Somewhere on my bucket list Bovington Tank Museum appears. It was one of those places I wanted to visit if ever I was in the area. It turns out that the museum isn’t too far from Southampton, so I decided to head out there on my day off. For those interested in such minutiae, you catch the Weymouth train and get off at Wool Station and take a brisk walk (in my case), or get a taxi. Most of the museum is inside so weather wasn’t too much of an issue expect for the brisk walk part.
Again I will not sprout about the history of the museum, I will leave it to their own website. Suffice to say this is a legendary museum. It has a huge collection of vehicles that will make you weep. I took over 560 images, and frankly, I would not have liked to have met some of the exhibits on the battlefield. My own interest is World War 1 machines, as well as Axis tanks of World War 2. I will have to be honest and admit that I have seen a lot of the Allied vehicles back in South Africa, so they are not really new to me.
I will try to split this blog into 2 parts, (I have merged 2 of the pages) and this part will deal with the World War 1 and World War 2 collection.
“Little Willie” is probably the oldest tank in the world, and probably the granddaddy of everything that came afterwards. It is difficult to look at this vehicle and compare it to the behemoths that dominate battlefields today. The appearance of the tank on the battlefield must have been a terrifying moment for those who encountered it looming out of the chaos and carnage all around. The museum has a nice diorama that pictures what this may have looked like.
Of course the noise, explosions and smoke are all missing, and the guns thundering from the sponsons as the tank crushed the wire under its treads. The early British vehicles were lumbering creations that did not move very fast, and which were prone to breaking down at the worst conceivable moment. But there was no real deterrent against them, and used correctly they could change the flow of a battle.
This is called a “Heavy Tank Mk V “Male””. It had a crew of 8 with a top speed of 7.4 kph. This particular vehicle took part in the battle of Amiens in August 1918, and was about as good as this particular style of tank was. It was armed with 2×6 pound (57mm) guns and 2 MG’s.
This slightly cutaway tank is a Mark II “Female”, and it is the last surviving Mk II. Tanks were classed by gender. A “Male” had two canons, while a “Female” had 4-5 machine guns. All these vehicles had large crews to man the weapons and drive the vehicle.
One of the evolutions of the tank was the Whippett. Designed in 1917, they were amongst the fastest tanks of their time. This particular vehicle was in battle on the 19th of August 1918, and it’s commander, Lt Cecil Sewell won the Victoria Cross after he jumped from the vehicle to help some soldiers trapped in another overturned tank.
He did not survive his heroic act, but his vehicle lives on. Strangely enough there is another Whippett surviving in South Africa. It was in action during the Rand Revolt.
The French built another famous tank that seemed to be a successful design, and some still turn up in the strangest places. The Renault FT-17 was a 2 man tank, and they were often called “Mosquito Tanks” with a crew of two, the theory seemed to be to swamp the battlefield with these small tanks, although most did not come into service as the war ended first. The result was that many were exported all over the world.
This particular one was donated to the Imperial War Museum after the war, and was then relocated to the Tank Museum in 1965.
When the war ended the tank was beginning to be recognised in some quarters as the weapon of the future. While in others it was being considered as inferior to cavalry, and not worthy of developing further. Yet some military strategists were looking at the lessons learnt in the war and considering how best to use those lessons to produce a robust tank force that could overturn everything in its path. Germany would soon use the tank in ways never tried before, and would succeed a mere 20 years down the line. The period between the wars produced lots of odd experiments and inferior or superior designs. The context and potential use of many of the designs needs to be considered though. What works well in one case is a dismal failure in another.
One of the vehicles that seemed to have had a bit of a disastrous career was the “Light Mark VIB” which was not really meant to tackle much larger gunned vehicles. Yet it was a well constructed machine that performed in many theaters of the war. It was meant as a light reconnaissance vehicle, and was really undergunned and underarmoured. This particular vehicle was probably only used as a training tank.
The Carden Lloyd MkVI carrier was probably a way to build a universal carrier vehicle for use with infantry, This particular vehicle is mounting a Vickers machine gun and seems that it was operable from within the vehicle.
The concept probably evolved into the well known Bren Gun Carrier, or “Carrier, Universal Number 1. Mk II” of which a large amount were built during the war.
When World War 2 broke out in 1939, many of the pre war tanks were thrown into the deep end, and only the best would rise to the surface and survive and evolve. The difference was also in how the tanks were utilised in their surroundings, and what sort of enemy they faced. What worked in the desert did not work in France. I have always been interested in seeing some of the French tanks, and the museum has two worthy examples.
This rather festive vehicle is a Char, SOUMA S35. It was a medium tank built for the French cavalry, and was quite a successful vehicle in its own right. This particular vehicle was captured by the Germans during the war and used by them.
The other Char of interest is the Char B1-Bis which was really designed for infantry support. Its main gun, a 75mm Howitzer was mounted in the hull which meant that it would always present a high profile when using that gun. Theoretically hull down is amongst the best fighting places for a tank. This vehicle was captured by the Germans and incorporated into their army, and it was captured in Jersey at the end of the war.
This tank is not the only one to have its main armament in the hull. The American M3 Grant tank also mounted a 75mm gun in the hull, resulting in a high profile. This vehicle would prove to be quite reliable, but the high profile was less than ideal. It did however prove to be a good stop gap while better tanks were being developed, one of them being the ubiquitous Sherman that would feature so much in battle against even more deadly German tanks.
Another design that I was pleased to see an example of, was the Matilda. it’s official designation being: Tank, Infantry MKII A12 Matilda II.
South Africans fighting in the Western Desert would have recognised its distinctive shape immediately, and while it was a tough tank to kill, it did not have much in the way of fire power. The German 88mm would put an end to their reign as “the Queen of the Desert”.
