Interview by Peter John, England, November 1999.
Bookmarks Joining up / Becoming a tanker / North Africa bound / Staffs Yeo / Crusaders on petrol / Lancer-Corporal Davis / Squadron organization / Firefly surprise / Fighting heavy armor / Support and B echelon / Tank Commander / New guys / Briefings before D-Day / Infantry 1 & 2 / D-Day preparations / Turret view / Honeys reconnaissance / Jerry at Périers Ridge / Disabled at Lebisey / Supporting the Guards / the Scheldt / Mentioned in Dispatches / After the war
Q: Mr. Davis, I believe you joined the army as a Regular soldier at the age of 20: I hadn’t realised that enlistment as a Regular was actually possible during the war, rather that everyone was simply called up “for the duration”?
Mr. Davis: It was all a bit tricky: I was in what would have been a “Reserved Occupation”, but wasn’t actually old enough to be “Reserved”. I worked at a tank factory, Metro-Cammell, where I was a technical apprentice. They had to sign an official form declaring that, although I was eligible for call-up because of my age, I was engaged on war work, and that my services were needed at the factory.
A time came when I had to register for call-up, and the firm gave me strict instructions that I had to make it clear that I was a Technical Estimator, and not just a clerk. Sometimes we were referred to at the factory as Estimating Clerks, but they wanted me to make it clear that I was actually “technical”. After registering I went back to work: although I’d signed the register, I didn’t get called up. I went to see the boss, who was actually an old tank man himself (his name was Norman Edwards, and was on the TV several times as being the oldest tank man still about). I got on quite well with him, and explained that I hadn’t been called up, but wanted to be. He undertook that next time this form came round to be signed he’d not sign it, but would leave it on his desk and give me a call. I could then go round to the Recruiting Office and sign on, but only on the understanding that I join the Tank Regiment, because I would then be able to become a tradesman.
He suggested I become a driver, and then a fitter, and that way still get my practical engineering experience, so that my previous training would not have been wasted. You see, I’d already been to Night School for the theoretical side of things. He certainly steered me towards the Tank Corps: I just wanted to go and fight. I’d been working in tanks, and had met several tank soldiers when they’d come to the factory, so I was quite happy with his idea.
I went to the Recruiting Office, and passed the test they gave me to make sure I was bright enough to go into tanks, and joined up. I went back to Mr. Edwards and told him I’d taken the King’s Shilling and was going to be called up. Well, three months later I’d still not heard, so I went to see him again. He told me that he had indeed held up the official form as he’d promised, but had later been forced to sign it by the “higher-ups”. He offered that if I went up to town [back to the Recruiting Office in Birmingham] to find out what was the matter he would give me a letter to give to the civilian clerks to try and sort it out. I found the right civilian, and he confirmed that they’d over-ruled my enlistment as soon as the form had come through, and that the form had been sent to the military part of the Recruiting Office.
I asked him that, in view of the letter I’d been given by my boss, could they please rescind the cancellation? He agreed, so I went to the military bods, asked them if they’d got this dreaded form, and told them they could tear it up as I was about to be issued with permission to enlist after all.
It must have worked, because a few days later I was indeed called up, and into the Tank Regiment. It had taken from December 1941 until March 1942 before I finally got in. As soon as I got my call-up papers, the rail warrant to travel to the Depot came in the same envelope, so everything happened quickly from then.
I found out that I’d been called up with a whole crowd of Birmingham people—all our squad were from the Brum [Birmingham] area—and we were sent to Warminster for our basic training.
Because of my mechanical
background I passed out on the technical side top of the class, but I
never been in a driving seat at all, and they were looking for tank drivers
who’d already been civilian drivers. They told me that while I knew a lot
about tanks I wasn’t going to be a driver. “Because you’re brilliant on the
wireless, you’re going to be a Wireless Operator.”
The official title was Wireless Operator/Driver: this meant that I worked
the wireless, loaded the big guns, and was a stand-in spare driver if I was
Mr. Davis: Yes. The proper Drivers did a long course - 16 weeks of mainly driving with just a little bit of basic training on guns and wireless. Wireless Operators had 8 weeks on the wireless, then 6 weeks on driving and 2 weeks on gunnery. At the end of that you got your little tank badge on your arm as a qualified tradesman.
We should have been entitled to the “sparks” of a Wireless Operator as well, but we were warned that, being in Warminster there were a lot of “bigwigs” driving around in staff cars, and there’d been an incident where one of these officers had been driving round, seen a recruit with a “Sparks” badge, pulled up, and said “My wireless set has broken down : mend it!”. They thought we were too raw to undergo that, so we didn’t get our “Sparks” badges after all!
The next thing that was decided was that we’d only be trained on British guns and tanks. Valentines, Churchills, Mark 7’s, Bren Carriers—anything we made, we drove.
Q: I thought Bren Carriers were purely infantry issue?
Mr. Davis: Well, they actually included these. We had to learn to drive anything, all in ignorance. People who could ride bicycles had already gone off as despatch riders!
For us learners, there was a great big tank park, and 15-hundredweights [small lorries], with two of us to each of these, with an instructor. First of all they sat us behind the wheel and taught us how to change gear—it was double-declutching in those days, with hands off the wheel—and once you’d learnt how to change gear you had to learn how to steer.
The tracks around Warminster Barracks were just wide enough for these 15-hundredweights—you couldn’t pass one another. When you were quite happy with that, they said, “Right, we’ll take you out on the roads now”, and they took us down into Warminster itself and on to the local roads, with L-plates up. They even taught us to cross rivers, and do other odd things.
Once we were OK on the 15-cwt. they moved us up to a 30-cwt., and we had to pass out on that. After that it was a 3-tonner, and then they said, “OK, now on to tracked vehicles”. We started off with a Bren Carrier, then to a light tank, and so on up.
While we were doing this practical driving, for part of the time they used to take us into the workshops, where there were chassis, with no covers on them, and bare engines. They’d say, “Start that up.” You’d go through the routine, and find it wouldn’t start, perhaps because they’d put a tiny piece of paper between the contact-breaker points. We had to identify the fault, and put it right, of course, to demonstrate that you were OK with the practical side of things.
