WWII TANKER, KEN TOUT – DO WE BRITS REVEL IN DEFEAT?

Keith
 
 
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Sherman_tanks_of_1st_Polish_Armoured_Division_assembled_for_Operation_'Totalise',_Normandy,_8_August_1944._B8823

NO? SO WHAT ABOUT TOTALIZE PHASE?

 

Is there a tendency among British historians and commentators to enthuse about defeat whilst finding it difficult to exult over victories ?  Take two consecutive Normandy operations, Goodwood and Totalize: what tank enthusiast has never heard of ‘The Death Ride of the Armoured Divisions’, 800 went out and 400 were lost ? But how many tank enthusiasts know where to find [except in the author’s own works] a description in fine detail of the unique Night March (of the armoured divisions) on 7/8 August 1944?

Sherman tanks of the 1st Polish Armoured Division assembled for Operation ‘Totalise’, 8 August 1944.

For the military teacher and student there may be more profit in studying the lessons emanating from defeat then enlarging on the apparently clearer reasons for victory. It is also important to remember the sacrifices of those many soldiers who were caught up in the travail of Dunkirk, Dieppe, Singapore Knightsbridge or Goodwood. Yet our overall verdicts on battles should not fail to give due credit to those who planned and achieved the victories. To risk controversy, if Joe Ekins (Totalize) could have been presented with the opportunity, and had knocked out three Taliban Tiger tanks in seven minutes in this era he would have won a medal instead of being told it was all in the day’s duty. And if those three Tiger tanks had been K.O’d in a desperate last stand of a retreat, would the official reaction have been different.

I must confess a vested interest, with a claim to one MkIV K.O’d and a share in another AV during Totalize, but having now written about many episodes of the North West Europe campaign between D Day and VE Day I still believe that the first phase of Totalize deserves a better coverage than is given in many histories written since that time. And what has been written has often been inaccurate as, for example the attack formation has been quoted as consisting of two, or four, or six armoured columns when in fact it was seven.

There are many unusual aspects of Totalize , both in the immensity of the armoured operation and in the plethora of minor details, some of which would rarely if ever be repeated during the rest of the war. But perhaps the best place to begin is with the commander and his ideas. Lt Gen Guy Simmonds was faced with the daunting prospect of triumphing where Dempsey, O’Connor, Roberts and other notable leaders had failed.

 

Much has been written about the importance of Caen after D Day. In the end the main problem in occupying Caen was the devastation which the RAF had wrought with its usual brilliance in attacking targets indicated. I happened to be the gunner on the first tank which tried to enter Caen from the north and we were quickly halted by the vast mounds of rubble and huge multiple craters which a mass air attack could cause. This meant that Montgomery had to do a long left-hand swing around the ruins in order to position his troops for an assault on the next barrier the Verrieres-Bourguebus Ridge.

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Tactically the Ridge was much more of an attacker’s problem, even with overwhelming air power, than the city of Caen. From as far as 5 miles away the defenders could look down a gentle slope and see virtually everything that moved on the various minor undulations of the long 300 foot climb out from Caen towards Falaise. Armed with superior weapons and with the sun at their backs (affecting, for instance, the attacker’s ability, to use sun-reflecting binoculars) the Germans were able to repel the Goodwood advance which effectively brought the underpowered British tanks side on to the commanding slopes. Hence the ‘Death Ride’, but which did position Allied forces ready to assault the Ridge again later.

Simmonds, a young Canadian commander, determined that his assault would not squander lives and machines. He decided that he would attack at night, using columns of armoured vehicles which would simply drive through the German defences, set up armed camps behind the lines and then invite the inevitable counter-attack, this time with Allied tanks able to hide and shoot at an advantage.  Although this would be an armoured spearhead he would also advance with adequate numbers of infantry protected in the first assault by non-existent armoured carriers.

For Goodwood two generals, O’Connor and Roberts, had declared that they needed a similar adequate component of infantry up front in carriers. Higher authority (Dempsey and Montgomery) refused this request and O’Connor and Roberts caved in. Consequent critics have often pointed to this lack of infantry as being a main reason why Goodwood was a costly and partially failed attempt which faltered after valiant initial progress. Given about a week to plan, prepare and form up, Simmonds did what O’Connor and Roberts did not, or could not do. He ignored higher HQ’s inhibitions about letting infantry ‘hide’ inside carriers. He decided to invent, manufacture and put into action a sufficient number of armoured carriers to take his lead companies up to the first targets without the normal heavy casualty lists of Normandy battles. The ingenuity, engineering skills and audacity involved in producing 72 Kangaroos from nothing in five days deserves an entire article (Editor???)

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As the assault was beyond the capacity of the available Canadian resources, already strained by exhaustive attempts to perform missions impossible in Spring, Simmonds borrowed the 51st Highland division with the 33rd Armoured brigade. The latter included the 1st  Northamptonshire Yeomanry (1NY) with which the present writer was serving. The loaned British columns would attack up the left side of the main Caen to Falaise road with an equivalent Canadian force moving up the right side. The Canadians right flank was protected by the ground falling away down sharply into the Orne Valley. The left flank consisted of a line of thick woods thought to harbour German armour and supplies.

The RAF was again called in to do a late night pinpoint bombing of these woods at a range of about only 800 yards from, and parallel to the route of the 1NY column. ‘Bomber’ Harris, when consulted, wanted to veto the plan as it might be too dangerous for ground forces (which were indeed well and truly blitzed next day by the USAAF). Master bombers laid on a trial to convince Harris hat the task was possible and, on the night, the task was carried out during what must have been one of the most accurate massed raids ever mounted by an air force. Tank crew like myself actually felt the warm draught of the massive fires caused by the raid but suffered no injury along the way. Again, almost another subject for an article by an airman.

Very few writers have given full honour to the tank commanders who carried out the Night March. In nine out of ten books read in recent years the armoured columns are recorded as having been commanded by infantry commanders. In fact the Night March was under armoured command, the left columns by Brig ‘Black Harry’ Scott, DSO and the right flank by Canadian Brig Wyman, both tank men to the core. It was only on arrival at the objective and with the debussing of the infantry that the infantry brigadiers and colonels took charge. Not a very important distinction except to those taking part. It is perhaps worthy of note that Brig Scott, who commanded the incredible feat accomplished by the left wing on target on time, was at war’s end offered a squadron command in the rank of major. Hic transit Gloria.

As mentioned there is come confusion as to how many armoured columns there were. I stated that there were seven. One might instead say that there were 28.

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On the left rolled 1NY with 1 Black Watch. About 700 yards to their right ran 144 RAC with 7 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Behind them for a while, but then hiving off left came the third Brit column with 148 RAC and 7 Black Watch. Each column included essential support such as flails of XXII Dragoon, AVREs, medics, bulldozers, and so on. In each column the lead company of infantry were in the new Kangaroos and the rest of the infantry farther back in various carriers. One squadron of each tank regiment formed a rearguard keeping pace. No static guard points were left behind but 51HD walking infantry would follow up in due course..

Each tank colonel formed his column at his discretion. Doug Forster of 1NY preferred a Sherman navigator forward (Capt Tom Boardman), followed by a deputy in a Sherman (Capt Ken Todd) and then the ranks of four vehicles through. Jolly with 144 RAC decided on three Honey tanks up front but these proved too frail in the conditions and Jolly himself had to move up and navigate after a while. All three British columns moved in fours, with initially about ten to fifteen yards space between individual vehicles left to right and the same distance between ranks front to back. This formation eventually broke up as problems of terrain developed. However it is correct to say that each of the seven columns formed up and started off in four ‘columns’ or files, making 28 ‘columns’ or files in all, if that is not too complicated a mathematical statement.

Over on the right of the road Wyman placed his Sherbrooke Fusiliers in Shermans across his three right hand columns, an infantry battalion following each, with other tank battalions forming rear. Between the heavy armoured columns of Canadian and British, there advanced close to the main road a seventh column, the Canadian recce regiment with infantry, the Royals, tasked at the objective to cross the road and join up with 144RAC and the Argylls. As the Essex Scots on the extreme right had an open flank they and their squadron of Sherbrookes tended to chose a leftward option if obstacles occurred and so the Canadian mass inclined more and more towards the main road as it thundered on. Furthermore the Canadians did not have as much room, right to left, when forming up, so that an agile man could jump from tank to tank across the three Sherbrooke front ranks Again the details for the various column  formations would demand an entire article.

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‘Priest’ Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers with troops of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division aboard, on the evening of 7 August 1944 prior to the launch of Operation TOTALIZE. Source: 1 CACR Association & Archive.

