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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.

The outside of the Tank museum

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

A model of 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.

Little Willie in the Bovington Tank Museum

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 tank covered in mud

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 Mark II tank

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.

A metal horse rearing under a tank

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