At the end of that we were accepted as potential drivers. Because we’d only been used to British equipment, we then went down to Lulworth, to get a conversion course on American stuff—Shermans and Grants and things.
The snag was there that I was so handy with the machine-guns that they wanted to keep me on at Lulworth as an instructor, so I had to say, “Thanks very much for the compliment, but I joined the army to go abroad, not spend my time at home.” So I went out with the draft.
We went out on 23 October 1942, from Glasgow: we should have been on the “Queen Elizabeth”, or perhaps it should have been the “Queen Mary”, one of the big ships, but it hit a destroyer and had to come in for repair, so they gathered a scratch lot of smaller vessels and formed these into a big convoy.
It took us until December to get to South Africa. We’d actually been landed in Brazil, and sent on route-marches round the town to get our land-legs back! We eventually nipped across the South Atlantic to South Africa, and when we got there it was found that we all had dysentery.
The boat that we were on used to be called the “Empress of Japan”, but it had been renamed “Empress of Scotland”. It was still crewed by Japanese or Lascars—easterners of some sort—and they gave us all food-poisoning. Must have been a dirty kitchen. Towards the end they had to limit the cleaning of the lavatories: normally there was a fatigue party to clean all the toilets up, but because it was so bad they used to do half at a time, and you’d see everybody crowding into the other half.
When we got to South Africa they put us into a camp, and the “loos” there had a guard posted, with a bowl of disinfectant. We had to take turns at acting guard, and had to make sure people washed their hands. We were there for a fortnight, but with the improved hygiene, and the food the South Africans gave us, things improved.
The South Africans gave us a marvellous time, but the security was shocking. I’d got friendly with a family, and I was there one day when they said “You’ll be sailing soon: you’ll be going on the 'New Amsterdam', and sailing on Christmas Eve”—and so we did!
We went up to the Middle East up the east coast of Africa, and had big rough seas. They dropped us off at Tewfiq, in the middle of the desert, and we spent New Year’s Eve sitting there waiting for transport to take us to Abassia Barracks in Cairo. That was the Royal Armoured Corps depot, and from there “shipped us up the blue”.
Their idea of shipping up the blue was taking trucks up, loaded with all our stuff, and they’d got our drivers to drive the trucks up. So, if, like me, you were a part-time driver, you’d get to be his mate, and if there were any spare bods, they rode in the back.
We drove up, following the troops: they’d just captured Tripoli when we caught up with them, at Medenine. The chap in charge of our convoy was not sure how far up the front we’d got to go, so we drove our truck up and were just settling down for the night when a chap came up from behind us and said, “Excuse me, but you’re between us and the enemy—do you mind shifting?”
Q: This was your first acquaintance with the Staffs Yeomanry—until then you’d simply been a Tank Corps “bod”?
Mr. Davis: Yes. I mean, they’d told us at Abassia Barracks that we were going to the Staffs Yeomanry. A lot of the group were going to the same Brigade: one of our mates went to the Dragoons, but generally speaking it was to the Yeomanry because they’d had a lot of casualties.
Abassia Barracks was the training centre as well—some time later I went back there for a wireless course—but when we were there first we were simply “bods”, and fed and watered until the next convoy was going up.
When I got to the Yeomanry they were at a stage where they were changing tanks over from 3-man crews (Driver, Commander and Gunner) to 4-man (Driver, Commander, Gunner, and Wireless Operator). Of course, they were short of Wireless Operators, so I was told that “Sorry, you’ll have to be a Wireless Op.”
We were in Crusaders, so all the business we’d gone through to change over to American stuff was no good! We’d already met Crusaders, so we were all right.
Q: This was still a petrol-fuelled tank?
Mr. Davis: Yes. All the British tanks were on petrol. We were getting some Shermans, and some of those were diesels.
Q: Only some?
Mr. Davis: Only some. The Grants and Lees, which were command vehicles, were still petrol.
The first Shermans were aero-engined jobs: the Mark 3’s, the diesels, only crept in later on. The Americans never let us have a Mark 4: the next we got were Mark 5’s, which were petrol again. These had got five lorry engines around a central gear-shaft.
Anyway, while we still had the Crusaders, I kept on changing my tank because we were getting casualties and the tanks were being knocked out. We got shot up by British tanks or Americans—we never knew whether they were Americans flying British colours, or British flying American—anyway, we got shot up by them. Then we got bombed by the Germans, and I finally finished up as spare crew, and the Squadron Leader said, “You’d better come and be my Operator”.
This was a promotion as he made me Lance-Corporal. After they stopped fighting, that was when he sent me back to the depot to become a Wireless Instructor.
Q: Can you explain something about organisation within the regiment, please? Were there three troops and a Recce. troop?
Mr. Davis: No, in our unit the recce. people were entirely separate: we used to get attachments from the Artillery, but in the desert they made the mistake of giving them Honey tanks.
The Honey was tall compared with the Crusaders, and the Jerries used to knock them out first. After that, we were the Recce. Squadron with the Crusaders: after the first people had been spotted, we were the next up. The other two squadrons, with Shermans, were hovering behind, and then we had the HQ Troop, which was the Squadron Leader, Second-in-Command, and a couple of support tanks.
This meant we had four troops altogether, with three tanks, generally speaking, in each, commanded by an officer, a Troop Sergeant, and a Corporal.
When we went into Europe we had an officer, a Troop Sergeant and two Corporals as commanders, that is four tanks per troop. The fourth one was the Firefly tank, armed with a 17-pounder, the idea being that they would be behind the fighting troop of three.
They didn’t want the Germans to find out about the Fireflies, and on the first day it actually worked: the Germans came over a crest at us on D-Day, and the Fireflies potted them clean.
Q: Could the Firefly cope with a Tiger?
Mr. Davis: The only place we could hit most of the enemy tanks to knock them out was at the back end, as their armour was better than the 75-pounders. The 17-pounders were slightly better, but not that much. These were [Panzer] Mark IVs, and couldn’t be knocked out so easily anyway.
