We actually set foot into Germany during the winter at Broek Sittard just on the Belgium and German border. While we were in Broek Sittard, my Squadron, and "C" Squadron was dismounted to act as static infantry. The tanks of "A" squadron were dug in on the front line overlooking the German border manned by their own crews during the day. During the night, each tank was manned by a single person on guard duty, one man in each tank in pitch-blackness looking out over open farmland. Each man did two hours guard duty,that was quite enough because of the intense cold. After two hours we had to wake up our own relief, and were very glad to do so even though by then we'd been issued with tank suits - a head-to-toe complete garment with a zip starting at each ankle right up to the neck with a hood, double-skinned with an oiled inner skin and totally waterproof. This was just before the Ardennes, and I clearly remember hearing a lot of traffic moving around in the area ahead of us.
We spent Christmas day in Broek Sittard and instead of feeding ourselves, all other ranks had their Christmas dinner, Turkey and Christmas Pudding and plenty of beer, served to them by the officers, as is the tradition. We all congregated in a large hall in the town and had a great time, all within sight of the front line. I don’t know if the Germans hear us singing, but then they were probably doing the same.
There was an other time when we were stood down just before we went to Broek Sittard, I can't remember where, except it was in Belgium. The line was static and perhaps it was again to give the infantry a rest, or perhaps there was just a shortage of infantry. Anyway, my troop was located in a barn and our task was to man a gun pit in the yard. We had been issued with palliasses which had to filled with straw from another location some distance away, and as we were walking back along the road with the filled palliasses there was a crack of a rifle shot passing over our heads from a wide open space to our right. Somebody had seen us walking along the road and decided to take a pot shot at us, we didn't hang about! Being dismounted, and not being a trained infantryman was a horrible experience.
On another occasion, late in the afternoon after a very quiet day, I was walking on my own along a wide firebreak in a forest, possibly in Germany, heavily rutted by track and wheeled vehicles. I had probably been sent on an errand to another tank and was returning to mine hopping from rut to rut, when all of a sudden there was a tremendous crack as large calibre shot passed close by and hit the ground some distance in front me followed by the boom of the gun. With high velocity shots 75mm or 88mm you always heard the crack of the projectile before the sound of the gun if you lived to tell the tale. Fortunately it was a solid shot and just ricocheted with a whine into the distance, whether it was intended for me or not, I don't know, but I didn't hang around. A possible scenario was that an enemy Tank, or SP on forward observation duties and had probably been there all day, seen very little and were thoroughly bored, perhaps they were about to withdraw to leaguer, saw me and decided to have a parting shot just to let us know they were still around.
Another incident was in Holland. We were the leading tank going down a very narrow country road, only room for one tank. There was a deep ditch on our left side with a small wood on our right, we had infantry with us, but they were pinned down by machine guns firing along the ditch. As we moved forward towards a left bend in the road to try and locate the machine guns, a Bazooka hit us. The bazooka past over the top of the turret and hit the water “Jerry” cans strapped on the mudguard beside the engine. Fortunately for us, because a Bazooka needs to hit solid armour to be effective, the explosion only burst the water cans and I was soaked with water which came in through the open turret hatch. The driver, Johnny Firth, being the experienced bloke he was, did not wait for a command, reversed out of range. The next minute a Bazooka hit the road in front of us, I saw it coming through my telescope but could not see from where. I fired my machine gun spraying the hedges in front, but with little effect because the bazookas were still coming at us. All of a sudden the driver said over the intercom, "I've just seen a steel helmet crossing the road."
The Germans had dug a trench across the road, cleared away the soil so it couldn't be seen and we knew this was where the bazookas were coming from. There is a small screw on the projectile of the 75mm shell which when turned through 900 will give a split second delay after impact to create an air burst. So using this facility I aimed at the road in front of the trench hoping to create an air burst over the trench, but the range was too short and the shell burst well beyond the trench and bazooka’s kept coming. The enemy was obviously firing blind, and had made the mistake of putting his head up too high. As the next shell was being loaded into gun by the wireless operator, the projectile separated from the case and although the casing and projectile came out easily, the breech was full of loose cordite. I remember so clearly as I reaching into the breech with my sleeve rolled up scraping out handfuls of cordite how silky smooth and warm the breech was. We kept trying to load the gun, but because of the cordite the shell just would not go fully home preventing the breechblock from closing. Eventually, in desperation I used an empty shell case to hammer the shell home, and CLONK! Up went the breech. I fired the next shot into a tree at the edge of the road above the trench and that did the trick - no more bazookas came at us.
