The late, great Peter Ustinov used to tell an anecdote about his military career. When he was drafted into the army, he went before the officer selection board. One member of the board asked him which branch of the army he wished to serve in.
"Tanks, replied Ustinov, without hesitation.
"Why tanks?" asked the officer, seeming impressed with the young man’s apparent enthusiasm.
"Because I prefer to go into battle sitting down."
They assigned him to the infantry.
I grew up in a household stuffed to the gills with books on World War II, particularly on tank warfare. My step-father is a tank enthusiast. As a teenager I had no interest in that (seemingly) ancient conflict, but in recent years, much to my own amazement, I’ve developed a positive relish for WWII history. I’ve even started to amass my own little collection of books, especially on the Normandy campaign.
Until I visited Bovington Camp, however, I just didn’t get tanks. With no real understanding of the role they played in the wars of the last century, my view of tanks was about the same as my view of monster trucks: they were large, loud, tough machines for large, loud, tough men. End of story.
Still, when I realized that I’d be staying less than half a hour’s drive from the world’s largest tank museum, I felt it would be disloyal not to visit at least briefly. Besides, with the southern coast of England peppered with military bases, there was the palpable sense that something vital was happening as young men and women prepared to go to war. On a hike near Lulworth Cove, I heard the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! of firing practice at the neaby Gunnery School. Suddenly, the Tank Museum seemed more relevant than other outings I’d planned.
And so I set out one bright morning for The Tank Museum at Bovington Camp, which is home to the Royal Armoured Corps. The museum is housed in six large display halls, utilitarian buildings which seem less like a museum than a storage facility. Perhaps this is fitting. There’s nothing glamorous about a tank, from the cramped interior to the drab, camouflage-colored exterior. An airman might rhapsodize over his plane; a sailor’s pulse might quicken at the sight of his ship, yet it seems inconceivable that men in a tank corps might feel a similar affection for tanks. And yet they no doubt do, for the very idea of a tank commands respect.
It’s always humiliating to confront one’s complete ignorance on a subject, and so my tour of the Tank Museum proved to be as much an exercise in humility as an education. From the earliest prototypes of tanks built in the early 1900’s up to tanks captured during the Gulf War, the Tank Museum has it all – around 300 tanks from 26 countries. Most importantly, Tank Museum clearly shows how the development of tanks changed the character of modern warfare.
Tanks evolved over a relatively short period, and those who realized their potential had an advantage at the start of World War II. Yet the first tank "champions" were not, as one might expect, Germans, or even Americans. They were British.
Picture the trenches of World War I, that no-man’s land of prolonged, brutal, immobile warfare. Hoping to break out of the trenches and find a way around this impasse, the British developed tanks. Early tanks were initially unwieldy and prone to mechanical failure. The first tanks were used in September, 1916, and the very sight of the lumbering metal behemoths terrified the Germans, who had never seen anything like them, even though the first tanks were on the whole ineffective.
This changed, however, the following year at the battle of Cambrai. On that historic day, some 400 tanks rolled over the trenches, breaking through the Hindenburg line. The day of trench warfare and reliance on cavalry was over. The age of mobile, mechanized warfare had begun.
Interestingly, the concept of Blitzkrieg, perfected by the Germans, was largely the brainchild of two far-sighted British strategists, Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller. Liddell Hart, who later wrote a biography of his friend and fellow military strategist T.E. Lawrence, expounded on the strategy of using large tank armies operating swiftly to break through enemy defenses and penetrate deep into their territory. The central idea was to throw the enemy off balance, never giving them a chance to regain that balance by striking repeatedly.
Unfortunately, Liddell Hart and Fuller’s ideas were largely ignored by the commanders of the British, American, and French armies. But in Germany, where the army was operating under significant constraints after the Versailles Treaty, the ideas came to attention of a man named Heinz Guderian.
Guderian became the first true practitioner of Blitzkrieg. In a book entitled Achtung! Panzer he set out his theories of tank warfare, theories which owed much to Liddell Hart and Fuller. Written largely as propaganda, the book came to Hitler’s attention, though there was still resistance from German commanders to its ideas. In fact, at one point Guderian threatened to resign during the Western Offensive. He repeatedly disobeyed his superiors’ orders, rushing forward to press ahead. Had Guderian been allowed, he would have harried the Allied forces all the way to the English Channel. Dunkirk would have been an entirely different sort of event.
The Tank Museum illustrates that most defining characteristic of modern warfare: the necessity to adapt, continuously, to new tactics and weaponry used by the enemy. The early successes of the German tanks soon were countered by the Allies. There was, of course, an incredibly rapid development of anti-tank weaponry. Soon the Russians were excelling at turning back German tank attacks on the Eastern Front, using anti-tank guns and their own massed tank armies.
Some of the most interesting exhibits at the Tank Museum featured creative adaptations, such as an amphibious DUKW tank which played an important role in the D-Day invasion, or the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost which was converted into an armored car. The Rolls was used from the 1920's up through WWII and still runs today.
In fact, what’s striking about the collection at Bovington Camp is that most of the tanks and armored vehicles on view are still operational. From July to September, the Royal Tanks Corps regularly brings them out and demonstrates them on public "Tank Days." There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that they do this, I think, and I wish I could have seen some of the tanks in action.
One exhibit at the Tank Museum which has nothing to do with tanks is the exhibit on T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence, disillusioned with the British betrayal of their Arab allies after the end of WWI, refused several military honors and resigned his commission. He craved obscurity and wanted to escape the fame that Lowell Thomas' documentary film on "Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia" had thrust upon him.
He initially found anonymity by enlisting under an alias in the RAF, but soon the press were onto him. His superiors, fearing negative publicity, asked him to leave. Having been denied the Air Force, he then sought sanctuary as a private in the Tank Corps under the name T.E. Shaw. On March 12, 1923, he was assigned to Bovington Camp. As he later wrote to a friend, "There has not been presented to me, since I have been here, a single choice...perhaps in determinism complete there lies the perfect peace I have so longed for."
The Tank Museum has an impressive collection of Lawrence memorabilia, most strikingly a Brough Superior motorcycle just like the one he was riding when he had his fatal accident in 1935. I have always been interested in Lawrence. Aside from the wonderful David Lean film, I’ve read several biographies of him as well as of other British "Orientalists," those passionate nomads such as Richard Burton (the explorer), Charles Doughty, Freya Stark, and Gertrude Bell. The history of British exploration of and involvement in the Middle East fascinates me.
Now, with a war once again looming in Iraq, I viewed Thomas' film segments in the Lawrence exhibit with a new eye. Those flickering images held a secret, or so I imagined. There was Lawrence, on a camel, on horseback, or with Feisal. It was all so long ago, and yet the landscape looked familiar, like CNN footage. Had anything really changed?
It seemed if anyone knew the answer, it might be the troubled figure who once sought "perfect peace" in the lower ranks of Bovington Camp.
And so I went looking for Lawrence.