A little known episode from the fighting during the Warsaw Uprising in August and September 1944, involved the operations carried out by 1000. Sturmtiger-Kompanie. A prototype of the Sturmtiger was sent to Warsaw and off-loaded at the station in Pruszków on August 15, 1944. This station was prepared for receiving and handling heavy vehicles like the Sturmtiger, the mortar “Karl” Gerät, and possibly railed artillery, and was equipped with two railway cranes with huge lifting capacity. Similar equipment was available at the station in Nasielsk where the Tiger-Battalions Schwere-Abteilung 505 and 507 were also sent, in order to then be deployed at the front outside Narwia. A second such vehicle was off-loaded on August 18. The status report from the 9th Army on August 20 (Krannhal’s op.cit. p. 378) confirms that 1000. Sturmtiger-Kompanie with two Sturmtigers was included among the units which fought in Warsaw. It was the first prototype-vehicle to arrive in Poland’s capital city, together with another such vehicle, sent out before being manufactured on a series production line, with an iron or light steel superstructure. Just such a vehicle had already been produced toward the end of 1943. This fact is confirmed by the army group Centre’s report 65004/7, with a notation written by Brigadier-General Guderian.
“To the Army Group, for the purpose of its being put to use in Warsaw: – on August 14, dispatched: one Tiger, with a 38 cm rocket firing ramp (test model), which is not suitable for use against anti-tank forces, as it is made of light steel.”
The heaviest assault guns of the Sturmtiger type were equipped with launch systems for firing 380mm calibre rockets; model Stu M RW 61, with a range of 3,600 – 4,600 metres. There were no Sturmtigers deployed along the first combat line, where these heavy vehicles weighing 65 tonnes risked falling into bomb craters, and moreover, where the use of their strong-points, or positive characteristics, was not suited to a destroyed city, with various areas often isolated by barricades. The Sturmtiger was stationed in the area around Ulica Sucha and Ulica 6 Sierpnia (now Ulica Nowowiejska), on Mokotów Field and possibly on Plac na Rozdrożu (Crossroad Square), as well.
It’s difficult to establish which targets they fired on because the heavy 380mm projectiles’ explosions have more than once been ascribed to bomb explosions resulting from railway gun shelling or, quite simply, to rocket projectiles of a different type, called Werfer – also known as “closets” or “choirs” by Warsaw’s inhabitants. At that time, the Sturmtiger was an entirely unknown entity, and the vehicles that were captured in 1945 came as a complete surprise to the allied troops.
At the end of August, a Sturmtiger, firing from the ghetto area or Kerceli Square, pounded, among other areas, Ulica Zakroczymska and the National Mint on Ulica Sanguszka in the Old Town. One other vehicle shelled resistance fighter positions in the suburb of Sadyba. On September 8-16, Sturmtigers fired on the area around Ulica Przemyslowa, Ulica Fabrycna and Ulica Naczna in Powisle. On September 8, Sturmtiger projectiles fell on insurgent positions at the Lazarus Hospital on Ulica Książęca. General von Vormann, commander of the 9th Army, made a memorably worded, harsh assessment of the Sturmtiger and its battle-fighting capabilities, “They have only factory personnel (von Vormann was referring to the first vehicle, delivered on August 15) who can’t shoot.”
By the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939 there were only two Matildas in service, though 16 had been issued to 7th Royal Tank Regiment in France by early 1940 where they were used with success in the Battle of Arras just prior to the Dunkirk evacuation.
The Matilda is best remembered for its important part in the early Western Desert campaigns. In Libya in 1940 it was virtually immune to any Italian anti-tank gun or tank, and Matildas reigned supreme until the appearance of the German 88mm Flak gun in the anti-tank role in mid-1941, the first gun able to penetrate Matilda’s heavy armour at long range. It was not possible to fit the 6pdr gun in the Matilda (though an attempt was made to mount the A27 type turret on a Matilda chassis), due to the small size of the turret and turret ring. Thus in 1942, the Matilda declined in importance as a gun tank and was last used in action in this role at the first Alamein battle in July 1942.
At Arras the British advance ran into two pieces of bad luck. Rommel was in the vicinity, and the tanks that struck SS Totenkopf hit that division’s antitank battalion. By evening the British had stalled, and the surviving tanks retreated. On the battlefield they had achieved little, but their attack had increased German nervousness and would play a major role in the British Army’s eventual escape. On the 22nd, a small attack from the French V Corps further reinforced OKW fears.
Hitler’s “crisis of nerves” passed and was replaced with unbounded joy when he learned that the pocket-soon to be known as the Dunkirk Pocket-had been closed, and he was brimming over with praise for the army and its leaders. The next day, May 21, he was startled again, however, when two British infantry divisions and the 1st Army Tank Brigade counterattacked against Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division and the Totenkopf (Death’s Head) SS Motorized Division (SS-TK). The British strike force had only 58 Mark Is, armed only with machine guns, and 16 heavy Matilda infantry tanks, but the 30-ton Matildas were superior to any German tank in armored protection and firepower. The right-hand column took Berneville and soon ran into Colonel Georg von Bismarck’s 7th Rifle Regiment, the 1st SS-TK Regiment, and the tank destroyer battalion of the Totenkopf Division, whose shells were unable to penetrate the British tanks. Several SS gun crews were crushed to death under the treads of the Matildas, which were finally brought to a halt by the gunners of the SS-TK artillery regiment, who fired over open sights. Once they were pinned down, the British forces were bombed repeatedly by Stukas. Contrary to the reports of certain historians, the former concentration camp guards did not panic during the British attack; in fact, most of their wounded were hit in the lungs and stomach, because they ran toward the British tanks, trying to knock them out with hand grenades–a brave maneuver, but not a particularly bright one. In his excellent history of the Totenkopf Division, Charles W. Syndor, Jr., concluded that, in general, the division “performed commendably” during the attack.
The British left-hand column hit the 6th Rifle Regiment and initially experienced greater success. Once again, the German 37-millimeter anti-tank guns could not penetrate the thick frontal armor on the British infantry tanks. One Matilda was hit 14 times. They were finally halted by the combined firepower of the 78th Motorized Artillery Regiment, the 86th Light Anti-Tank Battalion (lent to the 7th Panzer by the 4th Army), and elements of the 59th and 23rd Anti-Aircraft Regiments, all firing under the personal supervision of General Rommel. Colonel Rothenburg’s 25th Panzer Regiment then launched a counterattack and forced the British armor nearly back to its starting line. By the end of the day, the 7th Panzer Division had lost 378 men killed, wounded, and missing, as well as nine medium and several light tanks. Theodor Eicke’s SS-TK lost 39 killed, 66 wounded, and two missing.
The Germans pursued the British but were halted by French armour from the 3rd Light Mechanised Division (3rd DLM). The heavier armour of the French saw the German forces stopped cold. French cover enabled British troops to withdraw to their former positions that night. Frankforce took around 400 German prisoners and inflicted a similar number of casualties, as well as destroying a number of tanks. Later on 23 May the 3rd DLM launched its own attack to try to exploit British success. The Luftwaffe and German reinforcements defeated the attack
Both von Kleist and von Kluge were somewhat shaken by the surprisingly aggressive British reaction at Arras. Kluge wanted to delay any further advances until the situation was cleared up and Rundstedt, who wanted to conserve his strength, agreed. The XIX Panzer Corps War Diary records that the British counterattack “apparently created nervousness throughout the entire [Kleist] group area.”
But it went farther than that. Both Hitler and Rundstedt took the attack as an indication that Army Group A had advanced too far, too fast, and needed to establish an adequate defense on the flanks of the Panzer Corridor. Rundstedt therefore ordered Kleist to halt his drive on the Channel ports until the fighting around Arras had been resolved. Ewald von Kleist took the 10th Panzer Division from XIX Panzer Corps and placed it in group reserve. Guderian had earmarked the 10th Panzer for an advance on Dunkirk. This would not be immediately possible.
Even after the Arras counterattack, Rundstedt had seven panzer, six motorized, and four infantry divisions in position to launch an attack into the rear of the B. E. F. At that time, Lord Gort had only two infantry divisions and a few miscellaneous units to protect his right rear. Because it halted the panzers, therefore, the counterattack at Arras represents a significant victory for the British, even though it was undoubtedly a tactical defeat.
A Panhard 178B. The APX3B turret is of the latest type with a rear episcope. Rear view showing the position of the second driver; the hull, despite having been repainted with a number belonging to the third production batch. Panhard 178B/FL1, French Indo-China, 1947.
Panhard 178 tank hunter with the Renault turret designed by Engineer J. Restany and 47 mm (1.85 in) SA 34, 1st DLC, France, June 1940.
Panhard 178, early production, 6th GRDI, 2nd Sqdn, France, May 1940.
The Automitrailleuse Panhard et Levassor Type 178 armoured car was first produced in 1935, and was developed from a design known as the TOE-M-32, which was intended for use in the French North African colonies and mounted a short 37-mm turret gun. Panhard used this design as a basis for a new French army requirement but gave the new vehicle a 4 x 4 drive configuration and moved the engine to the rear of the vehicle. The result was the Panhard 178 and the armament varied from a single 25-mm cannon on some vehicles to two 7.5-mm (0.295-m) machine-guns on others, while some command vehicles had extra radios but no armament.
