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The Forgotten Anti Tank Gunners of St Pierre

 

The climax of the film “Saving Private Ryan” is set in a village in Normandy, a few days after D Day. A small group of American paratroops are under attack from all directions by German heavy tanks, and are saved by an air attack. Saving Private Ryan is fiction. However, on 9-10th June, four days after D Day, in true life, a similar drama took place in the village of St Pierre separated by the river Seulles from the town of Tilly Sur Seulles.

On 8th June the 8th Armoured Brigade seized the high ground North of St Pierre, Point 103 in a rapid move. The reason for the significance of Point 103 is that it gives good visibility to the South, despite the hedges of the bocage country. This move coincided with the attack North by the Panzer Lehr division, the best equipped of the German Panzer divisions. This formation had 250 tanks and assault guns and could mount all its infantry in the 635 armoured half track APCs it possessed. Over the next five days the fighting would rage around St Pierre and point 103.

Map showing the fighting in the St Pierre area 9-10 June 1944. (1) the attack by 8th DLI supported by 24L 1745-2100 hrs 9th June (2) German counter attack 0615-0800 hrs 10 June (3) Counterattack 0845-1100hrs 10 June.(4) German attack on Pt 103 evening 10 June
Map showing the fighting in the St Pierre area 9-10 June 1944. (1) the attack by 8th DLI supported by 24L 1745-2100 hrs 9th June (2) German counter attack 0615-0800 hrs 10 June (3) Counterattack 0845-1100hrs 10 June.(4) German attack on Pt 103 evening 10 June

During the evening of 9th the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, supported by the 24th Lancers and 147 Field Regiment captured St Pierre where they were joined by two troops of 288 Anti Tank Battery equipped with 6 Pdr guns. The route to St Pierre South from Point 103 was over bare slopes and the troops in the village were subject to attacks from three sides.

On 10th June the Germans attacked St Pierre shortly after first light at 0700 hours. This was beaten off by 8 DLI with the support of 24 L and 147 Fd Regt. St Pierre was partially overrun, one of the FOO’s Lt Sayer, was killed and Maj C H Gosling, BC 511 Bty and three other FOOs were wounded. The tanks of the 24 Lancers withdrew up to Point 103 to take up hull down positions.

288 ATk Bty’s guns withdrew, some of the gunners fighting on as infantry. When ordered to withdraw by the infantry company which they were supporting Sgt Down (1), from Ashington Northumberland, refused to leave his gun as “his duty was to kill tanks”. Keeping LBdr Gilmour, his layer, with him, he sent the rest of his detachment back and then proceeded to knock out the only tank that appeared on his front, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and LBdr Gilmour the Military medal (MM). The citation to Sgt Down’s DCM states that his courage and example helped to restore the confidence of the infantry at a critical moment, enabling them to re-establish their position. Later the same day Sgt Down was ordered to take his gun forward and destroy an enemy armoured SP gun. He appears to have carried out a recce on foot then manoeuvred his gun forward unseen and destroyed the enemy. Sgt Down had already made his mark as an aggressive soldier by undertaking several patrols hunting snipers on the night of the 8th June. The next day an enemy tank closed into a covered position where it could not be engaged by Sgt Down’s 6 Pdr. He then stalked the tank with a hand held PIAT and hit it at 30 yards range forcing it to withdraw. (2)

On the other side of the village, Sgt Seaton had to move his gun forward to engage the tanks that were troubling him and after being wounded, had to leave his gun; but he and his layer, Gnr Beresford, later returned to the gun and hit a tank which stopped firing then withdrew; they were both awarded the MM, as was Bdr Hinder who knocked out one tank and forced another to withdraw.(3)

Throughout, Lt Brameld, the troop commander had remained forward, giving advance warning of the approach of tanks. At one point Brameld found that there were enemy tanks out of range of his 6 pdrs. He borrowed a 17pdr Sherman from a neighbouring armoured regiment and directed its fire from outside the tank whilst under small arms fire, until at least one and possibly two enemy tanks were destroyed. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). (4) At 1130 hrs, to prevent the counter-attack being resumed, 147 Fd Regt surrounded St Pierre with defensive fire, while Air OPs directed the fire of HMS Orion and Argonaut on to targets in the area Tilly-Juvigny-Fontenay-le-Pesnel and fighter-bombers attacked German reinforcements moving towards Tilly.

