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Sunday, April 20, 2014
They are meticulously reconstructed echoes of a violent past. But the military hardware gathering for a commemorative event in Norwich next week are also vehicles for long range remembrance.
Paul Lincoln is a stickler for accuracy when it comes to saluting the extraordinary exploits of one of the most successful but lesser known special forces of the Second World War.
As a military vehicle enthusiast par excellence, everything has to be spot on in his devoted quest to honour the memory of the elite group of men who wore the distinctive scorpion badge of the Long Range Desert Group. Even when those devilish details appear almost too ridiculous for words.
Take the case of the ‘psychedelic’ jeep. Or rather the authentic recreation of G1, the jeep driven by the distinguished commander of the so-called Guards Patrol section of that special force.
With markings that appear more in keeping with the flower power ‘make love not war’ movement of the 1960s than combat operations in the nether regions of the Western Desert, it hardly fits the image of a latter-day chariot of war.
“When I was first told it had pink, green, blue and purple blotches on it, I thought it was going to look like an advert for Smarties,” says Paul, his face creasing into a grimace.
Armed with all the information he could muster, he set to work, replicating the original unconventional colour scheme on what had once been a clapped-out former Pakistani army jeep found languishing in Thetford.
But even after two attempts, he was still unsure about it when he set off from his Norfolk base for the prestigious War and Peace show. “I thought I’ll probably get pulled up by the drugs squad,” he laughs.
But the sniggers turned to admiration some months later when he took it to an LRDG reunion. Seeing two old soldiers poring over the multi-coloured jeep, Paul was astonished to hear one of them exclaim: “That’s my jeep! I was a gunner on that jeep!”
Having examined it with the finest of toothcombs, the same veteran reckoned it was as near perfect a representation of his original vehicle, right down to its bizarre camouflage, as he could imagine ever seeing.
Not a man much given to great shows of emotion, Paul remembers the moment with pride and admits: “I nearly kissed him.”
Such encounters are unlikely in Norwich next Saturday, though there will be no less satisfaction when ‘G1’ takes its place in a parade of historic military vehicles at a special commemorative event marking the centenary of the First World War, the 75th anniversary of the Second World War and the half century of the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Organised by Paul, on behalf of the 4th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Old Comrades Association, the free open day at the Army Reserves Centre, formerly the Territorial Army headquarters in Aylsham Road, will feature a wide array of militaria, ranging from badges to weaponry, alongside displays by re-enactors.
The event, which will raise money for the Royal Anglian Benevolent Fund, is aimed at raising the profile of the Army reserves and the local cadet force.
“Originally, it was going to be a low-key affair,” says Paul, “something that would give people the chance to come and see what the reserves and the cadets are all about and to help with a bit of recruiting. But since I began more and more people have shown interest in taking part.
“The first response I had from the military vehicles group was promising. Members offered to bring along about a dozen or so vehicles, but there now looks like being even more than that, so it should be a good turn-out.”
The event represents another chapter in a remarkable personal saga of remembrance spanning more than 35 years that can be traced back to a pilgrimage to the First World War battlefields aboard an Austin K2 ambulance.
“That got me hooked,” says Paul, now 58, who has since accumulated 32 years combined service with the Territorial Army, the Home Service Force, a little-known organisation responsible for defending key local installations against attack by Soviet special forces towards the end of the Cold War, and the Army Cadet Force, which he continues to serve as a captain in charge of the county’s most senior cadets.
His first acquisition was a Bedford truck which he rebuilt and repainted in the markings of the Second World War vintage Middle East Commandos, thus beginning an association with the North African campaign which continues to this day.
“I’m not sure precisely why, but I’ve always had some sort of fascination with the desert war,” he says.
The focus, some might call it a grand obsession, on the Long Range Desert Group duly followed.
His inspiration was a friendship, born of another chance encounter, with the LRDG’s late Norfolk-based commander, Major General David Lloyd-Owen. “I had taken the Bedford to a show at Peterborough,” he recalls, “and I happened to mention to someone there that I’d like to do something about the LRDG. He said something like, ‘coming as you do from Norfolk, you must know David Lloyd-Owen’.
“But at that time I hadn’t a clue he lived just a few miles away from me. The long and the short of it was he arranged to put me in touch with him. The funny thing is when he did call me, my wife answered the phone and was convinced it was a friend messing about.”
Some time after that, he and a friend and fellow military vehicle enthusiast managed to find and buy a Canadian Ford truck suitable for conversion into not just any old LRDG truck, but the actual type that Lloyd-Owen used during his ventures deep behind enemy lines.
Armed with a single photograph no more than three inches wide, they set about a labour of love before giving the genial former general one of the greatest surprises of his life. “We’d arranged with his wife to drive it round to his house,” says Paul. “On the way, we stopped off at Mulbarton and got kitted out. One of us was dressed as an Arab tribesman, in the manner of the agents they used to cart around the desert, and the rest of us put on desert uniforms before loading the whole thing up with guns and everything.
