|Extract of Personal letter from Lt Col RN Wilson (former 2i/c) to Lt Col Liardet.
Now for my news. Well, as you must already know we came over to Italy with the Americans. Before we left N Africa – that awful place called Homs – we did an enormous amount of training for close country, and studied bits of Italy etc, etc. we also did our Combined Ops training there, and we never let up for a minute.
It was all very interesting as we were really working on what the 4th Armd Bde had found out in Sicily and passed on to us. Also a lot of theory stuff worked out with our Infantry Bde in the Div. Of course, it was nothing but improvisation type of training – the same as usual, and we could not use the Shermans, B vehicles or anything at all. So it was all TEWTs, discussions and lectures. Still, it did work when we tried it out here, which was lucky.
We actually came ahead of Bde, and were with the Infantry Bde for a week before they landed. We had a marvellous trip over in LSTs, which are a wonderful invention and very comfortable as long as it is a smooth sea. They roll like anything.
We got into five of them. No.1 had my half of RHQ (two tanks, my Dingo, IOs Dingo and two sections of Recce), one sqn tanks, A Echelon (Sqn), Troop of 25pdrs, Troop AA. N0.2 had the same, with the other half of RHQ under the 2i/c, a Sqn and all the rest the same. N0.3 had one sqn, section of Recce, it’s A Echelon, part of B Echelon. No.4 a mixture of B & C Echelon. No.5 the remaining part of C Echelon. We actually landed No.1 and 2 on the first day, and the rest about 20 hours later.
It is essential in Combined Ops I’m sure, that RHQ is split, Sqns are kept together and are self contained, with their own section of three, Sqn Leaders Dingo and it’s own A Echelon of fitters, ammunition and petrol.
The first two Sqns must have their own troop of guns, the reserve Sqn doesn’t need any. The great thing is that each Sqn must be able and prepared to go straight into action on beaching.
We found it very easy to load onto the LSTs and very quick. And, likewise, the disembarkation on the beach in Italy (place a secret, but I am sure obvious!) presented no difficulties and was very quick. Although done after midnight with not an awful lot of moon, it went like clockwork.
We were heavily attacked from the air at last light when still at sea, the only damage being to my staff car, which was on the top deck of the LST – nothing serious, only punctured a water can and holing the bodywork! Luckily, they didn’t shell us on landing, and no bombers came over. The first few days was a bit on the hectic side, as you can imagine, but we really had little to do, until the Bridgehead was made secure by getting dominating high ground – we couldn’t get there.
Our job then started and we were virtually turned into ‘I’ tanks and I had Sqns under comd Infantry Bns, which we all hate like poison. However, the drill we had worked out in Africa proved itself, and the Forward Body (or combination of Point and Vanguard within the Advance Guard) and the whole, consisting of one Sqn tanks, Sec Recce, Infantry Coy, and if possible a Bty or at least a troop, also some RE’s all under the command of the tank Sqn Leader, proved itself.
It is certainly a good basis to start on, and according to the country, whether open or close, to vary it. In really close country where it is hard to get off the road and one can see nothing (and I mean not more than 80 to 100 yards) then the correct ratio is one Troop of three tanks to one Coy of Infantry and working in support of the Infantry who move in front of and to about 200 to 300 yards to each flank of the tank troop, who if on the road work as a Snake Patrol, if across country as the old Point, Comd and Reserve. I am convinced that in this type of country tanks should always have Infantry under command, and it is pure murder and stupid to make tanks go in without Infantry.
The days of the Motor Bn, until they get the new Home WE, is finished, they are, as we’ve always said, too thin on the ground and cluttered up with a lot of very unnecessary transport which takes up too much road space. Lorried Infantry are the only thing, but they must be prepared to get onto their feet and act as scouts for the tanks who are completely blind in this type of close and difficult country, full of ditches, bog and every type of known obstacle both artificial and natural.
Infantry commanders want to try and posses a tank mind, which they haven’t got at the moment. They seem willing to lose a tank instead if one infantryman in many cases. They get very angry when you tell them, and I think it’s a wonder that I am still here! So don’t be surprised if you here I’ve had a Fowler!
Actually, in the first party with the Lorried Infantry Bde, it all went very well and we got everything we set out to get fairly quickly and with very little loss. I only lost 4 tanks – two brewed up by SP guns, one immobilised by an SP but repairable, and one on a mine which blew one complete assembly off and broke the track. It was on the road again within six hours and in the front line without the assembly, and was fully repaired later. I lost two carriers and a Dingo as well. Since then I’ve only had two tank casualties, both on mines and not badly damaged, and four carriers and three Dingos. As regards personnel, we’ve had had three killed (all ORs), four officers and about six ORs wounded. So we can’t grumble.
We did one advance without any Infantry and over very close country and difficult going, getting a Sqn up a mountain – rather like, and worse than, the place on the TEWT on the Turkish Border we did – under enemy fire and observation, and taking another high feature as well. It meant the whole way being recced on foot by Recce Troop and tank crews armed with Tommy guns, owing to bog, A/Tk obstacles, mines galore (we had no RE’s) craters in the road and bridges blown. Why one is not given Infantry or even a Motor Pl I can’t understand.
