Irish Guardsman takes on battalion of Panzer Grenadiers

Surrendering German civilians pass a Churchill tank of 6th Guards Tank Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.

Surrendering German civilians pass a Churchill tank of 6th Guards Tank Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Armoured Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Armoured Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.

Of the six Victoria Cross awards to the Irish Guards, two were earned in the Second World War. Both were for single handed attacks against large groups of German troops, one with a Bren Gun, the other with a Browning machine gun. In the first John Kennealy survived to go on to write a memorable autobiography. In the second Edward Charlton, after the not inconsiderable feat of removing the Browning from a burning Sherman tank, carried on fighting even though he lost his left arm – and he did not survive to tell the tale:

No. 1 Squadron and No. 3 Company moved into Elsdorf and sent a troop and a platoon to occupy Wistedt, two kilometres to the west. They passed a pleasant evening shooting at transport flushed from Rotenburg by the 32nd Brigade, but the night was disturbed by the sound of troop movements closing in on them. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, was retiring from Bremen.

The morning of the 21st April began with heavy rain. At first light the troop of tanks in Wistedt moved out of the centre of the little village to cover the roads leading into it. In front of the village rose a small hill, thick with trees and silent in the rain.

Daylight came, the sections “stood down” and began to think seriously of breakfast. Out of the wood rolled two self-propelled guns; their first shots hit the tank posted as a sentry on the road. Behind the self-propelled guns came a company of infantry. The tank went on fire as soon as it was hit, and the crew baled out. Guardsman E. Charlton, the driver, stopped to look at the German infantry running down the road. He climbed on to the burning tank, unhooked the Browning machine gun from the turret and jumped back into the road to meet the Germans. He faced them four-square, firing steadily.

A bullet struck his left arm; he moved to a gate in the hedge and supported his arm on the top bar, still firing. His left arm was hit again, and he propped the Browning on the gate, firing and loading it with one hand. A final burst of fire shattered his right arm, and Charlton collapsed by the gate, the Browning on top of him.

The Germans swept over him, but Charlton had ruined for them the effect of their sudden attack; the platoon and the other tanks had recovered themselves. The Germans carried Charlton away, but he was already dying, and there was nothing they could do for him except bury him with the honour he deserved.

A German officer who took part in the attack was later sent from a prison camp to the 2nd Battalion to show them Charlton’s grave, as he had talked so much about the bravery of an Irish Guardsman.

See A History of the Irish Guards in the Second World War.

Edward Charlton VC

Edward Charlton VC

Because no surviving officers or NCOs had witnessed Charlton’s actions, it was the accounts of the Germans that led to the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross:

In Germany on the morning of 21st April, 1945, Guardsman Charlton was co-driver in one tank of a troop which, with a platoon of infantry, seized the village of Wistedt. Shortly afterwards, the enemy attacked this position under cover of an artillery concentration and in great strength, comprising, as it later transpired, a battalion of the 15 Panzer Grenadiers supported by six self-propelled guns. All the tanks, including Guardsman Charlton’s, were hit; the infantry were hard pressed and in danger of being over-run.

Whereupon, entirely on his own initiative, Guardsman Charlton decided to counter-attack the enemy. Quickly recovering the Browning from his damaged tank, he advanced up the road in full view of the enemy, firing the Browning from his hip. Such was the boldness of his attack that he halted the leading enemy company, inflicting heavy casualties on them. This effort at the same time brought much needed relief to our own infantry.

For ten minutes Guardsman Charlton fired in this manner, until wounded in the left arm. Immediately, despite intense enemy fire, he mounted his machine gun on a nearby fence, which he used to support his wounded left arm. He stood firing thus for a further ten minutes until he was again hit in the left arm which fell away shattered and useless.

Although twice wounded and suffering from loss of blood, Guardsman Charlton again lifted his machine gun on to the fence, now having only one arm with which to fire and reload. Nevertheless, he still continued to inflict casualties on the enemy, until finally, he was hit for the third time and collapsed. He died later of his wounds in enemy hands. The heroism and determination of this Guardsman in his self-imposed task were beyond all praise. Even his German captors were amazed at his valour.

Guardsman Charlton’s courageous and self-sacrificing action not only inflicted extremely heavy casualties on the enemy and retrieved his comrades from a desperate situation, but also enabled the position to be speedily recaptured.

THE LONDON GAZETTE, 30th April, 1946

Recovery vehicles prepare to tow a Sherman tank of the Irish Guards out of a stream where it landed after collapsing a bridge on the slip road leading to the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945. The tank was evenutally recovered undamaged.

Recovery vehicles prepare to tow a Sherman tank of the Irish Guards out of a stream where it landed after collapsing a bridge on the slip road leading to the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945. The tank was evenutally recovered undamaged.

A camouflaged Sherman Firefly of the Irish Guards and infantry guard a section of the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.

A camouflaged Sherman Firefly of the Irish Guards and infantry guard a section of the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.

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