The Tank Museum, Dorset, UK

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And the Lord was with Judah, and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountains: but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had Chariots of Iron.

— Judges 1 v19

The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset is the world's oldest and largest museum of tanks and armoured warfare. Founded in 1923 on the advice of Nobel Prize Winner Rudyard Kipling, it is located at Bovington, the home of the tank since 1916. Not only having the finest collection of tanks in the world, with over 300 in its collection, it often operates tank running days culminating in the annual three-day Tankfest. The museum is a registered charity and a teaching museum, seeking to preserve both vehicles and the memories and experiences associated with the people serving with them.

Home of the Tank

The area of Bovington was bought by the War Office in 1899 and during the early years of the Great War was used as a camp for troops on the way to France. While the very first tank prototypes were built outside Thetford in Norfolk, it was felt that Bovington was a more isolated area and therefore tanks better able to be developed in complete secrecy. Bovington also had a greater variety of terrain to test tanks on and access to a main railway line linked to the major southern ports, so in 1916 tank development moved to Bovington. The tank workshops opened at Bovington and British tank development has remained at Bovington ever since.

In 1917 the Machine Gun Corps, Heavy Section became the Tank Corps, becoming the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. During the war, tanks that could not be repaired at the war's Western Front were transported back to Bovington for repair there, or to allow any salvageable parts to be reused. After the Great War Bovington became the Tank Driving and Maintenance School, and several Great War tanks were left hanging around before being scrapped. In 1923 Private Shaw was at Bovington as a recruit; he would later find fame as 'Lawrence of Arabia'.

Next to the museum is still the Bovington Camp military base. This was the Armoured Fighting Vehicles School in 1937, teaching driving and maintenance, with nearby Lulworth the gunnery centre, later renamed the Royal Armoured Corps Centre in 1947 and now as the Armour Centre home to the Royal Armoured Corps, Royal Wessex Yeomanry, Royal Tank Regiment and is used by the Household Cavalry Regiment as well as Royal Navy and Royal Marines Armoured Support Group.

History of the Museum

Rudyard Kipling was visiting a friend stationed at Bovington in 1923 when he saw the sorry, abandoned state that the tanks were left in. He disappointedly remarked to the Colonel Commandant, General Sir Hugh Elles, that they should be preserved in a museum and they needed care and attention. Controversial Tank Corps Major-General JFC Fuller1 had started informally collecting tanks used in the Great War and was happy to use Kipling's comments and influence to keep the collection going. In 1924 a few of them were allowed to share part of an open-sided shed with the Driving and Maintenance Wing of the Royal Tank Corps Central Schools, while most tanks were left outside to slowly rust on the heath. This included 'Mother', the prototype rhomboid tank whose design entered production as the Mark I. The museum was intended purely for Army instruction and was not open to the public, though souvenirs and relics began to be collected in 1925 in an equipment store. King George V visited the museum in 1928.

Second World War

The museum was closed during the Second World War. Many old tanks were scrapped, tragically including Mother, as part of the nation's scrap metal drive. A number of the exhibits were saved from being scrapped by being used for local defence, either used by the Home Guard or simply placed in strategic areas as roadblocks or anti-invasion obstacles. Only eight of the original 26 tanks in the collection survived2. The neighbouring army base continued to develop and test tanks, including prototypes and trialling captured enemy tanks to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, not only to make British tanks more effective but also teach how to best neutralise enemy tanks that might be encountered. These tanks, after evaluation was finished, or older tanks taken out of service, have since been added to the museum's collection as well as countless documents and photographs.


After the war's end in 1945 the buildings of the Driving and Maintenance School were again used to house the tank museum's collection of 50 vehicles, with half the museum's current Second World War hangar being used by the collection. The museum has been open to the public since 1947, in which year 2,500 people visited. In 1951 the School of Tank Technology moved from Chertsey to Bovington and the school's collection of predominantly Second World War tanks was donated to the museum. The museum then gained possession of the entire hanger the following year.

Additional buildings have been added since, starting with the Alan Jolly Hall in 1970, which now houses the Interwar Years collection. This was followed by and a new entry block in 1983. In 1986 a new hall was opened to contain the museum's collection of Great War tanks. This was the George Forty Hall, which turned out nice again. In 1987 a new hall to house much of the collection that continued to be kept outside was built, initially called the Post War Hall, later the British Steel Hall after its sponsor and now the Exhibition Hall. By the mid-1990s the Cold War Hall had been built at the back of the old hangar. In 2003 when the Museum of Army Transport, Beverley closed, its tanks were donated to the museum3.

