My father, Frank Dennis Gent, after nearly 60 years, has begun to talk about his experiences in the second World War. I was interested and asked if he would write some down for me. This he did and now I would like to share these memories with others. Lest we forget....
CORPORAL FRANK DENNIS GENT
2ND LOTHIAN AND BORDER HORSE
Memories of my teenage years are rather hazy now, being 70 or more years ago, but if I don’t recall what I can it will be too late.
I was working as an apprentice painter, decorator for G F Holdings Ltd. And this period in my life is covered in a booklet called ‘A Moss Side Boyhood’, up to and including my call-up into the army. I think I received My enlistment papers in April 1942 together with a rail pass to Bovington in Dorset. It was a huge camp covering a large area of the countryside occupied solely by the Royal Armoured Corps. This was necessary because most of our training was in trucks and tanks, driving and firing on ranges.
Groups of recruits arrived at the camp at frequent regular intervals. Our group of 60 or so was immediately divided into two squads, to be known as 43Y and 43Z and shown into two large Nissan huts where we settled in. Next day reveille was at 6am and first parade 6.30. There, standing in a ragged line, our squads were introduced to the N.C.O’s whose thankless task was to try and turn us into disciplined soldiers. 43Z were lucky and got a lenient and tolerant sergeant but ours was a 6 foot 6 Scot who was an absolute bastard. We were marched, or rather shuffled, to the Quartermaster’s Store where we were given our uniforms, etc., changed on the spot and handed in our civilian clothing never to see them again. As the uniforms came in three sizes, small, medium and large it was just too bad if you were very short or over 6 feet and there was much hilarity.
Training started immediately with 6 weeks “square-bashing”, endlessly marching up and down, right turn, left turn, about turn, physical exercises for an hour before breakfast, cross-country runs, etc. We muttered rebelliously among ourselves, we thought we’d be riding round in tanks not learning to march like the Guards', but it was obvious really. We had to be physically fit and learn to obey commands instantly, without question. We did. After 6 seeks we had a “Passing Out” parade where we did march like Guardsmen and felt very proud of ourselves. I have to admit it was a remarkable achievement by the Drill sergeant.
Strangely, 43Z looked every bit as disciplined and proficient but hadn’t had to endure the bullying, foul language, insults and humiliation that we had with the sadistic Sergeant McKie.
We were rewarded with 48 hours leave and I returned to Manley Road feeling like a war hero. When we got back we started what we felt was proper training in the specialized trades to which we had been allocated, in my case, Driver/Operator. I had to learn how to use and, if necessary, repair the radio set which kept the crew in contact with each other and also with the Troop Leader and Squadron Leader’s tanks. Usually we shouted, but it could be very noisy inside a tank, especially in action. I did find radio difficult to understand, invisible current’s passing through wires and valves, etc., was incomprehensible at first, but learning the Morse Code was easy and I did so well in the test I won another 48 hours leave. Driving was interesting and enjoyable and something I really wanted to learn. We started first on 15cwt. Trucks, finally graduating to Valentine tanks which I found much simpler to drive, once you had mastered the gears and double de-clutching. Most of it was in open countryside, of course.
FIRST LUCKY ESCAPE OF MANY!
Unfortunately there were injuries and fatalities all the time and I myself had a very narrow escape. Returning from driving instruction one day one of the learner’s was driving, I was in the co-driver’s seat next to him, and the instructor was in the turret. Because it was a fine afternoon I was sitting on the hull with my legs in the co-driver’s hatch. We approached a stream with fairly steep banks we had to cross and as we dropped down into the shallow water the tracks started throwing up mud. I didn’t like it and slid down onto the seat below me with just my head out. At that very moment the driver was accelerating to climb the opposite bank and the lifting handle on my side of the turret struck the trunk of a large tree. Something had to give and it was the turret. It was jerked round, over-riding the cogs on the base which enabled it to traverse. Of course, the 75mm gun went round a quarter turn with the turret and, as it passed over my head, it brushed off my beret! If the stream had been dry I wouldn’t be here today writing about the incident.
In the late summer, 1942, the whole camp was moved to Catterick in Yorkshire. Typical of the Army all the vehicles and equipment were transferred and all personal were to follow a week later. The staff didn’t know what on earth to do with us to keep us occupied, then our sergeant had a great idea. We assembled in the empty classroom and he announced, “Right, each one of you will take it in turn to come up here and, for at least an hour, describe what you did in Civvy Street. You can use the blackboard if you need it. You cannot imagine what a fascinating and absorbing week it was and what an amazing cross-section of society we were. Regrettably, perhaps, though not surprisingly, most subjects were dominated by sex. We had an ex-window cleaner who kept us entertained for two hours, then there was a man who’d been on whaling ships, who described the sexual act between whales, (apparently, it goes on for days). One of the best was an ex-racing stable lad who explained how, when the mare was on heat, they had to swathe her in thick layers of blankets before bringing in the stallion who became so excited that his flailing legs would have injured her. The horse also needed help and guidance to complete his mission satisfactorily!
