The Sherwood Rangers' road to victory
From the Sahara to Europe’s frozen borderlands, the Sherwood Rangers were at the very heart of the fight against Nazi Germany. James Holland recounts this regiment’s extraordinary road to victory
A little after 6am on 18 November 1944, Operation Clipper – the battle to smash wide open the defences in the German border town of Geilenkirchen – erupted in a blaze of fire and fury. The plan was for four flail tanks, with their rotating chains, to clear two lanes through the minefields and for the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry – a British armoured regiment in the vanguard of the Allied assault on Germany – to follow and clear the bunkers. American infantry, only arrived in Europe in October and never before tested in combat, would then pour through and, together with the British armour, further clear the Siegfried Line, the enormous defensive network that guarded Germany’s western border.
Allied artillery was already thundering, sending over a heavy barrage, while searchlights had been brought in to help light the way, a double-edged sword if ever there was one. Conditions were appalling: the freezing cold, the dark, the rain – which inevitably worked its way into the tank because the hatches were open. Periscopes were ineffective at the best of times but especially when streaked with rain, which meant Major John Semken, the squadron commander, had his head out of the turret of his Sherman tank, and so did Johnny West, his driver.
The first flail tank to approach the minefield broke down in the mud before it had even started. Soon after, a second flail became bogged in the mud. This meant a path that was supposed to be four tanks wide was now two. Then a third flail became stuck and then the fourth, some 50 yards short of a railway line that lay ahead.
Semken, who was leading A-Squadron, had to reverse or push on regardless through the uncleared mines. He now radioed all of A-Squadron, 19 tanks in all. They had a job to do: to get through the minefield and help the infantry. He was going to push on. If they hit a mine, then the next tank was to take over and so on, until they were across the railway and the minefield.
James Holland will be talking about One Legendary Tank Regiment's Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day in a virtual HistoryExtra LIVE event on Thursday 11 October, at 7pm GMT.
Everyone in Semken’s tank was tense as they inched forward through the mud, waiting for the explosion that would surely come. Ten yards gone, then another. Small-arms tracer stabbing through the dark, clattering around the tank. Then a massive staccato explosion that lifted the tank in the air and whammed it back down into the mud. Semken: was everyone all right? Yes. All answered. Incredibly, they had just detonated four mines simultaneously and survived. The Sherman, its tracks and wheels shattered, now lay in a big crater of mud.
The rest of A-Squadron pressed on, crossed the railway and made surprisingly good progress along with the rookie American infantry. Despite the mire and carnage, Operation Clipper was a success, the Geilenkirchen salient reduced and the line straightened with more room for the Americans now to manoeuvre.
Yet such success had come at a price. By the time the Sherwood Rangers were withdrawn six days later, 10 tanks had been destroyed, 15 damaged, and a further 12 lost forever in the mud.
The human cost for the Sherwood Rangers was worse still: 63 casualties in all, including 16 killed in action and a further three who would later die of their wounds. That made 326 casualties since D-Day, which was comfortably more than 100 per cent of the regiment’s tank crews at any one time.
“Everybody was going through the motions,” wrote Peter Mellowes, an A-Squadron troop commander, “of living, fighting and waiting for their time to die.” A further casualty was John Semken who, despite being back in a tank and commanding the squadron by 19 November, was soon sent home. “That was my last battle,” he said of Geilenkirchen. “I lost my touch after that... After that, I was finished. And I was invalided home.” He’d served throughout the north Africa campaign, and had then fought across western Europe since D-Day. He was just 23.
Hard yards of fighting
A huge amount was expected of the mostly young men who found themselves at the coal-face of war. Britain – and the United States – had a very sensible strategy of using their immense global reach, access to resources, industrialisation and technology to do as much of the hard yards of fighting as possible and to limit the numbers of men in the firing line.
On the ground, there were no longer massed divisions of infantry, but those that did take the field were superbly well supported by a long logistical chain. That’s why 43 per cent of the personnel manning the British Second Army in north-west Europe were service troops running the long tail, while just 14 per cent were infantry. A consequence of this approach was that if a soldier was unfortunate enough to be in the infantry or tanks, his chances of surviving unscathed were worse than they had been in the First World War.
The Sherwood Rangers ended the war with more battle honours than any other unit in the British Army, which was no small feat, having been a prewar territorial part-time cavalry outfit that had headed off to Palestine in early 1940 still with their horses. They became mechanised in the autumn of 1941, with their first tank action at the battle of Alam Halfa at the end of August that year. They then played a key role at Alamein and from then were at the forefront of the fighting until the north African campaign was over in May 1943.