The Panhard 178 was known also as the Panhard Modele 1935. The Panhard 178 was put into production for the French infantry and cavalry formation reconnaissance groups. Production was slow, but by 1940 there were appreciable numbers available for the fighting which followed the German invasion in May. Many of the Panhard 178s were in widely scattered units and were unable to take much part in the fighting that ensued, so many were seized intact by the victorious Germans. The Germans liked the sound design of the Panhard 178 and decided to take it into their own service as the Panzerspähwagen P 204(f), some of them being rearmed with 37-mm anti-tank guns and/or German machine-guns. Some of these were retained for garrison use in France, but others were later sent to the USSR, where the type was used for behind-the-lines patrol duties against Soviet partisans. Some were even converted for railway use, having their conventional wheels changed to railway wheels, and many of these ‘railway’ conversions were fitted with extra radios and prominent frame aerials.
Perhaps the most unusual use of the Panhard 178s took place in 1941 and 1942, when 45 vehicles, hidden from the Germans by French cavalry units following the defeat of 1940, were prepared by Resistance personnel for possible use against the Germans. These vehicles had no turrets, but these were manufactured under the nose of the Germans and fitted with 25-mm or 47-mm guns and/or machine-guns. The armoured cars were then secretly distributed throughout centres of resistance mainly in unoccupied France, where many were subsequently taken over by the German forces when they took over the unoccupied areas of France in November 1942.
After the Liberation the Panhard 178 was once more put into production during August 1944 at the Renault factory outside Paris. These new vehicles had a larger turret with a 47-mm gun, and were later known as the Panhard 178B. The new vehicles were issued to the new French cavalry units and were used for many years after 1945. Some saw action in Indo-China, and it was not until 1960 that the last of them was taken out of service.
Panzerspahwagen Panhard 178-P204(f)
The Panhard P-178 was the most advanced medium armoured car of the French Army when the German forces invaded France. In 1940, 360 units were already in service, and a large number of these were captured by the Wehrmacht in a serviceable condition. Before the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, 190 Panhard cars were issued un-modified to German units. In addition to the standard Pz Sp Wg, there was the radio-vehicle which served in small numbers as Pz Sp Wg (Fu). Forty-three cars were converted as railway-protection vehicles, fitted with rail wheels, and additional radio equipment which necessitated a frame aerial. The final development was the conversion in 1943 of some cars to a self-propelled gun, by removing the turret and replacing it by an armoured superstructure mounting the German 5cm KwK L/42, which was available in numbers following the up-gunning of the Pz Kpfw III.
A Humber Armoured Car Mk II, one of the few armoured vehicles to use the 15-mm (0.59-in) Besa heavy machine-gun as its main armament. Originally known as a wheeled tank, these vehicles gave sterling service in many theatres through the war.
The Humber armoured cars were numerically the most important types produced in the United Kingdom, for production eventually reached a total of 5,400, The type had its origins in a pre-war Guy armoured car known as the Tank, Light, Wheeled Mk I, of which Guy produced 101 examples by October1940. In that month it was realized that Guy’s production facilities would be fully occupied producing light tanks, so production was switched to the Rootes Group and Karner Motors Limited of Luton in particular. There the Guy design was rejigged for installation on a Karrier KT 4 artillery tractor chassis, Guy continuing to supply the armoured hulls and turrets. Although the new model was virtually identical to the original Guy design it was subsequently re-named the Armoured Car, Humber Mk I.
The Humber Mk I had a relatively short wheelbase, but it was never manoeuvrable and used a welded hull. The turret mounted two Besa machineguns, a heavy 15-mm (0.59-in) and a lighter 7.92-mm (0.31-in) weapon, The type had a crew of three: a commander who acted as his own wireless operator, a gunner and the driver in the front hull. The first production batch ran to 500 vehicles before the Armoured Car, Humber Mk II introduced some improvements, mainly to the front hull which had a pronounced slope. The Armoured Car, Humber Mk III had a larger turret that allowed a crew of four to be carried, while the Armoured Car, Humber Mk IV reverted to a crew of three as the turret housed an American 37-mm ( 1.45-in) gun. An odd feature of this vehicle was that the driver was provided with a lever which raised a hatch covering an aperture in the rear bulkhead for use as rear vision in an emergency.
The first Humber armoured cars were used operationally in the North African desert from late 1941 onwards, while the Humber Mk IV did not see service until the early stages of the Italian campaign, but thereafter all four marks were used wherever British and Allied troops fought in Europe. A version was produced in Canada with some changes made to suit Canadian production methods. This was known as the Armoured Car, General Motors Mk I, Fox I, and the main change so far as the troops in the field were concerned was that the main armament was a 12.7mm(0.5-in) Browning heavy machine-gun plus a 7.62 mm (0,3-in) Browning medium machine-gun. There was also an extensive conversion of the Humber Mk III as a special radio carrier known as a Rear Link vehicle. This had a fixed turret with a dummy gun. Another radio-carrying version was used as a mobile artillery observation post, and numbers of Canadian Foxes were converted for this role. A later addition to many Humber armoured cars was a special antiaircraft mounting using Vickers ‘K’ machine-guns that could be fired from within the turret; this mounting could also be used with Bren Guns. Smoke dischargers were another operational addition. A more extreme conversion was made with the Armoured Car, Humber, AA, Mk I, which had four 7.92-mm (0.31-in) Besa machine-guns in a special turret. These were introduced during 1943 at the rate of one troop of four cars for every armoured car regiment, but they were withdrawn during 1944 as there was no longer any need for them.
Humber Armoured Cars, Mark III and Mark IV, U. K.
Humber Armoured Cars were numerically the most important British-built armoured cars of World War II, well over 5,000 being produced by the Rootes Group between 1940 and 1945. The earliest Humber Armoured Car, the Mark I, was almost identical externally to the Guy Mark IA Armoured Car, and its mechanical layout although based, of course, on Rootes components was on similar lines to that of the Guy. Service experience suggested improvements and a cleaned-up front end, incorporating the driver’s visor in the glacis plate, and radiator intake improvements were introduced in the Mark II. The Armoured Car, Humber Mark III, which entered production in 1942 had a roomier turret than the Marks I-II, which allowed the crew to be increased to four. The first three Marks of Humber Armoured Car all had an armament of two Besa machineguns, one of 7.92-mm. calibre and the other 15-mm. The latter was never an entirely satisfactory weapon, being prone to stoppages, and in the Humber Mark IV Armoured Car the American 37-mm. gun was introduced in its place. Because this reduced the turret space available, the crew was reduced to three men. All the Humber Armoured Cars weighed about 7 tons and their 90- b. h. p. six-cylinder engines gave them a top speed of 45 m. p. h. They were used by both armoured car regiments (where they tended to be used at regimental and squadron headquarters if Daimlers were also available) and Reconnaissance Regiments (of infantry divisions) in most theatres of war in which British and Commonwealth troops were engaged up to the end of the war. The illustrations show a Mark III as it appeared in the North African desert about 1942, and a Mark IV of 1st Reconnaissance Regiment in Italy in 1944.
After 1945 many Humber armoured cars were sold or otherwise passed to other armies. Some were still giving good service to armies in the Far East as late as the early 1960s.
From the very beginning of the war, the employment of railway batteries in the form of guns placed at the head of trains came into use at several different locations on the front line, either on the initiative of the high command or of especially inventive local commanders. For example, in May 1861, in order to protect the network of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Union General McClellan ordered the mounting of artillery at the head of troop trains. The Dictator was another example, made famous during the siege of Petersburg between June 1864 and March 1865. This 13in coast-defence mortar lacked armour protection, and fired from a simple platform wagon. However, in this chapter we will confine ourselves to an examination of those armoured artillery batteries which demonstrated the modern aspects of the American Civil War, and which provided the inspiration for similar construction in many future conflicts, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War, until surpassed in ingenuity during the Boer War.
During the very first days of the war the Federal Government ordered the construction of an armoured wagon to protect the track workers on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. It was placed under the orders of General Herman Haupt, a renowned railroad engineer, but he refused to use it, considering the wagon to be a ‘white elephant’. Nevertheless, the idea of armouring railway vehicles had taken root.
The Union Army built several armoured wagons. In the Summer of 1862, General Burnside ordered the construction of armoured wagons to counter the incursions of guerrillas and Southern raiders, but they were not meant to resist artillery. These wagons were mainly built in the workshops of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
In 1862 a captain in the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment designed an armoured artillery wagon which was built by the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad and used for patrolling the line to the west of Newberne, where the Confederates were posted in some force. Propelled ahead of an engine with an armoured cab, this wagon bore the name Monitor. The wagon front, sides and rear were all inclined vertically inwards by some 15 degrees, and were painted black, with red firing loopholes. Its front end, pierced by an embrasure for a small naval gun, was armoured with vertical rails, and the sides and rear by boiler plate. The sides were bulletproof, and the front armour resisted projectiles from field guns. The roof was left open for ventilation and light, and covered by a tarpaulin. One Confederate artillery lieutenant expressed puzzlement and alarm at the first appearance of what the Southerners called the ‘Yankee gunboat on wheels’.
