Seven things we learn from the latest MI5 declassified files

October 24th, 2014

2. The US feared Robert Oppenheimer would defect to the Soviet Union on a trip to Britain


Robert Oppenheimer (AP)

Oppenheimer, the US physicist and a “father of the atomic bomb” was closely monitored by MI5 on a trip the UK in 1953 over fears he would defect to the Soviet Union.

A cable sent the MI5 by the US Embassy said: “Information has been received that Oppenheimer may defect from France in September 1954. According to the source, Oppenheimer will first come to England and then go to France, where he will vanish into Soviet hands.”

3. MI5 put Julius Nyerere under surveillance despite having “no credible evidence” linking him to subversion


Julius Nyerere (AP)

The security service began monitoring Nyerere, leader of the independence movement in Tanganyika and later first president of Tanzania, during independence negotiations in London as a result of a request by the Colonial Office.

“The alarmist case for a Home Office Warrant on Nyerere made by successive Colonial Secretaries and accepted by successive Home Secretaries now appears flimsy,” Prof Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian, noted in an analysis of the files.

“There was no credible evidence linking Nyerere to subversion. On the contrary, the evidence in his file shows him to have been a devout Catholic as well as a popular leader, profoundly opposed to violence, striving to create a non-racial society.”

4. Eric Hobsbawm was monitored by MI5 for more than 20 years


Eric Hobsbawm (Rex)

The security services opened the Marxist historian’s letters and bugged his telephone calls and meetings, learning that he was in contact with leading members of the now defunct British Communist Party.

Among his associates were James MacGibbon, a wartime British intelligence officer who passed secrets to the Russians, and Alan Nunn May, the British atomic scientist who had been convicted as a Soviet spy

A member of the now defunct British Communist Party since 1936, Hobsbawm had unsuccessfully fought to see the files before his death in 2012.

One report noted that Hobsbawm “dresses in a slovenly way”, while another reported that he was “in difficulties” with his wife, “who does not consider him to be a fervent enough Communist.”

5. MI5 came close to capturing the commander of the Greek-backed Eoka guerrilla movement


Georgios Grivas (Getty Images)

Files on Georgios Grivas, the Cyprus-born general of the Greek Army who led the Eoka guerrillas fighting for union with Greece, show that he was almost captured by MI5’s leading officer in Cyprus, Brigadier Bill Magan.

Magan, who died in 2010 aged 101, did not go ahead with the move for fear it could jeopardise the negotiations which led to the creation of the independent Republic of Cyprus in 1959.

Grivas’s files contain a lengthy profile of him by Magan, who noted that his report could be considered “a trifle colourful for an official paper”.

6. The “genius” MI5 agent who smoked out British Nazi sympathisers was a bank clerk


Eric Roberts (AP)

The identity of the MI5 spy who posed as a German agent to infiltrate the ranks of British Nazi sympathisers is revealed as Eric Roberts, a bank clerk and father-of-three who lived with his family in Surrey.

Files released in February had disclosed the existence of the so-called “fifth column” case. At the time King was thought to be John Bingham, the MI5 officer who partly inspired John le Carré’s character George Smiley.

The latest disclosure shows that King’s true identity was Roberts, who worked at the Euston Road branch of the Westminster Bank in central London.

The file shows that Roberts’s employers were confused after receiving a letter requesting his urgent service for a special task of national importance.

In a letter dated June 11 1940, RW Jones, the bank’s assistant controller, said: “What we would like to know here is what are the particular and especial qualifications of Mr Roberts – which we have not been able to perceive – for some particular work of national military importance which would take him away from his normal military call-up in October?”

7. A future Israeli deputy prime minister worked for British intelligence during the Second World War


Abba Eban (Srdja Djukanovic/The Telegraph)

Abba Eban, who was born in Britain, appeared to have a career as a brilliant academic ahead of him before the start of the war.

However the files show that he went on from a research post at Cambridge University to work for British intelligence, including in the Intelligence Corps and SOE, the Special Operations Executive.

He went on to become deputy prime minister of Israel and the country’s ambassador to the USA.

His files include copies of letters sent to Eban and his wife Suzy while they lived in Highgate, north London, sent by his father-in-law in Cairo, and a report on his appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the US.


World War Two

How ‘playboy’ Spanish spy was duped by MI5

October 23rd, 2014

He went on to simplify the job of the officers monitoring his activities by contacting an agent codenamed GW, who was wrongly thought by German military intelligence to be working for them, but was actually a British agent.

Pozo handed GW a talcum-power tin containing £3,500 in banknotes – more than £100,000 at today’s values and “probably the largest sum yet handed to a British agent”, according to Prof Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian.

