English speakers call it D-Day. The French call it le Jour-J. It happened 75 years ago on a rain-swept and perennially foggy stretch of Normandy coastline, as the fate of the world swung by a thread. To anyone with even a passing acquaintance with wartime history, the codenames are familiar. Gold, Juno, and Sword were the British and Canadian beaches to the east; Omaha and Utah were the American beaches to the west.
The plan devised by British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery was to drop in 13,000 troops by air in the pre-dawn darkness to capture critical strong points, then follow up at dawn with a horizon-spanning fleet of some 5000 ships carrying 130,000 invasion troops, 2000 tanks, and 12,000 jeeps and other trucks. It was, in the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Monty’s boss and the supreme allied commander, the first time in human history that such an invading force had been assembled not for territorial gain or colonial ambition, but to defend an ideal. To his assistant, Kay Summersby, he confided on the eve of the invasion, “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.”
Every 6th June since then, people gather on the shores of Normandy to peer out at the lapping waves and ponder a time when the defence of liberty demanded a heavy sacrifice. And for the past 20 years or so, the military vehicle clubs of Europe have made the five-year anniversaries something else entirely, invading Normandy en masse to get their vehicles dirty on the sacred sands of the D-Day beaches. The 75th promised to be the largest reunion of wartime rolling stock since the invasion, as well as the last major anniversary likely to be attended by living veterans.
So, at the kind invitation of Dave Pearson of the North Staffordshire Military Vehicle Trust, as well as Mick Spencer, Dan Ainsworth, Jonathan Lupton, and the other members who had been planning their group’s trip to the 75th for over two years, we packed our gear in Hagerty’s newly acquired ’44 Willys MB jeep, formed convoy with the Mazda Bongo campervan that my wife and I keep in a friend’s shed in Norfolk, and hit the British motorway system at a blatty 45 mph. After fixing an early fuel leak, the jeep ran happily most of the 195 miles down to Portsmouth, the passing trucks and plastic commuter bubbles occasionally giving us a friendly toot though we were a rolling chicane in the left lane.
However, by the time we reached Portsmouth, the jeep’s water pump was howling, the oil sump was dry enough to cause oil pressure fluctuations, and I was suffering a massive case of what veterans of the Normandy run call “jeep bum.” We tried to scrounge some oil in the ferry line but had no luck, so in desperation my wife Tina suggested dumping in the half a bottle of olive oil the Bongo was carrying. Well, it is oil, so with nothing to lose we dumped it in. Surely soldiers in the war had to take similar desperate measures. Then again, the U.S. Army calculated a jeep’s life expectancy in combat at only 90 days, never imagining the lengths later generations would go to keep these now highly collectible artifacts in top running condition.
Well, the olive oil worked, as did the few litres of motor oil we were able to steal off of a circuit racer who parked near us on the ferry. We spent the next couple of days at our campsite near Port-en-Bessin enriching vendors such as Jeep Parts UK, H.O. Wildenberg, and Jeep D-Day 44, a well-known store along the coast road in Saint Laurent where little English is spoken but a few ridiculous hand gestures can obtain you a new water pump for a wartime Willys. We also changed the distributor, spark plugs, plug wires, and accelerator pedal and linkage, and replaced all of the jeep’s fluids as well, borrowing liberally from the tool bags of our helpful North Staffs campmates.
Our neighbors George Edwards and his pal Granville Hine are two old Normandy shoes who lent us a generous number of spanners from the back of their Bedford MWD, a slab-faced utility vehicle. George said going to France was just an excuse to get the truck dirty. “If I had a pristine concours vehicle I would never take it anywhere,” he said, though I did catch him at one point rubbing baby oil on the truck.
Stan Ikin of Mow Cop in Staffordshire told me he bought his first surplus jeep in 1962 for the equivalent of £35. He and his wife Margaret made their first Normandy run in 1989 and remember being waved at by the old ladies in traditional black dresses, witnesses to the original battle. Their journey to the 75th anniversary was typical of the hordes of British, French, Dutch, Belgian, Danish, German, and other collectors who came: Stan, now 80, drove with Margaret in their 5200-pound Dodge WC-52 ¾-ton weapons carrier packed with camping gear. The truck, which looks like a supersized jeep but with a full canvas cab over its rear, has a 230-cubic-inch flathead six good for 76 horsepower sitting in front of a four-speed non-syncro crashbox. It took the couple one exhausting day at something less than the Dodge’s 54-mph rated top speed, plus a six-hour ferry ride to cover the 360 miles to Normandy. Said Margaret, “Where else would we be?”
Restored to health, our jeep carried us into the invasion zones where thousands of vehicle owners were massing to swap stories in various languages and honour the anniversary. Huge living history encampments such as Camp Geronimo in Saint-Mère-Église and Camp Dog Green in Vierville-sur-Mer were crowded with the really rare stuff such as M4 Sherman tanks, M25 “Dragon Wagon” transporters, and Scammel heavy haulers. Living history reenactors slept in canvas tents and ate beans cooked on wartime camp stoves, intent on getting as close to time travel as possible.
All through the week, modern C-130 aircraft painted with invasion stripes as well as a flight of historic C-47 Dakotas, including 16 airplanes that had made the perilous trek across the North Atlantic from the States, dropped sticks of paratroopers in the fields. The lines for the museums as well as the military car boot sales were long, and everywhere the aroma of grilled sausages pervaded the air. Fuel stations along the coast ran dry of petrol as the local demand spiked massively with the influx of so many petrol-powered military trucks. Normally diesel-dependent France wasn’t ready for the equivalent of 3,000 Range Rover Evoques turning up all at once, and the queues were epic.
The arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump created a security clamp-down on the actual anniversary, but we headed for Dog Green sector on Omaha Beach before the gendarmes closed the roads and watched the sun peer over the horizon at H-Hour as a bugler on the bluffs played Taps. Later we heard that more than 500 vehicles had parked on the sand at Arromanches, but a logistical hitch had meant not all were able to get off the beach in time to escape Normandy’s famously fast-moving tide (Monty picked this place for a reason). Mobile phone pictures circulated of a Dodge submerged up to its roof. The Dodge was rescued the next day and will no doubt be repaired, because preserving the vehicles of D-Day is clearly now as important to the succeeding generations as remembering the places and people who were part of the struggle to save the free world.