THE HISTORY of 34 ARMOURED BRIGADE
This History of 34 Armoured Brigade was apparently written towards the end of 1945. The Aftermath states: “4 RTR will be moving to Italy when they are good and ready.” In fact they moved in January 1946 and became part of 6 Armoured Division.
In a Foreword, not reproduced here, the author of the History says: “This short account is compiled by the Brigade HQ as the end of the formation’s life approaches, and is written solely because all its members are extremely proud to have served the fighting Regiments of a Brigade who have throughout always done their job and done it well.” Well said, indeed.
Peter Beale, December 2003
The Brigade was born on l December 1941 in Wiltshire.
It shared this birthday with two other Brigades, 35 and 36. All three were formed as Army Tank Brigades to be armed with the (then brand new) Churchill tank designed primarily for close co‑operation with infantry. Of the three Brigades this one was the most fortunate, for a year later 36 Brigade was disbanded (for reasons of manpower shortage in the R.A.C.) and 35 Brigade became C.D.L. (Canal Defence Light unit) and, despite a varied and intense life in 79 Armoured Division, it never got overseas before the end of the war.
For two and a half years 34 Brigade trained in various parts of Southern England, first as an independent brigade, then as part of 1 Division (which had just become the first of the divisions. of mixed composition, two brigades of infantry and one of armour). It then joined the 43 (Wessex) Division, and nine months before D‑Day once more became an independent Tank Brigade when mixed divisions were abandoned as uneconomical.
The Brigade fought, intermittently, from the NORMANDY bridgehead to the RHINE crossings for a period of eight months in both Canadian First and British Second Armies and in company with nine different divisions at various times.
AFTERMATH: German Occupation
After the RHINE crossing the Brigade was in Second Army reserve and was not used again, being left far behind in the final gallop through Northern Germany. In June 1945 the original Brigade changed out of recognition in reorganising for S.E.A.C. and was left with only one of its original Regiments, 107 Regt. R.A.C.
Hence this is the latest point of interest, although it continued to exist until the Spring of 1946, when eventually it disbanded after four years of existence.
NOTE :‑Throughout this account the formation is called Armoured Brigade, that being its latest title. But it was originally born as 34 Army Tank Brigade and wore the diabolo sign. Later it became 34 Tank Brigade when in the mixed divisions (1st and 43rd) and wore their signs. Then it went to FRANCE as an independent Tank Brigade wearing Second Army signs for a while, before choosing its own " Mace and Shield " sign in the NORMANDY bridgehead days and being called 34 Armoured Brigade. The Mace stood for the heavy in‑fighting weapon and tactics of heavily armoured Churchills, which had originally been specially designed as tanks to work in closest co‑operation with infantry. The Shield carries the colours of the R.A.C., the original regiments being all R.A.C. regiments.
Dec 1, 1941
On the 1st December, 1941, Brigade Headquarters formed from 226 Independent Infantry Brigade, and one Regt. (8th Bn. Essex Regt.) came across to R.A.C. becoming 153 Regt. R.A.C. Transferred from 226 Brigade were:
Brigade Major Major R. C. Macdonald (later D.S.O.)
Royal Warwickshire Regt.
Liaison Officer Lt. R. F. Jackson, R.A.C.
The first Brigade Commander was Brigadier J. N. Tetley, T.D. (later D.S.O.), who had previously commanded, as a Territorial Army officer, the 45th (Leeds Rifles) Bn. Royal Tank Regt. in the 8 Armoured Division.
On formation the Regiments were :
North Irish Horse. Commanded by Lt.‑Col. D. Dawnay
147 Regt. R.A.C. Commanded by Lt.‑Col. A. R. W. S. Koe
153 Regt. R.A.C Commanded by LL‑Col. C. L. Wilson, M.C.
The North Irish Horse came from ULSTER and had been Divisional Cavalry to 61 Division prior to becoming an Armoured Regt. (Valentines) under British Troops Northern Ireland.
147 Regt. R.A.C. had been the 10th Bn. Hampshire Regt. on coast defence in YORKSHIRE
153 Regt. R.A.C., mentioned above as 8th Bn. Essex Regt., formed after DUNKIRK, had since done coast defence.
After six months in WILTSHIRE forming as a Brigade and getting its Services it moved in June 1942 to join 1 Division (Mixed) in East Anglia. Here the Brigade launched into its first Exercise on arrival ( SCORPION), chiefly notable for clouds of choking dust, and returned from it to exceedingly primitive and depressing camps which were to be its new home.
Shortly afterwards another large scale Exercise, by name LIMPET, involving also 35 and 36 Tank Brigades and 9 Armoured Division besides 1 Division complete, took place around the THETFORD area finishing up in never‑to‑be‑forgotten deluges of rain in the Battle of Frog Hill. Then followed an extraordinary sauve‑qui‑peut movement by all concerned on the cease fire sounding. No tighter concentration of tanks in a small area was seen again until the FALAISE BAG closed in NORMANDY in August 1944.
But the Brigade was not to go overseas to NORTH AFRICA, and its place was soon taken in 1 Division by 25 Army Tank Brigade. In that autumn it lost the North Irish Horse to the latter in exchange for 151 Regt. R.A.C. The 151 Regt. R.A.C. had been converted from the 10th Bn. King's Own Royal Regt. about two months later than 147 and 153 Regts. R.A.C. Ours was its third Brigade and it was feeling a little sorry for itself and wishing (just a little) that it had remained infantry ! It was commanded by Lt‑Col. S. H. Crow and quartered in WESTGATE, Kent. In December 1943 it became 107 Regt. R.A.C. to carry on the name of its senior T.A. unit (ex 5th Bn. King's Own) which was disbanded.
In September 1942 the Brigade moved to SUSSEX taking over 25 Brigade's billets and former place as the Tank Brigade in 43 (Wessex) Division, but remained close to the South Downs to train and did not move to join 43 Division in EAST KENT until December 1942. Highland Court, BRIDGE, near CANTERBURY, was the permanent home of Brigade Headquarters from December 1942 until the whole Brigade moved to concentrate for overseas in the late Spring of 1944.
The Regts. ‑ 147, 151 and 153 Regiments R.A.C. ‑ settled down and, with its Services, the Brigade Group as such remained thereafter unchanged until its first casualties in NORMANDY.
February of 1943 saw us on Exercise SPARTAN, the biggest thing since Exercise BUMPER‑‑‑! No account can afford to ignore these mighty bloodless battles in the United Kingdom. The memory of them will live on in hearts behind the ribbon of the Defence Medal when recollection of many smaller, and bloody, battles in FRANCE, BELGIUM, HOLLAND. and GERMANY has slipped away.
After Exercise SPARTAN came Exercise THUNDERBOLT and, through the summer, Exercise HAMMER, Exercise NON‑STOP and a host of others in 43 (Wessex) Division. The training of the Brigade as a fighting formation progressed steadily under the eye of Major‑General (now Lt‑General) G. I. Thomas, C.B., D.S.O., M.C., who, we believed, even knew the name of' almost every lumbering Churchill tank in our harassed but always happy Brigade.
At the end of June 1943 Brigadier J. N. Tetley left to command 25 Tank Brigade and was replaced by Brigadier W. S. Clarke, who thereafter commanded the Brigade for the remainder of its life.
In the Autumn of 1943 the mixed divisions were abolished and, leaving 43 (Wessex) Division, 34 Armoured Brigade became and remained an Independent Brigade, thenceforward under XII Corps H.Q. Leaving this Division came as a severe shock to us, for we had become intensely “43rd." Having lived within it for a most strenuous year resulted in its members knowing and being known by their opposite numbers throughout the whole Division.
Previously the Regiments had shot at MINEHEAD and on the South Downs, now it was KIRKCUDBRIGHT and WARCOP ranges (and almost up to the last minute before embarkation we shot 75‑mm. on LARKHILL ranges as and when it could be fitted in). Here should be mentioned Exercises HARLEQUIN in September 1943, CANUTE II in November and SHUDDER in March 1944. In HARLEQUIN we journeyed through the various zones and areas of embarkation to the " hards " and L.C.T's. In CANUTE and SHUDDER we went through the reverse motions, pretending that we were on the other side of the Channel..
On 7 February, 1944, as a new appointment, a Second‑in‑Command of the Brigade, Colonel A. D. R. Wingfield, D.S.O., M.C. (10th Royal Hussars) joined us, and to his energy, gunnery enthusiasm, and great experience in recent fighting, a very great debt is owed. Waterproofing training and exercise in water, up to five feet deep for tanks, went on at high pressure. In the event we landed almost dryshod on the NORMANDY beaches. From late April 1944 up to embarkation in June the Brigade was concentrated in SURREY with Headquarters at HINDHEAD and the Regiments and Services grouped around that area.
