19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
Appendix II — TALE OF A TANK
TALE OF A TANK
The History of No. 13, the ‘Lame Duck’ of No. 11 Troop C Squadron
Members of the 19th whose service did not extend to armoured days will find this account instructive. Those who, like the narrator, R. W. (‘Rusty’) Laird, did serve in tanks, will find it nostalgic.
The name ‘Lame Duck’ was awarded her not just for something to call this thirty tons of travelling armour-plate, but because of a series of events which seemed to happen regularly when we were on our way up to take action stations prior to the move in. Always she seemed to come to grief before the start or during the approach, but when things really got cracking, well then the powers that were could always depend on hearing our call-sign coming over the air right in the thick of things.
We referred to our tank in the feminine sense, because like many of that sex she was temperamental. But, as she was a machine of war, we as her crew treated her rough and she responded as a duck takes to water. Many times members of the crew serving in her were wounded but until the end of her career none were killed—and this was something to be proud of; her reputation went up higher with each succeeding action.
Hot as an oven in summer; we blistered our bare arms on her every time we scrambled out in a hurry. Cold as an ice-box in winter; she leaked rain-water and let in chilly draughts at every joint. As cramped as a sardine-tin; I as driver had to squeeze through the hatch then wriggle into my great-coat afterwards, but still the full crew of five, battened down and cramped together in her stomach, managed to live and fight for almost a year in her narrow confines.
She was powered with twin diesel engines, ran on metal tracks, and as armament had two fixed machine guns, one ack-ack gun and a 75-mm. Ammunition for the big gun was stored in all sorts of places, behind the spare driver, around the turret rim, outside the turret cage against the wall of the tank, round the turret inner rim and under the gun breech itself. A home-light unit for charging batteries, a No. 19 wireless set for communication, two water tins, several tin boxes for storing page 538 belts of M/G ammunition and a covered port about 6in × 6in—mostly used for emptying out spent shell cases, completed her inside furnishings. Strapped on to her outside were axe, spade, crowbar, spare track links and tow rope and above a miscellaneous collection of personal equipment belonging to her crew, waved the wireless masts.
Briefly her career can be highlighted as follows:
OCTOBER 1943: The gunner—Harold Lord—and I picked her up from 7 British Workshops on the outskirts of Alexandria and drove her to Burg-el-Arab on her metal tracks. We took a dim view of this for the rest of the squadron tanks were running on rubber filled tracks and steel made it twice as noisy inside, made steering more difficult on solid ground, kept her speed down, raised a dust-storm whenever she moved and called for more maintenance because the wear and tear was faster. We were assured that rubber would be fitted before we moved out—it wasn’t of course.
The sign-writers came round and painted a large yellow circle on the side of the turret and in the circle the number 11 (this was the Troop number). On the flank just above the track line they painted 13 (her number in the Troop). We wanted to add a name but permission was refused, the official explanation being that it would only be a good mark for the enemy to aim at. After all the other aiming marks which had been painted on officially, we felt that this was a poor sort of explanation and bitched a bit but soon forgot it. She EARNED her name later.
At Port Tewfick during embarkation one of her tracks went through the wharf decking and the recovery wagon had to be called. Then she was slung into the hold of a ship and chained down; next day she was unchained and unloaded again. Later she was loaded into another ship; this time a ship with its own winches and suitable gear for unloading at a port where all the harbour installations had been destroyed. On then in convoy across the Med, where a storm tossed the Fort Erie around until she broke her holding chains and began charging about with every roll of the ship. Before she was anchored down again she had destroyed the de-gaussing cables and we were without protection against magnetic mines.
NOVEMBER 1943: We landed at Bari and were coralled in the stadium. Here one of the drivers from another crew took ill. No vehicles were allowed out, but we forgot that and putting him in to the spare driver’s seat used her as an ambulance and after a hair-raising drive over cobbled-stoned roads, found a hospital. She behaved badly on the cobbles and almost collected a jeep load of irate Red-caps before we got her back.page 539
Then we loaded on to transporters—an easy job with rubber tracks—but a tricky operation with steel tracks climbing up those metal ramps. After several tries we ran back a chain or so and charged on in third gear. She went up OK, landed on the top with a thump, then with brakes hard on skidded her metal tracks along the steel top until stopped by the cab of the transporter. We winched her back into position.
From Foggia we moved under our own steam and here, as the going was wet, those steel tracks came into their own and she acted as towing vehicle for the other rubber-tracked tanks when they stuck in sticky places. The convoy came under enemy fire on the hill leading up to Castel Endigo and had to space out, for the hill climb was slow. We had a half hour wait at the bottom so I crawled out and went to sleep on the engine cowling. Harold (‘Swaia’) Piggins, the spare driver, decided not to wake me and started off on his own but was too short to reach the controls and got into difficulties on a tight turn halfway up. The tank comd woke me up but by this time there was a big gap in the convoy and the tank in front was just disappearing over the crest.
