Friday, February 22, 2013

World War II’s Killer Tank

When this Churchill tank came ashore at Sword Beach in June, 1944, no one could have known how dangerous it really was - and not to the Germans.

The tank was called “experimental” because it was built with a new type of turret designed to give better protection to its crew. It was sent to a forward squadron which had suffered heavy crew losses over a period of several days. Its hastily assembled crew named their new tank “Alice” in honor of the wife of its oldest crewman.

On July 1, 1944, Alice went on her first patrol. As she entered a village believed to be free of German troops, a lone German antitank crew opened fire on her, shattering the turret. The three- man turret crew died instantly., another was killed by debris and a fifty died in a hail of bullets.  The tank skidded off the road into a dyke, losing a track in the process. A Crocodile following Alice saw the antitank gun and destroyed it with its flamethrower.

After burying its crew, the tank was recovered from the dyke and hauled back to Sword Beach.  Engineers at the plant where the turret had been built wanted to study the damage, so she was sent back to Yorkshire, England. As she was being unloaded in the factory yard, Alice slipped sideways off the concrete ramp, pinning the yard foreman and a worker against the ramp and killing both men instantly.

The experimental turret was determined to be unsuccessful and she was refitted and sent to a training regiment. Alice now was assigned to a three-man training crew and two instructors.  After a night of heavy rain, the two instructors went back to their base at Catterick, leaving the young trainees alone with the tank. The boys decided to seek shelter under the tank. At first light, the camp guards discovered that the tank had sunk into the mud, crushing the three young trainees.

The Royal Army told the families of the three trainees that the young men had died in a training accident. Alice was moved to the RAC Gunnery School in Dorset where she was used in training tank gunners and fitters.

All went well for awhile, but in October 1946, a trainee gunner had a misfire. The procedure in that case was to wait two minutes, then move the tank downrange for safety. The crew then left the tank and the breech was opened to eject the shell and place it safely on the ground. But this time the Range Control officer violated the protocol. He took the place of the tank’s driver and drove the tank onto the range. Then he climbed into the turret and opened the breech. The hot shell exploded into the turret and killed the Range Control Officer. Eleven people were now dead.

Alice was stripped of all usable parts and left on Bindon Hill as a target to be shot at by any tank needing some practice. Over the years, she gradually broke down into a rusty pile of scrap metal. But the old tank wasn’t finished.

In August 2004 a German student was walking near Bindon Hill when it began to rain. He decided to take shelter in Alice’s rusting remains. The torrential rain continued, along with thunder and lightning. Suddenly there was an explosion and the tank was thrown into the air, along with the student. The cause of the explosion was never determined.

Alice never killed again. But she had been involved in eleven deaths during her long, deadly lifetime. And she had never killed a single enemy soldier.

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