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They needed to break the deadlock. By the end of 1914, men had gone to ground in the wasteland of the Western Front. Perhaps, some thought, a breakthrough would come when the weather improved and cavalry could be used. But attacks through coils of barbed wire against well-defended dug-in positions, from which machine-gun and rapid rifle fire could mow human beings down in their thousands, did not produce the war of movement that the generals wanted. Something had to be done about trench warfare; but what?
If it had not been for the First World War, no one would have developed the tank when they did – if at all. War is so often a catalyst for invention, innovation and change of all kinds – ironically, not all of it destructive. But no one person can claim credit for creating the tank. The idea – though he did not call it a tank – was probably Leonardo da Vinci’s, who in 1482 designed and proposed “covered wagons for the transport of guns into the enemy’s lines…and behind which the infantry can follow without danger”. Some even speculate whether vehicles very like tanks were used in ancient times: in the Old Testament, Judges 1:19 says the Lord “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron”.
A little more recently, in 1855, James Cowen took out a patent for an armoured traction engine – though it was never built. In 1903, HG Wells published a short story, ‘The Land Ironclads’ which featured enormous, 100 foot (30 metre) long military gun-vehicles which also carried infantry. In the same year, Captain Levavasseur of the French Army unsuccessfully proposed an “automobile cannon project”. In 1904, David Roberts of Grantham patented a continuous track for use on tractors and Benjamin Holt in California demonstrated the real thing.
An Australian, Lancelot de Mole, actually submitted an innovative design for an armoured military vehicle to the British War Office in 1912. Yet the man often credited with conceiving the tank was Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton of the Royal Engineers, who in 1914 proposed to the War Office that it should build an armoured tracked vehicle capable of destroying German guns; though the original suggestion seems to have come from a friend in South Africa. Some form of siege engine was needed, Swinton thought, and he realised that the agricultural caterpillar tractor might provide a technical starting point. Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, agreed. But it was the enthusiasm of Winston Churchill MP that gave the project wings. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was obviously principally concerned with war on land (!) and actually convened a committee to look into methods for attacking trenches. He wrote to Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister, “It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured shelters” and envisaged “forty or fifty of these engines…smashing away all the obstructions and sweeping trenches with machine-gun fire.”
Churchill’s idea of ‘landships’ as he called them became a joint army/navy project under the leadership of Colonel Albert Stern, an ex-banker. The focus shifted to purpose-built vehicles designed by inventor Lieutenant Walter Wilson of the Royal Naval Air Service and engineer William Tritton at the firm Foster’s of Lincoln. The vehicles were by this time known as ‘tanks’, a name suggested by Swinton for deception purposes. The world’s first working tank, ‘Little Willie’, was tested in September 1915, followed by further prototypes including ‘Big Willie’ and, in January 1916, ‘Mother’.
The first action using tanks took place on 15th September 1916, when 53 Mark Is lumbered across the Somme battlefield in support of British, Canadian and New Zealand troops. There were two types: the ‘male’ armed with two naval 6-pounder guns; and the ‘female’ equipped with four Vickers machine-guns.
Don’t take my word for any of this. You can find out all about it by visiting The Tank Museum at Bovington, in Dorset. Tanks were originally tested in Suffolk, but the army deemed the area around Bovington and Lulworth more suitable for training – and they are still there.
The Tank Museum is the museum of the Royal Armoured Corps and it is located adjacent to the military base, Bovington Camp. It was, apparently, Rudyard Kipling’s suggestion that a tank museum should be set up and it opened to the public in 1947. The museum now has more than 300 vehicles with the largest collection of tanks in the world – excluding those being used by various armies, of course. The largest museum collection of armoured fighting vehicles is the Musee des Blindes in Saumur.
The fascinating story of the tank unfolds through six, massive, exhibition halls at Bovington. It takes you through the inter-war years, when forward thinking military minds like Heinz Guderian (author of ‘Achtung-Panzer!’ In 1937) advocated a new type of warfare leading to Blitzkrieg. It tells tales of battles, from Cambrai and Arras to Alamein, Normandy and, the greatest tank engagement ever, Kursk – when something like 6,000 (estimates range up to 23,000) German and Soviet tanks clashed. The story evolves through the Cold War to the present day. The tank can give an army mobility and the means to deliver a decisive strike whilst offering protection to its fighters. But visibility can be poor and tanks are also large and difficult to hide. These days, thermal imaging is used to locate enemy tanks whilst silencers, exhaust shields and stealth technology is used to make them harder to find.
Bovington’s collection includes iconic vehicles whose names will be familiar to schoolboys of all ages, including me. So here you will find the outstanding German Panzer, Tiger and Panther tanks, the amazing Soviet T34 (I remember seeing a graveyard of T34s in Cyprus), British Centurion and Challenger…and, of course, the American M4 Sherman – grimly nicknamed ‘Ronson’ after the cigarette lighter (“lights every time”). There is even a DD (duplex-drive) version of the Sherman – an amphibious variety used during D-Day (disastrously at Omaha Beach) and elsewhere.
The 2014 movie, Fury features an M4 Sherman – as well as Brad Pitt. The museum was approached to offer its expertise, as well as the loan of its working WW2 tanks. ‘Fury’ was mostly filmed in Britain and the museum decided to recreate part of the film set to help tell the story of its involvement with Hollywood.
The Tank Museum is an absorbing experience – even if only for a limited period if you don’t find tanks particularly warm and cuddly. Personally, I find them terrifying: huge, seemingly unstoppable, machines; the mass of unforgiving, unyielding, mobile metal is shocking enough – without considering the firepower. Having read, and listened to, accounts of tank warfare, I can imagine few things more frightening than going to war in one; possibly, the fear and helplessness as one of these monsters inexorably approaches you might be worse. The cramped, sweltering, conditions of the early tanks in particular gave me a feeling of awe for the men that fought in them, often with bonds closer than many families. I daresay modern tanks are a little more comfortable.
As part of the story, the museum includes an interesting mock-up of a tank factory as well as Battlegroup Afghanistan, a moving exhibition depicting part of the British Army’s role in Helmand Province.
There’s plenty to do in this part of southern England, but I’d say that the Tank Museum should be on your list of places to go. It’s also a very good rainy day option. Being weaned tales of derring-do, it is definitely my kind of place. I loved the factory smell of steel and engine oil and was impressed by the range of visitor types; they were by no means all middle-aged fat nurds in combat fancy dress trying to look tough. I was disappointed to have missed one of the regular live displays the museum puts on, but have noted that they stage an annual ‘Tank Fest’, which looks captivating. The museum also has a passable canteen and a very good shop which sells everything from the usual tat to an excellent range of books.
At the end of it all, I came upon a very out-tanked Mrs B. Curiously, that didn’t stop her wanting to buy ‘Fury’ on DVD; she’s never shown any previous interest in American tank tactics of WW2 and I can’t imagine what the sudden attraction was.