leader, set up the Munster group to give "the whole picture" and perform re-enactments featuring both sides.

Indeed, although Battle Group South portrays an SS unit, they stress that they re-create the German experience of the WWII period because they are amateur historians and military vehicle enthusiasts and not due to any affinity with right wing politics.

A disclaimer on their website makes it clear that "nutters, political activists and neo-Nazis" need not apply, and the group has a strict one-year probation period for new members to keep out "undesirable types".

"Although I'll be wearing a German officer's uniform later, the political thinking of that time has no interest for me," says Justin Horgan, a 42-year-old bar owner from Kerry. "This group is about military history, and, of course, the vehicles."

Canice agrees. "We don't do any Hitler greetings or anything like that . . . if you're doing this, you have to be a keen amateur historian, otherwise you'd just be a thug."

The club's professionalism and desire for authenticity has led to a number of theatre and TV credits.

Group leader Joe O'Toole (40) tells me that their first major theatrical work was taking part in the 2007 Irish performances of the play Who by Fire, based on the book by Zoltin Collis, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, with a score by Leonard Cohen.

They met the author and "were touched by his story" says Joe, a public servant from Cork, adding, disgustedly: "We got flak from right-wing groups in the UK for doing the play. We got hate mail."

TV work followed, including the acclaimed 2007 RTÉ documentary Ireland's Nazis, and the club has just finished filming two episodes of Christopher and His Kind in Belfast. The forthcoming BBC drama stars Doctor Who's Matt Smith and deals with Goodbye to Berlin author Christopher Isherwood's time in pre-war Nazi Germany.

At last Sunday afternoon comes around, and it's time for battle. The briefing is taken seriously, as it should be, given that the public will be lining the perimeter of the arena, the experienced members will be firing blanks and Joe has opened a chest filled with more pyrotechnics than a Whitesnake gig.

I'm definitely nervous, but my jitters are calmed when I'm told I'll be serving as a sentry at the rear of the action.

"You'll be stationary," Joe reassures me.

In the event, it doesn't quite turn out like that. I end up as part of the mortar crew, carrying one end of a heavy ammunition box at a run, as blank rounds go off all around us.

The first time the mortar is fired, I forget to cover my ears, as I was told to, and the noise is deafening. There's smoke everywhere. I don't make the same mistake twice.

The Germans' SDKFZ 222 armoured car is being fired on by an Allied Bren Carrier, and an original 1944 BMW R75 motorbike roars past with a 'wounded' soldier in the sidecar. I can feel my heart hammering in my chest.

And then it's over. The Allies have been routed but, as Joe says while providing a commentary on the tannoy, they'll be back. With the crowd's applause still in our ears, we walk back to the group's display area.

I'm surprised by how pleased I am when Noel slaps me on the back and tells me I did okay. I'm just glad that I didn't drop the ammunition box and that my ill-fitting, borrowed combat pants didn't fall down.

So, what did I get myself into? I can best describe it as a brilliant mix of local history group, FCA unit and amateur dramatics company. With an armoured car.

www.battlegroupsouth.com www.wargroup.info

Irish Independent

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