Posts Tagged ‘know’

‘The young generation should know’: Britain’s forgotten Merchant Navy heroes

November 6th, 2015

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that seamen who flew the ‘Red Duster’ – the MN ensign – were granted the right to march as an official body in the Cenotaph commemorations. The veterans marching on Sunday 8 November will be representing those civilian seafarers who have perished in defence of the country: 16,000 in the First World War, at least 35,000 between 1939 and 1945 (the proportion of dead being greater than in any of the fighting services) and a small number in the Falklands war.

“I thought of the men who have been forgotten, wiped off the map”

Donald Hunter

More than 140,000 merchant seamen are reckoned to have been at sea at any one time in the Second World War. They transported food, raw materials and fuel to Britain, and carried troops, equipment and explosives to fighting fronts. These ships – not those of the Royal Navy – were generally the targets of enemy mines, torpedoes and shells. As Hunter says of the Normandy landings, ‘If you sink the transports and drown the troops you don’t have a problem, do you?’

One aspect of Merchant Navy history that is still neglected is the contribution of foreign seamen. Many thousands from India, Hong Kong, the Caribbean, west Africa and elsewhere served on Second World War ships.

These are a few of the facts. What follows is something of the reality. It was gloriously sunny autumn weather the week I met the men who appear in these pages. Britain looked like a country you would put your life on the line for a thousand times over, and that is what each of them did.

Ronald Quested, Radio officer, Second World War

Ronald Quested, now (left) and as a young radio officer during the Second World War (right)

Birkenhead, October 1944. Ron Quested, a newly qualified radio officer, is watching stevedores loading cargo into the hold of the SS Samnebra, a Baltimore-built Liberty ship. ‘When I looked, they’d got sacking round their hobnailed boots. The bosun was standing next to me.

I said, “Why have they got the sacking there?”, and he said, “They’re loading up TNT. It’s to stop sparks flying.’’’ Quested was 17 years old. He had a twin brother, Len, who was about to serve on the Arctic convoys, and a 16-year-old sweetheart back in Essex. ‘We loaded up and I thought, “Oh my.”

But I never took any notice of it after that. I’m one of these blokes that doesn’t get upset very quickly.’

“After three months you’re thinking, where is my home?”

Ronald Quested

From this moment till the end of the war, he and the Samnebra were inseparable and, on his own admission, lucky. They travelled, in a series of convoys, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to Baltimore, back through the Suez Canal to Bombay and Colombo and on to South Africa without once facing direct attack (though a tanker in one of his Atlantic convoys was blown up).

‘But every second of every minute of every day, you could have had a torpedo in you. Nobody could tell you how many U-boats were around.’

Fear apart, for a teenager who had never been abroad before it was an interminable, disorientating experience. ‘For the first three months, it’s an adventure; everything is new to you. After three months you’re thinking, where is my home? You’re going from one port to another port, one country to another country. And from six months to 12 months you’re beginning to say to yourself, I don’t think I’ve got a ruddy home!’

He is a cheery yet phlegmatic character (88, ‘fighting fit’, and the standard bearer for his local Merchant Navy Association), but some, he says, didn’t cope so well with the experience. People drank heavily.

Relationships broke up. The captain of a ship Quested was on after the war, a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, blew his brains out in his cabin. ‘This is the effect war can have on a merchant seaman,’ he says.

But Quested was made stronger by wartime service. ‘I really felt as if I’d been educated in geography and meeting people from all over the world,’ he says. ‘I felt confident in going anywhere and doing anything. You went away a boy and you came back a man.’

He left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and had a successful career as an electronics engineer. And he made his own ruddy home, marrying that childhood sweetheart, Betty, in 1953 and settling in an Essex village. Five children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren later, they are still together.

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs: Assistant purser/stretcher bearer/ward orderly, Falklands war

Martyn 'Zak' Coombs, now (left) and during the Falklands war (right)

By the surreal disposition of war, the music room of the ship on which Zak Coombs served during the Falklands campaign was converted into an intensive-care unit.

