Posted: 7 November 2009 09:04

In previous years I have written about minefield accidents and I predicted in last year's Remembrance piece that I would be writing about similar events this year. I have found many more, but I'm going to focus on two events, one tragic, the other poignant.

The tragic event is the death of Signalman Alwyn Gardner on 7th July 1942.

An army demonstration of the Snake was being held in a valley near the end of a runway at Friston Aerodrome on the cliffs just east of Cuckmere Haven. The Snake comprised a metal pipe of explosive that was to be pushed from a tank across a minefield and detonated to clear the mines.

The war diary gives us some background:

At 07.55 hrs a tank which had arrived on the aerodrome to demonstrate a new method of exploding a minefield was being serviced near the cliff edge when it got out of control and crashed 130 feet (approx. 45m) over the cliff and into the sea below. The occupant of the tank, Signalman Gardner, 2372889, of the Royal Tank Corps sic sustained multiple injuries despite gallant rescue work and a blood transfusion in the Medical Crash Room on the aerodrome prior to removal to the local hospital.

Grave of Signalman Gardner

It had been decided to test the brake adjustment and the tank's commander, Sgt. Bourne, ordered Gardner to get into the driver's seat and release the foot brake. Further documentation takes up the story:

The vehicle moved slightly forward, and Bourne called out to Gardner to put the brake on again. Bourne was standing on the back of the tank, which did not stop, so he shouted again to the driver to brake. At the same time he crawled forward to the driver's compartment and again told him to apply the brake. Gardner said he was doing so.

During this time the tank was gaining speed and going towards the cliff. Bourne asked Gardner if he was pressing the foot brake and not the accelerator, and he replied that he was pressing the correct pedal. All this time the tank was going faster and faster towards the cliff edge. Bourne told Gardner to leave his seat and jump off, and he started to do so. Bourne jumped off and the next thing he remembered was being told that the tank had been seen to go over the cliff. He went to the edge and saw the vehicle lying on its side in the water.

Another crew member had jumped off before Bourne and run alongside the driver's compartment, echoing Bourne's calls for Gardner to apply the brake. The tank was actually a few hundred yards from the cliff edge when it began to roll.

An important point - and a tragic one - is that the tank rolled down a slope under its own momentum before plunging over the edge. Because the engine was not running, the steering was not engaged and the seemingly faulty brakes gave Gardner little chance of saving the tank and precious little time to save himself by baling out.

The demonstration eventually took place eight days later before a crowd of 3,000 service personnel who were probably completely unaware of the tragedy; the photograph below shows one possible site of the accident.

Signalman Gardner, who in civilian life had been a schoolmaster in Bishop's Stortford, succumbed to his injuries and was laid to rest in Langney Cemetery, Eastbourne.

Cuckmere Haven

The second event is related to John McCrae, author of the famous poem In Flanders Fields, composed in 1915.

A Canadian war diary eloquently describes the event:

Among numerous visitors received at Brigade HQ...were Lt-Col Colin Russel and Lt-Col William Cone....These two distinguished medical officers were very much interested in examining the coastal defences and we all enjoyed meeting them very much indeed. While visiting the...positions on the Camber front, an interesting incident occurred.

Colonel Russel and Colonel Cone were examining a flame trap when Colonel Russel remarked, "There's a lark." He turned his back on the flame trap and stood completely absorbed in watching a lark which rose from the grass in the midst of barbed wire and mines singing beautifully. As the bird rose to the peak of its flight and then settled back into the grass, the late Colonel McCrae's lines

"And in the skies the larks still bravely singing fly"

were recalled. Colonel Russel had known Colonel McCrae and seemed much moved by this incident.

A poignant event of the Second World War in which a fallen comrade (McCrae died in 1918) was remembered; I found this particularly pertinent in the year that the First World War generation all but passed from our living memory.

- Pete



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War diary

A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.

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Hibbs, Peter In Remembrance (2024) Available at: Accessed: 17 July 2024

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