This is an Embellished Slice of Life autobiography by Major John Foley of Britain's Royal Tank Regiment, detailing his wartime service between being commissioned as an officer, commanding a troop of Churchill tanks, and leading them in battle between June 7th 1944 and the end of the war in Europe.
Foley describes the intensive nature of pre D-Day training, fondly depicts the men he commanded, (who largely survived the war intact), and the experience of leading a small armoured unit in battle. On the way he discusses the absurdities and bureaucracy of the British military, describes what it is like to be defeated against superior odds in a tank engagement, deals with the melancholy of losing men killed in action, and vividly describes armoured combat in a variety of tactical situations and climates. The chapters describing (minimal) British participation in the Battle of the Bulge are more to do with fighting intensely cold and hostile winter conditions rather than the Germans, and the climax of Foley's war, crossing the Rhine against determined German opposition, is extremely well written and described on the page.
When still available this is thought of as a classic in describing small-unit combat and all-arms co-operation.
A heavy mailed fist drops on these tropes:
- Amphibious Automobile: Foley ruefully describes the time and effort that went into waterproofing his Churchill tanks and adapting them so they could withstand being unloaded from landing craft some way off the beach, and deep-wade onto shore without drowning. On the day their Royal Navy landing craft commander prided himself on landing them dryshod on the beach. The deep-wading gear was never needed.
- Bizarre and Improbable Ballistics: The direct hit from a Tiger tank that killed Foley's co-driver and passed straight through the length of the tank from front to rear to explode in the engine compartment. foley had been right in its path as it passed through the tank and when he returned to the wreck to plot its trajectory between the entrance hole and the hole in the engine bulkhead, he realised it should have taken both his legs off. Yet he escaped with a slight scratch on one thigh. A ballistics expert assured him that shells do odd things in flight, especially when part of their impetus has been spent on first contact. Foley concluded it had somehow described a curved path on entering the tank and somehow swerved around him.
- Blatant Lies: after first contact with the Germans in 1944, practically every officer in Foley's regiment claimed their issue watches (the very best kit available and each costing a month's pay) had been destroyed in action with the Germans. The CO commiserated for the loss, but begged his officers to show some restraint in their looting.
- Cold Sniper: the German sniper who ignored the fact that all an infantry officer's body was in view, so that he could focus on the challenge of the tank commander who was only showing his head above the cupola.
- Could Have Been Messy: Foley describes two "could have been VERY messy" near-misses. In the first, he cheated death twice: a direct hit from a Tiger tank struck the front of his tank, passed right through the fighting compartment, and exploded in the engine. He was initially fortunate in being able to bail out of a brewing tank - one set on fire by an enemy hit - with most of his crew (the co-driver was killed). Going back to view the wreck later with a salvage and recovery team, he charted the passage of the shell through the tank and realised it must have passed straight between his legs as he stood in the commander's position; he reflected that there had been a strange rip, as cleanly cut as if done with a razor blade, in the inner thigh of his trousers. He'd just been too preoccupied to notice it at the time. On a second occasion, a German sniper aiming for his head - the only part of him exposed and visible from outside the tank - missed him by inches. The bullet impacted on the inside face of the commander's hatch and shattered into thousands of globules of molten lead, which sprayed him in the face and hair, missing his eyes. Foley fell back into the tank with his face a mass of blood from hundreds of tiny pinpricks from the tiny lead fragments - none of which had the power to penetrate more than skin-deep, but which gave the illusion of a far more severe wound. He described it as like a combination of sunburn and very minor shaving cuts and was able to continue, otherwise virtually unharmed. (His machine-gunners got the sniper; Foley remembers parking up the tank, investigating, and taking the dead German's unit badges as a souvenir.)
- Covers Always Lie: the book deals with going up against the German panzers in underarmed, underpowered and undergunned tanks. So good so far. But while Foley fought his war in British-built Churchill tanks, almost every cover's art depicts American Shermans. Also note the lurid blurb on the cover depicted above. The book itself is a lot less sensationally written, admits the Wehrmacht was horribly capable of punching back, and is frank on the limitations of British tanks.
- A later edition goes one better: the cover depicts an M4 Sherman in a North African desert setting. But Foley's war - and the setting of the book - was exclusively in northern Europe after D-Day. note Snow and ice figure a lot.
