Saturday, February 25, 2006

Joining the 4th Queen's Own Hussars

Photo shows: The first post-war official photo, taken at Ferndorf. See below for surnames of all concerned

Joining the 4th QOH

(Some use has been made here of the 4th QOH Regimental Diaries and I fully acknowlege any or all copyrights to the original publishers)

By the 19th of March, 1945 I had finished my transformation from driver-op in Light Ack to loader-op in the RAC and I was posted to the very prestigious cavalry regiment, the 4th Queens Own Hussars, then in the line at Ravenna.

En route to join the Regiment I was first posted to ‘E’ FDS (Forward Delivery Squadron) where I found myself in charge of a squad preparing Fantails for delivery to units getting ready for the Commachio push.
The Fantails were amphibian versions of the Sherman Tank, designed to cross the marshes and at that time very ‘hush-hush’.

22/3/45 My diary reads:
The ‘Fantails are now in the wood, having been brought in 1 o’clock in the morning. Weird looking things. Spent greater part of the day un-sheeting. Had to guide in a new lot at 9.30 pm.

23/3/45 Am now I/C grease point. Only got through four of the water buffaloes. Everyone needs a bath and some rest. At 8.30 pm met transporters, unloaded and guided in the ‘jobs’.

24/3/45 On solid days work and then we had to go back after dinner till 8.30 pm. The staff officers are in one big flap. Parcel (from home) with wine in it.
29/3/45 Army records confirm this is the day I joined the 4th QOH.

My first shock on joining "A" Squadron was to find the following:

l. I had been assigned as wireless operator to the SSM (Squadron Sergeant Major), one Sgt. Major "Busty" Thomas, as Welsh as it was possible to be.

2. His tank wasn’t the nice, solid-looking Sherman on which I had been trained for the past three months, but was instead a Stuart tank from the 8th Army desert days. To make matters worse its turret had been removed and the only protection "up top" was a canvas hood that was designed to keep the rain off.

3. The SSM's job on the battlefield was to act as nursemaid to the squadron, and this involved anything and everything that no-one else had been detailed for, including picking up stragglers, prisoners, the wounded, and in fact every job that no one else could be spared for, or, would want to do.

Once I had recovered from my first shock I settled in quickly and soon discovered the difference between being in a unit that was strictly an "up front" operation, as opposed to being in a support role such as the Ack Ack regiment I had previously been in.

The next thing I found out was that the Regiment was now part of an armoured spearhead that had been formed to capitalise on the breakthroughs that were taking place here in the very north of Italy. The Germans were finally on the run, and the need was not so much for heavy artillery and slow moving support groups, but rather for fast moving light vehicles and particularly armoured vehicles that could carry infantry right up to their firing positions.

Consequently the Sherman tanks had their turrets taken off, their sides built up and almost overnight were transformed into a new secret weapon with the code name ‘Kangaroos’.

I was elected cook for our tank and also Lt.Walmsley’s tank and to my surprise made a pretty good job of it, of which, more later.

The crew consisted of myself as wireless op and gunner, Busty as tank commander and a lad called Steve Hewitt, or more commonly referred to as "Hewie" as driver. By the way, on the point of nicknames, everyone had one and I was always known as Goldy. The armament of the tank consisted of a .3O Browning machine gun mounted fore, a .50 Browning mounted aft,a 2“ mortar, loads of grenades and pistols that we all wore in our webbing holsters.

We were always very mobile. This mobility was taken to such an extreme that it is worth a short description of the routine.

Suppose that we had been moving along a road and the order to halt came over the radio. We would pull off the road, get under the nearest tree for camouflage purposes and then our bedding sacks would be thrown off the back of the tank, quickly followed by the small cooker and the half petrol can that served as the brew up can.

If we were there for five minutes tea would be made and we would start to cook a meal. If the order to move came crackling over the radio we would simply throw everything back on the tank and the hot brew up would be hung at the rear of the vehicle.
If, however, it became apparent that we were there for the night, the bedrolls would be unrolled and, providing we were not on guard or wireless watch, we would get down to some sleep. The tank suits that we wore were ingeniously designed so that one could unzip them right down to the ankles and we would then use them as an extra ground sheet. In the morning one would then just reverse the process, zip up, roll the bedroll back to its packed position and we were ready to move off again. You can see my tank suit here :

Regimental Diaries for that period read as follows:
1st March to 8th March
Re-equipping of A Sqn
16th March
A Sqn moved to new location 522270
19th March
A Sqn trained with Royal West Kents
20th March
A Sqn trained with Royal West Kents. 1200 (hrs) One Kangaroo carrying guardsmen of the 2nd Coldstream Guards exploded on a dump of mines causing the complete wreckage of the Kangaroo and killing 3 Guardsmen and wounding 5. The commander was killed and the driver seriously wounded.
21st to 25th March
A and C Sqns trained with Infantry with B Sqn as Armd protection
29th March
A Sqn carried 6th RWK in exercise HOSANNAH, the Armd protection supplied by the 9th Lancers. 49 Wos,Sgts and Ors departed on Python
By the 15th A Sqn was equipped with the long promised Priest Infantry carriers and on the 16th the Rgt started to move up into an area where it could train Infantry units of 56,78 and 8 Indian Div. as they were available from tours in the line.
All this month the ground has been dry enough for tracked vehicles to deploy and move across country.

