Lieutenant Ellis "Dixie" Dean
Unit : Machine Gun Platoon, Headquarters Company, 13th Parachute Battalion
Awards : Member of the British Empire, Military Cross
Re-organisation and Re-training
After a few days back at Larkhill, we all went home on ten days disembarkation leave, and this was later extended by a further four days. This meant that on Sunday 17th. September, I was able to turn out for Formby Cricket Club against a team from the local war time barracks. When I returned home after the game, my father jokingly said "Are you sure it was an extension of leave you received?". I asked if something had happened, and was then told that on the early evening news, the B.B.C. had reported large scale airborne landings in Holland. The fierce fighting at Arnhem was still going on when we returned to camp later that week.
Waiting to re-join us were several members of the platoon who had been wounded in Normandy. Among these I was surprised to see Tommy (Nutty) Stephenson. He along with Privates Barnett and Strachan, were occupying a weapon pit and shelter up at the "brickworks", and during one of the severe Boche mortarings, the shelter had received three direct hits on the roof. They were all badly shocked as a result of this, and I hadn't expected to see any of them recovered so quickly. We were at less than 50% of our establishment, so trained gunners were doubly welcome.
The Battalion as a whole, was only at about half strength, but we all did a clean fatigue (minus equipment) jump from Dakotas, which from now on was to be the only type of aircraft used for parachuting during the war. It was a milestone in the development of airborne forces, for no longer were we dependent on containers to deliver our heavy weapons and equipment. However before the end of the month, sufficient re-inforcements to bring us back up to strength were posted to the Battalion from the Depot.
They were for the most part youngsters of eighteen, who after completing their basic infantry training, had then qualified as parachutists, and that was the extent of their military experience. But they were enthusiastic and eager to learn, and full of potential. Included among them, was a hardening of "old soldiers", these were for the most part, time serving regulars, who had come back to the U.K., after completing their over seas tour of duty, and following leave had elected to continue their service in Airborne Forces. Six such men joined the platoon, all trained gunners. They were all battle experienced, and three of them were veterans of the first Chindit expedition. These "old soldiers" certainly added character to the platoon.
Tommy Howell one of the newcomers, was ex Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, who soldiered on after the war, and finally retired with the rank of W.O.2 . His mate, also ex Kings, was a Scouse Irishman called Rodden (Rommel to the platoon), who liked to give the impression that he was a bit simple, but nothing was further from the truth. He was one of the most fearless men I ever knew. I used to say that he was too ignorant to be afraid, but in making that remark, I am sure I did him an injustice. Another was Fred Pengelly, ex "Wiltshires", a tough little Cornishman, as hardy as they come.
Among the other new members - all volunteers for the gunners - was an ex-regular C.S.M., who had over stayed his leave after seven years abroad, and had been reduced to his substantive rank of corporal. There was an ex-officer, dismissed from the service for misdemeanours committed in West Africa, and determined to redeem his past. Finally there was an embryo R.A.F. pilot, who having failed his flying course, elected to transfer into the Army. Quite a collection, and I wondered if I was going to have problems integrating such diverse characters into my existing platoon structure.
I was determined that the N.C.Os and young soldiers who had proved themselves in battle during our three months in Normandy, should have any promotions that were to be made. Alf Whalley continued as Platoon Sergeant; I don't suppose he was any older than I was at twenty two ---- so we were really a young team. Arthur Higgins, also of the same age group, and who had been outstanding in action, continued as one Section Commander, but Tommy Lathom who had led the other section since Pont L'Eveque, was having domestic problems. These were affecting his performance as an N.C.O., so I arranged for him to be transferred to the Re-inforcement Company. This allowed me to promote Frank Egleton, and place him in charge of the other section. Although a little older than the others, he was still in his twenties. Three of the regular soldiers who had joined the Platoon were full corporals, but there were vacancies for Lance-corporals, and these went to Alf Williams, John Surgey, Cyril Andrews, and Jack Carr. They had all jumped on D Day as ammunition carriers, but finished the campaign as gun numbers. It was going to be most interesting to watch their re-actions with their new responsibilities.
We also received Officer re-inforcements to bring us up to strength, and again it was a mixture of experience and youthful enthusiasm. John Cramphorn had been a sick man during the latter days in Normandy, and he was now forced to take a rest, which allowed Jack Watson to assume command of A Company, with "Joe" Hodgson his second in command. B Company remained in the capable experienced hands of Bill Grantham and Freddie Skeate, and "Nobby" Clarke held the reins in C Company, and newcomer Desmond ("Dizzy") Gethin was 2 i/c. "Claude" Millman occupied the Adjutants chair, with Maurice Seal as Assistant/Adjutant. For a time no O.C. Headquarters Company was appointed, and "Baggy" Allen now Adm. Captain acted in that capacity. Vic Wraight took over the Mortars, and Freddie Tiramani the Transport Platoon, and Malcolm Town and myself continued to command the Signal and Machine Gun Platoons respectively. Harry Pollak was the new Intelligence Officer, and Leslie Golding assumed command of R Company. After the first week of the Normandy invasion, there had been no work for the P.I.A.Ts of the anti/ tank Platoon, and these weapons were now allotted three per rifle company, and at the same time, the snipers were concentrated in the new Scout Platoon. Command of this organisation went to 2/Lt. Arthur Prestt one of the young re-inforcements.. Of the others Lieutenants Frank Summerfield, and Bill Davidson joined C. 2/Lts Eric Barlow and Pat Kavanagh went to A, and Tim Winser, Alf Lagregan (ex anti/tank) and Steve Honnor were the B Company subalterns. The two remaining newcomers were Peter Downward, now Weapon Training Officer, and Alan Daborn --- a fully trained Machine Gunner, who was my nominated deputy in R Company.
By the beginning of October the Battalion was fully up to strength, and ready to start training again. I always enjoyed this aspect of my job, and had a completely free hand as far as my programme was concerned. There is no doubt that the battle experience we had gained was of vital importance from now on. Now we knew exactly what was expected of us. Mistakes had been made, we admitted that, but we were determined to learn from our experiences. We had met the enemy face to face, and knew we had the beating of him. So it was a confident, re-juvenated battalion that set to work. My young, and older N.C.Os, all enthusiastically took up the challenge, and eagerly accepted their new responsibilities, fully justifying my confidence in them.
Training became even more realistic, with the rifle companies in turn, going to a bomb damaged part of East London for a weeks street fighting, and we were given a much improved allocation of field firing ranges. It was on return to barracks after a day on the Netheravon ranges, that I learned that my new Company Commander had arrived. We knew he was expected, and he was known by name and repute to me, since it was the Lancashire and England rugby forward, Roy Leyland. While the guns were being cleaned --- always a lengthy process, I went along to the Company Office, to make myself known to him.
"Do you play rugby?" was his opening remark after I had introduced myself, and when I replied in the affirmative, he said "Good --- we'll have a Company team trial on Saturday morning. I understand the Signal Platoon have several men in the Battalion team, so it will be Signals versus the Rest. I'll play stand-off, and I'll leave you to select the team since you know who else plays". I just could not believe it. What a change from my previous O.C., who had been so cold and aloof, he was almost unapproachable, but the now occupant of the O.Cs chair was going to be involved in every aspect of life both on and off parade. Roy Leyland was to play a decisive role in my war time career from now on. We started to talk about the Platoon, before a runner came requesting his appearance at Battalion H.Q. "Sit down here" he said, indicating his own chair, "and you can read this". He placed the latest 21 Army Group Intelligence Summary on the table. "I shouldn't be away too long". After a few minutes, there was a knock on the door, and in walked Colour-Sergeant Charlie Ford. He looked surprised to see me sitting in the O.C's chair. "Congratulations sir" he said "I know you are very young for the job, but you're keen and you'll always have my full support, and I'll help you all I can." "What on earth are you talking about Colour?" I asked. "I've been away all day drawing stores, and the Sergeant Major said the new Company Commander wanted to see me immediately on my return" We had a good laugh together, but I always did have his full support. not just C/Sgt. Fords. All the other Warrant Officers and senior N.C.Os that I ever had dealings with went out of their way to help and encourage me.
Training continued to be as realistic as possible, with plenty of live firing. All exercises involving a parachute descent were now always of at least Battalion strength. Sometimes the R.A.F. supplied the transport aircraft, and on other occasions we were flown by the Americans. Every member of the Platoon now dropped with a "kit bag", carrying either gun, tripod, or condenser can, if a gun number, while the remainder jumped with 500 rounds of ammunition in two belts. Platoon H.Q. personnel dropped with the spare parts boxes, wireless sets and night aiming lamps. Early in December we were briefed for a Divisional exercise, code name "Eve", and for the first time in its history, the complete 6th. Airborne Division would be in the air together.
