An eyewitness account of the Normandy landings, France, 1944

An eyewitness account of Allied assault on Normandy - Operation Neptune, the largest seaborne invasion in history. David Render was a young lieutenant shares his experience.

British reenforcement land on 'Gold Beach' for the big push into the Normandy town of Caen

David Render was a young lieutenant during the Allied assault on Normandy – Operation Neptune, the largest seaborne invasion in history, which began on 6 June 1944: D-Day. Early that morning, infantry and armoured divisions landed at five beachheads codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Facing adverse weather, daunting defences and heavy gunfire, progress on the first days of the invasion was slow and losses heavy; on Omaha alone, Allied forces suffered an estimated 3,686 casualties. But over the following weeks the Allies consolidated their hold on Normandy, from where the liberation of German-occupied western Europe was launched.

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My passage to the D-Day beaches came about by accident. As a 19-year-old newly commissioned second lieutenant fresh out of Sandhurst, I was sent from my holding unit for young Royal Armoured Corps officers to oversee the loading of 16 Cromwell tanks onto a ship in Portsmouth harbour. Although it had begun two days previously, I knew nothing of the invasion and had no idea that the ship I was working on was bound for Normandy. Having supervised the securing of tanks in the hold, I approached one of the crew to enquire about getting off the ship – and was somewhat surprised when he told me that we had put to sea. I was even more surprised when he told me that we were heading to Normandy to take part in the invasion.

The break of dawn on D-Day +4 brought us within sight of the French coast. As we began our run into the beaches, on either side of us mighty battleships pounded the shoreline. Little attention was paid to the bodies that floated face down in the sea as we made landfall and began dispatching the tanks into the surf. The first Cromwell off the ship’s ramp immediately turned turtle and sank below the waves, taking its two crewmen to a watery grave. The remaining tanks were landed without mishap, but witnessing such loss of life in those first few moments had a profound impact on me at a time when I was still wondering what an earth I was doing in Normandy.

I spent the next day and night on my own, and narrowly escaped being killed by German and RAF fighters shooting each other up over the beaches. Then I was spotted by an army dispatch rider and, unbeknown to me, became an impromptu battlefield casualty replacement. Speaking only to ask me my name, the rider ordered me on the back of his motorbike and we shot off towards the front line, where the British Second Army had already begun its advance inland. A few miles later we arrived at a tank unit based in an orchard, where its Sherman tanks had leaguered for the night. Told to report to one of the squadron commanders, it was only then I learned that I had arrived at the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry (A Squadron), and was to take command of a troop of three Shermans, leading them into battle the next day.

As I later found out, the original commander of A Squadron’s 5 Troop had been killed by a sniper. My arrival as his replacement was not met with a welcoming response by the men he had commanded. They were all considerably older than me, tough desert veterans who had fought with the regiment through the north African campaign. They had no inclination to get to know me or support me; the average life expectancy of a new tank troop commander in Normandy was less than two weeks, and they didn’t expect me to survive.

The troops had been taken by surprise by the terrain – the close-knit fields and high-banked hedgerows of the Norman bocage. The Germans had already used their superior tanks to inflict heavy casualties on the more lightly armoured and under-gunned Allied variants. The 88mm gun of a German Tiger or 75mm armament of a Panther panzer could slice through a Sherman tank like butter at 2,500 yards, while we had to get to almost point-blank range to have a chance of destroying one of their tanks. It was a disturbing fact that bred concern among the men. Conscious that I lacked experience, I knew I would only earn their respect if I could show that I was not afraid, and I did that by always leading from the front.

Fortunately, we had an exceptional squadron leader, Major John Semken. Though only 23, he was a deep thinker. He taught us how to use our greater numbers of tanks, and to use the bocage to our advantage. Semken knew that, though it was under-gunned and lacked adequate protection, the Sherman’s greater mobility and faster rate of fire could give it an edge over German tanks. He intended to exploit this by using the ground as cover and smothering every enemy tank with a combined weight of fire from as many of our Shermans as possible. In Major Semken’s words, the key was to “never hesitate”, but to “fire first” and “keep firing”. Very shortly after I arrived in the regiment we put these principles into action in my first major engagement, which included the defeat and capture of the first German Tiger tank as a well as several panzers.

This engagement, Operation Epsom, launched on 25 June and was designed to drive the Allied advance deep into German lines and force the enemy into a set-piece battle. The Sherwood Rangers’ role was to capture the villages of Fontenay and Rauray, assisting British forces in their push to capture the strategically important city of Caen. We knew little of the overall operational plan, but had been told that we would face the fanatical former Hitler Youth soldiers of the German 12th SS Panzer Division.

Shells screamed through the air overhead in a solid wall of sound, landing unseen in the retreating darkness

It was still dark and raining hard as we readied our tanks after a few fitful hours of sleep. I looked at my watch: 0200 hours – time to go. The horizon was lit up by hundreds of British artillery pieces. The noise was terrific, as shells screamed through the air overhead in a solid wall of sound, landing unseen in the retreating darkness 1,000 yards ahead. As the artillery lifted, it was our turn to advance with our infantry, and the German machine guns opened up. Their bullets rattled harmlessly off our sides like jack-hammers, but wreaked havoc on the soldiers of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, killing many and forcing the remainder to go to ground, leaving us to advance on our own. We blasted every hedgerow with our own machine guns and high-explosive rounds to clear any cover that could be used by enemy machine-gun teams and anti-tank gunners, cutting down any German soldier who tried to make a run for it as we drove deeper into their defensive positions.

The ear-splitting whine and crack of a high-velocity armour-piercing round heralded our first engagement with enemy panzers. A Panther tank broke from our right and I shouted fire-control orders to my gunner. Our first round missed and I cursed as I adjusted the shot, but shells from the other tanks were hitting it and soon we also found our mark. The enemy tank lurched to a halt under a crescendo of fire and began to belch thick black smoke. The surviving crew members began to bail out of their stricken vehicle, and we machine-gunned them before they could escape.

A Tiger tank appeared and was dealt with by a Sherman Firefly tank equipped with a heavier 17-pounder gun, which Semken had brought up for the purpose. We engaged more Panthers and the less-well-armoured German Panzer Mark IV tanks in a frenzy of firing, loading and moving. By the end of the engagement A Squadron had destroyed 13 enemy tanks with no loss of any Shermans: Semken’s principles had won the day. My troop performed well and played its part, while I had earned my spurs and won the respect of my men.

I led 5 Troop for another 11 months of bloody fighting, culminating in the final drive into the heart of Germany at the end of the war. Although we won every engagement, those victories did not come without cost. Two of my tanks were destroyed and, though I survived, others did not. By the time victory in Europe was declared in May 1945, the Sherwood Rangers had lost 440 men out of an established unit strength of just over 600.

Captain David Render was a tank commander during the Second World War. He is co-author with Stuart Tootal of Tank Action: An Armoured Troop Commander’s War 1944–45 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016)

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This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017