The idea was that if you met a bigger tank you fired phosphorus shells at it, which either set him alight, or covered him in smoke so that he couldn’t see you. That wasn’t to provide an aiming mark [for the tank gunner]. They had a theory that if you wanted to mark anything you fired red smoke at it, and the artillery were responsible for firing at red smoke as a matter of course.
Later on we got Typhoons flying overhead, as a cab-rank, four at a time, and if they saw any red they promptly stonked it, and that was very effective.
There was one time, mind, when the artillery dropped smoke all over us, and we were panicking in the tank. We’d got yellow patches to deploy. Our badge within the unit was yellow pennants, but the commander had a yellow panel which we could place over the engine cover so that it would show up from the sky and prevent anyone shooting us up. If we’d got red smoke all over us, though, the panel wouldn’t show up.
Fortunately, the Typhoons knew where the target was, so we were OK.
On that occasion we’d been sent forward to support an infantry platoon which had crossed a river at night, and couldn’t get back again because there was a Panther in a street on our side. They wanted us to go forward to see if we could get the Panther from across the river, and we went forward and found another street we could look down and see the Panther sitting across the end.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get our tank into position to fire at it because the ground was all bog. The only way would have been to get on to the hard ground in front of a chateau, go round behind the chateau on to the river bank where the ground was still firm, then fire through the windows of the building.
I didn’t want to do that as it would have blown all the windows out and drawn attention to the chateau. They decided to call for the “Tiffies”, and told the artillery to mark the target with smoke. That was when they dropped smoke on the chateau!
Q: If we can get back to the organisation for the moment, you’ve explained structure and manning: can you tell me about support vehicles? These days they speak of “hard” and “soft” vehicles - was that terminology in use in your day?
Mr. Davis: Yes, in the desert the B vehicles were the soft-skins. They used to come up at night and their crews ask to sleep in the tanks: the tank crews were all used to sleeping outside!
In Normandy we all slept in the tanks, and the B echelons all stopped well back. They tried a few times to bring the B echelon drivers up as reserve drivers, but we found that a lot of them just didn’t have the technique. I had to ask for some of my drivers to be changed. They hadn’t had the schooling, and weren’t accustomed to the strength or technique required.
Driving a tank isn’t something you can pick up in a couple of seconds.
One time we were repairing, refurbishing, the tanks, and I was working at the back end of the thing while the rest of the crew were checking the bolts of the tracks. The driver was inside when he just let the thing go, and it rolled back. We were very lucky that I was far enough back to get out of the way, and that none of the others got their hands caught in the tracks. We had him taken out straight away!
I also remember another incident in Normandy when we got hit by German fire—two shots, one took off the ventilator on the forward shoulder, which caused sparks to go down into the driving compartment of the tank, and the second one hit us in the side.
The driver, when he saw the sparks, started climbing out of the tank. I was giving him the order “Driver, reverse” to pull us out of the firing line so that I could sort out what was happening.
The lap-gunner was making sure there was no fire, as there was an ammunition rack just underneath the ventilator, and he heard me say to the driver “Reverse!” and nothing happened, and he found the driver climbing out. He pulled him back and shouted at him to reverse.
We found out that the second shot had ruptured the fuel tank—fortunately it was diesel that time. We only realised this when the driver found himself paddling, and shouted up “There’s water down here!” It wasn’t water, of course, but diesel so I had to get permission to get the tank back to the repair shops.
Q: At what stage did you become a Tank Commander?
Mr. Davis: While we were getting sorted out before the invasion, we were down near Newmarket [East Anglia] taking on reinforcements.
At that time I was still a Lance-Corporal, and the Squadron-Leader’s Wireless Operator, and I got the job of assessing all the people coming in who said they were Wireless Operators: other people were being sorted into their slots at the same time—they were coming from all sorts of outfits, even the infantry. We had a lot of Lancashire Fusiliers, for example, and one or two Royal Scots. These were all volunteers who wanted to change over into the Tanks.
The biggest problem new people had with tanks was that they were enclosed: you’ve got periscopes, but only the Driver and Commander have got forward vision. The Wireless Operator in a Sherman has a periscope, and a pistol-port (which he can’t see much out of), and of course the gunner’s got a periscope and a telescope.
We moved up to Scotland, to practise for the invasion, up at Inverness, and I got my second stripe when I was up there, and I had to change my troop as a Corporal. That wasn’t the way things happened always—it was just that there was a vacancy in this other troop.
When I was promoted to a Sergeant later on it was the same thing—I had to change troop again just because there was a vacancy. When I got my second stripe, I did the training as a Commander, and one of the worrying things about it is that there’s two seats in a Sherman for the Commander, and if you sit in the top seat you have your head and shoulders out of the turret. Me and the Troop-Sergeant used to do the various exercises like that, which meant that we could see properly.
We had a new Troop officer then—really brand-new, just arrived, never been anywhere or seen anything—and he used to tell us off because his idea was that having your head out was a bit risky. A lot of tanks still fought with the lids down—even the Commanders kept their heads down, and this was rather embarrassing on the battlefield because they couldn’t see where they were going and we had to dodge round them!
When we got to Normandy I’m afraid this officer got into our habits, sitting up as high as he could, and actually got killed. He was so raw, he didn’t know enough to realise when to duck, and that was a bit worrying.
Q: When you were in Normandy, what sort of proportion of the crews had got action experience?
Mr. Davis: Our regiment was taken out of our original Brigade and put into another, because we were supposed to be battle-hardened veterans by that time, but our infantry were very raw—most of them had never been overseas at all.
There were tank units like that as well. We had trouble with them when we were doing work as a Brigade—they used to get us killed by acting daft. When we used to take over from them, our Colonel used to say, “OK, we’ll take over at first light”, so we’d get up at 3 o’clock and go forward slowly (because of the noise) and take over.
You used to draw your tank up alongside the other tank you were relieving, and these newcomers’ idea was to roar off regardless, so that the Germans used to stonk us. It was worse when they were taking over from us: we’d been lying up quietly all night observing, and they’d roar up.
Our blokes used to get out of the tanks to tell their commanders what was happening, and that was when Jerry would open up, and it was our blokes who caught it.
Just before the invasion we came to Haywards Heath, and it was there that we got the regimental briefing for the operation—everybody went to that. It was one of the few times when the hoi-polloi were given any briefing.