Faced by the cottonclad wagon of General Finegan (see the chapter on the Confederate States of America) during the Confederate attempt to recapture Jacksonville, in Union hands ever since 10 March 1863, the Northerners built their own armoured railway battery, armed apparently with a 10pdr Parrott rifle. The fighting between the two was the first example of combat between armoured railway wagons. The siege of Jacksonville would be lifted by the Union forces on 29 March.
In the same year, the Scientific American described trials by the Northerners of an armoured engine named Talisman, on which the cab and connecting rods were protected by an iron plate four-tenths of an inch (10mm) thick, on the advice of General Haupt. However, the trials showed that only small-arms projectiles would be stopped.
A Union armoured train was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad with the aid of the 2nd Maryland Regiment, and was given the task of protecting the region around Cumberland. The train was arranged symmetrically on either side of the engine, which had an armoured cab. At front and rear there was an armoured battery protected by rails on three sides, the roof and rear of the wagon being left open, and then an armoured van with firing loopholes. In spite of its armour, a projectile in the boiler of the engine followed by a second striking an armoured wagon led to its destruction by the Confederates in July 1864.
The siege of Petersburg (June 1864–April 1865) saw the employment of railway artillery by the Union forces who wished to seize this strategic railroad centre where five major lines converged. The United States Military Railroad (USMR) which was by this time fully operational, deployed these weapons to such good effect that the Confederate Army was gradually cut off from outside aid. The town fell on 3 April 1865.
The Dry Land Merrimac
In June 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on the Confederate capital of Richmond. General Robert E Lee looked for a means of countering the enemy’s preponderance in heavy siege artillery, which they would be transporting into position by rail. On 5 June he asked Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the Chief of Ordnance, if it would be possible to mount a heavy gun on a railway car. The challenge was taken up by the Navy, who already had experience of armouring the famous Virginia (ex-Merrimac), which had taken on the Union blockaders and fought the first ironclad battle with USS Monitor.
On 26 June, Captain M Minor reported to Lee: ‘The railroad-iron plated battery designed by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32-pounder of 57 cwt, has been mounted and equipped by Lieutenant R.D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the Army.’ The railway gun was manned by Lt James Barry CSN, Sergeant Daniel Knowles and thirteen gunners of the Norfolk United Artillery Battery, many of whom had previously served on the Virginia.
The Battle of Savage’s Station, fought on 29 June 1862, was a Union defeat, watched by Confederate Major General Magruder from the rail overbridge. The railway gun was propelled towards the Union lines along the track of the Richmond & York Railroad by an unarmoured steam engine, with obstacles being removed or pushed aside by the gun itself. Firing explosive shells as it advanced, it forced the Union troops to abandon their lines across the track and take up flanking positions beside it, which the gunners could not counter as they had no means of training the gun to one side. Eventually, the gun had progressed so far in front of the Confederate lines that it risked being lost due to the Union flanking fire, and Lieutenant Barry ordered it to pull back.
Fifty-nine years after the event, the Confederate veteran Charles S. Gates described from memory the famous ‘Dry Land Merrimac’, as the railway gun was called by Richmond newspapers in 1862. Later descriptions, and reconstructions in model form, have been based on his recollections,5 including the painting above.
Fortunately we also have an eyewitness to the action, who fixed the scene in a watercolour. Private Robert Knox Sneden of the Union Army was a topographical engineer, who produced maps for the Army of the Potomac. Among his almost 1000 watercolours, sketches and maps was a painting of the Battle of Savage’s Station, with the railgun as the centrepiece. While answering many questions, his depiction poses others.
Private Sneden may have painted this scene from memory afterwards, as the Army of the Potomac was forced to withdraw from in front of Richmond in some disorder. He certainly stretches the platform wagon to a unbelievable length, which would be too weak to support the weight of the gun, never mind withstand the recoil. As he obviously observed the event from a considerable distance away, his rendering of the moving flatcar may not be all that accurate. Nevertheless, what his illustration does reveal is the ‘Virginia-like’ armoured casemate surrounding the cannon and its gunners, with armour on the sides as well as the front. He has correctly depicted the Union force being obliged to take up position flanking the railway track, which would ultimately oblige Lieutenant Minor and his men to pull back, for fear of being fired upon from the rear.
There has been some confusion in the minds of railway enthusiasts between this gun and the Union railway gun used at the siege of Petersburg, mounted on a fourteen-wheel wagon (see the United States of America chapter). The latter gun, however, is clearly protected by timber baulks alone, even if they do cover the sides as well as the front, and there is no covering of iron as mentioned in all the accounts of the Confederate piece.
Accounts differed as to its effects in action, and certainly the Union commanders did not make much of it in their reports. But then, mentioning the attack of an unstoppable railway weapon adding to the debacle of the battle would be like rubbing salt in one’s own wounds. After the battle, presumably recognising its tactical drawbacks, the Confederate Navy retrieved their valuable gun and the platform would be returned to freight work.
When, on 19 August 1942, the Allies mounted a major raid on Dieppe, they did so with the political object of demonstrating to Stalin that the opening of a ‘Second Front’ in the West was, for the moment, not a practical proposition. However, while the operation was ostensibly a failure, many valuable lessons were learned and put to good use in the planning of the invasion of Western Europe almost two years later.
After Dieppe the Allies recognised the impossibility of securing a heavily defended French port, deciding instead to invade over the open beaches of Normandy and bring their own prefabricated harbour with them. These beaches, while not as heavily fortified as the more important ports, nonetheless possessed formidable defences which were capable of inflicting terrible losses on a conventional landing force. The German belief was that the Allies would time their invasion to coincide with high tide, so reducing the period that their troops would be dangerously exposed while crossing the beach. They therefore constructed lines of obstacles that would remain submerged for a considerable period either side of high water. These included rows of fixed stakes, hedgehogs and tetrahedra made from girders, and triangular constructions known to the Allies as Element C, to all of which explosive devices had been attached. Such obstructions not only presented a physical barrier but were also capable of disembowelling any landing craft which tried to batter its way through.
The beaches themselves were heavily mined and covered by the fire of machine-guns and artillery weapons housed in concrete bunkers. Where no sea wall existed, high concrete anti-tank walls had been built to block natural exits from the shore. Behind, there were strongpoints containing more guns and automatic weapons, protected by mines, wire entanglements and anti-tank ditches, laid out in depth. Houses and other buildings, specially strengthened, had also been brought into the defensive scheme.
The difficulties facing the Allies were therefore considerable but not insuperable. It was decided that the landings would be made at half tide, when the water was beginning to rise but the lines of obstacles were still exposed. These would be tackled by underwater demolition teams of naval frogmen, who would first disarm the enemy’s explosive devices then clear 50-yard gaps for the passage of the landing craft. Beyond this point, the reduction of the defences became the responsibility of the ground troops.
In the British Army it was generally recognised that the key to the various problems associated with assaulting such long-prepared defensive positions lay in the use of armoured vehicles, just as it had in World War I. In April 1943 Major General P. C. S. Hobart, Commander of 79th Armoured Division, which had been raised the previous October as a conventional armoured formation, was informed that the Army’s specialist tank and assault engineer units would be concentrated under his command with the object of developing techniques and equipment that would be used to spearhead the coming invasion. At the time few of the division’s personnel could have imagined that they were destined to occupy a unique place in the annals of armoured warfare.
Hobart was unquestionably the man for the job. He had begun his career with the Bengal Sappers and Miners and was therefore familiar with assault engineering methods. After World War I he had transferred to the Royal Tank Corps and had commanded the 1st Tank Brigade in 1934. However, as he rose in rank, his innovations and bluntly expressed ideas on the mechanisation of the Army began to make him unpopular with the War Office; nor did it help that he was generally proved right. The problem was that while his insight amounted to something like genius, he had no patience with those who were not similarly gifted. Sometimes, members of his staff would be greatly touched by some personal act of kindness, but most regarded the experience of serving under him as being ‘absolute hell’; those officers who did not instantly and fully comprehend what the General was talking about were left wishing they had never been born. This might have been all very well in its way had not Hobart, who was no respecter of rank, dealt similarly with his superiors. Warned repeatedly by his friends to moderate his behaviour, he expressed genuine surprise that feelings should have been ruffled, and carried on as usual. Known as a fine trainer, in 1938 he was sent to Egypt to form and train the Mobile Division, as the 7th Armoured Division was initially known, and brought it to an outstanding pitch of efficiency and desert worthiness. Unfortunately, he was not to see the results of his work, for following yet another personality clash, this time with the GOC Egypt, he was removed from command and returned home. Early in 1940 he retired from the Army and joined the Home Guard, where his drive and energy quickly earned him promotion to lance corporal. At this point Winston Churchill, recognising the absurdity of losing one of the Royal Armoured Corps’ most outstanding officers at a time of national emergency, recalled him to form and train in succession the 11th and 79th Armoured Divisions.
