This is Peter Willett’s memoir of his service in the Second World War, all of which was with The Queen’s Bays, a tank equipped cavalry regiment in the Eighth Army serving in North Africa and Italy. It is an utter delight to read; the authors prose is engaging (as befits a former racing journalist and fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts) and the story compelling.
Peter’s service commenced in 1940 with the striking incongruity of learning military equitation in the ranks at a Cavalry depot adjacent to a RAF fighter airfield during the Battle of Britain. As an accomplished horseman and a Cambridge graduate seeking a commission this was a surprise, but eventually Peter found himself at Sandhurst. On the basis of a conversation about hunting he was commissioned into the Queen’s Bays in June 1941, when they were based in Marlborough. He made an immediate favourable impression by reading the Sporting Life (a newspaper dedicated to racing).
In September the Bays deployed to the Middle East via Capetown, finally reaching the zone of operations in El Aghelia as part of 1st Armoured Division. At that time Peter was a supernumerary officer, primarily employed in delivering fuel to the tank squadrons. Shortly thereafter the Afrika Korps attacked, driving the British back to Gazala and thence to El Alamein. Peter becoming a Troop Leader and ending up as second in command of A Squadron under Jackie Harman, (who went on to become Adjutant General and DSACEUR in 1978).
There is rich detail of life in armour, both in combat and in the rear. The author is frank; when individuals were not up to the job or staff errors made he pulls no punches. His recollections of combat are crisp and understated; the author saw plenty of it. The tight knit community of a cavalry regiment shines from the pages, particularly on an awful day in Italy when the regiment lost almost two entire squadrons (two thirds of its combat strength) in a few minutes, suffering 64 casualties in the process.
This is very much a memoir of a young officer at war. As such it casts light on the pursuit of fun and what soldiers got up to when their units were not in action, which of course was the status of most of the British Army most of the time. Peter’s interest was racing and at the end of the war he quickly became involved in organizing racing in Italy and Austria. He was demobbed in September 1945 and, as the final two chapters recount, became well established in the racing industry.
This is a wonderful book and I commend it to you wholeheartedly.
This review originally appeared on http://www.arrse.co.uk and appears here with their kind permission.