Churchill Crocodile in Action

Yet another Churchill variant was to join the79th Armoured Division after the invasion of Europe. This was the Crocodile, a flamethrower version of the tank that was to prove to be the best such AFV fielded by any combatant during the war. It will be remembered that an earlier flamethrowing version of the Churchill had been deployed at Dieppe. Although Crocodiles landed in Normandy on D Day they were not under control of 79th Armoured Division. Operated by 141st Regiment RAC, formerly 7th Buffs, they passed to Hobart’s command in July 1944, the logic of their being part of what was already known as Hobart’s ‘menagerie’ having been recognized. The Buffs had only begun their training on 20 March in Eastwell Park, Ashford in Kent. John Smith, who served in the regiment, wrote that

The fuel was the most secret part of the whole contraption and we did not know what it contained. In appearance it was a congealed milky-white jelly. The Germans used Diesel oil but our fuel had the great advantage of remaining a compact ‘rod’ and thus reducing the amount burnt up in flight. Its consistency was such that the flame could be ‘rolled’ along the ground into slit trenches or bounced round corners. In addition, it stuck to the target.

At Crépon, two miles inland from Asnelles, elements of 79th Armoured Division fought alongside Churchill Crocodiles of 141st Regiment RAC (The Buffs) for the first time. This was also the first time that Crocodiles were used in action, although some had landed on D Day. Two Crocodiles under Lieutenant John Shearman of the Buffs were engaged along with C Squadron Westminster Dragoons. The action began when C Squadron’s harbour came under shellfire from close range; small arms fire was also directed at the Dragoons. All but one member of the Squadron Leader’s tank were wounded by shell splinters as they were outside the tank when the shelling began. Only Sergeant Whybrow, the gunner, escaped injury. He was quick to climb back into the Sherman and begin returning fire, although he had to load the gun himself. However, Corporal Adcock, the driver, then joined Whybrow and, in spite of being wounded and in pain, assisted with loading the weapon. When the German gun that had fired on the C Squadron harbour was knocked out by the 75 of Lieutenant Hoban’s Crab, the Squadron withdrew from the vicinity. Lieutenant Shearman was overseeing the maintenance of his troop of Crocodiles when the shelling began and it was he who

quickly planned and carried out an attack, leading it himself, having organized RA and R Sigs personnel as infantry. As a direct result of his prompt action the guns were silenced and several, including two 75mm and one 88mm, were destroyed, and 150 PW taken.

In that counter-attack, the Crabs fired their main guns on the enemy positions before the Crocodiles flamed the area while the Royal Artillery and Royal Signals soldiers put down small arms fire. This prompted a German surrender at which point the strength of the position they had held could be assessed: as well as the 150 prisoners and the destroyed guns, a 100mm field gun, an 88 and four 75s were captured. One soldier of the Westminsters was killed and five wounded. This was the first of two actions that earned John Shearman the Military Cross; the second occurred a month later, on 9 July.

As 21 Army Group fought to expand the Normandy bridgehead, units of 79th Armoured Division were involved in many small but important engagements. On 12 June, the Westminsters lost two Crabs to a German anti-tank gun screen as they advanced unsupported in the Bocage country. However, they gained some vengeance when they later played a successful part in the capture of Cheux.

By the end of June much of the Division was in France and Hobart had moved his main headquarters across the Channel; he had first insinuated a small tactical HQ on to a DUKW for which Hobart had managed to obtain space on a ship bound for Normandy on 8 June. Refused shipping space for his HQ, he had plagued the movements staff until they gave in and allowed him to take the DUKW, on which he loaded a jeep, a motorbike, much radio equipment and personnel for a skeleton HQ. He made his presence known to his units quickly: at Brécy, on the 11th, he visited the Westminster Dragoons. During the month, 141st Regiment RAC (The Buffs) came under divisional command, according to the divisional history, and most of the regiment’s Churchills were in Normandy by the last week of June. (However, the regiment did not become part of 79th until September; in the intervening time it was, from 21 July, under the umbrella of 31 Tank Brigade, which later joined Hobart’s command.) Still in Britain, however, were the CDLs of 35 Tank Brigade as well as the Crabs of 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry. The Lothians sailed from Gosport for Normandy on 13 July with the CDLs following later in the month.

