Planted over preceding centuries to enclose the pastures, Normandy's dense bocage, or hedgerows (above), were lethally exploited by Germans as natural defensive lines.
Waiting in the dunes, on the bluffs, and behind the impenetrable hedgerows were an estimated 50,000 German troops and foreign conscripts backed up by more than 600 tanks. They had spent four years preparing, girding the beaches with mines and obstacles and speckling Normandy with more than 900 concrete bunkers, machine-gun pillboxes, and artillery casemates. The world had witnessed epic battles on sea and on land but never a battle where such a titanic force came from one to attack the other.
Casualty figures are disputed, but by midnight on June 6, it is believed that about 4400 Allied fighters were dead. By the time Normandy fell almost two months later, at least 650,000 combatants and civilians were dead or wounded.
Sixty-five years later, this generation can't hope to see Normandy as the liberators saw it, nor endure what they endured. But anyone can drive exactly what they drove.
Any tour of Normandy wouldn't be complete unless it was done in a jeep, I somehow convinced my obliging saint of a wife, Tina. There are plenty of old jeeps to buy in Europe, simply because thousands were left behind when the troops came home. All that was known about the service history of the 1944 GPW we found for sale on a British website was that it had served in the postwar Greek army.
The seller had recently painted his GPW, a jeep before Jeep was a registered trademark, with the squadron markings and nose art of an actual American B-26 Marauder bomber. The aircraft, dubbed "Rum Buggy" by its commander because the crew loved rum and Coke, took a German flak shell through the right wing two weeks before D-Day. But the shell didn't explode, and the lucky crew survived Messerschmitt attacks and the resulting crash landing in England. If you're going to fall for a jeep based solely on a story, that's a pretty good one.
According to Ray Cowdery's encyclopedic two-volume jeep history, Ail-American Wonder, Ford billed the government $925 for this GPW. Nowadays they're a bit pricier. After some negotiation, about $16,500 changed hands, a decent price today for a decent war-era jeep. Especially one with the requisite essentials for a weeklong re-invasion of France.
Rum Buggy came with a shovel and an ax, a five-gallon jerry-can, a rifle rack, a five-piece radio antenna with a (nonworking) field radio, a first-aid kit, a grease gun, a steel-frame bustle basket on the tailgate for extra gear, and, particularly important when one is assaulting soggy beaches, a "winter top" including canvas sides and doors.
After some basic maintenance—everything on a jeep is stupendously basic—we hit London's M25 ring road doing a blatty, blustery 48 mph, heading for Portsmouth, the same seaport from which much of the 4100-ship flotilla set forth in the gloomy hours before D-Day.
Four years before the invasion, American military planners were obsessed with motorizing the heretofore largely horse-drawn army. Tiny American Bantam Car Company—it made only 1227 vehicles in 1939—unexpectedly wowed officials with its Blitz Buggy reconnaissance car in 1940. But the Army wanted industry's big guns involved, so it dismissed Bantam with a contract for trailers and tasked Willys-Overland in Toledo, Ohio, with the job of refining Bantam's prototype.
The only other bidder was Ford, whose own, hardly lovely
A wide, tidal-smoothed expanse hemmed by high bluffs, Omaha Beach (left and above) saw 2400 American D-Day casualties. On June 6, 2009, it was re-invaded by jeeps, half-tracks, and a reenactor army.
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