Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Concrete Cows

The last couple of months have seen a handful of videos posted on YouTube about the Bison mobile pillbox. In these videos assorted commentators have laid into the Bison explaining how bad an Armoured Fighting Vehicle it was, one even suggested that it’d be ineffective against the Germans simply because they were Elite Germans. Well, I contend that the Bison was in fact an effective vehicle, in its role, and that the assorted individuals laying into it have failed to grasp what they’re looking at and are viewing it through the wrong lens. So let’s have a good rummage around into the history of the Bison, and it all starts during the First World War. 

Ambrose and Mathews


In the Great War both sides were chucking huge amounts of artillery at each other. Defensive positions need stout bunkers to resist the storm of fragments and conclusion of the shell explosions. The obvious answer was concrete, which would provide the strength needed for the field works. However, the logistics of erecting the shuttering, transporting the wet concrete and then pouring it into the shuttering, is time consuming, and would be all but impossible near the front line. The answer came from two Royal Engineers, John Goldwell Ambrose and Charles Bernard Mathews. They started working on precast concrete. This is a construction method where the concrete is poured into moulds, then when dry transported to the site for its use, where upon it can be quickly erected. In 1919 both men formed a new company called Concrete Limited. Its logo was a Bison. 

Concrete Ltd's logo, in later life after being acquired by another company and being renamed. The Bison logo however seems constant.

Fast forward to 1940, and the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk. In the intervening time the company has worked hard on developing new methods of precasting concrete, and even holds some patents on the matter. It’s not clear from the records if Ambrose is still part of the company, but Mathews is often cited as being involved in what happens next. Mathews set his company to work, and they created a prototype of a pillbox like structure on a truck. This was demonstrated to local military authorities, and some helpful advice was given about the design, which Mathews took to heart.  With the design finalised production began of a fleet of vehicles that all bore the name Bison, after the manufacturing company. 

I have my suspicion's this is actually the prototype Bison.

There seems to have been two types of Bison, although some commentators have assigned designations to the samples drawn from the pictures, it is unclear if there were any formal identification of the sub variants. It seems unlikely, as the concrete was placed on whatever vehicle was available, so each individual vehicle was different. The basic design difference was if the concrete bunker was a single unit or a split unit. In the single unit the cab was encased in its own concrete, while there was a separate bunker on the rear. The other type had a single bunker that covered both the cab and the truck bed.

The non-separated bunker version of a Bison

Production process was to take the donor vehicle, remove all the bodywork and excess weight and then erect shuttering around the areas to be concreted. Multiple layers of expanded steel were then placed inside the shuttering to help reinforce the concrete. Then the concrete was poured in. Once set, a precast roof was affixed. The donor chassis could literally be any heavy-duty truck. There are reports of a steam truck being modified, although this was done by removing the boilers and associated pipe work and leaving the chassis as a simple towed trailer.

How to use a Bison, and here is where the aforementioned commentators have gotten it wrong. It is not an Armoured Fighting Vehicle. What it is, is a mobile pillbox, and defensive position. Imagine, if you will, you are in charge of a German Fallschirmjager force. You are planning to capture a British airfield. You have airborne reconnaissance that details the locations of all the bunkers and strong points. You start your planning, detailing units to capture set objectives, maybe even using gliders in a coup de main on a particularly stubborn position. The day of the operation arrives, and you land, but all the bunkers have moved! Now the bunker you have to capture is 150 yards away across flat open ground, and there’s blistering rate of rifle fire coming from it. You have at best, an anti-tank rifle which has absolutely no effect on this behemoth. Furthermore, even if you do knock it out by some miracle, it’s several tons of wreckage, quite possibly sitting in the middle of the landing zone which you have no way of moving, and your reinforcements are about to start landing. I wonder whom will win, several tons of concrete and steel, or a JU52 ploughing into it at 100mph. The Bison is literally a movable speed bump designed to throw a spanner in the works of any plan to capture airfields. It never was intended to be an Armoured Fighting Vehicle. 

An entire heard of Bison's ready to sweep the Germans in to the sea in a stampede! These are the other, seemingly more common type of Bison, with the separate flatbed bunker. If you look on the front of all the vehicles, it clearly says the name Bison.

That said there is an entry in the war diary of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment, which lists a party collecting seven Bisons from Concrete Limited at Stourton Works in Leeds on the 5th of October 1940. It is not clear if these were for the unit’s use, or if the drivers were acting as ferry troops. It should be noted that at the time the 40th RTR owned precisely two tanks, one cruiser and a light for training purposes. The use of Bison to allow crews experience of driving heavy vehicles was not a bad one. What happened next to those seven Bison is not recorded, but they were not shipped out with the unit, and are never mentioned in the war diary again.

The vast majority of Bison’s would have served during the invasion scare at assorted locations, most likely airfields. Their fate is largely not recorded, and then simply disappear. We do, however, have enough detail to piece together, in part at least, the story of one Bison. 

A pair of Bisons? This picture was taken at RAF Speke.

In Lincolnshire, about eleven miles southeast from Lincoln is RAF Digby. A Bison was fitted to a 1915 Leyland box van. This van was originally owned and used as a furniture removals van by a company in Sleaford, before being enlisted and going off to get its concrete uniform. She was then posted to the RAF airfield, not too far from her home.  As the war progressed the need for local defence diminished, and the Army Transport Corps were detailed to remove it to a site in Yorkshire for long term storage. However, like many Bison’s the sheer weight of the conversion had all but wrecked the automotive parts. Interestingly, as the van had solid rubber tyres, they would have held up quite well. As the hulk could not be moved any great distance, it was dragged to the A15 road, where it served as a bunker to cover the road block the Home Guard had set up there.  On the 3rd of December 1944 the Home Guard were stood down. Again, the Bison was unwanted, and simply shoved into a copse of trees at Quarington Lane End, where she was abandoned. Over the following years she was slowly stripped of parts and vandalised. Eventually she found a new lease of life as the chassis, shed of the concrete burden, was used as a farm trailer. The concrete additions were left dumped in the copse, and children were often found playing on the remains. In early 1991 the remains were recovered by two local historical preservation societies, and the concrete parts are now resting at Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. 


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Image Credits & Sources:

www.warwheels.net and www.forterra.co.uk