- Contributed by
- Greg Meredith
- People in story:
- Frank Meredith
- Location of story:
- Accross Europe
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2003
About the end of May 1942 I got a letter telling me that I had been selected to join the Army, and would I be kind enough to report to Catterick Camp on 19th June next. Enclosed were a railway warrant and a postal order for four shillings, an advance of pay. That four bob was to be very hard earned. Gosh, I thought, that money was easily come by, so easy that I had the Postal Order framed. I was wrong again. No four shillings were more hard earned than those. At this same time, I remember reading in the local paper that a young pilot from Wibsey had been killed during an air raid on France. I read the report and found that the pilot was Ernest Harrison, Edith's older brother. He was about 20/21 years old. Even to me that seemed a ridiculously young age to have to die for one's country. Poor lad, he had so much to live for. Quite brilliant academically and very good at sport. He was extremely well respected in the village. This I was to learn three years later.
I wrote back to the army and said that the date they had chosen was inconvenient. I had a date booked to go to Ratcliffe to attend an Old Boys re-union. Could they please wait a week or so for me? Believe it or not they wrote back saying that they would manage without me until 2.7.42. Comes the fatal morning and as requested I reported to the Military Police at the Bradford station, to be directed to the appropriate train. Margaret came to the station to see me off, as she was to do each time I got leave. A strange happening occurred on the station platform. It didn't strike me as odd at the time but it was to prove so as the years went by. There at the station was Maurice White, one of my colleagues at the BDA. It transpired that he too was going to Catterick. So we travelled together as far as Richmond. There we were greeted by a group of Red Caps (Military Police). Maurice was directed to one truck and I to another. At this point he vanished from my life for a year or so, after which he was to reappear irregularly as he has continued to do over the years.
We were herded into the trucks and despatched from the station like so many sheep. The only difference from sheep was that we were already wondering what was in store for us. We were driven about three miles or so to the actual barracks where we were to be introduced to Military Life. Calling it a "Life" was just my little joke. To be honest I wondered if it could be called an existence. But exist we did. The actual spot where we were off-loaded from the truck was at the barracks called Menin Lines, after the great battle in France during the First World War. To me it appeared that it would have been better named Menin Hell. Those first few hours cannot to imagined by anyone who has not gone through a similar experience. The uncouth beings who strutted about with three bits of braid on their sleeves (I was later to find out that they were sergeants, whereas we were to find out that we had become Troopers, (the lowest form of animal life permitted in the Army), must have been convinced that we were all stone deaf and that there was not one of us whose parents were married!
The sergeants tried to march us to our billet. We ambled to this shed, a brick based structure with corrugated steel sheets for the sides and top, completing the luxury. About forty or so of us were informed that this was to be our home for the next six weeks! Before we passed out from shock we were taken to the Quarter Master's store to be issued with uniforms, blankets and some square things which were called, by the quarter bloke's staff, "Biscuits". I'd heard of army biscuits, but these were ridiculous. We were soon informed that the biscuits were to be put on the floor for us to sleep on. They were about two inches thick and gave the impression that they were packed tight with de-hydrated Monkey Muck. We would most likely have been better sleeping on the floor. Back to the barrack room where we were ordered by some N.C.O. (non commissioned officer) to change into our uniforms, pack our civvy clothes into bundles and to send them home. The sooner we forget that we were ever civilians or even human beings the better...try to be like soldiers because by hell I've got to make you into soldiers. And I will. Within the hour we were wondering if his Mum and Dad were married, never mind about ours. I so clearly remember that sergeant's pet expression; "You may well have broken your Mother's heart but you won't break mine." He was utterly determined to make us recognise that we were the lowest of the low and to expect any other than being bullied from reveille to lights out was only a pipe dream.
Somehow we all managed to survive the activities of that first day and had already settled down to the idea that the army now owned us, body and soul, so it came as a bit of a shock when we were told at about four o'clock that the rest of the day was our own. The first thing that we all needed to find out about was what the sleeping arrangements were. Where were our beds and how do we set about making three 'biscuits' and five army blankets into the sort of bed that we might have some chance of sleeping in? This problem was soon solved by a corporal who had been assigned to the task of making sure we 'Rookies' felt at home. (Some 'elluva task). He quickly showed us the army-approved style of making up a bed on the floor. He pointed out that only officers were provided with sheets and pillowcases. The whole floor was covered with these "beds" and in the interest of hygiene we were ordered to arrange the beds 'Head to Tail'. I am sure that those huts were designed to accommodate about twelve men. Here there were thirty-eight of us angling for space. We were all complete strangers from different walks of life being told to lay on the floor and sleep between two total strangers to whom we had barely said 'Hello'. We need not have worried. All the running about which we had done during the day plus the odd drop of liquid nourishment in the NAAFI and we all slept the sleep of the just. In fact when the Orderly Sergeant ran his cane along the corrugated sheets of the hut and bellowed at us to 'Rise and Shine' at six-thirty the following morning most of us felt that to leave such comfort was a sacrilege. I had absolutely no idea that I was so adaptable. I had slept like a babe without sheets and between blankets so rough that they would have been better used as carpet underfelt and with a pillow that was nothing other than a canvas bag stuffed with straw.
On the second day we started with what was called a CO's Parade. The Commanding Officer had decided that he would take a look at his most recent intake. He simply wandered up and down the ranks, having a word with about every fifth man. After his 'Inspection' he addressed us, telling us that life for the next six weeks or so was not going to be easy. That was the understatement of the year so far as we were concerned. It was a point that even the least astute of us had already grasped. It was his duty, so he went on, with the help of his NCO's to make us into soldiers during the next six weeks. During that period we were to be confined to Barracks. But of course by the time the Drill Sergeant had finished with us each day we did not feel capable of going out. Those six weeks were taken up with 'Square Bashing'. This favourite hobby of the army is officially claimed to be the way in which recruits learn to march and do all the strange things which they, the powers that be, refer to as Drill Movements. Slinging rifles around our shoulders in the prescribed manner, learning to march in quick time, slow time, double time and any other damned time which the drill sergeant can dream up. To us, the sole object of all these exercises seemed to be to lower the surface of the square, using only the soles of our feet to do it.
Occasionally we had a break for intelligence and adaptability tests. To this day I have not worked out how intelligence and adaptability tests were compatible with our efforts to lower the level of the parade ground. Surely we had shown just how little intelligence we had in that we were trying to do it. Needless to say very few of us failed to pass those early tests. To boost our opinions of ourselves it was explained to us that tank crews required a very special type of soldier and that the extra cost of training them made it necessary to ensure that only the right type of man remained in the Armoured Corps. I often wondered why it required more intelligence to be killed in a tank rather than it did in a slit trench. Perhaps the art was in staying alive! It was at this stage that, hearing that I had been educated at Ratcliffe College, the Squadron Leader had me report to his office where he proposed that I should volunteer to transfer to OCTU (Officer Cadets Training Unit). No chance I thought. It will be quite easy enough to get killed down in the hull of the tank. Why make Jerry's job that much easier for him by going round with my head stuck out of the turret. That was as far as I got with OCTU, thank you very much, Sir.
Any boosting of our self-esteem that had occurred was knocked out of us that first Thursday. Thursday we found was pay-day in the Army, and it was definitely not before time. The few shillings with which I had joined up had thinned out considerably and I was beginning to learn how to live without money. Pay Day appeared to be my salvation. I was soon to learn different. We were marched into the presence of the Pay Officer who was accompanied by the Pay Clerk. The form was then explained to us. We were to wait in orderly ranks until the Clerk called out our name. On hearing our name, we were instructed to 'Spring smartly to attention then sing out the last three digits of our army number, step smartly to the front of the paying officer, throw him up a salute and at the same time shout out our name and last three numbers'. Whereupon the officer sang out our name and last three numbers along with the amount of pay which we were to receive.
Never will I forget the announcement that I was '599 Meredith' and that I was to receive two shillings and sixpence (22.5P). I had been banking on drawing about eight or nine shillings to compensate me for the abuse that I had been put through during those first few days. According to the army rules I should have picked up my pay, shouted to the Officer "Pay correct Sir", thrown him up another salute and marched smartly back to my place in the ranks. But, Half a crown, well I mean.... after those days I thought that I was worth just a copper or so more than that. "What's this Sir?" I asked. Quick as a flash "Tails" he replied, picked up the two shillings and sixpence and put it into his pocket. The army had a mysterious way of determining how little it can get away with paying its minions. It seems that my gross pay for the week was eight shillings from which there was a deduction of four shillings in respect of the Postal Order which I was sure that they had given to me for accepting my call up papers. There was a further deduction of one shilling and sixpence in respect of Barrack Room Damages. How they arrived at that figure beggared my imagination. I would have thought that the value of each hut could not have been much in excess of 1/6. I must have been wrong again.
During the next few days we were introduced to the workings of rifles, sten guns, revolvers and other means of killing. Next they showed us tanks, Bren carriers and the like. Finally we were trained in the art of driving three tonners. Thanks to Jack Bently and the driving tuition that he had given me back at home, this was, for me, far and away the easiest session thus far. The night driving was a bit on the tricky side. We were driving on roads completely new to us and we were hampered by the lighting. Because of the black out no more than side lights were allowed and these were severely masked with black paper which had a hole of about half an inch in diameter for the light to shine through. We used to talk about people being "as dim as NAFFI candles". These sidelights were dimmer than that. Strangely though accidents were few and far between. Now the gunnery work was a very different cup of tea to me. I have never liked guns and I'm fairly sure that I never will. Firing them was utterly repugnant to me. I could strip them down and reassemble them. I could clean them but there was no way in which I was interested in firing them. The idea of actually killing someone, even the enemy did not appeal to me one jot. I think that that attitude to guns was ingrained into my character by Dad. Although he allowed us to have cap guns and the like when we were children we must never, never point a gun, even a cap gun at anyone. Not in his sight anyway.
Another activity which training regiments took a delight in was jabbing all and sundry with whatever anti-body that could be dreamed up and whacked into our arms. Vaccination fever was just another of the hazards. We seemed to have to report to the MO (Medical Officer) with monotonous regularity to have our arms jabbed with what felt like crow bars and to have them ripped by what must have been rusty penknives so that he could rub in cowpox or something equally obnoxious. It was on one of these visits to the MO, when he asked me if everything was all right etc., I mentioned to him the pain in my chest. After listening in to what was going on in there he had me in Catterick Military Hospital straight away. I had at least completed four weeks of my preliminary training and had been introduced to the Matilda tank and the Cromwell. I was in hospital for quite some time, during which the doctors suggested that there were some horrific things happening within me. At one stage, after about a month they decided that they should send for my parents. Under the circumstances, with Dad being so ill it was out of the question for him and Mother to come up. The task fell to Betty. She somehow managed to persuade Jack Bakes that nothing would do him more good than a trip up to Catterick. He in turn managed to find enough petrol for the trip.
