No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Once again I will start with the weather. It is cold again… very cold, and the snow remains very thick… but the mist of the last 2 or 3 days has now gone and visibility is excellent. The sky too is cloudless… or rather, it was up to a couple of hours ago, but now it is a mass of long fleecy clouds… man-made clouds… the after effects of hundreds of fighters and bombers flying very high towards Germany. I enjoyed watching the antics of the fighters as they twisted and twirled above the bombers. They remind me of sheep dogs faithfully guarding their charges below. I feel sure the bombing crews must love the sight of these fighters. It must make them feel so much more secure in their journeys over enemy territory.
What do you think of the Greek business, Jess? I suppose the important thing is to bring the fighting to a close… and the truce is therefore to be welcomed. But I don’t feel too confident about the future… so far as the Greek people are concerned. They now have a general as Prime Minister… a General of the Greek army. And I don’t see why a Greek general would differ from any other general in intolerance and general unsuitability for the job. We have had so many high ranking officers meddling in civil affairs in recent years with disastrous results… Franco, Goering, Beck, Metaxas, Horthy, Smygly-Ritz (Smigly-Rydz), Petain, and all the rest of ’em… And then, there is the Regent – the Archbishop! What a combination! Church and Army! I feel genuinely sorry for the Greek people.
Jess… I seem to have little to tell you today. Perhaps you would like me to dig into the past once again and tell you something about the war… as I have seen it. Somehow, I have hated the mere thoughts of our past battles, in recent weeks. And writing about them has been beyond me… But I must write to you, dear,- and so, in the absence of any other news, I will tell you about one of our battles in Holland…
I don’t think you will find it very interesting, but it may help you to visualise a tiny sector of the battle-front.
Some time ago, we spent a few hectic weeks in the battle for the port of Antwerp. We were not actually on the main battlefront on the German border, but during their retreat, the enemy had left behind some of his best troops and so the fighting for Antwerp was very fierce indeed at times.
We were chosen as part of a force scheduled to make a deep thrust into the enemy lines north of St. Leonard in Belgium. And so for about a fortnight we did little but fight and eat… and dive for cover as the mortars came whistling overhead. The whole area as far as Roosendaal in Holland became a battlefield… wrecked villages, blazing farms, torn up roadways, dead bodies… and the smell of putrefying flesh. Dead cattle lay about everywhere… their bodies horribly bloated and legs sticking up in the air.
It was at a little village called Vinkenbrook (Vinkenbroek) in Holland that we fought our last battle in this particular advance… It was on a Sunday in October last year… (See also the diary entry for Sunday 29.10.44). The previous evening we moved out from Nispen… a village we had taken earlier, and headed westwards. We had no definite orders, but were aware of several rumours concerning another tank unit who were reported to have had a hammering the previous day in the area for which we were heading. It seemed fairly obvious that we were taking over from them on the left flank of our salient.
We eventually harboured close to the village of Wouwsche Hil… having made a three mile journey across our salient through the usual scenes of desolation… dead cows lay in the fields; dead Germans lay by the roadside: houses and farms were derelict skeletons: smashed up telegraph poles littered the roads, the latter lined with scarred and torn trees. Our harbour was an open field: to our front, north, about a mile away, several buildings were blazing: the whole forward horizon was, in fact, a mass of blazing buildings. And that was where the enemy were.
The major was obviously uneasy about our situation. We harboured in the darkness and the absence of any precise ‘orders’ or information left him in an unenviable position: the enemy may have been nearer than presumed… and it was even doubtful whether there was a screen of our infantry ahead of us. And so we had to be on the alert all night, at least one man per vehicle being constantly on the look-out. But I think most of us had a little rest… sleeping on the ground beneath the vehicles… not knowing what the morrow held in store, but expecting the worst. There were too many signs of heavy fighting for our presence there to be merely defensive. Until late in the evening, we had witnessed signs of a battle about a mile to the west: a bitter battle, it sounded.
The following morning, those who were sleeping were aroused at 5.30, and by 6.00 am we had all kit stowed away and the vehicles ready for action. It was still dark, but the major was wisely taking all possible precaution against a surprise dawn attack by the enemy. Nothing happened however, and we were able to ‘stand down’ and prepared breakfast at 7.30 am. Petrol cookers and rations were soon unearthed… and it was not long before we were all indulging in mugs of tea… Meanwhile, we learned of the orders which had been issued during the night. We were going into action that morning… the whole battalion, each squadron having an individual role to play.