As with the other ‘Funnies’ the Crocodiles were often used in penny packets and without proper support. On 14 June, at la Senaudière, one was lost when unsupported Crocodiles took part in an attack with 1st Hampshires; however, the enemy lost a Panther and a Mk IV tank. Next day, Crocodiles of B Squadron helped 51st (Highland) Division clear enemy troops from Escoville. When given good support the Crocodiles were extremely effective as was demonstrated at Escoville. The same was true of le Bon Repos which had been captured and then retaken by the Germans. In the fresh assault by 53rd (Welsh) Division on 23 July, two Crocodile troops of A Squadron 141 RAC advanced on the town, preceded and flanked by gun tanks and with covering artillery fire. The Crocodiles advanced either side of the road to the village, flaming the hedges and flanks before they saturated their objective with flames and their action, which saved many lives amongst the infantry of the Welsh Division who suffered no casualties, drew the personal congratulations of Lieutenant General Ritchie, Commander XII Corps. At Saint-Germain d’Ectot, on 30 July, C Squadron Crocodiles overcame a machine-gun position that had already beaten off three battalion attacks. On this occasion the troop leader dismounted from his tank to lead the infantry, who had not worked with flamethrowers before, ensuring that they advanced as soon as the target was flamed. A day later in the same area, an assault force that included both AVREs and Crocodiles supported a successful infantry attack on a house and orchard.

Although Hitler ordered that his armies should stand along the Seine to resist the Allies, and defend Paris, the speed of the Allied advance made the Führer’s plan redundant while the forces at his commanders’ disposal would not have been capable of sustained resistance in any case. To the men of 21 Army Group the weeks immediately after the breakout from Normandy became known as the ‘great swan’ as formations and units raced across France to the frontiers of the Low Countries. Paris was liberated on 25 August by French troops under American command. On the same day, Second Army crossed the Seine at Vernon and, on the 31st, reached Amiens and seized intact the bridges across the Somme. On 1 September, British troops were at Arras and on the 3rd, four years to the day since the outbreak of war, Guards Armoured Division liberated Brussels. Next day, 11th Armoured Division was at Antwerp.

Such was the speed of the Allied advance that there was no real role for units of 79th Armoured Division. Since the Germans had not had time to prepare defensive lines, there were no manned concrete defences needing the attention of AVREs nor had extensive minefields been laid. Although some AVREs, Crabs and Crocodiles followed the leading armoured units, they were not required and nor were the Class 50/60 rafts that the Division brought forward for the Seine crossing. But, behind the advancing armies, there were still German garrisons locked up in some of the Channel ports. Dieppe’s garrison was quick to surrender but Dunkirk’s held out. Since the port was not logistically important for the Allies, it was simply besieged and remained so until the war ended. But Boulogne, Calais and le Havre were to be attacked and 79th Armoured Division had the weapons needed to break into those ports. And from the Americans, who had declined ‘Funnies’ for D Day, came a request for Crocodiles. General Simpson requested a squadron of Crocodiles to support the US VIII Corps’ attack on Brest, which housed a German submarine base, in the Breton peninsula.

I Corps had the task of capturing le Havre

a place of some natural strength with a pre-war port capacity of about 20,000 tons daily. It was protected by outlying forts, a deep anti-tank ditch and extensive fieldworks, covered by minefields and flooding; it was garrisoned by over 11,000 troops and well equipped with artillery.

At places the defensive belt was up to a mile deep while defending troops had concrete accommodation and the artillery was deployed behind and under concrete. Moreover, the German commander was determined to fight to the last: he had lost his wife and children to Allied bombing on Berlin and the fact that he was cut off from supply and reinforcement did not diminish his determination.

Since le Havre lies on the Seine estuary’s north shore, the approach of any attacker was restricted to the east or north with many obstacles to be overcome before closing with the garrison. I Corps HQ proposed that 49th (West Riding) Division should attack from the east with 51st (Highland) Division coming in from the north. Major General Tom Rennie, GOC Highland Division, suggested an alternative.

Since the Germans had obviously considered that the most likely approach by an attacker would be from the sea, the defences were at their strongest close to the coast and Rennie proposed a diversionary attack from the north but that 51st Division’s main effort be made from about Montivilliers, today almost a suburb of le Havre, on the Lézarde river.

Near Montivilliers were two gaps in the anti-tank ditch, one measuring some 400 yards wide and the other half that width. These provided convenient crossings via which the assault could be directed. Fifteen Crabs of A Squadron, commanded by Major Renton, were to sweep three lanes on the right while ten Crabs of B Squadron, under Major Ackroyd, were to sweep two lanes. The other troop of B Squadron and the troop from C Squadron were to clear a road, and lanes to either side of it, for the AVRE bridgelayer that was to bridge the ditch and its accompanying Snake,* which would supplement the Crabs in gapping the minefields. The road ran north-south between the gaps. Thus eight lanes, each at least twenty-four feet in width, were to be cleared.

Ian Hammerton’s 1st Troop of B Squadron was flailing the lane on the extreme left, which he had reconnoitred beforehand in heavy rain with the help of French Resistance men. As his tank moved off to make the two-tank-wide gap Mary, its wireless was tuned to the BBC Home Service and a programme of dance tunes including ‘This is a lovely way to spend an evening’. Lieutenant Hammerton’s route was a dog-leg, the knee of which was at the end of the anti-tank ditch, and as the Crabs advanced slowly they were surprised to find no mines. They had flailed on a gap in the minefield and it was assumed that the German engineers had ruled out the possibility of an attack close to the edge of a small cliff. The complete lane was cleared within forty minutes and

I called up the Churchills of 7th Royal Tank Regiment to tell them that lane Mary was all clear, and they began to move through our flailed path. Most of them had got through when one went a little off to the right and, BANG! up went a mine; it was about a yard to the side of our lane.

The infantry began swarming through in their carriers and, before long, the tank crews were rounding up Germans who seemed all too eager to surrender. None appeared to share their commander’s ‘to-the-last-round’ attitude; most were found in their slit trenches, their kit packed for the trip to the PoW camp.

Not all German soldiers showed similar desire for the comfort of a PoW camp. Lieutenant Shaw of 3rd Troop, also working on lane Mary, was operating with four Crabs but the leading tank became a casualty through smashing its jib just after crossing the start line when it struck the bank of a sunken road. Both following tanks, advancing on the forward edge of the minefield, came to grief on an unexpected outer minefield. This left the breaching team with but a single Crab although the gap was open. However, ‘as soon as vehicles started to use the gap some were knocked out and the breach was blocked’. Shaw then left his tank and

in the face of heavy enemy shelling and fire ran to the remaining operational flail tank in his troop, took command and flailed a route round the blown up vehicles thus re-opening the lane and permitting the infantry and tanks to pass through onto their objective.

While moving to the lane cleared by 1st Troop this tank also struck a mine and was knocked out. By 7.00pm tanks, Crocodiles and infantry were advancing on their objective, a German strongpoint, which fell ninety minutes later. William Shaw was awarded the MC.

Hazel, the central gap, was one that provided many headaches and had to be abandoned as a failure. This gap was left of the north-south road and 2nd Troop B Squadron, under Sergeant Redmond, had two Crabs pass through the minefield to the anti-tank ditch without any hindrance. However, as they made their turns at the ditch the picture changed dramatically. The ground was heavy which slowed down the ‘strike’ of their chains and both tanks fell victim to mines, one losing its jib and the other both tracks. Redmond’s third Crab was disabled halfway across the minefield. Nonetheless, they had cleared a twenty-foot-wide lane, along which an AVRE of 222 Assault Squadron with a Snake advanced. All went well until the AVRE was pushing the Snake over the ditch. Its head struck a mine and the resulting heavy explosion converted ‘the already battered flail at the ditch’s edge … into a wreck of curious shape’. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Then, as the AVRE reversed out, it set off another mine, putting the tank out of action. The second AVRE, the bridgelayer, detonated yet another mine that the Crabs had passed safely. Thus was Hazel abandoned.

That bridgelayer lost in Hazel was one of two from 222 Assault Squadron to be lost but the third bridgelayer completed its task under heavy fire and its lane was declared open, having been cleared by Lieutenant Thwaites of C Squadron 22nd Dragoons. However, Thwaites’ mission had begun badly with all three Crabs out of action within ten minutes of entering the minefield. One was crippled by a mine while the other pair had their cutter blades jammed by a rapid series of mine explosions that prevented their drums revolving. Regardless of considerable mortar fire, the crews stripped the blades and were on the move again by 6.40pm. Their lane was clear forty minutes later, the bridgelayer dropped its bridge and carrier loads of infantry went forward.

