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MGen Roger Rowley describes his experiences fighting as a ground forces officer in the days following the invasion of Normandy, and how he missed the D-Day invasion.
MGen Rowley served in World War Two as ground forces officer in the Canadian Army. For months he and his unit prepared for the invasion of Normandy, but when the fateful day came, no orders arrived, so they weren’t sent to France. Instead they arrived on the beaches of Normandy two days after D-Day.
In this interview, Rowley describes his whole D-Day story, as well as Allied and German equipment, the destruction he witnessed, the controversy over Falaise, Operation Totalize, and the taking of Caen.
During the episode, Rowley recounts his feelings after finally arriving on the beaches of Normandy:
“I was very exhilarated. I keep saying that. I was very excited about this thing. It was going fine, and I was kind of... Well, I shouldn't say this I suppose, but it's truly true: I think I was sort of... Couldn't wait. I was a little trigger happy. I wanted to shoot at somebody. I really did at that stage. You get trained to a peak where this is what you've been looking at for four years. And it's like, if you're a boxer, and you've got a fight coming up, you're ready. And we were ready. And I can't speak... All the fellas that I had anything to do with felt very much the same way. “
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MGen Roger Rowley served in World War Two as ground forces officer in the Canadian Army. For months he and his unit prepared for the invasion of Normandy, but when the fateful day came, no orders arrived, so they weren’t sent to France. Instead they arrived on the beaches of Normandy two days after D-Day.
My name is Roger Rowley, R-O-W-L-E-Y. I'm a regular officer, or have been. Retired, regular officer of the Canadian forces, ground forces.
I went to Normandy with my unit, right from Ottawa here, where I was first commissioned as an officer, and known as the Cameron Highlander of Ottawa. And I served with them through the first year of the war. Well, the first 11 months we were stationed in Iceland, as the garrison troops there. And from Iceland in the spring of 1941, we went to England, and I was stationed there from then on until D-Day.
Our unit started off as divisional troops in the second Canadian infantry division, but only three units were taken out of that division to go to Iceland, and ours was one them. When we got back to England a year later, roughly a year later, we found that we had been replaced in the second Canadian division, which was just arriving in England at that time. And so, we were used as corps troops. And just to explain that, I guess I ought to point out that the unit to which I belonged was a machine gun unit. Equipped with the Vickers Mark 4 machine gun, which sits on a tripod, and was a very effective harassing and defensive fire weapon. Remarkably long range.
After we got to England, and had been there for a very short time, we were issued with a new kind of ammunition called the Mark VII Z ammunition, which had a range of 4,100 yards. So that took us almost out of the realm of close support. We could do harassing fire up to four kilometers away. Mind you, we had to put four guns on a task like that. But it also meant that we had to convert from open sites, firing over open sites to a dial site. Much the same as an artillery weapon uses. So that required that we really retrain ourselves. And very shortly after we got to England, we did our first training concentration at a place called Nether Haven out in Salisbury Plain, which was the machine gun school. And all the officers had to re-qualify, and the non-commissioned officers and men. And after we had gotten used to this weapon, we used to do a lot of field firing in places like Wales, near Brechin in Wales. And we went for a concentration every year to just make sure we were right on the latest techniques, and so on.
I guess when we're talking about D-Day, we better start talking about how we prepared for it. And of course there had been a number of commando raids on the French Coast and various other places. And of course the Dieppe Raid, which Canada was totally involved in. And after that, it became very clear that the techniques, the weapons, the equipment, the vessels were totally inadequate for making a... Opening a second front. And a great deal of research had to be done. And of course, that went on. Not really as a company officer, you wouldn't hear too much about that. But we knew they were developing the swimming tank. A friend of mine, I knew it, because he was down in Portsmouth, and they were putting him over the side about once a week. And every now and again it would work, and quite often it didn't. But they got that all sorted out.
