- Contributed by
- kenneth waterson
- People in story:
- Geoffrey Waterson.
- Location of story:
- Western Desert, Italy and Normandy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 January 2006
The houses on our left were occupied by the Queen's infantry. On our right hand side was the wrecked Bren carrier and then the houses on the other side occupied by the German infantry.
An early incident was the retreat of some Germans from the houses they were in to houses further down the, street. One made it,
having a charmed life as bullets sprayed all round him. He got through and slammed the door behind him. A high explosive shell was despatched promptly through the doorway, carrying the door before it.
At intervals during the afternoon, evening and night there
were attempts by the German tanks to edge round the corner. After the first shot in such episodes little could be seen for smoke and dust.
Both sides blazed away with machine guns as well as solid shot just in case someone or something was moving in the murk.
Gus, our wireless operator who kept bottles of Italian wine
where he should have had spare valves for the radio, excelled himself as gun loader. Swigs of vino lent strength and speed. The enemy must have thought the gun was belt fed.
Time passed and the ammunition in the container ringing the turret floor diminished. The reserve in the rack behind the driver's seat was needed. This was not often used and the rounds were jammed
tight. Jack sweated and struggled to get them out. Gus, full of vino
and short on patience, admonished: "Only five more rounds left up here.
Count them as they go 1,2,3,4,5. If you haven't got any more up here by
If then, bale out.
Our crew was brought up to strength by Arthur, an old regular, coming up from spare crews as lap gunner. He had to be discouraged from venturing out of the tank on the right hand side to retrieve an expen-
sive looking wristlet watch on one of the three war correspondents still lying by the shattered Bren gun carrier. It was the professional soldier's attitude. Something available for which the previous owner
had no further use. In that particular place and circumstance, however, the odds against were a bit high.
Later in the night fresh supplies of ammunition were delivered at the rear of the tank by hand and foot over the bridge, together with words from the major, also on foot, as to the importance of holding the bridge.
The night continued with quieter interludes between outbursts of heavy firing. Gus was now very drowsy from his potations and took some rousing when needed.
The following morning the enemy had given up their attempt to retake the bridge and pulled back. Stiffly we climbed out of the tank. Gus sobered up remarkably when he moved his greatcoat on the bedding roll at the back of the turret and a solid shot rolled out on to the engine cover with a dull clunk. It had gouged a channel along the roof of the turret and dropped, spent, on the greatcoat. The morning after also saw our crew acquire the frying pan, which had been Willie Dovey's pride, from the wrecked Bren carrier.
Some time later, George was awarded the D.C.M. in recognition of his efforts on taking over as tank commander.
Years after the war on an Italian holiday, Eric Wilde went back to the place and was interested to read the memorial carved in
stone 'to the gallant Italian partisans who held the bridge at Scafati'. On 29th September 1943 we moved on and had another disturbed
night, this time due to the enemy 6-barrelled 88mm mortars. These were
nicknamed the 'Hurdy Gurdies' on account of the screaming noise of the shells. Gus was slightly hurt in the head by shrapnel.
On the 1st October we were still pushing on and heard that the King's Dragoon Guards were in Napoli (Naples). There was also news that the Russians had crossed into Poland.
After a day in reserve, besieged in our leaguer by Italian children in search of sweets and chocolate, we moved on. By the 7th October the battle line was on the River Volturno. Here the days were relatively quiet but nights were noisy as both sides put patrols across the river in small boats. On the 9th we had chicken for dinner thanks to George's enterprise.
On the 10th, after a noisy night, all was quiet as our troop prepared breakfast. We were a hundred yards or so back from the river with an infantry machine gun post down by the river bank. I was reconstituting dried egg powder in a mess tin when a man in uniform came along and said "Good morning". He looked to me like an Italian policeman or official and I did not take much notice beyond returning his greeting. He then said haltingly "I come to give myself to you". It slowly dawned that he was in German field grey, without the unmistakable pudding basin helmet. An earlier incident flashed through my mind. The Germans had taken possession of an Italian farmhouse for an SS unit headquarters. The Italian family had been obstinate about leaving.
Without more ado the whole family, including women and children, had been shot. Only the old grandfather survived. We had said that the
next Germans to surrender would be unlucky. But what could one do with a tinful of dried eggs - suffocate the prisoner?
