No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess Darling, Your recent letters have confirmed that my infrequent notes during the last two or three weeks have caused you some anxiety. I am not surprised about this, my dear. I would have given anything to avoid causing you the slightest worry, but it couldn’t be helped. Jerry started to move quickly… and we had to do likewise… to prevent him completely disengaging and withdrawing his armies intact. As you know, Gen. Montgomery’s policy has been to kill the enemy… rather than gain territory. Fortunately, we have been able to do both… And… unfortunately this time… one can’t chase about Normandy after Germans… and write letters at the same time. But at the moment we are enjoying remarkably peaceful conditions and this is a grand change. As a matter of fact, it is several days since I heard the sound of our artillery. And that alone is a great blessing.
There is a distinct change in the weather now. For the last few days, the mornings and evenings have been quite cool… especially the former. It is a hell of a job to get out of bed in the morning – especially when it is wet and misty as it has been lately. You can imagine how fervently I am hoping to be out of this country before the winter really comes along… But I don’t only want to be out of France. I want to be with my Jess… and our little son. I want to be home… where there is so much love and companionship and beauty… Home… where I can forget the bestialities of war and can learn once again how to behave as a civilised being. I only hope I am not going to prove too much of a problem for you, my love. I fear you are bound to notice changes in me: changes of which I am ignorant. And maybe you will have to exercise much patience. But I will do my best to behave rationally – and to help you with the burden of running the home. I am looking forward to it so much.
As there is so little happening to me just now, I find myself at a loss for something to tell you. But the past is a useful resevoir: let me tell you of a recent incident… about which I made a few notes at the time. Unfortunately, my story has got to be in the first person… and I fear that the word “I” will become monotonous. Therefore I must warn you that I am merely attempting to describe a situation of which there must be tens of thousands of counterparts over here. The presence of danger and death are no man’s prerogative in war…
First of all then, there is my crew… Cpl Geary as wireless operator and loader, L/cpl Pestell as gunner, Tpr. Boland as driver, and Tpr. Pedder as co-driver. The squadron had received sudden orders to attack a certain hill with a heavily wooded summit. It was not a big hill, but quite steep… and hardly suitable ground for our vehicles. However the enemy were ‘in possession’ and they had to be shifted. Our orders were to assist the infantry at all costs.
Unfortunately, our start point was at the foot of the hill amongst a mass of small orchards… each orchard being surrounded either by large closely spaced trees, or by ditches. It was a very difficult start from our point of view. Our troubles started immediately after the advance commenced. Firstly, it was impossible to fire our H.E. from the orchards, as contact with the trees would have exploded the shells over our own men. Also, the ditches, some of them quite deep and filled with water, made progress very slow and difficult.
In the first few minutes, a few of our vehicles were having track trouble… mine included. We managed to “limp” towards a hedgerow and took what cover we could. On inspecting the damage, I found the job would take 2 or 3 hours to rectify, providing we could borrow suitable tools. That put my vehicle and crew out of the action less than half and hour after it had commenced. Whilst inspecting my vehicle, I noticed another about 100 yards to the right: it was burning and must have received a direct hit. Needless to say, I hoped that I was not under observation by the same enemy gunners.
Immediately in front of my vehicle was a small orchard, and in the centre of it, about fifty yards distant, a small half-timbered house was blazing fiercely. This had been severely blasted by the squadron en route for the hill: enemy snipers had been reported firing from it.
Some attempt had to be made to repair my vehicle, even with inadequate means, so I ordered the crew to dismount and get busy… which they did willingly enough. It seemed to me that we were sufficiently screened by the hedgerow and the orchards to make the job possible. And in any case, we couldn’t just remain as we were and do nothing about it. I had heard some enemy machine gun fire to our left, but it seemed more than likely that our advance had silenced this gun.
After working for about 10 minutes or so, am enemy H.E. shell exploded about 6 yards to our right: we had no warning whatever apart form a momentary ‘swish’ just prior to the explosion. The blast shook us into life, and to my amazement all five of us ran like hell around the left side of the vehicle to take cover beneath the rear: not one of us had been hit by shrapnel! Pedder and Pestell were the first to get under the tank, followed by Boland, Geary and myself. But just as the last three of us were taking cover, another H.E. shell landed by the side of us… again about six yards distant. There seemed to be a struggling mass of humanity beneath the tank and I heard Geary groaning. He had been hit by the second shell. He was surprisingly cool as he raised his left arm and showed us the blood pouring from it.
I quickly scrambled out and dashed back into the vehicle for the first aid kit. Fortunately, there was no third shot. By the time I had collected the first aid kit, Geary had crawled away from the tank and was standing by with blood simply pouring from his arm. It was obvious that an artery had been severed, apart from any other damage. Something had to be done quickly, so I rushed him across to a nearby house in which I had previously noticed some infantry ambulance men taking cover. Meanwhile the rest of the crew remained beneath the vehicle.
