HISTORY's WW2 Treasure Hunters saw Madness frontman Suggs head out to find some of the best relics left behind from WW2, but luckily for him, he was not alone. With him was one of the UK's leading relic hunters, Stephen Taylor. As well as a great WW2 collector, Stephen is a great writer, so we asked for a blog post to find out more about treasure hunting.
Like many a young lad, I spent hours of my spare time building Airfix models of World War 2 aircraft, hanging them off my ceiling in mock dogfights. I read as many books on WW2 as I could get my hands on, learning about the battles, the men, the kit, weapons, vehicles and ordnance used in the conflict. As the years passed I built up a collection of books on the subject, but that was as far as it went.
Just over 20 years ago, I was on holiday in Normandy, visiting the museums and battlefields of the area with my family. On the last day my son found a cartridge case on the beach at St-Aubin-Sur-Mer, (Nan sector, Juno beach). I knew nothing of cartridge cases, or how to identify them, but I was sure this was a cartridge from D-Day, and the last person to touch it was a man involved in the greatest ever seaborne invasion. This was history, and I was instantly hooked!
Three months later and I was the proud owner of a metal detector. I spent the first four or five years finding a few WW2 relics here and there, but spent most of my time recovering beer cans, cigarette packets and condom wrappers, (and on one memorable occasion, half a beer can into which had been stuffed a cigarette packet and a condom wrapper!).
I began to appreciate the value of research, and my searches became far more productive, with many a happy day coming home with a bag full of WW2 relics and not a beer can in sight. I began amassing not only an impressive collection, but also an in-depth knowledge of the kit, ordnance and weapons used during the conflict.
The reason I recover and preserve WW2 relics is all down to the history. I know where every item came from, the unit and men that used it, and perhaps most importantly, what it is!
One of the most productive sites I have permission to dig is an old British army base. I managed to track down the base dump, where they disposed of items they considered as trash. Back then it was just that, but now they are important WW2 historical artefacts. The majority of items are relatively easy to identify, but every now and again, the site will give up an item that causes quite a bit of head scratching. Take, for example, this item:
This dump has only ever produced items associated with the military, so I knew these were probably weapon or ordnance related. The challenge was to identify exactly what. In the area where these were found, I also found a few relics related to a number of different machine guns, so I reasoned that these may be from one of them. I looked at hundreds of pictures of WW2 machine guns, tripods, vehicle and aircraft mounts, but couldn’t match these pieces to anything at all. I never give up trying to identify pieces like these, but often take a break from looking so I can look with fresh eyes days/weeks later, so they stayed unidentified for a little while.
About a month later I was on the internet trying to find a picture of an item for a friend, when I accidentally identified the larger piece. I had stumbled on a picture from an old weapons manual.
The manual was for a Lewis MG, and this item was a case catcher bag, designed to collect the spent cartridge cases as they were ejected from the weapon. You can clearly make out the metal bracket and rectangular frame in this picture. I had identified the first item!
With this information, I reasoned that the other pieces may also be from a similar item, so began to look at as many case catcher bags as I could find. An hour later I was on the verge of giving up again when I spotted this picture;
There they were! Both of the brackets I was trying to identify, on the same case catcher bag. This was from a Besa machine gun.
I never give up on identifying an item, as I find it not only great fun trying to track them down, but so satisfying when I finally know what they are. It also helps greatly to build my knowledge of WW2 relics, and not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new.