29th June 2009
The plan was to assemble 65 military motorcycles of the era to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings. As FerG3 reports, rather more than 65 turned up in the end...
What with the media-whipped furore surrounding the apparent lack of enthusiasm of Our Dear Government to subsidise the visits to the landing beaches of the Normandy Veterans, it has probably escaped few people's notice that this year marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day, Normandy, June 6th 1944. While every June, there is something of a pilgrimage of historic military vehicle people with their machines to Normandy, the 65th shaped up as a special event not least because this indeed was likely the last time that Normandy veterans, en masse, would pay their respects to comrades who did not return.
Although hardly constituting cohesive clubs, the UK does host thriving communities of motorcycling folk whose passion lies in WW2 machines, with the focus mainly on the classic English marques. One group emerged as a spin-off from the AJS and Matchless Owners Club, unsurprisingly well populated by owners of Matchless WDG3s (including FerG3) and rejoicing under the title 'NOBS' or Normandy Old Bike Society. A second notable group has been fostered by the redoubtable Ian Wright of Ark Motorcycles in Devon, or 'Mr BSA M20' and naturally enough, the two co-exist in a state of happy marque rivalry. But thanks to the good old internet, there are also thriving WW2 Royal Enfield and Norton groups to add to the mix.
For those unfamiliar with motorcycles of the WW2 era, on both sides, the machines built for the military were really just modified versions of road-going models of the 1930s falling roughly in line with the MOD specs of the day. That maybe is slightly unfair as the manufacturers did go to great lengths to make the motorcycles inherently reliable and simple to maintain, but few were ideal mounts for the terrain they were to face. If you want to read more, the bible on the subject is 'British Forces Motorcycles 1925-45' by Orchard and Madden, in a recent new edition.
The BSA M20 was probably the archetypal British mount, a 500cc side-valve slogger with rigid rear and girder forked front end. The Norton 16H was of similar ilk but even more antiquated in terms of design. Compared to those, the OHV Matchless WDG3L and Ariel W/NG were things of lightness and speed - comparatively! Those were the common front line machines but Royal Enfield and BSA produced other models mainly used for home duty while Velocette threw in their rather nice MDD model.
What about Triumph, I hear you ask? Well London-based AMC had benefited by Hitler's drastic re-arrangement of Triumph's Coventry works early in the war or it really would have been a BSA/Triumph scene.
Come 1944 and the Normandy Invasion, most of the motorcycles coming ashore were M20s, G3Ls or 16Hs to stand duty delivering orders and keeping convoys on the move. The Paras had the famous Wellbike and Flying Flea tiddlers to assist with battlefield mobility. Of course the other side had their superb BMW and Zundapp combinations complete with machine gun and in the early war years, we had tried out the similarly armed Norton Big4 outfit. However, well before D-Day, the advent of the superb mass-produced Jeep had killed off justification for a three wheeled fighting platform on the Allied side (which as it happens is what the Mini did to the family combo in the 1960s).
But back to the present day and Ian Wright had come up with the bright idea of pulling together all the WW2 motorcycle groups visiting Normandy in a "65 for 65" event - a major gathering of Allied military motorcycles of the period. Funnily enough, everyone else though it was a good idea too, and before long it appeared that over 100 motorcycles might be headed for France! And so it transpired.
Come June 4th, the NOBS were gathering in Luc sur Mer, as usual hosted by the very jolly Juno Military Vehicle Group comprising Normandy locals. Good hosts because they get asked to all the best events and normally come equipped with such essentials as Champagne and Calvados! Not daft, us. In exchange, we motorcyclists assist them with their vehicle convoys, keeping the column of Dodge, Scammel, Bedford, Ford and GM trucks, Dingos and Jeeps together and headed in the right direction by holding traffic at junctions and leading the way. This demands constant zooming up and down the column, which admittedly is extremely good harmless fun, bearing in mind that over the D-Day weekend, the locals are in a mood to entertain eccentricity in the spirit of the Liberation and take it all in good part. Mind you, one of our number was pushing his luck when the first car to be stopped on a large roundabout outside Caen was Gendarmarie. Luckily, he only shouted abuse in French and it ended in mutual shoulder-shrugging.
So Friday 5th June was taken up with trips to Coleville-Montgomery and Ranville where we provided a backdrop to the commemorative ceremonies taking place. The usual form was to gather in a neat display and stand by while the speeches and prayers went off. After that, the Vets and their supporters fell out and we fielded lots of visitors and questions and all the stories about 'I had one of them and they were rubbish…!'
Interesting to hear the tales of those who used the machines in earnest and it had to be said that only a few harboured any real lasting love for their two-wheeled steeds. They were hard work to ride and maintain and the clothing really was poor, certainly compared to what we have these days. That said, the Matchless G3L probably got the most plaudits as the best of a bad lot! 'That bleeping M20 - we used to call it The Camel!', remarked one old sweat. So forget any glamour associated with despatch riding…
Saturday 6th June was the big day and the combined motorcycle group was booked in to attend the main Normandy Veterans Association commemoration at Arromanche, site of the famous Mulberry Harbour. This was the big one, the assembly of all of the British WW2 motorcycles on the coast (or as many as could be mustered and registered - motorcyclists are like cats when it comes to any herding instinct - ie; they have none!). Ian Wright, ably assisted by Ed Abbott and Peter Brown had done a very good job of co-ordination and thanks to modern day telegraphy (aka the mobile phone) by the appointed mid-day hour, the troops (89 Brits, 40 Dutch and a scattering of other nationalities) had assembled on the sea front at Ver sur Mer a few miles east of Arromanche. With the obligatory milling around and signing of forms, checking of registration and sharing of the one working pen (!), over 100 motorcycles were ready for the off.
Such a special occasion merited some recording for posterior, so Ian and the lads had things set up to make this an official Guinness Book of Records event, which meant getting EVERYONE in one unbroken column on the main road into Arromanche. 'Merde' as they say in Normandy - frequently and with conviction! Only one way to do this, so the DRs got into DR mode and stopped the traffic for the 10 minutes or so it took everyone to get started up, helmets on and onto the tarmac. The patient car-drivers, bless 'em, responded by switching off, getting their cameras out and cheering us away. Great stuff!
So what did we assemble? Here is the official role call of the 143 registered machines:
Not a bad effort and the sight, sound and smell of that lot weaving down the hill and into the town, then onto the Arromanche promenade brought the place to an absolute halt. Thankfully, things had been planned ahead and Ian's team of helpers got everyone through the street and parked up safely despite the crush - and boy, it WAS a crush!
So that was our moment of glory done, and the rest was providing a backdrop for the main event of the day - the Veterans and the ceremonies. But it was good to get the bikes down onto the sands alongside the remains of the prefabricated harbour and just savour the atmosphere.
Alas, the ride back to camp was delayed by the inevitable road blocks to speed Presidents and Prime Ministers back to their desks to fill out their expense claims (ahem); sufficient time to let the splendid weather break so we had a rather damp thrash home. It was a pretty sound tribute to the black art of bike fettling that none of the 65 year-old machines missed a thud, although the pleasant by-ways of Normandy do have a few more nuts and bolts lining the verges!
The next few days saw more rides and convoys and Ian had thoughtfully arranged for a special DR tribute to be laid on our behalf, on the Sunday in Bayeux. The text says it all: 'In honour of those who went to war on two wheels.' A fitting end to a memorable journey through time and emotions.
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