One of the perils of rapid advancing that was taking place at that time was that if you broke down, you were left to your own devices until the rear parties could catch up with you. On one occasion, later in the day, we had some barbed wire entangled in our tracks that brought us down to a crawl, and we had to drop behind the main advance. Fortunately we were near a farmhouse, and so we decided to bed down for the night and wait until daylight would allow us to see what we were doing.

Before we could get to sleep we were disturbed by some Italians who had their hands full of rifles of various types. Apparently they had been informed by some earlier troops that if they had arms on the premises they must hand them in to avoid being shot as German collaborators. Quite naturally they were very keen to hand them over to us, but by the same token we were loath to tell them to fill our small crowded turret with their antiquated firepower!

We solved the matter in a rather black comedy manner by allowing them to pass the guns up to us and then, in the dark, we threw them over the other side of the tank instead of into the turret. At first light we got rid of the offending barbed wire and got away sharp before the Italians discovered they had been spoofed.

Back to the cooking while I think of it. It was the practice then for two tanks to "mess" together for the purposes of drawing rations etc., and we used to mess with Lt. Walmsley's tank. If I remember rightly he was second adjutant to the squadron leader, but he was certainly Canadian by birth. I still remember the fact that he used to put his marmalade on top of his fried bacon, and when he once saw me looking at him with amusement he rejoined; "It all goes down the same hole, doesn't it?"
As official cook I would draw rations usually every second day, and I would be permanently on the lookout for a chance to swap items with the locals for eggs or bread, to supplement our diet. I became a pretty dab hand at finding potatoes in the fields and even managed to produce the odd spotted pudding for high occasions.

On one occasion only Busty complained about the "sameness" of the cooking, and I was so incensed that at the next meal I gave him his plate piled high with his original rations of corned beef and dehydrated potato. Fortunately for me he saw the humour of the matter and accepted the fact that of the six crew that I was cooking for, I was probably the best bet.
As I have already mentioned I found I had an aptitude for languages and by now my Italian was pretty fluent. Consequently, whenever it was necessary to do a small reconnaissance I was often chosen to go with to interpret.

April 1945
Regimental Diaries:
1st April
4TP A Sqn carried 43rd Royal Marines Commando in Op Roast and were extremely successful, 43rd Commando being responsible for 420 of the 1000 POW taken by the Commando Brigade. One Kangaroo hit by 50 mm but was recovered. No casualties.

The attack over the Senio

Regimental Diaries:
A Sqn carried London Irish Rifles on 2nd Armd Bde exercise, Armd protection by the Queens Bays
3rd April
A Sqn carried 5th Buffs on 2nd Armd Bde exercise, Armd protection by the 9th Lancers
5th April
A and B Sqns moved to GODO area
6th April
Preparation for Op BUCKLAND
9th April
A Squadron HQ moved to area 420385
10th April
A and B Sqns crossed the Senio
11th April
1630 hrs A Sqn moved to outskirts of LUGO. A Sqn 2 and 4tp carried Gurkha Rifles. 1 and 3 Tp carried RFF Rifles in an advance to the banks of the river SANTERNO. After 1 and 3 Tp dropped their Infantry they encountered A/Tk mines. 6 Carriers of 1 Tp and 1 of 3Tp were damaged. No casualties.
13th April
A and B Sqns moved off with 2 Armd Brigade and passed through the bridgehead. Advance went very well as far as the canal crossing 315535 where the bridge was blown causing the advance to be held up. At first the advance was rapid but later Kangaroos met ditches which slowed them down considerably. A number of POW were taken. Own casualties one NCO killed and 2 wounded. The Sqn was subjected to very heavy shell and mortar fire during the whole of the day.
14th April
2nd Armd Bde advance. A Sqn entered LAVEZZOLA to advance North of the RENO bridge which on arrival was found to be partially blown. Considerable mopping up was done by all troops during the day..
15th April
All Sqns spent the day reorganizing and doing maintenance.
16th April
A Sqn moved across river RENO to area 331581. Intention, immediately the ARGENTA Gap was broken the group would advance North. Waited all day while others battled to break through the ARGENTA Gap.

18th April
A and B Sqns forming part of 2nd Armd Bde Grp advanced to form bridgehead across FOSSA SABBASOLA at 240665. A Sqn worked hard all day to be rewarded with excellent results. RHQ Tp did bulk of work but suffered 2 Kangaroo casualties. Air bursts over the 2nd i/c’s Honey badly wounded 2 of the crew. In general, the enemy were taken by surprise.. Many SPs and Mark Ivs were encountered but in conjunction with excellent fighter-bomber support throughout the day the majority were destroyed. (See my diary for the same day)

Sunday 8th. April 1945
Colonel gave A and B squadrons griff talk talk for this 'final' campaign. Packed tank sheet and covered my bed with Honey canopy.
Monday 9th April 1945
Moved to other side of Traversare. Dug in and have bivvie to myself.. D day and H hour have started. One rocket landed fairly near. Leaflets dropped.

One interesting feature at this particular time of the war was the increase in Jerry propaganda to which the front line troops were subjected. At one time I had quite a few of these and in my Album there is still a small collection.
See my posting (A2297333) German Propaganda Leaflets.

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