Miles of smiles. Armour & Embarkation – WWII tank ‘experience’ for the 72nd anniversary of D-Day

Mark Barnes recounts the wonders of the third running of Armour & Embarkation in the beautiful Dorset countryside recalling the American build-up for D-Day.

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The convoy drives down past the Armour Centre at Bovington, which is also home to the world famous Tank Museum.

I always have a great time in Dorchester. I like the people and the atmosphere and I have survived liver crunching nights in several of the pubs. I will always be grateful to the staff of the casualty department of the town’s hospital who put me back together after a calamity with a Sherman.  The place means an awful lot to me.

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Gentle rain on the Friday evening only added to the atmosphere as the armour was prepared for the big day.

It all started in the summer of 2010 when the first Armour & Embarkation convoy swept into the town on a stunning day when the impact of seeing tanks, half-tracks and a host of trucks and jeeps shepherded by a swarm of outriders was really quite profound. I said at the time that it was the Liberation of Dorchester and the townsfolk turned out to welcome us in good numbers. But they got careless and we had to go back and liberate the place again in 2012. The weather offered up an on off summer not unlike the one we are experiencing this year, but the second outing was still fabulous.

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After leaving Broadmayne we had a brief stop for one of the vehicles to do some running repairs.

Four years on from that classic and here we were back again.  The organising team had expanded and we had a new basecamp at D5 in the village of Broadmayne. This is an original D-Day marshalling location where American tanks and vehicles were gathered. You could feel the history. One of the people whose house backs on the field obliged by playing period pop music and the strains of an air raid siren. It was all a bit surreal. The rain held off.

This time round the convoy included two Shermans, two Stuarts, an M4 High Speed Tractor and thirty-five other vehicles including half-tracks, an M8 armoured car and a lot of big trucks including two Macks. We had three Ward La France wreckers and a Diamond T. A majestic AEC Matador added to the big stuff.  There were no less than twenty motorcyclists working as shepherds for the caravan of khaki. As ever, there was a moment of immense anticipation as we pulled out of camp and got on to the highways of Dorset.  I sat in the back of a jeep driven by Callum Courtney, an experienced parachutist who has thrown himself out of a Dakota to enjoy the top end of the living history experience. I was happily snapping away as Adrian Scott drove his M4 HST a few feet behind.

Everyone I could see had a big cheesy grin on their face.

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The faces of Dave Allaway and Callum Courtney are a picture of determination as they edge their jeeps across Moreton ford.

We drove down to Moreton ford where a crowd had gathered to see the vehicles cross. Heavy rain had swollen the stream and there was little room for error as the jeeps made it over, their drivers a picture of concentration. The motorcycles used the footbridge that was just wide enough for a Harley.

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No such worries for Chris Till and Jim Clark as they cross the ford in their Shermans.

After a break we headed into Bovington past Clouds Hill where TE Lawrence lived out his last days of solitude before his fateful motorcycle journey to immortality.  We drove down past the Armour Centre and into the Tank Museum. This, for me, was the most surreal part of the trip. I have been to Bovvy to watch others put on a show enough times, but here I was doing something unique in company with many new and old friends. It doesn’t get much better.

A few circuits of the muddy arena were followed by a long break for lunch and a rest.  I went off for a look at Michael, the first Sherman to arrive in Britain and the world’s oldest surviving M4 Medium. We hit the road once more; it was time for the main event, our latest Liberation of Dorchester.  On the way we had the Diamond T on our tail and there were moments when the Spielberg film Duel seemed real.

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No event is complete without a bunch of crazy Dutchmen.

The convoy rumbled down narrow lanes startling cyclists and farm animals as we closed in on the old town. The convoy stopped on the outskirts while I drove into town with Jack Beckett and Dawn Phizacklea to get the lay of the land. The place where we formed up will forever be known as Armour Corner.  The run into town was the best yet and there were a huge number of people on hand to greet us. The convoy parked up by Brewery Square, the modern complex that replaced the derelict site we stopped at six years ago. I spent quite a long time helping the young and old climb in our jeep to have their photos taken.  Some lucky sods got themselves a beer or two, I was happy with a coffee. There would be time for beer later.

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We had our very own biker gang in khaki.

It was carnival day and there cannot be many that have a sixty vehicle convoy head theirs.  Dorchester loved us.  The feeling was mutual. I doubt I will ever experience anything like it again. The run back was pretty smooth and it was time for a few drinks and a most welcome hog roast at the Broadmayne village hall.  We were elated and knackered in equal measure.

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The hour or so we spent parked up in Dorchester had its moments!

Sunday was a different day altogether. The weather broke and the rain came down in sheets. The convoy split into two groups – the heavy armour went into Weymouth for the town’s war weekend parade for Armed Forces Day.  The rest of us convoyed to Portland where we visited the location for a new museum dedicated to D-Day and the embarkation of American units for Normandy founded by Steve Ellis-George.  There was time for a tea or something stronger and then we made the run back.  I sat in an open topped jeep driven by Jack Beckett. I had my cameras wrapped in a waterproof top. I could get wet; the kit could not. Dave Allaway, the jeep’s owner, kept station with us on his Harley and we couldn’t help but laugh as we sat at traffic lights in the downpour.  It was a classic moment. There are no photos, just treasured memories. A hot shower and a couple of large G & T’s restored my constitution.

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Let the carnival begin. The big stuff gets under way

Armour & Embarkation 2016 was a huge success. It was a testament to the hard work put in by Jack Beckett, Jim Clark and Adrian Scott to make it work. A massive thank you must go to Frazer Nash and Richard Cutland from WarGaming.net for their support and help.  Big thanks go to Steve Ellis-George for providing the campsite and making the whole weekend run smoothly.  We wish his museum venture well. The staff of the Tank Museum were great sports. The bikers, led by Peter Brown, were the real stars yet again. We had a khaki biker gang on the road and the imagery of it all was sensational. Crossing the ford at Moreton was a special moment in a day of wonderful experiences but the carnival atmosphere in Dorch was something else.

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Thank you, Dorchester. Sitting up high in a Mack was a great way to appreciate how many people had come out to greet us.

The miles of smiles will stay with me for the rest of my days.  The two previous events were wonderful and have their own place. This third run was truly outstanding.  I doubt there will be another. Dorchester is a wonderful town, but the people are a bit careless with it and maybe they will need liberating again a summer or two from now. Only time will tell.