He remembers a badly burnt soldier being stretchered in, a victim of the bombing of the supply ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad. The man’s hands were in plastic bags. When he asked for a cigarette, Coombs put one in his mouth. ‘Then I realised I was going to strike a flame in front of him, and I said, “I’m going to make a flame, is that OK?” And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re not going to light a cigarette otherwise are you?’’’

This is just one of many moments that Coombs recalls (with a sort of ferocious tenderness) from the 113 days in 1982 in which his civilised civilian world was turned on its head. In April of that year he was 32 and working as the assistant purser on the SS Uganda, a P&O passenger ship that specialised in educational cruises for children. ‘I sat on the desk selling stamps and arranging phone calls and sorting problems. I was a receptionist. In a hotel.’

“It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know”

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs

The Uganda was docked in Alexandria in Egypt when war was declared. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship, and after a three-day refit in Gibraltar took about 100 medical staff and Royal Marines bandsmen (who worked as stretcher bearers) aboard and sailed for the South Atlantic.

In addition to his duties as assistant purser, Coombs volunteered to be a stretcher bearer and ward orderly. The Uganda took on 730 casualties. These included 150 Argentinians, one of whom, a teenage conscript, sticks in Coombs’s mind because he washed the blood and filth from his face. ‘He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish in those days. It was quite difficult. They were very grateful for what you did for them.’

He saw some terrible lower-limb injuries and witnessed great suffering and bravery but does not recall breaking down at any point while the fighting was going on and the casualties were coming in.

Argentine tanks move down a street on the Falkland Islands

‘It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know. Because it wasn’t happening to you. You were outside looking in.’ But the floodgates opened afterwards when he was reunited with his girlfriend, Tracey (who became, and remains, his wife).

Coombs continued to work for P&O, retiring two years ago after 37 years’ service. He and his wife live in a village near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. For some time after the war he was reluctant to wear his South Atlantic Medal (awarded to military personnel and civilians for service in the Falklands), believing that what he went through could not compare with the suffering of the young men who passed through his ship (though now, he says, ‘I’m very proud of wearing it’).

His mind constantly returns to those injured men. As they left the Uganda he would ask each of them, when they reached their military hospitals back in Britain, to call Tracey and tell her he was OK. And, invariably, they did. ‘That’s the abiding memory I carry with me of those times, that so many men who had so much else on their minds would take the time to do that for me.’

Donald Hunter: Radio officer, Second World War

Donald Hunter, now (left) and as a teenage radio officer (right)

During the D-Day landings, from June 6 through to early August 1944, Don Hunter (now 89) made nearly 40 runs between London Docks, Tilbury, and Juno Beach, braving the German guns through the Strait of Dover, which pounded the convoys to ‘smithereens’. Hunter was an 18-year-old radio officer (‘and gunnery officer and fire control officer’) on the Empire Pickwick, an LSI (landing ship, infantry) that ferried troops and equipment to the Normandy beaches.

Those big guns aside, his hairiest moment came when the convoy he was on was attacked by German E-boats (fast torpedo boats). ‘This torpedo missed us; you could see the track of it in the fluorescence on the water. It missed our stern and hit the [nearby] tanker, which went up in flames.

“You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags”

Donald Hunter

‘We weren’t allowed to pick up survivors, the theory being that if you stop you also become a target, and the cargo is more important than lives, I’m afraid. It’s a sorry truth of war. I was looking down from the bridge, horrified to see these men struggling in the water and we weren’t picking them up.’

The beach itself was another hell. ‘They had big guns along the clifftops. They were aiming at us, not the Royal Navy.’ But it was his own side that inflicted lasting damage. HMS Belfast was lying alongside the Pickwick at one point, bombarding the German positions. ‘It blew my hearing away [he indicates the hearing aid in his right ear]. My ears bled. We didn’t have earplugs. We didn’t even have steel helmets. Badly equipped.’

Hunter chuckles a fair bit when he talks about his war. There are silences too. D-Day wasn’t the half of it. ‘I spent more time in the Battle of the Atlantic than I did in Normandy. I was attacked by mines, U-boats, bombers. We had the bloody lot.’