They were a somewhat eccentric bunch, initially mostly country folk from Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, but later expanded by a rich seam of characters drawn from all walks. Stanley Christopherson, for example, who joined the Sherwood Rangers in 1939 and rose to take command of the regiment soon after D-Day, had worked in goldmines in South Africa and then the City before the war; John Semken was a Londoner and planned to become a lawyer.
The Sherwood Rangers had poets, printers and plasterers among their number. Men like Christopherson and Semken, who might never have worn a military uniform had it not been for the conflict, soon realised that war was a seriously bloody business and that the better they became, the greater their chances of survival. That, however, was only true to a point, because the more proficient they became in north Africa, so they were marked out as a class outfit good for greater things. By D-Day, on 6 June 1944, they were one of three tank regiments in 8th Independent Armoured Brigade, which meant they would be in the firing line, operating hand-in-hand with the infantry divisions to which they were attached.
Listen: Military historian, author and broadcaster James Holland tells the story of the Sherwood Rangers, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Flush with weaponry
The Sherwood Rangers landed on Gold Beach on D-Day, successfully moved inland, helped capture the city of Bayeux on 7 June, and then the following day pushed further south, taking a key piece of high ground, Point 103, which overlooked the river Seulles valley and the villages of Tilly, St Pierre and Fontenay. There they met the Panzer Lehr, possibly the most experienced panzer division in the west at that time, and the 12th SS-Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend”, both still flush with men and weaponry.
On 11 June, tragedy struck when regimental headquarters, a farmhouse in St Pierre, received a direct hit, with the commanding officer among those killed. Taking over command was Stanley Christopherson, who immediately imposed a firm but more open style of leadership that allowed for tactical flexibility.
The Sherwood Rangers were operating in terrain that was unfamiliar and for which they had little training. What’s more, they were fighting alongside infantry that was entirely new to combat and over whom they had absolutely no control.
This flexible approach to tactics was embraced by the squadron leaders and not least John Semken, who, like Christopherson, had realised that the battlefront was no place for complacency.
One of the principles Semken rammed home to all his crews was the need to fire first and keep firing. The Sherman might have thinner armour than a German Panther or Tiger, but its 75mm main gun was incredibly quick-firing for a tank. “It was absolutely vital that you shoot the first time you see any sort of target,” said Semken. “Shoot, shoot and keep shooting, because it may not do him any damage but it will discourage him.”
Semken also decided to incorporate the squadron’s four Fireflies – Shermans fitted with a high-velocity 17-pounder anti-tank gun – into the Sherman troops. Instead of five troops of three, he made the change to four troops of four, with one Firefly in each. The idea was to use the Shermans to pummel a target and for the Firefly to deliver the killer shot.
Despite rapidly evolving tactics, communication with the infantry remained an ongoing problem, while the No 19 radio set in the tanks was never as reliable as needed. A tank commander had to have his head out of the turret or else he was effectively blind. He had to communicate with his crew on the intercom and listen to the squadron radio net all the time.
Timeline: The Sherwood Rangers’ remarkable campaigns12 January 1940 The Sherwood Rangers leave England for Palestine with their horses
July 1940 The regiment loses its horses and retrains as artillery
April–July 1941 Half the regiment is deployed as gunners during the successful defence of Tobruk. The other half is involved in the battle for Crete
August 1941 The Rangers’ training begins as an armoured regiment
31 August 1942 The regiment experiences combat in tanks for the first time at the battle of Alam Halfa in Egypt
May 1943 The north African campaign ends in Allied victory
December 1943 The Rangers return to the UK to train for D-Day
6 June 1944 D-Day sees the regiment landing on Gold Beach as a spearhead of the invasion of Europe
10–12 September 1944 The Rangers help British forces seize the Belgian city of Gheel following a bloody battle
17-25 September 1944 The regiment participates in Operation Market Garden, the failed attempt to establish a bridgehead in Germany
18–23 November 1944 Rangers tanks lead the assault on the German town of Geilenkirchen
January–March 1945 The Rangers play a prominent role in Operation Blackcock and Operation Veritable as Allied forces forge east
26 March 1945 Sherwood Rangers cross the Rhine in Operation Plunder
5 May 1945 The war ends for the Sherwood Rangers. During the course of the conflict it has won 10 battle honours in north Africa and 18 in the 11 months from D-Day to VE Day
Life and death decisions
In Normandy it was summer time, so the days were long. After being pulled back from the fighting for the night, there was refuelling, rearming and briefings to attend. It was rare to get one’s head down before midnight and then they would be up again just a few hours later. It was physically and mentally draining. Troop leaders faced even more responsibility and squadron leaders yet more. There was just so much to think about, so much danger to face. Every decision made might be a matter of life and death. John Semken was so utterly exhausted when first pulled out of the line on 13 June that he slept 12 hours straight through despite artillery firing just a few hundred yards away.
