With their retreat from France in 1940, the performance of the Tank regiments in the British army had been ruthless exposed by the German Panzers.
The advantages built up during the First World War have been wasted during the Inter year wars and the aggressive use of Panzer divisions to exploit breakthroughs leave the BEF reeling and in a desperate retreat to the coast and rescue.
For the 5th Royal Tank Regiment the campaign in France is a huge disappointment, with hardly a shot fired in anger they have to abandon their tanks to the enemy as they breakdown or run out of petrol.
Returning to England with their tails between their legs, The Tank Regiments have to resupply and re-learn the lessons lost, for the deserts of North Africa await.
Mark Urban has a very simple premise for most of his books, Pick one unit that has fought across the entire conflict (e.g. 95th Rifles in the Peninsular war, 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers in War of Independence) and then follow it and the men through the trials and tribulations of the conflict.
In his new book we follow the 5th Royal Tank Regiment from the humiliations in France to the successes of D-Day and the race to Berlin via North Africa and Italy. This is much more than a regimental history of the 5th RTR and one of the key features of his books is following individual men within the units. This gives the book a much more personal story you wouldn’t normally get with a standard regimental history.
With this, the author has been blessed with a cast of characters to work with. From the suave and dapper officer Arthur Crickmay to the irascible and uncompromising Sgt Waldrop, Urban takes us their journey from green and untried soldiers in France to the tough and highly experienced tank crews that arrive in Berlin in 1945.
You develop a real connection with these men in their daily struggle to stay alive and how they deal with poor equipment and even worse, poor officers. In this, Urban isn’t afraid to show the darker side of war.
While the courage, dash and comradeship is covered it also revels the grumbles and complaints of the men. We learn first hand the difficulties of tank warfare and the ever present fear of ‘Brewing up’.
The stress and adrenalin of battle is covered nicely by Sgt Waldrop during an encounter with a Tiger tank in Normandy:
“I discovered then that I was having some difficultly in swallowing and in keeping a muscle in my knee from twitching. The lads told me too that I had been sitting on top of the tank shouting “Come on you square-headed bastards!” such is the red rage of battle.
As battle fatigue and the horror of seeing their mates killed catch up on them you see the first signs of insubordination and anger to officers deemed ‘Suspect or to gung-ho’
From mutiny and reluctance to go into battle to the killing of prisoners Urban doesn’t try to make these men out to be heroes (even though they are) but normal men who under extraordinary circumstances have to make choices under trying and stressful conditions.
While the author also charts the development of the tank and the tactics used during the war and how the British learned hard lessons from the mistakes in France and the early battles in North Africa it is the personal stories from the crews that make this book.
It is well paced and uses the personal testaments of the men to push the book along and with a good selection of pictures this is a cracking read.