No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess darling… It seems months since I wrote to you… but I suppose it was only about four days ago. Only four days! What an awful gap in my letters… But once again it has been unavoidable. Some day, I will be able to tell you all about the reason… I have a lot to talk about – but at present I cannot say much… When I am able, I will tell you something about Belgium and Brussels, and about Holland…!
I didn’t get very far with my writing yesterday… Let’s hope for better luck this morning. I must tell you that I received more cigarettes a few days ago… there were two parcels, each containing 200, and endorsed “from Mrs. Greenwood”. They came at a very convenient time and I was jolly glad to receive them. Please thank everyone concerned, Jess dear. I cannot write to Toddy and K. and D. just now. I received too three more of your letters last Friday, also one from Marjorie. (RTG’s siblings.)
You have told me of Barry’s teething troubles and of the manner in which you have attended to him. You seem to have effected a miraculous cure somehow… I hope you will not have many sleepless nights with him, my dear… but I don’t think you will really complain if you do:- he has been a good little chap so far and I feel sure he will not cause you any bother unless he is really in pain. How I wish I could be with you… just to help a little bit…
I am so grateful for your little stories about Barry. I loved trying to picture him lying on the rug when Marjorie appeared “ready for fun and games with anyone”… And how grand it must have been to hear hin laughing and chirping when he was first allowed to sit up in his pram… And his tussles with his little pixie hat-!! Very often nowadays I fail to comment upon your letters… but you must not think I am not interested in everything you tell me. It is just the opposite: I am ravenous for news of you and Barry and I hope you will continue to tell me of even the most trivial things. At the moment I am living in hopes of receiving news of your letters: they may arrive today. I last heard from you on Friday… or it may have been Thursday… It is hard to recall the passage of days just now… We are not having a lot of rest… and the constant travelling has kept us rather out of touch with our postal organisation.
But now… well, we simply can’t go much further, so we may have a chance to get ‘organised’ once again. Not long ago, I had a glimpse of the English Channel near St. Valery… It made me feel terribly home-sick. I felt so much nearer home… and yet, I might just as well have been thousands of miles away: there was no chance of seeing my love… no chance at all…
I have not actually been to Dieppe, nor did we do any fighting there, but we stayed a few days in a village about 6 miles south of the town, and many of our fellows visited the place. I have not been to Calais either… we passed about 30 miles to the south. But I was in Le Havre. We fought there for three days. There were some fairly heavy battles during the first two days when we were fighting in the surrounding country to pierce the enemy’s perimeter defences. But on the third day we entered the town and took many prisoners after a few skirmishes. This was my first experience of street fighting, and I must admit that I felt very apprehensive beforehand. Luckily, however, the Germans had had a ‘bellyfull’ of fighting during the preceding days and their final resistance in the town itself was soon overcome.
It was our job to capture the area of the docks… a strip of territory consisting of Warehouses and workers dwellings… about 500 yards in width, and 4000 yards in length. On the day of the final assault, we learned that opposition was still fairly strong, and so, about mid morning, we had to “go in”. We proceeded, through the suburb of Harfleur where there were many Maquis still snooping around for Jerries, and eventually reached our start point on the main road running straight through the dock area. Up to this point, the roads were a mass of huge craters and damaged road blocks… evidence of the work of our heavy bombers and Typhoons during the previous few days. The latter had done some fine work blasting away the enormous concrete and steel road blocks.
To our right, lay the high ground overlooking the town: its eastern end had been literally blasted to smithereens by the R.A.F. We had witnessed, the day before, an attack by Bomber command, in which 3500 tons of bombs were dropped on an area about 400 yards square. It was an amazing sight… quite indescribable. This was only one of many heavy air raids on the place. Up there too, on the high ground, I could see the slits of the enemy fortifications running along the ridge. There were guns up there: I presumed they had already been silenced.
Crowds of people welcomed us into the town along the roadside. It seemed extraordinary, and totally unreal, to find civilians mixed up like this on what was really a battle ground: but they seemed unaware of any danger and persisted in waving and cheering and throwing flowers upon our vehicles. Can you imagine the start point for our final assault? Around us, and along the road to the rear, there were thousands of people… half delirious with joy, and almost impeding our advance by running along the road and throwing their flowers on the vehicles.