The American Dakotas which were to drop the parachuting element were based in East Anglia, so our initial move was to a transit camp in Essex. High winds caused a 24 hours postponement, but on a bright clear winter morning, the battalion emplaned at Shepherds Grove airfield. We flew round southern England for a couple of hours in that very tight formation adopted in order to achieve a mass descent in the shortest possible time. No doubt the appearance of such a large air armada caused a lot of speculation on the ground as to our destination. Our D.Z. was close to the town of Sutton Courtenay on the bank of the Thames in Oxfordshire, and here was made what must have been one of the largest mass parachute drops in the history of British Airborne Forces. Both the 3rd. and 5th. Parachute Brigades were jumping at the same time on adjacent dropping zones. The technique involved the timing of arrival over the D.Z. of the different battalion groups in the respective brigades. As the first party were landing, the second one were descending, while the third were making their exits. So a good concentration was achieved, and on this occasion both Parachute Brigades of the Division were dropped simultaneously on adjacent D.Zs. At the same time the Air/Landing Brigade were landing in their gliders on nearby airfields.
The tactical content of the exercise, was to enlarge the bridgehead made by an assault crossing over a wide water obstacle. From our pre-D Day training, and our subsequent experience in Normandy, we guessed that the next operation would involve a jump into Germany over the river Rhine. But we couldn't see that happening in the immediate future, since the Allied land forces were not yet in possession of the west bank of the river.
At the end of the exercise, which only lasted for a few hours, the complete Division had to return to their respective barracks on Salisbury Plain, presenting the "Q" Staff at Divisional HQ., with quite a challenge. Once we had filled in the weapon slits we had all dug, we fell-in as a Battalion, and marched for a couple of hours or so through the night along country lanes to where the RASC 3-tonners were waiting to carry us home to Newcome Lines. War time night convoys, moved with minimum illumination; side-lights only, and a small light over the white-painted rear-axle. This small light was the only guide for the driver of the truck behind. The journey would take several hours, and some-where along the route, I fell asleep. When I woke, I couldn't see the rear-axle light of the vehicle in front. The driver informed me that he had "lost" the truck in front, some time back. and had kept going, expecting one of the "DRs" accompanying the convoy to come looking for us. The rest of the convoy was behind us. I told him to keep going, hoping that I might be able to identify some land-mark or other, since we drove through this part of southern England on numerous occasions. On we drove for some time, and then started to pass on our right some rifle ranges, which looked suspiciously like Bulford Ranges, where we were frequent users. We came to barrack blocks which I recognised, and so was able to pin-point our location. Through Bulford, out on the Amesbury road; there we took the road to Stonehenge. Short of this ancient monument, we turned right along the route to Netherhaven, and a mile along was the turning to Newcome Lines. As we approached this turning, I could see coming towards us, the lights of a convoy. At the junction, a DR. was directing them up to our barracks. After the last one had gone, we followed on, arriving on the barrack square, in our correct position in the Battalion convoy. Only the driver and myself aware of this incident.
The Platoon had performed well on the exercise I thought, and decided it was time for me to promote some of the young N.C.Os who over the last two months, had wholeheartedly supported the Sergeants and myself. It was impossible to decide which was the more efficient of the sections. An intense rivalry existed between their two commanders, which at one time caused Alf Whalley to voice his concern about it. However he accepted my argument, that it was to the Platoon's advantage; for each was determined that his section was to be the best. This attitude rubbed off on their juniors, and it was most gratifying to me that the trust I had in their ability was fully justified. Taking their cue from their Sergeant, they were equally set on their individual gun team being the slickest when it came to gun drill, and that their gun was always the cleanest.
Neither Section had a definite 2/ic, but two of the regular soldier Corporals were clear candidates for promotion. Corporal Fred Drew I promoted immediately to Lance/Sergeant, but Frank Kenny had been injured parachuting, so I kept a vacancy for him. There was no difficulty in deciding the others -------- Cyril Andrews, Jack Carr, John Surgey and Alf Williams became full Corporals, and there were first stripes for Tony Cabrera and the two "Jocks" ------- Grant and Ross.
Hardly were we back from the exercise, before Brigadier Poett and his staff carried out a thorough inspection of the Battalions administration and training. I had no qualms regarding the Platoon's standards and indeed when the report came it was highly satisfactory. The management and accounting of stores (Alf Whalley's responsibility) were singled out for special praise, but I was criticised for carrying out training in the use of the dial sights. This was reckoned to be a waste of time for a Parachute Battalion Vickers Platoon. All in all though, I was well pleased with life, and thought we were all deserving of a pat on the back for the high standards achieved after only two months training. However my complacency was soon to be shattered.
The promotion of the Battalion 2i/c Major Gerald Ford MC to Lt. Colonel, and his appointment to be Lt. Col. A/Q. [Adjutant / Quartermaster Branch] at Divisional Headquarters, prompted the C.O. to make changes in the battalion also. Roy Leyland moved up to become 2i/c, and his replacement would come from the Depot. The other new appointments did not meet with universal approval. Leslie Golding was made Adm. Captain, with "Baggy" Allen supplanting Freddie Skeate as 2i/c B Company, who now took over R Company, which meant that he would not take part in any future operations. Fred was absolutely disgusted at the way he had been treated. I was too -- but at least I still had a fighting appointment. I was to take over the Mortars, with Alan Daborn relieving me as O.C. Machine Guns. Fred saw the C.O., hoping to get him to change his mind, but to no avail, so I didn't even try. I suppose I should have felt flattered that I was judged capable of switching from one Support Weapon Platoon to another. But I didn't see it that way. The gunners were my platoon -- we had been together for almost twelve months, and were bound by a common mutual trust. I believed we worked well as a team, and we had all trained very hard to achieve maximum efficiency. Most of all I resented the manner in which I had learnt of my new appointment -- the bare announcement in Part 1 Orders, that these changes were effective as from that days date.
I knew there was no point in arguing so I just accepted it. I couldn't really do much about taking over the Mortars, since all the junior officers were attending a Subaltern's training week. I looked in on the Mortar stores, each morning and evening, checking with Sergeant Cope to see if any thing required my attention, and that was the limit of my involvement with my new command.
Then Field Marshal von Runstedt played his trump card as far as I was concerned. Earlier in the month he had struck at the weak American forces in the Ardennes, and had succeeded in punching a great bulge in their defences. This break through in the American front, was now being exploited in an attempt to seize crossings over the river Meuse. We knew all about these events from press and radio reports, but never thought that we would be involved. However on the morning of 21st. December, when Vic Smith, my batman, roused me just before "Reveille" at 06.30 hours, he had a message to deliver. The early morning road-walk run, which normally started our days work was cancelled, and we were to assemble instead in the camp hall (a building capable of seating the Battalion) at 07.00. hours. There was a buzz of excitement as we waited for the C.O. to arrive, and I noted that Major Andy McLoughlin had arrived over night to take command of H.Q. Company.
The Colonel's announcement when it came, took most of us by surprise - "Due to the serious military situation in Belgium, the 6th. Airborne Division has been placed at 36 hours notice to move to the continent, we have to be ready to move at 12.00 hours to-morrow. The advance party will leave later to-day. Your Company Commanders will give you your instructions after breakfast." he handed over to the Adjutant, who ordered the Officers to fall out, and then the R.S.M. took over.
I made my way back across the square towards Company H.Q. with the intention of reporting to my new O.C., whom I already knew, since he was one of the Battle School instructors, when I had been a student there in 1943. I was walking along the wooden corridor leading towards the Company Office, when I heard the footsteps of several men running behind me. "Excuse me sir" a voice said, "could we have a word with you?". I turned to face three members of the M.M.G. platoon. They weren't just any three - Bill Price, the spokesman, Fred Lewis and "Taffy" Price were the senior private soldiers of the gunners. All had jumped on D day and served throughout Normandy, and were thoroughly dependable soldiers. They would never be N.C.Os, but they were the type of man that gives the Regiment its strength, and if I had been able to hand pick my platoon, all three would be in it. "I'm sorry", I replied, "perhaps you're forgetting, but I'm not your Platoon Officer any more". "That's just it. If we are going fighting again, we want you to be in charge" "I don't decide these things" I said." "Couldn't you ask the C.O. please sir?" They seemed genuinely concerned to have me back, as keen as I was to get back, so I agreed to see the Colonel. "Good Luck", was their parting remark.
I abandoned the plan to see Andy McLoughlin, and went straight over to Battalion H.Q., and asked the Adjutant if I might see the C.O. "He's gone to breakfast" I was told "So you will have to come back later. What's it all about?", and I explained it was to do with the command of the support weapons - "Claude" thought I was wasting my time.
All through breakfast I was wondering how I should present my case to the C.O. and even when I was finally ushered into his office, I still had not decided what to say. I knew very well what not to say, both "I want to go back to the machine guns", or worse still, "The machine gunners want me back", would have resulted, I'm sure, in an angry response. "Who commands this battalion?" I was encouraged by the Colonel's relaxed enquiry, "You want to see me about the support weapons?" "Yes sir" and then added "I don't think it is in the best interests of the Battalion if we are to go into battle with both heavy weapons platoons led by Officers who are strangers to them." He looked me straight in the eye for a long time but I knew I had won, when the "Luard" grin spread across his face and he said, "In other words you want to do back to your "Oily Rags". I kept quiet. "You are quite right. I'll see the other officers involved, so off you go" I saluted and turned about, hardly able to conceal my delight.
