Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, on the southern coast of England, is located in a military base, the home of The Armour Centre. A huge museum with the largest collection of tanks in the world from many different countries, several of the exhibits are the only ones remaining in existence. Far more interesting than it sounds, it is a great place to visit.
Bovington Camp was created in 1899 when a local landowner was paid for 1000 acres of land for use by the Army as a firing range. During World War I, the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps moved their headquarters there, and remained there undergoing several name changes over the years from Tank Corps to The Armour Centre which it is known as now. It is still very much a military camp, and driving there you see areas fenced off with barbed wire and typical military shops and quarters.
The author Rudyard Kipling visited the military base at Bovington in 1923, and suggested something should be done to preserve the tanks from the Great War which were being stored there, slowly disintegrating. A shed was found, and over time other vehicles were added to the collection as they came out of service or finished being used in trials.
Enemy tanks were captured by the British Army, and once they had been stripped down for evaluation and testing, would then go to the museum to be reassembled and put on display. Tank-related ephemera was added, along with documents and photographs, and a library was begun. The museum now has about 300 tanks and is the biggest collection in the world.
What is There to See in the Tank Museum?
The tank museum is divided into several sections which include: Tank Story, The Trench Experience, Second World War, Tiger Collection, an Outdoor Arena and a Conservation Area, amongst others. It is a popular museum, with lots of family groups, particularly dads and sons. It is packed with exhibits, too numerous to include them all, so my son and I have picked out our favourite displays to present to you the history of tanks in our top ten highlights of the museum.
1. The Da Vinci Tank
Although never constructed or used on the battlefield, there is a model of the Da Vinci tank at the start of the museum, faithfully reconstructed from his conceptual drawings.
Drawn in 1487 he designed it out of wood, with men inside operating the wooden machinery. What is interesting to note is that he designed the cog system of the machinery the wrong way round so that it wouldn’t work unless the plans were reversed, and it is thought that he did this as he didn’t want his designs falling into the wrong hands.
It had 360 degree canons and was meant to drive onto the battlefield. Tests have shown that it would not have survived well on the battlefield; it would have moved very slowly and sunk into the ground, even though he had put studs on the wheels, but one area where he was considerably advanced was in the shape of the shell, using an angled side which would deflect projectiles. It wasn’t until after World War I that tanks started to have sloped armour plating.
“I can make armored cars, safe and unassailable, which will enter the closed ranks of the enemy with their artillery, and no company of soldiers is so great that it will not break through them. And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”
Letter to his patron Ludovico Sforza
2. 'Little Willie'
In 1896, an American, EJ Pennington, suggested an armoured car with mounted machine guns, and three years later British inventor Frederick Simms invented the ‘war car’. By 1915, with World War I in full swing, something was needed to combat the stalemate of trench warfare. With the development of machine guns, the old style of fighting wars could no longer be used, as it just resulted in trenches either side of a no-man’s land that couldn’t be traversed.
Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, set up the Landships Committee, to investigate an armoured vehicle which could cross the trenches. Several designs were tested, and caterpillar tracks were settled on as they spread the load of the machine and did not sink into the soft mud. The ongoing problem of the tracks coming off when over a trench was soon resolved, and the Number One Lincoln was completed at the end of 1915. Known as ‘Little Willie’ as an insult towards Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, the tank was the first one ever completed.
Weighing 18 tonnes with a speed of 3.5mph, it never saw combat, as by the time it was developed other tanks were already being designed based on the lessons they had learnt from its construction.
Only one ‘Little Willie’ was ever made, and it now sits proudly in the Bovington Tank Museum on a turntable.
3. The Mark I
The Mark I was the first tank ever used in warfare, seeing action on 15th September 1916 in the Battle of Fleurs-Corcelette on the Somme. The tanks were not hugely successful, but they did induce fear into the German soldiers and boost morale for the Allies. With a speed of 3.7 mph and weighing 28 tonnes, the Mark I didn’t have a turret like the Little Willie, to improve its centre of gravity, but had armament in side mounted ‘sponsons’ instead.
The Mark I in the tank museum is the only one left in the world, and is in a vivid re-creation of trench warfare, painted in Clan Leslie colours as it was for the Battle of the Somme, mud splattered all over it. The tank is raised high above you as you walk through a trench, pushing down barbed wire, destroying the trench walls, with muddied soldiers behind it. It does make you realise just how terrifying it must have been to enemy soldiers to see such a thing for the first time.