The Spaniard instructed GW to prepare weekly reports on the activities of the Welsh Nationalist Party, including any planned sabotage attempts. All of GW’s reports were based on “disinformation” and part of the wartime “Double Cross System” used to deceive German intelligence.

The files on Pozo, released on Friday by the National Archives, detail his association with a number of dancers working at the Cafe de Paris, and suggest that MI5 attempted to lay a honey trap to ensnare him.

In one report an MI5 officer states that as part of his surveillance he regularly attended the bars and clubs frequented by Pozo, including the Park Lane Hotel and the Cafe de Paris.

One night the officer brought a female companion, whose name is blanked out on the report, to the Cafe de Paris and engineered an encounter with Pozo through a mutual acquaintance with whom the Spaniard had arrived.

“It was quite evident that he was attracted by [name redacted] and so I extended the invitation to them to dine with me,” the officer stated.

Pozo’s unsubtle execution of his role as a German spy led to him being recalled to Spain – which officially stayed out of the war – in early 1941.


World War Two

German U-boat wreck discovered off North Carolina coast

October 23rd, 2014

“As we learn more about the underwater battlefield, Bluefields and U-576 will provide additional insight into a relatively little-known chapter in American history.”

Bluefields, a Nicaraguan-flagged freighter, was part of a KS-520, a 19-strong convoy of merchant ships which set sail from Norfolk, Virginia to Key West, Florida with vital cargo for the war effort.

By July 1942 the Americans had set up a convoy system, backed with air support, to protect the vessels which had repeatedly fallen prey to U-Boat attacks.

U-576, skippered by Kapitanleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinkicke, had already been hit and the submarine was sailing back to Europe when it came across the convoy.

It was a chance to claim a final scalp before crossing the Atlantic and sailing home.

Despite being hit by eight depth charges U-576 fired off its torpedoes, sinking the freighter and damaging two other ships.

The submarine came under further fire and was sunk with all 45 crew on board perishing. None of those aboard the Bluefields died.

Other U-boats got far closer, in many cases within sight of land. One was said to have been near enough to Manhattan to see the lights from the skyscrapers.

And it is believed that the Germans succeeded in landing some agents on American soil, including spies who managed to set foot on Maine. According to local folklore they had learned their English from Hollywood gangster movies.

“We think there are around 52 wrecks within 40 miles of the North Carolina coast,” said Joe Hoyt, a maritime archeologist with the marine sanctuary.

The task of finding them has entailed trawling through the “after action” reports compiled by the escort vessels used to protect the convoys.

Based on this information, Mr Hoyt and his fellow researchers have spent the last five years scouring the area using sonar to track sunken vessels.

“This is not just the discovery of a single shipwreck, we have discovered an important battle site that is part of the Battle of the Atlantic,” said Mr Hoyt.

He added: “These two ships rest only a few hundred yards apart and together help us interpret and share their forgotten stories.”

John Bright, another researcher with the project, said that Americans were still unaware of the extent to which the German navy penetrated the country’s naval defences, wreaking havoc on merchant shipping.

“It some cases the U-boats could even see the lights of cars on the road,” said Mr Bright.

“The lights from the cities helped them because it would mean the U-boats could see the silhouette of the cargo ships and plot their ambush.”

July 1942 saw particularly fierce battles as the US navy bolstered the protection it offered to the convoys, with the German U-boat fleet suffering badly.

“They did what we would not call a cost-benefit analysis,” Mr Bright added.

“They moved away from the American coast and shifted to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico where the merchant shipping was less well protected.”


World War Two

Catching rats and earning £1.85 a week: my brilliant life as a Land Girl

October 22nd, 2014

Ruth rented a room from a landlady in the village and spent every day working on the farm. She’d only had one month of training with several other Land Girls, as they were known, but was expected to help milk cows, gather crops, catch rats and carry out hard farm maintenance work.

“The only time I had off was Sunday morning between milking and I’d go to bed for a couple of hours,” she tells me. “Otherwise it was 6.30am till 5.30pm every day. It was constant hard physical work. If I’d been three months older, I might have joined the Wrens and married an admiral.”

The statue. Photo: RUTH DOWNING

For a former schoolgirl – whose father imported silks from Italy and France into Wales – it was not the lifestyle she was used to. The work was intense, and she was either working alone with ‘Pop’ on the farm, or eating meals with her landlady. It was only during threshing or other big events that outside work was brought in, and she’d have a chance to spend time with the other Land Girls.

“That was a busy time – it was quite fun, especially chasing the rats that came out,” she laughs. “It was very hard work but I enjoyed it – I was always pretty tough anyway. A lot of the jobs I think we did better than some men. They haven’t got the attention to detail that women have. I was accepted as a very hard-working farm labourer I suppose.

