Mailed Fist by John Foley – a lively and entertaining account of a tank troop at war first published in 1957, now reprinted in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series

Mailed Fist by John Foley

As war memoirs go, this lightly fictionalised account of a tank troop officer is brilliantly entertaining and very readable. John Foley was put in charge of a troop of tanks in April 1943 straight from Officer training at Sandhurst, having had several years of experience in the ranks. So while he has some idea of what military life is like, he is still keen to make a favourable impression as an officer, with pockets full of notebooks about tanks. The facts of what remarkable things a Churchill tank is capable of, let alone the crews that are operating them, fill this book with a practical humour that makes it entertaining as well as offering fascinating military history. The three heavy tanks, Avenger, Alert and Angler, are not the latest design, heavy and slow moving, but in this book they are shown as effective – most of the time. The men he leads are all characters, from the most long serving and resigned to the newest and keenest, they are all described as people who try to get the job done, but are also very human when put to the test. I enjoyed this book, savoured the humour, and was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it.

The book opens with the memory of Foley’s first appearance before the Second in Command, later to be the Commanding Officer. He gets off on the wrong note by stamping his feet too loudly, making off with the duty truck and other accidental infringements en route to finding his troop of tanks, which turns out to amount to one tank, albeit with a cheerful and willing crew. Foley has been told that a good tank officer should be able to do all the various tasks that his crew members do, so he has an exciting (hair raising) time demonstrating his driving abilities. There then follows a long period of waiting for action, which leaves plenty of time to acquire two more tanks and crews, and get to know the ways of tanks in the English countryside, including their off-road capacities. As D Day approaches they receive limited information about what to expect, so spend hours waterproofing the tank – which provides a stern test for the newest crew member. Their adventures at and following the Normandy landings are not set piece battles- the Churchill tanks were meant to support the infantry trying to establish and maintain the progress of the Allied troops moving towards Germany, meaning that the troop was involved in the liberation of villages and towns which had been occupied. This brought some domestic adventures involving the gratitude of individuals. I found at least one anecdote laugh out loud funny, when Foley approaches a senior officer to complain about his troop being assigned a stone cattle building to sleep in during a quiet period. When he takes the officer over to inspect the unprepossessing building, they both discover that the men have transformed it into a lined semi palace with hammocks, lighting, and even a concert of light music to entertain them. They have acquired a window frame with glass and basically all the home comforts, much to Foley’s embarrassment. As a result he gets an additional role as a Welfare Officer to the entire squadron.There are dark times, literally, and a loss or two, but essentially this is the story of a group of men pulling together, improvising, coping, and generally improving their lot while fulfilling their role. 

I think I enjoyed this book so much because it reminded me of my own father’s reminiscences of driving a variety of army vehicles in similar circumstances. Foley was advised to write the novel when it was history, so it was actually published in 1957, and now appears as a welcome reprint in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series. It provides a realistic, fictionalised account of war experiences as it probably was, and it is all the stronger for it.