Chapter 2: With the Royal Tank Regiment

Discussion in 'North Irish Horse' started by Gerry Chester, Jul 24, 2006.

  1. Gerry Chester

    Gerry Chester WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Page 2 Chapter 2

    The Training of a Trooper

    Shortly after passing the required medical examinations, in the mail came a travel warrant with instructions to proceed forthwith to the 57th Training Regiment RTR at Warminster, Wiltshire.

    On the appointed day, at an early hour, I left Liverpool's Lime Street Station on a train, bound for Bristol, which arrived at Temple Meads Station about three hours later. On the platform was a Corporal with about a dozen young men in civvies. "You for Warminster, if so report to me!" he said. So I, and six or so others, joined the group of soon to be ex-civilians. Following a short wait, we all climbed aboard another train Warminster bound, where we arrived less than an hour later.

    At Warminster station we were met by a Sergeant whose first words were "Fall in you lot, answer your names when they are called!" The preliminaries over, Bedford 3-tonners whisked us away for the short journey the RTR barracks, where we debussed outside a mess hall. We then were instructed to "feed our faces" after which processing would commence.

    First impressions of "Army grub" being that it wasn't too bad even though the mugs of hot sweet tea, with evaporated milk tasted rather peculiar, then after eating, more instructions including the information that we now had become 'A' Squadron's 34 Troop.

    Next we were kitted out by which time, as it was early evening we were escorted to our "living quarters" to meet our Troop Sergeant together with his Corporal and two Lance Corporals. To my great surprise the Sgt was none other than William "Dixie" Dean, one of the greatest centre-forwards that ever played for the Everton (the "Blues") Football Team. Many a time had I seen him score goals with just a flick of his head. The Corporal, whose name unfortunately I cannot remember, was also a football player with Tranmere Rovers, a Third Division - North team whose ground was across the River Mersey from Liverpool.

    The Troop quarters were on the first floor being split between two facing rooms, each in charge of a Lance Corporal, the two football players having a room of their own. I was given the bottom of a two-bunk bed, with one of a pair of upright lockers, just inside the door to its left. My locker had an amusing role to play a few weeks later of which more anon.

    The First Full Day
    At 6 a.m. we were rudely awakened, to be given a mere thirty minutes to perform our ablutions and to get dressed, in time for our first lesson how to properly make up our beds. We bumbled and fumbled until eventually being allowed to partake of breakfast at 7.30 a.m. We then assembled to hear a series of lectures, the first of which was given by the Squadron Leader. It should be mentioned here that most of the officers, with the rank of Captain and above, had seen action with the Royal Tank Corps, as it was then known, in World War One.

    Page 3
    First was the history of the Regiment. How it was formed in 1917 by renaming the "Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps" to that of the "Tank Corps". How, in 1922, it became the "Royal Tank Corps" and then, seventeen years later, to the present "Royal Tank Regiment."

    Next, we were told how it came about that we were wearing berets not forage caps. It was explained that authorisation to wear them was given, subsequent to the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, when the Black Beret was awarded by the French Army as a Battle Honour. One sensed, during this and subsequent lectures, that the wearing of the Beret, by mechanised Cavalry and RAC (Royal Armoured Corps) Regiments, was strongly resented and a bitter pill to swallow. The OC went on to tell us to never forget that wearing the Black Beret was a singular honour never to be taken lightly!

    Following an explanation why are called "tanks" we heard, for the first of many times, the Regimental March "It wasn't the tanks that won the war, it was My Boy Willie." A slide show followed showing us a whole range of World War One AFVs including "Little Willie" - the first Tank ever made.

    The show over, the officer went on to explain the basic functions of a tank. He had everyone's rapt attention, until he started to tell us that the final drive's task was to lay the track forward in order that a tank could "sit on it." The explanation that the upper section of the track travelled up to twice the tank's ground speed, while the section over which the tank moved was stationary, seemed reasonable enough. However, when he told us that a tank could run over one's foot without doing any damage, there were gasps of disbelief and a voice was heard uttering something about "legs with bells on." The officer was a real sport, he laughed, saying all was forgiven, but only because we had been in the Army for a couple of days!

    (When listening to lectures given by RTR officers, one became well aware how much resentment was felt against Field Marshall Haig for continuing his anti-tank campaign in the years following the end of World War One. When he articulated the common belief of traditional infantry officers, by stating that "I am all for using airplanes and tanks, but they are only auxiliaries to the man and the horse," unfortunately, his words were heeded by the decision makers - not so by the Germans!)
    Before handing the floor over to the Squadron Sergeant Major, we were told that we could now wear the RTR Cap Badge being admonished, once again, never to disgrace it.

