Vintage military vehicles ready to roll on 75th D-Day

During World War II, the forces of Hitler’s Third Reich spent four years and the modern equivalent of billions of dollars to build a wall of concrete and earthen fortifications along the Atlantic coast of France, intended to repel any Allied invasion. Manned by some 50,000 Germans, as well as conscripts from various conquered lands, and overseen by Johannes Erwin Rommel, one of the Reich’s wiliest generals, the so-called Atlantic Wall was meant to be a graveyard for any attempt to destroy Hitler’s lock on western Europe.

Yet on June 6, 1944, the Atlantic Wall was overrun in a single momentous day by a titanic force of 186,000 Allied soldiers, backed up by thousands of wheeled and tracked vehicles.

Next month, what was once just another sleepy stretch of damp French coastline will mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the beginning of the end of the last great war for western Europe. Military vehicle collectors have been making the pilgrimage to this sacred spot since at least 1974, when a few pioneering British hobbyists conducted what is believed to be the first organized post-war jeep tour of the Normandy battlefield. But attendance has really picked up in the past 20 years, as wartime military vehicles have become more collectible and cinematic depictions of the invasion, from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan to the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, have reintroduced the war to new generations.

During the last big anniversary, the 70th in 2014, the French government estimated attendance of more than 800,000 over the weekend around June 6. For the 75th anniversary this year, the French say perhaps 2 million people will visit the Normandy beaches in the weeks around the anniversary, including U.S. President Donald Trump and members of the Royal Family. Joining them will be thousands of military vehicle collectors, driving everything from Willys and Ford jeeps to Dodge 3/4-ton trucks, to GMC deuce-and-a-halfs, to White half-tracks, to Sherman tanks.

Aaron Robinson’s 1944 Ford GPW jeep in front of a farm house near Ste Marie du Mont, where 101st Airborne paratroopers fought the first battles of D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944.
Aaron Robinson’s 1944 Ford GPW jeep in front of a farm house near Ste Marie du Mont, where 101st Airborne paratroopers fought the first battles of D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944. Aaron Robinson

Organizations such as the Military Vehicle Trust in the United Kingdom spend two years preparing for the big anniversaries, planning convoys and making early reservations for what will soon be scarce campsites to accommodate their groups of hundreds of vehicles. In 2014, when I camped with the MVT, the group had more than 100 vehicles, as well as another 130 wartime motorcycles. The column of vehicles stretched more than two miles whenever it went anywhere en masse.

Other groups from around western Europe have their own sites, creating elaborate recreation camps complete with mess tents and medical stations stocked with period-correct equipment. There’s even one French group that re-creates a German bivouac in the shadow of the Merville Battery, a large German gun emplacement at the eastern edge of the invasion zone.

Normandy’s villages and towns welcome the throngs, hosting vehicle parades and ceremonies throughout the week. This year, a flight of some 15 vintage C-47 transport planes, calling themselves Daks Over Normandy, will hop the Atlantic from the U.S. and conduct airshows in France and England, culminating in a commemorative paratrooper drop on June 5, expected to be both the largest and perhaps last drop of its size by period aircraft.

Considering it’s likely to be the last significant D-Day anniversary with any veteran participation, as the youngest D-Day vets are today in their 90s, the Greatest Generation will be fully honored by successive generations one last time in Normandy.

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