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The book that revealed how East Anglia played a vital role in the First World War

PUBLISHED: 12:55 08 November 2014 | UPDATED: 12:55 08 November 2014

Secret weapon: a camouflaged tank at Elveden bound for the Somme - and a place in military history.

Secret weapon: a camouflaged tank at Elveden bound for the Somme - and a place in military history.

Archant

It was the best-kept secret of the First World War. Now, a century on, a new book tells how a once remote corner of East Anglia played a vital role in defeating the German army. STEVE SNELLING reports, in the second of our Great War features for Remembrance weekend.

Subterfuge: a tank with Russian script and devoid of gun sponsons being loaded at Lincoln for delivery to the training range at Elveden. Subterfuge: a tank with Russian script and devoid of gun sponsons being loaded at Lincoln for delivery to the training range at Elveden.

For all the security and the subterfuge, it was impossible to disguise the fact that something highly unusual, highly secret and highly important to Britain’s war effort was going on.

Roads had been sealed, residents ordered to quit their homes and a ‘no-go’ zone established around a 25-square mile swathe of desolate heath fringing the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford.

Hundreds of soldiers were drafted in to protect the ‘hush hush’ site from prying eyes, leading one officer to observe that the new camp was “more closely circled than the Sleeping Beauty’s palace, more zealously guarded than the Paradise of a Shah”.

But, as thousands more troops, including a unit made up almost entirely of Welsh miners, laboured inside the heavily-guarded perimeter, mystery inevitably fed rumour.

Model battlefield: over a million sandbags were used to help replicate a Western Front trench system on the Norfolk-Suffolk border in order to test the tanks. Model battlefield: over a million sandbags were used to help replicate a Western Front trench system on the Norfolk-Suffolk border in order to test the tanks.

Most fanciful of all the weird and wonderful stories that grew up was the notion - never discouraged - that they were digging a secret tunnel that led all the way from East Anglia beneath the North Sea into Germany!

The truth about the remarkable undertaking taking place on Lord Iveagh’s country estate in the spring of 1916 was rather less far-fetched, but hardly less incredible.

For behind the fiction of ‘The Elveden Explosives Area’, the deliberately off-putting cover name for the top-secret military site, lay the first and most elaborate training ground for a revolutionary new weapon designed to break the deadlock on the Western Front and lead the Allied armies to victory.

Now, almost a century later, the extraordinary story of how a remote rural backwater in East Anglia came to play a key role in the birth of armoured warfare has been fully chronicled in a new book which is being launched next week.

Battlefield builders: part of the army of pioneers who spent six weeks creating the tank testing range at Elveden. Battlefield builders: part of the army of pioneers who spent six weeks creating the tank testing range at Elveden.

The Most Secret Place on Earth, by Thetford-based retired local government worker Roger Pugh, represents the fulfilment of a two-year personal odyssey to unravel the facts behind Elveden’s little-known but hugely significant brush with the history of the tank.

It is a truly epic saga, charting the transformation of acres of heath and farm land into a make-believe battleground and the world’s first purpose-built tank testing range as well as detailing the fortunes and misfortunes of the intrepid band of Elveden pioneers who blazed a trail for others to follow.

Yet what Roger regards as the best-kept secret of the First World War revealed itself to him only by chance some eight years after moving to Norfolk.

“It all began by accident,” he recalls. “I was in a pub, the Elveden Inn, and I just happened to notice a photograph on the wall of a first world war tank. That was my first acquaintance with the fact that something interesting connected with the war had happened at Elveden and it just set me off.”

Tank encampment: part of the troops' tented accommodation at West Stow. Tank encampment: part of the troops' tented accommodation at West Stow.

His journey of discovery has seen him travel in the track marks of the original crews as they journeyed from the make-believe battlefield in north Suffolk to the real battlefields of northern France. “With my son Tim, I ventured to all the places where the men who tested their tanks at Elveden fought and fell,” says Roger.

It was a humbling experience that helped to bring alive tales of ingenuity and incredible fortitude which had endured in letters and diaries held in military archives but had seemingly been all but forgotten in the area so closely associated with the development of one of the most influential weapons of the 20th century.

“During the course of my research,” says Roger, “I found that virtually no one I met or spoke to in or around Thetford and Elveden had the slightest clue that something of this importance, and this was truly very important, happened hereabouts in 1916.

“The only parallel I can draw with it is the code-cracking operation at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. That was ultra secret and yet now we know a great deal about it. Well, in terms of the technology, the secrecy and the value to the war effort, the first training ground at Elveden was just as important in the context of the First World War yet somehow the story has got lost.

“The only explanation I can offer for that is that the army’s security was so good the secret has lasted for the best part of a hundred years.”

And what a story it is. The ‘forgotten’ history of Elveden’s potentially war-winning part in the most bloody war Britain has ever waged is as awe-inspiring as it is astonishing.

So secret was it that when King George V came to see a tank demonstration a cover story had to be created with officers and men initially being told he was a visiting Russian general to avoid drawing undue attention to the camp.

But even before the King’s clandestine appearance, there was a cloak and dagger air about the place. From its very inception, in the spring of 1916, when the first tanks, shrouded in tarpaulins, were delivered from factories in Lincoln and Birmingham to a specially built railway siding at the dead of night, ‘The Elveden Explosives Area’ was a site of intense if mysterious activity.

Not far from where modern-day construction workers are completing work on a vitally-important strategic highway, a vast military labour force was employed in transforming a chunk of prime shooting country into a carbon copy of a typical Western Front battlefield.

Just days after Lord Iveagh’s swift decision to surrender land to the military, trenches complete with underground shelters and machine-gun bunkers were being dug and farmhouses converted into fortified strong-points. North Stow, one of seven significant farms swallowed up by the tank training ground, became part of a mock German redoubt and a series of defences that incorporated a staggering one million sandbags quickly sprouted forests of barbed wire.

