T H E A D V A N C E
R E F L E C T I O N S OF AN O L D M A N
Kenneth R Ward
The old man sits every morning for about 10 minutes at the first floor bedroom window, whilst having breakfast with his wife.
This morning the mist was rising slowly over the Memorial Park. The lower half was still covered by mist, but the tree tops of the spinney in the distance could be seen clearly against the sky, and from the cloud layer on the right a beautiful red ball emerged slowly. Suddenly the sun exploded into a bright orange flash. The tops of the distant electric pylons stood glistening wet in the sunshine, and the dripping power cables dipped into the billowing mist, disappearing from sight.
The first dog walker appeared out of the silent nowhere with a prancing collie dog. Then the peaceful scene changed into pandemonium when two other dogs appeared in his field of vision, yapping very noisily. Their two owners then slowly joined the dogs, and the three women chatted happily under his window, allowing their dogs the full freedom of self-expression and trying effectively to be heard above the din.
Closing the double glazed windows restored the previous peace and tranquillity, and he could now gaze happily at the different blooms in his and the neighbours garden. The dark brown reddish leaves of the plant, climbing and covering the fence, reflected the sunlight and made him feel sad and ageing, as autumn had arrived, to be followed by winter, with its short days and long dark nights.
This morning he had been sitting in his chair much longer than usual and his wife had long gone down with the breakfast tray. He was wishing he could have painted this scene, which changes daily, and allows all the muscles in your body to relax when you gaze at it. He could sit in his chair quite happily for hours, just looking.
Suddenly, he sat up bolt upright, tension rising. He stared at the spinney across the lawn of the park. The mist was rising and he thought he had spotted a slight movement. For a fraction of a moment he could see the reflection of the sun on the metal of the gun barrel and could visualise the dark bulk of the German Tiger tank, with it's gun pointing directly at him. He ducked involuntarily. The mist was swirling now. This was bocage country, tank country, there must be more Tigers further over to the right, no doubt advancing on us, but they were still hidden from view.
The trampling of tiny feet on the staircase brought him back to reality, when the dark haired, brown eyed boy burst into the room, ran across to him, jumped onto his lap and pleaded "tell me a story about the war, you know the one, when you held up the war for a day, go on, tell me, tell me, please..."
The old man smiled to himself wryly. They had promised themselves at that time, that if they should ever get through this war alive, they would never, ever, tell their children about war heroes, and would never allow them to play with toy soldiers. So much for those resolutions all that time ago. Never mind, he thought:-
"The briefing by the Squadron Leader was short, to the point and very unpleasant. My stomach turned into a solid ball. Charlie, our driver, used some of the foulest language possible, using innumerable four letter words. Eric, the gunner, muttered something not very complimentary under his breath. Stan, the tank commander, quite new to the game, was very keen and, with shining eyes, willing to go anywhere in his ignorance. I made up the fourth member of the crew. The wireless operator and loader of the guns, and second in command.
I shall never forget that day. Sunday the 18th of March 1945.
We had only just rejoined the regiment in a brand new tank (a "Firefly", with the most powerful British tank gun at that time, but still not a match to the feared German 88), as our previous tank had been badly damaged in battle. We had just taken delivery of the tank, had had sufficient time to load our gear, but had not had a chance to test and check out our new acquisition.
We were deep inside Germany, and a dense impenetrable forest, which was looming only a short distance ahead of us, black and uninviting, had held up the tank column. Three attempts had been made to get through the German defences, without much success, and with very heavy losses.
We, No 7 troop, had been chosen from "A" Squadron, of the 1st. Royal Tank Regiment, 7th. Armoured Division (the famous Desert Rats), for one last attempt. We were told to try and get through before dusk. Only one infantry platoon was available to cover our flank during the advance. The Major, with his bristling moustache and carefully knotted desert scarf, was not very happy about sending us down the road either. So we cracked jokes, that weren't funny, and tried to appear as unconcerned as possible. I was as scared as always when I knew that battle was about to commence.
I nipped inside the tank, checked the wireless and made sure I was still "on net", our lifeline to the regiment. We had used it to listen to the BBC all morning. I put one of the high powered armour-piercing shells into the breech block of the 17 pounder gun, and fed a new belt into the Browning machine gun. I loaded my Sten gun and put some grenades within easy reach round the top of the turret. Dusk was approaching fast, and we did not have much time left.
The troop leader started up, and we followed like lambs being led to the slaughter. About eight infantry men crouched on the back of our tank, until we reached the wood. The trees suddenly started closing in on us. The infantry boys, all R.B.'s (Rifle Brigade) jumped off the tanks and formed up on either side. The undergrowth was so thick that they had to keep to the ditch on either side of the road. Passing two of our burned out tanks on the road did nothing to boost our morale.
