Learning enemy lines
Michael Muller fires his MG42 machinegun during a battle. Photo: Douglas Fry
Cicadas beat a harsh tattoo while the formation stands at ease, rifles slung over shoulders, sweating in the shade and waiting for directives.
A bespectacled NCO (non-commissioned officer) stands before them, his pressed and polished uniform immaculate, save for the dust that has crept onto his boots.
''Kompanie - stillgestanden!'' he barks, and the formation snaps to attention. The NCO pauses, approving, before ordering the soldiers to present their weapons for inspection. Bolts are drawn back, rifles held forward, and the NCO makes his way along the rank, peering into the chamber of each weapon to ensure it is clear.
Sepp Volker (front) assists a Waffen-SS impersonator. Photo: Douglas Fry
''Klar - ease springs,'' he commands. ''Have you all got your firearms licence?'' The formation nods and mumbles its assent.
''When you reply to me, I expect you to say, 'Jawohl, Herr Unteroffizier'. Is that clear?''
''Jawohl, Herr Unteroffizier!'' the formation replies in chorus.
German soldiers in 1942. Photo: Getty Images
Satisfied, the NCO puts the men back at ease and commences the morning's briefing.
''Today, we will refresh our knowledge,'' he explains. ''We will practice drill, learn about fieldcraft and tactics, and develop our understanding of what the German soldier went through.'' The venue for this Schule des Soldat - school of the soldier - is a sprawling, heavily wooded farm not far from Tarago. The farmer who has provided this Bauernhof would traditionally be joining his comrades in the day's activities, but there is much clearing work to be done around the property today, so the buzz of a nearby chainsaw intermittently stifles the cicadas.
The NCO is a real estate agent from Sydney who today will be known as ''Erich Moller''.
WW2 re-renactors conducting static drill. Photo: Douglas Fry
All members of the World War II Re-enactment Club of Australia (Ausreenact) adopt a German name to fit their impression, and have asked to be identified only by this pseudonym for fear of being seen as ''Nazis'', although the group actively distances itself from Nazi ideology.
Hitler-worship aside, holistic authenticity is the name of the game for Ausreenact, from uniforms to haircuts to the correct way to hold a cigarette.
''It's about history,'' Moller says. ''We're passing along knowledge.'' The goal is commemoration, according to fellow member ''Sepp Volker'' - not to glorify war.
Period equipment and Kar98k rifles, as used by the German military. Photo: Douglas Fry
''We aim to simply offer a glimpse of the past,'' Volker says. ''An artificial one, of course, but one which is not sanitised to the extent that it denies realities.'' War re-enactment is not a new phenomenon in Australia - the Light Horse Association has long been a staple at Anzac Day ceremonies - but conflicts like World War II have only found a support base relatively recently, despite being popular in Europe and the US for many years. There are several reasons for this, Volker explains: ''We have a small population base, our firearm regulations are stricter, and the weather conditions aren't always right - it's hard to properly depict the Eastern Front when there's no snow.''
But World War II re-enactment has flourished during the past decade. Ausreenact was established in 2000, with members spread around NSW from Lismore to the Blue Mountains. Other groups in Australia include the Commemorative History Society and the Queensland-based Army Group South, which often meet with Ausreenact at larger events to swap ideas, equipment - and do battle.
In a fitting parallel of mass mobilisation, Ausreenact's 20-strong membership brings together men - and sometimes women - from a disparate range of trades and backgrounds. An assistant principal at a Blue Mountains primary school. A hydraulic operations manager from Sydney. An automotive engineer from the Bathurst region. Even a twice-over Vietnam War veteran, though he's not among the 10 or so members who have made the pilgrimage to Tarago today.
Loading up with blank ammunition. Photo: Douglas Fry
Most wear the iconic grey-green uniform of the Wehrmacht - the German army - or the elaborate camouflage donned by the Waffen SS, the armed branch of Hitler's notorious secret service agency. Volker is dressed haphazardly, however, blending military and civilian clothing to reflect a Volkssturm soldier - boys and old men conscripted by the German army during the war's desperate closing act. The impression, Volker feels, is a more authentic fit with his older age.
''You need to be as realistic with yourself as possible,'' he says.
The core of any good impression is an authentic uniform, of course, and the quest for authentic items can be long and expensive - a complete head-to-toe kit and rifle costs up to $1500. Ausreenact makes sure to telegraph this to any prospective new members.
''One of the things we stress is that you can't go into it unprepared,'' Volker says. ''It takes time, research and money. We encourage new members to speak with the old hands to get assistance with correctness and locating appropriate vendors.'' With a distinct shortage of era equipment trade shows in Australia, the internet is the greatest source of uniforms and equipment. While some period German items such as bread bags and gas mask canisters can be located easily enough, authentic uniforms and equipment are generally very rare - so paying the steep asking price is an investment saddled with responsibility, Volker says.
