At the end of the school year in early December, 2003 Gerry is posted to the 3rd Royal Armoured Guards, the Brown Raptors, as a corporal in charge of a squad and a tank commander. He knows plenty of theory on how to use the tanks in the field, but he’s never been inside one before. He’s there on a three week temporary posting while the tank’s normal commander is on compassionate leave to look after his family while his wife has an urgent operation. Corporals with the relevant training aren’t readily available. Gerry is the only available option, so they approve the leave then send him along.
Arriving on the base at 9:15 a.m., in a private car with a driver, Gerry greets the regular tank commander when he’s about to leave the base. Gerry says, “Hi, Painter, how are you planning to travel?”
Full Corporal Steve Rubens, aka Painter, is an old school mate of one of Gerry’s older cousins, and they know each other well. Steve turns around, “Hi, Gordie. Where’d you get the fancy dress?” He doesn’t know Gerry passed the manhood tests, changed his name, and signed up.
“I passed my manhood tests some time back. Mother suggested I join the Guards to get out from under foot, so here I am. I don’t have a driver’s licence, and I can’t reach the pedals, anyway. Not tall enough to load the cannon or aim the machine-gun. So they sent me along to take over as the commander. I think they figure the worst I can do is direct the driver into a ditch, and he’s smart enough to avoid it while making me look good. I’m the reason they can give you leave, because there’s no one else they’re prepared to trust your crew with. They don’t want them contaminating any regular tank commanders.”
While laughing hard Steve says, “Well, I know they can’t hurt you. Just don’t damage them too much while I’m gone.” Patting the tank, “And take good care of this hunk of metal. I’m kind of fond of it.”
Gerry replies, “I’ll try, but I can’t promise anything. Give my best to Betty and the kids. Take my car and driver, because it’ll get you home much quicker than the public transport. And if you’re prepared to share the time at the wheel you needn’t stop for meals, either.”
Steve smiles, “Thanks, I appreciate it.” He throws his bags in the car’s boot. Turning to his crew he says, “I’d be careful if I were you lot. Gordie isn’t big, but he’s smart and tough. The scuttlebutt is he’s tougher than his father, and I know you’ve heard of him.”
The tank crew of Baker Three Three (B Company, 3rd Platoon, 3rd Squad) are very wary of their new commander. They know he’s never been in a tank, never fired a tank cannon, and is so young. He’s also so small he needs a special cushion on the tank commander’s chair to look out. There’s some concern, despite the fact their regular commander likes him and thinks well of him.
Picking up his duffel bag Gerry says to one private, “Right, show me where to drop my kit, and take me to the Company Commander’s Office.” The Private addressed is about to blow him off - after all, he’s only a kid; but something in Gerry’s eyes makes him stop and think. Turning around he leads the way.
While they walk to their squad quarters the Private says, “Painter seems to think we should be careful of you, why?”
“Mother thinks I’m a lot tougher than father, and some of my past commanders agree with her, they’d served with him. He served with the Foresters and Rocks. Retired to get married.” The Private still doesn’t see why this son of a retired Guard should be a worry. They drop Gerry’s gear off, and head for the Commander’s Office.
When they arrive at the office the Company Commander, Captain Daniels, is just leaving. He says, “You my replacement for Rubens?” Gordon nods yes, “I haven’t got your posting message or short file yet. All I have is a phone call saying you’re coming, and you’ve never been inside a tank before. That true?”
Gerry replies, “Yes, Sir, it is. I passed the Tank Commanders exam with ninety-seven percent marks, but I’ve never been in a tank before. Not tall enough to do any of the other jobs, so there wasn’t much point in putting me in one. Command thinks I can safely command a tank, and doubts I can do you any serious harm in three weeks.”
Daniels smiles, “Well, they’re probably right about that. At least you know the theory of what to do, and how to do it. We’ve exercises starting the day after tomorrow, we’ll see how you put it into practice.”
Gerry nods his agreement, and says, “Sir, request permission to take my people out to the practice grounds after lunch, and all day tomorrow, so I can get a feel of what it’s like inside before the exercises.”
“Approved, good thinking. Do you know why the regimental commander isn’t having kittens over getting a boy tank commander?”
He responds, “I don’t know why, Sir. But I can take a good guess. I’ve met the Colonel before, he knows my father, and he’s seen me in rifle and martial arts competitions. I’d say he thinks I can do the job. I’m sure if he’d the slightest feeling I couldn’t do the job he’d have screamed blue murder about it, Sir.”
Daniels says, “Knowing that, myself, is one reason I haven’t screamed blue murder. I still don’t know who you are, because they didn’t tell me that over the phone. They were very abrupt.”
“Sorry, Sir, I thought they’d told you. Senior Corporal Gordon Mannheim reporting for duty, Sir.”
All in the room are listening, especially the Private who showed him the way. Now they all stare, the boy is a senior corporal. The field jacket he’s wearing doesn’t show rank. No field jacket does, for field security.
Daniels asks, “Any relation to Granite Mannheim?”
“He’s my father, Sir, and mother swears I’m tougher than him. I can only vouch for being able to out stubborn him, Sir.” There’s a few gulps around the room, Granite’s son. Oh boy, this could be interesting.
