Beware the Wolves!
The Summer of 1944 saw a vicious war fought in Normandy, a peaceful land of rich green pastures and orchards; of castles, cathedrals, villages and medieval towns. In 1944, Normandy with its picturesque landscape was the setting for the greatest military invasion from the sea in world history. On that fateful day of June 6, 1944 – called the Longest Day – General Eisenhower’s allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy.
The phrase came from the analysis of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of the German forces in France.
“Believe me…the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive…the fate of Germany will depend on it… for the Allies, as well as for us, this will be the longest day.”
During the ensuing weeks, fierce battles were fought throughout the hedgerows of Normandy. The largest battle was around the town of St. Lô, which was almost totally destroyed.
The hedgerows in the “bocage” (a French word meaning a mixture of pasture and wooded land) are small fields ringed by earthen banks of dirt and roots four to six feet high, with trees and shrubs growing out of them—tight enough to serve as fences that cattle and other farm animals could not get through.
Combat in the bocage was like fighting in a maze, making it impossible to see beyond a single field at a time. It was terrain which greatly favoured the defender against the Allied forces, who were not trained to fight in such country.
Between the hedgerows, dirt farm tracks, that had sunk beneath the level of the surrounding fields by centuries of erosion and use, formed a labyrinthine pattern. Units commonly found themselves lost a few minutes after launching an attack, for all they could see in front of them was the gloom and dripping, shaggy walls of the hedgerows. Just as typically, two outfits could occupy adjacent fields for hours before discovering each other’s presence.
The undergrowth could conceal all manner of surprises. There was one situation when one astonished GI walked round a bend into an equally amazed German. Neither had the ability to shoot and they could have reached out and touched one another. The GI yelled ‘Shoo! Get the hell outta here!” And the German took off’.
Death pervaded the whole region, which became overun with millions of huge dysentry-spreading flies. An RAF Typhoon fighter bomber pilot recalled that even flying over the area at 2000 feet “you could smell the battlefield below, a mix of rotting corpses and the horrible smell of burnt flesh and burning fuel. There was a pall over the region that could be seen from several miles away as we flew towards it, and it was a hateful place”. One German Eastern Front veteran recalled that he thought the weather conditions were often more unpleasant than in Russia, due to almost ceaseless rain.
The Normandy hedgerows were so extremely difficult for the American troops to attack, and so advantageous for the Germans to defend. Here hardened SS troops and Fallschirmjagers, trained to wait in ambushing Allied armour with Panzerfausts, bided their time; whilst snipers positioned themselves to take out the follow-on officers or second wave of infantry.
The SS later used a desperate tactic whereby a couple of Panzerfausts and a section gunner would be laying down, out of site, and then and have six or a dozen soldiers pretend to surrender to an allied tank or bren gun. On signal, the surrendering soldiers would hit the deck and the fists and the gunner would open up over their heads. Allied units that survived that trick would take no prisoners thereafter.
With German tanks like the Panthers, Jagdpanthers and King Tigers hiding in camouflaged farm buildings or seemingly merged into the terrain, it was a nightmare for the Allied forces for the German forces gave no quarters and expected no quarters in return. Eventually after 75 days, Allied forces broke out form Normandy.
It was noted that German Infantry deploying the hand-held, one-shot, throwaway German antitank weapon Panzerfaust in the presence of mechanized units in Western Europe had a very short life expectancy. Early experiences with Panzerfaust led to mechanized units supported by infantrymen, thus German grenadiers, would not see the impact of their 30m shot as they would be suppressed by allied soldiers of foot.
