As it’s VE Day (or at least it was when I started writing this), I thought I’d better do a WW2 post… 🙂
The Royal Marines Armoured Support Group was a short-lived organisation created for the Normandy Landings of 1944 and disbanded two weeks after D-Day (being resurrected in Afghanistan in 2007). The initial plan was for a number of Landing Craft Tank (LCT) to be armoured (thus creating the LCT(A) variant) and armed with redundant and de-engined Centaur Mk IV Close Support Tanks, which would simply act as gun-turrets from the deck of the LCT(A). These would provide close gunfire support with their 95mm Close Support Howitzers for the landing craft flotilla during the run-in to the beach and would then continue to provide support from the beach after grounding. The Centaurs would be crewed by Royal Marines, whose traditional role included manning the gun turrets of Royal Navy warships.
However, during a demonstration of this concept during a landing exercise, Field Marshal Montgomery demanded to know why these tanks were not advancing from their beached landing craft. Incensed by the reply, he demanded that the Centaurs be re-engined with immediate effect. This order was successfully carried out, although the Centaur’s underpowered and unreliable Liberty engine arguably didn’t provide them with much more mobility…
Having been given the ability to fight on dry land, strict orders were now put in place for the RMASG to advance no further than one mile inland from the beaches. However, as an illustration of how rigorously this order was applied, on 11th June RMASG Centaurs were to be found fighting at Cristot and Rots; some eight or nine miles south of the coast!
Five RM Armoured Support Batteries were created, each consisting of four Troops. A Troop consisted of four Centaur Mk IV 95mm Close Support Tanks and a single Sherman Mk V (M4A4) Medium Tank for the Troop Commander. Battery HQs had at least one Sherman Mk V (I’ve got no exact figures, but the history of 1 RMASR mentions a Battery Commander’s tank. The Regt CO and 2IC had Jeeps). Although officially classed as ‘OP Tanks’ the Troop Commanders’ Shermans had 75mm guns and would join in with shoots. The Battery Commanders’ tanks may have had dummy guns in the same manner as Royal Artillery Battery Commanders, but I’ve no exact information.
The Batteries were numbered 1 to 5, with each Battery having a sequentially-lettered Troop. No.1 Battery had A-D Troops, No.2 Battery had E-H, No.3 Battery had J-M, No.4 Battery had N-Q and No.5 Battery had R-V Troops. The letter I was skipped, which was common practice at the time, to avoid it being confused with the number 1. Nos. 1 & 2 Batteries were grouped into 1 RM Armoured Support Regiment, which would support 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division on GOLD Beach. Nos. 3 & 4 Batteries were grouped into 2 RM Armoured Support Regiment and would support 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on JUNO Beach. No.5 (Independent) Battery was assigned to 3rd Infantry Division on SWORD Beach.
All tanks were distinctively marked with compass-graduations around the turret, with the front of the tank being 180 degrees. This was to enable the Troop Commander to ‘easily’ calculate the bearing from gun to target by calculating the difference between the landing craft’s heading and the bearing that the gun was laid on to… You probably had to be there to understand it… The only other significant marking was the Battery tactical marking, which in all cases was the colours of the Royal Marines: namely a royal blue square, with a horizontal stripe of yellow, green and red. This was then superimposed with the battery number in white.
The majority of tanks also seem to have had an individual name painted in white across the circular blanking-plate where the MG port would normally be situated (or on the transmission-housing in the case of Shermans). The tank’s name always started with the Troop letter. For some reason I didn’t paint mine with names and I also missed the red/white/red national recognition flash. This was a marking that pre-dated the Allied Star as a recognition marking and was still carried by a few vehicles on the lower hull front (and hull sides in the case of Shermans). In black and white photos, the red part tends to become invisible, but the central white square of the marking is very clear. There may also have been the standard Allied Star on the turret roof or engine deck, but no photos show it.
Vehicles were mostly painted SCC 15 Olive Drab, though a few were still painted in SCC 2 Service Drab (i.e. brown), which was the standard colour for all vehicles in the UK from 1941-1944, when it was replaced by SCC 15. The short timeframe between the switch to SCC 15 and the Normandy Landings meant that a lot of British and Canadian vehicles were still painted SCC 2 in Normandy. I must confess that I painted mine about 30 years ago, and foolishly believed someone when he told me that ‘all British tanks were painted Bronze Green’, hence the slightly dark and bluish shade of green used here (which is Humbrol 75 (Bronze Green)… 🙁 I’m absolutely not going to repaint these in the correct shade of green… Nowadays I use Humbrol 75 as the base colour, with Humbrol 159 Khaki Drab to represent SCC 15. For SCC 2 I used Humbrol 29 Dark Earth.
The RMASG crews wore the badge of the Combined Forces on their Battledress sleeves, with the red-on-blue ROYAL MARINES shoulder-title above. In most cases they were not Commando-trained, so wore a navy-blue beret, with Royal Marines badge on a red ‘tombstone’ cloth backing. Commando-trained personnel would wear a green beret.
Severe problems were caused by the RMASG’s LCT(A) transports, which apparently caused more casualties to the RMASG than enemy action. The armour-plating and raised fighting-platform for the tanks had added a considerable amount of weight and had offset the vessel’s centre of gravity to a dangerous degree. The low freeboard and top-heavy nature of loaded LCT(A)s resulted in the capsizing of several vessels during exercises and further losses were suffered in heavy seas during the actual landings (though I’ve been unable to determine exactly how many were lost).
Each LCT(A) could carry three tanks – two tanks on the fighting platform and a third (command) tank to the rear. Each Troop was carried by two LCT(A)s – two Centaurs in one and two Centaurs with the Troop Commander’s Sherman in the other. The Battery Commanders’ Shermans would occupy spare command tank slots.
I play Battlefront: WWII, which represents tanks at a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3. So in game terms a full battery would have 2x or 3x Sherman and 8x Centaur. My battery is therefore understrength, with 2x Sherman and 6x Centaur (in any case I’m not aware of any batteries fighting unified and at full strength).
As mentioned above, the RMASG was disbanded just two weeks into the campaign. However, twelve of the Centaurs and some of the Shermans were passed to 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airborne Light Regiment RA, 6th Airborne Division, which until that point was equipped with 75mm Pack Howitzers. The Centaurs were initially split between two of the regiment’s existing batteries but were eventually grouped as a new battery, designated ‘X’ Battery.
In August 1944 the Centaurs were taken over by Royal Canadian Artillery personnel, being now designated 1st Canadian Composite (Centaur) Battery RCA. This unit continued in the same vein as ‘X’ Battery, beefing up the strength of 53rd Airborne Light Regiment, 6th Airborne Division. During Operation PADDLE (the breakout to the River Seine), the battery was attached directly to 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. The Centaurs were finally retired at the end of the Normandy Campaign, though some remained as training vehicles for Free French forces.
The models are all rather ancient pre-Flames of War 15mm resin and metal models by Battlefront Miniatures, painted by me about 20 years ago. The Centaur models actually had hull MGs, so those had to be cut off and the plate filed flat before painting. I never want to have to paint these again…