D‑Day (6 June, 1944) found the Brigade still waiting for orders to move. These came shortly afterwards and the advance parties moved off on D + 10 (16 June). It was to be a fortnight before they were reunited with their parent units and during that time they travelled to TILBURY and other staging camps down the NORTH bank of the THAMES, saw their first flying bombs, cursed the discomforts of rather squalid quarters (fortunately only for 48 hours !) and put to sea in various boats of a convoy formed off SOUTHEND. The weather was most unkind, and on arrival off the beaches of NORMANDY they heaved about at anchor, in the gale, watching the coast from COURSEULLES to OUISTREHAM, until the sea allowed transfer ashore. Once ashore on 23 June they bivouacked in a hay field close to 12 Corps H.Q and waited for the Brigade. Meanwhile " swanning " trips around recent scenes of armoured battles. and mechanical inspections of PANTHERS and TIGERS filled in time quite happily.
About 18 June the rest of the Brigade moved to the marshalling areas around the SOUTH and EAST coasts of ENGLAND, the Brigade and even individual units being split up into various different areas. Then came a storm in the Channel and instead of the expected stay of only a few hours in the marshalling camps, for many of us it developed into an unexpected holiday by the sea of over a week's duration. The camps were very well organised, and a good time was had by all concerned waiting for the storm to subside. A number of flying bombs were seen and heard but none of them fell uncomfortably close to us. At last the orders came to embark. The crossing of the Channel was accomplished without incident, the various parts of the Brigade being united once more in the concentration area around CULLY.
The Brigade suffered a double loss on leaving the United Kingdom. Lt‑Col. W. Schofield, T.D., Brigade Umpire from its earliest days and friend and confidant of every one in the whole formation, who had worked wholeheartedly in all its life hitherto in many capacities besides umpiring, had to be left on the wrong side of the Channel. Colonel A. D. R. Wingfield, D.S.O., M.C., .was hurriedly taken off his boat on arrival on the other side to take command of 8 Armoured Brigade, Brigadier H. J. B. Cracroft having been wounded. Colonel Wingfield came back to us shortly and twice again left to be similarly employed before finally taking over 22 Armoured Brigade on 14 October in HOLLAND.
ACTIVE SERVICE IN NORTH WEST EUROPE
FRANCE Phase I: NORMANDY Bridgehead
By the beginning of July 1944 the whole Brigade Group was concentrated in the Second Army bridgehead area around CULLY in VIII Corps area, but still under command of XII Corps. On 8 July, at very short notice, it moved across to the command of I Corps, but was not used in the capture of CAEN, which fell the next day, so it returned to CULLY and prepared to go into the line in Operation GREENLINE with 15 (Scottish) Division under XII Corps.
(a) Initial Actions of each Regt. in Operation GREENLINE, 15 to 18 July.
This operation was one of many carried out about this time to keep the enemy fighting hard, enlarge the ODON bridgehead, and hold his attention away from preparations being made for a breakthrough EAST of CAEN. The famous Hill 112 was first captured at the end of June and had been furiously fought over ever since. Now the slopes around it were littered with more than two dozen burnt‑out tanks of both sides and the stinking human wreckage of war in the No‑Man's Land, irrecoverable due to fire from the German‑held reverse slopes. The Hill and pronounced ridges NORTH EAST and SOUTH WEST of it were so shaped that our line, cramped between the wooded ODON stream and the crest, had a foreshortened field of fire compared to the gentle and bare slopes on the German side. Here the enemy held a fine deep position and made us pay dearly for every sally on to, or over, the crest in daylight.
The plan was a thrust over Hill 112 down to ESQUAY at last light by a battalion of 227 Infantry Brigade and 107 Regt. R.A.C. Before withdrawal after dark infantry were to dig in NORTH of BON REPOS to facilitate operations by another battalion of 227 Infantry Brigade supported by 147 Regt. R.A.C. at first light towards EVRECY village. Simultaneously with the latter, elbow room was to be made by a battalion of 44 Infantry Brigade and 153 Regt. R.A.C. up the ODON valley on our side of the crest to the SOUTH WEST, thereby enlarging the bridgehead to include GAVRUS and BOUGY.
This was the initial " blooding " of the Brigade from 15 to 18 July, and it proved to be so severe in the case of one Regt. (153 Regt. R.A.C.) that a fuller description of it is given here than can be allowed to subsequent actions.
107 Regt RAC went into action first and carried out a most successful " last light " raid with one battalion of 227 Infantry Brigade down the forward slope of Hill 112 and into and around the village of ESQUAY. Every tank of two leading Squadrons was in action and two troops of Crocodiles (141 Regt. R.A.C.) successfully took part. The third Squadron waited in reserve behind the crest in an area which was continuously mortared at intervals throughout the evening and night. Unfortunately Brigadier Mackintosh Walker, Commander of the Infantry Brigade, was killed and Lt‑Col. D. H. D. Courtenay was concussed by a mortar strike on his tank turret, subsequently becoming a casualty in the ORNE bridgehead operation. Only four tanks were lost in this raid, many members of their crews regaining our lines after dark on the backs of other tanks or on foot. Subsequently 107 Regt. R.A.C. had a small skirmish on 18 July with dug‑in Tigers " and two 88~mm. S.P. guns and lost four more tanks on the ridge.
Total 107 Regt. R.A.C. personnel casualties for the three days were 5 Officers and 41 Other Ranks (of which 1 Officer and 8 Other Ranks were killed).
147 Regt RAC. were due to attack early next morning but it had to be called off because the minefields were not breached around BARON and various flail tanks and two of its Churchills went up on deep laid mines. The following night its attack was called off on account of fog and its first battle took place late on 17 July with 158 Infantry Brigade (then under command of 15 (Scottish) Division). In an attack to capture the EVRECY area a long advance down the forward slope leading to that village was planned and from the tank point of view the event must be classed as a very gallant failure. Suffice to say that the attack was too hurriedly staged and the infantry weak from casualties (one composite company being one officer and 50 other ranks strong, the second company consisting of one composite platoon), and they were very tired and could not keep up with the tanks who were compelled to move smartly under 88mm. fire from EVRECY village. 150 prisoners‑of‑war were taken but intense mortaring forced the infantry back to their start line and A Squadron (Major P. E. G. Lobb) were lucky to get back from a deep penetration of the enemy area with the loss of only six tanks. B Squadron lost four and C Squadron one tank.
Personnel casualties for 147 Regt. R.A.C. from 15 to 18 July amounted to 9 Officers and 36 Other Ranks (of which 4 Officers and 12 Other Ranks were killed).
153 Regt RAC went into action for the first time on the morning of 16 July with the 8th Royal Scots .(44 Infantry Brigade) to capture successively GAVRUS and BOUGY. This was done by attacking up the SOUTH bank of the River ODON and keeping the left flank defiladed from EVRECY by the ridge. Up to this time few casualties were sustained but in the afternoon the enemy counter‑attacked twice with an assortment of Tiger and Panther tanks accompanied by infantry, and mortared Forward Rally positions unceasingly throughout the afternoon and evening. Not an inch of ground was given up and heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy. But it was held at a considerable cost, and regimental tank crews were actually fighting, or standing by in their tanks at instant readiness, continuously for 30 hours without relief from the zero hour until the enemy relaxed his efforts. When it became possible the Regt. was withdrawn, having only 29 battleworthy tanks left, 12 tanks having been knocked out by direct hits and others damaged.
Personnel casualties for 153 Regt. R.A.C. amounted to 16 Officers and 80 Other Ranks (of which 9 Officers and 30 Other Ranks were killed). The loss included:
the C.O. (wounded early in the attack),
two Squadron leaders (Majors P. V. Ward and L. F. Little killed), two seconds‑in‑command of Squadrons,
two Squadron Recce Officers,
Regimental Intelligence Officer,
the remainder being Troop Leaders.
Command of the Regt. was taken over by Major Norris King, M.C. (then promoted), who had led them since the loss of Lt.‑Col. R. B. P. Wood early in the action. The Regt. was rested and reformed in a very sodden cornfield close to MARCELET, where Main Brigade H.Q. was located. Within nine days it was in action again, all members of the Brigade having contributed Officers and Other Ranks.
So ended the Brigade's first operation, which in three days cost us the loss of 30 Officers and 156 Other Ranks, but with two notably successful actions to its credit and the feeling of great confidence in itself. At the end of the three days only 97 tanks remained battleworthy owing to the impossibility of carrying out any heavy maintenance under existing circumstances.
(b) Subsequent Events in the ODON Bridgehead.
