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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 19
Jaikets, gophers, and being rudely stripped

HAVING HEAVED a collective sigh of relief in waving goodbye to Cyprus, it didn’t take long to get back into the groove of being an armoured regiment on tanks again. The rear party we had left behind whilst we were away had kept the panzers in pretty good nick in our absence and it wasn’t long before were back in the swing of things once more.

We were faced with a full training season; tactical training at the Soltau training area (SLTA), live firing at Hohne Ranges, and then the ultimate confirmation of “fitness for role” at the British Army Training Unit, Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada. But before all of that we had to go through all the low level training to get us back in tank mode after our six month “holiday” in Cyprus, and there seemed to be mountains of paperwork in the Sqn office every day.

I had decided that I was a bit too old and stuffy to live with the younger bachelor officers in the Mess anymore, so managed to swing moving to an empty Married Quarter (MQ) nearby, sharing with Richard Chesterfield, who was also old and stuffy but not quite to the same extent as me. It was a relief not to be the senior living in officer anymore, and I’m sure it was a relief for the subbies that I had moved out too!

I remember little of annual firing at Hohne but it would have gone the way of all firing periods previously – individual tanks firing, then firing by troop, then firing on the move by troop, the latter called battle runs. One innovation that we did introduce, though, was the idea of firing and manoeuvring by half squadrons of seven tanks, one half commanded by me and the other by my 2ic Patrick Kidd. This was an attempt at the tactical level to bring more mass and firepower to the point of action than previously, and we continued the experiment throughout the year.

Then we went back to the familiar old Soltau Training Area for dry tactical training. That’s dry as in no live ammunition, not as in alcohol free! The usual format ensued – troop training, squadron training, then 4RTR battlegroup (BG) training, for which we were joined by a couple of companies of the Royal Greenjackets, or “the Jaikets” as we called them. They were a pretty good outfit.

Soltau culminated with the Brigade Commander’s test exercise which was a corker. The exact details of the activity escape me now, but I can remember being more exhausted at the end than at any other time in my army career, including Sandhurst. The exercise ended, as they always did, with the counterattack at dawn against the “enemy”, but I was so concerned that my tank crews would be so tired they wouldn’t be awake when it was time to launch that I spent the entire night going from panzer to panzer making sure there was at least one crew member awake. I need not have worried, perhaps, because at dark o’clock in the morning I gave the order and they were all rolling straight away.

Then we went to Canada, flying Crab Air (RAF) via Keflavik in Iceland, which I discovered was a NATO base at the time. I have described the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in a previous episode, when I first went as a troop leader, so I won’t reiterate the description again here. Suffice to say it was still the dusty and slightly scruffy camp in the middle of nowhere in Alberta. However, this time around, perhaps I was older and a bit more mature, I took better note of our surroundings.

The Canadian prairie is, somewhat paradoxically, both bleak and beautiful. The initial impression of neverending flatness and loneliness is soon replaced by delight at the fascinating folds and rises of the land; far from being flat, the prairie is crossed by numerous riverbeds, called coulees, and broken by hills and escarpments which hide undiscovered valleys and plains. Most of it is wild grassland which supports a wide array of wildlife from occasional herds of wild mustangs down to a multitude of colonies of gophers, some of which are half tame after being fed by visiting troops over the years. There is also evidence of man’s previous occupation in the form of stone rings marking where the indigenous people pitched their tepees, usually to be found in the more sheltered sites or near the rivers.

We spent almost exactly a month in Canada, including seventeen days continuously out on the prairie living off our tanks (photos above). During this time we were almost oblivious to the deepening crisis in the Middle East following Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait, although we knew that plans were afoot back in the UK and Germany. The training was hot, hard, and sometimes mind-numbingly exhausting, but on other occasions quite overwhelmingly exhilarating. At the end we felt we had acquitted ourselves well and were “fit for role”.

On the second day of our return to the relatively civilised environment of Camp Crowfoot, a collection of prefabricated huts on the edge of the training area, the news reached us that 7th Armoured Brigade (7 Armd Bde) was being deployed to the Gulf. This was met with disappointment by some and relief by others; had 12 Armd Bde, which we were part of, been chosen, we ourselves would have been on our way.

The consensus amongst my colleagues was that we had no desire to be gassed or have our heads blown off on account of some mad tinpot dictator in an area of the world that held few attractions. Let others go, we said, and good luck to them. Little did we realise that back in Osnabruck the OC Rea Party had already been ordered to find 4RTR personnel to augment 7 Armd Bde and that some of our younger officers were falling over themselves to volunteer. I discussed this phenomenon with one of my fellow squadron leaders at length and we agreed that being sent was one thing but volunteering was altogether another thing, and that both of us would wait for the former!

On return to Germany I gave up command of C Sqn and took up my new appointment of Regimental Second–in–Command (2ic). I had been at my desk for only a morning and was still in the middle of taking over from my predecessor when, with no notice, the first batch of tradesmen from the Royal Mechanical and Electric Engineers (REME) descended on the Regiment to strip our Chieftain tanks for spares for the Gulf. The CO, Charlie McBean, was not the sort of guy to take this sort of thing lying down but, after a couple of fairly heated phone calls, even he had to stand aside.

Thus, at a stroke, 4th Tonks was rendered non-operational and we were not to see our tanks whole again until long after the Gulf War was over. In the end, we provided amongst other things forty Chieftain gearboxes, thirteen engines, ten gun barrels and a host of other pieces of automotive and gunnery equipment. Our Recce Troop had engines and gearboxes stripped from all eight of its Scorpion vehicles. Particularly galling for the crews who had nurtured and maintained their tanks with pride over the years was the hasty and unprofessional way in which some of the stripping was carried out. In some cases the REME were found to have cut expensive cabling to remove items to save time and trouble unscrewing them. When the scavengers finally left we had not one of our fifty seven tanks serviceable.

From this point onward, really, we became an Op Granby (as the British operation had now been christened) support regiment. Over the next few months we provided assistance in many forms; we despatched paint teams to 7 Armd Bde units to help them prepare their vehicles; we lent our NBC instructors to help train deploying personnel in the face of the very real threat of the Iraqis using chemical and biological weapons; and we also had to supply a number of soldiers as Battle Casualty Replacements (BCRs), to be held in reserve in the theatre of operations ready to be sent forward to replace those killed and wounded in action.

It all began to sound a bit serious, to be honest, and for me personally it got a whole lot more serious when I found myself nominated to go out and join our troops in the desert. But that’s another long part of the story which I’ll cover next time!

To come in Part 20; off to war!

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