Often seen in the realms of films and video games is the one man tank crew, that couldn’t be further from how Challenger tanks really work.
This portrayal has led to the belief that you can spare a man from the Challenger 2, the Russians use auto-loaders in the T series tanks so this is the way forward right? Wrong! Every man is as much a vital part of the running of the tank as a part of the engine or gun itself.
The tank crews are a unique part of the British Army and they have a certain style, often coming across as ‘elitist’, eccentric or a walking pamphlet of statistics.
It’s true the Royal Armoured Corps has a different ethos, especially to the infantry, it is necessary to the way they operate, but I will dig into this more in depth in a future article. What I want to answer is how does a Tank WORK? I do not mean the mechanics (Perkins V12 4-Stroke engine simply) but how everyone has an important role and how they do it.
It is a four man crew, Driver, Gunner, Operator (Loader in layman terms) and commander. A classic career progression in the 3 Regular Regiments, King’s Royal Hussars, Queen’s Royal Hussars and Royal Tank Regiment moves through these in order, with a few exceptions, and in the Army Reserves, Royal Wessex Yeomanry, its possible to step into any of the first three.
Starting with my own role, a Challenger 2 driver. The job is to move the Tank from one point to another, because of this its necessary to be good at assessing the ground, even though in the lowest compartment, and maintenance of anything not found in the turret, in order to keep it moving, engine, tracks, wheels and drive parts are al the drivers responsibility, along with many others.
Almost all of the tasks involve two to three crewmen working together so the driver must be skilled as a team player too, to get the turret crew to help when needed, rather then going to bed. Whilst moving across open country it will often be the driver and commander who are the busiest talking to each other, looking at ground picking a route.
When tree lines and ridges are approached the gunner will talk the gunner onto the exact distance so he can see targets without exposing himself. The driver is in his own world, even though only feet away from his comrades, he doesn’t see the turret ring turning just behind his head, he is fixated on the periscope. The only way for visual communication when locked down, is to roll onto your stomach when the gun is over either side, then you are just below the side of the gun, by the Operators legs.
It is then possible to be passed down a meal or a drink. When in action, the driver will assist in searching for obvious targets to the front axis, as these can easily be lost with the gunner and commander using scopes rather then their mark I eyeball.
The gunner, as the name suggests fires the gun, still 120mm rifled, with little physical difference to the Chieftain. Using two primary sights, with a myriad of displays he can engage targets with a huge first hit first kill ratio, up to 99% for a competent crew. Due to the sight limitations however they cannot see wide arcs, relying on the commander to give them the likely arc of enemy targets, rather then scanning round and round, spinning the crew. Its an awkward cramped position, between the commanders legs, with a chest plate rammed into the sternum to hold him fast.
It is also possible, if not enough communication with the driver is going on for the gunner to be knocked unconscious by his own sights and instruments.
Operator, more commonly known as the loader, during an engagement will load the three part ammunition into the breach. It can be down to their technical skill or brute strength that the crew will be relying upon for survival. It can be one of the most physically demanding roles. After loading and firing several rounds in a short space of time the operator is often drenched in sweat.
The operator has many other roles to play in the working of the crew. He maintains and tunes the temperamental Bowman radio sets, cross country he helps spots routes or obstacles when the commander is busy, but the most important section, for a British Army crew is ‘admin’. Here a good operator is worth his weight in gold. He will have all the crews kits stowed on the back and inside the turret where it needs to be, he will be doing any small jobs that need doing whilst the driver is locked down and the gunner is in position, but the most important, is he has the BV. The BV or Boiling Vessel, is the life blood of the armoured crew, every tank designed since 1945 for the British Army has had one, it is essentially a square kettle, used for heating meals, getting warm water to wash in, and provide a constant supply of tea and coffee, without this morale plummets.
The operator can cheer the entire crew up by passing round hot meals and drinks when everyone is exhausted, and after several days working long days in cramped conditions the timely arrival of a thermos of tea passed down to the driver cannot be underestimated.
Finally the commander, without a shadow of a doubt the busiest man in the crew, and the make or break man, with him the reputation and effectiveness of the crew is measured. Either an experienced NCO commanding their first vehicle or a young officer, in charge of a troop of 4 tanks, including his own, every commander has multiple tasks to do.
First of all is coordination, with 3 other men all having to work together, often not being able to see each other, things can get heated or confused. Secondly, communication with others, both to his own troop, infantry or attached elements working close by and having to relay orders with the squadron leader, who is playing a bigger game of chess. The commander also has the best situational awareness, in the highest point of the vehicle, there is a ring of window slits below the hatch, his own gunnery sights and he can utilise the brilliant ‘hunter-killer’ mode, spotting and laying targets for the gunner to engage next, so as soon as one enemy target is found the next can be searched for, allowing for a constant stream of engagements rather then the gunner scanning, wasting valuable minutes. This means the vehicle can be moving forwards, with the gun over the side, with the commander looking through his remote sight in an entirely different direction, it is possible for the inexperienced to get very confused, tempers can fray, but that is the test of a crew.
A good example of how a brilliant crew can work, is a ‘tank surfing’ engagement. Here the enemy are over a ridge. The commander with step out on top of the turret with his binoculars. Using his headset he will talk the driver to creep up so that he can just see over, exposing nothing of the tank apart from his head an the aerials. If an enemy target is spotted all crew coordination works quickly, the commander will jump back in relaying its’ position and type.
From this the operator will load the appropriate round whilst the driver will reverse a short distance in case the commander was spotted, then will advance quickly from a different angle (known as jockeying) until the gunner has a clear vision, he will then break and select the likely gear needed, either reverse again or one of the forward if an advance is going to happen, the operator will slide his safety shield across, the commander will talk the gunner onto target, who will laser the distance, adjust and fire.
The commander will gauge whether it has been destroyed, in which case they will likely move quickly, or needs to be hit again, when the operator will work as quickly as possible to load another round into the breach, a process that will be repeated, hopefully as a well practised process, but none the less complex for all 4 crew are heavily involved and none is less important then another.