The rest of the day was pretty hectic, but I did find time to discuss the vacancy for a section Corporal, with Sergeant Whalley. Now that there was every chance of some-one having to do the job in action, then he should have the rank and the pay that went with the extra responsibility. We both came to the same conclusion - John Surgey was the man for the job. He returned from Normandy still a private soldier, but like all the other youngsters I had promoted, relished his new responsibilities, and had all developed enormously during the last four months. It wasn't an easy decision, serious consideration was given to the claims of both Alf Williams and Cyril Andrews. But there was only one vacancy - John went on to become Platoon Sergeant out in Java. As the platoon representative on the Advance Party, I sent L/Cpl. Cabrera (affectionately known as "Cab"), he was a well educated lad, very popular in the platoon and ever willing to help. He also spoke French, which I thought might be an advantage. Later, Leslie Golding who was i/c the party, told me what a great asset he had proved.
This party left on time with our transport late that afternoon, and all other arrangements for our hurried departure were going smoothly. There was only one dead-line that wasn't met - dinner in the Officers Mess at 20 00 hours. Before we departed for Normandy, the mess had purchased some turkeys, which the mess staff had reared for six months. In preparation for our Christmas Dinner, these birds had already been killed and plucked, but still required dressing. At lunchtime, we held an emergency mess meeting, and agreed to postpone dinner until the birds had been cooked.
We gathered in the ante-room as usual around 20.00 hours, all with raging thirsts, perhaps thinking it might be some time before we tasted English ale again, so it was no surprise that the waiters were busier than usual. From time to time, as a fresh round of drinks was ordered, "and one for the lads in the kitchen" was added No-body noticed how long we were having to wait to eat, and it must have been 22.00 hours at least, be-fore the Mess Sergeant announced "Dinner is served" and we all followed the Colonel down the corridor to the dining room, and stood behind our chairs as Padre Whit Foy said grace, "For good food and safe landings - Thank God" "Amen", we replied, be-fore assuming our seats.
We were hardly seated, when a steaming hot bowl of cream soup was in front of each and every-one of us. By now we were beginning to realise, just how hungry we were, so we all tucked in. The soup was really delicious, but at our end of the table, we couldn't agree on the flavour. Some insisted it was asparagus, others were equally convinced it was mushroom. We continued the argument, but at the same time were relishing the soup more and more. All talk ceased, when he door leading to the kitchen opened, and a flustered Sergeant Stubbs went straight over to the Colonel. We thought it was a fresh emergency, and perhaps we must leave for the continent immediately. The C.O. listened intently to the message and then announced with a great roar of laughter, "Gentlemen instead of soup, we have been served the rum sauce".
March to the Sound of the Guns
The next morning, 22nd., was another one of feverish activity, but by mid-day, our deadline we were ready to go. We waited all afternoon, expecting orders to move. The 12th Battalion, who shared barracks with us, paraded on the square and marched off to Amesbury station. The order to stand down until next morning, came around 17.00 hours. It was still dark, when we left Larkhill to march the few miles to the station, but even this short distance had everybody in a sweat. The winter had been mild so far, but word had reached us from the continent, that it was much colder there. As a consequence, we wore smocks with belt and pouches, and then over these, our greatcoats. Small packs we had discarded after Normandy, in the cause of greater mobility. Each man was issued with an extra water bottle carrier for his mess tin, and the pouch in the bottom of the smock at the rear, was opened to carry the items normally held in the small pack. It was not very comfortable marching dressed like that, so we were glad it was only a short distance. We arrived before the train, and had time to cool off as we waited. I don't remember our route - it must have been a roundabout one, since it was late afternoon when we pulled into Dover station, and waiting transport carried us up to the Barracks, which were being used as a transit camp.
Next morning, "Christmas Eve", must have meant an even earlier start, for it was just daybreak as we dis-embarked at Calais from the Liverpool to Isle of Man ferry, "Ben-my Chree", and immediately knew the warning about the weather had been correct. Everywhere was covered with a layer of snow. Our arrival was expected, and transport was waiting to move us to a transit camp, where, despite having breakfasted in Dover, we sat down to another. Immediately we had finished eating, we were ordered to parade again, and boarded another lot of vehicles known as T.C.Vs. [Troop Carrying Vehicles] Transport lorries specifically designed for carrying troops and on which each man had a seat. I noticed that they carried the insignia of the 50th, Tyne and Tees Division, brought back from Italy in early 1944, and had actually been the first seaborne troops ashore on D day. The Division had a fine history, and enjoyed a high reputation as a fighting formation, so I was surprised to learn from my driver, that the division had been broken up, to provide re-inforcements for less illustrious divisions. He was loud and vociferous in his remarks about senior officers, and who could blame him - this pre-war Territorial had a fierce loyalty to one Division and one only.
We sat in the trucks and waited for the rest of the morning, with no-one knowing what was going on, but eventually we moved off, drove round Calais, before arriving at another camp. This had been a German U-boat barracks, and over the main gate arch the Swastika emblem was still in place. There was no further move forward that day, and we ended Christmas Eve singing carols by candle light, before retiring. We knew that we would be on the move again in the morning.
On to the River Meuse
An elderly Frenchman called us next morning with a cup of tea, plus as a Christmas present, a packet of small cigars. Since I was a non-smoker, he was highly delighted when I returned the cigars to him.
There was no Parade Ground in the camp, so we fell in on the road, and since no transport had arrived, promptly "fell out", and stood around waiting. Presently a convoy of three ton trucks came along, and halted alongside us, but they were clearly not our transport. They were standard three tonners, but with no canopies. These had all been removed, leaving the metal superstructure. The R.A.S.C. subaltern in charge, it was learnt, had orders to report to the Calais Transit Camp, with full petrol tanks. For the past month, his platoon's task had been carting coal from Boulogne docks (as was evident from the state of the vehicles), and had assumed he had been sent to Calais, to do exactly the same. A phone call to some un-known H.Q. confirmed that these were indeed the trucks to carry us forward into Belgium, and there was nothing the C.O. could do about it. The poor unfortunate Service Corps Lieutenant felt the full fury of the Colonel's anger, but he was not responsible for the "cock up".
We were lucky in one respect, the weather was fine and dry with bright sunshine, and now the insistence that we brought greatcoats was appreciated. There was no thought of sitting on the floors of the vehicles, they were far too filthy, so men hung onto the metal super-structure throughout the days journey. Our destination was somewhere near Ghent in Belgium. We had no maps, so were not able to monitor our progress. After a time places and names more familiar to my fathers generation began to appear, Arras, Mons, Ypres with the Cloth Hall and the Menin Gate came and went, before we drove past Vimy Ridge, and the huge Canadian Memorial on its summit. In most of the places we passed through, it was evident the civilian population was worried by the Boche offensive, and they turned out to cheer us on our way. In some places we were lucky enough to have cakes and apples thrown up to us. Somewhere along the route, we halted to eat our Christmas lunch - one cheese and one luncheon meat sandwich.
In late afternoon the convoy halted in the large village of Dottignes, and here waiting were the Advance Party, who had left Larkhill 24 hours ahead of the main body. We were joined by our platoon reps., and L/cpl. Cabrera led the way and was soon detailing two or three men to billets in individual houses. Soon every man was accommodated, and as the cooks too had been busy, it wasn't long before a hot supper was being served.
Christmas night 1944, must have been a record one for the bars and estaminets of Dottignes, it was difficult to find a seat in any, but along with a number of my fellow subalterns, finally managed to do so. I have never considered myself lucky when playing cards, but I was that night, ending up with a wallet full of Belgian francs and nothing to spend them on.
The coal trucks had disappeared back to Boulogne immediately we had de-bussed, and next morning another R.A.S.C. Platoon arrived to carry us further on our way. Our destination on Boxing Day was the town of Namur on the banks of the river Meuse, which must have been some distance from our starting point, since it was dark before we arrived. It had been a much more comfortable journey, as these three tonners had their canopies, but how much better would have been the T.C.Vs. which had moved the battalion between the transit camps in Calais.
On reaching Namur, we waited alongside the river for a short while, until guides arrived to lead us to our billets. Head Quarter Company complete were housed in an infants school, but waited in the school yard eating our supper, before entering. The Machine Guns had been allocated a large room on the top floor, two storey's up. Settling down for the night, was not helped by the lack of electricity, and everything had to be done by torchlight.
Eventually we sorted ourselves out, but hadn't long been asleep, when we were wakened by the firing of the "ack-ack" guns at the bridge close-by. We heard neither aircraft over head, nor bombs exploding, but the guns continued firing for half an hour, and then we could get back to sleep again. We were being served breakfast next morning in the yard, when through the gate-way came Roy Leyland, two men of the Scouts and a German prisoner. Earlier an agitated Belgian housewife, had approached the guard. They couldn't understand what she was going on about, so roused the Intelligence Officer, who quickly learnt, that during the night, the woman had been roused by knocking on her door. When she had opened it, a German, brandishing a gun had forced his way in. The woman waited until he was asleep, then crept out to warn the nearest army unit, thus permitting Roy Leyland to make the first capture of our Ardennes campaign. The young Luftwaffe pilot was a source of great interest as he stood with his back to the wall, and hands clasped on top of his head. For the young re-inforcements this was their first sight of a member of the "master race". I don't know what they made of him, but I couldn't help but admire his nerve, but on re-flection, I don't think the Luftwaffe can have trained their air crew in escape and evasion techniques, and practices. We hadn't either, until we returned from Normandy, where several men, including Arthur Stubbs and Len Cox , had been forced to learn the hard way. Escape kits were issued on a limited scale, and everyone had a compass of sorts but it was only after the operation, that successful escapers and evaders lectured us on their experiences.
