I have met a lot of people that have never been in a Centurion and the general feeling that driving one in peace time was a pretty safe occupation. As there was not much that could stop them, and lets face it, you were surrounded by plenty of armour plate.
The fact is that more Armoured personal were killed on Puckapunyal range than in Vietnam in action.
Below is a report from Phil Hastings, who went for a drive in a Centurion without the correct training and shows what can happen. I will let him explain the incident.
The day the earth moved
(Or how not to drive a centurion Tank)
By: Phill Hastings
By now news of my recent hair raising experience in a Centurion Tank has spread
far and wide around the club network. So I thought it was time to let the full story come out.
First a little background though. For those of you who don’t know me, I‘m a retired detective living on a farm at Carabost in the southwest slopes of NSW. Being an ex soldier. I took the opportunity to fulfil a life long dream when I used my retirement package to buy an ex Australian Mk 5/1 Centurion Main Battle Tank. The type I had been used to carting around the country when serving with the tank transporter unit some years before.
Owing to the high cost of fuel (Centurions use in the vicinity of 5 gallons of petrol per mile) and also to the fact that I have bee, it took the best part of a year to change the 24 spark plugs pf the Rolls Royce Meteor engine and get the old girl running "right". By the time I was ready to hit the paddocks it was 10:15 pm on Friday Feb 20th. This was fortunate, as the old girl tends to blow a lot of super heated exhaust air out the back and with conditions on the farm so dry, a night run was advisable. The Centurion is fitted with one large 24-volt headlamp and the route around the paddocks is well known to me. My experience behind the controls at this time amounted to no more than about 5 miles of walking the tank around the farm learning how to handle the 50 tons of monster as I went.
On this occasion I was feeling fairly confident as I walked the tank out of the house paddock, over some fallen timber, and down a slope and across the creek. The steering brakes were none too good so this required a huge amount of exertion to control the tank through a number of narrow gateways and tight turns before climbing the large hill on the far bank. On reaching the summit, there is a fantastic view down over the surrounding farmlands and on a clear starry night such as this was, you could be forgiven for being distracted from your earthly activities.
Then the drama began. Centurions are fitted with a Merrit-Brown five speed crash transmission, which is designed to allow a tank to power turn in Neutral for manoeuvring. I did not know that it was meant for level ground only. Having pivoted some 90 degrees to head across the slope I had just climbed, the tank suddenly pitched nose forward down hill. At this early stage I had no idea of the danger and casu ally attempted to engage first then second gear without any success as the tank began to roll. Centurions are fitted with a manual, lever and rod operated brakes, and remember that I t is 50 plus tons and I have limited use of my legs from the knees down…………. As the tank began gathering speed I felt sensations I never expected out of a vehicle with a rated top speed of 21 m.p.h. No amount of force on the steering or main brakes seemed to help, and I can remember thinking I should try to jump clear.
At that exact moment a gum tree, three feet wide across the trunk, lunged into view in the headlight. What an amazing scene as the trunk splintered into a myriad of tiny match stick’s and the trunk rocketed eight feet vertically. I could actually see the trunk disintegrate before me and feel the debris on my face as the trunk rocketed vertically before crashing down on the top of the turret far above me with a sickening crash. This all seemed to happen in slow motion and I remember feeling nothing as shock had set in by this time.
After tearing the stump of the poor old ghost gum out by the roots, the tank actually picked up more speed down the slope, heading towards the creek. I remembered thinking that this really would be a fatal experience, as the tank would surely tumble over the creek bank and drown me in the deep muddy water.
The next thing I saw was the steel bridge hurtling into view and I was on a definite collision course with it – side on. I had just enough time to assume the "crash position" before the tank leapt over the lip of the bank, became physically airborne for some distance and skipped across the top of the bridge. I then lost all sense of sight, sound and feeling as the tank flipped over onto the driver’s side, threw the right track and ploughed into the opposite bank of the creek.
I was now in a state of deep shock as the tank teetered on its side and I actually thought I was upside down and waited for the inevitable cold water. The time was now 10.30 pm. It was to be another ten minutes until the dust settled and I gained enough sense to scramble out over the lower side of the tank fearful that it would roll on top of me as I went. I stood on the bank and looked back at my pride and joy in the torch light, all covered in dirt and looking totally wrecked. I was so relieved to be alive that I promptly passed out and fell into a thistle bush.