Immediately in front, and across the road, there was a flimsy road block of barbed wire and steel. Beyond this, the road extended in a perfectly straight line for about 2000 yards. And this long straight road was absolutely deserted… not even a cat being visible. It looked very ominous. This road was lined with high warehouses, and large blocks of workers flats… seemingly a happy hunting ground for snipers. At the far end of the road, and only just visible, there were two domed shapes… concrete gun emplacements!
Our orders were to clear the area… and it had to be done. If the distant guns were still in operation… well, we would worry about those when we got nearer… The major gave the order to advance, and our four tanks moved slowly forward down the road, the major leading. He cleared the small road block for us, and I was relieved to find no booby-traps attached to it. The crowds remained behind… very visibly… but not the Maquis. About twelve of them ran along beside us… and here I must pay tribute to that small band of Frenchmen. They seemed utterly fearless, darting into buildings and doorways and generally looking for snipers and small pockets of the enemy. Their enthusiasm was terrific. They were armed… some with German rifles, some with pistols… small protection against machine-gun fire. All wore the Maquis arm band, and some had steel helmets. All were very poorly dressed, and obviously belonged to the working classes. These Maquis helped us as we are normally helped by our own infantry: they seemed glad and proud of their job.
This was my first experience of street fighting, and I felt very uncomfortable. It is bad enough having one’s head protruding from the turret in country fighting, but here it was worse. We were grand targets for snipers in the upper windows of the houses, and for hand grenades and infantry “bazookas”. The Maquis certainly gave me confidence, but even they hadn’t time to thoroughly examine all buildings along the route. I think they knew that the Germans were in strength at the far end of the road, and they seemed anxious to get there… perhaps to wipe out a few old scores-! They kept running ahead, waving to us to follow.
When we reached a point about 1200 yards from those beastly concrete pill boxes… from which we could now see at least one gun pointing at us… my troop officer fired one round of H.E. and hit the gun. There was no answering fire… just silence and a complete absence of life. It seemed strange. Was there an ambush somewhere ahead? We advanced still further, the major leading, and suddenly I noticed the Maquis yelling with delight and holding their hands above their heads. They were telling us that the enemy had surrendered… and there, sure enough, right at the end of the road… half a mile away, a white flag was fluttering by the roadside. We surged ahead, now going full speed, the Maquis chasing along behind frantically trying to keep up with us. It was like a scene from some fantastic story by Sabatini. The deserted street… the wreckage of earlier R.A.F. attacks… the tanks… the bits and pieces of enemy weapons littering the road… the burned out vehicles and guns at street corners… and these wild looking Maquis brandishing their arms as they tore along the road… they were in terrific spirits.
The major was the first to reach the German with the white flag… a lonely figure by the roadside. He was quickly joined by the rest of us… and the Maquis… In a few moments, a long stream of Germans started to emerge from a huge concrete blockhouse in the open square at the end of the dock road. They all seemed tidily dressed and carried their valises with them. The Maquis soon had them lined up in threes and started searching them for weapons etc… a few of us meanwhile standing by with cocked pistols… just in case-!! What a great moment it must have been for those French workers! There were 120 Germans in this particular batch, and it seemed to me only a matter of a few moments before they were all rounded up and being marched off… proudly escorted by a few of the Maquis.
Soon after this incident, the major ordered me to place my vehicle at the entrance to a bridge running across one of the dock basins. There were a couple of small block-houses at the sides of the bridge, but the Maquis soon explored them and found them empty, apart from piles of German rifles. I manoeuvred my vehicle into a suitable position, and kept observation down into the docks… and then I noticed a number of large steel cannisters lying lengthwise across the bridge immediately in front: they were all connected with electrical cables… about nine cannisters in all. I had wondered why this particular bridge had not been blown… and here was the answer. There was enough explosive in those cannisters to destroy a village, let alone a bridge… and there they were, about 20 feet from the nose of my tank. I found myself in a cold sweat… but fortunately, the rest of the crew appeared to attach no significance to what lay ahead. I had a suspicion that the charges were either connected to a ‘time’ mechanism, or to some detonating point in the town. I hoped for the best, and waited… keeping observation for possible snipers along the docks.
