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BGen Sydney Radley-Walters (Part II): A Tank Ace on D-Day
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BGen Sydney Radley-Walters was a tank commander in the Canadian Army and was the Western Allies leading tank killer during WWII.
In the final part of his interview, Radley-Walters finishes his recount of the D-Day invasion, including the battle of Buron, Operation Totalize, and capturing Caen, and more. He also talks about the booby traps he encountered, air support, the smell of death, his tactics as a tank commander, and how he, without knowing it, killed Michael Wittmann, the Black Baron, an infamous German tank commander and tank Ace.
Radley-Walters is credited with destroying 18 German tanks and many other armored vehicles, and he was awarded an Order of Military Merit, the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross, and a Canadian Forces Decoration.
During the episode, Radley-Walters describes the aftermath of death inside the tanks:
“The smell of death, it sticks on you. And if you take a body and bury it or pick up a person who's dead and move them around, it gets on your hands, it gets on your clothes. You can't get rid of it. And it gets on a tank. Even though they took the tank back, they wash it all out, they repaint the inside with white paint and it's glistening, you get that horrible smell. The men, they called a ‘Jonah’ and they said, ‘We won't get back in that bloody Jonah, like the belly of a whale. We're we're going to get the new tank.’"
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Last time on Warriors In Their Words, we heard from Brigadier General Radley-Walters, and today we’ll hear the rest of his story. Radley-Walters was a tank commander in the Canadian Army, and was the Western Allies’ leading tank destroyer in WWII. He was a part of the invasion forces on D-Day.
I remember seeing a couple of, mind you, they were being hindered by the air, the Typhoon, and I think you're going to talk to a Typhoon pilot. There's no question that the work that the fighters side of the house and the ground attack, especially Typhoons did against a lot of the German equipment. And you'd see it though. You'd see a vehicle abandoned on a road and you'd wonder why. As you kept moving up and taking ground and seeing a perfectly good Panther, or it looked perfectly good and so on and sitting in a field or so on, and you wondered whether it had been hit or out of gasoline or a breakdown. But when you're doing it from this end and you're moving towards, you don't really know the problems that are happening. It's only 50 years later or I shouldn't say that. About 20 years later, when people start digging in and finding out from the other side and you're trading story, as you did on this film, that they were having problems. There's no question about it. That Tiger was such a brute and so heavy that every time you came to a stream or a muddy area or something, and had to get across, you're having to lift 60 tons. And I think this is where the German said with the Sherman, even the Panther, they said, "We saw the Sherman moving through certain fields, which were muddy and then very poor going. And we wouldn't try it because we'd get hung up in the mud." And I think this is true from the maneuverability of the Sherman. That was a characteristic, which was a good characteristic, because the track was reasonably wide and the ground track pressure on the Sherman was quite good. And if you did get stuck, you were only having to pull 37, 35 tons out instead of the 45 with the Panther, or 60 odd with the big Tiger.
But I can tell you, one of the things I got a hold of, we were working just beyond Caen down into a little place called Saint-André-sur-Orne. And I think this is a good story:
The first time I was in Saint-André-sur-Orne with the Camerons of Winnipeg and we looked on the horizon and I said, "Gee,” it was early in the morning, about six o'clock. “My God,” we counted up to 40 some tanks. And they're up on this hill and they're sort of moving around and looked as though they're going to come at us. But I said, "Sure, in the Dickens there's an attack going to come in on this place, let's get the air." So I called back to my own commanding officer and said, "Can we get any air?" Got on the infantry and the infantry went through their wireless net to their brigade. "Can we get air?" And the brigade commander was so anxious to get air that our air tentacles and they call them air support tentacles are back at divisional headquarters. Now that's a little further back. So he takes off himself to try and get these air tentacles to come up and gets caught in traffic jams back in Caen because Caen was all bombed to hell only a snake could get through the bloody place. And as he gets back to us, I think the call went out for seven or eight o'clock in the morning. It's now five o'clock at night. And finally, a Jeep comes roaring in the back position. I'll always remember an RAF Royal Air Force officer with a big handlebar mustache. And he says, "Where's the hunt?" And this time I was pretty angry. And I said, "You son of a bitch, you should have been here at seven o'clock this morning. And you might have got a target." But there's still a couple of them out there because they'd come in two or three times on the attack against it. I said, "There's still two or three out there. You can see them because we had fired and taken the tracks off them. And we'd let them come. The recovery vehicles come in and just that they'd hooked up. We ready to tell them we'd fire again. See?" And this was sort of a cat and mouse game going on. So he said, "Oh, no problem at all." And there was a cab rack came around, I think it was six Typhoons and they dove and there were two or three of my tanks, Bernie. And what did they hit? They hit one of my tanks that was knocked out.
So, that was my first experience with the air. And I can tell you, I didn't think it was very successful.
And we were very heavily attacked for about three or four days and we knocked out a number of Panthers and the idea was let them come, don't shoot. Let them come, let them come. And over the wireless, especially the artillery. And I said, when you fire and the rounds are going over our head, we'll open up with the anti-tank and the tanks. And Christ, they were within 400 meters from us, I guess, when we opened up and we were well hidden behind walls and so on, I had about 11 tanks, I think in there.
