General Background Information:
The 2nd Tank Company consisted of the following:
Command Platoon: 2 tanks, plus a Radio Half-Track, a Jeep and a motorcycle.
Supply Platoon: 4 lorries (munitions, fuel, bureau, and a spare towing a small cannon) and a Breakdown Half-Track.
Three Platoons of 5 tanks each. Each Platoon had one tank designated Command Tank. Montmirail was Command Tank of First Platoon
On the eve of departure for Normandy the Company was given an extra Sherman, armed with a 105mm cannon. They christened it La Moscowa. Therefore full Company strength was 18 tanks.
MONTMIRAIL's crew were:
Lieutenant Louis Michard, Tank (and Platoon) Commander;
Sgt Etienne FIorkowski, Gunner;
André Mengual, Radio Operator and Gun Loader; (replaced Paul Lhopital who was wounded 24 Aug in Paris)
Sgt Gaston Eve, Driver;
Marc Casanova, Co-Driver/machine gunner.
ARCIS-SUR-AUBE's crew were:
Sergeant Julien Vergnory, Tank Commander;
Roland Hoerdt, Gunner;
Jean de Valroger, Radio Operator and Gun Loader;
Sargent René Tracqui, Driver;
Pierre Régnier, Co-driver/machine gunner.
By January 1945 General de Lattre's 1st French Army had surrounded a large number of Germans in the "Colmar Pocket". The German defence was very dogged. A key point in preventing this pocket from breaking out and threatening the allied advance into Germany was the clearing of the villages eastward toward Markolsheim including Grussenheim. General Haislip had been holding onto the 2nd Armoured Division Free French and had developed a close working relationship with Leclerc. However at that point Haislip, who well understood the cool relations between the regular French Army and the Free French, relented and agreed to temporarily lend part of 501 RCC ["Régiment de Chars de Combat"] and some RMT ["Régiment de Marche du Tchad"] to help General de Lattre clear up. The Free French suffered a severe mauling.
General notes below, placed within square [ ] brackets are written by Marc Eve.
|The two tanks immediately after the battle.|
|Leclerc, Selestat after his inspection of the crews. Immediately the crews were put at ease, Dad ran upstairs and grabbed his camera but was a bit too late.|
|Montmirail the morning of the 29th with the small French penant flying. André Mengual at top Étienne Florkowski at the left, Gaston Eve at his post.|
27th January 1945.
The strength of the 2nd Company of the 501st Tank Regiment was seven tanks on the morning of the 27th January. In Lieutenant Michard's Platoon there was only his tank Montmirail and Arcis sur Aube. The second company left for its starting point towards midday with some half-tracks and infantry . It was cold and a lot of snow had fallen. Our tanks had been painted white for some time. The tanks and half-tracks left in a column on a route behind the front. We arrived at the approaches to the Grussenheim area about half an hour later.
At that moment our tanks quitted the road and advanced across fields towards Grussenheim. We arrived at a place where there was a tank of the third company which had been destroyed. The tank showed all the signs of disorder from the hits it had received and there was evidence that some of the crew had survived because the hatches for the pilot and co-pilot were open. One of our comrades was stretched out on the turret and was without movement.
We carried on about 200m further and found a large German Self Propelled Gun. It had immediately to its right a large hedge which hid it completely. The front and other side were buried in snow as it was still in summer camouflage. Luckily for us it had been abandoned, without doubt because of the assault of third company. There was no sign of the company we were supposed to reinforce. There was a lot of arm fire of all sorts. We had advanced without damage up to a place where there was a very high and dense hedge which separated us from Grussenheim. This hedge was just about the height of our cannon. Two or three hundred metres further were some woods across which we could see Grussenheim.
We had meanwhile received and delivered many rounds which had obliged us to make frequent changes of emplacement to avoid taking a hit. Our infantry were next to us along the hedgerow and though few in number were very active. Conditions allowed us to leave our tanks from time to time to talk or take a snack. At one time I climbed onto the rear of Montmirail with Lieutenant Michard to better reckon the terrain before us. I soon realized what very strong nerves he had as I heard some bullets passing. Sometime after, when we were walking along the hedgerow, we found an abandoned stretcher. We folded it onto the back of Montmirail thinking that perhaps it would be useful to us for taking turns sleeping in it if the opportunity presented itself. Our infantry was very active but without success.
I took advantage of a moment of calm to go and see the comrade who was stretched out on the turret of the tank from third company. I climbed onto the tank [The tank Chemin des Dames] and was able to confirm that he was dead. I left him on the spot because I found myself under small arms fire while on the turret. I recognized the comrade as a young man called Armand Mager, a companion from Camberley.
The night fell without us having made progress and the crew stayed on the spot. We continued to change the tanks emplacement time and again. That night was long, very cold and sleepless. The stretcher was left on the back of Montmirail. The area was illuminated by flares time and again and there was often fire from arms of all types from one side or the other. The Germans counter attacked very strongly twice during the night but we repulsed them. Each attack was lit up by flares but I couldn't see which side launched them. These allowed us to defend ourselves.
28th January 1945.
When the day broke we made coffee and ate. Our morale remained very good and our objective was the same. Our greatest discomfort was having soaked feet because the American boots let in water. The first hours of the morning had been very quiet.
About nine or ten in the morning we saw the three other tanks of the company advancing towards a bridge that led to Grussenheim. It was a bridge just a little wider than a tank. [ A Bailey bridge thrown across the river by engineers at the cost of many casualties ] Just as the front of the lead tank moved onto the bridge a shell hit it and removed its track. It remained on the spot halting all progress. I believe it was the Ulm. [ Closely followed by the next victim, the Phoque a Tank Destroyer of 2nd Platoon of 2nd Company RBFM ["Régiment Blindée de Forces Marins"], a regiment formed from French Navy crews who wanted to fight but had no ships because they had been scuttled by their crews or sunk by the Royal Navy to prevent the Germans getting them. ]
A short while after Lieutenant Michard gathered the two crews and told us that we were going to enter Grussenheim by another route to create a diversion. Montmirail, Arcis Sur Aube and two or three half tracks of infantry would rejoin the road they left the day before to find their new starting point. To get to our new starting point we went to Jebsheim, I think. In that village there were many trucks and other war materials not of the Deuxième DB. We saw neither soldier nor civilian during the crossing of the village.
We placed ourselves on the approaches to Jebsheim facing Grussenheim which we could see in the distance. There were some houses behind and to the left of us and ahead towards Grussenheim was something like a vineyard which was very high and supported by a framework and many lines of iron wire.
To our right was a road that went in a line straight to Grussenheim. There were trees lining the road and at three to four hundred metres to the right of this, also the length of the road, there was very thick woods.
We arrived at our starting point towards midday. Lieutenant Michard told us that we were leaving at exactly 13.00 H. From where we were we could see the point where the other two tanks and the few infantry had to attack during the diversion.
The day was very clear and visibility good. Before us lay the terrain we had to cross and at the end Grussenheim. The task was obvious. We passed the time taking a snack, washed down with a little wine that Lieutenant Michard had found in an abandoned house. We had little to say to each other but we were very calm. I thought that I, like my comrades, had become used to facing the inevitable with determination.
I recall that some among us automatically put their hands together because it was evidently the end of the road for the company.
A little before one o'clock Lieutenant Michard repeated to us the goal of our attack and said how to proceed. Tracqui who was driving the Arcis Sur Aube and I for Montmirail were ordered to charge without stopping up to Grussenheim. Lieutenant Michard passed around the hip-flask of Calvados that he kept on his belt and each of us drank a gulp or two. After which he left to cut the iron wires of the vines facing the Arcis Sur Aube and Montmirail so that we could pass without uprooting and demolishing its large frame.
At one o'clock exactly we got going at top speed in a line, side-by-side to limit the target as seen from the edge of the woods. Montmirail kept to the right, next Arcis Sur Aube then the half-tracks. We had an element of surprise. During the first 300m there was no sign of reaction from the edge of the woods. At the end of that pause everything changed as we became the target of a considerable barrage from there. The shells that arrived were armour piercing and ahead of Montmirail, instead of the great explosions of high explosive shells there were puffs of snow thrown up when each shell hit the ground. The terrain was completely bare and looking to my left I could see the same puffs of snow around the Arcis Sur Aube and the half-tracks.
Although the terrain seemed flat under the covering of snow Montmirail, running at top speed, was making sudden violent movements and we were unable to reply to the artillery. The speed of our tanks and the closeness of the German guns rendered the task for their gunners difficult so tanks and half-tracks arrived intact although close to the end of the passage we took a hit to the rear.
We placed ourselves out of sight of the edge of the woods, Montmirail and Arcis Sur Aube at 100m to the left in the direction which we would attack, the rest of the company and half-tracks remained with us. Lieutenant Michard had got down from Montmirail to talk with the infantry officer and had returned. From the first we had been subjected to a hail of automatic fire and bazooka. The fire was light at first but rapidly increased until it was incessant. The danger was too great for Montmirail to remain stationary so we immediately shuttled the distance to Grussenheim, a distance of 100 to 150m. The very few infantry we had were unable to establish themselves and we saw them time and again in very difficult circumstances and we supported them and they us.
From the first Lieutenant Michard had frequently been subjected to fire. As was his habit his turret was open. He wore his tank helmet and over this an infantry helmet which covered his head to just above the eyes. His height allowed him to have his eyes just above the turret and to see all sides. His orders, received by us through the intercom, were always spoken and never shouted and were and remained unwavering.
As with many drivers there were times when I could observe all that was going on. Sometimes when the danger was obvious he almost whispered his orders as though they might be heard outside the tank and our manoeuvres anticipated by the enemy. In these moments there was a quiet urgency in his voice, after which he would say" Good" to our gunner, or to all of us, "That was hot!" or something like that.
In little time we had used up the turret stock of shells and this process was repeated many times during that afternoon. The turret was turning non-stop and Montmirail never remained more than a few moments in one place. We were constantly receiving orders and time, without our realising it, passed very quickly.
After about one hour the attack was slackening on our left and the presence of a bazooka, one or two tanks and the fire of automatic weapons made themselves more and more felt. Lieutenant Michard made his first call by radio. He repeated twice "We are established at the crossroads. We require reinforcements." I heard the call on my headphones but there was no response. We continued to manoeuvre and fire this way and that. About 30 and 60 minutes later the Lieutenant repeated with the same calm exactly the same message two or three times. There was no response. There was no longer any fight coming from our left.
During our manoeuvres we had passed right round the fringes of Grussenheim alongside our infantry and the Lieutenant had talked with their officer. I don't know what he told him. After that he told me to manoeuvre faster "Faster Mécano". [Michard always called Dad "Mécano", Mechanic whilst in the tank.] He told me to return via the crossroads and advance into the village along the road coming from Jebsheim. One of the houses in this road was on fire and the smoke blew alongside us. I saw close by us some of our infantry, they took many shots from one side or the other. Montmirail arrived at an intersection with a road transversal to that which we were on. The Lieutenant told me to advance very gingerly and watch out to my left. From my position I could see a German tank facing us but with the turret not quite pointing towards us. I warned the Lieutenant and put us hard in reverse.
A little while afterwards he told me to advance again, very slowly. The German tank was no longer there and we just had time to see the end of their cannon disappear. It was moving backwards down the road running parallel to ours. Our two tanks were separated by two rows of houses. Because we didn't want to put ourselves in their line of fire Lieutenant Michard told me to move backwards into the road we had just left. He told Mengual to load an armour piercing shell and Florkowski to turn the turret to the left. We fired the armour piercing shell through the houses to catch the German tank on the side, the events following proved that this was unsuccessful. After this we held on in Grussenheim manoeuvring from place to place without going near the road in which we saw the German tank waiting for us to pass.
Our situation was untenable because we always had too few infantry. Lieutenant Michard told us we would try to take the German tank from behind so Montmirail returned to the crossroad at the entrance to the village. Before arriving there we heard some very sharp explosions of combat between tanks. We heard it was Arcis Sur Aube and a German tank. [Actually Arcis sur Aube had engaged a Jagdpanther] Lieutenant Michard gave me orders and we arrived at a place where in a second we saw the rear edge of a German tank disappear behind a wall it had just demolished to make its escape.
A few minutes later we saw two German tanks retreating from Grussenheim. They were already distant and had vanished before we could hit them. This greatly encouraged us. There were no longer the signs of battle we had seen at the other end of the village. We had been there about three hours. Our turret turned more and more slowly as the batteries began running flat. Lieutenant Michard talked with either the commander of Arcis Sur Aube or the infantry officer. We recommenced manoeuvring and Montmirail found the crossroad that we knew so well. The Lieutenant was always calm and very much the master of himself and the situation, which had now developed very favourably. He told me to penetrate the village and I turned Montmirail once more to the road which would take us into the interior of the village.
