Making Tracks

Near Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire

"Fire."

In the training session my voice sounded forced, and almost theatrical. Now, with the hatches down, it's clipped, flat, no louder than it needs to be.

It's a hit. While the loader charges our air cannon and unscrews the breech, we lurch to my left, rolling rather than bouncing over the waves of mud. At 17 tonnes, the FV432 is too heavy to bounce.

The noise abruptly stops. Peering through a narrow periscope, with the turret rotated 90 degrees from the forward movement of the tank, I'm disoriented. Tim's got the breech closed: "Ready to fire!"

I start cranking the turret around to the right, looking for the other tank. It moves slowly, and I'm getting hot in my flame-retardant suit. The commander, sitting behind the driver at the front of the tank, yells "No firing backwards!", so instead I line up on the marker. I can't see him, but with the engine idling, at least I can hear him.

The other tank appears, its turret panning to aim directly at us. Even with the bright-orange tip - we're in England, after all - it's distinctly menacing. A four-centimetre paintball round pings off our hull.

"Fire."

The paintball is swept by the wind, well to the left of the enemy. I see it and correct, but our commander only sees that I've now got the turret pointed far to the right of our target.

"Left, left!"

If I aim left we'll miss, but it sounds like an order to me. Our instructor's a lovely guy, but he used to do this with much larger bullets, and he's not to be messed with. Tricky.

I swing the turret to the left. Our second shot curves around the front of the tank, and we're on the move again.

That's the last shot at this position, and our driver takes us onwards. I'd done a couple of laps of the course myself, before the battle, so I know how hard he's working. Strapped into a claustrophobic space at the very front of the tank, engine on his left and highly-flammable brakes directly in front of his feet, he can see even less than I can. In a previous game, somebody hit a sheep.

One more exchange of fire, and we're rolling back to the start point to compare scores. There are metre-deep ruts between here and there, but Brian handles them the same way I did. That is, I peered through the "letterbox" to try to pick a line through them, before realising "I'm in a tank. I don't have to pick a line."

We park and bail out into the rain, pausing to admire the sign on the back hatch of our tank: "In the interests of our neighbours, please leave the premises quietly".

I'm too exhausted to do anything else.

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