As daylight approached on 8 August the foremost tanks miraculously emerged from the vast clouds of dust, smoke, mist, near enough on targets after the shuttling around obstacles and clawing across sunken roads or railway lines in the dark. The often lauded ‘Montgomery’s moonlight’, searchlights shining on clouds, was for most people on the Night March an irrelevance. The better guide was the stream of Bofors coloured shells which shot above every column and directed on to the far objective. Lose one’s way and a brief look up would spot the brilliant Bofors signposts in the sky.

During the morning of 8 August the ‘armed camps’ consolidated, hid and prepared for counter-attack. With 1NY and the Sherbrookes pushed forward and 144RAC poised on the main lateral road, this had formed a kind of U trap into which an enemy tank advance over open ground must risk its existence. The three regiments mustered well over 30 Sherman ‘Firefly’ tanks, each with the heavier 17pdr gun capable of knocking out a Tiger at 1,000 yards. The waiting tanks were poised for what was to be the final event of Phase 1 of Totalize and not to be confused with Phase 2, which would be the passing through of the Polish and Canadian armoured divisions.

Later historical confusion is exacerbated by comments of the German commander which have been taken without much critical analysis as the main testimony for the defeat and demise of tank ace Wittmann. Col (with promotion to general in the mail) Meyer, known as Panzermeyer was an outstanding battle commander, a war criminal and a brilliant self publicist. He later told how he saw the enemy tank masses down the slopes, observed a USAAF bomber cruising across the battlefield, assumed there would be another air attack. Also he met German soldiers running away and, pulling out his revolver, the only man standing between German and defeat, staved off total rout. He then ordered the counter-attack before the USAAF could strike. In the event the erratic air strike did as much damage to Poles, Canadians and British as to Germans.

In the first place this was insulting to the German 89th (Horseshoe) infantry div whose commander, Lt-Gen Konrad Heinrichs, with his staff, was out fighting in the front line as the division had been broken up into tiny ‘islands’ within two hours of midnight while the columns swept past. Heinrichs later died in a similar event, fighting in the front line. The 89th was a fresh division from Norway but lacking armour. And high ranking Wehrmacht general Eberbach was with Heinrichs by 08.00, long before Meyer, using SS command independence, ‘saved the day’.

In the second place, Meyer erred in acting instinctively and thoughtlessly by sending his few available Tigers (the only ones available in Normandy that day) straight into the U trap where the four Tigers commanded by legendary ace Michael Wittmann were destroyed by 1NY and the Sherbrookes at 800 yards and 150 yards range, with Wittmann and a number of his experienced men dead, whilst only inflicting two non-fatal injuries, Lt Wall and Sgt Gordon, on British tank crews.

To compound his errors Meyer sent KG (battle group) Waldmuller, with twenty or more MkIVs, SPs and the infantry of the Hitlerjugend, the latter across open cornfields, straight at the hidden guns, with instructions to ‘retake the heights around Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil’. This main attack on 1BW and 1NY failed totally to reach Saint-Aignan and was rolled back to Robertmesnil. The attackers lost twenty AVs which could not be replaced. 1NY lost a similar number of Shermans which were replaced next day. In the evening I watched the German Medical Officer, Dr Rabbe collecting his wounded and counting his dead and they were immeasurably more than the Black Watch casualties.

The retreat of the much feared Hitlerjugend ended Phase 1: breach the Verrieres-Bourguebus defences, form armed camps and repel counter-attack. Phase 2
began as the dust from the Hitlerjugend attack subsided but whilst the cornfields still burned and grilled the most tardy of the 18-year-old attackers. That Phase 2 did not achieve its immediate goals is another story; and its shortcomings may be due partly to Montgomery’s impatience as well as to the narrowness of the sector making it impossible to outflank the enemy on the high ground.

Just a brief comment on Phase 2:  we in1NY saw the Poles run into a terrible ambush no more than 200 hundred yards away and were unable to warn them of the dangers. We had no means of effective communications between units, even our code words were different (our’s were names of Holywood stars, the Poles names of Polish cities): a problem which might have been avoided  if Montgomery had allowed the two further days of preparation which Simmonds thought necessary.

Ken Tout’s book ‘A Fine  Night for Tanks’ (Sutton, 1998) deals with Totalize in much detail and his ‘By Tank: D to VE Days’ (Robert Hale, 2007) and ‘Peace in War? War in Peace!’ (Book Guild, 2010) give more personal impressions.

Ken Tout.