No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess, darling, I have just written one of those inconsequential letter cards… and now I want to talk to you with a little less restraint.
I dislike those trivial little notes, but they are all I am able to write as a rule. For one thing, they are quite handy… and they are soon written and censored. This is a distinct advantage, because serious letter writing… anything that takes more than, say, half an hour… is something of a problem. There are so many interruptions that a letter is usually written a few lines at a time. I intend to send this in my next green envelope which may arrive tomorrow or Thursday, so I know in advance that it will consist of many “sittings”. In between, I will probably send one or two ‘letter cards’, as long as circumstances permit.
As you may have guessed from earlier letters, we are now more or less ‘static’… just awaiting orders, and have been in this position for quite a few days. At the same time, we are performing a definite ‘operational’ role, more or less in the front line, so our time is hardly being wasted. All the same, it is possible for us to relax a little.
Later… Wed. 2.8.44.
There has been rather a long interruption this time, but here I am once again. Some of us had an all-night session last night on a special job… and I have been asleep all afternoon: I now feel O.K. once again.
It was quite dull and cold here this morning… and it wasn’t so hot when I fell asleep immediately after lunch… but the sun is now shining brilliantly and it is quite hot. I must say I prefer the warmth.
Your letter of the 26th ult. informs me that the new cot has arrived. I hope Barry has accepted it without demur: no doubt he is unaware of any change, particularly in comfort. It is a pity that there had to be screws with the thing, but I suppose you have now had expert advice on the job.
That was bad news about Vera’s baby: I was very sorry to hear it. Being a father myself, I can now appreciate what the loss of a child must mean… especially the first child. Your mother’s concern for Poppet was a clear demonstration, to my mind, of her affection for the little fellow. It was nice of her to warn you as she did. Do you think it is possible that ‘Cow and Gate’ is in any way responsible for Vera’s loss, Jess? It seems incredible to me. I think it is more than likely that the administration of the food has been incorrect. After all, a wee baby is a gluttonous little animal and will eat to its own detriment if allowed to do so. Or am I all wrong here?
Darling, I am really sorry to hear of the delays you have experienced with my letters. You must have suffered some dreadfully anxious days during the last few weeks. I only wish I could do something about it. Thank goodness we have little Poppet: he means much work to you dear, but he also means much happiness… to both of us. What a godsend he has been… and how thankful I am that we made such a wise decision twelve months ago last June! Such a happy day, darling.
I received your latest letter yesterday. It is dated Thurs 27th and appears to have been delayed slightly longer than usual. I note your remarks about Noel Wright… and appreciate your suggestion. I will take care to report whenever I see him in future. His squadron is quite close to ours here, but it must be almost a fortnight since I last saw him. Our paths do not cross at all under present circumstances… but I will look him up tomorrow. I must have a look at Dave Lubick too: he is somewhere in the vicinity.
You are going to send me your own Utility lighter! You couldn’t do me a greater service just now, darling. I am desperately in need of a lighter, but to have yours… your very own… ah well! you know what it will mean to me: it is just like my Jess to think such a nice thought.
I see you are planning a new rig-out for Barry. And next time I see him he will probably be wearing wee trousers. How he must be growing up! God Jess, I am looking forward to seeing him again… And his mummy: every night I visualise our re-union, dear Jess. I cannot possibly tell you how much I am looking forward to seeing you again. It seems impossible to put such feelings into words.
The news seems to be still very good. The Russians are making terrific progress… and I now hear that they have isolated Hitler’s Baltic and Finnish armies. What a colossal achievement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are now in Warsaw. As for East Prussia… there must be much heart-searching amongst the Junkers (Prussian and East German landed aristocracy) just now. I’ll bet Goring in particular isn’t feeling so good. His own estate, “Karinhall” will no doubt be singled our for special attention by the Red Army.
I heard a resumé of Churchill’s speech over the radio this evening. He has officially confirmed Turkey’s severance of diplomatic relations with Germany. I cannot say I admire such a belated gesture. It savours of the ‘jackal’ policy of Italy declaring war on a defeated France… but it was darned good news, nevertheless. Whether or not Turkey gives us any material assistance is beside the point. Her action, coming on top of recent events must be terribly depressing to the German people. And anything which helps to lower their morale just now is a gain for the Allies.
