A Whippet called Musical Box

On 15th April, History of Deganwy Group members tuned in to hear a talk with an intriguing title by Adrian Hughes. Adrian is well-known in the area as a historian, author and owner of the Home Front museum in Llandudno. He is also a volunteer for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with responsibility for war graves throughout the county, and is Vice Chair of the Llandudno and Colwyn Bay Historical Society.

Any members who were expecting a heart-warming tale of canine capers were in for a surprise: the whippet in question was not a dog but a WWI tank – and the story that Adrian built around it, and its commander Clement Arnold, brought to life several fascinating areas of local and national history which deserve our attention.

The Arnold family owned the well-known drapers shop on Mostyn Street in Llandudno. The shop was founded by William Arnold, who came to Llandudno in 1882 – his stated aim was to “sell a good article at a fair price”. He is also said to have been responsible for introducing paper confetti to Britain, after seeing it at a Parisian trade fair in the 1890s. Arnold’s shop began in Rochester House (now the Principality building society) and then expanded sideways. In 1936, the two shops were merged, creating the double-fronted store familiar to Llandudno shoppers until its closure in 1989.

William and his wife Ellen raised 5 sons in their house, Causeway, on Lloyd Street. Clement was their third son; he attended John Bright School and many years later became the first Old Boy to become a school governor.

At the start of WWI, Clem enlisted in the 17th battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment and served in the ranks as a private. His leadership potential was spotted, and in 1915 he was selected for training and then commissioned as an officer. In July 1916, he fought with the infantry at the Battle of the Somme; soon after he transferred to the tank corps, perhaps influenced by the awful conditions he had endured in the trenches, and also by his 2 older brothers, Bill and Arthur, who were both already in the tank corps. Tank warfare was very much in its infancy, and tanks were primitive machines by modern standards; they were first used during the Somme campaign, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Arthur Arnold distinguished himself at this battle: his tank broke through the enemy lines, and despite being wounded himself he assisted another tank and rescued a wounded soldier. He was awarded the Military Cross, becoming one of the first men to be decorated for action involving tanks. Later in the war, he was shot through the lung and sent to a POW camp.

Two years after the Somme, tank designs had evolved and the decisive defeat of the Germans at the Battle of Amiens was largely brought about by 600 British and French tanks acting in co-operation with infantry forces. The German loss was considered to be a breakthrough in securing overall victory for the Allies, and one tank in particular played a spectacular role in this important battle. This was Musical Box – known more prosaically as tank no.344 – a Whippet tank weighing 14.2 tonnes with a maximum speed of 8mph, under the command of Lt Clement Arnold. Whippet tanks were so-called because of their relative speed and manoeuvrability – in comparison, today’s Challenger tanks have a top speed of 37mph, but 8mph was extremely fast by WWI standards.

Clem’s part in the Battle of Amiens began at 4.20am on August 8th 1918, and is described in the vivid account he later wrote:

 

“After a few minutes I found myself to be the leading machine, owing to the others having become ditched. To my immediate front I could see more tanks from another British tank group being followed very closely by Australian infantry. About this time, we came under direct shellfire from a German gun battery and two tanks, on my right, were knocked out. I saw clouds of smoke coming out of these machines and the crews evacuated them. The infantry following the heavy machines were suffering casualties from this battery. I turned half-left and ran diagonally across the front of this battery at a distance of 600 yards. Both my guns were able to fire on the battery and we were able to knock them out.”

