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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

By October 1939 the engineers were busy grappling with the problem. Like its predecessor, the tank, such a mechanical device had never been previously designed. In December 1939, the naval engineers, working closely with Ruston-Bucyrus, a Lincolnshire engineering firm that was at the time the principal maker of earth-moving machinery, had not only produced a working model but predicted that, if given the priority and resources by Churchill, as many as 200 of the machines could be produced by March 1941. (4)

On December 12, Churchill showed the model, which he called by the code-name “White Rabbit Number 6” to Ironside, who was agreed that such a machine offered endless possibilities. (5) The First Lord, said Ironside, “reasoned that, just as the man had had to go underground in the last war, so would the tank have to do so in this. The tank, which had solved the problem of machine-gun fire in the last war, could now no longer face the anti-tank fire . . . I thought we could make a great deal of these machines and the present the first of any possible offensive idea.” (6)

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The original code name was later changed to “Cultivator Number 6,” the name by which Churchill always referred to it. However, in February 1940 responsibility for the project was transferred yet again, this time from the Royal Navy to the Ministry of Supply, which created a secret branch, called the Department of Naval Land Equipment, which was soon shortened to N.L.E. The prototype diggers went by the code-name N.L.E. Tractors and soon came to called simply “Nellie.” (7)

Before development could proceed, Churchill’s immediate problem was to promote the “Cultivator” to his own government and to the French. He managed to do both and to overcome the initial resistance by the French commander-in-chief, Gen. Gustave-Maurice Gamelin, a disastrous, living example of an officer who had no business being promoted to a high rank and position of responsibility. Indecisive, timid, and hopelessly inept, Gamelin had nevertheless climbed the ladder of success by pleasing his superiors. He had no interest in mechanization and spurned the ideas of the enterprising young colonel, Charles de Gaulle, and thought air power of no value. Gamelin did not even possess a radio or a dedicated telephone line in his headquarters in the Paris suburb of Vincennes. (8)

What its creators produced was truly gargantuan and in action resembled a ship plowing through dirt instead of water. Nellie was constructed in three sections totaling eighty-two feet and weighed 130 tons. To design, produce and test a machine of such immense proportions took nearly two years. In great secrecy the test of the prototype was held in a remote corner of a barren heath in Nottinghamshire called Clumber Park on July 25, 1941, and again in August for the army General Staff. On November 6, 1941, Churchill traveled from London by train and automobile but had to walk the last kilometer through boggy ground to the site of the test. Churchill had refused the Wellington boots set aside for him and arrived in a thoroughly irritable mood, a cigar clamped in his mouth for his first glimpse of the great “mole” machine he had pinned so much hope upon. The machine performed adequately and, as was his habit, Churchill inspected everything in sight but was unusually quiet during the demonstration. Like a giant scythe, Nellie dug an enormous trench five feet deep and more than seven feet wide at a speed of roughly one-half mile per hour. Afterwards, he walked along the inside of the trench while above him someone carried a ladder for him to climb up. Ignoring the ladder, Churchill walked to the end of the trench, climbed out and, saying little, departed.

In the wake of the German occupation of France it had become clear that these cumbersome machines would play no active role in a war that (the Siegfried Line notwithstanding), was no longer characterized by static front lines. During the trial witnessed by Churchill, the machine filled with oil fumes and became “an inferno of heat, noise and fumes.” Despite its problems the test proved that such a trenching-machine could work – at least under ideal conditions. (9) Although Churchill’s Star Wars-like machines were the product of his fertile mind, in reality, as grand schemes, they were scarcely more than fantasy. Their cumbersome weight alone made it impossible for them to ford rivers or circumvent obstacles, climb hills or advance on anything other than the sort of level terrain Churchill had seen in the fields of Flanders in World War I. In May 1943, the War Office officially canceled the project, thus ending the strange saga of Nellie. (10) “I am responsible but impenitent,” he later declared. (11)

Notes

1. WSC memo of Nov. 9, 1916, quoted in John T. Turner, “Nellie”: The History of Churchill’s Lincoln-Built Trenching Machine (The Society for Lincolnshire History & Archaeology, 1988), pp. 16-17.

2. The construction of the West Wall was so massive an undertaking that it consumed one-third of Germany’s annual production of cement. In an eighteen-month period the project utilized more than six million tons of concrete. Fritz Todt (1892-1942), an ardent Nazi who served as Germany’s chief builder, headed the Todt Organization (OT). Todt built a formidable organization that consisted of private enterprise and, later, millions of forced laborers who were employed in support of Hitler’s needs. Whether it was the autobahns, the Atlantic Wall after the fall of France or the West Wall, the OT was there to fulfill Hitler’s needs. Todt was killed in a plane explosion and crash in 1942 while on his way to visit Hitler. (Sources: Turner, “Nellie”, Chap. Two; The Oxford Companion to World War II, [“Todt” and “West Wall”]. On the Internet Wikipedia has a useful description. See also Neil Short, Hitler’s Siegfried Line (Phoenix Mill, UK, 2003).

3. Turner, “Nellie”, p. 21.

4. Ibid., pp. 29-30. The engineers also informed Churchill that a wider version of the digger might be possible that would enable tanks to follow in its path.

5. Churchill fleetingly describes the project in The Gathering Storm (vol. I of his six-volume war memoirs), Appendix J, Book II.

6. The Diary of Gen. Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Dec. 12, 1939, Col. Roderick Macleod & Denis Kelly (eds.), Time Unguarded, The Ironside Diaries, 1937-1940 (New York, 1962), pp. 171-2.

7. Turner, “Nellie,” Chap. Six. 8. Churchill had better luck with his friend, Gen. Alphonse-Joseph Georges, Gamelin’s former deputy, who now commanded French forces defending northwestern France. Georges at least showed more than passing interest in the machine.

9. Not surprisingly later field tests revealed numerous mechanical problems. In addition, the sides of the trench could not be shored up and tended to collapse and would cause problems for the infantry.

10. “Nellie,” p. 73. Photographs of the field test for Churchill on Nov. 6, 1941 (and the earlier field tests in the summer of 1941) are in the Imperial War Museum photo collection and depict the words “Nellie I” painted on its side.

11. “Nellie,” Chap. 9, and Churchill, The Gathering Storm, p. 715. Churchill later commented that he had ordered a total of five machines be kept in reserve in the event they subsequently might be needed. Later, all but one was dismantled. What is thought to have been the original prototype was secretly retained but sometime in the mid-1950s it too was cut up for scrap metal.

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4 Comments

  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.

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