This year saw the fourth running of an event which holds the distinction of being a tank event held on public roads. Mark Barnes sets the scene and tells the story of the Liberation of Dorchester. All images by the author.
It was the quiet that got to me. It was like one of those movies where the climax of a dramatic scene runs without sound. It might be after a big race or even a battle, but there is that quiet. The denouement. Reflection. Validation. A wave of calm. Dorchester was like that. The hush. The rush. The ambulance heading somewhere, overtaking the tanks, blue lights and siren running, The people in the road. The bewilderment on the faces of car drivers as we cleared junctions. The engine noise and the hubbub. I didn’t hear any of it.
Go back twelve years to 2010 and you would hear people look at the classic and well-established Tanks in Town event held in Mons, Belgium, and people here in England would say “It could never happen here”. But, in the summer of that year it did just that and those of us who attended the very first Armour & Embarkation were buzzing. We had taken part in an actual live tank event with armour on public roads. The town of Dorchester had greeted us warmly and the feeling was the event had been a success when so many doubters had prophesied otherwise. We had an “I was there” camaraderie that lasts to this day.
The event was repeated in 2012 and 2016 and things just got better. It felt, to me, that with armour owners involved closely with the planning, that confidence in how things would go permeated to those with similar heavy metal in their yards. This isn’t to say it was all entirely perfect; how could it be? There are so many factors that can intrude to create ripples, but from my perspective as a photographer and enthusiast, it all seemed to fit.
A&E has given me some of my very best days on the military history circuit. I’d done all three before this year and that warm buzz never fades. I’ve taken some decent pictures and the hope was there that episode four would offer all the same possibilities.
Then came Covid and the projected 2020 running was postponed. We all have our stories to tell of those times. But, in a way, the timing has worked in favour of the event, because the appetite for attractions after so long in lockdown must surely have encouraged wider interest in what was about to happen.
Vehicle numbers were up, the armour content was up, tails were up. All the relevant agencies remained on board and were accommodating. Ok, there are blots on the landscape; the sharp rise in petrol prices and the cost of living in general have had an impact.
European owners have been discouraged by the red tape and realities of bringing kit to post Brexit Britain. But the event went ahead. It was without doubt an absolute classic.
Ok, I’ve set the scene and the anticipation I felt as I drove into the village of Broadmayne had propelled me from my home in the south-east of England. The drive around London and down into the west can be a proper bitch. It was ever thus. But Dorset loomed as green and beautiful as ever. I can’t afford to live there, but hey – it has become something of a second home of sorts. These days I have progressed from tents to Air B ‘n’ B for my sins.
When I arrived on Thursday afternoon the sun was blazing and the field – the one time ‘D5’ used by American forces ahead of D-Day was relatively quiet. This would change. Over the next 48 hours a continuous rumble of transporters and vehicles running under their own steam arrived. Everyone was smiling. At least I like to think so. The organising team were constantly busy, and I was grateful for avoiding the stress.
A group of us took some vehicles to the local school for an educational visit. The kids and the staff loved it. A local radio reporter was there to record events. Everything was so positive. Those happy kids soaking up the history made us all feel pretty damned good. There was a second school visit later. During the early evening we arranged a line-up of some of the Shermans taking part for a photo opportunity. The sky was cobalt blue, and it was a pretty cool moment as things go. I really like saying ‘some of’.
There was still a lot to do, but not for attendees like me. However, I hung around and by well into the night ended up taking one of the organisers on a labyrinthine tour of the imminently closing take-away food outlets of half of Dorset. We finished up in Weymouth forcing down some fine dining at the Golden Arches. It would have to do.
Saturday rose much cooler and cloudy. We gathered at ‘D5’ and there was a palpable sense of anticipation by the time of the driver’s briefing at 0800. The instructions and few resultant questions were aired. It was time to go. People were making final checks on their motors, uniforms were pulled on and for some, permanent waves waved (don’t ask me for the correct term!).
The vehicles were arranged ready to go out in order. Motorcycle outriders and a few jeeps first, then the heavy armour, followed by over a dozen halftracks, a long list of heavy kit – from a Pacific Dragon Wagon down to a number of GMCs. There were Weapons Carriers and more jeeps to the rear. In amongst this were rarities such as an M2 halftrack mounted with a Maxson quad Fifty. A Loyd Carrier towing a 6 pounder AT gun, a big Mack NO truck towing a 155mm Long Tom and a stunning M4 High Speed Tractor towing a 90mm AA gun; one of only two examples of this combination known to exist.
There were five M4 Shermans, two M18 Hellcats, an M10 Achilles and a couple of M8 Greyhounds. Ninety-two vehicles in all and around three-hundred people in a convoy that stretched for over a mile on the road.
The head of the convoy shifted up to the gate of ‘D5’ and the tension was palpable. I rode in one of the leading jeeps, driven by Nigel, whose other job is commander of Tiger 131 at Bovington. He proved to be a calm voice in a world of noise and organised chaos. With whistles blasting and engines revving the convoy headed off.
The streets of Broadmayne were lined with people. Can I be honest? The rest of the day up until we arrived in Dorchester was a bit of a blur. Adrian Scott’s Sherman was never far behind as we made our way along shady tree lined road or out into the bright sunshine of farmer’s fields and small hamlets. I spent scattergun periods fiddling with my camera settings as we dipped in and out of the Dorset Bocage.
