Not long ago, on the anniversary of D-Day, somebody drew my attention to a photo of one of the beaches. A couple of people were discussing it. I was brought into the conversation because in the photo was an armoured tractor, landed to help pull stuff up the beach, or just to get it out of the way.
As an aside, the mate who brought the picture to my attention and sort of provoked this blog was Will Macmillan Jones. If you enjoy space opera, then you’ll probably enjoy his Space Scout series.
Now I was born not all that long after the Second World War. Not only that but I’ve lived all my life on farms and farmers are notorious at not throwing anything out. I remember we used to have a British Steel Helmet, of First World War vintage, which was used to keep nails and bolts in.
On other farms they had a SMLE tucked behind a beam in a hay loft. The SMLE is the Short, Magazine Lee–Enfield, the standard military rifle for two world wars. Whether the home guard never got round to handing them back, or it ended up in the farmer’s hands through other, doubtless nefarious means, the rifle did sterling work shooting foxes; and occasionally rabbits for the pot. Eventually the small stockpile of ammunition was used up, or the rifle got put back in the wrong place and forgotten.
All sorts of stuff ended up on farms. Clothing for example. The army had a serge lined leather jerkin. It was probably developed for the trenches, keeping you as warm as a greatcoat without trailing in the mud. That sort of thing makes it equally valuable on farms and I can remember seeing men wearing them, some from their time in the army in the First World War.
And of course there was the machinery. The war was when agriculture in the UK finally turned from the horse to the tractor. Driven by a shortage of men, (and probably horses) because the men had been taken into the army, the end of the war didn’t mean the process stopped. Few men who left the army on demobilisation wanted to go back to farm work. There were jobs in town which paid better, for fewer hours. So mechanisation continued apace.
One of the ironies was that it was the horsemen who were promoted to being tractor drivers. Given that horsemen were often the least mechanically minded people on a farm, this didn’t always work as well as it might have done. But the horse was replaced by the tractor and the horseman had to change. So they did. But I can remember my father’s generation reminiscing about horses they’d worked with thirty or more years ago.
Still tractors were in short supply. Industry had been switched over to tank production, and a lot of civilian tractors had to be imported from the USA. Where was the money to come from?
So farmers being farmers, we just used what was out there. Not just in the UK but all over the world, farmers picked up what was left lying about. And frankly there were an awful lot of tanks out there that nobody had a use for any more. This picture is of an American built M22 Locust light tank. I guess that the picture is taken in the US but I’m only guessing.
But in Australia they also needed the power of the tank. Here is a British build Matilda II tank, converted to be a bulldozer for clearing scrub, so they could bring land into cultivation.
From the UK I found this video. A Sherman tank, knocked out at El Alamein, was shipped back to Britain. The armour and armament was stripped off and it was put to work.
Apparently they did it with First World War tanks as well. Personally I have my doubts as to how effective they would be, they were notoriously mechanically unreliable. On the other hand they would be travelling across level ground and wouldn’t be overloaded with crew and ammunition so perhaps they were OK
I remember hearing a farmer who was doing up a Sherman tank. He was born well after the war, so didn’t see the tanks in action. But in one of their big arable fields there was a bit of a bump that was a nuisance when they were ploughing. So he went in with the digger to level it. He was doing it properly. Put the topsoil to one side first. Dig out the subsoil and put the topsoil back, so it’s level and you’ve still got topsoil on top.
Except he’d not got down to level when he hit something metal. At about that time his father wandered out to see what he was up to. Dad explained that it had always been a hole and a damned nuisance. After the war they’d bought two cheap Sherman tanks (with armour and armament still on them) and had used them to plough for a year or two until they couldn’t keep them running. So they drove them both into the hole and covered it up.
So the son dug them both out and looked at them as they sat there. But as his father pointed out, this left a hole that would be a damned nuisance. So they kept the one that was in best condition, pushed the other back into the hole, and it levelled up beautifully.
There again, there are still some jobs you get left with where armoured support might come in handy,
As a reviewer commented, “I always enjoy Jim’s farming stories, as he has a way of telling a tale that is entertaining but informative at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about sheep while reading this book, and always wondered how on earth a sheepdog learns to do what it does – but I know now that a new dog will learn from an old one. There were a few chuckles too, particularly at how Jim dealt with unwanted salespeople. There were a couple of shocks regarding how the price of cattle has decreased over the years, and also sadly how the number of UK dairy farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 now.
Jim has spent his whole life farming and has acquired a wealth of knowledge, some of which he shares in this delightful book.”