After breakfast, along with the rest of the Battalion "O" Group, I was called to attend a briefing. We travelled in a couple of jeeps, to a school, a mile or so, to the east of the river. As we waited, Major Ted Lough (Brigade D/A/Q. [Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General]) came along to see how we were faring, and was full of praise for the co-operation he was receiving from his American opposite number. Apart from the incident of the coal trucks, the move from Larkhill to Namur in four days, had gone remarkably smoothly, a tribute to the efficiency of the "staff" at all levels.
Shortly after our arrival, a Brigadier, informally dressed and wearing a black beret entered the room, and introduced himself as the commander 29th. Armoured Brigade, under whose orders we were now operating. I was not impressed either by the Brigadier or the manner in which he gave his orders. Everything seemed "airy-fairy" to me, with no-one firmly in control. Admittedly the tactical situation was very fluid and reliable intelligence about the Boche and his intentions scarce, but I would have preferred a more confident set of orders.
Two things were abundantly clear, the Panzers were halted 30 kilometres to the east by shortage of fuel, and there were no friendly forces in between. We were to hold the bridge at Namur. Driving back towards the town, it was obvious that one feature dominated the landscape for miles around, and that was an outcrop of rock, adjacent to the bridge on the west bank of the river. Perched on top of this was a fortress known as "The Citadel". Who-ever occupied that, controlled the river crossings. We drove up a narrow cobble stone road, which zig-zagged its way right to the very summit, from where we had a bird's eye view of the country east of the river. One company must have been responsible for the close defence of the bridge and the river bank, and my task was to cover the river and the approaches to it, north and south of the bridge itself. Never did the Machine Guns enjoy such a field of fire and observation as we had at Namur. Had it been necessary, we could have opened fire at our maximum range of 2800 yards, but sadly, the accuracy of the guns at such distance was not to be tested. Next day we were relieved by a unit of the 53rd. (Welsh) Division, and we moved on to occupy civilian billets in a nearby village.
The next move took us to Beauraing. Here the bridge over the river had been blown by the Americans as a Boche recce column approached. Sgt. Egleton's section and platoon H.Q. were deployed outside the village with B Company, Sgt Higgins, supported C Company, holding the cross roads at Gozin, two kilometers to the north. Prior to the move, I went on a recce. with the Company Commanders concerned, and our route took us over the Meuse at Dinant, where for the only time in my Army service, I had to show my Identity Card to the Military Policeman at the bridge. I later learnt that "Brandenburghers" (German equivalent of the S.A.S.) did penetrate as far as a side road near the bridge. It was on the road between Dinant and Beauraign, that we saw our first evidence of the recent fighting. Driving through open country we passed the site of an armoured battle in which the Americans were clearly the losers, with numerous burnt out Sherman tanks as evidence, and along a woodland track less than 100 yards from Beauraign bridge, were the shattered remains of the Panzers who had attempted to rush it, but the Allied Air Forces had put an end to their plans.
When not manning the weapon slits, we rested in yet another school, but were slumming it compared with Battalion H.Q. who occupied the "Chateau Royale d'Ardennes". As its name implies it had been built as a country retreat for the Belgian Royal Family, but was now a luxury hotel. Some members of H.Q. even went out shooting wild boar during their stay, but on the whole the area was quiet. The building of a Bailey bridge to replace the one destroyed, was completed without interference, and there was so little military activity in the place, that it was no surprise, when on 1st. January 1945 we received orders to move to Dinant for a rest on the following day. It seemed von Rundstedt's attack had run out of steam, and the move to Dinant, was just a preliminary to returning home.
A Change of Plan
Next morning 2nd. January, dawned bright and cold, as had most days since our arrival on the continent. There had been continual frost, but it remained dry. Greatcoats were handed in shortly after we reached Namur, they were such a hindrance to mobility, and we didn't see them again until we returned home in February. There had been no fresh snow falls, but the land was covered several inches deep, and the roads were packed hard. Beauraign only had one street, and after breakfast, the Battalion began forming up along it in readiness for the march to Dinant. C Company and Arthur Higgins section joined the column from Gozin, and once the Battalion was concentrated, we set off marching.
It wasn't a tactical move, more just a short route march, but because of the threat of aerial attack, we marched well spread out -- sections staggered on either side of the road. The Mortars and Machine Guns, travelled at the rear, pulling their trolleys sleigh-dog team fashion -- and given the snow covered road, the cries of "mush, mush", were not inappropriate. We did not have maps of the route, but it can't have been far, since no haversack rations were issued at breakfast, so clearly Dinant would be reached in time for the mid-day meal. I think most of us were looking forward to the physical exercise that marching provided. Apart from digging-in a couple of times, we had been very in-active. It was a well maintained major road we were marching along, and the trolleys moved freely over the packed snow. Keeping one's feet was a bit of a problem, since the hob nail studs gave you no grip at all. Later we re-placed these studs with the German semi- pointed type, which were far more suitable. Still we made good progress, and were looking forward to a few days rest and relaxation in the bars and estaminets. We virtually had the road to ourselves, but around mid-morning, an Army staff car, flying a pennant approached from the direction of Dinant. The car stopped in the part of the column near Battalion H.Q., and a figure alighted and started marching with us, and the car passed through us to the rear. As it went by, I couldn't help noticing it was flying the Divisional Commander's flag.
Only a few days before leaving England in such a hurry, we had learnt that General Gale, who had raised, trained and so successfully commanded 6th. Airborne, had been promoted to Deputy Commander 1st. Airborne Corps, and Major General Bols, was now G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding] the division. He was a complete stranger, and I thought that he had just come along to have along to have a look at us. The General walked with us for a while, and then his staff car which had crawled along in the rear, was called forward, and the C.O. was seen to join the General in the vehicle, before it drove off towards Dinant. I saw nothing sinister in this, but when the Battalion turned off the main road, and took a minor one to the left, I guessed there had been a change of plan. This became clear a little later, for on entering a village, we found the Colour Sergeants had already set up shop, and were waiting to serve haversack rations and tea. Roy Leyland (2i/c) called an "O" Group, and told us our rest was cancelled, and instead we were to be part of the counter attack shortly to be mounted against von Rundstedt's Panzers.
After the break, the march continued for the rest of the daylight hours. But it was very pleasant marching, the route lay through rolling country of low hills and wooded valleys, with not even a hamlet worth speaking of. We didn't know our destination, and it was late in the afternoon when on entering the large village of Pondrome we encountered the C/Sgts. again. Billets had been found for every-one, and the evening meal was in course of preparation, and more welcome still the first mail from home since our coming to Belgium. The entire platoon were accommodated in a large airy loft, over a barn, while I, myself shared a room with Vic Wraight and Fred Tiramani, in a cottage on the village main street. After the evening meal , the Vickers were thoroughly checked, weights on the various springs tested, barrels dry cleaned. Personal weapons were inspected too, before I joined my fellow Officers at Company H.Q. The Colonel had still not returned with orders, so we bid Andy McLoughlin "Good Night" and retired to our billet.
As in all the other houses in which I was billeted during our time in Belgium, life was centred on the kitchen stove, which projected into the main room of the house from an outside wall. They were fully enclosed, with a hot plate on top, and there was always a pot of coffee waiting. Of course it wasn't really coffee, that was unobtainable in war time Belgium. "Ersatz" coffee, I understand was made from roasted acorns, and was a good substitute. On entering the billet, space was made for us round the stove, and with many apologies for the lack of real coffee, a big cup of the alternative was handed to each of us. Our welcome by the ordinary people of Belgium had from the outset been most friendly. They were genuinely pleased to see us - no doubt they felt that with British soldiers in the village, they were safe from the Nazi hordes, but their welcome was a big contrast to the "why come and fight here" treatment we received in Normandy.
Despite the language barrier we sat round the stove talking and laughing with our hosts for a couple of hours, until lacking any orders for the morrow we went to bed. We didn't sleep for long before we were roused by a knocking on the door, calling Vic and myself to an "O" Group.
Battalion H.Q. was located in a large prosperous farm in the centre of the village, and the "O" Group assembled in the kitchen. It took a while for all the members to arrive, but Harry Pollak was busy handing out maps of various scales, with instructions to fold them to include the villages of Tellin, Bure and Grupont. Having done this, I inspected the map, and at once realised, that a few hours earlier warning of the change of plan, would have saved the battalion a day of marching. Pondrome, our billet for the night, was only a few kilometers east of Beauraign, our starting point, yet it had taken all day to move from one to the other.
