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The Breakout: Part 1 (To Normandy with the 3rd Tank Battalion Scots Guards)icon for Recommended story

by jeddav123

Contributed by 
jeddav123
People in story: 
J.E. Davies
Location of story: 
Normandy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4538621
Contributed on: 
25 July 2005

J.E.Davies

It was July 17th when we entered the cavernous belly of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) in the FAP (Forward Aid Post) half-track driven by Piper Laurie, along with a half-track crewed by Jimmy Hill and Hammy Kerr, two of the battalion fitters. I had recently arrived at the battalion from the Training Wing and not as yet been crewed, so I was travelling as a passenger. We were confined to our vehicles until we sailed and as soon as we cast off, I was off up to the deck like a shot, full of the spirit of adventure.

An awe-inspiring sight greeted me, for in all directions ships of all shapes and sizes steamed in convoy heading for the French coast. Many had barrage balloons tethered above that soared skywards, then dropped out of sight as the flat bottomed LST rolled and pitched over the waves. Soon the gyrating motion took its toll and an epidemic of seasickness broke out that even affected some of the ship's crew.

Because of this, a few of us with sturdier stomachs downed a huge breakfast of unwanted sausages, fried potatoes and baked beans, but I paid for it by being grabbed for fatigues in the galley. At a sink full of greasy cooking trays from breakfast I braced myself against the ship's motion, rolled up my sleeves and turned on what I thought was the hot water tap. But it was the cold and as I watched melted fat in the trays congeal to a white greasy slime, queasiness arose that developed into the feeling of having been kicked in the stomach by a mule. I rushed up on deck and joined others at the rails to dispose of my mammoth breakfast in large chunks.

It was late at night when we beached and with great relief drove down the ramp ashore, and we all felt so ill that if there had been just one solitary German soldier in sight, we would all have surrendered to him without a fight.

However, a few hours sleep restored rude health and I awoke to find the Echelon due to limited space, sharing a field with Bren gun carriers and transport of an infantry regiment. The weather was hot and I was elated at being on foreign soil with a wad of Liberation francs to prove it, plus the bonus of free issue cigarettes into the indefinable future. For the first time in my life money was of no consequence, and I felt like wealthy tourist.

Having no immediate superior to rein me in, I decided to explore my surroundings. Circular holes dug close to the hedges caught my attention, and was told these were German weapon pits. The next field was a charnel house of dead cattle and sheep, and a few adjacent fields around it were a graveyard for scores of burnt out Sherman tanks with neat holes surgically drilled through their scorched hides. I looked down the hatches of a few, and on the turret floor of one was a mound of molten stuff that puzzled me. However looking at it from a different angle, I was able to make out the shape of two fire black skulls and ribs partially covered by charred clothing. The burial parties had missed these two, but not for a single moment did it occur to me that this could be my fate. I just hoped that the AP (Armour Piercing) rounds that hit them had killed them outright, and not the fire.

I thought I'd take a look at the front line, which in my imagination would be vintage WW1 with trenches, shell holes and barbed wire. I passed a line of infantry lying in a ditch who eyed me with curiosity, and came to a pasture on a small hill on whose flank lay a dead Coldstream Guardsman. Near him a more mature Coldstreamer was digging a grave. I recognised his type, a long serving soldier with no promotional prospects nor home or family other than the army, performing his 'dug in job' of Dan Dan the sanitary man. He dug his unit's latrine pits when in harbour and graves for KIA's (killed in action). Every battalion had a Dan.

I looked at the dead Coalie; he was sprawled on his back with arms flung out and knees slightly bent, his webbing straps biting into him as his corpse distended under the hot sun.

His chin was missing and a beard of blowflies buzzed there instead, his upper teeth startling white against the busy dark background. Dan the sanitary man paused in his labours to watch me go by, removing his steel helmet to wipe the sweat off his brow. We nodded to each other without speaking, as a customary comment about the weather seemed inappropriate here. Over the crest I came face to face with a German 88mm AA gun, its long barrel levelled in the anti-tank mode. The gunner sat on his seat with eyes to the sights and a smile on his face, as dead as a doornail. Whatever he had seen through his sights that had given him pleasure wasn't there any more. I looked around at the unspoilt countryside shimmering in the heat, and instinct told me I was probably standing in what could be perceived as No Man's Land.

