Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 12 Parading, partying and some training

Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 12 Parading, partying and some training

by Stuart Crawford
article from Tuesday 23, June, 2020

ALL GOOD THINGS come to an end, and so it was for my all too brief period as troop leader of 13 Troop, D Squadron, 4th Royal Tank Regiment. It was time for me to move further up the greasy pole of career progression and I was sent on the Regimental Signals Officer (RSO) course at Bovington Camp in Dorset. The choice was either the RSO course, or the Regimental Gunnery Officer (RGO) course, or the Driving and Maintenance (D&M) course. I wasn’t really that interested in gunnery, although my crew could put a DST round through the eye of a needle at 2000 metres nine times out of ten, nor was I into engines and mechanics. So signals it was. 

I will pass on the details of the course except to say I nearly killed myself when my new car skidded on black ice in Poole and sent me careering into a lamppost. An evening in A&E followed, but I was OK and got back in the wee small hours with multiple stitches in an impressive head wound. I was later outraged to get a bill for £540 from the local council for replacing the said lamppost, but luckily my insurance covered it. Back in Germany I took over my new troop.

Command Troop was essentially Regimental Headquarters (RHQ) in the field, transformed into Battlegroup (BG) HQ for training for operations. It was the glue that held all the other bits together and tended to cream off the best individuals from the squadrons to man it. Often a time in Command Troop was a precursor to promotion so, much as those chosen to its elitist ranks might squeal about it, they knew that it was a bit of a compliment and would probably lead to greater things.  

4RTR BQ HQ

As an aside, and whether by accident or design I don’t know, but all the individuals in Command Troop – myself included – were/are really good looking. Consequently we were always in demand for military displays and the like, and always besieged at them by hordes of pretty women. In quiet moments of reflection we sometimes used to blame ourselves for being too available, but we felt it was our duty. Many of us have continued with this important work in our later careers with considerable success. 

Back on track. In the field Command Troop deployed several vehicles; there was the CO’s tank, a couple of Ferret Scout Cars (FSCs), and three CVR(T)1 Sultan command vehicles plus an assortment of others. Two of the Sultans were command vehicles proper with various radio rigs whilst the third was a planning vehicle used by the intelligence and NBC bods. The Sultans had a pull-out sort of gazebo type arrangement at the back, so you would back up one of the command vehicles with the planning one and make a small, tented area for extra room. If we had the Gunners (hawk, spit) or the Engineers attached we could form a cruciform arrangement as required. Getting it set up in the middle of the night took some practice, mind.

The other command Sultan would be positioned some way off and would act as “step up”. In a fast moving tactical scenario where we had to move HQ it would go off to some new location and take over control, whereupon the rest of the troop would pack up and move to join them and set up BG HQ again. And so on and so forth. One of the Ferrets was the “rebro” FSC, driven by "The Breed" and commanded in my time by Cpl Scooby Taylor (Main picture above: standing right with LCpl (now Lt Col!) Neile Kellet).

I initially thought "The Breed's" nickname originated from his penchant for a good, fresh pan loaf, but in fact it related to his alleged similarity to a character in a horror film popular around that time. Anyway, because the VHF radios we used were more or less line-of-sight, in hilly or urban terrain there could be difficulty communicating with sub units, which is where the rebro came in. It would be sent off at short notice to sit on top of a hill somewhere where it received the command net signal on one set frequency and rebroadcast it on its second set on a different frequency, thereby establishing comms. It worked very well too, though in wartime it would have lasted for about two minutes given the Soviets’ direction finding capabilities. Medals all round, though.

Command Troop worked really, really hard and being out on exercise could be extremely exhausting. But as ever there were some great characters among the boys and we laughed a lot, even when we were miserable. It would be unfair to single any one member out because they were all great soldiers, but perhaps I should just mention my Troop Sergeant, Peter Reid, who was probably the finest soldier in the field I ever had the good fortune to serve alongside, although there are many other contenders for that title. 

The author with Sgt Peter Reid (right)

Then, suddenly it seemed to me although it had been ages in the planning, we were on our way back to the UK to Tidworth, the historic garrison town on Salisbury Plain. We swapped with the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars (QRIH), a nice enough bunch, handed over everything in Yorke Kaserne to them – including our tanks – and then took over all their stuff in England. Most of this fell upon the QM and QM (Tech) and their staffs, plus of course the boys on the tank park. I drove back halfway through the process with fellow subaltern Alan Dunlop in my new VW Golf GTi, the young officers’ car of choice at the time.

It was a bit odd being back in the UK to be honest. 4th Tonks had been in Munster since 1974 and therefore it took a bit of getting used to initially, but we settled in soon enough. I guess we saw the local area and towns with European eyes and thought them all a bit quaint at first, but that soon passed. With three tank squadrons in Aliwal Barracks in Tidworth and A Squadron in Warminster we became “rent-a-tank” for the UK army and spent a lot of time out on Salisbury Plain on various wheezes. Our recce troop in particular seemed to spend more time in the field than it did in barracks.

Having handed over the mighty Command Troop to another when we moved, I now seemed to have a bewildering succession of jobs in a shortish space of time – 2ic of C Squadron, Ops Officer in RHQ, even Assistant Adjutant for about a week until I managed to wriggle out of that one. Much time was spent by everyone catching up on various courses as we were much closer to the various schools that taught our trades and we could fill vacancies at short notice. I went off and completed the Junior Division of Staff College at Warminster, of which I have nothing to report except to say it was mercifully short. 

Socially, our lives had changed quite dramatically too. As we were now “back home”, it was much easier – and cheaper – to travel to see friends and family. Consequently the Officers’ Mess tended to be quiet over the weekend, as did the barracks as a whole. Being Orderly Officer on a Saturday and Sunday was much more irksome than it had been in January, and the possibility of getting awarded “extras” by the Adjutant for some misdemeanour or other was so much more of a powerful threat. On the plus side, it was much easier for us to have visitors and the Mess seemed to be frequently full of girlfriends and others. We had some great parties as well. The PoW party we held when we converted the ante room into a prisoners’ barrack room in Stalag Luft VIII, complete with sandbagged machine gun post and dummies in full German uniform outside the main entrance, being a particularly memorable one.

PoW party invite

Our local pub of choice was the White Horse at Thruxton just next to the famous racing circuit. We could be found there any day of the week but for some reason Tuesday evenings became the standard fixture. I have many a memory of being driven back to the Mess after closing time at breakneck speed through narrow Wiltshire lanes by friends who might not have passed the breathalyser test had they been asked. There was little traffic on those roads, however, and the boys in blue clearly had better things to do. Although there was the odd shunt we all survived more or less intact, thank goodness.

To come in Part 13; adventure training in Pakistan and Exercise Lionheart ’84.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

[1] Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked). The army just loves its acronyms.

 

 

 

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