Brothers in arms: Jeep Grand Cherokee meets ancestors on D-Day beaches

Published: 06 June 2014

To mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we're publishing a feature from CAR magazine where we toured the Normandy beaches in a Jeep from 2014 and 1944. Read on for the full story.  

The sixth of June 1944 was the moment the Allies’ plan to liberate Nazi-occupied north-west Europe kicked into action. D-Day, they called it. You might read about the 36,000 bullets that each and every minute flew at troops on Omaha Beach, Normandy; the 480 mortar rounds that exploded around them as they waded – soaked to the bone, laden with kit, debilitated by seasickness – out of the water and ran in plain sight towards the German bunkers nestling in the sand dunes and cliff tops; about the 32 ‘amphibious’ Duplex tanks that were offloaded into the sea that day and the 30 that sank like heavy metal coffins, entombing some of the crewmen in the English Channel’s murky shallows.

But it’s not until you visit the war cemeteries and you see those white crosses and Stars of David stretching out in a calming, perfect symmetry above the battlegrounds, like two mirrors infinitely echoing the same reflection, that the enormity of what happened, of the thousands of lives sacrificed to topple Hitler, really hits home.

If you’re going to tell that story, it’s impossible not to mention the Jeep, the rudimentary, all-purpose four-by-four that supported those troops, that was compact and light and manoeuvrable enough to be packed into landing craft or even large gliders, ready to tackle whatever terrain it happened to find itself powering into. One Jeep received the Purple Heart for its heroics during the Normandy beach landings. Another ended up being exhibited in the New York Museum of Modern Art. They don’t do that for Humvees.

Today we’re in Normandy to travel along the D-Day beaches in a descendant of the sturdy original, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, and have it sit on granddad’s knee as the old-timer recalls tales of dodging bullets and ducking under razor wire.

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 and the Willys Jeep

The story goes that in 1940, presciently sensing the inevitable, the American military solicited bids for a ‘light reconnaissance vehicle’ fit for the war. Only Bantam and Willys stepped up to the plate; they had just 49 days to submit a prototype and, should it be approved, a further 75 days to build an initial batch of 70 vehicles.

Bantam conceived the winning design, but government officials felt the company’s small scale and parlous finances left it in no position to be relied upon for a large-scale manufacturing effort under such duress. Instead, the government asked Ford and Willys to refine Bantam’s design; Willys won out, with Ford producing cars to the Willys spec to ensure sufficient production volume. Around 600,000 of these Willys MBs (M for military, B for version2) and Ford GPWs (G for government, P for 80-inch, W for wheelbase) were produced during the war. Bantam wound up making army trailers.

The quickest way to get from England to France on a boat is via Dover to Calais, exactly the kind of invasion route Hitler was expecting given both geographical proximity and a fiendishly clever phantom-army plot concocted by the Allies. That’s why 160,000 mainly British, Canadian and American troops gathered further westwards on England’s central south coast and set sail in 6000 ships and landing craft, the group mustering south of the Isle of Wight ahead of attacks on beaches dubbed Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. Overhead, formations of British and American planes stretched for 300 miles across the night sky, dropping paratroopers behind the beaches under the light of a full moon.

We’re following that route in considerably more comfort, boarding the late-night Brittany Ferries crossing from Portsmouth to Caen in the cocooned luxury of the SRT8, snoozing the seven-hour sailing away on board in a comfortable cabin before disembarking early the next morning without so much as a bullet whistling past the Jeep’s wing mirrors and just the one request for our papers.

Then it’s onto the E46 autoroute, past Bayeux, direction Carentan, the winter sun creeping over the horizon, my hands wrapped firmly around the Grand Cherokee’s chunky, leather-wrapped, heated steering wheel. This Jeep, then, is a very different proposition to the car it still immediately brings to mind with its iconic seven-slot grille. It’s based around the same steel monocoque as you’ll find on today’s Mercedes ML, a remnant of Jeep motherbrand Chrysler’s former marriage to Daimler in the days before ownership passed to Cerberus and, post-Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Fiat.

There’s double-wishbone front suspension, a multi-link rear, and remote-reservoir Bilstein dampers all round; full-time four-wheel drive with a 40/60 torque split and an electronically controlled limited-slip diff; heated part-leather/part-suede seats; an electric tailgate; sat-nav and Harman Kardon stereo; you even get a roof and some doors. And while you can opt for a relatively sensible 3.0 V6 turbodiesel, we thought this was as good an excuse as any for maximum firepower: the SRT8 packs a 6417cc V8 with 461bhp and 459lb ft. The Germans would need to field a Porsche Cayenne Turbo to avoid a drubbing, while Britain’s new Range Sport would doubtless feel reassured to go into battle with something so pokey.

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Jeep Grand Cherokee: a motorway smoothie

At a cruise you notice the SRT8’s easy torque, the five-speed auto’s smooth gearshifts, steering that’s perhaps a little dopey but nicely weighted all the same and, provided you select Sport, a ride that strikes a decent balance between control and compliance. You can grumble about the loose-feeling temperature controls, the dated sat-nav that illuminates the cabin like an enemy searchlight and the old-fashioned auto gate and central dash read-out, but this is not the shambolic Jeep that’s provided so many of the ‘U’s in our The Good, The Bad & The Ugly buying guide over recent years. I’d give it a ‘G’.

With little in the way of either traffic or occupying forces, we make it to Carentan in less than an hour to meet Trevor Standefer, an affable Franco-American who runs American-DDay-Tours (sic) and specialises in guided trips to the US landing beaches; he seemed a good fit given the provenance of our test car.