Later Friday 4.8.44
Things have been happening, and I couldn’t possibly write yesterday. My vehicle moved forward last evening, but I moved back for a rest! I have been in every action so far and am now ordered to miss the next battle! My troop officer is with me.
Am now in a fairly quiet area, sitting in a lorry, not a tank. I hope to have a few undisturbed hours whilst I am here… and am looking forward to writing some letters. At the moment, I feel inclined to tell you something of the past… the recent past, altho’ it seems a long long time to me. I cannot relate events which have occurred within the last two or three weeks… I am not allowed… but I think a few details of my earlier existence in Normandy will interest you. There are a few things I cannot talk about… for reasons of security… but you will hear everything in due course… and before long, I hope.
Let’s start at the beginning… the day I embarked. It was Sunday June 18th… ‘D’ day plus 12. The embarkation itself was a tricky business, carried out in pitch darkness. I think I have already described my life on board the boat… with its American crew and food, so we will now skip the journey… It lasted until 5.30 pm on Thurs. 22.6.44. Actually, we were only about 10 or 12 hours sailing, but the weather was very bad at that period, and we spent a few days on board before finally saying good-bye to England. And so, I first touched French soil on the evening of D + 16. We spent an hour or two on the beaches… doing essential jobs on the vehicles. Around us was the evidence of the actual invasion. Literally a mass of wreckage… ships, tanks, lorries… equipment of every kind… masses of it, both British and German. No doubt you saw many photographs of the terrible scene.
On the beaches, we heard the sound of heavy guns… and they sounded uncomfortably close. It was evident that our advance had not been very rapid… and I felt certain that our time for action was quite close… otherwise we would not have been shipped across so early.
Our first night was spent in a field…well within range of enemy fire… and only 2 or 3 miles from the beach head. On the journey from the beach-head, there was much evidence of the recent battles… dreadful evidence. The most demoralising sight to me was a row of little graves by the roadside, all bearing neat white crosses… the latter adorned with steel helmets: one or two of them were German. I suffered some horrible thoughts at the sight of those graves… but am now more used to it. I have seen hundreds since, and have learned to accept them…
As our first harbour was under pretty frequent shell fire, we spent our first couple of hours there digging… and we dug willingly… a long shallow hole big enough for five men. Afterwards, we ran the tank over the hole… and there was our ‘home’… pretty safe, if a little cramped and dirty. This hole digging has since become a routine job, as I have told you: It is a life – death matter.
Our first intimation of action came on the day following our arrival, Friday 23rd June. There was much ‘coming and going’ during the day… and many conferences over maps and photographs. No need for me to dwell upon my personal feelings… I couldn’t describe them anyway, but I know I was terribly afraid.
The following day, Sat, was spent on further conferences and discussions… and then, late that night, we moved out… towards the front. It was a horrible journey… mostly over rough ground and newly-made tracks… and accompanied by the ceaseless din of our artillery: The sky too was perpetually lit up with gun flahes. There seemed to be endless miles of guns. Well… we reached our new harbour eventually and immediately got busy camouflaging the vehicles so as to have them more or less invisible before daylight.
Later that day, Sunday, I found we were very close to a village… or rather, a partial mass of rubble. The place had been blasted by our shelling and was badly battered. The church steeple still stood, but was riddled with holes. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the name of the place. (Probably Secqueville en bessin.) At this point, we were about four miles from the front line, and sounds of battle were quite obvious. During this day, we were given final instructions for our first battle… and were told that it would take place the following day… Monday… I don’t like to recall my feelings about this time.
We knew that there was strong opposition on ‘our’ sector… and that Jerry’s best and most fanatical troops would be opposing us. And we were going right into attack… no half-measures. Well… we moved out early Monday morning and passed through several villages… all of them captured within the previous 2 or 3 days… and with snipers still operating in trees and church spires etc. Finally we reached Cheux: it had been occupied by our troops that morning. And it was here that I first became acquainted with the smell of dead cattle… and the sight of lifeless humanity. Human bodies were fairly plentiful… both ours and German… still lying where they had fallen. The roads too were busy with ambulances carrying the wounded back to the rear. The fighting was now very close… just beyond Cheux. Needless to say, I was scared.