However, the Panzerfaust, weighing only 11 pounds, once fired was capable of piercing 80 mm of armour at up to 80 metres.What were the effects of a Panzerfaust hit on an armoured vehicle? In ‘The Guns of War’, George Blackburn, a Canadian field artillery orward observation officer recalled: “You’ve seen what the “hollow charge” of a Piat or Panzerfaust bomb can do to a tank and its crew. Early in Normandy you’d peered inside burned-out tanks, and been shocked by the charred remains of the crew still sitting there in position, reduced to skinny black cinders, their white teeth showing in the grin of death, though the only visible damage to the tank had been a tiny hole on the outside, leading to a funnel-shaped hole on the inside. However, those concave brassiere-like depressions represented, you were told, the amount of steel that had been instantly turned into white-hot, molten pellets and been sent careening around inside the turret killing all the occupants and setting the tank on fire.*
July 29th, and the battalion was assembled on high ground in battle formation awaiting the order to advance. We stood on our tanks to watch a vast armada of bombers pound enemy positions in the middle distance and when they left, the massed artillery behind us opened up to batter us with an ear-splitting overture. We had been advised to keep our mouths open to lessen the concussive affect on our eardrums and whether this was true, or our collective legs were being pulled I have no way of knowing, but we stood with mouths agape like gormless goldfish trying to cope with the lancing pain stabbing our eardrums. There were going to be a lot of deaf people amongst this lot after the war, thought I.
At the bottom of the slope stood a row of poplar trees and the ditch below full of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, our supporting infantry. A shortfall salvo of 25-pound shells exploded in the branches above them and the Jocks erupted and ran around like ants whose nest has been disturbed. Soon stretcher-bearers began bringing casualties up the slope and we watched them go by with indifference, as sudden death was now a way of life.
This was to be the third attempt to break out of the beachhead, the difference being this one named “Bluecoat” was to be a joint tank and infantry venture, whereas its predecessor “Goodwood”was mounted by three Armoured divisions, the Guards Armoured being one of them and had been massacred by the superior fire power and thicker armour of the Panzers. So it was hoped that infantry supported by the ponderous Churchills would accomplish what the lighter Shermans couldn’t. For this we were attached to the 15th Scottish Infantry Division, an outfit that like its sister Division the 43rd Wessex was to be repeatedly decimated in many bloody battles as the campaign progressed, right up to the point of near extinction. And after each battle with fewer replacements available to fill the gaps in the ranks, had led to under strength battalions being disbanded to replenish others.
Flares shot up and into our tanks we jumped, which were more cramped than normal, as we’d took on extra ammunition to shoot up the hedgerows as we advanced. Over the wireless came the order to advance and off we went at a walking pace, the recce tanks leading and the infantry bringing up the rear of this phalanx of steel. Soon mortar bombs began to explode around us and we closed down, and the comforting hiss of the headphones broken by curt exchanges and track and engine noise isolated me from whatever was going on outside. But noted that the infantry seemed to have gone to ground.
We got stymied at the first high-banked hedge but the Churchills charged over it like steeple chasers going over Becher’s Brook, and learned it was more prudent for the Honeys (M3 Stuart – In British service, it also had the unofficial nickname of Honey after a tank driver remarked “She’s a honey“) to follow in the tracks of the big boys as they crashed through from field to field. When we caught up with them they were busy destroying a fortified farmhouse out of whose flaming ruins vague shapes of the enemy tried, but failed to escape. We carried on in this manner as if having drilled for it, spraying the hedgerows with massed machine gun fire then charging over them, and overcoming fortified positions with concentrated cannon fire through the embrasures.
One of our tanks had fallen into one and was wedged in a near perpendicular position and under heavy MG fire and mortar fire, making escape or surrender impossible. And worse, a panzerfaust operator was creeping up on it and one of the crew seeing death approaching, was screaming over the air for his mother to come and save him.
Sergeant Porter ordered me out to check the other side of the next hedge for a concealed sunken road, as one of our tanks had fallen into one and was wedged in a near perpendicular position and under heavy MG fire and mortar fire, making escape or surrender impossible. And worse, a panzerfaust operator was creeping up on it and one of the crew seeing death approaching, was screaming over the air for his mother to come and save him. Under those circumstances I wouldn’t have sought intermediate intervention, but would have appealed to the top man Himself. As I had recently found that this had proved most efficacious.
Taking off my headphones and cracking open the hatch, I popped out into a world of raging fury. Showers of mortar bombs exploded on or around the ponderous Churchills whose thick hide could stand up to a direct hit from the light and medium calibres that a Honey’s couldn’t, and the continuous Brrrrp Brrrrp of MG 42 Spandaus came from all points of the compass and the chattering of the heavy Besas answering added to the din. I scanned the countryside and found it incredible that in the dense foliage around us, thousands of men were stalking each other with intent to kill; yet there wasn’t a single soul in sight.