In January '43 I was discharged from Hospital and sent to a Convalescent Home and a month later to a Convalescent Depot. The Con Depot was at Ovenden, near Halifax, less than two miles from the Bradford-Halifax Road. I took full advantage of its location and had many an evening at home, rounded off with fish and chips as I walked down the hill back to the camp. The activities within the camp were far less favourable. Every activity was geared to either killing us or making us physically fit and, to us, it seemed to matter but little which way it went. The Commanding Officer of the camp was a medical man and a fitness fanatic 'in excelcis'. He invariably took us on cross-country runs and to make matters worse he was an extraordinarily tall man. Most of his height was in his legs. He had only to walk at a steady pace with those "gi-normous" legs and most of us were running. To aggravate the situation even more he had a Great Dane that was his constant companion, going everywhere with him, even on those cross-country walks (Runs). His idea was that everyone kept running, he walking, until that wretched dog had had enough.
Fifteen or so miles was considered by him to be just reasonable exercise. Another of his wondrous ideas for getting men fit, (here you need to know the local terrain), was that to pass out (for fitness) we had to run through the camp, down through the village, over the railway line and then on up the hill. Carry on over the Bradford - Halifax Road, climb some more hills then shin up an eight or ten foot wall, with the aid of ropes. Then there was still some more hill to climb. When one finally got to the top our wrist was stamped with the Company Stamp. Then back down the hill and into the camp. All this had to be completed within a specified time limit. Twenty minutes seems to ring a bell, but looking over the track it looks impossible to do it in that time. Officially there was no way out of that unit until one had done this. However there were some, who shall remain nameless, who had come to an arrangement with the office clerk, who for a few shillings or cigarettes would stamp us before setting out. There must be hundreds, like me, who would still be in that camp was it not for this facility.
Leaving Ovenden had its drawbacks. There were to be no more walks to the bus and evenings at home. Well I suppose that was fair enough. I could hardly expect HM the King to continue to keep me in a manner, which even despite the hardships had its comforts. So it was back to Menin Lines at Catterick Camp for me before I knew what was happening. I can assure you that there was no way in which I could get enthusiastic about going back and trying to flatten out that blasted square again. My Guardian Angel must have had a word with the powers that be because I found myself in a squad which had just completed it's square bashing and were about to start their more serious training. Someone found out that I had not done any work in the Radio School. This was immediately rectified and I found myself looking at radios, listening to the Morse code and trying (in vain) to make sense of it. Then there were sessions of attempting to correct the faults that had been put in the radios by the instructors. This last I enjoyed, but not so the Morse Code. Had I been able to master the repairs, I would never have made a radio operator. I just could not get the hang of the rest of the work. Within a few days of the results of the various test reports being sorted through I was selected to do a Driver Mechanic's course.
By now the Churchills had begun to arrive in Catterick in reasonable numbers. My introduction to these monsters, as I saw them, was quite an experience. We were ordered to climb up onto them, take a look round both inside and out and generally get used to the 'Feel' of them. Anyone who has no experience of a tank will be unable to identify with the feelings that we all had. Those tanks looked and were enormous, all forty-seven tons of them (unladen). I have since learned that they are more in the region of forty-two tons, but who's to five tons when one is about to be trained to master the things? Certainly I wasn't to a few tons as I gazed at them. They looked fearsome until one noticed the armament.... All they had in the line of fire power was a 'Two Pounder' for the main gun and two Besa machine guns, one in the lower hull for the co-driver and the other mounted co-axially with the main gun. Main weapon a two pounder, indeed. They might just as well have been fitted with a water pistol for all this could do to harass Jerry. We did get up-graded to Six Pounders and before the war ended we could proudly boast a 75-mm main gun. But neither of these were much of an embarrassment to Jerry with his 88mm guns and very superior tanks. As we were later to find out, both the Tiger and the Panther tanks could run rings around us and both outgunned us. This, of course we were blissfully ignorant of whilst at Catterick. As time goes by it will become clear that for all it's shortcomings and weaknesses, I personally took quite a shine to the Churchill tank. It was without doubt the best infantry tank that the Allies had right up to the end of the war.
The next few weeks at Catterick were, with hindsight, quite fun. It was decreed that I should carry on with the training and eventually be mustered as a Driver/Mech. The qualifications of a driver/mech. were that he must be able to drive his tank from A to B without mishap. He must be able to maintain his tank in sound mechanical condition. He must also be able to carry out running repairs without being dependent on REME to keep it mobile. So far as getting driving experience was concerned, I started with driving the 10cwt Pick-up trucks and then graduated to 3-ton trucks. Once having passed out on wheeled vehicles, we had to get used to tracked vehicles. Obviously we started on the lighter tracked vehicles such as Bren Carriers and Carnell Lloyds. Eventually we got there and we started driving the Churchills. The one thing that each and every one of our instructors was to drill into us was Anticipation. Any use of brakes was, they maintained, due to lack of anticipation by the driver and excess use of the brakes postponed our passing of the driving test. Hence pay increments were delayed. It was imperative to pass the test on the first attempt if one was to survive financially. The maintenance and other mechanical training came fairly easily to me, because that was where my main interest lay.
Along with getting used to the tanks we had other sections of training to get on with. Night marches, and they were really quite a bit of fun. The squad was split into groups of three and each group was supplied with compass, torch, paper and pencils. One of the sheets of paper had on it the details of the bearings on which we had to march and the number of yards we had to march on each bearing. The idea was that the man with the compass read the bearing and sent the other two men along that bearing. The first man stopped after say fifty yards and the second man marched on for another fifty yards whilst the compass man kept close watch that his colleagues were marching along the correct bearing. He then went to the lead man, checking the yardage and then checking the reverse bearing on the first man to set out. This went on time after time until we were hopelessly lost or (even) on target. These marches were scheduled to last a couple of hours but if the work of anyone in the team was not up to standard, they could take all night.
It surprised me how few pubs (if any) there are on the North Yorkshire Moors. Certainly there were none on the bearings that we had to march on. The day time cross country marches were rather better arranged in this respect and there was the distinct chance that if we had done more of them we could well have begun to appreciate the army life. A few weeks of fairly concentrated training and then I got a seven day pass. Those seven days were probably the seven shortest days in my life, thus far. All I remember of them was the lunch time sessions with Dad. (Playing Bar Billiards and having the odd pint of pop each), on at the Bowling Green (a pub long gone to make way for accommodation for the students at the Bradford University). I also remember that I called at the BDA Laboratory, ostensibly to find out however they were managing without me but actually to see Edith and make sure that she remembered me. She didn't, or at least she did not acknowledge that she did.
The seven days were over all too quickly and it was back to Catterick Camp for me. The routine was now considerably changed. Guard Duty, general fatigues, fire pickets, cookhouse fatigues and other wearisome duties filled our time whilst we waited to be posted to an active battalion. The worst, by far, of these duties were the cookhouse fatigues. Here we spent our time washing greasy tins and peeling an unending supply of potatoes. It was whilst on this work that I decided that if I were ever to have any sons and they wanted to play at being soldiers they would have to do their stint of spud bashing. Who warned Adrian and Gregory what their fate would have been had they not been so thoroughly pacifistic?
Within a very few weeks I was posted to a service unit, the 9th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment. Naturally the first thing which we wanted to know about the units to which we had been posted was where are they stationed. To my chagrin I found that the 9th was currently stationed in Kent. Not good for the odd few days at home. The great thing about the unit was that it was made up, mainly, of men from the North. The majority came from around Newcastle. They were great guys, those Geordies. Within a few days of arriving with the unit I found that until just a few weeks previous, they had been stationed at Farnley Park near Otley, less than ten miles from Bradford. One of the main topics of conversation was that whilst in Yorkshire the Battalion had to write off one of it's Churchills which had become bogged down on Ilkley Moor. In 1981 I came across this tank. Not on the Moors but IN some land belonging to the Forestry Commission near Leathley. It has at last been recovered and is at the Transport Museum at Beverley and is to be restored.
Perhaps it was a good thing for me that the unit was now a long way from home. Training became quite concentrated and to be so near home with no chance of skiving off would have been a bit frustrating. HQ Squadron was stationed at Charing, between Ashford and Maidstone. I was posted to A Squadron that was in a sleepy little village a few miles into the country from Charing. Oh, that countryside. It was so peaceful that even though we were serving in the army, it was incredible to know that there was the fiercest war ever being waged and that the whole of Britain was in immediate danger of being swamped by the Nazis.
We were surrounded by hop-fields and cherry orchards and during the cherry picking season we were able to find time to help the farmers to gather their harvest, thus being able to earn those much needed shillings as well as getting our fill of cherries. Happy days. Training became much more interesting. I was allocated to a troop and within very little time had my own tank. It always struck me as ludicrous that the driver, on about two shillings and sixpence a day had to sign for a tank valued at about fifty thousand pounds! The Lord alone knows what would have happened if we had lost another. Sadly I don't recall any of the crew members with whom I trained. Rather strange that because we went out on many schemes together and of course lived, virtually in each other’s pockets. The schemes were most often on the South Downs but we did go wandering off around the country mainly for getting in some gunnery practice. Two places to which we went and I recall were Hornsea, where we had fun for about ten days firing out to sea. Later we went from Kent all the way up to Kirkcudbright, in Scotland. This trip was rather less than interesting. We spent two whole weeks surrounded by the infamous Scotch Mist and never a shot was fired. The only notable thing that occurred during the fortnight was that 95% of the Squadron was laid low with a most severe dose of the 'Trots'. Was it the Scotch, of which we didn't get enough that was responsible for the trouble?
I, personally, was so disappointed with Scotland that I vowed that never again would my shadow darken that land. It's a good thing that we can change our minds, as I was to find out years later. It must have been events like that which helped to keep up the cost of the war, said to be some eleven million pounds per day. The cost of moving a full battalion of tanks, men and all their equipment must have been astronomical and all for nothing. So far as I was able to make out only the drivers gained any valuable experience from the trip. The "Flats" on which the tanks travelled were some twelve inches narrower than the tank tracks. This meant that there were several inches of overhang at both sides. Loading and off-loading, therefore called for a deal of accuracy in the handling.
