>It has been speculated that one reason the Americans suffered so heavily on D-Day was their reluctance to adopt the ‘funnies’ – experimental kit developed by the British for theirs and the Canadian beaches. Gold, Sword and Juno were no picnic on D-Day, but this revolutionary equipment undoubtedly saved lives.
Some of this new gear was hugely succesful, like the mine-clearing ‘flail’ tank or the AVRE, based on the Churchill tank that came in umpteen variants, including anti-bunker, ditch filling and bridging roles. However, many of the ‘funnies’ barely made it past the planning stages. One such project was the ten-foot rocket propelled wheel known as the Great Panjandrum. The idea was that this would roll up the invasion beach, crushing all obstacles in its path before exploding at a pre-determined target. However, tests of a prototype round the coast from Braunton at Westward Ho proved to be as dangerous to the launchers as the enemy, as witnessed by BBC correspondent Brian Johnson:
“At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge. Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard careering towards (recording cameraman) Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.”
Tests of the Panjandrum were carried out in full view of crowds of holidaymakers, and it’s this lack of secrecy that has lead some historians to believe that the whole thing was some sort of elaborate double bluff, to keep attention away from the real ‘funnies’, tested more covertly in Suffolk.
A couple of weeks ago, as part of the Appledore Book festival a replica was launched on the same stretch of Westward Ho beach – and thanks to ‘elf ‘n’ safety restrictions it was much less hair-raising, but still spectacular.