Ruth in her Land Girls uniform for the first time

“Other than work, there wasn’t really much to do at all, and we were always so tired. There was no television. I think mostly I went to bed quite early. We were working so hard there wasn’t time to be lonely.”

Even so, like most Land Girls, Ruth was often homesick. The only time she ever had off was a long weekend every three months, which she would use to visit her family. “My boss used to take me to Bristol and I’d do to the aerodrome and get on a funny bi plane with just one man and we’d fly over the Channel. These young men had just come out of the army and were bored to tears. They’d do the most horrendous loop-de-loops.”

She carried on working as a Land Girl for almost four years, spending almost every day in her dungarees. She earned around £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours a week, which later increased to £2.85, but most of it went on her rent. “There was nothing to spend it on anyway,” she says.

For all the hard work, Ruth tells me she was happy. It’s why she has stayed in England ever since, and didn’t return to Wales after the war. Instead she stayed in Somerset, managing a farm, and went on to work as a dairy maid for Earl Waldegrave. When she was 26, she started selling calf food.

Ruth, 88, wading in a pond to get rid of pond weed

“These farmers all made passes at me,” she laughs. “I suppose it was quite unusual for a woman to be selling calf food. But that was when I met my husband.”

Her husband, who passed away 25 years ago, worked as a builder’s merchant, and once they were married, Ruth stopped her farm work. “He didn’t like that sort of thing. In those days men liked their wives to be wives. But the house and garden were so big that I was never out of a job.”

She also completed a Masters degree in local history – “it’s nice to have all those letters after your name” – and had three children, now in their 50s and 60s.

Now Ruth is glad that women aren’t expected to give up their careers anymore when they become wives, and jokingly whispers: “I think we’re superior to men really.” But she does believe in equality and says that she is a feminist: “I think we’re all pretty equal and in a lot of ways we’re better at some things than men and they’re better than us at others. We even out really.”

Almost 71 years have passed since Ruth became a Land Girl, and she tells me that it shaped her life: “Ever since then, right till now, I do a lot of physical work. I think it keeps you young.”

It’s why she thinks that young people today can learn from her experience, and she leaves me with some advice “I think a lot of [young people today] spend too long sitting around watching complicated things on the box that I don’t understand. Physical work is very good for everyone and I think everyone should become a bit more active. I’m 88 and I’m still gardening.”


World War Two

Fury: a Second World War film that takes no prisoners

October 21st, 2014

More than 15 years on, most people still believe Saving Private Ryan to be an accurate portrayal of D-Day. In fact, there are many inaccuracies. The anti-invasion obstacles, known as “Rommel’s asparagus”, are the wrong way round. The beach is far too narrow – Omaha is vast at low tide, which was when the slaughter depicted took place. Tom Hanks and his platoon are in the Rangers, but in reality, these men didn’t land at Vierville at 6.30am, with the first wave, but nearly an hour later, at 7.27am, and only Company C suffered significant casualties.

Furthermore, the focus on the Americans reinforced the impression that D-Day was predominantly a US show, when nothing could have been further from the truth. The British and Canadians lost similar numbers of men; Omaha, it was true, was the bloodiest landing beach, but the airborne troops suffered even more casualties than depicted.

But does it matter that film and TV offer an exaggerated version of events? On one level, no, if it ensures there is continued interest in the subject and reminds us of the astonishing sacrifice made. However, it is important to distinguish between fact and fiction.

So what of Fury, the latest Hollywood contribution to the genre? David Ayer, the writer and director, has made it clear that he wanted to portray the closing weeks of the war with a new sense of realism. To a historian, that is a challenge and a half.

Before the opening shot, writing appears on the screen telling us that the Americans were equipped with tanks that had inferior guns and armour to those of the Germans. This is a breathtaking generalisation, and conforms to a ridiculous myth, still widely accepted, that the Germans had better kit than the Allies. Most German tanks were still Panzer Mk IVs, which were not at all superior. The 76mm gun used by the M4A3E8 Sherman, as featured in the film, had a velocity equal to that of the legendary 88mm German gun with which Tigers were equipped. The British 17-pounder was even more lethal. What’s more, by April 1945, the British had the Comet and the Americans the Pershing, both superior to those much-feared German beasts.

Generally, the tank commanders are too old, not least Brad Pitt, at 50; and also Jason Isaacs (51), who plays an infantry captain; the average age of a US company commander by then was 21.

