Keith Robinson explores the military museum at the heart of the British Army’s Aldershot home.
In a small corner of the great military complex that is North Camp, along the grand road that is Queens Avenue, lies the Aldershot Military Museum. This is a smallish local museum which, under the auspices of Hampshire County Council, serves both civilian and military interests.
The museum is housed in four single-storey buildings which are themselves part of the military history of the area. The central pair of buildings, one of which houses the museum entrance and the social history, are the only surviving barrack bungalows built in North Camp in the 1890s.
The first building of the museum complex has been named the Boyce Building. This is a 1930s wooden barrack-block that once formed the Regimental Administration Offices at Queen Elizabeth Barrcks, Church Crookham, reconstructed here with the help of a Heritage Lottery grant. Part of the building now, appropriately enough, houses its own reconstruction of a late 1940s admin office.
Samuel Franklin Cody
Once past the entrance and the social history there is a real gem for those of a ‘flighty’ disposition. This is the Cody Gallery, named after the expatriate American Samuel Franklin Cowdery – a cowboy showman who changed his surname to match the more famous ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody. At nearby Farnborough, in 1908, Cody became the first pilot of a powered flight-machine in Britain.
Not only did he pilot the machine, he also designed and built it. From 1904 he worked for the Army, the result of which was his Army Aeroplane No 1, in which he made that historic first flight. The Gallery contains a partial reconstruction of Cody’s workshop at nearby Laffan’s Plain. The woodworking equipment and sowing machine are reminders of the primitive technology of these early flying machines. Cody’s flying helmet and the huge propeller from his ‘Cody Flyer’ are also on display.
The second of the galleries is the John Reed Gallery, named after the brigadier who founded the museum in 1984. Here are reconstructions of soldiers’ barracks from both the 1890s and the 1950s, as well as a room from a 1960s married quarters. A mountain of cases, crates, and trunks serve as a counterpoint to the soldiers’ rooms, hinting at the travel in soldiers’ lives.
A case of small arms, including a Sneider Artillery Carbine, dated 1872, the uniform of a private, dismounted, of the 11th Hussars c. 1910, and various memorabilia can be found in the gallery. One of my favourite things was a searchlight from WWII with its four mini-caterpillar feet. This 90cm Mark 6 1939 searchlight was manufactured by Metropolitan Vickers. Having a carbon arc light with concave mirror, it had a rating of 100,000,000 candle power and a range of around 7 miles.
The gallery is also quite child friendly, with lots of activities such as the training tunnel in the section on army training which is there to crawl through. Even more fun, though, is a Combat Vehicle Reconaissance Tracked (CVRT). This has been partially cut away to allow a child and adult to get in and grab a view through the periscopes. A film-show then allows the passengers to take a trip down Aldershot’s Long Valley test track.
Scimitars, Scorpions, and Saladins
Outside the complex of buildings are two complete CVRTs. One is the Alvis Scimitar FV107 and the other its companion the Alvis FV101 Scorpion. This family of reconnaissance vehicles were designed to replace Alvis’s earlier product, the Saladin, of which there is also an example.
The Scimitar is clad in aluminium armour, has a high weight distribution across its tracks, and its 4.2 litre Jaguar engine gives it a top speed of 55mph. It is armed with a long-barrelled 30mm Rarden cannon capable of defeating light armour. Coming into service around 1972, the museum’s vehicle’s registration number OO SP 98 tells us that it was used for trials and testing (SP = Special Project).
Its relative, the Scorpion, came into service in 1972 and was not decommissioned until 1998. This example spent its early years of service in Hong Kong. The Scorpion was armed with the low-velocity 76mm L23A1 gun, which could fire a variety of ammunition types including high-explosive rounds, and carried either 40 or 42 rounds. It also had a 7.62mm co-axial machine-gun and carried a multi-barrelled smoke-grenade discharger at each side of the turret.
Chieftains and Challengers
Outside the fourth, barn-like building are examples of two British Main Battle Tanks. The Chieftain entered service in 1967, and this particular example served mostly in Germany with the BAOR (the British Army on the Rhine). Its successor, the Challenger Mark I, finally entered service in 1983. The example at North Camp was a prototype vehicle and spent most of its life as a training vehicle.
The fourth gallery, known as the Montgomery Gallery, was built to house the famous field-marshal’s wartime caravans in 1947. It became part of the museum in 1995 and now houses more examples of large military equipment. The first one sees is a Willys ¼ ton Jeep of 1943, which after WWII was used by General Sir Brian Horrocks.
There are also some older pieces in the barn, including a Military Pattern General Service Wagon, c.1898, which featured in the film Oh! What a Lovely War. There is also a nice example of a 1918 18-pdr gun with its original limber. The standard British field gun of WWI, some 9,400 had seen service by the end of the war.
Other vehicles and artillery pieces can be found dotted around the museum buildings and altogether form a fine little collection.