In Hobart’s opinion not even specialist armour could be expected to produce the required results unless it received direct gunfire support from other tanks. This meant that conventional tanks would have to be landed in the first assault wave, before the beach defences had been neutralised by the specialist armour, a conundrum of apparently chicken-and-egg proportions to which the answer was provided by the DD (Duplex Drive) ‘swimming’ tank. The concept of such an amphibian, kept afloat by a collapsible canvas screen attached to the hull and driven by a screw which drew its power from the main engine, had been pioneered by Mr Nicholas Straussler during the inter-war years; the idea being that once the vehicle had reached the shoreline the buoyancy screen would be lowered and the normal drive engaged, enabling it to perform as a normal gun tank. Successful trials had already been carried out with the Valentine and the Stuart, but the choice for the Normandy landings fell on the Sherman because of its superior firepower. Hobart envisaged that, initially at least, the DDs would provide fire support from the shallows until the specialist armour had produced sufficient elbow room, then fight as the situation warranted. Among those units trained by 79th Armoured Division in the use of the DD were the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, the 13th/18th Hussars, the 15th/19th Hussars, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, the East Riding Yeomanry, the Canadian 1st Hussars and Fort Garry Horse, and the American 70th, 741st and 743rd Tank Battalions. Various methods of mechanical mineclearing existed, but experience at Alamein had shown that the best results were obtained by flailing, that is beating the ground ahead of a tank with chains attached to a rotating drum powered by the vehicle’s main or auxiliary engine, so detonating any mines in its path. The most successful design was the Sherman Crab, capable of clearing a lane almost ten feet wide at a speed of 1.25 miles per hour; when it was not flailing the Crab could fight as a normal gun tank. The 30th Armoured Brigade, consisting of the 22nd Dragoons, 1st Lothians and Border Horse and the Westminster Dragoons, joined 79th Armoured Division in November 1943 and was immediately equipped with Crabs, which it retained for the rest of the war.
The most versatile vehicle in the division’s armoury was the AVRE (Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers), which had been developed as a direct result of the experience gained in the Dieppe raid. The hull of the Churchill infantry tank was selected as the basis because of its heavy armour, roomy interior and obvious adaptability. The AVRE was fitted with a specially designed turret mounting a 290mm muzzle loading demolition gun, known as a petard, which could throw a 40-pound bomb, designed to crack open concrete fortifications, to a maximum range of 230 yards; reloading was carried out through a sliding hatch above the co-driver’s seat. Standardised external fittings enabled the vehicle to be used in a variety of ways. It could carry a chestnut paling (chespale) fascine, up to eight feet in diameter and fourteen feet wide, that could be dropped into anti-tank ditches, forming a causeway; it could lay an Small Box Girder (SBG) bridge with a 40-ton capacity across gaps of up to 30 feet; it could be fitted with a Bobbin which unrolled a carpet of hessian and metal tubing ahead of the vehicle, so creating a firm track across soft going; it could place ‘Onion’ or ‘Goat’ demolition charges against an obstacle or fortification and fire them by remote control after it had reversed away; it could be used to push Mobile Bailey or Skid Bailey bridges into position; and, on going which was not suited to the Crab, it could be fitted with a plough which brought mines to the surface. The 1st Assault Brigade RE, consisting of the 5th, 6th and 42nd Assault Regiments RE (ARRE), each with an establishment of 60 AVREs and a number of D8 armoured tractors, was formed as part of the division during the summer of 1943.
Naturally, the nature of its work meant that Hobart’s division had to function along the lines of a large plant hire organisation. No two sectors of the German coast defences were exactly alike, and each presented the attacker with its own set of problems. Liaison officers were therefore attached to each of the British and Canadian infantry divisions forming the first wave of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British Second Army, which formed the left wing of the Allied invasion force. After discussions involving the detailed study of maps, models, the most recent air reconnaissance photographs and intelligence reports, the appropriate assault engineering equipment was allocated and formed into teams which received a similarly detailed briefing on their own specific tasks. These facilities were also offered to Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the US First Army, which formed the right wing of the Allied assault; apart from the DD battalions mentioned above, they were declined for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, with tragic consequences.
On the morning of D Day itself, 6 June 1944, sea conditions were never less than difficult and the fortunes of the DD units varied considerably. Off Utah Beach, the US 70th Tank Battalion launched 30 tanks from its LCTs 3000 yards out and all but one reached the shore safely. In contrast, off Omaha Beach the US 741st Tank Battalion launched 29 tanks 6000 yards out and all but two were swamped and sank. Off Juno, A Squadron of the Canadian 1st Hussars launched ten tanks at between 1500 and 2000 yards, of which seven touched down; the regiment’s B Squadron launched nineteen from 4000 yards, of which fourteen touched down. The day’s most successful performance was put up by the 13th/18th Hussars who launched 34 tanks some 5000 yards off Sword Beach and landed with 31. Elsewhere, conditions were so bad that launching was never contemplated. The US 743rd Tank Battalion landed on Omaha direct from its LCTs; as did, in the British sector, the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry on Gold and the Fort Garry Horse on Juno, arriving after the armoured assault teams.
The German infantry divisions manning the fortifications of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall contained a high proportion of non-Germans and were regarded by some as being second line troops. Despite this, and the fact that they had been forced to endure air attacks and a mind-numbing naval bombardment, they were prepared to offer the most stubborn and tenacious resistance. They were, however, quite unprepared for the DDs and the wave of specialist armour which was now being disgorged from its LCTs onto the beach, for so good had been the pre-invasion security that the existence of such devices had never been suspected.
For example, while swimming the DD revealed only a few inches of its floatation screen and from a distance resembled a harmless ship’s whaler. Once the vehicle emerged from the shallows, however, the screen dropped to reveal a Sherman spitting fire. On Juno Beach the Canadian infantry were pinned down until A Squadron 1st Hussars came ashore under heavy mortar and shellfire and quickly eliminated strongpoints containing two 75mm guns, one 50mm gun and six machine-guns, after which a large party of the enemy came forward to surrender.
Even the most meticulous of military planners works on the assumption that the natural state of war is chaos, and he allows for as many contingencies as he can. It was, therefore, never envisaged that all of 79th Armoured Division’s breaching teams would be able to clear lanes through the defences, but a sufficient margin of safety had been left for the momentum of the attack to be maintained and enable the assault divisions to start moving inland. It is impossible in these few pages to describe the actions of all the division’s teams, but the following are representative.
On Nan Sector of Juno Beach, where the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade was to come ashore between Bernières-sur-Mer and St Aubin-sur-Mer, the breaching teams consisted of Crabs manned by B Squadron 22nd Dragoons and the AVREs of 80 Assault Squadron RE (5 ARRE). The DDs had yet to arrive and the teams’ LCTs, also behind schedule, touched down on the rising tide. With the area of exposed beach shrinking steadily and becoming crowded with infantry, No 1 Team’s leading Crab flailed up to the sea wall against which an SBG AVRE laid its bridge. Unfortunately, the first AVRE to surmount this struck a mine a little way further on and was immobilised, blocking the intended exit. Nearby, however, a section of the sea wall had been partially blown down by the preparatory bombardment and two Crabs not only succeeded in flailing their way up to the gap but also scrambled over it and reached the lateral road beyond, which they proceeded to clear. Two fascine AVREs followed and dropped their bundles into the anti-tank ditch beyond. Later, the damaged AVRE was pushed aside by a bulldozer, the driver of which was almost immediately killed by a mine, and the gap through the minefield was completed by hand, creating a second exit.
Because of congestion in the approaches to the beach, No 2 Team’s LCTs touched down some 300 yards east of their intended target. As the AVREs emerged they were immediately engaged by a 50mm anti-tank gun firing from the west. The SBG AVRE was knocked out and another AVRE commander was killed before the remainder silenced the emplacement with their petards. The sea wall, 12 feet high, was only 50 yards away and the Crabs flailed a lane up to it. At this point the loss of the SBG was keenly felt, for although the AVREs damaged the wall with their petards in an attempt to bring it down, they failed to make a wide enough gap and the crater created was too soft and steep for the passage of vehicles. By now the infantry had worked their way forward and drew the team commander’s attention to a beach ramp blocked by Element C, which was blown apart by petard fire. The Crabs then flailed the ramp and an AVRE dropped a fascine into the anti-tank ditch, completing the exit.
No 3 Team had a much easier time, despite the fact that one of its LCTs was hit and barely managed to reach the shore. The Crabs flailed a lane to the sea wall, the SBG bridge was positioned and the Crabs crossed it to continue flailing a route through the dunes as far as the lateral road. No 4 Team, on the other hand, was dogged by bad luck. The LCTs came in 150 yards east of their objective, close to the high tide line and in an area where the depth of water varied considerably. An incoming landing craft collided with an SBG AVRE as it disembarked, forcing the crew of the latter to abandon the vehicle; so close were they to the enemy that three were killed and one wounded by sniper fire and grenades. The team’s Crabs turned west and flailed a lane to No 3 Team’s exit. An AVRE also unrolled its bobbin carpet over an area of soft sand but this was quickly torn apart by the passage of tracked vehicles.
Pending the arrival of the DDs, the infantry had to rely on the Crabs and AVREs to assist them in dealing with those of the defences which were still holding out. ‘A pillbox on the cliff fell to petard fire and houses belching forth streams of mortar bombs and small arms fire were silenced by 75mm and petard fire,’ recorded the divisional historian. As the accuracy of the petard declined beyond 80 yards, most of these engagements took place at close quarters. The bomb itself, known as The Flying Dustbin, was visible throughout its flight and its effect was devastating, bringing whole sections of house down in a thunder of collapsing brickwork and splintering timber; needless to say, very few hits were required to bring the defenders out into the open.