There was a brief splash of rain. We stopped first at Moreton where the convoy split between those crossing the ford and those taking the easier way round. This included a staff car, the Pacific and the Hellcats. Weekend MAMILs were generally patient with us and two ladies on horseback provided the cavalry element. I got to see some of the lighter stuff crossing the ford after a busy and interesting time up on the main road.
We moved on to The Tank Museum at Bovington, where the paying visitors got a hell of a bonus for their money. The big stuff parked up in the arena and the rest filled part of the large carpark. I had an ice cream.
A couple of hours later we moved on to the Royal Armoured Corps’ driver training course set close to Clouds Hill, home of Lawrence of Arabia.
We cruised around the perimeter and some of the armour had a run at sections of the course. Billowing clouds of dust mapped their progress. If you’ve seen A Bridge Too Far, the huge column of MVs looked broadly similar to the scene where 30 Corps is lined up to liberate the Netherlands. Some of us beat the death out of a ‘Morning, Alan” joke I won’t bore you with. Watch the movie!
We drove into Dorchester, a lovely town I recommend you visit. Whereas we had run our convoys as part of the town’s carnival on previous occasions, this time it was all about Armour & Embarkation. The people of the town were primed that a huge column of vehicles would be there. Key roads were closed. Everything was ready. Fine, but the impact of cruising into town with thousands of people lining to see us the pavements was eye popping, jaw dropping and all those other descriptions for a bout of shocked bewilderment.
One estimate is that five to six thousand people came out to see us. It was an unforgettable experience. Grown men were in tears. This was emotional stuff. Flags were flying and people cheering and applauding. We used to joke that the event was subtitled The Liberation of Dorchester. This time it seemed to be true. The looks on our faces spoke volumes. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything like it, again, in, my lifetime.
We stayed for a few hours, getting a beer, fielding questions about vehicles and kit, listening to the singers performing forties standards. One of us was trying to save a camera ruined by a burst can of coke. He failed. I almost forgot to get something to eat.
The whole scene needed to be absorbed. It was surreal. It was time to go. Engines started up and whistles blew. Time for some more “Morning, Alan!”. The drive back to Broadmayne was a little fragmentary and certainly it was subdued. That was until we arrived in the village. This time even more people were there to greet us than those who came out in the morning. This was all getting a bit daft. I guess you had to be there. ‘D5’ was a welcome sight.
I went back into Dorchester for a pub dinner with a friend and colleague and we both agreed this was a remarkable day to be alive. We have done all four A & E events and he still has that bloody ladder he perches on to get his pix. The town was buzzing from the afternoon’s craziness. There was a noisy ‘hen do’ getting started in the pub and it was good to have slipped away from 1944 for a few hours in the present day. I had to work on my pix to get them into a national newspaper and ladder man drove away with talk of the following day.
There was time for a drop of whisky at the home of one of the organisers and by the time I’d sent my images via FTP it was well past one in the morning. My day started again at 0630.
Sunday was grey and there was a bit more rain. The convoy split. A number of motors headed into Weymouth for the town’s commemorations for the armed forces and the rest of us went on a topsy-turvy serpentine route to Martinstown, a traditional halt for A & E convoys past. It was pig roast and beer time.
More photos, more talk about the day before, lots of smiles. A lady said she liked having the tanks there because they slowed down the usual traffic. Could we come back every weekend? In no time at all it was all whistles and engines. The mood was still bright, but there was a palpable sense that most people just wanted to get back to camp. So, we went. A lot of people began packing to leave straightaway. We managed to get in a group photo of most of the halftracks. There were twelve in shot.
The evening was a massive de-stress of beer and barbecued protein followed by too much bourbon, for one soul in particular, and yours truly taking him off for another visit to the Golden Arches. I got to my bed just after 0100 having got the sod home safe. And that was that. A & E 2022 was done bar the clearing up and a few late departures.
My drive back to Essex was as hit and miss as ever. The real world returned. I had to drive into London for work the next day. This meant an 0430 start to beat the rail strike induced traffic. It was another two days before I felt even vaguely awake.
Armour & Embarkation 2022 was an absolute classic. It was organised superbly by a wonderful group of people who deserve full credit for putting on an event that will live with us for ever more. I’ll picture the stunning drive into Dorch until I turn up my toes.
There were hiccups; a couple of broken vehicles and one had a fire. It isn’t easy to keep close on a hundred vehicles in order, but the brilliant escort riders – the legendary Don Rs, worked wonders. They are the glue that bonds A & E. But we can all give ourselves a bit of kudos for being part of a legendary weekend. The ‘I was there’ glow persists.
People have said it couldn’t be done. In light of the war in Ukraine, there are some who thought it shouldn’t be done; but it was done and none of us who attended are sorry. I seriously doubt the people of Dorchester, Weymouth, Bovington and Martinstown feel differently. Whether there will be another remains to be seen.
Many will be busy commemorating 80 years since D-Day and the last big 30 Corps event in 2024. There were some whispers that maybe, just maybe, Armour & Embarkation might return in 2025. There is nothing wrong with optimism. If it happens, I will be there.
Mark Barnes is a writer, photographer and picture archivist. He is the author of If War Should Come (2021) and The Liberation of Europe (2016). His work has appeared in The Times and a number of magazines and websites. Follow Mark’s military history picture archive work on Twitter mbarnesn16
Armour & Embarkation 2022 thanks the following companies for their kind & generous support: Allied Forces Canvas, Jeeparts UK, The Victory Show, Axholme Signs, Track & Wheel Services, Green Barn Services, Armoured Engineering, Hughes Movie Supplies and SOF Military