Humberside Geologist No. 14

Humberside Geologist Online

GEOLOGICAL RAMBLES OF A TANK OFFICER IN WORLD WAR 2

By E.V. WRIGHT

 

Not surprisingly perhaps, the call of fossil-hunting remained strong with me through World War 2, often as a welcome change from military duties. Rarely did I miss an opportunity of applying eye or hammer whenever the army landed me in an appropriate locality.

Curiously chances in Britain where I spent the years from 1939 to mid-1944 were fleeting, in part due to the difficulty of access to coastal exposures. In areas of interest, all too often these were covered by defences and more especially by minefields. That of the chalk at Trimingham remained dangerous for long after the war. In Dorset which was potentially promising during courses at Lulworth or Bovingdon, the fate of a party of Sappers who were blown up on an uncharted minefield in 1940 at Arish Mell was a salutary warning. In 1942 however I reckoned it safe enough to clamber down the steep cliff at White Nothe at the east end of Weymouth Bay where I was rewarded with a specimen of the rare pseudoceratite ammonite, Engonoceras, from a boulder on the beach. On my return to the top I was held up at gunpoint by a very inquisitive sergeant who was puzzled as to how I got into the area in the first place! The nearby cafe at Osmington Mills used to serve inexpensive lobsters and I once added to the enjoyment by bagging two beautiful specimens along the cliff from there of a rare ammonite, Stoliczkaia (Shumarinaia), a first record from England.

Two inland forays however stand out in my memory: the first in 1942 when for some months the East Yorkshire Yeomanry were under canvas on the Breckland near Thetford in Suffolk. I had bicycled to Thetford station and put the bike on the train for Norwich which had recently been fire-bombed in one of the so-called "Baedecker" raids on historic cities and smelt of smouldering timber from miles away. From Norwich I rode out to a chalk-pit at Eaton: but there was not a great deal to be seen except the customary zone-fossil, Belemnitella mucronata, "whistle-fish" to the Norfolk quarryman or just "thunderbolts" from the Boulder Clay of East Yorkshire. However, just as time was running out before I had to get back to the station, I came upon the all-but perfect, undistorted test of an immense, smooth heart-urchin identified as Cardiotaxis heberti (Cotteau). I am looking forward to seeing its picture in a forthcoming part of Smith and Wright's monograph on the British Cretaceous Echinoids . Another trip also involved bicycling, this time on the very uncomfortable Army variety, this was during a course at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. I had always hankered for a specimen of "Salenia geometrica" which was missing from our collection and which I remembered to have been recorded by R. M. Brydone from a chalk-pit at East Harnham near Salisbury. So one Sunday morning I borrowed a machine and pedalled off to look for the pit which was in the Gonioteuthis quadrata zone, absent in East Yorkshire. Eventually I found two Salenias, very pretty little urchins, and assumed that they were S. geometrica; but when this genus came to be written up in the new monograph it turns out that Salenia geometrica (Agassiz) occurs lower in the Chalk, in the Uintacrinus and Marsupites Zones; one of which is figured in the monograph (Smith and Wright 1989 Pt. 2 Pl. 50 Fig. 4) One is illustrated here (Fig. 1 (a)-(d)).

The field opened up somewhat with the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. My regiment, the East Riding Yeomanry, had landed on Sword Beach near Lion-sur-Mer on the early afternoon of D-Day and after about seven weeks of fighting north of Caen had a few days of relaxation in a Rest Area, carved out by our enterprising Brigadier in some villas along the coast at Luc-sur-Mer. The temptation was great; and so I armed myself with a screwdriver from the tank's tool kit, assumed that the beach was clear of mines and set off along the shore to see what there was to be seen. I soon came upon a beach exposure of soft limestone and clay, Bajocian (from Bayeux) as it turned out, and I gathered a nice array of brachiopods of several genera, which I still have. The exposure was visible in 1997 when I took my grandson there to collect fossils. On the way back I searched the low limestone cliff where I had a couple of nice sea-urchins (Acrosalenia sp.); but the most unexpected find was a centrodorsal ossicle of a Comatulid crinoid, commonly known as "Antedon" (Plate B.1. a-c) familiar from the ones we had occasionally found in the English Cretaceous. The adults are free-swimming with feathery arms springing from the centrodorsal plate. I had harboured thoughts that it might be undescribed and had pondered a possible name, perhaps "Antedon delthemera" to commemorate D-Day; but, alas, it is not new as others have been recovered from the same horizon in France and Switzerland.