To the east, the breaching teams on Queen Sector of Sword Beach, where the British 8th Infantry Brigade was coming ashore at Lion-sur-Mer, consisted of A Squadron 22nd Dragoons and 77 and 79 Assault Squadrons RE (5 ARRE). On the right No 1 Team beached at a point overlooked by high sand dunes. In the face of fierce fire, the Crabs flailed up the beach and over the dunes, one commander killing two snipers with a grenade thrown from the turret. The leading AVRE, commanded by Sergeant Kilvert, was hit as it emerged from the LCT and drowned in the shallows. Undeterred, Kilvert and his crew grabbed their personal weapons and made their way across the beach to storm a fortified farmhouse and rout an enemy patrol, later handing over their prisoners to the infantry. The team’s remaining AVREs assisted the Crabs in completing a route inland then set off to assist 48 Royal Marine Commando in the capture of Lion.
No 2 Team lay off the beach until the DDs of 13th/18th Hussars had touched down, and in the process drifted west of No 1 Team. The first Crab to disembark, commanded by Sergeant Smyth, immediately charged and crushed the 75mm anti-tank gun that had opened fire on No 1 Team. The Crabs then cleared a lane across the beach until one blew a track on a mine. It was bypassed and an SBG bridge was dropped across the wrecked gunpit, completing the exit. After this, the team’s AVREs also headed for Lion.
No 3 Team’s Crabs completed one lane, along which a Bobbin AVRE unrolled its carpet; the vehicle then struck a mine and, having also been hit by anti-tank fire, was drowned by the rising tide. A second lane was then flailed, at the end of which an SBG bridge was laid to provide an exit from the beach. No 4 Team’s LCT became the target of a heavy calibre gun and was hit repeatedly. The leading Crab got ashore safely but the second was hit while on the ramp and nothing could get past. When more hits caused explosions aboard the craft, killing the sector’s senior engineer officer, it was forced to withdraw and sail back to England. When the team’s solitary Crab had part of its jib shot away by anti-tank fire, its commander, Lieutenant R. S. Robertson, jettisoned the rest and fought as a gun tank.
As more troops and their supporting armour arrived the battle moved inland while the Crabs continued to flail the beach and the AVREs set about the task of recovering vehicle casualties and assisted in removing beach obstacles. The 79th Armoured Division’s breaching teams had employed 50 Crabs and 120 AVREs, of which 12 and 22 respectively had been knocked out; casualties amounted to a total of 169 killed, wounded and missing, which, given the nature of the task which had been set, was astonishing. By midnight on 6 June, 57,000 American and 75,000 British and Canadian troops had been put ashore; and on the British sector alone 950 fighting vehicles, 5000 wheeled vehicles, 240 field guns, 280 anti-tank guns and 4000 tons of stores had been landed.
If, superficially, this suggests an absurdly cheap victory, it must be compared with what happened on the American sectors where, it will be recalled, the troops did not have the benefit of armoured breaching teams. On Utah Beach their task had been eased somewhat by the dropping of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions some miles inland during the previous night; but on Omaha Beach the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were pinned down on the shore by defences that were no more formidable than those on the British sector. Not until an hour after the initial landings did the situation begin to improve slowly when eight American and three British destroyers, observing the carnage amid the shattered LCIs at the water’s edge, closed in to batter the defences at point blank range. Even then, it was only by the inspired leadership, heroism and self-sacrifice of individuals and small groups that the Americans began to make ground little by little. By midnight, while the other beachheads were between seven and nine miles deep, that at Omaha amounted to a foothold extending at best some 2000 yards from the shoreline. The cost had been 3000 casualties, half the American losses for the day, including that of the two airborne divisions; British and Canadian casualties at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches amounted 4200 killed, wounded and missing.
The events of D Day demonstrated beyond any possible doubt the validity of Hobart’s tactical concepts and his thorough training methods. For the remainder of the campaign in North-West Europe elements of 79th Armoured Division, now known throughout 21st Army Group as ‘Hobo’s Funnies,’ played a vital part in every major and countless minor operations fought by the British and Canadian armies, as well as providing support for the Americans when requested.
Enough has been written on the conduct of operations in Normandy for only the briefest of reminders to be given here. Although the terrain, much of which consisted of small fields bounded by hedges set on earth banks, favoured the defence and was far from ideal tank country, the Allied strategy was for the British and Canadian armies to maintain constant pressure and thereby draw in the bulk of the German armour while the Americans prepared to break out into the open country to the south and east. To achieve this a series of major operations – Epsom, Jupiter, Charnwood, Goodwood and Bluecoat – were mounted throughout June and July, wearing down the German strength in heavy attritional fighting. The American breakout, codenamed ‘Cobra’, commenced on 25 July and proved to be unstoppable; concurrently, at the northern end of the front, the Canadian First Army was pushing slowly but steadily southwards from Caen towards Falaise. With both their flanks now hanging in the air, the German armies were compressed within a pocket from which comparatively few escaped. By 21 August the fighting in Normandy was effectively over.
While these operations were in progress 79th Armoured Division received a new weapon which had not been employed during the D Day landings. This was the fearsome Crocodile, consisting of Wasp flamethrowing equipment fitted to a Churchill VII which was coupled to a two-wheeled armoured trailer holding 400 gallons of inflammable liquid. From the coupling, a pipe led under the tank’s belly to emerge into the driving compartment where it joined the flame gun, which replaced the hull machine-gun. On leaving the flame gun the liquid was ignited electrically and propelled in a jet to a range of 120 yards, clinging to everything it touched. The propellant gas was pressurised nitrogen, housed in cylinders inside the trailer, permitting flaming for a total of 100 seconds in short bursts. Once the flaming liquid had been expended the trailer could be dropped, leaving its parent vehicle free to fight as a gun tank. Naturally, the Crocodile was hated and feared by the enemy, whose anti-tank gunners would attempt to knock out the trailer before it could be brought within range. Often, however, the appearance of a Crocodile was in itself sufficient to induce surrender; on the other hand, incidents occurred in which captured Crocodile crews were shown no mercy. The division possessed three Crocodile regiments – 141 Regiment RAC, 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and 7 RTR – which together formed 31st Tank Brigade.
Another class of vehicle was added to the divisional armoury as a direct result of the fighting in Normandy, thanks to Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, the 41 year old commander of the Canadian II Corps, whose innovative ideas often complemented those of Hobart. The Allies had sometimes resorted to concentrated carpet bombing to blast their way through a sector of the enemy’s front. This certainly obliterated anything in its path, but the huge crater fields made life very difficult for armoured vehicles trying to penetrate the gap, as any World War I tank crewman might have predicted. In planning Operation ‘Totalize’, the Canadian drive in the direction of Falaise on 8 August,
Simonds hit on the novel ideas of using bomb carpets to protect the flanks of the advance, and mounted his infantry in makeshift armoured personnel carriers. At this period the Allied armoured divisions’ organic infantry were equipped with the M3 armoured half-track, but the infantry divisions had no APCs at all, save for their small tracked weapons carriers. Simonds therefore had the guns stripped out of a number of M7 Priest Howitzer Motor Carriages, which were then capable of carrying twelve infantrymen apiece; inevitably, these weaponless versions of the M7 were known as Unfrocked Priests. The idea worked so well that it was decided to convert turretless Sherman and Canadian Ram tanks to the role; with equal inevitability, the APC family so created were referred to a Kangaroos. Two APC regiments – 49 RTR and 1st Canadian APC Regiment – were formed with 150 Kangaroos each and attached to 31st Tank Brigade.
After Normandy, the first major operation involving 79th Armoured Division was the capture of the Channel Ports. Hitler had given specific instructions to the garrison commanders that they were to be denied to the Allies at all costs and each was protected by a cordon of fortified areas which included an anti-tank ditch, minefields and numerous concrete strongpoints. These were studied in detail and assault teams formed to deal with them – Crabs to clear lanes through the minefields and provide direct gunfire support, AVREs with SBG bridges and fascines to fill in the anti-tank ditches, and AVREs and Crocodiles to tackle the strongpoints. On their own, neither AVREs nor Crocodiles could guarantee success against the thick concrete structures; the AVRE’s petard bombs might crack the concrete but they would not touch those inside; and, on the approach of a Crocodile, the defenders could retire into the inner chamber until it had finished flaming, then return to their fire slits. Together, however, they proved to be a deadly combination; once the AVRE had cracked open the structure the Crocodile would flame it and the burning liquid would flow inside, consuming the oxygen and forcing the defenders into the open.
