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The Armoured Brigade

The Armoured Brigade

There were five excellent chaplains with the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade; its first commander, Brigadier L. M. Inglis, once said in private conversation that he always made the Senior Chaplain give him his best men. Certainly they were fine chaplains, but perhaps the Senior Chaplain may have had his own story to tell. He might have suggested that such a wicked brigade needed good chaplains!

The three chaplains with the armoured regiments had to work out a special technique for action and they had little precedent to guide them. An armoured regiment has many specialists who in action are scattered in great depth. Up forward were the advanced troops, each consisting of three tanks, with squadron headquarters a little in rear. Regimental headquarters was still farther back, and in close proximity came the Regimental Aid Post and A Echelon, consisting of fitters' trucks and signals personnel. More rearward still would come B 1 Echelon, with the light aid detachment close by, and there was also a B 2 Echelon yet farther in the rear. The page 105 chaplain visited all these sections but spent most of his time near the forward tanks.

A tank in action filled many rôles. Sometimes it was an armoured machine-gun post supporting the infantry, sometimes it had a mobile artillery rôle, but probably its most important function was to deal with enemy tanks. This meant that the tanks had to lie right up in the front line, protecting the infantry from tank attacks or edging forward in search of a target. The armour-piercing shells from enemy tanks and anti-tank guns were deadly. When a shell penetrated a tank turret it often continued its flight inside, ricochetting round and round, wounding the occupants and exploding the racks of shells. Few civilians would expect a tank to catch fire, but with its cargo of petrol and shells, a direct hit would cause a raging inferno which, with periodic explosions, would burn for hours in a pall of black smoke.

As the chaplain worked his way forward he would talk to each tank crew. Sometimes they would be seated at the back of the tank making a brew of tea, or they might be sheltering in a nearby house as they waited for instructions. Lying up in the forward positions there was comparative safety inside the tank or immediately behind it, but walking about was dangerous. In Army phraseology all unarmoured vehicles were referred to as ‘thin-skinned’, and as they did their forward visiting, crawling and sheltering from occasional shell-bursts, the chaplains must often have applied that term to themselves. It was not safe, or wise, to approach the most advanced tanks, though their progress could be watched, and when one received a direct hit the chaplain would dash forward with the other rescuers. When a tank caught fire it was know as a ‘brew-up’, and the watchers would have a long moment of suspense until all the crew were seen to jump clear and run the gauntlet to safety. When there was no movement it meant that the whole crew was either dead or wounded.

The confined nature of a tank made rescue difficult, and if it was to be achieved the men had to work quickly because of the flames. It was necessary to climb on top and open the turret, and it was even more difficult to remove the man from the driver's seat. To lean down and pull a wounded man from a tank was a long and painful job in the most ideal conditions; they were seldom, if ever, page 106 ideal and speed was of paramount importance. With the tank on fire, its petrol and ammunition likely to explode, the rescuers had also to face machine-gun bullets and mortar shells.

The three regimental chaplains received three different awards for gallantry though all were earned in the same kind of work. Citations for decorations are usually brief and written in cold, military language, dull reading when several are taken together, but the reader must try to imagine the circumstances, remembering that there were never sufficient awards to cover every act of daring, and that only the most outstanding examples could receive official reward.

Padre L. F. F. Gunn8 was awarded the MBE. His citation refers to his zeal in performing all his duties with the 20th Armoured Regiment whether in periods of training or in action, where he was noted for his courage in rescuing the wounded and conducting burials in exposed areas.

Another Presbyterian, Padre J. S. Somerville,9 had served with the 19th Armoured Regiment from its training days in Maadi and the men had come to see the strong and courageous character which lay behind his friendly and humble manner. His calm demeanour never left him, and in the citation for his Military Cross special mention is made of his influence under trying circumstances. At the Gaiana River the forward tanks met heavy and unexpected opposition. Padre Somerville was in the thick of things and at once organised the evacuation of the wounded. His coolness and cheerfulness played an important part in getting them to safety, but his bearing did more than that, for at a most critical moment it put fresh spirit into all the troops fighting in the vicinity.

The third chaplain in this team was Padre R. McL. Gourdie,10 of the 18th Armoured Regiment, who was awarded the DSO. Padre Gourdie was a man of great physical stamina with an impressive record of success on the athletic track, and at all times he performed his duty with industry, courage, and enthusiasm. He page 107 haunted the front line, covering great distances on foot, and on one occasion at least carried the evening rations to a tank which was considered to be in an unapproachable position. His citation mentions a special day when one of his squadrons had forced a long, narrow salient in the enemy line near Strada village. When the foremost tank was hit, Padre Gourdie, who was travelling in the RAP carrier, went forward on foot, and with the assistance of the spare driver, who was not hit, managed to evacuate all the rest of the wounded crew. Later in the day he repeated this performance and dragged three men out of a blazing tank. In the meantime the infantry were receiving heavy casualties, and Padre Gourdie repeatedly went forward, loaded the wounded on his carrier, and then ran the gauntlet through terrific fire down 600 yards of open road.