Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 7 Ripping it up in a Chieftain

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 7 Ripping it up in a Chieftain

by Stuart Crawford
article from Wednesday 13, May, 2020

IT’S THE SEVENTH episode of this never-ending saga and only now am I turning to tanks and what it was like being a tank soldier in the last two decades of the 20th century, which tells you something in itself. But before I go there, I have to say that some of my comments about our sister regiments, 1, 2 and 3 RTR have been taken the wrong way. They were very fine regiments in their own right and had marvellous officers and soldiers. The fact we in 4 RTR felt we didn’t have all that much in common with them was hardly their fault, more the fault of RHQ RTR. So, if I have upset anyone, that was not my purpose, and I am sorry. I have every respect for anyone who has served in any tank or cavalry regiment. Honest.

Anyway, tank soldiers – the Americans call us “tankers” which is an ugly word and another example of the creeping Americanisation of British culture which must be resisted at all costs – are a breed apart. If you have never commanded tanks or been part of a tank crew then you’ll never fully understand. A bit like seeing Hendrix at Woodstock, – or not, if I can use a musical analogy. But I’ll try to explain a little of what it was like. 

First of all the vehicles themselves (well, one vehicle in particular). When I joined 4 RTR the Regiment was equipped with Chieftain Main Battle Tanks (MBT), mainly Mk3s and Mk5s if I can recall correctly. D Squadron had 14 of these, with four troops of three and SHQ with two. My troop, 13 Troop, consisted of three Chieftains and twelve crewmen including myself, four crewmen to each tank. A tank crew consisted of a driver, gunner, loader/radio operator and commander.

The Chieftain has a bit of a chequered history and reputation. Designed as the replacement for Britain’s highly successful post war Centurion, it never quite achieved the fine reputation of its predecessor. In many ways it might have been too innovative too soon. Great effort went into lowering the silhouette of the tank whilst protecting it with the thickest armour, and to that end the driver drove in a supine position (when closed down) on a reclining seat, looking through periscope sight. The armour was pretty thick too, presenting roughly 15.5 inches of armour to horizontal attack in the frontal arc. 

The 120 mm rifled gun was pretty good for the time too. It was innovative in that, rather than using fixed ammunition which necessitated the storage or ejection of spent shell cases, it went down the naval route of having separate rounds and propellant charges. This allowed the propellant – the “bag charges” - to be stowed below the turret ring in pressurised “wet” containers which would, in theory, prevent combustion should the tank be penetrated by hostile fire. The penalty was, of course, that loading two-piece ammunition, plus the cartridge that fired the whole sheboodle off, took slightly longer that conventional one piece ammo. But the gun itself was accurate and we had every confidence in it. 

What let Chieftain down was the engine, which was forever breaking down. In fact, it was a common saying that Chieftain was the best tank in the world as long as it broke down in a good firing position. Sadly, unreliability of automotive aspects is a recurring theme in the history of British tank design stretching back to before the Second World War. The basic problem seemed to be that it was originally designed to be multi-fuel, an overcomplication, and originally produced only 650 bhp for a 56 tonnes tank, so it was chronically underpowered as well. For comparison, modern tanks have engines producing up to 1500 bhp.  

Breakfast in the field

This unreliability made us – or more accurately the boys – slaves to their tanks, forever working on them, repairing them, maintaining them. How we envied the Germans with their Leopard 1s, who parked them up on a Friday, went home for the weekend, then started them up on Monday morning and off they went. Yes, they might have had thinner armour and a less powerful gun, but at least they could rely on them to work, and they weren’t half fast as well.

But, while I don’t think we ever came to love our Chieftains, we did sort of like them. Sure, they were demanding masters, but when you got them to work as designed they were sweet to be in. Unlike the young men of the Royal Armoured Corps nowadays, we got to take our tanks out a lot on exercise, or “scheme” as the boys called it. A troop leader could still decide to take his troop out to the local training area if he could persuade the squadron leader it was a good idea, for example, even though it would involve the RMP and Polizei stopping the traffic as the tanks exited the barracks and headed out on the civvy roads. 

That said, it must have been a complete pain in the backside for the local German population. Our training area in Munster was a pocket-handkerchief sized training area know as the Dorbaum, which we used for low level training or as our “crash out” location when exercising our deployment plans at short notice, usually when Exercise “Active Edge” was called[1].  It could happen at any time of the day or night, and it was not unknown for Mess dinner nights to be ended abruptly by it, with some officers deploying still dressed in their mess kit.

The boys on 'scheme'

To get to the Dorbaum we had to use the local roads, and many an incident occurred. Occasionally a tank would throw off a rubber track pad from its track, a heavy piece of material, which might bounce off the road and through the windscreen of a civilian car following. This could, and did sadly, result in serious injury. Or a tank might dump all its engine oil on the highway, turning it into a skidpan with obvious results for local traffic. On one occasion one of our Chieftain’s brakes failed at the junction where we turned to head for the training areas and it ploughed straight on, taking all the traffic lights out in its path although, thankfully, avoiding civilian casualties. And, on a more personal note, I once drove back to barracks with my troop at rush hour, and the only way I could get past the traffic was by going up on the newly made pavement, ripping up the paving stones, much to the annoyance of the German workers who had laid them minutes beforehand. It was either that or bring Munster to a halt – what else could I do?

Larger scale manoeuvre training was usually carried out on the Soltau Training Area up on the Luneberg Heath and close to where Monty had accepted the German partial surrender on 8th May 1945. The map above shows its extent – the red areas being for tank movement – and most of 1 (Br) Corps had become familiar with it over the past 40 years or so before I first set foot, or more accurately track, on it. The old hands had been there so many times they didn’t even need the map to navigate it, but to a new boy it could be difficult, especially at night. On my first night march test as troop leader I got hopelessly lost, managed to check in at about three of the 10 rendezvous points laid out for us, and eventually waited until dawn broke to get my bearings. Hardly an auspicious start, but I was to learn I wasn’t the first or last to experience such a debacle.

All those years of tracked movement over a relatively small area had rendered the soil into a fine sand-like dust, and by the laws on physics (which I was taught but have forgotten) the open spaces were configured like waves in the open sea, so that driving your tank across was a constant rearing and diving motion which occasionally made people seasick. The sparsely wooded areas were where we bivvied up at night and slept on the back decks under tank sheets, not a particularly pleasant experience in retrospect but at the time we hardly noticed. Once one of our support three tonner lorries caught fire and burned out, but the CO just borrowed a JCB from the sappers, dug a big hole, and dumped the remains in it before covering over. It’s probably still there, waiting to be unearthed by some archaeologist of the future.  We weren’t particularly eco-conscious in those days I’m afraid.

To come in Part 8; the boys, firing camp at the ranges, and going to Canada,.

© Stuart Crawford 2020


[1] Active Edge could be called at any level, from the CO wanting to test his Regiment right up to 1st British Corps (1 BR Corps) crashing out more or less all the British troops in Germany.

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