Eventually we were all assembled and the C.O. could give out his orders. To begin with, he informed us that for some days now the Panzer Armies had been halted because of a shortage of fuel, and were receiving a terrific hammering by the Allied Air Forces. Field Marshal Montgomery was in command, and was now ready to mount a full scale counter attack, in which we would play a part. The Battalion was still under command of 29 Armoured Brigade, and the entire Brigade was committed to the attack, and our task was to seize intact the bridge over the river at Grupont. But in order to do this, it would first be necessary to clear the Boche from Bure - which it was reported to be defended by an enemy platoon. There was no mention of Panzers, either here or anywhere in the vicinity. Simultaneously, the 10th. Battalion The Rifle Brigade, with 2nd. Battalion the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (Sherman tanks), would seize two hill features - code-named "Gin" and "Orange" which dominated the ground over which we were to advance. At the same time, 5 kilometers to the north, 7th. Parachute Battalion, with 23rd. Hussars (also Shermans) of 29 Armd Brigade, would assault the river crossing at Forrieres . In support of the Battalion attack, there would be a Regiment of 25 pounders (the standard Medium Gun of The Royal Artillery), and an Officer controlling their fire would travel with the C.O.
The detailed plan for the attack was straight forward. Next morning we would move by transport to Restaigne, and then march to Tellin. There we would leave the main road, taking a minor one running south, before turning west again to approach Bure along a wooded ridge, which ran to the south of the village. Keeping in the woods it was possible to get within 200 yards of it, hope fully unobserved. At least that was the plan for the approach march. The eastern edge of the wood was the start line for the attack. A Company would be the first to cross, and they would clear the Boche from Bure itself. Immediately "A" were on their way, B Company, with the Scouts and Machine Guns under command, would continue advancing along the ridge (no longer wooded), until they could occupy a position overlooking Grupont bridge. They would then provide fire support for C Company, advancing along the road from Bure to capture the final objective. Then followed the usual details about wireless frequencies, position of Battalion H.Q. during the different stages of thee attack, code names, location of the R.A.P. (Regimental Aid Post), where the Doctor was, feeding arrangements -- all routine stuff, but very important just the same.
Finally the Colonel asked "any questions?". There was one vital question asked. Vic Wraight wanted to know where his ammunition was? The Colonel was not pleased to learn that he had sent it back to B Echelon on the ration truck, before we left Beauraing. On returning to our billet, we roused Fred Tiramani, and he went off to retrieve the mortar bombs. I'll bet he cursed, he didn't get back to bed that night.
3rd. January was again sunny and cold, and after breakfast I briefed the Platoon. There wasn't time to write letters, but most of us had sent a Field Postcard home the previous evening. The move to the "start line" went without a hitch, and after de-bussing in Resteigne we had a march of 6 kilometres. Good progress was made, as we had the road to ourselves, but in Tellin we passed through 10th. K.R.R's who were gathered round "biscuit tin stoves" in an attempt to keep warm. They looked cold and miserable in their long greatcoats, and cap-comforters under steel helmet ---- a sharp contrast to the eager, red-blooded vitality of our lads. When ever we passed through another unit of our own Division, there was always plenty of non too polite banter, and light-hearted tradings of insults exchanged between the two units, but we passed through Tellin in silence.
Just clear of the village, A Company who were in the lead, turned off along the minor road running up into the hills, and we now ran into deeper snow. The go-ing became even harder, once we left the road and started to move across country towards the woods. But we were keeping up with the time-table, so there were no worries, although it was much harder work pulling the trolleys through the snow covered fields, than along the roads. Even when we entered the first stretch of woodland, the Guns (who were travelling immediately to the rear of B Company, while I moved with Bill Grantham's "O" Group behind his leading platoon) kept their place in the column without any difficulty. After crossing a track, the planting of the pine trees was much closer, and I realised that it would be impossible to pull the trolleys between them. There was still about 400 yards to the "start line", and I ran back through the other platoons of B Company to tell Sergeant Whalley to un-load the trolleys, and everything would have to be carried. Fortunately, he had already appreciated this, and individual loads were being sorted out.
"H" hour was almost upon us as I raced to catch up with Bill Grantham, and even before I caught up "A" were on their way, and it was clear that their advance was being opposed. From the direction of Bure came the rattle of machine guns and the crump of exploding mortar bombs. Before I managed to reach the head of the Company, the leading platoon had already left the shelter of the woods and was shaking itself out into an open formation on the ridge. Bill Grantham and his "O" Group were emerging into the open as I reported his lack of Machine Gun support to him. He continued walking towards the top of the ridge as I spoke to him. All he said was "Follow on as quickly as you can", and with that he was gone, and the mortar bombs started to rain down on that exposed ground they were advancing over.
Once more I turned and hurried back towards the guns, but they too, had realised the urgency of the situation, and were not very far back. The Platoon were leaving the woods to follow behind B Company, when the C.O. from his position on the "start line" overlooking the village, called on us to halt. "We have lost radio contact and the situation with B Company on the right flank is not at all clear, so wait until I know more about what is happening over there" he explained. Judging that the area around the front edge of the wood might be rather unhealthy, I moved men and guns back about 100 yards, in the cover of the trees, and gave instructions for them to eat the haversack rations issued at breakfast. I, then went back to join the Colonel.
As I arrived, the first walking wounded, members of B Company came down from the ridge. Arthur Prestt, Scout Platoon Commander was one of them, and was able to give the Colonel an accurate account of what had happened. Immediately the company deployed in the open, an enemy sniper had shot Bill Grantham, (O.C. Coy) and they became the target for a concentrated mortaring and shelling. There wasn't a scrap of cover on the bare hillside, and the first salvo caught them completely in the open. Alf Lagregan (one of the Platoon Commanders) had taken charge, and those who were capable of movement had dashed for cover in houses at the right-hand end of the village, but there were a lot of dead, including Bill Grantham. Company Sergeant Major Jack Moss, had been badly wounded, as had many more. Corporal Charlie Bryant i/c the company Medics had come back with the party, seeking extra assistance.
Clearly any further advance on the right flank was out of the question, and the situation in the village itself wasn't clear, so Harry Pollak (I.O.) was sent to contact Jack Watson for an up to date report. I could see I was going to be there for some time, so I sat with my back against a tree and ate my rations.. The news from A Company was more encouraging, but they too had suffered casualties, both from mortars and machine guns , as they crossed the open field between the wood and the built-up area of the village. There was a large tank -- suspected "Tiger", the heaviest tank in any army at the time --- sited at the cross roads in the village, making it impossible to move along the street, and the advance had to be through the gardens along the backs of the houses. Some of the houses had already been wrested from the Boche, but it was slow go-ing, every yard of advance was fiercely contested, with houses having to be cleared one by one. Some of the properties were small farms with out buildings, all of which had to be cleared as well. There were enemy SPs [Self-Propelled Guns] prowling around on the yet uncaptured heights of "Gin" and "Orange" adding to their difficulties. In an effort to at least clear the village before nightfall, the Colonel sent in C Company, ordering them to pass through "A", and complete the task of seizing Bure. To cover their dash across the open, the Artillery were called on to lay a barrage on the eastern end of the village, also on the two hills where the SPs lurked, and as the shells came screaming over, C Company ran from the wood and advanced towards the houses. Reports on the radio told of slow progress, and it was clear when night began to close around us, that Bure was not going to be captured that day, for now the only uncommitted troops were the Mortars and Machine Guns, and they really have a limited role in street fighting.
We waited in the trees until it was dark, before any move was made to get the rest of the Battalion into the village, hopefully without attracting any counter measures. Before it became totally dark, we moved some way back into the wood, and formed up into a long snake, leaving no gaps. Each man undid the flap on his smock which passed between the legs, and this formed a tail. It really was dark in there, as the closely planted trees shut out all light from above. Each one grasped the tail of the man in front, and we started moving down the slope towards the road.
While we were still in the shelter of the trees, darkness, and the slippery snow covered downward slope of the ground were the main problem. I had an easy time of it compared with the men of the Platoon - all I had to do was maintain my balance, and hang on to the "tail" of the man in front, but the gunners needed their other hand to hold either tripod, gun or condenser can, and the ammunition carriers had an extra 40lbs. on their backs. If the term "snail's pace" ever had a meaning, then it could be applied to our rate of progress through the trees, but finally we emerged from the wood without mishap. Now at least we could see where we were going, but there was still some distance to the road. On the open slope the difficulty was staying on your feet - the snow here was a foot deep.
All was quiet in the village, and the movement of the dark snake across its white background went unnoticed by enemy observers, and slowly, ever so slowly, we progressed towards the road. Once there, a halt was called, and a check made, prior to advancing towards Bure, a mile along the road. Ahead of us we could see a small, flickering fire, which, as we soon found out, came from a Sherman tank, put out of action even before it reached the village. Moving as quietly as possible, we eventually started to enter the built up area. The houses on the outskirts, stood well apart, straggling the street. On the left, the R.A.P. occupied the first one, Battalion H.Q. the next, while the rest - Major Andy McLoughlin with his H.Q., Mortars and Machine Guns, pushed on until we bumped the rear positions of those already there. The mortars who were leading, were allotted two houses on the north of the road, and we were given two next to the rear, while Company H.Q. were on the opposite side.
