by Will Gray
Without warning, there was a tremendous explosion and a myriad of sparks were shooting into the air. The tank in front of us had been hit by, in my opinion, the most fearsome 88-millimetre anti-tank gun! To see an iron monster burn so furiously so near to us almost frightened the life out of me. Fire everywhere! Exploding shells! Five of my friends were in the stricken tank. I kept shouting, “Bail out, you silly buggers!”
However, there was no sign of the crew and I realized then that the guys in that blazing tank were dead. I supposed that everyone including the Squadron Leader, on seeing what had happened, would be willing them, as I was, to “Bail out!” This was war, and it was odds-on that my tank could be the next one turned into a cauldron of fire. Those two small words — “Bail out!” — are chilling to a tank crew in action.
Owing to the rain, it was obvious that I would be unable to manoeuvre around the blazing and exploding tank just ahead of me. To get a clear understanding of what action I should take, I opened the lid of my compartment and stood up. It looked impossible to pass the smoking wreck without getting off the road and heading for open land. Because of the rain, it was well-nigh impossible to deploy off-road. Other tanks had tried to do so and had become bogged down, unable to move any further. Determined to move ahead, I began to nudge the stricken tank out of the way so I could pass.
The regiment had been ordered to make its way to Arnhem where many of the Allied airborne regiments were fighting a hard battle that was supposed to end the war before Christmas 1944. Mine was one of the tank regiments chosen to pursue and attack the enemy in order to break his stranglehold.
Our opposition consisted of an open road with no cover or ground troops. It was also known, by the earlier loss of two or three tanks, that the enemy had an 88-mm anti-tank gun hidden somewhere. My progress indicated that regular bombardments by our artillery must have put it out of action, or the German crew must have moved further back.
My colonel was a regular soldier and an absolute firebrand who only stood about 5’ 4” in height. He had been ordered by the General to make more headway in order to relieve the troops in Arnhem who were having a tough time.
The weather remained awful. The fields were sodden, and none of the tanks was able to deploy beyond the main road. As I was in the leading tank, I had to approach all crossroads with utmost care. The crew was aware of our danger and now all eyes were looking out for any sign of trouble. After the delay, it was more than obvious that we were going to catch up with the enemy. It was natural that there was a feeling of dread amongst us. Out came the cigarettes.
My co-driver “Little Joe” was a brewery employee. He wasn’t very big, but he and I had been brewed up before, when our tank was hit. He had just recently returned to the Regiment after a short period in hospital because of burns.
My commander was an ex-cavalry Sergeant. He was what we called an old plodder; he never took any chances and kept a rein on me to curb my enthusiasm in the chase. The wireless operator Ken, a Cambridge graduate, had been expecting to be chosen for Officer Training and had been turned down. God help the persons that would have been under his command if he had been selected. However, he was an excellent wireless operator.
Our gunner, Tom, was a Londoner and had been previously employed as a telegram boy. He told me that he was glad to get away from the job, because he was known as the doom and gloom deliverer.
We were all in the same boat, and it was touch-and-go whether we would come out of this situation alive. I was still driving and stood up and at times, firing my revolver at the fleeing Germans who were probably just as frightened as we were.
“Push on, Push on” — through my headphones I heard the Colonel telling the Squadron Leader. The sergeant called him “Blood and Guts.” I knew the position we were in and had no intention of having my blood spilled. Guts I had plenty of, and we were on the main road heading towards Arnhem, where there was no escape. Still, if it wasn’t us, it would have been someone else.
I was probably the most experienced crew member. I might have been a little mad. I was keen, but I had survived many months in battle wearing this suit of armour in the shape of a Sherman tank all the way from the D-Day landings. I had survived two bail-outs from this type of tank. It was so vulnerable that it was actually given the nickname Ronson, a make of cigarette lighter that claimed, ‘one strike and it lights’.
Although keen and at times openly very scared, I was always ultra-careful and generally, because of my experience, I was the first to spot anything that might be dangerous, and I would take the necessary action to save my fellow crew members.
Rain, rain, and more rain poured out of the heavens. We had been on the go since the early hours of the morning and, to be honest, our nerves were on edge because we were on a tight-rope of a road. Two of our tanks had already been knocked out before we took over as the leading tank. I didn’t smoke, but I grabbed a cigarette from Joe, who had just lit one.
The Sergeant had his binoculars to his eyes and was complaining bitterly that they were useless because of the rain. Now, if the commander could not see, what chance did I have when I was peering through the periscope?
