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- 02 June 2004
With the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaching it is interesting to recall one of the more significant contributions that Suffolk made to the success of that invasion. It was to train some of the troops that would be in the first wave of the assault on Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’ - the men of the 79th Armoured Division.
Plans for a return to the continent of Europe had been developing ever since the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. However it was only by 1944 that the huge amount of men and equipment necessary for such an invasion would be ready. In the meantime the Germans had been building the ‘Atlantic Wall’, a series of fortifications along the coastline that they occupied, from northern Norway to the border with Spain. In August 1942 these defences were tested in the disastrous raid by the Canadians at Dieppe. Very few tanks had been able to get off the beach to help the infantry, and the engineers who, without protection, were to help them do this suffered horrendous casualties from the German guns. The raid showed what some people already knew – that it was very difficult attacking a heavily defending coast, breaking through the defences and getting off the beach. A lot of work would need to avoid another Dieppe on D-Day.
Experiments were already taking place in various parts of Britain looking at the problems of landing in the teeth of enemy fire. These experiments led to tanks that would swim ashore to support the first waves of troops; tanks that could flail the ground ahead of them to explode the mines that littered the beach; flame throwing tanks; and tanks that would help the engineers deal with other beach defences - clear the concrete and steel obstacles, destroy pillboxes, and cross the anti-tank ditches that the Germans had dug to prevent the Allies getting off the beach.
In April 1943 all this work was brought together under one man, Major-General Sir Percy Hobart (known to his men as ‘Hobo’), and one unit – the 79th Armoured Division. His job was to produce from all this development work fully trained and equipped units that would help the Allied forces break through the Atlantic Wall. He had just over a year to do it. The 79th Armoured had a unique role, and the vehicles that equipped it were so strange that they became known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.
In April 1943 Hobart moved his headquarters to Hurts Hall, Saxmundham. His Division was organised into a number of Brigades, each Brigade looking after a particular type of ‘Funny’. In particular, Suffolk was to be the proving and training ground for one of these Brigades, the 1st Assault Brigade, Royal Engineers. It had been decided that to protect the engineers from the expected hurricane of fire on the beaches, and to enable them to carry out their various tasks successfully, they needed to be put into tanks. The tank that was chosen was the Churchill tank. This tank was well armoured and large enough to carry a lot of the equipment the engineers needed, both inside and out.
Headquarters of the 1st Assault Brigade was established at Brandeston Hall, near Framlingham. Two thirds of the Brigade (two Regiments) came from former Chemical Warfare units, who had been stationed in Northern Ireland. 5 Regiment arrived in Leiston in May 1943, before moving to Thorpeness later in the year. 6 Regiment started off at Butley before moving to Livermere camp, near Bury-St-Edmunds, in September, and was headquartered at Ampton Hall. The final piece of the jigsaw was formed by 42 Regiment joining in September. 42nd Regiment was formed from 42 (East Lancashire) Divisional Engineers, a Territorial unit, reinforced by two other territorial Companies, one from Lancashire and one from London. 42 was headquartered at Gorse Hill, Aldeburgh. The basic unit of the Brigade was the Assault Squadron, of which there were 12. By the time of D-Day each Squadron would consist of about 26 tanks and about 300 men.
However in mid 1943 the situation was much different. All the Squadrons had were a few ancient Churchills to train on. The Sappers were mostly not familiar with tanks, and though they were well versed in the normal tasks of the engineer (such as lifting mines and using explosives) they were going to have to become familiar with much new equipment and learn many new techniques. Joe Williams remembers, “We were given four training tanks to play with. The old man came out and asked ‘Does anyone know how to drive these things?’ One guy, his name was Dave, stepped forward. We just stood there. Dave was told to ‘put them in the field over there’. He started off ok, but when he thought he was going into third gear he went into reverse – the tank shuddered to a halt. The old man went over and asked what happened – he had written off the tank. He was put on a charge and in his paybook was a debit of £35,000 for one Churchill tank; but the maximum he could be charged was a little under £20 – they actually took that out of his pay!”
First of all tank crews had to be formed. Drivers had to be drafted in from the Royal Armoured Corps to give instruction, and many were to be transferred to the Engineers. Ron Payne was one of the drivers sent to Suffolk from the RAC. “We were under the assumption that we were going to train up some drivers, but after a few months word came that we were incorporated into the Squadron”. These experienced drivers sometimes resented their transfer to the Engineers at first, but though there was occasional friction initially between the RAC and Engineers this did not last. As they were to discover the crew of a tank became a close-knit community, learning to trust and depend on each other, and there would be no room for bad feeling. However there could be leg pulling. Mick Goldsmith remembers that the RAC drivers “ere allowed to wear their prized black berets, and when in action “they took care to exchange their berets for a helmet before opening the hatch – ‘you are afraid of getting your b***** beret dirty!’ we remarked”.
By the Autumn of 1943 the Brigade was fully formed. They could begin to develop techniques on the best way to use their equipment, and to train in earnest. What was so special about their equipment? Their tank was not the normal Churchill tank for one thing. It was known as ‘Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers’, or AVRE for short. The main difference from the normal Churchill was that the main gun was replaced with a powerful stubby mortar, called the petard. This threw a 40 pound bomb, nicknamed the ‘flying dustbin’, on a wobbly flight for about 80 yards, but it had a quite shattering effect on concrete positions especially. Up to 24 of the big bombs were carried in the roomy AVRE. The crew also had plenty of ‘standard’ explosives in their Churchill, with names like General Wade, or the Beehive. These could be planted against a pillbox or concrete obstacle using the tank as cover, and then blown up from the safety of the tank. Churchill tanks normally had 5 crew, but in the AVRE there was a sixth member, the demolition NCO, who looked after this huge amount of explosive.
