Incredible bravery of Desert Rat WWII hero remembered after death aged 101
As Les Cherrington clambered out of his blazing tank, his hands, face and chest covered with severe burns, one arm partially severed he was shot in the back by a machine gun.
He fell into a trench, where he was left for dead, slowly bleeding until he was discovered the next day by a New Zealand soldier who assumed he had stumbled on a corpse.
“I was a very lucky man,” said Les.
Indeed he was. Not only was he the only member of his crew to survive the onslaught from a German field gun, he went on to live for another 77 years after recovering from his horrific injuries.
Mr Cherrington, who served as a tank gunner with the Staffordshire Yeomanry Queen’s Own Royal Regiment, has died at the age of 101.
He was 24 years old when his tank was one of six blown up by an anti-aircraft gun which had been lying in wait during the Tunisian campaign in 1943.
After spending a year in hospital, where he received life-saving skin grafts, and had his arm reattached, he would serve for a further four decades with the RAF Police, before finally retiring in 1983.
Norman Angell, who had helped organise Mr Cherrington’s 100th birthday in 2018, had known him for some years through the Shifnal branch of the Royal British Legion.
“He was a very private, modest man,” said Mr Angell. “He was mentally very alert, he didn’t live in the past, but he remembered the past. He could tell you who lived in which street in Shifnal 50 years ago.”
Mr Cherrington, who grew up in Albrighton, was 19 years old when he joined the Territorial Army in April 1938, much to his father’s disapproval.
At the time he was working at Baker’s Nurseries in Boningale, and was encouraged by his workmates to sign up.
His father had served for 26 years in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and his brother was also in the Army.
“I felt like the odd man out,” he said.
“I never told my dad I was joining, then when I received my kit and came home, he wasn’t best pleased. And kept asking me why?”
Telling the tale of how he came by his injuries, Mr Cherrington recalled being ambushed has he made his way through a narrow passage.
“We were driving Sherman tanks through a gap in the mountains about a mile wide, so they could only fit four tanks through at a time.
“I was in one of the first 12 tanks to go into action, but what we didn’t know was that the Germans were waiting about a hundred yards off with 88mm anti aircraft guns.
“They got six of our tanks, and I was in one of them. The shells got into the tank making it blow up. I was very lucky, I was knocked unconscious but the others were killed almost instantly,” said Les.
Les clambered out of the tank’s turret and crawled into a trench. He was further hit rounds of gun fire before managing to crawl into a slit trench where he spent the night.
“My left arm was shot away at the elbow, it was on the bottom of my tank, and I picked that up and put it on my shoulder to save it.”
Severely injured, but still alive, Les was found by a New Zealand soldier the next morning who assumed he was dead, until he heard him cry out.
He said: “Somebody poked me with a long-handled spade. It roused me – and I shouted ‘water!’ And I remember, the bloke shouted ‘golly – this bloke’s still alive!’.
“They held me up, gave me a syringe, and that knocked me out. I woke up five days later in hospital in Tripoli. I was in plaster from my head down to my waist, with a gap for my mouth so they could feed me.”
After a year in hospital, he returned to his native Shropshire, settling in Shifnal.
“I’ve been all over the world but I’ve always come back here,” he said. “It’s nice countryside with green forests, green countryside.”
After his service days came to an end, he joined the RAF Police, and in later life he volunteered at the RAF Museum in Cosford, where he continued to give weekly talks to schoolchildren until last year.
He also served on the Shifnal carnival committee, and became a familiar face helping out at the event, and was also a member of the town’s male voice choir.
In 2016 Mr Cherrington met Prince Harry at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, near Lichfield.
“He was lovely, we had a good chat and he shook my hand. It was just as if I was talking to my next-door neighbour,” he said afterwards.
Last year he officially opened the Shifnal Community Hub in the town’s old police station, where one of the rooms is named the Cherrington Suite in his honour.
He said that throughout his long life, he never forgot his friends who were killed in the attack.
“I remember their young faces every day,” he said shortly after his 99th birthday in 2017.
“I think more of the mates I lost and their families, than I do myself.”
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