I retraced my steps in wonder at the peaceful nature of war. No shots, no shells, no bombs, no bullets, just the humming of bees and the twitter of birds going about their business. Dan's hole was now about 3 foot deep and adequate for a temporary grave, and again he paused in his labours to watch me as I drew near. I felt he was going to ask for help in burying the Coalie and on glancing at the corpse, it looked more swollen than ever. My thoughts were it wouldn't fit in but Dan didn't ask for any help, so I offered none and went on my way.

Back at the field I found I hadn't been missed, so I dined on the 24-hour pack of dehydrated food I'd been issued with. I didn't bother to reconstitute the dried blocks of oatmeal and minced meat, but crunched them like biscuits and washed them down with water. And was reclining for a nap whilst belching a storm as my stomach filled with wind and struggling to cope with this latest assault, when three sharp cracks jerked me to a sitting position. Looking around I could see men scrambling for cover but I knew not what from. Another three cracks and the sound of objects hitting the ground around me caused me to look up. Directly overhead were three ugly black clouds. Christ Almighty! Airbursts!

I was up in a flash and dived for cover under a nearby Bren gun carrier. The airbursts must have been ranging shots as mortar bombs and artillery shells shrieked down on the field sending shrapnel flying in all directions. I was instantly scared and appealed to God that if He got me out of this alive, there would be no more disbelieving in Him from me as I was now a fervent convert. His answer came in a salvo of near misses that rocked the carrier and something hit the backs of my legs like a cricket bat wielded by Don Bradman.

The bombardment eased off and the 'Old Bill' syndrome got under way. This was superbly illustrated in a WW1 cartoon by Bruce Bairnsfather, depicting Old Bill taking his clay pipe out of his mouth to advise his young companion who is terrified by the close proximity of shells falling around their dug-out, with. 'Well if you knows of a better 'ole - go to it!'

It was like watching musical chairs as figures popped in and out of holes or traded places under different vehicles. I thought after such a concentration of ground fire that a hole would be safer and headed for a weapon pit being vacated by an unsatisfied tenant. As I dived in, I saw Jimmy Hill skid under my carrier and wondered if I'd done the right thing in forsaking overhead cover. My former refuge suddenly became a highly desirable habitat and I was on the point of rushing back to reclaim it and join Jimmy, when the stonk resumed its former fury and I curled up at the bottom of my inadequate hole and prayed once again for deliverance.

When it finally ended the silence was deafening. I popped up for a look and saw smoke rising from the carrier from a round landing in it, the blast punching through the thin steel floor and killing Jimmy Hill. Around the field vehicles billowed black smoke and cries for help from casualties began to be heard. Hammy Kerr came steaming up asking if I'd seen his pal, I pointed to the carrier and he ran over and bent to look, and was distraught with what he saw. 'Ah telt him tae stay put,' he wailed, 'but he wudna listen.'
I helped Hammy to carry Hill's body to the FAP half-track, where attention was drawn to the bloody state of the backs of my legs. I twisted around to look, and suddenly they hurt.

Whilst the Captain MacKnight the Medical Office attended to the more seriously wounded, I stood with dropped trousers in front of the Medical Sergeant who, seated on a camp stool, gouged bits of metal out of my legs with cruel tweezers. 'Lucky you've no bone damage,' he said. 'Or you'd be off to back Blighty along with this lot.' Nodding towards a half a dozen stretchers containing wan faced but contented casualties who had evacuation labels tied to them, their tickets home and an extension to life.