As far as our training was concerned, we were in fine shape. I guess I should diverge for a moment, and point out that at one point I was commanding the Canadian Army Battle School, and I was a young lieutenant colonel in my twenties. And we were a pretty hairy leg bunch. We did all the explosive work. We put infantry through assault courses. We taught them unarmed combat, night fighting. We also took the mortar and carrier platoons and trained them in combat roles. And using certain techniques, command techniques, and so on. So this was done. The young officers and non-commissioned officers who attended those courses, went back to their units and divisions, and sort of spread the teaching, spread the gospel as it were. And there was... The Canadian army, I would say, particularly the third division, the assault division, which had some special training were as fit as you could possibly be. And they knew exactly what they were doing. They were masters of their weapons. They knew their tactical techniques. And it never occurred to me, and I don't think it ever occurred to them, that we weren't going to be able to carry out our mission from the point of view of lack of training, or anything like that. It was exciting stuff. And subsequently, of course, when we really started training, doing our amphibious training, that was a whole new game. And I don't know if we have time to explain it, but the staff officers had to do the staff work on how you would break up a unit into what sized fighting groups, and what kind of vessels they would be in, how the vehicles would be loaded. Whether they could be separated from their passengers, and brought ashore, which is the driver. All of this stuff had to be experimented with, and worked out. And there were a whole other group of people who were studying the beach organization, how they would get the vehicles off the beach. We had to learn how to waterproof our vehicles so that you could drive a Jeep off the end of a ramp. And many times I've taken a Jeep ashore. I've had the water right up to my shoulders, and wheels on bottom. And of course, we had these breathers. The exhaust, and air intake, and stuff like that. The problem with that was, that you had to get rid of it once you got on the beach, or very shortly thereafter. Because the vehicle overheated, and you just couldn't handle it. So we had special troops trained to help us with that.
We did a lot of practiced landings. The particular unit that I was with, I was still with the Camerons. There were some reorganizations that took place at that time. And we went up to Scotland up to the Clyde, and learned all our amphibious tricks there. And then came down from the Clyde, and a place called Towards Castle. And then we did a lot of training down in the south of England, where we were positioned. For instance, we carried out full-scale, live firing exercises at Studland Bay, and off the Isle of Wight. And we were ready. Believe me, we were ready.
And the interesting thing about it I think is that we didn't really know where we were going, but we kept doing these sand table exercises. So that on coastal waters... We knew we were going somewhere, but where, we didn't know, and we didn't know when. But when we finally got down to it, before we went over, as you probably know, we were concentrated in camps behind wire. So we couldn't get out, for security reasons. And then we got our final briefings. And we'd been talked to by Field Marshal Montgomery, before every officer in the division was taken into a theater down in Brighton, and he gave us the word. A most inspiring fellow. And it's a silly thing to say, but after his reputation in North Africa, everybody had faith in this guy and rightly so. And he convinced all of us that he wasn't going to throw us in there if we didn't have a reasonable chance of succeeding. And it was exciting.
I can remember going over, and when I finally left Southampton, going across the channel with this armada of ships and airplanes, going over your town. Rocket ships going, firing into the shore. It was really exhilarating. And I don't know what other people's reactions were, but the reactions that I had was that if anybody can survive that, they won't be ready for us, they'll be hanging on the ropes.
Well, it didn't quite work out that way. But we had a better than good chance of succeeding there. And I think all of my guys believed that, and it worked out that way. A lot of guys got hurt, and a lot of people got killed. But when you think about it, it was a gigantic operation. We had five divisions landing on a series of beaches, plus the airborne divisions. That works out to a division, Canadian division at assault scale as... Well, normally it would be about 20,000 troops with their auxiliaries. And we're looking at a lot of people. Over a 100,000 men landed on the beach, and in the manner of hours. It was a gigantic undertaking.
I think really nobody has any idea of how complicated an assault landing is. Not only do you have to have a beach organization that knows exactly what to do. But they've got to land right behind the assault troops. Of course, who don't have any, virtually any vehicles. And set up the beach for evacuation of troops, for laying down track so that vehicles that are wheeled vehicles can go across the beach. We had learned so many lessons from Dieppe that… and we had practiced them in dry, what we call dry landings, and field firing exercises, leaving vessels, leaving the assault craft, and landing on beaches in England, that we were really getting pretty good at this.
But I think the thing that really was the big gainer was that we got equipment that would lay down track. And the vehicles that did this were very specialized. They were called AVREs, Armored Vehicle Royal Engineer. And they came in different patterns. They were built on a Churchill tank. There was a thing called a flail, which was to deal with the landmines. It had two arms that went out with a big drum out in front of the thing with hammers flying on the end of chains, or hammer heads. And they would just kinda explode every mine that was in front of them.
