June 6, 1944.
Captain Cyril Hendry finally landed his Churchill tank on the beach at Graye-sur-Mer following 24 hours of bobbing around in the English Channel alongside the rest of the D-Day flotilla, sick to the gills and apprehensive of what lay ahead.
As an army regular, Hendry had trained for years for just this moment, rising through the ranks with the 26 Armoured Engineer Squadron tasked with supporting the Canadian infantry assault on Juno Beach.
Their tanks were known as “funnies” – rather incongruously for weapons of war – each with their own adapted speciality for clearing the beachhead: some carrying fascines, huge bundles of brushwood tightly bound and ready to fill trenches or craters; others with flails protruding from the front of the tank to clear a path through minefields; still others towing armoured fuel trailers to supply the terrifying flamethrower positioned in the Churchill’s hull in place of its machine gun.
Hendry’s own tank carried a 30-foot section of box girder bridge, laid across the initial bank of dunes to enable his fellow tank commanders to escape the beach and secure the area for the Canadian infantry alongside.
The lead tank, “One Charlie”, careered down a massive water-filled crater and sank. Its six-man crew all escaped the vehicle, but four were killed by enemy fire and two badly wounded.
Hendry and the remaining tanks set about clearing the German pillboxes, turning their guns on the defensive positions. Resistance ceased. Hendry instructed his driver to pull up next to a fortified building, disguised as an ice cream parlour. Drawing his pistol, he clambered down onto the sand and shouted out an order to surrender.
One man emerged, hand on head. Then another, then another, until 20 prisoners were taken from this single gun position. It was at this point Hendry realised that, whilst vomiting copiously in the flotilla’s holding position out in the Channel, he had completely forgotten to load his pistol…
One Charlie disappeared in the dunes of Graye-sur-Mer over the years, only to re-emerge in 1976, when it was recovered, rebuilt and repainted, now standing proudly on the beach close to where it slipped into that crater 32 years earlier. The men of 26 Armoured Engineer Squadron make regular trips across the water to renovate and repair the memorial, keeping it fittingly pristine.
Captain Hendry and his men would visit Graye-sur-Mer for every D-Day commemoration as long as they were able, guests of the mayor and a host of townsfolk who welcomed them into their homes annually and became good friends.
Hendry drove his Churchill tank across Europe, via the horror camp at Bergen-Belsen, all the way to Berlin.
How do I know all this? Captain Cyril “Jimmy” Hendry was my father-in-law.
Cyril James Hendry MBE 12th September 1913 – 21st November 2007
First published in issue 63 of Rouleur