When I finally stumbled back to the farmhouse I looked in near disbelief as I found only one small scratch on my arm (and a few thistle thorns). For the next six evenings it was possible to hear the tank contracting and settling in its grave in the creek bank. What had I done? You will have to read part two to find out, but till then a quote:
: To change down It was necessary to double declutch, but should the driver fail to engage the gear from neutral, the results could be dire! The vehicle might career down the hill out of control and no amount of brake application would stop it as the brake linings burnt out in short order. This idiosyncrasy was known to Centurion drivers the world over and each nation has its own pithy catch phrase such as "doing an angels" and "Mexican overdrive":
( From the book "Centurion" by Simon Dunstan. Now out of print. )
THE DAY THE EARTH MOVED AGAIN
( How to rescue a centurion Tank ) By Phil:
Following hot on the heels of Part 1 of this gripping drama comes the dramatic climax, well maybe not but read on. You may find it interesting.
Old Armageddon, as the tank is named, had to suffer the indignity of lying on her side in a ditch in the creek bed for several days and nights whilst I made arrangements to have her carcase hauled back onto dry land. Enter my friend Tim Vibert and his trusty Vietnam Veteran Centurion Armoured Recovery Vehicle. In preparation for the big day I had built a sand bag levy in the creek at the rear of the tank as well as dug out about a foot of earth from under the left side of the tank to help level the hull before winching began.
The big day dawned a hot humid heat wave so I put a bushfire tanker in position in case of fire and requested the locals to stay away whilst we worked. After arrival on a semi-trailer Tim positioned the ARV and ably assisted by Vince Ryan and others we began rigging the winch gear. The ARV is capable of a thirty - ton straight pull, and we thought it would be sufficient for the job. In the event the steel recovery hawser parted with a frightening series of whip cracks and Armageddon had hardly moved.
The Centurion ARV winch is powered by an eight cylinder Rolls Royce designed petrol engine coupled to an electric generator, which in turn powers the winch. With this in mind it’s surprising we had to rig the recovery gear with a pulley block attached to the front of my tank. This effectively gained a mechanical advantage of sixty tons, which slowly and surely hauled the stricken vehicle free. As soon as the tank was on hard level ground I climbed back into the drivers seat and nervously settled back behind the controls. With relative ease the engine was brought back to life very much to our combined relief. We moved the tank very carefully back and forth, as the thrown track slowly pulled itself back into position under the road-wheels. Then with a roar of the mighty Meteor engine ( and a cloud of white smoke ) I victoriously drove the recently rescued Armageddon away from the crash site and back home up the hill.
After several more testing hours in the baking sun I can assure you that no one was as relieved that day, that we were able to recover the old girl without injury to the crew or vehicle. Being able to simply drive the tank away under its own steam without major repair was a bonus I dared not hope to receive until this time. Once back in the relative safety of the workshop, it was time to open all the hatches and armoured covers and thoroughly assess the damage. To my intense delight the engine sustained a burst radiator hose and lost air cleaner wing nuts, otherwise it was perfectly free of damage. The right hand rear track guards and tool bins were heavily stoved in by the impact with the tree. A lot of panel beating was required to put the thick sheet metal back to nearly original. The front right track guard was stoved into the right track, and had to be hauled clear with a high lift jack. Three track links and pins were damaged beyond repair and will require replacement when the parts are available. (Not to mention labour ).
Three right road-wheels were buckled one of which had to be immediately replaced and several road-wheels had the rubber shredded, when the track was run back on. On the turret one of the two exterior six barrel smoke dischargers was ripped completely off the turret side and shattered into several pieces, and a sheet metal cover for it I never found and this puzzles me to this day. Inside the turret ( which was traversed to the rear at the time of the accident ) my tool roll containing an original Centurion toolkit became jammed near the top of the breech ring of the 20 pound main gun. This happened because on impact the barrel continued into full recoil and swallowed the tool kit, which had been on top. At the same time the breechblock tore out the heavy steel shield, which is designed to protect the crew commanders left knee and the gunners left arm. A few other loose items of kit inside the tank flew around and I found about a dozen missing nuts and bolts on the turret floor. As for the driver, I sustained nothing more than a hell of a scare and a small cut on my arm.
Finally, as was ably demonstrated at the recent open day here at the farm, the tank has been fully restored and repainted to the point where no obvious signs of the accident remain. Apart from a little moisture in the fuel the old girl goes as good as ever.