Shortly after the end of the University term I was called up to join the Armoured Division Officer Cadet Training Unit, which had specialised squadrons for the tank and armoured car regiments and a company for the Motor Battalions.
This was in a recently built camp of wooden huts, a few miles from Tidworth at the East end of Salisbury Plain, which had been for some time the main training centre for the tank regiments, who had left behind as witnesses specimens of the tanks developed between the wars.
We lived in barrack rooms, each holding about 30, arranged in a ‘spider’ of four linked with a central core for ablutions. There was no lack of hot water and the barrack rooms were comfortably warm. In a slightly modernised version of the traditional Army style, the beds were lined up against the long walls, each with a cupboard to display the individual’s kit. There was a standard layout for displaying kit for inspection, so that the inspecting officer could see at a glance whether any of the issue items was absent or not in good condition… T
he camp was built around a Square on which drills were done, though there was not very much of this as we had all learnt it thoroughly already. Occasionally the whole OCTU was on parade for one reason or another, and the rifle company marching at 140 paces to the minute made life a bit difficult for the organisers since everyone else marched at the standard heavy infantry pace of 120. For outdoor training, now ranging quite widely, the Plain itself was used, with a wide variety of rolling plain, downs and river valleys. This was done in 15 cwt trucks, Bren gun carriers, and motor cycles, the main motor battalion vehicles, and pick-up trucks which carried radio sets and were used for training exercises…
Each motor company had its anti-tank platoon of six 2 pounders in the UK, which were replaced by 6 pounders as soon as we got to Egypt. Each motor company also had a scout platoon mounted in 11 Bren gun carriers. This cheap and mass produced very light armoured vehicle was another great favourite. The original concept was a small open topped vehicle, as low as possible, built of armour plate proof against small arms fire (rifles and machine guns), powered by a standard Ford V8 engine and controlled by an ordinary truck differential and independent brakes on the sprocket wheels which drove the tracks…the carrier’s brakes were controlled by a steering wheel and were easily mastered by a competent car driver.
On any ordinary road or hard going, it could do a very rapid about turn with one track locked and the other on full power. If escaping from enemy fire the crew were now better protected and smoke could be fired from rear-facing projectors. The basic task was as the name implied to carry a Bren gun and its crew through any area swept by small arms fire; for example to enable the crew to outflank an enemy position and deliver flanking fire to support its own infantry advance. In skilled hands a group of these could use quite limited ground cover to reconnoitre or infiltrate enemy defences. It could carry heavier weapons such as Vickers machine guns, and very often in the desert captured 20mm cannons, and was the standard transport for the mortar platoons. In a scout platoon, the elite command of the desert motor companies, each section of three carriers and the two command carriers of the platoon commander and sergeant, carried a radio.
MTB’s [Motor Battalion’s) Aim … for new officers was to give them experience in training, commanding, and looking after real soldiers, who like us came there after 6 months of basic training, then still at the traditional Greenjacket depot of Winchester.
Time was short, for the desert needed reinforcements and the new Armoured Divisions were being built up at home. Fitness was a high priority and the Greenjackets’ faster marching pace than the heavy infantry contributed to it, as did the tradition of including a period of moving at the double in every route march. For these the dress was full marching order with personal weapons (including Bren guns), full ammunition pouches, small packs with spare socks and rations for the day, gas masks and capes, steel helmets. We did not march with large packs which in motor battalions were being carried in the platoons’ 15cwts.
Each exercise started with the mounted approach and the tactical march into position as well as the manoeuvre being practiced. I was second in command and later commander of the ‘Demonstration Platoon’ which had to show the others how it should be done. It was quite exhilarating (once practiced till perfect) to do it all at top speed with every man playing his part … We had a slightly theatrical version of the attack battle drill for parade ground displays to visitors.