The troop of four tanks, 3 Cromwell and our Sherman, moved along the road at walking pace. We sat on top of the tanks, earphones clipped tightly to the head, with one ear uncovered, trying to listen to any unusual sounds over the din made by the tanks. We were sitting ducks. They could hear us coming for miles. We couldn't even see them.
As the tanks rumbled on, the tension mounted. The infantry boys practically crawled in the ditches by now. We slowed down still further, travelling with our very long gun pointing over to the right, eyes strained for any suspicious movement, any suspicious reflections. All I could see were trees and shrubs. Not a move anywhere.
Suddenly, a blinding flash. I could just see a tree being cut in half in front of me. The blast threw me onto the turret floor of the tank before I could hear the bang. The earphones were still tightly on my spinning head. I could hear a voice coming through the crackle:- "..... being fired upon. Seven Charlie has been knocked out. Only one man bailed out. The rest of the crew must have bought it."
I recognised the voice of our troop leader. He was talking about us, using our code name. Well, I wasn't dead. I was still here. I looked to my right where Stan should have been. There was only an empty hatch through which I could see a dark sky now. Stan must have got out all right. That meant they got Eric and Charlie. Eric and Charlie, well, they were not going to get away with it.
I looked through the periscope and saw the stump of tree that had been cut in half right in front of me. That must be it, that's were the Jerries are. The Browning was right in front of me. I just squeezed the trigger and watched the bullets rip into the dense shrub.
Above the din I heard Eric's familiar voice: "Here, Buzz, what are you firing at?" So they had not got him after all. "It's the Jerries", I shouted back, "go on, traverse the turret if you can, spray the b******s, go on, let them have it". I happily carried on squeezing the trigger. I had not felt so happy for a long time. Now the other tanks joined in. Concentrated fire from all the tanks followed my tracer bullets. A beautiful sight. Nothing could survive that hail of bullets. I looked down into the driver's compartment and Charlie was grinning back at me. I shouted over the intercom: "Is the tank alright?" and got a curt reply: "You bet it is."
I reported over the air to the troop leader that we were all right and fit for action. A shadow over the tank commander's hatch announced the arrival of a sheepish Stan, who had been laying in an uncomfortable wet ditch for the last few minutes. The radio crackled into life and the troop was ordered to return to the squadron. We all pumped a few more belts into the shrub for good measure, collected our infantry boys, and moved at top speed back down the road we had come.
A young cockney had seen it all happen. He was full of it. "Cor, matey, you were dead lucky. I sor it all. One of them there bazookas 'it the tree in front of yer tank. I sor it being fired. Cor, you would have 'ad it, if it 'ad 'it yer. I fink you got 'im alright though matey. I wouldn't be in one of them there coffins fer anyfink."
I was pleased with myself, that was the appreciation we deserved. I settled back in the tank as we were rumbling back along the road.
Suddenly I sat up with a jerk. The breech block was wide open, but I had only loaded our 17 pounder gun with one of our new, high powered, armoured piercing shells before we started out, and now there was its empty shell case on the turret floor. I touched it and burned my hand. Impossible, we had not fired the big gun since we had taken delivery of the tank, - or had we?
I looked across at Eric, nudging him and pointing to the empty shell case. He shouted across the din:- "Keep quiet and get rid of that shell case as quick as you can, and don't let anyone see it."
Suddenly it all clicked into place. We had not been fired on at all. We had fired our gun, the shell had hit the tree and cut it down, and the blast from the muzzle of our gun had blown me down into the turret.
As always, Adam, the explanation was simple. When the tank was delivered, they had incorrectly connected the cables from the firing buttons. The Browning machine gun trigger to the big gun, and the trigger for the big gun to the Browning. When Eric thought he had spotted some movement, he wanted to fire a burst with the machine gun, but the big gun went off instead.
That night an artillery barrage was laid onto the forest, which continued all through the night. The Royal Airforce supported it with a bombardment. A lot of noise, a beautiful sight and an uneasy conscience.
Next morning, on Thursday the 19th., we moved in again. We drove down the road at full speed. In the light of the bright sunny morning the forest looked less foreboding. A quiet calm now hung over everything. There was not a soul in sight as the advance continued.
So you see, Adam, that's how we delayed the war for one day."
His sister Carla called up from downstairs: "Come on Adam, come down and play with me in the garden". The boy happily ran downstairs, but the old man remained sitting in his chair by the window remembering Charlie, Charlie the driver, demobbed early at the end of the war.