There is some interest in a detail on which I was sent to Eastwell Park, a few miles down the road from the tank park in Charing. I was sent to the park along with the tank and one crew member, the commander, to work with the Royal Engineers. I am mentioning this because the work that we did on the detachment may well justify the faith that I developed in the Churchill. The RE's were carrying out work and tests on some devices that they were sure would be of invaluable help when the invasion of Northern Europe finally came; Bangalore Torpedoes and Fascines. The Bangalore Torpedo had been thought up to destroy barbed wire entanglements with speed. All it consisted of was several lengths of cast iron domestic type fall pipe. These pipes were fastened together in a straight line, maybe six or seven lengths. Those at the front were filled with high explosive. Whilst the last two or three, those nearest to the tank were empty. The idea, as I recall it, worked extremely well. How it worked was that the tank pushed the 'Torpedo' into position under the barbed wire. The trick was for the commander and the driver to keep an eagle eye on the pipe and ensure that it was kept in a perfectly straight line. If it twisted then one had to manoeuvre the tank and get it straightened out. If this was not possible then we had to reverse, get it straight and start over again. Once in position press the appropriate button after making sure that all the flaps were down and the drivers visor closed and Bingo. The lot, torpedo and barbed wire vanished in a cloud of cordite smoke. Very satisfactory. Just a few practice runs and we became quite expert at the game.
The Fascine generated far more interest, for me at any rate. A Fascine is a bundle of brushwood bound tightly into a six-foot diameter roll. The object was to use them to assist the tank to climb a fourteen-foot vertical wall. What we did in the Park was to dig back into an earthen hill, leaving a sheer wall in front of us. The Fascine was then mounted on the tank, over the driver and co-driver's hatches. It was secured there with a cable fed into the driving compartment, ending in a quick release mechanism. Having completed all the preparations I was given my instructions. "Right driver, take your tank to the start point, about thirty yards from the obstacle. You are to drive at a fair speed to the bottom of the climb, slam your brakes on hard and release the Fascine at the same time. The Fascine will then roll into the angle formed by the ground and the hill. Reverse about fifteen yards. From here it is very much up to you. On the command 'Advance' approach the Fascine in second gear and climb as far as you can. As the engine is stalling slip into first gear and carry on to the level ground at the top." It all sounds very simple but in truth the first run was a bit on the hair-raising side. All I could see through the visor as we were climbing was the sky and I seemed to be making slow progress heavenwards. As we reached the top of the Fascine so I had to change gear. The tank was vertical and I knew only too well that if I engaged the clutch a bit on the fierce side we were bound to roll over backwards. Now I knew why I was in the tank on my own. But, we did it right. We climbed the fourteen feet in two very tricky stages. The idea worked and a few more runs made sure that we could do it to order and with confidence. The detachment work lasted for a couple of weeks and it was whilst I was in Eastwell Park that I saw glow worms for the first and only time in my life. They probably made as big an impression on me as the work that we had done.
Now it was back to the Squadron to get on with more routine training. Every day, except Sundays was spent in the tank park near Charing. Looking back it is quite amazing how we could be kept busy day after day doing routine maintenance of the tanks, but it was through this that we became so familiar with the workings of them. After a few weeks each driver was fully capable of stripping down the four carburettors, reassembling and synchronising them one with another. The ignition was always a bit awkward. Looking after a twelve-cylinder engine, each cylinder having two spark plugs that in turn were fed by two distributors. These of course had to be synchronised, one with the other. The gearboxes, incidentally, were built by David Browns of Huddersfield, and were extremely complicated. Because of this they were exclusively the responsibility of the REME, or in emergency the Squadron fitters. They were four speed 'Crash' boxes which fed the drive into four trains of epicyclical gears, two for steering and two for braking. This part of the mechanism is far too involved for me to explain in a few words but it is interesting to note that the steering was the reverse of what one would expect. The steering brakes were applied to the annulus of the steering epicyclical train and instead of slowing down, the affected track speeded it up. Therefore to turn right the brake was applied to the left annulus and vice versa. One strange effect of the steering mechanism, which I never understood was that if the tank were in neutral and the steering arm operated, the tank would rotate on it's own axis, one track going forward and the other backward. It is interesting to note that when we first started to drive the Churchill we were told that the gears were so difficult to select that we should not expect to get a 'Clean' change. Within a few months of handling them not only could we effect clean changes, most of us were able to change gear cleanly without using the clutch! That was just one of the silly tricks which we developed to relieve the monotony.
Sometime about June of 1943 we went on another scheme on the South Downs. I think that this is worth the mention because it was on this scheme that I got another chance to try to work my ticket back into Civvy Street. Shortly before going on the scheme I cut my left knee whilst climbing onto the tank. It was not much of a cut but for once my wonderful healing flesh did not have the desired effect and the cut went septic. I was obliged to report sick. The MO put me on light duties and the powers that be transferred me to the MT (Motor Transport) section. I was now to drive a five-ton truck. Well I suppose it was lighter than a tank! I thought that I had struck it lucky when I was put onto a Petrol wagon. Much safer I thought than an Ammunition wagon. Not so. Each night I had to sleep on top of a whacking great load of petrol tins. Have you ever tried sleeping on petrol tins rather than a bed? Most likely not but I can assure you that there is nothing worse so far as I know. The comfort is appalling and the smell infinitely worse. I think that the fumes of the petrol helped the oil and grease on my denims to penetrate the bandage on my knee. After a couple of days of this I found that I had an evil looking red line running up from my knee to my groin. Back to the MO. He was not best pleased to see me. "I thought that I had put you on light duties" he said and his next words brought joy to my heart. "Into the Kent and Sussex Hospital for you Trooper". As the hospital was in Brighton I thought that this would be a nice break from driving a petrol truck around the Downs.
I soon found out that there were to be no trips into Brighton. I was confined to bed. The leg went from bad to worse and then on to very bad indeed. I think that the medical term for what developed is Lymphangitis. This in it's turn developed into phlebitis. When I had been in there for a few weeks James managed to fiddle time off from his RAF Duties and came down to see me but it had to be a bedside visit. I was still stuck in bed so we were both disappointed with this. I remained in the Brighton Hospital for about six weeks and was then transferred to an orthopaedic hospital in Pembury, near Tunbridge Wells. Here the leg made no progress until the MO's put in several lance attacks both on my knee and thigh. This was obviously what was required because within a couple of weeks they declared that the leg was now sufficiently better for me to get up. Soon I was making my way into Tunbridge Wells and thoroughly enjoying a life of ease.
Of course all the servicemen in the hospital were wearing (Hospital) Blues. This uniform marked us out to the locals as war heroes, wounded soldiers in fact. As such we were all granted privileges such as free rides on the buses. There was one occasion when there was a rather special film on in the town. By the time we arrived at the cinema rather a long queue had formed. I along with two or three mates from the hospital had just joined the queue when the manager came out; "All wounded soldiers to the front" was his cry. Who were we to tell him that as yet we hadn't even seen an angry German? In all I was in hospital until the end of February 1944. I was quite sure that I should end up with my ticket and so be discharged from the army. No chance. Instead I was transferred to a Convalescent Depot in Richmond Park, Surrey, where I pursued my ambition to become a civvy again. I should not have bothered; they were far too short of Cannon Fodder in those days. Providing that one was warm and breathing one was good enough.
During the evening of March the seventh I got a telegram from home. "Come home. Dad's condition critical". No way will I ever forget that night. For a start I went to the Company Office to negotiate a pass from the Orderly Officer. He couldn't be found. The Orderly Sergeant told me to get off home. He would cover for me overnight and straighten things out in the morning, when he would send a pass on to me. The overriding snag was that I had no money for rail fare. The Orderly Sergeant lent me ten shillings. It was all he had. "Do the best you can with that, lad." I did. I got as far as Doncaster on a couple of platform tickets. Unfortunately when I got to Doncaster it was to discover that there would be no trains for Bradford until 0700hrs. Here was I stuck on a Doncaster platform at 0315hrs. Nothing for it but to try to thumb a lift. I struck lucky after walking for about a quarter of an hour. A lorry going to Halifax picked me up. Unfortunately for me he had already picked up another soldier who was in the cab. I had therefore to climb onto the back of his open wagon. We got to Halifax at about 0600hrs and I must have looked, I certainly felt, like a snowman. Those were the two and a half coldest hours of my life thus far. It was a bitterly cold night with freezing fog coming down. No way would I recommend spending that amount of time on the back of a truck under those conditions. Not to grumble though I was almost home. I caught the first bus out of Halifax and it dropped me off at the end of Pemberton Drive at about 0700hrs. Too late. Dad had died at midnight. I never got the chance to say Good-Bye nor to thank him for all that he had done for me.
I won’t dwell on the grief of those next few days. That is better left to the imagination of the reader. One small consolation that I got was that the sergeant down at Richmond had done me proud. He sent me a pass for seven days that allowed me time to attend Dad's funeral and ample time to thaw out after the ride from Doncaster. After the leave I went back to the Con Depot at Richmond and for some inexplicable reason I had lost the desire to work my way out of the army. The result of this was that I made a wonderful recovery and within a couple of weeks I was pronounced fit to return to my unit. As it happened I did not return to A Squadron of the 9th RTR but was posted to the Brigade Tank Delivery Unit. This unit was in fact the first line of replacements for casualties within the Brigade. The whole Brigade had now left Kent and was stationed in Hampshire. The spot where I found myself was Farnborough, right beside the RAF Experimental Establishment. It was here that I, for the first time saw Jet Powered Aircraft. They were being tested at Farnborough and the manoeuvres that they were performing would have been impossible to any plane that I had seen up to this time. So there was bags of interest alongside the work which we were scheduled to do here...Sealing the tanks. Sealing them so that they could be landed in up to twelve feet of water and remain functional. Things were beginning to look just a little ominous.
A lot of talk was going on in the unit. Speculation about the invasion of Northern Europe. When and where was it to take place. It was obvious that it was not far into the future. I suppose that I thought that if I didn't dwell on it, it might well go away. But of course, we minions had absolutely no idea of what to expect or when to expect it to happen. So we just got on with the job of sealing the tanks and, in theory making them safe to be off-loaded in the appropriate depth of water. As I recall it there were no facilities to test our workmanship or the theories of those who had designed the kits. Not a very healthy prospect for one like myself who was never strong on the aquatic life. I most certainly was not strong on the prospect of doing battle with the Jerry U-boats! I even had visions of falling foul of a torpedo. I hoped and prayed that the crew had made a good job of the sealing. In actual fact the equipment was extremely good. The air intakes and the exhaust were extended by about six feet (vertical) and all the hatches were sealed. How the devil did we get in? I forget. Provision was made so that once we had reached dry land we could blow away the sealing, inlet and exhaust extensions, the lot, with an explosive called Cordtex.
We woke on the morning of the "SIXTH JUNE 1944 to an almost indescribable noise of aircraft overhead. The noise was so intense that every man-Jack of us baled out of bed to find out what was going on up there. I have seen patches of the sky blacked out by flights of birds, but on this morning the whole sky, as far as we could see, was mottled by aircraft. Never before had any of us seen anything like it. Towing aircraft, I believe that they were Dakotas, each towing a glider. Just how many aircraft there were up there beggers the imagination...Hundreds, yes, Thousands, most probably. "Hey-up" we thought, "this must be IT". By the time we had accepted what was going on, it was being announced over the radio that the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy. Books have been written, films have been made and many people have told their stories about that day and the happenings there on. I'll have my say in a wee while. Our main concern was to the effect of "How long will it be before we shall be over there?” There were, of course, loads of opinions. Some were convinced that we would be off over there to day. Me, I was not in so much of a hurry, but even I recognised that it wouldn't be many days away.
