Tuesday 28 September 2010

The Devil’s Chariots

There’s nothing like seeing the real thing when you’re trying to build a model armoured fighting vehicle. No amount of looking through old photographs, or browsing through a book can quite replace the excitement of seeing for yourself the scale, the size, the toughness of a battle tank, whatever the period.

Living just outside London, I’m rather spoilt for museums of all kinds. It’s been about a decade since I had last visited the Imperial War Museum in Kensington, South London, but I took my daughter a couple of weeks ago. Ostensibly, we were taking a trip to see the “Horrible Histories” exhibition of “The Terrible Trenches” (which was really great for kids of all ages), but I also wanted to get a good look at the Mark V tank, “Devil”, and a few other Great War items.

As you might remember from previous Blog posts, I’m building a representative section of “B” Battalion of the Tank Corps from 1917 for use in our games of “Through the Mud and the Blood”, including four Mark IV tanks. As any “tankies” out there will know, the mark IV tank was being used by the Tank Corps in 1917, with the Mark V tank only becoming available for battlefield service the following year. Indeed, the Mark V was a considerable improvement on the mark IV tank, featuring hand-braked epicyclic gears on each end of the cross shaft which revolutionised driving and enabled one man to control the tank alone (the Mark IV required four men to drive it). While the earlier Mark IV tank produced by Great War Miniatures is the model we have been using in our games, in creating a feel for the scale and size of the tank, and getting that all important inspiration, the Imperial War Museum’s Mark V “Devil” was perfect.

One of the first things which struck me when I got close was the sheer size and impression of power of the tank. Of course there have been far bigger tanks built since, but in the Great War, with other comparable vehicles only being the size of armoured cars, the sight of a tank approaching a trench must have been terrifying.

When I started to look at the details, I was struck by single 6pdr 6cwt QF gun in the left sponson of the tank (the right sponson being removed to give a view into the tank’s interior). For some reason, the bore of the gun just seemed narrower than I had imagined when reading about the accounts of 6pdr case-shot being pumped out onto enemy strongpoints and machine gun bunkers.

The interior view of the tank was very interesting. With the right sponson of the tank being removed and replaced with glass, you can clearly see the cramped interior in which the crew of eight men would have fought. It’s not difficult to imagine the stench of cordite, smoke and petrol fumes during the heat of a battle within the (notoriously badly ventilated) interior.

The purpose built 19 litre six cylinder in-line Ricardo petrol engine giving 150 HP utterly dominates the interior. Ninety-seven years on, from my home in a leafy suburb of London, it’s very hard to understand what soldiers must have gone through after being closed up for 8 or 9 hours in a tank, sometimes having to “mask up” against poison gas. Looking through the glass into the interior of “Devil” gives just a small clue what it might have been like.

Quite understandably it is not possible to enter into the tank, but even looking at the door hatch on the rear of the sponson made me wonder how on earth anyone could exit quickly from a tank on fire. Just when this came into my mind, I then remembered that the male tanks were the easier ones to exit in an emergency, with the a female tank’s entry and exit routes being far more inaccessible under the machine gun sponsons.

In all, while not contributing to the actual ability to produce a model, I really felt that seeing the Mark V close up made my Tank Corps modelling project seem closer, more immediate. At the very least it was inspiring, but more importantly I felt it gave me a more a human context to the project.


  1. Great post Sidney and it looks good enough to take for a spin.

    Cheers Paul

  2. Thanks Paul. "Devil" was in great condition. A fine exhibit in a wonderful museum.

  3. Got a little bit confused. You said that you visited the Imperial War Museum in Kensignton? I thought that was the borrough of the National Army Museum (the IWM was in Elephant & CAstle, right?). Just wnated to clarify, where the tank that you saw is located in case I visit London any time.

  4. Anibal, and indeed everyone else,

    I'm so sorry! I typed "Kensington", when I should have typed "Kennington". The Imperial War Machine is in South London, close by Kennington, in the London Borough of Lambeth. The nearest tube is Lambeth North, or Elephant and Castle. Here's the link : http://london.iwm.org.uk

    Huge apologies again for the mistake. Not to be confused with the National Army Museum in Kensington!

    I guess that's my future career as a London Tour Guide over before it's started...

  5. Please, stick to your painting capabilities, no forays as tour guide!!!


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