The Italians surrender at Beda Fomm

For all the efforts of the previous day, the Italian column still looked huge and threatening. I watched with apprehension the movements of the mass of vehicles before me. On either side of me, hidden behind the crests of other dunes and ridges, I knew that there were other eyes just as anxious as mine, surveying the scene before them. In the mind of each one of us was the sure knowledge that we were well outnumbered.

Italian M13-40 Tanks in the Libyan Desert, pictured later in 1941

The Australian 6th Division had captured the coastal town of Benghazi on the 6th February and then pursued the retreating Italian army west along the coast road. Meanwhile leading elements of the 7th Armoured Division had moved rapidly across the desert country to intercept the Italians, arriving at the road just thirty minutes before the first retreating Italians appeared, late on the 5th February. British artillery held up this force until the arrival of the British tanks late on the 6th, when there was further fighting. It was a tight situation for the British forces who were at the extreme limits of their very extended supply lines. Once again however the Italians chose to believe their own propaganda which told them that they were facing a massively superior force.

Cyril Joly was an officer in one of the tanks and later wrote a classic account of the action:

From my position on the dune I watched an attack which was launched soon after dawn by about thirty Italian tanks against the position on the road. This was beaten off quickly and with little difficulty.

For a time there was silence on both sides. For all the efforts of the previous day, the Italian column still looked huge and threatening. I watched with apprehension the movements of the mass of vehicles before me. On either side of me, hidden behind the crests of other dunes and ridges, I knew that there were other eyes just as anxious as mine, surveying the scene before them. In the mind of each one of us was the sure knowledge that we were well outnumbered. Each of us knew by what slim margin we still held dominance over the battlefield.

Our threat was but a facade – behind us there were no more reserves of further troops. Even the supplies of the very sinews which could keep us going had almost run out. If we lost now we were faced with capture or a hopeless retreat into the empty distances of the inner desert. It was a sobering thought. I felt that the day, with all its black, wet dullness, was heavy with ominous foreboding. The scene before me was made gloomy enough to match my mood by the black clouds of acrid smoke which shrouded the battlefield like a brooding pall.

Gradually I became aware of a startling change. First one and then another white flag appeared in the host of vehicles. More and more became visible, until the whole coiumn was a forest of waving white banners. Small groups of Italians started to move out hesitantly towards where they knew we lay watching them. Larger groups appeared, some on foot, some in vehicles. Still not able to believe the evidence of his own eyes, the Colonel warned, “. . . Don’t make a move. This may be a trap. Wait and see what happens. Off.”

But it was no trap. Italians of all shapes and sizes, all ranks, all regiments and all services swarmed out to be taken prisoner. I felt that nothing would ever surprise me again after my loader suddenly- shouted: “Look, sir, there’s a couple of bints there coming towards us. Can I go an’ grab ’em, sir? I could do with a bit of home comforts.” We took the two girls captive, installed them in a vehicle of their own and kept them for a few days to do our cooking and washing. I refrained from asking what other duties were required of the women, but noted that they remained contented and cheerful.

See Cyril Joly: Take These Men (Echoes of War)

The attack on Tobruk

When we were only yards away we could see the men in their dark green uniforms with their coats open, sweating as they tried to hump their guns round and train them on us. We simply went straight towards them, firing; we would have gone straight over them if we hadn’t knocked their guns out. Then we drove the loaders and odds and ends into the dugout. And the next thing I saw was a white flag emerging.

Infantry from the 6th Australian Division move forward during the assault on Tobruk

In almost a repeat performance of the attack on Bardia the Australian 6th Division made a dawn assault on the Italian garrison at Tobruk on 21st January. The Italians appeared to believe their own propaganda, which was telling the Italian home audience that their soldiers were being overwhelmed by massively superior forces. In fact the reverse was true, if the Italians had moved out from their static defensive positions the British might well have had difficulty containing them. As it was they remained in their bunkers under constant harassing artillery fire whilst the British built up their attacking forces. The final assault was preceded by bombing. Then the attacking infantry went forward behind a creeping barrage supported by naval gunfire. Many of the defenders were surprised in their bunkers, having become so accustomed to shellfire that they did not realise that an attack was accompanying it. The garrison crumbled even more quickly that at Bardia.

The wear and tear of the desert had reduced the small number of tanks that were available, and the attack was delayed for a couple of days while repairs were made. Captain Barker describes how his Matilda tanks went into action:

Approaching a wadi we’d been shelled for about three miles without being able to tell where the fire came from. I spotted a gun flash from behind stones on the wadi edge. I ordered my troop to attack, ignoring machine-guns and anti-tank fire from the flank. It was the guns we were after.

Then I heard a whoof of shells passing at point-blank range. It was a question of which would knock out the other first. I just kept straight on and told the gunner to let go when we were near. Although we were yawing and pitching all over the place he hit the emplacement with his first shot.

Then we went for three other guns. I turned quickly, which threw up a cloud of dust, drove round the cloud and took them by surprise. When we were only yards away we could see the men in their dark green uniforms with their coats open, sweating as they tried to hump their guns round and train them on us. We simply went straight towards them, firing; we would have gone straight over them if we hadn’t knocked their guns out. Then we drove the loaders and odds and ends into the dugout. And the next thing I saw was a white flag emerging.

See The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942

Australians make dawn attack on Bardia

In the last run that we made, one of the light tanks got a little too close to an anti-tank gun and received several direct hits which penetrated the armour. Of the crew of three the driver was killed by the first shot, and the commander, our newest young officer, had one of his hands shattered. The driver’s foot still rested on the accelerator and the tank continued to motor in towards the enemy. All this the young commander told us over the air, and we were powerless to help him.

British artillery gun firing in the desert
The assault on the Italian garrison at Bardia was accompanied by an artillery barrage.

The initial phases of Operation Compass had been very successful. The Italians had been surprised in the fortified encampments which they had established inside Egypt. They were pushed back over the border into Libya but they had had the opportunity to consolidate in a string of fortified positions along the coast. The need to bring up the Australian 6th Division to replace the 4th Indian Division had given them something of a breathing space. The British forces no longer had the advantage of surprise but were determined to press on. The Australian troops were put into battle almost as soon as they arrived.

In the early hours of the 3rd January 1941 Australian troops formed up for a assault on the garrison of Bardia, the first small port town in the line of the advance along the coast. It was a bitterly cold night in the desert and some men found the water freezing in their water bottles. A heavy artillery bombardment preceded the attack, supported by naval gunfire from the sea. Then the main infantry assault moved forward with Bangalore torpedoes which blew apart gaps in the Italian wire. Very soon the Italian defensive positions had been breached. Resistance was very mixed. Some units surrendered in their bunkers immediately, elsewhere there was fierce fighting. As the day progressed increasing numbers of Italians sought to escape further along the coast.

Tanks were used to support diversionary attacks in different places along the defensive perimeter. Captain Rea Leakey describes how Matilda tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment rushed up to the wire and then turned about before repeating the process to draw the fire of the Italian guns. ‘As the shelling increased each tank jinked and dodged about to give the enemy a difficult target’. Most of the tanks had their hatches closed down, reducing the commanders visibility but providing greater protection against the shellfire.

In the last run that we made, one of the light tanks got a little too close to an anti-tank gun and received several direct hits which penetrated the armour. Of the crew of three the driver was killed by the first shot, and the commander, our newest young officer, had one of his hands shattered. The driver’s foot still rested on the accelerator and the tank continued to motor in towards the enemy. All this the young commander told us over the air, and we were powerless to help him.

He was still talking on the wireless when suddenly he yelled, ‘the tank’s on fire.’ He must have then dropped his microphone, but the wireless was switched to ‘send’, and it broadcast to the rest of the squadron the happenings inside that turret.

The tank was closed down, and before the two in the turret could bale out they had to open up the hatches. We heard the gunner yelling to his officer to help him because by this time he had evidently been wounded, while the commander shouted that both hatches were stuck fast.

Then all we heard were the most terrible screams of agony; they were being burnt alive while their tomb of fire still drove on towards the enemy. This was one of the worst experiences I have had, and even after many years I wake up in a cold sweat and realize that I have been haunted by that so vivid scene.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives

The Italian base at Bardia besieged

With each passing second we drew closer to the defences, and what an opportunity this was to penetrate them before the ‘gate’ was closed. I gave the order to advance with all speed and as my tank was on the road, I was soon well in the lead. We could not have been more than half a mile from the barrier when the whole desert seemed to erupt about me.

A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940.
A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 19 December 1940.

Operation Compass was progressing in North Africa. Launched on the 9th December the Italian base at Sidi Barrani had been captured quickly and now other italian bases along the coast were in the sights of the British. Captain Rea Leakey was with the 7th Armoured Brigade as it pursued the Italian army into Libya. They found themselves slowed down by the number of prisoners wanting to surrender to them. Then on the outskirts of Bardia they encountered some Italian tanks and went in pursuit of them:

Leaving the prisoners to find their own way to captivity, we pushed on in pursuit of the tanks, and we now found ourselves deployed either side of the road leading to Bardia. As we came over a rise I could see the Italian tanks moving on to the road and in turn passing through the heavily fortified defences that surrounded Bardia. These stretched from shore to shore round the town and harbour. The barbed wire, concrete pill-boxes and anti- tank ditch remain to this day.