At 5.0 pm., we took up our battle positions in a field, just below a hill crest, with the Caen – Bayeux road immediately in the foreground. Over the crest… well, we would soon find out! The infantry who were going in with us soon arrived and took up their positions around the vehicles. I was amazed by their casual bearing. Maybe they felt very much as I did… but they didn’t show it. I enjoyed chatting with them: they were all Scotties.
A hitch occurred… and our start was delayed. Meanwhile, one of our ammunition trucks was hit and caught fire: it soon blew up. I think it was the infantry which gave me some much needed moral assistance about this time. Their behaviour was so splendid. And it was obvious that they were very grateful for the tanks and whatever support we could give them.
My outlook changed somehow: from being terrified of meeting the enemy guns, or whatever lay beyond that crest… I found myself almost glad for what was about to happen… I forgot that I was going forward to kill Germans. Instead, I became convinced that I was going to help to save our lads. They needed us: one of them had asked me to “swipe hell out of Jerry”. Perhaps you will find it difficult to understand this sudden transformation in my outlook, but I can assure you dear that it was very profound… and it made a tremendous difference to me. The same thing has occurred since – several times. I have “gone in”, literally convinced that I have been helping to save those grand lads in our infantry… not killing Germans.
Well… time dragged on. At 6.00 pm we learned that our advance would commence at 6.15… and at the same time, word came through that sixty German Panther tanks had suddenly appeared in the area of our proposed attack! Jesus Christ almighty! Couldn’t we call the whole thing off? God! If you want to know about “jitters” after this war, just ask me -! The battle was not called off. Promptly at 6.15 pm, the major’s voice came over the air… “Advance now!” And the squadron commenced to move forward as one… our poor little squadron, I thought. The infantry moved forward simultaneously… all of them erect… rifles forward… wading through the waist-high corn. Up the hill we advanced… crossed the road: the major’s voice keeping us company, giving orders and maintaining his squadron’s formation. The crest drew nearer: would we be shot up as soon as we mounted it? Never before have my eyes been used so intently: with or without binoculars I searched for signs of the enemy… but I saw nothing. We passed over the crest and nothing happened. But what a target we must have been! I breathed a sigh of relief over the crest. Ahead lay a mile or so of fairly flat country, with only a few hedgerows and trees to conceal enemy tanks and guns: it seemed that we now had at least a sporting chance.
The ground too was almost entirely cultivated with rich looking corn… thus affording excellent cover for our infantry should Jerry machine guns start firing. This corn added to the appearance of our tanks as miniature battleships surging forward in precise formation. It was very comforting to feel the presence of my colleagues: we had great fire power as a combination.
I suppose it was about half an hour after leaving our start line that something happened… and then followed a few hours of hell on earth. I first became conscious that the battle had started when I saw the infantry disappear in the corn. The enemy must have opened up with machine guns from the hedgerows about 400 yards away, but I could see no sign of life in those hedges. However, we knew our job… and we opened fire on the hedges… literally plastering them with our machine guns and high explosives. Soon I saw our infantry advancing again, their heads seemingly just below the line of our machine gun fire. What amazing confidence they had in us! The slightest variation in our range, and they would have been wiped out by our own guns.
About this time, things began to get confused. I know it started raining heavily – a deluge… and I know that I suddenly became aware of the earth and corn heaving up around my vehicle in great masses. The infantry seemed to disappear again, and I realised that the enemy were mortaring us mercilessly. I felt reasonably secure in my vehicle, but the infantry-! There is no protection for them against mortar in a corn field. their predicament was dreadful. The enemy’s forward troops must have notified their mortars further back of our precise position, and so, to the deluge of rain was added those deadly explosions. Very soon, through my periscope, I saw the crew of one of our tanks ‘baling out’: they had been hit, but only the vehicle was disabled… the five of them were running and crawling towards a large bomb hole. I learned afterwards that the bomb hole soon became a target for the mortars, and our lads had to leave it and crawl away in the corn… through mortar and machine gunning.
