Oct 27th 2014

Home, workplace, tomb – the reality of the World War II tank

by Clifford Williamson

Clifford Williamson Lecturer in Contemporary British and American History at Bath Spa University. Dr Williamson was educatedat Strathclyde University where he gained his Doctorate. He has written widelyon cultural, social and religious history.  His latest publications have been in History,the Journal of the Historical Association on Public Health in Interwar Scotlandand for the Revue Francaise de Civilisation Britainnique on the Teddy Boys.
The latest corner of World War II to be dramatised for the big screen is small. Cramped, even. In Fury, starring Brad Pitt and Shia leBeouf, we follow the story of five American soldiers, a crew serving in one tank in Germany, 1945.

Such an experience of the war was certainly unique. I was once told a story by a World War II veteran who served as a radio operator in one of the British Army tank regiments. As a treat, his son planned to drive him around all the old sites of his war service in Normandy, Holland and Germany. But the veteran said that he would not be able to recognise any of the places as all he ever saw of the terrain was a letterbox sized slit view, always looking straight ahead. Limited views and limited space was what all of those whose served in them had. It was difficult to see the enemy.

This was the irony of serving in a tank. Cut off from the world at war around you, hunkered in an armoured vehicle, yet when you were hit, all you had was a small hatchway between you and incineration. Somewhat like living inside a bomb. This was especially true of the Sherman, the tank that features in Fury – to such an extent that there are stories about Germans calling them “ronsons” after the Ronson lighter – the joke was that they lit up first time.

Fury, the Sherman. Sony Pictures

Those in the tanks did have the advantage over the infantry, but few creature comforts. The crew (four or five or six) would sleep under a waterproof tarpaulin, in a row alongside their tank.

While driving or in battle for hours at a time the conditions inside were almost unbearable. Some of the spent shell casings were used as makeshift bedpans to urinate into and severe constipation was very common.

Conditions inside were also cramped, the crew packed like sardines. The commander would often have his feet on the shoulders of his radio operator, and the loader in the gun turret would basically be sitting on the commander. All were connected by internal radio to hear over the constant racket generated by engine. Endurance and perseverance were the watchwords.

Recruits were generally sourced through conscription. Every few months a new draft of 18 year olds were called into the services. The British main tank-training base was at Bovington in Dorset, where the recruits slept on beds made of straw. During training, they were allocated their main tasks based on rudimentary skills they revealed: radio operator, driver, or gunner. Driving skills were tested through initially driving a truck, gunnery skills with an air-gun that fired at small wooden tank models pulled by string. Not exactly high-tech.

Some hadn’t even been to tank school but were drafted from other regiments. In Fury, Brad Pitt loses his assistant driver, who is replaced by Norman Ellison, a recently enlisted typist who has never seen the inside of a tank before. The rest of the crew have been together since the North African Campaign and are much more hardened to the realities of war.

The newbie. Sony Pictures

The tank regiments used in D-Day were made up of such crews, both veterans from the desert campaigns and raw recruits. Stuart Hills was one of them. He commanded a one of the “swimming” tanks that were to accompany the infantry onto Gold Beach. His crew were all 22 and 23 years old, he was 19. His tank did not make it to the beach, sunk by a shell fragment, but his crew survived.

The tank had to be an informal place where rank was forgotten – except in battle – and first names were used. “Trust”, said Hills, was “a key commodity. Tank crews that fell out with each other were much more likely to end up dead”.

In the extreme close quarters of the tank, the interplay between the crew members was incredibly important. Esprit de corps, that intangible quality that kept people together during the horrors and terrors of battle, was crucial in those metal boxes.

When you watch Fury, remember Stuart Hills – and all those who experienced the extraordinary reality of life inside a World War II tank.

The Conversation

Clifford Williamson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Movie Reviews

Oct 16th 2018
........one hopes, Asia will become a bigger part of Hollywood culture, with more films featuring Asian locales and actors. Produced for just $30 million (compared to over $300 million for Disney’s “Avengers: Infinity War”), “Crazy Rich Asians” has already grossed over $200 million worldwide.
Sep 18th 2018
Yes, life is unreliable. Yes, life sometimes is unbelievable. Yes, life will bring us to our knees. And, yes, this much-criticized film will get you in the heart, but not through the manipulation it is being criticized for, but through its narrative insight that shows us how, despite all that brings us down, a story can get us to see that we must get up off our knees.
Jan 23rd 2018

The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government

Nov 27th 2017
Casablanca, which brought together the combined star-power of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, remains one of the best-loved movies ever produced in Hollywood. But the film, which hit the silver screen on November 26 1942, is more than just a love story set in Morocco.
Oct 30th 2017

The 53rd Chicago International Film festival ran 150 films from October 12-27, 2017. Directors, screenplay writers and actors attended many of the films from fifty countries.

Oct 30th 2017
The cinematic experience continues to be dominated by digitally led projects and audiences who increasingly expect more and more technical innovation. So it is refreshing when a mainstream cinema release consciously chooses to place traditional, artist-led techniques at its very heart.
Jun 8th 2017

Sofia Coppola’s triumphant win at Cannes as best director for The Beguiled is the latest in a series of notable successes for a director quietly but forcefully blazing her own tr

Feb 24th 2017

Having won five BAFTAs, including coveted awards for Best Film, Best Director (Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (Emma Stone), La La Land is likely to

Jan 7th 2017

The blogosphere has been awash this month with reviews of Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Silence.

Nov 16th 2016

The Crown, Netflix’s most ambitious and expensive original drama, had a reported budget of over US$100 million.
Oct 25th 2016

Violence against women in television drama has always been high.

Aug 8th 2016

Strange to say, but Donald Trump might have been a filmmaker rather than real estate magnate.

Oct 30th 2015

Daniel Craig’s entry into the Bond world was more than a change of face: he also brought in an abrupt about turn in style, from the fantastical to the gritty.
Sep 29th 2015

Life offers a brief “outtake” from one of the most famous lives to be profiled in the magazine of the same name’s history. James Dean starred in only three major Hollywood films before his death in a car crash on September 30 1955.
Sep 19th 2015
The latest adaptation of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover has predictably prompted significant media interest. Strong and contradictory reactions appeared in the newspapers weeks before it aired (on September 6).
Jun 26th 2015

Is there such a thing as post-racism?

That’s what Justin Simien’s film Dear White People asks us to consider. And it’s just about to hit the UK.