Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 16, My thatched cottage, Steam Beer & TE Lawrence's Grave

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 16, My thatched cottage, Steam Beer & TE Lawrence's Grave

by Stuart Crawford
article from Monday 24, August, 2020

AFTER TWO YEARS at Staff College I was given my first staff job at the Headquarters of the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps (HQDRAC) in Bovington Camp, Dorset. I had no idea what this organisation did or how it fitted in to the bigger picture, but I was just mightily relieved not to be posted to the Ministry of Defence in London which would have been total anathema to me. So Dorset it was, and no bad thing either.

My official job title in typical MoD-speak gobbledy-gook was SO2 RAC 2a, which meant nothing to me when I got my posting but which transpired to involve representing HQDRAC’s views on future RAC equipment procurement. It was, therefore, more or less exactly what I’d been looking for, and I found myself working in a very relaxed HQ with a nice General in charge and sharing an office with the delightful Robin Goldsmith of the 17/21st Lancers, my favourite cavalry regiment. Both of us were mildly maverick in outlook and so we got on very well.

But first I had to get my accommodation sorted out. The Officers’ Mess at Bovington was a classic example of all that was wrong with 1960s architecture and was (and still is, perhaps?) rather like a tower block in a sink estate. Whilst busy during the week and comfortable enough, the weekends saw it deserted and a soulless and depressing place to be far from home. So I needed to find somewhere else, and fast.

After a brief flirtation with a small flat in the nearby town of Wareham I was lucky enough to be able to rent a thatched cottage in the miniscule village of Moreton, a stone’s throw from my new office. It had three bedrooms but I decided I wanted to live there on my own which suited me down to the ground. Lots of friends came to stay over my two year time there, but I was the only permanent fixture resident wise.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Moreton is that it is the final resting place of T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. He had been killed in motorcycle accident in 1935 whilst stationed with the Royal Tank Corps at Bovington (as a private soldier) and living in the cottage known as Clouds Hill, now run by the NTS. Many a time I visited both his grave (main picture) and cottage, hoping perhaps for some military inspiration. Moreton church also had some lovely engraved glass windows by Whistler, and was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941 when they were trying to hit the camp.

Aside from the tiny Post Office and general store directly opposite my cottage, plus a few other buildings in similar vein, there wasn’t much else in the village to capture the attention, apart from its general rural charm. Just a mile or so down the road, though, lay the Seven Stars pub, which became a frequent and popular place of gathering for like-minded souls like me. Many an evening there passed pleasantly enough over a bottle or two of their renowned “Steam Beer”, which came from a brewery in Newquay if I remember correctly. Of course we never drove home via the deserted country roads thereafter.

My job was really interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. The biggest project by far during my time there was the Chieftain Replacement project; our old tanks had already been up-armoured a couple of years before when we realised – oops – that its armour would no longer keep out the most modern iteration of Soviet tank gun ammunition, as the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 had amply demonstrated. But the old girl was now at the end of the road and we needed something newer and better. I have written elsewhere about how I think the eventual replacement chosen, Challenger 2 (pictured below), was the wrong choice[1], and there’s no need to repeat it all again here.  It’s just a bit galling to note that the current proposed Life Enhancement Programme for Challenger 2 in its turn may include some of the items that we recommended it should have in the first place, some 35 years ago!

The problem seemed to me to be, if you’ll allow me one of those sweeping generalisations of which I am so inordinately fond, that the senior officers making the decisions weren’t nearly half as clued up on technical matters as we Young Turks out of Staff College were, and they were easily impressed and swayed by those they deemed senior and more important than us. At least our General had the decency to call us “his Young Turks” but he still didn’t follow our recommendation on this one. Hey ho. 

There were a myriad of other equipment programmes which crossed our decks, too many for me to remember most of them. I do recall the Bowman tactical communications system (radios to you and me) which we worked on and was due in service in 1988, so we were told. It actually entered service in 2004, hugely delayed and hugely over budget because people couldn’t make their minds up, and accordingly verging on obsolescent when it arrived with the troops. 

Tank heaters were another, minor, project. Chieftain and Challenger1 tanks had no heaters in them and consequently a concomitant part of being a tank soldier was to spend most of your time on the panzers freezing to death. Believe it or not, one of the reasons the procurement of heaters was resisted by the hierarchy was the fear that “they might make the boys go soft”. A better argument was that they might in the dark, and indeed in the light, when the opposition turned their thermal imaging (TI) sights on them, which was probably fair enough. Another flawed argument militated against body armour for tank soldiers (“because they have armour already, stupid”) which sadly had fatal consequences for one RTR commander in Iraq

Occasionally I had to attend meetings at the MoD in London, which called for an early start from the little rail station at Wool in Dorset. Every time I went I thanked the Lord I had never been pinged for a London staff post. The meetings were in general interminably long and seldom reached any firm conclusions, and held in a cloud of cigarette smoke is a grey, scruffy office in a grey, dilapidated block round the back of a railway station. Fun they were not and I couldn’t wait to get back to sleepy Bovington.  I also sometimes accompanied the General in some of his visits to various units of the RAC as they fired on the nearby Lulworth Ranges, with much saluting, crashing of boots, and nervous bonhomie involved. 

Defence budgets were always tight, as they still are nowadays, and we were forever being asked to find savings in existing programmes to help fund others. The usual methodology for this was to spread the payments for various bits of kit over a longer timeframe, which might fix the annual budget figures but usually meant the total expense was greater. Then, counter-intuitively, around the end of the financial year in February/March, a harassed MoD staff officer would phone and ask if there was anything we could think of quickly that we wanted as the budget was underspent! If you didn’t spend your annual budget it might get cut the next year. What a way to run an operation, but I suspect it was ever thus and probably still is. Don’t let Dominic Cummings find out, that’s all I will say.

I have to admit, though, that I really did enjoy my time in Dorset, and I also think the job I did was a useful one. My colleagues and I didn’t always get our points across or our views accepted, but I certainly didn’t think our efforts were in vain. At the end of the day, we did our best to ensure the RAC got the best equipment it could get in straitened financial circumstances. I was able to apply many of the lessons learned there when I returned to a similar job in an operational headquarters during the First Gulf War, but that’s for a different episode.

My two years was up all too quickly, and I looked forward to rejoining the #BARITWE* in my new role as squadron leader. And that’s what I’ll be writing about in the next episode. 

* Best Armoured Regiment In The World Ever

To come in Part 17; back with the Regiment and to Cyprus with the UN.

© Stuart Crawford 2020


[1] https://ukdefencejournal.org.uk/challenger-2-the-wrong-tank-for-the-british-army

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