World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                        George Martin 

A Personal Account of Life and Action in a Tank Troop. Italy 1944-45. Part 1 - the Battle for Cassino

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: George W Martin
Location of story: Italy
Unit name: 'B' Squadron, 2nd Lothians and Border Horse, 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th (British) Armoured Division
Background to story: Army

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Norman Wigley of the BBC Radio Sheffield Action Desk on behalf of Mr George Martin.

 

This edited account is taken from the book “Cassino to the River Po. Italy 1944-45. A personal account of life and action in a tank troop” written and published by George Martin. I was born in Garston, Liverpool in 1916 and was working on defence contracts in the building industry from the outbreak of war, and served in the Home Guard, until joining the Royal Armoured Corps at Catterick in February 1942.

 

On completion of basic training, driving, wireless and gunnery, the next move was to Sandhurst for six months, finally being commissioned in March 1943. Arriving in North Africa in July 1943 I joined ‘B’ Squadron, 2nd Lothians and Border Horse as a 2nd Lieutenant tank troop leader and served in that role in all the regimental actions during the Italian Campaign. With the end of the campaign in North Africa the Regiment was ordered to Italy and we set sail in mid-March 1944. Our training area was some miles south of Cassino.

 

A great deal of our training time was taken up with schemes involving tank and infantry co-operation. After weeks of training and preparation we now appeared to be ready to move up to the Cassino area. We moved by night and it was still dark when we reached our harbour area. We rested until dawn and could then see that between us and the enemy stood Mount Trocchio. At this stage we were considered to be on ‘standby’, ready to move at short notice.

 

It was far from peaceful – there was a 25 pounder battery just below us firing on the Monastery Hill, and an unseen enemy battery returning fire. Both lots of shells screamed over our heads. This was our introduction to the theatre of war! BATTLE FOR CASSINO – MAY 1944. The morning of the 13th was warm and we were joined by the infantry. Two Bailey bridges had been put across the Rapido River; one had been knocked out and the remaining bridge, Amazon, was the object of concentrated shelling. The cost in both men and materials to establish that bridgehead – and maintain it – had been very great indeed, as we were destined to discover. Briefly our orders were to cross the Bailey bridge, swing half right and then go forward, this would bring us parallel to a small stream, proceed along the east side until we could find a place to cross and then head for the high ground on our left. With the infantry on our tanks we moved off according to orders. We approached the last remaining Bailey bridge over the river.

 

Smoke canisters at each end of the bridge created a screen which we hoped would hide us from the sight of the enemy. The infantry on the tanks huddled down as shells burst around us and a Spandau opened fire on us from the river bank on our left. Glancing quickly towards the bridge, only 100 yards or so ahead, continuous shell bursts on both banks by the bridge as well as in the river made me wonder whether we would even get to the other side.

 

The Germans seemed determined to smash our only remaining bridge but fortunately for us their aim was none too accurate. Once on the bridge I looked for our objective – we had to get clear of the bridge, but a clear view was not easy. We crossed the bridge and headed half right towards the stream while our infantry jumped down and headed for the hill feature on our left.

 

The following troop of tanks were now fanning out to my left, and as we went enemy infantry came out from their cover with hands held high. Shelling continued as we moved forward, infantry with bayonets fixed, looking for a place to cross the stream. My troop corporal thought he had found a place to cross but his tracks sank into the soft ground and he was stuck fast. I was ordered by the squadron leader to leave him for now. Further on we found some higher ground by the stream where a scissors bridge could be placed. A quick call over the radio to the Squadron HQ to report the location brought the terse response “Good work; sorry to tell you though, the damned ‘Scissors’ has been knocked out, go up the valley, shoot up any enemy and report progress – out”.

 

“Cheering news,” I thought to myself, “almost getting shot up for nothing!” Cautiously we moved slowly forward, feeling very isolated in our little valley. We fired at anything suspicious, and received some near misses – we were obviously under observation. We had by now more or less lost track of time, but it was towards evening and at this point we were ordered to return to a point near the river we had crossed earlier in the day. My troop corporal’s tank with the crew inside, lay some 100 yards into no-man’s land, and there spent a very uncomfortable night securely battened down against marauders! Next day after the battle had moved forward, the tank and crew were finally pulled clear and later re-joined us.

 

We were ordered to join the remnants of ‘C’ Squadron in case of enemy counter attack. We moved to a forward ridge where we met ‘C’ Squadron. I was joined by Lt. Cliff Joyner whose service had mirrored mine ever since initial training. We shook hands and he wished me luck. Lt. Joiner was killed at dawn the next morning by an enemy infantryman who knocked out his tank with a ‘Bazooka’ at close range as they left harbour. By the end of that day we had lost two Squadron Leaders (Major Tom Robb and Major Sheddon Thorburn, MC).

 

Our casualties were light however compared with the others. The next day was one of limited fighting although we suffered very heavy shelling and mortaring. It was another day of lovely warm sunshine and we had to move up to a forward ridge, mainly to observe and be in position should a counter attack develop. We received some very near misses including one heavy shell which exploded only about 8 feet from the tank side. The blast literally blew me down into the turret.

 

Just before dusk we were recalled to harbour and rejoined the rest of the squadron feeling as though we’d been used as target practice! It was now obvious that the hoped for quick break-through to Highway 6 was a thing of the past. The whole area had been well fortified by the Germans and they intended to fight for every inch of ground, and while the closely cultivated, hilly ground was ideal for defence it was far from satisfactory for tank operations. The following days were spent – mainly in support of infantry – clearing areas and consolidating our advance.

 

As we moved on we could see behind us the peak of Monte Cassino, still wreathed in smoke and flame, but eventually it was heartening to see the Monastery Hill, no longer wreathed in smoke, but there in the sunlight, high on the ruins a Union Jack and Polish flag flying side by side. At last, the battle for Cassino was over, a bloody and costly affair, the Poles especially having fought long and hard to achieve their objective.

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Our next move was into the area south of Monte Grande and Monte Piccolo. It was between these two peaks that our centre line must pass, observers on these peaks could, of course, dominate the open ground over which we must pass. We were told that patrols had found out that the enemy occupied the peaks between dawn and dusk, taking up positions just before dawn. Just as dusk fell on 27 April 1944 we moved forward into the open ground and formed up in troops, line ahead, a mile or so from the gap between the hills which was to be our eventual line of advance. We were joined by the Welsh Guards. The plan seemed simple enough, they had to get up onto the peak before the enemy, and to ambush the Germans when they arrived at dawn to take up their position.

Before dawn the Guards moved off silently, faces blackened, in single file. The plan outlined to us by the Squadron Leader seemed fairly simple and straightforward. The Guards would move up and occupy the heights before dawn, ambush the enemy as they approached and with the peak in our hands, we should then move forward to continue our advance along the road in the narrow gap between Grande and Piccolo. In order to lull the enemy into a false sense of security no artillery bombardment was to take place on the area beyond the trenches through which the enemy would have to pass. Events proved this to be a costly mistake. At first light the tank troops moved forward to a point just short of the gap between the hills. Once in position – it was quiet; too quiet, and I had a feeling all was not well. Suddenly we heard the sound of battle going on high above us but at this stage we had no way of knowing what a disaster the attack had been. Eventually we were approached by two figures – dirty, uniforms torn and without weapons.