And that night, he comes in and tries to pull out some of his tank and we grab a Panther recovery vehicle and it was the finest vehicle I had through the war. It could take 90 tons with a straight pull and I had a Sherman recovery. We just scraped that and moved it to one side and kept the old Panther, a beautiful vehicle. Absolutely beautiful. And of course it was built to pull heavy equipment. And when it came to pull the Sherman, God, just one yank and would pull it right out of a hole anyway. Matter of fact, we pulled one out on its side, it was lying on it side, just pulled it right through the mud and so on and pulled it and righted it up. And just tremendous vehicle. And I'm sure some of their other stuff. See, they have the gun. Really, a tank is nothing else but a mobile gun. And if you put a good gun on and you can move it around the countryside, then you've got a good vehicle. The protection? I don't know. I was knocked out of three Sherman's and I got knocked out of three scout cars. I don't think you can build one that you can't get knocked out of. And I think today, with the mine and so on, there's no question in my mind that the bottom now is the thing I think is the most dangerous part of a tank. I've gone up on Tellermines and so on. And the tank is finished, has stopped. And regardless of whether it's a Tiger or a Peashooter, it's finished till you fix it.
I think the other interesting human story is that when we talk about the north Nova Scotia Hollands, which is an infantry battalion where I talk about the Highland light infantry or the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, these were infantry battalion that we trained with in England. And I have mentioned that it's important to get to know one another, but we did know these people and they were our friends and consequently, that's what I remember jumping out of the tank to a Gramp group of infant German and saying, hello, Sergeant Smith. In other words, you're not talking to a stranger. And I think that was terribly important at the beginning. I think that's what held us together at the beginning, during the infantry and the tank, we knew one another. We had trained with one another, we respected one another. We loved one another basically. And we were a team and nobody, but nobody was going to leave the other side down.
And each one of us believed that. I think that's true. And if you can get that sort of spirit, but you've got to be with people for a fairly long time. And you've really got to know them otherwise, as we would move from one unit to another. And so on, I jump out of the tanks Christ. They wouldn't know the company commander. I wouldn't know anybody around me. I think it's always more difficult.
Who needs enemies when you have friends like that really. It's so important and something that maybe we could have done a little more of in our training in England. Second Canadian division comes in behind third division and had never worked with tanks or very, I shouldn't say never. That's a poor word. Seldom worked with tanks in England. Well, the first time you go into action there you're with a bunch of tanks and the tankers can't quite understand this group the way they're fighting and the infantry mayor tank, what kind of tank support are we getting? And right away, you're creating problems for yourself. But if you go in with a bunch of guys, who've argued out all their problems in training and sat down and said, well, we're going to do it this way. And everybody agrees. Then when you get into action, it's far simpler.
When we got into action, the training with the infantry was the basic thing we learned in England. Play with the infantry. You're in front of them, you're behind them, you're supporting them and so on and they're doing the same thing with you. But we didn't go on too many exercises where I, as a commander, a junior leader in the forward area, had used very much artillery and consequently, the business of bringing the artillery down and so on becomes a skill, a professional skill. And the more you do it, the better you are at it. But we didn't do very much of that in England.
Now, when we landed on the beach and you looked around and the sky seemed to be full of airplanes. Everywhere you look, there was spits, there was Typhoons, there were Boston bombers, everything's going in all different direction. And yet in this whole battle that we had against 12SS, we didn't have any air support because we hadn't reached the point yet where the air control teams that come from the air side of the house were integrated with the forward troops.
Today, when you go out and you see what's happening on the ground and so on, it's so simple and it's so easy and there's a guy with a wireless set and can bring the fighters in or the bombers in and so on and strike right in front of you. But that wasn't happening in England. And only a very few people, I think really got that training in England. But I, as a squadron commander or company commander and so on, I needed the training. I was alerted as to the requirement of air, but couldn't get ahold of it.
But the air was being controlled and very effective use of air, but controlled at the core level. And they would have what they called an evening briefing and the pilots would be given all their targets for the next day. And those targets were all being dealt with. And there's no question in my mind, the typhoons were just... Well, I suppose really you should talk to the Germans because the Germans said, Meyer, I heard him say that “I couldn't move a bicycle between Falaise and Caen on the main highway.” And he said, “If I moved a messenger on a bicycle, it would be shot off by a fighter aircraft.” We said “How did you move your stuff?” He said, “At night we prayed for bad weather, we used all the farmer's tracks. We used all the bush country and so on to give us cover. That's how we moved." He said, "In our gun positions in daytime, if they detected them and we tried to move them, the air clobbered us."
Now that air was coming and being detailed out of core, basically not by us. We were looking for opportunity targets at the forward end. They were being briefed the night before and being told where positions are and went in. I'm not saying, I think the war or the air really won this bloody war for us. And I just get down and every pilot I see, I thank him because if the Germans didn't bother us at all with their air. Basically, oh, they'd come over and five or six aircraft and we get whacked at and so on. But that was a bit of fun because once in a blue moon, you could use your anti-aircraft and so on.
