The home of the tank

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It was raining on the Monday morning during our recent holiday. Absolutely pouring down. And the weather forecast suggested it was going to be like that all day. So we needed to find something to do where we wouldn’t get wet. Although I’m not a military enthusiast, when I was a young teenager I was an avid collector and constructor of Airfix kits – aircraft and military vehicles. The National Tank Museum is at Bovington, about ten miles the other side of Dorchester from Lyme Regis where we were staying, so this was a good opportunity to go and have a look at some full sized versions of the models I used to make. My son was keen. My wife wasn’t particularly enthusiastic, but given the weather, and as we’d agreed to go to some places she wanted to see, she was prepared to tag along.

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The museum is next door to the Bovington army camp, the base of the Royal Armoured Corps. They have a massive collection of tanks and other armoured vehicles, and there’s more than enough to see to keep visitors busy for at least 3 or 4 hours.

There are four parts to the Museum

  • The Trench Experience – a mock up of the First World war trenches, illustrating why the tank was invented – to try to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare
  • The Discovery Centre – a massive collection of vehicles from WW1 right up to the modern day
  • The Tank Story – which did exactly what it said on the tin – i.e. illustrate the development of the tank from 1915 to the present day, with 35 examples of key designs
  • Battle Afghanistan – which showed the type of armoured vehicles being used in that conflict.

The museum also stages demonstrations in an arena outside the main building during school holidays. But as we visited before most schools had broken up, nothing was happening on the day.

To me, the best part of the museum was the Tank Story. It explained the origins of the tank and it was possible to see how it developed over the 20th Century.

This is “Little Willie”, a prototype in the development of the first operational tank, the British Mark I.

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The Mark I and it’s successors was a slow, heavy vehicle, meant to break through and overcome the enemy lines, making way for the infantry who would follow in its wake.

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Later on, a faster, light tank, the Whippet was developed which could exploit the gaps in the line created by its heavier cousin.

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Walking around the display, I saw full sized versions of all the models I remember from my youth including:

The German Panzer IV, which, if I remember correctly, was the first Airfix model tank I ever built

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The Lee / Grant, an American manufactured vehicle that was used by the 8th Army during the desert campaign in WWII. It was called the Lee when it had the original US turret design and the Grant  when a British designed, modified turret was fitted.

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The Sherman, that replaced the Lee / Grant and was the workhorse of the British and US forces during and after D-Day

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The German Panther – I once saw one of these in the middle of a Belgian village in the Ardennes – left in situ after it ran out of fuel during the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of WWII

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The Centurion tank, the mainstay of the British army after WWII

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the Chieftain main battle tank from the 1970’s

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There were so many others – I believe the museum has about 300 in total of which about 200 are on display. There was really too much to take in during one visit, so we inevitably focused in on the ones I was already familiar with.

The museum has a good online resource which lets anyone interested find out detailed information on all the vehicles in the collection.

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