As I approached one of the men called out “Don’t shoot, we’re Welsh Guards”. “What the hell are you doing down here?” was my reply. Although badly shocked they told me briefly of their ordeal, how, just after dawn they arrived near their objective, but the enemy was already in position and they didn’t have a chance. “All hell broke loose” they said. Most of their company were cut down by cross fire before they even got near the trenches. We felt these losses deeply, but were ordered to sit tight and await a change of plans. As the sun rose higher I noticed a small valley behind the far peak over to my left. We moved forward a few yards to get a better view. I watched for a long time and thought I could see movement. Watching now, very intently, I saw more movement, figures in field grey moving behind what looked like camouflage netting. I ordered the gunner to traverse on to the area of movement and then saw a motor cycle despatch rider stop, dismount and go into the shelter where I had seen the other figures. The gunner shouted “On target – they’re Krauts alright.” The activity suggested a forward command post which was in the process of packing up to move to a new area.

The target wasn’t an easy one. “Fire” I ordered. We were right on target! We followed up with 5 more rounds of H.E. When the dust settled, nothing moved. Some part of the debt to our lost friends had been repaid. The Germans did not waste any time in returning fire with interest, but luckily we escaped with only one casualty – the 3 troop leader, who was hit by a shell splinter and evacuated to hospital, returning to us several months later. Considering the shelling we had been lucky to get off so lightly.

During the week prior to 4th June 1944 we had occupied ourselves with limited forward movement, being shot at and shelled was a daily occurrence and we seemed to be getting quite hardened to it. Shells from our guns went the other way of course and we used plenty of H.E. on enemy positions while in support of infantry. On the Sunday we moved off early heading north for Rome. We still had a long way to go, but the thought of being one of the first Allied units into Rome spurred us on.

Our route was not an easy one – we had constantly to find diversions round obstacles caused by the enemy, and we soon learned that the most obvious diversions were often mined. Mountain tracks were also hazardous, often only two feet or so wider than the tracks of our tanks. By the next morning we were on the rolling plains, south east of Rome, open country much more suited to tank actions. We once again found ourselves out in front as leading troop. It was a lovely sunny morning as we pushed on mile after mile with no serious opposition, travelling in arrow-head formation.

Such was the speed of our advance in the lead that by late morning the Squadron was spread, in line ahead, over a distance of several miles. Ahead was the crest of a rise, and whilst stopped before proceeding beyond the rise, I could see through the heat haze, to my left front, the skyline of Rome. From what seemed to be a long way off the voice of the Squadron Leader came over the radio. “Peter 1, where the hell are you?” he asked. “About a mile away – I can see the skyline of our objective.” I answered, adding “we can probably motor straight in.” Faintly his voice came again - “Peter 1, you’ll do no such thing, you’re out on your own with no support near should you run into trouble. You’ll just have to be patient, no visits to the Pope yet. Out.” We continued ahead but had not gone far when we heard another message, this time an urgent one – “Peter 1, halt and await instructions, do you hear? Halt in your present position.” “Wilco – out” I replied, wondering what was so urgent. This we did, Sergeant and Corporal, one on each side, we took up defensive positions on the next ridge and waited in the sunshine. Eventually the rest of the squadron arrived, and all troop leaders were called to an urgent meeting.

The Squadron Leader congratulated us on good work today, but looking at me, warned against getting too isolated. We had new orders. We were now to by-pass Rome, head north east and try to contact the enemy by nightfall. We had our new route which was over mainly open country. I passed this on to my troops and overheard one of the drivers say “all right isn’t it, I’ll bet the bloody Yanks won’t be pushing on to contact the enemy by nightfall, they’ll have their feet up in Rome.” A sentiment shared by many of the troop! The move was one of confusion; other troops to our flank had to allow us to filter through while they attempted to drive eastwards. By late afternoon we had arrived at the road which was to be our new centre line north of Rome. Our squadron was ordered to keep to the road and I was in the lead, Sergeant and Corporal following, with the rest of the squadron strung out to the rear. ‘A’ and ‘C’ Squadrons I understood were covering open ground to our flanks and rear. We pushed ahead and the drive was uneventful for a few miles.

By now we were well clear of other troops and the road ahead had the uneasy feeling of ‘no man’s land’. Suddenly I noticed movement in the distance and we were soon overtaken by 3 American Tank Destroyers operated by a Free French unit. They were being shelled but increased speed to get out of the way, at this point we were ordered to halt while the front was stabilised. Evening was drawing on when we received orders to move, and to push on along the road with us in the lead again. By now the shelling had eased to a few shots just to annoy us. Ahead and on our left stood a house. We moved forward slowly, but I could see no sign of life or any movement, when suddenly a solid A.P. shot roared past my tank from behind! I reported details to HQ; the Squadron Leader said “impossible”. As he spoke a second shot roared past this time even nearer. I ordered our driver “full speed ahead and get behind that house”. We were certain the shots were from our own troops. By this time we were going flat out, 40 mph at least, and with the house just 12 yards away I thought we had made it. Suddenly there was a terrific thud and explosion on the left front of the tank, sparks seemed to fly in all directions inside the turret and there was a horrible crunching and grinding as the tank, minus its left track and driving sprocket lurched and rolled to a halt behind the house.

There was no fire and the shot had not penetrated the armour. I radioed HQ feeling more than a little annoyed and passed on my belief that our circle friends were responsible. We surveyed the remains of our tank and knew its fighting days were over. Attwood, my driver, said simply “she’s finished – and we’ve been damned lucky.” As no further A.P. shots came across I felt my theory was correct and the message had got through. I took over my troop corporal’s tank and reported to my Squadron Leader “Peter 1’s a write off so I’m taking over another vehicle.” Squadron Leader replied “Well done - our circle friends have asked me to pass on their apologies for the error. Out.” After another 500 yards we got the order to halt and awaited the arrival of infantry to consolidate our position. On return to harbour I made a point of seeking out who had shot us. I met a very contrite ‘C’ Squadron sergeant who explained that they had been told that anything they saw would be German. They thought it was a Sherman they had seen but were ordered to fire. I accepted his apologies, he wished me luck and we shook hands.

On 8th June 1944 we found ourselves with our replacement tank and heading north east from Rome to the area of Monte Rotondo, an area of rolling hills and pleasant valleys. Later that morning we received orders over the radio to go to a hill feature where we were to meet the rest of the squadron. We made good progress, finally arriving at a track which would take us to the hill over to our right. We had another troop and Squadron HQ following in our rear as we nosed forward towards the ridge where we halted ‘hull down’ to look over the crest. The sight that met our eyes was, to say the least, quite unexpected: some 800 to 1000 yards distant we saw a factory and walled enclosure, various out-buildings and the whole scene one of feverish activity.

