Private Bob Tanner

 

Unit : No.6 Platoon, "B" Company, 7th Parachute Battalion.

 

On 17.9.42, I was called up and had to report to Gibraltar Barracks, Bury St Edmunds. After my initial training, I was posted to Catterick Camp, Yorkshire (Menin Lines). I had never heard of this place so had no inkling what was in store. My first worry was on the train. It seemed to go on and on and on. The furthest I had ever been was to Southend-on-Sea, by coach (sorry - charabanc) Speaking to one of the other lads, I said: "It's a long way we're going. I didn't know England was so long." I really thought any minute now we will finish up in the sea; I can't swim.

 

After what seemed to be an eternity, we arrived at what I know now to be Leeds Station. Here we changed to the local branch line and finished up at a place called Richmond. Onto trucks and on to the most miserable place on earth - Menin Lines, Catterick Camp. The buildings, I learned, were pre-1914 era, more like the Ice Age. A pot-bellied stove served as the means of keeping the hut warm. Some high-ups do have a sense of humour. Only to be lit at a certain time, God help us if it was lit any earlier.

 

So began the real thing. Getting hot water in the morning, you stood a better chance of winning today's lottery. A typical hit and run affair. As we were told "You're in the Army!" and didn't we know it. The Troop Sgt gathered us round and said "Some of you may have no parents, some a mother, some just a father. From today onwards I am mother and father to you all. Forget any training you've had. It's start from here." Nice man. Did he have any parents?

 

The weather was rotten, cold and blustery. Welcome to the holiday camp. I can remember "Tosh" Byatt, "Darkey" Martin, "Smudger" Smith and "Professor" Moran, who all came from the King's Cross area in London. Smudger had reached the rank of Sgt in the Cadets, so drill etc came easy to him. A smart lad too. I often what happened to them. Did they make it and come through it all? Tosh was a bit on the slow side, but we mucked in and helped him. Professor was a "character" - officer material - one letter a month, he thought that was great. I suppose we were sissies, getting one, or even two, a week. We ribbed him over this but he took it all in good part. Coming back from one of our leaves, we met him on the station looking a bit down. When we asked if everything was all right, with hand over his heart, dead-pan face, he said "My love has flown." One had to feel sorry for him.

 

The first week was mainly square-bashing. After infantry drill, it took a little time to get used to marching the tank pace. Plus P/T [Physical Training] and lectures. The history of the tanks from the beginning to the present day was interesting. Our tank training was in the Cambrai Lines. The fun and games were about to begin. My first encounter was with a 15 cwt Guy wagon, then the Morris commercial 15 cwt. With the Guy, learning about the clutch, the gears and the accelerator, and of course the foot brake. The instructor was L/Cpl Lillywhite; knew his job, give him that. Said he "Right, lad. Start up." And that was my first cock-up. How? What with? Aah - found it. Now? Clutch in, in gear, clutch slowly out; at the same time, press down gently on the accelerator. We're away! So is my heart, going like the clappers. But? We suddenly stopped - stalled - call it what you like. Why? Well, you're supposed to release the hand brake. I didn't. When I was asked what I had forgotten, I told him. All right for him, he knew. So we tried again and it worked. Great it's moving. Then, the biggest shock of all, change up to second gear, said he. Is he mad? I got the thing going, what more does he want? He earned his pay. Eventually progress was made, but not before some hair-raising escapes.

 

Then after a little time we progressed onto 3 tonners and life became more easier all round. But there was no let up at all. Whole weeks of drills; guard duties; area cleaning; keeping equipment up to high standards; worst of all, keeping one's boots in tip-top condition; frustrating at times after being out on the moors.

 

Then came tracked vehicles, first the Bren carrier on the moors. Much safer all round. Getting used to the tiller bar, not a steering wheel, wasn't very easy at first. Followed by Cromwells, Crusaders and finally the Churchill. A bit claustrophobic when closed up. Can only be described as being in a coffin. Watching dials; orders over the earphones. The shock of hearing the 6 pdr gun being fired for the first time; keeping a straight course. The Churchill tank - what a machine; all that tonnage, and I was driving it. More dials to watch, no two were alike, when changing gears. Petrol checks, oil checks, watching out for over-heating, watching out for your fingers when closing the hatches. But out of all this, I learned to look after myself, discipline, respect for Authority.