I thought how convenient it must be to experience just a taste of war, then end it with a non-incapacitating wound as a memento of having seen action. This had had happened to my elder brother Arthur in another field somewhere close by. He was serving with a Light AA unit and his war ended manning twin Bofors AA guns in a duel with a strafing German fighter, and the fighter had won. A cannon shell ripped most of the muscle out of his upper right arm and his body was riddled with shrapnel, which popped out of out of his skin for many years after. But luckily being naturally left handed, he was still able to earn a living after being medically discharged as unfit for further service.

We buried Jimmy Hill's body in the corner of the field and the padre said a prayer, and Piper Laurie played a lament. As I helped to lower the limp blanket shrouded body down into the grave, I wondered where that spark of energy of his we call the soul had fled? Did it linger close to the husk of its recent host, or make its way to an assembly point for onward transit to God knows where. Daft thoughts!

I had been under a false impression that first day ashore about the peaceful atmosphere. The reason being we'd arrived in the wake of a terrific battle to break out of the steel ring around the beachhead, which had caused terrible casualties on both sides and in a moment of calm, both sides had been busily regrouping. Things hotted up as the Luftwaffe resumed bombing and strafing that in this confined area, every ball won a prize. The RAF launched a 500-plane raid and followed up with swarms of Typhoons to hammer the howling nebelwerfers. Around us batteries of 25 pounders barked incessantly and 16 inch shells from battleships rumbled overhead. And those scourges of front line troops the American fighter-bombers, attacked friend and foe alike with commendable impartiality, being absolutely myopic regarding recognition flares and stone deaf to all radio calls to desist. It was a lively time.

The next day A1 echelon moved closer to the front to support the battle tanks assembling for an attack. A convoy of six half-tracks and four 3 ton Bedford trucks loaded with rations petrol and ammunition formed up behind RSM Buster Brown's scout car, and I was worried by the baffled way he and SSM Craggs studied a map. However he tossed the map into the scout car and climbed aboard and with a flourish of the hand, gave the signal to advance.

We came to a junction and after some deliberation, took the right fork and drove down a narrow metalled road leading into a sun-baked valley, obeying the sign that read 'SLOW! DUST MEANS DEATH!' Our half-track followed on the heels of Buster's scout car and on passing infantry crouched in ditches behind hedgerows running at right angles to the road, I became afflicted with déjà vu as having seen this sight before, I had an idea of what might lay ahead in the shape of a deadly 88. The infantry as always, silently watched us go by and I powerless to do anything, as I feared Buster Brown more than I did the Germans.

'Get ready to bail out.' I warned Piper Laurie who was driving.

'Whit ye havering aboot laddie?' He wished to know.

We came to a defile with a copse-studded hill to our left and on the right another slope that was the graveyard of a small chapel sitting on its crest. An ideal place for an ambush and no sooner thought about, than it happened.

With a scream an incandescent billet of steel from a copse on the left flew past the nose of the scout car, hit the slope of the graveyard and bounced over the church roof. The scout car driver tried to turn and go back but in panic, toppled sideways into a ditch and bailed out, as did Piper Laurie and myself. Mortar bombs exploded along the length of the column and Spandaus added their wicked chatter. Stupidly, I threw myself down behind the kerb, its five-inch depth proving no protection at all for a 42-inch chest and a similar sized rump.

I quailed as red tracer bullets ricocheted off the road close by and knew that if I tarried here, the next burst must surely hit me. Then I saw figures from the convoy running up through the graveyard, ducking for cover behind headstones when the tracer homed in on them. And when a truck full of petrol filled jerricans exploded nearby, sending sheets of liquid flame to fuel the inferno and making my position even more untenable, I shot to my feet and ran for dear life for the dubious refuge of the graveyard.

Tracer bullets skipped alongside as I spotted a newly dug grave and hurled myself into it, and was nearly tossed out again by a heaving cursing mass of muscular flesh. I had landed on top of RSM Brown and SSM Craggs.

Craggs at the bottom of the heap, declared the grave a warrant officer's enclave and ordered me out, but Buster overruled him, probably thinking I would provide more protection for him against the steel shards zipping around outside. But a German spotter must have seen my disappearing act and for minutes the area around the grave was plastered with moaning minnies. The blasts blew earth from the heap of excavated soil over me and in between screaming silently for God to mount another rescue mission, I wondered how soldiers in the first war had withstood this mind shattering experience day in and day out for years on end.

