It Was Nearly Curtains
by Will Gray
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. If I did promote you, you would have to be transferred to another regiment. 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 a promotion whilst I am with this regiment?”
“Only 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 the Regiment, so I made my mind up that I was going to be a driver as long as they needed me.
I had joined this regiment in the early forties and what a Fred Carno mob [comedy team] 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 these men to be wireless operators and gunners. In a short time, some of them were able to read Morse code quicker than their instructors.
Most of the instructors were ex-cavalry, and some of them had not long parted from their horses and mules. What knowledge they had of tank warfare was absolutely nil. In time, the wheat was sorted from the chaff, and that included all ranks. It was then decided that we had the raw fiber needed to make a fine regiment.
I was allocated to a troop headed by a rugby-playing, ambitious lieutenant, a nutty troop sergeant, a corporal who used to bray his balls on the table [shoot off his mouth; be boastful], 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 crewmates were forever changing. Occasionally they were weeded out and sent to other troops where they settled down and were ever thankful to be rid of our 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, Cromwells 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 miles 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. Then, lazily, the German Panzer blasted off at us with its 88mm. It hit the Honey tank that was alongside. The same shell that demolished the Honey continued its journey and broke the track of my tank. Now we were a sitting duck.
Then, bang, we were hit again and within 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 after 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 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 by stupidity.
The Germans had plenty of chances. After all, we were brewed up [set on fire] three times, and it was pure luck we all escaped without injury. Except for the last brew up: my injury was to the arm, so 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 be back as their driver. However, I was called upon to act as the Squadron Leader’s driver. This was a cushy number as far was I was concerned. Being a troop sergeant’s driver, you were generally the leading tank and always 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 was to try and outmaneuver the enemy and attack them. 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 was severely burned; the co-driver, my long-time friend, suffered shrapnel and burns. The commander suffered shrapnel and burns, as well, and the driver, a badly damaged leg. Only one of the crew returned later that year to carry on in action: the co-driver. I just shook my 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. He was no nutty sergeant. He 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. He 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 from the Sherman!
I shudder to think how many Sherman drivers and co-drivers were trapped and 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 Weser River, 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, though at times that didn’t mean they were surrendering. When passing through a village named Tecklenburg, despite its displaying a white flag, an anti-tank gun fired at the leading tank. The commander was a small man who could just poke his head inches out of the turret. The shot hit, took the turret ring off and the 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 with.
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 a 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 many 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, who had planned to scuttle 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 by the thousands. It was two days before the war 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. Fortunately, the Comet’s reaction was a lot quicker than the Sherman’s. The shot bounced off the right-hand side leaving a three-foot gouge in the extra armour and then the shell flew away into oblivion.
The co-driver looked at me and said, “That had our name on it.” Maybe it did, but of all the tanks I had driven, the Comet was the fastest and the best for taking immediate action. We had been lucky. Five friends of ours in another squadron were killed on the next day when the war ended.
Even today the co-driver tells his friends that I saved his life. That’s how it was nearly curtains.
Copyright © 2008 by Will Gray