Tanked

The viewing gallery of the conservation centre at Bovington Tank Museum offers a view over more than a hundred military vehicles for which there is not yet space in the display galleries. Among the recent acquisitions is the Standard Beaverette, a makeshift contraption built in Britain after the disastrous defeats in 1940. The tanks of the British Expeditionary Force had been left in France and the British army was compelled to prepare for the expected invasion using whatever resources it could find. The Beaverette was built on the chassis of a standard saloon car; its turret bore a closer resemblance to a grey steel dustbin on a car roof than it did to the sort of vehicle that might have withstood the might of an invading Nazi army.

As a member of the museum staff explained how the turret was mounted on eight ball-bearings and rotated by the person pushing it with their shoulders, memories returned of my grandfather’s stories from days in the Home Guard. As a farmer, he belonged to a reserved occupation, being expected to serve on the home front to produce as much food as possible. On top of the farm work, he was expected to work for the local council, repairing the roads, many of the usual road workers having been called up for military service. At night, he served with the local platoon of the Home Guard, activity that produced a fund of stories, few of which would have inspired confidence in the capacity of the volunteers to withstand the invasion forces.

Guarding the railway tunnel at Somerton one night, there was the sound of someone moving in the darkness. The orders were to shout, “halt, who goes there?” and then to shout, “stop, or I fire.” If the person did not obey the order, then they must open fire. The orders had been given and the shadowy figure continued to come towards them. Instead of firing, they decided to step forward to investigate to discover not a saboteur, but a local man, returning from a pub, very the worse for wear. “We could have killed him.”

If there was a lack of ruthlessness in the face of a potential threat to a significant railway line, there was a doubt as to the efficacy of anti-tank measures, which included placing burning tar barrels in the road in order to try to stop oncoming panzers. The Standard Beaverette embodied a spirit of make-do and makeshift, a plucky attitude, but pluckiness alone is not enough to win wars. Fortunately, the car with a dustbin on its roof was never called into frontline service.

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