The renowned Second World War historian, James Holland, has produced an outstanding account of a unit’s campaign across North West Europe from D-Day in June 1944 to VE-Day in May 1945. The subject unit – The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry (SRY) – was a Territorial Army formation, used initially as a horsed cavalry unit in Palestine at the outbreak of WW2, subsequently converting to an artillery unit and then an armoured until during the Western Desert campaign equipped with M3 Grant and Crusader tanks, finally landing on D-Day, equipped with M4 Sherman and Firefly tanks.
Holland’s book graphically takes the reader through the experiences of the unit, and the men who fought with it, from the nervous apprehension of landing on enemy occupied France on Gold Beach early in the morning on D-Day, to the joy and relief of the announcement of the German surrender in May 1945. Holland writes in such a way that enables the reader to understand clearly the pressures of fighting a long campaign inside a tank – the claustrophobia, the smells and dirt, the lack of space, the camaraderie associated with shared dangers, the typical British Army black humour, the tensions of battle. It’s almost as if Holland can transport you there – his story-telling is that good. Holland explains the rationale for the high casualty rates amongst tank crews – by the time the SRY had reached the German border in late 1944, there had been a 100% turnover in its tank crews – and how the majority of casualties for tank crews were suffered outside the tanks, invariably men bailing out from the tank, after being hit, and being killed by infantry as a result.
Using many first-hand sources and some great maps, Holland narrates the experiences and feelings of many of the men who served in the SRY during the campaign – their sense of pride in their unit, the constant fear of death at any time, their guilt, and deep sense of loss, when good friends are killed and the emotional pain of missing loved ones. The close bonds of the tank crews, and the relaxed, yet professional, tone of leadership of SRY’s Commanding Officer, Stanley Christopherson, as he struggles inwardly to manage the pressures of combat, and loneliness of command, are all too evident, as is the ‘family feel’ to the SRY – with an ex-CO’s wife, based in England, providing a welfare service for the families of those serving. The most graphic parts of the book are the experiences of the unit’s Padre, regularly going into dangerous combat areas, to retrieve the SRY fallen – often mutilated beyond recognition – and conducting burial services, in many instances under the watch of the enemy.
For any serious student of British WW2 armoured warfare, this book is a must-read – as a novice reader about armoured warfare, I appreciated particularly the explanations by Holland of the detailed characteristics of the Sherman tank, and the nuances of the fighting across North West Europe experienced by those in tanks.
Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day by James Holland is out now and published by Penguin.
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 counterinsurgency warfare experts.