Meanwhile, more tanks had arrived, and there seemed to be a lot of excitement along a few by-roads, with more prisoners being rounded up. The block-houses too were being thoroughly searched, and much equipment and weapons were found. A Maquis appeared by my vehicle: he had found eight Mauser rifles and was staggering beneath the load. He was given permission to sit on my vehicle… and we gave him cigarettes and sweets. He seemed very happy. Some of his colleagues arrived soon after and started sorting out the captured rifles, firing them on the spot to test them! A crazy business this: our nerves were on tenterhooks, and unexpected rifle shots were rather worrying… especially with snipers still in the vicinity. But these fellows didn’t care a damn… and we couldn’t argue with them in French. They just grinned, patted their rifles, and said “tres bon”. I was glad when they finally departed… in search of more Jerries… and loot!
Our infantry arrived eventually. I felt relieved when they crossed that narrow dock bridge to ‘mop up’ any remaining Jerries… And later, I felt positively light hearted when one of them asked us for some wire cutters to enable them to attend to the explosives on the bridge. One of their fellows seemed quite conversant with these obstacles, and after a careful scrutiny, he cut the wires. I was darned thankful.
By this time, a few odd civilians had appeared, and the formerly deserted road was now coming to life. There were people running about, darting into buildings, wheeling handcarts, prams, – any mortal thing with wheels. Whether they were returning to their homes with belongings, or merely looting I cannot say. We had other things to think about – and nobody bothered.
One interesting item of news came over the air: the garrison commandant had been captured in another part of the town. We felt certain that the fight for Le Havre was almost over. But there was still much sporadic fighting. Whilst the infantry were consolidating in our area, their colonel came along in something of a ‘sweat’! He told the major that some of his men were having trouble with a blockhouse near a certain bridge in the docks. Could we help? My troop officer was detailed for the job… and so we departed – three tanks… presumably to flatten out the blockhouse. But the Jerries surrendered when they saw the tanks, so we had no more excitement just there.
We dismounted by the roadside… and were immediately surrounded by excited civilians. How cheerful and happy they seemed. A few of them tried to tell us of their experiences under the Nazis… A nearby tavern opened up and we had to go inside for drinks… all at “Madame’s” expense. She wouldn’t accept payment… but her eyes gleamed when we offered cigarettes. She couldn’t refuse them. The drink… very watery ‘beer’ was very welcome. It was now about 3.0 pm, and we had had nothing since an early breakfast.
Eventually we received orders to return to harbour. The job was done: Le Havre had been liberated. The final clearing up was somebody else’s job.
Our departure was something like a triumphal procession. Crowds of people had appeared as if by magic… probably from cellars and other places of safety. There were young and old… mostly poorly dressed: but their enthusiasm was grand to see. Flags too were now flying from scores of windows, lending some colour to a very drab neighbourhood. Mostly, the people cheered and waved frantically as we passed. Some were even in tears… whether of sorrow or joy I cannot say. Certain it is that the joy of Le Havre on this day must be mingled with much sorrow. The brutality of the Germans was not their only ordeal. Our bombers caused indescribable wreckage… and killed 6000 civilians… ‘C’est la guerre’ was all we could say by way of consolation.. to which they usually agreed with “Oui, c’est terrible”.
A word about the Maquis. From my observations throughout our battles in France, I am of the opinion that they belong mostly to what I suppose must be termed a low order of society. Their behaviour has often been suggestive of mob rule… The shaving of women ‘collaborateur’s’ heads for instance is hardly a reasoned way of administering justice. It has seemed to me that in the Maquis with their weapons and ruthlessness, the French people may find themselves with some trouble when the war is over… unless these men are given a square deal, and not just empty promises. But this is a matter for French politics… I hope it will be more realistic than before the war. However, after Le Havre, I must acknowledge the courage and usefulness of the Maquis. Their behaviour was grand.