By the time we had studied the scene the rest of the squadron had drawn up along the crest, guns trained on the buildings below us. Word of our advance must only recently have reached the Germans, caught them on the hop, I thought, they were busily loading up trucks and all manner of vehicles ready for evacuation. Troops seemed to be everywhere, mounting trucks and half-tracks, haste was the keynote. For a minute or so we watched, then the first salvo crashed out from our tanks’ guns, from then on we continued independent firing, H.E. and machine guns continued the onslaught. With small arms only they did not have a chance; the whole area was soon covered in fire, smoke and dust.

I noted with some surprise that no effort was made to offer to surrender. It was not long before the action was over and we were moving on once again, across country now, and as leading troop again, moved forward from ridge to ridge. We then received orders to go to a hill feature over to our right. We were told it had been checked by a recce. group and found clear. We always treated this information with some suspicion, but with my two other tanks, one on each side just to my rear, we made our way through the fields and hedges; apart from a shell or two there was no opposition. As we reached the bottom of the hill, I could see some patches of turned earth, which more careful examination showed to be well hidden slit trenches, and I could see movement! There must have been consternation in the trenches when our tanks rolled up rather than infantry.

We dealt with the trenches as we went through; their rifles and automatics could not match the constant movement and fire from the tanks’ machine guns. We moved forward to a second group of trenches just below the crest of the ridge and gave them a short burst of machine gun fire. Ever so slowly we saw a bayonet come into view carrying a filthy piece of cloth; this was followed by the rifle and eventually the soldier who half climbed and half fell out of the trench. He stumbled towards us with arms held high. Some yards in front of the tank I yelled “Halt”; he froze, and on a signal, dropped his rifle on the ground in front of the tank track. We moved forward slightly so that the rifle was safely under the track.

I could almost feel sorry for him – he was terrified, almost a nervous wreck in fact, his raised hands shook. His uniform had been ripped open, and he had cut out the front of his shirt to use as a flag of truce. There he stood, clothes and trouser fly open, his vest and long underpants as black and filthy as his shirt. I told him to fasten up his uniform. I then signalled him to climb up to me, this he did willingly. “Careful Sir” warned my gunner, “it may only be an act he’s putting on”. “I doubt it” I replied, “he seems too scared to blow his nose”. In my best German I asked for his paybook - this indicated that he belonged to a Panzer Grenadier Regiment and I reported this to HQ. He then pointed into the turret and then to himself, “Me” he said, “No – stay there” I replied firmly. At this stage he appeared to be getting very agitated and, delving into his pocket, brought out a fist full of paper money; this he thrust towards me saying “You”, and then, pointing to his wrist watch, indicated he wanted me to have that as well. He seemed intent on buying himself a place in my tank! I made it plain I was not interested and asked if there were any more soldiers in the trenches. He said there were 5 or 6 more. I could see some men watching and waved them over. Out they came with hands held high and no visible weapons.

My first prisoner was still begging to be allowed into the turret. They grouped themselves on the left side of my tank and I was just about to get out and collect their paybooks when the firing began. Looking back I sometimes wonder if they knew what to expect; crouched down, they were protected by the tank from the murderous hail of fire which soon arrived. The first bullets whistled past like a swarm of angry bees, a few hit the tank. A leg was thrust past me into the turret hatch, “Herr Major, bitte” wailed my ‘friend’, “Oh bitte”, he was ready to climb into the turret with me. “Out” I snapped and he found himself looking into the barrel of my .38 revolver; it had a sobering effect on him. “Get down there with the others”. The fire was coming from an area some 200 yards to our right rear – a hedgerow running more or less at right angles to our line of advance, and behind it I suspected, some cover such as a shallow ditch; for most of its length it was spitting fire.

Turrets were traversed to bring guns to bear and the whole length was raked with machine gun fire and a few H.E. for good measure. In ten minutes it was all over and the Guards who later took over the area found the hedgerow littered with corpses. Having sent my P.O.W.s back I set off up the hill to observe over the crest, and glancing back I was dismayed to see the 4 tanks of Squadron HQ sitting on the forward slope of the hill some 600 yards to my rear in a very exposed position, and in breach of basic tactics. From my vantage point I could see the next ridge some 600 yards away.

The main point of interest in the valley was a solidly built house, over to the right on the ridge. Its position made it ideal for an observation post and there seemed to be considerable activity around it. Carefully watching through binoculars I noticed a reflection of light from a bedroom window, and sure enough I could make out the ‘Donkeys Ears’ rangefinder equipment of an artillery observation unit; at the same time I realised he would be able to see the slope to our rear where our HQ tanks were sitting. Quickly my gunner traversed on to the target, but we were too late; before we could fire a shot I heard a battery firing off, the whine of shells over our heads made us fear for the worst. We quickly fired two shells – one hit the house wall, but the second went straight in the window where I had seen the O.P. Glancing back I was appalled to see shells bursting on the distant hillside, among and around our Squadron HQ tanks.

We continued to fire, “It’ll be all Krauts and brick dust when I’ve finished with the bloody place” said the gunner. In the enemy attack our 2nd I/C had been killed and the Squadron Leader wounded along with a couple of P.O.W.s. There was a stunned silence among the crew on hearing this news – our 2nd I/C was a very popular officer, fearless in battle and with the M.C. to his credit. We were ordered to hold our position and had plenty to occupy us as we continued to fire on enemy positions. The shelling eventually eased somewhat and by early evening we were ordered to retire; our place being taken by ‘A’ Squadron. As we headed back to where Squadron HQ had been we kept to lower ground and thought we hadn’t been noticed, when suddenly we found ourselves entering what seemed to be a solid wall of shell fire.

They whistled over, bursting ahead, behind and all around us. The air was so thick with smoke and dust that visibility was nil. It seemed that we bore a charmed life, no tank was hit, apart from shrapnel, which did not do any harm to us or damage to the tanks. At one point though my corporal’s tank converged with mine, and tracks just touched before we slewed away from each other in the gloom and in another welter of explosions. Safely through we made our rendezvous with our depleted Squadron HQ. The loss of our two friends and comrades was a bitter blow to the whole squadron and even the warm summer evening seemed to have an unexpected chill in the air.

13th June 1944 we were setting off early, once again in the lead, and were heading for Narni. There was some light and none too accurate shelling, and some mined diversions to contend with but we negotiated all this without incident, perhaps more by good luck than skill, and arrived at the entrance archway to Narni, some 400 yards to our front, at about mid-day.

There was no sign of the enemy but we could see crowds gathering. Some waved flags, others their hands, but there was no mistaking the jubilation and cheering as we drew near. We were ordered not to stop but to push on to our next objective which was Terni. We were trying to keep a lookout for lurking enemy troops who might still be about and at the same time try to keep moving and keep the cheering throng away from our tank. We were told that the Germans had moved out about half to three quarters of an hour ago.

