What It Was like to Be a Young Tank Commander During the Normandy Landings?

History Hit Podcast with Captain David Render

5 mins

02 Jun 2019

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 am a Normandy veteran from 1944-45. I was a lieutenant troop leader of Five Troop, a squadron in the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry for Nottinghamshire Yeomanry. I was 19 when I was in action against the Germans.

I had joined the army on my 18th birthday because it was the thing to do. It took a year and a half to train us from being a schoolboy to being a lieutenant and being able to command a troop of four tanks.

At that point we were in Sherman tanks, but we did have one Sherman Firefly later on.

American troops landing at Omaha Beach – a famous photo called ‘Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death’ by Robert F. Sargent.

Landing tanks at D-Day

I went over to France on D2. The regiment went on D-Day, but I didn’t know anything about them at that point. I was just a reinforcement. I took over 16 Cromwell tanks, and we went across to hand the tanks and the men over.

On D3 we floated about on a ship, which was rather like a snake going over the waves. We landed at about 4 o’clock on D4. The captain came over and said, “Get these tanks off.” He used a very old English word to tell me to hurry up. And I said to the first tank, “Right. Off you go.”

A Sherman M4 tank in Normany.

He went down the ramp. It went down and down and – woof! – upside down, complete with the men in it, and disappeared.

Obviously something had gone wrong. I didn’t know what it was. The captain came over, and he gave me the most enormous ticking off for doing it.

I would rather have been at home with mum at that time.

I stood there frightened to death really. At the time, we were being machine-gunned and under attack by Messerschmitt 109s. It wasn’t really a very nice place to be. I would rather have been at home with mum at that time.

The crew of the first tank drowned. There were only two people inside because it was only a skeleton crew. Normally, a tank’s got five people in it, but we were just taking it to the front. We were a reinforcement.

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My first command in Europe, and the first thing that happened was that we lost a tank. Immediately.

I was concerned about it, to put it mildly, and the captain didn’t help because he was blaming me for doing it. I hadn’t done anything.

He said, “Tell the bloke to get off the ship. Tell the driver to get off the ship.” They went down the ramp and I couldn’t understand what had happened.

My first command in Europe, and the first thing that happened was that we lost a tank.

They pulled the ship back, but they put a sea anchor out with a huge hawser and they had put the thing into reverse. Fortunately, the tide was still coming in.

They just managed to get the ship off the shore. As they did it, the hawser broke with a terrific crash.

It came back and it sawed all the sort of funnels and rails on the other side of the ship clean off, as if it were a knife.

We weren’t standing on that side, but if we had been, we would have had it of course.

Dummy landing craft were used as decoys before D-Day. Bletchley Park played a key role in the deception.

Then we came in again, and the ramp went down. Off we went with the other tanks.

Fifty years later, I went back and took a photograph of the area of Gold Beach, where we landed, while the tide was out. If you look at that area, with the way the tides are there, you will find that the sea has a habit of scooping trenches out.

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We were right on the edge of a hole, and the tank went by a bit of bad luck. Instead of going into 8 foot of water, he went into 18 foot of water. That was the start.

We got the other the other 15 tanks off, and we were up on the on the shore. The crew on the ship were very nervous and edgy about the whole thing.

I didn’t stop to talk. We went off. Then the tanks were taken off me very quickly because they were needed to fight.

The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry

The next thing was I was directed to a thing called Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. I had never heard of the Sherwood Rangers. I met this fellow, John Simpkin, who was a captain, because when the regiment was landing on D-Day the colonel was killed.

They had various casualties. They lost about 10 tanks getting onto the shore.

A squadron were landed dry – they weren’t swimming tanks – and they went on down to Bayeux. I joined them at a place called Fontenay, just south of Bayeux, around D5 or D6.

You have to remember one thing about all this. You’re only talking to a peanut. I was a little tiny speck when I was a lowly second lieutenant, a mere nothing.

We only had our own little bit of the area to look at and see. We didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t even know D-Day was going on.

You’re only talking to a peanut. I was a little tiny speck when I was a lowly second lieutenant, a mere nothing.

When I got on the boat to take the tanks over, I said to the chap, “Well, I am supposed to just put them on the ship, put the tanks on and anchor them down.”

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I thought I had to get off to go and get some more tanks. This chap said, “Get off?” He says, “You’d better look through the porthole.” When I looked through the porthole, we were at sea. I asked where we were going and he said, “France, of course.”

That was my invasion of France. You have got to have secrecy in war, haven’t you?

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.

Essentially, you mustn’t tell the other bloke what was happening. In the circumstances, that was secrecy gone barmy, because I had no idea and we just went to France. That was it. That’s how it went.

Then I joined a regiment I had never even heard of. The next thing was when the squadron leader placed me as a troop leader under instruction from a chap called Neville Fern. He was a lieutenant who had been with them for some time.

He had to go and do something else. So I did one day, D6, under instruction. You hear about the fighter pilots having only 25 hours flying – I had one day under instruction.

The next day I was in charge of the troop. I was in command of three tanks, in battle. We actually fought. We did some shooting on D6, the day I was under instruction.

But there’s nothing very clever about that. It just sort of happens. Suddenly you’re there doing it.