And here I must say a word or two about the terrain. Ahead of us, about a thousand yards distant to the north, a railway line ran across our front. The line was elevated on an embankment about six feet high. About four hundred yards beyond the railway and parallel with it, there was a road running through the village of Vinkenbroek… a small village in which the houses straggled along each side of the road. Further north still, about six hundred yards, was another road, parallel with the first, and on this road was the village of Boeyink (Boeiink). The main features of the area therefore were the three parallel ‘lines’… railway and two roads. In between them, the country was flat and open, but fairly well infested with ditches and drainage channels as is most of the country in that area. Trees and shrubs were non-existent, apart from an odd bush or two in the gardens of the houses. We learned that the territory between ourselves and the railway was clear of the enemy, but beyond the railway… well, we didn’t really know except that some S.P.s (self-propelled guns for anti-tank work… rather like a tank, but with bigger guns) had been sighted in the villages.
We (“C”) were scheduled to go in first, followed by infantry: our objective being the village of Vinkenbroek. Later, ‘A’ squadron were to proceed further north and capture the other village, Boeiink.
We now got down to details… poring over large scale maps of the area until we thought we knew the whereabouts of every ditch etc… The usual tank commanders conferences were held… questions dealt with, and all watches synchronised. Individual commanders then checked their vehicles rapidly, paying particular attention to guns and ammunition, testing turret traversing gear etc, and making sure that the I.C. (internal telephone system) was operating for each member of the crew. A tank with defective I.C. is practically useless, like a man without eyes. After these preliminaries, we were ready. And then followed one of those pauses in which time seems to remain stationary… the wait for ‘zero hour’. It is these awful waiting periods which must have increased tobacco sales enormously during the war: everyone smokes like blazes, trying meanwhile to appear unperturbed. But I guess our thoughts are all identical under such circumstances.
Eventually, at 12 noon, we received the order to advance, and the squadron moved off in line heading for a level crossing over the railway… with the major in the lead. Our orders were to wheel left as soon as we were over the crossing, heading diagonally for the village, at the same time “shooting up” the village and everything in it. This we did:- and as you can imagine, we wasted no time once we were over the railway. My troop, with Lt. Francis, Sgt. Hall, and myself as tank commanders, had been ordered to make for the western end of the village, and as the level crossing was at the eastern end, we had to make the longest run. And we made it… Heaven knows how. The gunners worked wonders firing as we travelled ‘flat out’, and the tanks jumped the ditches as though they had wings. We fired machine guns and H.E. into every building, every bush… anything which could conceivably offer cover to the enemy infantry. With the eighteen vehicles of the squadron firing simultaneously into that small village, it must have been literally a hell on earth.
We reached the western end of the village without trouble, and took cover behind some houses: the latter being now well alight as the result of our firing. I now had time to look around, and noticed that two or three of the squadron’s vehicles were ditched… but not necessarily out of action. I noticed also that our supporting infantry were approaching from the railway where they had been concealed. So far so good. I felt pretty certain that any remaining Jerries in that village would have little further enthusiasm for fighting, and hoped that our infantry would not have a bad time. Very soon, my troop officer received orders from the major (via the radio) to move a little further forward to enable us to train our guns on the next village – Boeiink – in case the enemy fired from there upon our approaching infantry.
And then the fun started. Mr. Francis moved away from the cover of the house and turned on to the road:- I followed him. Dicky stayed behind to ‘cover’ our slight advance. Suddenly through my periscope, I noticed Mr. Francis’ vehicle make a quick dash off the road back to a position behind one of the burning houses. Had he been fired at? I wasn’t left long in doubt. There came a heavy bang on the vehicle, and then bits of brick and masonry started to rain down through the open hatches. The tank shook a bit, and the crew swore we had been hit… somewhere. We were in an unhealthy spot… on the road, and exposed to anything which cared to fire at us from Boeiink, a few hundred yards away. I ordered the driver to reverse, and the vehicle responded immediately, much to my relief: we were still mobile, anyway.