I used to make a point that, if I went to a briefing as a commander, I used to tell my crew what was on. There were times when I’d leave the tank to talk to the infantry, and then my Wireless Operator would take over from me in case there was a sudden panic on. For the invasion briefing everybody went, and that’s when we heard the Colonel say that he wasn’t going to go for Caen (he used the code-name “Poland”, but it was Caen he meant). We were supposed to carry the infantry, and that was a handicap.
Q: Can I check there a minute: all the KSLI veterans I’ve spoken to swear blind that they never got on to a tank before Operation Goodwood. They were briefed that they were going to be carried forward from their assembly area towards Caen, but that it never happened.
Mr. Davis: No, because they got off, that’s why.
Q: They say they didn’t see tanks until fairly late on D-Day when your lot were coming up on their right, having dealt with the Périers battery and were taking on the German armoured attack. They all say that they’d got that far on foot, and, anyway, hadn’t even practised getting on and off tanks beforehand.
Mr. Davis: Well, it was our troop that dealt with the guns on the hill, but prior to that there was another squadron behind that was carrying infantry, but as soon as that gun started up they all got off.
Q: Do you know which squadron that was?
Mr. Davis: We were allocated different troops....if the tanks were from a diferent squadron they’d have been allocated different infantry [i.e., infantrymen from another battalion].
Q: It’s only the KSLI I’ve been interviewing, so both stories could be true.
Mr. Davis: They didn’t ride with us for Goodwood, as we were free of infantry then. The infantry we were to support did their thing on foot, but the Guards, who came up through us, their infantry were all riding in trucks.
For the invasion, our A Squadron were assisting the Norfolks and the Warwicks, while C Squadron (that was us) were allocated 2/KSLI, and were to clear the villages of Biéville and Beuville. They’re right, then. They were scheduled to ride on our backs, but because we were called off to this side-show they all had to walk.
You couldn’t blame infantry for jumping down off tanks when there was gun-fire. It didn’t worry tank people. If there was an 88 about, you knew you were in trouble, and hesitated a bit, but normal shell-fire we just ignored. We were more interested when our own gunners were shelling us!
The worst I’ve ever had was a piece of shrapnel which cut my arm and my uniform. The troop officer when we were doing that Epron shoot lost his fingers.
He was a new bod, and he was down in his turret again, and got his fingers over the rim of the hatch, and the lid cracked down and chopped his fingers off.
It was hard luck for him, of course. They sent him back sick and told his tank to go back to headquarters. He hadn’t briefed them. To get to that point we’d actually gone through a British minefield, which was unmarked. We’d had to keep to the left-hand side of this field, because the right-hand side was a British minefield. Coming back, their driver ran into the minefield. There was nobody hurt, fortunately, but that was another tank written off.
In fact, we lost the whole troop in that Op. We were going up the side of a wood to get high enough to shoot, and though we didn’t know it, the Jerries were still in the wood.
The colonel in charge of the infantry mob—I don’t know which mob it was—was supposed to tell us when it was clear. He was so panicky that he wasn’t making any progress that he sent for a flame-thrower troop, and they were fiddling about behind the wood getting in our way.
They couldn’t fire into the wood—if they dusted the wood with the Crocodiles first, they could have cleared the Germans out that way and the infantry could have gone in, but with the infantry in between the end of the wood and the Germans they just couldn’t do it.
So they sent one of our tanks up the edge of the wood. I was getting behind him to give him covering fire, but before I could get in position, he’d only got about a third of the way up, when the Germans in the wood put a sticky bomb on the side of his tank and blew the side of his tank out.
We found we’d exposed ourselves there The wood finished on the crest, but the crest was lined with anti-tank guns. I went and joined our other troop, which was giving us covering fire from a bit of a wood on the other side, and that’s where I got hit. The squadron leader was hit as well, and this was supposed to be a cake-walk job!
Q: Can I take you back to the pre-invasion briefings for a moment? You’ve told us that you got a regimental briefing at Haywards Heath, and that there was also a final briefing. What was the difference in these, and when did you get the final briefing?
Mr. Davis: At Haywards Heath what we got was the theory: we all went into a great big cinema and sat down and they talked to us, and there were pictures all stuck round.
[The interviewer notes: I never discovered anything else about the briefing, because we got sidetracked by an example of one of the photographs posted at the time, and how Mr. Davis acquired it later while serving in India. We moved on to talk about the immediate pre-invasion preparation of the vehicles.]
Mr. Davis: [On D-Day] We’d actually been put down on the beach dry-shod, which we hadn’t expected at all, and another welcome surprise was that our beach was clear by the time we arrived.
We had expected to land in about 6 feet of water, which was why we’d been to so much trouble to waterproof the tanks. This we’d applied on one side of a dual-carriageway main road near Haywards Heath—not exactly a top secret location! The waterproofing was necessary to seal off the exhaust and air-intake openings.
The exhaust was normally ducted out under the tail of the tank on to the ground (which was a real nuisance, as it could often kick up the dust), while the air intake was a grille in the top of the engine-cover, behind the turret.
We also erected screens around the outside of the hull, which reached up as far as the main gun. The turret was parked in the straight-ahead position, as rotating it would have fouled, or torn off, the screens.
There was some Cordex underneath all these canvas screens, and after landing, once you considered yourself clear of the water, you told the gunner, who would fire these Cordex charges, which would rip away the screens.
Underneath the tank we’d had to seal up all the bottom plates with Bostik. We’d had to take all the bolts out and dip them in Bostik, and offer them and the plates back up to the belly of the tank.
As well as the main plates, we had to seal off the driver’s escape hatch—this was a plate he could operate with a lever from his seat. It would drop away and enable him to dive out in case of real trouble. Sealing this was quite a difficult job.
The waterproofing had been a full-crew job, and would have been very difficult if we hadn’t had good hard-standing. There were three big plates underneath the tank, as well as the escape hatch, and there wasn’t much headroom. The gunner and I got underneath and unbolted these: the driver and co-driver took each plate and coated the edges with Bostik, as well as the bolts. The gunner and I then had to offer the plate back up to the framework inside, and hold it in position, while the drivers got enough bolts started in the holes to locate the plates and then fit the rest of the bolts.
