If you attend any military or air show you will see plenty of iconic jeeps in various guises. Over 95 per cent of them will be in American military liveries of some shape or form. The original Ford GPW or Willys MB series – which spawned an entire new type of vehicle – are highly collectable. And not just within the military vehicle enthusiast circles, but by classic car collectors too. Prices anywhere between £14,000 and £ 20,000 depending on age, condition and spec are pretty much the norm.
However, there was another jeep that appeared post-war, which looks almost identical to the Ford GPW and Willys MB series and has had a service career all of its own. These overlooked jeeps you will find at many of the military shows, but most of their owners have given them the look of their wartime American cousin. The French-built Hotchkiss M201, commonly known as ‘La Jeep’, saw service from 1946 to 1981. But even then the last ones weren’t withdrawn from service until 2000, and so deserve a greater reputation than ‘the jeep’s poorer relation.’
At the end of WWII, there were great numbers of jeeps that had been used by the Allied forces scattered across Western Europe, North Africa and in jungle theatres too. Those the Americans didn’t take back or require were sold off to various governments for restructuring post-war armies. Many were sold off as surplus and found new working lives on farms and other industries.
However, the US Army gave the French government 22,000 jeeps, a mix of Ford GPWs and Willys MBs, with the aim of quickly re-equipping the French military. Of these only about half were in a useable condition, so in 1946 the ERGM (Etablissement de Réserve Générale du Matériel Automobile) started to make good as many as possible of the other half. Hotchkiss, a car manufacturer dating back to 1903, based in a north-east suburb of Paris called Maltournée, were responsible for this process for the ERGM. The jeeps that were in the worst condition were broken up and used as spare parts. This created a massive stock, more than would ever be used. Hotchkiss began work on making the other parts required, so that a great many jeeps were a unique mix of new Hotchkiss-made and original Ford/Willys parts.
By the late 1940s the French military wanted to replace the Hotchkiss M201 with the French-designed and built Delahaye VLR. The VLR was technically more complex than the MB jeep, but the French military continually insisted that this was not a problem for them. Yet between 1949 and 1955, only 9,623 VLRs entered service and Delahaye was in dire financial difficulties. Production of the VLR was suddenly abandoned, Delahaye ceased trading and Hotchkiss bought its assets.
Even in 1955, the ERGM was still supplying re-manufactured jeeps using its stocks of surplus parts, with Hotchkiss making up the missing bits. By now Hotchkiss was also manufacturing its own jeeps in France, under licence from Willys, which had been for sale on the open civilian market. They had, at that point, a good understanding of the jeep and had made many improvements on the original Willys MB/Ford GPW design. Though the basic design remained pretty much unchanged, things like stronger leaf springs and more powerful engines set the Hotchkiss apart from the original. The French military, after the collapse of Delahaye, still required a supply of light, all-terrain reconnaissance vehicles. The answer was obvious.
In 1955 the French military bought 465 of the Hotchkiss-built jeeps. This first batch of vehicles was called the Hotchkiss Licence MB, but from 1956 onwards this was changed and they were designated simply as the Hotchkiss M201. Sales of normal Hotchkiss cars went into decline and the company was bought by Brandt, who made household appliances. Owing to the amount of M201s required for the military, production and assembly were moved to a plant at Stains, just north of Paris.
In 1981, with over 8,000 M201s still in service, the French army finally made the decision to replace this now aged vehicle.
The Peugeot P4 (a French-built version of the Mercedes G-Wagen) started to enter service in the same year. The last M201s were eventually withdrawn from service in 2000.
The M201 was defined by the military as a VLTT (Véhicule Léger Tout Terrain) or Light Vehicle All- Terrain and most were used simply as staff or radio cars originally. But as time went on, the M201 saw itself being adapted as a platform to fit various weapons systems. The M40 106mm recoilless rifle, MILAN anti-tank and ENTAC wire-guided anti-tank were all fitted to the M201 platform giving this lightweight vehicle a real punch on the battlefield. These versions were favoured and used widely by French airborne forces as well as elements of the French Foreign Legion. Some M201s were even fitted with surveillance radar dishes.
A Sahara version was developed for French Colonial Forces in North Africa which featured a strengthened chassis, firmer rear suspension and a second fuel tank under the passenger seat as well as a supplementary tool box under the front grille.
Combat operations of note:
Between July 1955 and April 1961, 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1er REP) was based in Algeria fighting the terrorist organisation, the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN) in what was still a French colony. Their task was simply to seek out and destroy the ALN on a ‘shoot to kill’ basis. Jeeps were used to patrol the Tunisian and Moroccan borders to stop supplies of weapons, ammunition and other equipment from getting through to the ALN, and to pursue ALN cells.