From 18 July onwards the Brigade settled down to life on the perimeter of the bridgehead, in closest support of the 53 (Welsh) Division, which eventually stretched from BOUGY to the River ORNE at MALTOT. 153 Regt. R.A.C. returned to the line after 8 days in the cornfield. A second raid in force was made on ESQUAY on 23 July. Again 107 Regt R.A.C. was used, but this time in support of 4th Bn. Welch Regt. The latter suffered 67 casualties but 107 Regt. R.A.C. came back intact and even recovered, by towing, what had been one of their casualties in the previous attack. Only 6 prisoners were taken. The smoke barrage which enabled this raid to be staged in broad daylight over the forward slope was perfectly controlled this time, to which our lack of casualties can' be attributed. Yet a third time 107 Regt. R.A.C. raided ESQUAY on 2 August with much the same result. On this day two other raids were made in force, each supported by tanks, one beyond BOUGY (147 Regt. R.A.C.) and one below MALTOT (153 Regt. R.A.C.).
On 4 August 107 Regt. R.A.C. was moved to the WEST to support 59 Division (with whom it continued to fight up till the latter's withdrawal and disbandment in mid‑August). Altogether in this first phase, i.e. until the breaking of the ring round the River ODON bridgehead, the Regiments of the Brigade had an unpleasant time, living in closest proximity to the F.D.L's and suffering steady casualties from mortar and artillery fire day and night.
Up to 5 August 47 tanks were battle casualties (of which 16 were brewed up but less than half' of the others were total loss) and personnel casualties in the Brigade Group amounted to 37 Officers and 210 Other Ranks in all categories (killed, wounded or missing).
Phase II Break out and pursuit to River SEINE, 5 to 30 August, 1944.
XII Corps was momentarily pinched out of the line by advances on both flanks, but came in again a day later on the banks of the ORNE, and by 6 August 153 Regt. R.A.C. were supporting 53 (Welsh) Division opposite THURY HARCOURT, 107 Regt. R.A.C. were supporting 59 Division opposite FORET de CINGLAIS, with 147 Regt. R.A.C. initially in reserve midway between the two others.
The most notable action in this phase was that fought by 107 Regt. R.A.C. with 176 Infantry Brigade in forcing a crossing and holding a small bridgehead over the River ORNE opposite BRIEUX and GRIMBOSQ. Counter‑attacked heavily on the evening of 7 August by Panthers in force, only a few tanks of A and C Squadrons survived by the following morning. At first light B Squadron, under Major D. H. Davies, crossed and put up a magnificent fight with eleven tanks (all that he could get across the ford). When finally reduced to only two tanks still fightable he was recalled to the WEST bank at nightfall, but the bridgehead was out of danger and 147 Regt. R.A.C. crossed into it as soon as the ford was clear. 107 Regt. R.A.C. were then withdrawn completely, having lost 22 tanks, of which 17 were burnt out in action and a total loss. Personnel casualties were relatively light, only 3 Officers and 7 Other Ranks being killed, and 7 Officers and 40 Other Ranks wounded (some of the latter were caused by a misdirected attack by our own aircraft on the echelon which was coming up to the Regt.).
The above action put 107 Regt. R.A.C. out of the running for a few days owing to the fact that both 147 Regt. R.A.C. and 153 Regt. R.A.C. were fighting small actions and forging ahead. They were absorbing the contents of the Forward Delivery Squadron more profitably than 107 Regt. R.A.C. could have used the tank replacements in view of its need for reorganisation. Two days later 107 Regt. R.A.C. produced a composite Squadron from the whole Regt. which, under Major D. H. Davies, acquitted itself well until the Regt. was re‑tanked and reorganised. This was some three weeks later after Lt.Col. H. H. K. Rowe had come back to them in replacement for Lt.‑Col. D. H. D. Courtenay who had become a casualty on 9 August.
About now the enemy front began to crumble and 153 Regt. R.A.C. on the left with 197 Infantry Brigade and 147 Regt.. R.A.C. on the right with 56 Infantry Brigade fought their way steadily forward. On 13 August the composite Squadron of 107 Regt. R.A.C. was in action again so that 147 Regt. R.A.C. could move across and take over from 153 Regt. R.A.C. On. 16 August 147 Regt. R.A.C. reported contact on the left with the Canadians at 1744 hours, and by then the FALAISE battle proper was in full swing on our left.
On 15 August 153 Regt. R.A.C. had their last fight. They had done some fine fighting in the last eleven days, constantly thrusting forward to create havoc in the enemy's rearguard positions (notably in actions around BOIS d'HALBOUT) but on that day 4 Armoured Brigade passed through them and took over the fighting while they were concentrated for disbandment. Manpower considerations at this time demanded reduction in R.A.C. units and 153 Regt. R.A.C. were the junior Armoured Regt. In exactly one month's fighting they had lost 19 Officers and 99 Other Ranks and 18 tanks in action. They had never failed to accomplish whatever task they were set and, up to the end of the North West European campaign, no harder fighting was ever performed by any of the five Regiments that fought in the Brigade than they carried out in Operation GREENLINE at BOUGY on the River ODON.
Simultaneously with their disbandment this Brigade was ordered to assume command of 7 R.T.R. and 9 R.T.R. from 31 Tank Brigade. 7 R.T.R. joined on 19 August after an 80 mile march on tracks from the EAST flank of Second Army by a most circuitous route.
By 19 August 147 Regt. R.A.C. had fought with 53 (Welsh) Division down to about 15 kilometres SOUTH EAST of FALAISE, i.e. beyond PIERREFITTE on the ARGENTAN road. This was the most southerly point ever reached by any part of the Brigade. On this day 147 Regt. R.A.C. were detached and put under 15 (Scottish) Division for the advance to the River SEINE, while the Brigade less 147 Regt. R.A.C. (i.e. 7 R.T.R. and 107 Regt. R.A.C.) came into XII Corps Reserve.
The disbandment of 153 Regt. R.A.C. made up casualties in the other three Regiments, so that when 7 R.T.R., 147 Regt. R.A.C. and 107 Regt. R.A.C. had been completed there was little left. One complete Squadron of 153 Regt. R.A.C. tanks and personnel, under Major E. C. Garner, was composed and sent bodily to 107 Regt. R.A.C. who, with this aid and that of the Forward Delivery Squadron, reorganised to War Establishment.
Losses in tanks in action for this latest advance amounted to 26 (9 of which brewed up) exclusive of the 22 lost at the River ORNE crossing by 107 Regt. R.A.C..
But, inevitably, as a result of recent continuous fighting, the total personnel casualties for the original three Regiments had increased considerably and stood on 20 August at:
Killed 20 Officers and 56 Other Ranks,.
Wounded 31 Officers and 224 Other Ranks.
Missing 0 Officers and 41 Other Ranks.
Total 51 Officers and 321 Other Ranks.
Total tanks 95 (42 totally brewed).
From 23 to 30 August 147 Regt. R.A.C., under command of 15 (Scottish) Division, moved up to and over the River SEINE below LES ANDELYS, where they liberated a village called FRESNE ARCHEVECQUE and sat down therein for weeks. They were not reunited to the Brigade until a month later when the latter came EAST again after the capture of LE HAVRE.
For 14 days the Brigade was grounded until moved forward on 4 September (now under the First Canadian Army) and over the River SEINE, collecting en route 9 R.T.R. (who passed to our command on 4 September), and through ROUEN to prepare to assault LE HAVRE.
Capture of LE HAVRE; investment of DUNKIRK; move to BELGIUM and HOLLAND
The Brigade, less 147 Regt. R.A.C., arrived on tracks from the area of FALAISE with two halts en route at BRIONNE, short of the River SEINE, and at YVETOT, between ROUEN and ANGERVILLE L'ORCHER. On arrival on 6 September the Brigade came under command of 49 (West Riding) Division, who were to assault LE HAVRE from the NORTH EAST and EAST while 51 (Highland) Division with 33 Armoured Brigade did the same from the NORTH.
Covered to landward by belts of minefields, which in places proved to be 800 yards deep, and fortified through years of enemy occupation with innumerable concrete redoubts and deep shelters, the fortress was ordered to hold out as a German bastion to the end of the war. The defence overprints were terrifying in their horrific detail. All true too, but what they did not show was the indifferent morale of the garrison which yielded, in three days of battle, 11,000 unwounded German prisoners‑of‑war of the German Army, Navy and Air Force.
Granted, no chances were taken by I Corps, and a terrific air bombardment preceded the attack of two British Infantry Divisions supported by Churchill and Sherman Brigades of tanks. More than a Brigade of 79 Armoured Division's Assault units of every kind and generous artillery supported the attack throughout, but even so the fighting was not comparable to any met elsewhere in the whole campaign. This account will, therefore, be brief.
