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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
How to drive a tank
By Peter Caddick-Adams
Military historian

Protesters seize a tank in Budapest
All aboard in Budapest
Protesters in Budapest this week seized a World War II-era tank that had been part of an open-air display and drove it 100m down the road. Is it just a matter of switch on and go?

A tank clattered across the cobbles of Budapest this week in a bizarre throwback to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Anti-government protesters hijacked a Soviet-era tank - removed from a museum display - and drove it around before being arrested.

It made me wonder how easy these metal monsters are to drive. You can't just walk up to one, turn an ignition key, and off you go - or can you?

Several surplus tanks now lurk in fields dotted around the Home Counties where those in search of a day's corporate bonding can give them a whirl. Most are ex-British Army Chieftains, but some are T-34s, the type "borrowed" from the exhibition in Budapest.

Top gear

Whereas most tanks have a separate crew hatch for the driver, the T-34 requires me to climb over the wheels and tracks and haul myself up onto the turret top to access the driver's controls. These tanks are quite tall and the 2.7m tests my muscles - most crewmen were 18-year old agile striplings.

It's very loud and I catch pungent lungfuls of its generous exhaust fumes
Slithering inside the turret, I'm thankful of the crewman's padded helmet, as there are lots of sharp switches, radio sets, ammunition racks and the gun on which to injure myself. Once in the driver's seat, I'm cramped, uncomfortable and this part of the tank reeks of oil. Fortunately, I can see my route ahead through the little driver's hatch (in combat I would be locked in, relying on a periscope - no place for a claustrophobe).

As everything is manually operated, the clutch pedal is surprisingly light. I press the start button and feel the foot pedal vibrate as the 500 horsepower engine kick in. I lean forward uncomfortably with my right hand to reach the gear stick (five forward, one reverse) and rev the engine almost to screaming pitch before selecting the gears, then the 32 tons of metal monster lurches forward. I hit my head.

There are two steering sticks, a right and a left, to which the T-34 responds sluggishly. A sharp pull back on the left one and the left brake engages, slewing the beast in that direction. It's surprisingly manoeuvrable, but very loud and I catch pungent lungfuls of its generous exhaust fumes as I pirouette the monster about.

Gas guzzler

Navigation is a problem - I can't see behind or to the sides, that's why there's a commander in the turret telling me where to go over his intercom.

Civilians crowd around a tank in the anti-Communist uprising
The 1956 uprising in Hungary
So, besides the 85mm gun and armour plating, it's more like my car than I expected, but would a real hazard to manoeuvre in traffic.

But I don't know how so many young soldiers managed to cope in such an environment. Being cheap and mass-produced, T-34s were decidedly chilly in winter and stiflingly hot in summer; if the main gun was fired, the tank would lurch with the recoil, then the inside filled up with fumes as the gun breach was opened on reloading.

Anyone could drive a basic tank, especially the T-34, though tank novices may find it stalls easily. No surprise then that tanks have often been hijacked by civilians in uprisings, whether Paris in 1944, Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968.

But in 2006, shouting "fill her up" to the service station attendant would lighten your pocket instantly: a T-34 takes 545 litres of diesel and uses two litres for every kilometre.

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