    "Pay attention you lot!" quoth the SSM. (For those first few weeks, when addressed as a group, we were either "You lot" or "You miserable shower.") He told us to expect six weeks of strenuous training, during which it would be determined if we were tank crew material, then it was home for a week's leave.

    [​IMG] The SSM proceeded to describe the badge, telling us how and where to place it and, after inspection by our Troop Sgt, we could then don our berets. He concluded his remarks by telling us that the RTR Motto "Fear Naught", which is below "My Boy Willie" on the badge, does not apply to us while we were "being licked into shape" by both himself and his cadre of instructors! Later, after being inspected by Sgt "Dixie" Dean, I was given the OK to wear the second of my five Cap Badges.

    Drill, drill and more drill
    Page 4

    We now were taken under command of a Drill Sergeant, whose name has been blotted out of my mind, and his assistant Corporal Twomey. They played a "bad cop, good cop" role. Guess who the "good" one was! Despite many threats to our personages, we never became really proficient performing the "slow march", probably because we wondered what use it was for prospective tank crews.

    On the third day, when lined up for drill, our ranks were swelled by the addition of another Trooper. One by one, each of us was subjected to scathing comments by our "beloved" Drill Sergeant. At last, standing before the newcomer (he was quite small) the Sgt. bellowed out "And who are you, you miserable specimen?" "Advani, please corporal, sergeant, sir" was the reply. We all burst out laughing which resulted in an extra hour's drill. More of Trooper Advani anon.

    Shortly afterwards we were considered good enough to take part in a parade before the Squadron Leader who was accompanied by the Commanding Officer, Lt. Col Broome. Being previously aware that the CO's nickname was "Bushy", from the luxurious growth on his upper lip, we now saw why. As befits his rank, he appears prominently later in this narrative.

    Guard Duty

    As the important duty of guarding the Barracks was assigned to MPs and regular RTR personnel, two less significant places to guard were employed to train newcomers.

    One location required two Troopers being on guard for two hours at a time. While one stood guard at the entrance, the other patrolled the perimeter of the vehicle storage area, located inside the Barracks, which took ten minutes or so, after which the roles were reversed. It was here that I was first put on guard duty.

    With service in the Home Guard I was very familiar with Guard Duty, not so for my partner as it was his very first experience. I was nearing the end of a circuit when my "comrade-in-arms" was being approached by the Orderly Officer and the Sergeant of the Guard. The following exchanges, more or less verbatim, followed. "Halt, hands up or I'll fire" "This is the Orderly Officer!" shouted back the Sergeant. "Stop, I'm going to shoot!" (As ammunition hadn't been issued it was an idle threat.) "How long have you been a soldier?" "About three weeks!" "It's pack drill for you, you (expletive)." From a very understanding officer came "That's enough Sergeant he's only learning!"
    The other location was on Salisbury Plain upon a small hill crowned by a clump of trees. There, a couple of weeks later, I had the first of two tours of duty guarding this wind-swept hill whose elevation is not recalled. On both occasions we had to check a long inventory at the beginning and conclusion of guard duty. Although the quantity of all items, including the Nissen Hut, was printed on the inventory form, the number of live trees surrounding the hut was not. Each of the hundred-plus had to be counted, the result being inserted on the inventory form, together with the reporting of any signs of a severed limb. Perhaps it was to discourage, during the icy days of winter, the smuggling of axes in order that a tree, or parts therof, may be chopped down to feed the stove!

    Page 5
    Crimes and Punishment

    Much later, realisation came that many of the so called "crimes" for which the trainees were being charged, had been artificially created for two reasons, the more important being the first. It was most strongly designed to tell us to do nothing foolish, after being posted to a unit, to warrant being hauled up on a "real" charge.

    The second and more mundane reason was to ensure that certain jobs, essential to the running of day-to-day affairs, were done. For example the peeling of mountains of potatoes. Equally essential, at least in the CO's mind, was the taking care of his pride and joy, the large kitchen garden adjacent to his quarters.

    Hopefully the "lessons" were taken to heart by one and all!

    Physical Training

    On the third day we were introduced to the members of the Army Physical Training Corps, whose bounden duty seemed to be to inflict as much pain on one's persona as possible. The wearing of black Battle Dress tops soon earned them the nickname of "The Black Eagles."