And if you came to a water hazard, there were two ways of getting through that. They either had a thing called a fascine, which was a huge roll of chained sticks. And they just rolled it off the front of the tank. It traveled on top of the tank, and that would fill in a ditch so that other tanks could go across. We also had a thing called a scissors bridge, which was borne on top of the tank, could be lowered down as a derrick. And that was all new stuff.
We also had flame throwers, tanks. And then, for getting through the sea walls, they had a thing they called a petard tank, and it had a huge cannon, like an old fashioned mortar. And we're talking about 12 or 13 inches across, maybe more. And this was a conical charge. It hadn't a great range, but it could blow a hole through anything. It just take a concrete wall, and two or three of those, and you were through.
The other thing was that the soldiers were trained so that if they got into a minefield, every Canadian soldier that landed on D-Day knew how to clear a minefield with his bayonet, and how to defuse the mines, and set them to one side, and have a roll of tape on his back. And so, he could cut lanes through the minefields. There wasn't a great deal of that necessary with these AVREs early on. But they had a great deal of trouble down in Omaha beach with the minefields. And they had a bad time down there, obviously, as we all know. Poor fellows. But I think you can't minimize the fact that we never would've made that assault landing in Normandy if it hadn't been for the lessons that we learned at the... Costly, but absolutely necessary. A tactical disaster, but a strategic miracle, really.
My D-Day was a little bit different. I was the second in command of a machine gun unit. And my commanding officer, of course, was in the assault wave and went in. And I had all the vehicles like the communication vehicles, and all that sort of stuff with me in an LST. And I was supposed to land, I was told, in the first assault reserve, which would've happened about the afternoon of D-Day. Just depending on how things were going on that particular beach. But of course, all the vessels were called forward by the port authority. And they were made into their flotillas, and off they went. The LSTs were quite a large vehicle, or ship I should say, craft. And we had the whole of battalion headquarters in effect. All the adjutants and all of those sort of people. The COs cook, and that sort of thing. And D-Day came and was just about over, and we were still sitting there, tied up in Southampton. And we had a British Royal Navy sub lieutenant who was in charge of the... He was the captain of the craft. And I said, "We're supposed to be out of here by now." And he said, "Well, I can't help that. I'm sorry, we haven't been called forward." And so, that day went by, D-Day went by. And the next day we finally got onto the authorities, and they said they didn't know anything about that, and they'd have to check. I don't know whether they thought we'd sunk, or I simply don't know. We never did find out. But anyway, so I didn't get there until the night of D plus two, I think it was, I finally made a landing. And we had no problem, except I had to face my commanding officer. And he was so outraged by this thing. I don't know whether he thought I had been able to keep the vessel from sailing, or what. I never did find out. But it was interesting about landing on the beach, because we'd done all of our exercises. And as I said, our final briefings told us exactly where we were going. And I think I must have traveled several kilometers by the time I got in there. I never looked at a map. I knew every village, every road, I knew where to turn left, where to turn right. And after going through the de-waterproofing and stuff like that, we just took off on our own little convoy. The adjutants and I, and the quartermaster, and we made it. We had absolutely no trouble at all. Well, except for the odd sniper. But I mean, as far as knowing where we were going, we knew exactly how to get there. That was fascinating.
I didn't, at that stage, see very much of the resistance. I was at, as I told you, our unit was a divisional support unit. And the battalion headquarters was in fact at divisional headquarters. And that was all right with me, because you don't... Apart from getting shelled, and sniped at and stuff, periodically, I wasn't really in combat at that stage. I mean, I was armed, and ready, and taking all the natural precautions, and going down to visit the companies. But I didn't see much of the resistance at that stage, but of course they were there, and they were doing a good job all the way. They were great, just great.
I was very exhilarated. I keep saying that. I was very excited about this thing. It was going fine, and I was kind of... Well, I shouldn't say this, I suppose, but it's truly true. I think I was sort of... Couldn't wait. I was a little trigger happy. I wanted to shoot at somebody. I really did at that stage. You get trained to a peak where this is what you've been looking at for four years. And it's like, if you're a boxer, and you've got a fight coming up, you're ready. And we were ready. And I can't speak... All the fellas that I had anything to do with felt very much the same way. Of course, there were bad, bad times, when you were under heavy shelling. That, as far as I was concerned, was the worst thing. Because you couldn't do anything about it. You're sitting in a hole, and all hell's breaking loose. Airburst coming and going in the trees, and stuff like that. There's no defense against that. And that can be pretty depressing, but it doesn't last forever.
