Bryony Symes
Staff Writer

See other Blog articles filed in ‘Me and my caravan’ written by Bryony Symes
   
Any DIY caravan build is an ambitious project, so Bryony Symes talks to Paul Hemmings to find out what drove him to hand-build his own replica military van

It all started with the purchase of a Humber Pig, a 1955 Armoured Personnel Carrier. Paul Hemmings bought this mighty machine to show alongside other military vehicles at steam rallies, country shows and other events.

“Because I wanted to share my hobby with my wife, Helen, I needed to buy a caravan with a reasonable level of comfort,” says Paul. “We started with a 19ft Coachman VIP 570, which I camouflaged so it didn’t stand out among the military exhibits that we would park with.”

After a couple of years, Paul wanted a change, so he started looking around at other vehicles and bought a Morris Commercial C8 GS, built in 1944: “At that point I realised that a modern caravan just wasn’t going to look right, even with the camouflage. Then I came across a picture of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s office caravan.”

The original can now be seen at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, and the history of this van intrigued Paul because it was used as part of Montgomery’s headquarters in north Africa and through Italy into western Europe. The British had captured it from the Italian army in the battle of Beda Fomm, Libya, in 1941. This helps to explain the changing base vehicle: originally mounted on a Lancia lorry, the van was later fitted on the back of a Leyland Retriever and used by Lieutenant NM Ritchie, Commander of the British 8th Army, as a bedroom. He was replaced by Montgomery in August 1942, after the fall of Tobruk.

Inspired by 'Monty'

The picture that ignited Paul’s interest was of Sir Alan Brooke, Sir Winston Churchill and ‘Monty’ standing beside the van at 21 Army Headquarters in Normandy. He then visited the real thing at Duxford for a more detailed look, to ensure he could make an accurate replica.

Paul’s recreation is based on a 14ft Ifor Williams trailer, using a Bedford army lorry hardwood dropside body – and his old Coachman as a donor for many of the interior fixtures and fittings: “When designing the van, I wanted it to give the impression that it was mounted on the back of a lorry, hence using the Bedford dropside body at the bottom. Next, it had to have a canvas top that was roped down to the body, and above all it had to be built on a very reliable base. That was where the 3.5-ton IW trailer came in.”

Both the trailer and the donor Bedford were bought via eBay – a handy source for several parts of the build. Other eBay finds included a new gas hob, after the original unfortunately had to be replaced because of leaking behind the control knobs, and a drop-down sink that has been installed in the washroom.

“I started the build in my workshop,” recalls Paul. “My son, Stephen, is a fully qualified welder, so I asked him to weld a 44mm box-section steel frame onto the trailer. We then bolted 40mm square timbers to the steel and filled the gaps between with Celotex insulation board, then covered the inside with tongue-and-groove boards. The outside was clad in aluminium sheeting, with canvas on top.”

Split personality

Inside the van, you’ll find a separate washroom, a table and chairs that converts into a single bed, a sofa that converts into a small double, and a kitchen area – not to mention the TV, which is not quite authentic, but great for relaxing in the evenings!

“When we’re at shows, the van is Montgomery’s Office Caravan by day, with Helen in her Land Army outfit and me in a WW2 uniform,” says Paul. “But after the visitors go home, we put away the memorabilia, lift up the map table to reveal the kitchen, and change out of our uniforms for a well-earned rest. We have all the comforts of home.”

Paul fitted blown-air heating, a water tank and water heater, a Thetford cassette toilet, a refrigerator, a kitchen sink plus an oven and a hob, many of these parts coming from the donor Coachman VIP. The gas system was then tested by a friend who is a qualified engineer.

The caravan has been carefully designed for displaying Paul’s memorabilia at shows. The drop-down cover over the sink and cooker houses photos, medals and artefacts, as well as maps.

Paul has even built a canvas awning onto the A-frame. This was initially somewhere for the dog, Lou the Labrador, to sleep at night, but it also turned out to be useful in providing a place for vital tea-making while the van is on display at shows.

To keep the interior true to the original, the cupboards are covered by canvas and the walls are hung with pictures that were in Monty’s van. Helen was called upon to cover the seats in canvas and make roll-down blinds.

“I did have one worrying moment when I hung the blind on the rear door,” says Paul. “I screwed it to the inside of the door, only to roll up the blind and discover that the screws had gone through the laminated glass!” Luckily the rest of the work went smoothly, and the whole project took about five months to complete.

Life on the road

The caravan is 14ft long, plus the A-frame, and 6ft 8in wide, but is fairly easy to tow: “It’s 2500kg and doesn’t sway very much, but the Morris Commercial only travels at around 50kph [about 30mph], which makes me very unpopular on the roads! Also, with something as old as the Morris, breakdowns are a very real risk, so we stick within a 40-mile radius of home.

“When we’re not on our way to a show, the Morris and the van are kept in the building that I call ‘The Museum’, where all of my military stuff is kept.”

Paul and Helen love showing their outfit: “We collect money for the Royal Anglian Regiments, and this year we’ll be at various shows including Weeting Steam Rally, Hunstanton, Stradsett Park Vintage Rally, Haddenham Steam Rally and the North Norfolk Railway 1940s Weekend, where we’ll be at Holt station.”

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