With each passing second we drew closer to the defences, and what an opportunity this was to penetrate them before the ‘gate’ was closed. I gave the order to advance with all speed and as my tank was on the road, I was soon well in the lead. We could not have been more than half a mile from the barrier when the whole desert seemed to erupt about me. Every gun in Bardia fortress which could bring fire to bear on this area was now in action, and it was quite clear to me that we were not going to win this battle. I gave the order to ‘about turn’ and get to hell out of the area as fast as possible.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives

The Italian garrison of Bardia now became the next objective but there was a pause in the action as the 6th Australian Division moved forward from Cairo to join the battle. From the Military Situation report for the week ending 19th December 1940:

Middle East. Egypt.

21. By the 13th December the elimination of the Italian 64th Division (captured complete at Buq Buq) and 1st and 2nd Libyan Divisions had been confirmed, and the number of prisoners taken was estimated at 25,000. The enemy was then withdrawing from the Bir Sofafi area towards Sollum, pursued by a mobile column formed from the 7th Armoured Division. The withdrawal was subject to heavy air bombing.

22. On the 16th December Sollum and Fort Oapuzzo were evacuated, the garrisons withdrawing into the Bardia defences, the exit from which was blocked by 4th Armoured Brigade astride the Tobruk road.

23. By the 17th December the frontier forts of Musaid, Sidi Omar and Sheferzen had been captured, and a further 800 prisoners and a battery of artillery taken. The 16th Australian Brigade, operating from Siwa, dispersed an enemy column,withdrawing from Jarabub.

24. On the 19th December advanced elements of our troops, which have successfully contained numerically superior forces of the enemy in Bardia, were being steadily reinforced, and the position of the Italian Army in this area may be regarded as precarious.

25. The number of prisoners taken so far is 31,546, including 1,626 officers. Several thousand more prisoners are being evacuated from the battle areas.

26. The total British and Imperial casualties reported up to the 16th December are 72 killed and 738 wounded.

The crew of a Bren gun carrier pause on their way to the forward area in the Western Desert to look at a monument erected by the Italians to commemorate the capture of Sidi Barrani a few months previous, 16 December 1940.
The crew of a Bren gun carrier pause on their way to the forward area in the Western Desert to look at a monument erected by the Italians to commemorate the capture of Sidi Barrani a few months previous, 16 December 1940.

Fierce fighting on the Abyssinian border

This was the first British offensive in the area since the Italian occupation of Somalia. Brigadier William Slim’s attack initially made good progress but his small force of tanks were damaged by the rocky ground and by mines, and the spares were destroyed in the constant air attacks that followed.

 

Artillery in action, shelling the Fort.
Officers in a concealed position watching the shelling of Fort Gallabat.
Indian troops in the Sudan
Troops from the Fifth Indian Division during training before their advance into Italian occupied Abyssinia – now Ethiopia.

From the Military Situation for the week:

Gallabat was captured by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade on the 6th November. It was then lost again on the 7th November as the result of enemy air counter-attack, and partially recaptured on the 10th November. The action continues.

The town of Gallabat lay just inside the Sudanese border with Abyssinia. It had been occupied by the Italians. British Empire forces in the Sudan, jointly administered by Egypt and Britain, began their offensive to re-take Italian East Africa with this action. This was the first British offensive in the area since the Italian occupation of Somalia. Brigadier William Slim’s attack initially made good progress but his small force of tanks were damaged by the rocky ground and by mines, and the spares were destroyed in the constant air attacks that followed.

British troops examining and bringing in captured Italian guns during the action.
Leading pilots of No. 1 Squadron SAAF pose for a group photograph in the back of a lorry, during a hunting expedition at Agordat, Eritrea. Left to right: Captain A Duncan, Captain A W Driver, Lieutenant R Pare, Major L A Wilmot (Commanding Officer) and Captain B J L “Piggy” Boyle. Duncan achieved four victories during the East African campaign, Driver became the most successful Commonwealth fighter pilot in East Africa with ten victories, Pare and Boyle scored five victories each and Wilmot scored one victory and one shared victory before he was shot down over Makale on 23 February 1941 and imprisoned.

The Italians attack in the Desert

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

The British A9 Cruiser tank as commanded by Lieutenant Rea Leakey in September 1940. It was relatively lightly armoured and only had a two pounder gun but was fast and proved effective against the Italians.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.

Mussolini had opportunistically joined the war as soon as he saw that that Hitler was poised to defeat France. He had high hopes that he might expand his African ‘Empire’ by seizing British territory. On paper his armies were well placed to succeed, especially while Britain was distracted by the threat of invasion at home.

In practice the Italian army was much less enthusiastic than their national leader, especially after they managed to shoot down their commander in chief. Their capacity for battle was demonstrated in the way that they attacked on the first day.