People always say, what was your first contact with the enemy? Well, mine, as I said, I was two days late for the party to start with. But when we got to divisional headquarters, we were in a sort of a wooded area. And there were quite a few snipers around. And we had a defense platoon who were there, but they needed some assistance, and was the odd shot fired at that shadowy figure going through the woods, and that sort of stuff. But nothing really exciting.
Now, the real fighting was going on down at the company level. Our divisional machine gun unit was dispersed in companies going to each one of the three brigades in the division. That consisted by this time, not only of machine guns, but heavy mortars, as well. As I told you before, we'd had several reorganizations. And now it was a very high power firepower wise. It was a very heavy fire in close support of the infantry. So the darn machine guns would be right down in the infantry positions. And as second in command, as I say, I'd spell off the CO, and I'd go down to these companies, and spend some time with them, see how they were getting along, make sure their rations were getting to them, and their ammunition, and stuff like that. Not terribly exciting. But I had to wait a little while till I got into combat.
Along about July, end of July, beginning of August, we were having a very bad time, as you know. I'm sure you know the Canadian forces were putting in these limited objective attacks to hold the German armor on our front. So that General Hogan and General Patton could break out at Saint-Lô, and we had a bunch of armored divisions up there, and we had some very bad attacks.
The unit that I subsequently commanded, The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, who in fact come from Cornwall, just down on the Ottawa river here, or on the Saint Lawrence River, I should say. I'm wearing their crest right now. But due to a series of somewhat unfortunate circumstances, they lost their CO, and he was posted to other duties. And I luckily, or unluckily, fell heir to that job. So from then on I was an infantry battalion commander. And this was exciting for me, because I'd run the infantry training school, battle school. And I said, "Now I'm where I know what I'm doing, and this is great." And I stayed with them right through until Germany. But we had a lot of contact then with the enemy. And I don't think I want to go into any heroics about taking out my Bren gun, in which I did on a couple of occasions, and knocking off some fellas, or hopefully knocking them off.
The Germans that we met, with the exception of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend division, who were really wild guys, they were kids. They were all kids. You'd throw a grenade, toss a grenade at them, they'd throw it right back at you. Take the chance that it wasn't going to go off. I mean, they were tough soldiers, but the German soldier was a damn well trained soldier. And particularly their non-commissioned officers. They call them feldwebel, who was a field Sergeant. And they were old-line, hard-line, hard-nosed regular non-commissioned officers. And they were damn good. They were just as good tacticians as many of our [inaudible]. They'd been at it for a long time, and they were excellent. They were well armed all the way along. I think their weapons really were better than ours. Their submachine, their Schmeissers, and those weapons. Much better than ours. And of course the 88, the famous 88 millimeter, we had nothing could touch that. I mean, standing at that arm's length, we weren't going to win that one. And I think you've probably had a chance to talk to Radley-Walters. He probably destroyed more German tanks than anybody in the Canadian army. He and General Amy between them pretty well did it all. But it was tough. There was nothing easy about winning that war. And don't let anybody ever tell you... There were good times, but you didn't have them up in the front line. It was tough stuff. And that winter that we then went into, well, we'd left Normandy by then, of course. But I can't leave Normandy without saying something about that first assault, really armored infantry assault, invented by General Guy Simmons, first of the armored personnel carriers. By this time I was commanding a battalion. And it was a fantastic experience to do this at night, or in the daytime. Get in these hollowed out artillery tanks. They took the guns out of them, as you probably know, and put the infantry into them and down you pelted. And this was a good way to go to battle. Believe you me. A lot better than on your flat feet. And mind you, you were a target. A lot of infantry, one would sooner be on their belly than in a tin can. But in any event, it was a terribly exciting thing. We used them many times on the rundown to Falaise.
