The Churchill AVRE Left Buried Under a D-Day Beach for 30 Years

The Normandy coast is full of tanks on outdoor display today, many of which were never actually present on D-Day, but this particular Churchill AVRE located just behind one of the beaches is a genuine veteran of D-Day. However, this piece of history has a rather tragic story, becoming stuck and abandoned on the beach with the loss of some of its crew.

The tank was one of the first to arrive on Juno beach on June 6, 1944. As an engineering variant, this Churchill was employed to help overcome obstacles and defenses to get troops off the beach as fast as possible.

It did this successfully and was actually able to get off the beach, however the tank became stuck in a ditch, and was buried in an attempt to kept traffic moving. 32 years later the tank would be pulled out from its resting place, still leaking oil and filled with weapons, bullets and personal artefacts from the crew.

This is the story of 1 Charlie Churchill AVRE.

Contents

This Tank

This tank is a Churchill Mk IV AVRE (armoured vehicle, Royal Engineers), a type built as an engineering vehicle on the Churchill hull.

The AVRE was equipped to help military engineers eliminate obstacles and keep an advance moving. It could do this in an impressively wide variety of ways, such as filling ditches with bundles of sticks (fascines), deploying a canvas matt for vehicles to drive over, using line charges against mines or, most famously, simply blowing up obstacles or fortifications.

It did this with a mighty petard launcher, known as a spigot mortar. The mortar tube was 230 mm in diameter and fired a 640 mm long demolition charge that weighed 18 kg (40 lbs) and was devastating against buildings and fortifications.

The gun and turret of the Churchill AVRE.
The Churchill AVRE’s large spigot mortar. This weapon could be mounted on 6-pounder gun mantlets.

The spigot mortar was an unusual device for a tank as it had be loaded externally by a crew member sitting in the bow-gunner position. The weapon was positioned above the hull machine gunner, who then would reach up through his hatch and “break” the barrel (like a shotgun) and slide a projectile into the mortar.

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The Churchill AVRE also contained provisions inside, like tools and explosives charges for engineers to use outside the tank. It had a crew of six, compared to five in a regular Churchill.

Its History

This particular tank, “1 Charlie”, arrived here on the “Mike” sector of Juno beach on the morning of June 6 1944; D-Day. It belonged to the 26 Assault Squadron Royal Engineers and was tasked with helping the 7 Canadian Infantry Brigade to clear the exit off the beach near Graye-sur-Mer.

By 08:00 this AVRE and others were already in action, working with Sherman Crab flail and DD tanks to combat defenses up the beach. In front of the AVRE two Sherman flails climbed over the dunes and made their way inland to bravely tackle a minefield. While clearing the explosives, the lead flail drove over and detonated a mine and became immobilised. Then, the Sherman flail travelling close behind crashed into it and was also immobilised.

The two tanks remained in the fight though, using their guns from a stationary position to fire on the defenders in support of the advancing infantry.

Sherman DD tanks on Juno beach.
An aerial photograph taken during the opening phases of the D-Day landings on Juno beach at the Mike sector. In this image, you can see the first Sherman DDs advancing directly toward German bunkers. The Churchill AVRE fought to the left of this image.

Amidst this, the Churchill AVRE made its way inland and came up to the main road leading from the beach. On this crucial route the crew noticed there was a large crater blocking the way, so they attempted to drop their fascine into the crater to temporarily patch the hole. However the Churchill AVRE itself accidentally slides into the crater and becomes completely stuck.

The crater was filled with water, so the crew of six abandoned the tank and made their way to cover. Sadly though, Lance Sergeant Cecil Ashton, the tank’s commander, and sappers Roy Manley and Alf Battson were killed by German mortar fire. The remaining three crew members were also injured.

As the battle raged on, the problem of the crater in the road still remained, so a bridge-laying tank placed a bridge between the crater ridge and the AVRE’s turret roof. The bridge did not cover the entire crater, so wooden poles and other items were hastily thrown in to plug the gap. This worked, with the first Sherman DD driving over this makeshift bridge by 09:15.