In the event this would have been rough on this particular
.~ ~ -
prisoner. He was a Luxemburger conscripted into the German army who had taken the first opportunity of deserting after being sent across the river on night patrol. He had some difficulty, however. In the
friendly morning air and light he had walked pas~ the machine gun post
and the first of our troop of three tanks without arousing a flicker of interest. Without his helmet he looked too much like an Italian official on the scrounge for cigarettes.
Our report roused the officer commanding from his morning
calm. He appeared to have visions of a single tank troop attacking the enemy on their own initiative without waiting for him.
The whole of a tank regiment's radio sets were netted in to
one wavelength, varied from time to time. On occasions there were some very entertaining exchanges. Our colonel in North Africa had left for staff college at the age of twenty eight and had been replaced by an
officer who commanded from further back than 'Fearless'. There came the day when one squadron commander was asked testily to report his position to 'Sunray'. The squadron commander in question was Paddy Doyle, major in charge of 'C' Squadron. He had started the war as a lance corporal and now had the D.C.O. and bar. To the huge delight of other crews
listening, the Irish brogue came over: "If 'Sunray' would move a bit
closer, he could see for himself what my position is." The outcome was that the Lieutenant-Colonel, not the Major, left the regiment.
The 11th October 1943 saw us moving back to Aversa. There was plenty of food about but most of the Italians were very poor. The only signs of wealth were in the churches with magnificent decorations and ornaments.
On the 16th October the battalion organised a concert with
Italian artists. It was very good with operatic tenors and sopranos.
After moving again on the 17th October, we had a good look at
Santa Maria and then supported the Royal Engineers on bridge building over the Volturno before crossing the river on a Bailey bridge.
It was about this period, when there was heavy shelling, that
we came across a chemist's shop which had been hit and most of the stock spilt into the road. Most of us replenished our supplies of soap and
razor blades and someone took the opportunity of emptying a small bottle of very feminine perfume on the overalls of 'Butch' Lovell. It seemed an exquisite joke at the time - the contrast between the perfume and
Jack's appearance. He was an amateur heavyweight boxer and played as a
Rugby Union forward after the war.
There was another contrast here too. A young soldier of the
46th Division, new out from England for the Salerno affair, remonstrated with us for 'looting'. At the time most of us were in our early
twenties but we felt generations older than the lad from the 46th. No doubt he was correct but the 5th lived to a different code. There was
no inhibition about helping ourselves to what was there. for the taking.
On the other hand, no Italian children asking for sweets or bully beef went away empty handed.
George Onions, our driver again now that Lieutenant Bingley
had taken over as tank and troop commander, had somehow acquired a small bale of grey army socks. Earlier he had had the misfortune to leave all his washing spread out to dry on the steps of a church when we had to move very quickly. One does not stay to collect washing when one is
being plastered by mortars. Now George simply discarded socks and took a new pair from the bale behind his seat.
There was a nice piece of improvised reporting by our wireless operator. Caught in an air raid, our gallant tank commander was out of the tank escorting a very beautiful Italian girl and her mother to a nearby shelter. The squadron leader came on the air asking for our
I Sunray' . "Doing a personal recce on foot" was the reply without any
About this time one of the crew climbed into the turret one
night for a slug of German 'fire water' out of a stone jug as a cure for his cold. Gradually the rest of the crew joined him and a merry evening was had by all - not least by the successive sentries calling on their
One day we were much entertained by an American truck driven down the road with a number of German prisoners in the open back.
Two Americans with sub-machine guns faced the prisoners with their guns trained. Those lads had seen too many films, perhaps. All who saw the scene roared with laughter.
By the 28th October we were spending an afternoon in Naples shopping for Christmas presents to send home.
Early in November came the rumour that we were being pulled
out to go back home for the 'second front'. By the 18th November we had moved down to Castellemare to await sea transport. There were visits to the ruins of Pompeii and the Isle of Capri where both Gracie Fields and
Count Ciano, until recently Italy's Foreign Minister, had villas. There were still guides to show people round Pompeii. One memory is of an old Italian man vainly trying to steer two American nurses away from one of
the naughtier exhibits. Obviously he did not consider it a sight suitable for young women and did not want to unlock the cover. The nurses,
however, were equipped with a detailed guide book and were determined to see all that was available.
