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