1942 - 1943 - 1944 — North Africa/Italy
My Grandfather, Harry Ranson, served in the Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) during World War II. It wasn’t until 1942 that he was ended up in The Bays, prior to that he was driving lorries for the army, from Mum’s memory, and may have been in the RASC (to be confirmed when I receive his Military Records, which should arrive in the next 6 months). He missed El Alamein, but was involved in the left-hook at Mareth driving with 3 Troop, C Squadron. His tank was destroyed and he was the only survivor, this was mentioned in To War with the Bays by Jack Merewood, although Jack did get it wrong when he said that none of the crew survived:
We could see El Hamma ahead now. Between us and the village were trees and dense undergrowth. We trundled slowly and cautiously forward, our troop and No. 3 Troop in the lead. One of their tanks, commanded by Corporal Jim Nolan, was to our left and slightly ahead; I could see it through my periscope.
Then the quiet was suddenly shattered by a terrific bang. Anti-tank guns hidden in the trees ahead opened fire. I saw Jim's tank hit and it immediately burst into flames. He and his turret crew baled out, all three of them on fire. They ran about screaming ... and all died. The other two crew members never got out of the tank. (To War With The Bays: Chapter 32: Battle of the Mareth Line)
Grandad’s fellow crew members died and were buried in North Africa; Corporal George James (Jim) Nolan, Trooper Maurice Newton and Trooper Reginald Smith are all buried at the SFAX WAR CEMETARY, Nolan and Newton are beside each other. The fourth crew member, Trooper Reginald Frederick Bratby is memorialized on the MEDJEZ-EL-BAB MEMORIAL.
Grandad gets another mention in Jack’s book:
Our squadron was due to go back into action now but B Squadron was sent instead, so we weren't unhappy about that.
Some of us went into Forli. The town had only just been taken and was practically deserted, though there wasn't much damage to the buildings. There was a canteen but very little else. On the way back the driver ran the lorry into a ditch, and we had a walk of about a mile to the squadron.
It continued to rain, and for the first and only time ever, we were issued with gumboots. 'Not before time' was the general comment.
We weren't far from the front line, and could see and hear the battle for Faenza. 9 December: 'A barrage been going on all night, and what a barrage. We can see the guns flashing all along the plains. Infantry about a mile from Faenza. In the evening came the news that we were moving in the morning, but without tanks. Taking over A Squadron other side of river. As Dave and others going on a few days leave tomorrow I have to stay here.'
The towns of Rimini, Cesena, Forli, Faenza, Bologna and Modena are in a line along the foot of the Apennines, the mountains being to the west, and to the east the wide flat plain of the Po Valley. This was the line the fighting was following.
Next day all leave was cancelled, and the squadron left in lorries, leaving tanks behind, we're coming back for them some day. After journey over terrible roads, had lunch then transferred to Bren carriers which took us as far as they could get.'
Our troop was to take over the tanks of an A Squadron troop, so we left the Bren carriers and had a walk of about three miles along a track ahead, in places ankle deep in mud. We were taking over these tanks because some of them were so bogged down they were unable to move.
11 December: 'Last night we had a terrible walk. Done about two miles then Colin cracked up, said he couldn't go on, an extreme case of "shell-happiness".'
Colin just broke down and was almost in hysterics. Sid and I volunteered to take him back to the Bren carriers, while the rest of the troop waited. With Colin's arms around our shoulders we squelched our way back along the track. Another driver was there, 'Busty' Ranson, so we left Colin, and Busty came with us to take his place.
Once more, along with him, we trudged through the mud to rejoin the troop. It was extremely heavy going. There were scattered farms in the area, some occupied by German troops, and as it was now dark we half expected to end up as prisoners, but we kept to the track, and at 1 a.m. finally reached the farm we were bound for.
We had made it to a big barn, half-filled with hay. The New Zealand infantry were here, and the farm was shelled regularly during the night. When it came light we saw a number of bodies in the field outside, three or four Maoris and a Rhodesian with a huge piece of shrapnel embedded in his head.
Some of the surrounding farms were occupied by our own troops, but it was difficult to keep in contact with them. That morning a patrol of four men had been sent out on reconnaissance but they never came back. They must have gone to the wrong farm and had either been killed or taken prisoner.
About 200 yards up the field in front of us one of the A Squadron tanks was hiding from the Germans against the wall of a barn. Dave had gone up there the night before and relieved the tank commander. Tonight I had to go, taking three men with me to relieve the crew. My diary I think, puts it mildly, when it says that this was a 'pretty hair-raising experience'.
In the dark Haley, 'Lofty' Crisp, Busty Ranson and myself prepared for the ordeal. We crawled up the field at the side of a hedge. Here it was grassy, and though wet there was little mud. We had to go slowly, because although we knew in which direction the tank lay, we couldn't see it, and didn't want to suffer the same fate as the earlier patrol.
We'd crawled about 100 yards, then I whispered to the others to stay there. I was going to go on alone; if I didn't come back they had to return to the barn and report me missing. I crawled on, and then to my relief the dark shadow of the tank loomed up in front of me. I went back, told the men to follow me, and we came to the tank. There appeared to be some bodies by the side of it.