After the years of expansion, the original buildings needed improvement. Between 2002 and 2009 a £12-million plan to modernise and expand the museum were undertaken. This was undertaken in three phases, the first of which was to convert a neighbouring early 19th Century Armour School to provide greater space for the museum's increasing archive and library. This was followed by Phase 2 in which they re-roofed the First World War and British Steel display halls to improve thermal performance. This was followed by the £10-million third phase which included the new entrance, Tank Story hall, newer visitor support facilities and a banked arena area. Queen Elizabeth II opened the redeveloped tank museum on 11th June 2009.

The museum now has about 300 tanks and over 100,000 other catalogued items4, and is the biggest collection of its kind in the world. While the museum was originally used to teach tank crews and developers as part of the Tank School located next door, it has transformed into becoming one of the country's largest indoor visitor attractions.

Museum Tour

A visit to the Tank Museum follows an anti-clockwise route. The displays have been presented with love and care and are suitable for all ages. There are plenty of fun hands-on exhibits for children and families to enjoy, proper information boards5 that tell readers about the displays, replica tanks that can be climbed in, tunnels and bunkers for children to explore should they wish, lots of dressing up, a restaurant, café, ice-cream stands in the summer, a tank-shaped soft play centre for younger children, tank-shaped playground outside, a book shop and a surprisingly massive shop that sells almost everything under the sun6. The museum is split into eight halls in the main museum building.

The Trench Experience

A visit to the museum begins in the Trench Experience hall, which recreates the experience of the Great War. Visitors enter a recruitment office during the Great War, where they encounter various other early recruits to drive tanks. After a train journey, visitors approach the Western Front, seeing supplies, the wounded being stretchered away from the front, houses gradually turning to rubble before being thrust into the sight, sounds and smell of a Great War trench while silhouettes of tanks drive overhead. Trench periscopes that can be looked through show genuine footage of tanks used in the Great War as visitors pass British dugouts, through to German trenches and finally encountering a Mark I tank (1916) in a simulation of the Battle of the Somme. This is the only surviving Mark I and is the world's oldest surviving combat tank.

Tank Men

After emerging from the trenches visitors emerge to learn the lives and experiences of eight British soldiers of the First World War among many of the museum's Great War tanks.

Warhorse to Horsepower

This hall tells the story of war horses during the Great War, where only 6% of horses survived. It also chronicles how the British Army moved away from the cavalry and horses to mechanisation, starting with the oldest vehicle in the museum, a 1910 Hornsby Tractor, the first tracked vehicle that served in the British army designed to tow artillery pieces and was donated to the museum in 1958.

A number of interwar year tanks and armoured vehicles are also on display.

World War Two: War Stories

The second-largest museum hall and the jewel in the crown of the museum are the Second World War tanks on display, with potentially up to 80 different types of tank on display. Visitors leave the home comforts of a 1940s house and period shop to rush to the air raid shelter as war is declared, before seeing tanks from most of the combative nations of the Second World War; Britain, Germany, the USSR, Canada, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Romania and the United States.

The collection includes rare tanks, such as the second prototype Tiger II. The hall also includes the Royal Armoured Corps Memorial Room and its Books of Remembrance commemorating the sacrifice of 13,000 Royal Armoured Corps soldiers who have died in service since the Corps was founded in 1939.

Cold War

The museum contains a collection of British vehicles from the Cold and Gulf next to the café, indoor picnic space and book shop next to the indoor tank-shaped soft play centre.

Battlegroup Afghanistan

Next to the Cold War hall is a display showing recent vehicles from Britain's expedition force to Afghanistan.

Exhibition Hall

The Exhibition Hall has a frequently-changing exhibition which shows many of the museum's exhibits in a new light. For instance previous exhibits were Tank Factory, designed to show how tanks were designed and manufactured, emphasising the people on each step of that journey. Fury: The Exhibition showed how the museum was involved in making the 2014 film Fury, loaning out its tanks to star in the film alongside Brad Pitt who played a Sherman tank commander battling his way across Europe during the Second World War. In the film the crew encounter the museum's Tiger tank, the only running Tiger tank in the world. Fury was the first film made since They Were Not Divided (1950) in which a Tiger tank was played by a genuine Tiger, as both films used the museum's Tiger 131 tank7.

In 2023 to celebrate the museum's centenary an exhibition titled Tanks for the Memories showcased the tank's wider impact on society, including film, toys, model-making and comics as well as cultural events such as Tiananmen Square.