Explosive also formed the basis of the ‘Snake’. This was up to 400 feet of steel pipe stuffed full of explosive. It was pushed ahead of the AVRE into a minefield and detonated, thus clearing a path. ‘Conger’ was towed on a trailer; a rocket with a hose attached was fired into the minefield, the hose then being pumped full of nitro-glycerine before being detonated. (The explosive had to be handled with great care; later in the war several tons was accidentally set off in one Squadron’s area and many were killed and tanks destroyed). Other explosive devices rejoiced in the names of ‘Goat’ and ‘Onion’; these were carried on a frame in front of the tank and planted against a wall before being blown.
There were other less lethal devices too. The AVRE had attachments to carry various other bits of equipment. It could carry a small bridge on the front capable of spanning a 30 foot ditch. The bridge weighed four tons. The weight made the AVRE somewhat unwieldy, as well as greatly stressing the front wheels; there are stories of the friction resulting in fires in the wheels! To fill in ditches the AVRE could carry a fascine, a large roll of fence paling or brushwood. It was about 8 feet in diameter and weighed a huge four tons, and it could take several hours to build. The AVRE could also carry long rolls of matting on a cylinder (called a bobbin); the matting unrolled in front of the tank and was to cover soft patches of sand so that following vehicles would not sink. There were also trials carried out using with ploughs to see if these could help in digging up mines.
To test out all this equipment certain areas of Suffolk were set aside as training areas. Here this secret work could be carried out away from prying eyes. In these areas replicas of the obstacles and concrete structures that would be encountered on the Normandy coast could be constructed, and techniques developed on the best way to deal with them. Trenches were dug to practice dropping the bridges and fascines accurately. Minefields were laid to test the effect of the Snake, Conger and ploughs.
At first there was little of the special equipment, and training was carried out over the winter of 1943-4 with what resources were available. Gradually more equipment arrived, though certain items were arriving as late as May 1944 (including its main weapon, the petard!). There were three main areas where this work was carried out. One was in the fields around Livermere camp, north of Bury. Another area was in the Saxmundham/Leiston area. The main area was to the north west of Orford – called the Orford Battle area. This had been established in July 1942 by the evacuation of the local population - dozens of families from the villages and farms in the area. It comprised the area from Tunstall forest in the west to the River Alde in the east, from Orford in the south to the Iken Marshes in the north. (Training areas were also set up in other parts of the country, but most of the Engineer training took place in Suffolk).
The crews of the tank squadrons generally lived near the training areas. In the west of the county was Livermere camp. This was located in two wooded areas north of Bury St Edmunds (the woods are still there). The men lived in Nissan huts, which were built among a plantation of pine trees. The tanks were parked under other tress in a nearby small wood, and there were hard standings for the tanks laid out in a ‘herring-bone’ shape. Bob Seth remembers: “We mostly drove the tanks on the main roads. We once drove through the main streets of Thetford, and when turning had difficulty in avoiding the shop windows. We drove to Thetford forest for machine gun practice. From the hard standings we travelled about half a mile to the training grounds, which were just fields. The fields were on the edge of a forest plantation and they had massive depressions in them, which we used to drive the tanks up and down and lay the fascines in. There were sufficient depressions in the ground to enable us to lower the bridge. We also had a concrete structure to simulate the German Atlantic wall defences, which we used for laying the bridge against, and also to fix the General Wade charges”. Martin Reagan also remembers Livermere, as the place where the Squadron took delivery of their first batch of Churchills. “We must have had a model of every Churchill ever made. We made trips to the Orford Battle Area from there with the tanks on transporters. We would go to Orford for a few days via Ipswich then return. On transporters the tram cables in Ipswich caused us some concern”.
Crews did not stay on the Orford Battle Area but travelled there from billets around. One town where a number of the men stayed was Aldeburgh. One of the Squadron’s, 284, moved from Livermere to Aldeburgh. Martin Reagan remembers occupying a girl’s school. ‘We had the tanks in the school grounds [Belstead House] for a spell to waterproof them, then took them into a local river some 6 feet deep for testing”. When at the Orford Battle Area the tanks were parked at Iken. “To get there we had to cross a small stone bridge with the tanks [at Snape], and I am sure the bridge was nowhere near a Class 40 as it should have been!” (The Churchill weighed nearly 40 tons; a Class 40 bridge means that it can bear up to 40 tons). One Squadron second-in-command, Roland Ward, recalls that whilst at Aldeburgh the tanks “were parked at Blaxhall Heath, but everyone lived in Aldeburgh and went down daily in lorries. Only a small number of guards were left there at night”. Major Ward also remembers his Squadron (617) carrying out a paper-based exercise in January in the Town Hall. At the time the CO, Major Alexander, was sick and Major Ward remembers reporting back to him in his sickbed!
As mentioned, the Squadrons of 5 Regiment were based for a time around Thorpeness. One of them was at Alnmouth, and another at West Bar; a third was headquartered ate Summerhill School, Leiston. Most of the Regiment went to Fort George in Scotland for a time in early 1944, departing from Wickham Market station. The tanks were driven carefully on to flat cars. Both in Aldeburgh and Thorpeness the crews were quartered in civilian buildings.
The other area where crews lived was in the Butley area, east of Woodbridge. Two of the camps were tented – under the trees in woods called ‘The Thicks’ and ‘The Clumps’ (still there today). There were hardstands for the tanks in the woods and nearby. On moving to the Thicks the diarist of one Squadron commented, ‘This camp is entirely tented, and heat, light and telephone are all absent’. To the north of The Thicks was Wantisden (or Butley) camp, which had more permanent structures.
So what did the Assault Squadrons (as they were called) get up to?
(See part 2)
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