We used to have the graveyard shift. And being a commander. I would say, I want to take the graveyard shift. And the graveyard shift would be from two to five o'clock in the morning. And just as light was coming on the measure Schlitz or the Focke-Wulf just a few of them, maybe a dozen, sometimes three or four coming in, just at tree level, just along. And that's the time you'd catch them. And if you didn't take that shift, they're gone and so on. So a lot of guys who enjoyed the fighting size, let's take the graveyard shift, maybe get a crack at the... And a number of guys knocked an aircraft down just with light. See every armor regimen had four anti-aircraft tanks and you sat there and you had four 20 millimeter guns. And they went around on it and you could just sit there and your sighting devices. And that was a good job. I always thought that seeing if you could take and not being an anti-aircraft person, but you took that shift and you could. Then how far are you going to lead him? The first thing you knew that your round precious are a hundred yards behind them all the time, but after got a few shots, you might catch on what the game is all about.
In some places, I think it was the Winnipeg's Royal Winnipeg Rifles. I think four guys got away out of 49 that were shot and the words start trickling around the SS especially. There were a bunch of buggers and there was no question that the true story didn't come out till about a year later, when in fact bodies were found and identification was made and prisoners, Germans were then brought up on trial and the French underground and French farmers were interrogated. And finally the story was put together. We knew that something had happened. The crews that we lost, rather interestingly, there was one French Canadian and two other crews of five each so and nine English speaking. So the Germans couldn't speak English, but they could speak French. So when Gochi, I think they spoke to him in French and they said, you get over there.
So we went over there and the others, they took and they put them in the chapel, they then interrogated them, got the information off them. And then one by one took them into the garden, which is part of this baby yard end and shot them in the back of the head. One guy shot them corporal apparently, but the Gochi goes with a bunch of prisoners and they say off you go to call and with another 30 or 40 prisoners, because he could speak French and they could understand them, just the luck of the draw. He went one way and the English guys went the other way and they shot them. I think this is probably true with a person trying to, under stress, and so on and trying to make some sense out of it. And I can't understand you well, the heck with you move you out that way.
And the ones that can understand me, you get over there. And it was a very sad story because I don't know whether you've studied the Aberdeen, but I know the sons are still alive that lived there, the Vico brothers, and I know them and I've gone back and spoken to them and their father was put in a camp in Germany and their mother was put in prison in Co. well, when mom comes back and looks at her garden and everything smashed and so on, she notices that her flowers, the little white flowers seem to be spread all over the place. And she says to her son, the snow drops that we planted and so on were always in the center of the garden, go ahead and put them all back. And he just did put a spade in the ground, start digging.
He hit one body and they dug a little further and there was six, no five bodies, one right on top of the other like this. So they then reported it to the French police. The French police then started interviewing and getting people in and they find 19 of them in there all planted in the same place. The Winnipegs a little further away, I think they shot 48 of them in one place. And there are still people alive that you can sit down, talk to who saw the whole thing going on. So the Germans may have tried to cover it up. Obviously some of that word that you're asking me the question about trickled down, I'm sure through the French civilian net, and finally they got to some soldiers. And as far as I was concerned, there was no fact, there was a feeling that these people had done something.
And we think that they have murdered our people. And as far as the private soldiers blood, it was getting fairly hot and so much so that later on, there were orders that came down on our net through the army net saying any reprisals, you just buddy, well, cut it out. And it was signed by general [inaudible], who was our top soldier, army commander. And saying that there will be no reprisals that cool your heads. And then they went on the German side and they dropped the leaflets on the German side and said to them, in certain words that they are going to be responsible. And after this whole thing is over that they were going to be held on trial if it continued. And then there was, I think by the time Caen was captured, maybe [inaudible] business of shooting prisoners on either side. I say either side, I'm not sure, died down and you get back down to fighting rather than murder.
I know at Buron, battle of Buron, which I was in, I lost 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 on a big anti tank ditch and so on and a number of our tank crews and the infantry got in there and was really hellish, hand to hand fighting. I don't think too many came out on either side. I know rumors and talking to people, you can't prove anything except in close fighting. I always took it as a rule out of a man, puts his hands up and so on. Then you take him prisoner. If he puts his hands up and somebody in the trench, right beside you, shoots you or shoots at you, then this is not taking prisoners or murdering people. This is in the heat of action where one guy's going to try and get away with it by putting his hands up and so on or yelling comrade or something and the other guy's going to shoot you. And that can happen. But I think it's a completely different story. If I take you a prisoner and I take you back two miles and I put you in front of an intelligence officer, I interview and get everything out of you. And then I take you behind the barn and shoot you. And I think that's what happened. And there is a difference in war, in my mind anyway.
I remember going over the trenches and so on seeing the egg grenades come up, we never fought covered. You couldn't see in the Sherman, if you put your flats down, you were blind, but we would fight opened up and just lucky you'd be running over a trench and going along a duplicate trench like that, try and keep your right track right in the trench. So you crush the buggers down, and missing a guy that you hadn’t hurt, and then throw an egg grenade up. You see the bloody thing. And you're just hoping that is not going to explode there or they'd roll off the back of the tank. Now they had all kinds of tricks, lots of booby traps, which we were a bit suckers for.
