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The Pearson Valentine story continues.
Exercise Smash 44/04 Report
Due to the very short time between the end of the event and the deadline for submissions to Windscreen, this coverage can be little more than an explanation of the planning with a few photos. I mention this in the hope that others will later put their pictures forward for publication because I took very few. This was due to never having a minute, taking video and forgetting to get extra film!
The idea for this event came as a chance result of a calculation (guess really) of how long it would take to complete the restoration of my Valentine DD. In 2000, this seemed to mean that the construction phase would be finished by early 2003 leaving a year to dismantle, chip and paint. With full completion confidently expected (HA HA!) for early 2004, the question of where and when to show it came up. First thought was to take it to France for D-Day. Now Valentines were never used on D-Day, having been replaced by Sherman DD’s but the thought of turning up exactly 60 years too late was appealing. This was hoped to be from a landing craft. This had been mentioned in 1994 and in fact a tank landing craft went to Arromanche for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day empty. I could have gone on it if the restoration had been finished. In fact, I now realise it had hardly started! This left a gap for the early part of 2004.
If the tank was going south from the Midlands were it was built and being restored, then could it spend some time at Bovington on display, to repay in a small way the help they had given me over the years? This would be the pre D-Day period.
In the real pre D Day period, a number of rehearsals were held using the Valentine DD, the most important being the disastrous Exercise Smash 1.
The seaworthiness of the DD’s was a bit suspect but at that point the limits were not known. On Exercise Smash 1 the tanks were launched into sea conditions they could not cope with and 6 sank with the loss of six members of the 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards. These were mostly but not all drivers. Only one body was ever recovered and identified. A seventh tank was abandoned by its crew when it ran aground and later floated off on the next high tide. This was later sunk by the Navy to prevent it washing ashore so 7 tanks from the exercise still lie in the bay at Studland.
As a direct result of this disaster, the tactical thinking was altered, as was the command structure. It was decided that if the weather was bad on D Day (as it turned out to be) then an Army officer would decide how far out to sea the tanks would be launched.
The Americans did not make these changes and out of 32 tanks launched 5000yds off the beach at Omaha, 29 sank on the run in, leaving the troops to be cut down. In contrast, on the British and Canadian beaches, most tanks were taken much closer inshore, some were even taken right onto the beach and as a result more than 90% of those dispatched arrived and supported the infantry ashore. It is not stretching history too far to say that had the 6 not drowned at Studland then the British and Canadian tanks might also have been lost. All of the beaches could have been as unsuccessful as Omaha was initially, resulting in the withdrawal of the troops and the failure of D-Day entirely. This is not too far fetched, Eisenhower wrote but of course never used a signal taking full responsibility if D Day had failed.
The six men drowned at Studland was the one pivotal point but their sacrifice had no marker or memorial. It seemed right that my tank should be at Studland on the 60th anniversary (4 April 2004) and a brass plate be attached to a wall to commemorate their sacrifice and I started to ‘feel the water’ about other peoples views. I received the enthusiastic support of the National Trust (who now own Studland) and the Tank Museum, situated a few miles inland. The Creully Club is the ex service Association for wartime members of the 4/7RDG and they were enthusiastic.
Contact was made with the Royal Marines who agreed to provide a small landing craft and a bugler so that a wreath could be laid on the water and ‘Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ could be sounded. Someone at the Tank Museum suggested contacting The Royal Logistics Corps at Marchwood who agreed to supply a larger landing craft to take my tank, now with a Churchill AVRE from the Tank Museum to the beach. Very early on it was decided that no floating or deep wading would be attempted but to offload into shallow water for photographic purpose but not in any way risking the vehicles. Arrangements were made for the tanks to receive fresh water wash down after each salt water wetting: on the beach this was done with a small National Trust fire engine and on the Landing craft it was done with some of the crafts 20 tons of fresh water.
It turned out that the modern Regiment, the Royal Dragoon Guards, were planning a commemoration in the form of a diving team putting a wreath on one of the wrecks in the bay and our respective ideas were pooled and combined. This also put me in contact with Sergeant Major Smith (‘Smudger’) who has been a tower of strength. It has really been his organisation that has made a reality of my plans, which would certainly have come unravelled without his help. This was particularly so as the restoration timetable slipped and I came closer to a nervous breakdown that was just avoided!
A couple of plans were cancelled: the Royal Marines also offered a DUKW, still in service of course but this offer came too late to organise free transport via Army contacts and the cost of transport was prohibitive.
The other change to the plan was to have a Challenger2 brought to the beach by a second RLC landing craft. This was cancelled due to a number of problems, including engine trouble with the 2nd craft, the fact that the uparmoured Challenger 2 is really too heavy for the bow door of the craft which was built for Chieftain/Challenger 1 and a fear due to the geography. If there was a problem with the Challenger, it could not be winched back into the landing craft and due to the narrow roads, no heavy recovery could be got there to assist. If this was a tactical test and it went wrong, well these things happen. As it was, if this commemoration resulted in the loss of a £3 million Challenger because someone decided to help some fat civilian from Wolverhampton (me) then heads would roll, from a long way up the chain.
