September 2020
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British Army

It Was Nearly Curtains

It Was Nearly Curtains

I was a tank driver for five years during the 2nd World War and for some reason I was never promoted until after the war ended.  I often wondered why.  During my service I had driven Corporals, Sergeants, Lieutenants, Captains, Majors and Colonels so I must have been capable and well thought of.  Whilst making my debut as a temporary driver to the Squadron Leader I took the opportunity to speak to him.


I queried the reason why I was never given promotion and he told me.  “Because I don’t want to lose you. You see if I promote you, you will have to be transferred to another Regiment.  So if you want to leave the Regiment I can soon promote you.  So what do you wish me to do?”


I was a little taken back with the reasons he gave me.  I asked,

“Will I ever get promotion whilst I am with this regiment?”

“If an opening occurs within the Squadron.”


He went on to explain why he wanted me to stay in the regiment.

“Good Tank Drivers and Tank Commanders are the two most important men in the regiment.  A driver is unique and must get on with the crew.  To me he is the most important man in the crew.  I am a Tank Commander as well as a Squadron Leader so I depend on my driver a lot.  He can see pitfalls long before I can.”


His explanation made me think.  I wanted promotion but I never wanted to leave this regiment so I made my mind up that I was going to be a driver as long as they needed me.


I joined this regiment in the early forties and what a Fred Carno mob it was.  Some of the men had literally been lifted off the street and issued with a broomstick for a rifle.  That’s how bad it was in those days.  None of them knew how to form threes properly.  I was one of the nucleuses of troopers that had been transferred to make up the deficit of experienced men.  Some sergeants and corporals were also transferred to teach them to be wireless operators and gunners.  In a short time some of these men were able to read the Morse code quicker than the instructors.


Most of the instructors were ex-cavalry and some of them had not long parted with their horses and mules.  What knowledge they had of Tank Warfare was absolutely nil.  In time the wheat from the chaff had been sorted and that included all ranks.  It was then decided that we had the raw fibre needed to make a fine regiment.


I was allocated to a troop headed by a rugby playing lieutenant, a nutty troop sergeant, a corporal who used to bray his balls on the table and another corporal who was a right shit.  The latter was a promotion seeker and to tell you the truth at that time he was a better commander than the nutty sergeant but even so he was still a complete shit.  My crew mates were forever changing; occasionally they were weeded out and sent to other troops where they settled down and accordingly ever thankful to be rid of the nutty Troop Sergeant.  No one treated him with as much contempt as I did, but the officer thought the sun shone out of his arse so like me he was here to stay.


Month after month, year after year we trained on all makes of tanks such as Matildas, Valentines, Cromwell’s and Crusaders.  When we arrived in Yorkshire the Regiment was supplied with the American tank known as the Sherman.  I was given the job of testing them which meant three months away from Regiment.  I had to drive a hundred mile or so each day; on the road one day and over land the next.  It was supposed to be somewhat similar to the terrain of France.  I was glad to say in its favour, the Sherman needed very little maintenance and they were better armed than most of the British tanks.


D-Day arrived and soon after landing we were locked in battle with the enemy in France.  Not having been in action before, I found it exhilarating and exciting.  I remember telling my Mum when I was on embarkation leave. “I’m alright I have a suit of armour.”  It was true but believe me it was no good when we came up against the German tanks.  A German Tiger tank came out of a French church yard.  We were on the ball and hoping for our first kill, our gunner hit it with a 75mm armour piercing shell.  Would you believe it?  It just bounced off it.


Then lazily the German Panzer blasted off at us with 88mm.  It hit the Honey tank that was alongside.  The same shell that demolished the Honey continued it journey and broke the track of my tank.  Now we were a sitting duck.  Then bang we were hit again and with minutes we were enveloped in a ball of fire.  Fortunately we all escaped without injury.  The Co-driver a nervous lad went a little bomb happy and from that day I never saw him again.  I had never smoked in my life but I am afraid that was the day I took to the dreaded weed.  My nerves were on edge like a few more of us.  Because that same German Tank sent five of our tanks to the scrap yard and some of our men to an early grave before it was disposed of by the RAF Typhoons.  There was never much left after the petrol tanks and shells began to explode and to think that this was our first baptism of fire.


I swore to myself that I was going to survive this war and I promised my crew members that I would never put their lives in jeopardy.  From that day I became a truculent soldier and I was forever arguing with the nutty sergeant.  I admit he had guts, he was like a small General Patton, our crew was not lacking in guts either but I was going to make sure he never got our blood.


The Germans had plenty of chances, after all we were brewed up three times and it was pure luck we all except me escaped without injury except for the last brew up.  My injury was an injured arm so consequently I was off driving for at least three weeks.