56 Infantry Brigade (with 7 R.T.R.) broke through from the NORTH EAST while 146 Infantry Brigade (with 9 R.T.R.) cleared all enemy EAST of the River LEZARDE and 147 Infantry Brigade (with 107 Regt. R.A.C.) followed through 56 Infantry Brigade's gap. All three then cleared the Citadel, Town and Dock area because 51 (Highland) Division were halted in the FORET de M0NTGEON.
This was the only action fought by 7 R.T.R. with the rest of the Brigade (they were soon afterwards detached for DUNKIRK) and, as it happened, they played the most notable part in that they covered the main effort where the deepest minefields were breached by the greatest concentration of 79 Armoured Division's Assault Units, followed them through, covered the infantry assault and escorted the Squadron of Crocodiles in their cooking of redoubts and subdued such 88‑mm. guns as had the temerity to oppose the advance. The leading Squadrons lost 4 tanks on mines and 4 flails were also mined or knocked out on the evening of 10 September. Congestion in the serviceable gaps was acute the first night, so that two Squadrons spent the night with the foremost infantry. The turretless Honeys of their Recce Troop collected and carried back 157 personnel casualties through the gaps in the course of the night and re‑fuelled and re‑armed the forward Squadrons. Nothing but a tank could cross the mud and no Churchill could attempt to wriggle back through the traffic. 7 R.T.R. only lost 1 killed and 19 wounded.
The following day (11 September) all Regiments took part as the ring tightened, and on 12 September a single troop of 7 R.T.R. had the good fortune, aided by dash, of capturing the Garrison Cornmander, his whole staff and 400 prisoners. No infantry accompanied this troop of B Squadron, which raced ahead into the fort at 1130 hours and won the reward from the Corps Commander for the collection of WILDEMUTH himself.
The Brigade had 11 tank casualties (1 brewed up) ; 5 of these were on mines and the other 6 from 88‑mm. guns. Ammunition expenditure was phenomenal, casualties negligible, and success complete. After our previous experiences this type of war was quite a change.
Now began a very trying period of existence for the whole Brigade, except for its R.A.S.C Company who were whisked away, as was most of the units' first line transport, to keep the Armies going up in BELGIUM and HOLLAND at the end of the long Lines of Communication from NORMANDY. The Brigade as such was grounded and out of action. By 18 September, gathering 147 Regt. R.A.C. again into the fold, the four Regiments, Brigade H.Q. and Services were concentrated around the AUFFAY - St. SAENS area about midway between DIEPPE and ROUEN.
On 29 September began a strange movement of four Regiments. and a very large Delivery Squadron of Churchill tanks, whose silhouettes closely resembled haystacks. Around 300 Churchills rumbled up Northwards for 3 days, filled to capacity inside and piled high over the turret level with their first line ammunition. Unable to get our transport back, we obtained permission to trek as and how we could. We did, but the experience was, and we hope will remain, a unique one for the R.A.C.
At DESVRES, 10 miles EAST of BOULOGNE on 2 October the 7 R.T.R. left us to give a hand at DUNKIRK, which was then being contained by some units of 51 (Highland) Division, and shortly after the siege was begun under the Czech Armoured Brigade. Further details concerning 7 R.T.R. will occur later. From DESVRES the Brigade, less 7 R.T.R., completed one more day on their tracks before being lifted across Western BELGIUM on transporters to the EINDHOVEN area.
From the beaches of NORMANDY to the BELGIAN border on tracks is a long way for 40‑ton Churchills, very few of which were new, or anything like it, on D‑Day. The mileages covered by three tanks are given here to show what can be done, if it survives battle long enough, with a tank whose estimated total life in June 1944 was reckoned at 800 miles maximum without complete overhaul.
(a) Tank RAMILLIES of 147 Regt. R.A.C. 1680 miles
(b) Tank LION of 107 Regt. R.A.C. 1900 miles
(c) Tank IMPERATOR of 9 R.T.R. 1562 miles; knocked out in Reichswald battle
Since landing in NORMANDY no original tank in any of the four Regiments had done less than 500 miles on its tracks (including fighting) by the time it arrived in the area DESVRES‑St. OMER.
By 6 October the Brigade (less 7 R.T.R.) reached the EINDHOVEN area and returned, momentarily, to XII Corps, all Regiments going immediately into the line spread between St. OUDENRODE to HILVARENBEEK. The following day XII Corps moved NORTH and that front and the troops in the line came into I Corps and First Canadian Army Sector.
I Corps operations in EINDHOVEN area and flank protection of the Canadian advance from ANTWERP to STEENBERGEN.
From 6 October to 13 October the Brigade supported various Infantry Brigades of 51 (Highland) Division from the edge of EINDHOVEN up as far as St. OUDENRODE area with 9 R.T.R. and 107 Regt. R.A.C., while 147 Regt. R.A.C. assisted the ROYALS, who were extended on 16~ miles of (mostly canal) " front " from BEST to POPPEL. This slightly extended even the ROYALS and 147 Regt. R.A.C. acted as their mobile reserve. They did a little offensive prodding in the region of HILVARENBEEK without much result other than keeping the Boche on the jump and having that rather nice little place well and truly " stonked " in retaliation. By now Lt.‑Col. W. B. Blain had taken over 147 Regt. R.A.C. and Lt‑Col. A. W. Brown had gone to command 3 R.T.R. in 29 Armoured Brigade.
On 14 October the Brigade (less 7 R.T.R.) passed to the command of 49 (West Riding) Division and were pulled out and moved Westwards to between ANTWERP and TURNHOUT.
CLARKEFORCE operations cannot be described in full, but many place names given here will evoke memories in those for whom this history is written. CLARKEFORCE was formed on 17 October, and was composed of:
H.Q. 34 Armoured Brigade; 107 Regt. R.A.C.; 49 (WR) Div. Recce Regt; One troop Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (Crocodiles); D Company 1 Leicestershire Regt; One troop S.P. Anti‑tank battery, R.A.; Two Sections, R.E.; 191 Field Regt. R.A., (under command with O.C. acting as C.R.A's representative).
Placed under command later
7 Duke of Wellington's Regt.; 1/4 King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; Two troops S.P. Anti‑tank, R.A. (M 10s).
Its role was to launch through a gap, NORTH of St. LEONARD, to be made by 49 (West Riding) Division, advance Northward (in order to protect the right flank of the 4 Canadian Armoured Division) and to gain ground as a spearhead to 49 (West Riding) Division whose main bulk would follow up and take over as opportunity occurred. The Divisional Commander's briefing was wide in its terms and gave the O.C. Force the fullest freedom to operate over a generous area of country to the EAST of where the Canadians right flank was expected to move. Provided thrust was maintained he promised his fullest backing; in the event some desperate fighting ensued on the part of the Division purely in keeping open our Lines of Communication, and we never once had to look over our shoulder no matter what we by‑passed. The village of LOENHOUT, the area of STONE BRIDGE, WUESTWEZEL and the woods to the North of it all saw actions close behind CLARKEFORCE, but this did not involve the fighting part of it which could concentrate its energies on the main object. This was mainly due the speed with which the Force advanced.
It was in the woods to the North West of WUESTWEZEL that the 107 Regt. R.A.C. echelon vehicles were captured. They were eventually released after suffering casualties including the loss of their R.S.M., Mr Gregg, and several vehicles.
In the operations which took place CLARKEFORCE performed as envisaged, launching through a hole made by 9 R.T.R., supporting 56 Infantry Brigade, who speeded the Force with all possible help. Thereafter a somewhat tenuous Line of Communication connecting the Force and the rest of 49 (West Riding) Division was subjected to fierce counter‑attack from the EAST by enemy infantry and armour, and only maintained on 21 October by infantry from the following Brigade, supported by 147 Regt. R.A.C., fighting heavily all one day. Thus in Operation REBOUND (19 to 24 October) all the Brigade (less 7 R.T.R.) were heavily involved.
In Operation THRUSTER (26 to 29 October) the HALLAMS with 9 R.T. R. came up on the right flank of CLARKEFORCE and then 9 R.T.R. were used fully in capturing ROOSENDAAL; 147 Regt. R.A.C. operated even further EAST to cover their flank, under command 104 (Timberwolf) Division U.S. Army (who had come under I Corps for about a month and were having their initial blooding).
CLARKEFORCE existed for 12 days, and fought on nine of those days with its Armoured Regt. (107 Regt. R.A.C.) involved in two very exhausting and continuous spasms of five and four days. There were less than three non‑fighting days between in which some rest and real maintenance were possible, although in this pause two short moves had to be made and all planning and orders done for the second operation. The Regt. fought successful actions involving all its Squadrons at NIEUMOER, VIESSEHENHEUVEL and EAST of ESSCHEN in the first advance, and at BREMBOSCH, WARBERGSHE BRIDGE, COSTLAR and WOUW in the second drive forward. Early on it was found that the Recce Regt. could not lead, resistance never softening up enough, so that Churchills were used in the forefront of the advance after the first 24 hours. This helped to keep down the Recce Regt. casualties, which were serious enough in any case from the mines and enemy S.P. guns. This was a heavy strain on 107 Regt. R.A.C. but all had started fresh and morale was such at the finish after capturing WOUW that nothing would have seemed impossible to them.
The action of 147 Regt. R.A.C. referred to earlier took place NORTH EAST of WUESTWEZEL in BELGIUM and resulted in a litter of knocked out enemy S.P. guns ranging from an 88‑mm. JAGDPANTHER, several 105 mm, and numerous 75‑mm. S.P's on PzKW III chassis. Eighteen such enemy equipments were claimed by 147 Regt. R.A.C., and it is certain from inspection of the ground afterwards that many had been recovered by towing after being knocked out in action. After all action in the area had finished, and it was possible to check the lane of 34 Armoured Brigade's advance, no less than 13 enemy self‑propelled equipments, some field guns and a large miscellany of other enemy weapons were found to mark the path of 16 miles of advance and continuous fighting.
Our own losses totalled:
Killed 6 Officers, 25 Other Ranks.
Wounded 8 Officers, 55 Other Ranks.
Total personnel 95
Tank casualties 35 (14 totally brewed).
One notable tank casualty was a Mark VII of 9 R.T.R. which sustained nine direct hits in front from 75-mm. armour piercing projectiles at short range without being completely penetrated by any.
After these operations, whilst the infantry continued to clear right up to the banks of the River MAAS, along the dyke roads and over tank‑proof country, the Brigade was concentrated around LEUR and ROOSENDAAL for the whole of November, and training was carried out by all concerned. It was during this period of rest and training that it was possible to try to help out 7 R.T.R. at DUNKIRK.
SIEGE OF DUNKIRK (1 October, 1944 to 15 February, 1945).
The 7 R.T.R. joined the Brigade on 19 August 1944 and ceased to belong to it on 15 February, 1945.
Originally we were informed that a Regt. must be dropped off at DUNKIRK for a week or two to keep the Jerries quiet there. 7 R.T.R. needed a rest more than the others, although all were relatively fresh, so they were chosen. In the event they remained there for no less than 18 weeks, and had, at times, a very sticky life indeed. By Christmas time 1944 they had had 98 casualties to personnel, of whom 29 sick were serious cases admitted to hospital (mostly from exposure).
The Battalion took over the Western sector of the perimeter from the Ist Bn. Black Watch. On 7 October it took over as infantry and used very few tanks at first. Then it used more tanks and indulged in infantry‑cum‑tank attacks, only the ‘infantry’ were also tank personnel ; they killed a lot of Germans and took 28 prisoners‑of‑war and took several positions on one occasion. Finally Lt‑Col. A. R. Leakey, M.C. developed a strangely unorthodox, but highly efficient, technique and harried his opponents to no uncertain tune. He obtained a state of complete battle superiority over his sector with a most peculiar mixed force of British R.A.C., 25 French marines and a constantly varying number of Free French irregular " foot," supported by Czech field gunners and British Bofors Light A.A. Adaptability on this sticky wicket paid high dividends. General Lishka, commanding the investing forces, was very appreciative of the consistently successful operational antics of his Western sector.
Operations elsewhere prevented any relief of 7 R.T.R. until November when 147 Regt. R.A.C. sent a Squadron down to give some rest to the 7 R.T.R. crews who were by now undergoing considerable strain with the lengthening nights. It was intended to call on each of the three other Regts in turn, but it proved impossible to carry out this scheme as the Brigade was suddenly switched from HOLLAND to the GEILENKIRCHEN area of GERMANY, so that the visiting Squadron only did 4 days in the line before recall. Later a fourth fighting Squadron brought out from the United Kingdom and joined the 7 R.T.R., which proved a great relief to them. This Squadron, under Major E. G. A. Kynaston, remained with them until they ceased to belong to this Brigade, when it was turned into F Squadron of 49 Armoured Personnel Carrier Regt. (R.T.R.) under Lt.‑Col. N. H. King, who had left us on the disbandment of 153 Regt. R.A.C.
On 15 February, 1945, 7 RTR finally left 34 Armoured Brigade and, being taken over by Lt‑Col. R. B. P. Wood (now recovered from his wound), was turned into a Crocodile Regt. in 79 Armoured Division. Lt.‑Col. A. R. Leakey, M.C. went to command 5 R.T.R. in 22 Armoured Brigade.
HOLLAND (BLERICK); GERMANY (GEILENKIRCHEN); ARDENNES
On 24 November the Brigade (less 7 R.T.R. and 107 Regt. R.A.C.) came under command of XXX Corps for operations in GERMANY EAST of MAASTRICHT, and 107 Regt. R.A.C. came under XII Corps for the capture of BLERICK, opposite VENLO.
107 Regt. R.A.C. supported 44 Infantry Brigade of 15 (Scottish) Division in capturing BLERICK on 3 December. This was wholly successful for 107 Regt. R.A.C., whose only casualties were one Officer killed and one Officer and two Other Ranks wounded. One tank was damaged on mines and another capsized over an embankment. The Regt. rejoined the Brigade on 6 December and reverted to command.
By early December the Brigade was taking over from 8 Armoured Brigade and had two Regiments line‑holding in close support of 43 (Wessex) Division while Operation " SHEARS " was being planned. This was the first time the Brigade had found itself with the Division it knew best in the whole of second Army and with whom it had trained so intensively for a whole year in KENT. There was, therefore, much enthusiasm for the new set up, many reunions, and much line‑shooting and lie-swapping at all levels from Brigadiers to Troopers and Privates. Our 170 Company R.A.S.C. found itself providing a platoon of " 30 Corps Services Battalion”, and holding a sector of the foremost defended localities, " Panhandle " wood and its schu-minefield.
On 17 December, Operation SHEARS, designed to carry the line forward to the ROER River with the United States Army on our right fighting actually in the SIEGFRIED Line, was suddenly cancelled and 43 (Wessex) Division were replaced by 52 (Lowland) Division and pulled out of the line. We followed them two days later.
RUNDSTEDT was smashing forward in his initial success through the EASTERN ARDENNES, and a certain Operation VERITABLE was postponed. 43 (Wessex) Division were already studying this latter operation and planning for the second time. We were making a first acquaintance with maps showing a large forest called the REICHSWALD and receiving initial instructions from Major‑General G. I. THOMAS, C.B., D.S.O., M.C., on the larger plan.
By 19 December we were well into the American Zone and sitting behind the MEUSE from LIEGE to HUY under 43 (Wessex) Division at first, and later under the Guards Armoured Division in reserve. The weather was beginning to become seasonable at last, after we had experienced incredibly muddy conditions in our first period over the German border. There, in front of GEILENKIRCHEN, Churchills had been compelled to sit on platforms to avoid bogging in stationary positions. The Shermans of 8 Armoured Brigade, even with track extensions, had had a terrible time and the seas of fluid mud resembled PASSCHENDAELE in the last war.
Moving again SOUTH up the River MEUSE the Brigade left 9 R.T.R. with 51 (Highland) Division and it, after a brief sojourn in " flying‑ bomb- suburb” of LIEGE, moved forward to sit for a fortnight in the snow covered hills SOUTH WEST of that place. Through NAMUR to the DINANT area, now under 6 Airborne Division and in deep snow, the 107 and 147 Regts. R.A.C. went to RINNE and CELLE areas respectively.
By 2 January 1945, 147 Regt. R.A.C. was in the line in contact in the ROCHEFORT area and presently 107 Regt. R.A.C. moved off NORTH to support 53 (Welsh) Division around MARCHE.
By " moving " at this time it should he understood more endurance was often demanded of the tank crews than in many battles. Ten miles in 24 hours continuous effort was considered quite good going. Deep snow across country was friendly but when, as frequently occurred, tanks were forced on to a road, Churchills without ice‑bar tracks travelled in any direction as easily as curling stones on polished ice. Lateral communication to the now extended Regiments was completely impossible, they being extended over a front of more than 50 miles of Christmas‑card scenery, deep in snow. By now the German salient was steadily decreasing and BASTOGNE and St. HUBERT were losing their operational significance, and as soon as the issue was certain 30 Corps were shifted NORTH and Operation VERITABLE again became on.
