WWII Memories of Frank Dennis Gent




During the last two days of the war in Italy we swept across country towards the small town of Bondeno and the river Po. It was an eventful time as we caught up with the German rearguard. As the squadron’s Shermans eased forward on the first day my two Reconnaissance Honey’s were ordered forward to see what lay ahead and to find a way to cross a wide stream which was marked on our maps. Me and my 2nd in command set off and soon reached the stream which, to make it more difficult, was sunken with steep sides. We turned and drove along the bank and saw a place which both I and my driver thought crossable. As leader I took my tank down but it was very muddy at the bottom and we got stuck. I told my 2nd in command to try further on and to report back to the squadron on the radio that I needed a tow. About 100 yards away he gave me a wave and indicated he was crossing. As we watched, his Honey was flung into the air in a sheet of flames and a huge explosion. It was obvious he had hit a landmine on the other side, and although I ran up, there was nothing anyone could do. The Shermans then appeared and I warned them that there could be more mines on the other side, but there were none, just the one that killed my comrades.

While the squadron crossed and fanned out, one tank dragged our Honey out with his cable. I was feeling shocked and more than a little guilty. If I hadn’t got bogged down I would have been the one crossing that small bridge. As had happened so many times before, I was lucky.

I was promoted to corporal, not on merit but because I was a survivor and once again there were gaps in the ranks to be filled.





We reached the road leading to Bondeno, which was about half a mile away and I (the last small tank in the depleted Reconnaissance Troop) was ordered to go forward to find out what lay between us and the town, and see if any bridges remained. We passed two or three small groups of Germans who had been left behind and only wanted to give themselves up but, thankfully, no armour or organized resistance.


We could see the bridge had been blown up, so turned round to return to the squadron and report. We found them in the grounds surrounding a small walled cemetery alongside the road and, as it was dusk, the Commanding Officer decided we should stay there for the night. I took a walk round and found a small chapel just inside the entrance to the cemetery. I went in, but it was empty apart from a few benches, and a marble slab mounted on pedestals. I thought to myself that this would be a lovely quiet place to sleep, so I went and got my blankets from the tank and made my bed up under the slab. It was so comfortable but I hadn’t been asleep long when I was rudely awakened by the sound of wailing and keening. I peeped out and, in the half light saw a group of Italians carrying in a body. He was a young partisan who had been shot by the Germans. They obviously hadn’t seen me as they gently laid him on the slab above me and then stood around crying and praying. I thought, if I suddenly appear, the shock will send them screaming and running from the Chapel, so I decided to keep quiet. Eventually they left and I went back to sleep quite unperturbed by the poor young man so close. Death was no stranger to me.





Just before dawn I was awakened again by shatteringly loud gunfire close by. I ran outside thinking we were being attacked and I don’t mind admitting I was scared. It seems one of our infantry officer’s had tipped off the C.O. That a German column was approaching hoping to escape to Bondeno. Poor fools did not know the bridge had gone and that they should have surrendered. Trees, about 3 or 4 yards apart lined the road and our Shermans (all 19 of them, so the odds were slightly in our favour!) were spaced out between them. Our Honey being unarmed I and my driver were spectators. We waited expectantly and then heard in the distance the faint sound of a tank engine and the metallic clank of tracks on the road. Slowly, slowly, creeping along came a single Panther tank leading, about 50 yards behind it, a column of half-tracks full of German soldiers. When it reached us it stopped, not because he had seen our tanks, but because there was a burnt-out Sherman at the side of the road ahead and he was suspicious. After hesitating, the German officer fired a Verey pistol to illuminate the target and his gunner blasted an A.P. shell into the harmless target. One second later the C.O. fired a red verey light into the air and instantly, with a shattering roar, nineteen, 75mm guns, sent armour-piercing shells into the doomed Panther, which disintegrated in a sheet of flames. The half-track vehicles desperately swung round and tried to get away as the Shermans raked this new target with machine gun fire.


Speaking for myself, I wasn’t happy with what had occurred.

Was it really necessary to cold-bloodedly slaughter at least five, and almost certainly more, human beings on the last day of the war in Italy? Why couldn’t two or three Shermans fire into the wheels and tracks of the Panther, disabling it and forcing the crew to surrender.

Maybe I’m too soft-hearted, but I was upset by the needless and unnecessary killing.