The Storm Boat Kings
by John Sliz
Appendix to Newsletter No.105 of the Society of Friends of the Airborne Museum Oosterbeek, February 2007
Since I first read 'A Bridge Too Far' as a young boy, it had never ceased to surprise me that there were two Canadian units at the head of the British 2nd Army's spearhead, helping to evacuate the 1st Airborne Division across the Lower Rhine river. Even as a kid I knew enough - or at least I thought I did - about the structure of the Allied armies to know that, normally, Royal Canadian Engineers (R.C.E.) supported the Canadian 1st Army and shouldn't have been anywhere near this sector of the battlefield. Mr. Ryan's book mentioned nothing about where they came from, and for years I wondered why the 20th and 23rd Field Companies, R.C.E. were there instead of two Royal Engineer units. It frustrated me that very little had been written about these men and their Storm Boats. Who were they, and where did they come from? Over the years, as I read more and more about Operation Market Garden, I discovered that most books on the battle had at most only a few paragraphs devoted to the evacuation, and therefore said little about the rescuers. For example: in some accounts Lieutenant Russ Kennedy - the man widely credited with taking the last boat across - was simply referred to as 'A young Canadian officer'. It seemed to me that nobody knew who these men were or how they got there. With many burning questions I interviewed the surviving men of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. and dug through the archives. Now, several decades later, my questions have all been answered.
The 20th and 23rd Field Companies, R.C.E. were part of a formation known as 1st Canadian Army Troops, R.C.E. (1CAT, RCE). Together with the 5th Field Company (which landed on Juno Beach on D Day) and the 10th Field Park Company, they were an independent unit that took its orders from Canadian 1st Army Headquarters. Unlike divisional engineers, who had predefined tasks, they had the luxury of specialising in areas not normally covered by regular engineers. In the case of the 20th and 23rd, this meant training in the operation of Storm Boats, a new type of equipment designed by the Experimental Bridging Establishment at Christchurch, UK that was still considered to be 'experimental' in 1944. The boat was 20' long with a 6'-6" beam and was of oak and plywood construction. An American Evinrude 50hp outboard engine powered it and these boats were bigger and able to take larger loads than the British Assault Boat Mark III and the American version of the Storm Boat. The latter, even though it was sometimes powered by the same motor as the British Storm Boat, was a different boat altogether, and I've noticed some confusion in this regard.
Training and numerous exercises in the UK during early 1944 were to prove invaluable to the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. because in August they flawlessly operated Storm Boats to ferry the Canadian 10th Infantry Brigade across the river Seine in an assault crossing. By this time the mistakes that they had made in training during the Kate exercises had been corrected, and the troops were transported across the river without any mishaps. This unfortunately was not the case in all the other crossings. Downstream, the 34th Field Company, R.C.E. crossing was successful, but upstream the Storm Boat crossing by the 43rd Wessex Division was nearly a disaster. The main problem was that the carrying parties failed to deliver enough boats on time for a coordinated attack and the infantry were forced to attack in small groups, with varied results.
For Operation Market Garden a highly detailed plan was created by the Royal Engineers to bridge every single waterway along 30th Corps' route - in case a bridge or two had been blown and/or not captured by the airborne - and 1CAT, RCE (now under the command of 10th Army Group Royal Engineers) had been selected to deal with any bridging mishaps at Arnhem. On September 16th, 1CAT, RCE gathered at the bridging dump at Leopoldsburg (Belgium) and waited as the operation was launched and played out. On the 21st the entire formation was given priority as they were escorted up the corridor by the military police all the way to Nijmegen. There they waited until the situation on 'The Island' became stable enough to get their soft-skinned vehicles through.