Even before we’d done any of that, we’d had to use a soft mouldable plastic material all over vulnerable parts of the engine, in order to protect the electrics—it really was a difficult and fiddly job.
After waterproofing, we had to test things, so it was arranged that we back the tanks into a duckpond, one at a time.
My tank had passed this test, but another tank in the troop had still to be tested. As it happened, the commander and driver from that particular crew had go off somewhere, so my driver and I were detailed to take this other tank into the pond. We backed it in, and when we got to a depth of about 4 feet, I said to the driver, “That’ll do”. No response. [Louder, more urgently:] “Way, stop!” No response. “Driver, halt!”
This didn’t work either because the driver, it seems, had found that there was something jamming the brakes, and he couldn’t de-clutch. He couldn’t be bothered to tell me what was happening, and had just jumped out and left us reversing into the pond until the water had got in and stopped the tank.
The amazing thing was that the co-driver (the lap-gunner), the wireless operator and the gunner in the turret, didn’t get wet the whole afternoon, while the driver and I were soaking wet by the end of the exercise.
After we stopped the driver climbed back in and went into the engine compartment to see if he could clear the fault, but he really wasn’t getting anywhere. They decided they would tow us out, so I had to get out and attach a shackle and tow-wire on to an attachment on the front of the tank, but of course we were still in reverse, so the first attempt failed.
I then had to get down into the driver’s position, which was flooded, to knock the tank out of gear. They towed us out all right, but the driver and I were given officers’ greatcoats to get ourselves warm, put into the back of a 15-cwt., taken back to camp and dried off before being court-martialled!
Fortunately, the initial enquiry was held in our squadron-leader’s office, and although he wasn’t supposed to be there, he announced that, as this was his office he was going to stay. The officers in charge didn’t seem very impressed with my account of what we’d been trying to do, but our squadron-leader was able to impress on them that, from our account, we’d been in charge of the vehicle the whole time, and had done our best to rescue the tank, so we ended up in the clear.
We hadn’t been able to drain the tank down after we’d been towed out, and the water in the hull had got into the electrics which controlled the gyroscope for the gun. Mind you, when we went into battle we always used to disable that anyway, as we found it a nuisance. We used to take the gun-screen off as well, as that can stop the wireless operator from getting out. You just had to be careful you weren’t standing behind the gun when it fired. If you had a good crew, who knew what they were about, you get a good rate of firing this way.
We had an ex-policeman as our wireless operator, and he had a little round seat to sit on: there was a hump in the middle of the turret, and he used to put his feet up on that so that he’d get his knees up. He'd get seven shells in his lap, and he was strong enough to drop them in as the gunner fired. When we used to have two-pounders, I used to be able to do that—stand over the gun with an armful and drop them in, but this was a 75mm. gun, and the shells took a bit of handling! But that was the whole essence of our being a happy crew.
Fortunately, our squadron-leader appreciated the value of happy crews, which I saw at first hand when I was with him in his own crew.
When the tank got knocked out and we had to abandon it, we were living as spare crew, they called me up as a tank commander as a “Firefly” commander had got hurt, and I was to take over this “Firefly”. There were a couple of old sweats I knew who were in that crew, but they weren’t particular mates of mine, so when I got the tip-off that my old tank, and my crew, were coming back I went to see the squadron-leader and told him that the commander who was coming up with my tank was actually a Firefly-trained commander from another squadron, and suggested it might be a good idea if we were swapped over again. The joke was that the Firefly commander’s name was Davies as well, but he spelt it with an “e”. When he arrived I climbed up and tapped him on the shoulder and said, “There’s you tank over there, mate, the Firefly”. This driver, a 13th/18th Hussars bloke, was such a broad Scot you couldn’t talk to him. He could understand, “Driver, Halt” and that sort of thing, but for anything more complicated I had to speak to the copper, who was also a Scot, and he used to tell the driver what I was saying. He knew that his tank commander was Corporal Davies, and couldn’t understand the change. He said, “Where’s Corporal Davies?”, and I answered, “I’m Corporal Davis!”.
To start off with my wireless operator and gunner were doing each other’s jobs, because one wanted to be a gunner, and the other a wireless operator. When I took over the tank they were in that position. They didn't tell me until afterwards that they'd swapped over. Actually, it didn't matter. In theory, you were supposed to be able to do anything in the tank, and that's how we were all trained.
When we were wintering in Belgium, the squadron-leader used to issue orders as we went out on exercises that today, the driver would do so-and-so, the tank commander so-and-so, just to see that we were all fully interchangeable.
Q: Although we’ve talked about events towards the end of D-Day, we’ve not discussed the actual start of it for you. You’ve told me about the crossing, and how impressive it was to be in amongst this immense armada: how much could you and your crew see at the time, as the beaches were coming into sight?
Mr. Davis: I could see everything that was going on, because I was in the turret, of course. In fact, I got my crew out of their normal positions to make sure that they could see all this as well, as I think we realised even then what an important day this was likely to be.
I think that most crews were kept in their action positions, because, technically, if your crew aren’t in position, you aren’t fit to go into action, and going in towards the shore we definitely had to be “fit for action”.
But my own experience as a wireless operator in the desert meant that I can’t remember much about it, because I hardly ever saw anything. The only time I’d seen a German in North Africa was when they were surrendering. I was with the squadron commander at the time, and he asked me if I’d like to pop my head out of the turret and watch them marching past. So I was determined, once I became a commander, that my crew should know as much as I could possibly tell them.
For the crossing and landing, we actually had an extra man aboard the tank, a Military Policeman. You can imagine how much he would have seen of what was going on, as he didn’t even have a periscope to look out with. He’d not been in action before. I admired that man, because as soon as we got on to the beach we were to drop him off—and we had no idea how rough things were going to be.
In the event, of course, things weren’t too bad. Anyway, we had to get his motorbike off the back of the tank—we actually cut it free, as we couldn’t spare the time to undo the nuts and fastenings—drop him on the shore, and he was off and away. I didn’t even know his name—I’d have been interested to get in touch, to see if he’d survived, even. They had lots of nasty jobs to do—such as marking routes through minefields for us. The idea that an MP was a nasty bloke—well, you forgot that in a battle; they were very useful then.
