A 65-year-old named Sherman can still crush walls and fences, and packs a huge punch.
The he rumble of the two huge Detroit Diesels comes through loud and clear – and that’s with the suppressive help of hearing protectors under my tank helmet. Firmly braced, I’m still jostled as the nose of the M4 Sherman tank pitches up as we climb a berm and abruptly dips as we continue on.
Sure, I felt the bump and pitch, but it wasn’t uncomfortable, particularly because braced as I was, I didn’t smash into anything. I was spending the day at the Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset, England, the only place where many rare and historic vehicles from World Wars l and ll can be seen. It was awe-inspiring to be in a vehicle that could ford a river, wade ashore onto the beach and smash through fences and walls as if they didn’t exist. More important, I was in a vehicle that – in numbers more than 50,000 strong and in concert with the Russian T34 tank – helped turn the course of World War II.
Just as the sheer size and ride quality inspire awe, so does the way the Sherman turns. It is unlike anything else, as cornering is effected by braking one side at a time, in essence slewing all 30 metric tons of tank in the desired direction. It feels bizarre as the big machine travels in a series of straight lines connected by strategically spaced pivots. When it comes to splashing through deep muddy ruts, the tank doesn’t transmit a thing; it just carries on.
I’ve driven Bugatti Type 35s, W.O. Bentleys, A.C. Cobras and some of the most coveted cars ever built. But, in terms of impact or effectiveness, not one of them has a thing on the Sherman. Nor would any of them attract half the attention – even without firing the main gun or strafing the bushes for enemy snipers with the 0.30- and 0.50-caliber machine guns.
Through the hatches
Getting into the Sherman is no simple process. After donning a pair of coveralls and a mandatory high-visibility vest, I grab hold, step up and climb onto the hull. The museum volunteers, including driver Steve Jugg, keep telling me to “maintain three points of contact at all times.” That means that two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot must always be on the tank. The surfaces are slippery and there are many obstacles on which to trip.
If you’re driving or manning the front machine gun, there’s no need to climb up onto the turret: There are individual hatches in the hull. But the commander, radio operator and main gunner need to scale the next story where there are two more hatches. No matter which position you’re heading for, you step through the appropriate hatch onto the seat, put one hand on either side of the hatch and lower yourself into a subterranean world. I do it slowly and carefully, but know that in a combat situation speed would be essential. To exit, I stand on the seat, place a hand on either side of the hatch and hoist myself up. Just imagine doing that knowing your tank is on fire or has just been disabled!
Inside, everything is painted gray or silver for visibility in limited light. Close the hatches and you’d better not be claustrophobic. Alone, you feel a bit cramped, but add another four men, load in hundreds of rounds of machine gun and 76mm ammunition, rations and personal gear, and it becomes decidedly more crowded. But even with hatches down, there’s still a little light, the padded seats are sprung, each man has his own space and the ride isn’t half bad. It’s downright luxurious compared to the contemporary Soviet T34, which was crude, rough riding and didn’t begin to consider crew comfort. But, that’s Uncle Joe for you, as opposed to Uncle Sam.
The driving experience isn’t all that different from a car or truck, as long as you don’t mind not being able to see. With the hatch open and the seat raised, visibility is good, but when the hatch is down, the driver must peer through a pair of periscopes. Additional information comes from a bank of gauges to the left. Controls consist of clutch and throttle pedals, two big hand brakes – the only way to control the steering – and the sturdy gearshift lever for the five-speed manual transmission.
In many ways, the driver is the most important crewmember. If he’s hurt, the big tracked machine doesn’t go anywhere. The driver is flanked by the front machine gunner, while the main gunner in the turret aims based on directions from the commander next to him. The final crewmember, perched between the front gunner and the tank commander, is the loader/radio operator. He keeps an ear out for external commands and instructions and loads the main gun. Inside the tank, radio communications are essential. It’s how the crew talks to each other and follows orders.
Built in 1945, this Sherman M4 was delivered directly from the United States to the British Army, but never saw combat. Unlike early versions, it has those twin diesels, which were reliable and not nearly as combustible as the early gasoline-powered versions, known as “Ronsons” after the lighters, or as “Tommy Cookers” by the Germans. Neither side was stretching the truth as the tanks could easily ignite, thanks to the volatile gasoline fuel.
Remarkably original, the Sherman M4 has been painted once and remains in fully operational condition except for the guns. With the reliable torque of the diesels and the sturdy construction, it feels ready for anything, despite its age. After all, it’s built like a tank.
If you’d like to have your own Tank Ride Experience, visit tankmuseum.org/Tank_Rides for more information and to make reservations.
The Bovington Tank Museum
Why would anyone put a museum dependent on public attendance in the middle of nowhere? For the Tank Museum at Bovington, Dorset, England, the location was ideal for discreet tank testing and training.
The tank dates from early World War I as a tool to break the stalemate of trench warfare without massive loss of troops. The first tanks arrived at Bovington in mid-1916, and writer Rudyard Kipling proposed a museum in 1923. Tanks of all nationalities were gathered as the museum took shape following World War II.
The museum occupies 150,000 square feet in six halls and shares space with the Royal Armoured Corps base, where troops still train on armored vehicles. The collection includes approximately 350 vehicles, from the first tank built to the latest armored fighting machines.
Despite its remote location, the museum attracts more than 175,000 visitors each year and hosts special events, including tank demonstrations. For more information or to make a donation, go to tankmuseum.org.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.