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Tank Commander: From the Fall of France to the Defeat of Germany: The Memoirs of Bill Close

Tank Commander: From the Fall of France to the Defeat of Germany: The Memoirs of Bill Close

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Tank Commander: From the Fall of France to the Defeat of Germany: The Memoirs of Bill Close

Lunghezza:
252 pagine
3 ore
Pubblicato:
Aug 19, 2013
ISBN:
9781783830541
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

A remarkable World War II survival story and combat memoir by “an indestructible wartime tank commander” (The Telegraph).
 
In campaign after campaign, from the defense of Calais in 1940 to the defeat of Germany in 1945, Bill Close served as a tank commander in Britain’s Royal Tank Regiment—and he survived.
 
His tanks were hit eleven times by enemy shellfire and he bailed out. He was wounded three times. He finished the war as one of the most experienced and resourceful of British tank commanders, and in later life, he set down his wartime experiences in graphic detail. His book is not only an extraordinary memoir; it is also a compelling account of the exploits of the Royal Tank Regiment throughout the conflict. As a record of the day-to-day experience of the tank crew of seventy-five years ago—of the conditions they faced and the battles they fought—it has rarely been equaled.
Pubblicato:
Aug 19, 2013
ISBN:
9781783830541
Formato:
Libro

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Tank Commander - Bill Close

Chapter One

1933: A Call to Arms

‘Somehow Will, I don’t think you’re cut out to be either a chemist or a dentist,’ said Mr Bayley who performed both functions in the little market town of Uppingham where we lived. He was looking at the wreckage of the chair. He didn’t seem to mind about the glazed ceiling I had fallen through (his dental room ceiling); it was the chair that bothered him. It was brand new, his pride and joy – adjustable head rest, touch here for up, press there for down, swivel with ease.

‘You wouldn’t think it would break so easily.’

‘I don’t suppose you would, Will.’

He was a nice man. He paid me fourteen shillings a week and gave me a day off to study maths – private tuition for which he also paid. Mr Bayley had been understanding about the new delivery bicycle too but that was more easily mended. When I told him some time after the chair incident that I had signed on for the army, he said that it was probably a good thing.

‘No vacancies in the 11th Hussars, my lad,’ the sergeant said at the recruiting office in Stamford.

‘What about the 9th Lancers?’

‘Fully subscribed . . .’ He thought for a minute. ‘Tell you what. Why not join the Royal Tank Corps? They need bright lads.’

I hadn’t much idea about the Tank Corps but I agreed all the same. The recruiters gave me a short test in English and maths and I signed on the dotted line, received the ‘king’s shilling’, and left with instructions to report to Bovington Camp in Dorset. When I told my parents what I had done, only my mother seemed to have doubts. My father, who was struggling to make a living out of a pub in which he had a part share, agreed with Mr Bayley – probably a good idea. The Depression was at its height and steady jobs were hard to find.

I don’t think a single one of the thirty-four other recruits in Squad 386 had ever heard of Uppingham, or even of Rutland. Most of them were English, but there were five Scots, four Welshmen and three Irishmen. Jock Pennycuick, who had his bed next to mine in the barrack-room, could have been a Chinaman for all I knew. He was a Glaswegian and I never understood a single word he said during the whole of our training.

Paddy Davis on the other side bothered me because he confided that he had joined up only so he could learn about weapons in the shortest possible time. He was a member of Sinn Fein (whatever that was) and was going to join the IRA. I only half believed him, but he deserted after twelve weeks and much later I heard he and his brothers had been killed while carrying out some terrorist activity.

Barrack life was pretty awful in those days: no privacy and rotten food. The squad occupied two connected huts and its members spent much of their time fighting amongst each other; I was glad I was fairly athletic and useful with my fists.

After three months’ initial training we were given a weekend pass to go home, having turned out with khaki spotless, buttons gleaming, belt snow-white, puttees immaculate and boots which had been ‘boned’ with a toothbrush handle for hours so they shone like mirrors. Each vision of martial splendour was capped with a black beret bearing the corps badge – a First World War tank within a laurel leaf – and the motto ‘Fear Naught’. Sergeant Lemon, known as the ‘Blond Bastard of Bovington’ and his henchman, Corporal Fitzpatrick, had at least made us look like soldiers. As for fearing naught – we certainly had a healthy respect for our teachers. It had been a question of drill and more drill, polish and scrub, scrub and polish, with table-tops whiter than white.

