Note: This narrative has been edited from a recorded interview. The recording is from the Sound Archives, Imperial War Museum, London, England. Accession numbers are 18828/4/2 and 18828/4/3. My copy of the interview is undated, but it took place in 1994 or after.
Lionel Knight served from North African campaign to the end. On D-Day he was Lieutenant, Troop Leader, Staffordshire Yeomanry, C Squadron.
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Detail map of D-Day tank battle showing approximate squadron routes (from the Staffs regimental history by Kemp).
Tripoli, 1943. Officers of the Staffs Yeo in an unfortunately fuzzy photo (scanned from the regimental)..
Lieut. L.H. Knight is in the back row, fifth from the left.
Lieut. D.F. Alexander is in the centre row, second from the right.
Map of the Staffs Yeo Rhine Crossing (from the regimental).
I was a second lieutenant in Egypt. They eased me in [in North Africa], they were very good. I had had no battle experience in tanks and they put me in reserve for the first battle we had. I didn’t come in until it was all over. Then I become a lieutenant, a troop leader. We were equipped with troop of Crusaders at that time. We had one squadron of Crusaders, and two squadrons of Shermans. And our squadron was the Crusaders. They were quite fast, the Crusaders, they were very lightly armoured. They only had two pounder guns on them. They were the ones who did the scouting forward until you hit something. Then up came the rest. Of course, that was really the story of the North African campaign: a series of what they called left hooks, out flanking the Germans all the way.
With scouting:] The idea was to test out where the people were and where they weren’t. And then you found them, get back as quickly as possibly for the heavier stuff to come up and deal with it. Because ours we couldn’t deal with it really. The Germans, even at that time, had 88 millimeter guns while the best we had was 75 millimeter on the American tanks and the 6 pounder which they later put onto the Crusader. You had one six pounder per troop. The rest were two pounders [Laughs]
The terrain was pretty awful at times. They was so much dust, you were on top of the German anti-tank people before you knew where you were. It was very scary. You never knew. The Germans were good. They were very good altogether. Unfortunately.
When you’re in the midst of it, you don’t think very much about it. Maybe I have a selective memory. I think most people do when they’re talking about this sort of thing, you know. You remember the things you want to remember.
Went up through Tunisia, Tunis, very nice town, that’s about all I can tell you. Of course, the war was about over by then. We had some leave. I went to Algiers for about two days I think, by the time you traveled there and traveled back. It was about six hundred miles each way.
We stayed up there for a month or more, on the Mediterranean. And had a holiday, that’s what it was.
Then they sent me back from there, believe it or not, I couldn’t believe my luck really. I was sent back to Cairo with a crew from the regiment on a gunnery exercise. [Laughs] Someone who’d been traveling all the way up through the whole campaign they sent us back to Cairo barracks for a gunnery exercise. They had this huge room there and a massive table and sand all over the place and little vehicles popping around. And we were there with a fixed two-tin gun firing at these things in the mock sand. It was pathetic really.
Then the whole regiment embarked at Alexandria, and we came home via the Mediterranean. Dropped in at Sicily, we didn’t go ashore. And then landed back in Scotland. And we were all given two weeks leave. It must have been Christmas 43. Then they reassembled us and sent us to Lossiemouth, Scotland, and we were there all through January, February, and March. It was a bit of a culture shock having come back from the Middle East to the north of Scotland. It was a bit chilly to say the least.
We were doing exercises, cross-country exercises, because wed done none of that abroad, you see, there were no hedges and trees and that type of thing out there. It was a different ballgame altogether.
We were sent down to near Newmarket, and there all our tanks were waterproofed, ready for the invasion. That took quite a long because a lot of welding took place, extra armor was put on the tanks, and we were all by then equipped with 75 millimeters and Sherman tanks diesel Shermans which were a vast improvement. And then we were sent down to Brighton. And we camped on the streets of Brighton for three or four days because we were all self-sufficient. This was the beauty, if you like, about the tank regiments, as it was. Each tank had their food supply onboard, their own makings. And you all had to take your turn making the meals. That did not mean that because you were a sergeant or an officer that you were excused. You weren’t. You had to take your turn at it. And you had such a great sense of comradery that it made for a really good feeling. You very rarely got people falling out.
From there we went to Newhaven. And landed onto LCT’s. I think they held about seven tanks.
D-Day was cancelled for a day, as you know, and we had rather a nasty time sitting around in Southampton water going up and down lots of people seasick. And then the following morning, I think it was four hours off of sunrise, something like that, we went and landed over there.
The voyage across wasn’t too bad. But then I’ve never had any difficulties about the sea. I didn’t think it was bad at all. I thought it was pretty calm actually.
What I do remember most particularly about the landing, a mile or two ashore, we had a load of rocket launchers on flat bottom boats. And these things were sent off in salvos. Just shot up in the air, at an angle. And landed God knows where in France somewhere. But quite a sight.
I saw two landing craft, not ours, go down. We couldn’t stop if we wanted to. The small craft were unmaneuverable.
