Little Audrey Part 1

In Thetford Forest (UK) there is a memorial to the 7th Armoured Division better known as The Desert Rats”. They were stationed at this location between January and May 1944 while they prepared for the Invasion of Normandy. The replica Cromwell on the monument is that of a tank known as “Little Audrey”. After some research I came across the memoirs of Trooper Leslie Dinning.  The following is a snapshot of his time as a gunner on “Little Audrey”.

The Mark IV Cromwell Tank on the plinth is a replica of "Little Audrey" 5 Able, "B" Squadron, 1st Royal Tank Regiment

Extracts of the Memoirs of 14404393 Trooper Leslie Dinning
1st Royal Tank Regiment
1944

I remember travelling for a long way on the back of the scout car through quite hilly countryside and was eventually dropped off in an orchard. The tank I joined was a Cromwell designated 5 Able that is to say “Able tank in 5 Troop, “B” Squadron (Little Audrey). I was introduced to the tank commander, Sergeant Arthur Davies, the driver Trooper Johnny Firth, the co-driver Trooper Trevor Gundry, and the wireless-operator Corporal Taffy Glenton. I don't know how long Sergeant Davies or Tpr Gundry had been with the regiment, but both Johnny Firth and Taffy Glenton had come through the entire North African campaign, and there I was very keen and naïve, amongst fighting soldiers of the finest quality who accepted me at face value and made me welcome. I did not think to ask why “5 Able” needed a gunner and I never found out.

 We broke through at Falaise, charging up through France at great speed chasing the Germans who were completely routed.

 

 The Cromwell tank was fitted with the Rolls-Royce Merlin (renamed Meteor) engine modified to run on ordinary petrol. The engine developed tremendous power, and although it was mechanically governed to 30 mph, it was not long before the mechanical governor wore off or was tampered with and it was quite common for the Cromwell to do 40 or 50 mph. This was how we progressed until we crossed the Belgian border. We just roared through the towns and villages, meeting very little opposition. I spent most of the time actually sitting outside the tank with my back up against the turret.

On August 21st 1944, after a hard day's fighting, the regiment reached
the outskirts of Lisieux (France) 
Lisieux 22nd August 1944

 

 It was a beautiful evening, and I was in the leading Cromwell of our column. As we moving over the high ground overlooking the town, I heard the sound of church bells over the noise of the engine coming through the hatch. This was the first time I had heard church bells since I had been in France. I could see the town spread out below me through my periscope. I was very moved, it was clear the people of the town knew we were coming and were already celebrating. Almost every bell in the town must have been ringing even though it was still occupied by the Germans. Anyway we got half way down the hill and were ordered to turn back and leaguer for the night.

The next day we pushed on through Lisieux. By the 25 August we were in St Aubin, a considerable distance to the east, and after some heavy fighting in the area of Bethume where we had been separated from 22 Armoured Brigade, I think to assist 131 Infantry Brigade. By the 10 September we were just south of Ghent in Belgium where we caught up with 22-Armoured Brigade, which shows the speed of our advance.

Whenever we stopped, providing we were not actually in action, we would 'brewed up', that is make tea, which we did at every opportunity. To brew up we used a five-gallon oil drum with holes pierced round the side, half-filled with sand, and fitted with a wire handle. This was hung on the back of the tank below the exhaust together with an empty five-pound jam-tin, similarly fitted with a wire handle, and other utensils. To “Brew up” we poured about half a gallon of petrol onto the sand in the oil drum, fill the jam tin with water and stand it on the petrol soaked sand, throw in a lit match and - Whooof! - boiling water in no time at all. While the water was boiling we threw in a handful of mixed dried milk, tea and sugar which came with the Compo rations, and a matchstick to remove the smoky flavour.

 

Our bedding-rolls were kept on the back of the tank, wrapped in a tarpaulin, against the exhaust shute where they got beautifully warm from the heat of the engine. The Commander and wireless operator travelled with their head and shoulders out of the hatches. If action was not imminent, I usually travelled on the back of the tank, and I think most of the gunners from the other tanks did the same. Sometimes the co-driver, who like me was unable to see where we were going except through our respective periscope or gun telescopes, would join me on the rear of the tank. We met scattered opposition en route in the form of roadblocks mostly trees or telegraph poles blown across the road, or groups of lost German infantry and dealt with it as it came. I can't remember any specific incidents.