6pounder_antitank
6 Pdr (57mm) Anti Tank Gun of the type used by 288 Battery at St Pierre.This gun could penetrate German Mk IV tanks and SP guns as well as the side armour of Mk V Panther tanks. The anti tank gunners of 50th Division preferred it to the much heavier and larger 17 Pdr(76.mm) anti tank gun in the bocage country south of Bayeux

Later the same day 10 June the Panzer Lehr division launched an armuored attack on point 103, leaving 8 DLI surrounded in St Pierre and engaged the battalion from the North before returning South.  The fighting stabilised with the British holding St Pierre and the Germans holding Tilly with the river Seulles dividing the armies.

Unteroffizier Petrov of the Panzer Lehr Division described the effect of the artillery fire: “Early this morning we put in our attack. We had three SP guns under command. We attacked a village … as soon as we got beyond the village the artillery opened up and I’ll say there was some confusion. Oh, that certainly was not much fun … Then came a counter-attack by the English … After a long search we found our vehicles but the enemy planes found us and the artillery fire came down on us again. We proceeded in short bounds to Regimental Headquarters and await further orders … Shall I have to go forward again? Thank God we are staying here overnight.” (5)

The story of the anti tank gunners at St Pierre is largely missing from accounts of the battle of Normandy. The fighting around St Pierre is one of the battles covered in the battlefield studies undertaken by the Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but the anti tank gunners have not formed part of the story. They aren’t in the history of 8 DLI. They aren’t even in the war diaries of 8 DLI or 102 Anti Tank Regiment, which illustrates the fallibility of war diaries. The author of the cabinet history of the Normandy campaign (CAB 44/246)collated from war diaries refers to the uncertainty about the identity of the anti tank battery in support of 8 DLI only mentioned as 288 battery in the 8th Armoured Brigade War Diaries. The citations for the awards for Lt Bramald, Sgts Down and Seaton, Bdr Hinder, LBdr Gilmour and Gnr Beresford were all recommended by the CO 102 Atk Regiment commanders and supported by the CRA 50 Div, and approved by the GOC 50 Div and Corps commander.

There is a need for the story of the anti tank gunners to be told properly. There has been an academic debate about the proportion of anti tank gunners and their role started by the paper by Dr John Peaty entitled “Ubiquitous and Unnecessary? Anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery in the NW Europe campaign.(6) That is a question which is loaded in the absence of a proper account of their contribution.

The action at St Pierre was controversial. Brigadier James Hargest, the New Zealand observer to 21 Army Group, wrote a report before his death in action in August1944 which was very critical of the British infantry. He wrote that 8DLI ran away and ther village had to be retaken. The report is heavily quoted by Carlo ‘Este and Max Nastings in their books on the Normandy campaign. It is obvious from the citations that there was an unauthorised withdrawal by some infantry, and this would have been known by the divisional and corps commanders. This does not mean that the story in the DLI Regimental history wrong, merely that it isn’t the whole truth. The fact that some infantry ran, does not detract from the deeds of those who stayed to fight or counter attacked.  8 DLI took nearly 200 casualties in the battle. Eight MMs and an MC were awarded to the battalion for this action..

This article arose from research undertaken to complete the Official History of the Royal Artillery in the Normandy Campaign started by the late Major Will Townend.  

