Skip to content

Year of the Eagle

March 4, 2011

Well it’s been an aeon since I made any postings on here. Life has been cruel and kind these long, empty months, but this is not the sort of blog to wax lyrical about the intricacies of my tedious existence. Suffice it to say, I hope to make sure Forgotten Steel remains Forgotten no longer.

By way of a starting post, the new re-enacting season is soon to begin. And what a season. The return of the awesome Victory Show in September is bound to be a highlight of the year, and I wonder if anything will occur to mark the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s doomed invasion of Russia in June (!). What’s frightening however is the ever-closening approach of the major anniversaries – D-Day and Mons 2014, Waterloo annd VE Day 2015. While I’m normally slightly scornful of such events which capitalise on arbitary even-numbered anniversaries, there is something quite special about the 100th and 200th anniversaries of Mons and Waterloo that are to come. When you live the life of the military historian there is something always quite immediate about these battles, they are always close to you, but occasionally it takes an anniversary to remind how long ago it was that these events occured.

This year I’ll be out playing soldiers in the M42s and M43s of the 101st Airborne, along with the other division-strength legion of airborne re-enactors. I always swore never to don the Screaming Eagles but there is something slightly irresistable about it, I suppose because of the media saturation of that famous division. And, having watched Band of Brothers and The Pacific side by side recently, there can be no doubting which has and will continue to have more resonance on the popular imagination of the war.

My group recently completed a short film around a small-unit action of troopers from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment in Normandy, which you can view below. You can find out more about us here

More from the CP next time

Two of the South Wales Screaming Eagles with a battle trophy


WE M1911A1 – Stripping

August 13, 2010

The following is my short guide for field stripping to clean WE’s excellent M1911A1 airsoft pistol. I love this gun, I’ve put hundreds of rounds through it in the short time I’ve owned it and it’s never failed (with the right gas!).  The main reason for me writing this guide is that the one supplied with the gun is, frankly, crap. You can also do an easy basic strip by following instructions for the real M1911A1 here

My WE M1911A1 in its box

Please note, this guide is for newbie airsofters like myself and those who like recreational airsoft shooting. It is not designed to be a terrorist training manual!

Tech Specs:

Pistol Type: M1911 – A1 Variant

Manufacturer: WE – Taiwan

Mechanism – Gas Blow-Back simulating real recoil action

Calibre: 6mm BB

Magazine Capacity: 15 rounds (6mm)

Range: About 50-70 yards effective

Stage One:

Make sure you have a nice flat, clean surface to place the pistol parts on. Make sure that the weapon is safe and unloaded and remove the magazine.

Clear, make safe and remove the magazine from M1911A1 before starting.

Stage Two:

Slowly slide the slide backwards, bringing it to just the right position as shown in the photo below. This will allow you to remove the slide lock. The illustration in the WE handbook does not point out that you have to position the slide correctly in order to remove the lock. To remove it, hold the slide in place with your right thumb and forefinger, use your right middle finger to push it from the right hand side of the pistol and pull it out with your left hand (see second photo). Sounds very fiddly but its easy to do.

This is the correct position to remove the slide lock.

Slide lock removed

Stage Three:

With the slide lock removed you can now take off the slide. Simply pull it forwards and bring it away from the handguard/trigger group area.

Remove the slide from the weapon.

The basic strip of the WE M1911A1

Stage Four:

The next step is to dissassemble the slide so you can oil the barrel. To do this, flip the slide upside down and CAREFULLY lift the recoil spring guide (the metal pole shown in the photo below). Make sure you keep a grip on the spring when you do this so you can withdraw them carefully – otherwise it will fly off into the unknown and you’ll spend the rest of the day looking for it. The best way to remove the guide is to grip it and the recoil spring with thumb and forefinger, pull up and back gently, and then pull it and the spring backwards away from the side until they are clear.

The recoil spring and spring guide are shown in this image. Remove them CAREFULLY!

The slide with the recoil spring and guide safely removed.

