Military archaeologist Keith Robinson takes a look at one of the lesser-known military museums of Britain, The Muckleburgh Collection in Norfolk.
Driving westwards from Sheringham, along the north Norfolk coast, the road winds around the hilly deposits formed during the retreat of the last Ice Age. Such deposits are the delight of both naturalists and gravel extractors, but for the military enthusiast an altogether different kind of surprise and treat await around one of those bends.
A tank and a tall flagpole indicate the presence of the Muckleburgh Collection. From here, a driveway takes you down to the old NAAFI building of the former Weybourne Camp – and a splendid collection of military machines.
The focus is on armoured fighting vehicles, primarily from the Second World War and its aftermath. There is some earlier material and, increasingly as the collection grows, more modern equipment bringing us up to the end of the 20th century.
The most remarkable thing about the collection, though, is that most of its vehicles are in working order and are sometimes let out to roam the surrounding estate, or show off at military events. Indeed, a few have starred in films or on TV: the German FlaK 88mm gun, for example, appeared in Spielberg’s Band of Brothers.
Even before getting that far, it is worth stopping to explore the tank at the entrance, for it is a flamethrowing Churchill Crocodile. This was a variant of the Churchill infantry tank A22 and this example is based on the Mk VII version.
The Churchill was a vital piece of equipment for the Army. Much of its importance lay in its adaptability and, under the leadership of Major-General Percy Hobart, a whole string of versions was created. These were gathered into the 79th Armoured Division, with similar conversions of the equally adaptable Sherman M4, and soon nicknamed ‘Hobo’s Funnies’.
Mechanical beasts fitted with deep-water wading-screens, mine-clearing flails, or portable bridges joined more conventional armoured bulldozers or Royal Engineers assault vehicles (AVRE). The 79th and its ‘Funnies’ played a key part in theNormandy Landings and continued an important support role until the Rhine was crossed.
The Crocodile had the hull-mounted Besa machine gun of the standard Churchill replaced by a projector for flame-throwing, allowing it to keep its turret-mounted 75mm gun, thus remaining functional in a normal tank role. An armoured pipe led under the tank to a trailer towed behind. The 61/2 ton armoured trailer carried 400 gallons of fuel and sufficient nitrogen propellant to produce 80 one-second bursts of flame. The thrower had a range in excess of 100m. Our Crocodile, though, lacks its trailer.
Weybourne Camp, as we see it hosting the Collection today, was established in 1935 as an Anti-Aircraft Training Camp. It played a key role in training AA troops, including mixed batteries. Queen Bee drone aircraft were used to tow gunnery targets. Winston Churchill even paid the camp a visit. The last gun was fired in 1958, and the camp finally closed a year later.
The site was left unused for many years until it was acquired in the 1980s by Berry and Michael Savory, who set about turning it into a home for their collection of military vehicles. It now boasts the largest privately-owned military collection open to the public.
It perhaps remains more a collection than a modern museum. It reflects the owners’ interests, the availability of vehicles for acquisition, and a home for militaria of all kinds, from models to the more formal setting of the Norfolk & Suffolk Yeomanry Collection. Don’t expect a narrative or a history, but do come to see vehicles and equipment.
From a battered Soviet T-55 to a Daimler ‘Dingo’ Scout Car; from a massive FH-57 155mm field howitzer – a European collaborative venture which first came into service in 1983 – to a tiny Oto Melara Mountain Gun that can be broken down into sections light enough for mules, or men, to carry in mountainous terrain. And let’s not forget such unsung heroes as the Leyland Hippo MkII 10-ton truck, or the heavy ambulance, the Austin K2/Y, a type the then Princess Elizabeth drove during the Second World War.
The camp provides an ideal setting for the collection, and whilst most of it is housed indoors, there are also several planes and missiles scattered around the meadow in front of the NAAFI building, including a V1 Flying Bomb on its launcher.
Across the meadow, one can see many of the camp’s remaining buildings. These form a compound largely devoted to the storage and restoration of new additions to the ever-growing collection. One of these buildings, though, is open to the public on set days. This is hut GB2MC, which plays host to a collection of vintage communications equipment, including transmitters and receivers used by all the armed services in the Second World War, and equipment used by intelligence and special-ops personnel.
A great collection of working military vehicles, a chance to take a wild ride in a US Gama Goat personnel carrier, or if you’ve a spare £100 or so, take a tank for a drive. If you are in Norfolk, give the Muckleburgh Collection a visit.
The Muckleburgh Collection at Weybourne, near Holt, in Norfolk, is open daily, 10.00am to 5.00pm, 2 April to 31 October. For further information, go to www.muckleburgh.co.uk or phone 01263 588210.