As the months rolled on, new challenges presented themselves. Shorter days arrived, but came with a dramatic fall in temperatures and rain, then snow and frost, and then rain again. Geilenkirchen nearly sank in the treacle of mud. Operation Blackcock, which aimed to straighten a salient near the river Roer on the German border in January 1945, was conducted in snow and freezing temperatures. Operation Veritable, the advance to the Rhine, was fought through flooded land and the smashed, bombed-out towns of Cleve and Goch. No sooner were the crews on top of one landscape and set of conditions than they faced another.
It was relentless and the cost was appalling. An armoured regiment had around 700 men, of which 400 were support troops in the supply echelons and around 300 were actually in tanks in the three sabre squadrons – A, B and C – and the recce troop. Between D-Day and VE Day, the Sherwood Rangers lost 148 men killed and 299 wounded, a tally that amounted to 61 per cent of the entire regiment and 142 per cent of the total serving in tanks at any one time. Statistically, the chances of tank crews getting through unscathed were close to zero.
Artillery and mortar fire, mines, panzerfaust strikes, machine guns, snipers, enemy tanks – danger lurked at every turn. Each tank was hit at some point, and whether those in the tank got out without injury, were hit as they escaped, or incinerated, was largely a matter of chance. Inevitably, it soon began to prey on the men’s minds. Ernie Leppard, an operator-loader, had to help pull out a fellow operator from the tank in front after it was hit in the final weeks of the war. The man had lost both his legs, while the others were shattered, dead and splayed about the turret. Leppard had joined the previous October. “And at that point,” he said, “I’d lost my nerve. I’d been all right up to then, but getting them out...”
A sleigh and a tank
Somehow, however, the Sherwood Rangers kept going, right until the very end, and never seemed to lose their innate humanity, either. The doors continued to revolve as men came and went but some, like Stanley Christopherson, battled on. In the snow and ice of Christmas 1944, he arranged for the men to lay on gifts for the local children in the Dutch border town of Schinnen. One of the officers dressed up as Father Christmas and a sleigh was found and towed by a tank. The men had saved up their sweet and chocolate rations, so these were then distributed. In February 1945, Christopherson noted spotting his first snowdrop.
They ended their war on the morning of 5 May 1945 at the small village of Karlshöfen between Bremen and Hamburg, as German forces surrendered to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Theirs had been an extraordinary journey and their achievements enormous.
The Sherwood Rangers were just one regiment, but their story can be seen as representative of almost any frontline Allied armoured unit serving in the final 11 months of the war in Europe. What they suffered and yet achieved remains truly awe-inspiring.
Fire engines: Three tanks that powered the Rangers’ advance on Germany
THE M4 SHERMAN, HIGHLY EFFECTIVE ON THE MOVESome 49,000 Shermans were built in the United States, and numbers most definitely counted. It had a quick-firing main gun, two machine guns and, uniquely in the war, a gun stabilising gyro, which made it very effective on the move.
Highly manoeuvrable, the Sherman was easy to maintain and reliable. It had many advantages despite thinner armour and a less powerful gun than the German Panther or Tiger. Its gun could still prove highly effective in the close ranges of north-west Europe: Sergeant George Dring’s crew, for example, knocked out two Panthers, one Tiger and two Panzer IVs on 26 June 1944 – all with their 75mm main gun.
THE M3 AND M5, STUART A “HONEY OF A TANK”This light 16.5-tonne tank was also built in large numbers – 22,700 in all – and was fast and manoeuvrable. Although thinly armoured and equipped with only a 37mm main gun and machine gun, it was widely used for reconnaissance, the role for which the Sherwood Rangers employed it.
Although officially called the “Stuart” by the British, most British and Commonwealth troops knew it as the “Honey”. This was because when it was first issued to British troops in north Africa, it was called a “honey of a tank” because it was so sweet to drive.
THE FIREFLY, THE REGIMENT’S KILLER SHOTThis was a Sherman adapted by the British to house the 17-pounder anti-tank gun, a weapon that exceeded even the German 88mm in terms of velocity. When armour-piercing discarding sabot (APDS) rounds were introduced in August 1944, the 17-pounder could fire them at a staggering 4,000 feet per second, compared with around 2,900 for the 88mm. The barrel was too long for the body of the tank and the gun fired with a very bright muzzle flash – two disadvantages – but it certainly packed a punch and the crews soon learned how to use them effectively.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is 'Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day' (September 2021)