Well, the Cameron Highlanders, who were the divisional support battalion, were, as I think I mentioned, composed basically of mobile carrier borne, vehicle borne, track vehicle borne machine guns. And 4.2 inch mortars, heavy mortars. And they were held at divisional headquarters. And when any brigade or unit was going to do an attack, these people would be the members of this... The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa would be signed out under command to the brigade commander, or the battalion commander. Or perhaps they would be concentrated under the divisional commander, the divisional artillery commander. And in each platoon of machine guns, you had four Vickers machine guns. And in the mortar platoons you had two sections of mortars of two mortars each. And they were tremendous, particularly at the Falaise gap. Well, they saved our lives god knows how many times. I mean, these, particularly at night, you could set up these machine guns on what we called fixed lines, on crossing fire in front of your position. And when those fellows started ripping off 500 rounds a minute, it took intense fire. A lot of lead going by. And they were terrific. They saved a lot of people's lives. And the mortars as well, had the same kind of role. And these guys, well, by this time they were all pros, and they knew what to do, and they knew how to do it. And they knew how to set up their equipment quickly. And they knew when to sustain fire, and when to cut it. And I mean, they were in great shape.
The mortars were used usually in a defensive role when somebody was being attacked, or in a sort of counter mortar role. If we saw a mortar going off, we found out where it was located. We would fire at them.
We also had an interesting thing. All the maps we used have what they called a defense overlay, which was based on the intelligence. And it was a piece of perspex which you laid over your map, and it showed you where the known German positions were. And of course, both the machine guns and the mortars, if a battalion was going in on an attack, the artillery officer who was the fire planning officer, the attached artillery officer would assign certain tasks to the 4.2 inch mortars. Certain tasks or fields of fire to the machine guns, and certain artillery targets to the artillery. And so, they took part in virtually every operation. And as soon as an infantry battalion had gained its objective, it would have those machine guns right with it. And they would be part of the consolidation plan. And they were mixed up with the infantry the whole time. I mean, and great friends. They liked each other very well.
This business, the first time we really used these infantry personnel carriers, was at Operation Totalize, which was conducted by The Second Canadian Corps, commanded by General Simmons. General Simmons, and he was the one who really invented this technique. And it took place at night, the first assault. And everybody said, "How's this going to happen?" Well, it was absolutely fascinating. What they did was to give the tank squadrons that were shepherding, if I could use the word, the armored personnel carriers. They gave them bearings to run on. And how do you keep on a bearing in the tank? Well, there are many ways. One way is to set your tank turret on the bearing that you have to go on, and make a chalk mark on the turret, on the moving part, and a chalk mark down below. And as long as you've got those two lines, one on top of the other, theoretically at least, you're on your line. And there were all kinds of tricks like that. Some of them more sophisticated, but not much more effective.
And then the infantry were in these APCs. Well, they had specific areas to which they had to go, and they didn't all get there, obviously. But in order to assist that, to give them some light, we had what they call fighting light, that was done with search lights, battle illumination. It goes by a dozen different names. But in effect, they use a defused search light, and bounce the light off the clouds and so on, and so forth. Probably the best direction keeper was to use a Bofors, which is about a 30 millimeter ant-aircraft gun, rapid firing. Then it has a tracer plug on the end of it. So at night, if you put those on the bearing that you want the troops to follow, just keep popping them off, and they can see those out of the tank, and they ride down the line in effect. And it was as simple, or as complicated as that. The fact of the matter is, and if you read the late General Kurt Meyer, the German divisional commander's essays on this, and he wrote a number of them. He had to fight his way back to where... I mean, he was completely bypassed places like [inaudible], and Verrières Ridge, and Bourguébus, and all of those places. They just disappeared in the night. We were a couple of thousand meters past them by morning. As I say, I shouldn't say we, because I didn't come in until the next day, in the daylight.
There were tragic moments in that attack too. Because as we were preparing to launch Totalize, the air force came over. And I don't think it was entirely their fault, but we had these smoke candles, colored smoke, which we were supposed to put out to demark the demarcation line of the forward defended localities. And somebody in the back-end put these up in a panic, a moment of panic, I think. And actually, they were flying fortresses, and they were coming over in their big square. I was lying on my back with broad daylight, about noontime. The troops had gone through the night before, the first wave had gone through the night before. And looking up, and suddenly you could see these bomb doors opening, and down they came. And they just pasted the hell out of us. My unit was all right, but I was just in front of the gun area. And there were a lot of casualties in the gun area, the big artillery concentration area. And our divisional commander was hit, and wounded, and evacuated. It was a pretty nasty thing. And a couple of days later, as we were approaching the Laison River, which my unit was on the right flank, we got our crossing off for the armor on the river. While we were doing that, I just had the assault element with me, but all my cook vehicles and administrative vehicles were back in a place called Bretteville-l'Orgueilleuse. It was a big quarry. And most of the divisional support was in there. And we got bombed by the Brits and the Canadians right along the Caen-Falaise road. And I lost all my supply vehicles, and so on, and quite a few good friends. That was tragic, but fortunately it didn't really affect the outcome of the battle. Slowed things down a little, quite a lot, as you can imagine. But we then went from there.