 

Clem and his gunner and driver continued across country, knocking out several enemy positions and firing at lines of German infantry at 200 yards range. By now Musical Box was advancing alone, and so attracting all the enemy fire. After ten hours of continuous action, not only was it running low on fuel but conditions inside the tank were terrible: jerry cans strapped to the outside were leaking, and with petrol running down the inside of the vehicle, the crew were wearing gas masks to mitigate the fumes. They were suffering from heat exhaustion and bullet splash – injuries caused by spent cartridges ricocheting from their machine guns. However they had no option but to continue forwards on a one-man crusade behind enemy lines. They successfully ambushed a lorry coming over a bridge, but after taking two heavy hits, the leaking petrol ignited and the cab burst into flames. With their clothes on fire, the 3 men leapt from the doomed tank into the midst of the enemy. The driver, William Carnie, was shot in the stomach and killed but the gunner, Christopher Ribbans, and Clem were taken captive due to the intervention of a German officer.

Musical Box, photo taken days after capture

This was the end of Clement Arnold’s campaign; he was sent to a POW camp in Freiburg – coincidentally, the same one as his brother Arthur. On his release in 1919, Clem returned to Llandudno, and received the Distinguished Service Order for his actions at Amiens.

During WWI, residents of Llandudno had raised a whopping £400,000 (equivalent to £23 million today) through the National Savings movement, and after the war the town was given a tank in recognition. On 7th January 1920, schools closed for the afternoon and the noise of an engine filled the air – no doubt bringing back thoughts and memories of their lost comrades to those who had seen action. In command of the behemoth was none other than Clem who oversaw the installation of the tank at the entrance to Marine Drive, near the toll house. A Pathé film clip shows the tank proceeding slowly up Mostyn Street through crowds of onlookers. Apparently it overheated near the junction with Gloddaeth St, and bystanders formed a human chain with buckets of water from a nearby house to get it going again. It remained on Marine Drive until 1931, when it was sold by the UDC to a Manchester scrap dealer for £1 – it would be worth millions today if it had survived!

The same year that the tank was scrapped, Clem received an unexpected letter in German. This was from Major Ritter Ernst von Maravic, who introduced himself as the officer who had taken Clem and his gunner captive, thereby saving them from the baying mob. Von Maravic suggested that they become friends, and Clem agreed, saying that he appeared to be beholden to the Major, and inviting him to Llandudno. Whilst it’s unclear whether von Maravic did come to Llandudno, Clem certainly went to Germany. In 1936, he arranged an ambitious trip involving Rothbury Coaches – a company of which he was part-owner – and a group of Llandudno townsfolk, including British Legion members and businessmen looking for opportunities, such as Charlie Payne, a larger-than-life Llandudno character. There were also two mechanics on board to ensure their safe arrival. The coach took 2 days to reach Dover; from Calais, they travelled through Ypres, which Clem was surprised to see had been rebuilt so comprehensively, and travelled along 73 miles of impressive autobahn in Germany.

When they reached Freiburg, the party met Major von Maravic and the town’s Lord Mayor, Dr Franz Kerber. Clem marched with von Maravic to the war memorial, where they jointly laid a wreath. The party attended a youth meeting, which was notable for the patriotism on display – though with hindsight, Clem would have been less admiring: this was the Hitler Youth organisation. Likewise, he would no doubt have distanced himself from Dr Kerber had he known that he was to become a senior officer in the SS, and undoubtedly implicated in many wartime atrocities.

Clement Arnold with von Maravic

Von Maravic gave Clem a watch which he had had inscribed, and the dagger which he had been carrying at the time of his capture, but by the end of the decade the two men were to be adversaries once more. At this time, Clem was the commander of the local Territorial Army unit, which had its drill hall on Argyle Road. 1939 saw a massive recruitment drive, with a display of ordnance and speeches at the Town Hall, resulting in scores of young volunteers for what was to be mobilised as the 69th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, with Llandudno men amongst those comprising D Troop. After several months of training in St Asaph and then Chipping Sodbury, Lt Col John D’Arcy took over as commander. Clem was transferred to a training unit in Watford – where, coincidentally, he had played for the town’s football team as a cadet in 1915.