Once you have removed the spring and guide, pull out the guide retainer. With a real 1911, you are supposed to pull this forward to remove it, but with the WE airsoft version this impossible due to a ring around the rear end of the retainer. Simply pull it to the rear once you have removed the guide and spring.

The guide retainer removed.

Stage Five:

Finally, you need to remove the barrel. In order to do this you need to first withdraw the barrel retainer. Lift the slide up, and twist the retainer to the right, then lift it up out of the slide.

Close up of the muzzle and the barrel retainer. Twist it to the right to remove the barrel.

Once the retainer has been removed, it is is easy to simply push the barrel forwards out of the slide.

The barrel retainer removed from the slide

Removing the barrel from the WE 1911A1

Your M1911A1 is now fully field stripped and you can now give your weapon a thoroughly good clean. To put it back together, simply follow these instructions in reverse!

A field-stripped WE M1911A1 6mm Airsoft Pistol (minus the slide lock which is out of shot!)


The 100-Year Old Miracle – Mr Colt’s M1911

August 13, 2010

It seems hard to believe that in this day and age there is still in use a piece of technology that is almost one hundred years old. We live in times of constant expansion and technological advancement. The computer on which I write this blog is likely already out of date at less than 12 months old. The mp3 player you listen to on the bus or train will be replaced by something even smaller and with ten times the capacity within a frighteningly short space of time. And yet, even on the modern battlefield, where technology contains to gain ground, infantrymen are using a weapon that is older than their grandfathers – the Colt M1911 pistol.

Comparison of the two basic types of 1911

The Colt 1911 is a masterpiece of weapon design. Simple, but very effective. Firing .45-calibre ACP* ammunition, it packs a wallop not matched by the equally good Glocks and Berettas. Small wonder that it is favoured by hard-hitting forces like the US Marines and Special Forces. If you want a sidearm that will save you, the 1911 is the way to go.

This venerable gun has been in virtually every major war of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, beginning with the battlefields of World War One. The fabled WW1 Medal of Honor winner, Sergeant Alvin York, used his M1911 to save himself and his squad during his medal-winning action in the Meuse-Argonne. Today, little modified, it is carried into battle in the wild lands of Afghanistan. It is an incredible gun, the Kalashnikov of sidearms.

In a classic scene from Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) takes on and "knocks out" a Tiger tank with his M1911A1 sidearm, my first sight as a youngster of this venerable weapon.

In the following post you can find my short field-stripping guide for the WE M1911A1 airsoft pistol, which is probably the closest I will ever get to the real thing!


The War Memorial Project

July 22, 2010

I’ve transferred all posts relating to Llanishen Local History Society’s War Memorial Project over to a new blog, Llanishen’s Fallen

On the blog I’ll be writing about the men from this Glamorganshire village – now a part of Cardiff, who fell during the Two World Wars. I am currently researching the stories of several men from the area who joined the RAF and were lost during the great bomber offensives. You can also find the current Rolls of Honour for the village on the blog.

Please take a moment to visit the blog and remember these fallen heroes.


The Glorious Stand of the Tsar’s 10th Regiment – A Fictional Battle

July 19, 2010

It was a cold autumn afternoon in the sodden fields west of Astrakhan. The rain drizzled intermittently, forcing the men to keep their locks covered. They shivered amidst the tall grass, listening intently for the sound they knew would come.

This was the famed Army of the East, commanded by General Aleksandr Melushkov. Two weeks earlier they had finally caputred the Dagestani capital of Takri after a six-month siege. The Dagestanis had proved a thorn in the side of the nascent Russian Empire, assaulting the city of Cherkassk on Christmas Day 1704 and burning it to the ground. Melushkov, the 32-year old general, who had fought previously against the Swedes, was commanded to the East by the Emperor and given the task of subduing the attacks. Raising an army of 1200 men, he set out in the summer of 1705. It was a long trek, but finally his men arrived and liberated Cherkassk following a stiff fight against the Dagestanis. After subduing the capital in the winter, Melushkov had assumed that the war was over. But rebels, and the last commander of the former Dagestani republic, known only as “Blinding Sun” was still at large. He raided Astrakhan in January 1706 and claimed it as his republic. Reluctantly, Meluskov set off from Takri and headed further east across vast Steppes. That summer, his men were crossing the vast delta west of the city, when they were intercepted by the Sun forces, all mounted on horseback.

