CHAPTER 7: INTERLUDE:
REST AND TRAVEL 13 Sept 1944 - 7 Oct 1944
While the 9th were finishing the battles of the bridges and taking part in the capture of Le Havre momentous battles were being fought elsewhere. To understand why we moved or stood still we have to look at what was happening elsewhere in France and NW Europe from late August onwards.
On 25 August the 43rd Wessex Division forced the crossing of the Seine at Vernon. This allowed Brian Horrocks, commanding 30 Corps, to assemble an armoured striking force on the east bank for a massive surge north east to Brussels and Antwerp. On 31 August this force crossed the Somme between Amiens and Villers Bretonneux, on 3 September it was at Brussels, and on 4 September entered Antwerp. It appeared that the German army had given up, and the roads to Holland and the Ruhr were nearly clear. Unfortunately this was not so. The combination of a slow-down by the allied forces and the commitment of all German troops – particularly paratroops – to the defence of the Albert and Escaut canals of northern Belgium blunted the allied drive. Brian Horrocks considered that the happenings of the days 3 to 7 September in effect meant that the war was going to last into 1945.
30 Corps crossed the Escaut Canal on 10 September, and there grouped to form the land arm of Operation Market Garden. This operation consisted of the dropping of airborne divisions at St. Oedenrode, Grave-Nijmegen, and Arnhem, and the linking of these divisions by the land arm. This would breach the Rhine, and allow allied forces then to swing north into Holland and south east to the Ruhr. German forces in Holland would be isolated from Germany, the source of much of German war material would be destroyed, and the war could well end in 1944.
The airborne divisions landed during the afternoon of 17 September, and Z-hour for the Guards Armoured Division, leading 30 Corps, was 1435 hours on that day. The land forces linked up with the 101 US Airborne at St. Oedenrode and the 82 US Airborne between Grave and Nijmegen, and the bridges over the rivers Maas and Waal were captured. But the bridge at Arnhem over the Neder Rijn was "a bridge too far", and the remnants of 1 British Airborne finally withdrew on 26 September.
The implications of all this for 9 RTR were two. First, after the capture of Le Havre on 12 September other units of the Canadian Army were already well up the coast. The siege of Boulogne took place between 17 and 23 September, and that of Calais between 25 September and 1 October. Both towns were captured by the 3rd Canadian Division. During much of this period 9 RTR were given time to rest and refit. When the withdrawal from Arnhem was complete the 9th, as part of 34 Armoured Brigade, were ready to move up to Holland to help stabilize and extend the allied salient leading from the Belgian border to Nijmegen and beyond.
While the 9th rests from the 13th to the 29th of September 1944, it is an opportunity to look at a matter of great concern to any soldier in a front-line unit – what hapened if you were wounded?
The 9th suffered 244 casualties during the course of the campaign in NW Europe and of these 68 were killed, 9 taken prisoner, and 167 wounded. A few of these wounds were caused by malfunctions of the tank armament, such as the besa blow back resulting in Dickie Hall's injuries on 29 June. The great majority, however, were caused by enemy action. They can be grouped into five main types:
armour-piercing (AP) shot hitting a tank or other vehicle and causing wounds or amputations
AP shot causing the tank to catch fire or "brew", generally by igniting some or all of the ammunition stowed in the tank; this could be made worse if the petrol or hydraulic lines were fractured and caught on fire
shelling or mortaring when crews of all echelons were outside their vehicles – and when they were in them sometimes, particularly in the case of soft skinned vehicles
mines, which were designed either to damage vehicles, e.g. teller mines, or to damage people, e.g. S-mines, and Schumines
small arms fire, from machine-gun, machine-pistol, rifle (especially snipers') and pistol
The systems for dealing with wounded people were in a sense similar to those for repairing tanks; the worse it was, the further back you went. There were a number of things that the wounded person or those round him could do as immediate first aid. Everybody carried a first aid dressing, and there was a first aid box in the tanks and many of the other vehicles. Most people also carried injectible ampoules of morphine, which could be used as some antidote to pain. Cyril Rees escaped with burns from his tank in the battle of the Broedersbosch in February 1945: "Someone nearby produced a tube of morphine and jabbed it into my lower arm, I think it was Frank Risbridger. It wasn't long before I began to feel drowsy".