    [​IMG] After the SM had introduced himself and members of his staff he called attention to the APTC's Cap Badge. "You see those sabres, they're for use across the backsides of slackers!" Despite his threat, which never came to pass, it wasn't long before a few began skipping PT Parades. About four weeks into training inFoculations for tetanus etc. were the order of the day. Those of us, who received one for the prevention of small pox, were given "Attend C" which meant bed for a day. On the day that I was in bed quite a few of 34 Troop had skipped PT several of whom, including a Trooper Mitsialis, were taking it easy in my room. Came the warning "The Black Eagles are coming!" What a scramble! Some jumped into beds while Trooper Mitsialis took refuge in my locker, which, as may be recalled, was just inside the door.

    Lead by the SM, in swept the Black Eagles to round up the absentees, a chitty from the MO prevented my being rousted out with the others. Satisfied at having done what they came for the Black Eagles, led by a Corporal commenced shepherding out the miscreants. While doing so there came a scuffling sound from my locker. Majestically sweeping open the door the SM thundered "What do you think you are you doing in there you miserable specimen?" "Please sir, I'm resting" was the reply. The SM's subsequent tirade seemed to go on forever! More on the misfortunes of Trooper Mitsialis in the next segment.
    Despite all the moaning and groaning, the efforts of the A.P.T.C. crew paid dividends. As a result, by the time we were ready for posting, we were no longer considered to be "miserable specimens."

    Page 6
    The Open Road

    The day finally came when driving instruction, wheels only, was on the agenda.

    Following the teaching of basics, at the wheel Bedford 15 cwt trucks, we drove around the Barrack Square as it was large enough for us not to hit anything. Then followed a division into two groups, one for those who had showed enough skill to be entrusted to drive on roads outside the Barracks the other for those who had not.

    I was lucky enough to be part of the first group. With five to a truck, under the watchful eye of an instructor, many happy hours were spent driving over roads almost empty of traffic. By happenstance, we always seemed to stop for breaks at canteens in one of Wiltshire's small towns!
    Those in second group were less fortunate. Their lot was to drive endlessly around the roads inside Barracks. We now meet up with Trooper Mitsialis again. He apparently, despite all the instructor's efforts, was never able to master the art of double de-clutching. On the second day, while he was at the wheel, something went very wrong. To the instructor's horror, the truck careened over the pavement to plough its way irresistibly into the centre of the CO's beloved "cabbage patch."
    We know not what wrath descended upon the head of Trooper Mitsialis. Perhaps, being the son of the Greek consul in Liverpool. he was able to claim diplomatic immunity. What we do know is that he departed the scene that very same day!


    The day following completion of driving instruction the SSM cast his beady eye upon us. Addressing "You lot" he informed us that our days of swanning around the countryside were over. In order that we may learn how to do bodily harm to the enemy, it was off to the firing ranges for us!
    After firing of a few rounds with Lee Enfield rifle we were marched over to a couple of tank turrets embedded in the ground. First showing us the workings of a Mills hand grenade, our instructor then gave us some very explicit instructions. When ordered, 1. Collect a live grenade; 2. Cimb carefully into the turret; 3. With our heads out, release the firing-pin then count to five; 4. Smartly hurl it away then quickly duck down.

    Everything went according to plan until it came the turn of Trooper Advani. Remember him? He failed to go back down, the grenade exploded and piece of metal flew in one cheek and clean out of the other. Fortunately he had his mouth open otherwise much more damage may have been done. We all hoped he would be OK, but, as his stay in hospital was rather lengthy, we didn't see him again. We certainly hope that all went well for this popular "little fellow."
    Returning from the range, we paraded before the SSM for what was thought to be yet another lecture, especially after the recent mishap, however, it was more an informative talk. During our upcoming leave, it would be decided who had qualified as Tank Crew personnel and that subsequent weapon training would be appropriate to the Crew position. For example, only those chosen to be gunners would be receiving training on a tank's main weapons. He knew that others, not so chosen, would be disappointed by not getting the opportunity to fire the big guns but, he hinted, a pleasant surprise lay ahead!

    Page 7

    The Big Parade


    The day came when, instead of being the site for driving tuition, the Regimental Parade Ground would be serving its true purpose. Rhomboidal in shape, at the far was a World War One Mark VIII Tank and, on one side next to the saluting base, a mast flying the Union Jack above a flag bearing the Regimental Insignia.

