Those with an interest in the British Army in the Second World War have had their appetites whetted recently by the paperback release of An Englishman at War: the wartime diaries of Stanley Christopherson, DSO, MC, TD, 1939-45 (reviewed in MHM August/September 2021). In that book, the contents of Christopherson’s diary were edited, introduced, and explained by WWII historian James Holland. As an officer in, and later commander of, the Nottingham Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry for the duration of the war, Christopherson’s diary is of immense interest.
Now Holland has told the full story of this remarkable tank unit. Brothers in Arms: one legendary tank regiment’s bloody war from D-Day to VE-Day is concerned with the Nottingham Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry (SRY) from their first major battle as a tank regiment at El Alamein to their last at the German city of Bremen. Theirs was a remarkable journey, told here by Holland with expertise and sympathy.
From the prologue, set during El Alamein, through the chapters on the Normandy Campaign and into the bleak end of the war in Germany, Holland manages two feats. First, he imbues every member of the regiment, no matter how small their role, with a personality.
Holland is describing men in their early 20s for whom soldiering was not their first choice of career. What was achieved is therefore quite extraordinary.
Historians usually describe battles through individual testimonies from multiple positions: German and British, civilians and soldiers, other ranks and officers. In this book, the reader is shown one perspective: that of a Sherman tank regiment fighting hard.
In many ways, then, Holland has achieved his aim of writing a British version of Stephen E Ambrose’s Band of Brothers; the use of ‘brothers’ in the title is surely a nod to that classic of Second World War literature.
Using diaries and memoirs from dozens of men from across a broad range of ranks and roles within the 686-strong regiment, Holland gives the reader a chance to see the impact of war on individuals. In the case of George Dring – who is, with the exception of Stanley Christopherson, probably the only member of the SRY to be widely known – it is a fascinating read.
Dring has become the pin-up for those authors wishing to argue that German tanks were not invulnerable to fire from British tanks. In the fighting in Normandy, Dring accounted for Tiger, Panther, and Mark IV tanks using the 75mm gun fitted to his Sherman. That the 75mm gun was underpowered, particularly in ballistic velocity (how fast the shell travels through the air), does not seem to have affected Dring.
While the story of Dring himself is usually then dropped in most historical accounts, Holland reveals that the ‘tankie’ was severely injured later, as the regiment neared Germany, and suffered both mental and physical wounds that affected him for the rest of his life. Sherman firepower
In fact, the book reveals that other Sherman crews were also successful against German tanks. In truth, though, as Holland explains, most tank warfare in north-west Europe did not take the form of duels between tanks. Usually it was a case of ambush or be ambushed.
As most battles began with the Germans on the defensive, the SRY would drive forward until engaged, losing a tank at the point of ambush, then locate and destroy the tank or anti-tank gun opposing them, before moving on.
Similarly, when the German tanks went on to the offensive, the British would lay their own ambushes. In each one, the British would lose a man killed and several more wounded, thus ensuring a constant rotation of personnel through the front-line squadrons. Holland calculates that in these squadrons the casualty rate for the entire war stands at 150%.
Some men left the fighting tanks to join the rear-echelon part of the regiment, or transferred to another unit altogether, but the nub of it is this: being tank crew in the hardest-fighting armoured regiment of the war was statistically not survivable. Casualty rates in Normandy have never been more starkly revealed since Martin Lindsay’s memoir So Few Got Through.
This raises a second point. As a military history, Brothers in Arms benefits from having a first-rate historian like Holland penning the story. Having dealt sympathetically with dozens of characters, Holland shows his expertise in the military sphere. There is an excellent appendix listing the exact make-up of the regiment, which is useful for readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of A and B echelon, or so-called ‘soft-skin vehicles’, or the LAD.
On the other hand, ‘tankies’ and other professional soldiers will pore over the details, eager to understand how an armoured regiment fought then as opposed to now. When it comes to the intricacies of doctrine for infantry–tank cooperation during a battle, Holland finds a few choice lines to explain what others take entire monographs to do.
Heavy casualties were typical among tank units in north-west Europe. But what made the Sherwood Rangers so especially prone to losses? Put simply, the SRY was fighting more of the time compared to other tank units.
Of all the British units that fought in tanks during the Second World War, the SRY amassed the largest number of battle honours. In total, there were 30 major battles, with a scarcely believable 16 crammed into the last 11 months of the war.
Holland also makes the interesting point, backed up by the men’s own testimonials, that the independent armoured brigades (the SRY was part of 8th Armoured Brigade) took on the role of infantry support during the fierce fighting which typified the initial phase of most battles with the Germans.
What this means is that other tank units, grouped into armoured divisions, only joined the battle after the crust of German resistance had been broken and exploitation of the gap was required. ‘Mind your paint, sir, as you go through,’ the SRY men would call, as the tanks of the less bloodied armoured divisions came past.
Given this relentless call for their services, it is small wonder that Holland engages with the topic of exhaustion and battle-fatigue within the SRY as early as Chapter 13: a chapter, I may add, which is still set in June 1944, with eleven months of fighting yet to come.
James Holland’s latest book is the culmination of years of work on the wartime service of the Nottingham Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. It is also a British rival to Band of Brothers, and a visceral portrayal of life and death in tanks during the Second World War.
Review by Toby Clark
Brothers in Arms: one legendary tank regiment’s bloody war from D-Day to VE-Day, James Holland, Bantam Press, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-1787633940.