On the right flank, gap Laura was being swept by A Squadron with a troop assigned to each of its three lanes. The Crabs advanced with their guns laid on the enemy strongpoint in front and with 7th Royal Tanks providing covering fire. Although the assault began well, the Crabs came under fire from the right flank when halfway through the minefield. Their tormentor was a gun sited below a ridge crest and which could not be seen as it tried to pick off the slow-moving Crabs at a range of about 400 yards. Although smoke was laid quickly, the gun took its toll of the Crabs, hitting the lead tank and blowing off its turret; the entire crew became casualties. The second tank struck a mine but, fortunately, came to a stop hulldown to the enemy gun, the rounds from which passed overhead. The remaining three Crabs continued with their task, sweeping through the minefield and right up to the enemy strongpoint. At that stage, the troop leader’s tank was hit and caught fire immediately. Second Lieutenant Charles Neil, aged twenty, died with his crew.

The two surviving Crabs were ordered back to widen the lane but one blew up en route leaving a single Crab to return to the start line. Even so, a lane sixteen feet wide had been created by 6.45pm. In the circumstances this was a considerable achievement. Similar opposition met those working on the other two lanes of Laura. Shot at from the flank and dealing with thickly-strewn mines in very soft ground, Lieutenant Mundy’s 2nd Troop lost two Crabs to mines. In spite of this the attack was pressed home, even though there were delays caused by the heavy German wire jamming rotors, and by 7.00pm a thirty-feet-wide lane was open.

On the left Sergeant Smyth with his four Crabs pushed through almost to their objective before two Crabs were knocked out by mines and another was hit by an armour-piercing shell from that gun on the flank. Shortly afterwards, this tank was also hit by a squirt of flame from a Crocodile but the crew escaped with no serious injuries. Smyth turned his Crab around to widen the lane which, at 7.30pm, was open for the follow-up troops.

Meanwhile 617 Assault Squadron’s role was to pass through the lanes thus created to support 49th Division’s infantry as they attacked the enemy strongpoints.

In doing so they had several AVREs knocked out by 88mm fire and mines, but the surviving AVREs carried out their tasks, silencing enemy guns and petarding concrete pillboxes. During the first night of this action, Lance Sergeant Finan, with three men of his AVRE crew, worked dismounted for six hours clearing mines and roadblocks from a road that was vital to the advance. They were under small arms and mortar fire for most of the time, and set a fine example of courage and enterprise. Lance Sergeant Finan received the MM for this exploit.

Just over a month later Lance Sergeant Charles Finan would earn a Bar to the MM he earned that day.

By nightfall 49th Division’s battalions had overcome the south plateau’s defences and strongpoints in the Harfleur area to begin an advance eastwards through le Havre. By then the two squadrons of 22nd Dragoons had been ordered to rally, ‘an order easier to give than to carry out’ since twenty-nine Crabs and three command Shermans had been knocked out or damaged badly while nine men had been killed and seven wounded. For their actions that day, ‘their resolution in pressing home the assault and for their gallantry in getting the wounded back under shellfire’, Major Renton and Captain Thomas Barraclough were awarded the Military Cross, ‘decorations that also honoured the squadron as a whole, which had refused to be shaken at a moment critical for the success of the whole operation’.

The Highlanders’ attack used three lanes cleared by teams of 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry and AVREs but their H Hour was 11.00pm and although they used artificial moonlight to light their way it proved of little use. As well as the Lothians’ Crabs, AVREs used Snakes to clear gaps in minefields for the infantry: two troops of 16 Assault Squadron and one of 284 Squadron deployed to support the Division in making three gaps. On each gap the order of march was an AVRE followed by the Lothians’ troop commander, two AVREs with Snakes, an SBG AVRE, and the remaining Crabs and AVREs.

Bomb craters made direction keeping difficult, and, although coloured lights and tape had been put out, so inaccurate was the Bofors tracer that the right hand column (with AVREs from 284 Assault Squadron RE) overshot the salient of the ditch and had to come in around the corner. The other two columns (with AVREs from 16 Assault Squadron RE) also veered to the right.