During this time, having received no other orders or hints to the contrary, the commanding officer of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E., Major Mike Tucker, assumed that the original plan was still on and they were to use their equipment to carry out a brigade size assault crossing of the Neder Rijn. In fact, the reconnaissance officer of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E., Lieutenant Russ Kennedy, had already been sent by Major Tucker to scout the area east of Driel for the use of Storm Boats and had arrived in time to witness the second crossing by the Poles. Thinking the same way, the commanding officer of the 20th Field Company, R.C.E., Major A.W. Jones, had sent Lieutenant W. Gemmell to the Driel area to do the same type of reconnaissance.
On the 24th, the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. was at the head of a 483-vehicle convoy consisting of Storm Boats and Class 9 rafts that was ready to move from Nijmegen onto 'The Island' for an assault crossing. However, before they had gone far they were ordered to turn back because the British had yet to capture the town of Oosterhout. This meant that the enemy was too close to the road on which the convoy had to pass and this would have resulted in devastating results for the unarmoured vehicles, most likely blocking the road with knocked-out lorries. The convoy returned to Nijmegen disappointed. This was the closest they came to fulfilling their original mission.
Unbeknown to them the battle had changed, and new orders came on September 25th. These were instructions for them to prepare to evacuate the 1st Airborne Division. Major Tucker was shocked and disappointed by these orders. He felt that the army should be advancing, not retreating. He has been reported as saying after the battle, "We could have ferried reinforcements into Arnhem instead of bringing the survivors out, as we did." However, he and Major Jones obeyed their orders so the 20th Field Company, R.C.E. and 23rd Field Company, R.C.E., with their storm boats, soon drove onto 'The Island'. The 43rd Wessex Division had captured the village of Oosterhout by now so the road was wide open to Driel.
However, even though it was open it was still not safe to drive to the river. The area was in clear view of the enemy and any mass movements would have attracted artillery fire. This meant that the engineers could not move to the unloading area - an apple orchard close to the river - until dark. So they drove to Valburg and waited for darkness, making sure that their equipment was hidden from the Luftwaffe. It was a good thing that they did because shortly after doing so a number of German fighters flew over.
Not all of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. waited for darkness. Shortly after arriving in Valburg, in full view of the enemy, a single lorry set out with hopes that the Germans would not bother a single vehicle. In it was Lieutenant Robert Tate, a section of sappers and enough bridging material to span the ditch between the road and the apple orchard. Fortunately, the gamble paid off and the Germans did not bother to bring fire down on Lieutenant Tate's lorry. They reached their destination and bridged the gap.
Once dark, the convoy left Valburg, splitting in two on nearing Driel. The 20th Field Company, R.C.E. and eight storm boats went straight towards Driel as the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. and fourteen Storm Boats turned off and headed to the orchard, where Lieutenant Tate and his men were waiting. On arrival at the orchard they immediately proceeded to unload and ready the Storm Boats and their engines. Major Tucker's command post was set up on the beach, with Lieutenant John Cronyn assigned as the near shore commander and Lieutenant James Russell Martin as the far shore commander. This set-up had proved successful in the past, especially during the river Seine crossing.
Carrying parties under the command of Lieutenant Kennedy struggled in the mud to get the heavy boats up and over the two dykes. A Storm Boat fully loaded with an engine weighed roughly 1100 pounds, and a party of sixteen men was required to move it. Under normal conditions this would have been difficult enough, but during Operation Berlin several factors hindered the transfer of the boats from the orchard to the river. There were the steep muddy slopes of the two dykes, everything had been made slippery by the rain, it was dark, and of course the Germans were shelling the area. They thought that the Allies were trying to reinforce the perimeter, as they had done on the two previous nights.
The first boat was hauled up and over the 18-20 foot high winter dyke, down 100 yards to the 8-10 foot high summer dyke, over that and then finally brought the rest of the 500 yard journey to the river, where it sank as soon as it was put in the water. The cause of the holes in the boat was quickly discovered and a party was sent to clear all the rocks along the path leading to the river. The second boat was then brought down and Corporal William Daniel Ryan was given command.
