The Great Panjandrum Wheel, sounds like some famous magician, the likes of Houdini. It could even be an extraordinary magic trick, but it isn’t. It’s name, was chosen by it’s inventor, aircraft engineer and author, Nevile Shute Norway. The Great Panjandrum, was based as a reference to Samuel Foote’s famous nonsense paragraphs, such as; “till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.”(Strange but true. The inventor was also an author, so go figure)!
The massive contraption, was a rocket-propelled explosive device, designed by the British military, during World War II. The intent, was to use the device to blow a hole in the Atlantic wall, during the Normandy Invasion. This would give access through the ten foot high seven foot thick German concrete defensive wall, and allow soldiers easy penetration into enemy territory beyond.
Launching the device from the Normandy beaches was ruled out, as suicidal, due to German gun emplacements. It was decided to launch the Great Panjandrum Wheel, from a landing craft instead.
Nevile Shute, calculated the amount of explosives necessary to create a tank-sized breech in the wall, at 1 long ton. (1 long ton, aka British Imperial ton, or 2,240 pounds of explosive). Once the estimated amount of explosive was determined, the next step, was figuring out how to deliver the device.
Thus, the “Great Panjandrum Wheel,” was invented to deliver the explosives. The contraption consisted of two gigantic wooden wheels of ten feet in diameter, with steel treads a foot wide, all joined together by a central drum fitted with the explosives. The next step was how to propel the device.
Nevile came up with the idea, to attach a system of cordite rockets to each wheel, which would propel the device forward. Estimates were that a 4,000 pound payload, could reach speeds of up to 60mph, and break through any barrier that it was presented with.
Initial trails at the Westward Ho! beaches of Devon proved flawed. Sand in lieu of explosives and a small load of rockets propelled the device, however a few failed and the device spun out of control. After several weeks of refinement, trails were undertaken once more. This time seventy cordite rockets and a third wheel for stabilizing were installed. The second trail was also flawed, More refinements then a third and final test was had.
BBC commentator Brian Johnson described the scene (Paraphrased).
“Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars….rockets broke free…Panjandrum began to lurch ominously….it began to to turn starboard…(Heading for a photographer, who ran for cover at the last minute)…assembled admirals and generals diving for cover as rockets came loose flying in all directions. Panjandrum was heading back to sea, but crashed onto the sand, where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.”
The trails of the device showed it be be unstable. Soon thereafter, the project was scrapped.