To return to our former position behind the house involved a journey of a mere forty yards… but each second seemed an age. We now knew that the enemy had some anti-tank guns waiting for us… and we knew too that we were almost a “sitting target” due to the vehicle being so damnably slow in reverse. But we kept going and ultimately reached the shelter of the house again with most of the tank hidden from the enemy. One thing I now knew was the approximate position of the gun which had fired at my vehicle: I heard the report of the gun, but saw nothing due to the enemy’s use of smokeless and flashless ammunition… his usual practice. Still, it was something to have an idea of the location of the gun: it was at the eastern end of Boeiink, only a few hundred yards away. The position of my vehicle allowed me to keep my eye on this locality: I searched frantically, using my binoculars, but could see nothing: for all I knew, the gun may have been firing from inside a damaged house.
About this time I happened to glance to the rear, and was thrilled to see a long column of German prisoners being marched away: there must have been a hundred of them, probably the entire remnant of the Vinkenbroek ‘garrison’. They seemed to have surrendered very quickly.
Our three tanks were now more or less in their original positions… but when I looked at Sgt. Hall’s vehicle I had a shock. It was leaning over to one side at a crazy angle and obviously ditched. There was no sign of the crew and I assumed they had ‘baled out’. But Mr. Francis’ vehicle was alright… a mere five or six yards to my right. About this time, I glanced at the major’s vehicle standing at the side of a barn, about fifty yards ahead. And to my amazement, the major himself was clambering from the turret, with one or two of his crew already outside and dashing for cover. I knew they had been hit when, a few moments later, I saw the major assisting his driver to leave the vehicle: one casualty at least. The major soon chased off, and very soon I heard his voice on the air again: he had pinched someone else’s vehicle! It was good to hear him over the air assuring the colonel that he was absolutely alright and unharmed.
Things happen quickly in battle. I had hardly taken my eyes off the figure of the major as he dashed away, when I heard that dreadful ‘swish’ of a nearby A.P. (armour-piercing) shell, followed immediately by an awful bang. I looked towards Mr. Francis’ vehicle… and saw him clambering from his turret, and some of his crew! His vehicle had been hit. Was it my turn next, or was I sufficiently screened from that blasted invisible gun… or guns? Needless to say, I nearly burst my eye-balls straining to see something tangible to fire at. But there was nothing: not even a wisp of smoke. It was maddening. I have dim recollections of seeing Mr. Francis running towards the shelter of Sgt. Hall’s tank, but my own position was somewhat precarious: I hadn’t time to worry about anyone else.
The next few moments were sickening. The enemy must have known my vehicle was hiding, but apparently he couldn’t see me, even though the turret was only screened by a shrub growing in the garden of the house. Nevertheless, he kept firing and hit Mr. Francis’ vehicle a second time, tearing a great gash in the track and its covering. And then a few shots, maybe fired at random, whizzed by closer still to my vehicle. I cannot imagine a more terrifying sound than the vicious hiss of those rounds as they passed by, seemingly missing us by inches. We seemed to have been literally condemned to death, with no chance of retaliating. Even thinking became difficult… every nerve and fibre being too occupied trying to see the enemy guns… or the slightest sign of movement amongst the mass of haystacks, sheds and houses of the distant village. There were anxious mutterings from my crew over the I.C. They had heard the impact on Mr. Francis’ vehicle, and could hear the subsequent rounds passing by, but they knew little else, being closed down inside the vehicle. I could only do my best to reassure them.
During my frantic searching for the enemy, I happened to glance to the rear… and my heart gave a leap as I beheld a number of tanks approaching rapidly, followed by many infantry. It was A squadron. They had commenced their attack and were going to pass beyond us, and so on to Boeiink. You can imagine how grateful I was to see those tanks… but I didn’t then know what lay in store for them. I was only too conscious of being trapped like a rat… unable to make the slightest move. And now I saw something else… one of Mr. Francis’ crew running towards me from the shelter of Sgt. Hall’s vehicle. Above the awful din of battle I got his message as he shouted from the side of my vehicle – ” would I lay a smoke screen to enable Mr. Francis to rescue the wounded from his vehicle”. This was soon done, and in a few moments there was a solid wall of smoke between our vehicles and Boeiink. A little later, Mr. Francis himself appeared on top of my vehicle. He ordered me to dismount whilst he drove off under cover of the smoke screen, to join up with the major. I baled out immediately, sorry to be leaving my crew.
