The beast snorted, slewed sideways. It paused for a moment, dipped its head, then took the slope at the charge, a storm of dust spiralling from its tracks. Its roar filled the field as it topped out, then died to a rumble as it lurched forward over the ploughed earth. A cloud of chaff rose from the stubble of the harvest, whipped into our eyes with the wind of our passage. The horizon danced. Sunlight and hot air mingled with the tumult of our progress.
Sprawled on a blanket atop the beast, I held on to a convenient spike and pulled the trailing edge of the headcloth tight across my face.
It weighs nearly 50 tons when fully loaded, carries more than a ton of fuel and almost a ton of ordnance. Scaly with armour round its bulbous head and shoulders, swollen with the racks of fuel tanks, bristling with guns and aerials and stippled with smoke grenades, the most obvious analogy is a modern dinosaur, a crouching T Rex that mangles the earth it passes over. These are seriously impressive machines. Those tons of metal are driven by a V- ** engine that generates close to 1000 HP with the turbo-charger, enabling the tank to take 30 degree gradients uphill and travel at up to 60 kmph on a paved surface. 50 tons at 60 kmph. Although braking distance is short on a tracked vehicle, think of the momentum.
Yet when I saw the row of garages waiting in the sun, the snout of a barrel poking out of each archway, I was most forcefully reminded of the stables in Mussoorie. Mounts eager for a morning gallop. Not for nothing are the old cavalry ranks still current in the Armoured Corp – enlisted men are still sawars and the JCOs are rissaldars. They have a similar relation with their machines, too. The young Major who took me around said that the same men are assigned to the same tanks throughout their time in the regiment. They had to abandon a couple of tanks recently – stuck in mud while fording a river during a field exercise – and the crews moped for weeks. The fresh-faced Lieutenant with us obviously loved his tank, too. On a couple of occasions when the Major was trying to get a gadget to work, the youngster could barely keep from showing his impatience, like a teen who can’t understand why his parents’ generation can’t handle a patch for the computer.
(I’ve been asked not to mention any details of the unit or the particular make of the tank. Security concerns. For the same reasons, no photographs.)
A tank regiment doesn’t have companies, they have squadrons of 12 to 14 tanks, backed by a HQ squadron that handles all the rest during active ops – supply, reconnaissance, repairs, the works. Every man in HQ squadron, the cooks, the clerks, the technicians, they’re all fighting men, only they don’t fight from tanks. They have some A-vehicles of their own, armoured personnel carriers that can carry a section of force apart from the 3-man crew, but a significant difference is that they carry carbines and SLRs. Tank crew carry only pistols. Simple reason – there’s no space inside a tank to stash a carbine, let alone swing it.
Space. Who would have thought that the innards of such a huge beast could be so cramped? When I managed to clamber down into the gunner’s seat I could barely turn around to look at the magazine behind me. The equipment is interesting – night vision scope, aiming screen, the actual gun controls like a submarine periscope – but any incautious movement brought me into contact with hard sharp surfaces. I tried to imagine the belly of the beast during desert ops. Outside temperature 50 Celsius, inside closer to 55. Noise level above 100 decibels, plus the report of the gun. Bouncing like dice in a shaker. And through it all, acquire target, select ammo, load, track and bear, range in, centre, fire. Rinse and repeat. While the tank commander next to you handles his radio, a machine-gun and directs the driver. Who sits in a separate compartment out front in the hull of the vehicle (commander and gunner in the turret). And this could go on for hours. 72 hours, says the Major. Three friggin’ DAYS in there. Whew. And I thought the definition of hell was an old jute mill on a night in June!
After the tour, the ride. My bald top was first encased in a headset, then came the swish part - getting to wear the black headdress. That thing is so uber-cool, even an old fat man looks kind of dude-ish in it. It isn’t swagger, though. Both headset and bandanna are essential to keep out the noise and dust. (Wonder what it was like 60-odd years ago, outside Alamein and Tobruk?) I offered to stand behind, but the Major smiled and firmly waved me up. I was placed atop the turret, a blanket under me for padding against the sharp edges of the body armour.
The giant started up with a snarling roar. As it moved forward over the cobbles, I still had no inkling of what was to come. Then we wheeled out of the garages and … out of focus! A lurch, a change of gear, a roar, a pivot. Thrown one way and then the other, holding on for dear life, I understood why standing behind would have been a Very Bad Idea. Down a muddy slope, up again onto an embankment, the barrel tracking left to stay clear of the hedges. I looked fearfully at the ditch beside our path and hoped the driver was competent. A fall in there would be bad enough without 40-odd tons of tank following me down to nestle lovingly between my shoulder-blades.
Despite the roar, once we were on the track our progress was almost peaceful. With the height and the occasional pitch and sway, it was like being in an elephant’s howdah. Babul branches whipped across us, a terrified buffalo calf ran mooing to its mother, the sun glinted off a pond. Then we went off-road, into the exercise area, and again the world fractured into a series of jerky frames. The Major, kind soul, offered me the chance to drive. I firmly declined. An 8-speed gearbox and 2 steering levers could be interesting, but not when a million dollars’ worth of machine is involved.
Back in the stables, I clambered down (stirred, not shaken), untied the headdress and whipped the thick layer of dust off my jeans. A bird trilled in the sudden silence after the clamour. More experiences lay ahead – trying out the gun simulator, seeing the various mechanical systems in tubular (stripped-down) versions, three sequences of shooting practice (9 mm. pistols, which I’m normally wary of, but by the 3rd round I had a very nice grouping, yay!), checking out the maintenance vehicle – but for me the high point was that headlong rush through the countryside astride the roaring snarling pitching behemoth.
But I’m glad I never have to work within the belly of the beast.