There was no sunken road on the other side of the hedge, and I found a way over for the Honey and as I scrambled back aboard, Willy Whitelaw with head and shoulders out of the turret hatch came plunging over the hedge leading his “S” Squadron. He angrily shouted something at me that was incomprehensible in the din and not lip readable either. But I think he was annoyed that we had got in the way of his cavalry charge. I found on leaving the Honey I had been reduced to a cowering mouse, but back inside with headphones on and the Browning chattering in my hands, I was as brave as the next man but then, I wasn’t trapped in a ditch watching death creeping up and no way of escaping it but to howl for the mercy of God. The crew of the ditched tank had ceased shouting; I think they must have had it.
We swept over the first ridge and down into the valley beyond into more open country, then halted to wait for the lagging infantry to catch up, who when they did, had fanciful tales to tell of hundreds of prisoners they’d mopped up in our wake and hedgerows literally stuffed with German dead. I didn’t believe them, but apparently it was true. Which leads me to hold the view that the least qualified people to write about war are those who are at the sharp end of it. Because of their limited vision, they don’t see much of what’s going on to comment about.
Things began to happen, we came under heavy shellfire and the infantry retired back over the reverse slope for cover whilst we resumed the attack, until two huge machines that dwarfed the Churchills and armed with guns as long as telegraph poles lumbered out of the woods a short distance away, and ignoring us, began to annihilate “S” Squadron. Some said later there were three, but I only saw two, which was more than enough to be going on with.
In a brisk few minutes of tank versus tank fighting, armoured piercing shells from the Churchills flirted off the heavily armoured frontal plates of the giant panzers, that I learned later were Jagpanthers or tank killers. And it was the Churchills that in turn leapt like shot rabbits and burst into flames as 88mm solid shot struck them at short range, and the airwaves filled with a babble of frantic voices all clamouring to be heard. The Jagdpanthers withdrew at a leisurely pace back into the woods, leaving a dozen Churchills to burn fiercely whilst surviving crew members scorched and wounded, crawled back through the corn stubble with fiery streams of red tracer from the many Spandaus seeking them out. We charged up and down between the woods and the stricken Churchills laying down a smoke screen, which was a futile gesture as they were creating their own funeral pyres of oily black smoke.
With “S” Squadron destroyed, we attached ourselves to Right Flank Squadron and carried on advancing, and AP rounds fired from God knows where flew past us and knocked out two of their tanks. Later, reconnoitring a sunken road I saw the enemy for the first time. Five Germans burst from a hedge, one carrying an MG 42, and sprinted across the lane. I opened fire and saw the tracer passing between the running figures yet they continued to the opposite hedge without breaking stride and disappeared. My preconceived notions of warfare were unravelling fast as by rights, there should have been five crumpled bodies lying in that dusty lane as proof of my marksmanship. People just weren’t sticking to the script.
The rest of the day passed in a similar fashion and after an advance of a few miles, dusk fell. We harboured with the Honeys forming a piquet line to protect the battle tanks and act as heavy weapons support for the infantry dug in out front, and there was no rest. A1 Echelon commanded by Sir Charles came up with replenishment fuel and ammo that we were in dire need of, as I myself had fired six belts, which was 1500 rounds into hedges and buildings and had been parsimonious in my usage. Sweaty, hungry and exhausted with heads throbbing from hours of inhaling cordite fumes, we worked hard to get the tanks back to full battle readiness.
The enemy, noting the feverish activity, brought down a severe mortar and artillery stonk presaging a counter-attack, and it did me a power of good to watch Sir Charles scampering around in search of a better ‘ole in the time honoured Old Bill tradition, for which he was deservedly awarded a Military Cross. Then came a series of counter-attacks, ending all hope of sleep that night.
A young very scared Argyle private came banging on a hatch claiming his section corporal had disappeared and begged to be allowed inside the tank, which Sergeant Porter would not permit even if there had been room for him. Instead I was sent with him back to his slit trench to calm him and keep him company and felt like a tortoise without a carapace, and pined to return to my shell and leave the wide-open noisy spaces to the Poor Bloody Infantry.
