The interviewer asked: What state of mind were you in before D-Day?
Apprehensive. What was going to happen, how was it going to happen, how was I as an individual going to cope with it? I’m sure a lot of those around me knew how they were going to cope with it because they had been through it all before. This was some comfort because I knew I was with people I could trust. The colonel of the Staffordshire Yeomanry was a Colonel Eadie, Lieutenant-Colonel Eadie, and he was very respected in his regiment that doesn’t always happen.
I was concerned as to how I was going to face up to this, more particularly, how I might face injury or death. How would I, as an individual, face that and cope with it.
When we left our camp [just before D-Day], we went down to Newhaven in Sussex. It was almost like a carnival atmosphere with the streets. We were going through small villages and the streets were lined, people waving and shouting. We were able to sit outside on top of the tank and wave back.
We got to Newhaven, loaded on the hards, and boarded the Landing Craft Tank, a flat-bottomed boat which took, I think, three tanks and a couple platoons of infantry. I think we actually sailed from there round about dusk on the 4th of June.
We sailed out into the Channel. As you know, the weather turned out to be a big problem. The sea was extremely rough and people were seasick. We remained on the craft overnight of the 4th. We were served this wonderful meal on a rough sea which consisted of a huge of Dixie of pork and bean stew. If you can imagine fatty pork and the way it made people throw up when they saw it on this rough sea. I wasn’t seasick, amazingly, and I quite enjoyed the meal but I think I was the only one.
It must have been on the 5th that the decision had been made that the operation was on. So we then set sail up the Channel, it’s quite a distance from Newhaven along to our landing point, just to the west of Ouistreham. We were due to land between two little villages called Luc-sur-mer and Lion-sur-mer and I think a place nearby was called Hermanville.
Dawn of D-Day
Early dawn on D-Day, we were getting near to shore. As it became light I suddenly became aware of the tremendous number of craft in that particular area. It would have been even more amazing if Id been aware of the scale of the thing. We were going to one beach, which may have been a big beach as far as it looked to us. But the whole of that beachhead was going to stretch for 60 miles and that this armada stretched for 60 miles along the coast. It’s an incredible and quite frightening thought when you think about it.
We weren’t going in till half past ten in the morning. There’d been people in way before us, way back before the hours of dawn, those brave little people in those one-man subs who were going in to suss out the beach and to take out some of the obstacles; and the engineers who followed them to deactivate any mines which were on these tank traps and to demolish some of them. So we weren’t first on the beach.
The next thing I really remember is coming in towards the beach and the tremendous noise. If you’re a member of a tank crew you’re used to noise. The whole of my previous five years had been spent, for much of the day, inside of a tank. Mainly training obviously. They were noisy things, dreadfully noisy.
Your turret was between the driving compartment and the engine. So the engine was within inches of you, separated from you only by a very, very small gauge steel plate. So it was noisy. The noise of the tank in motion was noisy, the tank tracks running over the upper rollers and around the sprockets and clanking, clanking, clanking, all the time. You got your headsets on. You’ve got the background mash of the wireless and the radio, you’ve got the voices coming over the radio. So it was tremendously noisy.
As we approached, the bombardment was commencing from the warships further back and the noise of the bombardment, the sound of the explosion from the boats and the shells going over made it a very, very noisy environment. But in a way, I suppose, it made you also feel slightly detached.
No one sees much in a tank
A tank commander, if he’s got his head screwed on, won’t show too much of his body outside of the turret. A tank commander, with his head screwed on properly, is not going to be looking very much out of that turret because he’s the most vulnerable person in that tank. He’s very much at risk from snipers, high explosive shells bursting, being hit by anything. So he’s normally only just eyes up.
The rest of you’ve got periscopes, but periscopes are not very easy things to see through. They’re small slits. If you can imagine looking through a slit like that to survey that coastline which you can see out here it’s just impossible.
The driver, the gunner the gunner’s looking through a telescope he’s got one eye on it. The wireless operator can look through his telescope but he’s also got to be turning switches from one receiving to another to get on to troop, and to get on to intercom, and all that sort of thing.
You’re doing other things as well so you haven’t got a lot of time to be looking out, but, when you’re looking out through something, it’s almost as if it’s something happening outside you.
As a member of a tank crew you’re one of five people. That’s your unit. And you’re one body as it were. You all rely on each other. And from the inside of this metal shell, you’re in a confined space and you’re cocooned, if you like. You’re not like the poor old infantry soldier who’s out there on his own two feet. He’s got people with him but he’s virtually alone. He’s got to make a lot of his own decisions even though he’s being commanded. He’s got to make a lot of his own decisions.
