Day 9 Part 1 - Aberdeen Proving Ground  
   
    It's times like this you really appreciate a 17mm lens. Soviet SU-100 Tank Destroyer 1944.    
Minolta X-570 with 17mm f/4 MC W.Rokkor Film: Fuji Superia Reala
 

Sunday morning dawned with bright sunshine, and the temperature was warm. It was obviously going to be a glorious day. So on a bright sunny day what better way is there to spend it than going to see a mile of tanks?

Yes, you did read that correctly. Aberdeen Proving Ground outside Washington DC is the home to the US Army Ordnance Museum, which in turn prides itself on it's "Mile of Tanks", a display of armoured fighting vehicles from the First World War to the current day. Sarah and Ian were aware of the museum, and knowing David and I were (like many men) fascinated by tanks, we all jumped into the car and made the trek to Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Proving Ground is the US Army's oldest proving ground, and was established on October 20, 1917, six months after the USA entered the First World War. It was established to provide a facility where military hardware and ordnance could be tested in close proximity to the nation's industrial and shipping centres. It occupies more than 72,500 acres in Harford County, Maryland.

The first step in getting to the US Army Ordnance Museum is getting past the guards on the gate. As it is located on an active military base it is necessary to take full identification with you to the base, and sign in with the guards. Given we were all foreigners, that meant providing passports and getting some close scrutiny, but we were then admitted.

Driving into the base you do indeed pass a mile of tanks (not side by side as the name would imply) but spread out somewhat. However, upon reaching the museum there is about two acres of space literally covered with armoured vehicles - more than enough to satisfy the interests of any military history fan.

The caterpillar track was first invented by Richard Edgeworth in 1770, and in the Crimean war a number of steam powered tractors using caterpillar tracks proved its usefulness when they operated successfully despite the muddy terrain. However the development of what we would call a tank today did not occur until the invention of the internal combustion engine. On 15th September 1916, the first true tanks were used in battle, by the British at the Battle of the Somme. While not particularly successful on that day, the nature of war had changed forever.

 
   
   

A British Mark IV "Female" tank, 1917. The "Male" designated tank mounted two machine guns and two six pound guns, while the female was armed with four machine guns.

   
 

Minolta X-570 with 50mm f/1.2 MD Rokkor-X Film: Fuji Superia Reala

   
 

The British Mark IV tank weighed 28 tons and was powered by a 105hp 6 cylinder Daimler engine. With a crew of eight, it had armour of 12-16mm in depth, and a maximum speed of 4 mph. The rhomboid design was introduced to enable the tank to bridge the trenches that were prevalent on the Western Front.

It had its finest day in November 1917, in an attack towards Cambrai. In this battle a mass assault of 476 tanks gave a foretaste of what the new weapon was capable of, punching a hole 9.7 km wide and 8 km deep into the German lines.

 
 
 
 

A Soviet T-34/76 1941 Model, before the introduction of the solid cast turret.

 
 

Minolta X-570 with 50mm f/1.2MD Rokkor-X Film: Fuji Superia Reala

 
 

The T-34 was the most influential tank design of World War 2. When first introduced into combat in the summer of 1941, it represented a revolutionary leap forward in tank design. Its firepower, armour protection and mobility were superior to that of any other medium tank of the period.

Its small turret restricted its crew to four, with the result that the commander also doubled as the gun aimer. It weighed 28 tons, had armour up to 60mm in thickness, and was equipped with a 76.2mm main gun, and two 7.62mm machine guns. With a 12 cylinder 500hp diesel motor, it could attain speeds of up to 53 kph (32 mph).

The T-34 remained the most powerful tank on the Eastern Front until the introduction in 1942 of the German Tiger tank, a heavy tank with an 88mm gun.

 
 
 
 

The German Panzerkampfwagen V "Panther" - 1943.

 
 

Minolta X-570 with 35mm f/1.8 MD W.Rokkor-X Film: Fuji Superia Reala

 
 

In 1943 the German army introduced the Panzerkampfwagen V, commonly known as the Panther. Probably the finest tank design of the Second World War, it paid homage to the Soviet T-34 with its sloped armour, but was a significantly more powerful tank, with a higher velocity 75mm gun, and thicker armour(initially 80mm but 120mm on later models).

Weighing 45 tons it was powered by a 700hp 12 cylinder engine, and was capable of a top speed of 28 mph.

 
 
 
 

The German "Jagdtiger" tank destroyer, introduced in late 1944.

