Charles Martin was the Company Sergeant Major of A Company the Queens Own Rifles of Canada, a unit that had been together since 1940. They had landed on D-Day and had been in action several times since. The end of June and beginning of July found them dug in, prepared to receive German counter attacks.
At this point in his memoirs Martin devotes a chapter to describing in detail the business of the infantryman in the field, not merely the existence in foxholes and slit trenches but the active pursuit of the enemy by going out on patrol. These might either be “for information” – the snatching of a prisoner or they they might be intended to draw the enemy’s fire so as to reveal his positions. For each Martin would be careful in his selection of the small team of men who were best suited to the task.
An “information patrol” was best conducted at night:
Leaving the start point, we’d roll out the white tape as we advanced and pull it back as we returned. This meant if we found our way through the mines on the way out, we’d have the same safe trail coming back. If the enemy opened ﬁre, real problems could develop in darkness. You could easily lose direction. So the tape was our lifeline.
In darkness, time and distance become difficult to read. You could have gone right through the enemy line; they were excellent in deception, camouflage and a whole variety of defensive tricks.
Trip wires, for example, could set off a ﬂare. Then there was the danger of panic. It was necessary to train our men to “freeze.” Only movement can be seen. A man frozen motionless, particularly if next to a tree, is virtually invisible. Don’t flop — unless the enemy opens up. Frozen silent in the ghostly ﬂare, black face, muffled weapon, no helmet — a helmet looks just like a helmet and can cause a rattle – there’s every chance a man will not be spotted or will even look to the enemy like a stump or part of the terrain.
In such events, you’d be very glad of the time in daylight that had been spent studying the situation. It was always wise to impress upon your mind, in advance, how the general area appeared in daylight, and to remember it well during the black- ness.
A prisoner patrol demanded other skills from our men. In some types of action prisoners might give themselves up fairly easily. But in Normandy the enemy had orders to defend and maintain their position. That meant hard resistance, especially in this type of face-to-face or hand-to-hand combat.
So if we were out to capture a prisoner it meant ﬁrst of all penetrating the enemy line. We had to take great care in our preparation: running shoes, no loose clothing to catch on anything, dark faces, no identiﬁcation papers, just dog tags, Sten guns, knives, garrotte and grenades. Our weapons would be wrapped in cloth – no accidental noises.
Eventually, as the patrol progressed, you’d locate your target — say, two men in a slit trench. Then perfect, patient and silent teamwork is required. All three of us would freeze and wait. As time passes, maybe hours, one of the enemy will move out of the trench — maybe for a stretch, maybe a latrine call. Number two takes him out. At the same time number three moves on the other, still in the trench. Number one man is ready with his Sten gun to cover the situation overall.
It was at this stage that our training back in England became so important to us. Courses in judo, knife ﬁghting and the garrotte proved to be vital to us. Patrols are not for the faint-hearted; a split second and a wrong move can mean death. We were trained to live.
So the actual practice requires that number two moves silently and quickly, knife in hand, on the soldier leaving the trench. The slightest sound will mean death to the patrol. A knife to the man’s kidney instantly paralyzes his vocal cords; number two’s other hand will catch soundlessly the falling rifle. Then a quick slash across the throat. Number three man, in the same moment, is in the trench guaranteeing a prisoner who will live by the quick use of the garrotte. The enemy soldier loses consciousness with- out a gasp. Then a ﬁreman’s lift and back to the start point. Prisoner delivered; objective achieved.
If all has gone well, number one has done nothing except stand around with his Sten gun. That’s a perfect result because shooting is the last thing we want. This is why a prisoner patrol is the toughest of all, and why a shoot-’em-up draw-fire patrol with Brens, Piats and grenades is something of a contrast…