Wedged between the IRPA-building, the 1914-1918 gallery and the Air department there used to be a little courtyard full of rubble, weeds and rusty bits of military equipment. With the help of a host of volunteers, this woeful sight metamorphosed into a Tank Section of exceptional richness, which opened on 9 May 1980. The collection comprises not only the majority of the armoured vehicles used by the Belgian army from 1935 to the present, but also a large number of foreign tanks including the British Churchill and Centurion, the French EBR-Panhard, the Russian T-34 and the American Sherman. There are more than 250 tanks overall, thirty something of them on display in this section. The other remaining vehicles and a stock of spare parts are stored in the hangars of the Kapellen fort in Antwerp, one of the Museum’s storage facilities. This collection is one of the most important in Europe, representing production from 1917 to the present.
The Caterpillar tractor
The British caterpillar tractor is the forerunner of what was later to become the tank. Very quickly, the vehicle acquired armoured plating to shield the crew against enemy fire. The tracked armoured vehicle, which appeared for the first time on the battlefields during the First World War, was given the code-name ‘tank’ in order to confuse the enemy. However, after most of the countries involved in the war had introduced armoured vehicles onto the battlefield, they nevertheless continued to be called tanks. Its wide caterpillar tracks made it into an all-terrain vehicle able to negotiate the trenches and to cross marshes. The Military Museum is proud to own three of these impressive armoured vehicles dating back to the Great War: the British Mark IV Male, the Whippet and the French Renault FT 17.
The various functions
Originally, tanks were used at the front in order to penetrate enemy lines and tow artillery pieces. The French Renault U.E. on display here was used for transporting supplies of munitions, fuel and food on the battlefield. After the French defeat in June 1940, the Germans captured a large number of these tracked vehicles, which were then converted and used for other purposes, such as defending airfields. The American Sherman M32B1, on the other hand, played quite a different role. As a rescue tank, its job was to evacuate immobilized tanks from the front, to prevent further attacks rendering them completely unusable. Tanks were also used for reconnaissance in enemy territory. For example, our display shows a Locust used primarily as a reconnaissance vehicle for airborne troops. Weighing about 8 tons, this little armoured vehicle could easily be transported by glider, thereby allowing it to cover huge distances in one bound, just like the little creature whose name it bears.
Infantry vehicles, combat vehicles, rescue tanks and reconnaissance vehicles: virtually every type of armoured vehicle that has ever existed is represented in this section.