One picture I shall always remember is that of an elderly white haired couple standing outside the doorway of their home, arms round each other; tears of joy ran unashamedly down their lined faces as they smiled and waved handkerchiefs to us. I gave them a special wave back. As we left Narni the troop on our left checked a farm as they passed and found a grief stricken family. Apparently only a short time before our arrival the Germans pulled out and shot their son as they left; he was dead when the troop found him.

The run to Terni was not arduous – mines, diversions and some sporadic shelling but no serious opposition. From Terni we headed for Todi. By late afternoon we were ordered to hold our position. Nothing stirred in the warmth of the afternoon as we kept watch on the road ahead, surely I thought, the Germans must, by now, be well away from the area. But they like ourselves, occasionally took the wrong road! Suddenly I noticed a saloon car in drab grey, coming along the road to our right front. My ever watchful gunner had spotted it too, the turret moved and he shouted “On target”. I ordered him to load H.E. I watched through binoculars as the car continued towards us and observed two occupants – a youngish officer who was talking earnestly with the driver, a soldier some years older and most probably his batman.

They had no idea what lay ahead of them in the shade of the trees at the top of the hill. “I just can’t bloody believe it” said the gunner, his foot hovering over the firing button. Some twenty yards away the car jerked to a sudden halt as the occupants realised they were not alone! I’ll never forget the look of horror on their faces as they stared in utter disbelief at out tank with its 75mm gun pointing straight at them. For a few seconds they sat as though hypnotised waiting for a shell to blast them to eternity. I signalled for them to come in as prisoners and the driver came first, hands held high, followed by the officer about a yard behind. When they were about two yards from the front of the tank the unexpected happened.

The officer gave his driver a good push and as he stumbled forward, the officer dashed across the front of the tank and into the trees and bushes to our left. Momentarily we were caught off guard, quickly I dropped back into the turret, ordered the soldier to the rear tanks, covered as he well knew by their guns, from there he was sent to Squadron HQ for interrogation by intelligence staff. As the officer dashed across the front of the tank I ordered the front gunner to fire, and, at the same time the turret gun was to traverse left on to him. The gunner however could not see his target; then the turret machine gun fired just one round and jammed; and the 75mm would not fire at all! In sheer desperation I grabbed a German machine pistol I had picked up in one of our actions, firing it into the bushes where I had last seen the officer disappearing.

By now the jammed machine gun had been cleared by the gunner and he with some relish, took over the firing covering a wide area of woodland, but to no avail. Looking back over the incident I had to give the officer credit for a well thought out escape, but he did not know how lucky he was that one gun jammed and the 75mm would not fire at all. I have never been able to explain this as not long afterwards we had occasion to use both guns and both fired first time! We tried to retrieve their car as it would have made a good addition to the squadron vehicle pool but the wide awake officer had ripped the leads from behind the dash board. We did however retrieve all their papers and boxes which turned out to contain red wine which we stored away for further use later. The papers, maps and sketches we had found were passed on to the Intelligence Corps.

By late afternoon we were suffering quite accurate shelling and had to abandon thoughts of retrieving the car; we put a shell through it. Perugia was to be our next objective and once again we found ourselves ordered forward and out on to the left flank. Our orders were to cover the main highway out of Perugia, to position ourselves on high ground where we could engage anything that moved west along the road out of town. It was now Tuesday 20th June 1944 and we were reserve squadron moving in behind ‘A’ Squadron as they pushed up a narrow dirt road, through a ‘bottleneck’ gap before descending into the small village of Corciano on the far side of the valley beyond the gap in the hills. At least that was the intention.

As ‘A’ Squadron reached the gap, they lost three tanks in quick succession, all hit by armour piercing shot, either from an 88mm anti-tank gun, or more likely, a Tiger tank. There was no room for any movement other than forward along the road, rather like a string of sausages – sitting ducks, I thought! Ere long the order came. “’B’ Squadron will take over from ‘A’ Squadron, force the gap and take the village”. Once again we were to be leading troop. We slowly moved forward towards the gap which was about 600 yards ahead when an A.P. round landed between my tank and my Sergeant’s. At the same time we saw a spurt of dust rise in the gap ahead. This often indicated an anti-tank gun firing; our return shots went off immediately and added to the dust in the gap and we saw a red glow as though we had hit some armour. We could not see anything definite but pushed on without further trouble until we were about 60 yards from the gap. At this point the road started to drop beyond the gap to the village and we could see the problem in all its stark reality.

The enemy were not, as I suspected, holding the gap, but the village on the other side of the valley, anything on the road through the gap was a perfect target for an 88mm or Tiger. HQ wanted us to push on through the gap but I was in no doubt that it could not be done, and I decided to climb to a wooded crest which might give a viewpoint of the enemy position. We were soon spotted and machine gun fire filled the air but we were able to get back to our position without injury. HQ then decided to send 2 troop through but we knew they would not make it without smoke and covering fire at least. They didn’t.

The Sergeant’s tank was hit by A.P. shot, the crew baled out, one with clothing on fire. I decided to go and get the Sergeant whose leg appeared to be smashed. On reaching him he was conscious but in great pain, the solid shot had gone through his thigh and almost severed his leg. I gave him a shot of Morphine and pulling him up on to his one good leg, I hauled him on to my back. Bullets went unheeded as I dragged him back to my own tank, where we laid him down and awaited transport to get him to safety. HQ then decided to send 3 troop through but they got bogged down in soft ground trying a different route.

It was a shooting gallery and there was no way through unless we could blanket the village in smoke or use a high explosive barrage to keep their heads down. HQ said this was not available, but then said that a lightly defended road to the west had been captured and was a much better route! We eventually reached Perugia where we spent about a week making up losses in tanks and crews and even got a Regimental football team together to play a local Italian team – who unfortunately won!

By Friday 7th July 1944 we had continued north and reached a point a few miles south of Arezzo. The main highway south from Arezzo was an almost straight road overlooked by a hill on which was a German observation officer, who was bringing down such accurate fire from, among others, two mobile guns of heavy calibre, that nothing could move by daylight. Our orders were to go out and draw the fire of these guns while spotter planes went up to look for them, a battery of guns waiting to fire as ordered by the artillery officer in the plane.

The plan was simple enough; we had to drive along a dirt road which went off the main road, in first gear, making as much dust as possible, the second and third tanks to return through the fields before rejoining the track again in the rear, so keeping a long trail of dust rising into the air and so make it appear as though a long convoy of vehicles was heading to by-pass the town. As was my custom I went back and collected my troop together and told them just what we had to do. I was not expecting, nor did I get, whoops of delight! With a wry smile on his face my driver said “Sir, aren’t you very popular with our Squadron Leader? You always seem to get the job of lead troop”. The day before the action we had a good meal, had a visit from the padre, and checked all equipment. We slept well that night, as we had been relieved of guard duties by other troops of the Squadron.

