How close is the new film Fury to the true horror of warfare? Guy Walters asks a man who fought in a Sherman tank
By Guy Walters
22 October 2014
Photo: The Tank Museum
Many people are able to watch films set during the Second World War and eat their popcorn with ease. After seven decades, the war is now in that safe box marked “history”, its horrors no more immediate than those of the Battle of Waterloo.
This will be true for most who go to watch Fury, which stars Brad Pitt as the commander of a Sherman tank doing battle in Germany in April 1945. Set over just 24 hours, Fury is a film of many horrors, but they are horrors that happened a long time ago, and a long way away.
For a few, though, the film is an all-too-real reminder of a time they’d rather forget. These are the men who have faced the ultimate fear and unimaginable horror, and survived. Today, they live in ordinary homes in ordinary towns through Britain. One such town is Littlehampton in West Sussex, where, in a smart bungalow near to the sea, lives a sprightly 90-year-old called Ken Tout.
Seventy years ago, Ken was doing what Brad Pitt does on screen – fighting the Nazis from a Sherman tank. As part of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, Ken arrived in France seven days after D-Day in June 1944, and took part in some of the fiercest fighting in Normandy.
Although some veterans can be dismissive of the Hollywoodisation of the war, Ken broadly welcomes it.
“I’m certainly happy that it continues remembrance,” he says. “There’s so much happening in the world that unless someone like Brad Pitt comes up, people forget that this did happen, and that too many people didn’t come back.”
The fate of many members of the five-strong Sherman crews was to be incinerated in a tank that the Germans nicknamed the “Tommy-cooker”. “It probably earned that name the first time a German shot into the rear part of a Sherman and hit the 600 litres of high-octane fuel, which immediately flared up,” says Ken. “It was an immense flare. You could get a tower of flame and ammunition up to 30 feet coming out of the turret. If the Sherman was hit at a certain angle and with a certain deflection, the ammunition would ignite at the same time as the fuel. It was a cocktail of burning fury.”
Escape was all but impossible, especially for those such as Ken, who, as the gunners, were deep inside the tank. Unsurprisingly, the crews regarded the tanks with a mixture of what he calls “horror and glamour”.
“When you first saw a tank – this ugly, trundling, noisy monstrosity – you thought that somehow or other you’ve got to fold yourself up and get inside that,” he says. “And there was also the realisation that the role of the tank was to go out in front and be shot at.”
Being shot at was certainly not the life the young Ken Tout had had in mind. His parents were members of the Salvation Army in Hereford, and Ken had his name down for theological college when the war broke out. His first job was not as a soldier, but working as an administrator in the local VD clinic.
“It was very busy with RAF and soldiers from the many encampments around Hereford,” he recalls. “Civilians as well. VD was rife in the wartime. Even one of my crew members in Normandy contracted it twice in the course of the Normandy campaign. He was popping off to brothels.”
When he turned 18 in January 1942, Ken was conscripted into the Army. An aptitude test revealed a certain mechanical proficiency, and he was posted to the 1st Northants Yeomanry to serve in tanks.
It would not be until June 30 1944 that Lance Corporal Tout would fire his first shot. He remembers it clearly today.
“On the other side of this field, there was a small gate in a hedgerow,” he says. “The Germans were retreating across our front, diving across this gate. They were jumping over irregularly, and we were waiting for them to jump and then try and shoot through the gate with our machine gun. Then it occurred to us that the best way to do it was not to fire at the gate, but to put high explosive shells into the ditch on the other side of the hedge.”
And that’s precisely what Ken did. In the Hollywood version of such an encounter, one would expect to see the gory effect of such a shelling, but Ken claims that the reality was different.
“You don’t see human beings flung up in the air or anything of that sort,” he says. “It was a nice clean way of killing. You sit, you’ve got the buttons, and you know that somewhere the other guys are being shredded, but you have no impression of it. ”
Ken was no cold-hearted killer. As with so many members of the Sherman crews, he knew what the Germans were going through.
“Those guys sitting in that tank were like us, and when we hit them, [we knew] what would happen to them,” he says. “We had seen our tanks when they had been hit by German guns. It was a very mental explosion of horror – and sympathy, almost, for the enemy.”
One of the most powerful moments in Fury involves a young gunner (Logan Lerman) clearing the remains of his predecessor’s body from his seat in the tank. Tout once had to inspect the remnants of burnt-out tanks, and the images would sear into him.
“All that was left of the crew members was a black, waxy substance,” he says. “When you had to clean out a burnt-out tank, you did it with reverence because those had been your pals.”
After battling his way through Normandy, Ken’s war came to an abrupt end in October 1944 in a village in Holland, when his Sherman rolled over.
“The verge collapsed,” he recalls. “We toppled into the canal, which fortunately had very little water in it. Everything seemed all right, except my leg had got bashed up fairly badly. As far as I was concerned it was bruising.”
It wasn’t. As well as being fractured in several places, the medics also found that he had an existing problem with his left thigh bone, and he was “off games” for the rest of the war.
Today, his leg still sports an impressively long scar. Thankfully, however, he appears to have been spared any psychological scars, unlike some of his comrades, who had to sleep in separate beds from their wives because their nightmares caused them to lash out violently.
“One went to a psychiatrist 50 years after the war,” Ken says, “but the psychiatrist said that it was too late to do anything.”
After the war, Ken devoted his life to peace. He was ordained, and worked in Latin America on earthquake and flood relief. In South Africa, he was a member of the archbishop of Cape Town’s Committee on Racial Affairs. He was the press officer for Oxfam and Help the Aged, gained a PhD in gerontology, and was awarded an OBE for services to the elderly.
Ken has written 10 books, some of which are about his wartime experiences. His masterpiece, Tank!, unlike so many matter-of-fact military memoirs, successfully conveys the emotional trauma of being in combat.
“For this is the world’s end,” Ken writes about facing the enemy, “the final precipice of chance. Ahead, along the crest of the unseen hill, Death lies ready to leap on us, on the chosen ones among us. So each of us digs a little dug-out among the rubbish of our adolescent beliefs and ambitions. And burrows for comfort into the most secret places of the soul’s darkness to avoid the outer realities.”
Ken came back from the end the world, and has lived his life well. Today, his only regret is that the makers of Fury decided not to cast him in the film. “I think I’m more handsome than Brad Pitt,” he says.
Fury is on release now