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A Panzer and a Sherman 'duel of shells' (Part 2)

by Peter Knight

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Contributed by 
Peter Knight
People in story: 
Denis Knight, Tom Denning, and Bert Arrowsmith
Location of story: 
River Moro, Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A7174721
Contributed on: 
21 November 2005

Bert Arrowsmith is on the left, next is Denis Knight, and Tom Denning on the far right; next to their Sherman in Bremen in April 1945.

In response to Tom Denning’s account of this ‘duel of shells’ (in Part 1: see A7174172), Denis Knight wrote back to him in January 1988, with his own account:

“Yes, Tom, those days beyond the Moro all come back to me. It had been raining heavily, as only Italian rain can rain. The little Moro swollen with it. (You know it’s not even marked on most maps of Italy, and I suppose in summer you can cross dry-shod and it’s just a tiny stream.) The engineers had laid down a narrow pontoon, which I seem to remember got broken up, then set up a second bridge, by which we crossed. Then Bert driving up the slippery ascent, each tank making it more impossible for the next to follow. Somehow all C squadron climbed it. A, B, and HQ squadrons got stuck behind. Though the plan, surely, had been for all the 44th to clear the river. In the event, it seems, Teddy Foster did jolly well, with what he’d got. Good gunners, that is. In fighting for your own life, you saved ours too. And mine! So, thank you, Tom, say Nora and I.

Once on top, how strangely deserted and strangely silent the whole landscape was. There was a feeling of low tide, everything on the ebb, and ominous. The houses hadn’t been abandoned, but seemed so. Hardly a soul moving, and no-one working in the little fields. If there were Canadian infantry there, they weren’t in evidence. Not, at least, within our periscopes. As we passed beyond the houses, and entered an orchard, we passed a German M.O.’s hut, well-stocked with medicines, all in perfect order, as though just then abandoned. Some time passed. We wondered whether to brew up. No word came from Teddy Foster’s tank. Everything stayed very quiet. I suppose we should have taken a warning from the birds and animals: they know better than we do, when to shut up. Then word came through it would be OK. You had just got the hot water boiling, Tom, (or was it Bert more likely?) when the warning came (I don’t know whether it was from Teddy Foster or another watchful tank-commander) that a line of Jerry tanks, Mark IV’s, were breaking through, at the orchard’s far end. We jumped on board. I think perhaps only Bert and I were brewing up; and you and Ted Tirbutt, the wireless-op, had stayed on board. But there they were, the German tanks, more or less in line abreast, travelling from right to left among the orchard-trees. It was then that you scored your first hit, within a great space of time - I suppose about 20 seconds! A confused time followed. I find it very hard now to recount what happened. I know Bert moved the tank around with his usual calm, but at great speed and with precision. Most of our troop of three, and perhaps all C squadron tanks were firing A.P. [armour-piercing], or had already fired. A kind of intermittent running battle took place. But Teddy’s objective, I think, was to regain the village streets, before the Germans did. At any rate, there we were, after hectic minutes, out of the orchard and in a narrow, house-lined street. The most incredible silence, and tenseness. Neither we, nor the enemy, knew exactly where we were, nor any tank was, in relation to any other. The silence and the pressure grew heavier and more intense, as though the street had reached breaking-point, and every detail of the pavement and the houses. I lit a cigarette for Bert to smoke. Then began to eat an apple. All in horrific silence. Then the strange sound of an unfamiliar tank-engine, very near. Bert and I were staring straight ahead, down thirty yards of rough-cobbled street. Through our semi-fixed periscopes, it wasn’t all that easy to look left or right. There was a street-crossing thirty yards ahead. I think it was a street-crossing, or turning, to the right, but it may have been a full cross-roads. At this street-corner, as though on a stage, the long, low-traversed gun of a German Mark IV entered on the scene, and swung around the house-corner. A thunderous crash, and blue fire like lightning filled our Sherman. I remember thinking, and I think I said to Bert, ‘Well, this is where we should get out.’ But I think we waited for some seconds before doing so. Ted Tirbutt, too, and the turret-crew (Capt ‘Tug’ Wilson) got the same impression. We all knew we’d been hit, and to linger in a disabled tank without good cause would have been great folly. The five of us got out, kept close to the ground, and found shelter down some steps at the door of a village house, where a kindly woman let us in. It was only then that Tom told us he had hit his tank. Where, he didn’t know, or what had happened to it. But the armour-piercing shells had crossed in mid-air, mid-flight - an occurrence, I imagine, of some rarity.

What happened after this, on the hill-top village of Roalti for the next eight days or so, was more a matter of endurance, than of movement. Our tanks became the objects of the heaviest, most persistent and unremitting day and night mortaring that we had yet experienced in Italy. Little did we then know that C squadron’s foray into Roalti and beyond the Moro, marked the limit of the 8th Army’s advance up the Adriatic coast. The 44th tanks were pulled out of the line just before Christmas, and quartered in the small provincial town of Lanciano, a few miles to the south-west. Here we saw in the new year 1944. And from here, with the rest of the 4th Armoured Brigade (the Scots Greys and County of London Yeomanry) we were transported to Taranto, for sea-passage to Gourock, through the Straits of Gibraltar. And so to Worthing and its pleasant pubs - the Nelson, Thieves’ Kitchen, etc - to prepare new tanks for the invasion of Normandy on D Day + 3.

But even had we been able to foresee the general course of events in Italy and beyond, I doubt if we would have been strongly interested, on this particular afternoon. Our one objective, after a drink of aqua fresca and some dried figs offered us by the good-natured peasant woman, was to meet up again with the squadron. The night was passed in an abandoned house, where Teddy Foster put in a double-stint of guard duty. There was mortar fire. Next morning, we viewed the scene of our particular encounter. Our tank had received a German armour-piercing shell through the louvres of its engine, at the rear. The tank could still be driven. As for the German Mark IV, it was a sadder sight. Tom’s armour-piercing shell had made a neat hole, no bigger than an orange, in the near side of the tank, the co-driver’s, and at head level. The tank had been abandoned. On the ground, laid down carefully by his comrades, lay the headless body of the driver’s mate, in his neat black tank uniform. It was very hard to know what to say, then as now.”

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