In my teens, I was an aficionado of the works of Nevil Shute, one of the great storytellers, and I devoured most if not all of his novels.

One of Britain’s top-selling writers in the 50s and 60s, he was a part-time author. The day job was as an aeronautical engineer, first with de Havilland, then Vickers. With the latter, he became chief engineer of the R100 airship project. When its R101 counterpart crashed at Beauvais in 1930, killing all on board, it ended British interest in dirigibles. In 1931, he teamed up with a partner to form the aircraft construction company Airspeed. Their twin-engined Oxford was adopted as an RAF trainer and they built Horsa gliders in WWII.

Shute’s full name was Nevil Shute Norway, but he adopted Nevil Shute as a nom-de-plume to avoid inferences by his employers that he was not a serious engineer.

Searching for a book for my book club, I decided to revive my interest in Shute and chose Requiem for a Wren. That prompted me to revisit the author’s life history and in reading his Wiki, I uncovered a surprising fact.

In 1968, BBC TV launched Dad’s Army, a sitcom about Britain’s Home Guard during WWII. The programme has become a classic. In one episode, the platoon was detailed to assist with the field trials of a new weapon, which consisted of two large, rocket-propelled wheels with an explosive charge slung between them. It was to be launched at enemy fortifications to blow gaps for advancing troops. Needless to say, this rolling missile veered off in all directions, overturned and finally, pursued Captain Mainwaring and his soldiers down a military road. We all laughed and admired the ingenuity of the scriptwriters.

The real Great Panjandrum before testing on a Devon beach

I was startled to find that this weapon had really existed. Just as in the sitcom, it had two 10-foot diameter, rocket-powered wheels with a tonne of explosive slung between. It was designed to be launched from landing craft, then hurtle up the beach at 60mph to blow gaps in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Its project engineer? Sub-Lieutenant Nevil Shute, Royal Navy. Shute and his team took this secret weapon, called Panjandrum, to a beach in Devon and in front of a large crowd of holidaymakers, put it through its paces. Panjandrum mimicked the Dad’s Army episode in every respect, running amok, sending rockets whizzing above the heads of the crowd and nearly killing the official cameraman. When a series of modifications brought no improvement, the project was scrapped.

After the war, there were suggestions that the whole thing was part of an elaborate hoax called Operation Fortitude, to convince the Nazis that the D-day landings would be in the heavily fortified Pas-de-Calais, rather than the less defended Normandy coastline.

Truth really is stranger than fiction.


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