A question I often get asked is, how on Earth did you manage to live on a tank for long periods of time?
Well, I thought long and hard about the amount of time I have spent on vehicles over my thirty years of service, through both lengthy exercises and operational deployments across the globe, and I was actually shocked at the amount of time I had spent away. So, here goes:
I will use my time on the Chieftain and Challenger 1 & 2 as the example. I fully appreciate that, to some degree, vehicles differ from one another (certainly in turret size) but it’s a benchmark, and to be fair daily living didn’t vary much anyway.
Aside from routine maintenance, tactical movement, receiving and giving orders and contact with the enemy, an average day really has only two critical parts, eating and sleeping.
When deploying in a peacetime exercise, the stowage and equipment taken is somewhat different. From the point of view of rations, we tended to take a lot more “home comforts” on an exercise, such as tinned food, tomato ketchup, spices and the like. Ration packs are ‘okay’ for short periods, but when you rely on them for a lengthy amount of time (months in the case of Iraq - we bartered for the American rations on many occasions) they become incredibly bland and boring and need livening up. Operations of course are a whole different bag. Home comforts are replaced by ammunition – a shame but somewhat of a necessity.
On the crew, the loader becomes the crew “cook” in charge of rations, knocking up a ‘brew’ (coffee in my case – I’m not a tea drinker) at the drop of a hat, and while in contact, loading the gun and taking radio messages. He is a man of many hats! Nothing was better than having a cuppa to liven you up when you have been in over-watch (static position waiting for a contact) for twelve hours!
The great British BV (Boiling Vessel - pictured right) is easily the most important piece of equipment on a tank. Forget everything else, if this item isn’t working then it’s definitely “Game Over”.
Although issued with a bivouac (big, heavy, horrible canvas tent – pictured left) we tended to rarely use it, mainly because it was time consuming and a pain to take down quickly if ‘bugged out’, i.e., come into contact. Plus, in Iraq, scorpions and other creepy crawlies would take a liking to anything at ground level with horrifying regularity.
So the back decks were the place to be, where the Commander, Gunner and Loader could all fit comfortably and snugly in the issued sleeping bags. If there was a chance of rain and the tactical situation allowed it, we would put the main armament over the back decks and fully elevate the gun, then put the “Tank Sheet” (huge tarpaulin) over the gun and secure it to the back decks. Plus of course the engine decks retain a lot of heat - great in the winter in Germany, awful in the heat of the desert.
The driver would usually remain in his cab. He does, of course, have the best and most comfortable seat in the house. As for equipment while sleeping, this was very dependent on the tactical situation. If needs be, sleep would be fully-clothed, including boots, and at the bare minimum with a personal weapon and respirator always close at hand. Everything was stowed at all times so it would take as little time as possible from waking to moving (crashing out) as humanly possible.
Chieftain in Canada with the “Bivvy” erected.
Of course, while in contact the turret would become our home. If essential, we would use the refuse chute for bodily functions (not great) and cook inside. Lengthy periods of being closed down were hard – while the Commander and Loader do have space to stretch out, the poor Gunner is cramped and constantly getting the Commander’s feet in his back.
Challenger 2 Interior
Above: Loader’s position - Chain Gun to the right mounted coaxially with the main armament.
Below: Gunner’s chest-pad visible, Commander sits directly behind.
The turret is a dangerous place, even without someone shooting at you. Everyone has to be very aware of where every part of their anatomy is, otherwise the “traverse monster” will break a limb instantly, or do something worse. Tiredness is definitely the enemy. With the advent of Thermal Imaging, battles became 24 hours, which is fine for a machine but non-stop is a tall order for the human.
This meant that sleep would happen whenever you got the chance. I became a master of grabbing forty winks in the Commander’s seat between movements. As already mentioned, the driver had the best position and in fact trying to wake him was sometimes the biggest issue, either by screaming through the intercom to “MOVE NOW” or in the worst case, fully elevating the breech so that the loader could bash him around the head with anything close at hand.
My loader became a master of curling up in the most uncomfortable position and somehow sleeping, no mean feat.
Living day in, day out with the same three guys is hard; there is no room for arguments or fall outs. You trust each other to a degree that I have never experienced since leaving the Army. After all, ultimately you trust each other with your lives.
Each day has a routine, and every crew member knows their role inside out. 99% of your time is mundane and rather boring, and then there are moments of intense action and massive adrenalin rushes.
As General George S Patton said “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men”. A fair and profound statement but for the Tankie, the weapon was also our home. If we looked after her, then we prayed that when the crunch came she would look after us.
I leave you with two of “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”:
“Armoured vehicles are bullet magnets, a moving foxhole that attracts attention.”
“The best tank killer is another tank”