My latest book is BROTHERS IN ARMS about the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry from D-Day until the end of the war, and is, without doubt, the most personal book I’ve ever written. The idea for it came about following a conversation with John Orloff, one of the script writers of the globally successful TV series, Band of Brothers. We were considering the impact of Stephen Ambrose’s book – on which the series was based – and it occurred to me that there a similar bestseller should be written around a tank regiment rather than Ambrose’s company of paratroopers. My mind started whirring. I began to feel certain there was scope for something altogether more elegiac, more emotionally charged and more profound, about the nature of warfare in the spearhead of combat in the last year of the war in Europe.
Fuelled by this instinct, I posted a message on Twitter, saying I was thinking of such a project, featuring the Sherwood Rangers, a British tank unit. It would be written more like ‘Ernie Pyle than Ambrose,’ I wrote, asking what people thought of the idea. The response was overwhelming with more than fifteen hundred likes and well over 400 comments, all of which were overwhelmingly positive – all, that is, but four commenters, three of whom wanted me to finish War in the West Volume III first, and another who stated that there were already too many books on the war. But the incredibly positive response was exciting, seeming to indicate that I was onto something.
I then made contact with friends within the Sherwood Rangers fraternity, and had a similarly supportive response. Within a day, photographs, letters, and veterans’ accounts came pouring in. It was at this point that I knew there was more than enough material with which to write a book.
It took a particular kind of bravery to serve in a tank in the Second World War. Although the crew were encased in a steel shell of armour plating, there was no part of a tank that was completely impervious to enemy fire at any stage of the war. Take a Sherman tank, the US-built mainstay of the Allied armies from late 1942 until the end of the war. Formidable as these 30-ton beasts were, it could take only a very small penetration by an enemy missile to kill all inside in a split-second: a shell might hit the turret, for instance, and create a hole on the outside the size of a penny or dime. Within, however, beside the tank commander, gunner and loader, a much larger glob of molten steel would be punched out, and while the core of this would hurtle across the turret, the rest would shatter into thousands of pieces of white-hot fragments known as spalling. Ranged around the inside of the turret, alongside the radios, intercom, main gun and breech, would be shells, standing upright and ringed around the cupola. Each shell was filled with enough compact explosive to fire it at over 2,000 feet per second to a height of nearly two miles. All it took was one of those tiny white hot spalling fragments to hit and penetrate a shell lining the turret – at that moment, the huge kinetic pressure already built up inside the tank by the force of the incoming round hitting the tank would combine with an instant explosion that would detonate all the neighbouring shells, and the turret, weighing more than seven tons, would be thrust thirty feet and more into the air like a bursting champagne cork. If the five-man crew had not already been killed by the spalling or kinetic force, they would now be incinerated in a ball of explosive fire.
Captain Leslie Skinner, the padre attached the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, believed it was his duty to always retrieve some part – even just blackened and charred unrecognisable matter – of the crews killed inside a ‘brewed up’ tank. He would place these charred remains in a casket for burial. A grim job. Padre Skinner often found he had to wait several days, by which time the fighting had moved on, before the burnt-out tank was cool enough to enter.
The aim of this book has been to allow the reader to develop a compelling empathy for the main cast of characters. I also hope it has the narrative and page-turning feel of a novel, with all the drama, tension, and detail of an action thriller. As with my other books, it follows the fortunes of a comparatively tight cast of charaters – all of whom were remarkable in their own ways. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry went off to war in early 1940 still on horseback and end it as the single unit with more battle honours than any other – quite some achievement. BROTHERS IN ARMS tells the last part of their extraordinary story.