World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Donald B Walker 

War And Captivity 1944/45 Part One

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: 7962559 Trooper Walker D.B.
Location of story: Normandy - France and Germany - Stalag IV B
Unit name: 147 Regiment (Hampshires) R.A.C.
Background to story: Army

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Donald B Walker.

==================================================
The invasion of Europe was approaching and the tremendous build-up of our forces continued, mostly on the south of England. I was a 20-year-old driver/operator in a Churchill tank in the Hampshire Regiment. This meant that my main job was acting as the wireless operator, but I also had to load the main gun, which was a high velocity 6 pounder. In addition, I was trained to take over from the tank commander, gunner or driver if any of these crew members were injured or killed in action. Firing our guns caused a great build up of heat, fumes and incredible noise within the restricted confines of the inside of the tank. Now we were fully trained and anxiously waiting to take our part in the Invasion of Europe.

Early in April 1944, our tank brigade was moved from the Canterbury area in Kent to the Godalming area in Surrey. Here concrete roads and lay-byes had been specially laid for us so that our heavy tanks (40 tons) with metal tracks would cause as little damage as possible to the roads.

For the next three weeks, we worked very hard indeed, waterproofing out tanks to enable us to dis-embark from a tank landing slip in up to 8 feet of water. After this work was completed we had virtually nothing to do as due to the waterproofing, our tanks could only travel a very short distance without either overheating or damaging the seals. We were then informed that we were not to be used in the initial assault but remain as the 2nd. Army Reserve Tank Brigade.

“D-Day” (6th June 1944) arrived and we tried to play cricket on the village green in between listening to the radio, watching wave after wave of aircraft fly overhead and listen to the non-stop roar of convoys of lorries moving men and supplies down to the embarkation ports. Eventually, our tanks were loaded onto tank transporters and we were taken to Waterlooville to await embarkation. Here the German rocket bombs (V1) were passing overhead and were being attacked by our anti-aircraft guns.

Shrapnel from the exploding shells fell like rain and made innumerable holes in the tents we were living in. Fortunately, none of our tank crews were injured and the agony of waiting went on.

At last on “D” + 17 (23rd June 1944), we moved down to the port and embarked on the tank landing ships. We threw all our remaining English money to the children waiting to wave us off. The ships were American and we were amazed at the familiarity between their officers and the other ranks, their equipment and the abundance of food. It was a far cry from the austere conditions we were used to.
Due to the pitching and rolling of the flat bottomed ship on a decidedly choppy sea, coupled with the fear and tension we all felt for what lay ahead and finished off by the rich American food, we all became horribly seasick. Then the order came to man our tanks, start up and prepare for landing. We ran to our tanks on wobbly legs, wondering what lay ahead, but relieved to be doing something at last.

The ship anchored and still we waited despite the fact that we could unload in 8 feet of water. The air quickly became very foul with petrol fumes in the enclosed hull of the ship and a lot of us were sick yet again. It was a great relief when the huge doors of our ship opened and fresh air rushed in; we slowly rolled ashore – in 2 inches of water!

Military police guided us through a litter of smashed vehicles to lanes, which had been cleared through the minefields and marked with white tape. As soon as possible we pulled levers and switches to drop and blow off some of our waterproofing such as the extensions to air inlets and exhausts and to free our turrets for rotation. This allowed us to proceed more easily. The guns would be cleared later, if necessary by the first shots to be fired. Our guides took us a short distance from the beach and showed us into a field where we were told to remain for a while. Here we tragically suffered our first casualty when one of the drivers jumped off his tank with his Sten gun in his hand. The butt of the gun hit the ground, knocking off the safety catch, jarring the gun into action and shooting the poor man from hip to head. Our morale suffered another set back when we saw almost alongside us, some 15/16 Sherman tanks which had either burned out (“brewed up” in tank terminology) or resembled pepper pot tops with several shell holes, some of which had passed clean through the turrets. We were told that these tanks had surrounded a single Tiger tank and whilst their shots were bouncing off the Tiger, he systematically destroyed them before being knocked out himself at very close range. Fortunately, we did not have long to think about this gruesome sight, as we were set to cleaning away as much as possible of the remains of our waterproofing. Soon we were ordered to move on but told to carefully reverse out of the field on the tracks that had been made on entering, as it had not been properly cleared of mines!