At 21:45, Lieutenant Martin climbed into Corporal Ryan's boat, and together with Sappers Harold Cecil Magnusson and Leslie Joseph Roherty they set out for the far shore. They never made it. The boat received a direct hit midstream and all four occupants were killed. To this day Sapper Roherty's body has never been found.
Corporal McLachlan's boat was launched a few minutes later and he soon returned with a load of troops. Another boat was then launched, but tragedy struck again. On his first trip, loaded with wounded airborne troops, Corporal Sidney Smith's boat received a near miss which caused everyone in the boat to lean away from the blast, upsetting the balance and causing the boat to capsize. His two crewmates, Sappers David Lloyd George Hope and Neil Arthur Thompson, and a lot of passengers, drowned. So far, the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. was losing boats faster than they could be launched. Major Tucker did not know it at the time, but so far six of his men had been killed on the river and another one had been wounded so badly during the shelling of the orchard that he died at the aid station. Fortunately they persisted, and as more boats were launched the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. started to reap its reward. Soon, a steady stream of airborne troops was passing through their area on their way to safety.
Downstream, the 20th Field Company, R.C.E. was also having its problems which, like their sister company, they too hoped to overcome. Because its launch area was directly across from the Westerbouwing - which the planners had not realised was still in Germans hands - it came under a great deal of machine gun fire. Because of poor planning by the generals in charge, these men never had a chance to succeed. First it was decided to send only the 553rd Field Company, Royal Engineers' assault boats across, and because the noise of the engines would have drawn fire, it was decided not to use Storm Boats at all. It was not until the early hours of the morning that the 20th Field Company, R.C.E. was ordered to launch an effort to reinforce Major Tucker's men. By then it was too late. The few boats they did launch became bogged down in the mud and/or shot up on their way up the river. The services of a good unit and eight Storm Boats had been wasted.
As the night went on the heavy rain wreaked havoc with the electric motors and engine after engine failed. A section of fitters from the 10th Field Company, R.C.E. could not dry out and replace the engines fast enough. Many boats drifted helplessly downstream and were abandoned once they managed to reach the shore. Fortunately, they all came ashore on the south side of the river and the crews and passengers found their way back to their units. Some boats and crews were luckier. Corporal George Robinson's boat made fifteen successful trips before being relieved by a fresh crew. Even then he refused to be relieved and continued running back and forth across the river for most of the night.
The boats that were working needed to be refuelled and Lance Sergeant George King was in command of a refuelling station just upstream of Major Tucker's headquarters. He and his party worked all night to the keep the boats' gas tanks full. Fuel had to be carried from the orchard and a lot of it was spilled along the way because of the rough terrain and darkness. Sapper Willie Richardson thought that he spilled more than he delivered. Fortunately, the fuel that was delivered was more than enough to keep the boats running. The main problem was trying to keep the engines dry and operational, a problem which the fitters from the field park company worked on all night, in a losing battle. They could not replace engines quickly enough.
With the last Storm Boat delivered around 3:30 a.m., Lieutenant Kennedy's duties were finished so he searched the shoreline for abandoned boats. After reporting that he had found an abandoned Storm Boat, Major Tucker told him that the current had become too strong for paddling and because of this the Royal Engineers' effectiveness was basically finished. He said what was needed was more Storm Boats with working engines. So the Lieutenant started off again and after awhile found one downstream. He pulled the starter rope on the Evinrude engine and, to his amazement, it started. Together with Lance Corporal Gills and Sapper D.J. McCready they set out for the north shore. This was their first of many trips, and as daylight approached they were one of the few boats still in operation.
On the very last trip, Lieutenant Kennedy and Sapper McCready found themselves in a tight situation. They had towed a boat with a faulty engine behind the last operating Storm Boat so as to pick up as many men as they could. There were plenty of men waiting and the boats filled up quickly. Unfortunately, when the Lieutenant tried to re-start the motor his efforts were in vain. He pulled the starter rope. Nothing. He kept trying without success and men - anxious to cross the river to safety - started to panic. Against the Lieutenant's orders and Sapper McCready's will, the men in the towed boat cut the ties and paddled the boat on to the river, taking Sapper McCready with them. Moving at such a slow speed and the only thing on the river in broad daylight, they were sitting ducks. To the Lieutenant's horror he watched as bullets continually hit the men in the powerless boat. On Sapper McCready and four men made it over the dykes alive.
