Nevil Shute Norway Foundation


War work and the Great Panjandrum.

Shute was involved from 1940 onwards in the Navy's Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD). A full and interesting account of the work of DMWD is given in Gerald Pawle's book "The Secret War" [5]. I'll mention just one of the projects with which Shute was closely involved since it has a rather comical side to it.

During preparations for D-Day, one perceived problem was how to breach the "Atlantic Wall" a concrete wall 10 feet high and 7 feet thick which had been built at the head of beaches along the coast of France. Breaches in the wall would be necessary for tanks, vehicles and troops to move inland. To breach the wall it was estimated that a ton of explosive would need to be detonated against the wall. The problem was how to get the charge in place without risking lives on defended beaches. Shute was pondering this problem in 1943 when a colleague suggested a novel design. This comprised two large wheels some 10 feet in diameter with a drum of explosive held between them. Around the metal rims of the wheels slow burning cordite charges would be placed to drive the wheels in the manner of two large Catherine wheels. Shute christened the device "Panjandrum" and it was intended to be launched from a landing craft, reach speeds of up to sixty miles per hour, crash into the wall and explode (see Fig. 3 ).

Prototypes were made and tried out on a beach in North Devon and Shute was in charge of the trials. The first trials were disappointing, Panjandrum travelled only a few hundred yards up the beach ( Fig. 4 ). The cordite charges were increased from 10 to 20 pounds but the problem was with the steering of Panjandrum. It had a nasty tendency to veer erratically out of control - soft sand might slow down one wheel relative to the other causing it to swerve. Remote steering by wires was tried and Pawle's book contains a photograph of Shute at the controls ( Fig.5 ). Again Panjandrum behaved unpredictably and it was just not possible to control it. On one occasion the Navy top brass arrived for a trial but this time it went wildly off course and made straight for the cine cameraman who was filming it ! He hastily abandoned the filming and fled for his life. Panjandrum tipped over on its side and expired. In the tests the weight of the explosive charge was simulated by sand so there was no danger of an explosion only of being pursued by a very large, out of control, Catherine wheel weighing over a ton.

Panjandrum never got beyond the experimental stage; it was abandoned after its unsuccessful trials. The D-Day invasions took place on beaches where either there was no sea wall or adjacent to harbours such as at Ouisterham.

As a footnote to this one can visualise Commander Norway in duffle coat and seat boots, involved in D-Day preparations, aboard landing craft and launches, amid assorted weapons, absorbing scenes and images which were later to form the vivid background to "Requiem for a Wren"

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