We actually got on to the beach about 9 o’clock, I should think. The leading infantry by that time were off the beach itself, and dug in on the far side of the coast road, in a ditch.
Our original idea had been that we would get off the boat, and form up in a field the other side of the coast road. But the squadron commander immediately sent me off up the road to find about this gun they were complaining about on the Périers ridge, so I chased off there. In fact, that’s where I left our motocyclist. We didn’t know at the time who the infantry were: even when we were carrying them on the backs of our tanks, I haven’t got a clue as to which they regiment they were. It simply wasn’t relevant at the time. They didn’t have any badges; they had steel helmets on, without badges.
We fed them, sometimes, but there wasn’t time to socialise and ask who they were, what job they were on. At one time, we were supposed to be supporting the Highland Division, and I spoke to one of the soldiers, and said, “Hullo, Jock”, and he said, “Who are you calling Jock, Brummie?”. He was a Staffordshire bloke who’d ended up with the Scots: that happened a lot. For example, you might find KSLI amongst the Warwicks, where they’d been sent to make the numbers up.
Q: In the narrative that you sent me earlier, you told me that "as you were coming off the beach, the Reconnaisance Troop called for assistance against an artillery piece firing from the high ground at Périers, and I was ordered to go and see if a heavier tank would be more effective" Could you talk me through that, please?
Mr. Davis: Once we'd cleared the beach, I was just in front of the squadron-leader. His message came through: they'd got a special troop, organised with Honey tanks, which had landed on an earlier ship. They were our own recce troop, all Staffs Yeomanry: I don't think there were any from our squadron, but they were a little unit on their own, under a Captain, just to do reconnaissance.
The Honey was lighter: it was the American Long [?] tank, with a 37mm. gun and machine-guns, and a crew of driver, commander and turret-gunner. Why they'd picked the Honey I've no idea—perhaps they were spare.
We were in Shermans, of course, which weren't very different. The Honeys were supposed to go and poke their noses in here, there and everywhere.
Normandy was very different for us, you see: in the desert, it was all in the open, and you could see what was happening. You didn't get near to your enemy unless you wanted to get within firing-range. This was quite different—there were trees and corn—you could be one side of a hedge, and Jerry would be t'other side, so the idea was our Honeys could nip in and out of holes where we couldn't, and tell us what was where. They'd found this gun up on the hill, so the squadron-leader told me I'd got to go up the road, which was the quickest way up to this gun. He had to go into the fields to organise the squadron.
When I drove up to the road, the gun started firing at the road again. There was just no way I could get the tank up the ridge from there—it wasn't on for the tank.
I reported this to the squadron-leader, so what we did was to go up and round, coming up towards the side of the gun position, which shifted them.
The alarming thing for me there was that I saw a German close-to, eye-ball to eye-ball—in fact I nearly ran him over. There were three of them, the picket for the guns, and they hadn't shown themselves above the corn. I was busy getting my gunner into position to shoot in the direction of the guns.
The idea was that every time we went into a blind alley, the lap-gunner would automatically fire into the hedge, or edge of the field, just to make sure that if there were any Germans there they'd keep their heads down so that the turret man would be free to follow specific targets.
Well, we were pressing on when these Germans popped up. I automatically said "Driver, Right" to miss them, and of course they started shooting at us. I soon learnt my lesson: you got blood on the tracks, if necessary.
As soon as the gun crews on the hill caught sight of us—we were that close we could see the gun-crews, we were covering them with machine-gun fire—they hopped it.
In our regiment, they always sent one tank in front, commanded by the Corporal, so that if he got knocked out, the tanks behind were supposed to be able to see from where he'd got hit. You weren't supposed to rush in, three tanks together.
That was what happened in Goodwood, their gun cover was well dug-in down the slope for protection, but seeing a squadron of tanks running down the hill at them, I don't think they wanted to fight When I first saw them I thought it was the turret of a tank, and I told the gunner to load AP and fire it at him.
Q: They were steel cupolas as defences?
Mr. Davis: No, but what I'd seen had been the gun-shield, and we were practiced at having turret-down positions, so that all you'd see of the tank was the turret and the gun.
We'd loaded with HE, because we'd expected to be shooting at groups of infantry, so he had to empty the gun, reload and fire off the AP. He got several rounds off in quick succession, as he'd decided they weren't going to wait for us! When we drove past it, there was nobody in the position, in fact nobody in sight. They'd all scarpered.
Q: Can we return to the battery at Périers, for the moment, and then the advance towards Lebisey?
Mr. Davis: Yes. The battery had been a diversion, and we'd turned off our direction. We were supposed to be driving for Biéville—Beuville, on our way to Lebisey: that was our line of march, but our whole troop had swung off.
We'd been warned of this big anti-tank ditch on our route towards Caen, in front of Lebisey. One troop had gone down the road; we were going down between the road and the woods on our right, and the other troop was the far side of these woods.
I was on the left of the troop, and the other two tanks skirted the corner of the wood and missed the ditch we hit!
We thought the anti-tank ditch was the little valley itself, but in fact I don't think what we hit was specifically an anti-tank defence. The whole valley looked as thought it had been very recently used as a training area for the Germans.
The Warwicks didn't seem to have reported it, but when we walked out, we kept coming across these wooden frames with outlines of tanks—silhouettes on board—all along the valley. I don't know whether they'd dug trenches to practice throwing grenades at these, or whether they were just slit-trenches. It seems that nobody knew about this except us: just shows how brilliant the patrols were, as the Warwicks were supposed to have sent patrols all along this valley every night!
Anyway, there we were, at the bottom of the Lebisey Ridge (although I didn’t know the name at the time), ditched, and nobody else in sight.
Q: So, you’d hit, and been ditched by, a big trench at the bottom of Lebisey Ridge; you radioed in to say you were in trouble, and had been told to sit tight because the squadron was busy: what happened to you then?
