Motoring: Like a dukw to water: Is it a boat? Is it a truck? Jonathan Sale meets an amphibious Normandy veteran

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AT A flooded gravel pit near Reading, Rex Ward was behaving very strangely. First he drove his highly prized Second World War truck straight into the water. Still not satisfied, he steered his impeccably restored 1944 boat straight towards the bank and felt it crunch up alarmingly over the shallows.

No harm was done in either case, because both manoeuvres were completed in the same vehicle - an amphibious ship-to-shore carrier known as a DUKW. The letter D indicates that it was designed in 1941. U stands for Utility, K refers to the vehicle's dual rear axle, and W denotes its all-wheel drive. DUKW is pronounced 'duck'.

This was just a rehearsal for the Big Push. By now, Rex and his wife, Sheila, should have splashed 28 miles to France for the D-Day reunion of veterans, both human and vehicular. For the 1944 landings, the DUKWs were dropped into the water from ships 11 miles out. Since the war, several DUKWs have made it all the way across the Channel.

Rex, 44, is safety officer of the Military Vehicle Trust - the largest, with 2,500 members, of the British groups of restorers and owners. He will be joining in the huge parade on Arromanches beach tomorrow and returning later in the week - by ferry, this time.

Bernard Venners, another member of the trust, has come along to watch Rex drive his DUKW into the lake. 'We meet once a month in the pub,' he explains. 'It's very important to see who has discovered what in the way of spare parts.' Bernard, who runs a caravan business, owns a couple of ex-British Army trucks, a Karrier and a Humber.

Jeeps are the most practical of military vehicles - and the most common - but some members run to tanks, which can be trundled legally along public roads so long as they are fitted with rubber block-tracks. 'We heard of a tank that had been dug up,' says Bernard. A farmer, whose plough clanked against something metallic, discovered the turret of a Covenanter, a tank which was rumoured to be so unreliable that its crew buried it before it buried them. 'The story goes that there are more underneath,' Bernard adds.

Rex's DUKW escaped the fate of a premature grave. Built in the US, it was issued to the British forces and became part of a later wave of the Normandy invasion. The Army hung on to it until the early Seventies, when it was sold to a farmer who used it in a slurry pit; then it was restored and sold to a contractor who put it to work carting hardcore in the Norfolk Broads. It then went to a film company.

Today, Rex's amphibious craft is worth between pounds 17,000 and pounds 21,000. Its dimensions are more daunting still - a massive 31ft long and more than 8ft wide. It has a flat, sloping bow and, between the wheels at its stern, a propeller and a rudder. A boathook on the front deck is fitted as standard. Reaching the cabin is like shinning up the side of the Ark Royal.

The engine makes a devil of a din and changing gear sounds like an earthquake in an iron foundry. Since the gearbox has no synchromesh, double-declutching is needed for the five high gears and the five low which engage the six-wheel drive. 'I still crash them after God knows how many years,' yells Rex, who drives in stockinged feet for the sake of the paintwork.

Unusually for a dashboard, there are instructions for propeller and bilge pumps. Even more extraordinary, the driver can, without leaving his seat, let down the tyres to give a better purchase on soft soil and sand. Then, thanks to an air compressor, he can inflate them as he drives along.

With a weight of 7.5 tons, and an engine only marginally more powerful than the one in a typical family saloon, top speed is around 50mph - and 8 knots in the water. But Rex is not complaining: 'It has marvellous road handling, responsive in every way, except acceleration. I feel more at home in this than I do in the wife's Fiesta.'

Anyone with an ordinary licence could leap behind the wheel of one of these vehicles - but it would be foolish to do so without help from an experienced driver. For a start, you have to be careful that the rear end of the hull, overhanging far beyond the wheels, does not swing round and wallop another road user.

'A friend of mine in the Army went straight over a Morris 1000 parked on a blind corner, and crushed it. I have driven through London and it is like driving a bus. Even taxis give way.'

No wonder. Driver and passengers are so high that in the petrol station (the DUKW does 10 miles per gallon) I found myself looking down on the top of the pumps. It was like being General Montgomery. I felt as if I was liberating the outskirts of Reading - from

tedium, perhaps.

'I spent some time in one, 50 years ago,' said the gent filling up alongside. It turned out he was a veteran of the Anzio landings.

Our own landings, on the gravel pit by the side of the M4, took place in the sort of conditions that any battle-hardened troops would dislike. It was lovely weather for DUKWs but less agreeable for anyone like Rex, hacking at the bank with a spade to make a rough ramp. Two years ago, when he last took the amphibian into the water, he needed a tow to heave it

out again.

The DUKW turned at right angles to the bank and headed carefully lakewards. Over the low banks its six wheels squelched, and on to the sloping mud beach. As the water became deeper, it sank and sank like a submarine. The surface of the water was now only a couple of feet from splashing over the side. A choppy Channel did not bear thinking about.

Still, the craft carries a 'surfboard' which can be fixed across the front deck to throw back the waves which come crashing over the bow. Rex once took an Army DUKW into 15ft surf and enjoyed it no end.

After a few manoeuvres the boat turned and chugged back to the shore, gradually becoming a truck again. Under the power of both propeller and wheels, the leviathan slowly scrambled through the shallows, rearing up over the bank and on to dry land. Water streamed down its khaki hull.

There were a couple of tiny leaks. Much worse, one of the bilge pumps was not functioning, which could be tricky, miles out from the French coast. As always after immersion, the bearings and axles were now full of water. It is not surprising that the DUKWs had an estimated combat life of only 75 hours.

'They made about 22,000,' says Rex. 'In this country, probably 20 are left and about 200 worldwide.' But why does anyone bother to keep from the knacker's yard these elderly machines of war? 'We preserve them for successive generations, so that there are some tan-

gible objects they can relate to. A DUKW is like a mobile war memorial.'-

(Photograph omitted)