Sapper Samuel E. Cole
Unit : 20th Field Company RCE, 2nd British Army
The following are brief excerpts from Samuel Cole's memoirs; Bridging Troubles Waters. For more information see http://www.bridgingtroubledwaters.ca
A Bridge Too Far
Now that the Seine River has been crossed, the Allies have the enemy heading for their own border to regroup except along the English Channel where they are determined to hold the ports. The Allies have cooked up a grand plan. If they could get a corridor from Eindhoven to Nijmegen to Arnhem and beyond with all bridges intact on the Maas, Rhine, and the Neder Rhine; it would clear the way for the Allies to head east into Germany.
The plan called for three American Air borne divisions to be dropped between Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. The British were to drop on Arnhem and north of the Neder Rhine.
A fine plan if it worked, but they needed some insurance in case it did not. That's where we came in. In a case where all the bridges were blown, engineers would be required to run ferries and build bridges to connect these sectors again.
We are told a British Engineer Field Company will take over our maintenance duties. We are to get ready to leave the next day for Brussels and on to an area near Eindhoven where we will wait to join a bridging train when the corridor has been established.
The company moved out. Joined with the bridge train in convoy formation and headed for Nijmegen. Along the way, we found that the enemy was close to the highway on both flanks and we began to be shelled and mortared. I remember once when the convoy stopped there was an American soldier lying in the ditch, his rifle pointing into the bush on the side of the road. Someone asked him, "How’s it going, Mack?" He rolled over. He was a black man, and said, "It's like dis, we got da road, but they got da verges." The convoy moved ahead a few yards, and another splatter of mortars, we all pile out, into the ditch. The trucks began to move ahead again, we run and get in ours. We were pulling a two-wheeled trailer behind our truck. A lot of our kit was piled in it. One of our men Spr. Topping G. A. decided it would be easier to hit the ditch if he rode on the trailer. It was an unfortunate decision as he was badly hit by shrapnel and was taken to an American Field Hospital. While all this was going on below, there was a dogfight going on in the air. Several enemy planes and one of our own were shot down. The convoy continued on without more holdups. Many gliders could be seen along the highway to Nijmegen. We received a warm welcome as we entered the outskirts of the city where we were to bivouac temporarily. The next morning we were to move on to Arnhem, but it began to look as if this whole operation might fizzle. We were cut off back where Topping was wounded. Toward Arnhem there was heavy fighting along the highway. The one thing we had going for us was air supremacy. The German Air Force was short of the good fuel needed. They were fighting for their lives on the Russian front. Nevertheless, they did try to bomb the two bridges we had captured, the Grave Bridge and the Nijmegen Bridge. The Arnhem Bridge was back in enemy hands. From a safe distance we could watch enemy fighter-bombers diving in an attempt to destroy the beautiful bridge in Nijmegen. We had so much anti-aircraft equipment deployed around the captured bridges; it was suicidal to try. There was only minor damage done. The enemy had their Heroes too.
The enemy has blown Arnhem Bridge and has the British Dorset infantry and paratroopers surrounded. Attempts to drop supplies and food to these troops have failed or dropped in the wrong area. To get help to these troops, a portion of both sides of the Neder Rhine needs to be in our hands; with the north bank in enemy hands this is impossible.
We are now told we will be involved in a rescue operation. The 20th, 23rd Canadian Field Companies along with two British Field Companies will try to ferry the stranded Brits using storm and assault boats. 2,500 men were brought back and the north side of the Neder Rhine was in German hands for the winter.
Came back through Nijmegen on the way back to Leopoldsbourg. The road was still being shelled near Uden where the Germans had cut us off. Our convoy came through without casualties.
I would like to tell about the part I played in the evacuation of the Dorset Regiment. The plan was for the evacuees to get between the two large tracers that would mark the area where they could expect to be picked up by the rescue boats. There would be an artillery and mortar barrage from our forces, on this area to push the enemy from the area first. Then at a set time, the Dorsets were to try to get to the river's edge where they could be brought to safety.
The time had been set for 9:30 p.m., but we were at our advanced position about an hour early. It was very dark and raining. There was a farm house where the officers were going over their maps and plans. A group of us were being briefed about getting one assault boat down to the river's edge with motor and gear. Just then a fellow came in with nothing but this underwear on, cold and wet. He had swum the river. He told the officers not to go across the river, as there were no British, just the enemy. We were told to carry out our orders, take the boat to the river and come back. Outside in the dark, we found the boat and started through the bush following two white tapes that had been laid earlier. A couple of men carried the Evinrude motor.
With a handrail on either side of the boat, we could carry it like a coffin, but as we went along it seemed to get heavier and we were sort of dragging it along. Up above us machine gun tracers were flitting through the treetops. We finally came to the flood bank dyke. It was about 16 feet high. The machine guns appeared to be aimed at the tops of the dyke. Now we had to get the boat up and over this steep bank. We somehow managed to drag it up and across the top, no one was hit, the tracers now seemed to be higher.
Thankful to be over that obstacle and with renewed energy, it was a downhill slope to the river's edge, but now we had mortars to contend with. They seemed to come in batches with a short lull between. Also the flames of a factory close to the opposite bank lit up the whole area. Now when darkness would have been a blessing, we would be visible to the enemy. We reached the water's edge, attached the motor, anchored the boat to the bank and headed back to the dyke amid a couple of mortar blasts. We got a bit separated on the way back so when we got to the dyke someone yelled, "Where’s John?" I thought to myself (Jesus, have we got to go back!). Someone said, "He's up and over already."
Back at the house, we reported mission accomplished. We were all rather tuckered out. In the house there were a few more of the Dorsets. They told us how they had lived on apples the last week.
I heard someone say, "Corporal Petersen, pick a crew and go across and check if there are any Dorsets on the far bank." I remember thinking "Please don't pick me." I don't remember anymore, there was no room in the house so I must have found a place in or under someplace out of the rain and went to sleep. We were never called again that night. At daybreak the mission was called off.
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