- Contributed by
- Bridport Museum
- People in story:
- Tony King
- Location of story:
- Itzehoe, York, PenhalePoint
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 July 2005
Corporal Tony King's Comet Tank Crew, Itzehoe, Germany, 1945. Clockwise top-left: Wally Gent, Bill Lamb, 'Bin' Binfield, & Terry Saunders.
During the previous ten months we had travelled only roughly the distance between Lands End and John O'Groats and in the process had lost 7 officers and 50 other ranks, killed in action, whilst another 160 officers and men had been wounded - including some, like me, who had recovered and returned to the Regiment.
This was out of a total complement of about 300, forming the tank and scout car crews who normally expected to come under fire, so that only a minority survived the campaign unscathed. Teddy Swetenham, the CO, was awarded the D.S.O., six officers won an M.C. (one with bar) and other ranks were awarded four Military Medals and two Distinguished Conduct Medals. When the Skins first joined the Desert Rats in Normandy the old hands in the Division who had served throughout North Africa and Italy were somewhat scornful about those of us who had not got our knees brown but, by VE Day, it was generally agreed that we had not acquitted ourselves too badly.
ARMY OF OCCUPATION
Stationed in and around Itzehoe, just south of the Kiel Canal, our peacetime role started with checking out stragglers of the Wehrmacht returning from Denmark, searching for arms, and stopping suspect shipping passing through the Canal. We manned a passenger ferry over the Canal and an elderly workboat, used for boarding vessels we had ordered by loud-hailer to heave to. It took us a little while to get the hang of navigating boats and the local jetties and wharves suffered some damage through our ineptitude; also there were some rather surprised skippers of ships who rang panic stations when we fired a burst over their bows, thinking they were not obeying our order to stop, when really we had overlooked the fact that there is no brake pedal on a ship. For recreation, Major Gibson, i/c A Squadron, requisitioned a German Naval yacht club at nearby Brunsbutel, on the Elbe estuary, and we ruined a few sails and broke a mast or two before we started to get the hang of dinghy sailing - particularly tacking in the confined waters of the Canal.
Other duties included guarding camps for displaced persons - mainly from Poland and the Balkans, formerly in forced labour gangs - until repatriation could be arranged. We soon realised that an armed guard was needed not so much to protect the detainees from the local populace, but rather
the reverse as the angry inmates were mostly bent on wreaking vengeance on their tormentors, very naturally.
A strict "no fraternisation" order was passed down from high command but, at local level, a blind eye was turned to discreet "fratting" and minds became preoccupied once more with the feet-under-a-table syndrome. The local residents of that mainly farming area had not experienced directly the horrors of war and certainly did not resent overtures from the victors.
On the debit side, there was a tendency by those in command to re-introduce the more tedious routine of service life - cleaning and polishing equipment and vehicles, mounting unnecessary guards and holding parades. So I was delighted when further opportunities for detached duty came my way (by now my mates felt my luck went beyond the bounds of "jammy buggerability' and must be due to friends in high places) first a short course at the Rolls Royce works then at Cricklewood, learning about the finer points of the Meteor engine, while billeted in a London University hall of residence at Russell Square - followed, of course, by some home leave - then a trip to Moll in Belgium to collect and commission the new Comet tanks which were to replace our worn-out Cromwells. This was a slightly heavier tank with thicker armourplating, a modified suspension and, best of all, a 77 mm gun which would have been a match for the German 88 mm if we could have taken delivery before the War ended - how typical of bureaucracy to miss the boat. Finally, and perhaps most ironically, I was sent back to Bovington Camp to undergo a crew commander's course, feeling that there was little I could learn from an instructor that I had not already found out the hard way in the field of battle. However, as it meant another trip to Blighty, a good old scrounge in familiar territory and more home leave, I did not express my feelings and thoroughly enjoyed the break. When, after a two-day train and boat journey, I returned to Itzehoe in mid-December, 1945, I was told that my demob. notice had come through (early release on Class B, as my former employers claimed I was a "key building technician" after six months fetching the bosses cigarettes 1). Then followed lots of form filling, a medical (still A1!), a kit inspection and I was bundled off back to Catterick Camp, arriving a few days before Christmas and prepared to go AWOL if my demob. was not cleared in time for Christmas at home. It was - just, and after collecting my demob. outfit from a depot in York I left the Army with 4 weeks' leave pay and a demob. gratuity of around £100, which I shortly blued on an Army surplus Royal Enfield 350cc DR's motorbike and a well-tailored bespoke suit.
When I presented myself to my employers in January, 1946, I was politely informed that I was really worth no more to them than when I joined up four years previously but, as a special concession, they would add ten shillings a week to the 25 shillings I was earning when I left - this made my wages roughly half of what was being paid to my contemporaries who had claimed "reserved occupation" status and avoided war service. Not surprisingly I bade a soldier's farewell to that firm as soon as the compulsory qualifying period of employment for Class B demob. (6 months) had expired, leaving with Kipling's famous lines ringing in my ears:
"Oh, it's Tommy this, and Tommy that
An' 'Chuck 'im out, the brute!
But it's 'Saviour of 'is country'
When the guns begin to shoot."
As I was released on the "Z" Reserve I had to be prepared for recall and was allowed to retain some uniform, including my beret and greatcoat which came in handy on the motorbike in those days of clothing coupons. In the event I was only recalled for training in 1951, after Barbara and I had married and had two children, joining the Inns of Court Regiment, TA camp under canvas at PenhalePoint, near Newquay, for an enjoyable fortnight driving Daimler and AEC Matador armoured cars about the narrow lanes of Cornwall.
After that I had no further contact with the Army and only twice have come across former comrade-in-arms. That reunion came about some twenty years after the War ended, on a campsite at Redcliffe, near Wareham in Dorset, where I happened to be staying with our two sons at the same time as Wally Gent, one of my tank crew, was camping there with his family. He said that he recognised me at once as I walked across the campsite to the water standpipe. Like me, against all odds, he had developed a taste for living under canvas and - within limits for roughing it and chose to spend many of his holidays that way.
this year (2005) through the medium of the Regimental Association, I have made contact with Bill Lamb, my wireless operator, who now lives in Lowestoft. As we are both in our eighties distances are too great for us to meet but we exchange reminiscences by letter and telephone.
With my family I returned many times to Dorset, and the establishment of the Royal Armoured Corps' Museum at Bovington provided an excuse for nostalgic return visits to the garrison town, prompting a mixture of memories.
One has to be wary of donning rose-coloured spectacles when looking back, but I really believe I would regret it if I had missed the experience of service life. However, I do not regret rejecting, in 1945, overtures made to me about becoming a regular soldier, with the carrot held out of a possible short-service commission.
Although, over those four years of World War II,I had learnt much about how the military system worked I had reservations about wholly accepting the military philosophy, and I knew that peacetime
soldiering was really not for me.
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