We knew that if the plan worked, no enemy gunner worthy of the name would be able to resist the temptation. We took up our positions before dawn, and waited. At 09.00 hours we started engines and set off along the track, dust rising behind us high in the still air. Tension was acute as we moved slowly forward, although we had covered 600 yards or so the gunfire we had hoped to draw was not forthcoming. The ‘mush’ in our headphones was suddenly interrupted by a loud ‘click’ and on our frequency, a German soldier, forgetting he was on ‘send’, sang in a deep guttural voice a verse of ‘Lille Marlene’. It sounded so clear and close, it might have been sung by one of our own crew, we looked at each other and laughed.

The voice on the radio started to ‘trail’ somewhat towards the end of the verse, just before he finished the last line he stopped abruptly, paused, and suddenly shouted, “Achtung – Shermans, Achtung – Sh……” The rest was unfinished as he discovered his mistake and switched off his radio. We were now well along the track, and doubly aware of our danger now that we had obviously been spotted. Some 100 yards ahead on our left stood a large house and about 30 yards beyond the house our track joined the main road. I parked my tank below the gable of the house, my sergeant some 20 yards to my rear, guns trained on the house, and behind him my corporal, guns trained on the right flank. To our rear the great cloud of dust hung in the still air, the sun beat down from a clear blue sky and we, having reached the point to which we had been ordered to go, had failed to draw the expected fire! This I could not understand because any dust trail such as we had made was normally sufficient to bring down a hail of artillery fire from the enemy batteries.

I was fairly certain that our approach had not gone unnoticed so I decided to take a walk to the main road, rather like a small recce party, and make quite sure that we had been seen. Engines now switched off and warning the corporal that if anything happened to us he would have to take the troop back, I took along my sergeant and second driver, armed with grenades and Tommy guns. The warm air now seemed deathly quiet, nothing stirred and there was no sign of enemy movement; in the far distance though I could hear faintly the drone of the spotter plane’s engine. We carefully approached the main road and there was still no sign of movement. To our left the main road came to an abrupt halt where the Germans had ‘blown’ a bridge over the canal. After surveying the scene, we strolled back making sure that we could be seen.

We were no more than halfway back to the tanks when we heard a couple of distant bangs, seconds later two large calibre shells whistled over and landed near the canal bank with loud explosions. “Let’s get moving Sergeant, turn about and be ready to move, pass the word on to the corporal will you”. “Thought they’d never bite” said the sergeant. I had just got onto my tank turret when I heard another couple of shells coming over. Quickly I slipped my legs into the turret hatch as the shells screeched at us, no mistake this time about accuracy, it hit the gable wall abut ten feet above my turret! By now I was getting accustomed to being blown to the turret floor but it was becoming tiresome. Perhaps it was just as well though, because shrapnel, bricks, stone and rubble rained down upon the tank and into the turret hatch.

Judging by the hole in the gable wall the shell must have been five or six inch diameter, so without waiting for another salvo we turned about and headed for ‘home’. Before we had gone very far I heard in the distance, from behind our lines, the sound of artillery fire and the heavy ‘crump’ of salvo after salvo of shells as they landed, I hoped, on the S.P.guns. By early afternoon we arrived back at our rendezvous, a small farm some distance from the track along which we had travelled laying our ‘dust trail’. We received a radio message from our Squadron Leader – “I’ve a personal message for you from ‘Big Sunray’ (our Brigadier), he congratulates you on your effort this morning, and is pleased to inform you that both guns have been destroyed – a spotter plane report. Oh, and my congratulations as well, George” he added. “Can’t understand why it took them so long to open up” I said, “but at least the bait worked”. The Squadron Leader then came on again, “Sunray has another little job for you while you’re there.

Take a small party on foot to the blown bridge and get the following information:- width on top of the canal bank, width of roadway approaching the bridge, length of blown section of bridge, and is the road straight enough to assemble a Bailey bridge?” “It’ll take a couple of hours at least” I said, “it’s two and a half miles or so”. Taking my corporal and a couple of co-drivers we set off armed with grenades and Tommy guns. To my sergeant I gave instructions that he must not attempt to look for us should we not return, but must take charge of the troop and return to HQ when ordered. We used cover to the side of the track and eventually arrived at the main road and the blown bridge. By now we were hot, tired and hungry, but keeping to cover as much as possible, we noted all the details requested. We had a ten minute ‘breather’ before starting our return journey. Perhaps because of lack of food, and fatigue, our journey back took longer than I had allowed for and I was hoping that our tanks had not moved off! We still had about 300 yards to go when we noticed figures behind some bushes. Quickly we took cover and I began to wonder if we had been cut off by an enemy patrol, but felt sure that they would have opened up by now.

Slowly we began to move forward and to our surprise, and relief, the troop sergeant and his crew came out of the trees. The Sergeant must have read my thoughts, “hope you don’t mind, sir, when you didn’t come back we just had to come and look for you, the whole troop wanted to come but the rest are with the tanks”. I simply reminded him that orders should be obeyed, although in his position I should probably have done the same! Such is the spirit of comradeship common to most of the fighting units. We returned to the tanks and had a welcome drink of cold spring water before we returned to Squadron HQ, where we had a visit from the Brigadier who seemed well satisfied with the information we had obtained.

By Sunday 16th July 1944 the main effort was now directed to pushing north from Arezzo; in such hilly country and with close vegetation, visibility was very restricted. We moved out early but progress was slow, not only because of shelling but a recce to a village ahead found it strongly held. We were ordered to hold the road while infantry were brought in to clear the village. We, it seemed, had to be available to clear an open centre line to the north. A troop from our squadron occupied the higher ground in a vineyard to our left, and just ahead of us, one of their tanks on the road in front of us.

My troop sergeant was just ahead of me on the left of the road, my corporal a short distance behind in the centre of the road. To my right rear a vineyard and right front a field of maize, six to eight feet in height, in such country the enemy could be much too close for comfort and still not be seen. The road to our front rose to a crest about 100 yards away, then dipped to join another road 50 yards further on; standing on the near side of right corner was a large house. Apart from a few shells which dropped around, the waiting was uneventful, until I noticed a slight movement by the house. Very, very slowly, the familiar muzzle brake of an 88mm gun appeared from behind the house; very slowly more of the long barrel appeared but, because of the rise in the road, we could not see the hull of the tank. As more of the barrel came out it swung slowly round towards us; at first sight I had radioed all tanks, “Tiger ahead”, and we prepared for action, knowing full well that our 75mm shells would not penetrate the frontal armour of his turret.

