M.C. - Major Arthur James Fearnley, Royal Tank Regiment. Bowden Road, Swinton.
20 Jun 2002 - The Guardian
Major Arthur Fearnley, who has died aged 91, was awarded an immediate MC in 1942 while serving with 2nd Royal Tank Regiment in Burma. On March 5 1942, it was learned that the brigadier commanding 63rd Infantry Brigade and members of his staff, all newly arrived from India, were surrounded by the Japanese at Pegu, a small town on the railway line between Rangoon and northern Burma. Fearnley was ordered to take his troop of three light Stuart tanks to escort them to their brigade several miles to the south. Pegu had been heavily bombed, and little beside the houses on the main street remained standing. As Fearnley's troop arrived the following day, Japanese infantry were streaming into the town, and he had some difficulty persuading the officers to begin their journey instead of staying to engage the enemy. He took one of them as a passenger in his tank; the rest travelled in two Indian armoured scout cars. Half a mile south of the town, the troop found their way partially blocked by a shot-up British truck. The leading tank got through the gap, but as Fearnley's tank reached the truck, it came under heavy machine-gun fire from the thick jungle on either side. It then lurched off the road, and ran down a steep embankment before coming to rest in a ditch. Spotting two Japanese soldiers crawling towards them through the undergrowth, Fearnley shot at them with his revolver, and ordered his corporal to fire his Browning. "What at, sir?" asked the corporal, who hadn't seen them. "Never mind what at!" roared Fearnley, "Just fire the bloody thing!" The corporal fired a few bursts and then fell back, wounded in his chest. Fearnley now discovered that his driver had been killed, and believed that, at any moment, the Japanese might lob a grenade through the top of the turret. When it proved impossible to get the driver out of his seat, he had to sit on the dead man's lap to re-start the engine, and get the tank moving again. As the tank climbed back on to the road, they came under intense fire once more. Since bullets had frosted the glass panel in front of him, Fearnley had to follow instructions shouted to him by his wireless operator in order to steer. They managed to manoeuvre around the road block, but a few minutes later they were brought to a halt by another, formed by two large trucks which had been placed end to end across the road. Fearnley revved his engine and, by repeatedly ramming one of the trucks, made a gap which they were able to squeeze through and, eventually, to rejoin their squadron. Despite being awarded an immediate MC, Fearnley felt an overwhelming sense of failure since the brigadier and three battalion commanders placed in his charge had lost their lives. Arthur James Fearnley was born on June 19 1910 at Salford, Lancashire. He went to Ackworth, a Quaker boarding school in Yorkshire, before going into the family building business, in which he served his apprenticeship as a joiner. In 1940, he volunteered for the Army and, after four months intensive training, passed out of the cavalry wing of Sandhurst. Posted to the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, Fearnley became an instructor on the American Stuart light tank. The expertise gained, he said afterwards, saved his life two years later. In 1941, he joined the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment in Cairo and, after a short time in the Canal Zone, moved with his regiment to Rangoon as part of the 7th Armoured Brigade. Shortly after the action in which he won his MC, Fearnley and his comrades demobilised their tanks and, armed with their Smith and Wesson revolvers, acted as rearguard to the retreating Army on the long trek northwards. Fearnley's experience convinced him that the biggest advantage the Japanese possessed was not their air superiority but their abundance of horses. The British armour, confined to the few roads, was of limited use; the enemy could deploy and supply their units throughout the jungle terrain. After three months in India, Fearnley went with his regiment to Basra, as part of Pai Force, to patrol the southern borders of Turkey. In April 1943, his regiment embarked for Bari and, on arrival in Italy, took over the tanks and transport of 6 RTR. Fearnley was appointed Intelligence officer and assistant adjutant, but the non-combatant role did not suit him, and he transferred to "B" Squadron as second captain. In 1944 he was promoted to major, and took command of "A" Squadron. His regiment fought its way north, ridge by ridge, and finished the war in Padua. A few well-placed officers, Fearnley recalled, had managed to cushion the austerities of a soldier's life with consolations denied to their comrades. One was the brigade dental officer, who had acquired an attractive girlfriend in the south of the country and, being reluctant to lose her companionship as the Allies advanced, secured the use of an ambulance in which he moved her from one brigade area to another. Fearnley retired from the Army in 1945 and re-joined the family firm. A man of considerable charm and good humour, he enjoyed taking part in amateur theatrical and opera performances. For some years he sat on the Salford magistrates bench. Arthur Fearnley died on May 5. He married, in 1951, Patricia Holcroft, who survives him, together with two sons and a daughter.