Once again, I opened my overhead hatch cover and stood up. From there, with a more limited view, I began to realize how near we were to the enemy infantry lurking in the fields. I was amazed to see them on either side of my tank. In fact, they were so near I thought they must be bomb-happy. I was almost able to hit them over the head with my revolver.
The other three tanks of the troop were following behind, firing their machine guns. They had very little to worry about, because all they had to do was to follow in my tracks and pray to God that it wasn’t their turn to take over as leading tank. Even my commander was glad that his tank was on the road and that the fleeing Germans could do no harm to him and his crew. After all, they were only poor bloody infantry who were running like hell, trying to avoid being run over or shot down by the follow-up tanks and the incessant artillery bombardments. In fact, there were times when they used my tank as cover, to keep from from being shot.
Believing that everything was now plain sailing, the troop officer ordered my commander to push on. It was probable that the Squadron Leader had received a kick in the arse from the colonel, informing him that speed was essential.
The orders had been passed down the line and, in general, they affected me because I was the driver of the leading tank. I was a little wary of the order, because now we were approaching a crossroad. Travelling a straight road and having no room for avoidance, I was certain that there had to be an anti-tank gun or a tank somewhere around.
“Oh God!” I exclaimed. I had momentary view of a red-hot shot hurtling down the middle of the road probably at twice the speed of sound. From its position, it was certain that my tank would be hit. Having no time to avoid it, I supposed that my crew had also seen the red projectile. I was terrified and instinctively pulled on the left tiller in an effort to try and deflect the approaching red-hot piece of metal. Suddenly, there was one terrific explosion. A shower of sparks, smoke and dust clouded my eyes as I screamed, “Bail out!”
Instinctively I shot out of my seat and was through the open hatch without touching the sides. However, I nearly broke my neck as the headphone plug snapped from its socket when I dived from the top of the tank into the road and rolled over into the dyke alongside. What a predicament! Only two or three minutes ago, I had been taking pot shots at the enemy. Now I was alone in a water-filled dyke. Having shed my suit of armour, I was unarmed and at the mercy of the enemy infantry.
The engine was still turning over. I had not stayed long enough to switch off the engine and the tank was still moving forward. It didn’t move far and, after it stopped, it began to burn profusely as the ammunition began to explode. I had seen the gunner, operator, and the commander bail out.
Where was Little Joe? Apparently, his hatch cover had jammed from the impact of the shell hitting the tank. However, I had planned for moments like this. I had made sure that there was a hammer handy to break loose the floor escape hatch. I imagined that Little Joe, having escaped a blazing tank on a previous occasion, would have the foresight to use the hammer.
Even in this dangerous circumstance, I was overcome with emotion when I saw him crawling on his hands and knees at the rear of the tank. At that moment, frightened out of my skin, I was so glad I had remained on the road. If we had been deployed in one of the nearby fields, there would have been no way to open the hatch.
Outside the tank, I could hear the commander shouting. He must have been wounded. I stood up and heard the whine and thud of a round that hit the soil in front of me. It must have just missed my head by an inch. “That was a near one!” I thought with a shudder. God must have been with me at that moment.
With alacrity, I ducked down and made a dash across the road. I found the commander lying in the dyke on the opposite side. He was bleeding from the face and eyes and had been blinded. I was pleased to see Little Joe there with his revolver at the ready. I had, unfortunately because of my hurried exit, left mine in the burning tank. I took the commander’s and told him to crawl along the dyke and that Joe would keep him in line.
The other tanks were about two hundred yards away, and the artillery was now pounding the crossroads with high-explosive shells. I was too busy to worry about that. I was promising myself I was going to survive and at that time I was crawling along the dyke to get rid of a German who was in our way.
I dragged the Sergeant along the dyke with the help of Joe until he was taken off my hands by the medics. He was never to see any more combat, and I never saw him again until many years later at one of the reunions when he expressed his thanks for looking after him.
Two of my crew were still missing and I begged a couple of hand grenades off one of the infantry and set out to seek for them. I crawled down the dyke and to my amazement, I saw Ken and Tom walking up the middle of the road without a care in the world. It was obvious they were bomb-happy but then weren’t we all?
Even after that near-fatal “Bail Out,” I spent a couple of days together with Joe, Ken and Tom, being examined by the regimental doctor. He declared us fit. The Squadron Leader promptly fitted me up with another tank, and a new Commander, and I was transferred to another troop.
The war had to go on. But I never did get to Arnhem. The road was too treacherous and too well covered with anti-tank guns; the Regiment unfortunately lost another ten tanks. It had been one hell of a day.
One never knew when it was one’s turn to die.
Copyright © 2008 by Will Gray