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Posted on May 27, 2006 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Fiction: Moving Out

By Roach

Preparation

In order to make things seem as authentic as possible a lot of preparation was required. As a self-policing unit with nobody wishing to be embarrassed in front of their peers by using erroneous equipment, it was taken as read that all of our uniforms and equipment would, as usual, be 100% accurate (and as this was taking place in 89/90 that meant virtually NO reproductions). We checked each others gear anyway!

Needless to say nothing that wasn’t a period item was allowed in the field. K-rations were possibly the only exception to this rule although only in as much as the food was not WW2 vintage. K-ration boxes were reproduced and their contents also, with food being repackaged and in some cases re-canned as authentically as possible. It was an all or nothing approach and cosmetically at least, nothing was left to chance.

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The main item of consideration was the small matter of the terrain we would be using. An oft used venue was our automatic choice but rather than use all of the land available to be used, a small section of the land was chosen for the static confrontation. The rest of the terrain would be used only for manoeuvre in order to get into the position that would be our home for the majority of the exercise.

Routes of advance to these positions were scouted in advance (in daylight) by only a couple of people so that the bulk of the people taking part would not know exactly what was happening, thus preventing potentially souring the illusion for them.

From the GI side of the lines, primary foxholes would be dug to accommodate the squad for a very brief period of time for a sort of ‘halfway-house’ overnight position; everybody would have to dig their own once things really got underway.

So far, so good. Men, materiel and terrain were taken care of, but our big problem in attempting to create a battlefield illusion – and especially in Normandy – was how do you recreate the illusion of the big guns, the artillery?

A key component of any battlefield is artillery, whether it be the heavy field gun variety or the lighter but equally nightmarish mortar variety – nightmarish by the only measurement scale applicable which is if you happen to be on the receiving end – and if we wanted to achieve the illusion this had to be recreated. But how?

It is of course virtually impossible to recreate the regular fall of heavy artillery in a re-enactment, without creating definite safety problems. But fortunately the effect of falling mortar fire is somewhat easier to achieve; unlike the movies, the average real-life mortars don’t produce slightly sub-atomic explosions. That said, the solution was relatively simple and a leaf out of the Hollywood book: electronically detonated pyrotechnics.

Small-ish ones!

These were laid in advance of the battle in fairly large numbers and was done in the following manner. A couple of key people from each side (American/German) who were aware of the general choreography of the event took it in turns to go in and lay charges on the enemy line, carefully mapping each charge and, most importantly, without the enemy knowing where the charges were placed. Each charge was wired, with both charge and wires laid and hidden, with the firing wires laid back and gathered at a central point on the same hedgerow and connected to a firing box. This firing box would be operated by the commander of the enemy forces occupying this position. Essentially he would be responsible for physically detonating charges on his own position. Don’t worry, it is not as silly as it sounds.

Basically, the method of firing these simulated mortar barrage pyros was really quite simple. Both enemy lines were hooked up by field telephone, with each side’s senior NCO in charge of communications. These people had to be willing to suspend their disbelief a little more than anyone else obviously. Basically, if the American commander wanted to call down a strike at position A on the German line, he cranked the phone, apparently talked to the ‘60s’ a couple of hedgerows back as far as his men are concerned, but in reality to the German commander, and a minute or so later, position A across the field would temporarily disappear in a cloud of smoke. The German commander would detonate the numbered charges that he was given, and the enemy in position A would have no idea that it was going to happen until it did.

The effect was somewhat successful in execution, scared the daylights out of one or two, and had everyone heading for the bottom of foxholes which was of course the idea – and as some of those pyros were planted a little closer than anticipated it was a very good idea to use those foxholes for their proper purpose!

I realise that sounds perhaps just a tad dangerous but there were precautions in place to make sure that nobody got too close to a hot spot; the commanders alone knew where the charges on their line were, so they were able to keep their men from digging in too close to them. Remember also that these pyros were merely flash pots – lots of smoke and sound but virtually no actual blast. You could have stepped on one of those babys and the only casualty would be your underwear.

The idea was simple and, as it turned out, it worked.

Thus with the main component of life in the hedgerows fairly successfully simulated, it was just a case of getting people in the field and getting down to business. The event would run from Saturday evening to Monday afternoon, with both sides moving into the field independently during the course of Saturday evening. There would be none of the customary pre-battle chat between adversaries in the car park, no interaction, or friendly preamble or fraternisation at all.

Our own boys gathered at a local village hall, for final preparation and checks. The fine tooth comb was applied, and everyone re-checked gear that had already been re-checked several times. Finally, watches were set to double-summertime, and as soon as the light failed, it was into the back of a truck for a longer than necessary, less-than-magical, but ever so bumpy mystery tour before being ejected into the night and, basically more or less, in at the deep end…

And, as it transpired, it was quite probably one of the most enjoyable enactment experiences I have ever had – and I learnt something into the bargain…

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