By that time it was getting late. I didn't go to look in the trench, but one of the infantry blokes told me there was just one dead soldier in the trench. A very brave man when you come to think about it. He'd held up at a troop of tanks, possibly a Squadron or a Regiment of tanks behind us, allowing his colleagues to get away, knowing full well that he was unlikely to survive, for all I know he is still there with all his equipment.Everything then went quiet and we stayed where we were for quite a while. Sometime later Conky Harland and an infantry officer were standing on the back of our tank behind the turret conferring, when all of a sudden, I must have been looking up at the time, a small streak of blue colour appeared on the inside of the roof of the turret. A sniper had fired at them and the bullet had ricocheted off the turret between them. They did not stay there much longer.
November the 20th is Cambrai Day and was celebrated while we were in Holland near a place called Neerpelt. We were out of the line at that time and had taken over a café. I got very drunk on rum, which was standard daily issue to tank crews, but on this occasion the rum was brought round in demijohns. I was so drunk that when I woke in the morning and given a cup of tea I just went out like a light again. I was in an alcoholic haze for two days.
Another place I remember well is Oosterhout a small town in Holland, 1RTR actually liberated Oosterhout. I was in the leading tank of our column, the Germans had retreated across the Wilhelmina canal, which runs through Oosterhout, and there were only snipers around. You could hear the rifle bullets cracking across the open hatches of the turret, but we could see nothing to fire at. When we came up to the Wilhelmina canal, the bridge was blown and we came to a stop, Conkey ordering me to fire a shell into the trees on the other side of the canal to create and airburst, this I did and the sniping stopped.
We stayed in Oosterhout for a week or more while the Polish Brigade came up on the other side of the canal. We were billeted in houses by a cemetery with the tanks lining the road. While we were there, although the occasional shell landed in the town, the locals made us very welcome and organised dances and church services for us right from day one. We were billeted in private houses and were made very welcome; we shared our compo rations and ate with the family. The front line was the canal and before the Polish Brigade arrived, we used to go into the trenches overlooking the canal and the open ground beyond just to stretch our legs. There was an abandoned German Spandau machine-gun in one of the trenches. I always had an ambition to fire a Spandau and I decided to have a go at what I thought were German troops moving around in the far distance. I lined up the sights of the gun as best I could, estimating the distance and Brrrr-Brrrr! The Spandau has a tremendous rate of fire. The shots must have been very close because they went to ground. The Polish Division came up the other side of the canal after a few days fighting a battle of their own and eventually we moved on.
In another incident, we were holding a village in Belgium on a ridge overlooking a valley to a ridge about two miles away. It was known that the enemy was in the valley and of course on the high ground. During the night an enemy fighting patrol came into the village and mixed it with our supporting infantry. It was very dark and close quarter fighting took place. There was little we could do to assist until the enemy patrol withdrew and as they did so my tank pulled out onto the road and I fired a long bust of Besa (Machine gun) down the road. As I finished, Conky said to me, "You've set something on fire, probably a hay stack". As it got light, sitting down the road about 500 yards, was a burnt out enemy armoured half-track personnel carrier. The survivors of the German patrol had a long walk home. Very satisfying.
On another occasion we were holding a crossroad in a pine forest. We had pulled out of leaguer that morning and moved on to the crossroad and had been there all day. It was a warm and beautiful afternoon, and I was outside the tank dosing on the engine hatch, when there was a clatter of equipment, and I looked up to see German soldier siding down the bank out of the forest behind us, run across the road and into the forest beyond. It was all over in a second and he was gone, clattering through the woods. I expect he had been cut off and was making his way back. A while later, probably half an hour, there was the sound of multiple mortars heading in our direction "Moaning Minis". We knew they were intended for us and jumped into the tank. I was first into the turret followed by the commander (Conky) and as I looked up and saw him closing the hatch (Something we rarely did) I saw the flash of the explosions on the padding of the lid. Then the tank just lifted up off the ground and slammed back down. We were all badly shaken, about 6 large calibre mortars had landed around us, fortunately none hit us. We moved back from the crossroads about 100 yards after that.
