Normandy – a close encounter with Panzers

REME troops with their Diamond T 969A Wrecker working on a disabled Universal Carrier in the centre of Cahagnes, 2 August 1944.

REME troops with their Diamond T 969A Wrecker working on a disabled Universal Carrier in the centre of Cahagnes, 2 August 1944.

Sexton self-propelled gun moving up towards Escoville during Operation 'Goodwood', 18 July 1944.

Sexton self-propelled gun moving up towards Escoville during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18 July 1944.

Sherman tanks advancing towards Vire, Normandy, 2 August 1944.

Sherman tanks advancing towards Vire, Normandy, 2 August 1944.

Carriers, motorcycles and other transport prepare to cross the River Souleuvre in their advance towards Vire, 2 August 1944.

Carriers, motorcycles and other transport prepare to cross the River Souleuvre in their advance towards Vire, 2 August 1944.

A Sexton 25-pdr self-propelled gun, carriers and jeeps move forward south of Caen, 1 August 1944.

A Sexton 25-pdr self-propelled gun, carriers and jeeps move forward south of Caen, 1 August 1944.

As the US forces burst out of the south of the Cotentin Peninsula, led by George S. Patton, the British forces were still edging forward, hard up against the Panzer forces that still contained the east of the Normandy battlefield.

Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill describes the situation as the the British forces pushed forward into the German lines. He was the senior NCO of a battery of Sexton self propelled guns. Twice on the 3rd August he abandoned the relative security of the the gun positions and went forward on foot to investigate the position in front. It was for these actions that he was awarded the Military Cross. His account gives a sense of how confusing the battlefield could be:

This position was to be one of the most (if not the most) precarious of positions we had occupied since Operations Epsom and Goodwood. We stayed the night there in some trepidation, deep in enemy territory, literally surrounded by roaming German tanks and infantry.

At 1025 hrs I was informed that enemy tanks were very close and my right section of ‘E’ and ‘F’ gun subsections were withdrawn from an indirect firing role to take up anti—tank positions, shortly to be joined in that role by both ‘Charlie’ and ‘Don’ Troops, such was the imminent danger. We also formed ourselves into some loose infantry sections, although what we were supposed to achieve is questionable since we had no infantry or anti-tank weapons.

Moreover, a Sexton self-propelled gun is not an ideal anti—tank weapon because of its limited traverse. Half of the gun teams crouched low below the sides of the Sextons, whilst the other half dismounted to take up observation positions on the ground, their role to give early warning of approaching tanks or marauding infantrymen.

It was reported that enemy tanks were as near as 200 to 300 yards away, but the close country was such that we couldn’t see them. The guns were loaded with armour-piercing shot, which was a solid lump of metal about the size of a large family loaf, but we were apprehensive. A Sexton was not built for a tank-to—tank battle and the odds would certainly be against us if we actually had to engage in such an affair.

The weather was hot and sunny, with a clear blue sky, and our gun position was in a part of Normandy that would have been idyllic in more peaceful times. The countryside undulated with both high and low crests. The whole was made up of small fields and copses, bounded by narrow lanes, on top of which were thick hedges, so emphasizing a tunnel-like effect, especially in cloudy weather. The quiet country roads were mostly no more than lanes in between fields.

During the first few hours the situation around us was critical, as we expected at any moment to be attacked by tanks, or infantry, or both, but it did not prevent us from engaging in some quick, but intense, shoots.

At 1315 hrs, the Battery was ordered out of its anti—tank role, with the exception of the two right—hand guns that were facing up the lane towards Point 218. Minutes later, at 1325 hrs, the Battery Captain, Captain Peploe, located three Panzer Mk VI (Tiger) tanks nearby and engaged them with our guns firing high—explosive shells. Unfortunately, there was one casualty in this affray (Gunner Beardesley) who was wounded.

Around this time, the regimental despatch rider, came chugging down the lane towards us on his motorcycle. Heaven knows where he had been since his approach was directly from the enemy—held positions. He came to report that the lane seemed to be clear of the enemy (information that proved to be incorrect), but that he had spotted a burning Sexton belonging to some other unit beyond the crest in front of us, and he thought there were some wounded men lying out there.

We decided that the Sexton belonged to the Leicester Yeomanry of the Guards Armoured Division, who were known to be somewhere out on our left flank. For reasons that have always escaped both of us, Lieutenant John Alford and myself either volunteered, or were ordered, to investigate this situation, with a view to rendering some assistance to the wounded.

We were three abreast, shoulder to shoulder — I was in the middle, John on my left and the despatch rider on my right. Then I heard the crackle of a machine gun and the hissing and whistling of bullets. The despatch rider, close to my right shoulder, was hit in the head, killing him instantly. John and I instinctively jumped to our left towards the thick hedge (later reported to be impenetrable) that separated the field from the lane, and forced our way through it, landing in a heap at the foot of the earth bank. Breathlessly we took stock, relieved to discover that we had not been hit.

See E A Powdrill: In the Face of the Enemy: A Battery Sergeant Major in Action in the Second World War.

Royal Scots Fusiliers, supported by Churchill tanks, push forward towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.

Royal Scots Fusiliers, supported by Churchill tanks, push forward towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.

Churchill tanks carrying infantry advance towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.

Churchill tanks carrying infantry advance towards St Pierre Tarentaine, 3 August 1944.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor August 16, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Ed

Many thanks for the support, which is a great encouragement.

Martin

Ed callahan August 16, 2014 at 7:36 pm

I love your site! As the son of a D-Day army vet I really have to thank you for having done such a good job .This is the most informative site I have ever seen on the web…I look forward to your daily postings,and am devouring everything you have up.As a serious student of the history of ‘my fathers war’,I have to say you have done us all a great service through your efforts. THANK YOU!

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