The private hadn’t seen the Corporal receive a direct hit, only that there had been a brilliant flash and when he came to his senses the Corporal was gone. And he didn‘t know about the Corporal’s hand still attached to the Bren gun until I found it.
It was so dark that he had to practically lead me by the hand to his trench, as I was now becoming aware of being afflicted with night blindness brought about no doubt, by some vitamin deficiency in childhood. And picking up the Bren gun I felt under my feet in the bottom of the trench, I was shocked to find a hand clamped to the pistol grip with forefinger wrapped around the trigger. I prised it off and threw it out into the night, but could feel other revolting substances adhering to the stock that I tried to ignore.
The private hadn’t seen the Corporal receive a direct hit, only that there had been a brilliant flash and when he came to his senses the Corporal was gone. And he didn‘t know about the Corporal’s hand still attached to the Bren gun until I found it. A last pre-dawn attack by the Germans came and I fired the Bren blindly at perceived shadows flitting about in front of us, the emboldened private at my side did the same with his rifle and claimed many hits. But it was the torrent of fire passing over our heads from the guns of the Honeys behind that broke up the attack, helped by precision shelling from M-10s further behind.
The first sliver of dawn in the East found the private curled up in a corner of the trench in a deep sleep of exhaustion. I glanced at the slit trenches either side but no helmeted heads showed for dawn stand-to, and shuddered to think that we must have been out here all night with no other infantry around to support us. I slid quietly out of the trench and hurried back to my Honey, relieved to be back home and safe with my family again.
The following day, whilst the battalion reconstituted itself with tanks and men from the Forward Delivery Squadron and buried the blanket wrapped dead, Captain Pember sent us on paired patrols to glean what intelligence we could resulting from the recent battle. We were paired with Bert Porter’s pal, Sergeant Robin Caulder and in a small wood we made the interesting discovery of two huge behemoths that I swear were the ones that had done for “S” Squadron. Covered by the Honey’s guns, Guardsman Deuchars the hull gunner of the other tank and I were sent to inspect them. With cocked revolvers we cautiously approached the massive machines, but no enemy living or dead were around.
I began to realise that this campaign would be one of attrition; German superior design, quality and tactics versus Anglo/American massed produced rubbish and high expectations, and the rate of exchange in machines and men would be about five to one until we ran out of men and lost the war.
There were signs of hurried abandonment as items of kit were strewn haphazardly around but the machines were intact, although one had shed an easily repairable track and the frontal plates of both were scarred with many AP hits, presumably from the guns of “S” Squadron, but none had penetrated what looked like a foot of frontal armour. I was impressed with the interiors of these giants; so spacious compared our sardine tins that passed for tanks that it was like comparing a stretched limousine with a cramped Austin 7. And the driver even had a steering wheel instead of rudimentary steering sticks. The most worrisome thing of all was that we hadn’t yet encountered the much dreaded Tiger nor the even bigger King Tiger, which boded ill for the Churchill crews with only four inches of frontal plate for protection. And a Tiger’s 88 and the Panther’s super 75 solid shot would scarcely notice passing through the inch and a half of an Honey’s frontal armour and carrying on out the other side.
I began to realise that this campaign would be one of attrition; German superior design, quality and tactics versus Anglo/American massed produced rubbish and high expectations, and the rate of exchange in machines and men would be about five to one until we ran out of men and lost the war. There would have been an even higher casualty rate if it weren’t for the Fighter-bombers, as after Normandy the words Tiger, Panther and 88 over the air, would bring an armoured division to a grinding halt until the Typhoons came to clear the way ahead. I think they destroyed more German armour than all the Allied tanks put together did.
On the 6th of August we moved to a place called La Caviere, and came under heavy shell and mortar fire as we prepared to take part in what became known as the Battle of Estry. In our thin skinned Honeys we took refuge in an orchard so that the HE shells exploded amongst the branches overhead, and the shrapnel rattled harmlessly against our armour like hailstones. Left Flank with the HLI had already pushed off towards Estry, and attached to Right Flank we would support the Argyles in an attack on a prominence shown on the map as Point 208. We had scouted the area the evening before to establish contact with the enemy, which is a euphemism for drawing enemy fire. And apart from surprising and killing a couple of panzerfaust operators, we had seen nothing worth reporting and it was our opinion that the Jerry had pulled out and the attack would be stroll in the park. But we were wrong.