Maybe another thing in your training, how many people really have good courses on booby traps? So you go and you open the door and you get killed and you kick this bucket over, you sit down at a table, and the chair blows up. And they were excellent at that, excellent in mining, especially when you're starting to move in on a defendant position. In most cases, and in the long wheat, it wasn't difficult. Even, you didn't have to dig the mines in. You could put the mines on, in the tall wheat and so on. And unless an infantryman went through and sort of checked where the anti tank mines were, but they were all always buried with anti personnel mines or placed with anti personnel. And you're in an attack and you're on the run and the tanks are moving and the infantry are moving. And what happens? You run up on them. And every mine filled very cleverly, I think covered with anti tank fire. One of the things in your film, I might just say, which I noticed, and you say to me, who were you worried about? The Panther, tiger? And my answer to that is yes. But I was also more worried in most cases from all of his SP equipment and when his self-propelled equipment, that is the anti tank, self-propelled either on a check model or on a PZKW III model, or even at the end on a Panther chassis, when he puts the long barrel set at 88 on it. Those were the ones that did an awful lot of damage, which we always give credit to the tiger the Panther, but he would set those up and these tanks would be out fighting and so on. And these just sort of one position behind, well hidden, no tar on it.
So it was a very low silhouette vehicle, heavily armored on the frontal piece, on the glassy plate price. I don't know it had about five inches, I guess, on some of those I got on an angle and that was the killer and you'd be going, and you'd trying to get in a tank engagement and where the hell are those SP guns. And I was always as a commander using smoke all the time. I got known as the guy that night into day into night, because that was our only savior. If I can blind the buggers somehow with tank and artillery smoke. And it's important because the artillery will only have their first line right beside them. And first line is only about 11 rounds per gun on that 25 pound. So before you ever start, you say to your forward observation, “How much smoke you got back at the gun line?” Well, he said “You got first line,” you say, “Put in 50 rounds.” I would say, “Put in 60 rounds.” And finally you get known that you like using smoke, but you save an awful lot of men. If you can blind those and a lot of tanks and equipment, if you can blind some of those areas, especially the self propelled positions. And you just take a chance as to if you're on a hill or you're looking towards a hill and there's some Bush and so on, you blind that anyway, you're not losing anything. And therefore you can often stop a lot of offensive fire coming your way or defensive fire coming your way.
The first couple of weeks, everybody one shot lose a tank, tanks burning and so on. And the German guns going right through us. And all of our regimens said, we've got to do something about this. My idea was to go out, take the track off a burnt out Sherman. Or if you could off a Panther, which was a heavier tanker, if you're even lucky, get it off a tiger and then put the very heavy track right against the tank, then build up and put the lighter track on top of the heavy track. So you were building up sort of spaced armor about this thick. Now it was only spotted. You only spotted it on with a settling torch so that when the round came in, my idea was it would put it off maybe a 16,000 an inch instead of hitting and going right in. It would come that way and off it would fly. And in fact, in many cases, in my experience, we got hit in different actions, nine different times before I showed you that picture of where they finally blew holes right through us. But there's good reason for it because he was too close. I was too close to him when he fired. But this word starts moving around. And the Fort Gary horse started putting logs on the side with a chicken wire on the other side and dirt sawed in between the chicken wire and the logs. So they were about that wide. The idea being the Panzer IV would go through and burn. And before it got to the metal on the tank, it would blow. And wouldn't a hole through the tank. So everybody's little idea going around the battlefield was rad is using this. And so, and so is using that and so on. So I was fighting in Sainte Honorine and we were having one heck of a day. And my CO was back at Ifs I think, which is the little village just plus of Caen. And he said, come on back. I need you because we have two experts on armor from [inaudible], which was the British research and development.
So I get there and I tell these men exactly what I have done and so on. And they say, you realize what you've done is a mistake. I said, oh. They said, yeah, you realize that you've now put about three and a half tons on a 35, 36 sun tank. And that tank is built with a particular suspension and it's got a particular.. we had… I was running a twin GM diesels in it. And it has a particular type of mode of power engines on. I said, “Yeah, I know that.” They said, “Well, those tracks that you've got on that thing will probably, well, the suspension will be gone in four or 500 miles. Your suspension's going to be gone.” And they said “That engine, those twin diesel, if they last five or 600 hours, you lost the tank.” And I was mad. I said, “See that got them hill up there? We've been trying to get up there for about three days now. And if she'll move from here to there, she's paid for herself.” And I think that put the expert to one side and the user to the other side. All he's trying to do is go from maybe a mile and make the thing last a mile rather than going all the way to Berlin, which eight, six or 800 hours would've given us. And as a matter of fact, we didn't get very far down a village and I lost that one and lost another one and so on. But you got to then be fairly careful with the guy who's being the expert and telling the user exactly what to do. And in the end, I think out of the war came a lot of men telling stories and putting things on.
