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D-Day 75: Secret tank testing in Eastwell Park, Ashford, revealed

By KentOnline reporter

Eastwell Park in Ashford is best known for the Champneys hotel and spa that lies at its heart. But in the Second World War it was a secret testing ground for a deadly D-Day weapon, as Robin Britcher discovers

The park surrounds a stunning country house, has a picturesque lake and beautiful landscaped gardens.

But beneath the grandeur lies a fascinating Second World War past.

It was where one of the most terrifying weapons of the war was developed — the flame-throwing tank.

The tanks in action at Eastwell
The tanks in action at Eastwell

The army took over Eastwell in 1940 and troops were trained there throughout the war.

Officers were billeted in the mansion and stable blocks while the men bunked down in Nissen huts under the trees.

In 1942 experiments began to convert Churchill tanks into the awesome weapon that would have a vital role in the D-Day landings.

A bunker which is still on the site
A bunker which is still on the site

Training areas were screened by tall hessian screens for utmost secrecy.

“All the entrances were guarded and surrounded with barbed wire and sandbags,” said Peter Rainer, who lived in The Street, Kennington.

“But we heard they were experimenting with tanks.

Gas cylinders stored in the park
Gas cylinders stored in the park

"They were parked all the way up to Challock on concrete platforms and camouflaged. It was forbidden territory.”

Peter, now aged 92 and living in Shepherds Walk, Hythe, said: “Convoys of about 50 tanks going on training exercises came down The Street in the mornings and returned at night.

"It often took two or three hours for them all to pass.

The tanks in action at Eastwell in 1943
The tanks in action at Eastwell in 1943

"They left ruts in the road which were there several years after the war ended.

“My father was in the Home Guard and they held exercises at Eastwell.

"He said there were enough explosives stored under one tree that could have blown up the whole of Kennington."

The Nissen hut is still on the site
The Nissen hut is still on the site

There are still gaps in parts of the brick wall surrounding the park made by tanks that took “short cuts” to reach the main road.

On 20 November 1942 the tanks were inspected by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Demonstrations were laid on for visiting top brass, including King George VI and by July 1943 the 141st Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps (7th Buffs) was ready and fully mobilised.

How the Eastwell Manor hotel looks today
How the Eastwell Manor hotel looks today

In spring 1944 the tanks rumbled through Kennington at night on their way to Ashford railway station.

Special transporters took them to Southampton to await D-Day — June 6 1944.

On the morning of the invasion the first of the Churchill Crocodile flame-throwers rolled ashore on the Normandy beaches.

Peter Rainer, now 92, previously lived in Kennington
Peter Rainer, now 92, previously lived in Kennington

With a range of 100 yards it was a fearsome weapon.

Many Germans in fortified bunkers surrendered or fled after the first ranging burst of fire, rather than risk being burned alive.

The Crocodile’s six-and-a-half ton armoured trailer carried 400 gallons (1,800 litres) of petroleum jelly fuel and gas cylinders to propel fuel to the gun.

This was enough for 80 one-second bursts.

The fuel was ignited as it left the nozzle and the burning petroleum jelly stuck to everything it touched.

The tanks were in continual action supporting Allied troops.

As the war drew to a close the Crocodiles had one last target for their flame throwers.

They were used to burn down and sterilise the site of Belsen concentration camp.

The main problem at Eastwell after the war was clearing anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and masses of barbed wire.

On several occasions ploughing brought mines to the surface and once a 14-pound mine became wedged in the blades of a plough.

They were eventually cleared by Polish mine lifting specialists.

Eastwell Park still has several large corrugated sheds which housed the tanks, and there is a Second World War bunker dug into one of the hills overlooking the park.

Rumours have been rife for years that a number of tanks were sunk into the lake in the grounds as the army looked to rid itself of decommissioned vehicles after the war.

Robin Britcher’s book, Kennington at War 1939-1945, is available from Bella’s (Savers Newsagent), Faversham Road, price £5.

Read more: All the latest news from Ashford

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