Ever since, all British tanks and most AFVs (armored fighting vehicles) have been equipped with tea making facilities.
The story goes that the British forces were taking heavy blows after the Invasion of Normandy in 1944. After losing two Cromwell tanks already, the rest of the battalion was heading deeper into France and was about 18 miles away from city Caen when they stopped to have some tea, which forced them outside of the vehicles.
Just 200 meters away, however, a German Tiger tank watched unnoticed.
The tank’s commander was Michael Wittman, a highly-decorated veteran of the Battle of Kursk. Wittman had only just completed a five-day drive from Beauvais. His 12-tank company had winnowed to just four serviceable vehicles. Despite exhaustion and shortages, Wittman immediately recognized the opportunity before him.
“I had no time to assemble my company,” he said later. “Instead, I had to act quickly, as I had to assume that the enemy had already spotted me and would destroy me where I stood. I set off with one tank and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground.”
Wittman destroyed a Sherman Firefly - the only British tank carrying the 17-pound gun and thus the only immediate threat to the superior Tiger. His experienced gunner Balthasar Woll continued firing on the move, picking off three parked Cromwells along the road before extending the one-tank rampage through the crossroads town of Villers-Bocage, where the other three Tigers provided reinforcement.
Overall, the British lost 14 tanks, nine half-tracks, four gun carriers and two anti-tank guns in just the first 15 minutes of the battle.
In 1946, the British Medical Research Council published “A Survey of Casualties Amongst Armored Units in Northwest Europe.” It found that 37 percent of all armored regiment casualties from March 1945 until the end of the war some months later were crew members outside their vehicles. These findings prompted the British government to create the British Boiling Vessel (BV).
Unofficially known as a kettle or bivvie, the device draws power from the vehicle’s electricity supply and permits the crew not only to make tea, but also boil water or cook food. This is particularly important since it allows the vehicle’s crew to produce hot water for washing or drinking purposes and simultaneously heat up tinned or decanted food. All of this can be done inside the vehicle itself, meaning the crew can remain protected from enemy fire. This applies even if there was danger of radioactive fallout or chemical weapons, which were considered a very real threat during the Cold War.
The boiler vessel was first fitted to the postwar Centurion MBT (main battle tank). Its design drew from the British Army’s experiences in North Africa. It went on to become one of the most ubiquitous MTBs, serving almost everywhere the British had any influence: Iraq, India and South Africa.
The basic concept of the boiling vessel has not changed since the 1950s. The large container quickly boils and maintains the heat of a gallon of water for drinking, washing and heating tinned and retort rations.
The idea proved catching. The U.S. Army has added boiling vessels to its Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Some other countries also followed the example.