And then the expert said, “Ah, this is a requirement.” And then went to certain ways of space armor, soft armor different methods in which to try and keep the projectiles out of the tank. But it's the user that says that we got to have some changes rather than the expert coming to tell you, well, this is the answer to the way you're fighting.
This first battle sort of ends on the 7th of [July] and the Canadians then put up a very strong defensive position around Caen. We have British on our right and we have British on our left and we're in the center and we're probing. And one hell of a lot of patrolling is going on every night to try and find out who is there, where are they? And so on the German side and the Germans are doing the same thing against us. So the nights for the infantry were very, very, they were busy.
We’re shelling one another all day, as I can remember, mortar shelling all day, continuously 24 hours a day, and they're doing the same thing to us. So it wasn't the moving around the dust. You'd have to pull well back off your position and get back to even move from one place to another because dust, of course automatically alerts them and down from the artillery and the mortars and so on.
And then finally on the British are probing and probing and probing on our right and not getting very far, but they're holding the Germans and they're pulling more armor in pulling more armor in, and we're getting identifications. Then from I think, seven or nine divisions, oh no, it's not that it. It's nine divisions, but seven of them are SS divisions, Panzer divisions. So we're obviously I think over the overall plan, not that it meant bugger all to me at the level I fought, but to the higher command, we're getting the Germans and sucking them in against dust and allowing hopefully for the Americans to be able to break out in the Omaha Utah area and so on.
So, on the 8th of July, they start a program whereby the master plan is for the British to start on the left. And this is to capture call. Then the Canadians go after the British, get off their mark about two hours after, and then the British again on the right. And I go in on attack on a little village of [Inaudible], which I'd been in on the 7th of June, and now it's the 8th of July and I'm fighting for that village again and with a different battalion behind the Highland light infantry of Canada. And it was a pretty grim fight. The other village on our left was a little place called [Inaudible] and [Inaudible], and it's with the rest of our armor regiment. And they're going in on our right, I'm going in on Buron with the Highland light infantry. And it's a very difficult fight because he has an anti tank ditch. That's 15 feet wide and about 12 to 15 feet deep. An infantry company is on the far side of it. It's wired and it's mined. And there's two of those ditches covering the main approaches into the village. And in getting in there, the infantry just getting to the ditch, had the two lead companies had one hell of a fight. And as a matter of fact, by the time they got across the ditch, I would say 50% of the lead companies had been spent. And the reserve companies then crossed and went into the village with them. I had lost my left hand side on the mines. I lost two tanks and of course. The mines were covered with anti tank guns. And I lost the four. On the right hand side, I lost three. So I pulled in my, the other one with me and had made up a headquarters of four tanks. And from there we carried on and the engineers were with us. We found a little way through the mine field on the right hand side. And we got into the village. Once we got into the village, I bypassed the village with the four tanks, went over a German company on the left with about 30 infantrymen. That's all we had and finally got onto my objective. When we got onto the battalion objective, we got attacked by Vaughn Von Ribbentrop. I find out later in life, it was Rudolph Von Ribbentrop with commanding about 15 Panthers. And they hammered at us about four or five attacks. And I've been back and there's a young Frenchman who is writing a book by the name of Dominic [inaudible]. And he's writing about that. And I've learned more about that battle from his research, because I went back to Buron last year and talking about that particular battle. He said, do you know, you knocked out the four P had four S on the left here. And he said, the man who was commanding them, a doctor, somebody came down the other day and he showed me exactly where they were. And he said, “How many tanks did you knock out?” I said, “God, it's 50 years ago. I don't know, five or six, maybe seven.” “No,” he said, “you knocked out eight.” I said, “How do you know, you weren't even in the war, you weren't even born.” He said, “Well, Rudolph Von Ribbentrop,” which was the minister of external affairs,” his son was down yesterday and he walked the course with me and he showed me where he'd lost his tanks and so on.” So that was interesting. But the point of this story is once that little village of Buron went and the village of [Inaudible] and [Inaudible] were captured, the whole was there. And with that, everything moved. And when I say everything, the whole division moved. Our brigade moved, the brigade on our right move, the British move, the division on our left move.
And the next morning we started off, sun up and we were into Caen. I was in the center of Caen with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarrys, by high noon. By 12:00, we were right in the center and it was so bloody difficult, because you'd go up a street and you had to be careful because the buildings had completely collapsed from the bombing. So you'd have to back up and then you'd try another little one, back up, try another one. Then this one would be potholes where the bombs were much bigger than this room. Christ, even some tanks and backing, and get down in the bomb hole.
Consequently, in getting into Caen, you had to practically walk your tanks in, get out, and walk in front of them. Now the Germans had pulled out, and there were still snipers in the town. But all that was left were survivors, French survivors of the city of Caen, unfortunately, and one hell of a pile of damage, everything. Finally, the bulldozers and backhoes and everything had to come in and just try and make a hole for you to get through. So much so that once we got a few tanks into the center of Caen with the infantry and met the survivors at the big church, which is the Abbaye aux Hommes, which wasn't... The towers were still there on the church. It hadn't been... And there were about 1500 civilians in the basement of the church, which had all gone in there to try and save themselves. We got pushed around and trying to find holes through it. I ended up way over on the right of Caen. Matter of fact, three quarters of mile from the center of it, I think. That was the only place that we could physically get the tanks through the wreckage and rummage of that bombed out city.
