when I say achtung, you say panzer

ADDENDUM: Ben has uploaded his excellent Tankfest photos to Flickr – you can see them here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskf7Pmnh

After a cramped ride in the sweatiest train ever (it took me a while to catch on that it was Glasto weekend; I broke with common train etiquette and actually asked to have my reserved seat, and the bloke I displaced got kicked out twice more by other people with reservations,) I arrived at Ben and Jenna’s lovely new (and I mean NEW – they haven’t finished the road outside yet) house, for a chilled evening of tea and homemade onion-soup-flavoured burgers. Then after a sleep under my favourite London Underground duvet, we were up for a drive to Bovington, and TANKFEST.

Cadets in the same boots as me herded cars into their slots with quasi-military precision, and we moved towards the big tank arena through a vast camp divided into two areas: the collection of stalls selling Airfix kits, toy guns and militaria, and the semi-fortified encampment of worryingly earnest-looking men in a variety of period uniforms peering at us over mounted machine guns. Nazis were, as usually, thoroughly overrepresented (albeit quite a few shaggy-looking Volkssturm, a nice contrast to the common there’s-nothing-dodgy-about-this SS jackboot fetishists) and there were hundreds and hundreds of WW2 GIs, but there was also a good Korean War showing, and a PTRS among the Ivans, which was unusual. The older bloke next to it waved around a weathered en-bloc clip of 14.5mm rounds and told anyone who got near him the story of how the verdigrised brass and pitted steel bullets had been found in a swamp in Russia all together. By the gate were a replica Mark IV and A7V some ambitious types had made out of tractors and steel plate.

We found a place with a view in time to see a little GoPro-toting quadcopter start hovering above the arena, and the director being driven out in a gorgeous dark green Rolls-Royce armoured car to open the ceremonies. Then, with an enormous roar of Leopard 2 engines, it was ON. After the three Leopards drove around at speed, kicking up dust and diesel fumes and generally being huge and noisy to a Rammstein soundtrack, there was an entire convoy of old British CVR(T) vehicles with their various S-themed names: Saracen, Saxon, Samaritan… One of the Scimitars broke down and had to be roped up and towed away by a large number of burly men with ropes. But it was alright, as at that point a Spitfire showed up and distracted everyone with some fun rolls and turns to a loop of Battle of Britain theme music.

We explored the reenactor camps (I got to play with a bloke’s FG42!) and the recently opened Vehicle Conservation Centre, full of nose-to-tail armour from everywhere and everywhen in every state of repair; then it was the modern British Army display, the smug announcer being joined by a nervous young-sounding captain who paused a lot in between naming individual soldiers and trying to sound enthusiastic about Army 2020. All five vehicles we’ll still have under Army 2020 took to the stage: the newish Jackal (“they’ve left the roof off”), a Scimitar with camo nets hanging from its slat armour and swishing like skirts as it drove about, one of the new upgunned Warriors, an enormous Challenger 2 which shook the ground as it passed, and one of the hideous Mastiff MRAPs – “it has been and will be a workhorse in Afghanistan, and for the British Army”, the announcer said, speaking of an incredibly specialised system designed specifically for a theatre we’re meant to be out of. What does he know that we don’t?

The Trojan AVRE drove around waving its digger arm, twirling and posing like something out of Robot Wars, and then tried and failed to pick up its fascine; it was saved from complete embarrassment only by the bridgelayer, which drove around kicking up dust to hide the Trojan as it flailed around like a frustrated bloke at an arcade claw machine. And then, the Sea King with a huge ROYAL NAVY sign on the side that had been flying low and trolling for most of the morning proved that it wasn’t, dropped a fast rope and dumped a job-lot of Royal Marines into the arena. There followed (eventually) a highly unrealistic battle scene where a British Army section and four Scimitars popped away with quiet blanks at three opfor blokes (holding SA80s) for several minutes before they dramatically keeled over, and then it was lunchtime.

We ate horrendously overpriced burgers from a van, drank tea from thermos flasks and watched an earnest American mortar crew sending out a barrage. World of Tanks is sponsoring Bovington and Tankfest extremely heavily, with a big truck handing out promotional tank codes, T-shirt goody-bags and cardboard VR headsets. Then I went into the museum itself, which had been shifted around a bit and, this weekend, was full of random market stalls selling cupcakes and memorabilia underneath the guns of huge war machines. I looked in vain for the Tortoise, which had moved – how you lose an eighty-tonne steel brick with a 32-pdr sticking out of it is beyond me, but it wasn’t where it used to be. Back out into the perfect summer sun, I was extremely glad for the prescription sunglasses I got free from Specsavers – the day would’ve been impossible otherwise.

A display of post-war armour grumbled about in the arena – Chicom and Soviet, postwar British, three Shermans who starred in Fury (including the main one, still decked out with the name chalked on its 76mm), and a line of sandy Nazis opening with a Kettenkrad and closing with Tiger 131. A surprise Hurricane swept down and buzzed us a couple of times while reenactors dressed as Fallschirmjaeger and Volkssturm set up barricades, and then a pyrotechnics-heavy display ensued as forty or so GIs (I heard one of the “American” sergeants urging his men on with a broad Brummie accent) attacked them, backed up by the three Shermans. And then Fury saved the day by flanking the Tiger, just like in the MOVIES. It was all very fake, but fun. I located the Tortoise – hiding at the back of the Conservation Centre – then we were back to Southampton via the Poole-Studland chain ferry (a journey which lasted just long enough for a heartfelt rendition of “I’m On A Boat”) for delicious homemade pulled pork and general chilling.

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