Whilst The Tank Museum is a museum of objects, we exist to tell the stories of people.
Without their stories and connections to provide context, the artefacts themselves would be almost meaningless.
The veterans of regiments we represent have always played an important part in the life of the Museum and, as a result, a number of them have become a part of “The Tank Museum family”.
Their contribution to our understanding of our collections is invaluable.
Our own David Fletcher is sometimes criticised when his withering assessment of a particular vehicle doesn’t corroborate with the dusty official government report.
What such critics may not realise is that David got much of his information direct from the bloke who drove that tank during that trial… having bumped into him here at the Museum years previously and spending hours discussing it with him.
Veterans also bring a depth to our understanding of events and objects that we, as civilians, would otherwise lack.
Those who have worked at the Museum long enough will recall the honour of meeting many members of that “greatest generation” – those who had little choice but to fight when the nation needed them to between 1939 and 1945.
These ‘citizen soldiers’ put their own lives and ambitions on hold to fight for freedom – something of which successive generations here have no parallel experience.
The perspective these men have gained from all they lived through and experienced provides us with many valuable lessons.
We seek to share as much of this wisdom and humility with our visitors as we can in our exhibitions.
As time marches on, it is sadly inevitable that the number of World War Two veterans among us dwindles.
It’s sobering to realise that even the youngest who went into action on D-Day would now be 96 years old.
Our recently opened World War Two exhibition features video interviews with over 20 tank crew veterans, all taped within the last decade or so.
Today, just a couple of those featured are still with us.
This summer we lost Ken Tout at the age of 98 – a man who was very much part of the “Museum family”.
As a 20-year-old conscript, Ken fought with C Squadron of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, a unit that landed on D-Day and fought through North-West Europe.
Serving with him was another later member of the “Museum family”, Joe Ekins.
Ken was present when Joe fired the shots from his Firefly that knocked out three Tiger tanks – including one commanded by Michael Wittmann. Ken was among those to publicly credit Ekins with the feat in his post war account.
After the war, Ken studied Theology and worked for several charities and The United Nations.
He went on to write well-respected military history books on his experiences of tank warfare, questioning the constant lauding of German Armour and the belittling of the Allied armoured efforts.
His biographical Tank details the life of a tank crew over 24 hours in the August heat of Normandy 1944 and is considered by many to be the classic account of what it was like to be a tank crewman.
At the opening of the Tiger Collection exhibition in 2017, he gave his views on the importance of museums using veterans’ voices to educate future generations.
He said “There are so many things to interest and occupy young people these days that they tend to forget the realities of battle. You have war games and films which are dramatic…But we who participated in the battle need to be saying what it was really like.”
“The tank was your home for long enough. You lived in it, and you fired a gun to save your life. And you saw these terrible things happen when a tank blew up. That stays with you… it was a visible cremation of one of your friends.”
He later wrote on the nature of courage, pointing out that “in the moment of utter crisis, it is often the quiet, modest man, rather than the braggart or bully, who steps up to accept the ultimate challenge of imminent death.”
Though he has now passed away, Ken still speaks directly to our visitors every day from the video introduction to our World War Two: War Stories exhibition.
“…We fought to secure freedom from oppression… This is our story.”