There was also a boxing tournament arranged. Jack entered for the heavyweight section. Reluctantly, he allowed himself to be persuaded to withdraw by the battalion sports officer who had heard
that his likely opponent would be an American navy stoker with professional experience and said to be a former champion of Florida. In
due course we went to see the entertainment. The American heavyweight was matched against a lad from the Rifle Brigade, a former schoolboy champion.. To Jack's disgust, the American proved to be a wildly
swinging optimist inclined to fall over his own feet. Wondering whether or not he was sober, the rifleman watched his antics for one round and
put him away in the next. Jack was very cross with the sports officer. We also had short trips to one or two Italian hill towns,
unchanged for centuries. There were few goods for sale and the roast chestnut vendors gave atmosphere to these places.
On the 20th December we embarked on the 'Cameronia' at Naples
and spent Christmas Day at Oran. We were allowed to stretch our legs on the quay to look at the 'Richelieu', a French battleship moored further along. By the 27th December, Gibraltar was behind us and soon we were
sailing up the Clyde. The customs came aboard and asked if anybody had more than 200 cigarettes. Some looked non-plussed. The customs man
raised his voice to ask if anyone had more than 500 cigarettes. No one had. End of customs examination. Most people had souvenirs in their
luggage. Jack had a beautiful engraved Italian sporting gun in his bedroll about which he had been a little doubtful when it came to customs inspection.
Soon the regiment was established in nissen huts at Shakers
Wood in East Anglia where even the Naafi was too remote to employ girls. In turn everyone got leave to go home. A number of us travelled together to Manchester by train and we were delighted to come out of the
station to pouring rain. This was home after a surfeit of sun, sand and
Back to East Anglia, most nights were free to inspect the
delights of war time Cambridge, Wisbech, Brandon or Thetford. Usually the beer was in short supply. However, people preferred to get away
from the army camp atmosphere, even though the canteen had ample stocks of beer. One Saturday night Jack and I went to a dance in Cambridge.
At that time Jack was friendly with a police Inspector's daughter. Towards the end of the evening we were leaving the dance and the pubs had just emptied. A lot of people were trying to push their way into the
dance led by some Guardsmen. Jack and one Guardsman exchanged words and then blows. Jack's one and only punch landed flush on the Guardsman's jaw. Down he went and out. The rest parted like the Red Sea to let us through.
Geoff Cooper was in his element again in East Anglia. A few of us, including Geoff, were in the back of an army truck passing a
Saturday evening cinema queue in a small town soon after our arrival in Norfolk. One girl in the queue stood out as the local belle. Geoff
said: III shall be in that queue with that girl this time next week'l. A sceptic was roused to bet against this. Geoff won his bet, although he
had never seen the girl before that first Saturday evening in the truck. We were re-equipped with Cromwell tanks which were British made and armed with a 75mm gun. After four years of war it had been
realised that a two pound armour piercing shot was not much use. This had been obvious from the beginning to any trooper who had to fight in tanks. Now we were given British made tanks which would have been
adequate at the start of the war against German Mark Ills but were still hopelessly inadequate against the German Panther Mark V and the Tiger
Mark VI with their 88mm high velocity gun. The best that could be done was to have, in every troop of three, one Sherman tank with a seventeen
pounder high velocity gun, the Firefly. This put one out of three tanks on equal terms with the German fire power, still leaving two out of
three sitting ducks for the Panthers and Tigers. The Cromwell had a
square turret and thick armour on the front only, as compared to the six inches all round the turret of the Tiger. The British propaganda effort was much better than their tanks. A bright young sergeant came to show us the Cromwell and breezily assured us that they 'would stop an 88 at
500 yards'. 'Whaler' Tutheridge said: "Will they? I only hope you are in one when it is put to the test." In due course, in Normandy, we saw a knocked out Cromwell which had been hit by an 88 at 2000 yards. With German precision, the shot had been aimed at and hit the weld at one
front corner, went straight across the turret and came out at the back. Our drivers also upset some workers in the factories when
picking up new tanks. Presumably their morale had been boosted by being told what good tanks they were making. The down to earth 5th gave the precise and accurate assessment of what they were. Realism not defeatism.
Some of our new tanks were taken over from a Guards unit,
which was interesting. You could have eaten your dinner from the turret floor and everything metallic in sight shone. Lift up the battery cover
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