Le Havre was assaulted by the 49th (West Riding) Division plus the 22nd Dragoons, A Squadron 141 Regiment RAC, 222 and 617 Assault Squadrons RE; and the 51st (Highland) Division plus B and C Squadron 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry, C Squadron 141 Regiment RAC, 16 and 284 Assault Squadrons RE. The attack commenced at 1745 on 10 September and during the next two days the assault teams fought their way steadily through the defences, leaving the infantry to accept the garrison’s final surrenders on 13 September. Faced with tough resistance and extensive minefields, the teams enjoyed mixed fortunes but, as on D Day, a sufficient margin had been allowed to ensure success. Personal initiative, too, played a major part; at Harfleur, for example, the AVREs of 222 Assault Squadron RE filled in an anti-tank ditch by felling several trees with their petards. One Scottish company commander, having taken over a captured bunker as his headquarters, answered a ringing telephone and found himself talking to a German, who he invited to surrender. The suggestion was indignandy refuted, but others sharing the line had no reservations and promptly emerged from a number of neighbouring strongpoints. They had felt secure behind their minefields and were dismayed when these were breached by the Crabs, which came as a complete surprise to them; understandably, it was the Crocodiles which had shocked them most, and they described their use as ‘unfair’ and ‘un-British.’
The Americans had already taken St Malo and begun to assault Brest on 25 August. The garrison of this major port, consisting of 35,000 men under an extremely tough paratroop commander, Major General Hermann Ramcke, resisted so stubbornly that the attackers made little progress. At length General Bradley requested the assistance of Crocodiles to subdue the defences and in response B Squadron 141 Regiment RAC, commanded by Major I. N. Ryle, was attached to Major General W. E. Sands’ US 29th Infantry Division for the reduction of Fort Montbarey. This consisted of an old casemated masonry fort within a moat, surrounded in turn by concentric lines of defence incorporating 40mm and 20mm gun positions and a minefield which included buried 300 pound naval shells. On 14 September, after American engineers had gapped the minefield, a two-tank Crocodile troop, covered by the squadron’s gun tanks, led the infantry attack, burning up weapon pits as it went. One Crocodile blew up when it ran over a shell but the second continued until the American infantry had consolidated their gains around the fort itself. At this point the Germans began to emerge with white flags and the Crocodile, having exhausted its flame fuel and fired off all its 75mm ammunition, began to turn for home. As it did so it slid into an anti-tank ditch. A troop of Churchill gun tanks came forward to assist, but the first of these slid into another tank trap, the second shed a track and the third bellied in a crater. Observing this unexpected series of accidents, the enemy changed their minds, retired within the defences and opened fire again. Although disappointing in its eventual outcome, the day’s fighting yielded 122 prisoners, plus two 50mm guns, one 105mm gun and two major strongpoints captured. All the ditched tanks were recovered despite sniper fire.
Two days later the battle was resumed: ‘One troop of Crocodiles (Sergeant Decent), supported by direct fire from every available tank and self-propelled gun, crept up to the fort and rolled their flame over the moat. A gun tank pounded the main gate and three prisoners emerged. One was sent back to call for surrender – this was refused, so two more troops (Lieutenants C. Shone and T. P. Conway) gave the fort all the flame and HE they had, to the accompaniment of all guns at hand. Phosphorous and mortar bombs rained down and a 105mm gun pumped 200 more rounds at the gate. As the fire shifted to the northern edge, the sappers, under smoke, blew charges against the wall and the infantry went in. An officer with a white flag greeted them; he and his 30 men were being suffocated by smoke and phosphorous. The outhouses were blazing and after a little hand-to-hand fighting all was over. The Germans expressed their respect for flame and showed how effectively casemates had been penetrated and crews burned alive.’ The fall of Fort Montbarey made Brest untenable and on 18 September Ramcke capitulated.
Meanwhile, Boulogne was attacked on 17 September by Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division, with assault teams provided by A and C Squadron 1st Lothians and Border Yeomanry, A and C Squadrons 141 Regiment RAC, 81 and 87 Assault Squadrons RE. The plan, conceived by Simonds, incorporated two phases. First, breaches were to be made in the outer crust of the defences by carpet bombing, through which infantry in Kangaroos would be carried forward to the point where cratering prevented further progress; they would then establish themselves while bulldozers carved routes across the devastated area. The second involved the assault teams, formed into three all-armoured columns, exploiting through the infantry and advancing into the town centre from different directions. The defences themselves were subjected to an additional heavy battering by the Second Tactical Air Force and RAF Bomber Command, while the Allied artillery support programme included participation by two fourteen- and two fifteen-inch coast defence guns firing across the Channel from England. In the event, the battle took the form Simonds had intended, although the severe cratering caused the assault teams as much trouble as the enemy. On the other hand, there were unexpected strokes of luck. One column, for example, was guided by a French taxi driver through the tangle of city streets, and the crews of two AVREs which had petarded the main gate of the Citadel into surrender, taking the German adjutant and 30 of his men prisoner, were considerably surprised when the next figures to emerge from the fortress were grinning Canadian infantrymen who had been ushered through a secret entrance by a member of the Resistance. The last of Boulogne’s defences surrendered on 21 September and a further 9500 prisoners began their march into captivity; the Canadians sustained only 634 casualties.
Hardly had the fighting ended than 3rd Canadian Division began moving towards its next objectives, the coastal batteries between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, and the port of Calais itself. Here the assault teams were drawn from the same units that had stormed Boulogne, save that the AVREs were manned by 81 and 284 Assault Squadrons RE. Deliberate flooding of the surrounding area restricted the approach to a heavily fortified coastal corridor from the west but, against this, almost two thirds of the 7500-strong German garrison, consisting in the main of elderly or sick men, was required to man the coastal batteries. It was apparent as soon as the attack began on 25 September that they lacked the will to fight and, having witnessed the capabilities of the assault teams, most surrendered after a token resistance. By 1 October, at a cost of only 300 Canadian casualties, the entire area had been cleared. For the first time in four years, shipping in the Straits of Dover could operate without the menace of enemy gunfire. The Lothians, having captured the German flag flying over the Cap Gris Nez gun positions, presented it to the Mayor of Dover, which had itself been a regular target of the coastal batteries.
With the exception of Dunkirk, the garrison of which was to be contained and allowed to rot until the war ended, all the Channel ports were now in Allied hands. Yet, so thorough had been the German demolitions that it would be months rather than weeks before traffic would begin flowing through them and the Allied lines of communication stretched back some 400 miles from the German and Dutch borders to the Normandy beaches. Again, while the 11th Armoured Division had captured the Antwerp docks more or less intact on 5 September, these could not be brought into use until the enemy had been cleared from both banks of the Scheldt. Therefore, even while fighting for the Channel ports was in progress, plans were being made for opening the sea approaches to Antwerp. These included augmenting 79th Armoured Division’s amphibious capability by the issue of the Buffalo LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked, originally developed for the Pacific theatre of war) and its smaller cousin the Weasel. In British service the Buffalo could carry either 24 infantrymen, or one 17pdr anti-tank gun, or one 25pdr gun-howitzer, or one tracked Universal Carrier, or ammunition and supplies. 5 ARRE had, in fact already converted to the amphibious role and was joined by 11 RTR, both regiments being equipped with 100 Buffaloes.
The first area to be tackled was an enemy pocket on the south bank of the Scheldt, centred on the town of Breskens. When this was attacked on 6 October by the Canadian 7th Brigade little progress was made, partly because flooding had again been used to restrict the frontage, and partly because the defence was being conducted by the German 64th Division which, recruited largely from men on leave from the Eastern Front, was a very different proposition from the fortress troops encountered the previous month. However, during the early hours of 8 October 5 ARRE’s Buffaloes ferried the Canadian 9th Brigade across the mouth of the Braakman Inlet (referred to as the Savojaards Plaat in the divisional history), covering the eastern flank of the pocket, and landed in the enemy’s rear, achieving complete surprise. Major General Eberding, commanding the German troops within the pocket, reacted quickly to the threat but was unable to prevent the Canadian 8th Brigade being similarly lifted into the beachhead two days later. Now under simultaneous pressure from north and south, he shortened his perimeter, but one by one the towns in his possession fell to the Canadians and their supporting teams of Crabs, AVREs and Crocodiles. By 3 November the pocket had been cleared.
Across the Scheldt was the South Beveland peninsula, connected to the mainland by an isthmus along which the 2nd Canadian Division was slowly fighting its way forward. To accelerate the capture of the peninsula the 156th Brigade, from 52nd (Lowland) Division, was carried the nine miles across the river in the Buffaloes of 5 ARRE and 11 RTR, accompanied by eleven DDs manned by B Squadron Staffordshire Yeomanry, in the pre-dawn darkness of 25 October, direction being maintained with the assistance of bursts of Bofors tracer fired at timed intervals from the south bank. A beachhead was established and rapidly expanded without difficulty, although only four of the DDs were able to surmount the muddy dykes and accompany the troops inland. On 27 October 157th Brigade, also from 52nd Division, was ferried across and that night the 2nd Canadian Division broke through the isthmus defences to join the Scots in overrunning the rest of the peninsula.
West of South Beveland was the heavily fortified island of Walcheren, covering the entrance to the Scheldt. Diamond shaped and measuring some twelve miles by nine, most of the island lies below sea level and is protected by dykes and sand dunes up to 100 feet high. The Germans were well aware of its strategic importance and had built numerous concrete coastal batteries containing guns of up to 220mm calibre, both among the dunes and inland; beach defences included mines, posts, hedgehogs, Element C and wire. Many of these defences were neutralised when, during early October, the RAF mounted a series of raids which breached the dykes in four places, allowing the sea to flood in.