We’re also joined by Jean-Marie Caillard, a local who grew up wide-eyed on the WWII stories of his parents and grandparents. He’d always longed for a Jeep and tracked the example on these pages down in a Parisian suburb, later treating it to a full restoration. It’s not a Willys or Ford Jeep but a Hotchkiss, a model that’s almost identical – anoraks will point to the slightly longer bonnet, the electrical system that’s been upgraded from 6v to 24v and the new carburettor – and was built under licence in post-war France, often using a mix of salvaged Willys/Ford parts and new components.

This plays in our favour: original Jeeps in good condition can go for £14k and the precious owners are likely to baulk when you mention splashing through huge troughs of saltwater on a beach – two owners that we contacted did just that, in fact. You’re much more likely to find a Hotchkiss owner – yours from around £8k for a good one – ready to play.

Monsieur Caillard leads us out to his vintage Jeep and motions me towards the driver’s seat, destination Utah Beach. You step up, slotting yourself between the sloping bodywork and a huge, thin, three-spoked steering wheel that your knees bunch up behind as you sit down onto a firm canvas seat. You start the engine and ease up the firm clutch and set off along the public road with a huge weapon of a metal fencepost attached to the front bumper that bisects your vision – the Germans put the posts on the beaches to link vast tangles of razor wire; the Allies improvised and stuck them on Jeeps to rip down that same razor wire before it decapitated a GI driving with his windscreen folded down flat on the bonnet.

Driving a WWII Jeep in Normandy

You need to drive a WWII Jeep. The steering is terrifyingly sloppy, the brakes atrocious, the gearshift long-winded and vague and the suspension unrelentingly solid. You look down, feeling naked without door or seatbelt, and you see the road blurring past and you hear the hood’s straps thwacking against canvas, the metal-on-metal clinking of seat frames and compartment lids. Everything feels cold: your face, your hands, your knees even, and as it starts to rain you notice your passenger grabbing a handle on the inside of the windscreen to wipe the flimsy little wipers back and forth. You’re doing just 40mph but you’re whooping out loud and bouncing up and down. You’ve never felt so alive! Then you realise there’s a queue of cars amassing behind and you pull over to let them all past. Amazing!

Unlike some other D-Day beaches, there’s little on Utah to suggest the carnage that unfolded all those years ago save for the occasional crumbling bunker, but we spend a good hour driving up and down it, feeling both the SRT8 and the Jeep squish worryingly into that soft surface, fighting to maintain forward momentum, then we stop to take pictures and stare out into the ocean, wondering what it must have felt like to sit here twiddling your thumbs in a bunker and see 6000 enemy boats coming into view on the horizon, or how ridiculously exposed you must have felt to have been dropped off in those boats and to be met by that unbelievable onslaught.

Head east along the coast to Omaha Beach and Vierville-sur-Mer and you get more of a sense of this place’s wartime history – Omaha witnessed the heaviest casualties and has the requisite monuments and tourist info plaques to back it up. You’ll probably have seen an Irish beach stunt-double for it in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. At the shore, a pontoon lies stricken in the sand, a remnant of the floating Mulberry harbour that was once hastily constructed here to fast-forward supplies ashore post-invasion. On some days in 1944, more than 24,000 men, 3500 vehicles and 15,000 tonnes of supplies passed through to keep up the pressure on the Germans, until the harbour was eventually destroyed by a storm.

Nearby, a grandiose war memorial stands atop an old German fortification, like a large boot stamping down on the jugular of a wounded enemy. ‘Thousands became casualties within view of this monument,’ says the inscription, ‘many cut down by fire from the battered enemy pillbox upon which this memorial stands.’

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Revisiting the D-Day landing beaches in a Jeep

If the D-Day landings were short, sharp shocks, the following weeks were agonisingly drawn out, thanks in no small part to the narrow lanes and dense hedgerows that provided perfect cover for German troops. Today the road surfacing is better, but these roads are still tight and twisty and probably not what the Americans had in mind when they designed the SRT8. It copes surprisingly well when you up the ante, though.

Leave the suspension in Auto and the body rocks about cacophonously and the 20-inch tyres paw at ruts, tugging the car left and right. Selecting Sport triggers a transformation: for some reason that tugging stops and, more logically, the body settles down and everything just feels tighter and more cohesive. So you push on harder, depressing the accelerator into the carpet to be rewarded with some pretty explosive progress and that chugging, almost nonchalant hammering so characteristic of the Hemi V8. You can even feel a heavy slant of rear bias when you push on through the corners. It’s not perfect and the gearshift can feel a little dim-witted when you want changes at the double, but more fun than a 2360kg SUV has a right to be.

There’s no escaping that the SRT8 stands out among the Peugeots and Citroëns of rural France like an ill-fitting baseball cap on a World War Two veteran. But you’ll trace much of Jeep’s legend to the beaches and country lanes of Normandy, and you’ll still hear the stories that indelibly link it to the D-Day campaign. Like the Jeep-driving American GIs who picked up a heavily pregnant French woman as the battle continued to rage into July, safely delivering her the 16 miles to hospital in Carentan. Sixty nine years later, her grandson took a journalist and photographer on a tour of the D-Day beaches. They drove a red Grand Cherokee.

>> This story was first published in the May 2013 issue of CAR magazine. Click here for a digital preview of CAR magazine and all our best subscription offers

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