Ploughing with the War Ag: Sam Pennal and His Caterpillar D2

North Wales man’s contribution to a struggling England during World War II was ploughing with a Caterpillar D2 with the War Ag.

Sam Driving Caterpillar

Sam was one of the men who drove machines that the U.S. sent to Britain during World War II. Sam is shown here on his Caterpillar D2, identical to the crawler he used during the war when he was ploughing the steep hillsides of North Wales for the War Agricultural Executive Committee.

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Nicknames are very popular in Wales, no doubt because there are a lot of people around with the same name. In a small area there might be two men called Wil. One of them might become known as “Wil Ty Hen” (which means “Wil from the Old House”). It is a simple way of differentiating people. If you are lucky, your nickname comes from your house or your farm name, but sometimes your nickname stems from something rather more personal, such as the shape of your head (“Idris Square Head”), your beard (“Bearded John”) or your habits (“Glyn the Gin”) — which can of course lead to you being given a nickname that might be really rather unsavory!

Generally though, in a close-knit community, people are known by the names of their farms rather than their surnames. Jones, Thomas, Roberts, Williams, Evans and Owen are common surnames in Wales, and especially in the case of farmers it is more important to link people with their family farms than with their surnames.

The man who is the focus of this article is a gentleman of great character called Sam Evans, but everyone knows him as Sam Pennal because Pennal is the Welsh village that he comes from. Ask almost anyone in North Wales who is vaguely connected with tractors if he knows Sam Evans and he might shake his head, but Sam Pennal he will almost certainly know.

Sam Pennal on his own two feet

The son of a Welsh hill shepherd, Sam was born in 1924. For some time he followed in his father’s footsteps, keeping the sheep where they should be on unfenced mountainsides. As one of the oldest professions in the world, shepherding has a certain romance to it, but the truth is that it was a hard life. Sam left school at 14. Two days later he was sent away to work on a large farm in England. Young people weren’t mollycoddled in those days, and Sam reminds me that back then, at 14 years of age, a lad had to stand on his own feet, “no two ways about it.”

Later, Sam returned to his beloved Wales and continued to work on farms, which is where he learned to plough with horses. On a rare day off in 1941, he was walking over the mountains to visit his parents when he saw the most remarkable sight: a Caterpillar D4, ploughing. “It was the first time I had seen anything like it,” Sam recalls, and he was awestruck. “Forget the horses,” he said to himself. “This is what I want to do!”

So in 1943 Sam joined the Meirionnydd branch of the War Agricultural Executive Committee, known as the “War Ag.” Every county had such a committee to determine wartime land usage. The War Ag was responsible for deciding which crops should be grown to feed the struggling, blockaded British Isles, and it also deployed prisoners of war to work on the land. But the committee’s most immediate task was to oversee a plan to increase the arable acreage in Britain.

In the late 1930s, Sam says, Britain had both feet planted rather firmly in the past. Many farms still used horses and much of the land was pasture. This simple way of life had to change extremely quickly. Each county was told that a certain additional acreage had to be ploughed up and made arable. That was all very well in the flatter parts of England, but in hilly old North Wales it soon became apparent that all of the flat land had already been cultivated. There was no way that the steep hillsides of North Wales could be cultivated using the small tractors of the early 1940s like the Ferguson and the Standard Fordson. So some serious specialist kit was required, which is where the U.S. comes into the story.

Facing challenges

When Sam initially joined the War Ag, he was put to work as a threshing attendant. The workers threshed corn all winter, until March, when they started ploughing. The first tractor the War Ag gave Sam to drive was a Ferguson, but it was soon replaced by a Caterpillar D2 for ploughing, which was of course a massive step forward in terms of the type of terrain he could work on.

As Farm Collector readers are no doubt aware, America supplied Britain with a great deal of agricultural machinery during World War II. “Without the help of the Yanks and their machines, we would have been finished,” Sam says. “We couldn’t feed ourselves because we were farming in such an old-fashioned way.” 

Making matters much worse was the fact that most of our strong, capable labor force was otherwise engaged in fighting a war, so not only did we have primitive, labor-intensive farming techniques, we also had a vastly decreased workforce. Those people left behind to work on our farms were frequently women, children, the elderly, the semi-disabled, and Italian and German prisoners. In the midst of this chaos, fear and camaraderie, Sam Pennal became a man on a mission. He would plough where no man had ploughed before!

Crawlers erase shortages

Some of the hillsides Sam ploughed with that Caterpillar and trailer plough were dangerously steep, full of lumps, bumps and rocks. “I lost count of how many times I was thrown off the crawler,” Sam says. “But I was always all right because I was airborne and I was thrown clear, but then I’d have to run after the machine as fast as I could and climb back on while she was going!”