And then I did a dash… running and crawling to the comparative safety of Sgt. Hall’s tank. En route, I stopped by the open side door of Mr. Francis’ vehicle to try to drag out his co-driver, Jimmy Smith. Mr. F. had asked me to do this as I left him: I doubt whether I would have thought of it, even had I known Smith was still inside. But I could see at a glance that Jimmy was beyond human aid. His body lay sideways across his seat with his head by the edge of the open door: he must have opened the latter during the few seconds between being hit and losing consciousness. His face and hands had already assumed that awful yellowish colouring, and his eyes were glazed, staring horribly. Immediately above Jimmy’s body was that large gash in the track covering: the sight of it brought me back to my senses and made me realise that I was standing on the enemy’s side of the vehicle. I very quickly made my way round to Dicky Hall’s tank…
There I found Dicky and his crew all O.K: they had baled out as soon as they realised their vehicle was ditched and immovable. With them were the three remaining members of Mr. Francis’ crew: two uninjured, but the third, ‘Titch’ Mead the driver, was lying on the ground, his clothes soaked in blood. His left leg had been almost amputated, and his left hand badly injured, presumably by the same shot that killed Smith: the two of them were sitting side by side in the tank. ‘Titch’ was conscious and making no complaint: and Dicky was fixing a tourniquet around the top of Mead’s leg. The rest of the lads were improvising a stretcher from two gun-cleaning poles and an overcoat. How on earth Mead was removed from his vehicle I don’t know, but Dicky told me later that they had to give him two doses of chloroform before he became unconscious. And a little later they injected morphia. In spite of this he had recovered consciousness when I arrived and was calmly smoking a cigarette!
I cannot tell you how much I admired Dicky for the calm and methodical way in which he handled “Titch”: the wound was a ghastly sight… the leg almost severed… but Dicky was unperturbed: he just did his job as though it were a routine matter… with enemy H.E. and machine-gun fire whistling around from the area of Boeiink.
It was a bit of a job to place Mead on that crude stretcher, but we managed it, and the rough splint on his leg remained in position. Two of our members now crawled away, taking cover in a waterlogged ditch, in order to try and find the medical post… or an ambulance and a decent stretcher. Meanwhile Dicky and I crawled back to Smith, but he was now quite dead, and so we left him.
Our colleagues soon returned with the information that there was a first aid post in the brickworks about half a mile distant in our rear. It seemed a hopeless business trying to carry Mead so far on that crazy stretcher, but something had to be done… and so we went. That was the beginning of an unpleasant journey. There were six of us, besides Mead, and we learned that a human body is a heavy load… especially when the route includes ditches and barbed-wire fences, and ploughed fields torn by tank tracks. The enemy too appeared to be fighting back stubbornly in Boeiink, and there was a minor symphony of whines and whistles overhead: but whether from our own guns or the enemy’s I do not know.
It must have taken us almost an hour to reach that brickworks, and most of us were just about on our knees by the time we arrived. Mead was conscious all the time and hardly murmured even when we stumbled and heaved him across the ditches. At the brick works, the ambulance was waiting, and we parted with ‘Titch’, thankful to have got him away from that hell-on-earth.
And now we returned to the tanks… to retrieve kit, and immobilise the guns:- the latter a necessary precaution in case of a counter attack and the vehicles falling into enemy hands.
It was on this return journey that I first became aware of the plight of ‘A’ squadron. Their battle was now nearing its end and the enemy gun fire seemed more distant and sporadic. But although we appeared to have achieved our objectives, ‘A’ squadron had certainly suffered to a greater extent than C. In the open ground by Vinkenbroek… now completely in our hands… there were only three immobilised vehicles… i.e. Sgt. Hall’s, Mr. Francis’, and the major’s: they were all quite close together, as though the enemy had concentrated his fire on our particular locality. But in the area between Vinkenbroek and Boeiink, I could see at least half a dozen obviously disabled tanks… one of them blazing furiously and adding a little more smoke to the dense clouds which now swept across the battle area from the numerous burning houses, barns, haystacks etc. It was a scene of complete ruin. There could be no doubt that these were ‘A’ squadron vehicles. The crews who had baled out were returning southwards, some of them supporting wounded colleagues. God knows what had happened, but it seemed pretty certain that the enemy had been well prepared to deal with a tank attack, and he must have had many anti-tank weapons awaiting us. It was some consolation to see batches of prisoners being marched back by our infantry… the latter grinning cheerfully… the former dirty and dishevelled, but seemingly quite happy.