I think that it was about a week before we were told that a move was imminent. It is interesting to note that, when I thought that it would be a good idea if I were to 'phone Mother and the family let them all know that I was still in England, I found that it was quite impossible to make any other than 'local calls'. There must have been a great deal of security activity. Quite understandable. Incidentally by this time all outgoing mail was subject to censorship and the Green Envelope system whereby every man had one green envelope each week, the contents of which were not censored by our own Officers, was not yet in place.
We eventually made our way, on transporters to Gospsort, from where we were going to Normandy. So far as I can remember we boarded the Tank Landing Craft (T.L.C.'s) on either the twelfth of June or maybe it was on D+12 which would be June 18th. The T.L.C.'s were quite small craft and I think they were able to carry nine Churchills each, per trip. The craft were flat-bottomed vessels which if I had known that we were in for a very rough crossing, as we were I don't think I would have boarded so happily. There was far and away too much activity on board for us to have time to feel fear of what might face us once we had landed. Each tank had to be secured, against slipping about, with enormous chains.
My tank's place on board was I thought fairly good. I was last to board and I, being ever hopeful thought that with a bit of luck they might just find that they had enough on board. No such good fortune. "Driver advance to within about three yards of the vessel then about turn." In order to expedite off loading when we got over there we had to reverse onto the landing craft. This position put me in the happy situation of being only a few feet from the loading ramps at the front end. These ramps and their fittings were to come in very useful. I was able to sling one of the engine covers between the tank and the pulleys. Thus providing me with somewhere to have a kip. We each had at least one self-heating tin of soup. I opened mine as soon as the tank was secured. I ate it along with a couple of army biscuits, and then climbed into my "Mk1 berth". I seem to think that we set sail at about 8 p.m. but within a few minutes I had nodded off to sleep and that sleep lasted almost through the night. When I did wake up I learned that one of the vessels had struck a mine and had gone down 'P.D.Q.' I never heard which one it was but thank God there were no casualties. Mind you to lose nine Churchills would cost quite a few quid! Another story, which was going around, was that the sea had been so rough that on another TLC the tanks had broken free of their moorings and had been slithering about. Not very healthy for the crews who must have had to be pretty nippy to keep out of the way of them.
Keeping note of the times when things were happening was something that I failed to do. Maybe I had other things on my mind. We were given a Scratch breakfast by the crew, (facilities were very limited on board). Shortly after that we were ordered to board tanks. It was only at this stage that I realised that being the last to board put us in the unenviable position to be first off. The worry was that there being no-one in front of us meant that I had absolutely no idea of the depth of the water into which we were to land. Orders were that once the commander had seen that the winches, which were to lower the ramps, had stopped unwinding, he was to give the order "Driver advance". There I was peering through the periscope; eyes fixed on the ramps, waiting for it to go down. There was an expression that one "kept one's powder dry and trusted in the Lord". I was most certainly trusting in the Lord that He would keep us all dry, never mind about the powder...Down went the ramp. Panic stations. Suddenly the chains stopped unwinding. Look out Frank lad, you may be taking this into water too deep for the depth to which we hoped that we had sealed it. If we had got it wrong then we were in for quite a good soaking at least. Mustn't stall the engine when we hit terra firma. Driver advance, "God" I thought, "this is it. Look after us please". Foot down hard, bottom gear, engine racing fit to blow each and every gasket. Then we feel the angle of the tank increasing. All I could see was blue sky, (shades of Eastwell Park, back in Kent.) Once again I had the impression that we were on our way up to heaven. The rise seemed interminable, then suddenly we reached the balance point and the front end of the tank started to drop. Another moment and all I could see was water. Masses of the damned stuff. Keep your revs up. We can't afford to stall the engine whilst we are under water.
Then suddenly I realised that we hadn't slowed down when we got into the water and that my periscope was not under water. That TLC Captain, God Bless him, had got us so close to the shore that we landed in less than a foot of water. Blow off all the sealing kit. We hadn't needed it anyway.
Here we are on the shores of Normandy, with, as far as I know, no opposition. Thanks of course due to the wonderful job done by the earlier arrivals. As we were a tank delivery unit our destination was quite some way behind the front line. It was on this trip to the rear lines that brought me face to face with the reality of war. As we were far enough from any imminent danger I was driving with my visor open and so had a reasonable view of where we were going. Suddenly I noticed a pile of freshly turned earth at the side of the road. Stuck out from it was a khaki clad leg! If I was on a high up to that point, that sight brought me down to earth with a very hard bump and it started the train of thoughts about all the casualties that had been suffered by the Allies to make our landing so quiet.
During the few days that I was with the T.D.U. the battalion had it's baptism of fire and had suffered a number of casualties. New crew members and tanks were needed to bring it back up to strength. I found myself in "B" Squadron, with whom I was to serve until the end of the war. New crews were hurriedly and temporally assembled. I was placed in a crew who had lost one member. I was to be co-driver. The details of the crew I do not remember. But I do remember that the driver was Bob Hay who came from Birmingham and was, I believe, the son of a farmer. We found out, quite quickly that we were both born on the 22.12.23. We were to spend our twenty first birthday together on leave in Brussels. However, back to Normandy in July 1944.
According to the news bulletins, which we were able to pick up on the tank radio there was a hill, code name, Hill 112 over looking Caen. This hill was of great strategic importance to both the Germans and to the Allies. At the moment the Jerries were occupying it and were determined to hang onto it, come what may. We were equally determined to re-take it and to stay put, once we had cleared Jerry out. On July the fourth it was agreed that, it was time for us to go into action and help to retake the hill. Apparently the Allies had decided that without occupancy of the hill, we had little or no chance of liberating Caen. Trust my luck, this was to be my baptism of fire Fortunately, the battle was due to start at 0300hrs, long before I had awoken to the reality of what was going to erupt. The other members of the crew had already seen action and knew something about what was going on. Me, I hadn't a clue, which I suppose was just as well. We mounted the tank, each to his allotted task. Myself, as co-driver, I was down in the hull, with Bob. My major responsibility was the Besa machine gun that was mounted in front of me. I had not touched one of these since my days at Catterick but I had seen my co-driver operate one when we were on exercises back in England. Fortunately Bob had taken a greater interest in what his co-driver had done and he assured me that he was quite capable of guiding me through the loading of the thing. In the event things went smoothly and my earlier training did come to the rescue. Between us we managed to load one belt of ammunition without any trouble and without any major help from Bob.
I should, at this point out that the 9th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment was part of the 31st Armoured Brigade. The other two units in the Brigade were the seventh Battalion of the RTR and the third unit was The Buffs. The Buffs' tanks were equipped with flame-throwers, deadly things these but when things were getting a bit on the awkward side they were wonderfully efficient. Oh, but so inhuman to inflict such a gruesome end on anyone. I do sometimes wonder how we had been trained to use this sort of thing against fellow human beings. Somehow we all were brainwashed into thinking that the German army was made up with men of the same calibre as the SS. Nothing was further from the truth as I was to find out once the war was over. The 31st Brigade was part of the 57th (Welsh) Division. Having sorted that out and I hope made it clear to you, as reader so that you will realise that for the first few battles we fought alongside the Welsh infantrymen. After very few weeks the Brigade was withdrawn from the Division and became an independent Unit. This move made it so that we could be, and often were, used in support of any unit that was in deep trouble. In fact before the war was over we had fought alongside the Canadians, the New Zealanders, the Guards Division and several others but not with the Americans.
Soon we were on the move to the start point, which was the starting point for the infantry. I should point out that the Churchill Tank was designed as an infantry support tank. Our task therefore was dependant of on how the infantry fared and upon what help they required when they encountered opposition too strong for them. We were supposed to add the weight of our firepower, which was great against infantry but not over efficient against Jerry's tanks fitted with their 88mm guns. These were fitted to both the Tiger and Panther tanks. Both of which made our firepower seem puerile. Even his anti-tank guns could penetrate our tanks fairly comfortably (for them.) if they got it right. The order came for us to move to the start line. Having up to this time only travelled in a tank as the driver with reasonably good visibility of what was going on outside, to the fore, the restrictive visibility through the periscope, I found to be a bit claustrophobic. However I had far too many pressing matters to occupy my mind. We were moving off.
Details of the battle are, to say the least not overly pleasant so I'll not dwell on them. One outstanding memory of that day was just how few seconds it took for the interior of the tank to fill with cordite fumes. It was damned nigh impossible to breathe. The ventilator fans did eventually do their work and clear the fumes once the guns had a break in firing. But by then we were all having a cigarette. Outside, things were obviously going as intended, from the point of view that we were advancing.
As a crewmember I had virtually no idea of what was going on outside, in detail. One just waited for things to happen; orders from the Commander to the crewmembers, gunner traverse right, main gun fire. The whole tank rocked a bit and another cloud of cordite fumes filled it. Soon it all became common place and somewhere around three o'clock in the afternoon I was rudely awakened by water gushing in onto me through the Besa mounting! Seems that I must have nodded off and our course took us through a fairly deep ditch. The 'sleeping bit', was apparently the bonus point for being a co-driver. One could have forty winks whilst the battles were going on. The actual job consisted simply of having to fire the Besa when ordered to by the Commander. I suppose getting wet through is reasonable entertainment for the driver.
He (the co-driver) was there also to take over the driving should the driver be unfortunate enough to get killed or injured. Drivers and co-drivers were heavy casualties in those first few battles. We soon realised why this was. Jerry was using our "Bridge classification" marks as targets and we also realised that the armour at the front of the tank could be reinforced by having some spare track links fitted, so as to hang down over Jerries target area. This reinforcing kept the REME very busy for a few days, but it kept the hull crew alive much longer. The end of the day in question ended in the capture of the objective, Hill 112. The objective of B Squadron and their Company of infantry, Chateau Fontaine, had been achieved with the loss of five tanks and I think seven crewmembers. It was said by many of the men that one of our casualties, a main gunner (Johnny Hitchcock), had gone on firing after his tank had started to brew up (burn and blow up) and that he actually reloaded his Besa and carried on firing until his tank blew up. If this were true, and I have every confidence that it is, surely he should have received a posthumous award. That evening, whilst we were refuelling and 'ammoing' up, we were able to listen to a radio and hear a running commentary of the battle, given by, I think, Richard Dimbleby, and I have more than a suspicion that he mentioned the heroism of Johnny (not by name of course.) I have tried in vain to obtain a copy of the broadcast from the BBC. They told me that there were copyright factors to take into consideration. Personally I think that it is a disgrace that the BBC were, and probably are failing to help to show honour to a man, who richly deserved recognition. Even now there must be members of his family who could have the pride of knowing that their relative showed such bravery. As we were getting on with our tasks of preparing our tanks for the morrow the RAF paid us a visit and got in a bit of target practice on us. This we did not find very encouraging and we were to be served up with this such activity on more that one occasion.