The Brigade left the ARDENNES for EINDHOVEN concentration area on 22 January, but even getting out and back over the River MEUSE took some doing. Sliding down the hill into NAMUR and scrabbling up the other side to the waiting transporters took 107 Regt. R.A.C. the best part of 3 days. No loaded transporter could hope to ascend out of the valley, and 40 tons of tank toboggan take a little handling even with Eskimo crews. American traffic police, who witnessed, and endeavoured to control, this new form of winter sport, acquired considerable experience. With the invention, by the O.C. of our R.A.S.C. Company, of a device for rendering passable frozen slopes which were otherwise proof against movement by tanks, a new phrase the Fletcher Carpet came into our vocabulary. By sending convoys of his vehicles loaded with road metal and bales of straw to a main road hill hitherto impassable to tanks, they could get up or down it once a sandwich layer, straw‑road metal‑straw, had been laid. No other device was as efficient but one night of frost and the straw, turning brittle, vanished in chaff so that it was only of temporary use. Ice‑bars often failed bite deep enough on such very hard ice, which often defeated chains on wheeled vehicles whilst ordinary rubber treads got enough grip for traction.
Operation VERITABLE: the advance to the RHINE via REICHSWALD-BROEDERSBOSCH‑ALPON‑WESEL.
Operation VERITABLE was the name given to the plan of a major offensive by XXX Corps under First Canadian Army H.Q. (for the first part of the operation). It was designed to clear the area between the Rivers MAAS and RHINE from NORTH to SOUTH and formed the left claw of mightily successful pincer‑like destruction by British and U.S. Armies of German forces WEST of the RHINE. In fact Field Marshal B. L. Montgomery called it the " Battle for GERMANY."
Planning began as soon as all were concentrated around EINDHOVEN. With our recent arctic experiences in mind, no less than 700 tons of new “ice‑bar" track were fetched in and all tanks re‑shod. Fullest experiments were made for the prevention of the formation of packed ice on track plates. Turret lifting, with consequent wrecking of the segments of the ring, was so common in the ARDENNES as to be a very serious problem. When snow reached a certain temperature it was compressed to ice by the weight of the tanks and carried round by the tracks in such a way that it packed between the track and the turret. As events proved ice bar track was not required, turrets galore were lifted and jammed untraversable but due to other causes than snow. A great thaw set just before the offensive was launched (after the Brigade was completely snow‑camouflaged and packed like sardines behind the Canadian line at GROESBEEK). Clay and logs travelled around tracks to lift turrets despite stripper‑bar devices, mud ploughs and every other conceivable precaution.
At EINDHOVEN the 9 R.T.R. carried out intensive training in forest fighting tactics and night advances through bush, a. type of going reckoned as tank‑proof hitherto, with units of 53 (Welsh) Division, which was to stand them in good stead later.
107 Regt. R.A.C. tied up with 51 (Highland) Division for the capture and clearance of a part of the REICHSWALD Forest. They were to operate on the immediate right of 147 Regt. R.A.C. and 9 R.T.R., in support of 53 (Welsh) Division, who were allotted the bulk of the REICHSWALD. to capture.
The move of 53 miles to concentrate SOUTH of NIJMEGEN was made on tracks under cover of darkness and in one jump. Once arrived there security demanded no movement of personnel in daylight. Such congested conditions had not been experienced since the NORMANDY bridgehead days, where whole Regiments often sat down in one field. But the great difference now was it was intensely cold and frozen up, so that the tank crews found no hardship in unlimited sleep under cover and regular food at intervals, and were content to wait, knowing that something big was cooking for them just over the GROESBEEK hills in front only 3 miles away.
On 8 February tank crews standing by to cross a wide no‑man's‑land of mud and mines listened to five hours of music by more than 1,000 guns firing on the narrow XXX Corps front. Every calibre of shell from super heavy to Bofors 40‑mm. and " carpets " of rockets flew overhead, machine gun barrages were fired almost continuously and practically inaudibly. 8 Armoured Brigade fired stacks of dumped 75‑mm. ammunition in pepper pot activity in front of 51 (Highland) Division before joining the general advance elsewhere. No "journalese" description of the heartening effect on 147 R.A.C., teed up to open the ball, could overstate the experience.
The " going " was such that 79 Armoured Division units failed to cross the start line on 53 (Welsh) Division's front, and that area was soon jammed with bogged flails, AVsRE and Crocodiles. However, ordinary Churchills mostly got over 4,000 yards of atrocious going with relatively few casualties from mines, and 147 Regt. R.A.C. led their infantry right up to the edge of the forest, whose area is 8 miles long and varies from 3 to 5 miles wide. None of 147 Regt. R.A.C. tanks penetrated the forest until after 71 Infantry Brigade infantry had taken their final objective within the edge. One Squadron 9 R.T.R. passed through 147 Regt. R.A.C. and advanced with one of the battalions of 71 Infantry Brigade through the night. The remainder of 9 R.T.R. followed into the forest during the night. Next day the attack continued with the over‑running of the forest sector of the SIEGFRIED line defence. This was found to be not developed by the enemy as the forest was reckoned to be fully tank-proof.
For 6 days the battle continued without any noticeable pause until the forest was completely cleared. During that time 9 R.T.R. and 147 Regt. R.A.C. had no relief day or night, and Squadrons shrank steadily in numbers. Some tanks became bogged down to turret‑top level and had to be left for weeks as irrecoverable. Some tanks had turrets lifted either by mud or logs, or traverses wrecked by guns hitting trees, and these and other causes, including loss by direct action of the enemy, reduced the two Regiments to considerably less than one‑third of their initial strength.
One outstanding performance of 9 R.T.R. in the REICHSWALD must be recounted. During the night 8/9 February the Regiment, less one Squadron, carried out a fighting advance of 2,000 yards with 160 Infantry Brigade to capture the STOPPELBERG feature. This manoeuvre had been thought out and practised a fortnight previously. Moving on a single Squadron front, tanks crashed through areas of young plantation and were guided on foot where the trees were too solid to smash, but they arrived on the objective, up with their infantry, to whom their noisy movement had been comforting and helpful in traversing dense woodland full of disorganised enemy troops. The German Sector Commander, a full Colonel, was captured in the melee at first light and protested vigorously that such a use of tanks was " not fair”!
Meanwhile 107 Regt. R.A.C. supported 51 (Highland) Division but only with single troops once the infantry entered the forest, and never with the complete Regt. inside the forest itself. On the other hand this Regt. continued to be actively engaged for 20 days consecutively and was used to crack, and burst through, the SIEGFRIED line in a deep, fully developed area of bunkers and strong points covering GOCH. They continued to fight until the line stabilised momentarily when it had been carried well SOUTH of GOCH and 51 (Highland) Division came in to rest and 107 Regt. R.A.C. reverted to command of Brigade.
17 February was a notable day in that all three Regiments attacked in support of three different Divisions in line across the right of XXX Corps front as follows:
Right 9 R.T.R. supported 52 (Lowland) Division in a two‑Squadron attack in the BROEDERBOSCH;
Centre 107 Regt. R.A.C. supported 51 (Highland) Division on a one‑Squadron front in area HELVORST;
Left 147 Regt. R.A.C. supported 53 (Welsh) Division on a one‑Squadron front NORTH of GOCH.
The support of three Divisions in line like this simultaneously set the Commander of 34 Armoured Brigade a problem he never solved, although to be split in support of two Divisions over one attack was not unusual.
Tank casualties in forest fighting were as shown below and take into account only up to the night 17/18 February for 9 R.T.R. and 147 Regt. R.A.C., who, between them, cleared seven‑eighths of the forest.
Enemy Action. Other Causes.
Mined 6 Turret segments 13
H.E. shellfire 5 Mechanical failure 20
A.P. shellfire 2 Total clutch failure 3
Bazookas 4 *Bogged 32
Total 17 Total 68
Grand total for two Regts. 85 tanks.
*Note, it was estimated that 75 per cent of the tanks in the forest were bogged at one time so that this was only a small loss in proportion.
In addition to the above, 107 Regt. R.A.C. up till 21 February lost
Penetrated H.E. 2
Penetrated A.P. 1
Penetrated Bazooka 1
Total 10 tanks.
Personnel casualties were
Killed 3 Officers, 3 Other Ranks.
Wounded 9 Officers, 42 Other Ranks.
Total Casualties 57
Tanks of the Brigade knocked out the following:
2 JAGDPANTHERS; 1 75‑mm. S.P. gun on Mark IV chassis; 3 6‑inch guns; 8 105‑mm. field guns; 3 75‑mm. anti‑tank guns,
in addition to capturing intact four 105‑mm guns, serviceable in every way.
When 9 R.T.R. were withdrawn from the REICHSWALD they got 30 hours rest and were made up in tanks so far as stocks in the Forward Delivery Squadron permitted ; this produced B and C Squadrons each eleven tanks strong. The Regt., less A Squadron, proceeded down to the right flank below GENNEP to support 52 (Lowland) Division, who were to thrust down the EAST bank of the River MAAS and attack due Southwards through 51 (Highland) Division. This entailed fighting through the wooded BROEDERSBOSCH area (in all 4 miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide, mostly dense pine plantations 6 to 8 feet high). To the left flank lay enemy second line MAAS defences backed by swampy ground nearly all the way to GOCH, to the right the enemy first line of MAAS defences, a maze of trenches and mines.
32 Guards Brigade were attacking on the left but only to capture MULL, a short advance which in the event cost them heavy casualties, being overlooked and shocking bad going.
The action by 9 R.T.R. lasted for 3 days, 2 weak Squadrons being always kept in action.. On the second day A Squadron arrived with 6 tanks and was got into action to relieve C Squadron (who had lost 2 tanks the previous day and had been pulled back to re‑check up turrets as several were far from battleworthy). On the third day the attack was called off temporarily when our forward infantry positions were along the anti‑tank ditch covering KASTEEL BLIJENBEEK, by which time 5 tanks and one AVRE were knocked out and infantry casualties were proving costly. By this time about half of the wooded area was in our hands. The German Second Para Regt personnel were fighting very toughly and tried showers of panzerfaust against our forward tank troop at close range, but usually they went off against trees, fell short or over, although 2 tanks were brewed up by being thus hit in vital places.
By 19 February the 9 R.T.R. were pulled back and replaced by 147 Regt. R.A.C. brought down from the MALDEN area to take over the role of line‑holding reserve for a few days while this part of the front was allowed to relapse into relative quietude.
Meanwhile, the Forward Delivery Squadron, and Armoured Replacement Group behind it, were making great efforts to fill up the Regiments with tanks. In one day (22 February) of the 40 tanks recovered and standing in deep mud outside the Brigade Workshops in MALDEN no less than 35 had, after inspection, to be backloaded as beyond second line repair. Many were, in any case, worn out and had obviously to go back to Base Workshops. The results of the antics in the forests were felt for some time, in that turret ring segments, thought on first inspection to be alright, later developed distortion. Clutch wear was often very bad and all these minor troubles took some time to get right.
A lull now ensued on 52 (Lowland) Division front for a few days, KASTEEL BLIJENBEEK still holding out despite numerous attacks on it by air and artillery. Its immensely thick walls slowly subsided but its defenders appeared unmoved and sat firm surrounded by the flooded moat until they withdrew unobserved during the night of 28 February/1 March. About this time 52 (Lowland) Division took over more front to the left but it proved quite tank‑proof on account of swamp and in any case had been heavily mined and had to be slowly deloused by Royal Engineers on foot.
147 Regt. R.A.C. came under 1 Special Service Brigade (of Commandos) at mid‑day on 1 March and began to gallop the following day (2 March) and on 3 March the leading Squadron of 147 Regt. R.A.C. reached TWISTEDEN, SOUTH WEST of KEVELAER. On this day troops of XXX Corps and U.S. forces advancing towards them from the SOUTH met as the enemy withdrew to his RHINE bridgehead.
On 7 March the Brigade reverted to Corp's Command but were ordered to move forward through GELDERN to relieve 8 Armoured Brigade on 8 March after 52 (Lowland) Division had relieved 53 (Welsh) Division in that sector.
With Brigade H.Q. at ISSUM, 9 R.T.R. took over from 13/18 Hussars on the right and 147 Regt. R.A.C. took over from Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry on the left, on the perimeter WEST of ALPON around the bridgehead by which enemy paratroops were covering the WESEL bridge over the. RHINE.
On 10 March 9 R.T.R. attacked with 52 (Lowland) Division troops in compressing the perimeter and reached the road OSSENBERG‑XANTEN beyond ALPON. On 11 March 147 Regt. R.A.C. attacked and reached MENZELEN, (2 miles from the RHINE) but the enemy was pulling out or surrendering in large numbers all along the front, marching in under white flags. So the front line reached the WEST bank of the RHINE with forward troops looking across the wrecked bridge of WESEL.
On 12 March the Brigade was withdrawn and came into Second Army reserve, being moved WEST into HOLLAND across the River MAAS to SOUTH of VENLO, to lick its wounds and finish recovering from the early disorganisation caused by its unorthodox but successful efforts in knocking out the REICHSWALD PLUG on which the Northern defence of the RHINELAND between the RHINE and MAAS was based.
In the plan for completing victory Second Army was to advance with only three Corps forward. I Corps with two Armoured Brigades and various A.G'sR.A. were put in Army reserve. Events moved so quickly and the advance was so rapid that because (in the words of the Field Marshal) "the battle for GERMANY had been fought and lost by HITLER WEST of the RHINE," none of the Army reserve was ever called forward to fight again. The Commander of I Corps took over control of all the area between the MAAS and the RHINE in the British Sector, and through I Corps went VIII, XII, and XXX Corps in the RHINE crossing of 24 March.
On 3 April the Commander of I Corps ordered the Brigade to cross the RHINE and sit down in a large parish of many square miles, clear up the more attractive dangerous stores left by both Armies on the EAST of that river, maintain law and order and see to the safety of the Lines of Communication of the advancing British Second Army.
So 34 Armoured Brigade and its Services became pacifiers of a large territory beyond the newly established "RHINE Barrier Zone". Accordingly Headquarters moved to BOCHOLT and Regiments took over large areas and spread far and wide collecting huge quantities of all sorts of war material, policing roads, disarming gangs of Displaced Persons roaming about on revenge and plunder bent. 9 R.T.R. area spread well up into HOLLAND beyond WINTERSWYCK at this time, where celebration of liberation was the order of the day, and all cleansing activity was taken off their hands by enthusiastic free Dutch. 107 and 147 Regiments R.A.C. took over down to the boundary with the U.S. forces.
By 14 April the Brigade again moved forward some 40 miles to BURGSTEINFURT, on the same task, where it reigned over an area 50 miles by 40 miles, having taken over MUNSTER from the U.S. forces. VE‑Day, three weeks later, found us still there.
Total casualties in personnel (including those of 153 Regt. R.A.C., which only fought for one month before disbandment in NORMANDY) totalled just under 1,000 all ranks. But a careful check made 4 months after our last action showed a great decrease due to wounded either returned to their Regiments or known to have since recovered sufficiently to serve elsewhere. So that, allowing for optimism over convalescents, the final figures came down to :
Officers 43 killed and 38 seriously wounded
Other Ranks 199 killed and 402 seriously wounded
A total for all Regiments, Headquarters and Services of 682.
This is the figure for 8 months of fighting, and shows losses of four Armoured Regiments for that time (and for five when 7 and 9 R.T.R. were fighting in 31 Armoured Brigade in the ODON bridgehead and before 153 Regt. R.A.C. were disbanded).
Tank Losses in Action.
Total losses, reckoned on all Regiments on the same basis as casualties (i.e. 4 Regiments and 153 Regt. R.A.C) were 272 Churchill tanks. Of these 85 brewed up in action, but undoubtedly a very high proportion of the other 187 were recovered subsequently and fought again after some degree of repair.
Some 300 (odd) tanks were supplied through the Forward Delivery Squadron, but this does not include the heavy replacement necessary for 7 and 9 R.T.R. prior to joining 34 Armoured Brigade. In personnel, from 5 July, 1944 to VE‑Day, 129 Officers and 1,870 Other Ranks passed through the same unit in replacement of casualties, temporary or permanent ; this figure includes unhorsed crews awaiting fresh tanks, but does not include supply to 7 and 9 R.T.R. while in 31 Armoured Brigade.
So much for the cost of our journey from the NORMANDY bridgehead to the EAST bank of the RHINE.
It was a fairly long journey, although not comparable to that of many others who had fought and travelled for years since ALAMEIN. Most of it was done on our own tracks and only a relatively short distance on transporters. Within 5 months of going into action for the first time on 15 July 1944, we fought in four countries and in support of seven different Infantry Divisions. This included being grounded for a fortnight in September after the capture of LE HAVRE, and the month of November in HOLLAND clear of any fighting, apart from 7 R.T.R. who were laying siege to DUNKIRK.
