Roger Pugh's 2014 book on the Elveden Explosives Area

The Great War of 1914 to 1918
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Bury St Edmunds and surrounds
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Picture Page 2a - Tank training at Elveden Explosives Area


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This picture comes from the book, "Eye Witness", by Ernest Dunlop Swinton. It shows the tank known as "Mother", which was being tried out in January, 1916, at Lord Salisbury's Hatfield Park. Over time it had several names, including Big Willie. (Little Willie had been an earlier prototype tank, of a more conventional square appearance.) Both prototypes had been built by William Foster's of Lincoln, already established as traction engine builders. In February, 1916, orders were placed for delivery of 150 machines with Fosters and with the larger Metropolitan Carriage Company of Birmingham. It was realised that a much bigger, isolated but accessible, location would be needed to carry out training and proving operations of so many machines in utmost secrecy.

The first landship ever made was known as "Little Willie", which was a reference to Kaiser Wilhelm. This machine could cope with gunfire and some barbed wire, but had trouble with its tracks coming adrift in hard conditions. It also failed to meet the requirement to cross a five foot trench. Before it was even finished, its designers had moved on to the larger "Mother", which had tracks around the whole body. However, it went to Elveden and eventually to France.

On 15th February, 1916, Colonel Ernest Swinton had been put in charge of identifying a suitable location, finding volunteers and then training them for tank crews. (Officially "To raise and command the Tank detachment.") In 1932, as a retired Major-General, he published "Eyewitness" which included a description of the development of the tank, and his time at Elveden.

The 25 square mile area chosen for the training ground is shown on this map. This map was published in Roger Pugh's book, "The Most Secret Place on Earth", and was supplied to him by Daniel Tatnell. It is believed to show the outer perimeter of the restricted area, which stretched from the A11 in the west as far as the Bury to Thetford railway line in the east.

All the roads into the area were closed off and the few farmer inhabitants were moved out. Warning signs were erected that Elveden Explosives Area contained deep perils to trespassers. The "pins" are to indicate the main tented encampments which would later arrive at Canada Farm and Bernersfield Farm. A 700 feet long railway siding would be built in just one week off the Thetford line near Culford Lodge Farm to unload the tanks. Canvas screens were erected to conceal these activities from passing trains.

It took three battalions of the Home Defence Force's Pioneer Corps, (about 3,000 men), some six weeks of digging to create the trench works of the mock battleground. One million sandbags were filled and deployed as part of trench construction. Here we see Royal Defence and Hampshire soldiers with digging tools at North Stow. (However, as this picture was taken by the civilian Walton Burrell, it is very likely showing the work needed to fill in and restore the area of trenches after the tanks have left for France, and the need for security is somewhat relaxed.)
(Picture Source - Suffolk Record Office, Walton Burrell Archive)

Before the tanks could arrive, there was a massive earth moving operation planned to re-create a 1.5 mile wide section of the front line trenches in France. These included British support and front lines, No Man's Land, and German front, support, second and third lines of trenches. Two or more massive craters were excavated by explosives, and a German strong point, or redoubt, was set up at North Stow Farm.
(Picture Source - Suffolk Record Office, Walton Burrell Archive)

This map was published in Roger Pugh's book, "The Most Secret Place on Earth", and is understood to be from the original period. It shows the massive extent of the works undertaken in record time. The red lines show some of the main trenches dug to copy a real section of the lines in France. The wiggly lines were the communications trenches built to link the defensive positions. The farm at North Stow was at the centre of operations. The discolouration below the map is due to age and to wear and tear. Unfortunately, other parts of this map are missing.

A sample of the security pass needed to get past the guarded perimeter, and into the Explosives Area. As well as trench builders it took about 700 men just to mount the perimeter guard, with more brought in from line regiments in surrounding camps for special occasions, when extra security was required. The Royal Defence Corps supplied 450 men, with the rest from units like the Hampshire Regiment, and even a troop of Indian cavalry on horseback.
(Source - "Eye Witness" - Swinton)

The name "tank" was itself a cover name in 1916. The original idea had been approved by the government's 'Landships Committee', set up in June 1915, and so landship was the closest thing to an official name for the new armoured fighting machines. Swinton wrote that the code name "tank" was in use from 24th December, 1915, and that workers who built the machines were instructed to tell anyone who asked, that they were building water tanks for the army in desperate need of water in the deserts of Mesopotamia. Here we see the cover story being elaborated further. This tank, one of the first to be loaded on a railway waggon to be sent from the Lincoln factory to Elveden, was painted with cyrillic lettering. It is thought to say, "With care to Petrograd".
(Picture source - Roger Pugh "The Most Secret Place on Earth")

Swinton's design for the uniform badge of the tank crews. The first production tank was delivered by rail from the factory on June 18th, 1916, and a total of over 50 machines had arrived by mid-July. The prototypes "Little Willie" and "Mother" had already been delivered by 4th June. The newly recruited tank crews were, at first , given a series of names, culminating in the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps.
(Source - "Eye Witness" - Swinton)