- The Cavalry Arrives Late: Foley's tanks rolled ashore in Normandy on June 7th, a day after the main landing battle. He drily notes time spent in waterproofing the vehicles was wasted, as a borderline-mad Navy officer prided himself on getting them onto the beach without wading. Foley was doubly late: his troop could not fit on the big ship with the rest of the Regiment, and had to be carried separately on a smaller landing craft behind the main body. However, the Navy crew had gin to spare.
- Drinking on Duty: Foley cheerfully admitted to arriving in Normandy more than a little bit drunk, owing to Royal Navy wardroom hospitality on the landing craft ferrying him over.
- Epic Tank-on-Tank Action: Foley was caught up on the fringes of Michael Wittmann's epic assault on the whole British army. Shortly after arriving in Normandy, on a day when he admits the British army was caught with its pants down, he had a run-in with a lone Tiger in a French village. It did not end happily.
- Handguns: Foley describes bailing out of a wrecked tank and leading his crew to safety through German-held territory. He recalls encountering a German infantry section who are trying to emplace a heavy machine gun. Foley only had his standard-issue pistol to try to spoil their day with. Buoyed up by knowing he was recognised as one of his unit's best shots on the pistol range, he tried to get the Germans before they became a threat. And even at close range he missed with every shot. Fortunately, the Germans panicked, dropped the MG, and ran for it. Foley sheepishly led his men on, having realised there's a big difference between hitting every time on the pistol range and doing it for real against a real human target.
- Home by Christmas: After the break-out from Normandy and a two-hundred mile blitzkrieg that took British forces to the Dutch border against a disintegrating German Army, Foley's tank crews felt they could well be home by Christmas 1944. This hope was dashed by Monty's Arnhem failure and shatttered by growing German resistance.
- Meaningful Name: The Mailed Fist was the divisional insignia and informal name of one of Britain's strongest tank armies in WW2. Its badge, worn with pride by all vehicles, was a silver clenched armoured fist on a black background.
- Multi-Track Drifting: Britain's Churchill tank certainly wasn't built for speed. But its engine power and gearing meant it could climb steeper slopes than practically every other tank out. One hilltop defensive position in Tunisia, thought impassible for tanks by its German defenders and therefore lightly guarded by mines or anti-tank guns, was over-run by Churchills climbing a slope the Germans only thought to lightly defend. Foley records that his Churchills crossed wide anti-tank ditches in the Siegfried Line simply by driving into them. and then climbing out of them as if it were a minor inconvenience - much to the consternation of the German defenders. Foley also records a case where a Churchill skidded off a road in the Ardennes in winter ice and smow, plunging into a ravine. It landed right side up and was able to climb out again, ascending the precipitous slope with little damage to tank or crew.
- No One Should Survive That: Foley's two near-misses, once with the close combat with the Tiger and second with the sniper's very close miss. Also the trooper who, when a tank loses traction on a very icy sloping road and it is about to slide sideways and crush him, simply swears and pushes it back into place on top of the road's camber. Foley put this down to the incredible icy cold of the Ardennes and his trooper being lucky enough to have pushed right at the very point of balance, where negative friction and the tank's centre of gravity were perfectly balanced.
- Shoot Everything That Moves: the engagement in Holland where Foley had to lead his three tanks down a forest road by night, knowing the woods to either side were full of Germans with Panzerfausts. He detailed his machine-gunners to continually fire into the forest regardless of whether they saw anything or not, and his drivers to go flat out. None of his tanks were hit and in the morning there were quite a lot of dead Germans with anti-tank rockets they had not had a chance to fire.
- Tank Goodness: This book is, after all, about tanks... British, German, and where appearing, American. The respective merits of Churchill v Sherman are discussed, and all are agreed that it would be rather nice to at least have had Panthers.
- Tanks, but No Tanks: The undergunned British tanks were frequently saved by turretless tank-destroyers that had the heavy guns capable of taking on Tigers and Panthers. Foley also notes by 1945 the Germans were becoming more and more dependent on their turretless tank destroyers and SPG's.
- Up Through the Ranks: Foley had served ten years as a private soldier in the Royal Tank Regiment prior to receiving a wartime commission.
- Works Set in World War II: it covers the period immediately after D-Day to May 1945 in Europe.