Of course, my unit, I was taken out of the third division at that stage, the fourth division who were over at Trun and Chambois, right, closing the gap, but they were running out of infantry. So my particular regiment was taken out of three div, and sent to Trun, which is right north of Chambois, which is where we closed the gap, and we were there for that. That was some kind of a party, I can tell you. We took in more prisoners, you just wouldn't believe it. But the carnage, it was... That had been The Seventh German Army, it was just unbelievable.
The key to the whole of that first landing, or the first battle in Normandy was the capturing, finally, the capturing of the city of Caen. The destruction of that city, which had been in fact a D-Day objective. [Inaudible] had to be taken out first. And finally, I wasn't commanding the unit at that stage. But this unit, this S, D and G Highlanders, plus elements of the Sherbrooke Fusilier were the first people into Caen. We had had a whole series of battles before that at Buron and [inaudible]. And those were very costly battles. We lost an awful lot of people.
And Rad Walters, who I think you've talked to, his tanks and the S, D and G Highlanders took off on the Caen-Fal road. And we went down there, and we bombed the place very heavily, as you know, before that. It was just in rubble. We were the first people in there, or my unit was. And first Canadians. The Brits were coming from another flank, and there were some Free French fighting before us, right in the city, that banded themselves together, and so on. And so, the capture of that place was really a great triumph, which everybody felt pretty good about that, because it gave us some... Well, I guess, morale booster as much as anything else. And it was a good battle to win, and it was a tough one. But it wasn't the last by any means. As soon as we got Caen, we were plugged up again. We didn't get out of there for another month, really break out until the 4th of August on Operation Totalize that I was telling you about, I guess it was the 5th of August. 5th or 6th.
Caen, at the beginning, it was indescribable, the damage that had been done, with the exception of the cathedral. Just like Cologne, was sitting right there. William the conqueror's cathedral. Damaged, but there, standing, with its spires, and the whole darn... You just couldn't believe it. And the people of Caen lost... I mean, the citizens, there were about 3000 of them killed, I think. You'd have to talk to some statistician about this. But by that time we had lost, in third div, we had lost at least 3000 men. So it was about even. Well, just can't be obliterated. You can't obliterate a city that's got civilians in it without killing an awful lot of people. And mind you, if we hadn't done it, we never would've gotten in. It had to be dealt with. And that's one of the terrible things about war. Decisions have to be taken on the spot, and a lot of people get hurt.
Well, of course, after we got into Caen, the next battle was Totalize. And after Totalize, which finally took Falaise, the battalion that I was commanding, was detached from the third division, and sent over to the fourth armor division to supplement their infantry, who they were well under strength by this time, they'd had a tremendous number of casualties. And our battalion did an overnight march. It took us a day and a night to finally march there on our flat feet.
We got to Trun, and Trun was the key to actually closing the gap. The road from Trun that went down to where the Americans were, that's where it happened. And I moved in there with my men, at night. It was raining. The place was burning. I had the support, I had a support company behind me that had come with me, of machine guns, and the section of mortars from the Cameron Highlanders. And we took up our position and got our... I got the battalion deployed along the Dives River. Two companies forward, and two back. And we were starting to have a terrible problem dealing with the prisoners of war, because they were just giving up. And they were being bombed at night, and the tactical air force was just cutting them to ribbons. Plus a lot of artillery fire. And they were giving up in hundreds, literally. And that took up more of my men than I was happy about, because somebody had to put them in a cage, and examine them, and get them the hell out of the way. And that wasn't easy.
