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18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 44 — Retrospect

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There isn't much more to tell.

As 1945 grew old, 18 Regiment slowly faded out of existence. Men and vehicles and gear were taken away little by little, and not replaced. The 18th's occupation was quite gone; the boys were impatient of this soldiering without a war and eager to be off home, for the present had nothing to offer, beyond a daily round of sports and more sports, a few parades, and a bit of sporadic training for variety. The only real interest was leave and sightseeing trips up and down Italy, visits to old haunts, official excursions to old battlefields, and, towards the end, leave to Britain. It was all an uphill fight against boredom. There is no gain in dwelling on those last days, for the decay of anything that has been alive and flourishing is a cheerless theme.

From Trieste onwards Lieutenant-Colonel Playle commanded the 18th. A most appropriate appointment this, for he had been an officer of the old 18 Battalion at its birth in 1939, and nobody could have been more intimately identified with the unit.

The end was not delayed very long. From 620 men, almost a full muster, at the beginning of June, the roll sank to 470 late in August, to 310 in early October….On 2 December all the units of 4 Armoured Brigade were given official ‘authority to disband’. By the end of the year the last shipload had left Italy, and the 18th was only a memory.

But what a memory!

Wherever in later years men of the 18th have come together, memories have come crowding in thick and fast. Details more and more blurred with distance, perhaps, but still priceless memories of that life so strange and so remote from the year-in and year-out round of peacetime. Memories of those battles long past, of all those good men who did not come home, of all the little diverse human groups that together made up that complicated, efficient war machine, the 18th.

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The picture rises of the fighting men of the companies and squadrons, the central figures of the whole act. How often have their battles been fought over and over again! How often have the first Stukas howled down on Servia; the hundreds of parachutes sprung into flower above the Cretan hills; the hungry survivors linked arms against their own allies on Sfakia beach; the German tanks come charging out of the haze at Belhamed; the parched soldiers lain sweating in their slitties at Alamein. And how often have the Shermans stuck one after another in the Sfasciata mud; crawled up the vertical Liri hillsides; braved the Tigers at Tavarnelle and Orsoleto and Celle; and, most memorable of all, swept over the plains in their last irresistible rush when victory was finally won. Such memories grow kinder as the years pass. The moments of elation and triumph remain, the moments of exasperation and despair and blind terror grow dim.

Now other pictures come crowding in. Pictures of leisure hours and peaceful days. Of tea brewing in billies over innumerable primus stoves, of footballs punted round in the open spaces between the tents, of sing-songs in the YMCA, of parties where the ‘plonk’ flowed all too freely, of forests of hands eagerly reaching out for mail and parcels from home, of two-up and pontoon and five hundred played by the hour, of Cairo and Trieste and Florence and the wonderful Mediterranean water. Nostalgic memories these, bringing far-away looks to the eyes, until reluctantly we must jerk ourselves back to the present.

But yet more memories claim our thoughts. Memories of all those who worked so hard and so patiently, often with little thanks, not themselves fighting, but keeping the fighting men going, sometimes suffering the same hardships and running the same risks. How many there were, and how varied the jobs they had to do! Each little group fiercely jealous of its own good name, each one sometimes bitingly critical of the rest, but all essential in their places. How well they played their parts, when failure by any one of them could have brought the 18th to a dead stop. None was ever found wanting.

We see the carriers and the Recce Troop, dashing here, there and everywhere, very much in the public eye, but no mere glamour boys—spies, policemen, postmen, general mer- page 653 chants, ambulances, a hundred different things when needed. And often thrust into the front of the battle, giving and taking their share of the knocks.

We see the signal linesmen working under fire hour after hour, with numb bleeding hands, mending their lines only to have them cut again and again. And the despatch riders braving shells and mortars all in their day's work. And the Intercom Troop in its Dingo scout cars, running tirelessly between Regimental Headquarters and the squadrons, ‘taxiing’ commanders and OP officers. Specialists and important men, all of these, for without them the 18th would have floundered in a sea of perpetual misunderstanding and uncertainty.

We see the transport drivers, whose high quality was from the earliest days taken so much for granted. Vividly we remember them in Egypt and Libya, driving for long wakeful hours over pathless desert, carrying sleepy loads of men whose faith in them was never misplaced. And in Italy, slogging over the treacherous winding roads, sometimes working round the clock to keep supplies up to the hungry crews and their equally hungry tanks. And we see the mechanics, labouring day and night to keep the unit moving; highlighting their work, the picture rises of the long column of overloaded vehicles streaming down from Syria on that emergency move when it was so imperative that the unit reach the battlefield intact and on time. And along with these comes the later picture of the squadron fitters, sneaking up under Jerry's nose in the winter dark to repair and bring back disabled tanks. The LAD, too, not native sons of the 18th, but worthy adopted members of the family, toiling away behind the scenes so that the unit could fight well equipped, with tanks and trucks always in good condition, with guns and compasses and binoculars that would not let it down.

And the memory swings to those who tended the sick and wounded. Doctors, RAP men, stretcher bearers, men of understanding, who could be stern with malingerers and as tender as a woman towards real suffering, who themselves often took their chance of death or maiming to bring others to safety. The padres, too, servants of both the dead and the living, with ready ears for everyone's troubles, with encouraging words in their mouths and small but welcome gifts in their hands.

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And the quartering staff and the cooks, and all who worked to ensure that the hundreds of hungry men were adequately fed and clothed. How often, when it was most needed, did a hot cup of tea or a dixie of stew appear, quite unexpectedly. These men could not do the impossible, and there were times when stomachs had to go empty; but this was never their fault. Clothes, too. They come swimming before the eyes, ‘giggle suits’ and shorts and battle dress, ‘lemon squeezer’ hats and silly little forage caps and berets, boots and socks and anklets, shirts and greatcoats and belts and badges, all the dozens of little items that went to equip a man. How on earth, we may well ask, could anyone ever keep those grumbling men, all shapes and sizes, all clothed and fitted out, and not go mad?

And the clerks and the orderlies. The picture comes up of their unglamorous, unnoticed work, without which the 18th would have had no pay, no leave, no mail…. How these things lifted the morale, and how impossible life would have been without them!

And from here the pictures expand and move faster and faster as all the individual men of the 18th rise, a jumble of faces and names and voices, hundreds upon hundreds. To name them all would be quite impossible; to name a few, even the best, would be unjust. Far better to take leave of them here, nameless, their identities sunk in that magnificent collection of young men, the 18th.

All honour to the 18th, and to all who served in it!