When it was all over I put in a report to the effect that both a tank and its crew were presumably more valuable than an Infantry soldier, and that if none could be given to me, I proposed that the WE of an Armd Regt be amended and the following added.
Three White scout cars, each with a crew of 1 NCO and 6 men armed with Tommy guns and trained in mine lifting with a detector, and in demolitions. The car itself to have a 20mm dual purpose gun with crew. Each crew to be a kind on ‘combat team’ and to be put under command of the leading Sqns as the CO thinks fit. They are then kept at Sqn HQ until needed. They then do any recce that is required on foot. I’ve only just sent the report in, as the operation is only over a few days, and so far have not heard any comments.
All the tanks which have been lost through A/Tk guns have been due to very well sited and camouflaged 105 SP guns (only a very few 88’s have been met) which have opened up at between 80 and 120 yards. They were quite impossible to see. It is vital to have Infantry working in front of the tanks. We’ve been lucky in this respect and haven’t lost so many tanks as the other Bns so far.
The Recce Troop is even more important than we ever thought. Information just doesn’t come over the Rear Link as we were used to getting it in the desert, and very little – in fact nothing – comes from the Armd Cars, who just can’t operate except very, very occasionally on a flank.
So, the only information a CO can get is from his own Recce Troop. It means the standard has to be very high indeed. It’s essential for every vehicle in the Troop to have a wireless set and the usual training we always talked about. It is so important that I have got a Captain commanding it and three Lts in it as section commanders, and full of good Sgts, L/Sgts and Cpls.
I have it organised with an HQ of 1 Dingo and 1 carrier. One carrier Troop of 3 sections of 3 carriers in each, and 1 Dingo Troop and three sections each of 3 Dingos.
Then four Dingos on RHQ – CO, 2i/c, RIO, and IM (LO shares 2i/c).
Each Sqn Leader has a Dingo and it is vital for him to have it at all times.
I am supposed to be getting the new WE of 10 sawn-off Honeys and 5 Dingos in the Intercom Troop which I think will be better.
The .5 AA gun on the Sherman is quite useless as we never see any enemy air, and I’ve given nearly all of them to my Recce and to the Motor Coy (both love them and have used them a great deal with marked success; the Germans do not like them.) The wireless is most tricky in this country. It has been found that in some districts one can’t get over a mile. It’s dreadful at night and everyone is sending out Step-ups all the time.
One lives a peculiar type of life which is really from one farmhouse to the next, each being dirtier and having more fleas, bed bugs and every kind of crawling creature there is. One is forced into them for cover from the rain, mud and damn chill wind at night. We have been lucky once or twice and had nice houses, but they are not easy to come by. The local inhabitants are just ghastly, dirty and generally on a par with the ‘Wog’. There is plenty of food about and every known type of fruit and vegetable by the thousand. I’ve even had oysters and a type of mackerel.
The big snag is that all the roads, except for the main ones which one doesn’t see a lot of, are dust roads, large clouds of thin powdery white dust goes up whenever a vehicle moves. It makes it very hard to move up any tanks without giving ones position away, so we’ve fitted dust shields at the back, blocked on each side and curved up towards heaven. It is fitted immediately below the two exhaust pipes (we have all diesel Shermans).
It takes the LAD and fitters very little time to carry out, but must be made from strong metal or sheeting and made as a permanent fixture. It definitely stops 80% of the dust.
We were sent over with the most stupid light camouflage which was quite useless and just showed us up to everyone. I’ve now managed to get all my tanks and recce done with black and dark green, and it’s just the answer. I only hope I can get enough paint for the transport.
I’m sure in this type of warfare that each Sqn must have it’s a Echelon , only a small one, with it at all times, especially when Sqns are separated by many miles with few lateral roads between them which usually haven’t been cleared of mines or blows in the road repaired. It also ensures crews getting the maximum of sleep.
Road congestion is dreadful at times, and unit Provost on traffic control is essential. Plenty of Bn signs are needed, particularly Bn Tac HQ signs. Don’t forget that colours we used in the desert are no good and can’t be seen, white, black and yellow are best. Red must be very brilliant to be of real use, I don’t know why, and of course it tends to fade quickly with the rain and continually being moved about.
To be camouflage minded is essential, they are very bad out here even in view of the enemy. OPs can see little, even from the top floors of high houses. The Air OP is essential and invaluable we have found. DRs with RHQ are also invaluable.
As regards fitters, we find they must travel with their Sqns, the BTA floating. EME travels right up and has with him his two Scammels. There are always the road-ditched tank and carrier owing to the nature of the country. One doesn’t need anything like the amount of petrol or diesel out here that one has been used to, but ammunition remains the same. Recce vehicles, however, still require plenty of MT. I find it necessary to have a kind of Depot Vehicle for DRs and Recce Troop and Provost on Motor Cycles, kit and rations. This is combined on a lorry for the Provost plus all the signs. It goes in A Echelon, if Bde don’t see it!