The WW2 LHA can trace it's origins back to the late 1970's when WW2 re-enactment was in it's infancy. There were established re-enactment groups around such as The Southern Skirmish Association, The Sealed Knot and The Ermine Street Guard all covering periods other than WW2.
In 1976 a group of American Civil War re-enactors and militaria collectors in the Mid West of the USA formed The WW2 Historical Reenactment Society and started to organise mainly private tactical events. The early units included numerous actual WW2 veterans within their ranks and of course virtually all the uniforms, equipment, vehicles and weapons were original WW2 surplus.
In England the Military Vehicle Conservation Group (now The MVT) had attracted quite a few people that liked to dress the part to go with their lovingly restored Jeep, half track or tank. By 1977 the MVCG's annual "D-Day Show" was firmly established and on the Queen's Silver Jubilee weekend the event was staged at Blackbushe Airport near Camberley and included the first ever UK public "mock battle". Uniforms were a mixture of original and army surplus; weapons were mainly .22 starting pistols with a few No.4 Lee-Enfield rifles smooth bored to .410 and working single shot. 1970's long hair and moustaches were all the rage and the "troops" looked an absolute mess by today's standards. At the core of the battle organisation could be found the larger than life character Mike Ross assisted by his brother Kevin and a few mates. The Ross brothers owned a Stuart tank that they had purchased from the film set of "The Dirty Dozen" and ran a fledgling militaria business called Military Marine. German troops were mainly under the command of London based German vehicle collector Eddie Kenton.
By 1978 there was a vast divide between the MVCG's membership regarding the wearing of uniforms and staging mock battles at vehicle shows so under the leadership of Mike Ross who had been in communication with the WW2 HRS in the USA for guidance, the World War 2 Battle Re-enactment Associate (BRA) was formed-the name was chosen to be both memorable and humorous. Allied units consisted initially of the US 29th Infantry Division, 5th Ranger Battalion, 101st Airborne Division and the Brits were represented by the 1st Airborne Recce Squadron. German units consisted of "Sturmgruppe Adler" -a generic infantry unit plus a small group portraying Fallschirmjaeger Regiment 6. Uniforms were a major problem for the Germans as apart from a few film prop tunics from the BBC TV series "Colditz" there was absolutely no reproduction kit readily available.
Bundeswehr border guard uniforms were converted to look like WW2 tunics although they were both the wrong colour and material, original uniforms (an original tunic could be easily purchased for £25 which equated to a week's pay back then) and film props all mixed together caused a very un-uniform look indeed! Allied units had much less of a problem especially the British as original kit was readily available and cheap-£5 for WW2 dated BD blouse, £20 for a Dennison smock and £5 for a complete set of 1937 pattern webbing, although original US wool uniforms were pretty rare and a lot of post war stuff was used to start with. Eventually original WW2 US uniforms became available with mint M41 jackets selling for £20 each and wool shirts and trousers for £5-10 each.
Weapons presented a major problem as at that time a Firearms Certificate was strictly reserved for target shooting but due to the wording of the Firearms Act regarding the definition of a shotgun (24" smoothbored barrel) it was legally possible to own a WW2 rifle such as a Mauser K98 or No.4 Lee-Enfield on a Shotgun Certificate as long as it was smoothbored and rechambered to .410 shotgun calibre. Nobody made .410 blanks so these had to be manufactured by each member before every event using live cartridges! Sometime in 1978 or 1979 a court case set a president when the judge ruled that an ex-military rifle smoothbored and with a barrel length of not less than 24 inches could be legally owned in it's original calibre on a Shotgun licence and this slowly but surely opened the floodgates. By the early 1980's members of the BRA could be seen using just about any WW2 small arm at events; Garands, BAR's, .30 Cal for the Yanks, Brens for the Brits and MG34 and MG42 for the Germans-as long as the weapons were semi-auto only. Section Once Firearms Licences were also now granted for semi-auto only weapons such as Stens, MP40's, MP44's etc. These days came to an end following the horrific massacre at Hungerford resulting in the government banned all semi-automatic weapons with most bolt action rifles now reverting to being Section One firearms. Although the BRA existed primarily to stage private battles for it's members, public shows were used as method of obtaining funds to hire battle sites.
A public show in the early 1980's was a simple affair; often a County Show, Air Show, Village Fete or Military Vehicle Show. Living History was an unknown word back then so encampments or displays other than the 20 minute battle simply didn't happen. Members just hung around the car park or wandered about the show until it was time to fall in for the battle briefing. Health & Safety showed no interest in re-enactment so an arena usually just had a single rope or tape around it. The arena size varied at each event and could be huge or the size of half a cricket pitch. A public battle was once staged in the large garden of a house and another on Mitcham village green. Pyro effects were handled by Kevin Ross and were even then pretty spectacular and included exploding cars, buildings and at Duxford Museum in 1979 a fuel dump that showered the Germans with burning sandbags and flying 40 gallon oil drums.
The BRA had been in demand by TV companies since it's formation and early credits included a live battle on Pebble Mill At One, a POW camp weekend in Butlitz-The Movie and magazine programmes such as Summer Harty, and Collecting Now.
By the early to mid nineties re-enactment had become a respected and recognised hobby and the Special Events Team at English Heritage took the lead in organising the first of many "multi-period" public shows featuring numerous societies portraying every period of history from Romans through to WW2. Until these ground breaking events WW2 re-enactors were often considered to be the poor relations by other periods and after a couple of events this attitude soon changed. The huge multi-period events at Kirby Hall that were staged by EH for seven years attracted record numbers of public as well as thousands of re-enactors from all over the world.
With the emphesis now firmly on authenticity the BRA changed it's name to The World War Two Living History Association to reflect the change in attitude and more serious nature of the hobby. Standards improved along with the change in attitude and living history encampments or dug in enplacements had been the norm for the past few years under the influence of English Heritage.
Today with the hobby of WW2 re-enactment being enjoyed by thousands all over the world, demand has created a huge industry for reproduction uniforms, equipment, weapons, tents and even vehicles. A would-be WW2 re-enactor needs only a computer and a credit card in order to obtain virtually anything he may need. Long gone are the days of converting and dyeing uniforms, making home made blanks and ruining original kit.
There are many WW2 re-enactment / living history societies all over the UK today but all them exist only because back in 1978 a few friends got together and started it all off by forming the WW2 BRA.
In the beginning...
By Tony Dudman, founding member.
The World War 2 Living History Association