 
 
Minolta X-570 with 35mm f/1.8 MD W.Rokkor-X Film: Fuji Superia Reala
 
 
 
 
David and Ian basking in the reflected glory of the magnificent Jagdtiger.
 
 

Minolta X-570 with 24mm f/2.8 VFC MC W.Rokkor Film: Fuji Superia Reala

 
 

The Jagdtiger tank destroyer was based upon the King Tiger body, and mounted the most powerful anti-tank gun used in combat during the Second World War, a 128mm Pak 44 L/55 gun. This weapon had a range of over 22 km, and was effective at much greater ranges than any allied vehicle. In the Summer of 1945, the US Army tested a captured Jagdtiger, and found that it was able to penetrate the 100mm frontal armor plate of an American M26 Pershing battle tank at 2100 meters. At a range of 1000 metres, the gun could penetrate 167mm of armour.

The Jagdtiger weighed 70.6 tons, and had a top speed of 38 kmh (24 mph). Its frontal armour was up to 250mm thick, making it the most heavily armoured fighting vehicle of the war.

 
 

 
 

The Leopold, nicknamed "Anzio Annie" by US troops.

 
 

Minolta X-570 with 24mm f/2.8 VFC MC W.Rokkor Film: Fuji Superia Reala

 
 

This giant railway gun was used by the German Army against Allied troops attempting to break out of the Anzio beachhead in 1944. Except when firing, the gun was hidden in a railway tunnel, and simply rolled out when it was to be used. It weighs 230 tons, has a 70 foot long barrel with a 280mm caliber and fired a 550 pound shell approximately 38 miles.

After the Allied break-out from the Anzio beachhead, the Leopold was moved to just outside Rome, where it was spiked by the German defenders to prevent it being used after capture. It is certainly a very impressive display at the Museum.

 
 
 
 
The prototype of America's Main Battle Tank, the M1 Abrams.
 
 
Minolta X-570 with 35mm f/1.8 MD W.Rokkor-X. Film: Fuji Superia Reala
 
 

Introduced in 1980, the M1 Abrams is America's current Main Battle Tank, albeit in its upgraded M1A1 and M1A2 designs. Originally fitted with a 105mm gun, it has since been increased to a 120mm smooth bore cannon, and it has day/night fire on the move capability which is provided by a laser range finder, thermal imaging night sight, optical day sight, and a digital ballistic computer.

The M1 prototype version seen above has a crew of 4, and is powered by a gas turbine engine generating 1500 hp capable of accelerating the 60 ton tank to 45 mph. It was made by Chrysler in 1978, and was purchased by the museum in 1986.

The above displays are just a very small part of what can be seen at the US Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen. Unfortunately we attended on a Sunday and the Museum building was closed, so we missed out on the chance to see the small-arms collection, which I understand is very extensive. However, in the grounds around the building were dozens of tanks, missiles, artillery pieces, and shells and bombs. It is well worth a visit.

Unfortunately, the Museum displays are not as good as they could be. The storage of these vehicles outside in the open with no maintenance has already reduced most of these irreplaceable relics into rusted blocks of metal, and those remaining face a similar fate. Some of the vehicles had cutaways to show the interior that were not protected from the elements, resulting in the interiors becoming nothing but a jumble of rusted parts.

 
 
 
 
An example of the damage being wrought on these valuble historical pieces.
 
 
Minolta X-570 with 50mm f/1.2 MD Rokkor-X. Film: Fuji Superia Reala
 
 

Another needed improvement is signage on all of the vehicles and displays. The original signs have since faded into illegibility, so that most visitors would have no idea of what it was they were actually seeing. Thankfully, between David, Ian and me we had a not insignificant pool of knowledge about many of the vehicles, and accordingly we were able to get a lot from the visit.

I understand that the museum has a plan to eventually house all of the displays in a purpose built facility on the Aberdeen site, and I look forward to that day. It is just a real pity that in the interim, so much has been lost.

 
 
 
 
Minolta X-570 with 50mm f/1.2 MD Rokkor-X. Film: Fuji Superia Reala
 
 

After visiting the Museum, we headed back to Ian and Sarah's house. I wanted to photograph Washington DC in the afternoon and evening, so I got them to drop me in the city, before heading home. The prospect of photographing some of the amazing buildings and monuments of Washington DC at night was very exciting.

 
 
 
 
Next: Washington DC at Night
 
 
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