Between opposing lines of trenches, a convincingly shell-pocked no-man’s-land took shape with at least two massive craters created by underground mine explosions adding to the realism.

Designed by Captain Gifford ‘Slosher’ Martel, a Royal Engineer officer who became one of the army’s leading tank tacticians, the 1½-mile wide ‘war zone’ was, in the estimation of one senior officer, the nearest thing to a real battlefield that “time, experience, labour and money could make”.

However, it wasn’t only the nature of the training range that made an impression on the first tank crews to arrive at Elveden.

Lieutenant Vic Huffam, a Norwich-born engineer who had spent seven years in Australia before enlisting in the Norfolk Regiment, was among the early recruits to reach Canada Farm via a gateway that still exists just off the A11.

He recalled being surprised to see Indian cavalrymen and elderly soldiers, the First World War equivalent of the Second World War’s ‘Dads’ Army’, guarding a series of perimeters ringing the battle area. “We were told there were three perimeters around us,” he wrote. “Not only could we not get out, no one could get in, and that our future existence depended on one thing – absolute secrecy.”

To that end, the Elveden site was particularly well chosen. Aside from its coincidental setting near to the Burrell workshops that gave ‘birth’ to the world’s first self-laying tracked vehicle, the mildly undulating countryside was, in the words of a pre-war guidebook, “some of the wildest and least populated land in East Anglia” where it was possible “to walk eight or ten miles without seeing more than one or two houses”.

With most of those few houses taken over by the army, the land around swarming with armed guards and freckled with dire warning signs, the likelihood of anyone catching a glimpse of the British army’s most secret weapon was further reduced.

Even then, given that the camp at its peak would have been temporary home to more than 2,000 troops, Roger thinks it extraordinary that no one let slip the truth.

“I can only imagine that people were inspired by a mixture of patriotism and fear of the consequences lest they give the game away,” he says. “They simply didn’t want to jeopardise themselves or their country with the result that neither the local people nor, more importantly, the Germans had the vaguest idea of what was going on.”

According to Roger, the only people ‘in the know’ apart from the tank men themselves were the Royal Flying Corps pilots and observers based at nearby Snarehill aerodrome.

To Colonel Ernest Swinton, who was responsible for establishing the tank testing range at Elveden, the airmen were “a nuisance and a danger”. His initial response was to try and create a ‘no-fly’ zone. When that failed, he decided to make a virtue out of a necessity.

“Under a pledge of secrecy the nature and purpose of the Heavy Section [the name of the tank unit] was divulged to the local officers of the RFC,” he wrote. “This eliminated unhealthy curiosity.”

Security thus ensured the experimental training programme rapidly gained momentum. Following the arrival of the first two tanks – the prototypes dubbed ‘Little Willie’ and ‘Mother’ – on June 4, 1916, there was a steady flow of the so-called ‘landships’ to Elveden.

By mid-July with the British offensive on the Somme already flagging in the face of fierce German resistance, more than 50 tanks were busily churning the heath with a growing sense of urgency.

For the volunteer crews, some of them veterans of the Western Front and others selected for their mechanical expertise, Elveden represented their initiation to the novel concept of armoured warfare. Excitement mingled with a mixture of shock and awe as they caught their first glimpse of the revolutionary new weapon.

One man recalled how the arrival of tanks, “rumbling and rattling” towards the practice driving ground, had men rushing from their tents, while another spoke of being “petrified” by his first sighting of “awful apparition” of a Mark One tank “with its weird wheeled tail”.

Captain Henry Groves gained an early insight into the likely impact of the weapon on German infantry facing it for the first time. With his company acting as infantry during a mock battle on the Elveden tank range, he recalled: “I was in a building and we were not allowed to look out until a signal was given. I opened the top of a stable door, and there, 50 yards away, was a colossal monster moving along at 3 mph with guns sticking out from all sides. It really made one think…”

Terrifying though it was to be on the wrong end of an armoured assault, life inside the first tanks was unrelentingly gruelling. Roger Pugh details the cramped conditions, deafening noise, carbon monoxide-polluted air, blistering heat and perpetual jarring and jolting that crews were forced to endure as they clanked uncertainly across the Elveden practice range. These men were true pioneers. Everything about their training was entirely new.

By the middle of August, less than three months after the tanks had made their first appearance at Elveden, crewmen gathered on a pine-crested rise near the centre of the mock battlefield to hear a farewell address from the camp’s commanding officer. A little more than a month later, on September 15, 1916, some 32 crews from Elveden clattered towards the ‘start line’ for their history-making attack during which a tank called Daredevil would fire the first shot in anger.

The attack was only a partial success. But, given the haste in which they were sent into battle, the achievement of the tank trailblazers was a remarkable one and helped point the way to the British army’s greatest battlefield triumph two years later when an offensive spearheaded by more than 450 tanks would deal the first in a series of blows from which the German army would never recover.

In Roger Pugh’s eyes, it was a stunning victory which had its roots in a vanished training area that he believes is worthy of lasting commemoration. “To stand on that heath land at Elveden and to consider that this was the birthplace of that final victory is quite something,” he says.

“It should not be forgotten and it is my ambition to see some kind of memorial put up to honour the memory of the tank pioneers and Elveden’s place in this important story.”

Until then, his splendid little book will have to serve as mute testimony to one of East Anglia’s most telling contributions to the First World War.

• The Most Secret Place on Earth, by Roger Pugh, Larks Press, £8.50, is being officially launched on Wednesday at the Elveden estate Courtyard Restaurant. Roger will be speaking and signing copies of the book at 3.15pm and 4.15pm.

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