While the battle was still going on there were few opportunities for collecting; let alone for storing finds! I did however find myself in a position to visit and do a little to help an institution which had suffered badly from the violence of the "liberation", this time at the hands of the "liberators" themselves. This was near Caen in August 1944 when the Yeomanry were temporarily in reserve out of the action. I went off with a Belgian comrade, Henri Salman, to find out what had happened to the Geological Department of Caen University, the city having been heavily bombed by the R.A.F. I did this on behalf of a friend from Oxford days, Jocelyn Arkell, Reader in Geology at the University and a Research Fellow at New College, who had a long association with French colleagues active in the classic Jurassic deposits of Normandy. He had given me some names of people to look up; and after a tricky drive in our jeep through the shattered ruins we eventually ran down the head of the department, Professor Dangeaud. The story thereafter is best told in the letter I later wrote to Arkell :-

(Extract from a letter written on active service by Capt E.V. Wright, dated 3rd. August 1944. )

" I have just returned from a trip to Caen to look into the state of affairs in the Geological Department and see if I could find your learned friends. We (Henri Salman and I) eventually found Prof. Mercier, Principal of the University, and after a long talk with him were taken round to see Prof. Dangeaud, Professor of Geology.

"The position is disastrous. The whole University, collections, library were completely destroyed by bomb and fire in the raid before the town was captured. Dangeaud was buried but extricated and seemed fairly cheerful. though he looked pale and very haggard and had a wound in the hand. Everything they possessed of books, specimens and maps had gone. He had, however started work on water-supply, the only thing that remains difficult now.

"We asked after Jean Mercier, Lecturer in Geology, and were told that he had been a prisoner since 1940; so anything may have happened to him.

"The Professor would be happy to have any books, maps and accurately labelled specimens - in almost any language -merely to make a new start. He regretted the loss of their series of periodicals in particular.

"I feel that as the damage was done directly by British bombing we owe them some obligation to start the ball rolling and should like to suggest an appeal in scientific circles .... The chief trouble in so many French provincial universities is lack of money .... I am sending a cheque (of 5 each) for books from myself and my Belgian friend .... I took the liberty of telling Prof. Dangeaud that I would try to get something going which I am not really in a position to do so myself, on the assumption that I could fall back on Oxford for assistance. Salman and I feel that the knowledge that someone is taking an interest in their future would provide the stimulus to their initiative neccessary for them to carry on and start up again."

On the strength of this report Arkell set up an appeal among the British geological establishment for practical support in the form of books. specimens and equipment; and this was effective and highly appreciated. Later I learned that the existence of this appeal and a similar one through Bristol University tipped the scales in persuading the central French authorities not to close down the Department at Caen. I visited it in 1982 and found it flourishing.

I was able to have a quick look at the coastal cliffs at Yport north of Le Havre in September 1944; but saw nothing except some squashed Micrasters. Thereafter there were no more opportunities of doing any collecting until well after the German surrender in May 1945, although I did manage to help a newly liberated institution to restore communications with the British establishment. One of the places used by the Army for what is now known as " Rest and Recreation" was Brussels and soon after VE-day I went there for a short leave. Looking for something useful to do, I first called at the 21st Army Group Map Store where I was courteously received by Lt. Col. Shotton, later Professor of Geology at Sheffield. He generously presented me with a lavish selection of maps including geological cover for much of Germany and Belgium, my pretext being that they might be useful for "Educational purposes", I having just taken on responsibility for that function in the regiment. I still have them!

