This might just be the most British thing imaginable, even compared to a bulldog in a Union Jack sweater, mated with a pile of PAL-format Monty Python VHS tapes while force-feeding it a pureéd Sinclair Spectrum mixed with Heinz baked beans. This raw, uncut Britishness I’m talking about is the fact that every British tank made since WWII has on-board equipment specifically designed to make tea.
I suppose this is a reasonably well-known fact, though it was news to me when I learned about it recently, so I’m going to assume I can’t be the only one who was in the dark about this amazing detail and do my best to let all you wonderful readers know, too.
You’d think the horrors and limitations of wartime life would have quelled the need for a nice cup of tea for soldiers, but, apparently, the British are not about to give up the one worthwhile aspect of civilization just because of some inconvenient trivia like a global war.
The downside of this intense commitment to tea came to a head during WWII, specifically the Battle of Normandy in June of 1944. Less than a week after the invasion of Normandy, the British 22nd Armored Brigade was ordered to break through the German line and head for the city of Caen.
About 18 miles away from the city, at a location known as Point 213, the armored brigade stopped to let the officers hold a meeting in a house near the village of Villers-Bocage, and the crews of the tanks of the brigade left their tanks to brew tea in kettles outside.
Unfortunately for the British, who had so far seen no enemies, a German Tiger tank commanded by Michael Wittmann was only around 600 feet away, along with four other Tiger tanks.
Realizing the incredible opportunity, Wittmann essentially just drove his tank down the row of parked tanks, their crews all outside making tea or taking leaks or whatever, and destroyed tank after tank, eventually destroying 14 tanks within 15 minutes.
As you can imagine, this was a pretty hard lesson for the Brits, and follow-up research found, in a 1946 study, that 37 percent of armored regiment casualties happened while crewpeople were outside of their tanks.
Clearly, it’s safer to be inside the tank than outside during wars, but that’s a lot to ask. Tanks are cramped and uncomfortable, and, as the British proved in Villers-Bocage, they’d take all kinds of risks for a nice cuppa.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution: let the crews enjoy tea while still safely inside their tanks, snug behind heavy armor and ready to leap into action when needed. To do this, though, you need to be able to actually make tea inside a tank.
Enter the Boiling Vessel.
Basically, a boiling vessel (BV) is just an electric device that heats water. You epicureans out there may realize that hot water is a key ingredient in tea, so you can see the benefit here.
The first BVs were installed in the Centurion tank, developed right at the end of WWII but not actually seeing real service until after the war.
The BV’s cubical design allowed it to use the limited space available in a tank as efficiently as possible, and in addition to making tea, the BV could also heat rations to make food more agreeable as well. Any little comfort I’m sure is very appreciated when you’re stuck for hours or days inside a tank.
It seems the original location of the BV was in the turret, and I think this is it, as seen in this cutaway tank at a British tank museum:
I could be wrong, but I think that’s it. If so, I guess the person in the turret would have to pass the cups of hot water down to his crewmates in the lower part of the tank?
Every British tank since the Centurion has had a BV installed, and other countries have sometimes followed suit, though none as consistently as the British.
You can buy new BVs right from their maker, it seems, in case you’d like to upgrade your old Land Rover with a really nifty accessory. It looks like these run at 24 volts, so you may want to grab an extra alternator as well.