Really "Heavy Metal".

Driving a Centurion Main Battle Tank.

   (Ver 3)



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The Mk 5 Centurion

It is surprisingly uncommon to read a description of what riding/driving a tank is like that describes the physical rather than military aspects such as the sensations etc. There are a few good books that do and that also describe crewing and combat; such as "Tank Sergeant" (Vietnam) by Ralph Zumbro and "Brazen Chariots" (North Africa) by Major Robert Crisp (a big thank you to Geoff Winnington-Ball owner of the "Maple Leaf Up" website for the gift of a copy of this long out of print gem).
This article is written for those who have never had the experience, so I don't doubt owners and crew of MBTs will probably find it quite boring. For those who haven't had the experience, read on.
I welcome any contributions for this website on this subject.


I have had a standing invitation from Matthew for ages to have a drive of his Centurion and have now had the opportunity to take him up on it; so here are my impressions of the experience.

Matthew's vehicle is one of a latter batch purchased out of Hong Kong by our government. As such, it came along after the Vietnam war and has minor detail differences to the majority of Aussie Cent's for that reason. The Aussie Cent's went through an upgrade process due to their fairly long time in service, but unlike say the Swedish vehicles (different engine and fire control systems etc), they were essentially to latter British specifications.

First impressions of a Centurion are always the same "what a big brute", especially so when you are viewing it inside a shed and downslope from the vehicle, they truly are a Main Battle Tank. At roughly 52 (long) tons they are suited to being either a gate guard or as the ultimate piece for the collector who has the determination and space to keep it in driveable condition. Matthew falls into this latter category. An "entry level" vehicle they most definetly are not. If you are in any doubt of this, have a look at Matthews' article "The McMahon Collection" in Area 1 Section 11 on this site.

First off, before the Cent' could move, was for Matthew to start an LP2 Bren Carrier that was between the Centurion and the shed door.


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After the usual hassles associated with any vehicle that spends most of its time static, Matthew fired it up and invited me to reverse it out of the shed. The inherent and very characteristic "rocking horse" ride of a carrier was apparent the moment I let the clutch out. Reversing it was no problem, but turning whilst reversing was a different story altogether. It was only after we had left Matthew's farm that I realised why I had so much trouble turning the Bren Carrier.
Simply, I wasn't giving it enough throttle, I was trying to nurse it as the motor was still cold, with the result that a gentle turn was unsuccessfull. Whereas I probably should have locked the track, given it a heap of throttle and spun it. It was my first real drive of an LP2, so I will know better next time........

It was then the turn of the Centurion, once fired up and running smoothly Matthew reversed it out of the shed. I had forgotten that a liquid cooled, petrol tank motor is actually quiet. It was a pleasant surprise after my time around radials. A V12 motor is quite smooth to listen to.

Once out of the shed Matthew did a 180 neutral steer turn. An impressive amount of earth was moved in the process and the best way to describe it is that the rear half of the track pushed an 18" high wave of dirt aside.


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The wave of dirt was on the other side so this pic doesn't show it.

It was then time for me to get on board which was easier said than done. The bow plate of a Cent' is quite high and there is not a lot to use as a foot purchase. I was taught very early on to never climb track as the vehicle could roll, especially not to do it from the side. So, I did as I was told and approached the vehicle from the front so the driver could see me and along the vehicles' centre line (ie not in line with the tracks).
It may be safe, but it is damn awkward.
**** I need to stress here that, as with any piece of machinery, there is danger. If you are not riding in the vehicle, get well clear and unless you know the driver can see you, "clear" means where you are not hemmed in and can choose multiple escape routes, stay 4 to 5 vehicle lengths away. Tanks can be surprisingly quiet at times, more so than you can imagine. I have had my Stuart (with someone at the controls) roll down a slope so slight that you wouldn't realise the slope was there and it did it without a sound. No squeaks, no rattles, nothing. This was intentional, but what none of us had expected was for it to do it soundlessly!

Once on and underway, the main impression was the lack of engine noise. What noise there was appeared to come from the engine fans and track squeak (dry pin type). The track squeak was very pronounced with even the slightest steering correction.


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We were then able to bring the 4wd with the fuel in close enough to add 15 gallons to the tank so that we would have enough to be able to have some fun without having to walk back.


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We negotiated some trees and were soon picking up speed. It really comes home to you how hard it must be to fight a tank. Perched up nice and high in the commander's position you have a good view, but in a lightly wooded area such as we were in there could be umpteen hidden opponents. The dust and squeaks from the Cent' would give you away long before you arrived and long before you knew anyone was out there. Better to joy ride!

