David Rae served in the British Army for 22 years. He retired as a warrant officer and regimental sergeant major—but not before completing four tours in Bosnia, one in Iraq and three in Afghanistan.
His specialty was armored reconnaissance. Now, he works on movies. Director David Ayer’s tank epic Fury was his first.
The film, out now, follows an American Sherman tank crew in the waning days of World War II. It’s 1945 and the Allies are on German soil, inching toward Berlin. Brad Pitt plays Sgt. Don Collier, commanding a Sherman named Fury.
Collier follows order, kills Nazis and struggles to keep his crew together after years of unrelenting warfare. It’s high drama—and Rae was on location to make sure it all looked right.
“Whenever the tanks were on set, I always stood to the right of the director,” Rae told War Is Boring. “I’d put a word in his ear if I ever thought something needed to change.”
Director Ayer went to great lengths to get World War II right. The production team sewed more than 700 military uniforms, then ripped out their buttons, blew out the pockets and covered them in mud to look like they’d endured long, bloody campaigns.
Ayer and his team located real wartime tanks. They tracked down World War II tank veterans for advice. But as cameras rolled, Rae was the final arbiter of the movie’s authenticity.
The job required compromise. “You can’t be 100-percent tactics-correct in a film,” Rae said. “It doesn’t allow for that, because of distance between vehicles or because a turret’s position cuts off an actor’s face. There’s a lot of practical concerns.”
Raid said the movie’s inaccuracies are minor—stuff that only someone who is already an expert in tank warfare will even notice. “The tactics employed in the film are pretty spot on,” he said. “The director has really done his homework.”
Ayer even cast the world’s last functional German Tiger tank.
The Tiger is an impressive machine. It’s heavily armored and packs a powerful 88-millimeter cannon. One Tiger could lay waste to several American Sherman tanks—and frequently did.
“It had an aura around it,” Rae said of Fury’s Tiger. “I had the honor of commanding it in the film. When you see a German pop out of the top, that’s yours truly.”
British troops captured the Tiger in North Africa in 1943. It destroyed two British tanks before its crew abandoned it. The Tiger now resides in the Bovington Tank Museum in England. Its appearance in this film is a big deal.
“It comes out once a year to make a lap,” Rae said. For Fury, the tank worked overtime—and never quit. “It never broke down. It never had a problem. It was in pristine condition inside and out.”
Wartime German tanks were pricey, complex marvels of engineering. By contrast, the Shermans were cheap, low-tech. The Germans favored quality. The Americans wanted quantity. And the only way a Sherman could defeat a Tiger was to outnumber it.
It was a costly tactic for the Allies. “Shermans were taken out by the boatload,” Rae said.
But Rae said he enjoyed his time in the Sherman tank more than in the Tiger. “Although the Tiger tank is a lot bigger than the Sherman, there’s a lot more room in the Sherman,” he said. “You have more room to operate. The Tiger wasn’t designed with the crew in mind, it was more to do with the gun, the armor and mobility. Inside there, it wasn’t the best.”
“The Sherman was far easier to operate,” Rae added. “The German tank did have its flaws.”
“For the gunner in the Sherman, the grip-switch is easy to handle,” Rae said explaining how the tank shifts its turret. “They’re right next to the gunner. You twist it, it moves left and it moves right. The gunner in the Tiger tank has to contort his body and pull a lever underneath his feet to get the power traverse moving.”
The Tiger commanders didn’t have an easy time of it. “I’m six-two, so maybe I wouldn’t have been an S.S. Tiger commander because of my size,” Rae said. “It’s quite tight inside. And to be able to maneuver, or do anything but stand there, is quite difficult.”
Sherman commanders had it better—at least ergonomically speaking. “In the Sherman, you can move around and can get hold of your equipment, change your radio and load your gun.”
But really, any tank commander—then or now—has a tough job. “He’s got to understand his tank,” Rae explained. “He needs to know everyone else’s job in the tank. He needs to know his tank is able to perform and can do the mission his superiors are asking of him.”
“He’s also there to make sure his crew’s morale stays high,” Rae continued. “He identifies targets to engage with the correct type of ammunition. He tells his driver where and when to take a firing position. He communicates with the other tanks via radio. The commander is very, very busy.”
Becoming an effective commander was, and is, hard work. “You can’t walk straight into a tank,” Rae said. “You’ve got to evolve through all the positions. That’s how it works today.”
“Back in the day, guys were picked because of age and intelligence, were given stripes and put right in command of tanks,” Rae said. “So, they had a steep learning curve.”
In World War II, American tank crews either learned quickly … or died. “There’s no amount of tanks or no amount of crewmen that could make up for that experience of getting whipped along the way,” Rae said. “You can see that in the film.”
“There is a scene where the Tiger tank engages the U.S. Sherman tank platoon. Their immediate action is to withdraw, rather than take it head on. Then they apply some tactics where they try to blind the Tiger and outmaneuver it. Which is very much in line with what they evolved into doing.”
“You’re not going to see a tank film again,” Rae explained. “There’s not much shelf-life left on these machines.” Fury is these old war wagons’ last chance to show off. Rae was there to make sure they showed off right.