Yet despite these quibbles, the film is a reassuring return to old Hollywood form and ticks many of the established pre-Ryan rules. Pitt is one of the world’s biggest stars and that’s what war films need. The final scene is utterly gripping, brilliantly recreated and the kind of shoot-out that almost certainly would never have happened – why would a lone tank stick its neck out in such a way when the entire Allied armies were just a mile or so behind? But this scenario, again, sits well with the genre.

Fury takes gritty violent realism to new levels, while the detail is absolutely spot on, right down to Isaacs’s captured Luftwaffe coat – a nice touch. The claustrophobia of the tank is brilliantly conveyed, as are all the action sequences, including an effective recreation of a combined armour and infantry attack, and a sensational shoot-out with a Tiger. Certainly, war is violent and hell in Ayer’s film, and those who felt squeamish watching Saving Private Ryan might find some of the graphic violence hard to stomach.

But it is a terrific portrayal of a horrific time. It conforms to all the age-old rules of war films, yet is groundbreaking in its action. These scenes symbolise the terrible sacrifice of the greatest generation. And most importantly of all, it reminds us, vividly, gut-wrenchingly, that the Second World War was a truly catastrophic event that took place not long ago, right here on our doorstep.

Films such as Fury ensure that is a fact we will never forget.


World War Two

Antony Beevor: ‘I deserved to fail history. I was bolshie…’

October 20th, 2014

Surely even Putin wouldn’t be so reckless as to lock up one of Britain’s leading historians? His brow furrows. “Perhaps – but frankly, Russia is so unpredictable these days.”

Now is the moment to explain why Beevor thinks his success was down to good timing. In the chaos that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, he was given unprecedented access to the Red Army archives. “They didn’t know how to handle a foreign historian. Didn’t know what was and wasn’t important.” By the time the Russians realised that keeping the archives open might not be such a great idea, it was too late. Beevor had the material he needed both for Stalingrad and his follow-up book, Berlin.

The Russians loved Stalingrad, hated Berlin. “The Russian ambassador here condemned me for lies, slander and blasphemy against the Red Army. Even one of the Russian professors who had helped me was so shocked by the Berlin book he accused me of spouting Goebbels’s propaganda. It was rather unsettling.”

The reason? Beevor’s revelation that as many as two million German women may have been raped by Red Army soldiers at the end of the war. “It was far worse than I had imagined. My translator had a typically dismissive Russian reaction at first, but then, when we came across documents that revealed that the Red Army had even raped their own women, the ones who had been sent to Germany for forced labour, she was shaken.”

I ask him what he thinks of the comparisons world leaders have been making lately between Putin and Hitler. Fair? Unfair? “Dangerous. You couldn’t insult a Russian more. There are some scary but superficial parallels — the German annexation of the Sudetenland and the echoes of Danzig, with the Russians wanting a corridor to Odessa.

“But Putin is not Hitler. Where there is a similarity is in the way you have a national resentment combined with a national self-centredness: Russians declaring that only their requirements are worth listening to.”

Not all of his research comes from archives. He also likes to interview eyewitnesses. I ask him what it felt like to meet German officers who had been in the Führerbunker at the end. “Shaking the hand that shook Hitler’s, you mean? It does get to you a little. The one I won’t forget is the young Panzer captain sent to try to change Hitler’s mind. Hitler pretended to take his side against the generals — he was brilliant on the psychology of weakness, which is why Chamberlain was such a pushover for him.”

Ah yes, as Duff Cooper, who resigned from the Cabinet over Munich in 1938, said of Chamberlain: he lacked the imagination to deal with Hitler. I invoke the name because Beevor’s wife is Cooper’s granddaughter. Given this, and the fact that Beevor’s father served with the SOE, was a career as a historian of the Second World War inevitable for him, a little unimaginative, even?

“Far from it. I was planning to stay in the Army all my life, but I ended up being posted to a training camp in Wales and was so bored there I wrote a novel. Thankfully, it was never published, but in my arrogance and naivety it made me think I could be a writer, even though I had failed my English and history A-levels.”

Our leading military historian failed history A-level? “I deserved to, because I was bolshie. Didn’t do any work. Terrible waste. My father, who had a double First from Oxford in Mods and Greats, was absolutely furious. The good thing is, it meant Nella and Adam [his son] never felt under any pressure academically, and as a consequence did well.”

Does he ever feel like an imposter when he is with other historians, because he went to Sandhurst instead of university? “No, I don’t feel vulnerable in that sense. But I would sometimes go to a conference and they would ask, ‘Do we address you as doctor or professor?’, and I would say, ‘Actually I’m neither, I’m Two A-levels Failed Beevor’. They were embarrassed.”