Each tank crew lived as a family and fed themselves with the 14-day compo-rations which probably came up every three days or so, because there were five of us. As I remember the food was great, there was sealed tins of 50 cigarettes, jam, sausages, bacon, beans, bully beef, soups, sardines, and many different puddings. My favourite was treacle pudding.

During the advance through France into Belgium, on one occasion I remember we had been travelling at speed for some time and the steering brakes got so hot the driver simply couldn't go round one particular bend in the road, and not being able to stop, cut across the corner of a field and back onto the road again. As we roaring through the small towns and villages, people were standing by the roadside cheering and waving. By this time we had collected loads of tins of sardines stored in the lockers over the mud guards, and when I was sitting on the back of the tank I would throw tins of sardines to them by the hand full. I don't know if they were appreciated.

The area in which we were fighting was now quite different. In the Normandy Bocage all the fighting, apart from that on the coast and around Caen, was by ambush. Obviously the attacking troops were at a disadvantage because they had to move forward. Poke their nose round corners where sitting a few yards up the road was a bloody big Tiger, Panther or a Self Propelled Gun, literally waiting for us and BANG! You had no chance. It only needed one shot from an enemy tank or SP, whereas we had to put multiple shots in the side or the rear of the Tigers or Panthers.

We hadn't a hope in hell of penetrating the front of a Tiger with a 75mm gun

Panther Tiger

 

I do know that there was a demonstration soon after we landed where they put a captured Panther in a field and a "Firefly" 17 pounder, fired three armoured piecing shots at close range at the sloping front of the Panther.

Firefly with the 17 Pounder

The first shot bounced off, the second cracked the front plate and bounced off, and the third went through. By that time, in action, the Panther would have finished off several tanks. They only needed one shot. The German gunners were excellent, no question about that, but then so indeed were we.

I clearly recall putting a single high explosive shot through the window of a house at 1200 yards. This was shortly after we had crossed the Belgian border, and were holding a station on a level crossing. The station was well outside the town it served and there were some isolated houses across open ground to our right and German troops were thought to be in the houses. It had been a battle royal to get the level crossing and there were bodies lying around all over the place. The tank commander must have seen some movement in one of the houses and ordered me to put a shot through the window. This I did and it went straight through the window. We didn't need to fire again because we knew that if there had been anyone in the house they weren't there any longer. That was the quality of the gunnery. It wasn't just me; any one of the other gunners could have done the same.

We were on the level crossing for two or three days and we stayed in the tank most of the time because of mortaring. The infantry copped it because of the mortaring.

 

After we had been on the crossing for about 24 hours, it was mid-afternoon I think, suddenly two Germans soldiers emerge from the hedge and start walking across the field towards us. 

They must have been half a mile away when we spotted them; it was a huge field.

They were walking straight towards us side by side and you could see they were laughing and joking with each other and were quite unaware of the situation. I assume they had been away on detachment from their unit and they were returning to the crossroads where their unit should be. Anyway, we pulled the tank forward and I got the order to fire, but I could not aim straight at them. As the cross-wires came on them, I went up a couple of degrees and fired the machine gun, and when they went to ground I traversed right and put a 75 shell into the ground several yards away from them.

Southwest of Caen - June 1944 75mm Shell

 

The infantry went after them and brought them in. There was no way I could have fired directly at them, we were all laughing and joking "Look at these two silly sods.” They'd probably come from the rear without enquiring as to the current position. Evidently they had just walked through the front line and into no-man's-land. They were quite happy and didn't suspect a thing; you could see from their body language that once the bullets whistled over their heads the body language was quite different. The war was finished for them and they were lucky to be alive.

 

Part 2 To Follow as the Crew of “Little Audrey” continue the advance into Germany.

 

Acknowledgement

WW2 People's War is an archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC.

 

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"Fear Naught"