Meet the gatekeeper men
Have you ever wondered where these impressive monuments next to the entrances to military bases come from?
You know them. Army Foundation College has a Challenger parked next to its front gate. Many Royal Air Force bases offer Harriers and even Spitfires as honored spectacles at the entry points to their locations.
Everyone in the army will know that the static displays on military bases are known as gate guardians. They are often displayed on a pedestal and often “guard” the main entrance. These guards are usually decommissioned examples of aircraft, tanks, or other vehicles or equipment that were once used in the base.
These great artifacts that many of us walk by on a daily basis are part of the life of the forces. Yet few may know how to find such a central place in our military communities.
Lance Corporal of Horse Harry Day and Stephen Cleator dedicate their time and energy to restoring armored vehicles and weapons from past conflicts, many of which are often gatekeepers. Together they take outdated and sometimes rusty military hardware and transform it into impressive monuments that inspire the viewer.
They restore everything from Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance Tracked (CVRT) to main battle tanks and weapons brought back from conflicts that once belonged to the enemy – almost everything except airplanes.
“I’m flying to the United States tomorrow. I’ll buy a CVRT there.”
Stephen Cleator, 43, leads the somewhat unlikely life and traveling the world to buy obsolete military hardware is an integral part of it. In an interview, he said that he was once evicted from his home because of the army tank he parked in the driveway.
The former British Army man, who served in the Royal Engineers and Queen’s Dragoon Guards before a medical discharge brought his career to an abrupt end, leads a team of volunteers dedicated to restoring military artifacts.
âI have my own Samson recovery vehicle which I can use to bring various types of military vehicles into an army hangar while we are finishing our work.
“The UK law is more liberal when it comes to owning and driving military tanks on the motorway than most other countries.”
He’s right. It’s perfectly legal to own something like a CVRT, and as long as it’s properly taxed and insured, you can drive it on the highway. He added:
âSometimes you see an old striker at the head of Gay Pride marches painted pink. I know the guy who owns this particular vehicle. ”
29-year-old Harry Day, a Lance Corporal of Horse in the Household Cavalry Regiment, works with Stephen on a number of projects. Like his longtime friend and co-enthusiast, he finds working on the old vehicles and weapons worthwhile. Nonetheless, their work benefits the military community.
âI’ve always been interested in military vehicles since I was a kid. One reason they entered the Household Cavalry was because they worked in armor. When I first started I had ceremonial duties but then switched to the armored side of the regiment and found that I was definitely enjoying it, and I made a name for myself on that [driving and maintenance] Side of things. “
The various pieces of equipment that are supposed to become gatekeepers thanks to volunteers like Stephen and Harry generally already exist in some states of the armed forces. They could be rusting on the bank of a disused hanger or already on display in a plinth somewhere on a patch of grass.
Having the opportunity to turn these things around and make them look as impressive as they did when they were new to the service, if not better, is a much easier process than one might expect. Stephen shared how he became trusted in military circles to source and improve these ancient artifacts, despite being officially a civilian. He said:
“I spent years with the Royal Engineers and later moved to the Queen’s Dragoons where I was crew commander. So I’ve driven and commanded these types of vehicles my entire adult life.”
Harry recently brought an old Yugoslav anti-aircraft gun to life. His regiment returned from Bosnia in 2001, years before Harry was old enough to join the army. He explained what he knew about the history of the gun:
“It’s Yugoslav made and it’s a Bosnia war trophy from Op HARVEST. What to take with the guys who were on this tour was found by A Squadron but brought back to the UK by C Squadron, Household Cavalry Regiment.
“The flak will be flying in front of the Warrant Officers and NCOs at our Bulford base next week.”
In 2018 Stephen made headlines after angry neighbors complained about an armored combat vehicle he kept in his driveway in Andover, Hampshire. The aftermath even resulted in Stephen appearing on a television show about parking feuds and his eventual eviction of the property.
At the time he told reporters:
“I was verbally abused, almost physically abused, and I have received threatening letters and numerous complaints to the council, the police, the housing association, the builders and myself.”
Many people may not have known how much Stephen’s work with military vehicles is helping him in his continued recovery from the physiological effects of his injuries.
In 2011, Stephen was injured while touring with Op Herrick 15. These injuries sustained in the war eventually led to his medical discharge six years later.
He shared how his work helps him:
“Because of my health problems, my brain doesn’t take care of itself. Things like the painkillers I have to take make it difficult for me to focus on anything new. But because my knowledge of tanks is older than my injuries, it is.” for me like a muscle memory.
“The army is my default setting.”
Today Stephen lives with his wife, a member of the Royal Navy. He still owns a tank, however, but instead of annoying potential neighbors, he keeps it in a coat hanger.
Harry and Stephen’s current project sees them elbows in engine parts as they work on an Argentine tank brought back from the Falklands War by victorious British forces.
The Panhard, an armored scout vehicle used by invading forces in the 1982 conflict, is one of only two in Britain today. Harry told us about its importance:
âThe Panhard is a trophy from the Falklands War.
âTwelve went from the Argentine Army in total and at the very end, when the unconditional surrender was signed, they were all abandoned at Port Stanley. Two were brought to Britain; one with the Paras who now live in the Tank Museum in Bovington, the other with the Blues and Royals, and that’s what we’re working on right now. ”
Restoring something as important to the history of a regiment as the Household Cavalry must come with additional burdens. How does Harry deal with them? Does he feel pressured to do these things right?
He shared how well he was aware of the importance of artifacts like war trophies. He said:
“That has real regimental meaning. I was most scared to work on it because there are still a lot of Falkland veterans buzzing around right now. We have a really good photo of what we think this Panhard will be towed away.” a Samson with three members of the Blues and Royals in front of it in the Falkland Islands. I’m very interested in getting it right. “
Harry described the positive results of working with someone like Stephen – a man who instinctively understands how things work in the military. The Lance Corporal of Horse said he was sometimes limited in what he could do; after all, duties must always come first. But Stephen doesn’t have the same restrictions. An example of this is owning your own Samson recovery vehicle, which takes away the taxpayer’s burden of transporting equipment like the Panhard.
Of course, modernizations like the anti-aircraft cannon and the Panhard tank come at a cost. How do the men cope with the financial challenges of their restoration projects? Harry said all renovations to the gatekeeper completed “in house” are funded by charities, in his case the Household Cavalry Foundation. Stephen advised that other regiments might choose to use funds raised through metrics or through things like regimental subs.
It is crucial, however, that no public funds are used for such projects.
As he thought about his work, Stephen felt very proud of the projects he was involved in. He said:
“If I don’t have anything to stand up for, I won’t pay. Working on the tanks gets me out of bed in the morning. And the units really take care of me. They are my friends now.”
It is hoped that Harry and Stephen’s restored Panhard tank will take part in some of the memorial services planned for the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War next year. They are very busy now.
But as Harry says, “it will all be worth it in the end.”
Stephen Cleator runs a Facebook group dedicated to volunteer restoration of gatekeepers. Search for “Gate Guardians” for more information.
Cover video footage courtesy of LCoH Harry Day.