A trivial point, but it was interesting to see that sheep can just barely outrun a Centurion in 3rd gear.

Whilst underway the turret had been creeping to the right (slight downslope). Matthew pulled up to open a gate, I volunteered but he said he would do it (I found out why later), but first could I wind the turret back to centre so he could get out of the driver's seat. "Oh, okay, where is the turret lock?" He then informed me that Cent's don't have one. You either put the barrel in the travel lock on the engine deck or power up the auxillary motor and hold it that way. There are just some aspects of English engineering that leave me dumbfounded. Why would anyone produce a tank without a turret lock?
Matthew is due to replace his auxillary motor with one straight out of a crate and says that next time we can power the turret. It will be interesting to have a go of a fully powered turret as everything I have experienced so far has been manual or power assisted (you crank, the power helps).

Once we arrived at a large paddock it was my turn for a drive. Matthew was either very trusting or not willing to ride with a novice, because he elected to stand and watch. The drivers' position is a little bit awkward to get into with the seat in the raised position as your knees tend to hit the underside of the hatch rim on the way in. But once in there it is quite roomy. The controls, especially the pedals are all quite large and easy to find in the interior gloom. The steering tillers are mounted each side of the driver leaning forward at roughly 45 and no where near as massive as you expect for the size of the tank compared to other vehicles.

Once Matthew had identified the ignition kill switch for me (just in case) I was ready to have a go. It pays to know above all, how to shut down the engine if something goes wrong - a fuel leak in a petrol engined vehicle, a runaway engine if in a diesel or brake failure or as happened with the T-59 at the Bovington Tank Museum in England, all the control rods fall apart and you can't operate a damn thing. After my experience with Andreas' Kettenkrad and my not being able to switch it off when the fan nut came off I am wary of exotic designs! I had expected to see a magneto switch due to the Meteor engine being a down rated Merlin aeroplane engine. But Matthew said this was a feature only found on the early vehicles. The ignition switch looks for all the world like a 1950s bakelite domestic light switch - not what I would have expected to find if trying to switch off in a hurry.
Much like every other AFV, the switches, guages, warning lights etc are located where ever it suited the designer to put them. Ergonomics and AFV design engineers are incompatible it would seem.

There are several companies who run tank driving "experiences" in England and also (I am told) there is one or 2 in Australia. When I enquired with a couple of these whilst in England the comment I got back was that "the average person tends to struggle with MBTs so we stick to the smaller stuff" - meaning APCs and Saracens, yet they show MBTs in their advertising - hmmmmm. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I got ready to move off.
I had heard horror stories about the clutch on a Centurion and that all Cent' drivers have a large left leg due to the 70 pound pressure required to disengage it. It isn't really that bad for a joy ride. In sustained combat in tight conditions it probably would be very tiring. What I should have done was adjust the seat forward as I had to twist sideways to fully disengage the clutch. You think of these things afterwards...... I hadn't wanted to be fooling around whilst the V-12 drank petrol behind me.
The gear stick is something that anyone who has ever been in a Cent' seems to comment on and it is what leaves the most lasting impression with the average person - it is large and situated between your legs. I suppose everyone is worried about what would happen if the vehicle were to stop suddenly.

So off I went in 2nd gear, as instructed, as 1st gear, as per the English tradition, is for tight maneourvering.

The "horns" (those sticky out bits where the track idlers live) limit close in visibility for tight maneourving, but other wise vision is good. They do however have a downside, this I discovered when I decided to try a few turns. Centurions have some of the same bad habits as Stuarts - they throw dirt and crap (sheep dung) at you. I was very soon covered in dust, dirt and smelt like a sheep. I should have known better and was longing for my goggles and a dust mask. You learn from your mistakes..........
At the time you are aware of the dust, but such is the sensory load with so much going on that it was only once we left that I realised I wasn't seeing all that well. The sunglasses took some cleaning!