That is about all I have to say about Le Havre. Please bear in mind that our efforts were only a tiny fraction of the whole. It was a well defended place, the enemy being well ‘dug in’ and with guns sited in every conceivable place. To get through the outer defences, out in the country, we had to use “flail” tanks to clear the minefields, and Churchill flame-throwers to clear the many deep fortified concrete emplacements. And Jerry doesn’t like these flame-throwers: they are a terrible weapon. One of their officers admitted, on being captured, that they had made preparations against every possible weapon… except flame-throwers. “To them” he said “we have no answer”. He was almost scornful of the British soldiers stooping to such a dirty trick… as though we had hit him “below the belt”. But the ‘brave’ German soldiers had spent almost four years devising and constructing every conceivable type of protection for himself… including concrete shelters about 40 feet underground. His machine gunners too had their almost invisible concrete emplacements and always made a habit of withholding their fire until our approaching infantry were within about 10 yards… and then shooting them to pieces…
Just before our departure from Le Havre, and about three hundred yards from where we were operating, I witnessed the largest explosion I have ever seen. It occurred on the dock-side. There was a colossal roar, accompanied by heavy earth tremors, a heavy blast, and the rattle of breaking glass in the nearby windows. And then an enormous flame ascended skywards, with a tremendous cloud of heavy black smoke. The flash soared well above the warehouses and must have reached at least a hundred feet. Sailing gently upwards amidst the smoke was a huge pile of broken masonry, and two complete wooden sheds, one with a metal chimney stack still protruding from the roof. They went up to about 400 feet, and then seemed to sail gently down again. It was an amazing sight. I believe the Germans had blown up one of their magazines, but none of our troops were in the vicinity at the time. (This long anecdote is mostly copied from the diary entry 12.9.44).
You will have heard of the capture of 11000 odd prisoners at Le Havre. It was quite a good ‘bag’ really. They looked a weary crowd a day or two later as they were driven away in lorries: it was a large convoy, as you can imagine.
A few days later, we shared in some of the ‘loot’. Each member of the unit was given 6 ozs. of Danish butter (the real thing) and a tin of cherries. This was only a tiny part of the huge food stores found in the town… The only souvenir I collected in the place was the white surrender flag…
Perhaps I will have time to tell you of another day in the life of a tank commander… a different story this time… not about the war…
Once upon a time there was a tank crew… No! That won’t do… Start again…
Fairly recently, it was my job to make a long journey with my tank… unaccompanied by any other vehicles… and free from the irksome routine which always attends a full unit march. My crew and self were able to obtain a little enjoyment from the journey… altho’ it was not without anxiety for me as I will tell you. I was a bit bewildered at the time: it was almost as though a chapter of Don Quixote had come to life…
We had harboured quite close to a French village… and were treated with amazing kindness by the local people. One lady roasted a chicken for us (scrounged from a previous harbour) and provided us with plates, bottles of cider, fruit, tomatoes, and Heaven knows what else to fill our bellies. All this was arranged through the agency of her 18 year old daughter, with whom Pedder, the wireless operator had become friendly.
After our feast, more villagers arrived with more food… eggs, cider, apples, pears, peaches… the tank was literally bristling with food and fruit. We eventually finished up with 30 eggs! And they brought corn for the hen… We have carried a live hen with us for about 10 days now… We acquired it through a bit of bad bartering. A youngster offered ‘roast chicken’ for some of our tinned stuff… and it was arranged for Slade, the co-driver, to collect the roast chicken that evening. But when he ultimately returned late in the evening, he had a squawking hen in his arms. Somebody’s ‘French’ must have gone wrong. Anyhow, we kept the hen… and it still lives… And it shared in our slightly hectic procession through the streets of Brussels!.. But I am wandering.
One of the villagers appeared with a camera… and three flags… France, USA, and Britain. We had to pose on the tank, with the flags in the foreground.
We could have stayed in that place for a long time – had there been no war to worry about-! But I had to get a move on.
Pedder and Slade returned to the village with the plates etc. and the daughter. Some of us commenced re-stowing the tank ready for our next move. Besides the crew, I had two fitters with me. One of them, Quinn, now disappeared… He had a ‘date’ somewhere. By 3.30 pm. we were ready to go… and then Pedder and Slade returned from the village. Slade said Pedder had some bad news for me. Bad news?.. Yes… the daughter who had been responsible for much of our generous reception was going to St. Valery too: (it was on our route). She wanted to come with us, on the tank! Ye Gods! A woman in a British tank! It simply isn’t done. But what could I do? Why on earth did I ever tell Pedder we were going through St. Valery? We discussed the matter… and I finally agreed to take the girl on condition that they smuggled her into the turret… out of sight. I would drop her on this side of the village… a two mile run. But then a further complication arose. Pedder had discovered two more intending passengers… another girl of about twelve, and a toddler of about three. They were relations or something of the elder girl. I didn’t mind taking the youngster: he could ride outside on the turret… But there was no room for the other girl.
