Over the Seine and “push on”

6th Airborne soldiers aboard a captured German half-track mounting a 20mm gun, which they used to shoot down a German aircraft, 28 August 1944.

6th Airborne soldiers aboard a captured German half-track mounting a 20mm gun, which they used to shoot down a German aircraft, 28 August 1944.

Pontoon bridges over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944

Pontoon bridges over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944

Sherman tank crews write letters home in a lull during operations to cross the River Seine at Vernon, 27/28 August 1944.

Sherman tank crews write letters home in a lull during operations to cross the River Seine at Vernon, 27/28 August 1944.

With the Germans still in disarray the Allies were pushing on rapidly eastwards across France. In the north, after a short sharp battle, the British had captured a bridgehead over the Seine. Every bridge had been destroyed by Allied aircraft attempting to block the German retreat, now it was necessary to quickly build their own bridges to enable the pursuit.

Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill was in charge of a Troop of four Sexton self propelled guns and was to cross the Seine late on the 28th:

I viewed the pontoon replacement with great trepidation — the Seine is very wide at this point (approximately 215 yards), with a high water level — and led the guns to the west bank at 1800 hrs, just as the sky was darkening. I watched closely as tank by tank negotiated the pontoon bridge, a procedure that did nothing to increase my confidence. A pontoon bridge is no more that a series of flat sheets laid transversely over a series of pontoons laid side by side.’

As it is a floating structure, secured to the banks at both ends, it is not, in my untutored opinion, a particularly stable arrangement. Thus, as the tanks went over, they appeared to wobble from side to side and we wondered if their tracks were submerged below the lapping surface of the river.

If ever a jar of rum was needed, now was the time. No such luck, however. On the west bank, engineers and military police were in command, signalling each tank over at the appropriate moment. The richness and extent of their vocabulary was to be admired, but they did a marvellous job.

Then it was our turn and the sky was getting darker. In front of me was an American White half-track, which served as the Troop Gun Command Post, with the GPO (Charles Coad) in charge. 3 RTR had gone on ahead, and we were behind the tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 23rd Hussars. I was behind the GPO in my Bren carrier (known as TLD).

As this was a lightweight vehicle of some 4 tons, compared to the 32-ton Shermans of the tank regiments, it meant that, as they cockled on the pontoon, they caused the Bren carrier to wobble even more.

The Seine stretched away each side, with a width of over 200 yards, and it looked most forbidding with its strong flowing current. The sky darkened by the minute, which did not improve driving conditions.

The drivers’ eyes were glued to the narrow line of the pontoon, knuckles glowing white as their hands tightly gripped the steering tillers. Some drivers later reported cramp from their feet arching sensitively over accelerators and clutches. Neither was the way forward made any easier by the wash thrown up by the vehicles in front.

The first few yards were not too bad, but then, as the pontoons sagged under the weight of the tanks, water sloshed over the tracks so that the roadway in front temporarily disappeared from view. It was a nightmare drive and it was with huge relief that we found ourselves safely on dry land on the opposite bank of the river at Vernonnet, a small, pleasant riverside settlement, now completely deserted.

By now the night was pitch black and, with all the action and tension of the past few hours dissolving into slight relief, we then found ourselves entirely alone. No other units were in sight or sound. I bunched the guns nose to tail, forming up in the little square of Vernonnet.

My job was to see that every one had crossed over safely, so it was with considerable relief that I was able to report to the GPO that all was well. Then the worry began to nag again as our detachment from the rest of the convoy produced an unreal situation. There were no inhabitants or anyone else to be seen and we began to feel lost. The tank regiments had gone ahead and there seemed to be no other units behind us. It was strangely quiet and somewhat sinister.

It was just the beginning of an eventful night as they pushed ahead in pitch black darkness, narrowly avoiding ambush by German troops when they took the wrong road. See E A Powdrill: In the Face of the Enemy: A Battery Sergeant Major in Action in the Second World War.

Sherman tanks crossing a pontoon bridge over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.

Sherman tanks crossing a pontoon bridge over the River Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.

Infantry of the Hampshire Regiment crossing the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.

Infantry of the Hampshire Regiment crossing the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.

Sherman tanks crossing a Bailey bridge over the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.

Sherman tanks crossing a Bailey bridge over the Seine at Vernon, 28 August 1944.

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