The last year of the war in Northwest Europe was a bloody and protracted affair, especially if you were in an M4 Sherman tank at the cutting edge of the Allied advance. A Fine Night for Tanks, The Road to Falaise, by Ken Tout (originally published in 1998) takes an almost forensic look at Operation Totalize. In stark contrast, Tank Action by David Render with Stuart Tootal, An Armoured Troop Commander’s War 1944-45, recalls the very personal war experiences of a junior British tank officer.
A Fine Night for Tanks, The Road to Falaise
Ken Tout’s book is a detailed study of the various elements of the joint British and Canadian operation to break the German line south of Caen and ultimately help close the Falaise Gap. After a successful night attack using tanks and troops mounted in hastily converted M7 Priest self-propelled gun carriages, nicknamed Kangaroos, the operation stalled. Historically, Operational Totalize has generally been regarded as just another hammer blow against the 1st SS Panzer Corps. Preceding operations such as Epsom, Windsor and Charnwood were bloody battles of attrition costing thousands of men and hundreds tanks on both sides. However, the difference was the Germans could ill-afford such grievous losses while the Allies had a seemingly endless supply of replacements.
The Death of Wittmann
An interesting footnote to Operation Totalize was the death of German panzer ace, Michael Wittmann. An SS-Hauptsturmführer with the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, Wittmann is credited with around 135 tank kills. Although completely unknown to Allied troops during the war, Wittmann has become legendary, especially for his encounter with the British 7th Armoured Division at the Norman town of Villers-Bocage. The circumstances of Wittmann’s death during Operation Totalize have been much debated. Ken Tout tells how Trooper Joe Ekins, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, the gunner in a Sherman Firefly, caught Wittmann’s Tiger in the open and fired the fatal shot. I had the pleasure to meet Joe Ekins briefly at Tankfest a few years ago.
While being informative and easy to read, Ken Tout’s book does have a number of factual errors and typos, such as repeatedly referring to a Panther’s 88mm gun when it was armed with a 75mm.
Tank Action by David Render tells his very personal story of fighting across Northwest Europe from the D-Day beaches and infamous bocage countryside to Holland and finally into Germany. Render paints a vivid picture of life as a Troop Commander of an M4 Sherman tank with all its discomforts and many dangers. Render explains the many shortcomings of the standard M4 from its thin armour and high profile to its 75mm gun. The Sherman lacked the penetrating firepower of German 88mm anti-tank guns, Panzerfaust handheld anti-tank weapons and most types of panzer. However, probably the single most worrying feature of the Sherman was its terrifying propensity to burst into flames the moment it was hit. The Germans called the Sherman the “Tommy Cooker” while British tank crews renamed it the “Ronson” after a popular brand of cigarette lighter famed for its ability to light first time.
Two Weeks Life Expectancy
As well as the many deficiencies of British Army equipment, Render also describes the amazing comradeship, courage and ingenuity of officers and men fighting against a determined, well-armed enemy. As a junior officer, Render’s life expectancy was just two weeks once he went into the line. Over a year of almost constant action, Render would find that his mental and physical reserves quickly eroded. He freely admits that fear threatened to overwhelm him every time he was ordered to climb back into his Sherman and continue the advance.
War without End
The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry had seen extensive action in North Africa (1940-1943) prior to David Render joining them. Once in Normandy, he noticed that prolonged exposure to combat had made many of the desert veterans excessively cautious and unreliable. On the job training was the order of the day. He would have to learn his craft from bitter, hard won experience as he and his crew fought across Normandy, Belgium, Holland and into Germany. By war’s end, the Sherwood Rangers would have earned 30 battle honours, 78 gallantry awards at the cost of 827 casualties killed, wounded and missing. However, for many of the veterans the war would never be over. At aged 90, and with a successful business career behind him, David Render remains haunted by the loss of many comrades, and one in particular. His great friend, Harry Heenan, killed in a freak accident just after saving David’s life during an engagement with a concealed 88mm anti-tank gun.
David Render’s book is a very personal, first-hand account of the tank war in Northwest Europe. In Render’s world, soldiers seldom knew what was happening in the next field or hedgerow. They knew nothing of the strategic decisions being made by Allied high commanders like Eisenhower, Montgomery or General Brian Horrocks. Instead, they focused on keeping their tanks ready for the next day’s action. They worried about being caught in a burning tank as it “brewed up”. They foraged for extra food to supplement their meagre rations. They struggled against fatigue, fear, and the terrible odds against any of them making it through alive. Sadly, David Render recently died aged 92.