Musings of a REAL Tank Commander: Part 6 Some regimental history

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander: Part 6 Some regimental history

by Stuart Crawford
article from Wednesday 6, May, 2020

AS I SAID in the last episode, I thought it might be useful for the casual reader if I were to look in a little bit more detail at the history of the #BARITWE (Best Armoured Regiment In The World Ever). It started for 4 RTR, and indeed for the whole of the Royal Tank Regiment, in the First World War of 1914-18 when tank was introduced by the British – with much encouragement from one Winston Churchill – as a means of breaking the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front.

Making its debut at Flesquieres on the Somme on 15th September 1916, D Company of the Tank Corps, and later D Battalion, was the historical ancestor of 4th Tonks. After peace came in 1918 the Tank Corps became the Royal Tank Corps, which in turn became the Royal Tank Regiment just before the outbreak of war in 1939. There were actually three iterations of 4 RTR during the Second World War.

The first was the Regiment that deployed to France in 1939 as part of the British Expeditionary Force (pictured above). Its most significant action was the Arras Counterattack on 21st May 1940, when in conjunction with its sister regiment 7 RTR and two battalions of the Durham Light Infantry in support, it attacked Rommel’s 7 Panzer Division and gave the Germans a bit of a fright, albeit at the loss of most of its tanks. This action may even have contributed to the decision by Mr Hitler to order his panzers to stop their dash for the Channel and helped get the remnant of the BEF away at Dunkirk, but we’ll never really know. As it was, that was basically it for 4th Tonks. Most of those remaining got home in the evacuation but all its equipment was lost.

The second iteration which rose from the phoenix of the last (although 4 RTR didn’t disappear altogether after Dunkirk) was reformed from the remnants of the Regiment and 7 RTR, forming 4/7 RTR for a few months before returning to its proper title. After re-equipping and training in the UK it was sent to North Africa in 1941 to take on Rommel and his panzers again. Sadly, it was part of the Tobruk garrison which surrendered to the German/Italian enemy on 21st June 1942 and “went into the bag” as the common parlance of the time might put it.

After that 4 RTR did not appear in the British Army’s order of battle until 1st March 1945 when, for reasons I don’t fully understand, 144 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) was re-designated 4 RTR to replace the original immediately before the Rhine crossing Operation Plunder. 4 RTR crossed the Rhine in its Buffalo amphibious vehicles (pictured above) on the night of 23/24th March 1945, carrying infantry of the 51st (Highland) Division. The Regiment ended the war in northern Germany.

In the post war drawdown of the British Army 4 RTR eventually amalgamated with 7 RTR but kept its title. After serving in various places around the rapidly diminishing British Empire, it saw out the majority of the rest of its days in Germany as part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). Then, disastrously for all concerned, the #BARITWE was amalgamated in 1993 with 1 RTR and was no more. Today there is only The Royal Tank Regiment, a single battalion sized tank outfit based in Tidworth on Salisbury Plan, where its predecessor 4 RTR had previously been stationed in 1982-84. This Regiment carries on many of the traditions of the Fourth, including Pipes and Drums and the Hunting Rose tartan it wears, but is very definitely not the same.

When I joined 4 RTR in 1980 it was very firmly Scottish and called itself “Scotland’s Own”. I think we may have had the highest proportion of Scots soldiers in any of the Scottish regiments at that time, including the traditional infantry battalions of the Scottish Division, but I have no means of proving that claim. The association with Scotland had developed gradually over the Regiment’s history, and an important milestone had been the establishment of its Pipes and Drums – against general establishment disapproval and resistance, by Lt Col Laurie New* in the mid 1970s. Be that as it may, we recruited exclusively in Scotland by the time I joined, although a few from other parts of the UK and Commonwealth managed to sneak in. To use a footballing analogy, getting posted to 4 RTR was like being transferred to Real Madrid. Everybody who was anybody wanted to be part of it.

4RTR Pipe Major Harden and a Chieftain Tank in 1983 at Tidworth

We weren’t at all like our sister regiments, 1, 2, and 3 RTR, whom we regarded as nice enough but a bit pedestrian (although 1 RTR had an outstanding CO in Lt Col Mark Goodson – but he was exported to them from 4 RTR to sort them out!). One senior retired General, who had all four RTR regiments in his command at one point or another, recently observed that “4 RTR was a Scottish regiment that just happened to share a cap badge with three others”, and I think that’s a fair summary of the situation. We didn’t actually dislike the other RTR regiments, we just didn’t seem to have very much in common with them.

In many ways we probably had more in common with the cavalry, although you’d have to ask them about that as well. We called them “donkey wallopers” and didn’t really meet up with them in the field much, but there were friendships established on the various courses we attended together which last up to today. In Munster the 17/21st Lancers were just down the road and there was much to-ing and fro-ing between the officers’ messes at the time. They were a nice bunch and we had many friends there. I also got to know one or two officers from the Life Guards, the Blues and Royals and from other cavalry regiments and they always seemed pretty sound to me. Heaven forfend, but 4 RTR even ran the Tidworth Horse Trials one year! Our predecessors must have been turning in their graves, but it was actually great fun.

We did have a special affinity with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Scots DG), much as we might refer to them as “Scotland’s other armoured regiment” when we wanted to irritate them. Their infamous officers’ “Long Range Destruction Group” was before my time, but its exploits during visits to our Mess in Munster are the stuff of legend (More to come? – Ed.) During the 1991 Gulf War we supplied them with a handful of subalterns and other ranks who saw action with them during the ground war and all of whom were most complimentary about their wartime comrades when they returned. I knew a few of their officers fairly well as did others.

We were therefore hugely disappointed when we learned that, during the rationalisation of the Royal Armoured Corps that followed the Gulf War, the RTR hierarchy spurned an approach from them suggesting that they might amalgamate with us, as seemed eminently sensible as we shared exactly the same recruiting area. That new regiment would have been a force to be reckoned with, and what a pipe band it would have had!  Sadly, as previously noted, 4 and 1 RTR amalgamated in 1993 to form a new 1 RTR, and the Fighting Fourth disappeared from the British army’s order of battle for good, much to everyone’s regret.

To come in Part 7, working on tanks (at last), exercises and getting lost.

* Now Lt General Sir Laurie New

© Stuart Crawford 2020

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