Events in France were now unfolding very rapidly. The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ was making dramatic progress, unnerving the French government and many in the senior military command. Winston Churchill would make six visits to France during the following weeks, attempting to find a way to help the French keep fighting. There was a danger that those at home would be equally unnerved by the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht.
Churchill, on his third day as Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons for the first time as war leader:
To form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations, … have to be made here at home.
In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope at any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, all make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
You ask, what is our policy? I will say: is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”
Meanwhile in Belgium some of the British Army had reached their allotted positions and were preparing their defences:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Monday 13th May.
We spent today digging and made very good progress all round. The position was a good one on the forward slopes of a ridge over the River Lasne. The ground on this side of the river was not so good, being thickly wooded and obscuring the obstacle. 12 Pl [Platoon] were on right, P.S.M. Fleming, Peter 10 Pl. , and P.S.M. Kerr 11 Pl on left. A certain amount of enemy bombing and machine-gunning. Enemy bombing of Ottenburg which we could see from our position. Great difficulty in getting some of the Belgians to evacuate: this was finally done. Spent another night in the woods without any discomfort. Coy. nil marching. Self 4 miles.
[Entry No.4, for the first entry see 10th May 1940.
See TNA WO 217/15
Newsreel released on 13th May 1940 showing Belgium and Dutch preparations for invasion:
In Italy the final assault by the British 8th Army and the US 5th Army was making good progress, having broken through the last of the prepared German defensive lines. After nearly two years of struggle, in which it had seemed that there would always be one more mountain ridge to be taken, that were finally out into open country. Now the Allied superior strength and air superiority could be given full reign.
The 6th Armoured Brigade included the 17th/21st Lancers, an amalgamation of two old established cavalry regiments. The 17th Lancers had taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Now they took part in a rapid thrust north-west designed to disrupt German attempts at an orderly withdrawal.
Lieutenant Stiebel of the 17th/21st Lancer describes the situation on the 22nd April:
When we reached the meadow I saw a double-storeyed farmhouse ahead and movement in an upper window. The best way to clear out any enemy was to fire an H.E. shell on ‘delay’ — a turn on the screw on the fuse head delayed the explosion of the shell by 0.05 seconds; enough to allow the shell to penetrate the walls before exploding inside the house. My gunner fired at the floor level of the upper storey and so managed to spread the effect to both floors. He then fired Browning at the surviving Germans who speedily evacuated by the back door.
A Sqn on the right lost two tanks to German Panther tanks and the Hurribomber – Rover David – was called in. This resulted in a direct hit one Panther and the other badly crippled.
Then I got the order to move on to Poggio Renatico — about 5-6 miles away — at full speed. My Sergeant’s tank would not start right away so I took the lead and drove off (My troop corporal’s tank was having the gun problem).
At the turn-off to Poggio, the Germans had set up a road-block of a few carts, rails and planks. These we burst through and away we went at between 25 and 30 m.p.h. I shouted ‘Tally-Ho’ over the wireless which was not appreciated by James Maxwell! Sergeant Cormack’s 2nd troop was right behind me.
There were Germans breaking cover all over the place and we chased them with our machine guns. The bow gunner was given ‘gun control’ which meant that he fired at anything he could see. On the road to my right — some 1000 yards away — I saw a German convoy of about 40 vehicles including transporters. Trying to shoot at them with the very long barrelled gun, traversed to the right, we only got one shot off before the gun started to hit telegraph poles and this swung the turret to face the rear.
Concentrating our efforts to the front, we shot at every farmhouse and haystack — many burst into flame as there was fuel stored in them. A German horse-drawn convoy was seen heading towards us and was shot off the road by the bow gunner. All the tanks behind also joined in the fray and I had to ask them to stop firing ahead because, where the road went slightly to the left, I was getting machine gun fire from the rear around my ears.
There was a freshly dug hole in the middle of the road and I told my driver to slow down in case it was a mine. From a house nearby a German stepped out and fired a Panzerfaust (Bazooka) at us but he hit the bank in front and showered my face and hand with grit. He only had the chance before Cormack, riding behind me, riddled him with his Browning.