The Brigade had never been armed with any tank but the Churchill for the whole of its life, starting with Mark Is and Mark IIs, with their two‑pounder main armament, in the winter of 1941/42. We saw our tanks surmount their mechanical teething troubles and grow to man's estate, as then reckoned, in the Mark III, with its six‑pounder gun, and so forward in improvement until we proudly counted our relatively few Mark VIIs with their thicker armour when we left the United Kingdom. On leaving the UK each Regiment had twenty-two 6-pdr tanks, kept to have the benefit of DS (Discarding Sabot) ammunition for use against enemy tanks. This provision applied to the original units of 34 Brigade when they reached France, but 31 Brigade (7 and 9 RTR) were almost entirely converted to the 75 mm gun.
We fought throughout with a mixture of:
Mark III (increased armour welded on to ordinary Mark III with 6‑Pdr. Gun).
Mark IV (75‑mm. gun converted from free elevation to geared).
Mark V (95‑mm. gun Close Support ‑ 2 tanks per Squadron).
Mark VI (75‑mm. built as such).
Mark VII (75‑mm. built as such with thicker armour).
The Churchill was a tank that demanded hard work from its crews, but it could take a great deal of punishment and was a magnificent performer across all kinds of country. Although the main armament was always inferior to that of its opponents, Churchill crews would not have wanted to fight in any other tank.
On 8 May, 1945‑VE‑Day‑salutes were fired all over the area, in most cases from the highest point available such as the pinnacle on which stands the Schloss Bentheim (9 R.T.R.). We were now under command 51 Medium Regt. R.A., who came up from ITALY on the GOLDFLAKE scheme and who made sure that noise in our part of WESTPHALIA was not lacking.
Just ten days after VE‑Day came the news that the Brigade was to go to S.E.A.C. (South East Asia Command) ; with a considerably changed face it is true, but 34 Armoured Brigade was going EAST. This news caused much frantic checking of Age and Service Group numbers ‑ the under 27's stayed in NORTH WEST EUROPE, but the rest . . . . .
The plan was that we should reorganise in EUROPE with five Regiments; 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards, 4 R.T.R, 1 Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, 107 Regt. R.A.C. and 49 Armoured Personnel Carrier Regt , but take only three into battle against the Jap, for 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards were to go to an Indian Armoured Division, 49 Armoured Personnel Carrier Regt. were to strip off on arrival in S.E.A.C. and even 1 Fife and Forfar Yeomanry were to have left us in the United Kingdom where we should have received in exchange 1 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars. This question of a spell of training in the United Kingdom was the only consolation to the over 27's.
While this news was being fed to us in small and digestible doses, Regiments were fully employed in clearing up the battlefield. This proved to be quite an exacting task and, to ensure that we didn't do more damage to the countryside than had been done in war, the powers that be sent down a team of experts in the shape of No. 7 Enemy Ammunition Depot Control Unit (Mobile Section) to show how to dispose of vast quantities of every type of ammunition with reasonable safety. For months afterwards NORTH WESTPHALIA was lit day and night by burning cordite and our days were punctuated by explosions from the local quarries. Countless tons of explosives were disposed of thus, to the delight of small German boys and senior officers alike.
Pretty soon, however, our attention was diverted from this light-hearted pastime to the more serious business of making ready for war again. By the end of June the four newcomers had joined the Brigade leaving only 107 Regt. R.A.C. as a name which we knew of old. 9 R.T. R. and 147 Regt. R.A.C. had, however, left behind them their S.E.A.C. eligibles in exchange for those in early release groups in 107 Regt. R.A.C. and 4 R.T.R. 147 Regt. R.A.C. disbanded in October after living for a while on the border of the Russian Zone, and 9 R.T.R. disbanded in December after a period at WUNSTORF.
This was a sad time for those of us who had been with the Brigade all through, for even 107 Regt. R.A.C. was not quite the unit we had known, comprising as it now did one Squadron made up of ex-147 Regt. R.A.C. personnel and the 153 Regt. R.A.C. Squadron which it had acquired in FRANCE. This business of personnel swapping was not peculiar to 107 Regt. R.A.C. alone; besides the interchange between 4 RTR and 9 RTR, 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards and 1 Fife and Forfar Yeomanry took in personnel from 30 Armoured Brigade (79 Armoured Division).
Many members of the Brigade Headquarters staff and Squadron changed and went on changing, for the whole formation had to be 100 per cent. S.E.A.C. eligible. Of newcomers our Brigade-Major, Major Peter Gohns M.B.E., alone did a good long spell. Thus it will be seen that we were still 34 Armoured Brigade in name but in very little else except our tanks. Even in this we were reorganised on to a one‑third Crocodile basis in each Churchill Regt. This advent of Crocodiles, and the conversion of 4 R.T.R. from Buffaloes to Churchills necessitated a period of' intense training. To this end a Brigade School was founded in the Prohibited zone along the EAST side of the Dutch frontier NORTH of GRONAU. This task was taken on by 7 Forward Delivery Squadron who passed more than 600 students through the mill of intensive training chiefly in Flame, but, to a lesser extent, also in Driving and Maintenance, Wireless, and Stuart and Churchill conversion courses.
4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards, 4 R.T,R. and 107 Regt. R.A.C. trained on and shot over the TRUPPENUBUNGSPLATZ at PADERBORN, a magnificent area at that time with plenty of Panthers Tigers and other attractive ready‑made targets all over it. 1 Fife and Forfar Yeomanry shot at FALLINGBOSTEL near the notorious BELSEN camp.
The Brigade was still in the process of settling down and unit Seconds‑in‑Command and other officers kept changing around in units; even one Commanding Officer left us, Lt‑Col. H. H. K. Rowe being succeeded by Lt.‑Col. R. H. Taite (our Brigade Major in June 1944).
On 15 August, 1945 (VJ‑Day itself) a diverting and somewhat mysterious event occurred. Almost overnight 1 Fife and Forfar Yeomanry was snatched from among us and roared away on wheels to BRUSSELS for Operation " CORONET," an operation which was to take them to PACIFIC Isles or the JAPAN homeland via the U.S.A. No sooner had they arrived in BELGIUM than the order was cancelled. They spent a few days in BELGIUM by way of compensation, and within a week had crawled back to their old haunts in TECKLENBURG KREIS. The reason for this strange behaviour was occasioned by the momentous announcement from the other side of the world that atom bombs had finished the Jap, but this news only reached us some hours after the last Fife and Forfar vehicle had left GERMANY.
The coming of VJ‑Day brought with it in time the inevitable announcement that all our reorganisation had been in vain, for S.E.A.C. no longer wanted us. Undismayed, we turned our minds again to cleaning up GERMANY and ceasing to be lodgers with our erstwhile landlady, 76 A.A. Brigade, we divided the area with them on a basis of equality. In the course of time we were reduced to the shape of an occupational Brigade and, having cast off our operationally Far‑Eastern outlook, we acquired the new and wholly necessary vestments of Education and Welfare. We had fitted ourselves for war not once but twice, and now we set our minds to the tasks and pastimes of peace.
With a background of patrols, house‑checks, automatic arrests and V.P. guards we started all forms of athletic training in earnest and towards the end of the summer our efforts culminated in two athletic meetings, Swimming and Field and Track events. The enthusiasm aroused by these meetings was terrific and every unit in the Brigade entered teams to compete for the honour of winning the home‑made shields produced by our R.E.M.E. Workshops.
As the evenings grew shorter our minds turned to other field sports and the countryside echoed with the cries of oddly clothed shooting parties bent on their sport and on supplementing the rations which were to be reduced to the " Home Service Ration Scale "; but this shooting was to become a more serious business than mere sport with the advent of Operation BUTCHER, an operation designed to fill the German civilian larder with the carcasses of buck so that the Battle of the Winter in GERMANY might the more easily be won. Lt‑Col. N. H. King, D.S.O., M.C., was appointed gamekeeper in chief and he organised some really scientific slaughter to achieve the task which had been set him in record time. This particular operation came to an end in due course and the sport rather than the business of shooting came to the fore again.
The even tenor of our existence was shattered for the second time since VE‑Day by our being called upon to provide reinforcements of eligible Age and Service Groups for 7 Armoured Division, who were to be re‑modelled in such away as to remain unmoved, for a considerable time, by the release scheme and its acceleration. In all we lost some 900 officers and men for whom we took into the fold in exchange an equivalent number of 7 Armoured Division " types."
Now, as these last words go down in our history, we know that we are about to vanish completely. 49 Armoured Personnel Carrier Regt. has departed from among us, disbanded, and their officers and men have dispersed to the four corners of the earth. 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards are to leave us soon for the Near East. 4 R.T.R. will be moving to ITALY when they are good and ready, which won't be long. 1 Fife and Forfar Yeomanry are becoming the Recce Regt. to 51 (Highland) Division. To 107 Regt. R.A.C. falls the fate of disbandment. And Headquarters won't be long behind.