At the far end a small enemy post with plenty of blanks waited behind a sandbag wall while a foot patrol could be seen entering the parade ground from the other end. When fired on they took cover and could be seen radioing a report back. A motor platoon arrived behind them and the platoon commander went forward to the patrol, surveyed the field with his field glasses while his section commanders dismounted from their trucks and joined him; meanwhile the sergeant got the sections ready for action.
The section commanders having got their orders from the platoon commander, one went off under cover to the right and set up their Bren and a 2 inch mortar while the others prepared to move up on the left and centre. The platoon commander’s whistle blew, the Bren opened up on the enemy and the mortar put down smoke in front of them … The platoon commander then charged forward with the two sections and took the objective, all within ten minutes from the first enemy shots.The food was wonderful [on troopship] as the ships on this run victualled at Cape Town, and in the officers’ mess there was plenty of South African wine and all the usual mess bar drinks, all duty free and so affordable. There were also sergeants’ and other ranks’ messes with similar advantages, though they didn’t like South African beer very much. Those on other ships were less lucky; two were American army transports and therefore dry…
For lack of deck room for drill, we had to keep the men fit with PT and deck games, and military training was confined to weapon practice. We were to be re-equipped with 6 pounders when we reached Egypt and there were two on board for training. Being at sea we were allowed to fire some live rounds, provided we dropped to the rear of the convoy and fired well clear of the other ships… There were also lectures and discussions led by desert veterans with impressive gongs, about every imaginable aspect of life and war in the desert.
We were introduced to sun compasses … [and] warned of the inadequacy and danger of the local flimsy petrol cans, which often leaked and left one at best short of petrol and at worst on fire. On the other hand we were taught how to use them for making safe cooking fires or lavatories. We were advised to take every opportunity to acquire the well designed Jerrycan, strongly made of steel. We were advised how to care for the health of men and machines; for example any scratch or abrasion had to be taken seriously because they could lead to desert sores which needed prompt treatment with sulphanilamide, only recently brought into use. One tip for machines which sounded far fetched but later proved itself in practice was how to stop a radiator leaking by breaking an egg into the radiator. What to do if there were no eggs in the rations? Hail a passing Arab.
The main southern line was held by the Desert Rats, and our spare motor brigade came in very handy to take up advance positions with the role of making an initial resistance and then retiring in apparent panic, to encourage a further and hopefully overconfident advance. Once we had played our role and passed through the Desert Rats, they would begin a serious defence and the air and artillery bombardment would begin. This halted the Africa Korps in its tracks; they struggled on for a bit but suffered severe losses of vehicles and arms, and had to withdraw. These losses and the domination of Rommel’s sea and land supply lines by the RN and RAF rendered Rommel incapable of mounting another offensive.
I found myself a real platoon commander. We were now in the 10th Armoured Division, whose logo was a charging rhino, affectionately known as the Pregnant Pig. Our training area was in the desert near the Cairo road. Our role would be to follow the tank advance, occupy the ground that they had overrun, and defend it against the expected tank counter-attack with our 6 pounders…The desirable timing was for us to arrive on our intended defensive position towards dusk giving us time to assess it in the last daylight and then have all night to dig in and get some rest.
Realistically however we were likely to be late in arriving and so we had to practice moving up in the dark over the battle positions by narrow tracks cleared in the minefields. On arriving we had to choose our positions in the dark; this sounds impossible but we were promised ‘artificial moonlight’ provided by anti-aircraft searchlights playing on the clouds. These alternatives turned out to be more realistic. In open desert a good position to defend against tank attack meant digging in on the rear slope of one of the small rises which would keep our positions out of the direct sight of the enemy, and at the distance from the crest which would give us a good field of fire as his tanks came over the crest. After about three attempts either way we were judged ready by the Brigadier.
As dark fell we moved forward through the minefields on the track swept and marked by tapes on both sides, and about 2am with 4 hours of dark to go we were ordered to dig in. The digging was reasonable and the rifle platoons achieved slit trenches about 3 feet deep and had time to help dig in the 6 pounders, so we were in reasonable defensive shape.
Unfortunately the slope on which the dug in infantry were [was] in dead ground and so not visible to the enemy, but not enough to hide the upperworks of our trucks, and once it was light the enemy antitank guns seemed to take them for tanks and picked them off one by one with solid antitank shot, which crippled the trucks but did less damage to our gear on them. We kept our heads down and were apparently not seen, because some rather desultory air bursts from the 88s, which would have been lethal to infantry in slit trenches were falling harmlessly well short. Then we had to look up, for the expected tanks appeared over the crest.
We could distinguish both German and Italian, about 50 in all. They again shot up our vehicles but apparently had not yet seen us, so we held our fire until they were well over the crest, about 400 yards away. Then the 6 pounders started on the German tanks which were the more dangerous. The small arms compelled their crews to close down their turrets and drivers’ visors, which meant that they were firing relatively blind and we didn’t suffer many hits. The .5 inch anti tank rifles of the motor platoons took care of the Italian tanks, whose armour was hardly better than a Bren gun carrier’s.
The German tanks that had not been hit hid in the smoke from their burning colleagues and tried a little serious gunnery while the Italians gallantly renewed their charge. By this time the fog of battle was a considerable handicap for them at a few feet above ground level while we could still see underneath it. We were not counting at the time, but were able to claim 17 kills, and they must have decided that was enough bearing in mind what happened yesterday, and started to withdraw in reverse so as to keep their armour facing us. The drivers could not see behind them, so the commanders had to open their turrets to look out behind, and we kept up the small arms fire. This seemed to be the last straw and we saw some very fancy fast reversing.
We were able to get about the desert, because we were not as short of transport as higher authority believed. 2RB as an experienced desert battalion had a fleet of captured German vehicles and a well-rehearsed plan for driving them out of sight should a senior officer be seen on the horizon. They lent us enough to provide mobility for one rifle company; we still had our carriers; so Douglas [Officer Commanding] was able to mount exercises for two companies at a time, one static in defence and the other as a normally mounted motor company.
By day, the emphasis in attack was on sun compass navigation and use of ground, especially by the carriers whose role was outflanking; some of them were also used as ‘tanks’ for the purpose of the exercise to test the defender’s anti-tank defence… By night the defensive position most practiced was … the transport arranged in a square and the night watch kept on the perimeter with Bren guns mounted … to fire along the perimeter on fixed defensive lines…This hedgehog had been very successful in mobile desert warfare and could be adapted to protect tank units if we were working with them.
When we closed to around 400 yards from the foot of the hill we saw a flash of sunlight from field glasses and then a soldier running from one concealed position to another. He was in cover too soon to be hit, but we gave his point of origin and destination a good pasting with the Bren guns. Still no response so we settled down in a wadi with a good clear exit as well as cover from direct fire and watched for any further indiscretions. Before any materialised out lookouts to the rear reported enemy movement … a company of Italian infantry who would have been too much for us, so we took off, firing on the move with everything we had including the Vickers.
As we came level with them I took a quick peep over the armour to see how the other carriers were doing and felt a tremendous thump on the left side of my head. My face was covered in blood, but I could feel no real wound. When we could eventually stop we saw that a bullet must have hit the helmet exactly on the rim and bounced upward, made a large hole, and bounced again up to the sky, having peppered the area in front of my left ear with tiny fragments of bullet and helmet, producing a dramatic amount of blood and quite a headache but no more.
About half way back there was an abandoned truck, and Eddie decided to go and have a closer look, but as he moved away from the track his carrier hit a mine. We all stopped. When the smoke cleared we could see the carrier upside-down, but at first no sign of the crew, and the carrier began to burn… Some of the other carriers started to approach to help, but I warned them to stop, except the Sergeant’s which was to come in very carefully having checked for mines … in order to use a towing rope to pull the damaged carrier right way up and let us get the crew out.
