Since I’m no longer coaching pro ball, I thought it’d be a good thing to go back to my roots and think about becoming a head coach at the high school level. Seems like it’s a good way to try and share some of my head coaching wisdom as I bide my time, waiting for notable teams to give me my next chance. At any rate, I found a position at a small school in the Midwest that forfeited every game last season, and needed someone to whip their kids back into shape – or at least try and pull together enough young men to field a roster big enough to stop forfeiting. At any rate, there’s one young man there who I think could have a future as a running back! He reminds me a lot of the weapon that we’ll be looking at this week.
THE CULTIVATOR No. 6
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Purpose built: To tunnel through the German front lines
Years used: 1939
What is it? When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty by then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, where he sat on the War Cabinet, as he had also done in the First World War. Despite Germany quickly overrunning Poland, fighting didn’t ramp up in Western Europe until 1940, and Allied forces needed to use the time effectively to get themselves prepared for when Hitler would inevitably turn his eyes westward once more. Over two decades previously, Churchill’s experiences in the War Cabinet led to the development and production of the first mass-produced armored tanks; having proven that they could be highly effective in battle, Churchill decided that he wanted to resurrect another idea he’d had previously; an armored vehicle that could dig its own trenches.
Churchill didn’t have any mechanical or engineering ability himself, but his idea, in theory, was fairly straightforward; these armored machines would dig into the dirt, late at night, driving forward to cut a trench through no-man’s land, with infantry and support vehicles able to follow immediately behind in the wide channel cut by the digger. Protected by artillery barrages, the vehicle would also serve as a ramp, to allow other vehicles such as tanks, Jeeps and wheeled artillery guns to drive right up and over it, allowing themselves to get out of the trench once the battalion reached its desired destination.
Despite the lukewarm reception to the idea, Churchill was absolutely thrilled by the design and development of the machine, which he referred to on a personal basis as either “Nellie” (after the acronym NLE, the shortform of the Department of Naval Land Equipment who spearheaded the project), or his “metal mole”. He persisted in convincing the War Office to build a whole fleet of these trench-cutters, code-named the Cultivator No. 6. They were massive – 77 feet long, 130 tons, and driven by twin 600-horsepower Paxman diesel engines. One engine powered the cutter at the front of the machine, which had a giant plow blade as well as cylindrical corkscrews that tunneled out additional material at the front and sides of the machine; the other engine powered the treads that propelled the tank forward.
Why didn’t it work?
Nobody was using trench warfare anymore by the time the Germans came rampaging into France. The blitzkrieg attack simply moved too fast to stop – trench warfare was a throwback to a time of slow-moving, deliberate, prolonged tactical battles, and the blitzkrieg represented a modern era of military strategy. Thus, the idea that the British would be dedicated an immense amount of time, planning, and resources to an asset that would have basically zero usage on the battlefield was a complete anachronism, despite Churchill’s reticence to admit so – at least at first. Churchill would write about the project in his memoirs after the war, stating that “I am responsible but impenitent.” A stubborn old bulldog if there ever was one. Despite the obvious redundancy of the project by the spring of 1940, it wasn’t officially canceled until 1941 – before the Battle of Britain, the Army had very little in the way of tanks of other armoured vehicles – it was thought perhaps that somehow they might still be of use, either in their current form or by being modified into a more traditional style of tank. Ridiculous, yes, but it’s important to remember just how desperate things were looking for England at the onset of the Battle of Britain.
Beyond just the obvious lack of tactical usage for the Cultivator, the actual machine, despite being able to do what it was designed to do – certainly a positive, compared with many of the weapons we’ve learned about here – still had a number of notable flaws. Its size, for one, meant that deployment would have been a logistical nightmare, particularly in factoring how a fleet of two hundred would have been transported across the English Channel to the continent. The fact that it was also unarmed itself presents a liability as well – despite artillery support during usage, the machine would have needed additional cover in order to be effective – and certainly the use of more than one at once would have provided more opportunities for Nazi forces to target them. The fact that it could also only move at 3 miles an hour when digging a trench also left it an ideal target for the Germans, if it had ever seen combat usage. Lastly, if the Cultivator encountered any landmines, it would have been screwed – unable to advance any further forward lest it blow itself up on the buried charge.
What could make it better?
Interestingly enough, a different design for a trench-cutting machine was also proposed by a designer at NLE, which would have used a hydraulic ram and explosive charges to cut trenches, as opposed to the plow and corkscrews of the Cultivator. Unlike the design championed by Prime Minister Churchill, this version wouldn’t have had a problem with minefields at all, as it would have intentionally blown up the earth in front of it as it advanced. Additionally, this design could also plant explosives under other obstacles and blow them up in order to clear a path, a clear upgrade to the Cultivator. While the machine was also much lighter and much more simple in design than the gigantic, heavy, and complicated Cultivator, it was also much slower – it could only move about 250 yards in an hour. That said, the design was promising, and while its designer, Cecil Vandespeer Clarke, resigned abruptly from NLE in late June 1940, the design wasn’t immediately scrapped, despite Clarke feeling that the design for a trench-cutting device of any variety couldn’t advance any further.
All in all, this thing was the equivalent of just running a fullback dive on every consecutive down in a series. That’s the kind of shit I love! Fuck what the experts say – that’s why I love high school football. You get the biggest guy on your team, give him the ball, and just let him do his thing. Unstoppable. Until you get to the district championships, and he’s hurt his ankle and can’t play, and your offense can’t stop going 3-and-out. Dammit, I wish it were legal to give the kids cortisone shots!