We were moved forward to a position just behind our front line where, as the reserve tank brigade, we had to be ready to go into action at anytime wherever required. This standing, moving up, waiting and listening to the thunder of the artillery or the rattle of machine guns, only to be told we were not required at that time, lasted for two weeks. Nerves became somewhat on edge so it was almost with a sense of relief when we actually moved into the front line on Hill 112. Here we kept edging up to the crest of the hill, taking up a “hull down” position and firing at anything that moved in the German lines. A Tiger tank taunted us by parading slowly up and down, safe in the knowledge that as he was at least 1000 yards away, our shells would bounce off him like peas from a pea shooter; we needed to be within 400 yards to stand any chance at all of damaging a Tiger. One of our tanks recklessly pulled forward to turn and drive back instead of reversing back down and the Tiger, who must have been facing him, fired and destroyed our tank but fortunately, the crew escaped unhurt.

When we reversed off the hill, we had to re-fuel, replenish ammunition, service the tank, eat and sleep if possible – in that order. Incidentally, a Churchill tank could use up to four gallons of petrol per mile on rough cross-country journeys and had to be refuelled by the crew by hand from 4 gallon cans of petrol.

Suddenly on the evening of the 15th. July, we were withdrawn from Hill 112 and sent to Hill 113, where we lined up in battle formation. The infantry waiting to support us was a Regiment of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers who had already suffered heavy losses. They were split into two companies and allocated to our two outside Squadrons. My squadron took up the central position without infantry support. We were informed, inaccurately as it turned out, that there was little opposition to our front apart from battle weary German infantry.

At 2100 hours, the order came to attack and advance until we reached a village called Evrecy (now called Caen), which had virtually been reduced to a pile of rubble. There we were to dig in and wait until we were relieved. This was a bad time to commence an attack because as we crested the hill, we offered a perfect target to the Germans but could not see their Panther tanks and anti-tank guns in the woods at the bottom of the hill. I was to learn at a much later date that we lost 12 out of the 15 tanks in my squadron. My tank was hit simultaneously by a Panzer Faust (hand-held anti-tank rocker) in the front, killing the driver and co-driver, and a shell, which passed right through the turret, killing the gunner and the tank commander. As the tank became engulfed in flames, I shot out of the top of the turret like a cork exploding from a bottle. Shocked, but otherwise unscathed and not really knowing what I was doing, I must have staggered some yards away from the tank before dropping flat into corn which was about three feet high. Then the tank blew up, hurling the turret into the air. After all, it had contained 180 gallons of petrol, 80 rounds of 6 ponder shells, 35 boxes of machine gun ammunition, not to mention, 2 inch smoke bombs, hand grenades, Sten gun and pistol ammunition!. Within seconds, the other four crewmembers I had lived so very closely with for the last 18 months, together with my mobile home, had been completely destroyed. I was lying in a cornfield with shells, bullets and seemingly all hell let loose above my head – a traumatic experience for a 20 year old!

Eventually, I realised that the firing had virtually ceased and rose to my feet, only to find that I was surrounded by German infantry. I had my pistol in my hand and instantly shot the nearest German who was 5-6 feet away. No doubt, they were as shocked as I was and before they opened fire on me, I managed to drop down to safety in the corn once more. The next thing I knew was that I was being kicked by rather large German jackboots whose owners were yelling “Raust! Raust!” or words to that effect, which I assumed meant, “get up”. I was a prisoner – a further shock to my system. We often thought that we might be injured or even killed in battle but never taken prisoner. Crews of infantry tanks were rarely captured and I only met two others during my captivity – both members of my Squadron. Miraculously, I was still completely unscathed, apart from a few bruises and shock.

First, I was taken to a forward command post, which was a dugout underneath a German tank that had been knocked out in a previous action. Here, I was unsuccessfully questioned by the German Officer who spoke no English and I spoke no German. These front line troops treated me very well and I was given cold chicken to eat. A groundsheet was draped over my shoulders, as by this time, I was shivering somewhat, no doubt partly due to the cold night and partly due to shock. Next, I was given one end of a stretcher to carry, on which was a badly wounded German soldier. He groaned constantly as we stumbled back to their headquarters that turned out to be a farmhouse with a Panther tank standing in the farmyard.

