The ‘Fury’ of War Tanks

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

The new Hollywood movie, FURY, focuses on tanks, their role, and tank crews in World War II. This 2-hour 14-minute film opens in theaters on Friday, 17 Oct. 2014. It stars Brad Pitt, a sure audience draw, playing the somewhat complex leader of the five-man crew of the FURY, a Sherman tank. If you go to this movie, watch Logan Lerman as Normal Ellison. He almost steals the show.

The movie starts in April 1945, near the end of the European part of World War II. VE (Victory in Europe) day is celebrated here as May 8, 1945. It’s spring, and everything is mud, mud, mud. American troops are in Germany by this time, and the famous Battle of the Bulge ended a few months earlier. German troops are now defending their homeland ferociously.

FURY, a Sherman tank.

FURY, a Sherman tank.

The main character of this movie truly is FURY, at least for me, and really did steal the show when I watched. The tank used in the filming was real, supplied by the Tank Museum in Bovington, England, a late-war Sherman with a 76mm gun. That’s the big gun on the turret. The inside shots were done in a specially created set that could open up in several directions for the different shots. The entire set was mounted on a gimbal that could move it for the inside shots where the tank was in motion. If you think that the inside of that tank looks really crowded, you should know that it was made 10% larger than the real thing.

Before discussing tanks in more detail, I should warn potential movie goers that this is a very violent movie with lots of grisly scenes, very grisly, and plenty of profane language in nearly every scene. Interestingly, there is no explicit sex.

For those who don’t mind the above, this is truly a riveting and tense movie. There’s little let up in the tension that begins with the first scene. I found it difficult to turn away from the screen even when the most horrific scenes took place. The characters are interesting but, except for Pitt (playing Wardaddy) and Lerman, they’re not plumbed deeply. Even Wardaddy, who says, “It’s my home” about the tank, never has this aspect explained, except implicitly. We are left to wonder if this attachment came about over time or from a single incident. We also are given no clue as to how he became fluent in German.

One more “character” in the movie is the entire FURY tank crew of five. The examination of the development of this team and its personality helps to make up for not looking more deeply into the individual characters because it’s the team and the tank that count in the end.

My favorite quote, again from Wardaddy, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent,” sums up the movie. Get ready for a Hollywood ride.

Back to the tanks — we’re still using those old machines today. The first were used in World War I a century ago and were rather primitive. They were little more than mobile armored weapons and personnel protectors to move troops across the no-man’s land between trenches while withstanding the machine gun fire and easily trampling the extensive barbed wire fences for the following ground troops. The WWII tanks were much more powerful and versatile and formed the mainstay of many land operations. In the movie, we see quite a few German officers at the front on horseback. This contrast of horse and tank may be intended to suggest that tanks will soon go the way of the horse.

David 'Sting' Rae, center, with the crew on set.

David ‘Sting’ Rae, center, with the crew on set.

To have a better idea of what the past and present role of the tank is in warfare and what the future may bring, I interviewed David “Sting” Rae, a technical consultant for the movie. Mr. Rae sees a continuing role for tanks in the military. According to Mr. Rae, “The US Marines reinvented the role of the tank in Fallujah during the Iraq conflict where it proved almost decisive in breaking the will of the insurgents and allowing the infantry to take and hold ground.” 

His background qualifies him to make such statements. He served in the British Army for 22 years, including in an armored reconnaissance regiment, and deploying for four tours of Bosnia, one tour in Iraq, and three tours of Afghanistan. He reached the rank of Warrant Officer Class and was appointed as Regimental Sergeant Major.

Mr. Rae explains that tanks continually evolve in a sort of arms race within an arms race. These mobile platforms continually improve their armor while the weaponry develops to pierce that armor. And so the race evolves.

He explains the WWII tank: “With regard to the technology of WWII tanks, they may have been mass produced, but they were well thought-out machines.” In particular, the communication capabilities were crucial for success in battle. He says that the tank crew “could give each other orders over an intercom system, while speaking on the radio to other tanks and units, while firing the main gun on the move onto targets hundreds of yards away, 360 degrees, utilizing a powered traverse system, a stabilized gun and at speed.” Contrast that with WWI when tanks communicated with one another by semaphore (waving flags) and with HQ by carrier pigeon.

In WWII, as you’ll see, tanks usually missed with their first 76 mm shot and then corrected for the error. They hit their targets on the second or third try, making survival in a one-on-one battle a matter of both skill and chance. Mr. Rae tells us that modern tank weapons use laser ranging and advanced stabilization to ensure a hit on the first try.

Mr. Rae has lots more fascinating information to provide, and if anyone shows an interest, I may provide some in the comments to this article.

How can all of this information about tanks make teaching science more engaging? As I see it, the list is endless, as long as the concept of mobile armored weaponry is interesting. These days, we hear a great deal about “boots on the ground.” Taking Mr. Rae’s comments at face value, those boots must be accompanied by the equivalent of tanks to succeed. You might say that we must put boots and tracks on the ground to take and hold territory.

Modern tanks are so electronically sophisticated today and connected to the so-called “digital battlefield” that you could theoretically run them remotely or even partially autonomously with target objectives uploaded periodically. When I presented this idea to Mr. Rae, he demurred, “Tanks provide a punch with a human interface, which a drone with a hellfire missile can’t at present, nor an automated attack vehicle. It is ever more paramount to get it right all the time where civilians are in the battle space…. A human being in a tank or armored vehicle is still required, in my view, to allow for real time intelligence, real time command and control. And what a robot or automated vehicle cannot sniff out nor assimilate is the atmospherics of any given environment.”

How does modern armor, such as the British Dorchester layered system, stop modern armor-piercing munitions? How do such munitions work? Tanks must be able to fire weapons while in motion over uneven ground. How do stabilization systems allow accurate targeting in such situations? How does laser ranging provide three-dimensional target parameters?

The above are a few of the questions you can ask in a class to involve students in the science of tanks. You can also view a tank as a robotics challenge, like those in the annual FIRST competitions. Modern tanks are heavily robotic already. Design and build a device that can drive and then launch an object to a target. In a simpler challenge, build a catapult that hits a specified target by adjusting the angle and energy of launch given the distance and altitude of the target. You can make it easier by making the altitude equal to that of the launch device.

You may think this last challenge is too simple. Just do some trivial Newton’s law calculations. If you try it, you’ll find that you’ll miss. Figuring out how to adjust your calculations to hit your target is a very interesting exercise. I had this experience myself when coaching a Physics Olympiad team many years ago. The challenge was slightly different because it involved marking a spot on the floor that a marble would hit when started at a certain distance up a ramp and then allowed to run off of a table. The distance was given at the time of the event without the adviser present. Every other team used Newton. We adjusted Newton. Our team was the only one to hit the target exactly.

Enjoy the movie! Enjoy the science and technology! Use the science and technology in your classes.

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