To War With The Bays: 60 – Close-quarter Fighting
…Through the trees in the early morning mist we could see German soldiers moving about. The tank was facing away from the orchard. The driver and scatter-gunner could only see in front, but we in the turret could see all round.
It was Lofty's turn on guard, and he whispered that four of the Germans were slowly and cautiously coming towards the tank, through the trees. They were carrying a bazooka, a portable anti-tank gun, very deadly…
Jack Merewood is engaged in close combat in Italy.
To read earlier chapters of Jack’s vivid account of his wartime experiences please click on To War With The Bays.
Dave and the crew were expecting us. It was very dark and I tapped on the side of the tank, but Dave had seen us. The other crew quickly got out and we dived into the tank. A few minutes later we heard shouting and an explosion.
Afterwards we learned that the crew had strayed off course on their way back to the barn and had run into a New Zealand patrol, who mistook them for Germans and threw a hand grenade at them. Two of them were hit in the legs, but immediately identified themselves. The atmosphere was extremely tense, and they could have easily been killed. As it was, the two men were not seriously hurt and the New Zealanders escorted them back to the barn.
There was a road not far away, and in the dark we heard a
German vehicle come along it. It stopped and we could hear the men shouting. We guessed it was a self-propelled gun. It opened fire, but it was shooting over the top of us in the direction of the barn behind. It fired a dozen shells or so, there was more shouting and the vehicle left.
Busty, the driver, and Haley, the scatter-gunner, had very little room to move and were cramped in their seats. Lofty, the operator, myself and Dave had a little more freedom in the turret, and took it in turn to be on guard half out of the top of the tank. To hand, for instant use if necessary, were a Tommy-gun and hand grenades, and we were also wearing loaded revolvers. The two who weren't on guard could push their heads out to see what was going on and keep the driver and scatter-gunner informed.
Next morning we saw that there really were bodies at the side of the tank, four German soldiers lying side by side and another a few feet away. We were only a yard or so from the wall of a barn, the tank parked parallel to it, and about ten yards away was an orchard. On the opposite side was a haystack.
Through the trees in the early morning mist we could see German soldiers moving about. The tank was facing away from the orchard. The driver and scatter-gunner could only see in front, but we in the turret could see all round.
It was Lofty's turn on guard, and he whispered that four of the Germans were slowly and cautiously coming towards the tank, through the trees. They were carrying a bazooka, a portable anti-tank gun, very deadly, but only when used at close range. They were coming towards the rear of the tank, obviously hoping to get near enough without being detected.
We kept very still and quiet. Lofty had the Tommy-gun at the ready and let them come closer. Then he opened fire. One of them he killed, another was wounded, a third gave himself up and the other ran away. On the wireless we contacted the Maoris back at the barn, who had heard the gunfire, and with the gun trained on the two men, Lofty directed them to the Maoris who were coming to collect them.
It had been very cold and cramped all night in the tank, but we got the stove going and made some tea and opened some tins of stew to warm us up. 'Jerry in house only 100 to 150 yards away and we have to be alert all the time - rather nerve-racking. Bitterly cold and raining. Listening to Jerries talking.'
There were no further incidents that day, but when it came dark we heard the SP gun come up the road again, fire several more shells, then drive away.
My turn on guard came around as dawn broke, but things were quiet. Dave took over and after a while whispered to us to look outside. A revolting sight met our eyes. A pig had come up and was eating one of the dead Germans, pulling at his leg. We watched it for a few minutes then could stand it no longer. Dave killed it with a single shot from the Tommy-gun. It sank to its knees on top of the dead soldier.
During the day the area was shelled heavily and the house adjoin¬ing our barn was hit numerous times, turning it into a pile of rubble. 'Things were hot, but about 7.30 p.m. they got even hotter because the haystack was hit. It caught fire and we had to evacuate quick.'
The blazing haystack was too close for comfort. We jumped out of the tank and ran down the fields and to our surprise were joined by some Italian civilians who had been hiding under the haystack. We made it back to our original farm and luckily no one was hurt.
This farm was now full of New Zealanders, many of them Maoris. We got on well together, and they were really good fighters.
That night they planned an attack to try to clear the area of Germans and advance. They left the barn, and we had little rest as they brought back some of the wounded and we helped with them. One young Maori died there as he lay on the ground in the barn. We covered him with a blanket and next morning helped to bury him just outside, in a corner of the farmyard.
There was heavy shelling all day. We heard one land about thirty yards away and waited for the explosion, but it didn't happen, so we went to look for it. It was a huge shell at least a foot in diameter and if it had exploded it would have blown us to Kingdom Come.
Meanwhile the Kiwi attack wasn't as successful as they'd hoped, but they brought back about fifty prisoners and had moved the enemy further away.
15 December: 'He shelled us heavily but we're lucky he didn't hit the house, troop going back, but some of us have to stop and try to get that tank out tomorrow.'
16 December: 'Sid, Dave, myself and a couple of men stayed behind last night and rest of troop left about 5.30 p.m. I lay on the straw with a couple of blankets and slept for fifteen hours! Wonderful! The Gurkhas attacked Faenza last night. New Zealanders advanced and now everything going well.'
It was quieter here now, and we went up to the tank. The haystack had burned out and the tank was undamaged. We drove it back to the barn, down the muddy track we’d recently walked, then back to the squadron a few miles away.