Many people helped their comrades to escape from damaged or burning vehicles, which at least gave them a chance to get back to more experienced medical aid. Most vehicles, certainly tanks, are not designed for quick escape. There are many projections and obstacles, and tank crews get somewhat festooned with lanyards, microphones and headsets, binoculars, map-cases, and the loops, belts and pockets of their own clothes. Ray Gordon told in the overture to this history of the tragic consequences of not being able to free some of the obstacles to exit in his tank Iceni on 10 July 1944.
Once people were free of their vehicle they were exposed to shelling, mortaring, and machine-gun and rifle fire. A quick dive into a ditch was a natural and often life-saving reaction, and from that point the casualty could be moved back to the medical professionals. The general procedure for dealing with casualties is shown in Figure 4.1, although of course there were many variations on what could happen to a person. The RAP could be that belonging to any unit, and in many cases the medical staff (doctors, padres and medical orderlies) went out to collect the wounded rather than wait for them to arrive at the RAP. One of the padres in 34 Armoured Brigade was Rev. Capt. Geoffrey Lampe, who won the MC for rescuing wounded under fire. Geoffrey had been a classics master at King's Canterbury before he joined the army. On one occasion in Normandy he suddenly found himself in a ditch with a one-time pupil. Mallorie, said Geoffrey, I think we last met in the Peloponnesian War.
Figure 4.1: Dealing with Casualties
RTU: Return to Unit
However it was afforded, the medical backup was generally voted anywhere from very good to superb. Les Arnold was wounded near Colleville on 28 June when he was helping to re-fuel his tank.
"I got hit down the right side and my right elbow was shattered. I managed to get over the side of the tank and someone put a tourniquet on my arm. I was collected by stretcher bearers who protected me by stopping and lying alongside me whenever mortars fell on the field we were crossing. They put me in an ambulance which took me to a Field Dressing Station, where Major Conway RAMC operated on me. I was shipped out of Normandy by a DUKW which ferried a group of wounded from the shore to the "Duke of Rotherham". I ended up at Southampton General Hospital, and after eleven months of hospital treatment was finally discharged from the army".
John Powell was wounded by shelling after he and his crew bailed out of their tank near Chateau de Fontaine on 10 July 1944.
"Like I said, we were unused to being on a battlefield without inches of armour plate around us. Some mortar rounds or shells started whistling around and we dropped. Too late. When I returned to consciousness the others were getting up but I couldn't move. I tried to shout but only a whisper came out. The others noticed my plight and our sergeant examined me, turned me over and put a field dressing on my back. I couldn't feel my legs but was assured that they were still there. Someone went to get help while I was given a cigarette to keep me occupied. My very brief war was certainly over.
The medical back-up was superb. Within 30 minutes a RAMC bren carrier picked me up and took me to a nearby field hospital. I was placed on the operating table and dealt with immediately. The subsequent few days of nursing and medical care offered in field conditions was a revelation. I even got a visit from a representative or two from 'B' Squadron, although how they found the time I cannot imagine. As soon as I had recovered sufficiently to be repatriated I was flown back to Oxford in a very bumpy Dakota for further attention to my spinal injuries. I spent months and months in hospital recovering some use of my legs. The remnants of my kit miraculously caught up with me later, but, alas, without my Qui s'y frotte badge".
As both Les and John have related, it could take a long time to recover from a wound, and even then the full function of the disabled part might never completely return. Burns presented a different sort of disablement. Many of the tank crew casualties were burned, and many of those had to spend months or even years attending hospitals for treatment. Ray Gordon was burned on the approaches to Maltot on 10 July 1944. Part of his story was told in the overture to this history. What follows overlaps the last few minutes of the brewing of Iceni, and continues with the next four years of Ray's life; his tank had caught on fire, and he had just managed to pull himself out of the turret and fall on the ground beside the tracks.