About half-hour later we got wireless information that an enemy tank was heading in our direction towards the crossroads and we pulled forward again to meet the threat. I remember seeking confirmation from the wireless operator that he had loaded armoured piecing shot in the gun. As I line up the 75mm on the brow of the hill ahead waiting for the enemy tank to appear, I saw a column of smoke; the 17 pounders (Firefly's) in the wood to our left had got him before he came over the brow of the hill. It was probably the enemy soldier who had run across the road earlier who had pin pointed our position on the cross roads.
After things had quietened down, we were able to go forward and have a look at the "tank". It was a SP gun escorted by a motorcycle and sidecar fitted with a machine gun. The SP had been hit about five times in the side by the 17 pounders and was burnt out, there were no survivors from the SP; there was blood on the road beside the motorcycle, but no sign of the motor cyclists. The smell of a burnt out armoured vehicle with bodies in it is something I will never forget.
I recall another incident with Conky Harland as commander. We were harassing enemy troops who were withdrawing across the German border from Holland in great haste. We were proceeding slowly along a village road by houses with front gardens and hedges on our right side. I was using the machine gun on the hedges to eliminate any Bazooka teams attempting to ambush us from behind the hedges. As we came to open ground beyond the houses, I saw a cart with about 20 enemy soldiers on it being pulled by two horses galloping furiously along a road running parallel to the road we were on, they were about half a mile away. They were clearly making for cover behind some houses and had about a quarter of a mile to go. I lined up the 75mm on the target, and I remember thinking I must hit the rear of the cart and not the horses. Quite illogical in a war situation, but nevertheless this was what was going through my mind, and I was aiming very carefully, so much so that Conky shouted at me over the intercom to get on with it before they disappeared behind the houses. When I fired the smoke from my gun temporally blinded me, and when the smoke cleared they had disappeared, but Johnny Firth told me I hit the rear of the cart just as it was disappearing out of sight. I got a lot of satisfaction from that! I think the others knew what I had done, because I had plenty of time to fire before I did.
In another incident, we were leagued in some woods, and all sitting around in a group, several tank crews talking and drinking tea. One of the group had found an unused Bazooka and was fiddling with it on the ground when suddenly he accidentally fired it. I remember well, I was quite close; the projectile careered along the ground and shot up in the air before falling to the ground again. It did not explode, presumably because the detonator had not struck anything solid. Very lucky!
In spring 1945 I was transferred to Brigade HQ as part of the defence troop of four tanks. Brigade HQ was always well up to the front lines. But it was really a rest cure.
When we were just outside Hamburg, billeted in Harburg. I remember I was asleep in a barn when the roar of engines woke me. I looked out of the window, it was early morning, and saw a German Staff car passing by with high-ranking German officers sitting in the back. It transpired that it was a delegation from Hamburg to negotiate the surrender of the city, and was part of the overall negotiations for the surrender of the German army facing the allies in that sector.
It wasn't long before the Germans agreed to the surrender of Hamburg and my troop of tanks had the job of escorting the Brigadier and other high-ranking officers into Hamburg over the bridges, which were still intact. The German troops hadn't yet surrendered and were fully armed, and there were 88mm guns at the street junctions. We proceeded into Hamburg town centre outside the town hall where the keys to the city were ceremonially handed over. There was a band playing, it was an extraordinary situation. There we were sitting in the middle of this big square with German troops and civilians all round us, and a band playing!
Hamburg was absolutely shattered. You could look at the city from afar and it appeared intact, but once you got close you saw most of the buildings were just shells. The whole city had been devastated by fire. After the surrender we moved into a hotel somewhere in the harbour area. It was Brigade HQ for the night.
After about two days, Brigade HQ received orders to move immediately to Berlin and take over the British Sector and we moved into billets on the outskirts of Berlin by a luxurious Sports and Social Club with a swimming pool. I cannot now remember the district.
Although fraternisation with the German civilians was forbidden, immediately upon arrival in Berlin two friends and I lost no time smartening ourselves up and heading into the city. It is reasonable to say we found what we were looking for and enjoyed ourselves very much, it was all play and no work.
While I was billeted at the Sports and Social Club I was taught to play tennis by the resident coach. I paid him with a pound of coffee, which was sent to me by my Aunt and Uncle in Newcastle. Cigarettes, chocolate and coffee were much sought after by the Germans, and most things could be obtained by bartering. The mark was practically worthless; I obtained a quality camera with 100 cigarettes.
I remained with Brigade HQ until my regiment 1 RTR came to Berlin on the 30 August 1945 and were stationed at Kladow Barracks.
I was 'demobbed' on the 19 April 1947.