The acclaimed historian has written a bestselling and acclaimed account of the Sherwood Rangers, the British tank regiment awarded more honours than any other during the Second World War. Following the unit from the Normandy landings to the invasion of Germany, Holland has brought their accounts to life in the pages of Brothers in Arms. In this James Holland interview we chatted about history, the Sherwoods, tank warfare and those who served.
Why did you decide originally to research and write about Second World War History? What is it about that period of history that interests you so much?
I always loved history as a boy and read it at university, but although I’d be very into war films, Commando comics and so on when I was young, I never studied the Second World War at all at either school or university. Then one day I was playing cricket and an amazing machine started pirouetting about the sky with the most incredible sound somewhere far behind midwicket. I turned to the umpire and said, ‘What’s that?’ And he turned back and said, ‘A Spitfire.’ It was a Damascene moment and the following weekend I took myself off to see Flying Legends at Duxford and that was it.
I think what really sucked me in was not the machines but the human experience of war. The human drama. It’s still so relatively recent and yet it seems so impossible to imagine too – that ordinary people would have been expected to abandon their normal lives and go off and fight. I always wonder how I would have coped, what service I’d have joined and how I would have confronted those experiences. And, of course, whether I would have survived. The more one gets immersed in the subject the more the whys and wherefores become increasingly interesting, but at its heart it’s still the immense human drama of the conflict that continues to keep me endlessly fascinating.
Why the Sherwood Rangers, rather than say a regiment in the Guards Armoured Division for example? What attracted you in particular to their NW Europe campaign story?
I’ve had a long association with the Sherwood Rangers that dates back to 2004 and my first trip to Normandy. A friend of mine organised for a group of us to go and one amongst the party was David Christopherson. We hit it off immediately and he also told me is father had served with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry and had landed on Gold Beach in a tank. Then he revealed that his father, Stanley, had kept a diary and journal throughout the war. He was saying things, ‘Dad told me he came ashore here and remembered a gun in this bunker being particularly problematic.’ This was the anti-tank gun at WN 37, Le Hamel. We were staying at Audrieu and David his father’s 1:250,000 map of Normandy with pencil markings on and so on. We realised we were less than a mile from Point 103, which was on the map and written about repeatedly in Stanley’s journals so I suggested to David that we head up there. We found the track and it was just as his father had written. It was very easy to half close the eyes and imagine Sherman tanks lined up along it and trucks and half-tracks behind. Anyway, at that moment I was hooked. Damascene moment Number 2!
At the time I was writing about the North Africa campaign and David kindly allowed me to use his father’s diaries for that and for me to write about him in the book. Some years later, I then edited Stanley’s diaries and we had them published and for part of the contextual writing I added, David and I went around the country interviewing former Sherwood Rangers veterans, including David Render, John Semken and others. So, I knew a lot about them and had testimonies from others. Also, on the back of the diaries, family members of SRY veterans sent me stuff – people like Michael Wharton, who sent me transcripts of his father, Bill’s, wartime letters. Bill Wharton then became one of the main characters in the book. When Covid hit and I couldn’t gad around the world visiting archives, I realised I probably had enough to write a Band of Brothers style narrative – and fortunately the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry Association allowed me to visit and plunder their archives too. Last October, David Christopherson and I then did a road trip following the Sherwood Rangers’ route through Germany and that really was the icing on the cake. An unforgettable trip.
Were the Sherwood Rangers a typical tank unit, or were there some unique features about it?
They were and they weren’t. They were a yeomanry regiment – so, pre-war part timers. The yeomanry regiments were the only part of the British Army not mechanised and they were sent overseas in January 1940 to Palestine with their horses. These were taken from them in July that year and they became artillery, seeing action on Crete and in the Siege of Tobruk.
In the autumn of 1941, they became mechanised and first went into action in tanks at the Battle of Alam Halfa at the very end of August 1942, and thereafter did increasingly well, which was why they, and their parent 8th Armoured Brigade, were chosen to lead the spearhead of the invasion on D-Day. But armoured units were either part of an armoured division or an ‘independent armoured brigade’. The former was designed to exploit breakthroughs, whereas the latter were specifically to support infantry in the grinding and attritional battle that was to achieve the breakthrough. It was tough role. The Sherwood Rangers ended the war as the single British Army unit with the most battle honours – and that was because they were fire-fighting the whole time.
Which character in the book resonated with you as a personality?
So many. I’m in awe of men like Stanley Christopherson, who managed to hold the regiment together so brilliantly, and who never stopped smiling and laughing or his innate humanity. Padre Leslie Skinner’s dedication was outstanding, while I simply don’t know how John Semken managed to be such an awe-inspiring squadron commander at just 23. I really warmed to Bill Wharton – his letters to his wife are full of yearning, wistfulness and anxiety, while his observations of his fellows are wonderfully good humoured and perceptive. I felt I really got to know his 31-year-old self and it was a privilege to put flesh back on his bones, so to speak. I was also hugely enjoyed meeting and getting to know Stan Perry, who at the time was the last surviving Sherwood Rangers officer. He became a good friend, but sadly passed away on 6 October. Another link gone.
