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Burning Steel

A Tank Regiment at War 1939-45


Peter Hart

London: Profile Books, 2022

Paperback   568pp   RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Robert Ellis, December 2022


It is not an easy task to write a regimental history 50 years after the period to be involved. Many of the Regiment's members have passed away or their memories have faded, records have been lost, mislaid, or stored away in inaccessible places, and the period to be covered has passed into history – nobody, now, wants to know about it.

Peter Hart has overcome these difficulties and produced a history of the 2nd Battalion, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry that brings it to life from its re-establishment as an Armoured Car Company in 1919, to Fife and Forfar Yeomanry with four companies as a full Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment of 435 officers and men in January 1939. The 2nd FF&Y battalion was raised later in 1939 and recruited largely from its traditional areas in Fifeshire – Dundee, St Andrews, Dunfermline, and Kirkcaldy.

While the 2nd Battalion retained its Scottish traditions, replacements for its many casualties were frequently ‘foreigners’ from across the border – English, Welsh or occasionally Irish in their origins – men who had to learn the language and customs of what was always a proud Scots Regiment, with a history dating back to the raising of the Forfar Yeomanry in 1794.

The narrative has been developed from personal interviews with the survivors of the men who served in the Regiment in World War ll, few of whom remained when the research as undertaken in 1998-2000. There were also interviews with a few Germans who saw the whole thing from a very different viewpoint. It is interesting to see some of the situations described from the ‘other side’. Because of this, one gets to feel that one is reading about people one knows. The stories are very much the personal experiences of men that were so often common to many servicemen in wartime – summarized [more than once] as ‘90% boredom and 10% terror’.

Interview after interview tells of repetitive training, movement to different camp sites and billets, and the sudden, short, and occasionally brutal incidents in combat, when crew-mates or friends died or were horrible injured, as so many tank crewmen were – apparently about 200 in 2nd F&FY. They tell of the Regiment's landing in France in late July, and their first engagement with the German 'Panzer' forces around Caen and the vicious slogging matches of Operations Epson, Goodwood, and Bluecoat, during which British and Canadian troops attempted to draw German reserves to themselves, to give the Americans a chance to break out from the Cherbourg Peninsula and come so near to shattering the German defences around Falaise. 

The men tell of the long slog across Belgium, the heavy fighting around Antwerp and the Bastogne salient, where the Germans so nearly pulled off a surprising victory over the snowfields of Christmas – New Year 1944-45, before the long, weary drive across German from the Dutch Border, past Arnhem and Hannover, to the Danish border and then on to Lubeck, on the Baltic coast, to accept the surrender of German forces in north-western Germany and keep the Russians from advancing, as they seemed to intent to do, to the Netherlands and their North Sea coast line. This was a long, dangerous operation, largely a 'policing' activity – restoring some form of law and order among the civilian population, coping with released prisoners-of-war and people freed from the Nazi-staffed internment camps, as well as dealing with thousands of German soldiers trying to surrender to Western Allied forces rather than be taken by the Russians.

Also, we read of the Regiment's celebrations on VE Day, when one trooper found the key to an abandoned wine-cellar, and we learn how many of the officers and men returned to civilian life after 1945, some to successful careers, some to similar roles they had performed pre-1939, and a few to the Permanent Army.

It is an interesting, well-researched book about the people who were 'The Regiment'. Perhaps its only shortcoming is that the few maps do not show many of the placed mentioned in the text. Its strength is that it blends many personal histories into the history of the unit those men served in and reinforces the old adage that a group is only as strong as the people who belong to it. Peter Hart has shown us that the 2nd Battalion, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, was a good battalion, made up of good people. It is worth reading, because it tells a good story of these good people.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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