The house we occupied was at the corner of a roadway leading North into the bush. Across the road on the opposite side was the residence of my inseparable friend, Mike. For the two of us, 7 or 8 years old, every activity took on the drama of an ‘adventure’. Who was the instigator didn’t matter, the ‘adventure’ was important; and this was the ‘Run of the tank’. The tank had come from my house. It was a galvanised iron water tank, serving a number of houses and had been replaced. It had lain at the edge of the garden for some time and had served us as a hideaway, as a fort and any number of other guises, but on this day it became a tank, not a water tank but an army vehicle of destruction.
In the First World War my father had not been a conscientious objector exactly, because he had voluntarily joined the army with his friends from the Surrey Walking Club, rather he wished to be categorised as a on-combatant because he objected to killing; with the result he had been enrolled as a stretcher bearer. Ironically, if it was at all possible, it was an even more hazardous category than the infantry to which he was attached. He had been wounded at least twice and severely gassed and in consequence he abhorred war and never allowed me to play with soldiers nor as a soldier; indeed one Christmas my Grandmothe sent me a box of soldiers and these were confiscated as soon as I opened them, and I never played with them at all until I returned to England. Because the bungalows were generally used only for relatively short tours of duty, when one moved in one might find a small accumulation of other peoples goods, things they had no room for when travelling or were just left. We found a trunk left by someone who had served from subaltern to major at least, in a number of regiments. There were buttons, shoulder badges, regimental names in brass, cap badges and other insignia in mint condition and by the handful. My mother and I never told my father, it was our secret and while I never played with them then, I fondled them and dreamed. When I returned to England I had enough to outfit several of my pals and made my own army, using drainpipes as howitzers and stones for ammunition. We, all officers, were dressed to kill, in every sense of the phrase.
While I was in Africa there was no hint of rebellion in my readiness to play at soldiers, it would have taken a more mature mind to have done so. It was just that playing soldiers offered more excitement and breadth for imagination, hence the ‘tank’. The tank was circular and shallow, but with a fair diameter. The bottom was sealed, in the top was a manhole which had lost its lid; this had given ingress when it had served its many other functions. Firstly Mike and I raised the tank on edge, then, one at a time, we climbed through the hatch and were able to stand, side by side in the dim interior. The tank had been constructed of long sheets of corrugated steel so our feet were precariously supported along the corrugations. We started to walk up the inside of the tank, steadying ourselves against the sides and one another. The tank began to roll and with confidence it rolled ever faster. We were totally unaware of where we were going until a stone got in the way of one edge and the whole thing collapsed on its side. Unhurt we climbed out and started over again, the idea was marvellous – just a few snags to be ironed out. After several abortive attempts, it dawned on us to roll it to the road outside where the system took on an entirely new aspect and from then on it was a breeze.
We could not steer and we could not see, but we were totally confident it would travel in a straight line, seeing no problems we concentrated on rolling as fast as our legs could climb the side like two blind gerbils in a rotating cage. At some point we must have been aware we had left the track and were ploughing through the tall grasses of the veldt, because I still vaguely remember the sense of elation when we felt the grasses being rolled flat like a real tank.. Finally it fell on its side, fortunately the right side up, but when we climbed out of the steel oven, heated by the afternoon sun, we found we were out of sight of civilisation, surrounded by the bush, apparently miles from anywhere. I was convinced we had travelled miles, but two small boys working in that heat could not have gone far. My mother was made aware of the escapade only years later.