Notes on the Rowtor Wickham trolleys - by Richard Burt
The Wickham Trolleys were made by Wickhams based in Ware, Hertfordshire. The main product they made before WW2 was bottle washing machines, and built trolleys for the war production. The company is no longer in existence.
The original Oke Wickham Trolleys arrived on range in 1943/44 and were disposed of in the ‘60s. One of these engines went to the Museum of Dartmoor Life and the other to the Army Apprentice College, Chepstow. When Chepstow closed it was given to the Army museum at Beverley which is now closed. All items then went to auction. The engine was a 2 cylinder, side-valve unit of 870 c.c. and made by J. A. Prestwych, makers of agricultural and industrial engines. The trolley covers are armour plate. The braking system is vacuum and it has a manual handbrake. Drive to the axle is via chain. Axle width/gauge is 30 inches. The only other original Wickham set-up the writer knows of is at Fort George in Scotland. There is also a modern version, believed to be at Lulworth tank range. (You may also want to mention the MMTT at Willsworthy).
During 2001, when Foot and Mouth disease broke out in the UK, all military training stopped on Dartmoor and the range staff had to remain on camp. The commandant at the time, Lt. Col. Tony Clark, Para., was very keen on all aspects of military heritage and knew of a collection of Wickham trolleys awaiting the scrapheap elsewhere in the country. He could obtain the Wickhams with the intention of having them located at Oke which lost her two trolleys in the 1960s, the line and shed still being in place. He knew of my interest and asked me to help, and on arrival of the 2 engines at Oke they were repainted and running, ready to be returned to the anti-tank range on Dartmoor. During the period of WW2, H-range was the anti-tank range and had various old tank hulks as hard targets, and a Wickham target trainer that was made up of two trolleys, a shed and railway line in the shape of a figure-of-eight. This would allow the engines to continue running for long periods and return to the shed when live firing was complete. On top of the trolley would sit a target made of a wood frame and hessian, in the shape of a vehicle, tank or running troops.
The anti-tank weapon of the day was the ‘Boys’ anti-tank rifle, followed by the Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tankk or PIAT. A few days before the new engine was due for the range it appeared that the width of track was greater than the width of the trolley axle! The track being 30 inches compared to the Wickham engine at 24 inches. I expressed my displeasure, in a less-than-polite manner, to the Commandant. ‘Don’t worry Dick’ he said, ‘I will recover the original trolley from Okehampton museum; they still belong to the Queen!’ This extra 6 inches gave the system stability in the high winds and bad weather conditions on Dartmoor. The trolley was soon collected from the museum but was in a bad way. Rusty and with no engine, it was going to be necessary to start all over again and remove all parts from the good trolley and rehouse them in the useless trolley.
The Foot-and-Mouth epidemic was still going on, so, with no range work or live firing, I restarted the project but with far-less enthusiasm than I had for the original project! I cannot remember how long this operation had taken me but I went ahead and, in time, had a working trolley ready to go with the correct axle width for the line. ‘Very good. I’m sure the Queen will be more-than pleased!’
It would require helicopter support in order to re-locate the unit from camp to its new home on the range, so, for the next step, the Commandant would arrange to send the trolley up to the Joint Air Delivery Test and Evaluation Unit (JATE) at Brize Norton. The trolley was loaded onto a truck and sent away to visit Brize. After evaluation we were told that we were on a very long waiting list for an airlift so, after the all-clear was given for Foot-and-Mouth, we put the engine on a trailer and delivered it to H-range. We got the trolley on the line, engine running, and after a full day of testing around the figure-of-eight track, all was looking good.
Soon after the work was completed the MOD changed the anti-tank weapon system for the British Military land forces. Overnight this mothballed the Wickham system as it was not compatible with the new weapons. A few years later there was a live firing exercise involving HE grenades. Some of these grenades, lobbed over the bank that protect the line, landed on the line, destroyed portions of the rail and bent the profile so the trolley could not run and never has to this day.
Return to visit report.