If you ask anyone to name a Second World War military vehicle, I will guarantee that the ubiquitous Jeep would be at the top of the list or very near. Such is the way in which this iconic vehicle has been absorbed into modern day legend. What is not known is that the Jeep is in fact a complex little vehicle which evolved continually throughout WW2 making it a somewhat different vehicle to which it started out. Some of the changes were through necessity due to shortage of raw materials such as rubber, others were to tweak the design to make it more purposeful. If you attend historic and classic vehicle events where the Jeep is displayed you will often be presented with the John Wayne representation of the vehicle in its American guise; however, the Jeep was to be found in every theatre of war during WW2 with most armies including USA, Britain, Canada, Russian, China and many more, but importantly for this short article the Australian Army!
I will quote a few figures to give some idea of the evolution of the humble Jeep, they are open to some conjecture as views differ slightly depending on the source. Nor is this article intended to provide a history of the development of the Jeep something which has already been the subject of many books and still remains not completely covered.
Willys-Overland and Ford, under the direction of Charles E. Sorensen (Vice-President of Ford during World War II), produced about 640,000 Jeeps towards the war effort, which accounted for approximately 18% of all the wheeled military vehicles built in the U.S. during the war. Of this number Very Eary Production (VEP) accounted for only around 7% of the vehicles. Willys model MB (Slat Grille) accounted around 25800 of which only the last 5,112 were made with glove boxes. The Slat Grille Jeep is easily identifiable as the radiator guards were made of light flat section iron bars, arc-welded to form the guard, this was replaced with the typical pressed steel version around May 1942. Slat Grille Jeeps are rare!
The Jeep on display at the Armed Forces Day is one of the ‘VEP’ Willys MB Slat Grille versions with glove box, a rare survivor from WW2. What makes its survival even more extraordinary is that it served with the Australian Army from 1942 until disposal on 7 November 1960. It was imported to the UK in 1994.
The vehicle has a date of delivery of 25/03/1942, and chassis number 123045. Due to the efficiency of the Australian authorities who recorded all their military vehicles in registers which survive to this day it was possible to ascertain much about the vehicle. This included its WW2 bonnet number (79545), original engine number and 1943 engine exchange number which is still in the vehicle. Jeep 79545 was one of the first 250 Jeeps ever delivered to the Australian Army, records show that she became operational on or around 13 July 1942. The vehicle was subject to a number of specialised modifications to equip it for jungle warfare, including repositioning of rear shock absorber mountings to raise the rear to provide better ground clearance. In addition, the factory finished olive drab paintwork was ‘resprayed or hand-painted’ on exposed surfaces with a darker green containing fine sand; traces still survive on the vehicle. A storage box retaining panel was attached to the floor by the rear seat. There were a number of other changes made which this vehicle displays but not easily seen.
The vehicle has just completed a three year ‘sympathetic’ body off restoration during which as much of the original paintwork and features were left undisturbed. Paintwork has been restored as per original WW2 Australian Army jungle preparation so in places ‘overspray’ of accessories can be seen which is deliberate. While stripping back the original layers of paintwork a faint white ‘kangaroo’ over ‘boomerang’ was identified on the body (tub side). From this we were able to ascertain that the Jeep served with the 6th (Australian) Division in Papua New Guinea fighting against the Japanese Army. So, when you look at the Jeep please remember she served operationally in a brutal theatre of war which makes her survival even more amazing, more importantly please spare a moment to remember the men who did not come home!
Aitape, New Guinea. Owing to jungle tracks in the area being impassable in some spots, jeeps are forced to take to the beach.
A jeep, no. 917 of 6/84, with logo of a kangaroo over a boomerang, is ploughing through the surf on the way to the front line. (Courtesy AWM)