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.
I was in two tanks that were destroyed, and I was in a third one but I didn’t lose that – I came out of it. But I came out of three tanks in that context.
Some lost more than that, of course. The Colonel, Stanley Kristofferson, came out of five tanks in the desert, five tanks in one day.
After Normandy, I fought as part of the breakout but we went through the Falaise gap.
A V1 bomb site
When we got to Doulon, I overran a flying bomb site. I didn’t know that there was a flying bomb.
We arrived at a crossroads in Doulon, and actually Harry Heenan – because he didn’t get killed until we were up at Nijmegen – was the tank doing the leading. A lot of the troop leaders, like me, always did the leading.
He was in the lead of the whole thing and we had been hurtling up the road. Once we got cracking, we moved at a pretty quick speed, and we got over this hill.
Just as he did – wang! – he got shot at, from a gun that was on the crossroads we were going over to to get into Doulon.
The fact was that this round came on the top of his tank, and there was a quick, huge gouge out of the top of his tank about 6 inches from his head.
I got out of my tank, and I went over to John [Simpkin, the Major]. I said, “Well, why aren’t we going ahead?” and he said, “well, Harry was just being shot at by a gun down there.” So I said, “Wait a minute, I’ve got my map in my hand,” which we usually had.
I said, “If I turn it and go over here, at right angles to where we are going, and then I’ll do a swoop because there’s a road down there coming in on the crossroads. I’ll get on that crossroads and then I’ll come in, and I’ll get the bloke sideways on”.
He was aiming up there and I’d swoop in, which we very seldom did, but it was done on occasion.
John said, “Ok, if you want to do it, get on with it”. So I told my troop to follow me and we ran off with four tanks.
We went down into an area with a big wall round it. I didn’t know what it was. It was an old ancient sort of fort, and in it there was a ramp with holes in it – you can see one, actually, if you go to Duxford. They have one there.
There were a lot of little airplanes flying there, two or three at least. So I said to my gunner, “put a round or two in them”.
So we shot at these things – if we had set one off, we would have been blown to smithereens, but we didn’t know what they were. I just thought they were airplanes. There were no men about, no Germans.
We then went and found the road, but we had overrun a V1 flying bomb site. I was oh so proud, because I wrote home and said, “done a flying bomb site. That’s one that won’t be dropping bombs on you”.
Then we came to the crossroads and somebody had already shot the gun, so we went through to Doulon. We didn’t have much trouble, though there were a few Germans.
All the time there was a bloke with a Panzerfaust or a Panzer straight shooting at you. You had to be a bit sharp.
An ideal troop leader
The big thing about being a troop leader or a proper troop commander was that you had to learn how to deal with things. John Simpkin saved our lives because he taught us how to fight the Germans.
Our guns just wouldn’t knock the German tanks out head-on at all. If you made a slight mistake, you were a dead duck just as quick as that. So, we had to be sharper.
John had a nervous breakdown and backed up at Gallagher, because it got to him in the end. You realised that the top brass were ever so upset about sending the young boys to their deaths, literally. It got to John.
There was another chap, a squadron leader, and I fell out with him because he didn’t know how to do his job. I won’t go into the details but I said, “we definitely can’t cope with you”.