Shermans versus Panzer IVs in Italy

A Sherman tank of 50th Royal Tank Regiment near Caldari, 17 December 1943

A Sherman tank of 50th Royal Tank Regiment near Caldari, 17 December 1943

A line of Sherman tanks and their crews await the order to mount up and advance, Italy, September 1943.

A line of Sherman tanks and their crews await the order to mount up and advance, Italy, September 1943.

Much of Italy was not ‘tank country’ but when they could be brought into action they could transform the situation.

In Italy the 44th Royal Tank Regiment were now equipped with Sherman Mk IIIs. They had been out of the battle since Sicily, reorganising and re-equipping. From November 1943 they had been heavily engaged on the west coast of Italy. Now they were moving forward to support the Canadian infantry which had attacked a village ahead of them.

This is Sergeant C.E.S. Tirbutt’s diary entry for the 7th December:

Caught up with the tanks at midnight and found I was to be Tug Wilson’s operator/loader and what a day we had. Moved off in the dark at 0530 hrs following the Moro river for some time until we found a suitable crossing place. Then up a very steep slope to the village and only six tanks made it.

Major Forster [actually Foster] was grand going forward on foot repeatedly for personal recce. We threaded our way through the village meeting only one badly frightened Hun who crept out of a building with his hands up. Canadian infantry very glad to see us. We halted at the far end of the village and fanned out hull down to watch and wait.

Suddenly the peace was shattered by Gray Boyce’s voice over the air saying vehicles had been heard from the road, and next moment a Mark IV danced into view. Hell for leather, actions automatic, load, fire, reload. Hit it with probably third shot and pumped in a few more until it brewed up.

Panzer IV in Italy, 1943.

Panzer IV in Italy, 1943.

Tug was bloody good, a trifle excited but did not let it affect his judgement. Pleased as a schoolboy. Having disposed of one we were at once fired on by another, and had to scuttle behind a house. Observation bad and we could only see A.P. [Armour Piercing] and Browning [machine gum] flashing back and forth between two invisible opponents. We thought he was behind a haystack so we waited with the gun pointing over the rear of the tank. He moved out and we fired together and felt a thud and the engines cut out. Driver reported engines refused to start again so we were sitting meat.

Baled out and nipped behind cover as there was plenty of dirt flying about. We did not find out till much later that our first shot had knocked out the Mark IV.

Tug had his Tommy Gun and ordered me to take the crew to safety. I took them into the village and left them in a building and rushed back to Tug, borrowing a couple of grenades en route from the Canadians. Tug not there so tried engines but failed to start. A great deal of small arms flak around so took shelter in doorway of a house.

Through window I could see two dirty big Mark IVs stationary and both still alive. I tried to get Dusty Miller in the nearest tank to fire through the window but the angle was too great. Suggested brewing up a haystack to use as a smoke screen but we eventually decided not feasible.

Remained there for some time spotting for Dusty Miller then Tug turned up and we immobilised the guns on our tank. While Tug went looking for an ambulance for Capt. Hunniball and Hugh Bishop I tried the engines again and this time one responded.

The Major turned up and together we went over and looked at Graham Boyce’s tank. One shot through the bottom of the driver’s compartment and one through his headspace and the gun mounting badly knocking about jamming the gun solid. Feeling pretty low we climbed up to look into the tank wondering what kind of horrible sight we should nd but were relieved and amazed to find nothing. Apparently all crew had managed to get out. Inspected the Mark IVs. Our first shot must have killed the co-driver, the other two smashed the track and bogies.

We reorganised and left a guard tank and leaguered at the top of the track up which we had climbed from the valley. The Major held a short pow-pow and congratulated us all on a bloody good show and we retired to bed but were heavily shelled all night and got little sleep.

The original diary of Sergeant Tirbutt, later Captain Tirbutt, is available to view if you visit the Imperial War Museum.

Circumstances had been very different for the 44th two years before. Children watch activity around a Matilda Mk II tank of 44th Royal Tank Regiment in Findon, Sussex, during exercises against 'enemy' parachute troops, 4 March 1941.

Circumstances had been very different for the 44th two years before. Children watch activity around a Matilda Mk II tank of 44th Royal Tank Regiment in Findon, Sussex, during exercises against ‘enemy’ parachute troops, 4 March 1941.

Matilda tanks of 44th Royal Tank Regiment on the clifftops at Seaford Head, Sussex, 15 March 1941.

Matilda tanks of 44th Royal Tank Regiment on the clifftops at Seaford Head, Sussex, 15 March 1941.

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