The enemy also knew this and, hull down, realised he was not likely to suffer damage. I decided to give the Tiger a warm reception so, ordering rapid fire with solid shot, got the gunner to aim carefully at the gun barrel as it turned. With the tension building up as the gun continued to turn towards us, we kept firing. With less than half its length showing the movement stopped, slowly then the gun started to withdraw until it disappeared behind the building. “We’ll have to watch out for that thing” said the gunner, “I doubt if we’ve damaged it”. Squadron HQ sent a simple message – “Hold your positions and don’t let the enemy through to the west”. Over to our left we heard a loud bang as a tank on that flank was hit by an A.P. shot; we could see smoke rising from the ‘brewed’ tank in the vineyard. I decided to go forward and have a word with the troop sergeant, and seconds later I was standing on the back of his tank discussing the danger points to watch for, especially the house on the corner and our right flank. That done I said “Cheerio” and jumped down by the side of his tank when I heard what sounded like a bang, a roar and a crack all rolled into one, followed by a hissing sound which blew me to the ground and flung me some yards to the rear of the tank.

I came round a few seconds later, I heard voices and getting to my feet, rather drunkenly I suspect, found my right hand and arm quite useless; it hung limply by my side and I recall feeling my fingers with my left hand and thinking ‘well they’re still there’. The situation now came sharply into focus; the tank had been hit and the sergeant was being lifted down from the tank by the driver and co-driver, he had a smashed leg. Fortunately the tank was not on fire and the two drivers now helped down the badly wounded wireless operator, he had been pushed out by the gunner. In fact, instead of jumping out himself he had got the wireless operator from his seat, under the gun, and then lifted him out where willing hands hauled him out. The driver climbed back on to the tank to get the gunner out, but at this moment a second shot crashed through the turret, the driver was blown to the ground, shaken but not bruised, but from the turret we heard a choking cry and a groan – then silence as the tank suddenly burst into flames.

If any man died for his friend, that young man did – he knew, as we all did, that any delay in getting out could be fatal. We got the survivors to safe positions and called for a ‘Honey’ [a Sherman without a turret used as transport] to transport the wounded. The wireless operator, poor lad, had suffered serious wounds and was barely conscious. He had been sitting with his arm on his knee when the shell came through, severing his leg at the thigh and his hand just above the wrist; not only that but he had been badly cut by splinters and shrapnel. By this time the tank was well alight and it was only a matter of time before the ammunition started to explode. We made the wireless operator as comfortable as we could, when he suddenly opened his eyes and looking earnestly at me he said “Oh hello sir, do me a favour will you?” “Yes, of course I will – but don’t talk, the Honey will be along soon and you’ll be off to the Field Dressing Station”. He half smiled and in a weak voice continued “Thanks, I want you to write to my mother, tell her I’ve done my best”. Mercifully he drifted into unconsciousness as the ‘Honey’ came to a halt by the rear tanks.

Willing hands lifted him on to a stretcher and carried him to the waiting ‘Honey’. Although we were used to losses in battle I felt deeply the loss of these two young men, but there is little time for dreaming, a voice brought me back to reality, “Sir, I’d get the hell out of here before the tank blows itself to bits”. From inside the burning tank I could hear the ammunition exploding so I got out – and fast! By now the use was returning to my hand and arm so, climbing into my tank we watched for any further signs of the enemy, but nothing moved and I suspected they had withdrawn. We had been very lucky, and thankful, that we had not been raked with machine gun fire while bailing out; this had happened to other crews so very often. Why, I wondered, could it be that our adversary had a sense of chivalry lacking in many of his compatriots? The infantry took over our positions that night and we pulled back to harbour nearby. Our young wireless operator died as he reached the F.D.S. Next morning we were kept in reserve. The Medical Officer paid us a visit and had a look at my arm which was swollen and very painful. I was ordered to go back for treatment as the arm was cut above the elbow by a piece of tank or shell and it had gone septic. The Regiment had been taken out of line for the present so I could not argue.

This gave me a few days for treatment, and rest, and to help the wound heal. It was good to be out of battle and it all seemed strangely quiet. I was sent to a large house near Lake Trasimento and nearby was the village of Monte Petriolo. The inhabitants were poor but friendly and hospitable and I used to drop into the carpenter’s workshop for a chat and to meet the locals. My few days passed all too quickly and I soon found myself heading back to Squadron, but not before I had done one of the jobs I had hoped I would never have to do, to write to the next-of-kin of those of my troop killed in action. In those peaceful surroundings at the house I found it hard to write to mothers concerning sons they would not see again.

The mountainous nature of the central areas of Italy made serious tank actions virtually impossible, particularly in winter, which was now upon us. We spent most of the winter acting as infantry but at least we spent some time on lower ground near Florence. In early January 1945 we were in the high mountains and frozen stiff. The highlight of our stay here was to knock out an enemy Spandau machine gun position, which had been firing regularly on our patrols, by using a captured Spandau and their own ammunition against them! HQ got upset however as I had omitted to tell anyone in advance what we were planning, and everyone thought we had been overrun when the sound of a Spandau was heard but with no return fire! We were glad to return to Squadron HQ and then on to Florence.

We then learned that our spell as infantry was over. We had new tanks with new armaments arriving, courses to attend, and some welcome leave to take before the new offensive in the spring. Each squadron was now to have three troops of 76mm gun tanks and one troop fitted with 17 pounder guns, all Shermans, the latter known as the ‘Firefly’. Squadron HQ was to have one tank fitted with the 105mm Howitzer, useful in close support roles. As before the recce troop would retain its turretless ‘Honeys’, I was given the 17 pounder troop. Leaving early on 12th March 1945, the run to our new area took us through Forli and Rimini and by nightfall we had settled in on the outskirts of Pesaro. Eventually the Squadron was complete with the new tanks and the crews up to strength. Early in April the atmosphere suggested an early move to prepare for the spring offensive and on 10th April we set off for our next stop at Cesana, prior to our final ‘push’. Our next move was a hot and dusty one to a concentration area near the Argenta battle zone. By early evening we had settled into our new area, also with us were the Rifle Brigade, the intention being that each squadron would work independently with a company of R.B. in close support. To this end, the next day, a lovely warm sunny day, was spent with the R.B.s getting to know them, their equipment, and a demonstration of the flame-thrower they were using. 18th April 1945 was the day of our move north towards the River Reno, and heralded I suspected, action the next day. Next morning we moved early to an area north of Argenta for our first action.

Tank movement was not easy but fortunately the enemy defences seemed to lack co-ordination. Our move forward was greeted with the usual shelling but there was no sign of infantry. On our flank an anti-tank gun knocked out the tank of the Troop Leader who was then reported missing. We had taken quite a lot of ground against light opposition from infantry, also a number of prisoners. In the darkness of evening we harboured just where we were. A suggestion to the Squadron Leader that I should take a few men and look for the missing Troop Leader was turned down flatly, just as well perhaps because it was not long before the sentry challenged approaching figures who turned out to be two very young German soldiers, unarmed, bringing in the wounded Troop Leader. He had lost a leg when the tank was hit; his young helpers seemed pleased to surrender as P.O.W.s while the Lieutenant was rushed to the nearest Dressing Station.