Charlie had joined the army shortly before the war broke out. He had been sent over to France during the phoney war, and when the Germans attacked through Holland and Belgium, he had to abandon his tank and leave all his equipment behind, but managed to get on to one of the little boats coming out to rescue our soldiers at Dunkirk.
Back in England, he rejoined the 1st. Royal Tank Regiment with other survivors and new recruits, and was sent, after being re-equipped, to Africa. There they battled backwards and forwards until finally they broke through at El-Alamein, fighting their way again right across Africa, then the Sicilian campaign, followed by the landing in Italy, at Salerno. Charlie drove his tank all the way up to Monte Massico and Mondragone and fought his last action in Italy at Cicola. From there they came back to England, to be re-equipped once again for the Normandy invasion.
That's where the old man had first met Charlie, at Brandon, in Norfolk, where he joined that tank crew as a driver/op, a wireless operator. They had landed in Normandy on the 7th. June 1944, D+1, fought all the way up to Hamburg, losing three tanks on the way, and then, when the war finally ended, Charlie was one of the first to be demobbed, as he had served his seven years. But he was soon recalled as a reservist, when the Korean trouble started, only to die miserably of dysentery in a Korean prisoner of war camp.
The memories started crowding in now, there was another very special story to tell the boy, out of so many. It was important to tell him, so that he would know the dangers of war and not see death just as a game. The old man started telling the story to himself, not realising that the boy was not there.
"Jimmie was the gunner on our tank, when I first joined the crew at Brandon, and Les, the sergeant tank commander. Both had been through the same actions as Charlie, and I was as green as you can make them. I had to learn the hard way, but that is another story. After the disaster at Villers Bocage, where we lost nearly half of our tanks, two Tigers, who came suddenly out of a dense shrubbery to our right, surprised us. I spotted them first, and yelled to Les, who directed Jimmie onto the target. He started firing straight away and I was busy loading the gun. We fired on the move, hitting one of the tanks, but not brewing it up.
Fortunately the Germans were as surprised by the encounter as we had been, and did not start firing immediately. No doubt they had never seen a British tank with a very long gun before. Having such a long barrel proved to be a disadvantage. We were travelling at speed, with the gun sticking out sideways, and hit a tree with the end of the gun barrel. The impact smashed the traversing gear, and the turret span like a top at a terrific pace. Fortunately I was standing on the lip of the turret floor, or my feet would have been cut off. We swung round behind the copse for cover, and continued to move back as fast as we could. When we got back to the regiment, we had to wait to get a tank replacement. Jimmie was transferred to another crew, whilst we waited for our tank Eric, who was also an old campaigner, replaced him. By January 1945, Les had taken over a different tank crew and Oscar, who had come over fresh from home, had taken over from him.
We had advanced from Echt into a small village called Schilberg, and were straddled down the main street. Our troop advanced to a cross road and turned right, moving up about three hundred yards. We were told to stop at a junction, whilst the rest of the troop advanced further. The infantry boys occupied the houses on either side of the road. The radio crackled, telling us of fighting in close proximity.
Suddenly the other three tanks of our troop appeared at great speed, driving past us without stopping, and the troop leader ordered us to stay and shoot up any enemy tanks, which might be following. The infantry boys who had been occupying the houses on either side withdrew, leaving us on our own. The shelling and small arms fire we had been hearing grew louder and nearer, and German troops started firing at us. I said to Oscar that it was time for us to withdraw to a safer position, but being new to action, he wanted rigidly to follow orders and stay.
The small arms fire aimed at us increased from the surrounding houses, in spite of us firing into the buildings with our browning machine gun and firing a few shells of high explosive. A Spandau opened up from one of the buildings, and the German infantry started firing grenades from their rifles at our tank. They were getting closer and closer. Oscar still refused to go back. I told him that we are going back in the next few minutes, if he wanted to stay then he could do so, but we were going to take the tank with us. There was a sharp crack of a grenade exploding on the side of the tank, and Oscar got the blast of the grenade in his face, which completely numbed him. There was no time to lose. I came up on the radio just saying "A7C being fired at, coming back, over and out." On the intercom I told Charlie to move back fast. The Squadron leader came back immediately: " Sunray here, A7C watch out at the cross road, SP gun on your right, I repeat, SP gun on your right, over and out."