Before the column had moved off in the woods, I had been given the task of covering the main street, so leaving Sergeant Whalley to check the houses, I went forward with my two Section Commanders to have a look round. All was quiet, the road was littered with the debris of mortaring and shelling, but there was no-one about. In order to adequately carry out my orders, the guns had to be at ground level. Forward of Coy. H.Q. on the right, a flight of steps ran up to a front door, and underneath them was a small chamber open to the west, and I sited one gun here, firing back down the axis of advance. Forward of this position, the pavement on either side was blocked by fallen masonry, a result of the shelling, and I sited a gun on either side behind this cover. They weren't good positions, but the best I thought, given the circumstances.
Alf Whalley had searched the houses, finding them empty, he allocated the more forward of them to Arthur Higgins and his section, Platoon H.Q. and Frank Egleton's team the other. Thinking we would only be there for the night, not wishing to make a nuisance of ourselves, we all stretched out in a broad passage that ran the whole length of the house.
Bure - Second Day
It was a long, cold, sleepless night that followed. Information about both our own position and the actual location of the Boche was lacking, so every movement observed, had to be treated as suspicious, if not downright hostile. More than half of the Platoon were in action for the first time, and it wasn't exactly a simple situation we were in. An eerie silence persisted through the night, broken only by the hourly changing of gun teams and sentries. On one occasion a burst of Sten gun fire broke the night's fearful quiet - a Boche patrol had approached the right hand forward post, through a derelict house to their front. "Rommel" - ( Private Rodden) waited until the leading man was only five yards away, and then fired. The corpse, with an M.G. 42 , was there when daylight came.
Morning "stand to" came and as it grew lighter, it was possible to take a look at our surroundings. The main street was deserted, there was no sight of friend or foe. I couldn't see too far up the street, as it veered off towards the right, but I knew from the map there was a cross roads up there. In the opposite direction, looking back the way we had come, there were very few houses, perhaps a gap of forty yards to the nearest, and this was Battalion Headquarters. Almost opposite "our" house, but across the road, stood a farm cart, loaded with hay, and the shafts were locked, rising diagonally upwards. On the far side, behind Company H.Q., the ground started to rise just to the rear, but at the back of the buildings on our side of the road, was an open aspect of snow covered fields, slowly rising in height towards the two hill features (code named "Gin and Orange"). It was also possible to observe the rear of the houses running up to the cross roads, and the cluster of buildings around that area. Further still to the right, could be seen the country leading towards Grupont. I had one gun not yet committed, their task would be to cover this flank.
I was still upstairs working this out, when away in the distance I heard the noise of a truck, slowly grinding its way up the street, as though the driver was uncertain of his whereabouts. "Stop that truck" I called down the stairs, and even before I reached the ground floor, in bounded Fred Tiramani. "Christ Fred" I said, "Where do you think you are going?" "I've brought the battalion their breakfast" he replied. "Sergeant Whalley" I called, "let's have this truck unloaded fast", and all of us present set to unloading the food containers. "What on earth has happened to the rest of the Battalion?" Fred wanted to know, "the talk at Brigade is that the Battalion has been almost wiped out." "It's not as bad as that" I assured him, "But we have taken a battering - B Company in particular had a lot of casualties on the hill over there", and I indicated the far side of the road. "Where's Jerry then?" he asked. "Just up the road, as far as I know" I told him "That's why I had you stopped, or you might have delivered the breakfast to them instead."
By now the passage was filled with the Battalion's breakfast. I pointed out Battalion H.Q. to Fred. "As you go by, tell them where the food is", and as a result, for the next half-hour, a steady stream of carrying parties collected their company's rations, without any trouble, and Alf Whalley organised the feeding of Headquarter Company personnel.
The weather that morning was a complete contrast to all the previous days. From its very outset, the clouds were low, and snow didn't seem too far away I reckoned. Sure enough not soon after we had finished eating, the snow started, making the light even poorer. I was upstairs at the front, looking up the street, and from the cross roads came the crack of a large gun being fired, and a red hot projectile flashed across in front of me, followed by another, then yet another. The hay cart was the target, but the shells passed straight through and came out the back. The German gunner in the tank, must have mistaken the hay-cart for a British Sherman. Private Rodden was crossing back to his post, when the first shot was fired. He immediately rolled under the cart, crawled to the front, and let off a full magazine of "Sten" up the street.
Private Rodden's re-action to the changed situation had been faster than mine, I had stood there watching, when all the time the two forward guns on the street were in great danger. Somehow or other, I had to get them back into the shelter of the houses. Getting as far as the gun under the steps was no problem, and I noticed the snow was no longer falling, improving visibility for both sides. Tommy Howell and "Rommel" were the gun crew under in the little chamber, and I crouched down looking over the steps. A monster of an armoured vehicle was clearly visible, not much more than 100 yards ahead, standing at the cross roads, from where it controlled all approaches . It was far larger than the tanks and S.Ps., that we had encountered in Normandy, and was in fact a "King" Tiger, then the largest and most powerful armoured fighting vehicle in the world. There had been no mention of friendly armour supporting our attack on the previous day, it was all with either the K.R.Rs. attacking "gin and orange", or helping the 7th. Battalion, but now as I watched, two Shermans of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, came racing up the road behind, oblivious of the "Tiger". They roared past where I stood, and I thought I was about to witness a spectacular tank shoot out, but not so. The crew of the first Sherman must have seen the enemy tank, and in slamming on his brakes, the driver stalled the engine, for it shuddered to a halt, making a sitting duck of a target. The second Sherman close behind, was forced to swerve, drove off the road to the right, circled and then drove at speed back again, pushing the halted vehicle through a gap between the houses. The two then turned and raced off to the rear. It was all over in a minute, and the "Tiger" crew must have been as bemused by it all as I was. I had missed the opportunity to get the guns off the street, while the tank was distracted by the antics of the Shermans, but I let it pass.
The tank team, too, must have been ashamed of their inactivity, and suddenly sprung into life. The left hand Vickers was the first target, suddenly there was a rush and a roar, something struck the masonry piled in front and exploded. I saw the gun and tripod, thrown upwards and backwards, and a man ran scrambling to safety. Next it was the turn of the gun up the road in front of me. The same rush, roar and explosion, and then a voice calling for help.
I was up and running. As I raced up the street, I was conscious of a string of brightly coloured lights coming towards me and passing silently over my head, but it never occurred to me that they were in fact bullets, and that I was the intended target. I reached the gun position, and the lights followed me. Sitting behind the gun was Alf Williams, and it was he who had called for help. Crouched alongside him, were two young reinforcements. The lights, missing Alf and I, were slamming into these two young bodies with a peculiar hissing noise.
Then all was quiet. Somehow I wrestled Alf up onto his feet. He was wounded in the legs, and half carrying, half dragging, I started back up the street. A door to the left opened, and a voice called "In here". I turned to see C.S.M. Dugdale, and other eager hands helped carry the wounded corporal inside Company Headquarters. We laid him down, and one of the Company clerks injected him with morphia - we all carried an ampoule in the Field-dressing pocket of our battle dress.
I turned to go back out through the door. "Where are you going?", the O.C. wanted to know. "Back for the others" I replied. "Oh no you're not, it's sheer stupidity going back on the street, the Colonel's worried because we've lost so many Officers already".
He was right, going back to the gun site, would serve no purpose at all. The two other lads, I knew were dead. No human body could take as many bullets as theirs had done and survive. I hoped they hadn't suffered, I didn't think they had. Death would have been instantaneous, but there was still a nagging doubt in my mind. I had to go back.
Not through the front door though; there must be another way out of the house. I looked round the room. In one corner, on the outside wall, was another door-way, but a large chest was drawn across it. "Where does this door lead?" I asked, and started trying to remove the obstruction. The Sergeant Major came and gave me a hand, and together we moved it out of the way. To my surprise, the door opened as I turned the handle, and I found myself in an alley way running diagonally towards the street, at the end of which, I could see the now deserted gun position. Together we approached the gun site, crawling the last few yards through the snow, to avoid being seen. The lads were dead, but the gun was intact, so very carefully (the C.S.M. was an ex machine gunner so he knew what he was doing), we dismantled the gun and tripod, and then dragged the whole lot back to the house.
David Tibbs (Medical Officer) himself, had come to attend the wounded NCO, as his resources were stretched to the limit. He had finished dressing the wounds, and was about to leave. The morphia had done its job, and Alf was sleeping, "He will be all right here" the M.O. said, "And I will arrange for him to be evacuated as soon as possible."
Andy McLoughlin asked the Sergeant Major to leave, and I thought, "this is going to be a right rollicking for deliberately dis-obeying an order". But instead he was almost apologetic, explaining that this was the first time he had been in action, and even years as a Battle School Instructor, had not prepared him for the real thing. What should he be doing, in the situation we found ourselves in. I replied that the appearance of the German tanks, meant that we could only try to hold on to what we already held, and explained it was not a situation any of us had experienced before. We talked a little longer, and then I left for my platoon H.Q., saying I would send a party over to collect the gun.
