Some children have Airfix kits – and I got through plenty of those – but growing up on a military base in Germany, where my father served with the Royal Tank Regiment, I also had something else to fuel my boyhood enthusiasm.
At the time in the Sixties, he was a sergeant and part of the test crew for what were the then new Chieftain tanks. These pioneering machines were equipped with 120mm guns capable of firing explosive and anti-tank rounds, and maintaining deadly accuracy even when driving at 25mph over treacherous terrain. I would go on to serve on those tanks myself, following in my father’s footsteps.
The Chieftain then was the latest evolution in armoured warfare, which in turn was replaced by Challenger One and later the current Challenger 2 tanks Britain has today. The tank is one of the most important inventions in the history of warfare. It might be more than 100 years old, but it has been vital in modern conflicts, particularly in Iraq from 2003 onwards.
Which is why I was surprised to read, this week, that the British Government is considering axing Britain’s entire fleet of tanks in so-called “modernising” plans to focus instead on cyber and space warfare.
Supposedly, the UK is already in discussion with Nato partners about plans to give up heavy armour and overhaul Britain’s military contribution to the alliance. Relinquishing such capabilities would place us in military terms behind the likes of Germany, Poland, France and Hungary.
The touted dismantling of Britain’s proud tank history has provoked plenty of correspondence in the letter pages of this newspaper - and with good reason. We are, after all, the country that invented the tank, introducing it on to the battlefields of the Western Front. The British Mark 1, the world’s first combat tank, came into service in September 1916.
It made a massive impression: this vast thing that could travel through mud and over barbed wire, firing 6 pounder guns and machine guns. To some it marked the turning point in the First World War.
The nephew of Captain Tommy Turner of 60th Machine Gun Corps - who witnessed perhaps the first tank being deployed at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette - recounted his diary entry of September 14 1916, in the Telegraph letter pages this week. “To my right is an enormous contraption on caterpillar wheels armed with machine and heavy guns,” Capt Turner wrote. “It has strolled over the trench.”
People were in awe but it took the best part of 20 years to take the invention of the tank and innovate it into modern armoured warfare. The Germans picked up the first ideas about how best to use these machines, hence we got Blitzkreig - the fast moving armour and infantry with which Hitler stormed through Europe. Britain’s tanks would prove decisive in the Second World War combined with air power and artillery. That is the point to make to modern day bean counters, these things must work in combination to achieve success.
I’ve been looking at the strategic military scene my entire adult life. First as a captain in the Royal Tank Regiment - the oldest tank unit in the world - and latterly as an academic. Tanks have, for me, been a lifelong passion.
My father, Tony Cornish joined the Royal Tank Regiment as a trooper in 1947 and served his entire career there, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. For some reason, he had the original blueprints of the Chieftain tank, which he kept in mine and my brothers’ bedroom. We would pore over them, fascinated by the drawings. I also remember exploring the tank training areas, and bumping into US soldiers who were preparing to deploy to Vietnam.
Growing up around these magnificent machines fuelled my own desire to serve in tanks. In 1984, I left Sandhurst myself and reported for duty. I remember being nervous about meeting my troop for the first time and asking my father for advice. He said: “You’ve just got to look them in the eye and let them know you’re in charge”.
My first posting was to Cyprus, and then we moved to West Germany, close to the border with the East. It was the height of the Cold War and we were convinced if it all went wrong – to the point of going nuclear – there would have been extremely heavy fighting, with lots of armour pouring over the border. In Germany, we would have fought in the ‘covering force battle’ had the Cold War escalated into all-out conflict and were told by our brigadier that the life expectancy of our regiment was about an hour.
We spent all our time practising large scale manoeuvre warfare in our four-man Chieftain tanks. I’ll never forget the words of our Commanding Officer who, when he arrived, told us that in our lifetimes we would again be at war. We took him seriously.
When my father first joined in 1947, there were eight Royal Tank Regiments, with many other tank regiments in the Household Cavalry and Royal Armoured Corps. By the time I joined, there were just four tank regiments, each with 57 tanks.
We have endured numerous amalgamations and cuts ever since the Second World War. When I left, in 1989, the British Army had 12 armoured regiments and around 684 tanks. Today the entirety of the UK’s armoured strength comprises just 227 Challenger 2 tanks and 388 Warrior armoured fighting vehicles.
I can imagine a future in which the tank will be an artefact for discussion – a museum piece – but I can honestly say, hand on heart, that moment has not arrived. I can understand that to some observers the tank might appear outmoded, and I readily acknowledge that as a former tank soldier I am biased. But this is by no means the post tank era.
Look at what the Russians are doing. They are not giving up their capability. And look at the large-scale military manoeuvres conducted by Nato (including UK forces) on the Russian border following the 2018 Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. Yes we are not in the Cold War any more and don’t need to plan for the widespread defence of western Europe. But to suggest that every element of that has disappeared into history is ludicrous – it patently hasn’t. There remains an armoured threat. The Russians know and talk about the fact it will take them a matter of hours to get armoured units into the capitals of Latvia and Lithuania. And what will we do in response?
Britain has spent too long on the back foot. The best and earliest way to deal with countries with what appear to be aggressive intentions is to stand your ground, and I don’t think we’ve been doing that particularly well in recent years. We are the fifth largest economy but we choose not to spend money on defence because it is convenient and more popular to spend money elsewhere.
I can see how defence spending is seen in some quarters as militaristic and aggressive but actually it does the opposite – it defuses situations.
From what it seems some inside the Government are now saying, because the tank was invented a century ago it still can’t have a role. But if you are claiming that is a threat-based decision then you need to open your eyes. And if you do that the wheels quickly start to come off the argument that Britain doesn’t need her tanks in the modern era. It exposes these decisions for what they are: cost-cutting masquerading as strategy.
Prof Cornish is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Professor at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics.