Prince Alfred’s Guards: In the Line of Fire

Up until 1942, Prince Alfred’s Guards had always been an infantry unit. This was to change after the Battle of Alamein when it was converted into an armoured unit forming part of the 6th Armoured Division. It was at this juncture that Lt. Arnold (Coley) Colenbrander was posted into this Port Elizabeth unit as a tank commander. This blog covers the miraculous escape by Coley when his tank, an M4 Sherman, was destroyed by a German 75mm anti-tank gun outside Celleno in northern Italy, killing three of his crew.

Main picture: Coley’s Sherman after the battle at Cellano on 10th June 1944. Coley was in the turret when the shell struck the tank

War declared

Whilst Winston Churchill occupied the political wilderness during most of the 1930s, wags claimed that “he had a great future behind him”. Dismissive of his contrarian views about German rearmament, his warnings of the German threat went unheeded. Wary of being drawn into another war two decades after the slaughter of WW1, the Prime Minister, Chamberlain, ignored the threat posed by the remilitarised German nation and instead adopted a policy of appeasement. Undeterred and probably emboldened by the Allies’ feeble response, Hitler set a course for war.  Under the guise of an unprovoked attack on a German radio station on the Polish border, the German Wehrmacht surged across the border on Friday, the 1st September 1939.

Lack of preparedness

While sitting in a pub on a Sunday afternoon, the 3rd September, having completed a game of tennis in Nqutu in the Natal Midlands, Coley was informed of Britain’s and France’s declaration of war on Germany. This announcement would intimately affect all of those who were gathered around in the pub, either directly like the younger ones or indirectly by the older ones.

Given the fact that the Union Defence Force had been underfunded since the Great War, it was in no position to respond expeditiously to Smuts’ seven vote majority in electing to also declare war on Germany. As an example, the armoured fist comprised only two Rolls Royce armoured cars WW1 vintage. Much like the Phony War being experienced in France, South Africa was in the throes of muddle of unpreparedness. Simply put, nothing happened. It was only in February 1940, that motion of the wheels of organisation could be observed when a camp was established at Oribi on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg. The U.M.R. and the N.M.R. were called up. Joining them were young men from the country districts who turned up to volunteer for service. Amongst this polyglot admixture was Coley Colenbrander who was allocated number 1585 (v). The v was only added later when they volunteered for service outside the borders of South Africa. This entitled them to wear a red tab on their shoulder straps.

Coley, a 2nd lieutenant at Barberton during 1942

At best, the February camp can be classified as a light-hearted affair as nobody took it particularly seriously. Officers created the structure on an infantry battalion by allocating personnel to companies, platoons and sections. Without uniforms, the men wore an odd assortment of clothes. Even rifles were at a premium. Unlike the usual basic training, it was a damp squib rather than a big bang. Probably recognising the futility of further training without uniforms and equipment, the men were allowed to return home and having been warned that mobilisation would occur shortly. Finally, a Mobilisation Order was issued in June 1940 informed them that they had to report at Oribi by the 25th of that month. Instead of the former lackadaisical attitude and demeanour, training now reflected an attitude of seriousness and purpose.   

Conversion training for PAG

Training now was continued at Premier Mine, 40kms from Pretoria before being shifted to Egypt where training in the form of conversion to tanks occurred. First training was performed on the British Crusader tank whose 2-pounder gun was impotent against the Mark III and Mark IV German tanks. Next came the American Honey tank with its inadequate 37mm gun, followed by the M3 Grant tank with two guns, a 37mm in the turret and a 75mm in the hull. This clumsy arrangement did not endear the tank to it crew. Finally, they trained on the latest American tank, the M4 Sherman tank.

Action at last

By the time that PAG was shipped to Italy, the Gustav Line was in the process of being breached by the fearless Polish troops in the vicinity of Monte Cassino. In the process the historic monastery was reduced to rubble.

The account of the action at Celleno north of Rome which was liberated on the 6th June 1944 is provided by Colenbrander himself.

This account of my part in the Celleno battle is written almost forty years after the events occurring during one afternoon. Incidents crammed one upon the other – swiftly. I came out of them in a shocked and disorientated state so some of the facts may not be entirely accurate. For example, I have always thought our part of the Celleno battle took place on 11th June, while Neil Orpen, the author of ‘ Prince Alfred’s Guard’, puts the date as 10th June (page 203). However, I clearly remember our squadron – A squadron of the Prince Alfred’s Guard – negotiating a defile with demolitions in the dead of night and pulling off the road just north of Viterbo. Major Barney Benoy, our squadron commander, called the troop commanders to an order group during the night, where he gave us what information he had of the situation ahead of us. During this order group some shelling of our lines took place, but with no real effect that I saw. It seemed that the S.S.B., who were leading our sector, had pushed ahead quite successfully, but were now encountering stiffer opposition with signs that the enemy were preparing to counterattack from the direction of Cellano. A squadron of the P.A.G. remained static until mid-morning the next day, although we could hear and see signs of a battle in progress to our left, in front of us on higher ground. At about this time news filtered back that a Major E Liebenberg of the S.S.B. – I think he commanded their A squadron -had been killed by a sniper’s bullet while his head and shoulders were exposed during an advance. I remember him at Kathatba in Egypt – a dark, handsome and cheerful type.

Suddenly we were ordered to swing off to the right flank of our advance to support the S.S.B. attack (which had got into stiff fighting) by outflanking the enemy, whose line was thought to be only lightly held in that position. Ominously, there was no suggestion of infantry support, although it was pretty obvious that we had difficult terrain for tanks ahead of us. A quick look at our maps showed a river ahead of us and some steep slopes rising to more or less less terrain on much higher ground.

I remember No.1 troop of our squadron, commanded by Lieutenant Jiggs Innes, his troop sergeant being Chris Opperman who was to lead the movement forward. My troop – No.2 troop – was to follow. Our immediate objective was to get through the low wooded stream, thence up a steep incline on to the undulating plateau of wheatfields above, and engage the enemy, away on the right flank of the main advance.

After the years of waiting the men of the P.A.G. were keen to get to grips with the enemy and we started off in great form. Almost immediately No. 1 troop got into difficulties at the river. When they did get across, they were bogged and bellied down in the soft ground along its banks. Later I heard that Jiggs’s tank had rolled over, and, that while dismantling a Browning machine gun to set up outside the tank for defence, Trooper de Lange was accidentally and fatally injured.   

Seeing No. 1 troop in this trouble I made a wider sweep to the right, crossed the river and pushed on through the soft ground. My other two tanks were commanded by Sgt. Buller Lee and Corporal McCleland, a dance band leader from Port Elizabeth. They also seemed to be getting through quite well so I proceeded on through a wood and thus lost sight of the other tanks.

As I came into the open, I found myself at the mouth of a defile leading still further to the right, but upwards on to the plateau above me. I hesitated, to let the other tanks catch up with me, but immediately came under small arms fire, bullets hitting the tank. I soon got my head back inside. The fire appeared to be coming from the plateau above me. I reasoned that if I stayed where I was, sooner or later an anti-tank gun or bazooka team would get me, so I advanced up the defile, expecting to be followed closely by the rest of the squadron. There was really no other option, as the direct advance up the slope was impossible because of its steepness. We found a farm track which we followed. At several places the track crumbled making progress extremely hazardous. It was only the consummate skill of our driver, trooper du Pavilion, that saved us from rolling down the hill. Unfortunately, du Pavilion, a Frenchman from Mauritius who spoke very little English but was immensely popular, was not to live long.

All our attention was directed towards getting our tank up this obviously dangerous defile in one piece. There was no room or time for other considerations. On looking back and down I was unable to see the other tanks of my troop or, in fact, any of the other tanks of our squadron. I came up on the B set, which should have raised my other two tanks but for some reason or other I could not contact them at all. I then called up on the squadron net, gave my position and signified my intention of proceeding up the defile alone. I appealed for the other tanks to come forward and support me. This message was acknowledged.

About this time my crew observed enemy movement further up the defile and on both sides of it. Through my binoculars I could distinctly make out German helmets and green-grey uniforms going into what looked like the mouth of a cave on the opposite slope. I had little option but to proceed along our vague pathway ordering the operator, trooper Dickason, known by his mates affectionately, for some unknown reason, as the muscle-bound worm, the gunner lance-corporal Vincent and the co-driver trooper Dougal, to get ready and to engage the enemy on sight. As we proceeded the gunner pumped three rounds of H.E. from the 75mm master gun into the mouth of the cave for good measure. Later I was to hear that these rounds caused havoc in the cave – which was being prepared as a Regimental Aid Post – killing and wounding several men.

Suddenly we reached the top and, running through a stretch of dead ground, found ourselves in a field of corn stubble two inches high. If we were exposed, so was the enemy. Along the escarpment to our front and sides, in full view and only some 200 yards away, were elements of infantry formations seemingly hurrying to take up positions along the lip of the high ground overlooking the rest of our squadron in the valley. They seemed totally unprepared for the tank attack. Presumably they did not believe tanks could negotiate the slope up which our tank had come. Both Brownings opened up on them and very soon those who survived our point-blank fire scattered or went to ground.               I kept moving the tank to keep them guessing, fearing that a panzerschreck team would creep up and demolish the tank. I knew the infantry formations were armed with these panzerfausts.

Meanwhile I repeatedly came up on the squadron net, appealing for other tanks to come up and join me, giving my position and trying to describe the route I had used to come up.

From the messages I could hear being passed, it was obvious that the tanks of the squadron were having the greatest difficulty following me up. Later I heard that one of my tanks had rolled over and that the others had bogged down in soft ground. Meanwhile, we had very little time to consider what to do – we plunged from one situation to another. At one stage we observed a group of the enemy entering a barn in the fields. We advanced and pumped two 75mm rounds of H.E. through the door, having set the rounds to explode one hundredth of a second after impact. The effect was dramatic. Enemy soldiers exploded out of every opening in the building and scattered. Some of these men approached the tank with their hands up. I was now in a dilemma. How could I take prisoners under these circumstances? I considered for a moment shooting them down as they approached. In the event I ordered trooper Dougal, the co-driver, to take the Tommy gun and escort them back down the slope on foot. This move saved his life.

We also at one stage observed a group carrying a weapon that looked like a panzerschreck. The 75mm shell we aimed at them seemed to explode right amongst them. Those who survived it abandoned what they were carrying and fled. While all this was going on, frantic now, I called for help. To my relief I saw one of our squadron’s tanks appear over the lip. I think it was Sgt. Opperman’s tank of No. l troop. I fell

back to this tank which was quickly joined by several more. I think we were six A squadron tanks together. With very little hesitation we fanned out and advanced – determined to press home our advantage while the enemy was still on the wrong foot, as it were. I again took the extreme right flank position while we leap-frogged forward, making use of the dead ground offered in the undulating cornfields.

To my amazement I saw the barrel of what could only have been an 88mm dual-purpose gun slowly pushing down the hedge in order to get a bearing on my tank. We were so near that every detail is etched on my mind, even today.  I ordered the driver to swing right to face the gun, and the gunner immediately loosed off a round which exploded right on target. The 88mm barrel which had no muzzle brake) went up at an angle. I was exultant and, instead of remaining in my partially hull down position, foolishly advanced on the 88, firing to make sure of it.  I was to hear later that this move exposed my flank to another gun, a PAK 75mm, which promptly pumped several shots of A.P. into my tank. All I knew was a terrific explosion and searing heat. As the commander of the tank, I was standing in the turret with my head and shoulders out of the turret ring. The explosion must have blown me up into the air, ripping the earphones from my head and cartwheeling me clear of the tank. I probably landed on my head as later the muscles at the base of my neck were found to have been ruptured.

The first projectile must have passed through the 56-gallon tanks on the sides, which contained 100 octane petrol, igniting them, and then passing through the 75mm ammunition standing around the fighting chamber. The gelignite in them must have ignited too, all this causing the explosion which had shot me free and blown the turret off its seating – eventually it was found upside down on the tank. I recovered my wits lying on the ground towards the front of the tank. The whole tank was enveloped in flames with black smoke pouring out. Then I heard screams from my crew inside. I was nearest the driver’s position where I could hear him screaming. I climbed onto the tank and tried to open the driver’s hatch. The inside catch must have been engaged as it would not budge. Suddenly I became aware of bullets hitting the armour plating of the tank next to me. I looked in the direction of the hedge, which was only about forty yards away, to see a German sitting behind a Spandau machine­gun, aiming and firing directly at me.

My survival instinct took over, and I jumped through the flames and smoke, got the tank between me and the machine-gun and raced away over the corn stubble. Another machine-gun opened up from another angle and I could see the tracer rounds as they passed me. I jumped and swerved in my efforts to get away. At about this moment I was conscious of one of our tanks coming up, firing all its guns. Later I was to hear that it was commanded by our squadron sergeant major, Barry Jardine.

After perhaps a hundred-yard sprint I felt I was going to faint and went to ground in a single furrow which had been ploughed across the stubble field. Although the furrow protected my head and shoulders, my buttocks were exposed. I looked back and could see an enemy infantryman standing next to an oak tree. He was taking deliberate aim at me. I burrowed down. He fired his rifle but the shot was short, covering me in dirt. Oddly enough my fear was now replaced by anger and I remember thinking that even if he hit my buttocks he would have to come into the open to get me, and I still had my .38 revolver strapped to my waist. Just then a shot from Jardine’s tank exploded next to the tree where the infantryman was sheltering. He dropped his rifle and fled, probably wounded.

At this time Jardine’s tank was hit. It burst into flames and started brewing. Guessing that this would draw the attention of the enemy off me and onto the crew escaping from his tank, I rose and ran back as fast as my legs and condition would allow towards our tanks in the rear. My recollections now become very hazy. I can remember becoming very weak and taking cover in a shallow ditch near our tanks. I was in great pain and was burned about the face and hands. My overalls had saved the rest of my body. I seemed to have difficulty in controlling my head which wobbled about in a disconcerting fashion so that I had to steady it with my hands. All tank commanders carried a small tube of morphia in their top left pockets. I broke off the seal and injected the full dose into. my arm. I saw nothing of my crew again. I heard later that du Pavillon died in the tank and that Vincent and Dickason died of wounds. However, I heard still later that Corporal Vincent did survive. Apart from my tank and that of Jardine, another tank could be seen brewing away to our left. I later heard that it was Sgt. Opperman’s.

As I made my way back on foot, I met Major Cochrane. I told him all I knew of the position forward and staggered on. Eventually I was led by someone to a jeep, which took me out of the scene of action. The effects of shock and the morphia took their toll and I have no memory until I woke up in a moving vehicle which turned out to be an ambulance.  I had a shrapnel wound in my thigh, but I don’t remember receiving this wound. In the ambulance were three other men, two of whom I recognised as comrades from my regiment. Both were wounded and burned. The third man had the blanket over his face and lay so still throughout the night that l presumed he had died. We others conversed in Afrikaans – the two comrades were. so badly injured that I held lighted cigarettes to their lips while they tried to suck in the smoke. The next morning we arrived somewhere near Rome and it was then I saw that the third man was alive.

Source

Coley’s Odyssey by Arnold B. Colenbrander (Options Publishing, Somerset West)

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