Sergeant Egleton was waiting with more bad news - Alf Whalley had been wounded and evacuated. Seemingly a report had reached him that I had run up the street, with tracer bullets coming out of the back of my head before collapsing behind the right-hand gun, and he had gone out to investigate. He was caught in a mortar stonk, and wounded in the thigh.
This was a problem that I had not anticipated, but was capable of an easy solution, because both of the Section Commanders were capable of filling the vacancy. The trouble was, which one? They were two completely different characters, both had my full confidence, and I'm sure I enjoyed theirs. Both had parachuted into Normandy as junior N.C.Os., and proved their worth in battle, and had trained their sections most efficiently. The Platoon Sergeant's role was mainly administration, and I knew that if I gave the job to Arthur Higgins, his drive and aggression in action which was of vital importance, not just to me, but to the whole platoon, would be lost, and that was the reason I gave the post to Sergeant Egleton. I didn't handle the situation very well, neglecting to inform an aggrieved Sergeant why he had been passed over for the position, since he was the senior of the two. He accepted the change at the time, and to his great credit, did not let it affect his performance at all. Later, after the battle, when we were in reserve, Sergeant Higgins privately voiced his disappointment to me. As we were talking, Major Roy Leyland just happened to come along, and sensing all was not well, asked what the trouble was. The Second-in-Command, was well aware of the Sergeants value to me as a fighting leader, and smoothed things over. There were no more complaints, and Arthur served myself, the Platoon, and the Battalion with courage and distinction, until hostilities ceased.
Deciding on a replacement Section Commander, was a lot easier, automatically Lance-Sergeant Drew (the regular soldier who had over-stayed his leave) moved up, and Corporal Cyril Andrews - another of the "D" day Privates became the Section 2i/c.
Around the cross roads, fighting was apparent from the sounds coming from that direction, though we had no idea about the tactical situation. Down our end, activity was limited to mortaring, and so far no targets had presented themselves. There was still one gun sited to fire back along the street, but now one gun in each house observed the open country to the rear. The gun which had been knocked flying by the "Tiger" could only be used in an emergency -- the water-cooling jacket had a great gash in it, making it impossible to cool the barrel. If needs be, the gun was capable of firing for a limited period, until the barrel became over-heated.
Platoon H.Q. were established in the cellar. There was no natural light, but we had "borrowed" an oil lamp, and with an adequate supply of paraffin, had light at all times. Early in the afternoon I was called to join the gun team in the back bed room. A large sash window was open, and a group of German soldiers, crawling along a threadbare hedgerow was pointed out to me. They were no more than 200 yards away. We watched as they slowly made their way along the hedge. Soon they halted, and started to set up two machine guns - a preliminary to an attack along the rear of the houses I thought. The gun was quickly laid on the target, and the order "Fire" was given.
The gun fired one or two rounds and stopped with the crank handle back on the roller. The man firing the gun, immediately recognised a Number 1 Position stoppage, correctly and efficiently pulled the crank handle back, released it, tapped it home, relaid and carried on firing. His actions could not be faulted, but after firing a few more rounds, the gun stopped firing, with the crank handle in the same position (with the most stoppages on the Vickers, the position of the crank handle, decided the remedial action). Again for the firer, it was "ease, pull, tap", followed by three up ward and outward turns of the Fuse Spring (operating the re-coil mechanism). It was too much weight on this spring that was causing the stoppages. This was hardly surprising, considering the length of time the guns had been kept ready for action, but not fired. Again the drill to rectify the stoppage was quickly carried out, but hardly had the gun re-commenced firing, but the regular rattle of the Vickers was drowned by the sudden incoming scream of high velocity shells, followed immediately by a deafening series of simultaneous violent explosions overhead and we were all in a heap on the floor. Dust and plaster showered down, broken timbers, laths and slates were all around; the room was a complete shambles, but the gun was undamaged. There must have been a Boche S.P. lurking on the hillside, which had seen where we fired from, and then proceeded to engage us. Several shells hit the roof over our heads -- had the gunner put them through the window we would have been massacred.
"Is every one all right?" I called out. "My hand's bleeding", - that was Private O'Brien, who had joined the platoon after the Anti-Tank Platoon was broken up. We staggered to our feet, "Get the gun in another room and carry on engaging those guns", I instructed the gunners. I turned to treat O'Brien's hand which was bleeding quite badly. One of his fingers was almost severed from the hand, only the skin and a thin strip of flesh remained. Using a field dressing, I tried to bandage it, but the finger would not stay in place. Every time I applied the dressing, the finger flopped over. I led him over to a chest of drawers, and cleared the rubble with my arm. "Look away" I said, and taking my fighting knife, I cut off the top of the finger. I was then able to bandage it, and send him to the R.A.P.
When I re-joined the gunners, in another room, there was no sign of the enemy, nor did a counter attack develop behind the houses.
It had already been dark for several hours, when I was summonsed to Battalion H.Q. Throughout the day I had received no further orders, but now, sensing that new ones were about to be issued, I instructed Sergeant Egleton have the Section Commanders report in. Then with my batman, I walked the few yards to Headquarters. I was the first to arrive, for I was anticipating a full "O" Group. The cellar I was directed into was crowded, apart from the C.O., and his Gunner Fire Control Officer, Adjutant and Intelligence Officer, there were also wireless sets with their operators. As soon as I reported my presence, the Adjutant informed the Colonel, thus preparing me for a change in the Platoon's role.
"Dixie" he greeted me "I've got a job for your oily rags", and then he went on to explain, that at first light next morning, the 12th. Battalion were going to continue the advance towards Grupont, and the "start line" was to be the road running south-east from the centre of the village. One of their Companies, would be digging in to hold this position, and we were to support them. "Make sure you are well dug in, with ample overhead cover, because you know what to expect in the morning" were the Colonel's final instructions. I could tell by the way he gave me my orders, that the plan did not meet with his approval (I wasn't wildly excited at the prospect of providing target practice for the Boche armour and artillery either), and I also realised what a lonely position it was, commanding in battle.
Collecting Vic Smith, I returned to the Platoon, where I briefed my senior N.C.O's. with the final instruction to prepare for a move, but to await my return from a recce. Vic Smith, had only become my batman, prior to leaving Larkhill, and was one of the young newcomers, and this would be the first time we had done a recce together. Initially we moved back down the street, to the first of the houses on the right hand side of the road, and behind it, started to climb the hillside. All was deathly quiet, not a sound anywhere, apart from the noise we made as we plodded upwards through a foot of snow. Some yards below the crest, a straggly hedge ran in the direction of the proposed positions. We halted there, and I gave instructions. It wasn't really a hedge, rather a line of bushes at irregular intervals. As I moved to the next bush, my batman would cover me, once I had finished that bound, he would then join me, and the process would be repeated until we reached our objective. There were no problems until I reached the last but one bush, but now there was a considerable gap before the last one, and what is more I sensed there was some-one behind it. I had felt this premonition several times when out patrolling on exercises, and had been proved correct every time, so I was certain now. When Vic joined me, I told him of this, and instructed him, if I was fired on, I would dive to the left and roll down the hill; he, in that event was to report what had happened to the C.O.
Having made sure he understood, I stepped off, Sten gun cocked and my finger, firmly round the trigger. The nearer I got to that last bush, the more certain I became that there was someone lurking behind it. I couldn't see even the outline of a body, so thick and black were the branches, but I was ready to throw myself sideways and roll down the hill to safety. At last the challenge came, thankfully in English - "Stand still -- Hands up". I obeyed, and the challenger and myself exchanged pass-words. They were two members of the Scout Platoon, seeking any signs of members of their Platoon who had become separated from them, during a Boche counter-attack earlier in the day. Furthermore, they informed me there were no enemy patrols out on the hillside. The recce finished without any other incident, we returned to the house at the western end of the village, and I sent Vic Smith to bring the Platoon to join me there. I had other urgent business to attend to. Despite the cold, in the rear garden, I scraped a hole in the snow, dropped my trousers and emptied my bowels.
As the Platoon approached the area of the "start line", it was obvious that the 12th. Battalion Company, were already digging in. In the silent, clear air, the ringing sounds of pick, striking frozen ground was unmistakeable 100 yards away. If we could hear it, then surely the Boche in the eastern end Bure, must be able to hear it too. I reported to Major Gerald Ritchie, O.C. the Company, and we agreed a position for the guns. He informed me patrols were stationed to the front, and to both flanks; hence there was no need for my own local protection. The guns were set up and manned, in case we should be surprised, and digging was started. It required a lot of hard work with the picks, to break through the frozen top soil, and unmistake-able as our activities must have been, we were allowed to proceed without hindrance. Once through the frozen crust, good progress was made in digging the positions, and with good reason, for we were vulnerable to attack, until the weapon slits were finished, camouflaged and fully occupied. So we had every incentive to work hard and fast. I was only proposing to dig, and occupy positions just for the guns and fire controllers. 12th. Battalion would provide protection for these, and once this was done, then the rest of the Platoon, under Sergeant Egleton, would return to the comparative safety of the houses. After an hours work , I noticed some of the 12th. moving to the rear, so I sent one of the N.C.Os. across to ascertain the reason for this movement ---- they were going for their supper, lucky devils. Before this party returned, the remainder of the 12th. stopped digging, and started to pick up their equipment. I was then informed that the attack was cancelled and we were to return to the village. 12 Para. faded into the night, and I breathed a mighty sigh of relief.
