A Churchill tank named Ballymoney

Bracken Anderson writes about how a crewman in a NIH tank named Ballymoney won the Military Medal for repairing his tank whilst under attack from intense enemy fire.

Wednesday, 28th April 2010, 2:18 pm

THE Squadron Sgt. Major (SSM) of B Squadron, North Irish Horse was in a state of crimson fury, as he stood before Trooper D…. who was not of military bearing. The SSM scanned the dishevelled tank crewman up and down whilst spewing forth a tirade of oaths and military jargon that would have made the devil blush. Trooper D. hailed from a farm near Ballymoney, and he looked like he had fallen into his uniform, tipped from a skip, in his innocence he had joined the Cavalry thinking he was to be a horse soldier. He knew how to work horses, it was a shock to his system when he was assigned as a tank crewman.

By February1943 the NIH , as a Churchill tank regiment, had arrived in North Africa, to help take on the might of Rommel and "Panzer Armee Afrika." Trooper D. was now in his element… virtually no more parades, no saluting, no drill, and oil stained overalls were optional. To most of B Sqn it came as a surprise to find that Trooper D. took to tank driving as a duck to water.

A 40 ton Churchill tank housed a crew of five….Commander, Gunner, Radio op./ gun loader, Driver and Co-driver/ machine gunner. Fear was not in Trooper D's vocabulary, in battle,he kept his driver vision port open, much to the irritation of his crewmates. He maintained his "Granny had the second sight". However his exasperated tank commander, Cpl. White eventually persuaded Driver D that the rest of his crew didn't share his faith in his granny or her second sight!

Many tanks in B Sqn were knocked out in battle, however "Ballymoney" appeared ever dependable. Driver D.was often seen patting his tank ,lovingly declaring out loud that "they were going to make it".

Fierce fighting prevailed in Tunisia, NIH tanks accompanied Infantry regiments in attacking and capturing German-held hilltops. One such strategic attack was on Point 760. The dawn attack was preceded by an artillery barrage from 600 guns.As the smoke dispersed, tanks advanced. Germans holding the high ground hurled everything at them…machine gun bullets , HE and AP shells, plus the dreaded, deadly Mortars. Suddenly feared events occurred….a blinding flash, an enormous bang and "Ballymoney" shuddered to a grinding halt. The crew were stunned into shocked silence, which was punctured by the extraordinary behaviour of Driver D. The quiet tank driver erupted into a boiling fury. Up to now, he never had a bad word about anyone, now , the war was personal--the Germans had delivered a shattering blow against his beloved tank. His Churchill filled with the stench of cordite fumes and billowing smoke, it was time to evacuate the disabled tank.

The OC's (Officer Commanding) voice came over the radio, telling the stunned

crew they had been hit by an HE (High Explosive) shell which had smashed a track.

The tank was abandoned through the co-driver's side door. Outside the battle roared.

Cpl. White called out to his crew…Driver D. did not answer. The Cpl. shouted out again trying to locate his driver. A loud voice boomed out over the terrifying din of battle, it was Driver D raging that the Germans weren't going to destroy his tank…..he was dodging flying bullets and explosions, fixing the track. The tank Cpl. couldn't believe it, he ordered his driver to crawl round and join the rest of the his mates to the rear. Driver D. screamed back telling Cpl White to "go to hell" then he asked his co-driver friend to crawl forward and help him remove track pins. Before Cpl White could stop him the co-driver had gone to help his mate fix the track. In a lull in the fighting the Cpl stood up to see what was happening….he witnessed his co-driver and driver using crow bars, and sledge hammers, then lifting three spare track plates ,(each 56lbs in weight) into place. Bullets bounced off the tank as they worked.

It was an incredible act of courage under heavy fire. Later, Cpl White radioed in his call-sign…."Baker four B to Baker four…we are back in action!"

B Sqn HQ was astonished at the news, however "Ballymoney" was given new enemy targets and the crew knocked out two German gun emplacements on the way. The enemy never imagined tanks could climb such high positions, they were mystified at the amazing climbing capabilities of the Churchill tank, unequalled by any other British tank at that time. Battle over,… B Sqn was relieved, Trooper D was informed that although he had disobeyed orders, he was to be commended for his actions.

He was awarded the Military Medal, "for gallantry far beyond the cause of duty".

Another big event in Driver D's life was when the SSM again approached him, and admonished him for still being scruffy, however he then applauded Driver D's actions as that of a hero or madman…..he wasn't terribly sure which, but he reckoned hero was the more likely of the two.

For the first time in his army career, the big quiet Co. Antrim farmer stood in a soldierly manner as he leaned beside his tank with BALLYMONEY painted on its sides, and he felt every inch a proud North Irish Horse tankman!

(The Military medal is no longer issued,… superseded by the Military Cross)

* This story is taken from a collection of events written by NIH tankmen after the war. Bracken has been researching the NIH for 12 years and is a member of the Regt Association.

In all, 20 Mil. Crosses and 22 Mil. Medals were awarded to NIH personnel during WW11. This story is just one, in a sea of heroic actions.