Within Jeff Haward’s family, some of his wartime stories became legend, mainly because he related them as funny incidents. As a child I loved them, everyone did, but it was only when I became older that I realised that in reality, what happened to him was NOT funny at all. One of the stories was ‘Waltzing with a German in No Man’s Land.’
Jeff related the story in his book, ‘Fighting Hitler from Dunkirk to D-Day.’
On 15 June 12 Platoon was ordered to hand over the position to the 2ndDerbyshire Yeomanry and move to a gap in our defences, south of Escoville. Information had been received that there was going to be an attack by the 21stPanzer Division from the direction of Cuverville in the early hours of the following morning. We did not take too much notice of that. It got dark at about 2200 hours and so waited until then to avoid the Germans seeing us pull out, moved across to this new area along a line of one 17-Pounder and three 6-Pounder anti-tank guns of the 61stAnti-Tank Regiment. The platoon’s job was to protect the anti-tank guns, so we dug our ‘V’ shaped trenches and set up the machine guns.
The four Vickers guns were dug in about ten yards apart, this being close enough to enable any orders to be heard. My gun was in the centre right position and was helping to protect the 17-Pounder, which was about twenty yards to our right. Due to the darkness, no one had any idea what the ground in front was like.
At about 0400 hours, over the brow of a hill the sound of enemy tanks and vehicles could be heard in Cuverville about three miles away. My Number 2 was my old Beretta pistol-wielding mate, Ginger Richardson. He would roll his own cigarettes and keep the makings in an old tin, and whenever things got a bit sticky, he would scramble for this tin. At times I would shout and swear at him, ‘Never mind rolling a fag Ginger, get that ammunition coming through !’ To which he would reply, ‘If I get captured I’ll not be without a fag !’ I kept telling him the first thing the Germans would do was smoke all his fags, but it was no good, he would not change. I tossed a coin to see who would get the first kip. I won, but as I laid down at about 0430 hours, a heavy barrage opened up. Just as I said to Ginger, ‘We must be putting an attack in somewhere,’ shells started landing all around us. Then Nebelwerfers, fearsome five-barrelled electric projectors that made the most awesome noise when fired, joined in. However, the mortars were the worst problem. During this barrage my stomach felt like lead.
Shortly after it stopped and before it became properly light, the sound of tracked vehicles could be heard approaching from the direction of Cuverville. Their sound got nearer and nearer, until they could eventually be heard on the roadside in front, about 200 yards away. I withheld fire in order not to give our position away and they passed in front, then down the road about 200 yards to our right, finally reaching a crossroads just to the rear, near Escoville. This was defended by ‘C’ Squadron, 2ndDerbyshire Yeomanry, who opened up heavy direct fire at the enemy vehicles, which halted and then began to withdraw. We did not open fire as we could not see a target, however our artillery had fired, one shell scoring a direct hit on one of these vehicles. We thought they were tanks.
It started to get light at around 0500 hours and in front of us a field full of corn about four feet high gradually appeared, parts of which had been set on fire by the exploding shells. Suddenly, out of this smoke and flame appeared panzer grenadiers, shouting, screaming, firing and throwing stick grenades in our direction. We immediately realized that the vehicles had not been tanks but half-tracks carrying these men, who had subsequently crawled through the cornfield. I honestly thought ‘This is a bad dream and I’m going to wake up back home in my little bedroom.’ I was petrified, but these grenadiers obviously had no idea that there were four Vickers machine guns dug in along the hedgerow. Captain Gibbs shouted ‘Gun control !’ so that each gun selected its own target. I opened fire. A few fleeting figures passed by me in the half-light, smoke and cordite which the damp atmosphere was holding close to the ground. I thought ‘Christ, they’ve got through us.’ When the Germans I could clearly see were only yards from us, I told myself ‘I’ve got to stop here and hang on because if they get to me, I’m going to be shot. They are not going to take a machine-gunner prisoner who has just been killing all their blokes, and if I get out of this trench to run, they’re going to kill me anyway as I’ll be in the open field.’ As it turned out it the figures passing me were a few members of the anti-tank gun crew. I suppose a bloke took to his heels and one or two others followed him. If one person panics, it’s easy for it to spread. Within seconds the sergeant in charge of them, a little Scottish fellow, had got them back.