What we didn’t know was that our opponents were the veteran 9th SS Panzer Division, top quality troops and they had skilfully camouflaged their Tigers and Panthers in barns, copses, sheds and haystacks even. And were far too professional and experienced to reveal these positions to what was obviously a sacrificial reconnaissance patrol. So the scene was set for the sort of ambush their namesakes would spring in the wilds when the Churchills lumbered into their sights like a herd of Wildebeests. And what chance did a Churchill have against a King Tiger that at 68 tons was nearly 30 tons heavier, and had a gun that fired twice as far and at 24 mph, could cover ground twice as fast? The short answer is none.
I was happy to be attached to Right Flank as apart from our highly efficient Troop Leader Captain Pember, we came under the command of competent officers one had trust in such as Lieutenants Laing, Scott-Barrett and Runcie. The latter an earthy humorous man who really surprised me by becoming the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church. We got the order to attack and the infantry appeared from their subterranean burrows and tucking themselves in behind the battle tanks, we surged forward towards Hill 208 in a mob like spectators leaving a football match. Shells rained down on us from high ground on the right, which came as a surprise as that feature was supposed to have been cleared by Grenadier tanks and the Gordon Highlanders. As we drew near to Hill 208, mortars joined in with the shelling and the Argyles couldn’t get forward and were being so severely mauled, they sensibly went to ground. The tanks lined up and advancing slowly, began blasting the slopes of the hill with their cannons and MG’s, which troubled me, as I couldn’t see what we were supposed to be shooting at.
Our role was to use speed to stay ahead of the Panzer’s cumbersome traverse gear and nullify Panzerfausts that threatened the battle tanks flanks at close quarters, as well as the Spandau nests that were ripping our infantry apart.
Then I saw a tank near the summit that a moment ago was a small clump of bushes, until a shell blew off its camouflage to reveal a Panther. I began to spot other camouflaged Panzers, given away by their long lean snouts as they tracked their prey then killed them. Our role was to use speed to stay ahead of the Panzer’s cumbersome traverse gear and nullify Panzerfausts that threatened the battle tanks flanks at close quarters, as well as the Spandau nests that were ripping our infantry apart. Archie dealt with these by driving at the weapon pits and skid turning on top to crush them, which generally sealed their fate so to speak. Whilst I toppled any survivors that managed to escape with lethal bursts from my Browning. And that remains my main memory of this battle.
The artillery put down a smoke screen that prevented even worse carnage, followed by a creeping barrage that we stayed close behind and by early evening we reached the top of Hill 208 and took up positions to repel a counter-attack. I cracked open my hatch and inhaled the wonderful sweet fresh air, and on the shell pocked slope behind lay a swathe of knocked out Churchill tanks with many bodies of both German and Argyle infantrymen strewn around them, but not one disabled German tank to be seen.
We were withdrawn next day to refuel and replenish the tanks and enjoy the luxury of a shower in a mobile bath unit. I thought this an ideal time to change the dressings on my legs having been on a while but found this unnecessary, as the flesh had healed into pink scars that I would carry for the rest of my life. An incident occurred revealing another facet of war, a Sergeant ushered a weeping Guardsman up to Buster’s scout car who clutched the wrist of a hand with a bullet hole through the palm, but the back of the hand was a mess of pulped flesh with splinters of white bone showing through. He claimed accidental discharge of his revolver and the bullet hitting his hand, but Buster was having none of this. He berated him for a coward and howled for Wacky and without the benefit of a field dressing to cover the wound, to come and march him to the rear and hand him over to the military police for court-martialling. I suppose Caumont and Estry in quick succession had proved a bit too much for him, and I personally thought it the act of a despairing man to maim oneself like that.
On the 10th of August we prepared to do battle for yet another hill with the support of Welsh Guards infantry at a place called Chenedolle, or China Doll in our parlance, and once again against determined SS opponents. This involved a night march southwest to get into position, and at first light we were drawn up on the starting line awaiting the signal to go.