These losses were more than made up by the offer of an RAF flypast. I cheekily asked for the Lancaster but was offered the more than acceptable C130 Hercules. This was planned to overfly the RM landing craft at the conclusion of the Service and drop 40,000 poppy leaves. As it turns out, 5 times the amount would have been ok but as I had to pay for them myself, the number was limited to that as a token.
The only service missing was the Navy so a Naval officer was obtained to lay the wreath in the water so all services were represented. This latter part was the easiest part to organise as he was my younger son.
All relevant ex service associations were contacted and invited, as were several individual veterans. The plaque (by now an engraved piece of slate) was to be unveiled by General (retired) Sir Robert Ford who as a young Lieutenant had actually been on one of the tanks that sank in the exercise. The other two crew did not survive. The widow of one of the men whose body was not recovered agreed to lay a wreath if her health was up to it.
Local MVT area secretaries were contacted to ask if they would lend their support and several privately owned softskin and armoured vehicles were promised. In the end only one privately owned tank turned up, the BARV owned by Rex Cadman but a variety of softskins attended and were very appreciated by the audience. There was a certain amount of confusion due to a re-enactment planned for 17/18 April at Studland. Initially the National Trust was keen for my event to tie in with plans made by re-enactors who regularly attend Studland. This proved to difficult to co-ordinate due to differing plans and the views of the veterans and so the two events were split. Several vehicle owners contacted me thinking it was the re-enactment event on the 3 and 4th April and I suppose the re-enactors do on 17/18 will draw some veterans/public who think it is the Commemoration.
With the event largely planned and ‘Smudger’ and David Willey from the Tank Museum doing the final details, my attention and time was spend on finally finishing the Valentine, or at least getting it close enough to take part. The Royal Engineers (on a driver training exercise) collected the tank on Tuesday 30 March and it arrived at Bovington the next day. We worked on it 31st and 1st of April but it was still incomplete (see elsewhere in this issue) when it went on the lowloader to load onto the landing craft. Tanks and craft were tied up overnight at Poole, creating quite a sensation and crews and the BBC joined it early on the Saturday morning for the run to Studland.
Just as the mooring ropes were being slipped, the coxswain announced that we were going out into the Channel for the BBC to do some filming and then returning to Poole. What about taking the tanks to Studland? Cancelled due to a storm forecast for early evening when the craft would still be aground!
There then followed a period of intense negotiation and telephone calls and the coxswain was persuaded to at least give it a try. Due to the wind direction, Studland itself was calm and with a full load of ballast water he grounded his craft. Due to the depth of water, we had a very long wait for the tide to drop and several people on the beach were disappointed although we did manage to stick to the final published timetable which had been calculated with just such eventualities in mind.
Rex’s BARV entertained the people ashore and I spent a lot of time talking to many veterans who had attended. Just after lunch I waded back to the craft and we drove the Valentine off the craft and into the water.
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Even though I knew it wasn’t deep, it was still a scary moment as the water rose higher and higher up the nose but then we were flat on the sands and climbing the beach to applause from all present.
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The Churchill followed and looked magnificent. The whole thing was filmed by Sky news as a live broadcast and also by the BBC for transmission between 1-6 June.
The landing craft, now 57 tons of tank and about 100(?) tons of ballast lighter was able to leave a couple of hours after low tide. This was lucky as the predicted storm came in, necessitating parking a car on each side of an Army 12x12 tent to stop it blowing away. Had the landing craft been ashore in this it would certainly have been damaged and presumably the coxswain court martialled.
Dawn on the 4th was clear blue skies and sunshine and although it did not stay quite so good throughout the day, the weather was much better than the Saturday.
The Royal Marines landing craft anchored and about 150 veterans gathered for the Commemoration Service about 400yds south of the vehicles at Fort Henry on Redend Point. A simple service was held and General Ford explained to all present what had happened exactly 60 years ago. The plaque was unveiled and wreaths laid. Exactly on time, the Hercules appeared and released the poppy leaves. Suddenly, it was over and I could relax! I was interviewed by a number of TV companies and newspapers and then in the early afternoon we gave several demonstration runs along the water’s edge. These runs were accompanied by the BARV in deeper water, which created a magnificent bow wave at speed. Then it was time to load the Churchill and the Valentine back onto the landing craft to await the return of the tide and transport to Poole to offload.
After I had got out of the turret on the Saturday, just after landing, someone asked if it was worth it: 20 years of work for that moment and my reply was I am not sure. On the Sunday, I got a public thank you from a General and a Colonel and a round of applause from the veterans. I got a private thank you from the widow of one of the young men drowned 60 years ago whose body had never been recovered. Then I knew that it had all been worth it.
Photos: (that were in the original article)
1: Loading Valentine onto landing craft, Hamworthy, 2 April 2004
3: Tanks on Landing craft, Poole Town Quay, 2 April
4: Tanks on landing craft, approaching beach at Studland Bay 3 April
5: Some of the veterans at the Commemoration Service, Redend Point 4 April
6: General Sir Robert Ford and myself (I am the one with glasses)4 April
My thanks to John.
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