The radio operator, a Lewis boy named Morrision, stayed put in the carrier and was looking over the side when to our horror a small mine which had not been detected went off just under him, wounding him fatally… Wisely Colonel Douglas spoke to both platoons, authorised a rum ration and stood us down for the rest of the day. We serviced the carriers, had a good meal and rested or in my case sat down to write to the Morrison parents. I told them he was a good soldier well liked by his fellow riflemen who had tragically been wounded when trying to rescue his platoon commander …but I felt very inadequate in expressing sympathy. This was the first next of kin letter I had written, and alas it was not to be the last.
My job was to find a viewpoint on the ridge where I could safely see over the top and locate the Tigers [tanks] and if located to bring down the Brigade’s 25 pounders’ fire on them. This was something we had been taught to do in training but never yet had to use in action. Seen in the growing light the bridge was very bare of cover, so I left my carrier safely hull down and took my radio mike on an extra long lead, and map and compass, and crawled very flat on my belly up to the top.
On my heads was my new tin hat disguised as a local shrub. Sure enough, on the right and on the other side of the ridge was a group of 6 Tigers. I estimated the distance, took a bearing, and crawled down from the skyline to work out the map reference and called up the gunners, then crawled up again to watch the results. I heard our guns fire a single shot to check the range, and almost immediately there was a puff of smoke near the front Tiger so I began to call the guns again to confirm they were on target.
Then I realised that the smoke was in fact the Tiger firing, and made myself as small as possible. The shell landed a few yards away, straight ahead so that the tin hat took most of the shock, but I also felt a mighty bang on my left elbow and some minor impacts elsewhere, on my shoulder and right thigh. The last I have never understood … perhaps the blast lifted the leg to let the splinter in. It was clearly time to find a new OP and put on a few field dressings. We did the move and [I] handed over control of the guns to my platoon sergeant, who had some success without further inconvenience…
Normally from 1st Army I would have been evacuated to the UK, and this is what the Battalion expected. They had relatively little excitement before the fall of Tunis for the tanks made such inroads that the motor battalions were engaged in mopping up rather than fighting. Thus when the time came to propose periodic decorations for the campaign (as distinct from immediate awards for gallantry), the scout platoon commanders were the best candidates; also, believing that I would be evacuated home they thought a gong would help me to cope with the competition there. This is not of course on any record, but when I got to the battalion and the award was announced, Col Douglas let a hint slip out in the mess.
After a week of Company soldiering [in Italy] I was called back to Battalion HQ and installed as Adjutant to replace Bill Brownlow who had gone to a higher staff post. Short of being promoted to Major and given a Company this was as high as I was likely to go in the Battalion …I looked after the administration and related paperwork, and of course took my turn in manning the essential 24 hour radio net with Brigade above and the companies below.
Our Division was to break through the Argenta Gap, basically the line of the Ravenna to Ferrara road with the River Reno on the left… After a day in reserve whilst the other tank regiment groups made slow progress against strong defences, there was just room for our group to sneak in close to the Reno: we were held up in a village called Segni, where the Colonel and O group, including me this time, went with the gunners’ OP up the church steeple and had a splendid view of the field…Two of out companies dismounted from their tanks and sapper machines and cleared the infantry from the near bank; one of the armoured bridges was put across by the sappers, and our companies crossed and mopped up the rest of the defences; Before crossing our tanks gave the German tanks such a pasting, though neither was destroyed, that we saw them retreat at speed. Now our tanks poured over the crossing, fanned out and went in chase while our companies mopped up. This was the critical break through, for the whole Division passed through it.
Tito forces had occupied Gorizia, which is actually in Italy though on the East side of the border River Soca, and as they had fired at my brother Tom’s 27 Lancer armoured car they seemed likely to try and come further. The Chetnics fleeing from them had reached Cormons about ten miles West, where we met them and arranged for them to continue into internment while we keep [sic] Tito back; they did not of course agree to this, and we could not use force against our gallant allies, so we blocked the road peaceably and invited their commander in for a chat with Vivian Street who had picked up enough SerboCroat in his time with Tito and also had a case of Slivovic which did the trick though the Chetnicks had turned their noses up at the Communist brew.