Discovering – and being inspired by – a war hero and motoring innovator

| 5 Sep 2013

After a week of sun, sand and cidre in the Brittany region of France this August, the Port family travelled back up towards the ferry port at Ouistreham in preparation for one last night of ‘roughing it’ in a modern campervan.

Instead of just heading straight for the campsite though, we attempted to eek out as much as possible from our holiday by visiting various WW2 memorials and sites before preparing for our return to Blighty. 

The final stop was Pegasus Bridge: scene of a crucial military exercise in June 1944 where six Horsa gliders and 181 men would be involved in securing the bridge and therefore limiting any German reaction to the Normandy landings. 

The current Pegasus bridge is longer and stronger, but the original bridge can now be found in the grounds of the Pegasus Museum, just yards away from the crossing, and forms the basis of an extremely impressive exhibition and collection of artifacts and memories from those involved.

Outside, an unassuming hut-cum-shed houses a series of profiles of those involved in the events of 5 June 1944 and one of them caught Mrs P’s eye more than the others – that of Bob Stoodley.

It goes without saying that I am always humbled at the tales of anyone involved in military campaigns – be it WWI, WW2 or some of the more recent involvement in Afghanistan for instance, but there were a couple of extra bits of information on Bob Stoodley’s profile which were of interest as an aside to his, and his colleagues’ astonishing efforts in the conflict.

Born in 1923, Robert Stoodley worked for his father’s mechanical engineering business in Wiltshire and at 17 volunteered for the army. When he learnt of the creation of the Parachute Regiment, he applied to join and subsequently served with 9th Parachute Battalion and 22nd Independent Pathfinder Company.

Bob was one of the first to land in Normandy on D-Day and was subsequently wounded and captured by German forces before being transported to Germany where he remained in Stalag 4B medical unit until the end of the war. 

Having been discharged as medically unfit for future service, Stoodley returned to his father’s business and went on to make a career as an engineer – working in Nigeria as chief engineer for Volkswagen importers. Owning a Beetle obviously meant that Mrs P’s ears had pricked up at this bit of information, but the next line in the profile offered something also of interest to the both of us  – that upon his return, Bob worked as an engineer for AC Cars in Thames Ditton. 

If that wasn’t enough, then later in his busy career, he was also involved in two expeditions to Everest in 1972 and 1975 and became a member of the International Karakoram Expedition, taking a fleet of Land-Rovers overland across Pakistan to the Chinese borders and up the notorious Karakoram highway.

Amazingly, Bob also found time to design an all purpose off-road vehicle: the Yak Yeoman. The concept was for a car in knockdown form that could be assembled in pretty much any country with basic tooling and, while looking not dissimilar to a Moke, the two-wheel-drive car featured a locking diff and a winch to help cope with challenging terrain.

Stoodley applied for a government loan for the project, but unfortunately did so at the same time as a certain John de Lorean and, although that particular venture was relatively short-lived, de Lorean’s successful application meant that Stoodley’s Yak failed to go into production.

While on holiday, I turned 40, which, despite always saying that I wasn’t bothered in any way, turned out to be a rather sobering day which found me pondering what I had achieved in my four decades on the planet.

I came to the conclusion that I’d done all right – nothing spectacular perhaps, but reading Bob’s profile made me realise that it’s possible to pack so much into a life which I’m pleased to say he is still living and now (I believe) approaching 90.

“Life begins at 40” so the saying goes, so although I’ve left it a bit late to play a pivotal role in a major conflict, by Bob’s inspirational standards I reckon I’ve got another 50 years to pack as much as I can in!