It was hot. It was the 9th of July. The mounds of dirt were 30, 40 feet high. The stink was just beyond because God knows how many people were in that rubble. You'd see the French civilians coming out, women and men, children, with a little cross and they'd walk way up on the pile and they'd put a little cross on the pile of dirt, knowing that their mother or father or somebody is in that pile of dirt. Of course, until they dug all of this out, that stink remained for at least a month. In a Jeep or going through the thing, just an awful smell.
Consequently, the thing I suppose one remembers is as you're trying to get into this city, which has been terribly bombed, and you're passing the odd human being, and they're standing there with a bunch of flowers and they're throwing the flowers up against the tank, or there's a man with a jug of wine and a cup, and he's pouring as the infantry are going by just to take a drink. They're so pleased to see you and you get into where the... At least there's a little congregation of French survivors and they all stand there and they salute. The first thing you hear is some guy with an accordion playing the Marseillaise and somebody starts pulling up the French tricolor. I think that probably strikes me today. You know, I get a lump in my throat when I go back to that particular scene of seeing the women crying and the men saluting. I'm sure a lot of the men were old World War I soldiers. And pulling up the tricolor and then they sang O Canada, or they sang the Marseillaise first, and then everybody hummed or sang O Canada. I think that was very impressive.
We're going to try and do that next summer. I'm at the Normandy Foundation and I'm going to try. One of our schemes is to put a plaque up where we met the survivors in the center of Caen, and we'll go through the same motion, probably, of doing what we tried to do back on the 9th of July 1944.
Well, obviously the master plan I think was such that they had been able to land, against time, sufficient troops in that area. So now we had the buildup of about five or six divisions with the British. And they had sufficient strength to say, "Now is the time to attack." At that time, it was the first time they ever tried to use heavy bombers in front of the army. I'm not sure whether that was a critical point to success. It certainly must have shaken the Germans when Caen was bombed, excepting the bombs came down on the town and not so much on the German defenses. Because Bomber Harris, as I understand it, didn't want to bring the bomb line in too close, because at that time, precision bombing wasn't really so accurate. So consequently, a lot of Caen got bombed, not a lot of the German defenses got bombed. But there was no question as you saw those bombers coming over on the night at about 10:00.... Oh, eight to nine to 10. Yeah. On the night of the seventh, it was a tremendous thrill to see that and just the mass of bombs coming down. We all just got out of our holes and out of our tanks and yelled and screamed. It just gave everybody a tremendous spirit to see it. That was just before then, we we're going in the next day.
I would say it was one of those things that whereby you land, you build up, you find out what the German strength is. Then you realize that, "Yeah, we're ready to go and we've got enough strength to do it." In other words, the artillery, but damn near wheel-to-wheel by that time, if you get what I mean. I think on the attack, I had 400 guns on that little village of Buron.
Well, 400 guns is not bad to pack away. And the guys on the right and so on. So within a constricted area, there was an awful lot of artillery. The fighter bombers, mind you, as I said, again, controlled at a high level, but all these little villages got hit by the typhoons. I think it was Bostons came in, light, medium bombers and they just blew everything apart again. Which, it was really run by Monty himself. Actually, the commander was General Dempsey who commanded the British Army. But you could see, it was a pattern of just crush everything with air and artillery and we're ready for it. Now, push the troops in. And that's the way it went, and it was successful.
You know, this is a controversial subject and I had... I was on the left hand side of the Canadian column that went through on the night push on what they call Operation Totalize. That was the night breakthrough. I was supporting an infantry battalion, the Royal Regiment of Canada. We trained with them for about two and a half days, I guess, before we actually did the night push. What you did was put one, two, three, four tanks, like this right side-by-side, another four tanks like this. Then two troops of flails, which were, they’d clear the mine. Then behind that, two troops of average, which were the ones that they put 10,000 tapes on big reels and amber green and amber lights for marking minefields. The guys just filled themselves right up the turret like this. As they were going, they just kept throwing them out. You'd see these sparkling at night. That was the line, along with this white tape, that you were to follow. Then the squadron of tanks, the rest of the tank company, and then the infantry battalion, and then the supporting arms. Everybody mounted, everybody, either in tanks with their turrets pulled off, or artillery SP, self-propelled guns, with the guns taken out so that the infantry could get in. And down we went.