Shotton then directed me to the Musee Royal d'Histore Naturelle whose Director was Victor van Straelen, a contact of my brother's and perhaps the world's greatest authority on Mesozoic crabs. Van Straelen also gave me a warm welcome and told me that their most pressing need was for journals and other publications produced in England during the war-years and not available in Belgium since the occupation in 1940. I passed this request on to Willy at the War Office and he made the necessary arrangements. Van Straelen also told me with some glee how the museum's great Iguanadon skeletons had been too big to dismantle and store and so had remained on display throughout the occupation. They had been much admired by the visiting Wehrmacht who like the British had used Brussels for "Rest and Recreation"! What the Germans did not know was that during this time Van Straelen's staff were operating the main printing facility for the Resistance in the basement underneath.

"Peacetime soldiering" after VE-Day turned out more promising for collecting. The Yeomanry had finished up at a little port called Laboe on the Baltic east of Kiel and my first excursion was to a large chalk-pit at Lagerdorf to look for starfish and especially for Recurvaster which had been recorded from there and which we had erected for material from East Yorkshire; but unfortunately the chalk proved nearly barren. To my disappointment I never succeded in getting up to Denmark, another area for chalk starfish; but soon after this I was translated to a staff job at HQ 21st Army Group at Bad Oeynhausen near Minden in Westphalia and things started to look up. We had a couple of "supernumerary" jeeps in the branch where I worked and on my weekly free day I could take one of these out with plenty of fuel and no questions asked. I had excellent maps and a comprehensive gazetteer of occupied Germany. My brother had sent me lists of promising localities culled from the records in German monographs and armed with these, and, by now a hammer and chisel, I used to sally forth on my own.

I soon realised that the way to locate clay-pits was to look for the chimney of a brick-kiln and my first stop was at Buckeburg (Jetenberg). I could not believe my luck when the clay turned out to contain numerous ammonites, which were plainly "Polyptychites" of the sort to be found only occasionally in the D2 and D3 Beds at Speeton (Lamplugh's terminology) or the Drift of Holderness. (Plate B. Fig 2 a-b) Some of them were very large (Plate C1) and to my later regret I could only photograph and leave them. At the base of the exposure was a bed of hard ferruginous mudstone containing flat, keeled ammonites identified as Platylenticeras, suggesting an Infravalnginian horizon then unrecorded at Speeton. The deposits were so rich in fossil ammonites that I used to find it a wrench to pass by without paying them a quick visit when I was on my way elsewhere! I later heard that a Sergeant from RAF Buckeberg, one Philip Cambridge, became much more assiduous than I had been and made many more finds, especially from the Infravalanginian. The Polyptychites were the most beautiful fossils of a quality rarely to be found in East Yorkshire.

While the going was good and the use of the faithful jeep unregulated (It had faulty shock-absorbers and was a handful to drive), I used to travel further afield; twice for Salzgitter in Brunswick near the border of the Russian Zone. The exposures there were one of Brown Coal and another of the oolitic iron-ore familiar from that at Nettleton Top in Lincolnshire and evidently of the same horizon. At the spot where I located them the oolitic iron-ore beds were nearly vertical and resting unconformably on clay, this contained keeled ammonites which I mistakenly took to be Mortoniceras from the Albian as the clay appeared to overlie the oolitic iron-ore. The problem was resolved when my brother identified them as Arietid ammonites from the Jurassic! There was an unconformity all right; but I had interpreted the strata the wrong way up! All I had by way of fossils from the Cretaceous beds were the sort of broken Leopoldia and Crioceras, similar to those from Speeton or Nettleton. Other clay-pits yielded Hauterivian and Barremian clays (Lamplugh's Upper B Beds at Speeton) which was full of small pyritic ammonites. One of the brick-pits at Altwarmbuchen nearby produced previously unrecorded examples of Leymeriella from the Lower Albian.