Why were tank units like the Sherwood Rangers not trained on how to fight in the Normandy terrain?
They did train of course, but not with infantry and artillery and not in the kind of landscape they would find in Normandy. One has to remember that the UK is a pretty small place and in 1943-44 was absolutely pullulating with millions of troops and vast depots or ordnance and materiel. Britain’s transportation system was stretched to the full and there was simply no means of carrying out large-scale all-arms training exercises. The last such was in the spring of 1943 – Operation Spartan – but couldn’t be repeated in 1944. So, the Sherwood Rangers – and the infantry they were supporting – had no choice but to use past experience and adapt on the hoof, and in quick order.
The Sherwood Rangers used different tank models in the war, but which was the best, and which the worst?
They used Crusaders, which were quickly outmoded, then Grants and then Shermans, with 17-pounder Shermans – Fireflies – as well. I think the Sherman was the best all-round tank of the war: reliable, easy to maintain, highly manoeuvrable, quick-firing, with a gun stabilising gyro and commander turret over-ride. The Firefly was a bit more cumbersome but the 17-pounder was awesome with a greater velocity than the dreaded 88mm.
Being a member of a tank crew was a particularly dangerous existence – can you describe what happened when a tank was struck by an enemy shell?
It all depends on where the shell hits and with what power. If a charge penetrates it’s not just the shell that causes damage but also spawling – bits of molten steel from the inside of the tank’s armour plate that showers around the belly of the tank. If it’s early in the day and there is a lot of ammunition in the tank and one of those penetrates the case and ignites the propellant or explosive, then it’s game over for the crew. Having said that, very often a tank would be damaged without crew injuries – or with only light injuries – and the crew would bail out only to be hit subsequently by mortars, machine-guns and so on. Some 75% of all casualties were outside, rather than inside, the tank.
How were the Sherwood Rangers viewed by senior divisional and corps commanders, and even army commanders such as Montgomery?
Very highly. General Horrocks, commander of XXX Corps from August 1944, reckoned they were the tops. The number of battle honours speaks for itself.
What was the Sherwood Rangers’ greatest success during its NW Europe campaign? And it’s most tragic experience?
I suppose 26 June 1944 has to rate quite highly – when A Squadron knocked out 13 enemy tanks for no loss of their own. Gheel on 10/11 September must be one of the worst – 46 casualties, half fatal and 11 tanks knocked out. B and C Squadron were really hard hit. But Geilenkirchen in November was pretty grim too and they continued losing men right to the end.
How would you describe the relationship between units like the Sherwood Rangers, and the various infantry units it fought with across NW Europe?
The biggest problem with armour and infantry operating together was the lack of communication and this was exacerbated when operating with infantry for the first time – trust and personal relationships had not had a chance to be formed. Nearly all the Sherwood Rangers’ darkest moments were when operating with infantry who were new to them: crossing the Noireau, Gheel, Geilenkirchen all spring to mind. Whenever a relationship was forged, everything tended to go a bit more smoothly.
The personalities in the book are eclectic in background. Do you think that was the strength of the unit, given the cramped claustrophobic fighting conditions experienced in Sherman tanks?
Definitely. Almost none of them would have worn uniform had it not been firstly for the approach of war and then the war itself. They were a blend of wily countrymen, worldly types and eccentrics and the mix was a potent and very effective one. Collectively, they brought a great deal to their combined effort.
Major Cotterell, the war correspondent attached to the unit until August 1944, suffered a tragic fate, after dropping with 1st Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem, in September 1944. Why did Cotterell end up fighting at Arnhem? Was his death a war atrocity?
Cotterell wanted to be in the airborne forces and had lobbied hard to be allowed to jump with them on D-Day. Instead, he was attached to 8th Armoured and the Sherwood Rangers. But after that stint he finally got his wish and so went to Arnhem with 1st Airborne. He was taken prisoner and died as others were trying to escape when one of the German guards panicked and accidentally shot those still on the truck – Cotterell included. His death was tragic but not, by all accounts, a deliberate atrocity.
You’re a busy man, what with the Chalke Valley History Festival, WarFest, WeHaveWays Podcast and your writing. What’s next?
I’m going back to fiction, which is fun, but the next history book will be Westwall – the war in NW Europe from after Operation Market Garden to the end of the war in May 1945. The podcast, various festivals and ongoing TV work all keep me pretty busy too. I’m very lucky.
James Holland is the bestselling author of Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day, his latest book.
Rupert Hague-Holmes is an amateur military historian, currently writing a biography about the life and career of Lt Gen Sir George Lea, one of the leading post WW2 British counter-insurgency warfare experts.