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July 2019
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British Army

Bale Out!

Bale Out!
 
“Bale Out!”  Those two small words have a chilling meaning to any member of a tank crew.  It reminded Bill of the day he was driving his Sherman tank along the main road leading out of Eindhoven in Holland.  They were on their way to Arnhem where many of the Allied Airborne Regiments were fighting a hard battle that was supposed to end the war before Christmas 1944.  His Regiment was one of the tank regiments in pursuit of the enemy in order that they could break through the opposition and be able assist the Airborne Regiments who were having a tough time.  The weather was awful, the fields were sodden and none of the tanks were able to deploy other than from the main road.  This leading tank was in dire straits and the crew knew the predicament they were in and also there was no escape.  Still if it wasn’t them it would have been someone else.
 
 
Bill was the driver of the troop sergeant’s tank.  He was a Geordie and likeable, he had a devil may care attitude about him.  His co driver was little Joe, an ex brewery worker from Burton on Trent, a real quiet lad who liked nothing better than a pint of beer.  The gunner was Tom, a Londoner who worked at one of the post offices in South London and spoke as if he had a mouthful of marbles.  The wireless operator was Ken who always appeared to be out of place.  He was Cambridge educated and for some reason he had failed to be accepted as an officer by the Octu selection Board.  This was a bitter disappointment to him because he hoped to emulate his Brother who was a captain in the Indian Army.  Bill could only thank his lucky stars that Ken was just an ordinary trooper and not his commander.  However he was nice bloke and most of all a first class wireless operator.  He and Tom were soul mates.
 
The Sergeant was a regular soldier.  An ex-cavalry man who was a steady old plodder who had been a gunnery instructor and had come to the regiment direct from a training school.  He never looked for trouble and was forever restraining Bill who was the most experienced in the art of tank warfare.  He might have been a little keen but he had survived many months in battle wearing a suit of armour in the shape of a Sherman Tank all the way from the D.Day landings.  Having survived two bale-outs from this type of tank that was so vulnerable he actually gave it the name of Ronson, ‘one strike and it lights’.  Although being keen and at times openly very scared, he was always ultra careful and generally because of his experience, he was the first to spot anything that might be dangerous and would take the necessary action to save his fellow crew members.
 
Rain, rain and some more poured out of the heavens.  They had been on the go since the early hours of the morning and to be honest their nerves were on edge because they were on a tight rope sort of road and two of their tanks had already been knocked out previous to them taking over leading tank.  Bill, who didn’t smoke, grabbed one from Joe who had just lit a cigarette.  The Sergeant had his binoculars to his eyes and was complaining bitterly that they were useless because of the rain.  Now if the commander could not see, what chance had Bill who was peering through the periscope?  He opened his overhead hatch cover and stood up.  From then with a more limited view he began to realize how near he was to the enemy infantry that were lurking in the fields.  Being amazed to see them at either side of his tank.  In fact they were so near he was able to take pot shots at them with his revolver.
 
The chap on the turret of the Sherman was Captain Bill Budgin, 
He was an observation officer with the Artillery.  He was known as Stonker Bill, A great fellow and a first class soldier. 
 
The other three tanks of the troop were following behind and they were shooting off with their machine guns.  Bill’s commander was glad that his tank was on the road and the fleeing Germans could do no harm to him and his crew.  After all, they were only poor bloody infantry trying to stop being over-run.  So believing that everything was now plain sailing, the troop officer ordered Bill’s commander to push on.  It was probable that the Squadron Leader had received orders to speed up from the Colonel and they had been passed down the line.
 
Bill was a little wary of the order because they were now approaching a cross road.  Being a straight road and having no room for avoidance, he was certain that there had to be an anti tank gun or a tank somewhere around.  Just as he figured “Oh God!” He exclaimed.  There it was: he had momentary view of a red-hot shot hurtling down the middle of the road.  From its position it was certain that they would be hit.  Having no time to avoid being hit; Bill, like the whole crew, was terrified.  Instinctively he pulled on the tillers in an effort to try and deflect the approaching red-hot piece of metal.  Suddenly there was one terrific explosion; a shower of sparks and smoke and dust that clouded Bill’s eyes as he screamed, “Bale out!”
 
Instinctively he shot out of his seat and was through the open hatch without touching the sides however nearly breaking his neck as the earphone plug snapped from its socket.  He dived from the top of the tank into the road and rolled over into the dyke alongside.  What a predicament, only two or three minutes ago he had been taking pot shots at the enemy.  Now he was alone in dyke what a terrible predicament to be in.  Now after having shed his suit of armour he was at the mercy of the enemy infantry.
 
The tank stopped rolling and was beginning to burn profusely as the ammunition began to explode.  Bill had seen the gunner, operator and commander bale out.  Where was little Joe?  Apparently, his hatch cover had jammed by the impact of the shell hitting the tank.  However he must have had the foresight to use the hammer left for such a circumstance as this to enable him to bray open the emergency floor escape hatch.  It was fortunate they were on a tar macadam road.  If they had been deployed in one of the nearby fields there would have been no way of opening the hatch.
 
Bill could hear the commander shouting, he must have been wounded.  On standing up there was a whine of a shot that hit the soil in front of him.  It must have just missed his head by an inch. “That was a near one!”  God must have been with him as he ducked down, and made a dash across the road where he found the commander lying in the dyke; bleeding from the face and eyes.  He had been blinded.  He was pleased to see Little Joe who was there with his revolver at the ready.  Bill had unfortunately left his in the burning tank so he took the commander’s and told him to follow and Joe would keep him in line.  The other tanks were about two hundred yards away and they were busy giving the crossroads one hell of a stonk with high explosive shells.  Bill was crawling along the dyke to get rid of a German who was in their way but he didn’t wait for Bill, he legged it across the open field with a hail of gunfire after him.
 
The Sergeant was taken off Bill’s hands when he was picked up by the medics and was never to see any more battle experience.  (Bill never saw him again until many years later at one of the re-unions when he expressed his thanks for looking after him.)
 
Ken and Tom turned up later slightly bomb happy but weren’t they all.  Even after the near fatal ‘Bale Out’, two days later, Bill, Joe, Ken and Tom who had to spend a couple of nights in the open were promptly fitted up with another tank, a new Commander and transferred to another troop.  The war had to go on.  They never did get to Arnhem the road was so treacherous and well covered with anti tank guns causing the regiment to have a bad day and lose another ten tanks. Well that’s war one never knew when it was one’s turn to die.
 
Sergeant Will GRAY

"A" Squadron23rd Hussars Rgt

Campaigns

Battle of the Ardennes,

Belgium