T34 Tank, London
I think most people would agree that a great deal of nonsense is spoken in public houses. Combining the power of speech with the consumption of alcohol is normally an effective barrier to sensible conversation. The more you drink the greater your propensity to hear and spout total nonsense. Yet it was whilst propping up a bar in Soho that I was first told about a Soviet T34 tank parked up on waste ground in Bermondsey, just a stones throw from the Old Kent Road. Thinking that my companion was a little too well oiled from the Belgian import he was drinking my initial reaction was a furrowed brow and a disbelieving arch of the eyebrows. An armour plated piece of the Red Army dumped in South London? My internal urban myth alarm sounded loudly. I speculated as to who had put it there, Del Boy perhaps? The whole story sounded far too much like a plotline from an episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ to have any chance of being true. My drinking buddy gamely assured me that his tale was genuine, but when he told me that I would find the tank on ‘Mandela Way’, I assumed that only a right ‘plonker’ would believe such an unlikely story.
I’m not sure what I expected when I turned up on Mandela Way a few days later. Perhaps a man in a sheep skin coat, puffing on a cigar selling tickets to see the largest piece of Cold War memorabilia in SE1? Unlikely, as anyone touting for tourist trade in this part of town would face a tough job. Tower Bridge may only be a twenty minute walk away, but by the time you reach the incessant buzz of traffic on the Old Kent Road, the manicured visitor delights of central London have surrendered to the much more earthy charms on offer in the ‘Sarf’. A triangular piece of scrub ground deep in the heart of western capitalism is certainly an odd resting place for a machine which once sought to champion a socialist utopia. With a row of humble Victorian terraced houses to the north and the bleak prefabricated expanse of a trading estate to the east, the tank sits on a decidedly incongruous corner of the capital. Indeed the comrades who put this particular T34 together must have thought that the only way its caterpillar tracks would ever grace the streets of London would be during a victory parade. In actual fact it was to be the combination of a film company, British eccentricity and a planning dispute which succeeded where Marxist Leninist dogma failed.
When movie crews descended on Battersea Power station in the mid 90s to film an updated version of Richard III they needed some serious firepower. The swords and horses of Shakespeare’s time were to be replaced with more destructive modern weapons. Tanks were needed and one of the vehicles delivered was an ageing T34 tank recently imported from a rapidly decommissioning Russian army in Czechoslovakia. Unlike the make believe action of the film set, this particular tank had seen real service during the Prague spring of 1968 when Soviet troops rolled into the Czech capital to crush the revolting students. After the film, the T34 went to a scrap metal dealer from whom in 1995 it was bought by property developer Russell Gray as a gift for his seven year old son. Even fully deactivated a 35 tonne tank does seem a rather excessive present for one so young and it would seem that Mr Gray had an ulterior motive in mind. Soon after the purchase the T34 was installed on land owned by him at the corner of Pages Walk and Mandela Way, a plot on which he had recently lost a planning battle with Southwark Council. According to one (possibly apocryphal) story Mr Gray had by then secured permission to place a ‘tank’ on the land, although the council thought he meant one of the ‘septic’ variety. Whether there is any truth in that wonderful tale, it is evident the authorities are powerless to prevent the storage of vehicles on the land as the tank has remained in the same spot for the last thirteen years, with, if local rumour is to be believed, its gun barrel deliberately aimed toward the council offices.
Today the only battle facing the Tank seems to be against the nettles and litter which surround it. The site is somewhat dishevelled and the vehicle’s armour is painted in a strange swirling psychedelic camouflage, dotted with graffiti. The tank was first customised back in 2002 when American artist painted it a daring shade of pink in a stunt reminiscent of the one carried in Prague eleven years previously. On that occasion the T34 targeted was part of a monument honouring the Soviet tank crews of WWII and the antics of the art students led by David Cerny caused a serious diplomatic incident with Moscow. Whereas the Russians treat the tank as a mechanical hero, its technical superiority over the invading Panzers proved vital in repelling the German invaders during WWII, so the Czechs only see a machine which helped suppress their political dissent in 1968. Back in Bermondsey Russell Gray christened his T34 ‘Stompie’, in memory of Stompie Moeketsi, a young man killed in 1989 at the hands of Winnie Mandela’s murderous Soweto township gang. Given that the tank sits on Mandela Way the nickname is a reminder that sometimes even the best intentioned public gestures can possess an ambivalent political resonance. For this reason alone it’s hard to neatly label ‘Stompie’s’ story. Part Cold War museum piece, part symbol of a planning dispute, part urban joke, part movie extra, part birthday present. Hopefully this enigmatic mass of gently rusting welded metal will go on avoiding the breakers yard for many years to come. Viva the Tank!
How to get there
The Old Kent Road is well serviced by a legion of buses. Go to Transport for London's Journey Planner and plan your route.
The Old Kent Road is packed with a multitude of exotic and scruffy, places to eat and drink. If you want to find some peace seek out the rather lovely Victoria pub on Pages Walk.