USAF photograph of Juno beach, June 12 1944.
This image of Juno beach was taken by the USAAF a few days after D-Day. The red arrow shows where the Churchill AVRE fell into the crater. The green arrow shows the location of the two Sherman Crab flails. The blue arrow shows where the Churchill AVRE is today.

This bodged repair didn’t last long though, with the bridge slipping off the AVRE’s turret after only a few more tanks had driven over it. With some further reinforcing the bridge lasted a while longer, but a self-propelled gun partially slipped into the crater and had to be pulled out by two Churchill AVREs.

Finally more substantial repairs were made, with the entire crater being filled with rubble and debris gathered in carts from nearby. Then, the entire lot was covered by a thin layer of concrete.

The crew that lost their lives were buried in makeshift graves near the Churchill AVRE, but were eventually re-interred at the Bayeux War Cemetery.

And this is how the 1 Charlie AVRE would remain for the next 32 years. Buried under a road, still filled with enormous amounts of explosives and equipment left in there from the war.

Recovery

In 1975 two British officers investigated the area, having learned of the historic events that took place here three decades prior. Sure enough, the AVRE was in its exact same position, buried under the Avenue du Général de Gaulle road. French authorities were notified, and plans were put in place to recover the tank.

This took place the following year in 1976.

The road over the AVRE was removed, revealing much of the original debris and rubble put there on June 6 1944. This was removed, and the tank, untouched since the war, saw sunlight once again.

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One of the biggest concerns was with the explosives that were very likely still inside the Churchill AVRE. Indeed, 270 kg (600 lbs) worth of explosives were found inside the tank and were quickly evacuated from the area. Equally fascinating though was the large quantities of personal artefacts found within the tank. These included around 100 rounds of small arms ammunition, spanners, bottles, helmets and even a Sten gun.

Food was found too, with the chocolate and corned beef reportedly still edible!

Churchill AVRE recovery in 1976.
The Churchill AVRE being pulled out of the ground in 1976.

Once these items were removed, the focus could be placed on actually getting the 40-odd ton tank out of the ground. Two military trucks attached to a ground anchor attempted to pull the AVRE out, but they were not successful.

A ceremony for the tank and beach landings took place the following day with the Churchill AVRE still in its hole. Incredibly, this event was attended by the tank’s former crew members, Bill Hawkins and Bill Dunn, who got to see their tank and 30-year old possessions once more.

Finally, the 1 Charlie Churchill AVRE was lifted out of the ground by a 70 ton crane. It still dripped with oil and petrol.

The tank was taken away and restored by the French Army, before being returned to a concrete plinth around 100 meters from its former-location. This is where the tank remains to this day.

Bill Dunn passed away in 2014, and his ashes were spread next to 1 Charlie on November 8, 2014, concluding this remarkable story.

Location

The Churchill AVRE is located just behind Juno beach in Graye-sur-Mer in Normandy, France, west of the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer. It is not visible from the main road used to get to it. It is situated at the end of Avenue du Général de Gaulle, which comes off the D514 road running mostly parallel to the beach.

  • Its exact coordinates are – 49.337160, -0.469139.

The easiest way to find the tank is to travel along the D514. This road begins near Isgny-sur-Mer and will take you past Pointe Du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Arromanches-les-Bains, Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach.

When travelling east (from Omaha Beach direction) on the D514, head towards Graye-sur-Mer until you come to Renault dealership on your right. Just past this is a crossroads, take a left up Avenue du Général de Gaulle. The tank is positioned round a bend around 300 meters up this road, so you will not see it until you are right on top of it.

The Churchill AVRE in Graye-sur-Mer.
The Churchill AVRE today.

Alternatively, if travelling west, continue along the D514 and pass through Courseulles-sur-Mer. As you leave Courseulles-sur-Mer you will cross a bridge. Around 200 meters ahead is the cross roads, take a right up Avenue du Général de Gaulle. The tank is at the end of that road.

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Beside the tank is a large car park, and in the immediate area is many historic things to see. Juno beach is behind the tank, and still has many bunkers that were attacked on D-Day. About half-way along the Avenue du Général de Gaulle, beside the houses on that road, is the Churchill AVRE’s original location when it was buried under the road.