When we got up the hill I slammed her straight into overdrive for it was a gradual slope down with only a slow right-hand curve. We were doing thirty-two when we came to the bend and as I eased her gently round pulling on the right track, the left hand track broke! She dived over a ten foot bank poised on her nose and gun tip, then rolled gently on to her side. The commander blacked his eye on the ack-ack gun but otherwise we were OK. It took three days to get us out and we were under fire most of the time for Jerry was after the bridge just below us. While we were there the Perano show went in. It was the first and only time she missed out.
The next show was the Sangro crossing and she was point tank for the Sqn. We made our way down between the white lines the engineers had marked out, then while the rest waited we tried to find a way out of the riverbed. Four attempts made in different places all failed because of the soft ground and finally she bogged down. We then tried on foot, found a track and the rest of the mob roared by but could not spare the time to pull us out. While we dug we were dive-bombed and strafed for Tiki Bridge was close by, but we got her clear at last and caught up with the rest during the afternoon.
DECEMBER 1943: We were in a holding role on Guardiagrele ridge supporting British air-borne troops. At a party during the second night of their stay one of them sang that grand song ‘Old Supurb’. The chorus ‘with a lame duck lagging all the way’ struck us as singularly appropriate, and from that night page 540 on our tank had a name. But we weren’t allowed to paint it on—yet.
JANUARY 1944: A midnight move along the Orsogna-Ortona Road and then down into the village of Poggiofiorito. There was a foot of snow covering everything and we moved off in pitch darkness through the olive groves towards the road. Before we got there we drove slap into a well and while we tried to get her out the rest passed us by. A recovery wagon arrived about 4 am—by that time we had given the job up—she was hauled out and we made our way along that hostile stretch of road all alone. Jerry threw everything but the kitchen stove at her but we found the turn-off and rolled into the village as day was breaking. Except for the picquets the whole mob were cosily asleep!
On the way back to Vasto she got water in her injectors and we had to halt on the roadside. When she was ready to move again a truck convoy had the road and she was ordered off to wait the pleasure of the traffic control artists. Twelve hours later we got to Vasto and by that time the rest of the crowd were all fairly well plonked and the party was over.
MARCH 1944: She moved up the Pasquale Road while the bombing was still in progress; had the road blown up about one hundred yards in front of her and we backed smartly to a safer distance. When the heavies had dropped their loads along came the fighter-bombers, they bombed and strafed her like a sitting bird then blew up the embanked road behind her. There was no going back now and we did get into Cassino eventually and stayed there for many hectic days. At the Railway Station the ‘Lame Duck’ had her radiators holed and I took her out onto Route 6 on one motor and headed for Trocchio. The spare driver managed to get her back to the workshops but not before Jerry had scored another hit and flattened the box on the back of the turret. Bringing her back from the workshops to the rest area at Pietramelara she dropped a track and we had to take time we could have well used otherwise to mend it.
MAY 1944: We pulled out in a hell of a hurry and were moving in convoy with the rest of the unit on the way for another crack at Cassino. It was about four in the morning and we couldn’t see much in the dust and darkness. The track we were travelling along was shaky and suddenly gave way. Down she crashed, doing two and half complete turns and landing at last on Route 6 twenty-five feet below. Half a ton of dirt and potatoes had been scooped into her turret, everyone was bruised and cut, most of the ammunition had the projectile broken away from the case, and the bottle of vino the spare driver had page 541 been swigging at the time was smashed to smithereens. A Yank recovery wagon came to our aid and she was soon with the rest of the Squadron taking part in the Liri Valley show which ended with the capture of Cassino.
JULY 1944: Into the attack on Cerbaia. Our Sgt’s tank was hit and turned over. We fired all our rounds away, collected the rounds out of two other tanks that were out of commission and fired all that off too. That night we hooked on an anti-tank gun and moved up to start the attack on the line above. By nine in the morning we were in sight of the hill top of San Michele but the anti-tank gun had been shot off her tail. It was a bad spot and she stood a pounding from the Jerry artillery for about an hour before she got a smack in the engines. The operator, Jack Simpson, went across to the Sqn Comd’s tank on foot with a message. He was killed there while in the turret, as was Sid Herbert, and the Major lost a leg and died later.
The ‘Lame Duck’ was then hit again in almost the same spot as before and our Troop Comd, Chris Cross, ordered us to bail out. As we did so he got a smack on the top of the helmet and the gunner, Harold Lord, stopped a homer at the same time; the spare driver, Jim Marshall, was also wounded though not badly. We got out on foot—no small effort—and left the old girl there shot up and abandoned.
To her guns in the course of her career had fallen numerous houses and strong points, Jerry M/Gs, a built-in turret, a Mark III tank, a mule, a pig, a safe that could not otherwise be got open, and a score or so of fowls. Her 75-mm had been christened with a litre of ‘Purple Death’ and carried the bluish stain at the end of the barrel even after several hundreds of rounds had been fired through it.
So died the ‘Lame Duck’—a gallant, perverse, and lovable mechanical personality who had earned both curses and affection from the crew to whom she had given a home, and a full-time occupation. ‘Discord’, her daughter and successor, soon proved to have a strong family resemblance.