The cab was waiting in the parking lot right beside the train station. It looked like it had once been a London Black Cab, but had been bleached sometime during the last war. Now it was white and rust.
The cabby saw me, appeared to offer thanks to The Queen, and waited for me to get in. He turned in his seat and said; “Yew wont tha’ tanks or tha’ monkeys, wot?”
(Blink, blink.) (blink) (tick, tock… tick, tock…) CABBY: “Oyi!” DURI: “Pardon?”
I was in Wool. No, this isn’t my new girlfriend or a new coat, but the name of a town in Southampton, England. Getting there meant getting on a train at Waterloo Station in downtown London at 9:30 am, sitting in Wimbledon for 20 minutes waiting for British Rail to extract a digit, and then a three hour ride through some quietly rolling English countryside, complete with sheep, the quaint houses, the occasional castle tower or church tower and some McDonalds. I used most of this time to sleep unfortunately, since sleep deprivation seems to be the norm for this kind of traveling. After three and a half hours the conductor announced our imminent arrival in Wool, and the train soon pulled into a crossroads with about two dozen visible houses and some sheep. It is just a little to the right of nowhere, but it contains two important landmarks:
I, of course, had only known about the former, and even if I’d had time to see both in one day was not sure that getting into a dung-flinging contest with the locals would have been a fitting end to my visit to the Old Empire. So I was there purely and only to see the tanks at the Bovington Armor Museum.
Eventually, with the help of my German-English phrasebook, I managed to work things out with the driver. Soon he dropped me off at the Tank Museum, and moments later I was looking at Gigantic Implements of Destruction that looked as if they had evolved from farm machinery.
I’m a treadhead. I’ve missed Duxford, the big airplane museum in Europe (just can’t afford it), but I had to see the tanks. Something about 60 tons of vibrating steel and a gun 15 feet long makes me happy. I thing it’s the Mongol in me that wants to get a bunch of these things together and go rampaging through the countryside; but regardless, I’ve always wanted to go to a museum that held them, and such are quite rare.
This place was filled with things that had been used by German people to blow things up, or by everyone else to blow German people up. I took about 100 pictures, about a third of which feature me with my arm draped over the barrel of a tank as if I were about to mount it on my Toyota pickup and drive it back to the barbecue. I was like a kid in an explosives shop.
There were two things that stuck out though that even a non-treadhead would have paid attention to. One was the KV-1 (Russian for “Big, Ugly Tank, Mk 3”) painted in Leningrad colors. For those of you who aren’t weird, Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, was behind German lines for almost 2 years of WWII. The Germans encircled it in the fall of ‘41, and the Russians relieved it in the spring of ‘43. In the meantime, the city survived one of the longest sieges in recorded history, and definitely the longest in modern history until Sarajevo.
The Russians fought desperately to keep the Germans and Finns out of the city (though the Finns weren’t really interested in taking it, they did close off the northern approaches from relieving Russian forces). Food, fuel and other supplies only got in via a long journey over a frozen lake that was the only access the Russians had left, and then under constant fire and threat of falling through the ice.
By late winter of ‘42 the Russian civilians and military trapped in the city were eating rats. Not long after they were boiling shoe leather, trees were gone for firewood, etc. Th e Russians had had several munitions plants and a tank factory in the city when it was surrounded, and the gathered up steel beams, scrap from wrecked ships and planes, cars, and anything else to use as raw material to keep those plants going. Throughout the siege Russian guns were being delivered directly from the factories to the hands of the fighters, and Russian tanks were rolling off the assembly line right into combat, sometimes without anything more than a coat of whitewash as a paintjob.
Some of those tank crews were women. The Russians had both a more pluralistic approach to women in combat (a requirement of Communist ideology) and a desperate need for anyone who could fight. They employed female snipers in numbers, but also used women in aircraft, infantry combat and tanks. For this exhibit, the museum had gotten a interview with a Russian female tank driver.
She described the difficulty of being a woman surrounded by men, trying to maintain her dignity and femininity, trying to deal with the living conditions both as a woman and as a combat soldier. She said that for all that, she never had any trouble with the actual fighting. Presumably after Leningrad had been relieved, she ended up fighting in the Kursk Offensive in the summer of ‘43, when the Germans tried their last big attack in Russia. She described being outside her tank, which I believe was temporarily disabled, and seeing several German infantrymen advancing on her. She raised her rifle and cleanly shot three of them, and felt not the slightest remorse. Later in that same battle a bomb was dropped just behind her tank and she leaned out of the hatch to see if it was on fire. Shrapnel slashed her face (thankfully missing her eyes, she said), so she sat back down, bandaged her wounds and went back to driving the tank. She was wounded twice in that battle, and never stopped fighting.
On the side of this tank is pained the slogans, “For Leningrad!” and “From the women of Leningrad!”
The other, similar, thing I noticed is that several of the British tanks had small wooden crosses on them. Almost all of the enemy tanks had been captured intact, but several of the British tanks had been knocked out and returned home for various reasons, usually as memorials. The crosses contained the names of the crews who had died in them.
The British honor their war dead in a way that I think most Americans would find hard to visualize. There are memorials everywhere throughout London. In an American city you can usually find at least one or two per major city, but they are often small and understated, and most are on military bases or other selective sites. That’s in keeping with our national personality to some extent, but there’s more to it than that.
I have a picture of an obelisk that the British carted off from Egypt (Alexandria). It’s covered in hieroglyphics and flanked by two bronze Sphinxes of modern make, and all three are scarred by craters on the lower portions from a German bomb of WWI that hit the street nearby.
Two blocks away was another memorial, this one to the sub crews lost in both wars. The list of Royal Navy subs lost covers every letter in the alphabet several times each. Almost all with all hands.
In the Imperial War Museum is a small section on the Merchant Navy (the civilian sailors working commercial ships). It gives an account of the crew of one ship that was torpedoed and went down in two minutes. Around 20 people got out. They were at sea for something like 50 days. Two of them survived to be picked up. One of those kept a dairy the entire time.
The worst part is when they are finally seen by a plane and expect pickup. It does not come for nearly a week.
When I walked out of the Tank museum at one point I heard an old British gentleman who was leaving say to his wife, “Let’s go now. It smells like death in there.”
It just smells like steel and oil to me. But maybe that’s what death really does smell like to a tanker.
© Duri Price, All Rights Reserved