About this time too, I saw a series of vivid white flashes from a row of trees about half a mile ahead… obviously guns… probably “eighty eights” (88mm guns). But only the flashes were visible: the guns were well concealed in the woods. We returned the fire… blazing away with everything we had. Meanwhile, the major had asked for support from our artillery a mile or two behind us… and they too joined in the bombardment. A little later, I saw a couple of ‘Panthers’ away on our right flank: we engaged them, and they disappeared… to the village of Colleville I presume. But we were not having an easy time. In between the frantic activity of looking for guns or gun flashes and firing our own guns, I was able to peer around my immediate locality. I remember counting at least three of our tanks on fire… blazing away and emitting enormous clouds of black smoke. This was a depressing sight… but no need to despair: we weren’t beaten. Our remaining vehicles… the large majority of the squadron, were still pouring forth with all guns: an amazing sight: terribly fascinating: wonderfully inspiring. There was no order to retreat: no sign of wavering. The major… how spendidly he behaved!… was going forward… his orders were clear and cool. He moved us about in formation, at the same time engaging the enemy, giving orders to the artillery, consulting the infantry commander, consulting our own colonel… as solid as a rock.
At the height of our own action with the enemy armour and guns, I had little time to think about the infantry, but I knew they must have been enduring hell on earth owing to the awful mortaring. I know they kept well out of sight and tried to ‘dig themselves in’ in the corn field. But they daren’t move forward to capture the hedgerows: they were strongly held, and our attention was all devoted to the enemy guns. During the whole of this action I never actually saw an enemy anti-tank gun: I only saw the two Panthers near Colleville. We were fighting an invisible enemy. He was dug in and well camouflaged. Even their infantry were totally invisible in their holes beneath the hedges, but we knew they were there… that is why they received many hundreds of rounds of our high explosive, apart from machine gun fire.
What I have written may sound like an ordeal, and I suppose it was… but I wasn’t really conscious of it during the action. Nor did I feel afraid once we had started. I suppose I was too busy to worry about such things… and the sight of the infantry being literally blasted to bits by the mortars really infuriated me. Perhaps we all became temporarily more like beasts than men. I know we looked sub-human… with the sweat pouring down our faces leaving partly white channels on our smoke blackened skin…
Eventually… it seemed an eternity… the first phase of our advance was completed, and our vehicles retired a little way whilst the infantry carried out their job of consolidation over the ground we had taken. But their losses had been heavy… appallingly so… and they had to retire… if Jerry would allow them! Unfortunately, he wouldn’t oblige. He had plenty of mortars hidden away out of sight, and he evidently enjoyed using them. So the infantry, or what remained of them, had to stay where they were… lying in the corn amidst that dreadful bombardment, and gradually being liquidated. In addition, the rain was still pouring down… and even we in the tanks were soaked to the skin. What must the infantry have felt like?
Things were looking serious: it was now nearing dusk… and obvious that the whole of our planned advance could not materialise. We had been too heavily engaged… and delayed far behind our schedule. Also, our own losses were not light: there were now about six of our tanks on the battlefield, some blazing, some only disabled, but all out of action.
There came a lull… I learned later that it was due to consultations between our own major, the infantry commander, and our own colonel. The infantry commander was trying to enlist our aid to save the remnants of his men. He wanted us to ‘go in’ again to engage the enemy machine guns – so giving his men at least some chance of withdrawing: they would have to take their chance with the mortars, of course. I was told afterwards that our own colonel was opposed to this plan: for one thing it wasn’t our job… and also our losses were too severe to take further risks. But Major Holden had his own way – and to his everlasting credit he somehow managed to over-ride authority… and so we ‘went in’ again with our depleted squadron.
By this time, it was really too dark for our type of warfare… well after dusk… but we could at least still see the woods and hedges against the sky… and we could still engage the enemy if necessary, having some ammunition left. To help our second advance, the major ordered a smoke screen from the artillery. We got it, particularly on our right flank: a perfect wall of smoke pouring down exactly where we wanted it. A combination of damned fine map reading by the major, and excellent gun-laying by the artillery. But we still met trouble from the forward area… and so the major laid another smoke screen for us from his own vehicle… and Jerry’s forward guns were silenced. Each of our remaining vehicles added a quota to this latter smoke screen in between engaging enemy gun-flashes and machine gunning the hedges. Eventually, we were once again amongst the infantry… what was left of them. And now I realised that we were doing something worth while and I felt proud of Major Holden.
