D-Day Valentine tanks

Army relics lie sunk and shattered just minutes from Swanage

Author: Pat
5th February 2012
 

The remains of two very special tanks lie just minutes by boat off the Dorset coast.

Think of an object less suited to floating like a boat and a tank is high up the list. But in actual fact floating tanks have a long history and during World War 2 they proved particularly effective during the Normandy landings of June 1944. There are two key enhancements, over and above a normal tank: a watertight canvas screen around the vehicle’s armour belt can be raised, while a small propeller at the rear provides movement through the water. This gives the tank its official title, a ‘Duplex Drive’ or DD tank.

recognisably a fighting machine

The US developed a successful Sherman DD, but we Brits modified our own Valentine tank for the assaults on Sword and Gold beaches. It is two of these that lie just minutes from Swanage by boat, accidentally sunk there during trials in 1943.

Our skipper informs us that the two wrecks lie 76 metres apart, although a line heads westwards from the more intact of the two. Dropping down the shot to around 15 metres, it takes a minute for the eyes to adjust before the outline of the machine can clearly be seen. Swanage is at a sort of ‘tidal crossroads’, with ripping tides and currents going in several directions and the visibility on our dive is pretty dire: perhaps 1 or 2 metres at best.

Valentine number one is recognisably a fighting machine, with its gun turret still in place and (badly rusted) gun barrel pointing skywards. Weighing in at almost 18 tonnes, no surprise that it’s half buried in the silt, with only the top row of wheels visible. A large resident Conger has assumed the role of a caterpillar track, threading himself through the wheels and glaring at us formidably.

Circling the wreck of the Valentine, there’s a lot of life to be seen, with a veritable ‘prawn city’ ambling over to meet us, and red-eyed Velvet Swimmer Crabs watching as we float by. At the rear of the tank, I shine a torch under the fuselage to look for evidence of the prop or shaft, but there’s no sign: the wreck is quite deteriorated, and in any event has been gradually stripped over the years.

A rope begs us to follow it, so arm over arm the three of us set off into the gloom. Minutes and SPG needles tick down, a fairly featureless bottom passing below, before finally the man up front eases up – a dead end! This rope goes nowhere. Nothing for it but to turn back. We circle the wrecked tank again, and bingo – a second rope going off in another direction.

Pulling yourself along a rope in the water never gets boring, with nothing for the mind to do but wonder where it will lead. On the sandy seabed just below we pass over a Dogfish, who seems nonplussed at first but darts away before the cameras come out. Finally the rope ends, wrapped around the turret of the second Valentine, apparently blown off by the Navy in the 1980s during exercises.

The shattered remains of the rest of the tank lie just a few metres to one side, with the usually complement of bottom dwellers firmly in residence. Huge schools of Pouting and/or Bib hang back just a few feet from us, warily avoiding our torchlight arcs.

The Valentine tanks of Swanage prove that a dive doesn’t have to be deep or far-flung to be interesting. This is a little piece of forgotten military history that most people will never see… and it’s right on our doorstep.

 
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