Slade then agreed to give up his seat, if I didn’t mind… I minded very much, but we had received much food… and kindness from these people, so I said O.K… And so the second girl clambered down into the co-driver’s seat, and we closed the hatches over her head. We now had a total of ten people on the tank, to say nothing of the hen-! It was a bit of a job manoeuvring the elder girl into the turret, but we managed it.. after she had given me – “pour le commandant de tank” – a bag containing 6 more eggs and dozens of apples. A bribe? But where on earth to stow the darned things? They went on board somewhere.
Just before we were due to move off, I heard guffaws of laughter from Slade and Pedder. They were talking to another girl of about 18. She was waving her arms, and looked almost frantic. What did she want? By a ‘coincidence she too was going to St. Valery: she had to go… she must go on the tank-!! What the hell! I tried to reason with her, but it was hopeless: she knew the others were coming as passengers… and we could easily carry one more… Well, this girl had fair hair, and blue eyes… a weakness of mine! We rammed her into the co-driver’s seat with the other girl of twelve. God knows how we got them both inside, but we did… and we closed the hatches…
By now I felt desperately anxious to get going… before the whole damned village decided to go to St.Valery. We got going… and then I found that I had two little boys on top of the turret. Where on earth had the second one come from? To whom did he belong? He seemed quite happy, so I left him. We now had five passengers, five crew, two fitters, one hen, and boxes and tins of food and fruit tied on all over the place. I suppose the vehicle resembled a tank… of a sort. On the hot exhaust stacks, the crew were roasting apples… just to use up a few of our surplus. Through the village, there were hand-waves from every house. And how those two nippers waved! I wondered how many people realised that we had three of their young ladies on board.
On the outskirts of St. V., we pulled up to disgorge our passengers. I was glad to be getting rid of them. But I hadn’t bargained for snags. All would have been well but for the fair-haired lass. She simply refused to budge! We couldn’t shift her. Our frantic appeals were countered with strings of French words which left us guessing. Finally, we understood that she wanted to go a little further… and to avoid a scene, we carried on, with all the passengers. But I made up my mind to get rid of them when we had passed through St. Valery… somewhere by the Somme.
In St. Valery, a pleasant little village in spite of the awful damage, there were the usual greetings: people waving and shouting: how thrilling for the two youngsters… They waved themselves to a standstill.
It was in St. Valery that the Canadians suffered many casualties in 1940. They re-captured the place a few weeks ago… and there is still much evidence of heavy fighting. But life seems to be returning to normal in the town. We reached a quiet stretch of road after crossing the second Somme bridge, and I pulled up… determined this time to unload the passengers. They all dismounted.. except that blue eyed blonde! I told Slade to tell her that the vehicle remained where it was until she got out. And then there started an argument which lasted 20 minutes. We all had a go at that girl, but she simply stuck in the seat, wedged down securely near the floor. To lift her out was almost impossible. Eventually she commenced to cry: she cried a lot. Her father was in Germany – her mother was cruel to her:- she was leaving home: she was coming with us: no matter where we went, she would stay with us: she would NOT get out-!!
Well: it looked as though she wanted to be abducted. But I had no stomach for the role of abductor. One or two of the lads suggested using force but this seemed wrong: besides I did not want a public scene with a hysterical French girl. Eventually, and to my great relief, she agreed to leave us… and I was more pleased than I can say to see her slowly hauling herself from that tiny seat. We shook hands all round and said good-bye. And then we drove away… across the low lying ground of the Somme estuary… I hadn’t the heart to look back at those people. (Much of this anecdote is copied from the diary entry 2.10.44).
I don’t think I will ever risk carrying passengers again… There is quite enough excitement over here without inviting trouble…
I must leave you now, my darling.
I hope to write again very soon.
Au revoir, my love