For the next few days we were on counter attack duties, during which time I was transferred to troop nine (B Squadron) and so back to driving. I was to take over a replacement tank, named IMMUNE II. I didn't find the name very encouraging. What had happened to IMMUNE I? These counter attack duties had their benefits. We were, of course, in farming country, so whilst waiting for Jerry to attack us we were wandering about the locality and found farms where hens were running about waiting for their "Liberators" to collect their produce and it wasn't long before we were adding fresh poultry to our menu. I knew full well that the skill that I had gained back home in Wyke, slaughtering and preparing poultry for the table would come in useful one day. In fact Immune II was known to have gone, on more than one occasion, into battle with the odd plucked and dressed chicken hung around the turret.
We spent a lot of time around Caen and we were to witness a 1,000 bomber raid on the town. We watched the raid from a distance of about a couple of miles, and we were convinced that nothing or nobody could have survived such a plastering. Jerry did, at least a hell of a lot of them had done. The defence of the town seemed in no way diminished when we followed up with our attack.
As you most probably know Normandy is a great area for the production of Wine, Cider, Calvados and other such delights. All of which the locals were more than happy to share with us. Oh yes there were plenty of things to enjoy when Jerry was not demanding our attention. There was one local yokel whose gratitude towards us was such that he insisted that we fill our drinking water tanks with his cider. That was the biggest boob that we had committed so far. The blooming stuff was so strong that it, quite literally took the lining off the inside of the tanks leaving them black and horrible and certainly no longer fit for their original purpose. I have wondered what in heavens name did it do to our stomach linings. For the next few weeks we were kept busy 'liberating' towns and villages in Normandy. We seemed to be partially bogged down and progress toward Germany seemed quite slow.
It is of course impossible for me to quote each and every battle in which we were involved without reference to a manual of the activities in which our battalion was involved. I do recall the 'liberating' of a village called Villers Bocage. When we had finished the Liberating of it, the town was quite literally just so many piles of debris. It looked to us as if it would never again be of any use to Man or beast. Many years later Adrian went on a school exchange scheme visit France. He had mentioned to the people with whom he was staying, that his Uncle Ernest, a bomber pilot, had been shot down and killed over Laurient and that he was buried in an Allies' cemetery near there. "Right" they said, if you would like to we'll be very happy to take you to see his grave". On the way, they went through Villers Bocage and quite by chance Adrian took a photograph as they travelled down the main street. When he showed me the picture I was amazed and pleased to see what a wonderfully pleasant town the French had built where we had left very intensive scarring of warfare
One of the habits, which we picked up as we went along, was to salvage anything that we needed from the casualty tanks, Hence we were able to replace the drinking water tanks. My favourite item for salvage was the small pressure stove with which each tank crew had one. Within a short time we, on IMMUNE II had no less than four. They came in very handy when we dined on chicken! One day the driver of one of the trucks, which brought up to the ammo, food and petrol proudly showed us a pig that he had found and killed. Needless to say we ended up with a nice sized piece of pork. Such items were really a great luxury diet that we found to be far and away superior to the iron rations on which we had bee living on since we had landed in Normandy. Well no, that is not a hundred percent true. Within in a short time after landing, somehow the Catering Corps had managed to make some fresh bread. I forget how many days there was between the issue of one loaf per tank crew. The piece of pork that we had won from Kipper, the driver, looked so good that we decided to carry out a service on each of our cookers. Someone, possibly myself had failed to carry out his work properly and when I lit one of the cookers we got a flashback which set the whole thing alight. With all the ammo and petrol that we had aboard this was by no means the safest place to be. I wasted not a second in setting off the CO2 bottle and hollering "Bale Out". I have no idea which was out first, the crew or the fire. We stood outside for a few minutes and then took a peep through the hatches. Yes, the CO2 bottle had done its job very well. In fact it had done rather more than its job; all the bright metal parts, breach blocks, gun barrels etc. were tarnished black. All had to be boiled and burnished to bring them back to a serviceable condition. I think that we never settled down to eat that pork. What I do know is that the crew were not best pleased with me. They decided that as the stoves were mounted on the tool box lid which was behind the driver's seat so the driver was responsible and I was presumed to be the one who had caused the debacle. Such events were never taken seriously. There was far and away too much to keep us occupied and as I write this I find it difficult to realise that there was so much humour to brighten the situation. We were on the winning side! Granted it was slow hard work, but at least we were advancing whereas Jerry was slowly but surely being driven back to his own land.
There would be little point in me boring you with the details of all the battle in which we were involved. Even if I was able to remember them. However I am sure that it is only fair to mention the tank crew. Normally our tank was commanded by Corporal (Mac) McDonald. The main gunner was Ray Nash and the third member of the turret crew was a Polish man who answered to the name of Len. Len was of course the wireless operator. My partner down in the hull of the tank was Charlie Merry. On occasions we would go into battle with one member of the crew swapping with a member of another crew... same job but with a different tank and crew. Sometimes we had the "Honour"(?) of being temporarily promoted to being commanded by the troop officer, Lt. Neville Lord. Mr Lord was quite a character in his own way and he was forever telling the troop that he was going to earn for himself a "Monkey Charlie". Put another way he seemed anxious to earn for himself a Military Cross. None of us took that seriously, but nevertheless neither the troop sergeant’s crew, nor us, really looked forward to being his crew even if it was only for a day! He was utterly without regard for his own safety and looking back I'm bound to admit that it is more than a little surprising that he, and even his entire troop survived to tell the tale.
As I said, he was very popular with his three crews. He shared everything with us, the bad as well as the good. For instance he was fully prepared to do his share on guard each night. He was also quite happy to share with us the bottles of whisky which he was able to get hold of often enough. No one, or course, was silly enough to wonder where they came from. But so long as they kept coming our satisfaction was assured. All we bothered about was where they were going.
To us, the crewmembers, the progress of the advance seemed painfully slow until the final battle, closing the Falaise Gap. This meant the closing of the large pincher movement, which encircled a very large number of Jerries. Jerry was, of course, dead anxious to stop us doing so almost as determined as we were to seal it off. The mentioning of this particular scrap is because it was first time that the 9th Battalion of the RTR was in support of Canadian Infantry. We found that the Canadians were infantrymen who were not prepared to work to the rules. They were absolutely determined to close the gap with the minimum of delay. Normally Infantry support tanks withdrew, as daylight faded, from the very front line, out of consideration for the safety of the infantry. It was considered far and away too dangerous for the foot soldiers to be swanning about in the dark with tanks in the line. It seems that the Canadians were unaware of this rule of the game and continued until the small hours of the morning. At about 3 a.m. we largered down in the familiar circle. When first light came, it seemed but minutes later when a Half-track Ambulance came through the lines. He had barely got through our larger. He was but a few yards in advance of us when he literally disappeared before our eyes. There was a small copse of trees just ahead and to the right of us. As it turned out there was a German Tiger Tank in the lee of the trees having spent the night there. It was he who fired on the ambulance. His gloating was very short lived; some of the Canadian Infantry got him with one of their anti-tank guns. We lost our RC Padre and three ambulance men.
Once the Falaise Gap had been closed, we were quite definitely on the winning side. At least so it seemed to us. We were moved all over the front, first supporting this group and then supporting that group. The next battle that I recall quite easily was the battle for Harfleur. The reason why this action comes to mind so clearly is that it was here where I thought that I managed to get myself "seen off". We were on top of a hill overlooking a valley and on the far side were a number of enemy "Pill boxes". These pillboxes being armed with, amongst other armament, the infamous German 88mm guns that always commanded our respect. I was, as usual far and away too nosey to sit there with my visor closed. I wanted to know just what was going on out there.
I was completely unaware that our main gun was traversed to the front and stupidly hadn't realised that we were going to have a go at one of the pillboxes directly to my front. When the gun was fired the recoil blast from the gun muzzle made a beeline for my open visor and I being the first in line got the full force of it right in my face. I have never been kicked in the face by a horse, but that blow in my face must have been the equivalent being kicked in the face by a full troop of cavalry horses, all at once. I was blinded by a red mist for the next forty-eight hours or so. There was no way that I could report sick as a casualty because no way should I have had my visor open. Charlie Merry came to the rescue and took over the driving for the next day or so. Fortunately for me, once I could see again I was able to put the whole miserable affair behind me.
It was shortly after the battle for Harfleur that I got drunk for the first time in my life. We were to move to another section of the front and had to go there on our tracks. After I had driven about fifteen miles I asked Charlie if he would drive and give me a break, taking it easy in a small fireside chair which we had picked up somewhere and we carried on the engine hatches. We passed through the village of Calvados, where for a few cigarettes or a tin of sardines we could have a full bottle of their five star produce. I think each member of the crew got a bottle. To justify what I did I should point out that it was a scorcher of a day and we were all parched. Not that we thought that the Calvados would be the best thing in the world to quench a thirst. I gave it a chance to though. Len joined me on the hatches along with his bottle. Len had much more sense than I. He shared his bottle with the turret crew.
When we reached our destination I resumed my responsibility of the tank and checked our fuel requirements. The other lads of the crew shuffled off to the cook's truck to get some food. When they came back they found me propping the tank up. Heated petrol fumes can be oh so intoxicating. Kind hearted lads, the members of my crew. They carried me over and into the school that we had taken over for our billet, stripped me off and rolled me up in a blanket leaving me to sleep it off.
When I woke up in the morning I found myself, and the blanket, on the playground. Apparently I had made rather too much noise in the night, too much noise, that is, for the general good of the troop. They decided, when they'd had enough and simply carried me along with my blanket out and left me in the school playground, for the rest of the night. For me there were no ill effects. The only problem of lying completely naked wrapped only in some old blanket, outside was caused by the fact that it must have been Sunday. It seemed that all the civvies of the village walked past on their way to church. You can visualise my problem. I had to stay put until they had all gone by. If ever you feel like having a fling but can't put up with the headache in the morning after, do try Calvados and petrol fumes!
