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HEROES OF D-DAY: Memories of tank commander
Updated 8:07am Wednesday 4th June 2014 in News
FORMER Portland councillor Harry Booth, a commander of a Sherman tank with the 144th Royal Armoured Corps, landed on Gold Beach. Mr Booth, an Honorary Alderman of the Borough died a few days after the 61st anniversary of D-Day in June 2005.
“We all had to be able to swim, although we hoped we would not have to do so. I commanded a Sherman tank with the 144th Royal Armoured Corps and I remember being at Petersfield where I played cricket the day before D-Day.
“We went to Normandy on June 8, D-Day plus two and we were called up by numbers over a tannoy system to proceed down a road to embark at Gosport.
“The crossing by our 15 tanks was on a landing ship crewed by Americans, and we had no idea what to expect.
“When we arrived at Gold Beach the ramp went down and off went my troop commander’s tank, only to disappear under the water before reappearing like some submarine.
“Well, we watched this but by now we were 25 yards offshore, so when the craft commander said: ‘Next!’ I said: ‘No fear!’ “We went in again, but slower, and we took our tank ashore. Gold was clear of wreckage but there were bodies floating past us all the way in and many wounded on the beach itself.
“Almost as soon as we got on land my radio operator said he had dropped his helmet, so I stopped the tank, got off and picked it up.
“Suddenly I realised that this was France and I was being shot at. There were all sorts and we had no sooner got on the beach than there was a beach marshal yelling at us to get off it.
“We went up to a road overlooking the beach and for the next eight days we stayed on that road, propping up gaps as they appeared in our line where the Germans were trying to break through.
“Mostly we were opposed by Panzer Mark IVs with a few of the ferocious Tiger tanks but they were restricted by the hedgerows.
“I remember my first tank was blown up by a mine in a field. We just grabbed blankets and whatever we could from it and hid by a hedgerow, wondering where we would sleep that night because we always slept with the tank.
“We were missing for two days and when we eventually turned up at a command post the first person I saw fainted because he had sent my kit back to England marked Missing in Action. Even my wife Joyce had been told, so she knew I was missing before I did.
“On our way to Noyers I remember one incident very clearly.
“A young member of our tank crew said he needed to go to the toilet, so I stopped and he went behind a wall only to come out immediately, white as a sheet.
“When we checked we found that the lad had walked straight into a 6ft 4in German soldier with his rifle pointed straight at him. The German had been killed by a shell and remained standing up. We all had no trouble going to the toilet after that.
“The first big attack came at Noyers, about six kilometres away.
“We had three goes at that and we lost two tanks on the first day.
“After that came the big breakout at Caen. I lost tanks before we got there. I was blown up, shot at and all sorts – but there you are. We lost a lot of machines and by Caen there were only three original tanks left out of the 15 that started.
“We used to have our rations in a big box which you used up and were then given another one. It had little packets of tea and sugar in and we were always brewing up in hedgerows.
“On the way to Caen my latest tank hit a culvert and turned over. One boy had his hand caught in the turret mechanism but I got him out and we dropped into a trench.
“A Canadian came by and said he didn’t know how we fought in a tank, and I said I’d rather be in there than out here. If you got hit you got hit and that was all there was to it.
“I went all the way from Gold Beach to the River Elbe in Germany unhurt, one of the very few in the unit to be unscathed. There were only three of us. We felt no sorrow for the German rabble who walked past us and complained they were only obeying orders.
“I was in Normandy for about eight weeks, continually moving with tanks, and there were German dead all over the place.
“I never had our turret hit by a shell. I was hit on the tracks a few times but the only shell to come really close ricocheted off the front of the tank. I had my head out at the time and it missed me by inches.
“When I think of all the good men who died, it makes you realise just how lucky I was.
“Each year you remember all the people who never came back and in fairness to them, knowing you could have been one of them, you appreciate that you have lived the last 60 years on borrowed time.”
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