WWII Memories of Frank Dennis Gent

1944  MONTE CASSINO ANOTHER LUCKY BREAK!

In April, 1944, before we moved up into the front line at Cassino, one of our officer’s had what he thought was a brilliant idea. To improve the squadron’s firepower and also, maybe because the Honey tanks in Reconnaissance Troup were not armed, he suggested a 3 inch mortar should be fixed on to the back of my vehicle. The squadron’s fitters securely welded the base plate on to the rear engine and the mortar barrel was bolted into place. Then we drove to an open area to test it, accompanied by a bevy of officers including the C.O. The mortar works by dropping a bomb down the barrel where a firing pin explodes the charge and lobs the bomb high in the air. The distance it travels depending on the angle of the barrel. I was loading with a couple of officers standing on the tank and the rest at the side and rear on the ground. All went well at first as the first few bombs sailed away, the officer whose idea it was looking quite smug. Then, as I had feared, the repeated violent explosions caused a small crack to appear in the inch thick steel of the engine cover. I pointed to it but the officer, high on the apparent success of his project, ordered me to carry on. Two more bombs and the crack lengthened. As I dropped the next in and it exploded, the barrel suddenly tilted and the bomb went straight up into the air. I was ready and dived over the side, the two officers were flung backwards and the others on the ground cast dignity aside and hit the deck.

 

We were very, very lucky. There must have been just enough angle on the barrel to prevent the bomb going straight up and then down on top of us. It landed about 10 yards away with a shattering explosion and shrapnel flying in all directions. As it went quiet, the C.O. Stood up, dusted himself down and said, “Gentlemen, I don’t think Lt. Petit’s idea was a huge success.”

 

Need I mention that Lt.  Petit was the officer in the “My Day as a Gunner story and the swimming trip one!

 

 

MAY 1944   no surrender

After the breakthrough at Montecassino our regiment was held in reserve until the Engineers had cleared the road, Highway 6, and replaced bridges. Several incidents happened which might be worth relating.

At dawn on the second day our tanks were in the front line and spaced out to repulse any counter-attacks. Visibility was only a few yards due to early morning mist and smoke from all the smoke shells which had been fired to cover the previous days attack on the monastery and the costly but successful attempt to get a Bailey bridge over the River Rapido. It was fairly quiet apart from a few shots and, as I needed the toilet, I grabbed a spade off the back of the tank and started walking away to find a private spot to squat. Suddenly, a voice from a tank close by said, “If you keep walking you’ll end up amongst the Germans there are lots of them close by”. So I went back to my own tank, dug my little hole and filled it in before climbing back into my co-driver’s seat. That voice maybe saved my life, for there were indeed German marksmen who had infiltrated our lines, in fact, had killed several tank commander's who had to stand with their head and shoulders out of the turret.

Later that morning after the Germans had been driven back, I went for a wander around the battlefield on my own. It was a shocking sight, bodies everywhere you looked, Allied, German, dozens and dozens of them. One in particular caught my attention. There was a stone built Italian shepherd’s hut, small and round with a doorway, but no windows. A few yards in front of it sprawled the massive body of a dead German paratrooper, face down. He was in full uniform, steel helmet and jackboots, and a giant of a man. As I looked at him I could visualise what had happened. Retreating, he saw the hut from which it was obvious there was no retreat or escape, and decided to make a last stand and inflict as many casualties as he could on the British. As witness to this there were so many khaki-uniformed bodies all round as they had tried to rush him. Eventually, the German realized his position was hopeless and charged out firing from the hip. He must have been riddled with bullets almost immediately and fell, still clutching his automatic rifle. It made me so sad to think of the incredible heroism which had been shown here, by both British and the German, none of it witnessed and so, obviously, no medals, although thoroughly deserved.

 

"Desolation in the Italian city of Cassino in May of 1944, the day after the city's capture by the Allies. Hangman's Hill is shown in the background, scene of bitter fighting during the long and bitter siege of the stronghold."

 

