Recently BBC TV ran a two part documentary on the 5th Royal Tank Regiment as an example of one of the very many units during World War 2. The striking figure below on the rate of loss in an active unit, that of a battalion of the Queen's Regiment matches those I have seen I have seen in other wars and other regiments. The quote from Mark Urban below tells the tale.
5th Royal Tank Regiment; the perfect choice by Mark Urban, Diplomatic and Defence Editor for Newsnight, Author, and presenter of Tankies: Tank Heroes of World War II.
The Second World War was such a uniquely destructive episode in human history, that entire divisions - thousands of men - were often written off in a few days fighting, with the broken remnants sent to other units. It might seem inconceivable that a formation could have gone all the way through six years of it, with a cadre of people who served in combat throughout that time, but a handful of British formations did.
So what did involvement in prolonged involvement in such intense fighting do to those who survived it and how did they rationalise their experience? The survivors are now disappearing at an alarming rate, so I couple of years ago, having found a British tank battalion that had been in combat dozens of times between the abortive 1940 campaign in France and VE Day in Germany in May 1945 I was anxious to trace former members and interview them as quickly as possible.The choice of a tank battalion was important for a number of reasons.
The issue of armoured warfare, and how the Allies managed to recoup ground lost to the Germans when they unveiled their ‘Blitzkreig’ (or ‘Lightning War’ tactics, with panzers as their centre piece) is in itself of major interest. But the other reality, sadly, is that men in infantry formations simply didn’t last long enough for a study of their role in the war as a whole to be viable.
‘Band of Brothers’ the classic work about Easy Company, one of those in the US 101st Airborne Division shows how quickly men churned through due to the casualties and stress of combat - and really it just focuses on eleven months from D-Day to the end of the war.
When I looked at the record of one of the battalions of the Queen’s Regiment that was part of the famous 7th Armoured Division or Desert Rats, I found that just ten out of 1,200 who landed in Egypt with the battalion in the summer of 1942, had survived until VE Day just under three years later - half the war in other words.
So I was happy to settle on the choice of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, or 5 RTR, another element of the Desert Rats, of which something like three dozen men in its ranks in 1945 had been with it or sister battalions at the outbreak of war. To the best of my knowledge none of them survive to this day - but I did find old soldiers who had served in its ranks for most of the war, and one of 96 who was serving with 5th Tanks in 1939 and spent four years as a prisoner of war!
My research about 5 RTR was conducted for a book that will be published in March 2013. But early on it struck me that the veterans who agreed to talk should be recorded on camera too, and soon after putting this idea to the BBC, the Tankies documentary was born, growing into its own distinctive thing.
The films feature: Harry Finlayson, that one time prisoner of war who had been captured at the battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 (how many tank commanders from that bloody, and seminal, 8th Army action are still around to tell the tale ?); Gerry Solomon, a volunteer who joined soon after the outbreak of war and fought up to the battle of Normandy in 1944 when his Firefly was knocked out by SS Panzergrenadiers and he was badly wounded; Bob Lay, another desert veteran who made it all the way to the finishing line in Hamburg in 1945; and Roy Dixon who joined 5 RTR as a fresh faced subaltern in 1944 and soon rose to be the battalion’s adjutant.
Of course the work I have been doing - films and book - features much more than the testimony of veterans. It gleans dozens of written accounts, unpublished memoirs, letters and diaries. In many ways the 5th Tanks is just a typical unit of the Royal Armoured Corps - we wouldn’t pretend that it did its duty any better than some of the other regular army Royal Tank Regiment and cavalry outfits that were around in 1939.
It did however, in my view, produce a very rich seam of testimony from the other ranks - the non-commissioned soldiers who commanded most of its tanks and were its backbone. The diary of Jake Wardrop, a 5 RTR sergeant killed just weeks from the end of the war, is remarkable for its honesty and has already appeared in book form - but during this project his family made available to me extraordinary new material that was edited out of the original published text.
The battalion contained many other wise chroniclers too, from hardened regular army NCOs to smart grammar school boys like Bob Lay who brought their sharp civilian sensibilities to the bloody business they were collectively engaged in.
Although usually numbering between 500 and 600, 5 RTR churned through nearly 2,500 men during the six years of war. Of these about 10% were killed in action, something like 40% were wounded and around 90 became prisoners of war like Harry Finlayson. Of the remaining difference between those who served at some time in 5th Tanks and were still there at the end of the war, hundreds were posted to other units to help train them, and others who were sometimes posted away because their nerves couldn’t take any more fighting.
What did those who remained at the centre of this battalion, the corporals and sergeants commanding tanks or the trucks of the transport echelon make of this experience? That’s the story that we will start to tell on BBC2.
I think in the picture above from 1953 the big man doing the inspecting is the Duke of Gloucester, uncle to HM The Queen and a military man to the core. There is a Wikipedia item on the unit and others. Also, in Youtube putting in "My Boy Willie" should bring up an item from the RTR.