Mr. Davis: The thing which had broken us down was actually a couple of slit trenches, and the tracks had broken in these. We were able to get shelter there. In the end I decided they weren't coming to fetch us: when I'd originally reported it, the squadron-leader had said, "I'm a bit busy now, but I'll see to it later." That would have been about the time the German tanks were coming in to attack, so I could excuse him not actually rushing down!
After we'd got back, the Fitter-Sergeant was prepared to go back and repair the tank, and I was quite prepared to go back with him, just to see if we could fetch it out, and apparently they sent an officer patrol up that valley to check that the tank was secure, as far as security was concerned—to make sure that I hadn't left anything there that the Germans could use.
Q: What had actually occurred, then, was that you'd run across these two slit trenches, and broken both tracks?
Mr. Davis: Yes. The track snaps in two when pins in the links break.
In theory we should have been able to get across a ditch that wide, but it was just bad luck that we hit two of them close together, which was too much for the tracks, because the tank was straddling them both at the same time. It wasn't a simple break, either—there were lots of little pieces. Normally, if you broke one track, you could use the good track to drive the tank to roll it all out, mend your track, then drive on to it again. Having both broken, I needed a workshop.
I think now our tracks had been a bit too tight: the idea was to have a bit of slack in them, but the final time we'd tensioned them had been on the hard-standing at Haywards Heath.
When we'd landed in Normandy, we'd been OK over ordinary soft ground. Shermans were made as road-tanks, you see, with rubber tracks to move fast over Yankee roads. We had to change them over when we got them: first of all there were metal pads instead of the rubber ones.
After that they tried rubber with a V cut in it, then metal ones with a V cut—both of these were intended to make the track dig in slightly, for improved grip. Later, when we got the swimming tanks, we were going up and down the dykes in Holland, and they found then that the narrow track was too heavy for the soft going, so we got extra "Spuds" to widen the track, and spread the load a bit. Being road vehicles they had narrow rubber tracks, and we had to codge it up until we got the wider tracks.
Q: So you and your crew were simply “forgotten” for five days, during which time you were in no “No Man’s Land” and had actually been forward of the lead infantry for five days?
Mr. Davis: Yes, for that little bit we were the front troops of the whole invasion! We didn't get back until the 13th. We must have been in good cover where we'd ditched, because I was able to walk about outside the tank. We used to move up into the woods, except when we were actually being stonked.
We had a certain amount of food in the tank—we weren't going to starve. We could dodge into the slit trenches if they started stonking our area.
I could never understand why the patrols didn't find us—we weren't hiding away. At some stage, out of curiosity, I walked up to the top of the woods, looking for Germans. We were armed with pistols. That was official dress for all crew at one time, but when the Sten gun came out, the gunners got issued with a Sten. What I found was, that as a tank commander, as we were going through German towns we were liable to be sniped, and waving a pistol wasn't much use, so I found a spare Sten—there were plenty lying about—and I used to have that lying on top of the turret, in case anybody objected to our presence!
We had a 0.5” Browning for anti-aircraft use mounted on the turret, and a smoke pistol up there as well when we were in action. Neither of them would have been much help to me if anyone took pot-shots, so I definitely considered the Sten as the tool for the job.
We'd got stonked from both ways, and, having decided that we must have been given up for lost we set about making our way back to our own troops. We had to shelter coming back because it was all dropping round us. Because the infantry hadn’t made any real progress after D-Day, the Warwicks were still behind us on the next ridge, and we crawled through the corn to get over to give ourselves up.
They were pretty nervous, and we thought they might shoot us, thinking we were Germans. Their liaison officer decided we were likely to be more use to them alive, fortunately. The trouble was that, at that time, we had complete overalls, and leather jerkins. We used to go into action in our berets, and only put steel helmets on if there was a heavy stonk on, and we didn't think to take anything off to show we were Brits, and I was holding a white towel up. They respected it, thank goodness.
They took us to their colonel, and he wouldn't believe that I'd been in the ditch for five days, as there was supposed to be a Warwicks patrol up there every night. If they'd been doing their job properly they'd've found us.
I ended up hating the Warwicks, because when they picked us up, and heard we'd been there since D-Day, they'd just had their evening meal, so didn't have any rations available. We got taken down to their headquarters, and their RSM took us down to the cookhouse, only to be told by their RQMS that, since we weren't on their ration-strength, he wasn't going to feed us!
The RSM actually found us a tin of something, but it really was ridiculous. Why they didn't just let us trickle back to our unit I don't know: they just kept us there, presumably their Colonel now being worried that his patrols hadn’t been doing much by way of investigation. I even offered to go with his patrol if necessary, as it was so obvious that he wasn't believing me. In the end they simply sent us back to our unit: I can't tell you where this was, as it was just somewhere behind the lines. We didn't know any names then: I didn't even know the name of Operation Goodwood at the time. They kept taking us out and telling us to go "over there"! I've tried to find various places since, based on hearsay, but without much success.
They just issued me with another tank and another crew when I got back: my crew went to other tanks. You see, as soon as you became spare, you were spare as individuals rather than as a whole crew. I finished up with a 13th/18th Hussars driver. The shame was, when they pulled us back to come back to England fairly quickly, I would have liked him to come, and he wanted to stop with us, but he was sent back to his unit.
Q: This is rather off the point as far as D-Day, but can you tell me why the regiment was pulled out of Normandy at the end of July?
Mr. Davis: We were specifically supposed to be an assault regiment: if anyone was supposed to be in front, it was us.
We were sent back home to train on swimming tanks, and when we went into Europe again we were in support of the Guards Armoured Division. As soon as they struck a snag—maybe a dug-in Panther shooting at them down the road—they'd stop, and call us up.
It was down to us to go round the problem and sort it out, so that they could advance again. They were basing this on our experience. With our Colonel, we used to have bounds by which we were to advance, and as soon as the lead tank would report "OK, I'm here", he would say, "Well, why aren't you going on, what's the hold-up?"
Late on, we even did a little charge at one time. This village was holding up the advance, so the Guards Armoured stopped. We sent one troop down the road, and we were going round the side, our troop. The troop down the road were getting shot at by anti-aircraft guns. One of their chaps got an official commendation because he'd been hit by one of these but still carried on.