We had reached Holland before we were called to duty again. This time we were to go into battle in support of the infantry of the 51st Highland Division to liberate the town of Rosendale. The lasting memory of that action was that the remaining Germans were holed up in a convent. Once the battle was over, we found that the Battalion was in for about a fortnight's rest and refitting the tanks as required. The tidying up of the few remaining Germans was over quite quickly and we were then allowed to get ourselves into some civvy digs. The Dutch civilians gave us the impression that they were very pleased to have us staying in their houses. Whether it was because they were afraid that the Jerries might counter-attack or whether it was in gratitude to us for having cleared the Jerries out of their town, I don't know but from our point of view it was sheer bliss to sleep in a genuine bed. For my billet, Len, the crew gunner and I found a house with a family called van Pule and they looked after us as if we were winning the war entirely on our own. The important thing, which I remember, was that we had a bed each and that we had clean white sheets. Sheer luxury. Added to this we had our first bath since landing in Normandy. Up to this point bathing was a very scratch affair. Sometimes when we were out of the line the Bath Truck, as we called it, visited us. It was an army three tonner fitted with a boiler in the back and sundry pipes which they were able to make into some sort of showers and this was in the open air. I seem to remember that there would be fifteen showering together. It was not the height of luxury but at least the tank smelled a little less rank, inside for a few days.
Some time ago the media was regularly mentioning a Dutch town called Maastricht, which reminded me that we were involved in the battle for it
Hilary has done her best to help me to fill in the gaps. She contacted the Imperial War Museum to find if they were able to help with any details of the activities of the 9th R.T.R. They sent to her a copy of the supposed record of the 9th Battalion from Normandy right the way through to the end of hostilities. It recalls less than I do. The list of the names of those killed must have been closed after we had got about half way through Normandy. There were quite a number of the lads killed who were not mentioned. Even so it has helped me a little.
Sometime around September we were being used around an area not very far into Holland, whilst we were preparing for another action, we saw in the sky, fairly far from us, activity which looked rather reminiscent of June the sixth. After a couple of days we were suddenly loaded onto transporters and given a lift as far as Eindhoven. Eindhoven had been taken by the paratroops, as had Nimegan but Arnhem was very much more securely held by the Germans. The British lads there were suffering very heavily at the hands of the defenders. The cause of the great tragedy there, was that the countryside between Nimegen and Arnhem was extremely flat and there had been very heavy rain from the time the when 'paras' had landed. The land was so very 'boggy' that there was no way the traffic, particularly tanks could proceed other than by the road that linked the towns. So that all Jerry needed to do to stop us getting through, was to keep dropping shells onto the road and they were as safe as could be from any sustained ground attack. No matter what, to capture a town or ground there has to be ground troops in the fight. It was some days before we could get through to give a helping hand. As I have said, we were stuck in Eindhoven for some days and to make the best of a hell of a situation, we again managed to find some civvy digs, where we sat twiddling our fingers whilst the paratroops were going through hell around Arnhem. The house to which I was allocated belonged to one of the directors of Philips, the big electrical company who manufacture the electrical appliances. Their Head Office was and still is so far as I know in Eindhoven. Once again I was treated as if I was General Montgomery. We were never able to help the troops who had landed in Arnhem. Instead we were moved further east into Holland and ended up in a small town with a name, something like Giulenkirchen. We stayed here for but a few days. Our crew found a deserted farmhouse that we took over and we made ourselves very comfortable. There was an AGA type cooker in the kitchen, along with loads of prepared timber. Believe you me that cooker worked overtime, not cooking but helping us to thaw out our frozen blood streams. Each evening four of us would be playing Solo whilst the fifth member of the crew attended to the jobs that had to be seen to. Things like feeding the brutes, always having a supply of hot water. This we did by seeing that there was always a 'Jerry can" full of hot water. One night when I was on duty I had put a full can on to boil but got too interested in the game of cards which was going on. I glanced over to the stove just to see that every thing was all right. As I looked I saw that the can was under rather too much pressure inside. I had forgotten to undo the cap. I realised straight away that there was going to be serious trouble any minute unless I could open the lid. Bellowing "Bale out" to the cardsharpers. All four of them were under the table as I was using a long lever to open the can. Seconds later everywhere was covered in plaster which the jet of boiling water and steam brought down. Believe it or not, but not one of us was hurt. Me, I got a bit of a covering of the plaster, but nothing worse.
Our stay there was short. We had to move on to a small village, the name of which I think was Egon Bilsen. At this stage of the war, the Germans must have decided that if they were to get rid of the Allied forces, now was the time that they should make the super human effort to launch a counter attack. They chose the Ardennes as their target, which was the fighting area of the Americans.
The Germans started well and made some headway so far as gaining a bit of ground was concerned, but we up in northern area of Holland were ordered to move south and give the Yanks a hand. This would be about mid December and B Squadron Commander, Major Mickey Reynell must have found out from somewhere that Bob Hay and I were due to celebrate our 21st Birthday. He decided that he definitely did not want us to be killed before we reached our majority so he sent us off to Brussels on a forty eight-hour pass. I have absolutely no other memories of that leave other than for the general relief to be out of the line and to do with our time as we chose.
How we came back into the line is a bit of a tale really. We had left the unit in Egon Bilsen and we had to find our way back to them in the Ardennes. We spent all of forty-eight hours in the back of an army three-ton truck, in truly bitter cold weather. The rear of the truck, where we were, was covered by nothing more insulating the canvas cover, whilst the driver tried to find his way to the area of the 9th. The other factor which made those two days the most miserable was the fact that we had no rations with us. At the end of the first day we came across a rear line American unit and we tried to cadge a meal from them. All they could do, or would do was to give us a tin of Spam each and their best wishes. When we got to the meat we found that it was even colder than we were. It was, in fact, completely frozen right through. However we were all so thoroughly famished that we gnawed at it until we got it down. The truly amazing thing about this was that within very few minutes of having eaten it we began to feel warmth spreading through our bodies. The following day we found our unit and our first target was of course the cook's truck. They fed us and then it was back to our own Squadron. Having got to our own troop, it was simply a question of taking over our own tanks and to carry on with the trip to the destination where we were supposed to go into action,
The journey was truly one of the most hair-raising drives I have ever had. The road surfaces were simply packed solid with snow and ice. I'm sure that you will realise that this is most definitely not the best surface for driving for tanks on. The tracks could not get a grip on and I seem to recall that the twenty or so miles we had to travel was more like an ice ballet than a Squadron of tanks moving up to the line. The chief worry for us was that the roads which we had to traverse were in the midst of the mountains and there were some frightening drops on one side or the other with nothing to stop the tanks going over once they were sliding out of control. Somehow we reached our destination without mishap to any tank. If we had have had more time to relax I think that we would have suggested to Neville Lord that he ought to have brought out one of his bottles of whiskey in order to celebrate our success. No such luck though. Once we had settled our tanks down for the night we set to to find some civvy billets to doss down in. This time the entire crew of Immune II settled down as best we could in a private house. To have to accommodate five men can't have been a great deal of fun for the owners
We didn't have sleeping bags but we did have some really first class "Zoot Suits". These were one-piece suits of waterproof outside and some truly warm insides. By arranging the zip fasteners in a different way we could make them into something approaching a sleeping bag. One of the great benefits of these suits was that when it became time for one of us to go outside to relieve the guard and take over the duty ones self, all that we had to do was to adjust the zips and we were then fully dressed for the duty. Likewise when each tour of duty was over and shelter been resumed in the house, then again the quick switching of the zips and we were back to bed. I seem to remember that on account of the very bitter cold, we reduced each tour of guard duty to forty-five minutes, as opposed to the normal two hours
It was a good thing for us that the Jerries counter attack didn't come our way. If they had come there was absolutely no way in which we could have helped the Americans. Not only were our tracks frozen solid to the ground. They were sufficiently frozen to make any movement at all quite impossible The turret ring on some of the tanks i.e., the means of traversing the turret and the main gun was frozen solid. To be quite honest about the situation, if Jerry had made an attack in our direction he would have had to either take us prisoners or dispose of us in some way.
Very luckily for us, within a few days, Jerry abandoned his effort and resumed his slow move back into Germany. During the few days that we were in the Ardennes, Jerry kept us amused with his V1's, the unmanned Flying bombs. We came to the conclusion that Jerry would have been safer if he had not launched any of them on the route over the Ardennes. The hills, so we were told, were causing rising air currents to have some odd effects on the bombs. Many of them were turning, in the order of 160 degrees and heading back the way they came. The pilots of the RAF in their Spitfires and Hurricanes were turning those that managed to get clear of the hills around. It appeared to us from our ground level point of view that our chaps were managing to touch one of the wings of the bombs and turn them round.
We were in the Ardennes for about three weeks without getting involved in the fighting. When the order came to move we were to go back to Liege on tracks. That trip was notable for the fact that I was at last in possession of the finest scarf that there has ever been. On my last leave home Margaret started to knit me a scarf. Now Margaret does not claim in her list of abilities the art of knitting. She stuck at the task until the scarf was a good six feet long. It reached me just in time to wrap myself up in it, even to covering my face up to eye level. This was mistake number one in the life of that scarf. Within a very few minutes driving, again with the visor open. The result was that as I exhaled my breath condensed so it then froze, sticking the scarf to my face. I had a hell of a job trying, with the minimal warmth of my hands, to thaw it out.
From Liege, we went by transporters back to Eindhoven for the closing stages of our activities. On the morning of February the eighth the Squadron Sergeant Moodier had us on parade to tell us that later on that day we would start towards the Siegfreid Line which he told us was believed, by the Germans to be "Impregnant". Ah, well he was the SSM, so one must make allowances. The area of the line that we were to attack and break through was the Riechwald Forest.
Here again the rules regarding the night use of infantry support tanks were disregarded. The result of this was that we were in action for fourteen days and nights. There were a few nights when we were pulled back to just behind the front line and we did manage to get just a few hours rest. But the conditions we had to endure were unbelievably bad. For the majority of the time the snow was falling pretty heavily and freezing more or less as it fell. The turret crew managed to get their rest under the tank, whereas Charlie and I stayed in the hull. It wasn't too bad a spot. One just curled the top half of our bodies into the space by the pannier door, legs at right angles, down towards the pedals. The fact that our legs were more or less under water had to be ignored. Believe it or not this water actually had a layer of ice on it when we awoke. I'm not sure that it is right to say we awoke, because we didn't seem to sleep. We just settled into a semi conscious state. Then we sort of revived. The first thing that I had to do as I revived was to make a cup of tea all round and pass the mugs of tea through the tank dump valve to the lads underneath. I think that there must have been some mutual agreement between us and the Germans that things should steady down a bit from about 2 am until, say 5 am. I think that this action, which was to be our last, was very probably the worst we had to face.
