Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 10 Hairy moments, wild mustangs and Medicine Hat...

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 10 Hairy moments, wild mustangs and Medicine Hat...

by Stuart Crawford
article from Thursday 4, June, 2020

THE ULTIMATE training, for us tank soldiers at least, was in Canada, or more specifically at the British Army Training Unit, Suffield (BATUS), in Alberta.  BATUS was, and is, a remarkable training facility which the British Army has used under licence from the Canadian Government since 1972. It comprises some thousand square miles of prairie in western Canada where, because of lack of population, buildings, and infrastructure, we were free to manoeuvre and fire our weapons almost at will.  

For a tank troop leader it is the confirmation and testing of competence, a rite of passage between enthusiastic amateur and professional if you like, where every aspect of military skill is applied to a variety of problems set by the staff permanently based there.  It is also a hurdle at which many commanders and Regiments have fallen over the years and, while officially no report is produced to anyone apart from the commanding officers of units who go there, the word soon gets out when units and individuals are found wanting.

On average, whilst stationed in Germany as part of 1 (Br) Corps, you might expect to go to Canada once every two years. But you didn’t go as a regiment, you went as a battle group (BG), an all arms organisation based on a regimental headquarters with all the required bits and pieces from other units tacked on. When I first went to BATUS in 1981 with my troop it was as part of the Scots Guard BG; C and D Squadrons 4th Tonks were their tank support, but it was essentially their exercise.

I rather liked the Scots Guards.  True, they were quite different to us in many ways, and their relationship between officers and soldiers was more formal than ours. But they were infantry soldiers and didn’t have that extraordinary close bonding that came with serving in a tank crew. In the field I thought they were really, really good. In barracks, in the officers’ mess, they had this thing where if you wore your hat at breakfast it signified that you didn’t want anyone to talk to you. We thought this was really funny, and went out of our way to engage anyone so attired in conversation, just for the Hell of it. Being Guards officers they indulged us and were endlessly charming and polite. We got on just fine.

I can’t actually remember how we got from Germany to Canada the first time, but assume we flew civvy from Dusseldorf to Calgary. If it had been the RAF we would have been kept waiting for hours while the crew had a leisurely breakfast and then flown backwards across the Pond (RAF transport aircraft had the seats facing backwards at that time) but I can’t remember any such delay. There then followed a bus ride to Camp Crowfoot, the military base near the wonderfully named town of Medicine Hat and from whence we would sally forth into the endless prairies on northern Alberta. Plush is not the word that springs to mind in describing our accommodation, but it was fine. 

Obviously we didn’t take our tanks with us, so we picked up our exercise vehicles at the aptly named dustbowl at Camp Crowfoot, taking them over from the previous BG. There were always some bits and pieces missing from the tanks equipment, so all sorts of tricks were employed to avoid having to pay for “diffies”. We did exactly the same when we handed over to the next lot! A BG comprised a lot of vehicles and was a pretty big deal as the photos show.

Eventually we deployed on to the training area proper, along the Rattlesnake Road if I remember correctly. Then we were out on the prairie living off our tanks for three weeks I think, apart from the occasional shower truck shuttle back to camp for a clean up. Deploying on to the area introduced us to the dust. I was the middle of summer and hadn’t rained for months, so each tank threw up a huge plume of dust which got everywhere – mouth, eyes and nose plus other awkward less mentionable spots. It was also frighteningly hot at times – I recorded 116̊F (no idea what that is in new money) in the turret on one occasion.

The Canadian prairie is, somewhat paradoxically, both bleak and beautiful.  The initial impression of never-ending flatness and loneliness is soon replaced by delight at the fascinating folds and rises of the land; far from being flat, the prairie is crossed by numerous riverbeds, called coullees in this part of the world, and broken by hills and escarpments which hide undiscovered valleys and plains.  Most of it is wild grassland, which supports a wide array of wildlife from occasional herds of wild mustangs down to the numerous colonies of gophers, some of which are half tame after being fed by visiting troops over the years. There is also evidence of man's previous occupation of the area in the form of stone rings marking where the native Indians pitched their tepees, usually found in the more sheltered sites or near the rivers.

The usual progression for exercises was followed, troop level followed by squadron/company group with the infantry, and then the full bhuna with the BG, involving engineers, artillery, helicopters, old Uncle Tom Cobley and all. The main difference was that we were using real bullets and manoeuvring at the same time, proper fire and movement. The area was so vast that we could really only be a danger to ourselves. Tanks had two white lines painted down either side of the turret and the basic rule of thumb was that, if you saw a target and there was nothing “friendly” within the arc of the two white lines, you could blast away to your heart’s content. We were accompanied by members of the BATUS permanent staff in their dayglo painted vehicles who were there mainly to maintain safety, but most of the time we were just left to get on with it. 

It had its hairy moments. In those pre-GPS days all navigation was by old-fashioned map reading. A few of the old sweats who’d been in the Middle East back in the day used to talk about using a sun compass, but they were just swinging the lamp. There were virtually no features in the terrain – the very few trees were individually marked – so unless you learned quickly how to read the contours you would become lost. And tanks did get lost, and could pop up anywhere, so you had to be careful. One troop leader was fired at by his squadron leader who mistook his tank for a target. The DST round would have gone through the back of the turret had it hit, but luckily his gunner was having an off day. Another exercise was brought to a shuddering halt just as another squadron leader was about to open fire with half his squadron on the other half commanded by his 2ic.

Sadly occasionally there were tragic accidents. On one occasion I remember, an infantry mortar bomb fell short and against all the odds dropped through the open hatch of another vehicle, killing the crew. On another occasion one of the REME* Armoured Recovery Vehicles (ARV) got lost and wandered through a restricted area that had the remnants of mustard gas testing during WW2 and the crew received some nasty, but non-fatal thankfully, burns to the legs.  But most of the time it was exhilaratingly good fun, and I well remember thinking that there was nothing else in the world I would rather do.

At Endex we came off the prairie, repaired the vehicles, cleaned ourselves up and were granted a few days R&R, of which the less detail the better. Whilst people could, and did, wander further afield, most of the boys spent it locally. The nearest town to Camp Crowfoot, Medicine Hat, was a popular destination. Of particular notoriety was a bar called the Sin Bin which was out of bounds to officers such was its reputation. By all accounts it was dark and cavernous with tables arranged saloon style and waitress service only. It laid on “adult oriented entertainment” from lunchtime onwards and the floor was always sticky with spilt beer. It was, not to beat about the bush, a bit of a dive. Trouble was not uncommon there, and the Alberta State Police always stationed two or three patrol cars outside in the evening to sort out whatever fracas might develop. 

As for me, I took my three weeks’ annual leave at the end of the exercise with a friend and hitch-hiked down to San Francisco and back, in the days when you could still do that sort of thing and live. That, however, is another story altogether and for another time. 

*Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

To come in Part 11; “jollies” and adventure training.

© Stuart Crawford 2020

 

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