- Operation Leopard
On the dawn of 13 May 1978, the Katanga province of south-east Zaire (renamed Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997) was invaded by Angola-based separatist rebels known as the FNLC (Front de Libération National de Congo) or Congolese National Liberation Army. They overran the town of Kolwezi, which was the centre of a major copper and cobalt mining area. There were over 3,000 European inhabitants in and around Kolwezi, mainly mining experts and their families, who were all regarded as potential hostages by Major Mufu and his 4,000 FNLC troops (known more commonly as Tigers). The Zairean army assigned to protect the area fled when the shooting started and the Tiger rebels ransacked the town, raping and pillaging as they went.
On 17 May, believing that the lives of the European residents of Kolwezi were in imminent and deadly danger, the French decided to intervene. In Calvi, Corsica, 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (2e REP) was put on standby and at 0130 on 18 May, the mobilisation came through and Operation Leopard had begun.
It took eight hours to get from Corsica to Kinshasa, then a kit preparation that was cut to the bone, followed by a four hour trip in paratrooper transporters to the drop zone. Included in the kit to take were some M201s, collected from another Foreign Legion outpost in Chad, of which a handful were heavily armed and fitted with AA-52 machine guns.
The first wave of 500 Legionnaires dropped in broad daylight on 19 May into two drop zones near Kolwezi. Without any reconnaissance or support, the Foreign Legion paratroopers were jumping blind and once on the ground (fearing that the Tiger rebels would go on an all-out massacre), it was a desperate race against time to save the lives of the Europeans. Elements of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd REPs quickly fanned out and took key buildings, setting up a command post within 15 minutes of landing.
The Tigers vastly outnumbered the Legion paras and put up a stiff fight to begin with. Soon, though, morale and discipline among many of the Tigers crumbled as the Legionnaires cleared through a large part of the town. Within two hours of the initial jump, the Legion held virtually the whole town and many European lives were saved, although those held hostage at the Impala Hotel were killed long before the Foreign Legion reached them.
By now the jeeps had arrived and patrols were sent out to take the fight to the remaining pockets of rebel fighters. They were instrumental in forcing back the Tiger forces across the border into Angola. Over 2,000 European lives were saved by the Legion’s actions in those few days. On 28 May 2e REP handed control of the city to a multi-national African force and on 4 June returned to Corsica.
The operation came at the cost of the lives of five Legionnaires, with 20 wounded out of the 700 that took part, while 250 of
the FNLC were killed out of a force of 4,000. Rebel losses also included two armoured cars, four recoilless rifles, 15 mortars, 21 rocket launchers and 10 heavy machine guns. The Hotchkiss jeeps played their part in taking the fight to the enemy over a wide area.
- Operation Manta
Operation Manta was the code name for the French military intervention in Chad between 1983 and 1984, during the Chadian-Libyan conflict. Libyan units alongside the Chadian Transitional Government of National Unity (GUNT) rebels invaded Chad in June 1983 but France was initially reluctant to participate. However, when Libya bombed a strategic outpost on 31 July, France started assembling its forces in Chad, amounting to a total of 3,500. Included in this force, aside elements of the Foreign Legion, was the 3rd Squadron of the 1st Parachute Hussar Regiment (1er RHP), who were part of the 11th Parachute Division. Although the Hussars can trace their history back to 1720, they were now in a rapid deployment role and were equipped with Hotchkiss M201s fitted with M40 106mm recoilless rifles and MILAN launchers.
Rather than trying to fight back the combined Libyan/GUNT forces, the French drew a line in the sand and amassed their forces along the 15th parallel, which was later altered to the 16th parallel. A stalemate ensued and eventually a mutual withdrawal of troops was negotiated.
M201s for sale
There are a fair few Hotchkiss M201s on the open market today. Prices vary, but they are going up all the time as they become more collectable. One in really good condition will set you back in the region of £10,000. Others that are road legal and running but require work to bring them up to show condition should be anywhere around £4,500 to £7,000 depending on condition.
I first looked at buying a Hotchkiss about 10 years ago at The War and Peace Show. A load of them had just become available from war stocks and were in immaculate condition, with very low miles. They were only £3,000. Am I kicking myself about missing that one? Without sounding like a scratched record, when looking at one with a view to buying it, do your research well. Know what to look out for, and don’t buy the first one you see because it looks cool. Again, being a member of the MVT (Military Vehicle Trust), IMPS or a jeep society is always advisable, for information and sourcing parts as well as cheaper insurance.
The jeep is such an icon that the Hotchkiss M201 is always overshadowed, which is a great shame. Although initially built as a copy, these lightweight off-roaders had a service career in their own right and were in uniform for just over 50 years. Although the US Willys MB and Ford GPW are perhaps more glamorous in many respects, their service life was far shorter than that of the Hotchkiss. For me personally, I am quite saddened that nearly all the M201s are painted up to look like their WWII US military counterparts, when underneath their Jeep could be a war hero all of its own.
Come the day when I look seriously for a jeep, I will be looking for an M201. All its upgraded and modified parts compared to Willys and Fords make it more useable as well as a more viable option. Mind you, there will be no stars painted on mine.