 

There was also other jobs to be done. The KY gas procedure prior to starting up the engine - the mind boggles. The engine and everything about it. Track repairing; how to disconnect the links, slacking off the idler sprocket with a spanner which seemed to weigh a ton; the fun and games trying to get the track on again. The mysteries of the epicyclic gears, how they work; gears that operate inside, or outside, other gears. We were told that the inventor of this piece of engineering feat was supposed to have finished up in the nuthouse. That didn't surprise us at all. After racking our brains remembering it all to pass tests, we were told "Don't worry too much about it; that's the REME's [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] job and problem."

 

We were all put through every weapon that is used in the Tank Corps. It certainly wasn't all that easy in the confined space of the turret to operate the 6 pdr gun. Remember you also had the radio operator and tank commander in the turret too. At the end of the day, one was glad to get to bed. Even then you had disturbed sleep, with would-be radio operators - "da da, dit dit" - trying to help each other with Morse code and radio procedures. We cursed them but, without them, where would we have been?

 

Finally the tests. I made the grade; not 100%, but I made it, driver/mechanic. Smudger Smith and Tosh, amazingly, got through as gunner/operator, Prof skated it as driver/operator and Darkie Martin as gunner/mechanic. The only thing we could do nowt about was the weather, cold, wet, frost and sometimes fog. They say the Tank Corps motto is "Through mud, through blood, to the green fields beyond." We saw the mud, we saw the blood, but the green fields - never.

 

Granted leave, this with the much coveted beret and badge; very proud to wear it, we stood out from the other bods. What puzzled me was they gave us Royal Armoured Corps shoulder titles, not Royal Tank Regiment. Still, who cared? We had got this far.

 

A different story when we got back. We were posted to 107 RAC so had to wear the proper badge, but that was the least of our worries. Training began in earnest. Apart from drills and guard duties, we were out on the moors, day in, day out; sometimes on night manoeuvres, with the warning "Don't sleep under the tank." We were told that deaths had happened through sleeping under the tank. True or not, I don't know. But it did make sense; soft ground and the weight of the tank, tank's bound to sink. Trying to find the names of the little villages we went through was sometimes impossible. We did eventually - Leyburn, Askrigg, Redmire Moor, Stonehouse, Pateley Bridge to name a few.

 

One place stood out to us - Hornsea. That's where we were sent on a Gunnery shoot. The targets were out at sea, on tow behind what seemed to be a trawler. Needless to say the success rate wasn't very good at all, but it proved to us that hitting a moving target wasn't easy at all. But it was away from Catterick.

 

Then a spell at Alnwick. Then back to that God-forsaken hole, Catterick. God, will we ever get away from the place? I know it is altered now, but get it back to the horrible place I knew, put high fences all the way round, same conditions, and put anyone who commits a felony, robbery, etc in. I can assure you, they would never break the law again; I'm certain sure of it. Whatever I thought of Catterick and the areas around, one thing I will never forget is the kindness of the people up there. It was overwhelming. They might give out to you, if you tried to find out the name of the place, "The walls have ears", etc; but you were treated as though you was one of them. In all my travels from the Midlands upwards, not only in my short time in the Tanks, but also in the Paras, the kindness was always there.

 

But the Camp - will we ever get away from the Dump? Then luck at last, we were sent to Otley near Leeds. More exercises but the area was different. Posh huts. We also got the chance of handling and driving the big Diamond T tank transporter; hard going with all those gears and judging the width as some of the roads up to the moors were narrow, and the bends were at times hair-raising. Mind boggling really, but we made it. The loading and unloading was hard too, but time told.

 

The most embarrassing time for us was an exercise with the Home Guard up there. They were the Enemy and we were going to penetrate their defences. A bit of cake, we thought. Some of the chaps made disparaging remarks about Dad's Army, the usual wisecracks. But they took it all in good part, so we thought. Some of them had the Blacker Bombard, a weapon not unlike the PIAT. Fortunately for us, it wasn't armed with explosives, only sand. Closed down; battle commenced. If I remember rightly, eight tanks took part. They might have been Dads Army, but they won the day. All but one tank lost all their periscopes. Beaten by Grandads. The shame of it all. We certainly learned a lesson that day.