After the delights of Buckeburg and other comparisons with Speeton, my next most fruitful haunt was the chalk of Hanover, famous for its sponges whose parallel is the sponge bed at Danes Dyke and Sewerby. The German collector most notable for collecting, and more especially developing these had been a dentist from Hildesheim called Schrammen whose figured specimens were of mouth-watering quality. I eventually found the right exposures in vast quarries supplying the cement-works of the area. By East Yorkshire standards the chalk was comparatively soft and contained large quantities of the zone-fossil, Goniateuthis quadrata (Blainville) suggesting that the German horizon is somewhat higher than that at Sewerby where G. quadrata does not occur. Sponges were as common as the comparable fauna at Sewerby and much easier to extract. Many of them appeared to be of species similar to those familiar from East Yorkshire. A bonus came with beautifully preserved, irregular sea-urchins, Micraster and Gibbaster, which are proving useful to my brother for comparison with the British material in the monograph. As members of the society are well aware Micrasters are not common in East Yorkshire, the Campanian least of all, and it was exciting to find the plentiful German material.

By the time that the hard winter of 1945-6 was over and spring returned, unfortunately the army's bureaucracy had taken charge and I lost the freedom to wander about the countryside on my own. I could (just!) justify the use of "recreational transport" for a hard-working staff officer; but regulations required that the jeep had to be driven by an official driver and I never found one whose heart was in "rock-knocking" which put a damper on proceedings. So the collecting phase came to an end; but there was still the problem of what to do about all the fossils which had accumulated in my quarters. These had to be got to England before I was demobilised and that too was coming nearer. Salvation came in the form of a fellow-officer in one of the technical branches who was due to deliver to Farnborough a German truck which was driven on "producer gas" generated from wood-chips and water in a kind of boiler affair in the back. He agreed to take all my fossils over packed in three large, steel, artillery-ammunition chests, the volume being limited by the fact that he also had to carry three-quarters of a load of wood chips to get to the coast and thence to Farnborough apart from a number of commissions for other friends. Anyway all went well and he did me proud; for not content with going straight to his destination, he went round by London and delivered my boxes direct to Willy at the War Office in Whitehall.

Some of my German specimens have already been figured and I hope to see more as the Echinoid monograph progresses. I suppose that I was extraordinarily lucky to be where I was. This may have been at a fleeting and perhaps unique period of stagnation in the German economy because activities which had generated all sorts of exposures in fossil-bearing deposits had suddenly ceased when the war ended leaving them unattended as well as free to weather. I can remember seeing hardly a single soul at any of my haunts and at the time there was no competition with my collecting either. It might be said that I was enjoying the "fruits of victory"!

Received - March 2001

Edited by NW & MH with the help of Felix Whitham, Willy Wright and John Catt

PLATES

A1. a, b, c, d Salenia magnifica Wright, Upper Chalk, Lower Campanian G. quadratus zone. East Harnham, Wiltshire. x2 (Photo, Nat. Hist Museum)

A2. a,c, A2b,d Cardiotaxis heberti (Cotteau), Upper Chalk, Upper Campanian, B. mucronata zone. Eaton, Norfolk. 1:1 (Photo, Nat. Hist. Museum)

B.1 a, b, c "Antedon" sp. Jurassic,.Bajocian. Luc-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. x5 (Photo, Nat. Hist, Museum)

B. 2 a, b "Polyptychites", Lower Cretaceous, Valanginian. Buckeberg, Germany. Enlarged (Photo, Nat. Hist. Museum)

B.3 a, b Leymeriella , Lower Albian. Altwarmbuchen, Germany. 1:1

B.4 a, b Leymeriella , Lower Albian. Altwarmbuchen, Germany. 1:1 (Photo. Oxford Nat. Hist. Museum)

C.1 "Polyptychites", Lower Cretaceous, Valanginian Buckeberg, Germany. x One of the largest found, photographed and left behind. (Photo. EVW.)

 

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