The wound was quickly inspected and bandaged and a tourniquet applied to his arm. By this time, Geary was looking really ill: his colour was ashen and I felt sure he was still losing too much blood. We had to get him away for proper attention. The nearest ambulance – a ‘jeep’ – was a quarter of a mile back in the village. He said he could walk alright and was already speaking of re-joining the crew! An ambulance man accompanied us to the village: en route, we had a ‘rest’ to take cover from mortar fire. At the first aid post in the village, I found two members of the crew of the burning tank. They looked ghastly, but were physically unhurt: I learned that one member of the crew had been killed: his body was still in the vehicle.
Geary’s tourniquet was re-applied, and he climbed aboard the jeep: he was still quite conscious, but looked very sick, but I now knew that he was principally suffering from “severe haemorrhage” and shock, and felt less worried about him – he would soon be in good hands. And now I had to get back to my own vehicle:- I reached it eventually without harm, although that Spandau (machine gun) seemed to be uncomfortably close.
To my amazement, my driver, Johnny Boland, now reported that he too had been hit by shrapnel… he had made the discovery during my absence with Geary! He seemed inclined to ignor the matter as it was a very small wound on his shoulder blade – but I had to insist upon him having attention:- Shrapnel takes the form of a ‘needle’ sometimes and penetrates deeply without showing much evidence.
So once again I returned to the village, via the orchards etc. We heard the crack of a rifle on the way… and I knew a sniper was busy in the vicinity. A few seconds later we found young Gilmore… a member of our squadron: he had been hit through the hand by the sniper. Gilmore and Boland were handed over to the ambulance men… and I haven’t seen either of them since.
It was whilst making my second journey back from the village that I experienced what were probably my worst moments since coming over here. I had reached the first orchard… and a few feet to my rear was one of our vehicles: it was stationary, and apparently in trouble. Some infantrymen had appeared, and I was talking to one of them when a H.E. shell exploded a few feet away. We all dropped to the ground instinctively, and I and two of the infantry fellows crawled towards a nearby log for cover. I don’t know how long I lay huddled up by that log. It was probably only for one or two minutes… but it seemed so much longer.
The first explosion was the prelude to a small barrage, aimed perhaps at that disabled tank. It was followed by twenty or thirty others… all within a few feet of us. Very soon, I heard a groan beside me, and one of the infantry lads said “I’ve had it”: he had been hit by shrapnel. Soon there were more groans, and the other infantry lad was hit. Meanwhile, the shells came down relentlessly. I could feel the hot blast from each one: the air became thick with the acrid fumes of cordite. I knew I should have been blown to smithereens by all the laws of explosives… but all the time I remained conscious of being alive.
At one period, I realised that all the shells were landing on my side of the log, and wondered about changing to the other side… but there was insufficient pause between each explosion. So I just lay… huddled up as small as possible… and hoped… and hoped.
I believe it is customary for a person to recall practically his entire lifetime when death is imminent… but my case was different… or perhaps I wasn’t near enough to death. – Anyhow, I knew that I was constantly reminding myself that I still lived… that I still had a chance to see you and Barry again. These thoughts must have crossed my mind after each explosion. I cannot say that I was aware of terror, but I know I was terrified… because my hands subsequently trembled for many hours.
I think I must have become partly stupified because I remained on the ground for some time after the last round fell… until I heard some voices, in fact, and found a group of infantrymen helping their two wounded colleagues over the log. There had only been the three of us on my side of the log… and I alone had escaped uninjured. I cannot explain this… I made my way to an adjoining barn, collecting a Piat gun dropped by the infantry. There I found the two wounded lads receiving attention. They seemed in a bad way.
But I had a vehicle, and had to get back. I felt afraid of returning… being more conscious of death now… And that ‘Spandau’ was still about… and a sniper. I took all possible precautions traversing the orchard… crouching by hedges etc… and eventually reached my vehicle and clambered inside. At last I felt reasonably safe. The two remaining members of my crew had wondered about my long absence… and had feared the worst after that barrage which they had seen from the vehicle. The tank that appeared to have attracted the enemy fire was un-hit. Its crew were inside with closed hatches. They knew I was outside in the midst of the shell-fire, but could do nothing about it, of course. They were amazed when I subsequently “came to life”… and seem to regard me as the luckiest man in the army!
Well… the three of us – Pestell, Pedder, and self stayed in the vehicle for some time. The repair job seemed out of the question under the circumstances. We had water and dry biscuits for our lunch/tea meal and just waited and talked.