But it was interesting, because about the second day we were there, General [Many], who was the colonel general of The Seventh Army Armored Corps. And he had about seven tiger tanks, I guess, and about 600 panzergrenadiers. And he decided he was going to break out. Unfortunately, he decided he was going to do that on my front. And he drove up with his tanks, and on the other side of the river, and there were a series of weirs holding back the water in this river as it went down. And they just blew those weirs right out of the water, and all the water went down the river, and it was a solid gravel bottom, and over he came. And they overran one of my companies. And fortunately for us, when the tanks tried to get up from the river bank, there were a bunch of very narrow roads dug into the... That were dug into the side of the hill, and three or four of the tanks got into those and got stuck. And my jokers just on top, and threw a couple of smoke grenades down the air intake. And that's a very good way of clearing people out of a tank, and up comes the general. So he was my guest, my personal guest, for the next four or five days. I took him into my headquarters, and incidentally, his uniform is right down in Cornwall, in the S, D and G's museum, or one of the ones. And that was pretty exciting stuff.
And however, we counter attacked, and got back on track. Cleared them out of there, and retained our position. But from then on, right down the road from me, I was running a carrier platoon to the next little village where Colonel Currie won the Victoria Cross. He was there all by himself. He was the last of the infantry in four div. And a very gallant officer, obviously. So that was an exciting battle.
But to get out of there, when we started moving off to chase these fellas down the left flank, I couldn't get out of Trun. There were carts upside down, vehicles, burned out vehicles, dead people, horses. It was unbelievable. And what we did was to take our carriers with a tow hook chain, and on the back of it, and pick up the Germans' bodies, take their identifications off, and take them in and put them to the side of the road, and so on, and so forth. Finally, we had to get bulldozers from the engineers to get us out of there. It was unbelievable. I mean, the whole solid country road just full. And the smell, I'll never get over that, as long as I live. If I smell anything bad now, I'm practically sick in my stomach. The stench was unbelievable. We were there... Well, not for very long after that part was all over. And then we started on our run for Cap Gris-Nez, and Boulogne and Chailloué and all of those places down the west wall.
Well, there's a lot of controversy about closing the gap at Falaise. Some people say, and I think with justification, that we, the Canadians didn't move as fast as we could have. We didn't exploit some of the successes that we had. Through May I was the humble battalion commander, so I can't give you a profound philosophic explanation of why we took longer than we should have. But there is no question about it. We took too long to get to Falaise. And I personally sat on the river. We got the crossings for the armor, and I sat there for a day-and-a-half before I saw any armor. It didn't arrive. Mind you, there are reasons for that, I'm sure. But we were slow, there's no question about it. We were slow getting to Falaise. And the result of that was that a lot of people got away. The Americans were at the bottom end. The other prong of the pinchers, they were pretty well where they were supposed to be. And we were slow getting there. And when we got there, the fourth armor division did a super job, but they were worn out. They'd been fighting all the way down through Totalize, and that whole run up to Caen. And their infantry battalions, and their infantry brigade. 10th infantry brigade were well under strength. I don't think they had more than 30 or 40 men in a company at that stage. So it's one of those things about the war, that's... There are a lot of questions asked, and not too many sensible answers. But I, personally, think we took too long getting there. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Was it a success? Yes, of course it was a success. But the question is, if we had been on time, would we have... I'm sure if we'd closed that gap a little sooner, a lot of Germans, and a lot of tanks, and a lot of equipment wouldn't have gone back up through and across the Saint, we'd have bottled a whole damn bunch of them up, and we didn't do that. We didn't do that.
It's hard to say what that delay cost us. I really can't comment on that. Except to say that, a lot of men and equipment got away that shouldn't have gotten away, got through the bag. We didn't quite close the neck of the bag. And obviously, our life would've been a lot happier, and a lot easier if we could have bottled it up completely, and earlier.
