There is a common idea that British tanks are equipped with facilities for the sole purpose of making a hot cup of tea. However, while British vehicles are fitted with a water-heating device, it is in fact not a dedicated tea making facility.
It is no secret that British troops drink a considerable amount of tea. Images and videos of British troops throughout history often depict them with mugs on their gear, or sitting down for a warm drink.
However, the “understated, upper class British chap and his tea” gags have inadvertently caused some misconceptions about an important aspect of armored warfare – keeping troops happy, healthy, fed and hydrated within the confines of a tank.
This is a problem militaries have continued to face for a century. Britain’s attempt at tackling this was not by fitting a tea pot and stove, as some may suggest. Instead, they use what is known as a boiling vessel, which is designed to heat rations, and not specifically make tea.
What’s more, Britain is not unique in its use of a boiling vessel in its vehicles; other nations fit similar, or identical devices too.
Before they had purpose built boiling vessels, British tankers used gas stoves or improvised burners and sometimes even the hot exhausts of their vehicles for heat.
Troops need hot water for many things, such as heating food, washing themselves, their clothes, their equipment and for hot drinks.
While these methods certainly worked, they all required leaving the vehicle. During the Second World War studies showed that tankers had a much higher chance of dying while outside their vehicles, with an alarming portion of casualties occurring during this time.
These issues were true for crews of soft-skinned vehicles too, as simply stopping to eat was dangerous as they stayed in one area for longer than desired.
This is where a large part of the myths arise; such as the idea that British troops regularly drink tea while actively engaging in combat, or that British troops stop only to drink tea. In many cases, drinking tea happens alongside other activities during down time, not battle, such as eating, resting and hydrating.
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And as servicemembers will know, a vast amount of time in the military is spent waiting, so these activities will naturally take place.
Tiger tank commander Michael Wittmann famously attacked paused British troops at the Battle of Villers-Bocage shortly after D-Day. This story is often used to support the idea that British troops would foolishly die in pursuit of tea, however in reality the troops had progressed far into the French country side, were waiting for other units to catch up and had been ordered to halt.
Taking this opportunity to hydrate, eat and rest is not a surprising action in these circumstances for any military force.
As rest and warm food and drink is good for soldiers’ health and morale, Britain didn’t want to eliminate this entirely. Instead, they added provisions for heating water inside its vehicles. This was accomplished with the boiling vessel, a unit designed to heat water for rations and other wartime tasks.
Previously the open flames of a gas stove prevented them from being installed inside, but the boiling vessel is a self-contained unit that heats its contents electronically.
This allowed crews to eat, drink and wash from inside their tanks, greatly reducing the chances of being injured or killed from snipers, ambushes or artillery strikes while outside their vehicle.
The first tank to receive this from the factory was the Centurion, which entered service just after the Second World War.
The threat of fighting in nuclear fallout during the Cold War further cemented the boiling vessel’s importance. Tankers would have been required to remain in their tanks for days at a time.
Boiling vessels meant they could cook, clean and stay warm all without ever opening a hatch. Of course, they were certainly used to make tea too, but they were not employed specifically for that task.
The ability to have warm water on tap, cook piping hot food, make hot tea and coffee, and be able to clean things is a massive morale booster for troops. It can help you keep warm and lift spirits during rather gloomy times. For these reasons boiling vessels are considered a critical piece of equipment for the British Army.
Sadly though the boiling vessel has become known as a tool added for the sole purpose of making tea, in part due to gags repeating that British tanks have built-in tea-makers.
The jokes likely stem from the stereotype that the British population love tea. The trend began back in the 1600s, when Britain was first introduced to tea by the East India Company.
Due to its high cost tea was only accessible to the upper classes, and so it became an activity associated with the elite. As it became cheaper, the general population were able to join in too.
Since then tea has become synonymous with Britain, but research shows that despite its love for the stuff, Britain is not the biggest tea consumer across numerous different metrics. In fact, Britain is beaten by its own neighbour, Ireland.
Tea is the most world’s most popular beverage, and is certainly not an activity limited to Britain.
The Boiling Vessel
Today, boiling vessels are fitted to Britain’s main battle tank, the Challenger 2. But they are also fitted to many more vehicles, including MAN trucks, Warthogs, Jackals and Mastiffs. In British service they are commonly referred to as the “BV”, or “Bivvie”.
The type used today is the RAK-15, produced by Electrothermal Engineering Ltd. It is an 8 kg (17 lbs) cube-shaped object 27 cm (10.6 in) high and 29 cm (11.4 in) long with a hinged lid on top. It runs on 24V and connects to the vehicle’s power supply via a cable. Five different cables are available so it can be used with various vehicles.
Inside is a square-shaped cavity which contains a tin and water. As the water heats up, it warms up the food inside the tin. However in practice the tin is often removed to create more room inside the vessel.
The lid clamps down via a latch, and is important because it keeps the water inside the RAK-15 even when the vehicle is in motion – you certainly don’t want boiling water splashing around the crew compartment of a tank!
According to Electrothermal’s brochure for the RAK-15, it can keep its contents hot for up to six hours, and remains cool to the touch throughout.
It is capable of heating up to five rations and 2 pints of water at the same time. The water used to heat the food remains clean and can then be used to make tea, coffee and other hot drinks.
Alternatively, the RAK-15 can simply boil water alone. It has a tap on the front to pour water.
Electrothermal themselves call the RAK-15 a “Water and Ration heater”, not a tea making device. Furthermore, their brochure does not make any mention of tea, and hot drinks only mentioned a couple of times.
The device is not only used by Britain either, and can now be found in other machines such as the US M1 Abrams, Bradley and M109. In fact, Electrothermal state that they were originally awarded a contract to produce 10,000 for the US Army. In total Electrothermal has more than 20,000 boiling vessels in use around the world.
So, as a device that heats water the boiling vessel has many uses, and is one of the most important pieces of kit for any tank crew. It can provide warmth, food and hot drinks, including tea, even on a radioactive battlefield – provided it has water and the tank has power.
But, it was not explicitly designed for the sole purpose of making a cup of tea. That is a fabrication pushed by jokes that intentionally bypass the truth for the sake of humour.