The British General, Lord Wavell’s forces in Egypt were massively outnumbered by the Italians, whose invasion of Egypt had long been expected. The British strategy was to keep the bulk of their forces in reserve, leaving only a small screening force on the border itself.

Lieutenant Rea Leakey was commanding a tank with 1 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), based in the western desert of Egypt – facing the Italian Army in Libya. When the attack came, on the 13th September, Leakey was part of this small force, which was deployed to present what resistance it could whilst minimising casualties – the orders were to ‘make a fighting withdrawal, but under no circumstances are tanks to be lost in battle’:

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

We had a battery of 25-pounder guns supporting us, and they started dropping their shells into this vast target moving towards us. When our tanks were spotted, the column of vehicles heading for us halted, and in no time they had unloaded guns and the battle was on.

We were now given the order to form ‘battle line’ and race towards the enemy at full speed with all guns blazing. It was certainly an exhilarating ride. We must have frightened the enemy even if we failed to kill them, but when we were some 400 yards from them, the order came to turn tail and get out of the cauldron. Our Commanding Officer obeyed orders – no tanks were to be lost. And indeed on that charge we were lucky, even though most of the tanks had been hit and a number had to be backloaded for major repairs.

Credit must be given to our experienced drivers like Doyle. If they missed their gear-change on the turn, the tank would present an easy target to the anti-tank gunners.

And so throughout that day we moved slowly back towards Mersa Matruh, fighting these inconclusive actions but certainly taking a toll of the enemy. When darkness fell we moved a few miles back into the desert, knowing full well that the Italians were as tired as we were, and equally as hungry. It had been a tiring day and we had been bombed and shelled almost continuously from dawn to dusk.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives

Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.

The German advance continues

Slept for a few hours in grounds and then took up position and started digging. Very tiring recce, in afternoon, of new position, maps inaccurate, this was cancelled by order to withdraw same night. Went up with Coy Comdrs and C.O. to recce position along main road on race course. Got company in about 11 p.m.

German built pontoon bridges allowed their advance to continue even where bridges had been blown up – a Panzer crosses the Maas on the 16th May.

The British Expeditionary Force now faced the very difficult task of conducting a fighting retreat across Belgium:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Thursday 16th

Withdrawal generally not quite to plan, and Kerr came in too soon. Forward battalions not even clear at 3.15 a.m. By this time all the company were back on the roads leading in to the village. [?] Section 10 Pl only members of the company who were in contact with the enemy. Saw Michael Kemp tonight going back with his company. We did not quit Ottemburg till 3.45. Had sent C.S.M. , Coy H. Q. and 12 Pl back previously, about 2 a.m. to the 1st Bound. After 1 1/2 hours they gave us up as lost, and started withdrawing. Continue reading “The German advance continues”

Churchill offers "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"

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.

German tanks in forest
German armour was making a surprise advance through the Ardenne Forest that would outflank Allied forces that had moved forward into Belgium.

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: it 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.”

German troops on road in belgium 1940
German troops continue to march forward into Belgium while disarmed Prisoners of War are sent to the rear

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

 

Allied breakout and pursuit by tanks in Italy

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!

Bologna fell to 8th and 5th Army troops on 21 April. This picture is one of a series taken during the advance to the city. This particular image shows an old Italian woman sitting mourning in the ruins with a coffin waiting for the dead. Despite a warning to get out of the town before the Allied air attack, many people remained.
Bologna fell to 8th and 5th Army troops on 21 April. This picture is one of a series taken during the advance to the city. This particular image shows an old Italian woman sitting mourning in the ruins with a coffin waiting for the dead. Despite a warning to get out of the town before the Allied air attack, many people remained.
Infantry of the 1st King's Own Royal Regiment start to dig trenches in an orchard near Vedrano, 21 April 1945.
Infantry of the 1st King’s Own Royal Regiment start to dig trenches in an orchard near Vedrano, 21 April 1945.

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.

The 'Tankman'. Sergeant A G Williams of 17/21 Lancers in the turret of his Sherman tank at the main Headquarters of the Eighth Army in the San Angelo area of Italy, April 1944. Sergeant Williams from Woodford Bridge, Essex left England in November 1943, landed in North Africa, and from there was sent to Italy.
The ‘Tankman’. Sergeant A G Williams of 17/21 Lancers in the turret of his Sherman tank at the main Headquarters of the Eighth Army in the San Angelo area of Italy, April 1944. Sergeant Williams from Woodford Bridge, Essex left England in November 1943, landed in North Africa, and from there was sent to Italy.

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.

These accounts appear in the Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by Achilles 17pdr tank destroyers, wait to go forward near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by Achilles 17pdr tank destroyers, wait to go forward near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers are carried forward on Sherman tanks near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers are carried forward on Sherman tanks near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.

Irish Guardsman takes on battalion of Panzer Grenadiers

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.

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.