    Lead by the Regimental Band, playing "It wasn't the tanks that won the war, it was My Boy Willie," the troops, led by 'A' Squadron, marched past the saluting base giving the "Eyes Right" to the Commanding Officer.
    After circling the parade ground, Squadrons were drawn up in front of the CO. and, when all were assembled, the RSM called "At Ease," "Bushy" Broome's speech was short and to the point, essentially wishing everyone to enjoy their week's leave. After the call for "Three Cheers" we came to attention and, on the command, marched off to some more rousing music.

    Back to Reality

    Of leave memories are few - the week flew by! A couple of rounds of golf, visits with friends and then, once again on a train Wiltshire bound. Arriving at Warminster a waiting Bedford 3-tonner whisked us away to the bosom of the Regiment. When checking in at the Guard House we were instructed to immediately report to our Troop Sergeant who told us that we were free for the remainder of the day.

    Next morning was a combined parade of Troop 34 (ours) and Troop 35 before the SSM and several NCO Instructors with whom we were to fall in as names were being called.

    The first to go were about half-a-dozen who had not been selected as tank crew, next being those chosen to be trained as gunners. To the latter the SSM gave his promised "good news" - their training would be for seven weeks after which would be additional leave.

    Next it was the turn of those chosen to be drivers one of whom was Trooper Glyn Collard, whose Army service number was the one after mine. After they had been marched off by their instructors about a dozen remained, myself included. On being told by the SSM that our training period would be for fifteen weeks before he could go on leave, one brave sole called out "What about our good news Sergeant Major?" The response was that we were being trained to become Driver/Operators and, those who qualified, would receive the highest pay scale due a Trooper.
    Later, while enjoying some refreshment in the NAAFI Canteen, all was excitement, albeit short-lived, at the prospect of driving tanks all over Salisbury Plain.

    Phase Two
    Which of the RTR's impressive inventory of tracked vehicles would we be driving was uppermost on our minds as we were being addressed by our instructor-in-chief Cpl. Pell. Disillusionment soon followed on being told that most of the fifteen weeks would be spent learning all about operating wireless sets. No swanning around Salisbury Plain in tanks for us, except for just one week in a Bren Carrier.

    Page 8

    The disappointment felt, at only being allowed to take several different tanks out for very short drives, was lessened as one whole week was given over to driving Bren Gun Carriers. Part of this training was to approach a hummock at high speed then slow down sufficiently to get smoothly up and over. The driving instructor regaled us with a hilarious tale of one driver taking the hummock at full speed - apparently the carrier "flew through the air with the greatest of ease!."

    While drill, physical training and other chores continued unabated, most of the ensuing weeks were spent in Cpl. Pell's classroom. It was there I met Trooper Jim Wiggins from 35 Troop - his serial number was 16 after mine. Over the next few years our paths would run parallel until, as Sergeants, we were demobilised together in 1946 being in the same Release Group.
    Many things had to be learned or relearned. In the Home Guard letter identification was that used in WW I - A for Ack, B for Beer, etc. With the United States entering the war a new common format had to be learnt - A for Able, B for Baker, etc. Much time was spent learning how to operate several different types of wireless sets including the recently introduced 19 set.

    Many, many hours were spent tapping on Morse keys as, to qualify as a Driver Operator and to enjoy the higher pay that went with it, one had to both send and receive at no less than twelve words per minute. Here, experience with the Boys Scouts paid off. Not only did I pass out at twenty-seven words per minute but also, for some unfathomable reason, finished all-around top of the class. This is not mentioned for any purpose other than later it was to become of some significance.

    The days and weeks flew by, so intense was the ongoing training, most of the time being spent under Cpl. Pell's benevolent and watchful eye. The days of "You Lot" etc. faded into, what seemed to be, the distant past.
    Came the final day of the final week and another spot of leave on return from which those who had qualified as Driver/Operators would be posted to an operational unit.

    Goodbye RTR

    Early on the day following our return from leave, Cpl.Pell marched ten of us across the barracks to eventually line up in front of the CO's quarters. After the command "Stand at ease" was given Lt. Colonel Broome, an RTR man through and through, gave a short but never to be forgotten speech. After congratulations on the successful completion of our training it went something like this, "Men, I have some bad news, you are being posted to the North Irish Horse, damned donkey wallopers."
    Later that day in early February, 1942, there arrived a Bedford 3-tonner. When all were aboard it was "Goodbye Warminster" then "Hello" to nearby Ogbourne St. George. Nine Englishmen and one Scot were on the way to join the over six-hundred men from Northern Ireland and √Čire and the finest Regiment in the British Army. For this writer, it was the commencement of four years and four months of service, through good times and bad, with a great group of people who proudly wore the badge of the North Irish Horse.

    Addendum - Wayback Machine
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