I soon found myself starting to relax and driving by habit, that is, trying to steer as in an American vehicle - wrong! With English vehicles you are controlling output to one side when turning, not braking a track to turn, which is what I am used to. So I had to concentrate on pulling just one lever at a time. Pulling 2 in the American fashion does not have a braking/turning result, it just causes the interlock to come into effect and neither lever will operate till you relax pressure on one of them. The radius of the turn can be reduced to a point determined by what gear the tank is in, ie, the higher the gear the larger the turning radius. You can commence a turn but only tighten the turn till you reach the minimum radius allowed by that gear. To turn tighter you must drop down a gear or more. To do a really tight turn you stop and select neutral and then pull the appropriate steering lever whilst powering up. This gives what is known as a "neutral steer turn". Effectively power is supplied to only one track (without the losses characteristic of the American "controlled differential" system) and the vehicle pivots around the other track quite readily. This allows the vehicle to do 180 in twice it's own length and takes surprisingly little power compared to doing a locked track turn in a US vehicle with a controlled diff. There is every opportunity to pull a track off the vehicle whilst doing it if the track hits anything substantial such as a large hidden boulder or tree stump.
If you payed attention to that description, you would have just realised that when in "neutral" gear a Cent' will still respond to steering lever movement. "Neutral" only means that it won't go in a straight line. Essentially, if you don't want it to move, switch the engine off, leave it in gear and put the handbrake on! There is no provision to power the tracks in opposing directions - this is a feature not common in the Centurion's era (it is originally German technology, very complicated and expensive to produce).
Braking is done with a large pedal on the floor much like a truck. The handbrake looks too small for the job.

Having completed one circuit of the paddock without stalling the motor or otherwise embarrasing myself, I returned to the top of the hill, which was when Matthew told me that I had spent most of my time "on the governor" and to take her up through the gears, "get it into top". I wasn't aware that I was doing this as the engine is so far back and so quiet that I couldn't hear it (what a change from a radial Stuart). The tacho wasn't working, but even if it had been (by the way, Matthew would like a Centurion tacho if anyone knows where to get one) I was too busy to be watching it. Besides, in the head up position, the instrument panel is always hard to see in most AFVs and it is something you have to keep reminding yourself to monitor. You can't just glance at it like in a car, you have to half duck inside and wait the second or 2 for your eyes to adjust to the gloom so that you can read the guages - by then you have travelled a further 150 metres or so. The reality is that you look at the guages only when you are stopped or there is nothing even remotely close to you.
My other concern was that I was aware that the Centurion is not an easy vehicle to change gears (very long control rods) and that if you missed a gear on a slope or hill and ended up in neutral, there was an awfully big heavy vehicle to try and stop on brakes alone.

So this time I went up through the gears, still learning the touch needed to engage gears in a gearbox 20' behind me. The ride was reasonably smooth and it was a buzz to have the vehicle travelling at full speed on open ground. It is only when you take a good look at the undulations in the ground that you realise how much a smaller vehicle would actually be pitching over those same bumps. The required driving technique soon made itself apparent again as I found I could not turn as tight as I wanted whilst in 5th gear. Dropping down a gear or 2 solved that problem and set me up to climb the hill back to Matthew. I got the distinct impression I was one gear too high as I was at full throttle but not full revs, but better that than missing the gear half way up and ending up back at the bottom of the hill red faced and in neutral. There was also the nearby pond which I prefered to not test for depth whilst travelling backwards in somebody else's tank......

Matthew was (or appeared to be) content to let me negotiate the tracks and gates back to the shed. The first one being the access gateway from the paddock onto a track between 2 parallel fences. As Matthew had done a neutral steer turn in order to line up with the gateway on the way in I thought it best to do so too rather than to try out 1st gear. The problem being that as the vehicle is so long, you have no way to judge for yourself when your tail is clear of the gateway. This is where your commander or ground guide comes in handy. The neutral steer appeared pretty effortless - confirm neutral selected, clutch out, brake off, power up and pull left tiller and round we went. Easy as that.
On the way back Matthew commented that all 4 gates were a bit hard to work due to his cousin having crunched them all with the Cent', which explains the broken hinges and distorted shapes I noticed on the way out and why he was happy to climb out and work them earlier.
I am pleased to say I did not add to the damage.


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Having just rolled to a stop.

Despite the dry and dusty conditions, there were surprisingly little track marks where we had been. The only really major earthworks being just outside the shed; the results of the neutral turn.

Personally, I was tired, very dirty and quite happy for the experience. I would be wiping small rocks (rather than dust) out of my eyes for the next couple of hours, but hey, that's what it is all about. Tanks are noisy and dirty so it pays to dress accordingly, even better if you remember your goggles!


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You can't see the dirt all over my face, just what has come to rest on my shoulders!

My thanks to Matthew for a very memorable experience and for trusting his pride and joy to such a novice as me.
It has taken me to the age of 41 to get a drive of an MBT after having been in the AFV hobby since the age of 22, very much a case of "I have always wanted to....".
So far I have tried numerous contacts to get Matt that tacho, all to no avail. So please keep an eye out for a Cent' tacho for us?


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