by Nick Reed.
As we move into November, NCI St Alban’s Head and NCI Swanage are preparing to take part in Remembrance parades around the area.
It’s a privilege to walk beside colleagues from the Coastguard and the Lifeboat to remember those who lost their lives in conflicts around the world.
As a maritime organisation our thoughts will be, particularly, with those who have lost their lives at sea.
Last year I talked about the loss of the armed trawler Arfon, sunk off St Aldhelm’s Head, and this year I thought it would be pertinent to mention another wartime tragedy, this time in sight of our station at Peveril Point. Lying on the seabed in Poole Bay are the remains of seven top-secret amphibious tanks which sank in April 1944, sadly with the loss of six soldiers.
The tanks were lost during Exercise Smash, which went on for nearly three weeks and was the largest ‘live fire’ exercise in Britain before D-Day. It was designed to practise the different phases of an amphibious invasion.
Just over two months later many of the troops took part in the real thing, D-Day.
At dawn, on the morning of April 4, the coastguard lookout at Peveril Point, along with the soldiers manning the gun battery, would have seen a small invasion force appearing out of the gloom and heading towards Studland Beach. This was the start of Exercise Smash 1.
A key part of the exercise was to test, under battle conditions, the effectiveness of the top-secret duplex-drive amphibious tanks. The vehicles being used were Valentine tanks crewed by soldiers of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. Powered at sea by a propeller, and kept afloat by an inflatable canvas skirt, the tanks were designed to ‘swim’ ashore from landing craft and arrive on the beach at the same time as the troops.
Thirty-two tanks were launched from a position about 5km east of Studland Beach. As they left the safety of the landing craft, the weather changed and a heavy sea built up. Sadly, six of the tanks were swamped and sank quickly after being launched. A seventh was blown on to the Training Bank before slipping off and floating towards Bournemouth.
To preserve secrecy, naval gunfire sank this tank. Of the 22 crew members whose tanks sank, 16 were picked up by other vessels in the exercise. Six men were drowned and of these only one body was ever found.
This was Lt Gould, a 20-year-old subaltern, and he is buried at St Mark’s churchyard in Highcliffe. All of the soldiers are remembered on a memorial at Studland overlooking the scene of the disaster.
This was placed there on the 60th anniversary of the tragedy and plays an important role in commemoration services on the anniversary of their sinking and on Armistice Day.
The wrecks lay, forgotten, on the seabed before being rediscovered by scuba divers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1990s, concerns were raised about the possible removal of live shells from the wrecks and to make them safe the Navy blew up five of them. Although heavily damaged, they are still recognisable as tanks and lie just to the east of the shipping channel.
Two largely intact tanks remain, and they are now a popular dive site for divers from all over the country. During the summer our station log regularly records the dive charter vessels, based on Swanage Pier, heading north-east towards the sunken WWII relics. As they lie on a flat, sandy seabed the two structures have become havens for wildlife. It is not uncommon to almost have to push the fish out of the way to see the tanks.
As well as large wrasse and pollack, sinuous conger eels lurk inside the turrets and in the twisted remains of the tracks and engine compartments. It is not hard to think of this colonisation as being another tribute to drowned soldiers. It’s as if ‘life comes out of death’.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the sinking, the Isle of Purbeck Sub Aqua Club, based at Swanage Pier, carried out a survey of the remains and researched the history behind the exercises and the sinking of the tanks. During the course of the project, they found a survivor from the sinking and pictures of five out of the six men who drowned.
As a result of their work, and work carried out by Bournemouth University, the tanks were designated as scheduled ancient monuments, giving them the same protection as places such as Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall.
On November 11, at 11am, the watchkeepers on duty will observe the two minutes silence. Looking out to sea, both stations will be able to see the sites of wartime tragedies close to our coasts and it will be hard not to reflect on the sacrifice the soldiers and sailors made. In our heads will be four words that sum up the Remembrance events, ‘We will remember them’.
This is NCI St Alban’s Head and NCI Swanage listening on Channel 65. NCI out.