No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess, darling, At present, there is little sign of activity, and I am enjoying a little peace and quietness after a rahter busy time chasing the fleeing enemy. We are stationed in a very beautiful countryside, and its peace and tranquillity is not even being disturbed by the noise of gunfire. I think it was about three days ago that I was able to say I hadn’t heard, during a whole day, the sound of a single gun, bomb or mortar since I landed in Normandy… And similar conditions have prevailed since.
A few days ago we passed through the largest town I have seen since crossing over here. (Pont Audemer: Diary entry 29.8.44). It is a town through which the Germans retreated too rapidly to put up much resistance, and so it has not been much ‘in the news’. For the same reason, it has not been very badly damaged, and a fairly large civilian population was there when our column passed through… a day or so behind the Germans.
For the first time, I actually witnessed those scenes of welcome which are so often mentioned in the press… and it was an interesting experience. As we entered the main shopping street of the town, I could see long lines of people along our route… and flags hanging from practically every window… mostly “Tricolours”. There was much hand-waving and saluting and cheering. Flowers were thrown on our vehicles… mostly dahlias: the local gardens are ablaze with them just now. I saw a lot of old people. They looked bewildered… as though just waking from a long dream: some were smiling happily… others seemed too overwhelmed for anything but tears. And practically without exception, the old men raised their hats to each vehicle as it passed by.
I am convinced that these people were genuinely glad to see us. This enthusiasm was absolutely sincere. I felt glad to have done a little towards restoring something of their lost happinesses. And strangely enough, a little lump persisted in blocking my throat: I’m sure I would have been in tears myself had there been much more of it. As we entered the town centre I could see that several shops were open… the first ‘open’ shops I have seen in France. The town lies in a steep and well wooded valley and the river rushes rapidly between rocky banks and beneath what used to be a fine bridge. But the Germans managed to destroy the latter in order to delay us. Our engineers had been busy, however, and another bridge was already functioning. We passed over it, and up the winding road and out again into the country. But everywhere there were waving people. Returning their greetings became almost embarrassing. And I wasn’t sorry when we eventually turned off the main road and found our way to the peace and quietness of this harbour.
I have noticed a greater friendliness among the people as we move eastwards. I don’t know whether those living further west are naturally more reserved owing to their isolated position in the peninsula… or whether they were resentful because of the damage caused by our invasion. But I know that I feel less uncomfortable as we advance. I am not constantly wondering whether someone with a grudge is going to put a bullet in me from the rear. This makes life a little less harassing.
I told you in an earlier letter that I would try and find some further details about Jimmy Aldcroft’s escape. I am now able to tell you a little more of the story… and I leave you to inform Jess if you wish to do so. As I told you before, Charlie Mansell… who was the gunner in Jimmy’s tank… is now back from England, and it is from him that I have obtained the information. I will have to omit a few technical details as I don’t want to be accused of a breach of security… particularly when using a ‘green’ envelope.
The method in which the tank was disabled can only be surmised… as in all such cases. A direct hit appears to have penetrated from the right… passing through one of the ammunition chambers. The shot itself muct have passed within inches of Jimmy’s legs because he would be standing on that side of the vehicle. The interior of the tank became a mass of flames instantly… presumable owing to the ammunition exploding. The tank commander (Sgt. Jones) and the gunner, Mansell, ‘baled out’ in a split second… probably more by instinct than anything else, and it was assumed that the rest of the crew had done likewise.
Jones’ position in the vehicle enabled him to get out without injury… but Mansell followed later, and was burned… particularly on his face and right hand. Consecutive thought is not possible under these circumstances, and it is therefore not surprising that they both ran some yards from the vehicle, in a cornfield, before something prompted Mansell to look back for the rest of the crew. I think it is possible that Jimmy’s life was saved because of this. Mansell saw him struggling to get out through the commanders hatch… not his own operators hatch. he immediately informed Sgt. Jones, and they both rushed back to the blazing vehicle. Jones clambered up and grabbed hold of Jimmy’s now unconscious body… lying half in the tank. He got him out somehow and passed him down to Mansell who lowered him to the ground. And it is there that Jimmy appears to have regained consciousness.
But their position was precarious. Apart from the danger of the vehicle exploding there was the enemy to consider. It was here that Jimmy amazed Mansell by his courage and determination. He was badly burned… having been inside the vehicle for about a minute longer than the others…his hand was hideously disfigured… and his face already peeling and swelling. But he insisted on crawling through the cornfield and back to a trench somewhere in the rear, where some infantrymen were already taking cover from enemy machine-gun fire. And whilst they sat in this trench Jimmy calmly started describing the interior of a burning tank… for the benefit of the infantry lads! Mansell says he is a ‘marvellous chap’… words seem to fail him in his appreciation of Jimmy.
Later on a Canadian officer entered the trench. He was blinded… and was subsequently led to safety by Jimmy and Mansell. When they ultimately reached the nearest first aid post, Jimmy was made a stretcher case and Mansell saw no more of him. I mentioned Jimmy’s back injury, but Mansell couldn’t explain this: it was the first he had heard of it. He suggested that it may have been caused by Jimmy trying to force open his own hatch, or by crawling beneath the gun in his efforts to reach the commanders hatch. Or it may have been caused by exploding ammunition.
I enquired about the rest of the crew i.e. the driver and co-driver. It appears that Sgt. Jones endeavoured to locate them after rescuing Jimmy, but flames were by now pouring from the drivers hatch, and nearside loading door (the latter being wide open!) and it was impossible to recognise anything inside the vehicle. Since the occurrence however, it has been established that the driver is alive… in England. But his movements are a complete mystery to Mansell. The remains of a body were subsequently found inside the vehicle… and it would therefore appear that the co-driver lost his life… possibly by a direct hit from the original shell.
From stories I have heard from others who took part in that day’s battle, I am certain that Jess (Aldcroft) has every reason to be proud of Jimmy. He must have been utterly contemptuous of his own danger and suffering and his behaviour has been a great inspiration to others. Sgt. Jones and Mansell too did a very gallant thing in returning to that blazing tank. It is no exaggeration to say that they both risked their lives in saving Jimmy.
Jones subsequently took command of another tank and saw further action, but he has been severely shaken and I believe his nerves are in a bad way. He is at present employed in the rear, working with one of the non-fighting echelons of the unit.
Mansell is now back on tanks… seemingly quite well again… seemingly!
When you see Jess, please remember me to her… I am really looking forward to seeing her and Jimmy when I get back. Meanwhile if there is anything else she would like to know, I will do my best to help. And if there is any more news of Jimmy, there are many of us here who would be glad to know it.
And now I must leave you… But I will be writing again this evening: it is so nice being able to write under these peaceful conditions.
Au revoir, Jess dear.
P.S. Many flowers were thrown upon our vehicle the other day… Here are a few petals: a tiny symbol of a nation’s gratitude to our army.