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Backwords: Tanks For All The Memories

Mike Shaw recalls his boyhood tank-building days during World War Two.

The tank battles we had at our house in World War Two never went with a bang.

That was because our home-made toy tanks were not equipped with guns, so it developed into a non-explosive, dodgem-type warfare on the living room table.

Making the tanks was a work of art in itself, using an old cotton reel, a slice of candle, an elastic band, a matchstick and a drawing pin.

The first job was to cut notches in the edge of the reel so that when the contraption was put together it gripped as it moved.

Then we used to make a hole in the slice of candle, about a quarter of an inch thick, and hollowed a slight groove along the top side.

After that we threaded the elastic band through the hole and fixed it in place with the matchstick lying in the groove.

To make the tank complete, the band -- with the candle slice on top -- was passed through the reel and pinned on the bottom with a drawing pin.

And to set the remarkable contraption working all we had to do was wind up the elastic band and put the reel down on the table, with the matchstick touching the surface.

As the elastic unwound, the tank, hopefully, would then move slowly into action across the table as my adversary -- usually one of my brothers -- launched an identical vehicle in its direction.

The absence of weaponry meant that we had to improvise, too, about how the battle was to be won and lost. So we decided that whichever tank was knocked off the table was the loser -- if both survived it was called a draw.

As someone incredibly bad at making things -- and I’m still useless at DIY -- the discovery that I could produce something with my own hands that actually worked had a dramatic impact.

So much so that toy tank-making became almost an obsession with me, until we ran out of empty cotton reels, and my mother put a stop to the production line when she found me winding cotton off an almost full reel.

A little later in life I took to making wooden battleships, cruisers and destroyers which I remember always had small nails linked with black cotton around the edges to simulate the real life ship’s wiring.

Somehow or other I never seemed to manage toy planes, but I do recall buying a seemingly endless supply of those simple balsawood efforts that were sold in cellophane packets for a few pence.

These fragile planes, fired by hooking a piece of elastic underneath the fuselage, were so accident-prone that it was necessary to have a number of them in reserve.

They had a nasty habit of plunging into all manner of inaccessible places, such as house rooftops and high trees, or breaking up when they fell to earth on an unyielding lump of stone.

A similar fate often befell the home-made kites put together by my brothers, using brown paper and pieces of garden cane for the head and bits of newspaper tied on to a length of string for the tail.

In some strange way the wind always seemed either too strong or not strong enough when we walked up the hill on what usually proved to be frustrating kite-flying expeditions.

So, when powerful gusts were sweeping down the valley, the kite simply whipped up into the sky, performed a few incredibly speedy spiralling gyrations and embedded itself in the turf.

And when the weather was in much quieter mood, with barely a breath of wind, we tried in vain to persuade the kite to fly at all as it persisted in flopping miserably to the ground for all the world like a drunken man who couldn’t be bothered to rise.

No, nothing else that we made ever seemed to work as well as those noiseless tanks that kept us occupied for hours on end.

Which reminds me, I must see if there’s an empty cotton reel throwing around somewhere.


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