Yesterday, the “Other Half” prepared for me a small knapsack with sandwiches, a bottle of pop, my camera and a notebook and pencil. She then gave me a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the head and packed me off to the Army Tank Museum at Bovington, which is a short walk from the Ponciau Royal Family’s summer residence here in Dorset.
The reason for my visit was to view an old friend who resides in an area of the museum not currently on view to the general public….
“The Manned Moving Target Tank”:
Now as the name would suggest, this is a tank, that acts as a moving target, thats “Manned“, which is where I fit into the story. I for a few short, but pant-wetting months back in the early 80’s, used to drive one of these bad boys for a living! Only three of these vehicles were ever produced. The tank was basically a Mk3 Centurian Tank, that had all the apertures and gaps (supposedly) sealed up, some extra armour added and weighed in at 70 tons.
A crew of two would then drive the tank on ranges at Otterburn and Salisbury Plain, whilst being fired at with various anti-tank missiles and rockets including Swingfire, Milan, Carl Gustav and LAW. The missiles were inert (i.e. no explosive warhead), but in particular the Swingfire impact was pretty unpleasant, as the rocket had a ballast weight which would inflict damage on softer part of the tanks body, the resulting impact would also cause cordite and flash flames to enter the inside of the turret and drivers compartment, through any gaps. I get the feeling that the boffins who developed this tank, never actually had to use it!
The first time I drove it was in 1982 at Otterburn….The vehicle was low loaded from Warminster, Wiltshire all the way up to Northumberland. It took the movers 48hrs to complete the journey, they even managed to get bogged in the peat as they moved their huge truck across the Otterburn Range road. The move must have cost a bloody fortune!
Once the tank was set up, we would spend 10 days, driving the vehicle on the range, whilst a Swingfire regiment fired their annual allocation of missiles at us from a firing platform 2km’s away. Only one small problem….Me and my buddy had forgot to pack the turret periscopes…oops! This meant two things. Firstly we wouldn’t be able to see when the missile had been launched(pre-warned is always better). Secondly and more importantly, it meant we had two holes on top of the turret, where the periscopes would normally fit, which would allow the nasty explosive bits into our little chamber of safety!…..So lets recap:
1. We’re two lowly squaddies.
2. The army has spent literally £1000’s moving our vehicle from one end of England to the other.
3. 650 men had also been moved to Otterburn and were now eagerly waiting to fire their missiles.
4. We now had two holes in our turret! Where rocket thingys could sneak in.
5. Our bosses reaction if they found out our error and had to cancel the shoot, was likely to be more painful than any Swingfire Missile.
So in the finest tradition of the British Squaddie, we decided not to say anything to anyone and take our chances with the Swingfire missiles….Ex military types will sympathise with our crazy-arsed decision, the army can be a scary parent when pushed. I couldn’t see them being all nice, warm and cosy, when our army bosses found our we’d cocked up a whole regiments life firing package……. Shit rolls downhill or Life’s a game of chance! Or it is when your 21yrs old.
Anyway, sure enough that 10 days was a bundle of laughs and side splitting fun….I drove and my mate commanded the vehicle…Well when I say commanded, he was supposed to be in the tank turret all “commandering-like” similar to Field Marshall Montgomery, but in reality he spent the 10 days hunkered down behind my drivers seat in the bottom of the tank, as we careered down the range, eyes tightly shut, screaming our lungs out, waiting for the impact and inevitable flash and smoke entering the turret. Each missile run was like a scene from a Laurel & Hardy movie, driving a 70 ton tank with my eyes closed, whilst my mate hugged me for mutual comfort and safety! I want my mum!
In all they fired about 40 missiles, by the end of the 10 days the tank was in a pretty sorry state, but we didn’t care. We were just relieved we had got away with our packing error…….In the words of that other great Tank Driver; Mr Oliver Hardy “Stanley! No-one will ever need to know, tee-hee (flicks tie). ”