I saw a train over to the right and it consisted of an engine and two or three cattle trucks. In an open doorway was a man sitting with his legs hanging out and the train was moving slowly towards Poggio. I was certain that everyone behind me could have seen this but it later appeared that Maxwell had not. I could not traverse my gun to the right to engage this target because of the telegraph poles, nor could I have stopped or slowed down as the tanks behind would have all bunched up and, also, because I was very much involved with my immediate front, I left it to others to deal with.
As we approached the town of Poggio, dozens of Germans and civilians appeared with white flags but there was nothing I could do about them. The whole scene was of chaos with people running in all directions. To encourage the confusion my driver sounded the hooter continuously, which was very loud and alarming – but unfortunately not as spectacular as the sirens with which our previous tanks were equipped.
Into the first house in the town, we fired a shell and, turning half-right into the main street, we fired two more rounds of H.E. straight into a mob of milling Germans, horses and vehicles. James Maxwell told me to turn left to skirt the town and that anti-tank guns were firing at the main column of our tanks from that direction.
I was driving along very carefully with a high wall on my right. Beyond the end of the wall, suddenly a tracer shell passed by about 10 yards ahead of me. I reversed to the cover of the wall and could clearly see the tracer shells going off aimed at our tanks — the tracers were travelling just above the level of the road surface. Beyond the end of the wall there was an open gap before a wooden shed. I moved forward to try to see where the enemy guns were and hid my tank behind the shed. The guns were somewhere to the south of the town but there was so much dust about that I could not give an accurate position.
Two other tanks joined me and we tried firing round the sides of the shed. The gunners must have seen our move because they then set about trying to demolish the shed that gave us cover, so we withdrew behind the wall. They then fired several airburst shells over us. I could see the smoke from the guns but could only guess that their position was on the Reno bank.
Dick Tamplin got hold of a German who told him that there were four 88mmm Anti-aircraft guns on the Reno levee which were positioned to protect the bridge from air attack. Our F Battery of 12th R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] under Major Cecil Middleton, who was riding on a tank with our R.H.Q., now engaged the 88’s with every gun they could muster and must have secured a hit because there was a large explosion from that area.
Trooper Buckle was in a tank of C Squadron’s Headquarters and describes the situation after their arrival in Poggio:
Suspicious movements were reported from the upstairs room of a house quite close to us. Captain Wilson ordered Jack Pole to train his gun on this and put a shell through the window. With great relish, Jack did just this and as the tank rocked slightly from the impact of firing, there, just ahead of us, we saw the front of the room torn out.
Curtains flapped in the gentle breeze and through the jagged masonry and splintered woodwork we saw the bed, the wardrobe and other fittings. It seemed unreal somehow — as though we had suddenly intruded into some family’s private domain. In a way we had of course and when nothing seemed to move in there or indicate any signs of anyone having been there, we felt less elated. Indeed, later, even Jack Pole said he felt guilty of vandalism. But that is war.
Now there was not time to think, for the Germans, having recovered somewhat, began to shell and mortar the place. A bunch of German prisoners who were making their way to a hastily prepared P.O.W. compound, hands above their heads, suddenly disappeared in a wave of smoke and dust as their own shells crashed down among them.
When the air cleared, few got up: those who did, moved more swiftly still, their faces a mask of petrified fear. This was war also. There was no doubt about it, this sudden swoop by a British crack cavalry regiment had taken the enemy completely by surprise!
Transport containing rations and supplies were abandoned in one main street and I remember how surprised we all were to see this supply train. It consisted of carts drawn by horses. Perhaps the Germans were getting short of petrol as had been reported, otherwise why this mode of transport? This wasn’t difficult terrain either.
What impressed me most of all however was the stoicism of the horses. There was no panic, no bolting as machine guns rattled, pouring a steady stream of bullets up that very street. I cannot recall one horse moving — nor one shot, amazingly enough.
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.
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.
Malcolm Munthe was of Anglo-Swedish origin. On the outbreak of war he joined the British army and was almost immediately recruited by the War Office for special operations in Scandinavia. This was an irregular operation set up even before the establishment of the Special Operations Executive. Sent to Finland to arrange the supply of munitions to the Finnish Army, and to act as an advance party for British volunteer forces, he took with him some experimental explosive devices. Continue reading “The British supply anti-tank bombs for the Winter War”