There is psychological texture here, then, it seems, as well as a pleasing line in self-deprecation. According to his daughter, indeed, Beevor has a great ability to laugh at himself. He also seems more vulnerable than his robust public image would allow. As a child he suffered from Perthes disease, which meant he was on crutches, and was bullied — and he only joined the 11th Hussars (better known as the Light Brigade) because he had a “physical inferiority complex”.

And he tells me he had a nervous breakdown after writing Berlin. “It was partly from the strain of the deadline, partly from the horror at the material. I couldn’t face doing another big battle book straight after, so I did one about Chekov’s niece instead.”

How his publishers must have fainted when he told them that… Luckily for them he is back “on brand” with his latest book, about two-thirds of which is devoted to the Eastern Front, which Beevor believes redresses the balance of previous histories of the Second World War. “Ninety per cent of all Wehrmacht losses were on the Eastern Front. As far as the Germans were concerned, we were a sideshow. But each country sees the war from its own perspective and memories.”

Montgomery’s ill-conceived battle of Arnhem, the 70th anniversary of which fell last month, seems to be a case in point. It is dealt with fairly briskly in Beevor’s book, yet it represents one of our greatest military disasters. Was it simply a matter of Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, pandering to Monty’s ego? “Well, Monty was desperate to get across the Rhine before the Americans, it’s true, because he felt Eisenhower would then have no option but to give him all the supplies and troops. That was his way of becoming land commander. Vanity played a large part in it.”

He thinks Monty — who, lest we forget, is still considered a national hero — behaved even more badly during the Ardennes campaign (the Battle of the Bulge), the subject of his next book. “Thanks to Monty, it became the biggest disaster in Anglo-American relations. The ill- feeling created by him continued for years afterwards, tragically so. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m even wondering whether Monty was high-functioning Asperger’s. He had no way of understanding how other people reacted to him. It is sheer speculation on my part, and I am probably going to get hammered for saying it.”

But not, hopefully, a prison sentence — we British being rather thicker-skinned than those oversensitive Russians.

‘The Second World War’, by Antony Beevor (Phoenix), is available to order from Telegraph Books at £9.89 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk


World War Two

Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit, review, Channel 4: bull sperm and crystal meth

October 20th, 2014

Does it matter if Hitler was ill, or addicted to drugs? It’s a morally fraught question, and one handled with relative aplomb by Channel 4’s documentary, Hitler’s Hidden Drug Habit. For the first time on British television, we peered into the detailed medical diaries of Dr Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician and a man nicknamed the “Reichsspritzenmeister” – loosely, the needle master of the Third Reich. He plied his needy patient with everything from sugar jabs to a potent daily cycle of stimulants and sedatives.

Anything that seeks to diminish Hitler’s responsibility for his actions should ring alarm bells – tellingly, the Holocaust denier David Irving likes to claim that medical mistakes sent Hitler into trances. While the documentary never tackled these ethical questions directly, the tone was sensitive, seeking insights rather than excuses for the “moral vacuum” at the heart of the Third Reich.

Pieced together from the diary, medical records and interviews, these insights included the rather enjoyable image of Hitler as a cranky, flatulent hypochondriac; paranoid putty in the hands of an opportunistic quack. Morell’s treatments ranged from Pervitin, a pick-me-up based on crystal meth, to a supposed aphrodisiac containing bull’s semen. The picture darkened as the war turned against Hitler. “The Führer didn’t sleep last night because of his anxieties,” Morell wrote in his diary on July 6, 1943. While hardly surprising that sending millions of men to die in vain might keep a man awake, there was a frisson to seeing it noted as medical fact.

By the end of the war, the “needle master” was administering 20 jabs a day, while his patient may have had Parkinson’s. We saw footage from 1945, originally suppressed by German censors, which showed Hitler’s hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. At the time, he was preparing to defend Berlin from 2.5 million Soviet troops with an army of 45,000. His trembling hand was a potent image of ruined power in every sense.

There were no neat conclusions to be drawn on Hitler’s unravelling, but this was an evocative seat at the tyrant’s bedside. Where the film fell short was on explaining the medical context: it wasn’t clear how Morell’s treatments varied from conventional medicine. Whether quack and addict, or doctor and patient, one thing we know for certain about their relationship was how it ended: Morell abandoning Hitler in his bunker to the ultimate self-medication – a suicide pill.


World War Two

‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’ – that was Brad Pitt’s ad lib

October 19th, 2014

In the latest in our series of interviews with leading film directors, the Telegraph’s Chief Film Critic Robbie Collin speaks to David Ayer, the man behind a raw and powerful new war drama, Fury.

Fury, which stars Brad Pitt as a Second World War tank commander, has been selected to close the London Film Festival on October 19. You can watch Pitt and his co-stars arriving on the red carpet with our exclusive live stream of the gala premiere from 6pm tonight.

Fury is on general release in UK cinemas from October 22


World War Two

RAF veteran takes to the skies again at 91

October 18th, 2014

Trevor Watkins, a 91-year-old former RAF pilot who flew during World War Two, has returned to the skies once more.

Mr Watkins was part of a bomber squadron based in Italy.

The veteran pilot from Surrey, who still works, took off in a vintage Tiger Moth.

Describing his flight, Mr Watkins said: “It’s a pretty incredible feeling, or as they say, amazing.”


World War Two

Fury: all you need to know about life in a tank

October 18th, 2014

As da Vinci explained to his sceptical patron Ludovico Sforza at the time, “I can build armoured cars, safe and unassailable, which will enter the closed ranks of the enemy with their artillery and no company of soldiers is so great that it will not break through them. And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”

Sforza remained unconvinced, and it would be more than 400 years before anyone else gave it a try. Then, in 1911, a design for a tracked, armoured vehicle was submitted to the British War Office by an Australian civil engineer named Lancelot de Mole. And instantly rejected – until the Royal Navy, in the shape of the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, Winston Churchill, formed the Landships Committee to investigate whether these newfangled machines could break the deadlock of the First World War.

And the result was the British Mark I – an odd-looking rhomboidal monster designed to repel machine-gun fire and crush German defences ahead of the infantry. It first saw battle at the Somme, on September 15 1916.

But while the tank’s impact was arguably minimal in the Great War, its influence would last decades, instilling a new doctrine of armoured warfare that broke the static nature of the First World War’s fighting, and instead advocated 19th-century-style military strategies such as manoeuvring, bold incursions and “decisive battle” outcomes.

As a consequence, the Second World War would be dominated in part by names such as Sherman, A9 Cruiser or the German Tiger I. In 1942, these hulking, unwieldy metal chariots of Montgomery and Rommel would clash at El Alamein in North Africa, in a battle around which, arguably, the entire Second World War hinged (as Churchill himself said: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”). The tank’s importance was further driven home after the invasion of Normandy in 1944, when the American General George S Patton pushed the armoured convoy of his Third Army through France and into Nazi Germany itself.


Dominant: a Sherman tank at City Hall in Paris during The Liberation of Paris, August 1944 Photo: Rex

And it’s this final push by the Allied tanks that now forms the basis of new film Fury. Out this week, it stars Brad Pitt as “Wardaddy”, a battle-hardened US Army sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division who commands a Sherman tank called “Fury”. As the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany in April 1945, Wardaddy must lead his Fury and its crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

The film claims meticulous technical accuracy; the screenwriter-director David Ayer took advice from the Tank Museum, and even borrowed two of its functioning tanks (the Sherman that features as “Fury”, plus the world’s last operational German Tiger I) for filming in the Oxfordshire countryside. Thus, with perhaps more authenticity than ever before, audiences can see what life was like inside a Second World War Sherman tank – with all the noise, heat, grinding metal, and proximity to danger that involved.

But now, almost 70 years later, how do these experiences relate to modern tank warfare, and what is different?

“The life of a tank crew hasn’t really changed,” says Major? Simon Worth, commander of CYCLOPS Squadron at the Royal Tank Regiment. “We are fortunate that there are technological advances that make certain tasks easier but what we do, and how we do it, has endured, really. And the aspects that made our job difficult in the Second World War still make it tricky now.”

The UK’s current main battle tank is the FV4034 Challenger 2 – a £4.2?million behemoth originally designed and built by Vickers Defence Systems (now known as BAE Systems) in 1998. Weighing more than 70 tons when fully laden with armaments, it’s more than double the Sherman’s 30.3 tons – but that doesn’t mean it has any room for creature comforts.

“The crew compartment where we sit is better designed,” says Major Worth, “but it’s still four fully grown men sharing a space barely 15?ft x 10?ft and only about 6?ft high.” Inside this space the men have to stow rations, equipment and clothes, with every spare bit of space crammed with ammunition. “Although there’s one important design improvement in the turret – a boiling vessel,” says Major Worth. “So we can make a cup of tea in the middle of a battle. What could be more British than that?”

Indeed, as Wardaddy explains to a young recruit who joins his crew, “This is home.” And this is perhaps where tank warfare was, and is, unique among the different creeds of military service, as duty often requires small crews to spend days – even weeks – isolated from support in enemy territory.

The tank Major Worth fought in was part of tours in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2008-9. “When they invaded Iraq, the tank crews were in theatre for a long time,” he says. “They spent a lot of time living off the vehicles in exactly the same way as they would have done in the Second World War and the Cold War.