Next morning saw us on the move again; early action was limited and we seemed to be collecting quite a number of prisoners. It seemed to me that enemy defences and determination to fight were not so marked as in the past. The ground at this point was more open as we headed for the small village of San Nicolo. The attack here was led by two troops of our 76mm gun tanks, going across open ground three tanks were rapidly knocked out, apparently by anti-tank guns. I then took my troop of 17 pounders through the forward troops; most of the shelling seemed to be high explosive. Solid A.P., if any, missed us, the anti-tank guns seemed to be part of a much practiced delaying tactic. Next day we received a message from Squadron Leader “I’ve reports of three Tiger tanks heading south along to the road to your front. Take up positions to meet them”. ”Trust us to be in line to meet three Tigers” said my gunner, “just one of those bloody things gives me the creeps.” We took up positions giving us a good spread of fire and some cover, hoping this would enable us to get off a shot or two before being spotted. Quickly I realigned my turret to what I fondly hoped would be the position of the Tigers should they arrive. I had asked for ‘cab racks’ support as an afterthought.

The R.A.F. rocket firing Hurricanes had been in the Italian theatre of war for some time but we had not seen them in our sector of the front. They seemed to spend most of their time blasting enemy supply routes in the rear areas so I did not really think we would see them coming to our aid. From our positions we watched and waited patiently, but no Tigers came into view, we listened as well. With engines switched off it’s surprising how easily one can hear heavy tank engines and the clatter of tracks, but no sound came. Then quite unexpectedly, we heard the distinctive sound of the Hurricanes as they flew in from our right rear, sweeping in at what appeared to be tree-top height, they banked gracefully to follow the line of the road.

Just the two of them, we watched as they banked and climbed steeply, then, as they swept down again they were lost from our view, but we heard the explosions of their rockets, we reckoned about one or one and a half miles ahead. In the distance the two Hurricanes climbed and banked once more as though having a last look round before they roared over our heads towards the rear areas. A short time later the voice of the Squadron Leader came over the radio, “Peter 4, you’ll be glad to know the ‘Cab-racks’ knocked out two Tigers and the other one turned tail and was last seen heading north, keep your eyes open though, it may return. Remain where you are for the present, we’re being pulled out later to do another job. Out.” By mid afternoon our relief, an infantry unit, had arrived and dug in. We then left to join the rest of our Squadron a mile or so to the rear.

The River Panaro swings into a wide curve to the south west of Bondeno; apart from the bridge in the town the only other means of crossing the river was by a bridge some miles to the south west. Reports indicated that the south west bridge had been demolished so thousands of German troops, trapped south of the river, would be obliged to make for the bridge at Bondeno. This bridge had not been blown. With this information the reason for our withdrawal and regrouping became clear. We set off early on 22nd April 1945. We found ourselves acting as reserve squadron, our ‘circle’ friends, ‘C’ Squadron had orders to attack and capture the bridge at Bondeno before the enemy could ‘blow’ it.

Because of the nature of the ground, progress was rather slow but the early stages of the advance met little or no opposition; within sight of the outskirts of the town ‘C’ Squadron perhaps felt that the worst was over, but, at that stage shells began to pour from well concealed defence posts. Several tanks were knocked out in quick succession but the Troop Leader leading the central attack went straight through, ahead of him lay the bridge, a German infantryman, apparently on point duty, waved him on! The Sherman thundered on towards the bridge, in passing, the crew commander cut the German down with half a magazine from a Tommy gun. At that stage the Troop Leader saw he was being followed by a Tiger tank but, because of the bridge structure it was unable to fire at him. Dashing across the bridge luck deserted him as he swung left and into the town; turning into a side street he found it was a dead end. Before he could smash his way through the houses, a Bazooka, fired from an upstairs window knocked out his tank causing some casualties.

By this time the Germans realised that the attack was a major threat to the escape route, so brought up armour and established a line of tanks and guns on the north bank to prevent any tanks approaching the bridge. We listened in to the destruction of ‘C’ Squadron: with sympathetic understanding to the tank commander who bitterly complained over his radio, that his shells were just bouncing off the front of a Tiger, the sudden loud explosion and then silent radio told its own story.

My wireless operator looked at me and said “I reckon they’ve just about lost the whole squadron sir.” He had just about finished speaking when the Squadron Leader came on the air to inform us that we had been ordered to take over from ‘C’ Squadron and get to the bridge. During the short breathing space, and no doubt because we had no infantry with us to harass the German engineers, they managed to blow the bridge. We heard the explosion as we closed in on the bridge approach road.

It was by now late afternoon and with the bridge blown it seemed pointless for us to head in that direction. Instead we had orders to cover all approach roads to the bridge and the open ground between, to await the arrival of a large German force believed to be heading for the bridge. We were ordered to take up defensive positions at a ‘T’ junction where the enemy were most likely to arrive. Set back from the ‘T’ junction was a house, just sufficient room between it and the road corner to get a Sherman 17 pounder into the shrubbery. The remainder of the Squadron formed the west and north sides of the box, the fourth side, the east, was protected by a walled cemetery 80 yards or so to our flank. Squadron HQ sat in the centre of the box with the 105mm close support tank set to fire over our heads along the main road.

A knocked out Sherman of ‘C’ Squadron was standing on the road at the junction. I set my Sergeant’s tank between the house and the tank; I was on the other side of the house, and some 30 yards to my left, the Corporal’s tank, all well concealed and with a good field of fire. 200 yards or so along the main road and almost blocking the road, was a burning Sherman of the ill-fated ‘C’ Squadron. With our guns aligned to cover the road we reckoned all was ready. I was just about to get some rest while we waited when a young officer of the Rifle brigade arrived, “I’ve been ordered to bring our anti-tank gun and cover your position” he said to me. “Well, what have you got and where do you intend to put it?” I replied. “It’s a six pounder and er – just here” he said pointing to a shallow ditch which ran along almost under the front of our tanks, and just about eight feet form the muzzle of my tank’s 17 pounder! “Oh, hold on now, if you dig in there, when my 17 pounder fires the blast will blow you and your crew for six, you’ll wonder what hit you.” He pondered for a minute or two, looked at our guns and said, “Well, if you’ve got 17 pounders, our six pounder isn’t going to be much good is it?” He decided to stay put however and to shelter unless they were needed. He also agreed for his chaps to fire flares to illuminate the scene when the fun started.

I tried to get some sleep, and about midnight felt someone shaking my shoulder. It was the sentry who thought he could hear an engine running in the distance. We listened carefully and faintly, a long way off, both heard what sounded like a motor-cycle; possibly a D.R. checking the road ahead of the column. The Squadron Leader was advised of the situation and everyone was made ready for action. We mounted up, and loaded solid A.P. shot – our priority was to get the armour first. Very slowly the sounds drew closer and louder, tension mounted as the time dragged on. Listening carefully, we then picked out another sound, the unmistakable sound of a tank engine, and the noise of tracks and bogies. Suddenly in the light of the flickering flames we saw a figure walk round the burning tank; a D.R. then came into view, got past the tank, and parked his motor-cycle 15 yards or so on our side; he then walked back to his colleague by the Sherman.