We landed and I couldn’t believe it. There was not a shot fired. Not a shot. We landed there and we were supposed to assemble at a certain point. When we got there, it was a minefield. So we had to push along for about another mile along the road and then push off the road and into the fields.
My squadron, C Squadron, we pushed inland and then as we went further forward cautiously. Underneath our tanks, chained on to the rear, we had a large metal pontoon, the size of the length of the tank. It was all full of ammunition. So you dragged this off after you, up the beach, down the road, and onto the field where we eventually landed up you took out a pole with a flag on top, dumped the pontoon, and stuck the flag in the ground for the people to come along and lift the ammunition.
So we left that particular area and then B Squadron came in after us. One of my best friends, Alexander, a Scot, got killed [Lt. D.F. Alexander]. Our squadron was there first and they [the Germans gunners] were surprised and they just didn’t get their heads around it. But as soon as B Squadron landed, they started to beat them up, and he was killed. Had his head taken off.
The objective was, that day, to take Caen, which we never did of course. I think it was the East Yorkshire Regiment [actually the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry] that was in front of us and the objective was to take this place called Lebisy Wood. Which wasn’t easy for them because it was on very high ground.
My troop as it so happened, were down in the dip prior to going up the lane to Lebisy when a counterattack came in from the Germans. This basically would have cut us off. But the rest of our regiment behind me could see it coming and they were able to fire down on the incoming tanks, fortunately, and we were okay.
We went up the lane and the first sighting I had a German on French soil was a motorcycle and sidecar coming around the corner at the top of the hill. I let a few shots, the gunner did, and the last I saw of him he tumbled off into the woods leaving the bike and sidecar there.
On the return we took onboard one of the infantryman, I believe one of these East Yorks, who was slightly wounded, on the back of the tank. And also a German prisoner of war. They only word he could say to me was, Ost , Ost I hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was trying to say, course I did later. He was not a German. He was, I presume, a Russian. He also went on the back of the tank, very happy to give himself up. And we had to withdraw then because the Yorks [the KSLI] could no longer hold the position. They had been pretty badly knocked around. And we went back. And I think it was another four to six weeks before we got to Caen eventually. But if we’d had another infantry regiment that day we could have done it.
So there you are. That’s war.
We were in that area for quite a few times. Incidentally, I met a neighbor of mine there, from Plymouth, he was in the Gordon Highlanders.
We were being shelled fairly consistently in our area from LeHavre. They had long distance guns based in LeHavre and they were firing across into the area in which we landed. Didn’t do much damage. You’d hear them coming and get down.
I think the more frightening thing, when we first landed, was the HMS Nelson. When she was firing shells over our heads, they made tremendous noise. This was obviously D-Day and the day after.
Then, of course, it was all a question of lining up on the bank of the River Orne. The idea was to push down on that side and take Caen on the left-hand side as you faced it. And I think we had another tank regiment in front of us which I believe was the Fife and Forfar [nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry]. It was going to be a bit of a charge. They laid down an artillery barrage in front of us, well, allegedly in front of us, it was landing all around us in actual fact, but they lifted eventually and moved on. A bit frightening, that.
The Fife and Forfar went on first. And they got an awful hammering. I don’t know how many tanks they lost. When we went through where they were there were tanks all over the place, some down in bomb craters, some on fire. We passed through them and our objective was a railway line: presumably the one that went into Caen.
When I got there I heard a bang and came to a grinding halt. It was the first time I had a hit on my tank. A lot of smoke starting coming in behind the turret so we all had to jump out. And of course our infantry wasn’t up with us then. So it was a bit worrying but we did get out.
The firing at us stopped. I thought we might as well get back into the tank again because it hadn’t caught fire. The smoke we saw was from the tank’s fire extinguisher vapor. The shot had gone right through behind the tank’s turret and knocked off the top of the fire extinguishers as it had gone through.
So we got back into the tank. We hadn’t been there more than a couple of minutes and we got another bang. We’d been hit again. So we all jumped out again. This time the shot had hit the idle wheel. This is a wheel no more than about nine inches in diameter which is underneath the turret to carry the track. And the shot had hit the idle wheel. Of course, it had taken all the whiz out of it. All it did was dent the side. Purely luck, it would have taken our legs off if it had gone through. So we were lucky. Twice.
We stayed there from then on until the others came up.
I was reading in the regimental book that Barclay [Meredith] let me have and it said there was a suspicion that it was our own tanks that fired on me from another regiment. Supposition, I suppose. It didn’t make any difference anyway. Barclay was my wireless operator, in my tank for quite a long time.
After Caen was taken:] We were withdrawn, our tanks were left in Normandy, the whole regiment went back to England. We were sent to Yarmouth where there was a large number of lakes and we started our training for D.D. tanks.