Dave and the crew were expecting us. It was very dark and I tapped on the side of the tank, but Dave had seen us. The other crew quickly got out and we dived into the tank. A few minutes later we heard shouting and an explosion.
Afterwards we learned that the crew had strayed off course on their way back to the barn and had run into a New Zealand patrol, who mistook them for Germans and threw a hand grenade at them. Two of them were hit in the legs, but immediately identified themselves. The atmosphere was extremely tense, and they could have easily been killed. As it was, the two men were not seriously hurt and the New Zealanders escorted them back to the barn.
There was a road not far away, and in the dark we heard a
German vehicle come along it. It stopped and we could hear the men shouting. We guessed it was a self-propelled gun. It opened fire, but it was shooting over the top of us in the direction of the barn behind. It fired a dozen shells or so, there was more shouting and the vehicle left.
Busty, the driver, and Haley, the scatter-gunner, had very little room to move and were cramped in their seats. Lofty, the operator, myself and Dave had a little more freedom in the turret, and took it in turn to be on guard half out of the top of the tank. To hand, for instant use if necessary, were a Tommy-gun and hand grenades, and we were also wearing loaded revolvers. The two who weren't on guard could push their heads out to see what was going on and keep the driver and scatter-gunner informed.
Next morning we saw that there really were bodies at the side of the tank, four German soldiers lying side by side and another a few feet away. We were only a yard or so from the wall of a barn, the tank parked parallel to it, and about ten yards away was an orchard. On the opposite side was a haystack.
Through the trees in the early morning mist we could see German soldiers moving about. The tank was facing away from the orchard. The driver and scatter-gunner could only see in front, but we in the turret could see all round.
It was Lofty's turn on guard, and he whispered that four of the Germans were slowly and cautiously coming towards the tank, through the trees. They were carrying a bazooka, a portable anti-tank gun, very deadly, but only when used at close range. They were coming towards the rear of the tank, obviously hoping to get near enough without being detected.
We kept very still and quiet. Lofty had the Tommy-gun at the ready and let them come closer. Then he opened fire. One of them he killed, another was wounded, a third gave himself up and the other ran away. On the wireless we contacted the Maoris back at the barn, who had heard the gunfire, and with the gun trained on the two men, Lofty directed them to the Maoris who were coming to collect them.
It had been very cold and cramped all night in the tank, but we got the stove going and made some tea and opened some tins of stew to warm us up. 'Jerry in house only 100 to 150 yards away and we have to be alert all the time - rather nerve-racking. Bitterly cold and raining. Listening to Jerries talking.'
There were no further incidents that day, but when it came dark we heard the SP gun come up the road again, fire several more shells, then drive away.
My turn on guard came around as dawn broke, but things were quiet. Dave took over and after a while whispered to us to look outside. A revolting sight met our eyes. A pig had come up and was eating one of the dead Germans, pulling at his leg. We watched it for a few minutes then could stand it no longer. Dave killed it with a single shot from the Tommy-gun. It sank to its knees on top of the dead soldier.
During the day the area was shelled heavily and the house adjoining our barn was hit numerous times, turning it into a pile of rubble. 'Things were hot, but about 7.30 p.m. they got even hotter because the haystack was hit. It caught fire and we had to evacuate quick.'
The blazing haystack was too close for comfort. We jumped out of the tank and ran down the fields and to our surprise were joined by some Italian civilians who had been hiding under the haystack. We made it back to our original farm and luckily no one was hurt.
This farm was now full of New Zealanders, many of them Maoris. We got on well together, and they were really good fighters.
That night they planned an attack to try to clear the area of Germans and advance. They left the barn, and we had little rest as they brought back some of the wounded and we helped with them. One young Maori died there as he lay on the ground in the barn. We covered him with a blanket and next morning helped to bury him just outside, in a corner of the farmyard.
There was heavy shelling all day. We heard one land about thirty yards away and waited for the explosion, but it didn't happen, so we went to look for it. It was a huge shell at least a foot in diameter and if it had exploded it would have blown us to Kingdom Come.
Meanwhile the Kiwi attack wasn't as successful as they'd hoped, but they brought back about fifty prisoners and had moved the enemy further away.
15 December: 'He shelled us heavily but we're lucky he didn't hit the house, troop going back, but some of us have to stop and try to get that tank out tomorrow.'
16 December: 'Sid, Dave, myself and a couple of men stayed behind last night and rest of troop left about 5.30 p.m. I lay on the straw with a couple of blankets and slept for fifteen hours! Wonderful! The Gurkhas attacked Faenza last night. New Zealanders advanced and now everything going well.'
It was quieter here now, and we went up to the tank. The haystack had burned out and the tank was undamaged. We drove it back to the barn, down the muddy track we’d recently walked, then back to the squadron a few miles away.( To War With The Bays: Chapter 59 – A Hair-raising Experience and Chapter 60 – Close-quarter fighting)