At that moment I heard "Turret to the right." very calm but very firm. I turned my periscope to see what was happening. I saw a German in the middle of the road to our right. He had a clear sight of one whole side of Montmirail. He was on one knee and had a bazooka on his shoulder. He fired before we could turn the turret and had time to escape behind a wall. Our shell landed just about where he had been. With the shooting of the bazooka there was a commotion in the turret and a small jolt. Lieutenant Michard was entirely in the tank, a little shaken but not wounded. He said we had taken a hit on the turret. It seemed that the German, who had been about 30 to 40m from us, had aimed too high and hit and tore off the small cupola that makes an air vent on top of Montmirail
The impact had damaged our turret which would now only turn by hand. Lieutenant Michard guided me in a reversing manoeuvre but before it was complete the orders ceased. I turned myself back to look into the turret and saw that the Lieutenant was upright. He had his arms crossed one on the other on the breach of the cannon and his head on his arms. He had a very small trickle of blood running down his forehead. He had to pause in his guidance of me.
My young Co-Driver Casanova immediately began to get out of Montmirail to climb the turret and help the Lieutenant. Having got onto the tank there was an enormous risk of being hit by a rifle shot and he had to get back into his place. Our Gunner Florkowski told me to drive in reverse and guided me to a wall Just about as high as the turret. He told Casanova to climb into the turret where the Lieutenant was still standing and me to climb out onto the turret to pull. They pushed the Lieutenant and I positioned myself on the turret and placed my arms under his shoulders. We had difficulty lifting him. There was a small step inside the turret on which one could put a foot to get out or enter. One of my comrades placed the Lieutenants foot on this step and told him to push which he did without speaking. By doing this we were able to get upright onto the front side of the tank where one of my comrades rejoined me to help me get him down while under a hail of fire which missed all three of us.
The Lieutenant had his eyes closed and they remained closed the whole time he was with us. He never complained, seeming to have nothing wrong and never put his hand to his head. I continued to hold him up by his shoulders and my comrade, I can no longer recall which, took the legs. The fire of arms we were exposed to obliged us to clamber down and during the descent the Lieutenant lost two large pieces of brain. It was not until this moment that we saw that he had a large hole in the back of his head close to the neck. Once on the ground we were all out of danger. We had deployed the stretcher which was kept on the back of Montmirail and had bandaged around the Lieutenants head, after which we laid him out. I remained at his side sitting down. After some moments without my having spoken to him he said "Save me." Since he had his eyes closed I told him "This is Eve speaking. You are out of the tank. You are saved." and this calmed him.
A little while later while I was talking to someone beside the stretcher Lieutenant Michard sat himself up and tried to stand. He said again" Save me " and I repeated to him that he was saved and helped him to lie down. It seems unbelievable but he never had more than a little trickle of blood on his cheek and no blood on his uniform or on the stretcher.
Arcis Sur Aube, the infantry and the half-tracks were reassembled next to Montmirail, I don't know how all this came about. One of the half-tracks had come close to Montmirail and it was decided that we would remain and the Lieutenant and some other wounded would be evacuated by half-track. We had no help with us. We placed the stretcher in the half-track with the wounded and it left with all speed towards Jebsheim amongst the crashing of shellfire. We saw it enter the village. At that moment we saw one or two of our tanks which seemed to stop at the edge of Jebsheim beside the road that lead to Grussenheim. We remounted Montmirail. Florkowski was tank commander and I don't recall if the gunner was Casanova or Mengual.
I don't know what happened after that. A little while after Florkowski told me we were returning to Jebsheim and Montmirail, Arcis Sur Aube and the half-tracks set off again with all speed and without being hit by the German shells. I didn't see which tanks went to replace us but when I got out of Montmirail I saw that they were on the edge of Grussenheim. It was 4:20 or 4:30 and one could see night was approaching. We were out of our tanks and half-tracks behind the vines at the spot from which we had departed. We had a small French flag with the Cross of Lorraine which our Godmother had given us at Rabat. [French military personnel were given a Godmother or Adopter to send food parcels and enquire of their well-being] We had not unfurled it since the liberation of Paris and we fixed it on the spot provided on the turret of Montmirail as a sign of undimmed defiance.
