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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 8
Drinking on the job and getting singed

IT’S HIGH TIME I talked about the boys. Other Scottish regiments might have called them the Jocks, but to us in the 4 RTR Officers’ Mess they were always “the boys”. And they still are, even though we’re all in our 60s and 70s, and I suspect it will ever be thus. They were, and are, a splendid bunch, not perfect (who is?) but generally hard-working, professional, and endlessly amusing. They were tough too, not in any thuggish way, but in a non-complaining manner regardless of how tired, cold or hungry they might have been. Most hailed from the Glasgow area or Fife, it seemed, with a smattering of wild men from the Highlands and islands. I am not much given to sentimentality, but I’m so pleased I had the opportunity to get to know all of them.

Being on tanks was a rough life. Aside from the constant maintenance and repair of the unreliable Chieftain, the noise and vibration could be exhausting. On exercise we were filthy despite washing and shaving every morning. Such was the dust thrown up by the tracks and oil from the engine our faces often matched the black denims we wore, and days after returning to camp we still had “panda eyes” from the ingrained dirt around our eyes. On the other hand, if you haven’t experienced bouncing over the countryside in a well crewed tank with the wind in your hair, and probably a fag in your mouth, then you haven’t really lived. As Johnston said, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not havingbeen a soldier …”, but that was before tanks were invented. Otherwise he would have been more specific and added “tank” before “soldier”!

I don’t think you ever forget your first tank crew. Although it did change from time to time because of leave, courses, and postings, the classic crew of my tank T41 during my lamentably short spell as a troop leader was: driver, Bob Withington; gunner, George Gillespie; and loader, Eck McKenzie. The other two tanks in the troop were commanded by Sneck McBride and John Barnwell. Together we managed our way through one complete training season comprising dry training (ie no live ammunition) at Soltau, gunnery training at Hohne ranges, and then the full Bhuna – manoeuvre and live firing in Alberta, Canada. I will be writing more about the latter two events in due course.

The basic building block of it all were the low-level troop training drills and exercises which we carried out first, followed by squadron and then regimental, or battle group training which upped the ante a bit. Up and down and across Soltau we went, practising advances to contact, quick attacks, defensive tactics and that most difficult skill of all, the withdrawal in contact. At night we moved into hides in the woods, replenned and maintained the panzers. If we were lucky we got a moment or two to relax over a beer or two. We always had alcohol on our tanks. A standard load if there were such a thing might be two slabs (one slab = 24 cans) of Tennents or McEwans on the turret floor and a bottle of The Famous Grouse in the turret bin. Infantry regiments who saw our boys drinking on scheme were aghast, but for us it was normal.

In the late summer/early autumn, when the German farmers had harvested their crops, there might be a formation exercise or FTX, when we practised our trade in normal countryside, driving up roads and through fields, and sometimes walls and fences, just like we thought we would for real. These were usually held at Divisional level – there were four divisions in 1 (Br) Corps at the time – but sometimes the whole Corps would turn out, and the “enemy” would be played by the Americans or the Germans. These were on a different scale altogether and I’ll be writing about one of them in particular in some future episode. In all of them we were followed around by Damage Control (DAMCON) parties who sorted out compensation for the damage that we caused. Sometimes the German farmers would stop us and ask us to knock down a particular wall or barn that needed replacing, and on at least one such FTX the exercise had to stop because we ran out of compensation money. Happy days.

A Tank Named Dangerous...

Tanks were an ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ nightmare, mind, notwithstanding the designers’ attempts to incorporate numerous safety devices. You couldn’t fire the gun, for example, without the loader’s guard being pulled back into position which shielded him from the recoil. But if you were on dry training and going cross country at night, and if your loader was standing behind the breech making a brew in the boiling vessel (BV*) and you hit a tree or other obstruction with the gun barrel, it could recoil and break his pelvis, as happened on at least one occasion. Or if your gunner fell asleep and the commander traversed the turret his ankle could be broken if his feet were in the wrong position. I dropped the lid on my cupola on my head on more than one occasion, and people were forever jamming fingers in various places. Not for nothing did every tank commander carry four syrettes of morphine round his neck. Saddest of all, on one or two occasions we lost one of the boys, usually when a tank tipped over. The drill if that happened was, counter intuitively, to drop inside the turret – against the natural instinct to try and jump out, but if you did that you’d get squished. Not nice.

The highlight of being out on exercise, though, was undoubtedly the squadron smoker, particularly on Soltau. The German civilian authorities had imposed a ban on all tracked movement on the area over the weekend, quite understandably in retrospect because of the noise, dust and smoke, so all tank movement stopped and we moved into hides in the woods for rest and maintenance. We could get the shower truck into Rheinsehlen Camp for a cleanup, and then, on Saturday night, came the great event. The SQMS would arrive with the normal evening replen of rations and fuel, and also an ample supply of beer for the boys to purchase. It seemed that one slab – 24-cans-per person – was deemed appropriate.

Jump the fy-err

Meanwhile, those spared guard and maintenance tasks had been collecting a vast pile of firewood, maybe not rivalling the Shankhill Road bonfires on the 12th of July but a good attempt. After work was done, and after the evening meal, the squadron would congregate around the vast pile, sitting on the slabs of beer they had bought, and the fire would be lit with the help of much oil (“mair lube, mair lube”) from the tanks. They usually went up with a “whoosh” and then the fun would begin. As the boys drank their beers, upon which they were sitting of course, their perches would become more and more unstable until they fell off their seats. All the while the fire was being fuelled by ever more branches and logs from the surrounding area until there was a danger that the whole wood would go on fire and burn all our tanks and equipment with it. Thankfully this never happened, not in my experience anyway.

As the evening wore on there would be some good natured banter, usually about burning certain individuals of a certain caste in the assembled company, but especially officers, and then at some point the dreaded cry of “Jump the fy-err!” would be heard, at which point all sensible officers would quickly retire. Jumping the fy-err involved taking a running jump over the hopefully slightly diminished fire and landing safely on the other side. All the better of you did it stark, bollock naked. Quite a few of the young bloods didn’t quite make it and got singed landing short. One of our more spirited young officers, whom everyone called, and still calls, “The Wean” because of his youth (shall I name him? Oh, OK I will; it was Niall Macnaughton) and who had decided to stay the course, managed the feat in his birthday suit. Sadly no photographs exist of his triumph.

He does recall, though, that on landing on the far side of the fy-err he was hosed down with beer by his troop and rolled in the sandy soil by them as a reward for his valour. He described to me, just the other day, waking up naked in his sleeping bag and, holding it round his waist, hopping round the assorted recumbent bodies that had fallen asleep around the embers of the fy-err whilst he recovered his clothes. The scene would resemble the fall of Stalingrad, with some individuals literally smouldering in their slumbers having strayed too close to the still glowing remains. On another famous occasion, upon return to barracks, one senior NCO’s wife marched into her husband’s squadron leader’s office and gave him a piece of her mind about the state in which her spouse had returned from one such event, badly bollock-singed as he was.

These were great times, and like all great times you only realise how great they were when they’re gone. Today’s army, I understand, would not tolerate similar behaviour and is altogether more serious and disciplined about its calling. More’s the pity in many ways, and I would still bet they aren’t as good as we were.

* One of the few things American “tankers” envied us for was our BVs, which meant we could conjure up hot food and drinks without stopping.

To come in Part 9; having run away with myself this time, next will come ranges and Canada, I promise!.

Stuart Crawford 2020

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