Sunday, June 4, 2017

Bovington and the Tank Museum


I’ve posted about my Dad and Grandfather here in the past 

(http://banbrv.blogspot.com/2014/11/john-g-downing-and-john-downing.html).

Dad was proud to have served in the British Army in the Second World War as a tank driver in the famous “Desert Rats”. He never talked about his experiences except on a few occasions he would remember a funny story about his experiences or about the time he spent the winter of 1944 in Holland. He always had nice things to say about Holland and the Dutch people.

I had looked at his war souvenirs when I was a child, and had borrowed the ancient Voitlander camera that he had “Liberated” during the war. With it he had taken pictures of Egypt and Libya, Holland and Germany. Surprisingly (or perhaps because he had no film?) there were none from Sicily or Italy where he also served.
He had a copy of the Regimental History, which as far as I could tell had never been opened. 

His Regiment the 44th Royal Tank Regiment was created solely for the war and was disbanded as soon as the conflict was over. The book then is pretty difficult to find and I was lucky he kept it. Also in the small metal tin where everything was kept were his medals and some business cards and postcards from Belgium.

After he passed away my Mum told me to take them, she had no interest in keeping them. My sisters took some things, and my niece asked if she could have the medal that her Grand Dad has given her if she could keep quite for 5 minutes! Dad had a good sense of humour and loved all his Grand Kids.

Back at home I took all the pictures and studied them, I read the Regimental History and other books on the North Africa Campaign. The History revealed the awful destruction that tank warfare wreaked, the tragedy of tank crews burned and killed when their vehicles were hit. heat and thirst, minefields. And the dreaded 88mm anti tank guns that tore apart the flimsy British armour.
I discovered that they had been on the beaches of Sicily and Italy as well as Normandy. They had swum across the Rhine River in “Swimming Tanks” and fought their way to Hamburg before the war finally ended.
Dad drove many of the tanks on display

They remained in Germany until 1946 as Occupation Forces and finally he came home.

His life picked up where he’d left it, as a van driver delivering bread from door to door for the Coop Bakery in Birkenhead. He didn’t attend any of the re-unions, didn’t join the regimental association. Didn’t join on conversations about the war.

At his funeral a gentleman in a British Legion blazer came over to talk to me. I had no idea who he was, he said simply “Your Dad never talked about the war did he?”. He looked at me with pain in his eyes “He had a terrible war, he went through Hell”.

The memorial to the tank crews 

At that point my emotions overwhelmed me and tears flowed. When I looked up he was gone. I’ve ached since then to discover who he was and how he knew Dad. Perhaps he too had had a terrible war.

I have pored over the pictures and books in the years since and drawn what to my mind is a story of where he went and what he experienced, but without him to speak it is all conjecture. I talked to my sisters and told them that with their approval I intended to visit the Tank Museum when I was in UK next and donate the photographs and documents to their archives. They both agreed it was a good thing to do.

Finally Barbara and I had the trip planned, we’d fly to London, buy a camper van somewhere, tour Europe and visit our friends and relatives around the UK. My Aunt Sheila lives in Portsmouth which is in the South of England and not to far from Bovington where the museum is located and she kindly let us stay with her while we arranged the details of buying the camper.

Bovington Camp is an active Army Facility. It is home to the Royal Armoured Corps and the training center for tank crews. In World War 1 it was the nest from which the Armoured fledgling service sprang.

Tanks were a British invention. Originally called Land Ships. Winston Churchill was the head of the British Navy at the time and his inventive mind came up with the need of a vehicle that could cross the trenches, breaking the deadlock on the western front.

 Some very bright Army Engineering types experimented with wheeled vehicles then ordered a tracked vehicle from the USA for experimentation. Although the American vehicle didn’t work for crossing the trenches it’s tracked system laid the way for vehicles that did. The tank was born.
A Grant tank, fore runner of the Sherman.

The museum staff welcomed Barbara and I very warmly and were very patient as I became completely emotional trying to describe Dad’s history. Eventually I relaxed and went thru it all with them giving the details that I knew about places and things. They were very keen on the collection as a whole. They explained that they rarely got so many photographs from the same source, usually one of two and often damaged. Dad’s were well preserved and together. 

The Archive staff looking thru the collection

Many photographs and documents.

The papers included the mimeographed instructions to the drivers for going assure on D-Day for the invasion of Sicily. That flimsy piece of paper was very rare and I marvel that it survived at all. His paybook, drivers licenses, letters from the Regiment at the completion of his service and of all things a booklet from the Coop describing the remembrance service for employees who had served were all welcomed and taken into their care to be kept together under his name.

A vast sense of relief washed over me. I was still very emotional as I shook hands with the curators of the archives and Barbara and I stepped out to tour the museum. I’m sure I felt Dad’s spirit with me when we reached the section describing Holland and the crossing of the Rhine by the “Swimming Tanks” of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment, his unit. I don’t know if he actually drove one of them, he did mention waterproofing the Shermans and Duplex Drive tanks but he was there and did cross the Rhine by barge, bridge or swimming.
The display describing Dad's Regiment the 44th RTR crossing the Rhine


Perhaps the last "Swimming Tank" in existence with skirts extended.
So I feel that he is in some way back with his comrades. His pride in the unit and his service never faded. Although he never talked about the horrors and pain, he did occasionally mention the humour and the humanity. A Dutch family he was billeted with had shared their meager food with him and he shared his rations with them because they were starving. 

He never forgot.

3 comments:

  1. My Dad never talked about his time during the War until he was in his late eighties and he had had a wee dram or two and a programme came on the TV about Monte Cassino and he mentioned he was there and his mate was blown up in front of him. If you asked about the war he used to say with a wry smile that he was "guarding the cookhouse in Aldershot". Stuart says that his Dad never mentioned his time during War either. Most of the ones that served didn't talk about it.

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  2. That's what they said at the museum, they never talked about it. The history is lost, the family don't recognize the significance of the mementos and they get thrown away. They said that the families bring the grandparents to the museum, see something from their past and finally start to talk about it. They have an ongoing project to record the verbal histories of the veterans, but they get fewer every year.
    They also steered us to the records office in Glasgow and is you have proof of your relationship and their name and service number they will print out the details of that person's service with units, postings, training, medical, medals etc., I think we'll try there next for Dad and it would be great to find out about Stew's Dad too. I know Barbara is very interested in finding out about his service so if you have his service number on anything we'd appreciate it and we'd naturally share anything we get.

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  3. Brian, Stuart says that there used to be a certificate from King Harald of Norway which hung on the wall when they were all kids but it wasn't there when Stuart and Hilary cleared the house out.

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