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1940s Tank Crews: Who Did What?

Still from the film Fury
Movie still from the film ‘Fury’

If you’re ever lucky enough to drive a tank, you’ll soon realise that it’s a military monster unlike any other vehicle. Attempting to skid-steer several tonnes of metal on tracks is tricky, to say the least.

When you’re in the driving ‘seat’ (many tanks require you to kneel uncomfortably or practically lie down, so there’s no real seat to speak of), it’s one thing negotiating the bumpy terrain in the daytime with your head poking out of the hatch, but imagine what it’s like during night-time warfare and the hatches are down – a whole different ball game.

Indeed, technology might move on in leaps and bounds, but even the most primitive tanks from the early part of the 20th century have one thing in common with the latest battle tanks such as the AS-90 Braveheart or the Buffalo MRAP – a crew. Who are the intrepid operators of these tanks?

In general, each tank crew is made up of three to five personnel. Here’s a rundown of the main roles of each crewman and the history behind it all:

 

British Cruiser Tank
British Cruiser Tank

The Commander

As you might imagine, this is the leader of the crew, the CO, the Old Man (that’s an affectionate term used whether it’s male or female in the US and UK armies). Ultimately responsible for all actions and decisions, this is the highest rank of the high-pressure tank jobs. The commander assesses the battlefield, liaises with the Squadron Leader and coordinates the onboard team.

Often operating in the dark, literally and metaphorically, the confusion, intensity and uncertainty of full-on warfare takes its toll on the boss. Tank commander Sgt. Trevor Greenwood of the 9th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment explained the acute fatigue in the summer of 1944: ‘…speculation about our next move. Will we be withdrawn? Or sent in again? We need some rest: everyone is worn out, mentally and physically’.

 

The Gunner

This job involved doing just what it says on the tin – operating the gun. Firing the main turret might sound like a simple enough task, but during the Second World War it became an integral and high-pressure role.

John Irwin, an American tank gunner who participated in the Allied invasion of Europe, said, ‘Commander Joe would pick targets and I would try and hit them’. The only problem with that was that the gunner was in a moving vehicle, often being bounced around over uneven and bumpy terrain, with a cacophony of noise all around, trying to aim at a moving target, all whilst probably under serious enemy fire.

It’s thought that the actual firing is just 40% of the job. The rest is all about tactics, keeping a level head and a steady hand when all around you is chaos, noise and danger.

 

Ammunition Loader

While the Ammunition Loader might lack lateral thinking, its physical strength and stamina certainly makes up for it. This role was all about keeping each tank firing on all four cylinders, as it were. Simply put, the quicker a gun can be re-loaded, the quicker a tank could fire at the enemy. But it has to be said, there was no glamour in this role in the Second World War. The hard-working gunner didn’t even have the luxury of an escape hatch in some tanks, so as you can imagine, they worked in isolation in the heat and confinement.

It’s said that the loader ‘had to crawl under the gun’ to exit the tank in the event of fire or a direct hit, and that’s if they were lucky. If anything happened to the gunner or the commander and they were incapacitated, that very small escape route could easily be blocked. Of course, advances in technology meant that some tanks were autoloading (often seen on Russian and French-built models) meaning the role of the loader was lost, but it has to be said, the British and American armies still preferred the human loaders.

 

The Driver

Inside Second World War German tank
Inside Second World War German tank

You’ve got your boss, your hotshot gunner and your plucky loader, now all you need is someone to actually drive the tank. Back in the World War eras, tanks were pretty basic (they still can’t be described as being the height of modern comfort now) and drivers had to be adept at working in a cramped environment, all the more confounding when you’re advancing against towards the enemy lines under pressure.

As well as having to negotiate unknown territory, hostile terrain and cover miles in a noisy, hot tank, the driver’s role was to out-manoeuvre the enemy. As you can imagine, a heavy tank in the 1940s was not the most agile of vehicles and the driving experience was described as being ‘more akin to that of tractor than an automobile’. This explains why some crews operated with an assistant driver (the fifth member of the team) to be an extra pair of eyes, especially when driving using a periscope.

And what do you do out on the battlefield when something goes wrong with your tank? Fix it yourself. There was no full-time mechanic onboard, very few tools and no spare parts, so it took ingenuity and inventiveness to keep your tank running.

Amazingly, one of the biggest threats to a tank being rendered inoperable was not enemy fire, but rats. The pesky rodents would often get inside and chew on cables and wiring (most of which was exposed in tanks, rather than neatly hidden behind a dashboard as you might have thought), causing all sorts of failures.

With the main roles of the typical tank crew explained, there are just two extra elements to factor in on the chances of a crew surviving the battleground in the two World Wars and heading safely back to their families – training and experience. It has been said that in the Second World War tank driving training ‘was very thorough for new recruits’ in the German Army, yet training new crews ‘continued to be a problem for the Red Army’.

About Tom Hale

Tom Hale
I've recently graduated from university with a degree in history. My time at university largely focused on European History, but I'm an all round history nut and read widely. You could generally find me reading anything from Tacitus' history of Rome to John Rawls' a Theory of Justice. If I'm not reading history, I'll either be reading classic literature such as Wilde or Wordsworth; or poetry - Edgar Allen Poe is a favourite of mine. Outside of reading and learning, you could expect to find me at St Marys stadium watching Southampton or playing 5-a-side football. Other than that my life is arbitrary

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