9th Royal Tank Regiment – Death at Maltot

Churchill Tanks on manoeuvres in Britain, October 1942 The crew of an A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade, Churchill Mk II tank on the turret discussing plans of operations round a map.

Churchill Tanks on manoeuvres in Britain, October 1942
The crew of an A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade, Churchill Mk II tank on the turret discussing plans of operations round a map.

Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade in line abreast wait to move off as squadron leaders and tank commanders discuss operations in the foreground.

Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade in line abreast wait to move off as squadron leaders and tank commanders discuss operations in the foreground.

Just as the battle for the capture of Caen was dying down Montgomery launched another tank attack from the British sector. Operation Jupiter was designed to keep the German Panzer forces fully engaged and prevent more of them being transferred across to the American sector. The combined infantry and tank attack was to confront three SS Panzer Divisions – which had just been re-enforced by the 502 SS Heavy Tank Battalion, the Tiger battalion of II SS Panzer Corps, arriving from Holland. The British Cromwell tanks of 9 RTR were to suffer badly this day.

Extract from the diary of Captain John Hodges, 9th Battalion Adjutant:

Major Douglas Ballantine also died of wounds on this day. I heard his last message over the wireless saying, quite cheerfully, that his tank had been hit three times and that he was trying to get through the hedge into the orchard. He then dismounted to talk to his Reconnaissance Officer, Ronnie Kirby, and the CO of the 7th Hampshires.

While they were talking there was a very heavy bout of mortaring and Douglas was wounded in the head and chest, and both his legs were broken. At this stage tanks were on fire all around and the counter-attack started to come in. Douglas was in a ditch with two of his crew, Paddy Murphy and Bill Quinn. Bill says that he was gradually getting weaker and weaker but kept on trying to help his tanks to get back out of it. All this time the place was being swept by machine gun and mortar fire. Bill went to find the Infantry Medical Officer but he had been killed. Bill managed to get blankets and a ground sheet to make Douglas as comfortable as possible but it was obvious that he could not last long unless help arrived very quickly.

After about an hour of this Douglas sent Bill and Paddy away saying there was nothing they could do for him and that they must save themselves. At this time the counter-attack was almost on top of them. He was hardly conscious at this stage. Bill made several attempts to move him but it was too painful for him and their position was pretty hopeless. Bill and Paddy managed to get away and joined up with several more de-horsed crews and crawled back towards the start line through the corn.

At this stage about three-quarters of A Squadron had lost their tanks and were trying to get back one way or another. The Padre and our own ambulances made repeated attempts to get forward to the Squadron and succeeded in picking up about 12 men, but the position was impossible. Later in the day when C Squadron attacked there must have been a good number of our men still about the area who would have come under our own artillery barrage. For days we tried to reach the place to recover the tanks and see what was left but it was not until 8th August that we were finally able to do so. Then we recovered and buried nineteen bodies from the burnt out tanks and buried them together with Douglas at Eterville.

We knew Douglas had died because an Infantry Officer who got back brought in his identity discs and told us that he had died the same day (10th July). When we got there on 8th August, Douglas had been buried by the Infantry but we brought him back with the rest of his Squadron. We found his notebook in his pocket with his name written on it. Later we heard that at least three complete crews had been taken prisoner. Of these Frank Quinn was taken to hospital in Paris and when the Germans fled, he hid in a cupboard until the Americans found him.

Front view of a Churchill tank (Saurian) of A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade. The tank commander surveys the land through his binoculars.

Front view of a Churchill tank (Saurian) of A Squadron, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade. The tank commander surveys the land through his binoculars.

Recollections of Ray Gordon, wireless operator in Sgt. Jock Smith’s tank, 2 Troop, A Squadron.

The worst day for A Squadron was at Maltot on the 10th July. We were moving across a field of yellow rape and through my periscope I could see tank after tank stop and catch fire although there were no signs of German tanks firing. One began to feel uneasy and the constant sound of small arms fire against the turret made us realise that things were going to be tough. Ted Spight from one of the brewed up tanks appeared just in front of us looking very dazed so we opened up a pannier door and laid him on the tool box behind the driver.

Soon afterwards we were hit and “Iceni” rocked to a standstill. The interior of the turret suddenly became intensely hot, a dry scalding heat. I kept my eyes shut shielding my face with my hands. The left hand was not wearing the leather gauntlet glove with which we were issued, the right hand had a glove on. After seemingly minutes, but it can only have been a very short period, I stood up and pushed open my turret hatches.

We were yelling and I tried to release the clip which held the bag for holding the empty shell cartridges, but it jammed and could not be budged. I tried to do this in order that both Jock and Dickie could move over to my side of the turret in order to get out because Jock could not open his cupola flaps as shortly before we were hit something had struck the top of the turret and jammed it shut. I pulled myself out of the turret and fell over the side hitting the tracks and toppled on to the ground.

As I laid there I could see a large hole slightly forward of the turret (I believe it was an ’88’ shot) and flames started coming out of the turret together with the sound of exploding ammunition. The dreadful cries of my crew trapped in “Iceni”, even now nearly 50 years later, occasionally return to remind me of the horror of the 10th July 1944. To my everlasting sorrow I was unable to help even one of those young men with whom I had lived in intimate contact – that was part of a tankman’s life when in action.

My face became swollen and very tight making it difficult to see and the skin of my left hand hung down in black strips from an arm which was bloodless and white. Lieutenant Shep Douglas, my troop leader, crawled along the field. “Who are you” he said, not recognising one of his own troop to whom he had given orders earlier that morning. I followed him across the field of rape, crouched low because we could hear gunfire, to a gap in the hedgerow where infantry were in position.

The look of horror on their faces which changed to looks of pity when they saw me will remain for ever in my mind. It is a look which I would never want to inflict on another human being. I was helped to a medical truck, given an injection and that was the end of the 10th July for me.

From the original account of the history of the 9th Royal Tank Regiment, which includes the original War Diary for this period and other accounts.

Trevor Greenwood whose diary was featured on 30th June also has an excellent account of the confusion in battle on this day. See Trevor Greenwood: D-Day to Victory: The Diaries of a British Tank Commander

Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade firing from cover.

Churchill tanks of A and B Squadrons, 43rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 33rd Brigade firing from cover.

A Churchill tank of 51st Royal Tank Regiment, moving through the undergrowth during an advance across the Italian countryside.

A Churchill tank of 51st Royal Tank Regiment, moving through the undergrowth during an advance across the Italian countryside.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: