Extracts from the autobiographical book "Leakey's Luck" written by Rea Leakey with George Forty. Reproduced here with permission.
In Normandy at 3.00 pm on 20 July 1944 Lt Col Rea Leakey, took command of 7 RTR from the wounded and partially blinded Lt Col George Gainsford. The Regiment had been badly mauled and had lost half of its officers in action. The forward squadrons, 'A' under Dick Jocelyne and 'B' under Allan Taylor were each supporting infantry battalions who had together just re-captured the village of Maltot, dominated by the notorious Hill 112.
Rea Leakey wrote 'At dawn my Adjutant woke me and said that the Divisional Commander wanted me to report to his Head Quarters immediately. So it was some 30 minutes later that I appeared before this Senior Officer in a beautiful Normandy orchard some five miles from Hill 112. Major General Thomas, whose nickname was 'Von Thoma', was a ruthless tough soldier, a gunner by 'trade' commanding an Infantry Division. Like many of the infantry divisions his had suffered heavy losses in the Normandy 'bocage' country. His Division had captured Maltot, but had been counter-attacked and driven out. On that occasion 9 RTR had supported the attack, and Thomas considered that they had pulled back and left the Infantry to themselves.
This was understandable because the armoured regiments had been trained only to operate by day, and at the end of the battle withdrew to replenish and carry out repairs.
This fiery little general looked me up and down, probably noted my footwear – plimsolls cut to accommodate swollen feet - and understandably took a dislike to me. I don't blame him. 'Where are your squadrons ? Back replenishing, no doubt, and leaving the infantry with no support, as usual, I suppose". I explained to him that this was not the case. 'A' and 'B' Squadrons were forward in the village with the two Wiltshire Battalions. 'C' Squadron with the Somersets were in reserve some two miles back from Maltot. General Thomas 'blew up'. 'That squadron should be well forward, there", he said, pointing to the slopes of Hill 112 and some 400 yards from the village. I tried to explain to him that there was no cover for them, but also that they would be sitting targets for Tiger tanks on Hill 112. 'Do as you are bloody well told. Order them to move there immediately and don't argue", he shouted. 'I refuse" I replied. He went pink in the face, strode over to my scout car, picked up the radio microphone and started to shout orders for 'C' Squadron. As he had little idea of our codes the orders were meaningless. I gave in, and told the poor young Squadron Commander to proceed into the 'valley of death'. As I put the microphone down the General picked it up and shouted his final order. 'This is the General speaking. Bloody well get a move on or you will be sacked." He knew only too well that the minute his back was turned I would cancel the order so he propelled me deeper into the orchard and proceeded to tell me what he thought of me and my ancestors. When eventually I was allowed to leave the Divisional Headquarters many minutes had passed and worse was to follow – I could not get through to my Regiment on the wireless.
I arrived in Maltot village in time to see the twelfth 'C' Squadron tank 'brew up' and the Squadron virtually ceased to exist. It was my turn to loose my temper and I did. I transferred to another scout car and sent the following message to my Adjutant. 'Tell General Thomas that I am on my way to General Montgomery's Headquarters to get him sacked.' When I arrived the two generals were outside the famous caravan obviously discussing my future. I think I would have strangled him if I had been allowed to get near him. It was only after he had gone that the C-in-C sent for me. I was about to tell him that it was now impossible for me to go back to my Regiment after this disaster, but he stopped me. 'I know all about it – most unfortunate – but I order you to return to your Regiment immediately and resume command. By the time you rejoin them you will find they have moved from Thomas's Division, and I assure you that you will never serve under him again – never!" Monty kept his word.'
Post script. In early 1946 Rea Leakey was commanding 5 RTR in Rhine Army. General Thomas, as Corps Commander, paid a visit to the Regiment. He arrived alone without any staff officers. At the end of his visit he asked to speak to the officers in the mess. Rea Leakey recalls 'His talk to us went something like this.' 'My main purpose in visiting you today is a very personal one. In June and July 1944 I was commanding 43 Infantry Division in Normandy. In one of our most successful battles we captured the village of Matlot beneath the slopes of the notorious Hill 112. The next morning I summoned the Commanding Officer of 7 RTR to my Headquarters. To cut a long story short I ordered him to move his third squadron to take over a position on Hill 112. He refused but I bullied him into giving the order and made sure that he would not cancel it when I let him return to his scout car because I knew he would cancel it. The squadron was destroyed and the fault was mine. I have come today to apologise."
Such were the pressures on commanders in battle.