Conditions were diabolical. The weather most certainly far worse than any we had previously had to put up with. Then of course Jerry was endeavouring to hold us back and I must admit that he kept us unusually busy. An Infantry and tank battle is best not undertaken in woodlands. There were clearings between the rows of trees, every few hundred yards, called, I believe, rides. The prime reason for them being there was in case of fire. The fire fighters would have a chance to get to the affected area. One morning for some reason the troop leader, Neville Lord was commanding Immune II. He must have thought that he could make progress more quickly if he were to advance via the ride. We seemed to be doing just that when quite suddenly I was able to discern, in the distance, a German Tiger tank amongst some shorter trees. We were facing each other, I, fortunately, had my visor open, so I was able to spot him. Without my visor being open, I doubt whether I would have ever have seen him. As quickly as I could, I grabbed my mike and screamed into Mr. Lord's ears that there was this tank straight ahead of us. I couldn't make out why he hadn't blow us to kingdom come. He didn't. I simply pulled the tank to the left; no-way was I going to wait in view of him, for the commander to order me to pull over. Moments after I did this, a tank, which was just ahead of us, ran over a sapling that had been knocked down. As the tank went over the far end of the tree so that the other end of the tree, which was nearer to me, sprang up and shot in through the visor. However I managed to get out of the way of it and ram my brakes on I'll never know. It shot passed me and was almost into the turret by the time the brakes had done their work.
By this time the message had got through to the RAF that there was this Tiger tank in the area, and literally within minutes a couple of RAF Typhoon aircraft made short work of him. Then shortly afterwards we were told by the infantry that the remnants of the crew indicated that the tank must have been brewed up a day or so ago. No wonder he didn't bother to fire on us!
Otherwise the fighting seemed as if it were going on forever. We were still making progress but it was terribly slow. Presumably, with Jerry being fighting in his own country he was determined to put up the best resistance he could. That extra effort on the German side cost "B" Squadron dear. Somehow in the midst of it all we learned that the Squadron Leader, Major Micky Renell had been badly wounded. He had been rescued from his tank and taken to the rear line medical post. On the fifteenth day of the fight word came through that the Germans had surrendered, so far as the Reichwalt was concerned and that we would shortly be pulling out. Horrible cold weather as it was someone pointed out to the powers that for the fourteen days we had been in the line we hadn't had a sniff of the "Rum Rations" which we were entitled to. Word quickly came through that, O.K. we were entitled to the rum, but some bright spark, decided that rum was not the best thing to mix with anti-fatigue tablets with which we had been supplied each day
We pulled out of the line some time after noon. Believe it or, not one of the first to greet us was the QuarterMaster Sergeant with the rum rations. Unfortunately he had failed to bring with him the measure. Quick as a flash I offered him my drinking mug, which had at some time in its previous life been a measuring jug. Offer accepted which made it so that I had to wait till everyone else had got their rations. Believe you me fourteen days rum ration is quite something especially when the Quarter bloke shows some appreciation for the loan of the mug. Thank you, Sir. As for the other crew members one was T.T. So his ration was shared by the other three. The order of the day was that we were to get our heads down. No one was arguing with that. Then once we had all got nicely settled down all hell sounded to break loose. Either the RAF or the Luftwaffe decided that we should not sleep. Someone had found a target somewhere near us and that target was treated to a thorough bashing by somebody's jet aircraft. Up to this point we had only seen this type of aircraft on test at Farnborough. The manoeuvres that those planes could perform and still remain in the air surprised us all. As we were expecting, the RAF finally got the upper hand and sent Jerry about his business. As it turned out the Reichwalt was the last fighting in which we were involved.
I have just this morning re-read the booklet which Hilary got for me from the War Museum and having read it I find that a great deal of the actual fighting in which we were involved sounds as if my memories are false. Not so though. Where the differences appear is where one of the other Squadron's actions is being reported. So I think it only fair to make the point that each Squadron of tanks had their own moments of glory?
(After the Seigfried line had fallen the Germans increased the speed of their journey home and the front line advanced far too quickly for us to keep up with them!)
Shortly after we found ourselves out of the fighting, we were largered down in some hilly woodland. Troop 9, with whom I'd spent my time, found itself adjacent to HQ Troop. I became aware of a Jeep bearing a Despatch Rider draw to a halt beside the Major's tank. When the driver dismounted I noticed how very tall he was and I wondered how in Heaven's name he managed to fit himself in to the Jeep. Whilst I was trying to figure this out I recognised him as Maurice White (Of BDA Fame). The last time I had seen Maurice was at Richmond station on the day we joined the army. I learned from Maurice that he had spent his time with the 4th Battalion of the R.T.R.
We eventually lumbered further into Germany and ended up in a small village called Mettigen, which was not very far from Munster in one direction and Osnabruk the other way. Had we been allowed to select for ourselves the place where we were to stay for the next twelve months, we could not have picked a better place than the one that the army had selected for us. The war finally came to its end in May 1945 and we were to stay in Mettigen well into the next year. For the first two months, on account of the "Non-Frat" ban we kept in mind that the civilians around us had been our enemies up to a few months ago. Little by little though we came to realise that the vast majority of them were just as pleased as we were that the war was over. In fact in that village some of them seemed relieved that the Allies had won. It was in Mettigen that I got to know Bob Ungless, another tank driver in the Squadron and we were to remain firm friends from then until now. I have heard, recently, from Bob's wife, Mary, that he has had to go into a nursing home suffering Altzheimer's disease. Mary has nursed him at home until a few weeks ago. Sorry about that. Now back to the story.
Bob and I soon found a family in the village whom, though not particularly Pro British were very happy about the way in which the war had ended and they were even happier to adopt us for the remainder of our stay in their village. The family consisted of Grandma, Omar, She was particularly kind to Bob and I. Then there was her eldest daughter Marta and her husband Karl who was the local baker. He had somehow managed to avoid being called up. They had two children, Franz, who was a typical Hitler Youth. Franz was about twelve years old. The other child Helmut, was about three months old. Helmut was profoundly affected by asthma. Then finally there were Oma's two other daughters, Hedwig and Elizabeth. Between the family they looked after us really well. Oma did all our washing in the Village Lake and the other members of the family did the ironing for us and they would do any cooking that needed doing. In return for all this looking after us all we could do for them was to provide them with a bit of food, tea, coffee and a few cigarettes. But over all everyone was happy.
It was said that the village belonged to the Brenigmier family, of whom, it was also rumoured that they owned the majority holding in C & A's . Sorry, there is another diversion here. Earlier this year my cousin Alfred died. I attended the funeral. Afterwards I met some of the Brenigmier family and the result of the conversation was that I found out that the rumours were quite correct. I also learned there that one of the family had started his education at Bishop's Court.
To go back to the story again,... Some of the houses in the village had obviously been the homes of wealthy people. The Officer's Mess took over a truly wonderful house built in it's own massive grounds. One good scrounge which was available to us in the lower ranks was the Musical Appreciation Society which held it's meetings in the Officer's Mess twice a week. I am quite sure that I was not the only one who found more conducive to sit and listen to Classical Music rather than to carry out normal duties. It did though found my interest in so called Classical Music. The leader of the group was a corporal Resker. Whether he was qualified to lead such a group I do not know. He was always able to keep us interested in the music which he played. Apparently in the other large houses there was an abundant supply of records of which we took full advantage.
We stayed in Mettigan until Christmas when I was granted fourteen days Blighty leave. It was on this leave that I followed up my letters to Edith with an invitation for her to join me on an evening out. It was also on this leave that I first met her Mum and Dad, a wonderful couple. Of course I met her younger brother, Roy, but later. He was currently doing his National Service with the RAF. Once again I was returning from leave and I had to find the unit. Whilst I was away the Ninth Battalion was disbanded. The older members were transferred to holding units to await their de-mobilisation. We, the younger members were transferred to the Fourth Battalion. I forget how and where I caught up with them, but within a short space of time we were shunted off to Italy. Shunted off is, I assure you the correct description of the journey by train. The Italian Railway staff ought to have been in the holiday travel trade. They gave us a wonderful tour around the northern parts of Italy. The only places that I recall us stopping at are Florence and Milan. I think that it was in Milan where we saw one of the Fiat Motor Co.’s factories. Eventually, if my memory serves me right we left the train at Padua. and then went to find the unit. We were met at the station by some trucks from the Fourth Battalion. These trucks took us to the Battalion Head Quarters somewhere not very far from Verona. From here we were sorted out as to which Squadron we were to join. I oddly enough was sent to "B" Squadron who were at a smallish village called Camisano, I think. By this time de-mobilisation had started and each serving member of the armed forces was given a "De-mob" number. This number was based on the age of the individual and the time that he had spent in the forces. The de-mob number that I got was 47. To me that number seemed to stretch into the far distant future.
People may well wonder 'why keep units up to strength in Northern Italy'. The reason was that Tito, the Yugoslav "Boss man" had rather more than a passing interest in reclaiming Trieste for his own country. It was felt, by the Allies, that he might well decide to fight the Italians for the City. Of course this occupation meant a very large number of us spending more time in H.M. Forces than would otherwise been necessary. This of course was far better than our getting an earlier demobilisation and having to be called back to the army to help settle another war. We were stationed in Northern Italy in a small village called Camisano, somewhere between Padua and Verona.
It was from Camisano that I was sent on a detachment down to Naples to collect some replacement tanks for the Battalion. We needed these Churchills because training had restarted in earnest. We were getting quite a lot of raw-ish recruits, sent over from Britain. They had only done their basic training (Square-Bashing), so it was up to us to get them familiar with Churchills. The trip to Naples was very interesting. We travelled down by train and the Italian railway system was hardly organised. As a result of the lack of organisation we got shunted onto sidelines here and there. I have often thought, recently, that the "Eyetye" rail organisers should have been taken over-by Thomas Cooks. The trip that they organised for us was quite fabulous. The number of towns and cities that we passed through was extremely interesting. The ones that I remember were Milan, Rimini, Florence and Rome.
Eventually we got to Naples and were stationed for a few days, maybe a week fairly close to Vesuvius. The actual spot where the provisional camp was on the side of a hill and just a little bit higher was what more polite people than I would call a graveyard. It wasn't so much a graveyard, rather more, it struck us, as a dumping ground for the dead. The corpses were not buried. The graves, if that is the right name for them, were cut back into the hillside, after the style of the erstwhile Tombs of Biblical times. They were fitted with iron or steel grids to the front and the skeleton of the poor soul who had snuffed it was on a raised stone table. It struck us as a bit primitive.
Mind you, it was the return trip, organised by the Service Corps, who provided the transporters, that really was the better of the two journeys. As I indicated, we were on the back of transporters. The tractor unit of the outfit was either a "Mighty Antar", British built, or an American "Big-Mac". Both of them were fitted with a kind of bivouac on the back of the unit, where the driver was supposed to sleep, when the sleep time came round. We found them to be very useful for brewing tea in! When we got to within mile or two of Rome we had to call a halt. Some bright spark had realised that there was a bridge on the route which we were supposed to use which was found to be not sturdy enough to take the weight of the loaded transporter with tank. Unfortunately we were on what the army referred to as 'Two hour notice to move'. This was a great shame really because we were stopped somewhere on the 'Seven Hills of Rome" from where we could see the Vatican quite easily. We had to wait until the Royal Engineers had built a 'Bailey Bridge' across what I believed to have been the Tiber. The job was completed in about five days. I cannot recall just how many days it took us to get back to the unit, but a good time was had by all. The one bit of the trip was that we approached the area of infamous Monte Casino battle. Having seen it one can fully understand why we lost so very many lives when some of the famous 'Eighth Army had to capture it.
