Burning Steel

Peter Hart

A new book commemorates the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry during the Second World War.
The 2nd F&FY cross the Weser in 1945
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It seems so long ago; but once it was ‘all of our yesterdays’. My Burning Steel book is based on an oral history project interviewing the veterans of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (2nd F&FY) whilst working as the oral historian for the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive in the years 1998-2001. They were an amazing group of men, with a quiet pride in their personal contribution, their comrades, and all they had achieved collectively as a regiment. They had good reason to be proud.
We interviewed as many veterans as we could find to get the widest possible picture of events, looked at from a variety of perspectives. Tank commanders, loaders/wireless operators, gunners, drivers and co-drivers; officers, NCOs and troopers; nor did we forget the ’backroom boys’ who kept the whole show on the road: the ‘A’ and ‘B’ Echelon fitter/mechanics, lorry drivers and storemen.

We knew we had left it late, as they were well over the Biblical three score years and ten. Contrary to the aphorism that ‘Old soldiers never die they just fade away’ veterans do indeed die – and before that they face declining health and memory problems that can render interviews an impossibility. Collectively, the interviewers shared a determination to pay tribute to what these men had done for us in the fight against Nazi Germany in the best way we could – by preserving their incredible memories that would otherwise be lost.

A Churchill as used by the F&FY.

When I was growing up, it seemed that Second World War veterans surrounded me wherever I went. For people of my generation, the veterans were our fathers and uncles, our teachers, the ‘old buffers’ we encountered in our first jobs. Now, in 2022, with very few exceptions, they are gone – and it is the turn of my generation to ‘feel our age’ after a life that has thankfully never been tested by war. I wish I had spent more time talking to them as a boy, more time interviewing them when I was working at the IWM. After all I had plenty of opportunity – I could certainly have worked harder. It is now too late; they are gone. Nevertheless, despite such regrets, we have still secured an amazing collection of some fifty interviews which range in length from 1 to 15 hours.

Thus Burning Steel is the story of a tank regiment told by the men themselves, in their own words. Raw and visceral recollections of some of the most dramatic and horrific scenes that I ever heard described in nearly 40 years of interviewing veterans. The sheer nerve-wracking tension of serving in the highly inflammable Sherman tank, said to be known to the Germans as the ‘Tommy Cooker’, and certainly known to the lads as ‘the Ronson’, after the cigarette lighter which was boasted by the manufacturer to ‘always light first time’. The impact of a German anti-tank shell or panzerfaust missile, the desperate scramble to bail out, the awful fate of those who couldn’t. Even if they made it out of the tank, they were still vulnerable to being brutally cut down by the machine guns and hand grenades of German infantry. These were moments of horror recalled by far too many of them. Although able to duel on equal footing with the German Mark IV Panzer, the Sherman was outclassed by the Panther and Tiger tanks. And most of all they feared the German 88mm guns. All they had in their favour was brute numbers as the Shermans rolled off the production lines in their thousands. New tanks and crews would usually arrive almost immediately to replace painful losses.

Burning Steel charts as honestly as possible what the men thought had happened, checked against the facts as far as they can be established. Sometimes the stories do not entirely match, but there is enough agreement to make this a worthwhile exercise. This is as close as we can now get to a sense of ‘what it was like’ at the sharp end of armoured warfare.

Peter Hart is the author of Burning Steel: A Tank Regiment at War 1939-1945.

Aspects of History Issue 9 is out now.