june 1944

No title for this one. Only two people have heard the following true story. My wife and our family doctor because it is not one I am proud of. My wife because we do not have any secrets, and our doctor because I asked his opinion as to whether the victim's bullet wound would have proved fatal or not.   This unpleasant incident occurred in June 1944 (about the same time as "The Cherry Tree" story), after we had by-passed Rome. We had had a fairly rapid advance from Monte Cassino but were held up by determined German rearguard fighting. We were pinned down in undulating , open countryside, very exposed and far from ideal for our tanks. The sun was beating down and the metal too hot to touch as the crews inside perspired freely. We wore only thin shirts, trousers and light shoes but all were soaked by the sweat which ran down our faces and bodies.   The squadron's tanks were spaced well apart but we dare not move as we were under observation by enemy artillery officer's who spotted the slightest movement and brought down salvoes of High Explosive shells. Also, we dare not leave the tanks or even put our head out of the hatch because German snipers were watching us (they killed three tank commander's at Cassino). So we spent the whole day from first light at 5am until dusk at 7pm suffering in the heat. It was my job as co-driver to brew up at intervals by boiling water on a small primus stove on my seat whilst I knelt on the floor in front with my face just above it. Very, very uncomfortable but the tea was welcome.   As we dare not show our heads above the hatch you may wonder how we managed for toilet facilities? Well, we used one of the empty 75mm brass shell cases and then flung it, with contents, out of the tank! For the "other", we had accustomed ourselves to going during the hours of darkness. I never heard of a case of diarrhoea, thank God!   We couldn't have a meal until we pulled back out of the front line for the night. In the laager (camp), we had to top up the fuel tanks and the ammunition racks for the 75mm and machine guns before we could ravenously devour the meal the cooks had brought up for us in the convoy of 3 ton trucks.   To get back to the story, it was inevitable in the day-long heavy bombardment that several tanks would be hit and we did suffer many casualties. Perhaps this partially explained but did not excuse what happened as we started to leave the battlefield.   As we headed for a gap in the hedge, a figure suddenly rose up out of the ground in front of us, with his hands in the air. It was a German infantryman, obviously wanting to give himself up.  As I looked at him I suddenly heard a gun firing and saw spurts of earth leaping up around the German's feet. He turned and tried to run as the gun kept firing. I was horrified and looked round to see who was trying to kill him. I could not believe it but it was our own sergeant tank-commander who was cold-bloodedly blazing away with a Thomson sub-machine gun.  The rocking and rolling motion of the tank made it difficult to aim straight but then the soldier stumbled and fell. I couldn't belive my ears as the sergeant screamed at our driver to "Run over and kill the bastard"! The driver did drive right up to the prostrate German but stopped with the tracks hovering over him. I realized this was deliberate because the overhanging nose of the tank prevented him from being seen from the turret........ And certain death. Another tank in our troop had stopped alongside and, as I climbed out, the other co-driver did the same. Together we went to the wounded soldier and lifted him to his feet, draping his arms around our shoulders. We practically carried him, groaning with pain, through the gap. On the other side in the shelter of the hedge was a long line of wounded Allied soldiers, infantrymen and tank crews.   As we gently laid down the young German, who didn't look more than 18 or 19 years old, I noticed he was clutching his stomach. Grey intestines were oozing out between his fingers, as he desperately tried to hold them in.   I realized then that one of the heavy ·45 bullets had hit him in the back and passed straight through. A medical orderly came up then so I asked him if there was much chance for the lad. He glanced down and said, disinterestedly, "He'll live". You can, perhaps, excuse the orderly who had seen so many of our boys die that he hadn't much time for a German. So Len (the other co-driver) and I,  put some cigarette's in the poor lad's top pocket, looked at him again and then ran back to our tanks.   I have always regretted that I never found out the boy's name and so have never been able to discover if he survived or not.   What our sergeant did was dreadful and inexcusable and shocked the few who witnessed it. WE thought only the Germans, and not all of them, did things like that.   I have had nightmares ever since and, as I said at the beginning, I told the whole story to Dr Whiting, our G.P. and asked his frank and honest opinion. He said that, from what I had told him, the bullet had entered the man's back and exited through his stomach to the left of his spine and navel. If it had not seriously damaged any vital organs on the way, he thought there was a reasonable chance of survival. Not exactly reassuring but, at least, there was some hope.   I wish I knew....................

 

June 1944  the cherry orchard

After the breakthrough at Monte Cassino, ours was the leading Armoured Division harassing the Germans as they retreated. It was like a cavalry charge as we raced across country in our tanks. It was rather appropriate that our regiment was called the Lothians and Border Horse.

  The enemy left suicide squads behind to delay us but we went through or round them, left the infantry to deal with them. Just north of Rome we came to a small wood. Our tanks nosed through slowly until we reached the far side, where we stopped "one abreast" with our guns poking through the last trees.   The tank commander's carefully scrutinised the open countryside in front of them, looking for camouflaged anti-tank guns or dug-in Tiger tanks. All was quiet except for the idling engines when I suddenly heard the voice of the sergeant in the turret of the Sherman of which I was the co-driver. "Frank", he said, "Can you see that cherry tree half-way between us and that deserted farmhouse"?   I didn't need to reply. I climbed out and ran to the tree. It was indeed groaning under the weight of kilo's of luscious black cherries. I filled my beret until it was overflowing and then, all hell broke loose in an inferno of sound!   I flung myself flat on the ground just in time, as bullets and shells screamed over my head. I realized all the fire was coming from behind me and it stopped as suddenly as it had begun.   I slowly raised my eyes but could see nothing except gaping holes in the farmhouse. I grabbed my beret, still full of cherries and crawled back to our tanks.

 There I learnt what had happened.   The farmhouse was in fact, NOT, deserted and a movement had been detected inside, which is why our tanks opened fire. As soon as they had done so, a dozen Germans ran out of the back of the farmhouse, trying to escape.

 I'm afraid they were unlucky.   I was indeed lucky, but also indignant, demanding to know why I had almost been shot to pieces by my own mates!!   I did not get any sympathy at all. Just a "Shut up and pass round the cherries".

  And do you know, they really were delicious...........................!