In May 1940, the regiment was deployed abroad, but after just 3 weeks in France and Belgium, the Llandudno gunners were ordered to make for Dunkirk. They encountered a chaotic situation with routes choked with retreating troops and fleeing civilians, and so Lord Aylesford, commander of D Troop, took them on a diversionary route to the village of Wormhout. Unbeknown to him, the village had been captured by the Germans earlier that day; as the convoy of lorries trundled obliviously into the centre, the front vehicle was suddenly engulfed by flames. The Llandudno artillery lads were unexpectedly pitched into a close quarters battle with fanatical well-drilled German soldiers, and running for their lives was the only chance of survival. Some took refuge in a garage, from which they lowered themselves one by one through a window out of sight of the road into a stream, and waded away. They took refuge under a bridge, and were fortunate to be able to flag down a British vehicle and thus continue to Dunkirk. It is notable that battery Sergeant Major Arthur Steen of Ty’n y Coed Road saved many lives by leading his men to safety.

Meanwhile, gunner Tudor Parry of Lloyd Street had been captured, and taken with nearly 100 other prisoners of war to a small barn. Here they were brutally massacred: grenades were thrown into the tightly packed men, and they were fired upon at close range. Tudor Parry miraculously survived, including being shot through the mouth by a German soldier at point-blank; he was repatriated in 1943, after 3 years in POW camps. He was scarred for life, and although he gave evidence to a war crimes investigation, no German soldiers were ever brought to justice for the atrocities at Wormhout.

Reconstructed barn at Wormhout

The Wormhout Massacre is commemorated by a replica barn, and the town was twinned with Llandudno in 1988. Seventeen men from D Troop, including eight men from Llandudno, died there, some killed in the initial ambush, and some murdered in cold blood in the barn. The survivors finally reached Dunkirk and spent two days awaiting rescue; Arthur Cimatti from Llandudno died on the beach, but his brother who was in the same regiment returned.

Once back across the Channel, it took several days for the 69th Regiment to regroup – first at Salisbury, followed by Colwyn Bay and then Caernarfon, after which they were allowed some much-needed leave. They were then posted to the Isle of Man, and later the Sussex coast, where they operated anti-aircraft guns from Hove to Worthing.

In 1942, the regiment embarked on a 7 week voyage to Egypt on the RMS Samaria; they docked at Suez and took part in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. 1,200 rounds were fired by the Llandudno men, and not a single shell landed on their position. The next day, they had to cross a German minefield and again shelled the enemy position, contributing to the German surrender. The rest of the year was spent in the desert, and in May 1943 they were again in action in North Africa, at the Battle of Enfidaville.

After a short rest, they distinguished themselves in actions at Salerno in Italy later that year, and sailed for Palestine in the summer of 1944. In April 1945 they landed at Marseilles and began to move up through France, passing through the same villages and towns through which they had retreated in 1940, including Wormhout. By the following month the war was over, but they were not demobilised until November 1945.

Back home, the Llandudno and Conwy Valley branch of the Royal Artillery Association was formed, with Clement Arnold as chair and later president. The local HQ of the Gunners’ Club was at 56 Mostyn St, formerly occupied by the British Legion; the brass plaque which used to be fixed outside is now in the Home Front museum.

Reunions of the regiment were held for many years, and Clem continued his connections with the Territorial Army. Amongst other posts and achievements, he was captain of Maesdu Golf Club, a UDC councillor, founder of the Llandudno Chamber of Trade, President of Llandudno Horticultural Society, and Deputy Lieutenant of Caernarfonshire – all while still running the family business, Arnolds! In earlier years he had also played football for Llandudno and represented Wales at badminton. He died in 1978 aged 84, and is buried at Llanrhos.

Many thanks to Adrian for his excellent talk, which not only illuminated Clement Arnold’s incredible service to his country and to his local community, but also revealed so many other aspects of our history. Adrian’s most recent book Llandudno’s Military Heritage is highly recommended to those wishing to explore further – contact info@homefrontmuseum.co.uk for further details.

Lucinda Smith

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