Written January 12th 2010 in Fuerteventura by Frank Dennis Gent (88th Birthday)
"The following minor incidents occurred at various times during my years in the Army and may be of some interest."
At Catterick various sporting competitions were arranged between Squadrons and Regiments. Enthusiastic volunteers trained hard for the annual inter-regimental boxing championship and most were really good. However, again typical of the Army (how on earth did we manage to win the war?) a week before the long-awaited event it was discovered that about half of our boxers just happened to be on leave! So, at the next parade volunteers were called for to fill the gaps! There was obvious reluctance so the R.S.M. dangled the bait of 48 hours leave to any willing to place their heads on the block. I fell for it and stepped forward.....me, who had never raised his fists in his life and has never done so since.
A few days intensive training didn’t help much and, on the big night, I climbed into the ring to face my well-muscled opponent. I was a thin, weedy -looking character and the lad opposite obviously fancied his chances. The bell went and I shot across the ring arms flailing like a windmill. A lucky blow caught him on the throat and he was clearly in distress. With any experience I could have pressed home my advantage and, possibly, finished him off. Instead, with most of my blows missing completely he recovered and set about extracting his revenge. We’ll draw a veil over the next three minutes and at the end of the first round the referee stopped the fight.
I enjoyed the leave. I think I really earned even though, I went home with a black eye. My future fighting would be done from the inside of a tank with the aid of a great big gun and that’s how I preferred it!
Just north of Rome we had reached the Hitler Line and were held up in open and undulating country with little cover. We were obviously under observation and held down by accurate and intensive artillery fire, several tanks receiving direct hits. It was decidedly unpleasant as we sat there hardly moving from dawn until dusk in the blisteringly hot Italian sun. Any movement brought down more enemy fire so that it was not until dusk that we were able to withdraw and then not very far. However, as we had been more or less static all day it was not necessary for us to meet up with the rear echelon to replenish fuel and ammunition. So, in a large open field the tanks formed a laager as the wagons, etc., did in the Boer War. Sixteen tanks of the four troops in a square, all facing outwards with the HQ tanks in the middle. Each troop provided sentries to patrol outside the laager and prevent infiltration by the Germans, crewmen not on duty slept on the ground inside. The Germans were close, and we were relieved when dawn came and we were able to return to the relative safety of our tanks.
After being sent by our Squadron Leader about half a mile up the road to find out the situation at Bondeno we were able to confirm over the radio that we hadn’t met any enemy opposition (rather obvious, really!) and that the bridge had been destroyed. Told to return and knowing that the German’s were on the other side of the river and could certainly see us I said to John Howarth, my driver, “Turn round and let’s get the hell out of here”. Just as he was about to accelerate, a group of about 20 men in grey uniforms walked from behind a building into the road with their hands in the air. From their Asiatic features we guessed they were not Germans but conscripts from one of the states in Eastern Europe and anxious to give themselves up. We were too exposed and vulnerable to hang about so I indicated that if they could get on my Honey we’d take them. They clambered on eagerly, all standing with their arms around each other’s shoulders. There was hardly room for me to get on at the back but I hung on and John, peering between somebody’s legs, wasted no time in speeding down the road. Suddenly there was a shouted warning in a language I didn’t understand and all the P.O.W.’s ducked their heads down. A split second later a telephone cable which was sagging across the road caught me across my throat and only by hanging on like grim death to the men next to me did I avoid being dragged off the back of the tank. One end of the cable must have broken loose because, although the pressure eased, the cable was now slicing across my neck and threatening to cut my throat. I managed to get one hand up and, thankfully, forced the cable up and over my head.
My mates were shocked when they saw the blood and it took weeks to heal but I was lucky because it could have been so much worse.
On arrival at the walled cemetery where the Squadron awaited further orders we ordered the P:O:W.’s to dismount and sit on the grass verge to await an escort to take them to the rear. Our C.O. Had a different idea, probably influenced by the fact that he was Jewish and news had leaked out about the concentration camps and the ‘Final Solution’. Anyway, he told one of our sergeants to line up the prisoners against one of the walls whilst a dozen of us from the tank crews were ordered to arm ourselves with sub-machine guns and line up opposite them. We couldn’t believe what was happening and muttered among ourselves that no matter if they were effin Germans, no way were we going to open fire and execute them. We needn’t have worried. The Major only wanted to put the fear of God into them and see them grovel and beg for mercy. He was to be disappointed. As I said at the beginning, despite wearing German uniforms, with their slant eyes they looked Mongolian. They stood there, knowing each moment might be their last, but utterly impassive and inscrutable, showing no emotion whatsoever, accepting whatever fate might have in store for them. To us Europeans it was, quite incredible.
After a few more minutes the C.O. Told us to dismiss and the prisoners to sit down to await transport to a camp in the rear.