Well, amazingly enough, we didn't do badly. I was a little bit off course on the left, which seems to be a problem. I don't know whether the curvature of the earth and so on at night, but we remember we don't have too much equipment to guide us. We had bofors firings down our flanks. We had indirect lighting, which crossed over our objectives, like that. We had the tape to help us, marking. We had studied air photographs, and we'd memorized. I can remember sitting there the days before and saying, "Okay, close your eyes. Now we go, what a hundred yards? And I come to what? Well, you come to a track. Yeah? And then I go another 300 yards and there's a row of telephone poles. Then I hit a bush. Yeah? I go down a bit." We'd try to memorize, right from where we started, right to the objective. Well, we got to the objective in reasonable shape. We were the only ones within then there was three columns like this on the Canadian side and three columns on the British side doing this. And we went about seven miles I guess.
Got to our objective, it was still dark, and weren't quite sure we were there but damn sure that we were close to it. We were about 800 to a thousand yards out, I guess. But once the infantry jumped on the ground, and we started moving to our objective, we knew exactly where we were. The infantry got in there. We're all by ourselves now. They dug in, and just as light is coming up, there's an attack comes in, from our left.
There were four or five tanks and a couple of SPs. And this is where George Blackburn was saying that the forward observation officer was running around yelling at the tanks. "Shoot here, shoot there, shoot there” and so on. And as a matter of fact, we did reasonably well. I don't think that I can remember, we may have lost one or two tanks. But we knocked out... They say tigers. I think that basically they were panthers we knocked out. Four.
And this isn't the Wittmann tank. This is about 8:00 in the morning. So now the infantry get their anti-tank guns in. They've got their artillery support. They're reasonably well dug in. They did lose some of their mortars and they did lose what they call their carrier platoon of the machine gunners. These are the heavy machine guns, and the German attack smashed that badly. Matter of fact, I think they lost something like 11 carriers.
So by about 9:00, I leave, I think a troop of tanks there. And I keep ongoing down to a tiny little village called Gaumesnil. When I get down there, there's just one little farm. It's got a nice big, stately abbey in it. It's covered by a big wall, some bush, fair amount of bush. It's an ideal place to sneak in, which we did.
By this time, most of our crew commanders had been with me since the beach, or some of them had, the older ones or the ones that had lived. Let's put it that way. We just knocked a hold in the top of the wall, a V, and we just stick our gun through there. One guy would cover an area of, say, 30 degrees. Another guy covering that. We're sitting around. Meyer says he comes in around 1:00 with this attack by Wittmann. I say, no. Mind you don't look at your watch in the battle, but it seemed to me to be in the morning, late in the morning. Maybe 11:00, 12:00, and we see this thing coming up. Matter of fact, two SPs are right on the road, they're 500 yards from it. We said, let them come. Let them come. When they get about dodside, everybody opens up. To me, it was just a group of tanks, as we had in the morning, the day before, or the day before that, and so on. It was just another tank fight and I never paid any more attention to it.
The infantry come down about 3:00 in the afternoon from where they were. They say in their history, I read it the other day. They said, "When we got down there, the tanks were there and they'd cleared everything out." Well, there was no opposition, at 3:00 in the afternoon.
So then I swung and I was told to go over to another area, Caillouet, and I get over there. Then my commander calls up, Colonel Gordon, and he says they need some help, which is about a thousand yards, a little place called Caillouet, a thousand yards to the west. So I pick up my tanks and I lead them over there. I'm not thinking anymore of this Wittmann show.
45 years later, I'm over in France and a couple of Frenchmen come out from around Cintheaux. They said, "Were you here?" And I said, "Yeah." "Were you in those Shermans?" I said, "Yeah." They said, "You're the guy knocked out Wittmann." I said, "Who's Wittmann?"
Then I find out who this German ace by the name of Wittmann is. So I'm getting a little interested in this. Then I read the British history of the division on our left and this one British armored regimen in the North Hampshires says, and they write a long story about how they killed Wittmann. And he fired one shot, that 12, 15. And he fired the next shot at 12, 18, and so on. That was much different than the way I fought, and I wasn't looking at my watch or saying anything. I don't think they were either. I think this is a bit of a story because as we can figure out, they were 1700 to 2000 yards from any tanks. I saw, British tanks. And we were about 500 yards. So I'm not saying we did all the damage. I'm saying, though, we were in it. And I wouldn't be a bit surprised that Sergeant Millin, who had a 17 pounder with me, was the guy that might have killed Wittmann. Because the holes, they have a picture, which the French took from Cintheaux, and the holes are all on our side, where they went into the flank of the tanks. They're not on the other side, I was in filets and this guy showed me these pictures because the tank stayed there for, I don't know, a year, I guess, afterwards. They just plowed around them.
There's one Frenchman at Cintheaux, which an interesting man, and he has the gun mantle. He's got some of the road wheels of Wittmann's tank, because he said, "I plowed around the bloody thing. And when they came to pull it away, the pieces that were loose." He's got them behind his barn there, and he's got really a little museum that you go in and see. He was saying that he believed that it was those tanks that were in the Gaumesnil area that actually did the Germans. And they never did find Wittmann, of course at, you know the story, 'til 1984, I think. They were plowing and all of a sudden they hit some bones and they identified him and identified his crew.