The artist Solomon J Solomon was enlisted to design camouflage for the new weapons. He visited Elveden and also went to France to study the soil and vegetation there. In June 1916 Solomon began painting the first tanks in a mixture of pink, grey, green and brown blotches. This picture shows a modern attempt to reproduce this camouflage, which was soon replaced by a uniform khaki brown once in the field in France.
(Picture source - Roger Pugh "The Most Secret Place on Earth")

The Suffolk Record Office has this picture labelled as "Quarry pit, West Stow, Suffolk....Showing tracks of tanks". It seems likely that this is, in fact, one of the craters deliberately produced by explosives to simulate the Western Front. It is more likely to be at North Stow than West Stow.
(Picture Source - Suffolk Record Office, Walton Burrell Archive)

One of the objectives of using armoured fighting machines was to deal with barbed wire defences. Originally the army had expected shell fire to destroy the wire, but this never succeeded. The tank could crush and tear through wire as well as cross over trenches, as proved at the Elveden Training Area.
(Picture Source - Suffolk Record Office, Walton Burrell Archive)

North Stow Farmhouse was turned into a German strongpoint by the engineers creating a mock battlefield. However, it soon became clear that the tankmen needed to be able to practice firing at targets while on the move. Swinton persuaded the government to acquire the house in order that it could be shelled by tanks. Here we see the house being repaired following damage by the tanks' machine guns and six pounders.
(Picture Source - Suffolk Record Office, Walton Burrell Archive)

Tank training at North Stow produced destruction of farm buildings and the digging of trenches to test the machines' ability to cross them. The well drained Breckland soils were completely different from the mud which would be encountered in France.

Royal Defence Corps soldiers are seen here closing trenches at North Stow, after the Mark 1 tanks have been sent off to France. These trenches were dug in order to test the performance of the experimental tanks over them prior to deployment in France. This whole area had been under top security until the tanks were despatched.

Here we see rows of tents making up a camp at West Stow.

During the period from May 1916 and into 1917 the British secret weapon, codenamed "oil tanks for Russia" was being tested on a large area of the Elveden Estate, stretching from Barnham to Elveden and Icklingham. This whole area was ringed with army security. One such camp was at Icklingham, and this comic postcard must have sufficed for many army outposts, with just a change of name at the bottom.

This picture of soldiers apparently relaxing on a steam roller is held by the Suffolk Record Office. The location is described as, "By the cottage right towards West Stow from Culford". Possibly this steam roller was needed to help with the reinstatement of the earthworks of the mock battleground.

Sandy Barracks was the apt name given to an army camp at Culford Heath, Suffolk. It was located quite close to the Bury St Edmunds to Thetford railway line, but otherwise it was totally isolated. The photograph shows a group of soldiers in front of a row of the flint cottages which made up the small estate hamlet of Culford Heath. The picture from SRO is dated 18 September 1916, and shows soldiers of the Black Watch.

This photograph of Black Watch Highlanders on Culford Heath, Suffolk, is dated 13 September 1916, by Suffolk Record Office.

The initial draft of 49 landships had their first success on the Somme. Their initial task was to take the villages of Flers-Courcelette, which they achieved on September 15th, 1916. H M Landship C5, named Creme de Menthe by its crew, was commanded by Major Arthur Inglis of No. 1 Section "C" Company, of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps. (as the unit was known at that time.) Creme de Menthe played a major part in this first action by being part of the over-running and destroying of the machine gun emplacements in the local sugar factory, and was immortalised in this pottery replica, sold cheaply all over the country.

Inglis named all the tanks in his section after exotic drinks beginning with the letter "C", including Curacao, Champagne, Chartreuse, Chablis etc..
(The tank made famous for the report that "A tank is walking up the High street of Flers with the British army cheering behind," was machine number D7, known as 'Dinnaken', commanded by Lt Stuart Hastie of "D" Company.)

The first tanks were sent into action on the Somme before they were fully prepared. This view of a Mark 1 tank shows one of these first tanks tested in the Brecklands of the Elveden Estate. This picture is by Ernest Brooks, an official war photographer, taken at the Battle of the Somme on 26th September, 1916. Getting into action in September was a remarkable feat considering that the first prototype, "Mother" was still unproven in January of that same year.

Only "C" and "D" companies with a total complement of 49 tanks were in France in time for the Battle of the Somme. Only 32 were fit to take part in the attack on Flers ten days earlier, and numbers were depleted further after that action. "A" and "B" companies would not be sent to France for some weeks, but first saw action on November 14th, 1916.

Following the actions on the Somme a further 1,000 tanks were ordered, and it was decided to move all future tank training and development from Elveden to a much larger establishment at Bovington in Dorset. After 27th October, 1916, the Elveden HQ was moved to Bovington, where the first nine of the new tanks arrived in November.

This view of Ingham railway station by Walton Burrell shows Royal Defence soldiers leaving for Masham in Yorkshire, and is dated 11th February, 1917. These were the men who had spent some months in building, and then destroying, the mock battlefield at Elveden.
Other soldiers were continually arriving for training at Ingham Camp, and then travelling onwards to their next destination. Today this site houses light industries. The railway station at Ingham was on the Bury to Thetford line, and other notable army camps such as Sandy Barracks and Barnham Camp were also along this line.

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