Consequently my position in the crew was taken over by a friend of mine.  He was an ex infantryman who had been transferred to the Regiment and this was his first drive.  Naturally the crew thought I would have been back as their driver.  However I was called upon to act as the Squadron Leaders driver. T his was a cushy number as far was I was concerned.  Being a troop Sergeant’s driver you were generally leading tank and the first to meet the enemy.


As it happened my old troop were held in reserve that day.  It was usual that if the leading tanks were held up by the enemy the reserve troop’s duty to try and to maneuver around the enemy and attack them.  And try to cause the disposal of the enemy.  So it would be either a right or left maneuver.  Our nutty sergeant was unfortunate and took the wrong one.  A Tiger tank caught them unawares and they were subjected to a direct hit in the offside region.  How they all escaped the vicious explosion with their lives, God only knows.  The gunner lost one of his legs, the operator severe burns, the co-driver my long time friend, shrapnel and burns.  The Commander suffered shrapnel and burns and the driver a badly damaged leg.  Only one of the crew returned later that year to carry on in action was the co-driver.  I just shook by head in disbelief.  It could have been me lying in hospital.  With one unlucky move all my crew had been decimated.


A few weeks later and after the battle for the Ardennes, I was transferred to another troop and allocated to drive the troop sergeant once again.  This was no nutty sergeant.  This one had spent a couple of years in the Western desert, he was cool and calculating.  He admitted that he was not too experienced with close combat fighting but he certainly impressed me and it was the first time I felt I had a first class soldier leading us into battle.


Our troop officer had just been posted to the Regiment and was as green as grass and had never seen a shot fired in anger.  He was a neat and tidy sort of a man. I think he modeled himself on Rommel.  If he had properly learned the basics of Map Reading I would have forgiven him for cleaning his calf length boots too often.  Still he had to learn and like the crews of the four tanks only six or seven men had battle experience.  I copped another inexperienced co-driver.  The operator was a Cambridge graduate and the gunner a postman.  They were cool and like us all a little bomb happy.


Our new tanks were the Comet.  They were first class and the driver and co-driver were incapable of being trapped with the turret or gun hanging over them.  What a difference to the Sherman I shudder to think how many drivers and co-drivers were trapped and were burned to death.  I can still hear their screams.  After the war I had a letter from a nephew of one of these drivers.  How could I tell him how his uncle had died?  My crew and I were only twenty yards away and were powerless to help.  What could I tell him?  Not one of the crew of that tank survived.  He was a soldier and this was war.


After the battles in the Ardennes we followed the Americans over the River Weser and now we were fighting on German soil.  It felt a lot different, there were no jubilant crowds waving at you.  White flags were plenty and though at times that didn’t mean they were surrendering.  When passing through a village named Tecklenburg despite it displaying a white flags an anti tank gun was fired at the leading tank.  The commander a small man who could just poke his head inches out of the turret.  The shot hit took the turret ring off and commander’s helmet.  I spoke to him later that afternoon and he declared that he would have the Mayor’s balls.  Whether he did, I was never told.  We were in a hurry to get this war over.


Two or three days later we were halted and informed that there was a 24 hour truce and we had to remain where we were.  I later learned that a camp full of Jewish prisoners was nearby.  This was the notorious camp called Belsen.  We were actually the first tank to reach the white ribbon that stretched across the road.  Somehow I thought this was ruse and it allowed many high ranking officers to escape.  On passing through the village I often wondered how the villagers could deny knowledge of its presence.  I could see and smell the emaciated prisoners clinging to the wire fence as we passed through.


Still we had a lot more miles to cover and now the race was on to beat the Russians who were making better progress than we were.  On reaching the Baltic sea we were able to sink a submarine and capture a boat full of political prisoners before they were destined to be drowned by the Germans scuttling the boat.


It was on that day I first saw my first German jet airplane.  Now once again we were on our way and now the prisoners were being captured in their thousands.  It was two days before the war was ended and we were sailing down a long road without a care in the world because we knew the end of the war was nigh.  Still ever watchful I suddenly saw the red hot shot from a distant tank or an anti tank gun.  It was heading for my tank and instinctively I pulled on my left hand tiller.  The shot bounced off the right hand side and flew away.  The co-driver looked at me and said, “That had our name on it,” Maybe it did but of the tanks I served in I kept a promise to myself that I would never lose the life of one of my crews.


Even today the co-driver tells his friends that I saved his life

That’s how it was nearly curtains.
Sergeant Will GRAY

"A" Squadron

23rd Hussars Rgt


Battle of the Ardennes,