A little while back we ran an article on a new ‘Shop’ now holding our Bolt Action range, the Overlord Museum at Colleville sur Mer. Not long after we were happily surprised by an email from the museums designer Steve Davis:
Steve: As an amateur military historian and professional museum designer I became interested, whilst on holiday back in 1999, in the Musée Août 1944, located in Falaise, Normandy.
The collection of vehicles and equipment from WW2 was displayed inside the old Lepetit cheese factory and was full of interesting exhibits – some of the vehicles had been restored to running order. In 2002 I attended an event organised to honour veterans from the Polish 1st Armoured Division where a Sherman MarkIVA1 would do a drive past. On arrival I photographed the various vehicles as they arrived or were driven out of the museum. It was exciting to see the dramatic approach of the Sherman driven at speed, and to experience the Demag and Borgward in running order.
On my return to the UK a set of the photographs were printed and sent to the museum. Some weeks later a letter arrived inviting me to meet the owners of the collection, Michel Leloup and his son Nicolas.
Over the following eight years we met up at various events, I photographed the vehicles in the collection and was fortunate to ride in both the Demag and the newly restored 18 ton FAMO – an absolute monster of a half-track with a Maybach engine that ‘purrs’ like a cat!
I became an unofficial museum photographer taking pictures of restorations, engines, a Bailey Bridge, Fries crane, V1 flying bomb and Panther tank. The arrival of the Bailey Bridge meant obtaining a construction manual from the Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham. The biggest kit build ever to be involved with.
As the years passed Nicolas and Michel talked about their ideas and plans for a new museum. In 2010 they finally managed to purchase a plot of land next to the roundabout on the D514 at Colleville sur Mer, next to the American Cemetery. At this point I was asked to bring my museum design skills to the project and act as an advisor. Sadly, before any work could start, Michel Leloup died and the project was put on hold until the wheels of french inheritance had finished turning and Nicolas could get the project moving again.
From 2011 to 2013 everything moved forward at pace, architects were commissioned and the new building began to take shape. We started sourcing and gathering several thousand photographs from a variety of archives such as the IWM, ECPAD, Bundesarchive, Bovington Tank Museum, Cody and Normandie Memoires. We visited the National Archives at Kew for original documents and maps, accessing the Cabinet papers for D-Day and the Eisenhower’s ‘failure’ speech that he wrote but thankfully never delivered. The challenging task of writing an accurate and accessible storyline led to many long days and late nights.
Once finalised drawings of the museum were produced and we made a scale model of the building with model vehicles inside to prove the design, to show to the press and to help contractors to understand the overall design. Many of the model vehicles were from the Bolt Action range.
Full sized dioramas were designed to bring the collection to life and full sized figures were needed in and around the vehicles and buildings. This was building model soldiers on an epic scale. An English sculptor took the uniforms and weapons, fashioned the mannequins from fibre glass and resin and using our original photographs as references captured accurate likenesses of the combatants. If you think it tricky shading and weathering 28mm model figures think about the problems of doing it at full size!
Various poses were taken from 1/35 scale figures as a guide then the figures had to be modified to fit the original uniforms. When working with real weapons it is easy to forget just how heavy they are, especially when held by a hollow, resin mannequin – we had to resort to casting lightweight replica weapons in order to stop figures toppling over!
All of the larger, static vehicles were moved into the museum as soon as the roof was on, the building was not weather tight but they were under cover and out of the wet January and February weather. Unlike in 1944 the 70 year old vehicles had to be carefully lifted, manoeuvred and cosseted into position using specialist lifting cranes and transporters – with around 35 vehicles and large objects the logistical plan was difficult as building work could not be interrupted.
A complete storyline detailing the history of the period from 1919 to 1944 was written for three languages involving 29 storyline panels, assorted pictures and captions plus 38 exhibit panels. There were 12 large size banners to produce, 18 glazed showcases, barriers, lighting, construction and painting, shop, office, toilets… all to be ready for the opening on 20 June 2013.
It was an experience working on this fabulous project and there is still much to do, public and veteran reaction has been very favourable, with some suggesting it is the best in Normandy.
If you find yourself in Normandy give Overlord Museum a visit.
An exceptional location in the heart of historic Omaha Beach, near the American Cemetery and the landing beaches, just a few kilometers from Arromanches … we look forward to seeing you soon.