Two landings were planned, the first based on Breskens and directed at Flushing on the south coast of the island with No 4 Commando leading in landing craft, followed by 155th Brigade (52nd Division) in Buffaloes, while the second, based on Ostend, was directed at Westkapelle on the west coast with 4th Special Service Brigade coming ashore in Buffaloes launched from LCTs, plus a strong armoured assault team, which would also land from LCTs.
Both landings took place on 1 November. That at Flushing went entirely according to plan, with the commandos having the good fortune to come ashore in the one area that had not been mined, while the Buffaloes sustained comparatively small losses, despite the heavy volume of fire directed at them.
At Westkapelle, however, the story was very different. The assault was to be delivered at the breach in the dyke just south of the town, but the sea approaches to this were covered by three major coast defence batteries. To the north of the gap were Battery W.17 at Domberg, armed with four 220mm French guns and one 150mm gun in open concrete casemates, and Battery W.15 on the northern outskirts of Westkapelle, armed with four British 3.7in AA guns in concrete casemates and two British three-inch AA guns in open emplacements, all of which had been converted to the coast defence role; south of the gap, between Westkapelle and Zoutelande, was Battery W.13, armed with four 150mm guns in concrete casemates, two 75mm guns in casemates and three 20mm AA cannon.
Because of this the landing force would have direct support from the 15in guns of the battleship HMS Warspite and the monitors HMS Erebus and Roberts, which would open fire at 0815, joined twenty minutes later by the First Canadian Army’s medium and heavy artillery, firing across the Scheldt from Breskens. Escorting the landing craft during their run in towards the beach would be a Close Support Group containing 27 LCGs (Landing Craft Gun) and LCT(R)s (Landing Craft Tank (Rocket)).
Sea conditions were good but mist blanketing airfields in England had kept the promised air support grounded, although it was expected to clear. It also grounded the Bombardment Group’s spotter aircraft so that Warspite and the monitors were forced to fire by dead reckoning. As a result, their heavy shells did less damage than was expected until the Artillery Air OP light aircraft arrived from Breskens; for a while, too, Erebus was forced to cease firing because of mechanical problems in her turret. Bursting shells began to fountain around the Support Group while it was still some four miles short of the shore, but seeing that the German fire had not been appreciably reduced, the gun and rocket craft closed in to conduct a deadly and one-sided duel with the enemy batteries. Their self-sacrifice succeeded in concentrating most but by no means all of coastal gunners’ fire on themselves, and it eliminated a number of smaller posts and pillboxes, albeit at terrible cost; nine of the craft were sunk, eleven were put out of action with serious damage, and of the 1000 Royal Naval and Royal Marine personnel who provided their crews 192 were killed and 126 seriously wounded. At the critical moment, flight after flight of rocket-firing Typhoons roared in to strafe the defences, enabling the LCIs and LCTs to ground and disgorge their Buffaloes, which secured the shoulders of the breached dyke or passed through to assault Westkapelle from the rear.
The armoured assault team, carried in four LCTs, had the worst landing in the division’s experience. ‘One craft was hit repeatedly, the SBG bridge shot away from its AVRE and a fascine AVRE set on fire. By the efforts of its crew, explosives were jettisoned and the fire put out. The craft was later ordered to withdraw back to Ostend. The second LCT, Cherry, was hit hard astern and had many casualties, forcing it to withdraw and come in later. The third, Bramble, was able to touch down among broken boulders. The first AVRE to get ashore bellied (in the mud), so the craft pulled out and beached on sand further south. Two Crabs made heavy going of it but got up the beach; a bulldozer followed but the SBG was hit by a shell and the AVRE stuck. Cherry beached further south and offloaded all but one Crab, which was inextricably tangled up in the vessel’s bridge which had been wrecked by fire. The bulldozer, in an attempt to recover the bellied AVRE off Bramble, sank itself in a quicksand.
‘About this time Sergeant A. Ferguson (1st Lothians) fired eleven rounds of 75mm at the church tower east of Westkapelle which was being used as an observation post. The tower burst into flames and Germans came running out. Westkapelle had almost been cleared by the commandos but heavy shelling and mortaring of the beaches went on. All over the shore Buffaloes and Weasels were searching for an exit. Two Buffaloes loaded with ammunition were burning fiercely – in fact the beach was covered with smashed and burning vehicles and casualties were mounting.
‘The fourth LCT, Apple, landed on the left. The first Crab got ashore but stuck when it tried to tow the second off. The bridge AVRE disembarked, laid its SBG over some bad going, crossed it, then bogged, which blocked the way of the second AVRE already on the bridge. In spite of all efforts both tanks were drowned by the rising tide.
‘The tanks had found a small gap through the rocks but the sand was soft and they spoiled it completely for other vehicles. However, by dint of great perseverance and sterling work under shell and mortar fire, two Shermans, two AVREs, two Crabs and a bulldozer reached the village. They worked right through it dealing with roadblocks and houses and filling in craters with the bulldozed rubble and trees. That night the tide through the breach rose so high that the two Crabs were drowned.’
During the afternoon Battery W.13 surrendered to 48 Royal Marine Commando; one of its 150mm casemates had been cracked, killing the crew, and the remaining big guns had expended their ammunition. 41 Royal Marine Commando stormed West-kapelle village and Battery W. 15 at about noon, then moved north to tackle Battery W. 17 at Domburg, which gave up without a fight shortly after dusk. Resistance in this area, centred on Domburg village and a number of smaller concrete strongpoints among the dunes to the north, now became stiffer, and for the next six days the armoured assault team, reduced to two Sherman gun tanks and two AVREs, was fully engaged in supporting 41 Commando and No 10 Inter-Allied Commando as they fought their way along the coast towards Veere. Both AVREs eventually fell victim to mines, but the Shermans soldiered on to the end, firing no less than 1400 rounds of 75mm AP and HE. Later, Hobart received a personal note of thanks from Brigadier B. N. Leicester, commanding 4 Special Service Brigade: ‘I want to let you know how very well your chaps did….The few tanks we got ashore were worth their weight in gold….In the north we had no close-supporting fire other than three machine-guns which were of little use against concrete. There the tanks consistently and successfully supported troop attacks on concrete by 75mm, the accuracy of which was a pleasure to watch – I saw them! Their Brownings too had a most heartening effect in keeping the enemy infantry to ground.’
After the coastal defences had been stormed and Flushing was captured, the remaining German resistance was centred on the fortified town of Middleburg in the centre of the island. As this was surrounded by flooded terrain, the garrison felt reasonably secure, but on 6 November the Buffaloes of A Squadron 11 RTR, with 7th/9th Royal Scots aboard, set out from Flushing to prove them wrong. The direct route lay along the banks of the Flushing-Veere Canal, but this was mined and covered by anti-tank guns and machine-guns. Under the guidance of a Dutch civilian, a more circuitous route over inundated countryside to the west was adopted. Thus far the enemy, drawn mainly from the 70th Division (nicknamed the White Bread Division because most of its men had stomach ailments), had put up a remarkably tough fight, but so surprised and demoralised were they by the sudden arrival of the leading infantry company in eight Buffaloes that they offered no resistance. The German garrison commander, Lieutenant General Wilhelm Daser, indicated his willingness to surrender, but not to a junior officer, a difficulty which was resolved by supplying the infantry company commander with a badgeless raincoat and according him local and temporary promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Between 1 October and 8 November the First Canadian Army had sustained 12,800 casualties, half of them Canadian, from all causes. In return, over 41,000 prisoners had been taken and both banks of the Scheldt had been cleared. Minesweeping had begun even before Walcheren surrendered and the first cargoes reached Antwerp on 26 November.
The 79th Armoured Division continued to provide specialist armoured teams for the whole of 21st Army Group, plus the US First and Ninth Armies, and were engaged in a variety of operations spread across a wide area. On 16 December a major German counter-offensive was launched through the Ardennes with the object of recapturing Antwerp, but the only elements of the division to become involved in the subsequent fighting, collectively known as The Battle of the Bulge, were the two Kangaroo regiments and one troop of 11 RTR’s Buffaloes.
The counter-offensive failed, although it did delay Allied plans for an advance to the Rhine by approximately six weeks. After the threat had passed, 79th Armoured Division commenced detailed planning for Operation ‘Veritable’, 21st Army Group’s eastward drive through the Reichswald Forest into the Rhineland. For this, the initial allocation of specialist armour was as follows:
15th (Scottish) Division: One regiment of Crabs, two squadrons of AVREs, two squadrons of Crocodiles and both Kangaroo regiments;
51st (Highland) Division: One squadron each of Crabs, AVREs and Crocodiles;
53rd (Welsh) Division: Two squadrons of Crabs and one squadron each of AVREs and Crocodiles;
2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions: One squadron each of Crabs and AVREs, four squadrons of Buffaloes.