After some minutes, I realised that the Germans were all chattering away to each other, no doubt about the battle or trying to snatch a few minutes sleep. No one appeared to be watching me, so I cautiously edged away towards a wall and an orchard that I could vaguely see in the gathering night. When I thought I was clear of my captors, I quickly ran round the wall and straight into the arms of more Germans. This rather poor attempt at escape did not please the Germans and after some discussion, they bound my hands behind my back and hobbled my legs so that I could only take very short steps. For good measure, I was then guarded by a soldier with a rifle and fixed bayonet!

The next day, I was moved again, still bound, further away from the front line and dumped in a small stone building which had previously housed chickens. Here my bonds were removed but I was still watched by an armed guard. Shortly, I was joined by a Canadian rear gunner who had baled out when his bomber had been shot down. He had already completed his tour of duty but had volunteered for one more raid which would complete the tour of duty for the rest of the crew and then they could all go on leave together. As far as he knew, he was the only survivor and, like me, was extremely depressed. We were then joined by the British anti-tank gunners who had been sent to support my tank regiment but instead, had finished behind the German lines where they were quickly surrounded and captured. To our horror, our captors were members of the renowned “S.S” but again, we were treated quite well.

A succession of visitors came to look at me, a young “Panzerman”, a star prisoner.
We were told by an English speaking guard that there would be nothing to eat until nightfall, but could drink as much as we liked. He said that the British Air Force shot up any vehicles that moved on the road during daylight, so food was only brought under cover of darkness. The drinks turned out to be rough French cider and you can imagine the results on our empty stomachs, as we sweltered away in our confined prison in the middle of July.

Eventually, we were taken out and lined up for inspection by an officer who was very displeased as we fell all over the place, drunk on cider. He, also, objected strongly to my groundsheet, claiming that I must have stolen it from a dead German soldier. Somehow, I managed to persuade him that that was rather difficult when riding in a tank, but that I had been given the groundsheet by my front line captors. Nevertheless, it was promptly confiscated.

After further interrogation, we were quickly transported to new quarters that were riding stables owned by the Aga-Khan; they were situated near Falaise. Here we joined by a large number of British prisoners including R.A.F. crews and some paratroopers, who had just been captured after dropping behind the German lines on D-Day! During the night, some of the R.A.F. who had been locked in a stable adjoining the road, apparently made a hole in the stable roof, dropped down to the road and made good their escape. This was not discovered until roll call in the morning and the Germans became incensed. A machine gun was set up in the yard and 40 of us were lined up to be shot unless someone disclosed the plans of the escaped prisoners. I thought this was to be the end , for, as far as I was aware, no-one else knew anything at all about the escape plan. At that point, a convoy of lorries arrived with orders to evacuate the camp as the allies were apparently advancing quickly. The German Commanding Officer decided not to shoot us and we were hastily herded into the lorries. We could actually hear small arms fire.

During the journey, we met a priest who was walking down the road. He stopped and blessed us and was promptly shot by one of our Germans.

We stopped at Alençon for a couple of nights and then our next stop was at Chartres where we were interrogated at length by an American speaking German. My answers displeased this gentleman and as a result I spent sometime in solitary confinement in complete darkness without food and with very little water. There were hundreds of Americans in the camp. Whole units appeared to have been captured from their commanding officers down to the G.I.s. The Germans were always trying to promote trouble between the British and the Americans. They offered a Red Cross food parcel and immediate transfer to better quarters for anyone who would complete a questionnaire disclosing full details of their unit, where and when they landed, where and when they were captured in addition to the usual rank, name and number. The British refused to complete these documents but most of the Americans did and were rewarded with the promised Red Cross parcels. They were then called out by rank, name and unit and lined up and taken away. We were amazed at the large numbers captured from individual units and very angry at the way they had disclosed information. Three days later, we were transported about 150 miles eastwards through Paris to Chalons. All these journeys were made in tightly packed lorries with 2 armed guards sitting at the rear of each lorry. Whenever an air raid took place, the guards jumped out and took shelter in the ditches, but kept us covered with machine guns whilst we sweated it out in the lorries.

Continued in Part Two:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A8248061


Pr-BR