Not wanting to become a POW, Lieutenant Kennedy kept pulling the starter until the engine came to life, and with as much speed as the engine could push the overloaded boat, he left the protection of the groynes and headed onto the river. Somehow the machine gunners missed his boat, and except for one bullet which killed the man next to Lieutenant Kennedy, all the men were untouched. As soon as the boat hit the shore the boat emptied, leaving Lieutenant Kennedy and the dead soldier behind.
From the apple orchard Lieutenant John Cronyn watched Russ Kennedy stumble over the dyke to safety. It had been a long, terrible night for the young Lieutenant. His best friend (Lieutenant Martin) and driver (Sapper McKee) had been killed and his Sergeant had been wounded so badly that he thought he was gone as well. Fortunately, Sergeant Don Barnes survived.
Even before Lieutenant Kennedy had returned, the Royal Engineer in charge of the evacuation, Lieutenant Colonel Henniker, had seen what had happened to McCready's boat and Operation Berlin was stopped. The four engineer companies had done what they could and were no longer effective. The 260th Field Company, Royal Engineers, just down from the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. position, was most successful at the beginning of the operation, but their effectiveness was soon diminished by the heavy rains which caused the current to increase as the night went on. Luckily, after a rough start the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. began to reap the lion's share of the returns. Major Tucker estimated that his company had made 150 trips and had transported over 2000 of the 2398 men that had been evacuated. However, there was a price to be paid. It was soon discovered that seven members of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. had lost their lives and four had been wounded. Those who died were:
Lieutenant James Russell Martin, age 27
L/Cpl. William Daniel Ryan, age 27
Sapper Ronald Tracy McKee, age 36
Sapper David Lloyd George Hope, age 26
Sapper Harold Cecil Magnusson, age 22
Sapper Leslie Joseph Roherty, age 20
Sapper Neil Arthur Thompson, age 23
Stanley Maxted, a Canadian war correspondent who was assigned to cover the 1st Airborne Division's success was one of those who was evacuated, and a record of his account can be heard in the film 'Theirs is the Glory'. It was originally broadcast on the BBC shortly after the evacuation. He said: 'At the river we lie motionless - some for hours - until the time comes to scramble over the dykes and onto the banks while the 2nd Army guns thundered their anger on enemy positions. We drag ourselves into a boat. Just now I heard a voice that was sheer music, saying, 'You better step lively boys. It ain't healthy around here.' It was a Canadian voice and these are Canadian Engineers who are manning the assault craft, who hauled them over land under enemy fire through a narrow German flanked corridor, over fields and dykes, to come and get us out of hell across this swift flowing river.'
On September 26th the men of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. received the following message from the Chief Engineer of 30th Corps. It read: 'On the departure of 1st Canadian Army Troops Engineers from 30th Corps, I should like to thank you and them for their excellent and very courageous work with Storm Boats in the evacuation from Arnhem. The work they did was carried out under very difficult and dangerous conditions of enemy fire and weather, but was exceedingly efficiently done, and was instrumental in the safe return of a very large proportion of Airborne troops'.
'The Maple Leaf', the Canadian Army Newspaper, also boosted the reputation of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. by printing an article of their efforts at Arnhem. Shortly afterwards they were enlisted to work with British Intelligence in clandestine river crossings, ferrying agents behind enemy lines and escapees out. Operation Pegasus II was the start of these type of missions for them and they soon picked up the nickname, 'The Storm Boat Kings'. After their performance during the evacuation, it is easy to see why they were branded with this title, and why they were selected for this mission and were at the forefront of the British advance. They were a highly skilled unit that got the job done.