After our brief leave we began drilling again, spending every morning marching about as a squad, but to flag signals instead of shouted orders. That was how tanks still communicated; if there was wireless, we certainly didn’t see it.

In the afternoons we learned to drive the Vickers Marks I and II over the sandy Dorset heathland. These handy little tanks had been produced in the early 1920s and weighed between twelve and fourteen tons (there were variations). With a crew of five, they could do eighteen miles per hour and carried a three-pounder gun and up to six machine guns.

For some weeks we poured shot and shell and belts of .303 into the hillside at Lulworth Camp, on the coast down the road from Bovington. On fine summer days I used to speculate on the possibility of adventures on the North-West Frontier where there were armoured car squadrons. The thought of any other sort of war didn’t really occur to me. Other romantic notions were inspired by a slight figure on a powerful motorcycle who hurtled round the narrow lanes: T E Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – remained a subject of mystery and fascination. We were baffled to know why anyone who had reached the dizzy heights of lieutenant colonel and become a national hero, should ever have wanted to join the Tank Corps as a trooper, or the RAF as an airman. Why should he want to tuck himself away in the cottage behind the mass of rhododendrons on Cloud’s Hill that we passed regularly? He seemed to live a lonely and secret existence and I don’t remember anyone – certainly none of my acquaintances – ever exchanging a word with him. News that he’d been killed came as a real shock – on the road leading to the camp, he’d swerved to avoid some children and crashed, they said. Those of us chosen to form part of the guard of honour at his funeral in 1935 spent some time learning to go through the motions of ‘Rest on Your Arms Reversed!’ with .45 Colt revolvers.

My posting to 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in early 1934, stationed at Lydd in Kent, was most welcome and a relief following the rigorous training at Bovington Camp. It was also the start of a relationship with the unit that would take me through the whole of the Second World War.

The incidents I shall relate are some of the many that could be told of the ‘3rd Tanks’ and of the men who fought and died in tanks in the Second World War. It is the story of the men who fought at Calais, on the beaches of Normandy, and in the desert battles of 1941 to 1943, in Greece and Italy.

Chapter Two

Fordingbridge: A Time for Counting

The balloon went up while we were sitting in the lounge of the George at Fordingbridge watching the coots skidding over the surface of the Hampshire Avon. It was a cool grey evening. A regimental policeman stuck his head through the door and said: ‘All 3RTR personnel report back to camp immediately.’

There were half a dozen of us, sergeants and wives, and we weren’t altogether surprised. A few days earlier our tanks had been loaded onto flat-cars and transported with all our heavy equipment to be put aboard a steamer. The battalion was due to join the 1st Armoured Division assembling ‘somewhere in France’, in fact just south of the Somme. For more than a week the BBC had been reporting a situation of growing confusion and fierce fighting across the Channel and we expected to be sent for.

What was startling was the news that we would be moving out at 10 p.m. It was then 8 p.m. on 21 May. There had been no warning notice and the men of the battalion were scattered throughout the surrounding area. Messages had to be flashed on the cinema screens at Ringwood and Salisbury; cafes and pubs were scoured. The colonel came racing back from Bournemouth where he had taken his wife for dinner. It was midnight before the crowded train pulled out of the little country station and a number of men were still missing. Many wives, including my own – Josie and I had been married for six months – were living in billets in Fordingbridge and came to see us off. There were a few tears but most of the girls put on a brave face.

We were puzzled when the blacked-out train steamed on and on through the countryside: we had expected a fairly swift trip to Southampton. The next morning we were rumbling through hop fields and shortly pulled into Dover. There was no sign of the City of Christchurch, the ship carrying our tanks.

An irreverent voice shouted: ‘Look at Reggie – he doesn’t look at all happy!’

‘Reggie’ was the CO – Lieutenant Colonel R C Keller, who had taken command in October 1939. A staff car was waiting at the station and whisked him away. The colonel looked even gloomier when he returned clutching a bundle of envelopes. None the wiser, we filed aboard the Maid of Orleans, a Southern Railways cross-channel steamer. We were happy not to have to carry our kit-bags, which had been stored separately.

Until the moment we cast off, at 11 a.m., anxious figures were hurrying across the quayside to the ship, having made their own way to the port. They clambered aboard to ribald shouts from their pals, who seemed to be of one mind as to what caused them to miss the train. Up to then, it was still good fun. We crowded into the saloons, packed the corridors and decks, and speculated wildly as to where we were going. A company of sappers and some London territorials, who belonged to a battalion sailing in another ship, knew nothing

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