I Was There! - I Took the First Churchill Tanks into Action
Suitable adapted to the terrain, Churchill tanks went into action for the first time in North Africa, near Sbiba. Their baptism of fire is here vividly described for “The War Illustrated” by Sergt. G. Powell, who was awarded the Military Medal for his gallantry and resource on that occasion.
It was on a Sunday, February 21, 1943. We had just come to the end of a journey of 108 miles non-stop; no food, no sleep, and no maintenance, which must be considered excellent for a forty-ton tank. At 16.00 hours I was ordered to have my troops all set and ready to go into action by 17.00 hours. Without any grumbling from my boys, there's no need to say that we were all keyed up and ready at the appointed time.
But things do go wrong sometimes. I was approaching the Guards' positions when my tank just packed up. With so little time before zero hour I had no alternative but to ask for another tank. We soon had the new one ready for action, and the next thing was for me to try to get further details of what part my troop was to play in the action.
I was told that in front, 400 yards away, were a range of mountains with a road running through them. I was instructed to keep off the road (which was quite natural because Jerry was slinging his big mortars about), so there was no choice but to go over the mountain, which is not a pleasant feeling for the tanks. The only information I could obtain was that over the far side of the mountain there were two or three Arab huts which Jerry was using as machine-gun nests. My job was to wipe these out. “A bit of cake”, we all called it. I was also taking in with me a platoon of Coldstream Guards.
When we arrived at the summit of the hill (I should say mountain) I couldn't see any of the enemy, but I felt something hit my leg and also noticed that my wireless operator had been hit. When we finally got over the top of the mountain, I could see my objective – about twenty Jerry tanks all lined up with a row of anti-tank guns at the back and a battery of machine-guns behind them!
I just turned my head for a split second and saw my other two tanks getting blown to “hell”. Making a quick decision, I decided to charge the enemy, as it would have been suicide to try anything else. Jerry hit me about twelve times, making my tank useless for firing as he had already hit both of my guns. But I could now see the Germans getting out of their tanks and bolting. Giving orders to my driver to turn around, imagine my surprise to find German infantry not more than five yards to my front. But we scraped them out for the count.
At this point I began to feel just where I had been hit; I couldn't stand, but was just hanging up by the handlebars of my cupola. On the way back I started to look out for any of my boys that might have been lucky enough to jump out of their tanks when they went up. I found three of them; two were badly burned (they died later) and the other was just shaken up. I also discovered a Guardsman who had been badly hit. So with my tank loaded up, I returned to our original starting point.
I was told later that the enemy retreated for about fifteen miles shortly after that engagement, and I think it made it easier for our boys to take the Kasserine Pass.
Articles in the I Was There! category
- Previous article: I Was There! - With the Camerons I Fought at Four Hills
- Next article: I Was There! - I Left My Pots and Pans and Downed a Bomber!