Tank hero who rose through the ranks

Having finally made it home battered, concussed, haggard and exhausted after escaping from Dunkirk, and wearing his dressing gown after a restorative bath, Sergeant Eugene Strickland answered an unexpected knock at the door.

A painting depicting the capture of German troops by a tank commanded by Strick in May 1940.
A painting depicting the capture of German troops by a tank commanded by Strick in May 1940.

It was the local bobby with a telegram for his wife. "Madam, I regret to inform you..." it began, before breaking the news that Sergeant Strickland had been posted missing.

Had it not been for their joyful reunion hours before, Barbara would already have had reason to fear the worst.

When most of his colleagues from 4th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment had made it back to England after the desperate fighting in France in May 1940, Sergeant Strickland – universally known as Strick – had not been with them. Two of his colleagues had called on her to say they did not think her husband had survived.

Strick had not only survived, but had been involved in exploits which made him a legend within tank circles, taking part in a counter-attack by British tanks at Arras which shook the Germans and caused a delay in their advance which was possibly crucial in enabling successful evacuation at Dunkirk some days later.

During the action he took about 80 German prisoners, who were then marched up a road in front of his Matilda Mark I tank, an incident immortalised in a painting. Strick remained in the fray until his tank was disabled by a British anti-tank crew who mistook his tank for a German panzer.

For his actions he was awarded the Military Medal. And as he rose later to become a high ranking officer, that medal ribbon was the subject of curiosity, as the MM was for "other ranks" rather than officers. Ultimately he was a much-decorated Major-General Strickland. No other British general rose from the rank of Private and had a comparable set of achievements.

Now Strick's story has been told by his son, Tim Strickland, who lives at Ightfield, near Whitchurch, in a book called "Strick – Tank Hero of Arras." In retirement Tim, a professional archaeologist and historian, turned his mind to researching and writing about his father's life.

His father died in 1982, and Tim was given his papers, including the letters he had written to Barbara on almost every second or third day of the entire war. The book has been a long process which included writing to Strick's friends and those who had served with him, and making visits to sites of key actions in his father's life.

"It has been a labour of love and admiration," he says.

"This is an extraordinary and hugely unusual tale and has been very well received."

Strick was born in India to a military family. His father was killed during the Great War and soon after the family came to England.

He joined the army and gained a commission in the Indian Army, where he was on the "unattached list" but served with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry in India in 1934 and 1935. However, getting into hot water over an unpaid mess bill proved a final straw which led to Strick resigning his commission, which left him under a cloud in military circles.

Back in England he restarted his military life from the bottom, enlisting as a private soldier in the then Royal Tank Corps in 1935, the beginning of what was to be a career of distinction, during which he was destined to command three armoured regiments and see action in France, North Africa, and Italy, and later in Greece where a civil war had broken out.

His experiences also made him an influential figure who helped shape thinking on how tanks and infantry co-operate in battle.

"Strick – Tank Hero of Arras," which covers the first 32 years of Strick's life, is published by Casemate and costs £25.

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