The Russians had a trick up their sleeves. The Army had learned how to deal with cavalry thanks to a new formation, the square, which enabled it to meet any charge. The three infantry regiments – 7th and 10th Russian and 3rd Cossack, formed into three squares with Meluskov’s cavalry behind. The 7th formed square in woodland, hoping their concealed position would enable them to delay the enemy.

It did. “Blinding Sun’s” vast mounted armada, spotting the main force in the open, attempted to outflank it through the woods. They ran straight into the 7th. For 10 minutes, a time that must have seemed an eternity to the men inside the 7th’s square, wave upon wave of cavalry and dismounted infantry flowed around its position. Twice, the square was broken, swiftly to be closed again. But it became too much. As the horsemen ran out of the woods and into the waiting guns of the 3rd Cossacks, the 7th broke. Its men fled and were cut down, and the horde were unleashed. The wave crashed upon the bulwark of the 3rd Cossacks, who were hacked to pieces. Even these brave shock troops could only do so much. Barely 20 men stood when the order to retreat was sounded. Meluskhov himself entered the fray, killing scores. There was now only one effective regiment left on the field.

The glorious 10th.

The 10th was low on men. Only 102 had made it this far, following its losses in the Takri campaign. They stood stolidly in the square, watching the carnage and exchanging fire. When the Cossacks were finally broken, they advanced into the melee and caught the Dagestani force offguard. Men hacked and shot at each other at point blank range. By this time, the only mounted troops were the cavarly of “Blinding Sun” himself. They circled ominously around the outnumbered 10th, waiting for the chance to strike.

But the 10th held firm. Meluskov tried vainly to reach them, but his men broke and fled, fearing the battle lost. The ranks of the 10th dwindled, but kept fighting. Suddenly, it seemed as if the sheer force of will of this tiny Russian unit became too much. The Dagestani assaulters broke. “Blinding Sun” howled in rage, and turned his horsemen to attack the surviving Russians. But they about-faced, swung up their muskets and fired. The cavarly came crashing down. “Blinding Sun” was left alone before a thin line of men, frantically reloading their muskets. He fled towards the wood, already stinking from the hundreds of Russian and Dagestani corpses within. But he fled too late – the 10th advanced, took aim, and shot him down.

"Blinding Sun" attempting to flee, moments before he is shot down by the 10th.

Only 30 men of the 102 that entered the battle remained at its end. But they had saved the fight. A week later, they entered Astrakhan victorious, and the Dagestani empire was crushed, paving the way for Russian expansion in the East. The 10th Regiment of Foot was renamed His Majesty’s 1st Guards Regiment, and was ordered back to Moscow to prepare for the latest war against the Swedes.

But the men refused to go. They knew they were needed in the east, and for the glorious battles to come. The Army of the East had a world to conquer, and it could not do it without its bravest, strongest troops.

Glory to the 10th!


[Note: This is a write-up of a small battle I fought in Empire: Total War. As you can probably tell, I’m totally hooked again!]

An Icon of Warfare – General Thompson’s Magnificent Trench-Clearing Invention

July 14, 2010

I haven’t written much lately, either here or for my PhD. I blame this accursed heatwave we’re having here in the UK. It’s most unnatural for this time of year. I mean, in July we British should be drowning in rain, not living with wall to wall sunshine! Disgraceful.

The focus of today’s post is again another weapon that I’ve recently purchased for re-enactment events. I don’t normally like to say that I have a “favourite” gun, as its a little silly and one can never like one firearm alone. However, one particular weapon of World War II has always held a particular fascination for me ever since I first saw it on a grainy piece of war footage – the American M1 Thompson sub-machine gun.

The “Tommy gun” was a giant among sub-machine guns, both in weight and calibre. Its .45-calibre ammunition gave it a punch that was not matched by the 9mm of the German MP40 and British Sten (although you would still not want to be shot by any of them!). Bulky and heavy to carry, it was nevertheless loved by shock troops throughout the Allied armies, as well as being purloined by infantry wherever possible.