 

Another thing I excelled in was Aircraft Recognition. Born and bred near Hendon Aerodrome, I was an RAF fanatic. All my pocket money went on aircraft magazines. At one of the many Air Pageants, I was there. Then one year, 1935, Sir Alan Cobham's Air Circus put on flights, 5/- adults, half price children. I saved hard and had my first flight in an AVRO 504, a 2-seater bi-plane.

 

I was happy at Otley, but the Powers-that-be decided to put a stop to that. We were sent back to Catterick Camp. That was the final straw. I literally loathed it there. If the weather had been better, who knows what might have happened. But fate stepped in. We were marched to the Gym. Was we finally going to leave this dump? Go abroad? Things weren't going too well in North Africa. Overseas? It had to be. Hush. Settled in, as two army officers appeared on the scene, at first mistaken for RAF officers in khaki. They had what I thought were small pilots' wings on their shoulders. Then they spoke. It was about the Parachute Regiment that was being formed, and also the Glider Regiment. Para pay 2/- a day, Gliders 1/- a day. Dropping into enemy territory, causing havoc, blowing up installations, etc, etc. There was bull about the job; they said quite openly the training was hard. There would be, in Mr Churchill's words, "blood, sweat and tears." There was. They gave you nothing.

 

Now the logic of it all. Why die for 1/- a day, when you can do the same for two bob? Make up my Mum's allowance by seven bob a week, seven in my pocket. There was much talk about it in the Dining Hall and the NAAFI. But the thing was to get away from this hated place. I took the plunge, had a medical and waited. And waited. And what happens? I get posted to Buckinghamshire, much nearer home. Just as I had settled in, what happens? I had to report to a place called Clay Cross, near Chesterfield. I was on my way to becoming a Paratrooper. The rest is History.

 

The whole crew volunteered and, as far as I know, there were only two of us who survived. Naturally, going from Trooper to Private was a bit of a come-down for me; let's face it, there was something in the word Trooper. Naturally, I realised I should be losing the protection of all that armour plating. But the horrors of burnt tanks and crews soon made me realise how lucky I was, in a way, by volunteering like I did. Having gone through D-day, Ardennes, Holland and the Rhine crossing with 7th (LI) Para Bn and seeing the tank wrecks and actually witnessing tanks being hit, I along with my mates take our hats off to those lads.

 

Medicals and through Hardwick Hall for training, Ringway for training to jump; then Tatton Park to do our jumps and qualify. I finally made it to the 7th Para Bn as I have already said. Exercises, exercises and more exercises. Map and compass training, endless route marches, 20 - 30 - 40 - 50 miles, whatever the powers-that-be fancied. We cursed, we threatened dire results to those who made us, no forced us, to do it, but now, looking back on it all, makes me realise Thank God they were like this. That training and training alone saw us in good stead and helped us to keep our sanity through all the horrors that war brings.

 

All of us realised that the assault on Europe had to come. This training wasn't for nothing. When it did come it was a bit of a shock at first, you know. The doubts began to creep in. Would I make it? Would I turn tail? Was I to be wounded? Blinded? You know all that sort of thing that suddenly comes to mind. Confined to camp meant one thing - the Day was near. No phone calls could be made. And then we were taken to the models of the area where we were going to land. One had to peruse these thoroughly. Questions were asked to see what you had learned from it all.

 

Came the day of reckoning. The airfield; fitting chutes, checking equipment; last minute instructions. A talk by the CO [Commanding Officer], Lt Col R G Pine-Coffin. Go to the toilets (they did a roaring trade), just typical reactions. Looking like pregnant women. Some of us in "B" Coy had rubber dinghies to carry for crossing the canal in the event of the bridge being blown. Fortunately it wasn't so the dinghies were dropped and left. Last minute so blacken faces and then emplane. The thought of it now still gives me the willies.

 

Engines started, finally we started to move. One way out only. The plane seemed to be taking a long time before we lifted off. Not much to see inside a darkened aircraft fuselage. Each one with his own thoughts. One thing I can always remember I WAS COMING BACK, although death, injury and other thoughts cropped up. I made my mind up I was coming back.

 

The trip was, as far as I can recall, uneventful, although the thought of night fighters wasn't all that far behind in my mind. Sounds ridiculous I know. Finally the time came. There was still that jittery feeling - will I? Won't I? On came the green and out!