I spoke to Hubert Meyer who commanded twelve... The second deputy commander, 12 SS. And I've walked the ground with Hubert. Hubert thinks it's a typhoon now that killed him. Now you've got the story of the typhoon, the story of the British. And you've got my story. I don't think it was a typhoon, the simple reason is that he said, "Well, the turret was blown off." Well, if you talk to any tank man, for God's sakes... I would say one out of every 10 tanks. If you got a good load of ammunition on, and she starts to burn and that ammunition blows you, blow your turret off. Well, this is what happened with Wittmann's tanks. And right away they say, "Oh, must be the typhoon to blow that big, heavy turret off." I'm saying, all you need, which I'm sure Wittmann had, was a good load of ammunition aboard. And when she went, up goes the turret.
Wittmann to me is no different than knocking any tank, if we did. No, I give pride to the crews who stuck it out with me and some of these poor devils, corporals and sergeants and crew, drivers and that, bailed out of three and four and five and six tanks. There's no question I've been knocked out of them. There's a tremendous shock. But mind you, I think as a leader or I was a squadron leader all the way through, you have a sense of responsibility and you try and shove that aside because there are other things that are more important. But for a driver or a guy who's just sitting there, I think takes loud nerve and a lot of guts to just stick there and go and get another one and try it and so on.
The funny thing about it, we lost the tank and the guy, the crew commander, got hit in the head and when he fell, he fell into the turret and the tank was still running. The guys had all bailed. I went out at night with the driver and I went to try and take this man out and I couldn't get him out because rigor mortis had set in. He was just like a donut at the bottom of the turret. So I took a machete and I cut them in two and we got a rope and we lifted him out.
Well, I got the tank back, but this is something, unless you've experienced it. The smell of death, it sticks on you. And if you take a body and bury it or pick up a person who's dead and move them around, it gets on your hands, it gets on your clothes. You can't get rid of it. And it gets on a tank. Even though they took the tank back, they wash it all out, they repaint the inside with white paint and it's glistening, you get that horrible smell. The men, they called a "Jonah" and they said, "We won't get back in that bloody Jonah, like the belly of a whale. We're we're going to get the new tank."
I couldn't get a crew. They had to send it back to tank delivery. Somebody else probably got it, but it never came back to the Sherbrookes. Because men just won't man, it, because it's a stink of death in there. You can't get rid of it with paint or varsol or whatever the heck you want to use. Yeah.
One of the things we did to try and save people, because if you get a round coming through and, say, you take your arm off or take your leg off, there's the shock. Right away, you might be knocked out for a bit and whilst you're knocked out, the tank is burning. So we learned that early on in the game and in my squad and when I had them drop the fitters in with their settling torches, and I cut out all of the basket in the tank. So all we had was a strut there, a strut there, one, four struts holding up the floor. That it meant that the driver, I could grab him or the operator could lean in and grab him by the nape of the neck or the shoulders and pull him back. The same thing with the co-driver. We could bring him through the turret. So often that bloody gun would be turned like this, and would be over their hatch. We had a number of men who died and were just trapped in the fire. They couldn't get out as they tried to open their hatch. So we gave them access now, by doing this into the turret, and automatically we had a drill and the gunner said, "If I'm not hurt, I'll grab you the cool driver." But basically it was just like a bunch of rats, jumping off a burning ship. And until you hit the ground, you didn't know really who came out.
The main thing is, I think a driller, maybe it's instinctive, having experienced this before that if you got fired on, as you bailed, your chances of dying again, the second time by being machine gun, as you bailed out.
Now, we believe that there's a bit of chivalry that are still left in the system that tankers, we wouldn't shoot at them if they wouldn't shoot at us, but they did. Consequently, once you hit the ground, or regardless of what kind of shape you're in, is for God's sakes, try and crawl, run, keep down, but try and get a hole somewhere. I've seen a man with these both legs cut off at the knees and running on his stumps. It is just that trying to save yourself, just that I've got to get away from here. I've seen another guy jump out like that with his headsets, and damn near choke himself, because the snatch plug that goes in on the communication set didn't break and now he's running, and all the sudden, he just like a rabbit in the snare, turned over backwards, because the darned thing is around his neck and damn near chokes into death. So it's an instinctive reaction. No question about it.
And I think the thing is…We got on the going out on the scene now, going through a place called Forêt de la Londe. And I went over a big heavy charge. We think it's either big artillery shell with a couple of teller mines on it on top. When it blew, it really blew it all the hell. Now we were all sandbagged because we put double sandbags in the bottom of the tank because we'd lost casualties on mine and legs blown off. But so there are no question about, my tank was reasonably well protected, but it blew us and it blew the tracks and never the bottom in. When she came down, the two hatches clamped like this, the two hatches on a Sherman are like so, and they came together and I couldn't get them open and the tank started to burn. I had my gunner, Paul Paquette, was small man, about 140 pounds and so was my operator. They're getting burned, too, and I was getting burned down my hands and my face. I'm trying to get this darn top of the two hatches open. I don't know how they did it, but the two little devils got under my ass and they drove my head right against this thing that was wedged. They just popped those two things open and I rolled out and I think I had 36 stitches in the top of my head when they got me sorted out. But those things happened.
That was Brigadier General Radley-Walters.
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