This hall also includes the World of Tanks area where visitors can try that popular video game for free.

Tank Story

The largest individual hall tells the story of the tank's development from the very first tank, 1915's Little Willie8 which is proudly displayed, to Challenger II, Britain's current main battle tank that is seeing service at time of writing in Ukraine. This hall shows many iconic tanks including several more from the Great War, from different nations used during the Second World War, the Cold War and beyond.

Vehicle Conservation Centre

The museum also has a separate building known as the Vehicle Conservation Centre, which is capable of storing an additional 200 tanks in a protected environment. These tanks may be used to change which vehicles are on display at any one time or may be part of the museum's running collection and shown driving around the arena rather than accessible in the museum hall. The Vehicle Conservation Centre is not normally open to the public, but occasionally visitors may be allowed to the viewing gallery. The conservation centre floor is open on very special occasions such as Tankfest, but it is a vehicle store, not an exhibition space.

Additionally the museum has workshops to assist in the repair of vehicles. The museum acknowledges that by showing tanks moving in the arena these historic vehicles inevitably means that they will require repair, but that the only way for a visitor to get a true experience and sensation of the sights, smells and feel of a tank shaking the ground is for tanks to be on the move.


A replica Mark IV tank

Bovington is located about halfway between Bournemouth and Weymouth in the heart of Dorset's Hardy country, 125 miles southwest of London, and about a mile's walk or bike ride from Wool Station, with hourly trains to and from London and Southampton. It is located just off National Cycle Route 2 near Monkey World.

The museum is perfectly accessible, being located on one level9, with long, sweeping ramps down to the Tank Story Hall and up to its restaurant, but there are three sets of lifts. The museum often holds Quiet Mornings where sounds and interactive displays are turned off to reduce sensory input to benefit children with autism, BSL10 tours, as well as hosting events aimed at assisting veterans and others with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they provide support and additional material for visitors with special educational needs and disabilities and host wellbeing events to support Mental Health charities.

The museum often includes arena displays where you can watch tanks and other historic vehicles drive around the arena. Arena displays take place during school holidays, on the popular Tiger Days when the Tiger and other Second World War vehicles are run, but most notably culminating in the annual Tankfest. Other events take place throughout the year and tracked vehicle rides around the arena are also offered throughout the year.

Even if you can't get to Bovington you can still enjoy Bovington in many ways. With over 500,000 subscribers and more than 100 million views on its YouTube channel, it is one of the world's most popular museums online with a larger online audience than the Louvre in France or the Met in New York. This allows the vehicles and stories in the collection to be preserved and shared with the rest of the world. The museum has also partnered with multi-platform computer game World of Tanks, which has turned many of the tanks in its collection into playable vehicles. This has benefitted the museum as it has increased interest in many of the more unusual vehicles in its collection, particularly the prototype TOG II.

For over 50 years the museum has collaborated with other major tank museums around the world to share vehicles to allow the vehicles on display to be frequently changed with exhibits normally based in other countries and allow the museum's collection to be seen worldwide.

The museum is big, and only by rushing round are you likely to see everything in one day11. Consequently the museum gives visitors an annual pass with each ticket purchased.

1A friend of Hitler, Fuller held strong Fascist views and his tank doctrine would heavily influence Nazi Germany's Blitzkrieg tactics.2Little Willie was used to guard an airfield in Gloucestershire while Independent guarded the road to Wool.3Although its tank engines went to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.4The museum's collection of documents, photographs and books are not open to the general public but may be visited by prior appointment.5Unlike other museums that have 'interactive' touch-screen boards that never work and only one person can read at a time, the museum thankfully has proper written signs large enough for numerous people to read.6Tank Museum Monopoly doesn't have a monopoly on tank museum themed board-game classics, with a Tank Museum Cluedo (also called Clue in America) additionally available. I suspect it was Colonel Mustard with a tank that did it... Funnily enough Cluedo is a board game developed in Britain during the Blitz to help pass the time during those long air-raid filled nights.7For example, Tiger tanks were portrayed by T-34s in Kelly's Heroes (1970), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and M-46 Patton in Battle of the Bulge (1965).8Disparagingly named after Kaiser Wilhelm and/or his son, German Crown Prince Wilhelm.9With tanks weighing up to 80 tons each, they need solid ground underneath them. A short stretch of replica trench would be difficult to traverse in a wheelchair.10British Sign Language.11This can be taken to extremes as this is the World's first museum to host an indoor marathon, where participants run 26.6 miles in over 50 laps.

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