We then watched as the enemy used their tank to tow the Sherman clear of the road – an indication that they had some wheeled transport following. The flames outlined the German tank, and we could see it was a Mk.4 with a long 75mm gun! The Squadron Leader had come up beside my tank and said quietly “They’ll probably see the knocked out ‘C’ Squadron tank on the corner, wait until they’re real close before you fire.” Before I could reply, my attention was caught by more vehicles moving directly in front of us. It was our quartermaster bringing up ammunition, fuel and rations! “Good God!” exclaimed the Squadron Leader. Quickly they were brought in along a track behind us, which led into the walled cemetery. ‘Quarti’ as he was known, stopped and came over to join us. “Do you see what’s going on over there?” asked the Squadron Leader. “Yes” said Quarti, “but I can’t see why they’re moving the tank.” “If I told you they’re Germans and you’re just in time for a spot of action, what would you say?” continued the Squadron Leader. “Oh, bloody hell” said Quarti, beating a hasty retreat into the walled cemetery with his men and vehicles!

We could now concentrate on the impending action. The Germans now seemed to be in discussion in the flickering glow of the fire, unaware of the numerous eyes watching their every move. The tank then moved slowly forward, and in the darkness I could see what looked like a half track with infantry sitting on the back, and behind that, a gun being towed, the outline of which looked very much like that of an 88mm anti-tank gun! The column finally came to a halt about 70 yards from the corner. The gunner voiced my thoughts, “He’s seen that knocked out Sherman on the corner and is going to belt it.” “It’ll be the last thing he does belt, be ready,” I said. Tension was acute as we all waited patiently – gunners with feet resting lightly on firing buttons; the enemy appeared in no hurry to make his move. Suddenly the stillness of the night was shattered by their simultaneous firing of a white verey flare and the long 75mm gun of the Mk.4 special. His solid shot whined as it ricocheted off the tank and into the distance. The star shell lit the area with a pale, almost ghostly, glow, illuminating the whole scene.

He had no sooner fired when my Sergeant fired his first shot, the 17 pounder shell went straight through the German’s turret; quickly dropping his aim the second shot went through the hull. Soon the tank was ‘brewing’, before long its ammunition started to explode. Within seconds of the first shot the Corporal and I engaged the vehicles behind the tank, and the 105mm lobbed shells into the area behind the burning Sherman at the corner hoping to catch infantry and other arms to the rear of the armour. We continued firing as I wanted to get that 88mm before it could open up on us.

As the light of the German flare faded I wondered what had happened to the R.B.’s flares, at that moment they soared into the air. Once again the immediate area was bathed in a cold ghostly glow, as far as we could see, no movement among the enemy column indicated that the remnants had fled into the darkness. The firing ceased, nothing stirred, and a profound silence fell. The German tank continued to burn furiously, blowing itself apart as its ammunition exploded. Of the R.B.’s six pounder gun crew I heard nothing until next morning. Apparently the young officer, after sighting his gun, ordered the crew to dig a trench for shelter for themselves so that at the outset they could observe progress and, if we should get knocked out, then get their six pounder into action. The officer had devised a system of code words to give his men according to the action he wanted. The first blast from the muzzle brake of a 17 pounder is shattering and the first shots just about blew the infantry crew out of their shelter. The officer decided enough was enough and shouted the code words to get out; before the last syllable sounded there were no soldiers to be seen! While all the night’s action was taking place, not all was peace and quiet in the cemetery either. Long before Quarti arrived with his echelon of soft vehicles (water truck, 15cwts. And three tonners with food and ammunition), the Squadron fitters with the Mech/Sergeant in charge, had been safely established in a corner of the cemetery, the one hopefully, furthest away from any likely action.

When Quarti arrived and was bustled into the other corner, neither was aware of the presence of the other. The Squadron Leader, because of the tense situation, forgot to mention it to either group. For some time we had suspected that to slow our advance the enemy had dropped pockets of paratroopers to cause diversions behind our front line. The Mech/Sergeant was very much aware of this.

While the battle raged outside the walls of the cemetery, inside Quarti decided to have a look round the monuments to the deceased. Stealthily he picked his way between the memorials, blissfully unaware that his presence had not gone un-noticed and that his every move was being followed by the Mech/Sergeant, who pistol in hand dashed out from his hiding place. Pistol blazing he swore loudly that he’d get the “blasted paras”! Now as a mechanic he was first class, but as a marksman he was rather poor, fortunately for Quarti, who hurriedly taking cover, recognised the voice of the Mech/Sergeant and swore loudly at him! “Hell ‘Q’, I might have shot you” said the Mech/Sergeant later. Perhaps it is just as well that Quarti’s comments were not recorded! The Squadron Leader though did have something to say, “Sergeant, your standard of marksmanship leaves much to be desired. Get some practice in forthwith, and that’s an order.”

The next day, 23rd April 1945, I took some men to investigate a nearby farm where I had seen movement and thought I could see hidden vehicles in a barn. We found the farmer who said the enemy had abandoned two vehicles and run off. There were no booby traps or mines and we were able to ‘liberate’ a large box-like vehicle which we found to be a beautifully fitted out mobile workshop; and a half-track equipped with rocket launcher. We took these back to ‘B’ Squadron HQ and absorbed them into our pool, but our delight was short lived as they were soon ‘borrowed’ by RHQ. Later that day we started to be approached by vehicles carrying white flags and from then on received a constant stream of prisoners.

There was no longer the constant noise of battle and I could not see the war in Italy lasting very much longer. Within the next week or so we got the news that the war in Italy was over. It was the news we had been waiting for, half expected I suppose, and very welcome. I sat down, my back to a tree to enjoy the silence and contemplate now the chances of seeing home and family once again. My mind went back to Sandhurst days and the Guards Drill Sergeants, how, when the troop was being drilled on the parade ground, the Sergeant would suddenly halt the troop, and without prior warning, would call out an officer cadet. “Sir, I want you to drill the troop,” Shrewdly he usually picked on some unfortunate cadet who was obviously day-dreaming. Brought back to reality by the sudden command, he would march smartly to the front of the troop…….and stand there tongue-tied for a few seconds. A few in the troop would smile at the cadet’s discomfort, not so the Drill Sergeant. “Sir” he barked in that never forgotten voice, “march that shower into the lake if you wish, don’t just stand there, DO SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong, but for heaven’s sake, Sir – Do Something.”

I had heard that so often and I pondered how many of my decisions had been wrong – but at least I had done something and not lost too many men or tanks gaining objectives. I rose and went to join my jubilant troop; a new era lay ahead. When the Regiment was disbanded in March 1946, I transferred to the RAEC, saw service in Verona and Trieste and finally returned home in May 1947. From that time until retirement I taught woodwork at William Rhodes Secondary School in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I enjoy photography and local history, in particular by recording and lecturing on the changes taking place in the town and district in which my wife and I made our home.