''I see myself as a guardian of this particular thing for a period of time,'' he says. ''I'm not trying to profit from it.'' Most re-enactors depend on highly detailed replica items produced in Europe, the US and Japan, which are expensive in their own right. Cheaper replicas manufactured in India and China offer a tempting - though poor quality - alternative that Ausreenact warns its members against using for a lack of authenticity.
One of the group's newer recruits, a serving member of the Australian Defence Force known only as ''Hoffman'', says work commitments prohibited him from pursuing re-enactment until two years ago.
''Here I am, several thousand dollars later,'' he says.
Hoffman says he has always had an interest in the time period, and became curious about the hobby after seeing some re-enactors in the US.
''We're just big kids with expensive toys,'' he says. ''The vendors send out email lists of items for sale, I just read through them and go, 'Oh cool!' '' Moller says his deep interest in the German military stems from a childhood fascination with World War II, which was propelled along by model kits and war movies. An idle purchase of a German army belt buckle on eBay led him to investigate the world of re-enactment - and eventually establish Ausreenact.
''It's been financial misery from then on,'' Moller says with a laugh. ''It's more than a hobby, it's an obsession. Some guys have hot rod cars - we have this.'' With the briefing completed, Moller rouses the troops to attention again and marches them a short distance to conduct Appel - morning inspection - where he walks down the rank, examining the Soldaten one by one.
''The helmet must sit a centimetre above the eyebrow, and sit tight and square on the head,'' Moller reminds one of the Waffen SS impersonators, who removes his helmet to make the according adjustments.
''Ammo pouches should be evenly spaced,'' Moller continues, making his way down the formation. ''Use a matchbox to ensure the spacing is correct. And normally you'll have your collar done up - well done, Braun - but the weather is a bit dodgy today.'' Such imitated discipline is not only part of the impression, it's a point of pride for Ausreenact's general bearing.
''If people see us goofing around, that's the impression they'll take away,'' Moller warns his Kameraden. ''Walk with a purpose. It looks more elegant, more soldierly. Stand tall and be proud of your unit.'' This is important not only for the way Ausreenact presents in front of other re-enactment groups, it's also a selling point when the group puts on public displays. Many of their potential recruits come from these events, after all, where the group sets up an encampment full of authentic German knick-knacks and equipment, from BMW motorcycles to copies of Signal magazine.
''People are amazed,'' Moller says. ''It looks good and we act the part.'' Of the membership inquiries received by Ausreenact, most come to nothing - the idle curiosity fades, the expense seems too daunting, or the lack of gunplay too dull.
''It's about your expectations,'' Moller says. ''People expect we'll be here blowing things up, but this isn't Saving Private Ryan.'' Membership bids are dismissed outright by the group if a person is thought to be sympathetic to extreme right-wing ideology.
''Sometimes people [at public events] want to engage us in conversations with a political agenda,'' Moller says. ''If they ever contact us through the website, I don't reply.''
''It is usually - though not always - fairly easy to identify those people who are seeking membership of our group with some agenda other than re-enacting in mind,'' Volker explains later. ''[People] seeking some other like-minded Nazi, Third Reich apologists or those with some similar fetish … are told that this club is not for them.'' All the same, links to the Holocaust and Third Reich war crimes are unavoidable, Volker concedes - though they are not promoted by Ausreenact, either.
''Units of the SS aided and abetted genocide. The portrayal of any of these specific units is not permitted,'' he says.
Accordingly, members are prohibited from portraying SS personnel who actively carried out genocide, but the elite Waffen SS combat soldiers are acceptable.
''These were frontline troops who fought alongside German army units against allied troops.
They were not the concentration camp staff, or roving death squads who perpetrated well-documented obscenities on ethnic, religious, political and cultural minorities,'' Volker says.
''I do accept that a clear and consistent delineation is of course not possible; the line was sometimes a very porous one and exceptions would on occasion be the rule.'' Come late morning, Moller commands the troops in a period of drill, instructing them in saluting, turns on the spot, and marching to the cadence of links, rechts, links. The formation sweats heavily under their heavy wool tunics, and gladly sprawls out under some trees when dismissed for lunch.
Moller sits down to peel open a can of sardines - ''period food'', he calls it - while Volker enjoys some canned peaches. The labels are removed to erase any link to the present, although it's possible to go one better by printing off period labels from the internet and affixing those.
''We try to push the envelope as much as possible,'' Moller says.