“My Sunray is gone.”
On the radio net the commander is normally referred to as ‘Sunray’ in radio-telephone jargon. So a tank commander, if you’re talking about him, is the ‘Sunray’.
I can remember the voice of somebody (whose tank commander had obviously been killed) coming on and repeatedly saying, ‘My Sunray is gone. What shall I do?’ Repeatedly saying this until he got an answer, and I suppose the answer was you just get on with it.
But I remember that voice because it was somebody who didn’t know what to do in those circumstances and I could feel for him obviously.
I think one thing we weren’t trained well in all our years of training was getting down to that sort of basic. I was lucky in that I had been to a regiment where we were taught something about tactics, we had a stint commanding tanks and that sort of thing but generally once that had finished you weren’t taught how to cope with that sort of thing. I would have thought that was really an essential. On D-Day, particularly those poor people on Omaha beach, couldn’t have known really what they were going in to.
The tide was low when we got to the beach. So we landed in shallow water on a good beach so we had no problem in getting onshore at all.
There was a traffic jam. It was such an incredible operation. So much of the troops and armour had been landed but you’ve got to get off the beach. Our house was spotted very quickly so we knew we got the right landmark. Then we got up to the surrounding countryside, and the field we were supposed to cross had been mined. So we then had to find another way round.
We didn’t appear to be meeting any real opposition. The opposition may have been scared off by the bombardments, somebody else may have got there first, or maybe there was a bigger area mined then we were aware of. They [the Germans] weren’t concentrating so much on that particular tiny bit. So we had to find our way around, we needed to go into a road and make a detour.
We crossed the open country adjacent to this minefield. And it was then that we saw some [German] stragglers [trying to surrender]. There was no way we could stop and deal with them and they just wandered on through. They looked jolly relieved to be going in the direction they were going with their hands up. I don’t think they were very high quality troops.
Further in, we were signaled to by a German who wanted to surrender and to this day I don’t know why we did it, but we stopped. We didn’t know what to do with him. There were no ground troops with us to whom we could hand him over. We weren’t prepared just to let him wander in case he did any damage to anyone further back. We could’ve finished him off but we put him in our turret. That tends to amaze me now.
He did as he was told because I got my pistol on him. But if he’d been a kamikaze warrior he could’ve caused a lot of damage. He got rid of him very quickly though. We offloaded him to some infantry when we came across them.
We didn’t meet any resistance further on until we managed to get to the road which was our objective. Caen was our [final] objective on D-Day, and there were several roads into Caen. But the one we were aiming for was south of place called Lebisey Wood. Between us and the road was a huge ditch, a tank trap.
We didn’t think we were going to be able to get down and up this tank ditch. To cross a ditch, you’re going down nose first and you’ve got to have enough grip and enough space to climb up the other side. And if you can’t, your tank slides down and you’ve had it. You’re completely out of action.
In the event, we did in fact tackle this and got down the other side. I think the gunner nearly broke his neck when he went back against his head rest.
That was a major obstacle, but we were on the road. There were a few soldiers, I think it was the Causley [Mr. Meredith pronounced KSLI as a word], the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who we were with. I think we took some of them on the back of our tank along this road.
Training is significant. The infantryman is trained to live in the environment in which he’s going to be placed. And for those infantrymen to get up and ride on the back of our tank was as much as they could mentally prepare themselves to do. They hated it. They didn’t feel safe. Whereas I felt much safer in the environment I was fighting in than I would have been on the ground. So they weren’t very happy and they got off with great relief when we stopped.
By this time though we were on our own. I was trying to think this morning where the rest of the troop were, the certainly weren’t with us. And our nearest contacts were to other troops in the squadron to our right.
When we landed we were the easternmost edge of the whole British Army second sector. The Canadians were to our right. And apart from us, there was only the 6th Airborne Division to our left. We were on the western edge of the River Orne and the canal, very near the famous Pegasus bridge. That’s the area we were in but we were on our todd at that time.
There were a few infantry lying ahead of us, on the road. Dead.
Further up, to the top of the road, and beyond which you couldn’t see, there was a slight bend. There was a bridge over the road with an archway. I think it was probably the railway line which went through that area and into Caen.
There was activity there but going ahead on our own, we would have been completely exposed without support. And if were eliminated there would have been a free way for somebody else to come from that direction and cause more trouble for our people. So our instructions were to hang on there.
The other people weren’t quite so lucky. As bad luck would have it, there was a unit, the 21st Panzer Division, which was moved across to where we were. Several of our tanks from other troops were destroyed by this unit. Two other troop leaders were killed, just at that point in time. And that was as far as we got on D-Day.
