The History of the

4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiments

 

Annex A Arras, an eye-witness account

Reproduced by kind permission of Brigadier P A L Vaux OBE

Brigadier Peter Vaux recalls part of the Arras battle for a Regimental Battlefield Tour audience

Brigadier Peter Vaux recalls part of the Arras battle for a Regimental Battlefield Tour audience

In the valley between the wood and ourselves is a potato clamp and, extraordinary though it may seem, that clamp was there in 1940, and I suppose that each year the farmer stores his potatoes in the same place. Now, swinging round to the left, you can see in the open ground there a wire fence with a sort of chicken house in the middle of it - a square - probably a chicken run. Well now, you will remember how I told you that we crossed the start line and we ran into that Rifle Regiment and we dealt with them, and then we spent I suppose three or four hours moving on from there up to the line of the Arras-Bapaume road, and the whole of the way through there we were dealing with German lorries, infantry and anti-tank guns - and these anti-tank guns which were 37 mm were quite unable to penetrate our tanks, and we really had a highly successful battle. I don't know how many Germans we killed and I don’t know how many lorries and other vehicles we set on fire-it was really most successful and we really didn’t see why we shouldn’t go all the way to Berlin at the rate we were going. Well, we came up this hill, and as we came across thc top, I remember, down where the chicken house is there was a very large German tank with a big gun and we had nothing that would deal with that, and so the Colonel called across to me and said, ‘Go back to the cemetery where that French tank is and ask him to come up and deal with this German.’ Because as we had passed we had seen a French tank sitting outside the cemetery firing into it. Well, I went back there and I drew alongside the Frenchman and he opened the door in the side of his tank and said, ‘What do you want?’ and I told him, and he said, ‘Oh, I can’t come, I am very busy, I am shooting into this cemetery.’ Why he was shooting into it I don’t know, because I couldn’t see anybody to provide a target. However, while I was arguing with him there was a sudden burst of firing and some shells fell around us and he shouted, ‘Attention! Attention!’ and he slammed the door and motored off - and that was the last I saw of him. So I got back into my tank, turned round and went back the way I had come. Well, when I got back I found in fact that the German tank had disappeared - which was very convenient of him - and I looked down the valley and the sight I saw was this.

I could see what I suppose was A Squadron - Oh - more than A Squadron, there must have been some of B Squadron there too because there were upwards of twenty tanks, down in the valley just short of the potato clamp. The Colonel’s tank was down there, a little in front of them - I could see it quite clearly, it was stationary and I could see the flag flying from it. The Adjutant’s tank was quite close to the Colonel’s, but from where I was I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I called up the Colonel to tell him about the French tank and it wouldn’t come. I called and I called and I called, but I got I no answer, and then the Adjutant came on the air and he just said, ‘Come over and join me.’ So I motored down to the valley and as I did so I saw the Adjutant drive forward to the area of the potato clamp and start shooting, and as I got closer I saw that there were a whole number of German anti-tank guns in the area of the potato clamp and crews were running about. At that time, a good deal of fire was coming from the area of the wood, and also from the crest lines both to the right and the left of the wood - and it was very heavy fire. It was field-gun fire - much heavier than anything we had encountered so far. At any rate, I went forward through those tanks of A Squadron and I thought it very odd that they weren’t moving and they weren’t shooting, and then I noticed that there was something even odder about them - because their guns were pointing at all angles; a lot of them had their turret hatches open and some of the crews were half in and half out of the tanks, lying wounded and dead - and I realised then, suddenly, with a shock, that all these twenty tanks had been knocked out, and they had been knocked out by these big guns and they were, in fact, all dead - all these tanks. In the grass I could see a number of black berets as the crews were crawling through the grass which, as you can see, is quite long, and getting away - those who were not dead. At any rate, I went forward as I had been told to do, and joined the Adjutant among those German anti-tank guns. And we began shooting at them, and I remember that I owe my life to the quick-wittedness of Captain Cracroft, the Adjutant, because when we got to the potato clamp I found that on the other side of it were half a dozen Germans and so I drove up to them from my side of the potato clamp and I gave fire orders to my gunner and he was firing down into the thing but he couldn’t depress the gun enough, and I was standing on the seat of my tank shouting at the gunner and calling to the driver to reverse a bit so that we could get the bullets down low enough, and I little thought that behind me there was a German lying on the ground and his rifle resting on a kit bag, drawing a very careful bead on the back of my neck. Well, the Adjutant, I heard later - not till I got back to England - pulled out his revolver and, quick as a flash, he shot the chap in the throat. It must have been a jolly good revolver shot, and it saved my life.

Well, I think we killed all those chaps. We then turned our machine-guns on the woods, and we just sprayed the trees. To our astonishment all sorts of Germans and bits of equipment and things fell down out of the trees, where I suppose they had taken refuge. But none the less the fire became heavier and heavier and there were shells falling all round us and striking the tanks, including the tanks already knocked out, and it was high time for us to go, and the Adjutant signaled to me to turn round and drive back. As we did so, I saw the Colonel’s tank had had its side blown in, and although I didn’t know it the Colonel and Corporal Moorhouse his operator were dead inside. The driver, extraordinarily enough, escaped. and walked back and rejoined us at the final rally. As we drove back through the Matildas my heart sank because I realised what had happened: there were all those tanks that I knew so well - the familiar names - Dreadnought, Dauntless, Demon, Devil; there were the faces of these men with whom I had played games, swum, lived with for years - lying there dead; and there were these tanks - useless very few of them burning but most of them smashed up in one way or another. And as the Adjutant and I drove back up to the top of the hill, one realised that this really was it. This - this was tragedy - this was the end of the 4th Tanks as we knew it. In that valley, the best of crews, our tanks, our soldiers, our officers were left behind.

Brigadier P. A. L. VAUX, OBE (who was Second Lieutenant Vaux during this action at Arras on 21st May 1940)



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