Not everyone saw Sam as a hero. Farmers had no choice but to reduce their stock numbers suddenly and dramatically and then watch state-of-the-art machines carve up hillsides previously used for grazing. The government called the shots as to what people did on their own farms. The occasional landowner resisted the change; people like Sam bore the brunt of any resentment.

But generally, people understood why these changes had to be made and pulled together. With a combined effort there was a sudden and massive increase in the amount of food produced in Britain, without which we would quite simply have starved. The Germans patrolled our seas, making sure that we were deprived of imported food. Those of us left at home fought our own little war by doing all that we could, from growing potatoes in our back yards to harvesting wheat on mountainsides — with the help of some rather nice American Caterpillars of course!

It took nerves of steel to take machines to some of the places Sam ploughed and cultivated. We’re not talking about gently sloping fields but about treacherous edges hanging high over valley floors hundreds of feet below. “I always felt safe on a crawler,” Sam says. “I wouldn’t take any 4-wheel drive tractor on the slopes I’ve been on, not for love nor money!” Whilst tractors have increased in power, they have also increased in height, he notes, and they lack the stability of a good old-fashioned crawler.

Back home at last

Seven months after Sam started with the War Ag he was called up for three years’ service in the army, but because his mountain ploughing skills were so much in demand, he was frequently sent back to Meirionnyddshire on “agricultural leave” to continue his work with the War Ag. “It was always a treat to be sent back to the mountains,” Sam recalls. “I don’t mind admitting that I never wanted to join the army, but I don’t regret it, as it taught me discipline.”

Meirionnyddshire’s beauty — mountains, sea, mist and rolling meadows — is far removed from the realities of army life. Once the war was over, Sam never left Pennal again. When he left the War Ag in 1953 he started working for himself. He bought crawlers identical to those he’d learned on and continued to do much the same work as before, ploughing where tractors couldn’t go. Sometimes he built roads and tracks in inhospitable places with an International BTD-6 bulldozer, which he still has. Most farmers wanted the slopes that Sam had cleared and cultivated to remain productive, so the demand for “extreme ploughing” continued. During the 1960s farmers received government grants to make grassland out of heather, bracken and rocks, so Sam was always busy, particularly as he was one of the few men in the area who owned rough terrain machinery.

Some of the work Sam undertook would have today’s safety officials tearing their hair out. “I remember when the law came out saying that you had to have a cab on a tractor,” Sam says. “A man came round and told me I’d have to put one on my crawler. I told him I’d rather go out of business than go on those slopes inside something like that!” Sam firmly believes that in the case of an accident, being thrown from a crawler was preferable to being tossed around inside a cab. Despite the lack of safety measures, he continued to work on dangerous slopes until his retirement in 2000, and he never had a serious accident.

Honored by the Queen

Over the years, Sam acquired almost 30 collectible crawlers, each capable of earning its keep. When he was in his 70s, he sold most of his equipment, including 24 crawlers. He kept a few favorites: A Caterpillar D2, an International Harvester T-6, a 1942 Allis-Chalmers crawler and an unusual little Cletrac. Caterpillar remains Sam’s favorite crawler line, though he believes International was one step ahead — especially with the TD-6, which starts on petrol but runs on diesel, but unlike the D2 has no need of a donkey engine. The International TD-6 is one crawler that Sam regrets selling “... but you can’t hang on to everything, can you?” he says philosophically.

The Caterpillar, the Allis and the International, like the crawlers Sam drove in his youth, all came to this country from the U.S. as part of the Lend-Lease Act and are all former War Ag machines. Sam would love to know what happened to the Caterpillar he used when working for the War Ag. It had the registration FF5870 and would have been sold off by the War Ag in about 1957.

But it’s not only the machinery that is of historic importance. The man himself is historically important, too. That fact was duly recognized in 2009 when Queen Elizabeth II recognized Sam, then 85, as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to agriculture. Sam was invited to London to receive the honor, but because his wife was in ill health, he declined. Instead, the award was brought to him in Wales. “After all, Jo,” he told me, “this story all happened here in Wales, so it makes sense to receive the award here.”

World War II was of course a devastatingly sad time for many people — Sam lost five of seven brothers in the war — but it was also a time of immense camaraderie and pride. Great advances in agriculture were made, as this little island of ours was forced to make sudden changes and embrace technology and mechanization in ways previously unimaginable. Let’s hope that if our nation is put in that situation again, there are men like Sam around to help save the day back on our farms. FC 

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.