Tanks are like elephants. Everyone knows what they look like, but few people have actually seen one; and when they do, it is often in a museum or installed as part of a war memorial. The mistake that most people make when faced with tanks as museum piece or memorials is believing they are seeing a tank. Much like looking at the dry bones of a dinosaur, on such occasions we regard the mere shell of a tank.
Despite numerous childhood visits to the Royal Armoured Corps Museum at Bovington Camp in Dorset and the Imperial War Museum in London, I did not see my first real tank until I was eighteen. The chill dawn of a September morning near the Sibesse Gap in Germany saw me and my mates standing to our arms in anticipation of an attack by British soldiers playing the part of opposing forces (OPFOR). It had been a chilly, damp night and sleeping on the cold ground without the luxury of sleeping bags had leeched warmth from our bodies. As we stood shivering in our fire trenches, sited to guard a notional minefield gap, a distant rumble and roar echoed down the valley from our rear rising to a crescendo as it drew near. In the middle-distance a number of large menacing shapes emerged from the murky half-light. Challenger tanks. No museum visit or war film could have prepared me such an imposing sight; sixty-two tons of metal, standing nearly ten feet tall, with a length of thirty-seven feet and the roar of a 26 litre Rolls Royce engine. This was the stuff that boys’ (wet) dreams are made of (when not fantasising about girls of course). The tanks approached our position along the metalled road in ‘line astern’ and stopped about twenty metres short of our position. The commander of the lead tank briefly checked his map and after a short pause, with an enormous roar of their engines, the tanks moved on, passing the culvert that we had dug in next to and pulled a sharp right turn, heading across the front-right of our little piece of battlespace up a rolling slope, fanning out into line-abreast as they did so, moving out to perform the cavalry’s traditional role of screening the infantry’s flanks. That was it, my first real up-close encounter with a tank. Over the course of my career, I worked with armour on a number of occasions, but nothing ever came close to the thrill of that first experience.
Thrill is the right word when you are on a peacetime exercise and the tanks are friendly. When you are sitting in a defensive position and the tanks that you are facing are those of the enemy, I imagine the effect would be bowel-loosening terrifying. When you picture that sixty odd tons coming at you at a speed of thirty-five miles per hour, its main armament blasting away at your little castle of ‘wriggly tin’, sandbags and barbed wire, the machine guns intermittently raking back and forth, the military descriptors of the role of armour as ‘shock action’ and ‘aggressive mobile action’ seem euphemistically understated. Soldiers of my generation had seen tanks; on TV, in the movies and in museums. Had the Cold War turned hot, we would have an inkling what we might be up against. A few days after my first encounter, we would have a taste of what this might be like when a combined arms battlegroup of tanks and armoured infantry assaulted our main defensive position. Our anti-tank weapons were well deployed and the umpires reckoned that we could have taken out most of this unit, but the show, based on the exercise scenario had to go on.
One hundred years ago, tanks were first used in action on the Somme battlefield at Flers-Courcelette. This was a new weapon being unleashed on the world and with no frame of reference, the German soldiers that faced them must have been overwhelmed by the sight of these armoured leviathans. The actual result was mixed, many of the tanks did not make it to the line of departure for the attack and of the thirty-two that did, only nine breached the German lines, nevertheless, the ability of the tank to manoeuvre across the scarred terrain of the battlefield while resisting small arms fire and shell splinters was proven. Those who witnessed this first tank attack might not have realised its enormity, but the first step of a shift in the character of conflict had just been taken. If the Great War was characterised largely by the attrition of trench warfare, subsequent wars were often characterised by combined arms manoeuvre and air-land integration with many leaders from Guderian, Manstein, Montgomery and Patton to Schwarzkopf, de la Billiere and others forging their reputations through their Generalship of armoured formations. The rest, as they say, is history – tanks for the memory.
© Barry Alexander, 2016