The A13 Cruiser was one of the faster tanks in its day and it packed a 40mm main gun which would be adequate against soft skin vehicles, but against tougher German opposition would prove to be no match at all.
The Western Desert also saw the much maligned Crusader tanks. This particular vehicle is a Crusader III, Cruiser tank MKVI, and they were not very popular with their crews even though they were very fast. There are a number of MKII’s plinthed in South Africa, and it seems as if many were relegated to training duties.
Of course everybody is asking what the Germans were fielding in these battles, and these are many and varied, depending on what continent, battle and date you are are interested in. The Museum centrepiece is a Tiger MKI. Which is away being used in a film shoot. It is probably the most famous exhibit in the museum, and probably the one most people ask about the most. Alas, we will just have to make do with a few run of the mill (and not so run of the mill) Panzers till next time.
The first Panzer I want to mention is the Panzer III, or as it is properly known Panzerkampfwagen III Aus N, or SdKfz 141/2. This particular vehicle was captured in Tunisia in 1943 and was cut open for display.
It mounts a short barrel 75mm main armament that fired a high explosive and shaped charge projectile for better armour piercing.
The Panzerkampfwagen IV Aus D (SdKfz 161) was an overall good and adaptable design that was respected on both sides. This vehicle, captured in Germany at the end of the war, is fitted with a 75mm gun and had been upgraded in 1943 with more armour and this gun in place of its original weapon.
This Panzerkampfwagen III Aus L (SdKfz 141/1) would have appeared around December 1941 and over 600 of this variant were produced, each new variant incorporating improvements on an excellent basic design. This particular vehicle fought in North Africa before it was captured by the British and brought to England.
Of course as the war progressed so the tanks became heavier and more deadly, and the Germans, faced with the brilliant T34 had to create some real extreme machines. My first example is the Jagdpanzer 38(t) (aka Gerat 555, Pz Jag 638/10 Pz Jag 28(t) Panzerjager fur 7.5cm PaK39) which is a tank destroyer as opposed to a tank. The tanks low profile and hard hitting 75mm anti-tank gun made it an extremely effective and much feared vehicle. The design was so effective that some were produced after the war ended
Probably one of the best German tanks was the Panther 5, or PSdKfz 171, Panther I, PzKpfw Panther (Aus G). This particular vehicle was only partly completed by the end of the war and was finished by the British. It is considered to be a medium tank, and early versions suffered from a variety of teething troubles, but its powerful gun and precision optics made it a fearsome opponent,
Of course the Germans had to keep ahead of the game, faced with the excellent T34 on the Russian Front. One of the contenders they produced was the fearsome Jagdtiger or SdKfz 186.
Fortunately they were only produced in small numbers and it fielded a 17,8cm main gun. They would be able to dominate a battlefield if in action against other tanks, but against air power they were as vulnerable as everybody else. The vehicle was supposedly the largest and heaviest tracked vehicle to see action in World War 2, and is really a self propelled gun as opposed to a tank. This particular example was captured at the end of the war and probably never saw combat.
The King Tiger (SdKfz 182, Panzerkampfwagen VI Aus B Tiger II, Royal Tiger) was yet another fearsome vehicle that the Germans produced. Fielding the notorious 88mm gun and featuring sloped armour and a reputation based on the Tiger I, it saw action reasonably late in the war.
Like many other new designs it suffered from a number of teething troubles, and this particular vehicle has a Porsche/Krupp designed turret as opposed to the Henschell turret used on later versions. It is also the 3rd test vehicle produced and probably never saw action. More suited for a defensive role, they were too few in number to really make much of a difference.
The Russians produced two tanks that really stand out. The first being the KV-1, which were produced in considerable numbers during the war, It was not really designed to fight it out with another tank, but to support infantry. However, it was heavily armoured and could withstand a number of anti-tank weapons. The model at the museum is a KV-1B, and was presented to the British Army School of Tank Technology in 1943 and later donated to the museum.
The ultimate Russian tank was the famous T34, and it was probably one of the best tanks ever produced, it is certainly one of the longest lived, some being in action as late as the 1980’s. South African troops captured a number of these in the Border War and they have a reputation for solid performance and reliability. The Germans were unprepared when they first encountered these and some of the German tanks mentioned in this page were built as a counter to this tank. The 85mm gun that was used in later versions was a powerful weapon and the high speed and skilled use by commanders helped turn the tide in the tank battles on Russian soil. The vehicle in the museum is a much later version, having been captured in Korea in 1951.
The Axis produced many interesting vehicles, but sadly the Allies really ended up with thousands of Shermans that were built faster than they could be destroyed. Probably the best Sherman variant is the Firefly with its 17 pound gun. Like the T34, the Sherman soldiered on for many years after the war, some even serving with Israeli forces during the 6 Day War. The British still seemed to struggle with producing really good tanks though, and after many early teething troubles managed to produce the Churchill; which became a very versatile vehicle and which had many interesting variants. This particular MK VII came straight from the factory, and probably has a new tank smell about it. There is also a 1944 vintage MK II used as a gate guard at the museum. And finally, probably the best tank the British built was the Comet, which entered service in 1945 and which was on a parr with the German Panther. These vehicles would form the backbone of the post war tank corps but were soon replaced by the excellent Centurion. Some even found their way to South Africa, and they were very reliable and popular vehicles.
That more or less concludes my look at the more “popular” tanks of that era, from here onwards there was no room for poor design or inadequate performance. The cold war enemy was a formidable one, and their equipment was top notch. Legions of old tanks became the backbone of smaller countries that could not develop their own machines, and some of the old ladies in this blog did end up in backwaters all around the world. Strangely enough very few Tigers managed to survive, and the museum has the only running Tiger in the world. Hopefully, one day I will get to have a close look at that fearsome machine, and that will have a blog page all of its own!