- Contributed by
- People in story:
- JOHN MORTON GIFFORD
- Location of story:
- Cerasola, Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 September 2005
It was still dark when we moved out. We were short a co-driver so there was only four of us in the tank, Sgt John Maxwell, generally referred to as Maxie, Davy James, the driver George McCartney (Butch) radio operator/ loader and myself, gunner.
Ahead about 100 yards, our Troop Leaders tank was barely visible on the pale rough road, while behind us at some distance was our third tank, commanded by Basset Mc McCullough. We knew that two tanks of 2nd Troop under Tommy McAughtry, who was acting as Troop Leader, would also be on the move but further back again. His job was to support us in the event of trouble.
Inside the tank it was relatively peaceful. The noise of the engine and more especially the crunchy rattle of the tracks on the rough road blocked out most outside sounds. The turret was warm from the engine at our rear and fuggy with cigarette smoke. After the initial link up the radio was silent. In the distance, flashes from gunfire from time to time lit up the sky but near at hand was all quiet.
At the briefing evening before we knew our objective was still someway ahead. It was a village called Cerasola, a huddle of a few houses perched on the crest of one of the high ridges of which there were many in that area. Cerasola was known to us as Camel Hair or Point 137 and it was here at first light we were to link up with a company of the 2nd Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. It was generally felt to be a good omen that the Troop Leader and the infantry had the same name. At the briefing someone had suggested that as Basil King would be meeting a number of his kin it might be better and more polite if he first went by himself. He declined the offer with the excuse that he did not know the way and would need us to guide him.
It was still quite dark when the lead tank stopped and I could see through the telescope, a figure, obviously King, climb out of the tank and disappear into the darker shadows. Maxie ordered our tank to halt and we sat there watching with only the muffled beat of the engine breaking the silence.
Shortly after King reappeared beside our tank and called up quietly to Maxie that the bloody Jerries are still in the village but seem to be moving out so keep on your toes. We did not need his advice as in the dark tanks are easy prey for enemy infantry. Gradually as the sky brightened we relaxed and were relieved when our infantry friends started trickling past.
Sometime later the order came to advance. We moved through the cluster of houses and then down a sloping hillside dotted with olive trees and bushes. The infantry well spread out were still dim shapes in the early light but advancing steadily. The occasional rattle of machine guns followed by the odd shell and mortar fire indicated that the usual morning hate had begun.
Word came on the radio to say that enemy tanks had been spotted over the next ridge. Basil King, his gunner Cecil Cox, Maxie and myself went forward on foot to have a look. There were three jerry mark 4 tanks some distance away in the next valley. It was decided we take up hull down positions on the top of our ridge and open fire. We hurried back to our tanks all keyed up for the shoot ahead. Davy put the tank in gear and we started to move slowly ahead.
Then it happened, an almighty bang, a blinding flash and a demonical force swept through the turret. It was the suddenness and stupendous noise that for a second numbed ones wits, then preservation and the will to live took over, hatches were slammed open and Maxie and George were out. As gunner I had to wait their exit but when I tried to follow I was unable to move. The fierceness of the explosion had pushed me onto the gun mounting and impaled my right leg on the breech release box. By luck or presence of mind my left foot slammed on the seat adjustment pedal and lowered me to the floor, pulling my leg free. A second or two later I was out and rolling onto the ground. In those few seconds the heat from the burning tank was so fierce that part of the periscope above my head melted, dropped off and fell across my neck like a collar.
Fortunately Davy and George were both unhurt and were able to haul Maxie and myself to a little dried up gully a few yards away from the now fiercely burning tank. Greatly relieved we lay there catching our breath and glad to have escaped. We then examined our wounds. Maxie's leg was badly shattered below the knee and he would be quite unable to stand or walk. My right elbow was also a mess and though my leg was sprouting blood it was still working. The first aid kit was in the tank so we were reduced to the only personal bandages carried by all troops. Davy and George did what they could with these difficult conditions but they were wholly inadequate and we were losing quite a lot of blood.
Meanwhile the heavy barrage of shellfire and mortars continued and we could only huddle down in our shallow gully. The day got very hot and during a lull in the shelling Davy decided to try and get some help from either the infantry or one of the other tanks. Sadly we never saw him again and only later learnt that he had been killed by a shell burst. As something had to be done it was decided that George and I should try and make it back to the First Aid post and get stretcher-bearers to pick Maxie up. This we did though it took some persuading before the medics would venture down into the valley, as the shelling was still heavy. I do not remember much after that as I had a large shot of morphine.
This I suppose was up to a point a tank mans typical day though thankfully not with such a dramatic climax.
This incident occurred in the Italian Campaign on the 17th September 1944 and the tank was a Churchill armed with a 6pd gun. The tank crew were all members of the North Irish Horse.
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