A man came running in… ‘There is a crocodile crawling into our lines!’ The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came on, to be a monster…
Feldwebel Weinert, 211th Prussian Infantry
4. The Mark II
Designed as a training tank for use in Bovington, the Mark II had no armour, and was purely designed to teach soldiers about these new and innovative machines. By the time of the Allied offensive at the Battle of Arras in 1917, there were not enough Mark I tanks left, so the Marks IIs were sent out from Bovington.
The one in the museum is the only one left in the world. They have cut away into one side so you can see what it was like inside, and it is easy to imagine how cramped, dirty and smelly it must have been. The crew were surrounded by carbon monoxide fumes from the engine, and with only a tiny hatch to escape through if the tank caught fire, there were low chances of survival. The tank on display, The Flying Scotsman, has holes in its sides from enemy fire sustained during the Battle of Arras.
The rifle and machine gun fire was intense, the tins were perforated and the petrol was therefore running all over the cab. The fumes inside, combined with the great heat, obliged us to wear the breathing apparatus of our box respirators. Even so we were all sick inside our masks.
Lt.Col. CB Arnold, 6th Battalion Tank Corps, 8 August 1918
5. The Trench Experience
The museum has an excellent re-creation of World War I, from a recruiting office, to soldiers leaving on a train, to the horrors of trench warfare. Soldiers climbing ladders out of the trenches, sandbags and boxes of explosives lining the sides, a muddied soldier cowering with his head in his hands, an injured soldier receiving emergency treatment; the horrors of war are all depicted.
There is also a whole section, ‘Warhorse to Horsepower’ dedicated to the use of horses in World War I. The section follows two horses from their lives as farm horses to war horses, and is really quite sad, with one display showing a horse being confronted by a tank, the sheer size and weight of its metal armour against a flesh and blood vulnerable animal (depicted as a War Horse style model).
The sobering statistic of only six horses of every 100 returning home after the war was heartbreaking. It really was a war where old style warfare clashed with new technology.
After World War I, there was a conflict between those who thought cavalry still had a vital role to play, and those who believed that the cavalry was on the way out, with mechanised vehicles replacing horses. The cavalry were reluctant to accept it or to merge with the Tank Corps, although there were enough visionaries to see their importance.
With our tossin’ plumes and pennons and our scarlet, blue and gold
Well we made a pretty picture in the ‘appy days of old
But now a reek of petrol and a cloud of dust appears
And that’s the bloomin’ march-past of the Armoured Car-binieres
‘Nomad’ Cavalry Journal July 1928
6. The Panther
The Panther is a German tank, believed to be the best of World War II, renowned for its firepower and protective qualities, although it wasn’t always reliable. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, they were impressed with the Russian tank the T-34, and two years later the German version, the Panther, saw its first action in Kursk. Initially beset with problems, the design was modified until it reached its peak performance in 1944, and was used to try to hold the Allies off after their invasion of Normandy.
Although the Panther was the best tank of the war, they lost in battle due to sheer weight of numbers. There is an apocryphal saying from the time that, “German tanks were equivalent to four American tanks, but the Americans always had five”. The British used to call the American Sherman tanks ‘Ronsons’, after the advert at the time for Ronson cigarette lighters which said that it “lights first every time”, as the Sherman tanks had a tendency to burn after taking just one hit. Quantity overruled quality in this case, and the Panther tank did not ensure German victories.
Captured Panther tanks were used by the Allies as part of their fighting force, with one nicknamed ‘Cuckoo’ as it was the cuckoo in the nest, and one called ‘Deserter’ as it had switched sides. The Panther tank at Bovington was actually made by the British once they had captured the Panther factory at Hannover after the invasion of Normandy.
7. Hobart's Funnies
These were possibly our favourite set of tanks.
Percy Hobart was a British Major-General who had joined the Royal Tank Corps in 1923, one of the soldiers with the foresight to see how vital a role tanks would play in future warfare.
Although he had been pushed into retirement at the start of World War II, due to someone with a grudge, Churchill insisted he was reinstated and so he was put in charge of the 79th Armoured Division. After Britain’s disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942, he was given the job of adapting armoured tanks to solving the problems they had encountered there, to prepare them for the D-Day landings.
The DDThe result was a series of tanks which soon became known as Hobart’s Funnies.
The DD Sherman was used on D-Day and the invasion of Normandy
The most famous of these ‘funnies’ is the DD Sherman. Adapted from the American Sherman tank, it had propellers at the rear to power it through water, and a large canvas screen surrounding it to help keep it afloat. The screen would lower as the tank reached land, and it could then roll onto the beach and start firing. These were used with great effect on D-Day.