"My face became swollen and very tight making it difficult to see and the skin of my left hand hung down in black strips from an arm which was bloodless and white. Lieutenant Shep Douglas, my troop leader, crawled along the field. "Who are you" he said, not recognising one of his own troop to whom he had given orders earlier that morning. I followed him across the field of rape crouched low because we could hear gunfire to a gap in the hedgerow where infantry were in position. The look of horror on their faces which changed to looks of pity when they saw me will remain forever in my mind. It is a look which I would never want to inflict on another human being. I was helped to a medical truck, given an injection and that was the end of the 10th July for me.
Memories after that are mixed – 'You are being flown home' someone said. The sound of the aircraft taking off but no memory of landing. A sudden shout by me 'I can see' (I had been blind for over a week due to my swollen face) then a transfer to the Burns and Plastic Surgery Hospital in Basingstoke which, little did I realise at the time, was to become my second home, on and off, for the next four years.
This situation for the injured soldier is the other side of the penny from the successes of winning a war. Months for recovery, many operations – some of which result in further painful periods of recovery and for some unfortunate men it means a broken body for the rest of life and that life itself severely limiting what that person can finally achieve. For myself I was indeed fortunate that whilst my injuries were visible they were literally only skin deep – no amputation, no limping, no internal injuries or other restricting disability. In a sense the cross that a burns victim has to bear is the reaction of the public to the vivid scarring on the face and a disfigured and unsightly hand (once described by one of my doctors as a claw to the fury of my wife). In the early days of venturing out into the world and going along a public road one is so conscious of one's disfigurement and the protective shell that you gradually build around you has not yet materialised. You feel that everyone is staring at you – some sympathetically, others with distaste and even when in a shop you hear that penetrating whisper "Why do they let people out looking like that". Even having plucked up courage to go into a restaurant for a meal to find that the three people sitting at the table you are directed to get up and walk away leaving their food. You want to hide. It is as if you had inflicted the injury on yourself and were to blame for looking like that.
Gradually common sense takes over and one becomes fully aware that for the rest of your life you will always look different from a 'normal' person. Once this fact is accepted life becomes a never ending challenge. What you achieved before your injury, be it in sport, work or hobby, you try, try, and try again to accomplish – you adjust your method of approach to the problem and you solve it. You ensure that despite your physical appearance you are able to achieve in nearly every case the same result as a 'normal' person – and how satisfying that feeling is.
Looking back on my life I can now appreciate that my time in the 9th RTR made me grow up into a man. My disablement has given me a greater understanding of those less fortunate than myself and ironically being burnt (on reflection) was the best thing that happened to me in that I married Joan, the Hospital Physiotherapist and, as the fairy story says – lived happily ever after".
Following the Battle of Le Havre, the Battalion was informed that a fortnight's rest was anticipated and that billets could be found in the area south of Dieppe.
On Sept 17th, the Battalion was disposed as follows:- HQ, A1 and A2 Echelons - Biville La Baignard. A Sqn in Bronnetuit. B Sqn Gonneville; C Sqn in St. Genevieve.
Billets were found for all personnel, and certain comfort and rest was enhanced by the attitude of the villagers, who were kind enough to entertain by providing meals and wine - this was greatly appreciated for with petrol "frozen" it was not possible to send "passion" trucks to the larger towns.
Being the first time that the Battalion had been given a definite rest period since landing, maintenance was carried out on an extensive scale; each vehicle was given a thorough inspection and a number of engine changes were made.
It was not, however, possible to ignore the hospitality of the villagers, and at the request of various "Maires" certain ceremonies were gladly endured.
Major Michael Reynell, OC B Sqn, was presented with a bouquet of flowers by his admiring villagers and in a gesture of respect and also to avoid his own embarrassment, laid this quickly at the foot of the local cenotaph.
On Sunday 24 Sept 1944, HQ and C Sqns held similar but more elaborate functions to further the cause of Allied unity.