Following the heaviest preparatory bombardment fired by British artillery in World War II, Veritable commenced on 8 February 1945. Conditions were atrocious, continuous rain having produced deep mud, while on the northern flank the Germans breached the dykes protecting the Rhine flood plain, which now lay under five feet of water moving at a speed of eight knots. The Reichswald itself consisted of close plantations and was considered by some German officers to be tank-proof on its own account; in addition, it also contained a northern extension of the Siegfried Line, and while the concrete structures for this had not been completed, there were bunkers, minefields and anti-tank obstacles. Holding the area was the 84th Division, which had twice been bled white since the Normandy landings and had recently been reinforced with more units consisting of men with medical conditions; this was not expected to put up much of a fight, but in immediate reserve were troops of the German First Parachute Army who could be relied upon to contest every foot of ground.
During the early days of the battle the appalling going again provided the armoured assault teams with more problems than the enemy. Wallowing slowly forward through the morass, the vehicles bellied and towed each other free in agonising slow motion, with chilling rain sheeting down on them the while; at one stage it was estimated that three-quarters of the tanks in the forest were bogged down. Yet, somehow, lanes were cleared of mines by the Crabs, anti-tank ditches were bridged or filled in, and bunkers petarded or flamed into submission. On the right and in the centre only the Churchill gun tanks of the infantry-support tank brigades and the Churchill-based Crocodiles and burden-free AVREs were simultaneously able to cope with the mud and splinter their way through the trees. The commander of one captured feature went so far as to pass the outraged comment: ‘We had never thought that anyone in their right mind would use tanks in this forest; it is most unfair!’ On the left, where the flooding was total, the Canadians mounted their attacks in assault boats, supported by fire from Buffaloes, and were supplied by Weasels and DUKWs.
It was this ability to retain mobility that the Germans found most unsettling. As the rains became less frequent and the floods started to subside, they rushed nine more divisions to the threatened area, drawn from the American sector of the front. This suited the Allies very well for on 23 February the US Ninth Army, forming the right wing of 21st Army Group, seized crossings over the river Roer at a cost of less than 100 casualties and, breaking out of its bridgeheads a week later, its armour reached the Rhine on 2 March. The effect was to isolate First Parachute Army, still locked in its bitter struggle with the British and Canadian divisions to the north, so that von Rundstedt, the Commander in Chief West, had no alternative other than to withdraw what remnants he could across the river. Together, the Reichswald battle and the American offensive had cost the German Army some 90,000 men. The British sustained 10,330 casualties, the Canadians 5304 and the Americans 7300.
Plans were already in hand for the crossing of the great waterway. These included use by 79th Armoured Division of a device cloaked in such secrecy that, although units had been equipped with it since 1942, it had never been used operationally by British troops, an omission described by Fuller as the greatest blunder of the war. The device was a British invention known as the Canal Defence Light (CDL) and it consisted of an M3 Lee/Grant chassis and hull fitted with a specially designed turret housing a 13 million candlepower carbon arc the intense light from which was reflected through a narrow slit controlled by the rapid movements of a mechanically driven shutter. The flickering effect of the light induced temporary partial blindness, sometimes accompanied by nausea, loss of balance and disorientation, and it also prevented the enemy identifying its source or even whether it was moving or stationary. Tactically, it was possible for troops to advance towards their brilliantly illuminated objective, yet remain completely invisible in the dense black space between two CDL beams. The Americans were also interested in the idea and had formed CDL units, although they codenamed the vehicle the Shop Tractor. Once again, however, obsessive secrecy had prevented its use until, even as 21st Army Group was completing its preparations for crossing the Rhine, the US 9th Armored Division seized the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen by coup de main and a CDL unit was successfully employed to defend the structure against attacks by German frogmen; even this local usage had required the personal sanction of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander. On the British sector the CDLs were to be used in a similar fashion, as well as providing directional light for the Buffalo crossings, requiring B Squadron 49 RTR, one of the original CDL units, to abandon its Kangaroos and retrain in the role.
For the Rhine Crossing, codenamed ‘Plunder’, and the subsequent expansion of the bridgeheads secured, 79th Armoured Division effected the greatest concentration of specialist armour since D Day. This included two DD regiments (Staffordshire Yeomanry and 44 RTR) and three additional Buffalo regiments (1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 1st East Riding Yeomanry and 4 RTR). The lessons of South Beveland and Walcheren had been learned and, to assist the DDs in climbing the floodbanks, they would be accompanied by a number of specially adapted Buffaloes that would unroll a chespale carpet ahead of them where necessary. As few permanent defences existed on the east bank of the river there was no immediate requirement for AVREs and assault regiments RE were given the task of manning motorised rafts which would be used to ferry non-DD tanks and other vehicles across in the wake of infantry divisions.
The allocation of units from 79th Armoured Division to the higher formations involved in the crossing was:
BRITISH SECOND ARMY
British XII Corps: two regiments plus one squadron of Buffaloes, three assault squadrons RE manning motorised rafts, one regiment of Crocodiles, two squadrons of Kangaroos, one Crab regiment, one half-squadron of CDLs and one DD regiment.
British XXX Corps: two regiments of Buffaloes, three assault squadrons RE manning motorised rafts, three squadrons of Crocodiles plus one in corps reserve, one squadron of Kangaroos, one squadron of Crabs plus two in corps reserve, one half-squadron of CDLs and one DD regiment.
US NINTH ARMY
US XVI Corps: one squadron of Crocodiles, one squadron of Crabs.
Plunder was the sort of huge set piece operation in which Montgomery excelled. The river crossing, supported by air attacks and the fire of 3300 guns on a 25-mile frontage, commenced at 2100 on 23 March. The six understrength German divisions on the east bank could only offer weak resistance and by morning bridgeheads had been established with very few casualties; before the enemy could recover his balance the US XIX Parachute Corps (British 6th and US 17th Airborne Divisions) had been dropped behind him. Armour began to flow across the river and, day by day, the bridgeheads were expanded until the point was reached when the German Army, with nothing in reserve, was unable to contain them. The war had only weeks to run.
For the Royal Tank Regiment the Rhine crossing was memorable in a number of ways. Lieutenant Colonel Alan Jolly, commanding 4 RTR, crossed with the same brown, red and green flag flying from his Buffalo that the 17th Battalion Tank Corps had flown when their armoured cars reached Cologne at the end of World War I. On 26 March 11 RTR’s Buffalo crews on the east bank were rounded up to meet one of their vehicles that was carrying more brass hats than they had ever seen in one place. The men were deadly tired and hollow-eyed, their battledress crumpled and their boots plastered with mud. Their days involved many hours of continuous work, with a few precious intervals for rest and sleep, and the arrival of the generals was less than welcome. As the VIPs clambered down, however, they began to take more interest. Major General Hobart, their divisional commander, was of course a familiar figure; equally familiar, although not many had seen him in the flesh, was the Army Group commander, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, casually dressed and wearing their own black beret; some probably recognised Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, commanding XII Corps, but not many could have put a name to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, or to General Sir Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army. Yet it was a cherubic figure wearing only a lieutenant colonel’s insignia on the shoulder straps of his British Warm, and the badge of 4th Hussars, his old regiment, in his standard service dress cap, who attracted most attention. As he called the men to break ranks and gather round delighted grins began to spread and there were astonished exclamations of: ‘It’s Winnie!’ The Prime Minister congratulated the men on their efforts and Montgomery, completely relaxed after the success of the operation, urged them to take advantage of the situation: ‘Go on, ask him for a cigar!’ At that precise moment, it would have been strange for one so steeped in a sense of history if Churchill had not reflected on how armoured warfare had developed since he had encouraged its first painful beginnings some thirty years earlier. Later, he visited the US Ninth Army’s bridgehead, causing near heart failure among senior American officers by repeatedly exposing himself to danger.
The CDLs of B Squadron 49 RTR had also fulfilled their promise. They naturally attracted much of the enemy’s fire, and consequently were unpopular neighbours, but they were difficult to locate and only one tank was lost. From 25 March until 6 April their role became the night defence of the pontoon bridges which the engineers had worked at top speed to complete. Three frogmen were exposed by the flickering beams and captured, and a large number of floating objects were engaged and sunk. Some of the latter exploded and while most of these devices were primitive mines consisting of logs to which charges had been strapped, one was thought to be a midget submarine, of which the Germans had several types. The CDL squadron followed up the advance into central Germany and was in action again during the crossing of the Elbe at the end of April.
During the last month of the war in Europe 79th Armoured Division was again dispersed across a very wide area, assisting in the liberation of those parts of Holland still under German control, driving north to participate in the capture of Bremen and Hamburg, and east until contact was established with the Russians. One of the most remarkable facts about the division’s history was that the nature of both its equipment and the operations it undertook was successfully concealed from the general public until after the Rhine Crossings. The media then received appropriate releases, resulting in a series of sincere if over-enthusiastic tributes, some of which fell just short of claiming magical powers.
At this period the divisional strength amounted to 21,430 men and 1566 armoured fighting vehicles; the strength of a conventional armoured division was about 14,400 men and 350 AFVs. 79th Armoured Division was a unique formation, although a similarly equipped but much smaller assault brigade supported the British Eighth Army’s final offensive in Italy. ‘Hobo’s Funnies’ were disbanded in 1945, and although assault engineering techniques have reached new levels of sophistication, no formation of the same size and scope as Hobart’s division has been formed since, for the good reason that the circumstances that called it into being have mercifully never been recreated.