“Then we rolled up at his house. His face was an absolute picture. It had taken us six years to complete it, but those six years were worth it just for that minute and that reaction.”
Since then, he has either owned or had a share in a veritable arsenal of military vehicles, many of which have been transformed into recreations of particular wartime models. The list is a long one that he reels off with considerable gusto: five Bedfords, a Morris, a Hillman, six Fords, five jeeps, 16 motorbikes and more than 70 armoured cars of which only around four were serviceable.
There have been myriad detours along the way, with frequent requests to appear in television documentaries serving as testament to the authenticity of the work that might be summed up by Paul’s own mantra: “If it’s not right, it’s not good enough.”
Most memorable of all the small-screen diversions was one that featured Paul as the legendary SAS leader Paddy Mayne performing one of his most celebrated feats of daring. It was filmed just yards from his home on a Norfolk driveway that doubled as the scene for a German ambush.
“Goodness knows what our neighbour thought when he saw this SAS jeep, with five machine guns on it, come thrashing out of my gateway,” smiles Paul.
Through all the projects and all the distractions, however, one thing has remained constant: his unwavering devotion to preserving the memory and celebrating the achievements of the Long Range Desert Group.
As a leading member of the Norfolk Military Vehicles Group and chairman of the Desert Raiders Association, an organisation dedicated to ‘keeping the legend alive’ of British Special Forces during the Second World War North African campaign, he has turned a hobby into a lasting tribute to a body of men whose heroic endeavours, he believes, are too little known and understood.
“To my mind,” he says, “the vehicles are a means of drawing attention to their exploits – and that’s so important because a lot of people don’t even know of the LRDG’s existence. And at least half of those who do, think they’re the same as the SAS.
“Most people don’t appreciate that they were the first of the desert special forces and widely regarded as the best and most efficient unit engaged in the campaign.
“When you consider their incredible achievements, it’s difficult not to be awed by them. Ranging across thousands of square miles of desert, they never got anyone lost and there were only 15 days during the entire campaign when they weren’t working in front of the British lines.
“In over 200 operations, they dropped off spies, blew stuff up and carried out vital reconnaissance missions in temperatures that ranged from 140 degrees during the day to minus 10 at night and on ground that could be pancake flat, allowing them to motor at 60 mph, or across 350 ft high dunes with sand up to their axles.
“What they did was amazing and yet when you meet and talk with any of the veterans as I have they are modest to a man. Ask any of them what made them different, what was so special about them that allowed them to carry out such work, and the reply is always the same: ‘There was nothing different about us. We were just ordinary men’.”
If that was one quality which drew Paul towards the LRDG, there was also another more oddball attraction which had nothing to do with courage but a lot to do with bizarre colour and camouflage patterns.
Aside from the jeep, with its multi-coloured blotches, there was another patrol truck project that captured his imagination. It was inspired by a black and white photograph adorning the cover of Guards Patrol commander Alastair Timpson’s wartime memoir, pictured left. “It looked amazing,” says Paul. “It had five machine-guns on it and when I found out that it was painted pink and green I thought I’ve got to do it. And when I’m talking pink, I’m not talking dull terracotta I’m talking bright pink. So pink that some guardsmen refused to drive these trucks when they saw the colouring.
“Eventually, they were persuaded that the colouring would be fine once they were in the desert and it was. It’s all to do with the light at sunrise and sunset. When the sun hits the desert at a certain angle it bathes the sand in a pinky hue. Earlier than, from around 10 in the morning, the heat haze was such you couldn’t see anything anyway.”
Recreating Timpson’s pink truck was no easy task. It took 12 years to find a suitable Ford fit for conversion and another three years to complete the job to his satisfaction. “There were so many bits missing,” he recalls. “I remember spending seven Sunday evenings with a copper mallet beating just one panel, but it was worth it. When I’d finished you couldn’t tell it wasn’t the real thing.”
His latest project promises to be neither as outlandish nor as prolonged. It involves turning the skeletal remains of a 1943 Ford jeep into a meticulous copy of the SAS jeep driven by the late Roy Close, a former wartime officer who served throughout the campaign in North-West Europe and who later settled in North Elmham near Fakenham.
With the help of a team of volunteers that includes former TA pal and LRDG enthusiast Clinton Long and fellow members of the Cadet Force Tim Brown, James Hazell, Karl Ireland and Damien Thurlow, he is confident of having it roadworthy in under a year.
After that it will take its place alongside the LRDG trucks and jeep on tour on the military rally circuit to serve, quite literally, as a vehicle for long range remembrance. “It’s all about providing an opening to talk to people about the men who served and fought in these vehicles,” says Paul as he looks ahead to next week’s Norwich event. “It’s a chance to pay tribute to their courage and their sacrifice.”
The militaria open day at the Army Reserves Centre, 325, Aylsham Road, Norwich, NR3 2AB, is next Saturday (April 26), 10am-4pm. Admission is free and there will be a collection for the Royal Anglian Benevolent Fund.