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Posted on Oct 7, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Nellie – Churchill’s Mechanical ‘Mole’

By Carlo D'Este

Authors write and publishers decide. The books we write as authors are subject to the whims of publishers who decide how much will be spent producing a book. For the author this generally means any manuscript deemed too long must be reduced in length to accommodate the bottom line. I’m in the process of editing “down” the length of my forthcoming biography of Winston Churchill’s military life, which is now tentatively scheduled for publication in August or September 2008.

This month’s article is the original version of a heretofore-unknown account about Churchill and his role as the purveyor of innovative new ideas, something he embraced his entire professional life. Chances are the final version in the book will be condensed. The full story is well worth the telling. It involves one of the most unique ideas that ever flowed from Churchill’s inventive mind. It spanned two world wars and culminated in World War II when he was First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time (September 1939 to May 1940), and Prime Minister and Minister of Defense from May 1940 to the summer of 1945. World War I frustrated Churchill beyond measure. He had viewed first-hand the senseless slaughter of the trench warfare in France that had since 1914 turned the war into a hopeless stalemate. There were, he argued, other means of breaking the stalemate and winning the war. He was receptive to and advocated any workable idea that would bring this about. One of them was called “Nellie” – and it was another of the unfulfilled ideas that Churchill had been nurturing ever since World War I.


* * *

On November 9, 1916 he had written a memo entitled “Mechanical Power in the Offensive” in which he outlined the use of an armored trench cutter that “to achieve decisive results we must be able to make an advance of 7,000 or 8,000 yards, thus capturing the whole line of the enemy’s guns.” To accomplish such an objective, Churchill decreed that the Royal Navy design a trench digger that would assist the infantry moving safely behind it to move forward and overcome fixed positions. The machines he wanted built would “roll paths or grooves, smooth and flat, across the terrain. Everyone will be able to follow them.” He envisioned deploying these machines, which were to be followed by a number of small trench cutters “to consolidate the work already done by the larger machines.” (1)

The gentleman with the blacked-out face is Winston Churchill

Although the idea never took root, a quarter century had failed to dim Churchill’s memories of World War I, the endless stalemate, trench warfare, and the senseless slaughter that devastated a generation of Britons. Nor had France and Germany lost their reliance on static defense lines. Millions had been poured into France’s flawed Maginot Line that extended only as far as Belgium and was easily circumvented in May 1940. The Germans likewise had made it a priority to establish their own Maginot Line, the so-called West Wall (“Westwall”), usually called the Siegfried Line by the World War II allies. Although there already existed less formidable World War I defenses called the Siegfried Line along the French border, after seizing the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler reinforced and extended the line to a distance of 392 miles, from Switzerland to the Dutch border. A half million workers of the Todt Organization were utilized to build a series of deep defensive positions centered on some 18,000 trenches, fortified bunkers and tank traps called dragon’s teeth designed to slow (long enough to bring up reinforcements) but not stop an armored advance. (2) However, at the time it was built between 1936 and 1940, its primary purpose was to protect the Third Reich from an attack from the west while Germany dealt with Poland, and, later, Russia. Although daunting in appearance, the existence of such fortifications failed to sway modern battlefield strategists like Patton, who once declared that the Siegfried Line and its static fortifications were “monuments to the stupidity of mankind.”

It was into this atmosphere of outdated siege warfare, and the misguided French Maginot Line mentality that Churchill advanced his idea for a revolutionary new machine specifically designed to enable the infantry to safely breach Germany’s vaunted West Wall. The author of the only book ever written on the subject writes that: “In 1916 Churchill’s trench-cutters would provide a clear line of attack on the German trench positions; now, in 1939, his objective was similar – a concerted attack on Germany’s West Wall. A fleet of his ‘Moles’, as he termed them, would advance simultaneously from their base close to the Maginot Line, and cross no-man’s-land until they arrived right up against the defenses of the West Wall. The noise of their advance, made during hours of darkness, would be drowned out by a suitable artillery barrage.” (3) In a near repeat of his actions in 1915 with the development of the tank, Churchill summoned the Director of Naval Construction, Sir Stanley Goodall, and directed that he and his engineers turn the idea into reality.

[continued on next page]

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  1. This isn’t the first publication of this scheme. I remember reading a considerable article on the whole project in a military magazine in the 1970s. There were several colour pictures of the machine, including it digging a vast trench.

    General Ironside was at heart a cavalryman and seems to have harboured hopes that such a machine would clear away the barbed wires and machine gun emplacements leaving clear routes for cavalry charges.

    Hitler loved big projects involving lots of concrete and one way of avoiding service on the deadly Eastern front was by pandering to this taste.

    None of the vast building projects in France were ever intended to be completed. The important point was to simply keep building and away from the Eastern Front until the war was over.

  2. At 0900 November 11th, the frustrated cavalry generals, including Winston Churchill, were at last able to launch possibly the largest cavalry charge of WW1 into the German lines.

    Note the timing against an exhausted and hungry enemy. Just how rapidly the Germans were able to set up machine guns in retaliation is now uncertain. Although perfectly legal not something to be proud of.

  3. Nellie was tried out and information on the machine can be seen at Clumber Park Worksop Nottinghamshire. Trials were held on the South Lawn and evidance can still be seen

  4. my farther acutally drove this machine at the clumber park trials, he was there when chruchill attended and demonstrated the machine.