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Preparing for battle

What are ‘soldiers’ of the American Airborne division doing on the snow-covered hills of Co Antrim? Jamie McDowell goes on manoeuvres to find the answer

Mike Gilmore's dashing French Resistance uniform had all the right properties to keep him warm in the light snow shower that had put a thin sprinkling of icing over the hills near Ahoghill, County Antrim.

His thick leather boots were dashed with mud and snow. On the sleeve of his thick leather jacket he wore le tricolore.

With a cigar in his right hand and a replica rifle slung over his left shoulder, you'd have thought that he'd came straight from a World War II film set. There were many in the countryside warehouse like him. Some were dressed as German, American and British soldiers — all in period garb which was impressively assembled on each soldier with impeccable attention to detail.

Given the amount of decommissioned rocket launchers and weaponry on display, it would’ve been, perhaps, a little unnerving surveying the warehouse — given Ulster's troublesome past — if it hadn't been made clear why they were there and what they were being used for.

Mike (42) broke the ice by declaring that explosives would be the order of the day.”We're going to give you an example of what it is that the Wartime Living History Association actually does,” said Mike. “We'll be putting a small 10lb explosive device in a portable bunker then one brave volunteer will run and attack the bunker with a mock satchel bomb. The device is in a half-buried pot in the ground and is surrounded by debris like bits of carpet, concrete powder and black paint dust as well as some petrol to make the explosion realistic. When the soldier throws the satchel bomb into the bunker there'll be a large explosion.”

It was training day. The WLHA puts on shows in various places, ranging from educational events to retirement homes, and more recently, the Northern Ireland War Memorial on Talbot Street, Belfast.

In a nearby field, new recruits were being put through their paces. They were shown how to take cover and hold their guns properly — all the little details that make such an accurate depiction of how they would have looked during the Second World War.

Beside Mike was club secretary Neal Armstrong (28) from Belfast. “There aren't any Russians here today. We have everyone else though — even a Canadian,” said Neal. “People tend to be a little hesitant to wear the German uniform, but we have to keep it realistic. That's the whole point.”

“We don't just go around blowing things up,” added Mike. “Some of us have been formally trained by a company in England to do this. There are lots of health and safety implications involved. We try to make our shows and tactical simulations as realistic as we possibly can and the pyrotechnics are part of that. Strictly speaking, we're categorised as a theatre group.

“In terms of membership, we encourage people to contact us and would love more people to join. But we don't just take anyone on board.

“They have to show us that they have a genuine interest in our organisation.”

To anyone visiting for the first time, the training day looked like an entirely fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But there's a more serious side to the club. Mike explained: “We're about educating people as well as having fun. There's a lot of local history here in Northern Ireland from the wartime period. During that time, Northern Ireland became home to tens of thousands of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division of the US Armed Forces. They had a huge presence here and sometimes people who attend our events speak of how they remember the US convoys rolling into town.”

To veterans, the presentations put on by the WLHA have served as a nostalgic reminder of what they had to go through during the war years — both at home and abroad. But when the group first started out, Mike and some of the others who helped found the organisation with him — such as friends Stephen Templeton and Neal Armstrong — were unsure if their passion for re-living the past would be accepted by those who fought in the Second World War.

“In the beginning, we were a little nervous about how the veterans of the war and their families would react,” said Mike. It's clear that this means a lot to him and the other members in the WLHA. “We didn't want to cause any upset. But as it turned out they were completely in favour of our organisation. This year we even put together a display at the Northern Ireland War Memorial in Belfast. It was the first time the NIWM had staged such an event and they were delighted with the results.

“The American Consul also visited and was impressed with what we did. We have had US government interest before which we value very highly. We never forget that we are representing an extremely important, yet often forgotten, period of shared history between Northern Ireland and the USA. It's important that future generations remember what happened during this period in history.”

The other soldiers had finished preparing the pyrotechnic explosion and all safety checks had been done. There was a person on stand by with a fire extinguisher and members of the WLHA stood watching, around 50 metres from the portable bunker.

The volunteer ran quickly towards the bunker and hurled the mock satchel bomb into it before spinning on his heels and retreating with a notable extra inch to his stride. What followed was a massive boom followed by a giant fire ball. A dark black cloud of debris and smoke drifted off into the Antrim sky. It was a jaw dropping and stunning spectacle. The WLHA may be technically classed as a theatre group, but boring? It's certainly not.

As well as the WLHA, Mike, and many other members of the club also take a keen interest in another organisation with which they have very strong links — The Ulster Military Vehicle Club. “A lot of the shows we do are in conjunction with the UMVC which is a lot larger than the WLHA. Many of our shows tie in with the things the UMVC do — obviously because we use the vehicles such as the Willys Jeep and Dodge WC51 Light Truck we have here today,” explained Mike.

Across from him, Eileen Atkinson stood proudly uniformed in the attire of a female member from a Jedburgh team. Eileen explained: “Many females were involved in Operation Jedburgh — named after the area where the recruits were trained — Jedburgh in Scotland.

“It was an operation during the war where teams of mixed nationalities and sexes were trained and parachuted behind military lines to sabotage the enemy and lead resistance forces against Germany. None of the British personnel were female, but some of the other Allied forces recruited females on to

the Jedburgh teams. It's important that they're remembered.”

She added: “I first heard of the WLHA through my husband Stephen who joined before me. We're all really good friends. It's a family enterprise as well. When we travel to places like Normandy in France for big international meetings there's literally thousands of us there with caravans and tents. The kids love it.”

Back at the warehouse, food was being served. As well as the detailed military regalia and weaponry, the WLHA even eat lunch in the style of the era. Hearty corned beef stew was served up in crescent shaped tin cups, and even the spoons had little pegs along their handles so the soldier could connect them easily to the rest of their cutlery.

It was evident that there is a social interest as well the historical fascination that many WLHA members have. The atmosphere after the drills and the pyrotechnic display was jovial.

There were no cliques, and as the warehouse became full, the scene, consisting of tired, muddy soldiers tucking into their rations became almost believable.

It was as though staring through a peep-hole back into history. With the smell of cigar smoke and the clinking of tin cups filling the air, it was easy to get lost in your imagination — the only thing breaking the spell was the odd ringing sound of a mobile phone.

Nelson Jackson (11) made the journey with his dad from Bangor to be at the battle scene.

He held a strange looking missile projector, unrecognisable to those not in the know. He said: “It's great fun coming to these events and we had a brilliant day out. What I have here is a German Panzerfaust rocket launcher that was used by the Nazis during the war.

“As well as the days out, it also means that I get really good results in my history exams.”

The main public event for the Wartime Living History Association in 2010 will be the Ulster Military Vehicle Club Show which will take place on the weekend of July 31 and August 1 just beside the Inn On The Coast, on the main Portstewart to Portrush coast road. There the biggest WW2 battle re-enactments in Ireland will take place along with static vehicle displays and WW2 living history demonstrations.

To contact the WLHA log onto:

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