Larger re-enactment events sometimes stretch for three or four days, and require attendants to remain in character for the duration - a tough ask in Armidale in the middle of winter, where temperatures reach six below zero.
''It's not the same as the minus-30 temperatures that they endured in Eastern Europe,'' Volker says. ''But it does bring home just a little bit of what those poor bastards endured for years.'' With large numbers of those same poor bastards still alive and grappling with their World War II experiences, it's hard to imagine that Ausreenact hasn't encountered some of the soldiers they depict - or at least, their nominal enemy - who have experienced the horrors of war firsthand.
''Yes, we do stop to think, and at every public display we think even more, knowing that there may be people there who were directly affected by war, either as civilians or as servicemen and women,'' Volker says.
Indeed, Moller says the group has been approached several times at public events by old diggers from the 2nd Australian Imperial Force who fought against Axis troops in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.
'' 'Germans - fine. They were good soldiers,' they tell us. 'The Japanese, though - that's a different story.' '' To that end, there's not much of a culture for impersonating soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. Nor is there much of a market for Commonwealth soldiers, Australians included - ''not exotic enough, perhaps'' is Volker's assessment - but other allied impressions are as popular as German, with many of Ausreenact's members also depicting US and Russian soldiers.
Not today, though.
''Aufstehen!'' Moller barks, rousing the troops out of their midday doze. Cigarettes are stubbed out, tunics buttoned, rifles collected. The troops amble back to the training area and sit on their helmets while Moller conducts a lecture on fieldcraft, camouflage and tactics.
''Stick to the shadows,'' he instructs. ''You're harder to spot that way. If there's any charcoal around, rub that on your face so you're harder to see. And remember to hold your rifle in an aggressive position, so you're ready to shoot at any targets of opportunity.'' With the lesson over, the war commences. Bags of blank ammunition are passed around, and the group fills its pouches and clips while Moller splits the group in half, Wehrmacht on one side, Waffen SS on the other.
''OK,'' Moller says. ''Let's have a bit of fun and make a bit of noise.'' The noisiest weapon on hand is certain to be the MG42 machinegun borne by ''Michael Muller''. While the others carry genuine, fully-functional Kar98k rifles, the MG42 is built mostly of replica components. There's no barrel, so it can't fire blanks - let alone live ammunition - but Muller has devised a custom system whereby oxygen and propane are fed into the receiver and ignited by a 12-volt battery, mimicking the rapid-fire sound of a machinegun.
''It makes a loud bang,'' he says. ''That's all we need.'' Muller, who migrated with his family from Russia a decade ago, is well-regarded among Ausreenact members for his innovation and enthusiasm - although his origin in the unit is one of pure chance. Two years ago, while out collecting mushrooms in a Lithgow forest, Muller encountered the group midway through a skirmish exercise. He struck up a conversation, became interested in the hobby, and is now a passionate member who does impressions of both Waffen SS and Russian soldiers.
''It keeps me and my family in the history,'' Muller says, noting that his grandfather was killed on the Eastern Front during World War II. ''Some people just come here to shoot - but for me, it's part of my personal history.'' Muller throws the MG42 over his shoulder and follows his Waffen SS half squad up a dirt track, where they pause to confer about the best place to set an ambush. Erich Moller spaces the troops out at generous intervals, setting one a little further out for early warning, and positioning the machinegun on the high ground. The half squad settles into the grass and waits.
A few minutes later: Pak! A single shot, then the rustle of bushes as the early warning man hustles back to Moller, crouched over and panting.
''They're flanking around behind us!'' he reports in an urgent whisper, and Moller directs the half squad to spin prepare for the attack.
Pak! The shots start ringing out. Pak! Pak! More and more. Dark movement only 50 metres away. Muller nestles into the stock of his MG42 and unleashes a series of long bursts.
Prrakkk! Prrrrrrakkkkkk! Not far away, Moller alternates between making hand signals, shouting commands, and firing at the ever-nearing targets.
Suddenly he is dead, giving a final cry of pain before he lies down, motionless. Despite their superior firepower, the remaining half squad starts creeping backwards, trying to relocate to a better position as the advancing troops start closing in from the sides. In desperation, Michael Muller pulls the pin from a smoke grenade and tosses it onto the track to cover the squad's retreat.
And then: ''Ende!'' The skirmish is declared over as suddenly as it began. The group convenes to drink water and trade perspectives on the battle, then the Wehrmacht half squad takes its turn to set a trap for the Waffen SS. By the end of this second encounter, the men are knackered. They return to camp, sweaty and sore, some limping with blisters. One of the Wehrmacht soldiers smokes a soothing cigarette and peels off his boots to inspect his ragged feet.
''You'd have to be a bit mad to want to do this,'' he grins.