“Brothers in Arms” by James Holland (published by Bantam Press)

By tank into Germany, with carnage all around

War throws up no end of horrors, and among the worst must be to fight it from within the claustrophobic confines of a tank (or submarine) that might well be blown to bits any second. Much-published historian James Holland tells the harrowing tale of the Sherwood Rangers, “One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE Day” (Victory in Europe Day).
7. November 2021 15:51

The crew of five inside a Sherman tank were encased in steel, surrounded by highly explosive shells. it was dark, especially if all the hatches were down, and so the interior was painted white. On a good day, a Sherman smelled of  fuel, oil, rubber and canvas; once moving or firing, however, the inside quickly filled with choking fumes and smoke, despite an extractor fan.

On a bad day – which meant, in effect, any long day – food,  sweat and piss could all be added to the cocktail. There was nothing very comfortable at all about the inside of a tank. It was a moving ammunition store and a good way to die horribly. If hit, it could burst into flames and the crew be incinerated, leaving a “mere burned crisp”, or bodies welded together, unidentifiable. Or perhaps survival of sorts, with bad burns. Fear gripped men but they had to keep going.

Author Holland opens with a prologue that takes us back to the battles under the burning sun of the Egyptian desert, in 1942 and our introduction to the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. In 1940 they had still been a mounted cavalry regiment, complete with horses, a territorial yeomanry unit rather than one of the pre-war regular army, and full of Nottinghamshire squires, gamekeepers, horsemen and country folk.

In Palestine, still wearing their leather riding boots and bandoliers, they took part in a sabres-drawn cavalry charge to quell Arab insurrectionists. But by 1942 the horses had long gone and it was only early that year – after a time converted to artillery, which was considered extremely infra dig – that they had finally become mechanised.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s attack at Alam Halfa, Egypt, at the end of August 1942 had been the  Sherwodd Rangers’ first action in tanks, so while they were not new to war on D-Day, they were most woefully new to mechanised  warfare. In North Africa, they had charged towards the enemy – in a reminder of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in the Crimean War – and been similarly shot to pieces. Seven tanks were  destroyed and four put out of action.

Eventually, the tank regiments of the British Eighth Army, led by a new commander, General Bernard Montgomery, slowly but surely out-fought the German-Italian Panzerarmee at El Alamein and Alam Halfa, and the carnage in the desert finally ended on May 13, 1943, by which time the Sherwood Rangers had learned much but lost many.

It was a harsh lesson, and the battered regiment still had a lot to absorb. Even as part of a victorious campaign, they could suffer grievously. But by the time they landed among some 160,000 Allied troops at Normandy, France, on D-Day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944, they had at least been toughened by experience and were ready to take the fight directly to Nazi Germany.

From his introduction in North Africa, James Holland switches to the meat of his book, the preparations for and the invasion on D-Day. In Europe the war would still have 11 months to run, and for the Sherwood Rangers, from the beaches of Normandy through Belgium and Holland and into Germany, it would be as brutal, bitter and destructive as anything they had yet experienced.

The tank men of the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were a broad mix of people of different backgrounds and skills: quiet doers, bon viveurs and eccentrics,  city dwellers and country folk, fresh-faced boys and hardened veterans. Statistically, not one of them had a chance of escaping unscathed through those long final months of war in north-west Europe.

Holland gives a particularly vivid account of D-Day, as the invasion force struggles to establish a beachhead. Bombers thunder overhead, there is the boom of warships opening fire and salvoes of shells tear the air apart with a sound like ripping calico. The swell is severe, the tidal currents strong, dense minefields provide a protective curtain and several tanks leave their landing craft only to end up at the bottom of the sea, taking their crews with them.

Still a baptism of fire awaited the Sherwood Rangers as they faced  their firat major battle in Normandy, against the Panzer-Lehr, one of the very best divisions in the entire German army. It was commanded by  a former Afrika Korps commander, Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, one of the few senior German commanders in the west with considerable experience of fighting the British.

The battles raged on. For infantry and armour alike, the close countryside of Normandy was incredibly dangerous: wide open fields with no cover, gentle slopes with wide views, woods and hedge-lined lanes. The fighting proved a horrible, brutal and attritional affair. It was difficult to advance successfully, when the defenders could always remain largely hiddden and when the attackers had to get up and advance in plain view.

A lot of what the Sherwood Rangers had learned in the vast spaces of North Africa was not really applicable here. Death and injury struck shattering blows. Everyone was utterly exhausted. But slowly the Allies prevailed. The British had a principle of no more retreats, as in the desert, because any territory taken, no matter how easily or hard fought for, should be held and not relinquished. To do so was a waste of young lives and spilled blood, not to mention time and resources. It was also incredibly bad for the morale of an army made up mostly of conscripts and men who would far rather be safe at home.

Holland barely misses a detail in an exhaustive account: the characters involved, the tanks in which they fought and died, the strategies, thoughts, background, scenes of carnage and devastation. The tanks attack orchard by orchard, hedgerow by hedgerow, wood by wood, field by field, farm by farm, hamlet by hamlet. They run over dead bodies. These stink appallingly and crawl with maggots.

The amount of information offered is tremendous and Holland’s souces include personal testimonies, unpublished material, museums and archives, offical histories and memoirs, film and so on. Presumably he is not extrapolating when he tells us, “Trooper Arthur Reddish was woken with a gentle dig in the ribs and handed a mug of hot, sweet tea and a bacon sandwich…. Anthony Cotterell was also waking, although for his breakfast in the early half-light he was given tinned pork stew, which he found a bit hard to stomach at that time of day… Cotterell clambered back into the tank, noticing as he did so a white rabbit appear… ”

Occasionally Holland repeats himself somewhat, adding to the great length, but it is an epic tale. The Normandy campaign ended on Aufust 19, 1944 and then it was on into Belgium and Holland. The first British troops entered Germany on September 21. In all the Sherwood Rangers lost 148 men killed and 299 wounded in the 11 months since D-Day, a tally that amounted to some 40 per cent of the entire regiment and 150 percent of the total serving in tanks at any one time. It was a hideously large number, Holland hammers home.

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