It is difficult to write of the gratitude of those infantry lads. They had spent at least three hours in an inferno of death. They were soaked to the skin… tired, hungry… And they had at one time thought themselves abandoned. That was when we withdrew after the first phase: up to then the presence of the tanks had at least given them some encouragement. But when they saw us retiring… I can only try to imagine what they suffered. And yet they didn’t surrender to the enemy!
I don’t think any of us even thought about personal safety for the next half hour. We assisted the wounded on board the tanks: there were several stretcher cases… one of them on my vehicle. We placed the stretcher along the track cover. Others were able to walk, but bleeding profusely. How their pals cursed them… but at the same time handled them with the fondness of a mother for her child. How glad I was to be able to help.
I felt very little and humble in the presence of these brave men. They were still cheerful… and still cursing Jerry. We gave them chocolate and sweets… but we daren’t allow them to smoke: it was horrible having to refuse them this little pleasure, but it would have been fatal. We were still under fire, and lighted cigarettes outside the tanks would have been just suicide. However, we gave them plenty of ciggys to smoke later… their own being all ruined by the rain.
When we finally moved off… away from that hateful spot… it was practically pitch dark. Jerry had ceased to worry us, and the evening had become comparatively peaceful. This was a good job because each of our tanks was carrying between 12 and 18 men on the outside. The stretchers were held on firmly by the uninjured infantrymen. A mile or so further back, there were ambulances waiting on a rough track and we handed over our cargoes: that was the last I saw of those grand Scotties. How much older they must have grown in those few hours!
But our troubles were not yet over. One or two of our vehicles had become mislaid in the dark, and they had to be found and guided back to safety. It must be remembered that the day’s fighting had been undecisive, and our “front line” was a rather nebulous affair. We didn’t even know whether we still held Cheux. And if we did, could we enter the place? Would our own anti tank guns open up on us in the darkness as we approached from the enemy area? For all we knew, we were regarded as having been wiped out completely, not having returned before dark.
We had some anxious moments on that run back to Cheux. It was a crawl really: we stopped about every 100 yds, presumably to allow the major, who was leading, to reconnoitre the ground. Only once did we really “get a move on”… and that was when those darned Jerries put up a flare immediately over us. I have never felt so naked in my life. What had been comforting and concealing darkness suddenly became vivid ‘daylight’… and our vehicles stood out like great black monsters… almost asking to be “shot up”. I think every driver must have accelerated instinctively because we were moving ‘flat-out’ in a matter of seconds without any “speed up” orders being issued.
Ultimately we crawled into Cheux and found a place to harbour for the remaining hours of darkness. It was now about 2.0 am. Some infantry sentries in the place warned us to look out for snipers. The place was lousy with them, as we could hear by the frequent rifle cracks (one of our squadron was killed in the village the following day by a sniper).
It was a rather depressing stay in Cheux. We arrived with ten tanks: we had had eighteen a few hours before. We knew some of the crews had “baled out”, but didn’t know whether they had reached safety. The major was worried… but only on account of his men’s safety. He thought nothing of the vehicles… nor about the ‘official’ verdict on his first action. I was glad and proud to talk to him… and hear his opinions.
It was a cold night, and still raining, but a few of us stood about in the rain, keeping an eye on the vehicles… and chatting about our experiences. The major even smoked his pipe… in spite of the snipers! At five am, we moved out… about a mile and a half further north… to a more securely held area… with fewer snipers about. I learned later that we had hardly left Cheux when two “Tigers” entered the place. Perhaps it is as well we weren’t there: we hadn’t much ammunition left… and we hardly felt like further battle.
And that is some of the story of our first action. We seemed to have gained nothing… and I think we all felt disappointed. But I learned later that our efforts had not been without success. On the day following Jerry had completely withdrawn from the area… and our troops made a successful crossing of the Odon. We seem to have cleared the way. This was some consolation.
I intended giving a fuller picture of my first few weeks here, but I seem to have done an awful lot of writing about that first action. I will have to leave the rest until later… But you may be interested to hear a few place names. For a start, I was never in Caen, dear. You may have thought I was engaged there. But we weren’t far away. Do you remember such names as Etterville, Maltot, Hill 112, Colleville, Grainville? These are some of the places in which we have operated. I will try and tell you about them later.
Meanwhile, thank you for your two letters yesterday… I hope to deal with them later. And now it is tea time. I hope to be with you again this evening.
Au revoir, my love