The brainchild of Major-General John T. Thompson, a veteran of the Spanish-American and Great Wars, the Thompson was envisaged as a “Trench Broom” ,designed for close-quarters combat. Thompson was unable to produce went through a number of variants during its lifetime. The initial model, 1921, was fitted with a wooden forgrip and operated from a 50-round drum magazine. This and the later M1928 were the model beloved by Chicago gangsters and put to good (or rather, bad) use by them in the Prohibition. When the military adopted the Thompson, the model was simplifed to the M1928 model which had a stick magazine and which eliminated the forgrip. The drum magazine was found to jam easily, especially if it had been heavily handled, so the 20-round stick magazine was seen as more efficient. To compensate for the barrel lift during sustained firing, a Cutts Compensator could be fitted to expel gases and keep the barrel steady.

An M1928 Thompson fitted with a 50-round drum magazine, the type beloved by Chicago gangsters

However, the Thompson was still an expensive weapon to produce, and when the US Army began to order the Thompsons in bulk upon the outbreak of World War II, the design was further simplified, leading to the produciton of the M1 Thompson. The ribbed barrel of earlier models was replaced with a flat barrel and flatter foregrip. The rear sight on this model was little more than a single piece of steel jutting up from the rear of the weapon. This was vulnerable to damage, and the bolt mechanism remained expensive and complex in comparison to German and British designs, so the M1A1 was produced with a better-protected sight and simpler design. It is the M1A1 variant that I really love, though I can’t say why, it’s just a beautifully designed gun.

I have a family link to the Thompson – in the late stages of the Italian campaign my grandfather was issued an M1A1 Thompson in place of his Short Magazine Lee-Enfield. Quite why he isn’t sure, given that he was a gunner and was unlikely to have to engage targets with such a weapon. To compound the matter, he was never issued any .45 ammunition for it, so rather than lug around an empty gun, he shoved it in an empty 3.7 tin and bunged it in the back of one of his troop’s Bedfords, where it presumably remained until the end of the war!

An M1A1 Thompson - the type issued to my grandfather

65 years on, I now own a delightful airsoft M1A1 Thompson, after being unable to resist the lure any longer. It is a superb piece of design, but is in many ways over-engineered, and lacks the simplicity of similar weapons. I find the M1A1 cumbersome to sight in comparsion to the MP40 or the Sten (although they are not exactly perfect), and the magazine release lever is way too fiddly. Why the Thompson needed to be fitted with a lever instead of a simple push button release like on most other weapons I don’t know. That said, it makes up for these small defecits with the simple punch it provides. No-one would get back up after being hit with a burst from a Thompson. I suppose, ultimately, that was why it was so damned popular.

My airsoft M1A1, an obvious replica but a lovely my (completely unbiased) opinion.


The Next Generation?

June 18, 2010

Reposted (or should that be shamelessy pillaged?) from the UK WW2 Reenacting forums, because I like it…

While there’s a lot of truth there, the gamers playing Call of Duty et alare the next generation of historians and re-enactors, so frankly anything that drops the nugget of interest in the war is a good thing, especially with the WW2 generation sadly beginning to leave us.


Wittmann – Hero or Villain?

June 13, 2010

Today is the 66th anniversary of Michael Wittmann’s famed attack on Villers-Bocage. This assault, subject of continuing debate to this day, saw Wittmann and his crew destroy a significant number of British armoured vehicles both outside and inside Villers-Bocage in a short period of time, before their Tiger was immobilised and they were forced to flee on foot.

There cannot be a military historian or buff who has not heard of this famed Tiger Ace. Indeed, there is a whole industry now sprung up around Wittmann, often producing such tasteless tat as this. Two videogames feature levels based on the action on 13th June 1944. There are countless books dedicated to the action and to Wittmann himself.  What is it about this man, a member of one of the most elite divisions of the Waffen-SS, a Nazi through and through, that seems to fascinate people to this day. I admit, I have been taken in by the Wittmann legend in the past, and a scale model of Tiger 222, the vehicle he supposedly used 66 years ago today to destroy the lead column of the 7th Armoured Division, sits on one of my bookshelves.