The mortaring suddenly stopped and I risked a quick look out. Dust from the mortar bombs and smoke from the burning vehicles must have obscured their vision, and were holding off until it cleared. I was up and out and scuttled for the safety of the reverse slope behind the church, with Buster and Craggs panting like steam engines close behind.

Once out of immediate danger the adrenalin rush collapsed and so did I. My tiredness was monumental and I just wanted to sleep, but my legs hurt and suddenly I remembered why, and rolled up my trouser legs to inspect for further damage. The field dressings were intact and had acquired no new perforations. I reflected that war was a hell of a one sided affair and not a bit like the one scripted by Hollywood and enacted by Errol Flynn and other celluloid heroes. My role in this and yesterday's action had been akin to that of a terrified ant scuttling frantically about, dodging blows from invisible giants wielding very large hammers.

My next recollection was after footing it back to a friendly field where other escapees had gathered, looking at a dejected German prisoner cowering under the combined glares of an irate Buster and Craggs. The prisoner was a slight ferrety individual wearing an oversized helmet and ill-fitting uniform. So this is the master race who had overrun most of Europe? I mused. And thought if they're all like this, then I'd nothing much to worry about. When a thundering order from Buster to take the prisoner to the rear interrupted my thoughts.

'And then what?' I wished to know, a bit thrown by the order.

'And then what!' Mimicked Buster. 'Shoot him! That's what and then what!' He roared.

I unshipped my revolver and walked towards the prisoner, motioning with my gun for him to stand up and walk. 'Nicht shiessen!' He begged as I herded him off and giving me an idea. When still within shouting distance of the field I stopped, pointed the gun at his head. 'NICHT SHIESSEN!' He screamed again and collapsed. I fired a round into the air and after a pause, another.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 28 July 2005 by MuirEain

A very good and interesting read, but what squadron were you in ? ...as my Father was in 'S' squadron. At least two others from the tank ( Skye ) are alive and well .
Eain.

 

Message 2 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 01 August 2005 by jeddav123

Dear Eain

Thanks for your letter, I did not think my recollections would generate any replies after all these years. I was in Reconnaissance Troop that was attached to HQ Squadron and attached to S Squadron for that battle. I must say your father is a very lucky man to have survived the carnage on that hill. I was glad to hear that there are still a couple of the 3rd Tanks still surviving, I thought I was the Last of the Mohicans. Thanks for the interest,

Yours J.E. Davies.

 

Message 3 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 03 August 2005 by MuirEain

Dear Mr Davies,
Thank you for your reply. My Father's tank was knocked out on hill 226, the co-driver being killed (W.Lawrie I believe ) also my Father remembers the first man in the battalion to lose his life was L.Sgt John Louden, killed by a sniper.
The Officer who later took over command of 'S' squadron, Major Farrell wrote his memoirs on his time in the Third Battalion S.G approx. five years ago, titled 'Reflections:An Officer in training and at war'.
Including my Father, five ex 'S' squadron men live in the counties of Oxfordshire/Wiltshire/Somerset ...all very near one another. Should you wish to get in touch with any of these ex Guardsmen, let me know, I'm sure they would love to hear from you.
All the best and 'keep your powder dry !'
Eain.

 

Message 4 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 03 August 2005 by MuirEain

Dear Mr Davies,
Did you see active service with the Third Battalion S.G through to May 1945 ? If yes, were you with H.Q Squadron at Plon ? If so, do you have any recollections from this period during the war ? e.g Squadron locations or orders....from viii corps ? As a former Officer and myself are researching this period and would greatly appreciate any input you can make.
Thanks again,
Eain.

