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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 9
Mojos, Crab Air and Cordite

AND SO TO RANGES, or firing camp as some other regiments called it. This happened once every year or two years depending on which particular training cycle you found your self on. We took it very seriously, as all good regiments did, because unlike manoeuvre training where your performance could rest on the opinion of the senior officer present, on the ranges your performance was easily measurable by the number of holes you put in the target and the time it took you to do it. So were on our mettle and, for those horrified by the bacchanalian excesses recounted in the last episode, there was nigh on no alcohol either, during working hours at least.

Training started in camp on various training aids which simulated the real thing. My first year I hadn’t completed my troop leader’s course before I joined the Regiment and so, quite rightly, wasn’t entrusted to command a tank at ranges. However it was thought a good idea that I should be the squadron 2ic’s loader during firing, which was good experience before going off to Lulworth in Dorset where gunnery training takes place. Initial loaders’ training took place in a “SIM”, a sort of open plan, tank turret mock-up with a pretty faithful working reproduction of the gun breech crew stations, and ammunition stowage.

Of course the practice ammunition was inert, which is just as well because in my very first attempt at the loader’s drill I dropped the round – I hadn’t expected it to be so heavy! As the only officer in my class of about eight there was much smirking and tittering from the rest, but it was much warranted. I didn’t drop one again. Meanwhile the commanders and gunners went through their own simulator the name of which I have forgotten but ended up with airgun pellets being fired at rubber tank targets in a sand box on a miniature range. Sophisticated it wasn’t, and I guess it must have been of Second World War vintage at least.

Anyway, after a few weeks’ build up we would then embark en masse for Hohne Ranges (above) just up the road, tanks and drivers by rail or transporter and rest by road. Nowadays I understand that, under some scheme called Whole Fleet Management (WFM), you only have a few tanks for training in barracks and the rest you sign out like hire cars for field training and ranges. None of that back in the day, we owned our own tanks and took them with us (Canada excepted) for training.

The loading up of our tanks in barracks if we were going by road brought a little bit of post war history with it. One of the tank transporter regiments was formed by the “Mojos”, members of the British Army of the Rhine’s (BAOR) Mixed Service Organisation (MSO) comprising former PoWs and Displaced Persons who either couldn’t or wouldn’t return home at the end of the War. Many of them were Poles who did not wish to return to their home country whilst it was under communist rule.

Anyway, when it was time to load up the Mojos would roar into barracks in their huge tank transporters and do the circuit, and as each one passed a tank would fall in behind and follow it round until they were all in. The tanks would then load with much roaring on engines, and then head out straight away, or perhaps camp for the night on the barrack square before making the journey. Our tank drivers went with them in their cabs. The Mojos had their own rank structure and customs and were expert at their job, not surprising perhaps as some had been doing it for well nigh 40 years by then. They were also fiends for their schnapps and slivovitz at any time of the day or night and Herculean smokers. As for their food, well, best not ask!

Eventually, after the odd hiccup here and there, personnel and tanks would meet up at Hohne. The tanks would be parked up and guarded on the firing point(s) and the rest of us would pile into our accommodation in the camp proper. To be honest I can’t remember much about our living arrangements except it was typically Teutonic, hardly surprising as our predecessors had been at one point the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS tank battalions of Nazi Germany.

Hot Range Firing

It was a matter of pride to get the first round down range as soon as clearance was given to fire at 8am in the morning, weather and range fires permitting. So we got up at some unearthly hour in the morning (my memory says 4am but that can’t be right, surely?), had breakfast and were transported out to whatever range we were on in the open backed Stalwart trucks of MT Troop. Fine, if a bit nippy, if the weather was OK, not so fine if it was raining.

On arriving at the firing point there was a flurry of activity until all was ready. Then we would wait. You always wait in the army. Sandhurst’s motto “Serve To Lead” was always amended to “Rush To Wait” at that gilded institution, and that set the tone for most of my military career. The RAF transport bods – Crab Air – were past masters at having their passengers, or “pax” in Brylcreem Boy-speak, turn up at some unearthly hour to get their flights, and then making them wait until pilots and crews had a leisurely breakfast, said goodbye to their boyfriends and girlfriends, checked out of the hotels where they had to stay otherwise they’d be “too tired to fly”, and amble over to the airport. How we hate(d) them for their lax, matey, lack of discipline and regard for their temporary charges.

But I digress. The programme tended to be much the same, for obvious reasons not least of which was new recruits coming in all the time. First individual tank static firing, to get the technicalities right and settle the younger boys down. Then troop firing, when troop leaders had to control their troops as multiple targets were popped at the same time. “Alpha this is 41. Yours on the right, 1500 metres.” “Ah canny – it’s oot o’ arc tae me!” “Roger, mine then. George, sabot tank on.” “ON! 1350!” “1350 FIRE”. “Firing NOW!” (Bang) “TARGET!” “Target, stop.” “This is 41B – two targets left, 1300 metres.” “41, got them. Alpha and Bravo split.” And so it went. Exciting stuff, combined with the “whoomph” of the 120mm gun and the smell of cordite, the yelling of the crew over the intercom, and the constant crackling of the radio from control and the other tanks.

Night Firing at Hohne

Then we progressed on to battle runs, where we advanced as troop down the range towards the targets by bounds and the gunnery staff popped targets as we went. For this we were closed down and keeping the troop in line (for safety purposes) and allocating targets was difficult via narrow vision blocks whilst searching for new targets at the same time. The gun was stabilised in azimuth and elevation so we could shoot pretty accurately on the move, but it made the loader’s task all the more dangerous as the breech swung up and down as we bounced down the range. If the staff popped some men-sized targets we then had to shift to engaging with the co-axial machine gun, and the turret would fill with cordite fumes. If you weren’t careful they could temporarily asphyxiate your loader and you’d look round to find him unconscious on the turret floor.

Dangers aside, however, it was great fun and we were quite good at it. There were always amusing incidents. Every so often someone would get a hangfire, when instead of a bang as the round went off there would be a fizzing sound, often accompanied by smoke coming out of the breech, as the charge decided whether to go off or not. Usually they went off after a few seconds, but occasionally they didn’t go off at all, and then you were into the whole misfire drill followed by a wait of 30 minutes before you could open the breech. This latter event was always approached with a certain amount of trepidation as there was always a chance that the inrush of air would set off the charge and it would blow back into the turret and roast everybody in it. Thankfully it never happened in my time, although I did witness a crew so frightened by the hiss and smoke of a hangfire that they all bailed out and stood on the back deck of their tank, whereupon the gun fired and the round went off downrange. It was the only time I saw an unmanned tank fire.

To come in Part 10; Canada.

Stuart Crawford 2020

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