Bruce Crompton is happy to admit he’s just a big kid at heart, but maybe he’s doing himself a disservice.
As much a military man as he is an entrepreneur, for nearly three decades he’s juggled a passion for military memorabilia with a successful career as a contractor for the London Underground.
“It’s just a lifelong passion that has evolved into something more,” he tells loaded. “It’s big boys’ toys.” Presiding over what is the biggest collection of Allied and German vehicles and armaments in the UK, four years ago he was approached to star in the series Combat Dealers and has not looked back since.
“The show has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon. We’ve got fans all over the globe. It’s ridiculous and we are going from strength to strength, finding strange and exciting things all the time all over the world.”
Having supplied vehicles and weapons for some of the biggest war movies in cinema history, and with an eye for collectables that dates back to childhood, Crompton sat down to discuss one of the UK’s biggest and most fascinating memorabilia markets.
loaded: How did you first get into military memorabilia?
Bruce: I’ve always been passionate about history. Particularly the armed services and the first and second world war, ever since I was a kid. When I was 11 and used to walk to school, I remember going past this bloke’s greenhouse and spotting a German army helmet, upside down with Daffodils hanging out of it. One day, I plucked up the courage to go ask the bloke to let me have it.
I was in the 10th Battalion Parachute regiment for five years. As a result, I’m pretty fanatical about anything to do with the parachute regiment. It’s about preserving military history and keeping the memory of those who died alive.
“This is a worldwide, multi-billion-pound hobby and people are starting to sit up and take notice”
In the mid 1980s, I started to get more involved in the business side of things, buying up unique second world war guns which were brought back to the UK, cut up for parts kits and sold to collectors in the UK as deactivated guns.
loaded: Do you remember the first vehicle you purchased?
Bruce: It was in 1986. I had always wanted a Schwimmwagen, which is an amphibious Volkswagen Jeep and we found one in France that was still being used by the local monks to go shopping in. I had had a photo of one from the 1970s and it was that purchase that really got the ball rolling. From there, I’ve been an avid collector, buying more and more.
loaded: Has the perception surrounding military memorabilia changed?
Bruce: There was a time when people who had an interest in military memorabilia were looked upon with a bit of disdain, as though they were weird. What shows like Combat Dealers have done is highlight how popular this hobby is around the world.
One of Bill Gates’ business partners, Paul Allen, for example, is a huge collector with one of the biggest collections out there. This is a worldwide, multi-billion-pound hobby and people are starting to sit up and take notice.
There are TV shows, magazines, re-enactments and military shows every weekend. And there is something for everyone out there, whether it’s a half a million-pound tank, or military caps and badges. It’s a passion we can all get involved in.
loaded: What’s the find you’re proudest of?
Bruce: It would have to be the fuselage of a Dakota, which is an iconic aircraft used in the Battle of Normandy. I actually got the chance to jump out of a Dakota in the latest series of the show, and while it’s not the most expensive or rarest, it’s the most special.
Our Panther Tank would be another one. There are only two running in the world and we’ve got one that needs to be done up. It will take three years but it will be incredible when it is finished. After that, we’ve got a Tiger Tank to work on.
loaded: What’s the most expensive piece of kit you have seen?
Bruce: The Panther Tank I own could be worth upwards of £5million once I have finished working on it. As a rule, it’s usually German equipment that fetches the most because a lot of it was destroyed at the end of the war. For example, something like an American-produced white half track might fetch £32,000 whereas the equivalent German vehicle could cost you something like £300,000. We are currently restoring three of them.
To give you an idea, look at a website like Milweb, which runs a classified online shop to sell vehicles. You’ll see the sheer variety and scale of options available to collectors. Very few German vehicles come up and when they do, they don’t stay on for long.
loaded: How did you end up supplying equipment for Full Metal Jacket?
Bruce: Because Stanley Kubrick didn’t fly, most of the movie was made in places like Beckton and Upminster. I had backed this guy who supplied everything, when the film was wrapped, all the equipment and uniforms used were stored at Kubrick’s house in St Albans.
Because of the relationship my colleague had with Kubrick, he gave us the opportunity to buy back everything that was used in the movie. So we went over there to his house.
“That Tom Sizemore…well the less said about him the better.”
I now own the ‘Born To Kill’ helmet that was used in the posters. Unfortunately, you can only see those words if you put an infra red light on it. But I’ve got a few pieces from that film now.
loaded: And you were involved in Saving Private Ryan?
Bruce: In a big way. We supplied a lot of vehicles and I was actually on the set most days in Hatfield where I got to speak to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. He was a fantastic guy.
I remember my daughter was very ill at the time, in and out of hospital for two years, and Tom Hanks wrote her a little message. The guy was just an absolute gentleman and a real World War Two buff. Others weren’t so good. That Tom Sizemore… well, the less said about him, the better.
loaded: What happened with Tom Sizemore?
Bruce: The armourer I knew and worked with had a set to with him over a weapon once. That’s the only thing I’ve seen where one of these stars think they are above other people. In this country, we have rules about live weapons and Tom Sizemore didn’t realise that.
loaded: What’s your favourite memory from that shoot?
Bruce: There’s a famous scene involving a trax motorbike called a ‘Rabbit’. Now, in this particular scene, one of my guys was supposed to be driving but he’d gone off for a fag. So they got this stuntman to do it.
Anyway, off he goes, flying round the corner, and he nearly toppled it over. But it looked so good, so they kept it in. Of course, what they don’t show is me nearly having a heart attack because the thing is worth a £100,000.
The problem with these films is that a lot of these filmmakers don’t know how much this stuff is worth.
“Next thing I know, I’m getting a phone call telling me the director wants to set one of the vehicles on fire. That’s worth half a million quid!”
loaded: Have you had any major issues during a film shoot?
Bruce: There was a film called Above and Beyond about Wally Harris. I agreed to send hard tracks and guns down there. Next thing I know, I’m getting a phone call telling me the director wants to set one of the vehicles on fire – it was worth half a million quid! So immediately, we told them if that carried on we would be pulling off site. It was sorted in the end though.
loaded: A few years later you worked on Fury – how did that come about?
Bruce: I was recommended to (director) David Ayer by a guy involved in re-enactments. I didn’t know much about him but he came to see me with a producer and was blown away by what he saw. They were operating on a pretty tight budget, but I took them there and said they could have anything they wanted because they both had a real passion for the stuff.
David relishes history in much the same way I do, and I wanted to make sure he made the film with the right vehicles and attention to detail. We just hit it off from there. I met Brad Pitt and Shia Lebeouf and had some good times with a lot of the people down there.
Sometimes I would ask myself ‘Is this happening? Are you really having a bit of Scotch with Brad Pitt?’ That film was my crowning glory – they got everything right on that. I still see David now – I went to the Suicide Squad premiere earlier this year.
loaded: Any other films in the pipeline?
Bruce: Well, we had to turn down Dunkirk a while back, because we were just too busy. More recently, we sent a load of vehicles and guns over for the new Transformers movie. Apparently one of them is going to actually turn into a Transformer, but I’m not really too up on that stuff.
Combat Dealers starts on Tuesday 10th January at 9pm on Quest, Freeview Channel 37, YouView 37, Sky 144, Virgin 172.