Meanwhile the squadron were carrying out their job of scaling that crazy hill. By evening, they had finished their part of the job, and I heard the major over the wireless giving orders to return to a point near my own position. They appeared at dusk… and I then made contact with my troop officer, Mr. Francis, and reported the wounding of two members of my crew. I needed other assistance to repair my vehicle… but it could not be provided without some delay… so I borrowed more tools from other vehicles to attempt the job myself… with the major’s blessing! Mr. Francis also loaned me a member of his crew – Dawes – a remarkable worker. I was asked to try and make my way to harbour… about a mile beyond the village if I completed the repairs.
The squadron departed: It was almost dark: there was a burning house fifty yards in front: a burning tank enclosing a mutilated body 100 yds to the right – to the left a ‘Spandau’, if he hadn’t been killed… and maybe a sniper or two. I was afraid.
We set to work in this ‘no man’s land’. The silence was awful, after the fearful din of the battle a few hours earlier. There was periodic crackling from the burning house… now a mass of red glowing embers… and frequent “cracks” from the burning tank: its small arms ammunition was exploding.
We worked until 11.30 pm: no more could be done with available means… and it was now pitch dark. I decided to spend the night in the vehicle, with my three colleagues… taking turns at guard in pairs:- too many Jerries in the neighbourhood to take risks. We informed H.Q. of this arrangement, over the air, and settled down for our night’s vigil. And now it started to rain… a real downpour. Pedder and I in the turret, observing through the open hatches, were soon wet to the skin. Damned hungry too… and tired, hellishly so. In between turns, we slept somehow… And then came the dawn, to my unutterable relief.
Once again we radioed H.Q. for further assistance and were informed that it was already on the way: this was at 6.30 am. At 7.0 am, no help had arrived… but suddenly there was a vicious “swish” outside followed by a heavy explosion. How well I knew the meaning of those sounds! But what did it really mean? We had wondered whether the enemy had been driven far back… and now it seemed that he was shelling us… the usual prelude to a counter-attack. We closed all hatches… and waited… and wondered. Very soon came another heavy bang… and we heard the shrapnel slapping the side of the vehicle. Would we be hit? – or captured? Was it the end of everything? These were unspoken thoughts, but looks were enough. Personally, I felt pretty secure inside the vehicle… after my experience in the open the previous afternoon. “H.E.” does not normally penetrate our vehicles, but a direct hit could cause injuries, depending on where it landed.
The shelling continued for forty minutes; each shot announced itself by a momentary ‘swish’… and then the explosion. Sometimes the vehicle shuddered: sometimes the shrapnel clanged on something… but we were not hit directly. After a time, I knew that we were not actually under observation: it was ‘indirect’ shooting, otherwise we must have been hit. This knowledge eased my mind a bit. But every shot seemed dangerously close, and it was only a matter of time… But the worst did not happen…!
After forty minutes, there came a pause and our nerves gradually slackened off: fear haunted eyes became more normal. But what about the repairs? We couldn’t carry on under such conditions. We attempted to radio H.Q. again to have the promised assistance withdrawn, but this time we couldn’t get a reply.
I decided to “bale out” and try and find our way back to the unit. It seemed a more sensible plan than being shelled to death or taken prisoner. We immobilised all guns, and then hopped out… and bolted for the comparative shelter of a nearby orchard. Very soon we saw some figures on a roadway… and they were wearing khaki, not the grey-green of the enemy. Thank goodness for that – the village was still obviously in our hands. A little further on, we came to a main road, and there was one of our scout cars… and the driver had time to run us back to our squadron: what a blessed relief! It was still pouring with rain, but that little journey, perched perilously on the top of that tiny vehicle, was one of the pleasantest I have ever known.
We found the rest of the unit parked in an orchard… those inevitable orchards!.. and the men sheltering in various barns and sheds. Mr. Francis and his crew were having a meal and we needed no persuading to join them. How good was the taste of that “hot – sweet” – the first we had had since breakfast the day before. We were soaked and tired… but there was a remarkably cheerful atmosphere as we swopped yarns and discussed the previous day… in that crazy little barn with its mud walls and musty smell… and general atmosphere of decay.
Later that morning we returned to our tank… with the required tools… and managed to complete the work by lunch time. And we drove away without further incident. Meanwhile, our infantry, with artillery support, were finally ‘mopping up’ the area and ‘digging’ out the few remaining Jerries. We left them to it. (This anecdote is copied almost verbatim from the diary entry 21.8.44).
That is all I can tell you just now, Jessie Mine. I have to leave you now –
Au revoir, my love
P.S. Geary is now in England… in hospital at Preston, Lancs. I believe he is progressing quite well. Have not heard of Boland since, but presume he is O.K.
In haste for post: no letter from you yesterday, but sure to be one today. Hope it comes soon.
Always – in love