At Biville, HQ Sqn scrubbed their belts, cleaned their brasses and paraded with a guard of honour that appeared to have little acquaintance with rifles, while the Colonel and "Le Maire" laid wreaths on the cenotaph and exchanged speeches. The Colonel, speaking in French, expressed his admiration for the Free French and thanked the villagers for their kind welcome, while the "Maire", with appropriate gesture, reaffirmed the bond that existed between French and British in their love of freedom. No ceremony, however, is complete without flags and music, and the local band was there to express its personality – it struggled valiantly through the Marseillaise and God Save the King, but produced such confusion during the March Past that it was only possible to maintain a marching step away from its influence. The "Maire" of St. Genevieve was less ambitious in his arrangements, but C Sqn's parade was no less impressive and the speeches no less suitable.
The football match between the Battalion and a team from the local villagers was played in the afternoon and, despite heavy showers of rain, attracted a reasonable audience. The standard of football was not high, but the French side was not outclassed as a victory of 6-0 might suggest. The most entertaining part of the afternoon was provided by the ceremonial prelude to the game, with which the Battalion side had not been acquainted.
They strolled out nonchalantly onto the field, while the French side trotted out one behind the other and lined up in the middle of the field. One by one the Battalion side realised that perhaps they too should follow this example and began to sort themselves out but were not quick enough. An almost unrecognisable God Save the King was being played. The band was here again. During the Marseillaise, the French turned about but this time the Battalion made no response and were finally embarrassed by the presentation of another large bouquet of flowers.
As the days passed further amusements were found. A dinner party was given for Lt. Col. A. R. Leakey, 7 RTR, where he was presented with the model of a Churchill derelict upon a minefield in recognition of his leadership in discovering more minefields in France than any other unit. The present was accepted with grave and dubious laughter, but as the table was supplied with certain luxuries including Champagne, Vin Blanc, and Benedictine, nothing rude was said at the time.
C Sqn indulged in the traditional taste for dramatics and produced a noisy but amusing variety. B Sqn followed suit and no critic would hazard an opinion on the higher state of excellence. A Sqn organised a dance and were kindly supplied with a bar by a local Aubergiste. It was rather obvious to state that everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves and sobriety was hardly the order of the day.
The Battalion moved again on 29 September. The first complete rest had been thoroughly enjoyed – many had made pleasant friendships, among these were such notable personalities as the 2IC who bade a tender farewell to a group of fair young ladies at five o'clock in the morning, and Major Bert Mockford, who it was rumoured, had acquired an affection for a certain doctor's wife.
By the first of October the Battalion had reached Henneveux – a distance of 123 miles. During a short rest here, an impressive Service was held in memory of those who had been killed fighting with the Battalion. As the sun set behind a curtain of trees, the Battalion formed up on a sloping field facing two Churchills, in front of which stood the Padre. He conducted a simple service, the message of which was that, however difficult it was to understand, no death was in vain.
The following day the Battalion moved to Renescures and there awaited transporters in the final stage to join 1st Corps, who were now protecting the S.W. flank of the Arnhem salient. Whilst loading on 5 Oct. Lt. Les Wintle of A Sqn fell as he attempted to climb on a moving transporter and was crushed to death. An unfortunate end to an excellent troop leader who had fought so well from the very start.
By Oct 8th HQ, A and C Sqns had crossed into Holland and came under command 51(H) Div. B Sqn and the Recce Tp remained at Renescures awaiting further transporters. A further 100 miles had been covered on tracks, and the welcome by the Dutch was the most effusive that the Battalion had encountered, even surpassing that of the Belgians, who had done everything to satisfy the general wish for comfort and wartime luxury.
Maj. Peter Massy, who had done excellent work in securing billets, was awarded a special medal of recognition by the Regt – the recommendation coming via the Adjutant, who generally had a doubtful residence.
The first 9 RTR Newsletter gives the views of the squadrons on this interlude of rest and travel. A Squadron: "Sept 17 found us sitting in Brennetuit near Auffay, and for the next ten days all the tanks were in different stages of stripping, including a couple of engine changes. Quite a bit of sport was indulged in, and the squadron kept up its reputation. The rest period culminated in a squadron dance on the evening of Sept 28th, and we are pleased to relate that in essentials this differed in no-wise from any other A Squadron dance. Except that at 3a.m. in the morning some petrol arrived, which a semi-capable squadron proceeded to pour into our chariots in preparation for a very early move.