Wittmann sat on the gun of his Tiger

Hearing one of the Tank Museum’s Veteran Podcasts made me reflect upon this. In an interview with Trooper Joe Ekins in 2009, the man who killed Wittmann in August 1944, he comments that

I think that it’s entirely wrong to make out that German officers were heroes. Not only Wittmann, but Rommel and all the lot of them. They all accepted Hitler’s theories and whatnot, and they fought for them, and if they fought for them they must have known what was going on. But on top of that, any man who invades someone else’s country and is prepeared to kill – not only soldiers but men and women and kids or anybody – take from that country the  food, the best houses to live in, which Wittmann did along with the rest of all the Germans soldiers, come on! He’s a criminal, and he was born a criminal.

There is a great deal of truth in this statement. Wittmann’s deeds on 13th June 1944 were amazing from a purely military historical standpoint – a single tank crew taking on an experienced British armoured forces and emerging victorious – but that story is itself clouded by contemporary propaganda which is still parroted by historians who should know better. Glamourising it only serves to glamourise an element of the Nazi forces fighting in Normandy. It is a difficult line to draw, for to ignore such an incident would be an injustice to military history, yet the difficulty is that Wittmann’s action has drowned out almost every other tank action in the Normandy campaign, save perhaps the British armoured disaster at Goodwood. Both are now de rigeur in any history of the campaign, and both in isolation reveal absolutely nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of either the British or the German tank forces. One of the most notable elements of the Wittmann story, conveniently forgotten by many, is the fact that when rushing to engage the 4th County of London Yeomanry on Point 213, he was forced to mount a different vehicle than his own, which was laid up for repairs.

Wittmann also demonstrated a considerable streak of foolhardiness during his time in Normandy, a cocky overconfidence that, ultimately, was to get him killed in action. During the engagement on August 8th 1944 in which Trooper Ekins made the fatal shot, Wittmann led his tanks from the 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion in a hell-for leather charge over open ground which begged for disaster and led to it. Both this and the earlier battle in Villers-Bocage cost the Germans several irreplaceable Tigers either completely destroyed or left abandoned to the British. From a military standpoint, this was hardly the marker of great success. True, the initial assault on the British forces at Villers-Bocage did catch them off-guard and led directly to the defeat of Operation PERCH, but that was as much thanks to the continuation of the offensive by the Panzer Lehr Division as much as the assault by Wittmann himself. Again, the action in the afternoon of the 13th, which involved bitter fighting in Villers to winkle out the entrenched British troops, is also heavily overlooked.

Michael Wittmann was a brave soldier, and he was also a Nazi. Do not forget that, for the more he is glamourised, the more he becomes a figurehead for the small remnants of Nazism that exist in the world today. Do not forget also the equally brave men of the 7th Armoured Division who died by Wittmann’s hand and during the continued fighting in Villers-Bocage 66 years ago today. Many of their graves go unvisited, while Wittmann’s is now a popular stop on the Normandy trail. As a final thought, here’s Ekins comment on the Tiger Ace’s demise:

Quite frankly, he got his just deserts.


The wreckage of Wittmann’s last Tiger, 007. Wittmann and his crew were killed instantly.


What’s That Coming Over The Hill?

June 12, 2010

Two tanks sit beside a windmill that trundles peacefully in the midst of war.  In the distance, shells whoosh through the air, while all around is the ever-present crackle of small-arms fire. The radio in the tanks suddenly buzzes to life.

“Hey guys, we’ve got a King Tiger somewhere around Hertville, you seem him.”

Peering through periscopes, the two tank crews watch for the metal monster. As they and the windmill are seated atop a hill they have a perfect view of Hertville in the distance. A small cluster of cottages around a church, the village is surrounded on both sides by hull-high cornfields, dotted with haystacks. They watch for the King Tiger, but nothing stirs. Then, suddenly, it looms from beside the church.

