Tanks for the memory


A fine book by two of Walsall’s greatest historians: Jack Haddock and Ruth Vyse.

Here’s one I spotted courtesy of the kind person who bought me a copy of the 2004 book ‘Walsall Remembered’ by the great Jack Haddock and Ruth Vyse; years ago (and it was years) we discussed the legend of tank testing at Shire Oak Quarry during the Second World War – a passage in this book adds to the mystery.

Longer standing readers may recall we discussed the legend, of which I was initially very sceptical, but eyewitness accounts and incidental details cropping up over the years seem to indicate something was going on in the quarry with military vehicles, but we never got to the bottom of exactly what, or where they came from.

This passage (clearly written by Jack) adds some detail:

As I have said, during the autumn of 1941 I left school to commence work at Birchills bus depot. This meant less time for cycle rides but every available moment that could be spared was taken to observe the changing local situation. For one thing the Yanks were about to invade England. A few troop trains began to be seen passing Ryecroft Junction full of Gls. It was while we were waiting for one of these troop specials that we heard a new sound from the main Lichfield Road direction. We immediately pedalled to investigate and were thrilled to see our first tank, which I believe was a Valentine. It transpired that, owing to the war in the Western Desert of North Africa, the manufacture of tanks became a priority and orders for these tanks were given to the Patent Shaft Company of Wednesbury.

The reason for tanks rattling through Walsall was to test them for desert conditions. The most suitable areas for these tests were the sand pits near Shire Oak and Canwell, near Sutton. I well remember one of these monsters approaching The Bridge from Bradford Place with The Bridge traffic policeman standing well back from the spinning tracks. It clattered by Sister Dora’s statue complete with its lethal gun, passing the Town Hall, here, incidentally, one of the first tanks ever made was on display in 1916 to raise money for the First World War.

Does this add anything of use? I’m thoroughly convinced armoured vehicles were being tested there now, but I’m still curious as to why there, and where they might have been coming from.  A tank uses a heck of a lot of fuel, and in a time when fuel was in short supply they can’t have been going far under their own steam, surely?

I’d still love to know moire about this curious bit of lost history.

Please, if you can help with this or add to it, comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com.


A tank visits Walsall in 1918 fundraising for the war effort in 1918. Image from Walsall Local History Centre.

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5 Responses to Tanks for the memory

  1. Andy Dennis says:

    Tanks would also tear up the road pretty badly, especially when turning. Usually, they were transported on the backs of lorries or rail wagons. The first GIs arrived in January 1942 (soon after Pearl Harbor), but long before the victory at El Alamein in the Autumn of that year. The war was still going badly for Britain and the Allies, with Russia seemingly on the brink and Japanese troops rampaging towards Singapore, so I wonder if the tank (as opposed to a column or columns of tanks) in Walsall was some kind of morale booster, or perhaps a political message from the somewhat beleaguered Churchill to say we were doing our utmost to fight back.

  2. Neil says:

    Hi bob, great work as usual. Isn’t it common sense that tanks and other armoured vehicles would be tested in a desert like environment. The West Midlands had multiple manufacturers of these vehicles in bham, wednesbury and wolverhampton and the quite shallow quarry spread over a large area would’ve been ideal to test and evaluate the vehicles. Not so much for training soldiers but on a smaller testing basis maybe. In the early 80’s my mate’s house backed onto the quarry and as kids we spent a lot of time exploring the quarry long before it’s nature reserve days. The place was littered with all sorts of concrete structures that would’ve made good challenges for testing purposes. Sadly they all got buried or smashed up (apart from the viewing platform) as part of the 90’s beautification process. Has anyone got any photos of the place in its earlier state I wonder? Cheers, Neil

  3. An advanced searched on The National Archives web site reveals papers on the testing of military tank type vehicles for performance on grass, gravel and sand between 1939 and 1945 and also field type trials, some include photographs. You would have to visit Kew however as the records have not been digitised. Seems the WO were particularly concerned with design and performance during 1943/44

  4. Pedro says:

    Swimming Tank….scared Nazis into surrender….secretly made in Birmingham.

    From the heart of England, from Metropolitan-Cammell Carriage and Waggon Company’s works in Birmingham, came the swimming tanks which rose in scores out of the sea and on to the Normandy beaches and scared many Germans into surrender. The story was released during the weekend.

    The duplex-drive DD tank, as it was called, was one of our secret weapons…..the design and application of the idea were entirely carried out in Birmingham….

    …”we were the largest manufacturer of tanks in the country, and had been producing the 20-ton Valentines since 1940. It was 1942 that the authorities cane along and said they wanted us to to make it swim….The trials, which were, of course, carried out in the strictest secrecy, were made at a lake at Warmley, near Sutton Coldfield…..the tanks were operated in the dark, or on rough weather, when the crew had to be below deck by gyro-compass and directional firing…

    Birmingham Post, September 24, 1945

  5. Clive says:

    On Google Earth. Have a look at the image location at 52deg37′.88N and 1deg54.82′ W at the time line 1945, there are objects in nice neat rows, which may be under camoflage nets!
    The image is of Shire Oak, next to the sand and gravel pits. Anyone got an idea of what they are?

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