 

Looking for landmarks was out, it was too dark for that. Burst of gunfire and pretty lights coming up from the ground. The penny dropped - small arms. In all this commotion I suddenly realised the jitters had gone. Was it the tension that had built up? I can't say.

 

I hit the ground. Where I was (apart from Normandy and that's a big place) I don't know. I felt I was alone. My first action. It was some minutes before I located our chaps, although it seemed eternity. I heard bugles going, then a noise to which I froze for a second or two. Ours or them? Then I've got to shoot them. Could I? This was the only thing back home that was never asked about. I cocked my rifle. The sound was deafening, so it seemed to me, until a good old Cockney voice bawled out "What bleedin' unit you in?" the relief I just can't explain to you or anyone else. It was some time later that I realised, had this man been in action before, he seemed so calm about it all. I could have shot him. How did he guess? We eventually met up with the others and finally made the bridge which by then was in our hands.

 

But the battle wasn't over, not by a long chalk. Benouville and le Port smothered with snipers. To me our officers were heroes. How did they know what to do, where to go, in all this confusion? Taking the orders was easy; giving them must be a lot harder.

 

Seeing my first dead from both sides did not have too much effect on me; it did worry me a little as I thought suddenly I should have reacted to this sight. But then, I had seen death in the air-raids on London during my service with the ARP (later the Civil Defence) so this must have helped me overcome this moment. I had to witness the effects on other chaps, sick at these sights. But as the days wore on so the effects for these chaps were soon overcome.

 

Attacks and counter-attacks, mortaring, shelling, Moaning Minnies (German rockets), M/G [Machine Gun] fire and worst of all mosquitoes and midges. Rest taken when one could. Tired, dirty, sometimes hungry. But we saw it through. The General, the Brigadier and the CO walking around in their red berets did much to boost our morale. But then things began to look black, until the commandos came through. That was it, we had made it as far as we were concerned. The 2nd Army was with us. Longer rests and then on, ever onwards to Pont-l'Eveque, and then we were brought home. Proud, because we were; we had beaten Gerry.

 

But let's not forget, if Adolf Hitler had not held back his tanks in the Pas-de-Calais area, who knows what might have happened. Was I frightened at times? No Sir, bloody petrified. The worst period was the waiting to put in the attacks. Once on the move, too many things occupied one's mind to worry you then.

 

Let me just say this. Having done D-day, the Ardennes (Belgium), a short spell in Holland and the Rhine Crossing, up to Kletzin on the Baltic coast. I saw unbelievable horrors. When my mates from 4 and 5 Platoons were blown up on the bridge at Neustadt (Germany) - 28 killed, many wounded, leaving 8 survivors - we in 6 Plt had the task of trying to identify and put together the pieces. That was bad enough. (No counselling for us). Seeing gliders blasted out of the sky, men falling out and equipment too, that too was horrible. But it was nothing to the horrors of seeing the sights (if that is the correct term) of burnt out tanks. And what was in them. What those whose job it was to clear up that mess went through, God only knows. I was thankful for two things; joining the Paras, and the harsh training we got at Clay Cross. We would willingly have shot those instructors, for what they put us through. But thanks to them and that training, it helped us keep our sanity. When I first joined the Tanks, I thought "Great, all that armour plating, I can't go wrong." How wrong I was. They say I must have had courage to jump. Those Tankies had that too, and a thousand times more. If anyone wants to know what an armour-piecing shell can do pop over to Bastoigne in Belgium. The Sherman tank stands right in the middle of the square. I never got to driving one of them.

 

I had no regrets about joining the Paras. Times were hard. I lost some fine mates. If I had not been posted to that rotten place [Catterick], I might have stayed with the tanks, who knows. Was it meant to be? What support we had from the Tank Corps in Europe was great, but I will never forget the awful sights. To me the Tankmen, the Medical men, the Glider troops and the Bomber crews were more than courageous. When I look round today, I sometimes wonder, did they die in vain. I don't think of them one day in the year, I think of them every day of the year.

 

[Later Sergeant] W. W. (Bob) Tanner. 20.9.97.

 

My thanks to Nancy Langmaid, Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment Historian, for granting permission for this account to be published on the site.

 

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