The thing that saved us was a strand of barbed wire about five yards away that the farmer had placed to keep cattle out of the cornfield. The leading grenadiers ran into this and most were held up for a vital few seconds. Nothing could stand up to the direct fire of four Vickers machine guns at that range. The grenadiers dropped in their tracks. The infantry mortars began to plaster the cornfield and we were at rapid-fire non-stop, a belt at a time, so any Germans crawling through the corn must have been slaughtered. I fired eight belts into the cornfield, spraying it all over, four of them helping enemy stragglers to withdraw. However, to the left all three of the smaller anti-tank guns had been knocked out, leaving the 17-Pounder to my side.
Then down the road from Cuverville came six Mk IV tanks, led by an eight-wheeled armoured car. The enemy plan must have been for these grenadiers to destroy the anti-tank guns to allow their tanks to break through. The 17-Pounder fired a round and missed. I thought ‘That’s a good start’. However, they then proved themselves by knocking out the armoured car, preventing them coming any further down the road. As they were in a sunken road and could not get out of it, the next four shots each destroyed a tank. The grenadiers supporting these tanks went to ground in the road. The officer in the remaining tank climbed out and we could see him walking along the road, appearing to urge them to move forward into our murderous barrage. He was unsuccessful and climbed back onto his tank, but of course many guns targeted him and he did not make it. He must have been a very resolute officer. This tank took refuge in a wood to the right, and as I thought there was bound to be some Germans in this wood, I fired two belts into that. Frank Dollin then came along and asked what I was firing at. I explained and he said, ‘Well don’t fire at anything you can’t see. Save your ammunition.’
As they could not get through us, the enemy now shifted the direction of their attack to our right and I could hear the four guns of our 11 Platoon hammering away in support of the 1stGordons. Eventually, the attack was beaten off.
Following an action like that, after being so keyed up, you felt listless, shattered. You could not do anything. I just sat in the trench for a few minutes and my entire platoon was exactly the same, reflecting on what had just happened and the fact that we were still alive. The Vickers gun to my right had been knocked out and all the crew killed by a direct hit from a Nebelwerfer. Some Nebelwerfer rounds were filled with ball bearings and other bits, and the bloke in charge of the gun had a wound through the back of his head. My own gun was out of action with a bit of mortar shrapnel through the water jacket.
Our RSM was known as ‘Rocky’ Knight, because we thought he was as stiff as a rock. We did not say that to his face of course. He came up with another gun as we always carried a spare, and we continued to fire at targets for the remainder of the morning.
At about two o’clock that afternoon a Gordon Highlander officer came over and said, ‘Did you get any of those Germans close up ?’ I said, ‘Yes, there’s one lying out there just in front of us, an officer.’ He was only eight feet in front of our gun. He said, ‘I’ll get one of my blokes to get his pay book.’ Thinking that being an officer he would have a nice watch [spoils of war], plus his Luger had fallen just in front of him, I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll go and get it.’ I said to Ginger, ‘You take over the gun and keep an eye on me.’ He said, ‘I will but I want half of what you get !’ I said, ‘OK, I don’t want his watch, I want that gun.’ There were several Germans lying directly out in front and I went over to this officer, who was lying face down, half on his side, spread-eagled, and there was the pistol about three feet in front of his hand. I was stood over and a little in front of him and went to pick the Luger up, when the German launched himself forward to grab it as well ! We both missed it. I could not believe what was happening. My revolver was in its holster, buttoned up with the safety catch on, so too late to get it out now. Beside him was his entrenching tool, which he snatched up with the intention of slicing my head off. In desperation I grabbed him, putting my arms around his body to stop him being able to raise the entrenching tool. He was not much bigger than me and I could feel his breath on my cheek. As we were struggling I was shouting out, ‘Ginger ! Ginger ! For Christ’s sake shoot him !’ He said, ‘I cannae shoot him, man. Yer too close !’ The others were shouting ‘Get down’ ‘Jump to the left’, ‘Jump to the right,’ and I was shouting, ‘I can’t let go of him !’ This all happened in seconds but I realized I could not hold onto him much longer, so I yelled, ‘When I shout ‘NOW’, I’m going to drop straight down.’ This I did and Corporal Ned Bull immediately shot him with his Sten. I could not rejoin my comrades quickly enough and when I got back to our side of the hedge, the Gordon’s Officer was laughing his head off. He said, ‘I thought you two were having a waltz across No Man’s Land !’ In my haste I did not get the paybook and said, ‘You go and get your own bloody ID. I’m not going out there any more !’ I never even got the Luger as someone else pinched it. That was my lesson. Do not go looking for souvenirs.