First Action

 

First Action

 

Having advanced overnight it was in the early morning of the 28th June that we found ourselves on the western edge of the village of Cheux at a hamlet called Le Haut du Bosq. D Company entered Cheux from the du Bosq end of the village. Cheux had been taken by the Cameronians 15th Scottish the previous day but they had now withdrawn, taking their 6-pounder Anti-Tank Guns with them before the DCLI 6-pounder Anti-Tank Guns could replace them. These were stuck somewhere in a massive traffic jam amidst the Artillery in the fields. We were digging in amongst the orchards and a lively battle commenced with enemy snipers, some of whom were strapped in the branches of the trees: mostly SS soldiers they were determined and exceptionally good infantry, standing and fighting it out until they were overrun.


I was with Major John Fry on the night of the 27th when suddenly four German Mark 4 Panzer tanks broke into the orchard and proceeded to machine gun and shell the Battalion area and D Company in particular, coming literally to a halt on top of the Battalion slit trenches . There was little I could do in an Artillery role at this juncture as there was no field of fire in the orchard and I only grabbed a 303 rifle and took the occasional pot shot. There were snipers strapping themselves to boughs of trees. I remember two German motor cyclists bursting into the area only to be shot immediately. Two of the Battalion’s 6-Pounder Anti-Tank Guns arrived and came into action at once. The German tanks edged forwards through the orchard and knocked out both Anti-Tank Guns, killing or wounding all the crews. The Infantry of the DCLI rose to the occasion wonderfully and, with their PIATs (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank), closed in on the rear of the tanks firing point blank.


One of them, which we hit three times, turned tail and fled. Sgt Hicks, the Battalion sniper sergeant, knocked out another by killing all the crew with a PIAT mortar and, within a number of hours, one of the tanks had overturned attempting to escape, another fell to one of the Infantry’s 6-pounder guns now brought up into action and burst into flames. Deprived of the protection of their tanks, the crews were now all disposed of by our infantry.


In half an hour, the first time in action, the DCLI 5th Battalion had lost 20 killed and a number wounded and knocked out five Mark 4 Panzer tanks manned by SS troops. It was, however, at the grave loss of their Commanding Officer, Colonel Atherton, who, seeing one of the two Anti-Tank gun crews knocked out, jumped into the gun-laying seat himself in an attempt to man the gun, when he was killed by machine gun fire from a tank.


This action at Cheux was my introduction to battlefield experience and not at all a pleasant one. In fact, I would say I was quite terrified and gripped the earth on occasions so hard that my fingernails were broken but somehow one saw it through and I personally was filled with admiration for the performance of the lads around me.


Throughout all this, of course, my own driver and my signaller were in the same “boat” and maintained wireless communication with our own Regimental Headquarters putting them in the picture. Fortunately, we had been able to leave my Carrier, Roger Fox, in a sunken lane and I was using a remote control to the Carrier while in the company of Major Fry in a slit trench.
The tank which burst in on us in the orchard and which did such damage, including killing Colonel Atherton, was one of four Mark 4 Panzer tanks which approached the village from the south and met head on a troop of our own 17-pounder Anti-Tank guns mounted on Covenanter chassis but with their guns facing rearwards. In fact, this leading tank did knock out all four of the Anti-Tank troop within a couple of minutes before coming into the orchard and playing havoc with us.


My memory of the next three or four days is one of being continually bombarded by mortars and enemy gunfire from the high ground of Carpiquet aerodrome at 4,500 yards. My recollection of the next week or so is vague but is one of a period of intense mortar fire with the awful shriek of the multi barrel Nebelwerfersi, as we called them, and our own artillery keeping up practically constant anti-mortar fire and counter-Battery fire, mostly determined and aimed by cross-reference of sound reports from we OPs. The opportunity for observed fire was very rare as the country was so close with sunken lanes, high hedges and orchards. The orchards and wooded areas were particularly hazardous because the mortar fire and shell fire from the enemy burst in the trees on impact and showered us with dreadful shrapnel.


I did do one observed shoot when leaving my Carrier and using the remote control cable Having crawled up through the hedgerow, I did manage to spot German tanks in a coppice about 500 yards from us and was able to bring down Regimental fire on them which saw them off with one on fire. During this period our Second in Command, Major Sir John Backhouse, was fatally wounded whilst reconnoitring forward gun positions for the next leap forward: he was hit in the head and, despite his steel helmet, died in our field hospital. Having lost Colonel Pethick, our Commanding Officer evacuated to England wounded, we now received a new Commanding Officer, Colonel Blacker, already the recipient of a DSO in the Western Desert and a member of a well known military family.


I had not yet seen him as I was with the DCLI constantly. We made our way to Colleville, a mile south of Cheux, not pleasant with the dreadful smell of animals bloated and killed by the gunfire and of our own casualties. A nasty shock to the system was to see a Troop Commander’s Carrier of the Scottish Division knocked out by enemy anti-tank fire with the driver literally truncated! All quite horrific and nerve shattering! Arriving in Colleville, I was able to use a very substantial stone outbuilding, a barn of sorts, as an OP and, knocking off a few tiles, I was able to see across several hundred yards to wooded territory. Seeing signs of enemy movement I did direct some fire, the results of which we had the satisfaction of seeing when we eventually moved through that area.


A forward patrol of the DCLI reported that Verson was presently being evacuated by the Germans and, accordingly, the Battalion, led by D Company, moved by night along the railway line from Colleville to Verson, with their boots swathed in any material available and no vehicles, to carry out a silent night occupation, if possible. I had my wireless set from the Carrier on a stretcher carried by two of my chaps and we moved on foot with D Company, eventually arriving in the darkness in the outskirts of Verson only to hear German voices on the far edge of the village.


We did move into the village and the Company Commander met the Mayor, an old soldier proudly wearing the Croix de Guerre of the First World War, who was full of information and assured us that the Germans had withdrawn from the village but were just on the outskirts going toward Fontaine Etoupefour. I made my way to the church although my Signaller, Slazinger, was superstitious and wouldn’t come in. Leaving the Carrier, which had by now come up with some of the vehicles of the DCLI, I took the remote control and went up the church tower. As daylight was breaking, by removing a tile or two, I managed to see quite a way toward the ruins of the Chateau de Fontaine, not yet visible in the dawn of light. Nevertheless, I did bring down fire just south of the village and had the satisfaction of knowing that it certainly encouraged the withdrawal of the Germans from Verson.