Home Commentary State of Mind: Westward Ho! the Great Panjandrum!

State of Mind: Westward Ho! the Great Panjandrum!

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I lived in Adamant for many years. Well, technically, I didn’t live in Adamant. The hamlet of Adamant only has about eight or nine houses, a church, a music school, and the Adamant Cooperative Store — the oldest continuously operating food co-op in the nation. Because I lived about a half mile away, I was able to enjoy all the cultural benefits of the “city center” while also enjoying the less hectic pace of life in the Adamant suburbs.

I always felt the name “Adamant” should be followed by an exclamation point. Adamant is unincorporated; it has no government or legal basis to exist. On Town Meeting Day, residents — depending on the lay of the town lines — go to Calais or East Montpelier to discharge their civic duties. Adamant thus is an “intentional” community. To say you are a resident of Adamant is to be what its name implies — adamant! But to end the name of a place with an exclamation point is punctuationally challenging. If, for example, the name Adamant! falls at the end of a sentence, would you also include a period? To not do so would be misleading, because the exclamation point only refers to the placename, not the entire preceding sentence. But by including a period, would you not have to stack punctuation marks?!. Ending a placename with an exclamation point makes things overly complicated. No one would do such a thing. At least so I thought.

I was just reading about a village on the west coast of England named “Westward Ho!” and the role it played in World War II. The exclamation point of Westward Ho! is officially part of the village’s name.  

Westward Ho! is on the coast of Devon, overlooking the Bristol Channel and the North Atlantic beyond. The name was derived from the title of a best-selling novel published in 1855, “Westward Ho!” by Charles Kingsley. The novel was set in the nearby village of Bideford. 

As they are wont to do, some nineteenth century entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to piggyback on the success of the book. To boost tourism in the area, in 1863 they formed the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company and purchased an estate on which they built what they named the “Westward Ho!-tel.” The town that grew around it became Westward Ho!. Obviously, the penchant of real estate developers for clever names reaches back to antiquity.

At first I thought Westward Ho! was the only place in the world with a name that ended in an exclamation point. On deeper investigation, however, I discovered that the French are never to be outdone. There is in Quebec a village named Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!, upping the ante of intentionally included exclamation points to two.

Westward Ho! was mildly successful as a seaside holiday destination, but it really became famous during World War II, because it was there that British engineers tested what the British Admiralty’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development called the “Panjandrum.” (“Panjandrum” was a nonsense word borrowed from a picture book written by Samuel Foote in 1775.)

Do not despair if you have never heard of the Panjandrum. It was never used.

The Panjandrum was designed to blow holes in the concrete barriers erected by the Germans along the beaches of France. The thinking was that a Panjandrum could be launched from a landing craft, roll across the beach at high speed (up to 60 mph), and explode at the concrete barrier. Allied tanks could then maneuver through the gap and gain access to the interior.

The Panjandrum was a huge cart-like device that consisted of two 1-foot-wide, 10-foot-diameter steel wheels connected by a large steel drum filled with 4000 pounds of explosives. The wheels were propelled by cordite rockets attached to the spokes. 

In many ways the Panjandrum exemplifies a British approach to engineering that only persons who have owned British sports cars can appreciate. In fact, after owning two such automobiles, I am convinced that after the war, many of the engineers who worked on the Panjandrum project went on to careers at the British Motor Corporation.

In its first test, the Panjandrum rolled halfway up the beach but veered sharply off course when some of the rockets on the right wheel failed. More rockets were added to the spokes on both wheels, but on each attempt the Panjandrum would veer off course as rockets failed or, more problematically, broke free of their brackets and flew off across the beach or into the sea. 

Testing went on for several weeks, but no matter what they tried, the engineers could not control the Panjandrum or its rockets. The Admiralty even lowered the bar for success when it decided the Panjandrum need not hit a target but only consistently move “in the general direction” of the enemy.

The final test came in January 1944. As with the other tests, it began well, but once again rockets started breaking free and flying around the beach. As the assembled military observers ducked for cover behind the dunes, the Panjandrum veered and headed for the official photographer, who had to run for his life. It then crashed into the sand and exploded, with rockets continuing to break free and fly in all directions.

The Panjandrum project was truly a Monty Python-esque affair that put Westward Ho! on the map. Some have suggested the project was designed to fool the Germans, but no evidence of that has come forth. Suffice it to say the Allies succeeded on June 6, 1944 without the help of the Panjandrum. In fact, their casualties may have been lower because of its absence.