Lieutenant | Royal Tank Regiment
Even when commissioned into a particular regiment, a young national service officer may find himself transferred through several other regiments as the army requires without proper time to call one a home. Such was the life of David Stevens when he was commissioned into the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and quickly whisked off to the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards for service in Korea at the end of February 1952. He had hardly been with the Tanks for six months when he was sent to the Irish regiment (which he found to be Irish in name only as it was predominantly British).
Instead of commanding tanks or working directly with armor, Lieutenant Stevens instead trekked over to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers’ positions to work the life of that even closer to an infantryman. He was to be the liaison officer for A Squadron which required more work on foot than on tracks. He spent his first two weeks in the Korean hills observing patrol actions against Points 115, 133, and 227 – all of some strategic importance and recognizable pieces of terrain, but only vaguely identified by number.
These locations quickly became familiar and their coordinates memorized so that the tankers could deliver volleys within seconds. By day, Stevens constantly scoured the craggy landscape through binoculars from the Borderers’ Tactical Headquarters. Any areas that looked freshly dug or of new construction were noted and pummeled with high-explosive. The situation at night was much different as both sides actively patrolled no man’s land and set ambushes. The tanks remained on wireless watch to respond immediately to any calls for support.
The tankers themselves were not spared the life of an infantryman either. The forward squadrons were not far from the brigade or battalion headquarters they supported. Tanks nestled into pits, sandbagged to prevent much damage from shelling, and the troopers lived in dugouts and bunkers nearby. Visiting his tank company positions required Stevens to brave the open ridge between the Skins and the Borderers.
After a vicious attack against the Borderers’ positions at the beginning of the month, C Squadron rotated with A Squadron and Stevens pulled off the line for the first time since arriving in Korea. His first days in combat had been tense while always waiting for the impending attack that finally came just before the squadron became the reserve for the regiment.
The rotation concluded by last light on March 12th and A Squadron rested south of the Imjin in Division reserve. They stayed busy throughout the month conducting exercises along the Kansas line and ultimately welcoming the 1st Royal Australian Regiment from Australia. They practiced together during the last few days of April, getting to know members of the regiment they would soon be working closely with under fire. Though infrequent, heavy rains turned the country to soft mud that was nightmarish for armor and ‘thrown tracks’ became a common problem.
Exchanging places with C Squadron again, A Squadron took over their old positions in early May on the left side of the front to support the Leicestershire Regiment. The relative relaxation of reserve felt too brief when Stevens arrived at the Leics’ Tactical Headquarters for another tour at the front. Chinese machinegun nests, patrols, feigned movement and constant activity across the valley kept Stevens on high alert for the duration of the period. He seemed to be cursed with difficult action just before his departures. On May 26th, the squadron headquarters was shot up by over a hundred rounds of 122mm shells that killed two and wounded six. Vehicles, petrol and the ammunition dump blazed throughout the day and the area suffered general destruction. It was a hard conclusion to what began as the ‘bright and merry month of May,’ and the next day Stevens was off to Japan after a three-month Korean tour. The Skins were happy to have had the Lieutenant and noted in the Journal about the number of officers attached from other regiments: “Their cheerful loyalty and support have been invaluable to us. We hope that they have enjoyed their stay and will continue to regard the Regiment as a home.”
He rejoined the Royal Tanks in Cyrenaica after a rather dull stretch of months at home. Though he was with his regiment once again, instead of his original 1 RTR, it was 5 RTR garrisoned in Libya. His short Korean tour proved how stressful and adrenaline inducing combat could be, but offered very little practice of true tank warfare. There was nothing but open sands outside of their post in Barce – the nearest town Benghazi was 80 miles away – and it provided an incredible playground for the tankers. Their garrison was an old Italian Army Hospital and despite the heat, the building were rather cool and comfortable. With time for recreation and swimming, it not a terrible posting. Their exercises took them across the legendary Western Desert where armor ruled during the last war. The 5th Royal Tanks, who had just come from Korea after post-armistice duty, stayed in Cyrenaica for a year before David returned home for a final time to conclude his National Service tenure with the Territorial Army and later, the Reserves.
United Kingdom, War Diaries - 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, War Department, 1952.
“Life in Korea.” 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards Journal, IX, no. 4, Nov. 1952, pp. 169–183.
“Regimental and Squadron Notes.” 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards Journal, IX, no. 4, Nov. 1952, pp. 184-194.