When he was five years old, Kevin Wheatcroft received an unusual birthday present from his parents: a bullet-pocked SS stormtrooper’s helmet, lightning bolts on the ear-flaps. He had requested it especially. The next year, at a car auction in Monte Carlo, he asked his multimillionaire father for a Mercedes: the G4 that Hitler rode into the Sudetenland in 1938. Tom Wheatcroft refused to buy it and his son cried all the way home.
When Wheatcroft was 15, he spent birthday money from his grandmother on three second world war Jeeps recovered from the Shetlands, which he restored himself and sold for a tidy profit. He invested the proceeds in four more vehicles, then a tank.
Since that initial stormtrooper’s helmet, Wheatcroft’s life has been shaped by his obsession for German military memorabilia. He has travelled the world tracking down items to add to his collection, flying into remote airfields, following up unlikely leads, throwing himself into hair-raising adventures in the pursuit of historic objets.
Wheatcroft had recently purchased two more barns and a dozen shipping containers to house his collection. “Every object in the collection has a story,” Wheatcroft told me as we made our way under the turrets of tanks, stepping over V2 rockets and U-boat torpedoes. “The story of the war, then subsequent wars, and finally the story of the recovery and restoration. All that history is there in the machine today.
We stood beside the muscular bulk of a Panzer IV tank, patched with rust and freckled with bullet holes, its tracks trailing barbed wire. Wheatcroft scratched at the palimpsest of paintwork to reveal layers of colour beneath.
Wheatcroft owns a fleet of 88 tanks – more than the Danish and Belgian armies combined. The majority of the tanks are German, and Wheatcroft recently acted as an adviser to David Ayer, the director of Fury (in which Brad Pitt played the commander of a German-based US Sherman tank in the final days of the war). “They still got a lot of things wrong,” he told me. “I was sitting in the cinema with my daughter saying, ‘That wouldn’t have happened’ and ‘That isn’t right.’ Good film, though.”
The most treasured pieces of Wheatcroft’s collection are kept in his house, a maze-like place, low-ceilinged and full of staircases, corridors that turn back on themselves, hidden doorways and secret rooms. In the drawing room there was a handsome walnut case in which sat Eva Braun’s gramophone and record collection. We walked through to the snooker room, which housed a selection of Hitler’s furniture, as well as two motorbikes. The room was so cluttered that we could not move further than the doorway.
“I picked up all of Hitler’s furniture at a guesthouse in Linz,” Wheatcroft told me. “The owner’s father’s dying wish had been that a certain room should be kept locked. I knew Hitler had lived there and so finally persuaded him to open it and it was exactly as it had been when Hitler slept in the room. On the desk there was a blotter covered in Hitler’s signatures in reverse, the drawers were full of signed copies of Mein Kampf. I bought it all. I sleep in the bed, although I’ve changed the mattress.”
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