 

Message 5 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 05 August 2005 by jeddav123

Dear Eain
Sorry I haven't replied sooner because of PC problems due to my scant knowledge of PC technology.Was your father wounded when his tank was hit, or suffered any lasting ill effects? As having seen the terrible state of many knocked out or brewed up tanks, it's a miracle that anyone could survive.I didn't get to know any tank crews as I only joined the battalion at Eastwell Park Ashford a few days before it left for France, and was employed as an Officer's Mess waiter which was an unmitigated disster on legs. After spilling hot soup on diner's heads and shooting precious whisky out of glasses with jets of soda water, Major the Earl Cathcart gave me the boot. I then hung around like an homeless hound with mange until I got to Normandy, and Sgt Porter took me in more out of necessity than pity. I was surprised to hear how many of the same tank crews are in your neck of the woods, as in the 60 years since the war I have only met one I knew. This was in 1959 in N'dola on the Congo border when I took my car into a garage for repair, and mechanic was Hammy Kerr. He was still pretty bitter about his pal's death and thought he could have done more to prevent it, I told him that Jimmy wasn't the only one running about like a headless chicken, I was up there as a front runner in the "Old Bill" handicap. As to your query about Plon I was with the battalion until it disbanded Feb 1946 and was sent to Trieste to police the Morgan Line. But I don't remember much happening around Plon. I heard Lt. Runcie captured a U-boat but it slipped off his hook and got away. And I tried to appropriate a KreigsMarine Captain's big touring car, a Lagonda I think it was, but was disadvantaged as he spoke impeccable English and like Pavlov's dogs, I had been conditioned to obey implicitly any orders spoke in the dulcet tones of an Oxbridge speaker. I've got a murky photo of some of us walking down a cobbled street in Plon with some local kids watching us. And I'm pretty sure the grim mouse infested Schloss we were billeted in was in the Plon area, as again I have photos of three of us clinging to a sinking raft on the moat. Well Eain I must close now as this machine is kicking up and threatening to disconnect me again, and I'm sorry I couldn't give you any information. But if I can help you at all in the future I shall be only to happy as being persuaded by two of my grand daughters to write an account of my odyssy through life that they can pass on to their offspring, which I am now reaching the end and has turned up a lot of memories I thought were dead. And I go by the name of Ed.

Yours Ed

 

Message 6 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 18 September 2005 by activelaura2

it mite sound funny but how old are you

 

Message 7 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 27 September 2005 by jeddav123

To activelaura 2

In answer to your query, a very worn out 80.

 

Message 8 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 31 October 2005 by jeddav123

Dear Muireain

I have managed at last to obtain Major Farrell’s book “Reflections,” and was pleased to find that his experiences were pretty similar to mine, even to noting the tense silence that pervades the front line prior to an attack. And the machinations behind the scenes of High Command made interesting reading, and a little perturbed to learn that according to latter day experts as ground troops we were inferior to the Germans. If this was so, how did we finish up in North Germany accepting their surrender; another Miracle of Mons maybe? However, there is a detail of the March on Munster that Major Farrell possibly isn’t aware of, and that was Harry Pember was killed by “friendly fire” in the action at Dorsten.
We were covering a road on the flank of the advance, and for reasons now unknown there were only Sgt Porter manning the turret and I was behind the Browning MG down in the driving compartment. When down the road came a platoon strength attack and sustained fire from my MG forced the attackers to take cover in the ditch alongside the road. Captain Pember dropped down into the turret and with head and upper body exposed, manned the AA Browning mounted on the turret top to assist in keeping Jerry pinned down until American paras behind us came forward in support. But he fell down to the turret floor and almost on top of me. Sgt. Porter shouted for me to get us out of there and I didn’t need any more urging, and spun the Honey around and charged off to get him to the medical halftrack. As we lifted him out of we saw where a burst of automatic fire had torn into his back. Which meant that it came from the direction of the American paras behind us, unless the Germans in front were using boomerang bullets. At this point he was still alive and in great pain, but died later that night, which was a waste of a very fine leader, and as Major Farrell quite rightly says, a very brave man. Anyway, thanks for bringing his book to my notice.

Yours Truly
J.E. Davies.