We reached Dicky’s vehicle without mishap and the crew started unloading their kit and attending to the guns etc. And one of them… stout fella!.. heaved out the petrol cooker and started to make a brew. Dicky and I… with two members of Mr. Francis’ crew, returned to the latter’s vehicle to try to extricate Smith from the wreckage. He was by now an unpleasant sight. We tried to drag his body through the open side door but this proved impossible. Eventually, Dicky climbed on the vehicle and using a long pole as a lever, he enabled two of us to draw the body through the side door. Poor Jimmy! I don’t think he could have been conscious more than a few seconds. His body was practically cut in two, just below the hips… the torn fabric of his overalls holding the pieces together. We laid him on the ground and covered his body with a blanket: the padre would do the rest later…
We returned to Dicky’s tank… and the brew was ready. It was a grand drink.
A little later, Major Mockford of ‘A’ appeared from somewhere on foot. He looked pretty bad and told us that he only had three undamaged tanks left. He passed on, looking for the colonel. I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to the rest of ‘C’ squadron… and those lads in my vehicle.
Soon after this, we locked up the tanks to the best of our ability, collected the personal kit, and returned to the brickworks. Someone there had very kindly made tea, and we had another drink. It was here that I overheard the colonel of the infantry inform our battalion second-in-command that he had only had four casualties all day… all wounded… “thanks to the assistance of the tanks”. He added “I hope you haven’t many casualties”…
I was glad to hear that tribute… because I feel we are doing something worthwhile by helping those grand infantry lads… and because it is always gratifying to know that our assistance is appreciated. But I knew that our casualties would far exceed those of the infantry.
Our next objective was our H.Q: we learned that they were located about half a mile away, behind the railway line. We soon found them… and had another cup of tea… earned for us, no doubt, by our tattered appearance. The colonel came along and asked a few questions: we were able to give some information…
A little later, I heard the noise of approaching Churchills, and was glad to see the major leading his squadron back. The squadron was complete, apart from the three vehicles I have mentioned. I soon found my own tank and found the crew unharmed and quite cheerful. Dinner was soon being prepared… and we swopped yarns. But everyone looked pretty ghastly in spite of the assumed gaiety: the day had left its mark alright. I noticed the major walking about with a bandage around his head and learned that he had been hit by shrapnel from an H.E… but he seemed cheerful enough and dismissed the wound very lightly.
Our meal in this location was interrupted by a few rounds of H.E. and one or two ‘air bursts’. The enemy was apparently determined to have the last say, even though it involved long range firing. Our harbour was obviously not a healthy one, so we withdrew to a place near our original start point… and there we “dug in” and slept.
And now I haven’t much more to say… altho’ I should add that our assault was regarded as a great success… and it ‘shook’ the enemy… On the following day, we went after him again only to find that he had gone… leaving us to enter the town of Roosendaal without firing a shot. But that is another story.
There are a couple of postscripts to the foregoing. Firstly, the damage to my vehicle when we were ‘hit’: it was hardly a real hit. The round struck the rear of the tank, where we had four bundles of bedding strapped on in the form of a long roll:- the canvas tarpaulin for covering the tank being used as a wrapper for the bedding. The round went straight through this bedding roll, knocked a steel container to bits, and then ricocheted upwards striking the wall of a house causing bits of brick etc. to fall into the tank. When we first surveyed the damage, the main problem was “whose bedding roll had been damaged”. We soon unstrapped the bundle… and there lay my bedding torn to bits. I opened out the blankets: they were more hole than blanket! I was annoyed, naturally… but my crew enjoyed the joke at my expense, and were unsympathetic. When Pedder, the radio operator, said “stop ticking, man: thank your lucky stars you weren’t inside them”… I had no answer. He was right, of course.
The other P.S. concerns Mead. I heard later that he had been flown to England, had lost his leg, but was recovering nicely and seemed very cheerful.
I must finish now Jess… It is quite late… and I have a feeling that the family are anxious to get to bed.
Good-night, my dear,