In the following three days we clocked a further 123 on our track mileage, eventually boarding transporters for the final run up to Eindhoven on October 6th. It was whilst loading these transporters that Les Wintle met his death falling under the wheels of a moving transporter and being killed instantly. This was a very sad end to a grand troop leader, when one considers that he had been in the thick of everything from the beginning".
B Squadron's principal recollection was a squadron concert produced by L/Cpl George Horsfield: "One of the highlights was a 'Squadron Office' scene in which Tpr Jack Shepherd as SSM and George Horsfield as the squadron clerk gave unmistakable impersonations. Other turns included an Egyptian scene with L/Cpl Johnnie Trotter, Cpl Bill Holyoake and Trooper Norman Hughes accompanied by drums and dancing snakes. The star of the officers' sketch was Lieut. John Stone as a French sanitary man, while in the sergeants sketch the star was SQMS Jim Lewis as himself. Ernie Nightingale built a first rate stage and the show was greatly helped by the squadron band".
C Squadron start after the capture of Le Havre: "Followed a few days which were well spent in trying out the new weapons and drinks we had acquired, and in making return visits to replenish stocks – until the whole town was put out of bounds. After a smart rattle along the roads eastward we arrived at the delightful village of Beaunay where we made our home for the next ten days. On Sunday 25 Sept we had a ceremonial parade, during which the Squadron Leader placed a wreath on the village War Memorial for WWI, and we performed a March Past. The salute was taken by the Mayor, Raymond Wemaere".
Mayor Wemaere made a speech after taking the salute:
"It has been a great joy and a happy privilege to the people of our Village to receive and welcome the gallant Battalion of the 9th Regiment of the Royal Tanks, who came to Beaunay and Seine Inferieure for our liberation.
I am the interpreter of the Village Council and of the whole population in respectfully addressing our salutations to the Colonel, Officers, non commissioned Officers and ranks of the 9th Regiment of the Royal Tanks, wishing them a kindly welcome, and hoping that they should keep a happy remembrance of their reception, as our liberators.
Every one here, has been deeply moved by your delicate intention and your souvenir, for our glorious soldiers of the war 1914-1918 who fell fighting together with you for their country and our liberty.
The 9th Regiment of the Royal Tanks co-operating with the French 3rd Grenadier Division, in July 1917, was then given the high distinction of the French Croix de Guerre (Military Cross) and la Tourregen of which you have been wearing the crest and the formal devise "Qui s'y frotte s'y Brule".
Hard fighting will still have to take place before the final victory but we do feel confident that 1944 shall see the collapse of our mutual enemy; the Hitlerisme.
Let us have a pious remembrance and allow us to pray together for the gallant soldiers of the 9th Regiment who have given their lives at Caen, Falaise, and Le Havre for our liberty.
Allow me to salute respectfully your gracious Majesties King George and Queen Elizabeth giving them the assurance of the feeling of gratitude of the French populations, toward the British Army."
Individuals had varied memories of this period. Jack Woods was, at least temporarily, extremely hopeful.
"After Le Havre the Battalion settled down outside Dieppe where we heard of the liberation of Paris on the radio and lost our soft transport to support the pursuit of the beaten enemy from Normandy by the Armoured Divisions. We also heard rumours of a return to the U.K., but got on with maintenance and changed our tracks. The tracks had been broken and the new ones nicely laid out waiting for the A.R.V. to tow us on when we had a flap one hour's move, panic stations for a while and away we went on our own tracks both drivers spelling each other, finally loading on to transporters at Rennescure and travelling through the night (the one and only time I saw Brussels) finally arriving in Eindhoven".
Jock Cordiner remembers the town of Bolbec and some rather summary justice:
"Stopping briefly in Bolbec later there were other memorable events. First, while sunning ourselves in the square there was without warning a massive explosion nearby. The square emptied faster than Aberdeen on a Flag Day. It was reported that a huge naval gun sited on the coast had been turned round on us.
Also at Bolbec a few of us gate-crashed an F.F.I. trial of collaborators. We were besieged by men and women begging us to save their lives. We tried but the shooting went on in the back yard. It was a painful experience as we were convinced that not all the victims could have been guilty. No evidence or witnesses were produced. It seemed a good time for those who held power to be rid of people they disliked".