It was nightfall and the wood we were in was Lebisey Wood as far, I think, as any unit got on D-Day. And for this our tank commander, Lionel Knight, was awarded the MC. Afterwards, during the commemorations of D-Day, no mention was ever made of this in any of the programs or reports that I read.
Tanks don’t stay out in woods or the open at night. They laager. We withdrew then to an area where the whole squadron laagered together. First thing you had to do was to refuel your tank with petrol or diesel. Stock up again with ammunition. Look after your tank first, just like the cavalry used to look after their horses when they returned. And then look after your own sustenance, rations up and a hot drink. I think we spent the first few nights just on our blankets on the ground next to the tank. We learned not to sleep under a tank because if you’re on soft ground the whole thing could sink on top of you. It was a bit dicey.
It was a very short night. It was a noisy night. Whether we slept, we must have dosed anyway. We were up before first light to take up new positions.
On that first day we had reached Lebisey Wood and it took another month of hard, bloody, fighting to get back to that same point. I can’t remember details of places or particular battles. There were no major battles as far as we were concerned. They were all a continuous action.
NOTE: The regiment was withdrawn to England in July 1944. When the Staffs reached Yarmouth, it was announced that Lieutenant-Colonel Eadie, D.S.O., was leaving the regiment. Major C.R. Farquhar, M.C., took command.
At the end of January, Lieutenant-Colonel Farquhar was reappointed. The new Commanding Officer of the Staffs was Lieutenant-Colonel J. Trotter of the Grenadier Guards. The Staffs were then part of General Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division.]
We lost our original commanding officer and his 2/i.c. [second-in-command which Mr. Meredith pronounced as ‘two eye see’] We had a couple changes in command and eventually we had a chap from the Guards, Colonel Trotter, who took over the regiment.
Our first CO, Colonel Eadie, was tremendously highly regarded. He was the man who’d taken the regiment right the way through the desert and had come back to England with them and taken them through the Normandy campaign.
It was just before we came back to England to pick up our DD tanks that Colonel Eadie was transferred to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. We understood he was going to be Brigadier in charge of the Tactical Wing. We were very sad to see him going. He was a brilliant tactician. I’m quite convinced we got as far as we did [on D-Day] because of him and that we lost as few tanks as we did was of him.
His 2/i.c was a Major Farquhar, equally respected, but he too was posted elsewhere. I think these changes probably took place when we transferred into the 79th Armoured Division which was run by a General Hobart.
I think he tried to model himself on Monty. He pinched Monty’s beret idea and put his badges around the top. He wasn’t very well regarded by the men. Not in our regiment anyway. He may well have been in the other regiments, but he didn’t go down well with the Staffs. He was always a bit of a pushy fellow and a bit of a showman. I think he was very proud of what he’d done in creating the 79th Armoured Div and he was probably justified in being proud of this.
All of the tanks which had been adapted to specific purposes were known as Hobart’s Funnies. And some of them were brilliant inventions and brilliantly used. You got your Churchill tanks which were converted for use with fascines which would throw huge bundles of palings into a tank ditch to cross it. You had a Churchill with a Bailey bridge on it. You got the really fierce some flamethrowers which were horrifying to see in use. How anybody ever survived being winkled out of bunkers or trenches with the use of these things I don’t know. They were really fierce some looking things. And the flails which used to clear minefields were another brilliant invention. Very, very good.
Somehow, I don’t think we ever felt part of Hobart’s crew as a regiment that was my feeling as a soldier on the ground.
I only saw him from a distance. Mark you, you very rarely see your commanding officer as a soldier. I don’t think I ever spoke to my commanding officer, not the colonel. You very rarely saw your squadron leader. I doubt he ever knew you all by name. The officer you saw all the time was your troop leader, who was either a lieutenant or a captain. So you didn’t come into touch with the commissioned officers very often.
I think I probably saw Montgomery more than I ever saw anybody else. But he was a man who liked to be seen. He was well respected, especially by his desert troops. The Staffs Yeomanry were a desert regiment. So they were very proud of Monty.
You did see Monty up the line. He was determined that he’d put everybody in the picture. This was evidenced by all the information that was given to you preceding D-Day. If people knew what their job was and what other people were going to do they would feel far more confident in trying to do it. I think he was right, too.
It’s disturbing to see some of the histories which are written by people who weren’t there at the time and who try to analyze military campaigns and military leaders. I think Montgomery did a good job. And it’s a bit sad to see some of these books which infer that he was an inferior general to people like Patton, who I don’t think was a good general. He got the opportunities and he was able to push through and breakthrough because Montgomery had taken the pressure off Patton. That’s my view anyway.