I looked to my right as we turned left, and took in at a glance a German SP gun, about 30 yards away on the left hand side of the road, with it's gun pointing directly at us, and a Churchill Flame Thrower, immediately at the right hand corner, well alight. For a moment the world stood still. Even now I can see this picture plain in my mind. Then everything erupted at the same moment. The turret of the Churchill lifted straight up in the air with a terrific roar, and came down next to the tank. At the same time the German SP gun fired at us, the armoured piercing shot passing inches in front of us. Charlie saw the tracer of the shell going past his nose and never reacted more quickly in all his life. Within seconds our Sherman tank was in top gear and racing down the road at a speed Sherman's were never built for. By the time the German loader had had time to put the second round into the breach of their gun, the aim of the gunner had been put out, and the shell went well past us. We pulled in next to the squadron leader, reported back in and re-joined our troop. Oscar had recovered by now from the blast of the grenade, but was still quite shaken up.
All the tanks were fairly closely clustered together on the side of the main road, facing in the direction from which we had just come. The squadron consisted of Cromwell tanks with just every fourth tank a Sherman Firefly.
Parked right next to us was another Sherman with only a crew of three, awaiting a new tank commander, as Bob, their commander, had just been injured and taken back. Whilst we were brewing up at the back of the tank a truck arrived. Jimmie came out with all his kit and loaded it on to the Sherman. He looked pale and apprehensive. He had been back at base awaiting transport home for the last few days under the Python scheme, which applied to anyone who had completed five years front line service. As there was a shortage of transport, he was still at base when Bob was injured, and was asked to take over Bob's tank until another replacement could be found.
He had barely finished loading his kit when Lieutenant Kirby came up and gave him some instructions, Jimmie climbed up into his tank and they started moving forward. As they moved forward the tank lurched sideways and stopped, as the track had shed. It would take some time to repair the track, so Kirby told Oscar we would have to take it's place.
We were told to move back up the road and take the next turning. He showed us on the map where to take up position and engage some buildings occupied by infantry, which were causing us a lot of trouble and who were holding up our advance. We pulled out at speed and moved up to the new position between a barn and a farmhouse, from which we could see some buildings between hedges and copses across a field. Everything was very still and quiet.
I had loaded the gun with an HE (high explosive) shell, gave Eric the ok. over the intercom, and he fired. As I watched, I saw the tracer of an AP (armoured piercing) shell coming back and passing straight over us, practically taking the aerial off. I immediately loaded an AP shot and shouted fire. I heard the firing pin click, but nothing happened. Eric pressed the trigger several more times. I reported miss-fire and told Charlie to reverse behind the building. Moving back, another AP shell came straight at us, but went past our front, as we started reversing.
We got our breath back in the shelter of the farmhouse, and I waited the regulation five minutes before removing the dud shell, with tender care, from the breech of the gun. A farmer came out of the building, wondering what was going on, and I passed him the dud shell, telling him to put it very carefully into the ditch at the side. On reporting to the troop leader, we were ordered to return at full speed to rejoin the squadron as A6C, Jimmies tank, had just been knocked out by the SP gun that had previously fired on us, killing the crew in the turret, before it was finally knocked out itself.
We moved back the way we had come, the regiment was advancing down the main road, we passed Jimmies smashed up tank, which was still in the same position where it had shed it's track, past the still burning SP gun, with two bodies laying by it's side, passed the cross roads with the burned out Churchill Flame Thrower, which had no doubt saved our lives by just exploding at the right time"
Yes, the old man said to himself, a habit into which he had got lately, this will be the next story to tell the boy.
He sat back and reflected.
Albala had been the first of his friends to get killed at Villers Bocage, shortly after the landing. Then Ralph was injured, then Jimmie Hague was killed followed by Jimmie Gibsons death in Holland. And then poor Charlie in Korea.
Why was he still alive? If the gun barrel had not hit the tree and ruined the traversing gear, they would have had to stay and battle it out with the two Tigers and would have been well out gunned and not stood a chance. If the turret of the Churchill had not blown up just at the right moment, the SP gun could not have missed their tank. If Jimmie's tank had not shed a track, they would have been in the exact position where Jimmie was killed. If the gun had not miss-fired, something which had never happened before in either his or his friends' experience with a 17 pounder, they would not have reversed, and the second AP shot would have gone clean through the turret. So many "if's". Too many "if's"? As the old man was drowsing off to sleep, he was still wandering, statistically he should have been dead, so who had been watching over him? Why? Was it in order that his children and grand children could be borne? Destiny, what is destiny? -
Before his eyes closed, he saw the sun disappear behind the clouds, which drifted fast and whirling in a north-easterly direction, being driven by a strong wind, constantly changing their shape, yes, they were faces, long forgotten faces of the past, coming back, looking for him……
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