All succeeded in reaching the ditch, although progress was slow. One AVRE was lost when it toppled into the ditch. The leading battalion was 5th Seaforth, who set off from a start line about a mile east of Fontaine la Mallet and made for their objective, a German strongpoint on high ground north-east of Fontaine. Under heavy enemy shellfire they advanced, crossing the ditch without the aid of a bridge. However, with the Snakes blown and a bridge across the ditch by 2.40am, as well as fascines dropped, Lothians’ Crabs were able to cross and begin flailing. Four out of five Crabs in the right lane were lost to mines with a similar picture in the centre lane. However, the left lane was cleared successfully although all five Crabs later fell victims to an unexpected minefield. The surviving Crabs made two complete gaps through which the infantry were able to advance, in spite of considerable shellfire. Major Ronald Watson, who had flailed a 500-yards-long path, found himself under fire from a position that had not been known about. Realizing that its guns and machine guns could hold up the infantry advance, he attacked and destroyed the strongpoint with his 75mm, later moving forward on foot to take the surrender of some 250 Germans. Watson was awarded the MC. By dawn the Seaforth were on or close to their objectives and the other battalions of the brigade had equal success. At the same time, Major J. D. Henderson, commanding B Squadron, took stock of the state of his squadron.

All my tanks were casualties – two of them, Mertoun and Monteviot, were presumed ‘write-offs’, but the other three seemed to be repairable.

Recovery started at once.

The battle continued on the 11th with further support from heavy bombers as well as rocket-firing Typhoon fighter-bombers. On their front 49th Division wrested the southern plateau from its defenders before taking strongpoints in the Harfleur area and then pushing through le Havre itself so that by nightfall the leading troops had reached Fort de Tourneville. C Squadron 22nd Dragoons had cleared a lane through a mined orchard by mid-morning and when the infantry attacked again fifteen minutes after noon the Crabs created two gaps, blowing some fifty mines. When Crocodiles of A Squadron 141st Regiment RAC began flaming the enemy decided that they had taken enough and surrendered before 2.00pm. Meanwhile the Highlanders cleared Montgeon forest, captured Octeville and the high ground almost as far as Cap de la Hève, as well as pushing into the outskirts of le Havre to attack Fort Ste Adresse. A troop of Crabs from C Squadron Lothians, three AVREs and half of C Squadron 141st Regiment RAC captured the north-east gun position while the other half of C Squadron 141 RAC, three other AVREs and infantry took the southern gun position.

At Harfleur, the scene of Henry V’s famous siege-breaking six centuries earlier, Crabs gapped a minefield for an infantry attack on a hill position codenamed Oscar. H Hour for the attack was noon and two AVREs and an armoured bulldozer supported infantry down Route B (Left). Wade charges were used to destroy three roadblocks while craters were filled in and a road junction that had been barricaded was opened. With the dozer dealing with a large double excavation, the AVREs supported tanks as they smashed enemy positions across the valley, opening the way to Harfleur for the force. Meanwhile, on Route C, and under heavy shell and mortar fire, AVREs brought down trees with Petard fire to fill in a ditch before moving into Harfleur.

On the morning of the 12th Fort de Tourneville surrendered and Fort Ste Adresse followed suit in the afternoon. AVREs had played an important part in actions during the morning with two moving into town by the left route and clearing the way for the infantry by filling craters, demolishing one roadblock and, nearing the docks, using a Petard round to remove another roadblock. They also took 300 prisoners and their barracks. On the southern plateau a strong position continued to hold out but surrendered at noon with another 300 prisoners. An AVRE of 617 Squadron was lost in the attack, and its crew all perished, to 88 fire before another troop outflanked the position, leading to its surrender. By the time mopping up was complete some 11,300 Germans were in captivity. However, their demolition work in the harbour had been so effective that it was 9 October before it could be brought back into use.

This operation was the first large-scale example of the Assault Team technique put into practice. In spite of very bad going, and by virtue of great gallantry on the part of Crab, Crocodile and AVRE crews alike, it succeeded. The lives of many infantrymen were saved (a fact much appreciated by the Corps and Divisional Commanders in letters of appreciation), and this well-planned operation enabled the object to be achieved in the shortest possible time.

The enemy reactions were interesting: the Crabs came as a novelty to them, they thought it madness when they heard tanks entering the minefields and were later dismayed at the results. Crocodiles they condemned as ‘unfair’ and ‘un-British’ – a nice compliment. One officer prisoner reported that a whole platoon, caught in the open, had been burned to death. Had the guns been more stoutly manned there is no doubt that Crab, AVRE and Crocodile casualties would have been much higher.

Two officers of 42nd Assault Regiment – Major John Alexander MC and Captain Ambrose Warde, were decorated for their part in the operation with Alexander receiving the DSO and Warde an immediate MC. However, Alexander’s award was periodic and included his later work during operations at Overloon–Venray in October.

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