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If you would like to visit the site of this battle or other places and hear the story from the Gunner point of view visit www.gunnertours.com

Notes:

1  London Gazette 31 August 1944  The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was (until 1993) an extremely high level award for bravery. It was a second level military decoration awarded to other ranks of the British Army and formerly also to non-commissioned personnel of other Commonwealth countries. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Conduct_Medal)

2  London Gazette 31 August 1944

The Military Medal (MM) was (until 1993) a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services, and formerly also to personnel of other Commonwealth countries, below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land.  The MM ranked below the MC and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), which was also awarded to non-commissioned members of the Army.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_Medal

3  London Gazette 31 August 1944

4  London Gazette 31 August 1944.  The Distinguished Service Order tended to be awarded to officers in command, above the rank of Captain. A number of more junior officers were awarded the DSO, and this was often regarded as an acknowledgement that the officer had only just missed out on the award of the Victoria Cross.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Service_Order)

5.  Panzers in Normandy

6.  BCMH Summer Conference 2009:

 

The Other British “Private Ryan” – Meet Fred Dancocks and His Brothers

Private Fred Dancox VC
Private Fred Dancox VC

Private Fred Dancocks of the Worcestershire Regiment was an unlikely hero. He was a middle aged man in 1917, a father of five children, from a large family of labourers who lived in the poorer parts of Worcester City. He was baptised in 1878, the middle of three sons. Two years later his father died and his mother remarried a William Whittle, who already had two sons from his first marriage, and they had further children. From the age of 18 Fred lived with Ellen, and they had five children, one which died in infancy. His occupation was “Hay Trusser” which seems to have been seasonal labouring work. When war broke out he joined the army, and shortly afterwards married Ellen, enabling her and the children to access the benefits, such as they were of an army wife. When he joined his name was recorded as “Dancox” in error, which is the name entered which he is referred in the military records. (1)

There seems to have been no reason for him to have been preparing to go over the top with the 4th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment on the 9th October 1917 near Langemarck in Belgium. Fred had already done his bit, joining the battalion in Gallipoli in September 1915, and since then serving for over a year in France. His battalion formed part of the “Incomparable” 29th Division, which had participated in many of the most bloody battles of the Great War. After Gallipoli the 29th Division, and the Worcesters with them served two tours on the Somme. Their red triangle is prominent at Newfoundland Park on the Somme and the Division had already taken part in two “big pushes” in 1917; at Arras in the spring and at the capture of Langamarck in August.

Private Fred – known by his nickname of “Dando” was the HQ Company sanitary orderly – the man who emptied the lavatories. This was an essential   but undistinguished task, and one which could have kept him from the worst dangers. However, Fred Dancock had apparently volunteered to join the attack and was to the “mopping up party”. This party of ten men would search each captured position to make sure that there were no enemy hiding and able to shoot the advancing allies in the back.

As the battalion advanced it came under fire from a machine gun in a bunker, which had not been hit by the barrage, close to the railway bridge over a road at Namur Crossing. A belt fed machine gun could fire 550 rounds a minute, nine shots a second, creating a wall of steel across the front of the battalion. By 1917 the army had learned lots of lessons, and the battalion halted while mortars were brought up to deal with the bunker. But before the mortars could be brought up, the fire of the machine-gun suddenly stopped. A minute later every man within sight was on his feet cheering and laughing, for stumbling through the mud towards the British line came a little crowd of the enemy with hands raised in surrender, and behind them came a solitary British soldier, labouring along under the weight of a machine-gun—the machine-gun. The cheering grew as he was recognised: “Dancox!” the troops shouted, “Good old Dando !”(2) Fred hadn’t heard the order to halt. He had continued to advance, working his way from shell hole to shell hole until he was behind the German bunker. He then went to the back door and walked into it holding a hand grenade and motioning for the Germans to leave – which they did.(3)

The above painting by Gilbert Holiday shows Private Dancox holding his bomb ready to throw as he orders his prisoners off to our lines. This painting is in the possession of the Regiment
The above painting by Gilbert Holiday shows Private Dancox holding his bomb ready to throw as he orders his prisoners off to our lines. This painting is in the possession of the Regiment

Fred Dancocks’ courage was recognised with the award of the Victoria Cross. His was the first VC to a man from Worcester. He wrote home to say that he was given leave to return home and receive the medal from the King on the 30th November. Worcester prepared to celebrate the homecoming of the local hero in style: bunting was put up and alongside the Dancox family waited civic dignitaries, reporters, and hundreds of local people. He did not arrive.