We went round the side and our brilliant troop commander decided we should charge the village. There was an open field of about 200 yards. He was going to fire covering fire, and he opted to fire at the church, because it was the only thing he could tell his gunner to fire at, and it turned out that half the village had been sheltering there because the English wouldn't fire at a church, and the only gun we saw in the place was another of these light anti-aircraft guns, rather like our Bofors. They hadn't got any cover, and as soon as they saw us coming the gunners scarpered, and gave us no trouble at all.
Q: After you'd got back to UK after Normandy, how long was it before you went back overseas?
Mr. Davis: We weren't home long, very short and sharp. We went to Fitton and learnt how to get out of a submerged tank in a swimming pool that they'd built. They used to flood it, and we had Pierce bag apparatus [?]. Then we moved down to a big lake concealed by woods, to learn how to get in and swim the tanks about, then we handed the tanks back to the School.
We didn't take any of their gear away, so that we left as foot soldiers. We were bussed to Belgium: the original idea had been that we were to cross the Seine in these swimming tanks, but of course the advance at that time was so quick that by the time we'd caught up with the army they were over the river anyway. We got side-tracked to the Scheldt, and spent some time patrolling up and down.
Q: In swimming tanks?
Mr. Davis: Oh yes. In fact, some Canadians hit a mine in the river on patrol! You really could use these things like boats.
One of the jobs we copped for there was for the Poles. They'd run into trouble and wanted to get across a canal. That was a right kerfuffle.
The Poles were so far up the road it was decided we had to go up on transporters. We were still a secret weapon, so the tanks were all wrapped up so that no-one could see. They took us half-way, then the convoy stopped and the bloke in charge of the transporters says, "We've got another job and we're going to have to leave you here."
We weren't anywhere near where we were supposed to be. I've no idea why our squadron-leader didn't just say, "Now look, mate, get on": anyway he said, "OK, if you've got to go, you go", then to us, "You've got to go on your tracks for the rest of the journey."
We were running on steel tracks, and must have frightened every German village for miles around. It was so cold, although we had an air intake, we normally left the turret open and air was drawn in through the turret. When we used to carry infantry, they'd be sat on a nice warm engine and would say, "Cor, wish I was able to be a tank man!", while all the time we were sitting in the cold due to the constant draught.
On this occasion it was so cold that we shut the hatch down, and I went and sat on the front, at the driver's level, wrapped up in the tarpaulins for the boat, to keep everybody else warm. The driver would be freezing, though, as he'd have his head up through his hatch. We drove through the night, and eventually arrived at this field, goodness knows where, and the officers went to do a recce. and see what the Poles wanted.
It turned out that the canal banks were very steep, too steep to allow us to climb. When we were on the Scheldt, they'd had to construct special ramps to let us climb up. When we'd tried where the bank hadn't been specially-prepared, the tracks would break through and the tank sit down with its belly on the ground, and if that happened there was absolutely no way that we'd be able to shift, even if we dug under as far as we could. What we'd have to do would be to dig back about a shovel's length front and back, taking good care not to get trapped, then get a couple of other tanks, or a recovery vehicle to try and jerk us out.
We had to tell the Poles, "No can do", and spent the day playing football with the local people. The barrage for the next battle was going overhead, but there was nothing else for us to do that day. You might as well enjoy the Army or you might as well go home!
Q: I couldn't help noticing a set of WWII medals in a frame on the wall, and specifically that the War Medal had a "Mentioned in Despatches" oakleaf: are they your medals, and what was the "Mention" for?
Mr. Davis: Well, that was for Normandy. I don't know specifically whether it was because I'd brought my crew back; if not, it's likely it was for a time when we were getting shelled by a 105 from a hill, just after Goodwood.
The fire was so heavy that the light tanks were told to park behind us Shermans, and I felt quite happy until this Stewart pulled up alongside, and then I felt a bit vulnerable. In fact, our only casualty was the Padre, who was with the doctor in his halftrack. He got wounded, and I went over and got him out.
It was decided he should be evacuated to the Aid Post, and one of the fitters said he'd drive and I got in the back with the Padre. The trouble was that once the truck got out on to the road they'd be firing at the dust. I wasn't that bothered, and once the shelling started I lay almost on top of him, reasoning that he'd probably be more nervous than me, only he told me I was actually lying on his injured arm!
I met him later on, when we were in Catterick, but he didn't recognise me. I wasn't really expecting him to recognise me personally, because, having been wounded, perhaps he wouldn't take too much notice of who was with him, but I had my Staffordshire Yeomanry badge on at the time, and you'd have thought he'd have recognised the badge and said "Oh, the old regiment—how are they doing?" or something like that, but he didn't. I saluted him and that was the end of it.
After the war, I was taken out of my TA unit [Note: Yeomanry units were all part of the Territorial Army, not Regulars], and went first of all to the 8th Tanks, who were going immediately to Austria, because at that time Tito was kicking up a bit of a row in Yugoslavia, so we went to stiffen up the Brigade that was in the area.
There were a couple of regiments in the north of Italy, but we were in Austria. The regiment was in a little town called Wiebring [?]. We didn't have any tanks to start with, and we'd taken over from infantry. The word seems to have gone around that there were panzers coming, and the locals were quite apprehensive, and we got quite a hostile reception to start with.
We got there just about Christmas-time, and it snowed, and we were amazed how wheeled transport promptly disappeared, and people got out their sledges and skis, and just carried on. We made friends with the kids: because we didn't have much to do, we spent a lot of time playing with them.
After the war had finished they sent me on a PT course, with several other sergeants, "for recreational purposes". We were under a PTI [Permanent Training Instructor], and he'd teach us the rules of various games, and we were issued with a War Office book with the dimensions of the pitches.
The joke was, that after we'd been boxing, or playing football, or whatever, he'd say, "You, you and you, will prepare a football field ready for tomorrow morning." We'd have to go and chop down trees for goalposts, then go round and mark it out, perhaps dig it out in parts. When we got back to the regiment, any time we stopped somewhere, they'd say, "Right, Sgt. Davis, we want four football pitches, or a running course, or whatever."