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Archive 26

Making Tracks

With an earth shattering roar, the battle-green tank shot
away leaving me shrouded in dust. It would be my turn
next to drive the 55 ton monster, but little did I know that
a bit of dirt would be the least of my worries.

Most of us at some time or another have seen tracked army vehicles being driven on the roads, especially in the Salisbury Plain area of Wiltshire. Very few of us, however, have sat behind the controls of one of these awesome fighting machines to experience the sheer scale of the weaponry and brute power from the 750 bhp two-stroke diesel engine.
   Driving a Chieftain, which came into service in 1963 and is one of  the world's largest tanks, is actually quite easy. Yes, it's very noisy and uncomfortable, but it is also one of the most exhilarating drives you are likely to experience, even if, like me, you get drenched in water after tackling a particularly deep 'puddle'.
   Once aboard, after clambering up the plating, you manoeuvre your frame through a small manhole just beneath the barrel and drop into the drivers com-partment. Comfort is at a premium on the small seat, but you soon familiarise yourself with the main driving controls.
   Although hand operated steering levers (one positioned each side of the seat to control the appropriate track) are used, it is surprisingly easy steering with levers instead of a steering wheel, if disconcerting at first. The accelerator is on the right, brake pedal towards the centre and a foot operated gear-selector to the left.
   With the vehicle moving, pulling one of the levers has the immediate effect of slowing the track on that side of the tank and moving it in the same direction; it also means you can turn 360 degrees on the spot without forward or reverse motion. You soon get the hang of it and astound yourself at the manoeuvrability of such a mass of metal with so little effort on your behalf.
   So much for the basic driving controls. We will disregard the elaborate starting procedure and the dozen or so warning devices
and switches dotted around the cramped driver's compartment.
They were mostly concerned with the fighting role of the machine when it was still in service with the British Army.
   First it is necessary to don a crash helmet and ensure you can communicate adequately with the commander - his position up top offers a far better view of obstacles ahead than that available from the low mounted driver's seat. Then, with just your head poking through the hatch, first gear is engaged (the control operates on an up-down principle similar to a motorcycle gear change), the engine is given a few revs and away we go. With a semi-automatic gearbox and no clutch to worry about, you're never in the wrong gear so it's virtually impossible to stall.
   As with most supercharged units, the engine has to get up speed before the power comes in, making it a bit slow off the mark. Once moving, however, it is commendably brisk and soon reaches 30 mph with just the nose bowing slightly with each gear change, slowing only for steep inclines and, of course, the capability of the crew to withstand being thrown around as it pitches and rolls. Reducing speed is really just a matter of taking your foot off the accelerator and the tank comes gently to a halt on its own accord. If a more rapid stop is necessary, the brake pedal can be used.

   This battle tank is probably the largest lump of metal I have ever driven and there is no doubt that thundering across country with stones, grass and mud flying is an interesting way to travel.
   For me, perhaps the hardest part was trying to maintain my dignity alighting through the small driver's hatch - due to my height I had to be dragged and levered out, not a pretty sight at the best of times!
   For further information on tank driving, contact Juniper Leisure at: Visit website   

   An interesting new book about tanks and the soldiers who operated them, from their introduction at Flers in 1916 to the present day, has recently been released.
   A Pictorial History of the Royal Tank Regiment by Lt Col George Forty is published by Halsgrove at £24.95 and is available from stockists, or in case of difficulty from Halsgrove Direct on 01884 243242. Visit website

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