While the Churchill tanks of the 7th and 9th Royal Tank Regiment were engaged in the bitter struggle of the Normandy bocage, the 8th RTR were returning to the fight in Italy. They had been out of the main Allied offensives for the last 18 months, stationed in Palestine and Syria. In that space of time the war had moved on remarkably. When they returned to the front line in Italy they were re-equipped with Sherman tanks.
Although the petrol driven Sherman had been given the nickname ‘Ronson’, because of it’s propensity to catch fire when hit, the men who fought in it nevertheless saw it as a great improvement on what they had perviously been equipped with. Tank commander Stuart Hamilton gives a good account of its capabilities:
There could hardly have been a greater contrast between war in the Desert and the war in Italy – totally different terrain, tanks and tactics.
In the Desert we had the Valentine tank which was small, slow, had only a three-man crew and was armed with a piddling little 2-pdr popgun: in Italy however we had the Sherman which was fast as it could crack along at 25-30 mph, it had a five-man crew which meant that the tank commander could at long last do his job properly, and, above all, it had a superb 75mm gun which was very accurate and could fire a 15lb shell some six-and-a-half miles and its 15lb solid armour-piercing shot could do real damage to the German tanks at last.
In addition it had two .30 Browning machine-guns, another .50 Browning machine-gim on the tank commander’s cupola ring and a 2″ mortar on the side of the turret.
In a Squadron of 16 tanks one had therefore 16 x 75mms; 32 x .30 machine-guns; 16 x .50 machine-guns and 16 x 2″ mortars which was really quite some fire power in those days.
It did, however, have two drawbacks, the first of which was its height as the top of the turret was some 11 feet off the ground. It was not easy therefore to conceal oneself behind hedges or underneath trees, in fact we were rather apt to stick out like a sore thumb. The other disadvantage was that the armour was pretty thin as it was only about two-and-a-half inches thick and as we were sitting on about 100 rounds of 75mm – mostly high explosive – and 90 gallons of petrol – and up to 5,000 rounds of .30 Browning machine-gun ammo – well, we were like a travelling incinerator. The German anti-tank guns could easily penetrate it at long range but it was extremely reliable and we loved it after the Valentine.
We continued moving up closer to the sharp end and on one occasion when we were fairly close we were asked to help some infantry who were being harassed by very accurate shooting from German guns and mortars. They said that the German OP (Observation Post) together with some 81mm mortars were right up forward but that the 25-pdrs of ours had not been able to knock them out. They imderstood that the Sherman 75mm’s were meant to be very accurate (which they were) and hoped that we might be able to do something about this.
I was told to see what I could do to help them so I went up to their front line positions, carefully marked out where the mortar positions were on my map, and in particular the enemy OP. He was called ‘the man in the cage’ because it was a hole on a forward slope of ground, surrounded with rocks and well camouﬂaged with nets, lattice work, etc. and very difficult to hit with artillery.
I reported back to our RHQ and it was arranged that I should take a half-Squadron, i.e. two Troops of tanks, my own and a support tank, making a total force of eight, and move up forward and to go and deal with this. We moved up to about 800-1,000 yards behind the infantry positions and I moved further forward still and got Lance-Corporal Shapcott, my gunner, to range on the target. He was a damn good gunner and, after having bracketed it, his fourth or fifth shot appeared to be a direct hit and when he repeated his aim I said, “that’s it.” (The Sherman 75mm was extraordinarily accurate and one could put a round through the window or down through the door of a ’casa’ at a good range – something the 25-pdrs couldn’t do).
I had been carefully calibrating and calculating each shot and passing on the range and degrees, etc. to the other tanks, who had previously calibrated onto my ‘master’ gun, and, having said “that’s it” I then gave the order for five rounds gun fire. As one we all let rip and some 40 shells plastered the position and we completely obliterated it. After that I gave the order for independent fire and the eight of us ranged all over the area shooting up the marked mortar positions, hedges, ditches, buildings, etc. giving the Jerries a really good pasting before moving back.
The infantry CO ‘phoned up later to congratulate us saying that they were highly delighted with the result of the shoot as we had certainly knocked out ‘the man in the cage’ because some time later a German half-track ﬂying a Red Cross symbol had gone to ‘the cage’ obviously to pick up casualties. We appeared to have demolished the mortar positions as well and we seemed to have shaken the Jerries alright as things were very much quieter all round and he couldn’t have been more pleased with us.