“Well, I know you didn’t win your rank in a raffle, so you must be able to handle troops, and that’s the main task of a commander. We’ll see how you go in the exercises. Dismissed.” Both Gerry and the Private with him snap to attention and salute. Turning sharply, they leave.
They arrive back at their tank, to find Full Corporal Masters and his crew, they’re from another company, having shots about them having a toy tank for a boy to play with. Gerry decides to nip this in the bud, and says, “Thanks for the comedy relief, Corporal. You may leave now. Some of us have work to do.”
Masters, a very large man, turns on Gerry while saying, “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m the commander of this tank, and am ordering excess personnel to move away so we can get the tank ready for training exercises. Move along please, Corporal.”
Masters replies, “You’re lucky you’re so small, kid. Otherwise I’d punch you to pulp for sassin’ your elders.”
Gerry looks him over, and doesn’t like what he sees or senses of him, “I doubt you’ve the skill, strength, or ability to do that. If you feel the need to eat dirt that badly, I suggest you speak to the RSM about organising a time. So he can have the medics on hand to put you back together after I tear you apart.” Both crews gasp, Masters is about half as tall again, and triple the mass of Gerry. Regardless of what happens now, they all know he’s not taking any shit from anyone.
Masters says, over his shoulder, “Right, Smithy, get the RSM. We’ll settle this according to the rules.”
Gerry says, “Yes, please, Private Smith, get the RSM for us.”
Masters stands there staring at Gerry, who turns, and starts issuing orders to his crew to ready the tank for exercises after lunch. From the orders he’s giving they realise he knows what he’s doing, even if he hasn’t been near a tank before. When they get to a discussion about a particular part being OK or not he looks at it, and orders it replaced; he’s also fast filling in the proper paperwork. One of the crew takes off to Stores for a replacement part.
About fifteen minutes after Private Smith leaves the RSM and a few other NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) arrive to see what all the trouble is about. They’re surprised to see the size discrepancies. The RSM asks what limitations they want.
Gerry says, “Whatever you and Masters want. I doubt he can touch me, so it’s a non-issue for me.”
At that point Major Barrington arrives, and says, “Not today, RSM. If these two want to fight they can do it after the field exercises. I need Masters in his tank for the exercise, not in the hospital.” They all stare at him, as he’s saying, flat out, Masters is going to be creamed. He turns to Gerry, “You won’t object to a delay, will you, Corporal Mannheim?”
Gerry shakes his head, “No, Sir, I don’t. I don’t really care about a fight, one way or another. I’ve more important things to do, Sir.”
“Good, maybe I can convince Masters he doesn’t need to get his arse kicked all over the place by a small boy.” Nearly everyone is openly staring at him now. Smiling, he says to the RSM, “On my last leave I was privileged to observe Sensei Mannheim’s last competition bout. And Masters isn’t in his league, not by a long shot.” Masters gulps, this boy is a Sensei. Most of the audience are now staring at Gerry.
With a big smile the RSM departs, he thinks Masters is going to let this ride. With his departure everyone else starts to move away, leaving Gerry and his crew in peace. The crew of Baker Three Three are starting to have a bit more confidence in their new commander.
After lunch they take the tank to the training fields, and run through many standard exercises. Gerry gets a feel for how well and quickly the driver, crew, and tank responds to his commands. Halfway through the afternoon they do some shelling practice. His target definitions and directions are text book perfect, easy to follow, and spot on.
After several shots he says to the Private working the gun, “Private Adams, how quickly can you get onto an angle and bearing?”
Adams replies, “Damn quick, corp. Why?”
Gerry responds, “I want you to practice firing, then changing the elevation to maximum for the reloading, and back onto target for firing. I know it’ll slow you down a bit, but try it.” Shrugging, they do as told. It slows the rate of firing a bit, but not much.
Several fired rounds later Gerry says, “Right, Landers, you take over here, I’ll take over the loading.” Now they can see the sense of elevating the gun. With it at maximum elevation the breach is at a height Gerry can load, but only just reach to load. They fire several rounds that way. He switches everyone through every position to make sure they all can do all tasks. He can’t, because he’s too small for every other duty.
In the late afternoon they go through the difficult terrain course. They come up to one river crossing where the tanks go down the bank at an angle. Doing this is slow, tricky, and requires a lot of special handling by the driver to ensure they don’t tip over.
Gerry stops them in the river, and gets out to carefully measure the drop from the top of the bank to the river bed. It’s only three metres. Unlike its predecessor this particular tank is supposed to be able to take a four metre drop in its stride, and without any damage or issues. After completing the course he directs the tank back to the river crossing. He stops several metres away from the river bank.
Addressing the crew he asks, “Has anyone in the regiment closely examined the capabilities of the mark five tank?” They all shake their heads no. “So you don’t know the tank’s full capabilities?” Again a shake of the heads.
The driver says, “I know we can go faster and turn tighter than the mark threes we used to have. Why the concern?”
Gerry says, “I want you to drive at high speed toward the bank, and drive straight off it. If we try to slowly go straight down it we’ll drop nose first and stick. But if we charge off it we’ll drop at an angle of about twenty degrees. This model is designed to do that, and safely handle a drop of four metres. The bank is only three metres high.”
Gulping, Landers asks, “Mind if you try that with only Steele and yourself the first time? If you got it wrong someone’ll be fit enough to call for the medics.” The rest are nodding their heads in agreement.
Gerry sighs, “Right. Everyone except Steele, out.” A few minutes later they’re standing by, and watching. “Understand the plan, Steele. Full throttle, straight off the bank.” Gulping hard, he nods.
The tank revs up, and charges forward. Well, as best as a tank can charge forward. It’s quick to reach top speed. When it leaves the river bank edge the front starts to fall, but is still almost level when the rear is off the bank and dropping as well. They hit the river bed, and both are jolted about, but not harmed. The tank is purring away like normal. The rest of the crew are quick to scramble after the tank, and climb in. They head back to camp.
While they’re giving the tank a full check to confirm it’s OK Gerry says, “Let’s not tell anyone about our little test. Let’s save it for a surprise during the exercises.” Their response is a set of wide grins.
The next day is all normal exercises for Gerry to get familiar with the tank’s performance, and plenty of shelling practice for him loading with different troopers working as the gun layer.
The exercises start as planned. However, the regimental commander decides to add a little spice. He’s heard about the little matter between Masters and Mannheim, so he’s placed their units on opposite teams for the main exercises. Only the regimental and company commanders know both tanks are singled out to compete against each other in a special exercise on the fourth day.
Before the exercises start Gerry tells his crew, “OK, if anyone gets designated as out of action clear your position for Landers to take over for you, unless I say otherwise. I’ll drop down to take over the loading. The only position this doesn’t apply to is commander. In such situations, Steele, you make your own decisions on route and, Mailing, you select your own targets.” They all nod agreement, because that’s the best way to handle the situation with Gerry as their commander.
The first day is the usual set of platoon, company, and regimental exercises. Part of which is having the tank teams change positions, and also have some designated as wounded. One exercise has Baker company crossing a field with each tank firing at a designated machine-gun and cannon target while the other company commanders are gathered with the Colonel watching how they perform. Major Barrington says, “Sir, I wonder how Mannheim’s crew will deal with any injuries! He’s a bit short for other tank duties, isn’t he?”
With a wide grin the Colonel says, “Yes, he is! But I bet they handle it OK. And you’ll get a lesson in thinking around a problem. I’ve seen that young man solving problems before.” He speaks to his radio operator to order an injury message to be sent.
The signal comes through, ‘Baker Three Three - driver wounded.’ The tank starts to slow down while Steele leaves his seat, it’s immediately taken over by Landers to return to speed with very little change in speed. Gerry drops down to load the gun. After firing the round Landers just loaded Mailing raises the elevation for Gerry to load the gun, then he drops back to target and fires. Their rate of fire is a bit slower, but not the slowest in the company.
Up on the hill it obvious to all how they did that. Major Barrington says, “Well, I’ll be damned! They’ve clearly practised that before.”
The Colonel says, “Probably spent time at it yesterday. But it does deal with the problem you raised very neatly, doesn’t it! Instead of the commander taking over the wounded spot, as is usual, the loader does while the commander takes over loading, because that’s the only other duty Mannheim can manage. That’s got to be the fastest transition time I’ve ever seen. The tank hardly slowed in movement or firing. I think we should institute it as a standard procedure; the loader takes up the slack and the commander takes over loading.” They all see the wisdom of this, and nod their agreement.
At the end of the first day Baker Company is the best company, and 3rd Platoon is the top platoon. This sets the tone of all the exercises.
Out of Order
On the third day Baker Company is engaging in a company level combat with Major Barrington’s company, Delta Company. In a large open field they’re approaching each other at an angle while firing special paint rounds. A hit on one of the tank’s few vulnerable spots and the tank shows as a casualty. The two spots are the joint of the turret with the body, and the tail. All tanks of both companies manoeuvre in a way to make such hits extremely difficult. The few that happen in the early stages are recognised by all as lucky shots.
The company with the least casualties at the end of the exercise is the winner. Regardless of the outcome today these two companies are the two top companies, because no one else has enough points. This will decide the order of first and second. Depending upon the platoon points awarded it may decide if Baker Three (Gerry’s platoon) or Delta Five (Masters’ platoon) is the top platoon.
Forty-five minutes into the exercise Captain Daniels orders a text book manoeuvre. This should force the Major to withdraw in a manner that allows Baker Company to score a few hits. However, there’s an unusual response to this tactic that can turn it around. If the Major orders his force to close fast they’ll be into Baker Company and hitting them hard before they know what’s happening. Gerry has worked out a counter to the unorthodox response, and it’ll cut Delta to pieces if it happens. Gerry gets on the platoon circuit, saying, “Baker Three Four, Baker Three Three, whatever happens stick to me like glue, maintain station at all times.” Baker Three Four is junior to Gerry, and is his tag partner tank; like a fighter pilot’s wingman he follows his leader all over the place and covers his rear.