How Close Would German and British Tanks Get in World War Two?

History Hit Podcast with Captain David Render

Twentieth Century World War Two
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This article is an edited transcript of Tank Commander with Captain David Render on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The first German tank I saw was a Tiger.

It was just the other side of a hedge going down from where we were. He just passed us, and then somebody else caught him up later on.

One of the other problems was you realised there were only 167 Tigers in Normandy, of which, incidentally, only 3 got back to Germany. But most of the tanks were either Mark Fours or Panthers, and the Panther and the Tiger were totally invulnerable to us.

The crew of a Sherman tank named ‘Akilla’ of 1st Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, 8th Armoured Brigade, after having destroyed five German tanks in a day, Rauray, Normandy, 30 June 1944.

I have actually shot at a German Panther from less than 100 m, and it has just bounced straight off.

Speaking to the Germans

Sometimes they would be very close to us. There was an occasion, for instance, when we were very close to the Germans and suddenly, over the air, came this voice. Their radio linked in onto our net.

This German calls out, “You English schweinhund. We’re coming to get you!” Larking about, I called down the thing, “Oh, good. If you’re coming over, will you hurry up because I’ve got the kettle on?”

He got in a great rage about that because they could speak perfect English. We took the Mickey on things like that.

Clear view of the Tiger I’s Schachtellaufwerk overlapping and interleaved road wheels during production. Content: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

For instance, we never wore a tin hat. We once wore berets. We didn’t have body armour or anything. You would just stick your head out at the top of the tank.

That’s why we had so many casualties. In the job I was doing as the crew commander, the average life expectancy was a fortnight. That’s all they gave you as a lieutenant.

This is probably a point about that medal I have. What about all those chaps who were killed, and they didn’t get a medal because they were dead? You only get that if you were alive.

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Helping each other

I can’t help thinking about that, because as troop leaders, particularly, we used to help one another. If you were another troop leader, you would not hesitate to help me out if I was in trouble – in the same way that I did with you.

Unfortunately, one of my friends did just that. He was talking on the air and, suddenly, he stopped talking. He dropped his STEN gun, and it went off on its own.

He had just shot up a huge big anti-tank the Germans had, an ’88, which was firing at me at Nijmegen. It had 20 men round it, and they were loading it up and firing at me.

I would have been a dead duck. It hit me, and I was blinded for about 20 minutes. Then I found I could see so I was all right, but it was very, very dicey.

He came along and shot through the trees. He shot it up and stopped it.

Tiger I tank in the north of France. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

As he was telling me what he had done – because I didn’t realise why it had stopped – he said, “Well, how about that Dave? You feel better now.”

I said, “Yeah, alright, Harry. Well, see you tonight when we’ll have a chat.” We used to drink rum or something, or a cup of tea.

He was talking to me, and he dropped his STEN gun. The machine gun went off on its own. I have to live with that really. It is hard because I think about him.

The families of the dead

He was an only son, and the mother and father wrote letters. The padre and the colonel would never let us know the letters that were written to the regiment.

His parents wanted to know where his watch was and, to be perfectly honest, what happened. When the blokes got killed, we just used to share his stuff around.

On the back of a Sherman, you didn’t have any boxes or anything to protect things. We would continue to be shot at. In the tank, you can’t hide behind a tree or nip behind a house double quick. You are there.

So we were continually shot at when we were in action – although we weren’t continually shot at all the time because we weren’t in action all the time.

But we didn’t have anything other than what we stood up in, because our bedrolls and blankets and uniform and spare kit and everything else was continually being set on fire at the back of the tank.

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History Hit Podcast with Captain David Render