In August of 1953, a British-built Centurion tank drove through the brutal desert terrain of South Australia, its destination a parking spot a few hundred yards from an atomic bomb test. That was just the beginning of this tank's amazing, and perhaps tragic, operational life.
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The Centurion tank was developed by the British at the very end of World War II by redesigning the Comet light tank. The Centurion was larger, heavier, had sloped armor (and more of it), a more powerful gun, and had a more robust suspension system. It was Britain's main battle tank through the postwar and Cold War period, seeing useful service into the 1990s.
But we're not talking about the excellent service record of the Centurion tank. We're talking about the astonishing service record of one particular Centurion tank, serial number 169041. This tank was a Centurion Mk 3, first developed in 1948 and equipped with an automated gun stabilization system. 169041 was built in 1951 and sold to Australia in 1952, where it spent some time training tank crews in Puckapunyal, Victoria.
In 1953, a new set of orders came in: the tank was to be transferred to Woomera Test Range to participate in Operation Totem atomic testing. It wasn't uncommon for outdated, worn-out military hardware to be placed near atomic tests to measure the effects, but Centurion 169041 was top-of-line, cutting edge military hardware with less than 500 miles on the odometer. Still, it was slated for the test at Emu Field with every expectation it would be destroyed.
Simply getting the tank to the test site was an epic adventure. First the tank traveled by train, then was loaded onto a trailer whose weight rating exactly matched the tonnage of the fully loaded tank. As you can see in the photos, the trailer strained under the weight. In fact, Woomera Test Range was so remote at the time that the last few hundred miles were essentially made overland, and the tank had to be unloaded periodically to tow the trailer and truck across particularly rough stretches, then reloaded before continuing on. For the final 170 miles, the trailer was abandoned entirely, and the Centurion was driven straight to the test site under its own power. The government would later decide that Emu Field was too remote for nuclear tests.
At the site, 169041 was loaded with ammunition, sensors, and a mannequin crew. It was positioned about 500 yards from the epicenter. Try to picture 500 yards – for most of us our reference point is a football field. It was five times a football field away from an atomic bomb blast. That's a long way if you're throwing a football. Not so long if you're staring down an atomic bomb.
On October 15th, 1953, the Centurion was started up (both the main engine and aux generator), all its systems were activated, and the hatches were closed. The human crew members retreated to a safe distance, and the Totem 1 bomb was set off, with a yield of nine kilotons. This is a relatively low-yield atomic bomb, as such things go; the Hiroshima bomb yielded 13 to 18 kt (a little uncontrolled fission goes a long way).
What happened to Centurion 169041? It rolled backward five feet. The side plates that covered the treads were torn off (tank crews often removed these in the field as they became jammed with mud). Some plating and compartments on the outside of the tank were bent and battered, and anything small and light, like antennas, were blown completely off. Some canvas coverings burned away altogether, and all the hatches were blown open. Anything facing the blast was literally sandblasted, which ruined the optics. It was determined that the shockwave would certainly have killed the crew. The engines had shut down, but only because they'd run out of gas.
Three days later the crew fired the tank up and drove it back to Woomera. There's an obvious question you're probably wondering about here, and I'll get to that in a moment. The tank pulled two trailers part of the way, but the engine finally threw a rod. Centurion 169041 ground to a halt. A trailer woefully insufficient for carrying a tank dragged it the rest of the way to Woomera with several blown tires along the way. Only at that point was the tank decontaminated.
This means that the crew, who had endured a grueling trip through the desert in some of the least comfortable vehicles ever made, then spent two months in one of the most remote places possible, hopped into a freshly radioactive tank and drove it several hundred miles. They hadn't been supplied with protective suits of any kind, and no one ever expressed any worry about the tank until they got back to base, where officials asked that it be parked far away. Before it was shipped back to Puckapunyal, it was tested and found not to be severely contaminated. To the benefit of the tank crew (whose fate I've not been able to determine), the thick Centurion armor seems to have kept out most of the radioactive energy from the blast.
With a new engine installed, the Centurion served for several years as a trainer and tow vehicle. After several upgrades, it eventually became a Centurion Mk 5. In 1968, Australia sent a squadron of Centurions to Vietnam. Centurion 169041, as part of the 1st Armoured Regiment, served in Vietnam as the troop corporal's tank. This was no ceremonial position; in 1969 the tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during combat, injuring most of the crew. Most of them were able to stay on duty, and the 169041 kept on tankin'.
Eventually, 169041 was shipped back to Australia. It spent some time in storage, underwent several maintenance overhauls and rebuilds, and lived out its days with the 1st Armoured Regiment participating in parades. It reportedly still stands guard with the 1st Armoured Regiment at Robertson Barracks, Northern Territory.
There's a potentially tragic postscript, unfortunately. It's all well and good that the tank survived so many remarkable encounters, but the men who crewed it were probably not so lucky. Certainly the crew out at Emu Field in 1953 had to have suffered some ill effects in the immediate aftermath of the test. In a 1990 article in the Geelong Advertiser, a veteran reports that 12 of the 16 soldiers who'd worked on the tank (mostly stripping it for parts) had died of cancer, and that he himself had cancer. It's difficult to trace individual cases of cancer to a specific cause, and the claims are unverifiable as far as how many of those veterans died and from what. This report also conflicts with the tank's history, which suggests it was decontaminated and tested at least twice and found fit for service.
I'm honestly not sure what to think at this point. I want the narrative of doughty Centurion 169041, the Atomic Tank, to have a happy ending. That it was decontaminated and rebuilt so many times it was perfectly safe. That its long service record, even as our knowledge of the effects of radiation grew over the decades, suggests it was safe.
But radiation is nothing to mess around with. I don't want this to be the story of a tank that may have been more lethal to its own crews than to enemy soldiers. But I probably wouldn't volunteer for duty inside it.
Cecil, Mike. "Atomic Tank: The Unique History of Centurion 169041."
Gregson, Km. "A lethal Maralinga left-over." Geelong Advertiser, August 1990.
UK National Archives. "Centurion tank No 169041: extracts from report, vehicle status after test, retention and movement." 1953.