“And you do ‘live off’ the vehicle – it’s almost like we’re organic to the platform. We’re completely reliant on it. We live in it, on it, from it; it supplies the water we drink and the means to heat that water, which is essential in terms of food preparation. So we take care of it, so it can take care of us.” This emotional attachment to one’s vehicle is important, says Major Nick Ridgway.

Meticulous technical accuracy: a still from Fury

Now second in command of the Royal Tank Regiment, he was originally a troop leader commanding three tanks during Operation Telic – the code name for the build-up and invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I remember we met some Americans just before we crossed the border into Iraq,” he says, “and the Americans were in tanks that hadn’t actually been on land in 10 years. They just picked them up from a boat that had been sailing around the Arabian Sea. And they found it almost impossible to comprehend that my tank, Flanders, was the tank I’d had in Germany, and trained in on ranges, for three years.

“They just couldn’t understand the emotional connection that my crew and I had with the tank. She really is the fifth member of the crew.”

From a technical point of view, that kind of intimate knowledge is hugely important. In the Second World War, German Tiger tanks were thought of as mechanically superior, but still averaged 10 hours of maintenance for just one hour of driving. And while modern tanks are built to a higher standard, knowing your vehicle’s idiosyncrasies inside out is essential.

“We know our tank’s weaknesses, quirks, all the faults it’s going to have and how to solve them,” says Major Ridgway. “Sometimes all from a different engine noise.” This level of familiarity is also essential for what the military calls “small unit cohesion” – the mental and physical codependency that improves not just morale but efficiency and quick understanding in combat situations.

Hence, crews stay together for far longer than in other branches of the military, often training together for years on the same vehicle. The result – as with Brad Pitt’s paternal relationship with his crew in the film Fury – is an often familial dynamic inside the turret.

James Jeffries was a senior captain and tank commander in the Prince of Wales’ Royal Regiment during the second Gulf War in 2004. “It was an incredibly hard job,” he recalls, “and you’d go down without your crew. I made the big decisions, but the smaller and arguably more important decisions are made by the Operator – as well as the guy who loads the weapon, he’s really like the mum of the tank. He also made you food; he looked after you. And he’s the guy who’ll take the younger guys – the gunner and the driver – under his wing and make sure they’re looking after themselves.

“Everyone chipped in,” he remembers. “Only by sharing jobs could all of you survive doing this amazingly taxing job. You relied on these people.” Major Worth agrees. “There’s an informal formality, if that makes sense.”

Cosy: the interior of a Challenger 2 battle tank Photo: Corporal Si Longworth RLC

It also means that normal military etiquette isn’t always adhered to. “My gunner Turkish used to pin up pictures of his wife in lingerie all over the inside of the turret,” recalls James. “So when we engaged the insurgents in Iraq, it was from inside a turret covered in obscene polaroids of Turkish’s half naked wife. Which, no doubt, would have inflamed their fundamentalist ire even more.”

“There’s still hierarchy that is well understood by everyone, but there’s also a degree of familiarity and a relaxed approach that makes the whole thing crank,” Major Worth says. “Because you cannot operate in a box that size, that closely confined, with the kind of formality that, say, the infantry might use. There’s not much space for parade-ground formality.”

Former tank commander Chris Yates can attest to this. Before his tour in Basra in 2004, he was with his crew training on the vast prairies of Alberta, Canada, at the British Army Training Unit at Suffield (known as BATUS) – whose sub-zero temperatures all crews have to face. “One day my loader got out to change a filter on the engine,” he recalls. “He asked me to move the turret, and I did it too quickly – trapping his leg underneath and breaking it.

“After some morphine he recovered well, with a marked lack of bitterness towards me. Even when he lost the same leg some years later, to a Taliban IED, he remarked: ‘At least they got the leg you f—ed up, Sir.’?”

That tale aside, however, safety standards have improved since the Second World War. In making the Sherman tank so easy to manufacture (almost 50,000 were built between 1941 and 1945), sacrifices were made to the efficacy of its armour.

In his 1966 novel Flesh Wounds, the author and former tank commander David Holbrook recalled that the Sherman tank’s propensity to burn when hit by enemy shells led German troops to refer to them as “Tommy cookers”, while British and Canadian soldiers nicknamed it the “Ronson”, after the popular brand of cigarette lighter at the time with the advertising slogan “Lights up the first time, every time!”

In comparison, modern tanks are far safer. In one incident in 2003, a Challenger 2 of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards came under fire just outside of Basra, and lost its tracks when falling in a ditch. While the crew sheltered inside, waiting for recovery, the tank was hit directly by 14 rocket-propelled grenades from close range and a MILAN anti-tank missile. They left barely a dent; upon recovery, only the tank’s driver’s sight required repair, and the tank was back “running and gunning” just six hours later.