“Engaging!” screams one commander from the turret of his Sherman Firefly. I, sat in the other tank, a Cromwell VII, try and range in. Suddenly the King Tiger’s turret whirrs in our direction. It engages the Firefly first, evidently seeing its lethal 17-pounder gun. The Sherman explodes instantly. The King Tiger fires at me, solid shot slamming into the ground in front of my Cromwell.

“REVERSE!” I scream to the driver.

The Cromwell painfully backs up while I fire wildly at the King Tiger. Unbeknownst to me, while we were engaging the monster, a Panzer IV has snuck up on our right flank. With a perfect view, it nails my Cromwell through the turret. Endgame.

Just another battle in Darkest Hour, Europe ’44-45 

A Sherman before...

I have only just discovered this delightful war simulator, a mod for Red Orchestra, and available via Steam. Up to 50 players battle it out over objective-based maps in either infantry or armour-based combat (or both!). Those who destroy the enemy or capture the most objectives by the end of the game, win!

It’s a slow game though, certainly not one for the Call of Duty addicts. Much as I love that series, it’s almost restful to mount up in a Sherman in DH and tear across open countryside for a few minutes before engaging a German panzer in the hazy distance.

...and after


This match was particularly frustrating however. After my Cromwell was destroyed, I mounted up at the respawn point in a Sherman Firefly and charged off to a flanking position near the Windmill. Just as I got hull down, solid shot starting whizzing over me. I popped out of the commander’s hatch and scanned the fields ahead. At first, nothing…then I was looking down the 88mm barrel of the King Tiger. Swearing like a trooper, I traversed and sighted him, just as he found his range. End of Sherman.

Starting again, I mounted a 76mm Sherman and charged off to another flanking position, following two other Shermans. After waiting in the cover of a woodland, the other two headed off to the cornfields. One moved safely beyond my field of vision, the other was hit in the side and brewed up instantly. I scanned ahead and just caught a view of the King Tiger’s turret. Traversing again, I fired a few rounds to find my range…and was again hit by the King Tiger and killed instantly. End of another Sherman.

Next, a standard Sherman. Off I went to find trouble, and was brewed up instantly by a Panther camping the spawns. Grrr.

After a few more Shermans, I decided enough was enough. This is an awesome game, and riding into battle with a hoard of Shermans is one of the most amazing videogame experience of recent times, but sometimes Darkest Hour players can take the piss. But maybe tomorrow, I’ll get that King Tiger…


The War Memorial Project – A Real Hero

June 12, 2010

For the next couple of weeks we will be indundated with news from the World Cup in South Africa. Men who’s only quality seems to be the ability to kick a rubber ball into a string net will be hailed as heroes, their deeds heralded around the world. This is something that irks a non-football fan like me. Footballers are not heroes, they’re just good atheletes, if that’s your sort of thing.

For this month’s post on the War Memorial Project I want to highlight a real hero. He is on a war memorial in a British church, and he isn’t even British. Edouard Nihoul was born in 1895 in Waremme in eastern Belgian, a short hop away from the area which, a little under fifty years later, would be the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. He arrived in Cardiff with his parents following the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 and moved to the quiet village of Llanishen. However, young Edouard evidently did not intend to remain a passive refugee. That November, having gone to London, he enlisted in the Belgian Army and began training to go to war.

Two years later, in June 1916, Edouard was an Adjutant in the 7th Regiment of the Line, 2nd Belgian Division. This Division was operating near Oostvleteren in Flanders, and was the scene of heavy fighting. On the 30th June, the 7th Regiment’s position came under heavy German bombardment. Edouard spotted a comarde lying grievously wounded, and rushed to his aid. As he struggled to help him, both men were caught in the bombardment and killed.

Initially, Edouard was buried in Oostvleteren, but once the war was over and Belgium was liberated, his body was reinterred in his hometown. Unlike the footballers who will recieve all the attention over the next few weeks, young Edouard was a true hero. Paid a pittance for a job he did not want, he went to fight despite the fact that he could have remained safely in Britain, and died trying to help a comrade and liberate his country. Never forget him, nor those like him.

A Belgian soldier waiting to go to the front.


*Photo from Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War