John Hodges' diary picks up a few days after Le Havre and on 26 Sept records the commencement of his diary.
Moved another 48 miles by road to Biville la Baignarde – about 22 miles from Rouen. Here we were grounded owing to lack of petrol and look like being so for some time. Our first real rest in billets.
Parade and ceremony at the village war memorial. Band was the high spot of the party – lots of speeches on both sides with vive les allies, vive La France – vive La Sport!
Still sitting in Biville and having nothing better to do so decided to write this diary out in full. Wish I had started it right from the day of our landing in Normandy on 21st June.
Started on journey north. Reached Transey (43 miles). Night in rather dirty chateau but comfortable bed. Quite an uneventful journey. Tomorrow we shall cross the Somme at St. Valerie.
Crossed the Somme and harboured at Vron. Distance covered 34 miles. Quite uneventful. House with lavatory and bathroom, the first I've met in all France. Tomorrow the circus travels again to a point about 7 miles due east of Boulogne.
The circus moves on another 36 miles. Harboured at Benneveux, 8 miles east of Boulogne. Passed through Montreuil, where the Battalion won the 'Qui s'y frotte' in 1918. We had a short halt there while the CO took a photograph of the Battalion. This place is dirty and we are very spread out. We all hope we shall move again tomorrow. Heard yesterday the story of why the 1st Airborne Division had to be withdrawn from Arnhem. A hitherto unreported Panzer SS Division suddenly appeared and started to play ducks and drakes with the corridor. The Guards Armoured Division had to be withdrawn to deal with it, and so could not get on to join up with the 1st Airborne as originally planned.
Note: As related in the beginning of this history, it was in fact at Moreuil near Amiens that the 9th won the Qui s'y frotte.
Very wet and on the move again. Now harboured in a very dilapidated and bombed chateau east of St. Omer. Distance today 34 miles. Started a very heavy cold yesterday, but liberal doses of pills and whiskey have stopped the aches. Handkerchief problem will soon be acute. Not feeling too good. Here we wait for transporters to take us to Holland. Have now done 700 miles in my tank since we landed – same engine and no real trouble. I wish I could write to Mr. Stokes at Ipswich! (Mr. Stokes helped to design the Bedford engine. Ed.)
Left St. Omer for Eindhoven. Reached Brussels, 106 miles, the same evening. The tanks are being lifted on transporters. Interesting drive via Ypres and Menin. Belgian people very enthusiastic. Brussels amazingly full of life and plenty in the shops. Cold very bad and altogether felt pretty lousy. Lost my way back to the hotel and wandered about for three-quarters of an hour looking for it.
Left Brussels at 10.30a.m. and eventually arrived at Mol about 5 miles from Dutch border. Covered 80 miles. Very interesting ride but the roads of cobblestones are frightful – especially in a half track! Every bone shakes. Cold very thick still, but feel better. Les Wintle was run over by his tank which was on a transporter while climbing on yesterday near St. Omer".
Les Wintle's death was indeed a tragedy. As a troop leader in A Squadron he had survived the dreadful day of 10th July, as well as all the battles before and after. His death is vividly described by Trevor Greenwood:
D + 121 Thursday 5.10.44
"Start delayed this morning about 2 hours, but we eventually left harbour about 11.00a.m. Short drive to concrete runways on local aerodrome where transporters were parked: loaded and shackled vehicles soon after. And then followed a long wait – until 3.0p.m. when we ultimately started – crew on tank, self in transporter driving cab.
Just as we were moving off, I noticed Mr. Wintle running towards his vehicle which was moving slowly into position: A few seconds later there was a commotion round about, and we pulled up. A few yards to our rear I saw a mass of torn rags dark red in colour and some pieces of a body – two feet in particular. This unrecognisable mass laying on the concrete was the remains of Mr. Wintle. He had attempted to board his vehicle via the towing bar and slipped – the trailer, carrying the tank, passed over his body. The three axles, each carrying 8 wheels, had completely mutilated him. A sad business this. He was very young – and had been through most of our actions without harm. How very fragile is this nebulous thread we call life!"