The DD Sherman in the tank museum is the only complete one left in the world, and is displayed with its screen up. Newsreel from the 1940s shows them in operation, and explains how the men would all have to stand on top of the tank when it was in water, pressing against the sides of the screen to prevent the tank from sinking, while a bilge pump in the bottom of the tank would be frantically pumping out the seawater.
Most of the designs were based on the American Sherman tank or the British Churchill tank. There was the ‘Fascine Carrier’ which carried a huge fascine of bundled wood on its top, which it would throw into a ditch to enable the tank to roll over it, the ‘Ark’ which would drive into a ditch and act as a bridge itself, often stacking several tanks deep, so that troops and other vehicles could cross. The ‘Bobbin’ was a Churchill tank which would lay a carpet for other tanks to follow it when on soft sand, the Bridge Layer would turn into a bridge, the ‘Crocodile’ would shoot out a torrent of flames over 100m, the ‘Crab’ was a Sherman with a flail of metal chains to act as a minesweeper, as well as other designs
A fascine is a bundle of rods tied together and used to fill in trenches and ditches so that the tank could then cross it. Surplus fascines would be trailed along behind the tank.
There is no shortage of memorabilia on display throughout the different sections of the museum, going back as far as the earliest days of tanks. Tank crews often had mascots as it was such a dangerous job, and there is a very forlorn looking tiny fabric rabbit, which lost all of its limbs in the Battle of Cambrai in 1918.
Several ornaments made from shells and other ‘trench art’ are on display, alongside uniforms, including that of a German tank crew of World War II.
They had black, tailor-made uniforms with ‘Death’s Head’ collar patches; there is a ‘pixie suit’ worn by British tank crews which was an oversuit with a blanket lining for use during the cold North-West European campaign of World War II.
Sweetheart brooches, an engraved piece of marble from the ruined Cloth Hall in Ypres inscribed 1917, guns, helmets, letters and more mascots are all in glass display cases, evoking the human side of these enormous machines. There is a huge swastika flag captured from the Germans and embroidered with the names of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment. Hitler had intended the flag to fly over Alexandria after the Fuhrer’s victorious entry – which fortunately never materialised.
9. Battlegroup Afghanistan
A re-creation of a Forward Operating Base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan circa 2011 shows modern tank warfare to visitors. Under swathes of desert camouflage netting, we see life for soldiers of the Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Marines.
Mechanics repair tanks, a chipboard living quarters with small camp beds and a few posters looks like a hot and uncomfortable place to sleep and a make-shift cross where they held religious services surrounded by sandy boxes is accompanied by descriptions of how the soldiers would live, eat, rest and work while under the constant threat of being targets.
You can listen to soldiers talk about their experiences, and their reliance on their armoured vehicles, such as the Scimitar Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicle. At the end of the base is a large sheet of paper for visitors who have served in Afghanistan to sign. Amongst the signatures and staff numbers of serving soldiers, are a few childish signatures signing on behalf of their dads, who lost their lives there
10. The Tank Factory
The tank museum doesn’t just focus on the finished product, but has a whole section called the Tank Factory, showing how they are made from design to construction. In a replica of a design office, there are interactive screens where you can design your own tank and see how well it will perform. You then enter the assembly line, and can read and listen to the stories of the men and women who worked on them.
A Centurion is shown being made, one of Britain’s most successful tanks ever. Designed towards the end of World War II, the tank was upgraded and modified many times over the years, it is the most long lived tank in British service history. There are factory workers uniforms from World War I, film footage of tanks being assembled, graphics of life in the factories; everyone’s contribution is acknowledged and depicted.
Is the Tank Museum good for kids?
The Tank Museum is ideal for children as it has so many activities and displays aimed at them. Although we were unable to use them due to lockdown restrictions at the time, it was obvious that there was usually a great deal for kids to do. There were dressing up areas, interactive screens, audio headsets, clear and engaging displays and some tanks that they are allowed to climb in to have a look around. The Kuwait Arena outside often has tank displays where you can watch them charging around dusty tracks and even have a ride in one. It is definitely a kid-friendly museum.
The Museum is in the garrison village of Bovington, near the town of Wool, and is easy to reach by car. Wool has a train station which is on the direct line from London Waterloo to Weymouth. The museum is about a 30min walk, or you can get a taxi. The X54 bus from Poole, Weymouth and Wareham goes to the village.
Historical Sites near the Tank Museum
T.E Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia, was stationed at Bovington at the time of his death. His small home, Clouds Hill, is a short drive away, and you can also do the Lawrence of Arabia walking trail, which takes in his house and grave, and which starts and ends at the Tank Museum.