 

Message 9 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 08 November 2005 by aeroplanegripper

I'm trying to find out if anyone knows of anyone who served with my partners Grandfather, John Paterson Prentice, who was killed in action on the Right Flank of the Battle of Caumont on 30 July 44.

Hello Mr Davies,
My partners Grandfather, John Prentice was with the 3rd Battalion Scots Guards and had only been in France for 10 days when he was killed.
on Jul 30 1944 at Les Loges.
He was attached to the Right Flank when he was killed.
We would love to find further details on his job (Probably on Churchill Tanks), any mates he was with or who may have known him, or any photos of the Scots Guards in France.

Really hope you can help.

Best Regards

Mark

 

Message 10 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 21 November 2005 by MuirEain

Dear Mark,
I have just spoken to a former Officer in 'S' squadron, who informs me that at least one Officer from right flank is still alive; His name is Hector Laing, now know as Lord Laing. I do not have his address or any other details.
Should I find out anything else, I will add to this website; I do not know what knowledge you have of 'Right flank' or 'S' squadron, but I could send on copies of anything I have re: The 3rd battalion.
Regards and good luck,

Eain.

 

Message 11 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 27 November 2005 by jeddav123

Dear Mark
I would give anything to say that I knew your partner's Grandfather and what kind of man he was and how he died - but I can't. We buried quite a few of Right Flank men after the 30th of July battle and the only one I personally knew was a Gdsm Lynch. But there is no doubt that being killed on that day, he would have been Churchill gunner, driver or wireless operator.
You see I was in a light tank in Reccy troop and our functions were different from the Churchills, and being battened down in tanks did not lend itself from mixing with each other. But I do hope that somehow from some source that you get to know more about your Grandfather.

Yours Regretfully
JE Davies

 

Message 12 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 28 November 2005 by jeddav123

Dear Eain
Your reference to Mark about a Lord Laing jogged a memory, as there were two Lt.Laings. One was in Right Flank the other was battalion Intelligence Officer. He took command of Reccy Troop after Capt Pember was killed and in April led a patrol I was part of through a forest in an effort to find a way through for the Churchills to attack the large town of Uelzen. But ambushing SP's, felled tree road blocks and cratered roads blocked the way. And at one particular large crater a detachment of RE's were sent up to see if it could be bridged. I stood next to Lt. Laing for a little while watching the Sappers at work down in the crater then when back to my tank, and shortly after there was a massive explosion caused by a concealed ariel bomb set on a timer, which killed most of the Sappers and injured Lt. Laing. He never rejoined the Troop and I don't suppose I'll ever know, whether he is the Lt. Laing I left standing on the lip of the crater.

Yours Sincely J.E. Davies

 

Message 13 - 3rd Battalion S.G

Posted on: 30 January 2006 by fozman

Mr Davies,

Finding your "book" and these messages has been really useful to me as I'm trying to research the Scots Guards action at Caumont (S Squadron, 3rd Battalion) for our wargaming club as we are using it as the basis for the public participation games that we are running throughout this year.

As we are focussing on the specific action of 30th July, we would like to have as much information as possible so that we can not only tell people what actually happened, but (and perhaps more importantly) make them aware of the sacrifice that others went through for us.

The information on these pages has been really interesting to read - especially that there were Stuart's involved as well... I had formed the opinion that only the Churchills had taken part.

Once again, thanks for your memories

Regards
Colin Foster

Message 1 - Hi Mr Davies

Posted on: 17 December 2005 by Andy1971

Dear Sir, I just wanted to thank you for placing your story on this site, I have enjoyed (maybe not the correct word) reading it. Im very interested in the battle for Normandy and have been over a few times now and im going back again next year. Have you been back yourself? I know a couple of vets who have only just gone back
for the 60th last year.

I was wondering if you have read
A View from the Turret by Bill close?
Ive been thinking about getting it and wonder what your view on it is.

I just cant imagine what it must have been like to be tank crew, especially in a light tank in recce. It must have been bad in the under gunned and under armoured Sherman and Cromwell tanks.

I just want to say thank you for your service.

All the best and have a good Xmas

Andy

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