As dawn broke we could see we were back in the bocage, which was like trying to fight a conventional war in a jungle but I think the dense foliage helped to keep our losses down. The hill to be taken, point 242, was steep with a false summit and the German infantry were dug into the hedgerows and backed by Panthers, and had plenty of artillery and mortar support to call on. We were attached “S” Squadron who had missed Estry due to reforming after their losses at Caumont, and with a Company of Welsh Guards, we kicked off at 0630 prompt.
We immediately came under heavy fire and gaps appeared in the orderly lines of advancing Welshmen as men were hit and went down, the walking wounded picking themselves up and struggling back to the rear with pale stricken faces. The Panthers played their usual game of lurking behind hedges and picking off passing targets at close range. Whilst the Honeys had a lively time trying to suppress panzerfaust operators who bobbed up like Meercats out of holes in the ground to fire their weapons.
The Welsh Guards were good at locating machine gun nests for us to destroy, and took it upon themselves to probe the high hedges to see what unpleasantness awaited us in the next field, and waving us forward if clear. Then came a stroke of unprecedented luck, one of the battle tank’s commanders, a Lieutenant Ward, peered through a gap in an hedge and saw two Panthers just a few feet away on the other side and presenting their vulnerable flanks towards him. He summoned up another Churchill from his troop and they knocked out a Panther each at point blank range and as far as I know, these were the only two enemy tanks to be knocked out by the battalion during the whole of the Normandy fighting.
We took the hill early noon by the proven expedient of advancing close behind a rolling barrage that destroyed or drove the enemy tanks back, and catching the German infantry as they emerged from holes to set up their weaponry for defence. But they fought hard, and only surrendering after taking heavy casualties and when further resistance became hopeless.
This was the end of our fighting in Normandy, as the battle of Chenedolle Ridge finally smashed through the German defences and their front collapsed. The more agile Shermans of the Armoured Divisions racing through to cut off thousands of retreating enemy at Falaise and the choked roads becoming a massive killing ground for the fighter-bombers, whilst the Guards Armoured Division raced on to liberate Brussels.
We rested and refitted and counted the cost of the three battles. Out of strength of 600 men we’d had about a 100 casualties with half of those killed, which was considered extremely light. Of the tanks we had lost 30 out of a complement of 60. But on the plus side we had destroyed two Panthers, which I suppose are about the right odds considering the Churchills were always exposed to the awesome firepower of camouflaged Panzers lurking in ambush. And of course there was the added bonus of many enemy infantry reportedly killed in the hedgerows by our effective machine gun fire, and of many enemy surrendering as a result. So, we hadn’t done too badly with what tools we had.
The front line rapidly receded and we followed in its wake, thinking this fluid warfare spelt the end of our usefulness as the Churchills were far too slow for fast moving operations. But surprisingly there were plenty of memorable actions ahead of us yet, like the desperate battles fought in the soggy wetlands of the Low Countries to reach the Rhine. The long bitterly cold patrols behind enemy lines in the frozen Ardennes to assess the scale and effect of Von Runstead’s attack. Crossing the turbulent Rhine on rafts to link up with the 6th Airborne to prevent the nightmare of another Arnhem happening through lack armoured support. The 120-mile long march on Munster with units of the American 17th Airborne riding on our tanks, and on the way Captain Pember being killed by a volley of so called “friendly fire.” He was shot in the back as he and I along with Sgt. Porter were holding off an enemy infantry attack with our Brownings. The grim claustrophobic fighting and constant ambushes in the gloomy dark rides and trails of the interminable German forests, culminating in the dash to reach the Baltic Sea before the Russians to prevent a Soviet occupation of Denmark.
At the age of 18 when I went into the Army, I viewed my involvement in the war as a once in a lifetime adventure I was determined not to miss. And I saw things, did things and went places with a crew to whom I became more closer attached to than family. And even more satisfying, I was at the forefront of forces that had fought the best soldiers of the finest army in the world, and forced them back from the Normandy beaches and clear across a continent, to finally defeat them on the shores the Baltic Sea. I think I had earned my spurs and wouldn’t have missed this experience for the world – but I wouldn’t care to do it again.