History Wars World War I

The absolutely unhinged British ‘White Rabbit’ terror tank of WWI

The Brits created terror tanks that would rapidly dig trenches to enemy lines, but White Rabbit was too heavy, complex, and came too late.
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white rabbit
Photo source: Royal Navy official photographer.

Have you ever heard of the British “White Rabbit?” It was late, it was late, for a very important date. But it wasn’t from Alice in Wonderland. This was a British terror tank designed for World War I trenches but not created until World War II. Unfortunately, at that point, it was too late to matter.

The idea for the “White Rabbit,” “Nellie,” or Cultivator No. 6

World War I featured extensive trench warfare. Battle lines in Europe would often barely shift, even over the course of a year of fighting. Thousands died for mere yards of soil in a ferocious back and forth. British engineers came up with a few ideas to break the stalemate.

The most famous and successful was probably the “Landships,” better known as tanks. These were originally rolling pillboxes built on tractor chassis and engines. The Royal Navy worked on other engineering projects to breach German lines. A similar weapon, designed to dig a trench from British lines to German ones, came too late for World War I.

Lord Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty for a period of World War I, came up with the idea. A plough and diggers shifted the earth and left a trench in their wake.

The Naval Land Equipment Tractor, known affectionately as “Nellie” or “White Rabbit,” came into being in 1939 as Britain dusted off old designs for the coming war. The machine was over 75 feet long and weighed 110 tons. Designers expected that infantry could point the machine at an enemy trench, start it digging, and advance behind it. The machine dumped excavated soil on either side of the trench, building a 3-foot obstacle on top of the trench.

At least one prototype included armor to cover the infantry advance. Which was good, since the “White Rabbit” advanced at 4mph and had a 1-mile turning radius.

And that was the smaller, more narrow, “infantry” version. A larger and wider design, known as a “General” or “Officer” trench digger, would have been larger.

white rabbit cultivator no. 6
A view of the Land Excavating Trenching otherwise known as White Rabbit No. 6, Cultivator No. 6, or Nellie. This machine was an underground tank developed in 1939-1940 and designed to travel across no man’s land in a trench of its own making. Nellie above ground front three-quarters view.

Time marches on

The machine, officially known as Cultivator No. 6, could have made a difference in World War I. But the early battles of World War II, especially the blitzkrieg attacks past the Maginot Line and into the heart of France, proved that protracted trench warfare was unlikely. Churchill rapidly slashed orders for the trench diggers.

He wrote:

The change which has come over the war affects decisively the usefulness of “Cultivator No. 6”. It may play its part in various operations, defensive and offensive, but it can no longer be considered the only method of breaking a fortified line. I suggest that the Minister of Supply should to-day be instructed to reduce the scheme by one half. Probably in a few days it will be to one-quarter. The spare available capacity could be turned over to tanks.

Winston Churchill, as quoted in ThinkDefence.co.uk

Nellie was, through no fault of her own, a failed weapon.