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Tanks! You’re Welcome: Bovington Tank Museum

Charles Sure explores behind the scenes at Dorset’s world-famous Tank Museum

The main front entrance of Bovington Tank Museum

Of the 170,000 or so people who visit The Tank Museum at Bovington annually, only those who join its special ‘Access All Areas’ guided tours will be aware of the extent of the unique historic collections which remain largely unseen.
The Tank Museum is much more than a very popular Dorset attraction. It is the home of the tank, a richly stocked repository of everything relating to the history of armoured fighting vehicles and their crews worldwide since the First World War. The museum’s archive and reference library, an approved place of deposit for the National Archives, contains many thousands of important documents, photographs and reels of film. It is a veritable treasure trove of information for historians, authors and film-makers as well as for members of the public who may wish to know more about a relative’s service history in the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC), details of which can be gleaned from the personal diaries and recorded accounts of front-line action from the two world wars and more recently.
Based within the RAC garrison village where tank crews live and train, the museum holds a truly international collection of fighting armour currently consisting of 300 vehicles from 26 countries. Over a half of these are on public display and include ‘Little Willie’, the world’s first tank – a British invention – and Challenger 2, the British Army’s technically sophisticated, present day main battle tank.
More than 100 vehicles in varying states of completeness and mechanisation are not on general view and the majority of these are crowded into large unheated and damp sheds. The less fortunate few, also pending possible restoration in years to come, languish amidst a sea of weeds in an unroofed enclosure. The museum has long sought to rectify its lack of appropriate storage space, and now plans are afoot to create a vehicle conservation centre, where up to 120 vehicles can be displayed for the public in a controlled environment. The Heritage Lottery Fund has recently awarded £149,000 for stage one and the remainder of the £5.4m total cost is expected to come from fund raising and £2.7m HLF match funding.
A tour of the vehicle storage sheds reveals a wealth of seriously heavy metal, and a few surprises. My knowledgeable guide is Mike Hayton, the museum’s workshop manager, who points out an export-prototype Chinese tank fitted with a British gun, the experimental ‘Tupperware tank’ with its plastic armour, and a Bedford van which was used as a mobile laboratory at a secret government establishment. Another shed houses the ‘running fleet’ of tanks and tracked vehicles that regularly take part in outdoor public events such as the tank action displays and annual Tankfest.
Working vehicles need regular maintenance and this is carried out alongside the restoration projects in the museum’s workshop where Mike Hayton and his team of permanent staff and volunteers are currently restoring a very rare German field gun. Mike explains that the gun on which they have been working for 2½ years was captured at the end of World War 2 and is a well engineered piece of heavy artillery suited to anti-tank duties.
Tiger 131 is one of the museum’s most prized possessions and Mike and his team have spent many hours returning this legendary World-War-2 tank to full running order with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery fund. Modern ancillary items such as fire-fighting equipment have been removed and Tiger 131 is now back to its original specification.
So much has been learnt about Tiger tanks, only six of which are still in existence, that Mike Hayton, the museum’s Curator David Willey and Historian David Fletcher have jointly written the Haynes Tiger Tank Owners’ Workshop Manual.

Brian Frost, a member of the Workshop team, fixing a transmission leak on a ‘Visitor Experience’ rides vehicle

Volunteers, often with specialist skills, undertake as much as 90% of the work on some projects and Mike Hayton estimates that around 80% of the workshop’s time is spent on maintaining the running fleet, which is after all the museum’s ‘bread and butter’. The remaining time is given over to restoration projects, one recent example of which is the return to running order of the world’s heaviest tank, the aptly named 78-ton Tortoise.
A prime example of the varied tasks with which the workshop gets involved is the new (for 2011) Battlegroup Afghanistan exhibition in one of the public halls. On display are two vehicles which are typical of those currently on service with the British Army in Afghanistan. To the untrained eye the Scimitar CVRT (Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance Tracked) and Viking armoured personnel carrier appear to be the real thing, but because the genuine items are more valuably deployed in Afghanistan, the museum’s workshop has made some clever cosmetic modifications to the Viking, a converted prototype, and the Scimitar, which began life as a Sabre.

Awaiting restoration!

Additions to the Historic Vehicles Collection have come from all manner of sources. Interesting items of fighting armour captured in battle overseas have, since WW2, been conveyed to the UK where they are examined by the MoD before being passed on to the Tank Museum for storage or display. On some occasions vehicles are donated, such as the obsolete Centurion tank which was given by Sweden to a British Army general who in turn gifted it to the museum.
Donations form an important part of the museum’s Supporting Collection which comprises everything tank related from old uniforms, unwanted items of battledress and medals to engineering models of tanks and variously sized deactivated shells of tank ammunition. The smallest shell here is only 3cm in diameter, but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up for with an awesome ability to penetrate modern armour plate as confirmed in trials on the Lulworth Ranges nearby. Row upon row of uniforms on hangers, temporarily protected by cloth covers sewn by volunteers, await cleaning and freezing to destroy any moths that might remain.

Deactivated shells in the supporting collection

The supporting collection also contains works of art, mostly paintings and sculptures, in addition to wartime artefacts and souvenirs such as the large, painted metal road sign, proclaiming, ‘Tobruk 26 miles’. David opens the drawers of a plan chest to reveal escape maps painstakingly drawn on silk and highly prized captured flags, one of which is emblazoned with a swastika and bears the signatures of its captors. Another ‘Nazi’ flag on a standard nearby was a prop in one of the Indiana Jones films before being given to the museum.
To date, 8000 books have been donated to and purchased by the archive and reference library, but these represent only a small part of the museum’s present collection of books, documents, photographs, reels of film and audio recordings which make this the world’s number one research centre for armoured warfare. The collection is housed in a former workshop and teaching block which now benefits from temperature and humidity control. Records span nearly a century from the tank’s inception during
World War 1 to the present day. The sound archive covers the same period and includes recorded interviews with soldiers on active service in Afghanistan as well as with veterans of the first conflict involving armoured vehicles.

Librarian Janice Tait studying a tank recognition chart in the archive and reference library

The museum’s Librarian, Janice Tait, is in charge of the archive and reference library. Janice and her team, a number of whom are volunteers, are currently in the process of putting documents into acid-free wallets and archival storage boxes as well as the massive task of back cataloguing every item and digitising all of the photographs and videos. One of the volunteers has spent seven years, so far, checking and digitising the huge collection of videos and reels of film. And there are more than ¼ million photographs to sort through and caption too! Notable amongst the many thousands of documents stored here are the blueprints of one of the earliest British tanks, Royal Armoured Corps diaries from both world wars, WW1 trench maps, regimental histories and beautifully embroidered greetings cards which soldiers fighting in France purchased and sent home to their loved ones.
T E Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – lived less than a mile from Bovington Camp, where he was stationed while serving in the Tank Corps between 1923 and 1925. His enlistment papers, bearing the pseudonym Private T E Shaw, and record of transfer to the RAF on 18th August 1925 (it is said he disliked army discipline) are filed in the archive along with personal letters to friends and glass slides of his time in the Imperial Camel Corps during the Arab uprising.
When the new vehicle conservation centre has been completed, visitors will have the opportunity to see many more of the Museum’s historic armoured fighting vehicles. But at an estimated annual cost of £40,000 to store each tank in environmentally controlled conditions, increasing visitor numbers will continue to be the most efficient and profitable form of fund-raising to ensure the future success of the Tank Museum.

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