A short time after, Capitaine de Witasse [ Commander of 2nd Company 501 RCC ] came to Montmirail where he was expecting to see Lieutenant Michard. We told him the Lieutenant had taken a bullet in the head. He told us that Lieutenant de la Bourdonnaye, Commander of our 3rd Platoon had been killed and an Aspirant on another tank had been wounded. [ He was referring to Aspirant Richardeau, Commander of our 2nd Platoon. ]
After a moment he looked at us and said "Another officer" and he began pacing slowly around Montmirail, watching his feet repeating "Another officer". He made three or four turns before he stopped before us and looked at us. He told us that Lieutenant Colonel Putz and one or two of his officers had been killed by a shell. I could only suppose that it was this and the death of Lieutenant de la Bourdonnaye that rendered the original attack impossible, necessitating our diversion. I don't know what our replacements found in Grussenheim but the following morning the front was beyond it. Lieutenant Michard had been mortally wounded in our final minutes of combat in this war. Captain de Witasse told us to rest the night at Jebsheim and he left towards Grussenheim. When I attempted to start the engine of Montmirail for the journey it was impossible because the batteries were dead flat. It was a sad moment. Montmirail needed towing !
The four tanks of our company and the platoon of infantry set off again the following morning with Captain de Witasse at front in a jeep followed by the tanks then the half-tracks. We took the same road that had led us to Grussenheim and returned to Sélestat.
Either the same or the following afternoon General Leclerc came to see us. I recall that we went out onto the pavement in front of the house where we were staying and General Leclerc was there. There were 15 or 20 of us. Our tanks were not there. We lined up on the pavement, to attention. He did a simple inspection of us. General Leclerc was in the road and spoke to us simply. It was a moment both proud and sad because for the moment we were no longer in a state for combat.
The day after Grussenheim we saw the doctor at the medical post. It was the same doctor I had known in Africa and who had known Lieutenant Michard. He told us that he was evacuated still alive but had died in the night. He also told us that if the Lieutenant had survived he would have been a complete invalid and would have recalled no one.
Thinking that the Lieutenant must be interred in the neighbourhood we made a simple cross of wood to put on his grave. The inscription was simply:
"Lieutenant Louis Michard 28-1-45 F.F.L."
Although we remained in the area one or two weeks we found it impossible to establish where he had been buried. We kept the cross in the Montmirail thinking to place it there one day. Before departing for Germany we burned it in a French field.
Grussenheim was our last major combat and Lieutenant Michard was mortally wounded in the last 10 to 20 minutes of combat. My story has been set down on 21st and 22nd February 1982 with a recollection that remains clear and devoted, by Lieutenant Michard's tank driver, member of his crew from February 1941 to 28th January 1945.
Gaston Eve, 21 and 22 February 1982.
[ The last entries from Gaston's pocket diary 1944/45. ]
22 January 1945: Sélestat.
23 January 1945: They are preparing something.
24 January 1945: Sélestat.
27 January 1945: Leave for the attack early morning. Many tanks destroyed, much snow and the krauts defend more than is usual.
28 January 1945: Lt. Michard killed. Montmirail, Arcis Sur Aube attacked alone. Life is unimaginable, extremely hard but we hold onto what we have won.
29 January 1945: Grussenheim. Relieved by the 5th Armoured Division. This time its the end, everyone exhausted. Made the attack with only six of our 17 tanks and only four of those remain and of those four tanks only two tank commanders remain.
31 January 1945: Sélestat. Are worn out after all this time. Company decimated and our will as well. General Leclerc comes to congratulate us, just four crews.
01 February 1945: Sélestat.
02 February 1945: Relieved. It's a long rest.
03 February 1945: Geispolsheim.
09 February 1945: Montmirail overturns, bad luck but no harm done.
11 February 1945: Lorraine near by Metz there's no question of rest. Morale bad with all the comrades but it goes on. I'm enraged and I have vengeance in my heart.
13 February 1945: Close to the front.
14 February 1945: We don't attack it turns out we are just there for support.
15 February 1945: To the rear.
[No further diary entries after 15 February]
[ 16 February - 24 April 1945: Unfortunately Gaston's continuous notes entirely run out at this point and there are no further diary entries. Emile Fray tells me that the crews were sent to Camp D'Avord in Bourges to reform with new crew members and train them up. I've managed to patch together some of the story from after the retraining onward, from a detailed hand written account of the Obersalzberg dad sent me, several loose unconnected pages of his rough notes and two of his letters. Perhaps by some good fortune a complete copy of his story may one day be found. ]