That summer was by far the hottest weather that I have experienced and to make it worse we had posted to us a new Squadron Sergeant Major, who, stupid A-rab that he was, thrived on 'Bull----!' He was determined that B Squadron was going to be the smartest troops in the North of Italy. To achieve this he organised Drill Parades, just like those that we had been through at Catterick, a lifetime ago. The difference to those was that here in Italy the temperature, on a cool day was in the ninety odd degrees in the shade and there was precious little shade where we were going through the old drills. You can well imagine the amount of beefing that went on. So much so that there was talk of getting rid of him. It was rumoured that there were some Italians who were prepared to do the job for us.... Twenty Thousand lira, body found or Forty Thousand body not found. Fortunately it did not have to come to this. He was transferred to another unit. Did the plans become known to the Hierarchy? Almost as bad as the Sergeant Major were the scorpions, of which the village had far more than it's share. I think some of the lads were far more frightened of these little monsters than ever they were about Hitler and his minions.
To brighten our days we had occasionally some schemes (Training exercises). These took us round and about and we saw some different parts of the country. The objective of these exercises was to let the new recruits get some experience of life in a tank. I passed my time on them as a co-driver, teaching the new boy how to drive them. I had an interesting experience one-day. The commander gave the order; Co-driver Fire. So I set to and wasted a belt or two of ammunition. Suddenly the damned thing refused to fire any more. I went through the prescribed drill only to find that it still didn't want to play. The next prescribed movement was to open the breach and put a new belt in. Stupid me. I must somehow have got the directives wrong. Just as I was opening the breach to take out the belt the round 'up the spout' cooked off. Was I a surprised silly little trooper? And then some! For my troubles I ended up with a face full of minute bits of the brass shell case! For years literally, I was picking tiny bits of brass out of my body. Although all the bits went into my face and forehead they seemed not to be bothered where they came out.
Eventually we moved from Camisano into some Italian army barracks, not a long way from Verona. For the life in me I'm hanged if I can recall the name of the area. The barracks were large enough to house the whole Battalion. Soon after we had moved to these quarters I was coming through the main gates and was halted by the Regimental Police. Imagine my surprise when the Policeman proved to be Maurice White. He had given up being a Despatch Rider in favour of being a policeman. It was to prove very useful having a friend on the gates. Maurice was not the only one to changed jobs. I was transferred to the Motor Transport section for a short time. It was whilst I was in the MT section that I noticed on the "Orders of the day board" to the effect that anyone who had any experience on horses was to report to the Squadron Commander. It had been my policy whist in the army not to volunteer for anything. So I did nothing. That policy very nearly caused me to miss the very best job in the Army. Somehow I let it be known in the right places that I had a reasonable amount of experience in dealing with horses and eventually it appeared on Orders that I was to report to the Squadron boss man. Once we had got over his questioning as to why I hadn't responded to the earlier orders, he told me that the Battalion were about to take charge of some horses from the DY (Derbyshire Yeomanry) and that he was looking for some-one in the unit to take charge of them. I got the job
It turned out that there were about thirty-eight horses of a very mixed sort. There were thoroughbreds, hunters, hacks and even one pony. We also inherited an equal number of German POW's who were to carry on their work as, grooms, doing as they had done with the D.Y. These Germans must have been at the older end of their army. They, like each of us were so very glad that the war was at last over. I found them to be very nice fellows. My time with the Schopper family back in Mettigen came to my rescue where the language problem was concerned. We very quickly became friends with one another. One of them, the eldest whom I soon started to call Opa (Grandpa) spent a lot of time talking to me. One of the conversations, which I shall always remember, I was saying to him "Do you realise Opa that if I had seen you about nine months ago, I would have shot you and probably thought that I had done well for the cause?" "Yes Frank", he replied "and if I'd seen you first I would have shot you." All of which summarises the utter stupidity of war.
There were of course several benefits that went with the job of looking after the horses. For starters I was excused all duties such as guards, fire-pickets and fatigues. This in itself was a great bonus. As regards the actual work of looking after the horses, my friends, the Germans saw to it that there was really nothing for me to do other than take them out for their exercise. One great scrounge which I benefited from was that I was sent to Padua, to some really large stables, to do, I think, a three or four week equitation course. This I found very interesting indeed. "OK"
My main occupation when I got back from the course at Padua was to teach anyone who so wished to learn to ride to do so. Not many of the lads availed themselves of the opportunity, but a lot of the officers did. It was whilst I was doing this that I was able to render a small service to the lads of the Squadron. We had a Major who joined the Squadron. I think that he had come to us straight from England. He was a little after the stamp of the Sergeant Major whom we had recently got rid of. He thought that spit and polish were the highlight of a life in H.M. Army! Of course he quite quickly got the lads more than somewhat brassed off. When he came across to the stables and told me that he was thinking about learning to ride. Would I please help him? Of course Sir, it will be a pleasure and believe you me I was determined to get quite a great deal of pleasure from the occasion.
Amongst the horses there was a grey, Douglas by name, which I am sure had at some time been a circus horse. He had one trick in his repertoire that I was sure that I could use to some benefit. I had found out about this trick when I was riding him. At one point when I was out with some learners and I was riding at the front. At one point I wanted to check something to do with the chaps behind me and all unsuspecting like I twisted my body round to look at whatever and in doing so I rested my hand on Douglas' flank. That, I learned straight away was the signal that he had been waiting for. He immediately started acting like one of the bucking broncos in the American Western films. Yes, in the end he managed to get me off. Once I had remounted I again turned round and again rested my hand on his flank and then I realised that the resting hand was the sign saying to him that the rider wanted to "get off" but I was ready for him this time and I managed to stay aboard until he got tired of the game. When he had unseated the rider he returned to being his good natured self again. This was ideal for the operation that I had in mind. The next time that the Major came for his riding instruction we had the grey ready for him. We got him aboard Douglas and we decided that we should concentrate to day on posture. "Right Sir " I said "we'll go round the field a few times. I'll lead for starters. We'll ride at a gentle trot and you are to try to get a similar posture to mine." When I thought that we had trotted around for long enough for him to be racked with aches and pains I called a halt and we had a few minutes discussion on what we had been doing. I then had him riding in front of me for some time. Eventually I called to him to stop and to turn round in the saddle and look at my posture. That did it. As he came to a halt he did just as I had asked him. He turned in the saddle and as he did so he rested his hand on Douglas's back. I was treated to the sight of a bucking bronco with the hapless Major doing his utmost to stay on. The display did not last very long but it served my purpose and the lads who had watched the antics of the pair of them were well satisfied and were able to report back to the rest of the Squadron. Off he came. Douglas decided that he had completed all that was expected of him and calmed down straight away. The Major did not trouble me again. Strangely though, one day, sometime in the sixties, I was visiting one of my customers and he couldn't wait to tell me that his company had gained a new director and of course he had to tell me that like me he had served in the Royal Tank Regiment. Yes, you are right, it was my erstwhile friend from Italy. He did not let on that he recognised me and I felt that it was better for all those involved that "Least said, soonest mended". I could very easily have lost a very good account!
One day I saw on Squadron orders that I was to report to the Battalion Commander the following morning. I must admit that I thought there was to be a backlash from what had so accidentally happened to the Major. Not so, I had got away with that. He had called me in to tell me that he had decided that the Battalion was in future going to be represented in the horse racing which had been organised by the army in various places in Italy and in Austria. In view of this, in future, my work in future would include riding at the races for the Battalion. As recompense for this extra work he saw fit to me one tape and a few extra pennies a day which went with the tape. Not that funding was too bad in Italy. There were hundreds of ways to supplement the army pay!
So far as the racing was concerned there was one big snag to the arrangement. The second in command of B Squadron, Captain Kidd, to give him his title, who rather fancied himself as a rider and he always came along to the races and allocated to himself the best horse which we had; Facey. Facey was a smallish horse (15½-16 hands) but he had great strength and speed. Unfortunately he just didn't have enough strength to carry Captain Kidd (Probably 12½ stone-ish as against my 9½ stone) whereas I was always to ride our second best. She was good but not a patch on Facey. I must admit that we never had any winnings to bring home. Mind you, I always like to think that if I had been on him he would have been strong enough and fast enough to get past the winning post first!
If one could be happy in the army, then during those nine months I was happy. Twice during my time in Italy I was granted fourteen-day leaves. Both of which I spent in Venice. We must have been far too blasé in those days and did not value the leaves to the full. To have fourteen days in Venice next to the St Mark's Cathedral and adjacent to the Grand Canal. All transport and accommodation were met by the army would be worth a fortune nowadays. For the first leave the accommodation was provided in one of the best hotels in the city, overlooking the St. Marks Cathedral and the side was adjacent to the Grand Canal. In those days the Canal was nothing to write home about. In fact it was nothing better than a mass of water which sent up a stink most foul. Whenever I hear anyone rhapsodising about the Canal I have to accept that they have a highly developed wonderful imagination or that the powers that be in Venice have organised a magnificent cleaning up job. The one thing that I am most sure of is that if I had the good fortune to have another visit I would appreciate it more and I would make sure that I saw all the things which I missed back in 1946. Granted we saw most of the popular sights. When I say that we saw them that is precisely what we did. We saw them but we did not see them through discerning eyes. I didn't take the opportunity of going into the Cathedral. Such is the arrogance of youth! I along with my friends from our unit spent far too much time on the Concordia; a ferry that plied between St Mark's Square and the Lido Island. The attraction of the ferry was that the drink was a bit cheaper on board and I developed quite a liking for the Cinzaninis and the Gancininis that were available.
The second leave which I had in Venice was spent (accommodation wise) in a large camp at the southern end of the island called the Alberoni. It was a bit of a come down from the hotel where I had been on my previous leave, but overall the leave was every bit as good as the earlier one. I spent the fourteen days in the company of another member of the 9th Battalion. A chap called Jimmy Hartas. I hadn't met him before this leave but I fully enjoyed his company. Jimmy came from Leeds and previous to him joining the army he had earned his bread and butter drawing cartoons. I think he was on the staff of the Yorkshire post. He really was quite brilliant and what with his drawing skill and his wit none of the staff there missed out where cartoons referring to them was concerned. By the time we left the place, a lot of the walls were wearing some of Jimmy's cartoons.
In December 1946 I was granted a ten-day "Blighty" leave, which turned out to be the end of my sojourn in Italy. Not that I knew it at the time. If I had known I would made sure that I brought more of my kit (both official and unofficial) home with me. One of the items that I left in Italy was a first class racing plate (saddle) which I had won when we were racing there.
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