A criminal investigation has been launched after serious damage was sustained by Number 1 tank, until now the last of the Valentine military vehicles in Studland Bay, Dorset to have remained largely intact since their tragic sinking 78 years ago.
Duplex Drive (DD) Valentine tanks were experimental amphibious British Army vehicles built during World War Two. Seven sank in the bay in April 1944 during the top-secret “Operation Smash” D-Day training exercise with the deaths of six soldiers, although only one body was ever found.
Both Bournemouth University Maritime Archaeology and the Swanage-based Isle of Purbeck BSAC branch (IPSAC) received tip-offs in mid-October that the dive attraction had been damaged, and sent their own divers to investigate.
They found that the 2-tonne turret had been knocked off Number 1 tank, ripping open the body and damaging the wheels. The turret was lying to the side of the tank and the vehicle’s interior had been exposed, leaving any crew possessions, equipment and possibly ordnance vulnerable.
The machine-gun, propeller, turret-hatches and brass fittings had already been removed by divers years ago, and the gun barrel had been damaged more recently.
Number 1 is roped to Number 2 tank, already parted from its turret, with both lying at a depth of around 15m. The site is regularly visited by dive-boats from Swanage and Poole.
On Historic England (HE)’s advice the Valentine tank site was designated as a Schedule One monument in 2019, the 75th anniversary of the sinkings.
Although not classed as war graves, the wrecks are regarded as look-don’t-touch sites for scuba divers, but those investigating the damage found that HE buoys used to mark the site had disappeared.
Heard a rumour
The damage is believed to have been caused between Saturday 24 and Wednesday 28 September.
“One of our local skippers said he’d heard a rumour that something had happened,” maritime archaeologist Tom Cousins of Bournemouth University told Swanage News. “I didn’t believe it, but as we were in the area we went to check and found a big scene of destruction down there.
“It was a real shock… I don’t want to speculate on what might have caused it while there’s a criminal investigation going on, but we will have to go down again to secure the area.”
“It’s a very upsetting incident,” IPSAC chairman Nick Reed told the paper. “It was an important part of maritime history and a very popular site for divers out of Swanage.”
He said that the club dived the tanks two or three times a year. “We did a lot of work to survey and record all seven of the Valentine tanks ahead of the 75th anniversary of Operation Smash, and we always lay a poppy wreath there every year.”
HE says it is taking action to prevent any further damage and working with Dorset police’s marine engagement team, which is investigating the incident. Any diver with information is asked to contact Dorset Police or call 101, quoting occurrence number 55220169735.
Valentine tanks and lessons learnt
Intended to provide cover for Allied troops when they landed on the Normandy beaches in June 1944, the amphibious Valentine tanks were fitted with rubberised canvas screens around them to enable them to float, and their engines were connected to two propellers.
The top-secret Operation Smash was the biggest live-fire exercise of its kind during WW2. Winston Churchill, King George VI and Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower were among observers when, shortly after the tanks had left their offshore landing craft, an unexpected change in sea conditions caused them to sink.
DD Valentine tanks went on to be used successfully on D-Day in June but were launched in shallower water. Tank rather than naval officers were tasked with deciding when it was safe to launch them, as a result of lessons learnt from the Dorset tragedy.
The Royal Navy blew up five of the sunken tanks because of concerns about the safety of ordnance still on them, but the other two had not been found at the time. The recently damaged tank was one of that pair – the two most often dived.