Have you ever wondered where those impressive monuments next to the entrances of military bases come from?
You know the ones. The Army Foundation College has a Challenger parked next to its front gate. Many Royal Air Force bases boast Harriers and even Spitfires as honoured spectacles at the entry points to their sites.
Anyone in the armed forces will know that the static displays at military bases are known as gate guardians. They are often displayed on a plinth, and often ‘guard’ the main entrance. These guardians tend to be decommissioned examples of aircraft, tanks or other vehicles or equipment once used at the base.
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These superb artefacts, which many of us walk past every day, are part of forces life. Yet few might know about how they find such a central place in our military communities.
Lance Corporal of Horse Harry Day and Stephen Cleator dedicate their time and energies to restoring armoured vehicles and weapons from conflicts of the past, many of which often go on to become gate guardians. Together, they take ageing and sometimes rusty pieces of military hardware and transform them into impressive monuments that wow onlookers.
They restore everything from CVRT (combat vehicle reconnaissance tracked) to main battle tanks, and even weapons brought back from conflicts that once belong to the enemy - just about everything other than aircraft.
"I'm flying to the United States tomorrow. I'm going there to buy a CVRT."
Stephen Cleator, 43, leads a somewhat unlikely life and travelling across the world purchasing disused pieces of military hardware is part and parcel of it. In an interview, he said that he was once evicted from his house due to the Army tank he had parked on the driveway.
The former British Army man, who served in the Royal Engineers and Queen's Dragoon Guards before a medical discharge brought a sudden end to his career, leads a team of volunteers committed to restoring military artefacts.
"I own my own Samson recovery vehicle, which allows me to move different types of military vehicles into a hanger the army provides while we complete our work.
"The law in the UK is more liberal when it comes to owning and driving military tanks on the highway than most other countries."
He's right. It is entirely lawful to own something like a CVRT, and so long as it is taxed and insured correctly, you can drive it on the highway. He added:
"You sometimes see an old Striker at the front of Gay Pride marches painted pink. I know the fella who owns that particular vehicle."
Working alongside Stephen on some projects is 29-year-old Harry Day, a Lance Corporal of Horse in the Household Cavalry Regiment. Like his veteran friend and fellow enthusiast, he finds working on the old vehicles and weapons rewarding. Nevertheless, their work is beneficial to the military community.
"Since I was a child I have always been into military vehicles. Part of the reason for joining the Household Cavalry was that they worked with armour. When I joined, I did ceremonial duties first but then moved on to the armoured side of the regiment and realised that it was definitely what I really enjoyed, and I made a good name for myself on the [driving and maintenance] side of things."
The various pieces of equipment destined to become gate guardians thanks to volunteers like Stephen and Harry generally already exist in some state within the Armed Forces. They could be rusting at the bank of a disused hanger, or they might already be on display on a section of grass somewhere in a base.
So to have the opportunity to turn these things around and make them look as impressive as they did when they were new in service, if not better, is a far more straightforward process than one might expect. Stephen told how he has become trusted in military circles to source out and improve these old artefacts even though he is officially a civilian. He said:
"I spent years in the Royal Engineers and later transferred to the Queen's Dragoon Guards where I was a Crew Commander. So, I have been driving and commanding these types of vehicles all my adult life."
Harry recently brought an old Yugoslavian anti-aircraft gun to life. His regiment returned with it from Bosnia in 2001, years before Harry was old enough to join the Army. He explained what he knew about the weapon's history:
"It's Yugoslavian made, and it's a Bosnia war trophy from Op HARVEST. What I can gather speaking to the guys who were on that tour, it was found by A Squadron but recovered back to the UK by C Squadron, Household Cavalry Regiment.
"The anti-aircraft gun is going in front of the Warrant Officers' and NCOs' Mess at our base in Bulford next week."
In 2018, Stephen made headlines after disgruntled neighbours complained about an armoured fighting vehicle he was keeping on his driveway in Andover, Hampshire. The fallout even led to Stephen appearing on a television programme about parking feuds and, ultimately, his eviction from the property.
At the time, he told reporters:
"I've received verbal abuse, I've nearly received physical abuse and I've received threatening letters and numerous complaints to the council, to the police, to the housing association, to the builders and to myself."
Many people might not have known the extent to which Stephen's work with military vehicles aids him in his ongoing recovery from the physiological consequences of his injuries.
In 2011, Stephen was injured while on tour on Op Herrick 15. Those injuries, sustained at war, ultimately led to his medical discharge six years later.
He told how his work helps him:
"Due to my health issues, my brain doesn't look after itself. Because of things like the painkillers I have to take, I struggle to focus on anything new. So, if I got a new job, I might find it hard to concentrate. But because my knowledge of tanks pre-dates my injuries, it's like muscle memory for me.
"The Army is my default setting."
Today, Stephen lives with his wife, a serving member of the Royal Navy. However, he still owns a tank, but instead of potentially annoying any neighbours, he keeps it secure in a hanger.
Harry and Stephen's current project sees them up to their elbows in engine parts while working on an Argentinian tank brought back from the Falklands War by victorious British units.
The Panhard, an armoured scout car used by invading troops in the 1982 conflict, is one of just two in Britain today. Harry told us about its significance:
"The Panhard is a Falklands War trophy.
"Twelve went in total from the Argentine army and at the very end, when the unconditional surrender was signed, they were all abandoned at Port Stanley. Two were brought to the UK; one with the Paras which now lives at the Tank Museum in Bovington, the other by the Blues and Royals, and that's the one we are working on now."
Restoring something so vital to the history of a regiment like the Household Cavalry must come with additional stresses. How does Harry cope with them? Does he feel any pressure to get these things right?
He told how he was aware of the significance of artefacts like war trophies. He said:
"This has real regimental significance. This is the one I have been the most scared to work on because there are still plenty of Falklands veterans floating around at the minute. We have a really good photograph of what we believe is this Panhard being towed by a Samson with three members of the Blues and Royals standing in front of it at the Falklands. I am keen to get it right."
Harry described the positive outcomes of working with someone like Stephen - a man who instinctively understands the way things work in the military. The Lance Corporal of Horse said that he is sometimes limited in what he can do; after all, duties must always come first. But Stephen does not have those same restrictions. One such example is owning his own Samson recovery vehicle, which removes any possible burden to the taxpayer where the transportation of equipment like the Panhard is concerned.
Of course, refurbishments like the anti-aircraft gun and Panhard tank are bound to carry some costs. How do the men navigate the financial challenges to their restorations projects? Harry said all gate guard renovations completed "in house" are funded by charity, in his case, The Household Cavalry Foundation. Stephen advised that other regiments might decide to use funds raised via mess bills or picked up through things like regimental subs.
Crucially, though, it is imperative to know that public funds are not used for these types of projects.
Reflecting on his work, Stephen took great pride in the projects he has been associated with. He said:
"If I have nothing to get out of bed for, I won't get out of bed. Working on the tanks gets me out of bed in the morning. And the units really look after me. They are my friends now."
It is hoped Harry and Stephen's restored Panhard tank will take part in some of the commemoration events planned for next year's 40th anniversary of the Falklands War. In the meantime, they have a lot to do.
But as Harry says, "it will all be worth it in the end."
Stephen Cleator runs a Facebook group dedicated to the volunteer restoration work given to gate guardians. Search for 'Gate Guardians' for more info.
Cover video footage courtesy of LCoH Harry Day.