Training continued and nothing of note happened during the next few months except for one occasion I’ll never forget. On the morning of January 11th my name appeared in the six detailed for 24 hour sentry duty starting that evening at 6pm and ending at 6pm on the 12th........my 21st birthday! Again, typical of the Army, we were inspected by the R.S.M. Before marching to the Guard Room and if you didn’t have knife-edge creases in your trousers, highly polished boots and brasses and blancoed webbing you were put on a charge and ended up helping to peel several hundred weight of potatoes for a week. At the Guard Room we drew lots for sentry duty, 2 hours on and 4 off, and the first two were posted at the Main Gate........standing ankle deep in the liquid mud churned up by the tanks. And, we had to keep our clothes on for the 24 hours, sleeping in them or, at least, dozing, always alert for a shout from the sentries of “Turn out the guard”, we never understood why all the bullshit was necessary.
OFF TO WAR, BUT WHERE?
One day in April each squad lined up in turn outside the M.O.’s hut and he and his orderly came out to vaccinate us and give two other injections. These were noted down in our Army Pay books as T.A.B and Tet Tox, though we never knew what the former was. There was always a bit of competition to get near the front of the queue because it was rumoured that only one needle was used for each squad, though I doubt this was true. There was no doubt we were being prepared for service abroad and this was confirmed when we were all given 14 days embarkation leave. We all returned to Catterick and then ironically, passed through Manchester again en route to Liverpool. There we embarked on the SS Orion, an ex-P. & O. Cruise ship which had been converted to a troop carrier. Once aboard we moved off almost immediately to join a large number of other ships just outside the port. We stayed there the night, packed in like sardines, sleeping in hammocks or (which I preferred) on the deck. Next morning our convoy was joined by two cruisers and several destroyers. U-Boats would have loved to get amongst us but we were flanked either side by the cruisers and the destroyers raced up and down like sheepdogs shepherding a flock, dropping depth charges every now and then. Our only discomfort was sea-sickness which affected most of the troops as we crossed the Bay of Biscay.
TO ALGIERS AND HOW I JOINED THE 2ND LOTHIAN AND BORDER HORSE REGIMENT
As we sailed south we saw Gibraltar on the port side and I think most of us were praying that we would turn left. We knew if we continued sailing south we would be going to Burma to fight the Japanese and nobody wanted that. So we did sail into the Mediterranean and we knew Algiers was our destination. It wasn’t long before we were taken to the station where a long train of wagons awaited us each, with sliding doors and small high windows, just like the ones used for concentration camps (although we didn't know that at the time). Each wagon had the stenciled words “8 Chevaus or 30 Hommes”, something like that, anyway. So we climbed in and sat on our kitbags. Can’t remember where we got off the train, but we all formed up in a long line and were approached by a group of officer’s holding lists of replacements needed for casualties suffered in recent battles. There was no selection. An officer gave his list to the R.S.M., who then walked down the line counting say, fifteen man. These were then ordered, “One step forward, right turn, quick march. You are going with that officer to the 17th/21st Lancer’s”. I remember I was in a group of ten who were detailed for the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse. There was no attempt to call for Scots as you would have expected, and we were a mixed lot of two from London, two from Wales, a Cornishman, a Liverpudlian, myself a Mancunian, etc.. So, I joined the Lothians. They had had a rough time fighting the Germans in Algeria with Valentine tanks which were far inferior both in weaponry and armour to the Panther’s. It was fortunate for me that the regiment had just been re-equipped with Shermans and I joined Corporal Fitzsimons tank crew as Radio /Operator loader of the 75mm gun in 4 Troop, “B” Squadron.
THE BATTLE TO END THEM ALL
There had been a big build-up of armour and artillery but I little knew that what was hoped would be the battle to end hostilities in North Africa was about to start that very evening. Soon after dark the massed guns opened fire with a thunderous roar and the night sky was illuminated by the flashes. Shells from the big guns behind us screamed overhead with a sound like an express train and I was absolutely terrified, not knowing it was all going one way! I sat in the tank all night writing what I was certain was a last letter to my parents from their hero son who was going to die the next day. Just before dawn the barrage lifted and all the tanks moved forward to the start line. The sappers had been out all night clearing narrow paths through the minefield and these were marked out with white tape. We crawled through them in line ahead then spread out for a frontal attack. The place was the Hammam Lif defile, overlooked by high hills from where German observers directed heavy and accurate fire on to us. We lost several tanks, some to mines on the beach, but we finally broke through and raced across Cap Bon to meet the 8th army (ours was the 1st Army).
It was all over in North Africa and, to my amazement, I was still alive! It seems strange but from that moment on I never experienced fear again and, on the contrary, was quite certain I would survive. I cannot explain why, just as I’ll never know why so many of my comrades had to die.