Museum Review: Muckleburgh Military Collection


Open 10am-5pm daily (1 April to 30 October)
Weybourne, Norfolk, NR25 7ER
+ 44 (0)1263 588 210

The Muckleburgh Military Collection is the largest privately owned military museum in the United Kingdom. It was opened to the public in 1988 by Michael Savory and his father Squadron Leader Berry Savory, who had served with the RAF in World War II. The collection started out with only 30 military vehicles, but it has grown steadily over time, and now holds more than 150 artillery pieces, tanks, and other machines. A good number of these are kept in running condition on the 300-acre site.

The collection is based in a former army base at Weybourne on the north Norfolk coast. After being used for a short time during World War I, it was reopened in 1936 as a full-time training facility for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) personnel, with between 250,000 and 300,000 recruits passing through over the next decade. The early Cold War period saw the camp become a permanent AAA range and a radar-training base, before its final closure in 1959.

Tanks and aircraft on display at the Muckleburgh Military Collection. Founded in 1988, it is now the largest privately owned military museum in the country.

Front-line Norfolk

The camp played an important role in the defence of the UK mainland in the face of the growing menace of Nazi Germany before World War II. Initially, the trainees were housed in uncomfortable tents, later to be replaced by Nissen huts, earning Weybourne an unenviable reputation as ‘the worst posting in Britain’. The defences around the camp were built up over time with the addition of anti-tank ditches, mines, and pillboxes to counter the threat of invasion.

The central feature of the first display room is a detailed model of how the camp would have looked in June 1941, when Winston Churchill made the first of two visits here. The wartime premier is depicted watching a demonstration of a ‘Queen Bee’ launcher – a remote-controlled Tiger Moth biplane used for target towing. He was not impressed with the accuracy of the shooting and threatened to remove the camp’s senior management unless improvement were made.

The collection covers a breadth of military history themes. Not surprisingly, the local area is well covered, with one room devoted to the Norfolk and Suffolk Yeomanry, whose story is told with the aid of a range of uniforms, weapons, and regimental artefacts. Other displays highlight the Zeppelin raids that damaged Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, and helped trigger investment in aerial defence.

Another section is devoted to the well-known Norfolk-born nurse Edith Cavell, executed for helping British soldiers to escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I. The outrage caused by her death is credited with doubling recruitment to the British army.

Displays in the museum include the Medmenham Collection, which records the history of Photographic Interpretation and Intelligence from World War I onward. Another charts the history of the Royal Air Force Air Sea Rescue services, whose motto was ‘the sea shall not have them’.

Armour and artillery

The core of the collection, however, is its impressive range of military hardware – from artillery to armoured cars, trucks, and tanks. These exhibits enable the visitor to trace the development of battlefield artillery through the 20th century. World War I is represented by the 18-pounder field gun, which formed the backbone of the British war effort on the Western Front. Nearby, from World War II, is an example of the highly effective German 88mm gun, which gained a fearsome reputation as an improvised anti-tank weapon, and would go on to provide the main armament for the heavy Tiger I tank.

The evolution of British artillery in the North African theatre is illustrated with a 2-pounder anti-tank gun, complete with a rare example of a Chevrolet C8 Portée truck, on which the piece was transported across rough desert terrain. This gun proved to be ineffective against thicker German armour, and was replaced in 1942 by the 6-pounder, of which an example can also be seen. Close by is the much more impressive 17-pounder, which could penetrate the armour of a Tiger or a Panther. The collection also possesses the iconic 25-pounder field gun, which served the army for two decades after World War II.

Most impressive of all is the variety of tanks and other vehicles. Some are well known – for example, a Canadian-built Sherman, also known as a Grizzly, together with an M24 Chaffee and a Soviet T34 and T55. Less expected is a Czech-manufactured T55 bridge-layer, a variant that could put a bridge down across a 78ft gap. Among other rare vehicles is a surviving Ford Amphibian Jeep, which was redeployed to river crossings after proving ineffective in its original role as a transporter of troops to and from ships.

The development of British tanks from World War II and into the Cold War is shown with examples of the Comet, Centurion, and Chieftain. The remarkable range of support vehicles includes an Austin K2 Ambulance. Known to its wartime crews as ‘Katy’, it is the same type as driven by the Queen while serving in the ATS as Princess Elizabeth. Among the collection of armoured cars, the Daimler Ferret Scout Car stands out for its extensive use in the Cold War.

Anti-air defence is not neglected. The collection holds a fully integrated tracked Rapier anti-air system, initially built for the Iranian Shah but used by the British army after the 1979 Islamic revolution. There is an example of the Bloodhound air-defence missile too, a rocket- and ramjet-powered weapons system used by the RAF to protect against Soviet aircraft until the end of the Cold War. Visitors can also see a Javelin, still in service as an anti-armour system.

Winston Churchill at Muckleburgh in 1941 watching a demonstration of a ‘Queen Bee’ launcher – a remote-controlled Tiger Moth biplane used for target towing. He was not impressed by the accuracy of the shooting.

Models and images

One of the collection’s most attractive features is the large number of first-rate scale models, covering a wide variety of themes. Battle dioramas range from the Napoleonic era to the World Wars and Vietnam. In one highly detailed scene, Mark IV tanks on flat-bed rail wagons are shown moving up to the Western Front for action at Cambrai in 1917. A remarkable model of the Gustav 80cm railway gun, used just once in the German siege of Sebastopol in 1942, particularly catches the eye.

Also memorable is the extensive collection of models of civilian and naval ships, all built to the same scale. They are arranged to demonstrate the evolution of maritime architecture, from HMS Warrior and the Cutty Sark to HMS Vanguard and even a 1980s oil rig.

Situated off the main galleries is the Medmenham Collection, a display covering the evolution of aerial photo reconnaissance from WWI to the Cold War and beyond. We learn here about the maverick Australian pilot and entrepreneur Sidney Cotton, whose pre-1939 photographing of German military installations played a key role in advancing RAF mastery of the science.

Striking images and surviving cameras, such as the F52, which was fitted to Spitfires, Mosquitos, and post-war Canberras, tell this important but neglected story. A photograph of the Japanese army’s two bridges on the River Kwai, shortly before their destruction by Allied bombing, demonstrates the importance of intelligence-gathering. Here, too, is a photograph of the German Würzburg radar on the coast of occupied France, which was to be seized by paratroopers in the daring 1942 Bruneval Raid (see p.41).

Images from one of Muckleburgh’s annual Military Weekends, during which many of its 150 artillery pieces, tanks, and other machines turn out for public display. Visitors are also afforded views of the East Anglian coastline.

An immersive experience

Muckleburgh offers an excellent day out for military-history buffs and non-specialist visitors alike. The exhibits are not roped off and you are free to photograph them – and with the aid of a smartphone, QR codes allow you to view the inside of many of the vehicles. The facilities are family-friendly, and the café offers a wide-ranging menu and accompanying sea views. A well-stocked shop carries a range of reasonably priced books, models, and souvenirs.

And, although tank-driving experiences were suspended when I visited, the collection does offer tracked vehicle rides around the site in an armoured personnel carrier. A visit is strongly recommended if your holiday plans take you to East Anglia. •

Ben Goodlad is currently a serving RAF Engineering Officer and has a keen interest in military history.

All images: Muckleburgh Military Collection/Flickr