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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 14
Overrun by Yanks but saved by very cheap Gin

DURING MY MILITARY CAREER I was involved in two major military operations; the biggest by far was the First Gulf War 1990-91, of which more later. The other was Exercise Lionheart in 1984, which was also quite staggering in scale.

Lionheart was a test and demonstration of 1 (Br) Corps ability to deploy and meet a massed Soviet attack across the Inner German Border (IGB) during the Cold War, and involved some 131,000 British troops including Territorial Army and Reservists from Germany and the UK and took place over 3,700 square miles in Belgium, the Netherlands and (the then) West Germany. A further 3,500 Dutch, 6,300 German, 3,400 US and 165 Commonwealth soldiers also took part as enemy and umpires amongst other functions. It was a huge effort.

The #BARITWE[1] was still stationed at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain as part of 19th Infantry Brigade, which itself was part of the 3rd UK Armoured Division on deployment. The exercise comprised two main parts; Exercise Full Flow, which practiced the deployment of UK based elements across the Channel to Ostend or Zeebrugge and then into position alongside Germany based elements, followed by the combat training bit which was called Exercise Spearpoint.

Lionheart train party at the ready

In some ways the deployment part was the most interesting for us. Our panzers went by road (transporter I assume) to the little known military port of Marchwood near Southampton, there to be loaded on to one or other of the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries (RFAs) and shipped over to Zeebrugge. Of this move I know nothing as I went with the road party, travelling in CO Hedley Duncan’s Land Rover (photo of Hedley below) as I was then Ops Officer. I think we went by civvy ferry to Ostend.

CO Headley Duncan

Upon arrival we disembarked and then were directed to a section of the Belgian motorway system, which had been blocked off to civvy traffic to allow us to form up into packets for the journey into West Germany. Here we were marshalled by the RMP and Belgian police into “packets” of vehicles and eventually sent on our way along the motorway system towards the German border. Thousands of vehicles proceeded at a maddeningly slow pace – 40 km in the hour or something like that – all day and all night.

Once inside Germany (West), we entered a replen area. In real conflict we would have, of course, deployed upon multiple routes via numerous replen stops but such arrangements in peacetime would have been overly disruptive. Be that as it may, our replen area provided fuel for the vehicles, a chance for a wash and shave, and a hot meal. It was run by one of the Royal Irish Ranger battalions, and faced with the challenge of feeding the thousands arriving around the clock, had made the very sensible decision to provide one menu only, in vast quantities, 24 hours a day. So, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the choice was… yep, Irish stew. And very good it was too.

I can’t remember the details of where and when we married up with our panzers, but we then deployed into “hides” as we would have done for real. 4RTR battlegroup at this point consisted of RHQ, C Squadron, G Squadron, and a mechanised infantry company from 1 Staffords, having “exported” our other squadrons to other battlegroups within 19 Infantry Brigade, our parent formation initially. In RHQ we established ourselves right in the middle of a typically neat German rural town (photo below), hiding our vehicles away in barns and farmyards occupied by the local population who didn’t seem at all fazed by our invasion into their privacy. C Squadron leader, Major Tom Brown US Army (on attachment), chose to take his tanks into a wood a few kilometres away, probably to get as far away from RHQ as possible!

Lionheart moving into hide

Having settled in, cammed up, and established our routine, we waited, a not unusual occurrence in military manoeuvres. I think we waited for a week at least with not much happening. Then the “enemy” started probing, and I have recollections of being unable to get permission from Brigade to engage because they couldn’t get authority from Division, a grim reminder of the lack of confidence and inability to react quickly that has plagued the British army since time immemorial. Finally, I awoke in the middle of the night to find we had been over-run by the Americans and, having woken up the CO, we buggered out Hell-for-leather towards the rear. Not a very auspicious beginning to our exercise.

This was Phase One of the exercise, defending against the enemy attack. Phase Two was, as ever, the counter attack and drive to final victory. At some point we got our other two tank squadrons back, crossed the River Leine (thank goodness the CO and I had done a recce the night before otherwise we would never have found the crossing point!) and advanced to Sibbesse where we were regrouped into 20 Armoured Brigade for the final part of the exercise. One of the more interesting parts of proceedings was casualty evacuation procedures, which we practised for real. Inevitably some of our tanks broke down, and others were designated casualties by the exercise umpires. These were then recovered by standard operation procedures, but we didn’t see the crews again for weeks and some of the panzers were returned to us months later!

Of our return to the UK I can recall very little, except that bizarrely we staged through our old barracks at York Kaserne in Munster, now occupied by the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars (QRIH). They were, how shall I put it, grudgingly hospitable towards us, and put a brave face on hosting their clearly unwelcome guests. Compare and contrast with the wonderful Seventeen-Slash-Two-One-Ell (17/21st Lancers) who were still just down the road where we had left them when we moved to the UK. I went down to see my old chums and was immediately invited to one of their formal Officers’ Mess dinner nights. I protested that I had only had my combat kit to wear but was told that was immaterial. Accordingly I found myself their guest, my hosts in their very fine mess kit, silver on the table and regimental band playing through dinner, with me in my combats. There’s the mark of a professional and confident regiment!

After a few days we were on our way, and this time I came back with the CO’s party together with some of our tanks on one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, possibly Sir Bedivere or one of its ilk. On our way across the Channel it blew up a Force 9 gale, which is pretty rough actually, and we were forced to hold off from docking at Marchwood until the storm passed. Luckily for us, a nip of gin in the officers’ wardroom was 2p at the time, and I don’t think any of us were bothered by the weather at all! The next day we docked and were soon back in Bhurtpore Barracks in Tidworth, with most of the rest of the Regiment rejoining us in the next couple of days.

And that was it, probably the biggest peacetime exercise the British army undertook in recent memory. There was no hanging about, though, for 4th Tonks was coming to the end of its UK sojourn and was due to head back to West Germany, exchanging barracks with the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards in Osnabruck, not far from our previous home in Munster. I suspect most of the boys were happy to return to Germany where the pay was better and the standard of living probably higher at that time. Many of us found life in an English garrison town a tad monotonous and were glad when it came to an end.

I, however, did not return overseas with the Regiment, as I had passed the Staff College exams and was selected to start that two year episode almost immediately. I was not to return to 4th Tonks, apart from a couple of short visits, for another four years.

To come in Part 15; Staff College and MoD job.

Stuart Crawford 2020

[1] Best Armoured Regiment In The World Ever

Ostend and Zeebrugge
April 23: May 10, 1918 Despaches of Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keys, K.C.B., K.C.V.O. and other Narratives of the Operations edited by C. Sanford Terry, Litt.D. (1919) (pdf)

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