In World War 2’s North African Campaign, tank warfare was especially deadly for British soldiers.
Five or six men occupied stuffy, cramped vehicles and they knew even an indirect hit from an enemy weapon could spell the end for all of them.
The dangers they faced make it all the more remarkable that Les Cherrington, of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, not only survived the destruction of his tank in the desert, but is still with us today at the age of 97.
Les recently visited the Staffordshire Yeomanry Museum in Stafford to share his story with Sarah Elsom, the museum’s curator.
Les, a tank gunner, was seriously wounded in 1943 in a battle that claimed the lives of his crew and took 4,000 Allied casualties in total.
Of his near-death experience, Les recalls: “I was the luckiest man in the desert, I should think!”
In the heat of battle, he must have sometimes wondered what exactly he had signed up for five years earlier.
Les was born in Shifnal in rural Shropshire, and as a young man he was drawn to farm work.
By 1938, he was working at the Baker’s Nurseries in nearby Boningale.
With war in Europe looking more and more likely, Les, who had come to love riding horses, went to join the Staffordshire Yeomanry in April that year.
And in December 1939 the regiment was called up to fight, after the outbreak of war in September.
They arrived in Haifa in modern-day Israel on January 10 1940, later fighting Vichy French forces in Syria.
First transitioning to trucks with mounted guns, the Yeomanry began using armoured tanks in 1942.
Les was trained as a gunner, and he recalls how uncomfortable it was: “Inside the tank it used to be about 80 degrees everyday, very hot.
“Then, of course, when you were actually fighting, all the cordite off the shells and the smoke used to get you down and give you a bad head.”
As the campaign heated up, the Staffordshire Yeomanry was assigned to the 8th Armoured Brigade, who would fight Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
By February 1943, the Allies had forced Rommel’s forces back to the Mareth Line in South Tunisia.
But Bernard Montgomery identified a nearby passage, the Tebaga Gap, that could be used to encircle the Axis forces.
On March 26, Les was part of the force sent through the gap in Sherman tanks, and it was here that he was almost killed.
“We’d got about eight tanks through the gap and we were just getting into battle formations when this line of 88 millimetre guns they had dug in opened fire.
“It knocked six of our tanks out, and I was in one of them.
“When I woke up after the shell exploded, my shirt and my short trousers were all on fire.
“All the muscle and bone in my left arm was shot out too and it was hanging on by a thread.
“I put it up on my other shoulder to get out of the tank, pulling myself out through the turret with my one hand.
“While I was sliding down the front of the tank, they machine-gunned me.
“I had three bullets in my back but I was far enough away for them not to penetrate and kill me.
“Then I dropped on my back and the sun was shining. I must have gone unconscious because next thing the moon was hanging in the sky.
“I crawled into this trench, and when I woke up again the sun was shining again.
“I felt myself going off into unconsciousness again when somebody pushed a spade down the trench and shifted it.
“It woke me up and I shouted out, then they said ‘golly, there’s a bloke still alive here’.”
The soldiers who found Les sent him to Tripoli, and from there he was transferred by plane to a general hospital in Cairo.
“The cordite and the blasts from the shells had blinded me, I couldn’t see for about five weeks.
“I thought I had lost my sight and I used to scream blue murder!
“The nurses used to come with a dish with saline in and a spoon. They would put the spoon under my eye, pull my eye out and dip it in this saline and then push it back in.
“Gradually, I could see the window panes forming and then the nurses going by, then it all just came back one day.”
After three or four months in Egypt, Les was then shipped to Bristol with a thousand other injured troops.
Once back in England, he was transferred to the Bristol Royal Infirmary and then later to Barnsley Hall Hospital in Worcestershire.
And it was here doctors carried out the skin grafts to treat the serious burns to Les’ hands and face.
“It was a painful job, I had about six operations,” he remembers.
“They were going to build up my nose and my ear with skin from my neck, but I said no!
“It was too painful, I never had those done.”
When he was discharged in April 1944, the long months spent in a hospital bed meant Les wasn’t in any shape to go back to war.
“When I recovered a bit, I got a job at the post office in Shifnal for about a year and a half.
“Then the regular postmen started coming back from the war, and the postmaster said I would have to give the job up.
“But he said ‘I’ve got a friend at RAF Cosford who’s the chief of the Ministry of Defence Police and he wants some new recruits’.
“So I went up to Cosford and they joined me up, and I did 40 years with them eventually.”
Les retired in 1983 at MoD Donnington after four decades of service across the UK and one Queen’s Police Medal.
And in 2010, he and his son Graham were part of a trip arranged by the British Legion to visit war graves and memorials in Tunisia.
“My son suggested going along to see where all my mates are buried.
“It upset me when I did get there and seeing some of the graves, thinking ‘they’re lying here, and I’m in England’.
“We went to one at Massicault and I found an old friend I went to school with who was in the Shropshire Light Infantry.”
The Staffordshire Yeomanry Old Comrades Association (OCA) brings people connected to the Yeomanry together.
But although Les wore his Old Comrades tie proudly after the war and still volunteers at the RAF Museum in Cosford, he gradually lost contact.
That changed last year, when his friend Roy Cross emailed the OCA on his behalf to see about replacing his old tie.
With Armistice Day approaching, David Leigh of the OCA suggested that Les could be presented with the new tie at the National Memorial Arboretum’s annual service.
So on November 11 2015, Les travelled to the Arboretum in Staffordshire and took centre stage for his presentation, also meeting Princess Anne on the day.
It seemed fitting that on a blustery, overcast day in Staffordshire, veterans and royals recognised the service of a man who almost died in a faraway desert so many years ago.