And it’s this mythical imperviousness that means tanks have had a formidable psychological effect on the battlefield for decades. In Fury, a young recruit fears the tank itself to begin with. And they summon the same residual apprehension in the modern era. Take, for example, when tanks arrived in Basra in March 2003.

“We’d managed this quite audacious punch into the heart of the city,” recalls Major Ridgway, “and ended up next to Shatt al-Arab river right by one of Saddam’s palaces. There, we had to wait for the infantry to catch up. And wait. And wait. It was 50C heat outside, and hotter inside the tank. And we were completely soaking wet – the sweat running down into your boots.

“Eventually, we’d been closed down inside the tank for about eight hours when the infantry caught up. I remember opening the turret, and these people came up to the tank. They’d been watching us, and said, ‘We didn’t realise there was anyone in here! We thought you were robots!’ They genuinely thought it was an organism in its own right, not powered by human beings.”

And the same has been true throughout the tank’s history, says the Tank Museum’s David Willey. “In one sense you’re omnipotent and powerful,” he says. “You can see this psychological impact of this thing – it has a fear factor that is over and above its weapons systems. And that’s been true since the very first tanks.”

As such a potent symbol of might, it is unsurprising just how numerous tanks became post-Second World War. Over 84,000 Soviet T-34 tanks were built between 1940 and 1946, for example – and a figure only surpassed by its successor, the T-54/55, whose numbers passed over 100,000 in the Cold War years following – as thousands of tanks amassed on the north European plain in both West and East Germany, lined up for possible battle. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 they did it by sending hundreds of tanks into Budapest. While in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces during the Yom Kippur War, over 3,000 tanks were involved.

Future tank warfare: DARPA’s concept image for the Ground-X tank

Yet wars in more geographically diverse locations – such as Vietnam and Afghanistan – have led to military experts questioning the tank’s future suitability on the battlefield. During the Eighties, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a paper considering whether the UK should replace its tanks with helicopters. In the end their use in supporting infantry in seizing territory was deemed too important but, since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Britain’s tank arsenal has fallen to 334 tanks across three brigades, including just 168 Challenger 2s.

And since the end of the Cold War, Nato has followed suit – where Germany was once host to 4,000 tanks, for example, the numbers are now a quarter of that. Now, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies there are 60,000 tanks in active service worldwide, with China boasting the most (about 7,450) and North Korea (3,500), Russia (3,300) and India (3,250) bringing up the rear.

“The death of the tank has been predicted really ever since they were invented,” says Willey. “At the end of the First World War, they were chopping up tanks down here in Bovington because they thought we’d never need to fight a war like that again. At the end of the Second World War they had a fear that tanks could be knocked out by one guy with a rocket-propelled grenade, so tank warfare was too risky. In the Eighties it was attack helicopters.”

Increasingly, however, it seems the nature of tank warfare itself is changing. Once, heavily armoured military vehicles would trundle into the very heart of battle and absorb enemy fire. However, in the future, the object wouldn’t be to avoid being hit, or avoid being penetrated by the shots that do hit – the objective would be to avoid detection in the first place.

Hence, perhaps, Britain’s recent £3.5?billion order for 589 Scout Specialist Vehicles. These lightly armoured, fast-moving tanks will be the Army’s “eyes and ears” on the battlefields of the future, according to the MoD – typifying a wider change in attitude among Western forces that tanks need to become less “heavy metal”, and more agile and flexible.

The new American Ground-X Vehicle is a case in point. Unveiled in August by DARPA, the US Department of Defence’s “mad science” division, the Ground-X tank is its vision of tank warfare in the future – a low-cost, four-wheeled, low-armoured vehicle designed to be lighter and faster than any previous tank, with a crew of just one or two soldiers who can operate the vehicle using touch screens after minimal training.

And then there’s Russia’s Platform M – developed by the Progress Scientific Research Technological Institute of Izhevsk, these are “ground drones” equipped with an AK-47 and four grenade launchers that can be used for gathering intelligence, eliminating targets, firepower support, and patrolling and guarding important sites. Russia plans to have them operational by 2018.

But if this is the future, then arguably the lifeblood of tanks across the past century – the crew themselves, and the intense relationships that develop inside the turret – could soon be a thing of the past.

“Which would be a shame,” says Willey. “There’s a lovely quote we have painted on the wall of the museum just as you’re leaving,” he says. “It’s from an elderly tank veteran, and it reads simply this: ‘I can’t remember many things these days, but I still remember the names of my tank crew.’”

Fury is released on October 22 and closes the BFI London Film Festival on October 19. Click here to watch exclusive live coverage of Fury’s red carpet premiere


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