“May the fathers long tell the children about the tale.” Winston Churchill By the side of a road running through Thetford Forest stands a lone second world war tank. It’s hard to believe that this quiet spot was once temporary home to 14,000 men preparing for the greatest battle in British history.

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An out of the way kind of place.

The Desert Rat symbol.

Early in 1944 the Seventh Armoured Division arrived in England for the only time in its career. The division had made a name for itself since its formation in 1938 to protect the Suez Canal in Egypt and oilfields then held by Britain. After fighting successfully against Rommels German Afrika Korps and Italian allies, the division entered folklore as the Desert Rats, named after the jerboa, a small desert rodent. The division took part in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, and was then posted to England in February, 1944, to prepare for the invasion of France and take possession of the British Armys latest tank, the Cromwell. In this remote spot, surroundedby woodland and now hosting a caravan site, a woodland walk has been laid out highlighting the few surviving buildings and remains.

A series of informative picture boards with quotes from some of the soldiers involved help give the story a human face. Part of the division 1st and 5th Royal Tank Regiments and the 4th County of London Yeomanry were stationed at High Ash Camp. A subaltern, Lt John Lawson, takes up the story of arriving in deep, anonymous countryside with only fir trees, mud and some drab Nissen huts. Trooper Trevor Grundy confirmed this view, referring to the scene as a wild place. Soon though the Naafi (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute) moved in to provide rudimentary food and entertainment. The men were housed in Nissen huts, the standard army accommodation of the time; prefabricated buildings of corrugated steel in a half-cylinder shape. They were about 27ft (about nine metres) wide, accommodating 18 men at a time. Lack of insulation made condensation a problem, and moving in during February cannot have been fun. Nevertheless, the Nissen huts lasted a long time one remains in the woods.

What were they doing?

The purpose of sending the division back to England, apart from preparing for the Normandy landings, was to familiarise the troops with their new tank. The first Cromwells rolled off the Birmingham production lines early in 1944 and were delivered to Norfolk straight away. Their Rolls-Royce Meteor engines were in fact modified Spitfire Merlin engines. Many crewmen felt the tanks excellent acceleration and speed proved life-savers in the campaigns in France and beyond that followed. For now, the men concentrated on mastering the mechanics, wireless and handling of the tank and taking part in a series of mock battles. King George VI reviewed troops at Brandon station as training reached its culmination.

Apart from the Nissen huts, what was life like?

An army marches on its stomach and the Desert Rats certainly did battle on a full English breakfast. The men arose each day at 6am and breakfasted at 7am on porridge, bacon or sausage and fried egg, baked beans, toast, jam and tea. First parade was in the tank park at 8am, and they went off duty at 5pm although preparations for the following day could go on until midnight. The camp had to be kept secret from enemy spies and aircraft. This meant a night-time blackout. Lt Lawson recalled: We learnt to navigate our way to and fro in the dark by the stars, for with so many twists and turns among the trees it was easy to become disorientated.

No time for luxury?

The senior officers had it better. Didlington Hall, two miles to the north, was requistioned as headquarters. In overall command was Major General GWR Bobby Erskine. There was a senior and junior officers mess at the hall, since demolished. No doubt the men needed to blow off some steam. At weekends crowded trucks took them off to such hotspots as Brandon, Thetford, Swaffham, Kings Lynn, Norwich, Newmarket or Cambridge for a night out but they had to be back by midnight. Sgt John Harland recalled the pubs and cinemas of Lynn overcrowded with troops, while Lt Lawson escaped the discipline of HQ with the occasional dinner at local pubs, cheerful occasions and without formality. As the time came for departure to the front, the officers were invited for a regimental dance by Lady Bedingfeld at Oxburgh Hall, near Downham Market. In retrospect it was a poignant occasion like the dinner before the Battle of Waterloo. Never again were we to meet in this way; too many crossed the Normandy beaches and never saw home again, recalled Lawson.

On to D-Day.

On June 5, 1944, the division quit the forest and sailed from Felixstowe for Normandy. The Desert Rats went ashore successfully with their Cromwell tanks on Gold Beach. They were heavily involved in the tough fighting from then on, particularly in Normandy, until the following spring, when they reached Berlin. There they were addressed by prime minister Winston Churchill, whose words are also quoted at the top of this article: May your glory ever shine, may your laurels never fade, may the memory of this glorious pilgrimage of war you have made... never die. It is a march unsurpassed through all the story of war.

And the present day?

Almost a decade ago Les Dinning, a tank trooper during the war, organised the setting-up of a memorial at High Ash. A replica of a Cromwell Mark IV, Little Audrey, was put on a plinth by the A1065 north of Mundford. An inscription reads: From El Alamein to Berlin via North Africa, Italy, Thetford Forest, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The memorial was inaugurated in 1998 by Field Marshall Lord Carver, who commanded the 1st Regiment on DDay. An open day is held each June by the Seventh Armoured Division Thetford Forest Memorial Association.

WEBSITE

www.desertrats.memorialassoc.btinternet.co.uk/index.htm

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