The 2nd Battalion U.S. Army Rangers march to their landing craft in Weymouth, England, on June 5, 1944

Hanging in the hallway of Hunter’s house in Kent is the certificate confirming him as a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur, awarded in 2004 for his participation in the Normandy landings. He married his wife, Jean, in 1947 (when she brings tea and biscuits, he hugs her and says, as if he still can’t believe his luck, ‘We’ve been married 68 years!’), left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and worked for British Aerospace as an electronics engineer.

But Juno Beach is never far from his mind. He has one memory in particular: a ‘coffin ship’ would anchor alongside his boat during the landings. ‘You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags. They’d lay them on the deck while they identified them. That was a reminder of the reality of war. It’s hard to talk about.’ He falls silent, then adds, ‘The younger generation should know really.’

Leonard Dibb-Western: Deckhand, Second World War

Leonard Dibb-Western, now (left) and as a mess boy, aged 15 (right)

Len Dibb-Western says the neighbours in his Somerset village haven’t a clue about his past. ‘I never tell them; they never ask me.’ So here’s telling them. The old chap (just turned 90) with what can only be described as a twinkle in his eye had lived a hundred lives before many lads’ voices break.

His first ship, which he joined as a mess boy in June 1941, at the age of 15, was a Norwegian tanker on the Atlantic convoys between Britain and north America. He chose a Norwegian ship because the money was so good – ‘£30 a month. I gave my mother £10. She cried. She’d never had £10 before in her life.’ In 1942 he was on the bridge of another Norwegian ship in the Gulf of Mexico when she was hit, but not sunk, by a torpedo.

‘I was thrown across the bridge and knocked my head,’ he recalls. ‘No damage though. Too thick, I think.’

“They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors”

Leonard Dibb-Western

After contracting malaria in west Africa, he joined his first British ship in 1944 – a shock to the system. ‘There were no sheets or pillowcases, just blankets. A donkey’s breakfast to lie on. Know what that is? Straw mattress. But they gave us an extra blanket to go up to Russia.’

This ship, the SS Fort McMurray, was part of Convoy JW 57, which sailed from Loch Ewe to Murmansk, fending off U-boats attacks, and on to Bakaritsa. The Russians, he says, were very suspicious of the British. ‘They put a notice up in our mess room. If you associate with any women you get five years in the salt mines. I wish I’d kept that.’

The ‘poor devils’ who unloaded the cargo were female political prisoners. The ‘water’ on the dining table at Bakaritsa was vodka. ‘It nearly killed us! The Russians laughed. It was great times really.’

British men, women and children celebrating 'Victory in Europe Day' in the street

His war finished on a picaresque note when he found himself in the clink in Singapore (for some light pilfering of cargo) and was set to work splicing hangman’s nooses for Japanese war criminals being held in cages there. Since then he has worked in a jam factory and as a cabinetmaker, and was a retained fireman for 17 years. But the four teenage years he spent in mortal danger remain ‘the best times of my life’.

He has stayed in touch with shipmates but the pool of memories is drying up. Poring over his photos of veterans’ gatherings, each man shipshape in his white beret, he points out the ones who have died since the pictures were taken. ‘They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors. That’s what I always say.’

A history of the British Merchant Navy

17th century

The British Merchant Navy can be dated back as far as this century, when the Royal Navy attempted to register all seafarers as a source of labour in wartime. The fleet grew considerably over the following decades, benefiting from trade opportunities in India and the Far East.

First World War

Following the British merchant shipping fleets’ services in the First World War, King George V officially names the service the Merchant Navy. Approximately 14,661 merchant seafarers were killed during the war.

1928

George V names Edward, Prince of Wales, ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’, a title he relinquished on abdicating the throne in December 1936. The title has since been held by George VI and Elizabeth II.

Second World War

In 1939, the British Merchant Navy was the largest in the world. During the war the Merchant Navy lost 54% of their fleet and 32,000 seafarers.

Falklands War

A total of 52 merchant ships from 33 different companies are taken from trade; 72 men served during the war.

2000

Following years of lobbying, Merchant Navy Day becomes an official day of remembrance on 3 September.

2012

The fleet consists of 1,504 ships and is still one of the largest in the world.


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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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