The D.D.’s were Shermans with a skirt around it, never had any fears about the things. Mind you, I could always swim so it didn’t matter. I do remember that when we were at the camp in Yarmouth one of the exercises we had to undertake was to get out of a turret of a tank that was sunk in a swimming bath, a deep swimming bath. And then we had our little Davis escape apparatus, type of thing. And we sat in it while the water went up around and went up to the top and then we had to let ourselves out one at a time when the water had gone up far enough.
I’ve never been frightened of water. I’ve always been able to swim as far as I can remember so it never worried me. I can’t think that it frightened anybody else really. Not in my lot anyway.
We were there for quite a while and then went back with our tanks, the [D.D.] ones with the old canvas sides, to Belgium.
I didn’t go on that journey myself because I was down with ulcer trouble and I had to go to hospital for a week. I think it [the illness] was largely due to the fact that in D.D. tanks you were standing on the turret. And you had a tiller and at the back the exhaust couldn’t be where it normally is. It was let out in a big duct over the back. If you got a following wind, all the diesel fumes used to come back on you and I think that’s what caused it to flair up.
So I picked them up again in Brussels about ten days later, by which time the war had moved on, of course, and we went off into Holland on the River Meuse and we practiced on the River Meuse for three or four weeks probably. Basically for crossing the River Rhine. It was very similar in many ways. We did several crossings from one side to the other.
My lasting memory was that wherever we parked our tanks, because we were living in houses at that time, the whole place was flooded for about two weeks it was flooded about a foot deep in water where all the tanks were parked. It rained and rained and rained. We eventually got fully trained at that and pushed on into Germany.
And our sole object was to get over the Rhine. And our regiment would have crossed it north of a town called Rees. [See map in far left column] And we sent a recce over, with what they called Crocodiles, over to pick landing spots which were supposed to be lit with green lights, two green lights, one above the over.
I was first in. We went down the slope. We had quite a bit of gunfire. One or two of the tanks had the canvas broken so they couldn’t do the trip.
We got into the river and it was quite fast flowing. I seemed to have been there a long time and I didn’t see two green lights, and suddenly I saw one green light. I thought, well, the other one might have gone out or something so I started to land. Get on it and I found out I was on a mud bank. Before I realized what I was (I thought I’d crossed the river) I let the canvas side down and of course my other two tanks, or three in actual fact, came over and one got stuck in the mud. There was a shellfire going on at that time. It was very uncomfortable. And I had to get out of the tank, get the chains out and hook on to the other tank and pull it out. Of course then you’ve got the problem of are we going to risk going the distance between this bank we were on and the actual true bank of the river. I probably didn’t have enough gas anyway to fill it up again. So I took the chance and as it so happened the water didn’t come up above the turret level so we were all right. And the other three followed over.
The actual place I landed, of course, was the wrong one. The other one was about two hundred yards downstream. I went down and was able to link up with them by which time the squadron leader had arrived and I was detailed, with my troop, to go up and link up with the Canadian Highlanders. And I toddled off and hadn’t gone about twenty or thirty yards when I went up on a mine. Blew the tracks off. So I got out of that tank and had to get into my corporal’s tank and we went up with the two other tanks remaining to the Canadian Highlanders. I called them the Highlanders, they did have a particular name but I can’t remember it now but they were Scottish Canadians. We were only there with them overnight. In the meantime our A and B Squadrons had gotten a pretty bad mauling crossing further up the river.
From then on we weren’t really in the forefront of the fighting. We were there at the back. We went into various towns which we consolidated after the infantry had been there. We were the first tanks into the towns but we didn’t have to do very much. Just the odd pocket of resistance but there was nothing much to worry about.
We went on and went through and freed town after town. We did meet up with one nasty bit of resistance; I can’t remember where it was. That was where I saw a lot of German prisoners coming in. We had been firing on their positions and the infantry had gone up, again it was a Scottish infantry battalion that had gone up and sorted them out and these Germans all came down the road. They looked as if they were drunk, quite frankly, they were looking so happy. Perhaps they were glad to get it all over I imagine that because obviously things were going downhill as far as they were concerned.
Well, from there on it was a bit of a ride as far as we were concerned. Most of the time we were more in a supporting role. We still had these DD tank business and I think, this is my own opinion, they didn’t want to damage them in case they wanted to use them again. They didn’t want to be getting them knocked around too much, to damage the skirt or something like that, you see, would put them out. It’s only a theory, maybe wrong. But we didn’t have any hard fighting from then on.
German civilians were accommodating. They didn’t show any sign of animosity. I wouldn’t expect them to, would you? Because they didn’t know how we were going to treat them.
We treated them very well. I never saw anybody being knocked around. I only ever heard of one case of rape. And that was by a Canadian. And that’s the only case I heard of any ill treatment at all. It may not have even been true but I think it was. There are always some bad eggs, aren’t there?
I can honestly say that I never ever saw a German being ill treated.
We went on then to a place called Cella, just outside Hanover. We were only a very few miles from Belsen. Went up there, mind you it was some days after it had been gone through and we were only there for a few hours, but it was pretty awful that.