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A wonderful read –
James MacKenzie, a collector and buyer of Military Memorabilia
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Over the last 54 years, I have collected military memorabilia. Family, friends and fellow collectors have often asked me how I started, and what got me interested in it. I honestly don’t know what the trigger was. However, I do remember that I was very interested in the photos of uniforms I saw in the many military books I borrowed from the libraries, the badges on the uniforms and knew that I wanted some for myself.
I started collecting military items at the age of ten, way back in 1967. I would ask anyone who looked old enough to have served in WW2 for any badges, medals, buttons, helmets, webbing, etc, that they might have. Two years later, I started a paper round, delivering newspapers for the Central News Agency. I had the opportunity to meet more older folk who had served in the Wars, and they enabled me to steadily grow my collection. They loved to tell me war stories as well, and I really enjoyed looking at the badges that they dug out of storage.
At this time, I was earning pocket money from the paper rounds, and I would use a portion of it to take the train ride from Muizenberg to Cape Town, every Saturday, to visit the Military Museum at the Castle and the flea market on the Grand Parade, in front of the City Hall.
The South African Navy Officer in charge of the Military Museum was Mac Bissett. I don’t remember his rank at that stage, but he retired as a Commander and was awarded the Southern Cross Medal for his outstanding service to the South African Navy. A thorough gentleman, who would take the time to walk with me through the museum, point out interesting things, giving me more information about them, and sometimes sit with me in his office and show me new items that had been donated, but were not yet on display. He would call me, at the age of 12, “Mr. MacKenzie”, and still does whenever we meet. I am quite sure that because of his constant encouragement, my hobby endured. I am fortunate to still see him at the Military Veterans Dinner each year.
Cmdr Mac Bissett and myself
at the Military Veterans Dinner, Kelvin Grove, November 2021
One of his staff members, an old Pioneer who had served in WW2 and worked as a guide at the museum, was always amazed that I could tell the medals at a distance, just from their ribbon colours, at such a young age, and was forever trying to catch me out by asking, “What medal is that one? And keep your distance so you can’t read the labels!!” He never caught me out and I think I gained his respect for being a keen young collector. He would always give Mac Bissett a call to his office to let him know I had arrived, once again.
Every Saturday Harry Fynn would be on the flea market at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, opposite the Town Hall, in his beat up old Kombi panel van, with a row of medals across the dashboard, ribbons fading in the sun. He always had badges and medals for sale and I never had enough money to buy everything I wanted. Harry once allowed me to pay off a German SS metal cap badge over 3 weeks. I can clearly remember the badge cost R5.00. Today they are in excess of US$800.00. A good investment!!
At the age of 12 I got my first German Iron Cross, in near mint condition, in its presentation case, as a birthday present from my Mom. She took me to Cape Town to go look for a suitable gift, found it at City Coins, and bought it from Natalie Jaffe, who still runs the business 50 years later.
As I grew older my interest in collecting focused more on the paratroopers, special forces and commandos and I started trading off much of what I had collected over the years, with other collectors and dealers, to get those items.
I was called up for my National Service with the South African Air Force in July 1976 and lost a little interest in collecting. I was seeing too many badges and uniforms on a daily basis.
I had wanted to go to the Army, like most of my friends, but had no say in the matter.
With my interest in the paratroopers I decided I wanted to do the parachute course as well, but, a while after finishing my instructors course I was posted out to Ysterplaat Air Force Base, had a motorcycle accident a few months later and damaged my leg badly, so much so that I would never be able to do the jump course.
Years later I managed to sneak a water jump. Some paratrooper friends of mine were going for the annual 44 Parachute Brigade “fun jump”. That year it was a water jump and I decided I would be able to do that, a nice soft landing in the water. It was fantastic. I was only caught out after the jump, while climbing out the dam, by a high-ranking officer I knew, and who knew I had not done the jump course, but he let it slide.
With me not being able to do the parachute course I concentrated my collecting on badges, wings and uniforms of the paratrooper forces and Special Air Service of the world and British Commando badges. I also built up a large library of books on these forces.
After the second book on Parachute Badges and Wings of the World, by Bob Bragg and Roy Turner, was printed in 1985, I saw that my collection of over 2000 parachute wings from nearly 100 countries, was not even halfway to completion and there were new wings coming out all the time. I decided then to specialise in collecting these badges and wings, and medals – by now, to just the South African, Rhodesian, South West African, British and Commonwealth countries, and that is where I am now.
Whether you specialise in one area of collecting or not, you will always find something else that catches your eye, and may start off on a “sideline”, as I call it. My side lines are the Fairbairn Sykes Commando daggers – of which I have 25 variations – different manufacturers and markings, Bowie knives, German WW2 Paratrooper badges and uniform buttons of South Africa and Rhodesia. I also have a large collection of Rhodesian medals and South African Naval Forces badges, cap tallies and medals, from its creation up to the modern days.
I will never call myself an expert but have a good knowledge on badges and medals of Southern Africa and Rhodesia, and many other countries.
If you have any military badges, medals, buttons, or other military collectibles, and you want to sell them, or value them, you are welcome to email some photos to me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Article by James MacKenzie
Hats off to you, James MacKenzie
for turning your absolute passion into a career