As I talk, I keep thinking of other things. And I've almost forgot to tell you about air support, close air support. It was fantastic. We had, God knows how many airplanes. I'm talking about ground attack airplanes, and Spitfires, and the whole bit. And we had two groups working with us, two RAF groups, and one Canadian group. And these fellas, it got to the point where they would send down a liaison officer who... A controller, an air controller, who would be with one of my forward companies. And if I could identify a target to him, so that he could get a map reference for it, and put a couple of rounds of colored smoke on it with any one of the mortars that we had, these guys would fly what they called cab rank. They would bring in a flight of five or six airplanes, some with 20 millimeters shells, some with rockets. And they would orbit, and they called it loitering. They'd loiter above our... And he would call them down, identify the target. And it was fascinating. I used to listen to this guy. He'd say, "Hello, Charlie. This is Red ..." somebody or other. They got their own language. And he would say, "Can you identify the target?" And the fellow would come back. "Yes, I can." He'd say, "Well, take it out." And these guys would come in one after another. And we were supposed to leave something like 500 yards between us and the nearest bombs and stuff. Well, it got a lot closer than that. These guys got so good, it was... They were just almost as good, almost as predictable as artillery fire. I mean, if they could see it, they could hit it. And they could see almost everything. And we got on a real buddy system with these guys. They wanted to know what the ground battle was like. And we wanted to know how they did this stuff. So I used to get these fellas. I nearly always had them. They wanted to go on night patrols, and stuff like that. And of course, they weren't trained. And I said, you don't really want to do that. They'd say, "Yeah, come on now." And we would send officers back. It was a good way of giving them a rest, for a couple of days to stay with one of the squadrons, or flights back at the ALG. Which is an advanced landing ground. And we were really just like that. It was a fantastic series of cooperative successes. They were tremendous, just tremendous.
Everybody always asks you about the German soldier and his equipment. And was it good or was it bad? And I think I've made it pretty clear so far that they were extremely capable soldiers, by and large. Very, very well trained. Brave, tenacious, vicious, good scrapers. There's no question about them. And they were certainly very well armed. Their automatic weapons were superior to ours. With the possible exception of the Bren gun, which was our section weapon, automatic weapon, and a very good one. But our tanks just weren't on on the same playing field. You get a tiger tank with an 88 millimeter gun on the front of it, unless you can get into a position where you can blow its tracks off, or hit it on the turret ring, or something... If you just go firing at it with the weapons we had at the glacis plate, as they call it, front panel, you're never going to get them. I mean, there's just no way. They were really almost unbeatable, and it wasn't a level playing field.
Our weapons weren't as good. We finally got a 17 pounder, which we put one in each troop. We called it a Firefly, and that's a good gun. That was our anti-tank gun, that improved things tremendously. Before that, we were hitting 75 millimeters in short barrels against those guys. Just forget it. It wasn't good at all. But the Germans were great fighters. I can say that now. I didn't feel that way at the time. I hated every damn one of them, but I've learned. I know from the experience that I've gained since then that they were just as good as they could be. And of course, they always keep saying the real cream of the German army was on the Russian front. But I'm just glad they stayed there, if that's really true, because we had enough trouble with them, the ones we met.
I guess that, from the point of view of morale, the worst period for the Canadians were those weeks, and weeks, and weeks from the time that we landed on the beaches, until we closed the gap at Falaise. We were doing these limited objective attacks for very often against pieces of ground that had no tactical significance, whatever. And you can say what you like, but at the lower level, we didn't understand the strategy. It wasn't explained as it should have been in my view. I'm not sure we'd have been much better at it if we'd... But it would've been good to know. I mean, some very good officers, I believe, lost their jobs because they said, "Hey, enough is enough. Somebody better figure out a better way. Or tell me what the hell's going on." At the lower level, it wasn't clear. Nobody gave a damn what general Patton was doing. Nobody had ever heard of Saint-Lô. I mean, you got to understand that when you're in battle, even since battalion commander, or a divisional commander, your world is about four kilometers deep, by three kilometers wide. And that's it, man. You don't know. And you just do what you're told. And the fellow who's telling you what to do, you have to hope knows what he's about. A lot of the stuff that went on in that particular war didn't filter down to the level it should have. And part of the reason was that you just can't pull a company out of battle and give them a briefing. It's easy to be critical, but to put it right, he would've had to have somebody come down, and explain. You can't go into the legion hall and then give these guys a lecture. It's a very difficult thing to manage, and there you go.
The decisions as a result of this, that have to be made, still have to be made. It was unlike the training period where everybody knew exactly what was going to happen. And you got briefed, and sat down at a sand table, or a map exercise. Or a thing they called a TEWT, a tactical exercise without troops. Where you could plan the whole thing, and everybody knew. And you had an umpire standing around telling you when you made a balls of it, and so on, and so forth. But battle isn't like that. And it cannot be, even with the best will in the world. So I guess we didn't do too badly in the end.
That was MGen Roger Rowley.
You can learn more about Brigadier General Radley-Walters, the famous Canadian tank ace mentioned in this interview, by listening to his episode of Warriors In Their Own Words. The link is in the show notes.
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