Wargaming.net donated a rare Australian tank to a military museum in Cairns and we were there

I am not a military or war history buff. I know a number of guys who can wax rhapsodic about certain World War II weapons and vehicles in the same way many of us can enthuse about our favourite pop-culture artifacts, but I’ve never really understood what it was about these machines that captured their imagination. At least, not until Wednesday night.
When Wargaming.net, developer of the hugely popular World of Tanks, invited me to an event they were hosting in Cairns I was intrigued by the offer. According to the release, Wargaming had procured an exceedingly rare tank built in Australia and were donating it to a war museum in the city so that it could be restored and put on display in time for ANZAC Day. This seemed like a pretty cool thing to do and was certainly out of the ordinary as press ops go.

I’d also never been to Cairns, so this trip promised to be full of new experiences.

I say this as someone who was born and raised on Queensland: Cairns is even hotter than you imagine it is. It is full of locals and tourists who are also hot (both figuratively and literally). It is also almost indistinguishable from the Hawaiian islands used in Jurassic Park. No-one told me about the Jurassic Park thing or I would have made an effort to get up here a long time ago. Another fun fact about Cairns? They don’t have birds, they really only have bats. Lots and lots of bats, even during the day.

My concern for this event was that, despite the lovely gesture Wargaming.net was going for, that there would be a self-congratulatory air to the proceedings. I’m happy to report I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Spending even just a few minutes with the devs tells you that these men and women are military superfans, thrilled by the notion of merely getting to spend time around these monstrous machines.

This is goes double for Nicholas Moran, Wargaming.net’s Director of Militaria Relations, a lanky Irish ex-pat now based at the developer’s HQ in San Francisco. His passion for these machines, even as his jetlag began to set in, remained fizzy and crystal clear. “It’s 4am for me right now,” he told me with the kind of confused weariness that accompanies a trans-Pacific flight, ahead of our brief interview at a bit after 9pm. “I’m only here for two days so I haven’t bothered to reset my watch.” The moment we started to chat, however, Moran was a picture of alertness and good humour, the chance to chat more about his favourite subject feeding him energy.

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The tank being donated to Cairns’ Australian Armour & Artillery Museum was an AC1 Cruiser MK1 Sentinel, the only tank to be produced in any quantity here at home during World War II. Only 65 were built by the New South Wales Railroad Company throughout their single year of production in 1942, meaning they were rare even then. They could seat a crew of five and came with a two-pounder tank gun and a pair of .303 Vickers machine guns.

Weighing 28.4 tonnes and moved by three Cadillac V8 engines (“because they couldn’t find a single engine big enough to the job,” said Moran matter-of-factly) to a top speed of about 48km/h, and they were a single-hull tank — a one-piece unit that took a similar French design of three large parts bolted together and simply cast it as a single piece of hardy armour. This strikes me as a typically Australian design decision (“Nah, just put the French one together, we’ll cast it as one bugger-off huge thing and then start crankin’ ‘em out, ay”), but the benefit of doing it this way meant that it was more structurally sound than the French variant and the US soon began adopting this methodology too.

The thing is, they never actually saw any action. Rather than waste further resources, Australia decided to start purchasing tanks that the US were mass-producing instead and so the AC1 Sentinel’s combat life ended as abruptly as it began. When providing a brief history of these machines, though he made it clear that they were obsolete by the time they rolled off the production line, Moran was quick to point out that the AC1 did go on to provide a valuable military service — many were used as training devices when teaching infantry how to drive a tank, how to use them properly in a combat situation. Some were later repainted to look like German tanks and used in Charles Chauvel’s 1944 film The Fighting Rats of Tobruk, based on the real life Seige of Tobruk in Libya during 1941 which saw Australian forces held the city against German invaders for 250 days.

This new Sentinel tank is the second model in the collection at the Australian Armour & Artillery Museum. The other model featured a bit of a lucky dip of parts, outfitted with items from many other tanks. In a bit of serendipity that delighted the Wargaming.net staff, parts of the Sentinel tank already in the collection were identified as actually having come from the newly-recovered model, allowing it to be restored almost in its entirety.

The museum itself is a cavernous warehouse filled with World War II-era military hardware, but it has the distinct feel of being a garage collection that got rather out of hand — an impression corroborated by Moran, who had been talking to the current owner-proprieter that day and had discovered the museum’s humble roots as a private collection.

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What was startling to me was the revelation that you can just buy a tank if you want and, apparently, no-one will stop you. Where the hell do you even start looking to buy a tank, I wonder aloud. It’s not like you can just jump on tanksales.com.au. “Oh yeah, you can own them,” enthuses Moran, his features lighting up again. “You can actually drive them on the road in the UK,” he adds, thoroughly blowing my already overwrought mind. I decide that the lawmakers in charge of road rules must have assumed the idea of privately purchasing and driving a tank to be so outlandish that no-one would ever actually to do it and wastrels have been busily exploiting the loophole ever since.

As he described the various unique aspects of the Sentinel tank, Moran remarked on the ways its unconventional design took things into consideration that other tank designs simply did not, and the value of being able to see tanks like these up close and in person, not just in a game like World of Tanks or through sources like Wikipedia. “People say the Panther tank was the best tank in the war — so they say, it’s arguable,” he says, “It had a good gun, it had good armour, it had a good design — but then you’re actually standing next to it and you think ‘My god, how do you change a wheel on this thing?’”

Moran is the sort of expert in their field whose passion is contagious. He’d been exploring the museum all afternoon and brought up one machine he’d been inspecting earlier. “I was looking at the F3 Mediums over there and I’m looking at the riveting and I realise the rivets on one particular panel are actually screws. And I think ‘why is that?’ Eventually I figure out, it’s for removing the 75mm gun and it goes all the way through the tank and out the back.” He grins enthusiastically, making a ‘duh, of course’ gesture. “It’s these fine details that, even for experts, until you get up close, you don’t appreciate about the tank.”

It’s exactly this sort of attention to detail that has made World of Tanks a hit with military simulation fans. Wargaming’s World of Tanks, and its spin-offs World of Warplanes and World of Warships, feel as close to the real thing as it’s possible to be. This has lead to enthusiasts hoovering up different vehicles as paid DLC for use in the game and to add to their digital garages. It tickles the same parts of the brain that get Elite: Dangerous players to spent hundreds of real world dollars on digital spaceships crafted with a similar level of detail. Indeed, the AC1 Sentinel is currently available in World of Tanks for players to purchase as DLC.

The event itself ran reasonably smoothly, aside from some issues with the projector during a very nice short documentary on the acquisition, restoration and transport of the AC1. Wargaming representatives drifted around the museum all evening, chatting to journos and staff alike, as we inspected the machinery on display. Eventually the museum staff caved to pressure and let us climb on and sit in an especially large tank near the entrance — an opportunity every journo in attendance leapt at with a level of glee usually reserved for eight-year-olds getting a toy on a shopping trip.

As the event began to wind down, I took the opportunity to explore the museum’s quieter corners on my own, coming across a truly imposing black American monstrosity in one corner that loomed out of the dimmer light and genuinely triggered a fight-or-flight response in me. I understood then that Moran was right — getting to see these machines up close and personal definitely puts their power and scale into perspective.

World of Tanks is free-to-play on Windows PC, PS4, Xbox One and Xbox 360.