Only a few weeks after the attack on 9th October, his unit took part in the attack at Cambrai on 20th November, and before he could take his leave, the Germans had counter-attacked. Fred Dancocks was killed by a a shrapnel ball to the head. His body was never found and hie is commemorated on on Panel 6 at the Cambrai Memorial, Louverval. (4)

Fred was not the first of his family to die in the Great War. His older brother William Dancocks was a regular soldier in the 3rd Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment and was killed on the 23rd October 1914, in the fighting East of Neuve Chapelle, one of six men from that unit to die on that day. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Le Touret memorial to the Missing . (5) His younger step-brother, Thomas Whittle was killed on the Somme on 21st August 1916, serving with 1/7th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial a few hundred metres North of where his battalion fought on the day he died.(6)

Four months after Fred died his younger stepbrother, William Whittle was killed in the battle in defence of Amiens on 31st March 1918, serving with 2/8th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment. This was another bad day for his battalion, as 37 men died that day in the less known 1918 battle of the Somme.. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pozieres memorial on the Somme.  (7)

Another brother, Henry Dancocks, survived the war having served alongside Fred in the 4th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment.

That left Ellen with three dependent children in a world before the welfare state. King George wrote to Ellen to express his sincere regret that Fred’s death had denied him “the pride of presenting to him in person the Victoria Cross.” The City of Worcester established a public fund for Ellen Dancox, and made an initial donation of £50. In February 1918 the council minuted that ‘subscriptions were not coming in very satisfactorily’, but eventually a total of £451 was subscribed (which, in 2007, would have had the purchasing power of over £15,000). .The city council bought the medal from the family. Their house in Bull Entry was demolished in a slum clearance programme during the 1930s.

Besides the VC, Fred Dancocks and his brothers represent a loss as significant to their families as the Johnson’s reported in the Mail or the Niland Brothers whose story inspired the plot of Saving Private Ryan or the fighting Sullivans. The fact that none of these men has a known grave makes their fate particularly poignant. Yet relatively few people hear of or commemorate the Fred Dancocks and his brothers.

Dancox House, a sheltered accommodation facility in Worcester city centre, is named after him. In 2006 the Worcester and Herefordshire branch of the WFA erected a memorial to Fred Dancox VC close to Namur Crossing. It is only a short detour from the German cemetery at Langemarck. I first heard the story of Fred Dancocks and his brothers from Major John Cotterill who has championed the cause of the memory of the Worcesters for as long as I have known him and am grateful to him and for the work carried out by the Regiment by the local community for the information in the links which are the sources for this tale, which is worth telling and sharing.

Be Proud to be a Pongo!

Pongos in camp – (image from 95 Rifles reenactment website)

For as long as anyone can remember, British soldiers have been traditionally nicknamed “pongos”. If you ask a sailor, marine or airman where the nickname comes from, they might tell a lame tale: “soldiers are in the dirt and so they are where the pong goes”.

But that is not a very convincing explanation. It sounds a little contrived, as a secondary explanation for a term after the original understanding has been lost.

The answer could lie in the Napoleonic wars and a foreign land. One legacy from the British Army’s overseas campaigns has been the fragments of foreign language which have been adopted as slang. For example, a key French phrases to be mastered by a British soldier of the Great War  was to ask for an alcoholic drink.  “Vin blanc” as mangled by a Tommy led to “plonk” entering the English language as a slang for for cheap white wine.

During the Napoleonic wars the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written “pão”, and pronounced “pong”. We know that the Peninsular War soldiers used the term “pong” as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of “pong”. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time is that sailors lived on biscuit while, in the peninsular at least, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting Wellington’s Peninsular soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of “pong” might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – bread eaters.

So maybe, when the jolly jacks and the crabs call soldiers  “Pongos” its not an insult. Its a reminder of the British Army’s traditions and the men who beat old Boney’s men over the hills and far away, in Flanders Portugal and Spain..

..and the next puzzle is which Indian term for a snack gave rise to the term “Egg banjo” for a fried egg sandwich.