Kenneth R. Ward Articles
The Cavalry Charge
THE CAVALRY CHARGE
Kenneth R. Ward
In a desolate field, somewhere in Germany, the Squadron leader called us to a special conference in early March 1945. It was about 3 pm, the grass was still wet from the morning rain. The tanks were parked under the hedges for cover against air reconnaissance. We had been advancing for nearly a week, were tired and dirty and had hoped that we would be relieved by another squadron, as things had quietened down a little.
We sat under a clump of trees waiting for the squadron leader to come and brief us. I instinctively knew this was going to be something big and sat with my crew watching the Major approach us, with his clipboard under his arm, his scarf tucked into his greatcoat, as had been the fashion in the eighth army in North Africa. He was bare headed and his black beret was tucked under the epaulette of his greatcoat.
He sat on a tree trunk and said, "As you will have guessed, these dense black woods in front of us are milling with Jerries. It is essential for us to get through. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment tried earlier today, losing three tanks. There is no way we can get through there in daylight. There is a tank barrier just before the village, which has not been closed yet by the Jerries, as they seem to be confident that no one can get through the woods. I have decided the only way through is a cavalry charge during the night, advancing at top speed with all guns blazing. 7 troop will be leading."
" Yes, I thought, you bugger, we can lead and you follow on behind"
I glanced at Charlie, our driver, sitting next to me, he turned up his eyes and said "sod this".
"You will move up the track you can see at the edge of the forest, it leads to the village about 4 miles away. You should make it in 12 to 15 minutes. The lead tank will be the troop leader, followed by 7 Charley with its long 17 pounder gun (with me in it), with the other two Cromwell tanks close behind. In the centre will be a half-track with a handful of infantry. You will be leaving at 1 am. I will follow with the squadron HQ troop 20 minutes later, and then the other troops will follow in 20 minute intervals, all advancing with guns blazing. You can now stand down, check the guns, grab some grub, draw a special ration of rum for each tank. Good luck boys, see you in Ahaus."
This had never been done before. We had cooked our meal of skinless sausages, beans and hard compo biscuits (as we had no fresh bread) behind the tank on a petrol fire in an old oildrum, which we always kept tied to the back of our tank. I now had my first swig of the rum, burning my throat as I tried to swallow it too quickly and felt instantly much better, getting quite excited about the prospect of doing something so different. The more rum I swigged, the better I felt.
I was on wireless watch for two hours and then I had a kip fully clothed under the back of the tank. At 12.45 the Troop leader roused us, we climbed into our tank, Charley started the engine, Stan the tank commander and myself stood on our seats, so that we were half way out of the turret, could see much better and had surrounded ourselves with grenades ready to drop over the side. I had my sten gun in my hand. The headphones crackled and the troop leader came over loud and clear "Able seven go, go, go, follow me, over and out".
I could dimly see his tank move off and we followed as close behind as we could, with the other two Cromwells behind us, with the half-track in the middle.
After we had driven into the forest for only a short distance we could see German troops milling about and all the tanks opened up firing machine guns in both directions, with the infantry in the half track firing their small arms. I fired my sten gun and dropped a few grenades as far as I could into the surrounding black forest. Eric fired a high explosive shell into a woodcutters building at the side of the road, which went instantly up in flames. Stan, the tank commander shouted to me across the din: "Put another HE up the spout, that'll show the b******s"
I quickly reloaded the 17 pounder and climbed back up to fire my sten gun and watch the surrounding inferno. I had my ear phones on and the troop leader shouted excitedly over the air: "There is a German lorry coming down the lane towards me, I am going straight for it" The leading tank hit it full on, pushing it into the ditch with the ammo on the lorry exploding like fireworks. A sea of flame, both sides of the lane, advanced like fury with us. A German lorry loaded with Jerry cans of petrol then got in the way, was hit full on, went up in flames, illuminating our advance.
As Eric was firing the big gun again at a house to our right amongst the trees, which again went up in flames, the long barrel hit a tree, smashing the traversing gear, and making the turret spin like a mad top. I had quite expected that, as it had happened to us once before and had my feet on the seat, for had I stood as usual on top of the ammo in the floor, the spinning turret would certainly have cut off my feet.
The spinning turret soon came to rest as we drove on at full speed over humps and bumps, through the open gate of the tank barrier, straight into the village. The tanks dispersed, one going forward, two turning and guarding a cross road. We could not see any German troops to engage, so the infantry dismounted and started searching the houses. We guarded the road we had come from. We sweated manhandling the turret, turning it slowly, until Eric had lined up the crossbars of the telescope, exactly 300 yards on to the turning we had just come round. Should a German tank come round that corner, Eric had only a second to fire and then bale out, in case he missed.
Stan rushed up to me with a German soldier who had just arrived on a bike and was holding on to it for dear life, guarded by one of the infantry: "Come on Buzz, find out what he knows"
The German was surprised I could speak his language. He had been sent down to order the German unit, which they thought was still in the village, to close the tank barrier now. " I said good bye to them when I left and told them I would probably not be able to get back, when I saw this wall of flames advancing towards us. I am glad I was right, because I am out of it now and for me the war is over."
We sat anxiously in our tank, waiting for a German Panther or Tiger to come round the corner and were worried we might fire at our own tanks. We need not have worried. Twenty minutes after our arrival we heard a lot of firing, tank engines revving at top speed and coming ever closer, accompanied again by a wall of flame, heralding the arrival of the HQ troop. The other two troops arrived in intervals with a similar furore.
As our traversing gear turning the turret with its 17 pounder gun was not working, we had no way of firing at the enemy with either the main gun or the machine gun. We moved along the village street to take cover further back and the Squadron Leaders tank took up our position, guarding the road on which we had just arrived.
This old German sleepy village had suddenly been disturbed. All the old fashioned window shutters were closed in both houses and shops. Some of the civilians had fled, but some had been hiding in the cellars and were routed out by the infantry, who also found a few German soldiers, who surrendered only too willingly, looking forward to be sent to a POW camp.
As our tank was out of action now, I went into one of the empty houses to enjoy the luxury of sitting on a real flush toilet. Normally in action, you had to jump off the tank with a shovel and your ration of two sheets of toilet paper in your hand, when there was a lull in the shelling. You ran to the nearest hedge, dug a hole and crouched down, hoping the Jerries would not commence shelling until you had finished. If they did, your mates would look on, and you would be wandering whether you would get a shell splinter up your backside.
With all these exciting activities and having achieved our goal, we were on a high and getting lax.
A Royal Tiger managed to cut through the woods and came up on the road behind us, from which we had come. The gunner in the Squadrons leaders tank, guarding this approach to the village, was not quick enough to spot him. The Germans fired their powerful, dreaded, 88 mm gun. Both he, and Sid the Squadron wireless operator were killed instantly. Fred the driver and Jack, the co-driver, managed to bale out before their tank was hit a second time. The Royal Tiger then reversed and disappeared into the forest.
B squadron advanced then in exactly the same way we had done, we warned them of the lurking Royal Tiger and they managed to brew him up.
As our tank was useless with its broken traversing gear, we managed to get a replacement firefly, the name given to our Sherman tank with its 17 pounder the following day.
Changing over tanks is very much like moving home. You get so attached to it, you know every nook and cranny, you know the sound of the engine, you hear and feel how the tracks move. You get to love it, it becomes part of you.
I had to get used to our replacement tank because it was so revolting. The last operator had been killed in the tank quite recently, and no one had been given enough time to clean it up. My side of the turret and the cupola had deep shell splinter marks in it. My foldable seat had been soaked by the previous operators blood, which had dried up in the upholstery and the stench of rotting flesh still permeated the air. The splinter marks on the side showed exactly how he had been killed. "There but for the grace of God go I" went through my head. I shivered with fear.
I never knew the guy who had died on my seat, but I could see him in my mind and formed a close bond to him. No doubt this was meant to be a lesson to me, having felt so exhilarated during the advance, I had to be reminded again, that death was only around the corner.
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