(first posted 6/6/2014, amended 8 May 2020) Today is the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, known as VE Day in the UK. We will be marking the day, though not quite as had been planned, obviously. This post was originally published for the 70th anniversary of D Day but can also help mark VE Day.
The Normandy landings, better known as D-Day or Operation Overlord, that were the initial phase of the final liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. You are no doubt familiar with the subsequent progressive liberation of France, Holland, Belgium and Denmark, as well as the liberation of Italy, and of eastern Europe by the Russian forces, from the eastern front, and ultimately VE Day. Unconditionally, the bravery and courage of the men and women involved is to respected and remembered, as are their fallen colleagues and the civilian casualties.
One partner in the success of the operation, as it turned from invasion to progressive liberation, was the French Resistance Movement, also known as the Maquis, an organisation of small cells of men (and women) that conducted a guerilla war against the occupying German forces through acts of sabotage and diversion, supported escaping allied prisoners, published underground newspapers and provided valuable intelligence to the allies. After June 1944, it grew to become a semi-formal army of half a million men, under the name FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur).
Every French town of any size will have a central street or square named in some way to mark the events of 1944-45, or 1918; perhaps a Place de la Liberation, Avenue de Gaulle, Boulevard Winston Churchill, Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, or Place de la 6 Juin or de la 8 Mai, to mark the end of the war in 1945. Many towns will incorporate the date of the liberation of the town specifically into this name, and it goes without saying that the war memorials are properly maintained and respected.
Bergerac, in the Dordogne region in the south west of France, is no different. Each August, on the Sunday closest to 21 August, a service of commemoration takes place at the Monument de la Resistance, close the Avenue du President Wilson and last year was supplemented by a small display of vehicles used by the French Resistance and the US Army at the time of the liberation.
First up, the most French car of all from before the war–the Citroen Traction Avant, in this case a 15CV (or horsepower, not BHP) six cylinder version. This was first produced from 1938, with 2.8 litre engine, monocoque construction and front-wheel drive, and was still class competitive when it was retired in 1956. Inevitably, production was very much disrupted by the war.
The French army lacked enthusiasm for the Citroën Traction, initially believing that it offered insufficient ground-clearance. However, by September 1939 a few hundred were in military use and more cars were supplied in 1940, and subsequent deliveries probably took place before military defeat intervened.
During the war many of the cars were reregistered, having been requisitioned by the German Army. However, as here, the Traction Avant were also favoured by the French Resistance, and as occupation gave way to liberation they turned up all over France with FFI inscribed proudly on their doors. Seen like this, this is perhaps the most iconic French car ever and without doubt one the best and most memorable cars of the last century. Is there anything more proudly French than a Traction Avant flying a tricolore and FFI symbol?
As was usual in a war situation, equipment that you might associate with one party ended up being used by the other, in this case a (as far as I can tell, please tell me if I’m wrong) Mercedes-Benz W136 saloon, shown here after it had been captured from the German Wehrmacht.
Built from 1936 onto the 1950s, this example shows several areas where wartime restrictions will have impacted on the actual product, as well as the quantity produced and where they were sold. There is little bright work, only one windscreen wiper and shortened bumpers for example. This car was also identified as a diesel, though I did not hear it running.
I am not clear whether this is a genuine FFI/Maquis vehicle or a recreation using a post war car. Certainly the interior didn’t look like it had had too hard a life for over 70 years.
Also present was a Simca 8, a compact saloon manufactured in France by the company that later became affiliated to Ford and then sold to Chrysler, and is now within the Peugeot-Citroen group. The Simca 8 was actually a licence built Fiat 508C, with an 1100 cc 4 cylinder engine. Production ran from 1937 until 1951, at Nanterre in France. The engine was a Fiat design also.
Unusually, the four door body had no central pillar between the front doors, hinged at the front, and the rear doors, hinged at the back, permitting particularly easy access when a front and rear door were opened simultaneously. Look closely at the photo above and you can see the two handles side by side, like a two parallel semaphore trafficators at rest
No wartime vehicle event can be complete without at least one Jeep, and this was no exception. I’m no Jeep expert, so I’m happy to let you tell me about these two examples.
Clearly, one is in US Navy spec, and on in Army, complete D-Day 1994, the 50th anniversary commemoration, honours.
The American Army obviously had a large and important role in the liberation of Europe, for which so many are grateful even if the cars were a little too large for some of our towns and cities.
This Buick Roadmaster 8, dating, I think, from 1940-41, carries insignia to denote some authenticity to its provenance and relevance. For comparison with the Citroen, the largest of the European cars here, the Buick is 215 inches long; the Citroen a mere 175 inches (actually 3.27m, of course). Interestingly, the Buick’s 126 inch wheelbase is only four inches longer than the Citroen’s, even if it weighs around twice as much.
The focus of this post is not really the cars, even if the Buick is keeping the attention the youngster in the photo, and if an event like this can stimulate his interest in classic cars them I’m all for it, but is on the people, in France, in Britain and the Commonwealth, from occupied Europe and from America who planned, led and served in D-Day and the Liberation of Europe, and on those who paid the ultimate price. If the Buick helps him understand the relevance of the events of 70 years ago, and the benefits all of us living in Europe now have from them, I’m sure we can support it.
So many of us owe so much to those involved in so many ways in D-Day and the events after it that the very least we can do is remember them, and their fallen comrades. Perhaps, most of all, we should just say “Gentlemen, we thank you,” and “Messieurs, nous vous remercions.”