By now it was the early hours of the 5th. January, and what had proved the most hazardous day of my life, safely ended. Throughout the entire day, I felt a presentiment that no serious harm would come to me that day, and it hadn't, though on two occasions, downright bad markmanship had prevented death or serious injury. There was a special reason for this - January 4th. was Mother's birthday, and I knew that if anything happened to me on that day, the date would never again be a happy one for my family. I didn't court trouble, but I didn't avoid it. And what a blessing, events turned out as they did. Mother lived to be 95.
What happened elsewhere in the place during the night, I don't know, but the next morning was a lot quieter in the western end of Bure. The battle had advanced beyond the cross roads, which were no longer dominated by the "Tiger". It was relatively safe to walk about the street. Even the weather had improved, for the sky had cleared and the sun shone again, giving the scene a false beauty and serenity. It was evident there was nothing doing along the street, so I was up in the back bed room with Sergeant Drew. Nothing seemed to have changed since yesterday, the burnt out shells of a number of Sherman tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, shot up while trying to out-flank the "Tiger" littered the landscape just to our rear. However away to our right towards Grupont, a group of tanks were circling a large isolated buildng. They were too far away, even with binoculars, to identify, and as we discussed this, some-one came up the stairs and entered the room I turned to see two members of the "Scouts", one of whom I knew well. In November 1940, Fred Smith and I, serving in the same Company of 70th. (Young Soldiers ) Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, had been promoted Acting/Unpaid/Local Lance-Corporals, and sent on a course to Western Command School of Physical Training. We both qualified as assistant instructors, and spent three months carrrying out those duties. After that we went our own ways, but by late 1943, we were serving together in the 13th.
And it was me he had come to see he explained. His own Platoon Commander had been wounded, and now he was going out on a sniping assignment, and he knew something was going to happen, and he had to confide in some-one. Since Arthur Prestt was wounded, he had come to me. I tried my best to persuade him he was imagining things as we all did now and again, but I can't have sounded too convincing, especially after my experiencies of the previous day. "What will be, will be", was Fred's philosophy. We shook hands and off he went. Fred was badly wounded by a German sniper, but lives to tell the tale.
The rest of the day and first part of the night passed without incident, and shortly before mid-night, I was making a routine tour of the sentries, and entered the house occupied by Sergeant Higgins and his Section. By the glow coming from the back room I knew a fire was burning, and from the aroma that something was cooking. "Higgy" was standing in front of the stove, on top of which stood a large cooking pot, the source of the mouth-watering smell. I didn't enquire as to the source of the contents, chicken and mixed vegetables. As we talked a runner from Company Headquarters summonsed me to an "O" Group. That's funny, I thought, I normally attended C.O's briefings and orders, and why had the Company Commander waited until this time, when I had been without new instructions all day. "It's most likely just routine, but get yourself over to Platoon H.Q., collecting Sergeant Drew as you go" I said. We went out of the house together, he turned towards H. Q., and I crossed over the road.
Vic Wraight was already there, the C.S.M. too, and as soon as I entered, the O.C. began "Listen very carefully as there isn't much time. The Battalion is to withdraw at 24.00. hours, prisoners captured this afternoon say they had been ordered to hold on, as a big counter attack was to be mounted at first light next morning (6th.). When this news was given to the Brigadier he decided the Battalion were too exhausted to resist a major attack, and so we were to pull out. Anything that can't be carried for some distance, is to be left at the last house on the right, where a party under the R.S.M. will destroy it. Nothing of any value to the enemy is to be left behind. The Machine Guns were to lead, followed by Mortars. Any questions?" "Yes, where are we going?" I asked. "I'll move with you and lead the way" came the reply. Realising how dark it was outside, and anticipating a certain amount of confusion caused by the sudden move, I then said "How will I know which is you?" The O.C. paused only a second or two before replying, "Listen, I'll hoot like an owl" It was a most convincing impression he gave, and I thought afterwards "he must have been rehearsing that all his miliary career, to use on an occasion like this." There was no doubt though, silence was of the utmost importance - should the Boche get to know what was go-ing on, and bring down a barrage onto the street, there would be choas. "Synchronise watches" a pause "it is 23.53 hours in 5, 4 3 2 seconds. Now. You are to be on the street ready to move in five minutes. we go at 24. 00 hours."
How the N.C.Os got the men into the street on time, I'll never know. The guns had to be unloaded, and dismantled, ammunition carriers to be re-filled, loads sorted out and everything checked. But they did. We eased off towards Battalion Headquarter's in single file, and I walked back, counting as I went, to make sure no-one was left behind. Three killed, four wounded -- that made thirty four, including myself. All correct, and I couldn't help noticing how heavily loaded every-one seemed. I turned and started to walk back to the head of the line, and as I did, I heard "Towhitt towhoo. towhitt towhoo", coming from behind me. Twice more the call came, getting nearer each time, but I had not seen the caller in the darkness. Then I could just make out the outline of a figure aproaching. It stopped a few yards away and again came the call "Towitt towhoo towhitt towhoo". By now I had seen the funny side of it for the hooting recognition call was known only to the members of the "O" Group. I was imagining the reactions of members of the Company, when this figure, halted in front of them and then hooted like on owl.
The O.C. gave a wave of his arm and we set off, making as little noise as possible. We were very vulnerable, for the village must be a registered target of every Boche gun within range. Passing the last house on the right, the 2i/c checked us through, and the R.S.M. waited to receive any spare weapons and ammunition that couldn't be carried. There was still no enemy re-action and I began to think we were going to get away with our silent withdrawal. We couldn't march, we shuffled. The surface of the road was polished ice -- snow packed hard by the passage of armour, and keeping ones feet was hard enough, carrying personal equpment only as I was. I reckoned the heavily laden gunners must be finding it much worse, so I went down the column to investigate. They really were struggling, because not a single thing had been left behind for destruction, even the badly damaged gun and the ten belts of ammunition, normally carried by the men who had become casualties, had been brought with us. Some men had 80lbs extra on their backs. As we went along, the members of Platoon H.Q. took over their share of the loads.
The next three hours were a real nightmare. In the first place, we didn't know our destination, and hence had no idea how long we must keep going. There was no ten minute halt every hour, that would have made things even worse, far better to keep moving. Had a halt been called, it wouldn't have helped, we couldn't lie down and raise our feet, and getting on the move again would be absolute murder. Keep going, even when men were continually losing their footing, and landing flat on their backs, and having to be hauled to their feet by their mates, cursing and swearing under their breath. Nor was there any chance of sharing the heavy loads, every single member of the Platoon was carrying one. We had passed through Tellin (the last place we remembered before Bure) a long time ago, and there had been no more built up areas on the route.
It seemed as though the march would be endless, when out of the night ahead of us a jeep appeared. Out stepped Major Mike Brennan, Brigade Major, "Well done. Well done", he encouraged us. "Not much further now. Here let me take your load and put it in the jeep?" he asked of the first man. "I'm alright, the man behind is carrying more than me", he replied, realising that one jeep could not hold all the Platoon's equipment. He went down the line, asking each man in turn, but not a single one would hand over his load before any-one else. Close to exhaustion as we all were, I experienced a surge of pride in these young soldiers and for what my team of almost equally young N.C.Os and myself had achieved and how the lads themselves were behaving. Throughout the training we had sought to instill in these youngsters, a pride in themselves, in the Platoon, in being a Machine Gunner, in not giving in, always working for their gun team - and here it all was demonstrated clearly and strongly. Surely, this was the British soldier at his best. For three days and nights, we had been battering away at the Hun, taking a hammering, but giving a harder one in return. These young, untried parachutists could not have experienced a sterner baptism of fire, but they had not flinched. Now, dirty, dishevelled, exhausted in mind and body, with little sleep or food for seventy two hours, having seen their pals and comrades killed and wounded close at hand. They had felt shame when ordered to withdraw - they knew they had beaten the Boche yet again - and so unconquered, un-daunted, we marched on. Fortunately as Mike Brennan said, it wasn't far. We reached the chateau housing our own Brigade Headquarters, and there found a floor to sleep on for a few hours.
Next morning showed evidence of the hurried change of plan, for we hung around in the cobble stoned courtyard of the chateau most of the morning, there being no-where else to go. But it gave me the opportunity to chat to my friends in the rifle companies and learn about the battle. I have already reported that Bill Grantham had been killed and Arthur Prestt wounded early on during B Company's advance, and I now learnt that Alf Lagregan and Tim Winser both platoon commanders were also dead. Rifle Platoon Officers in both A and C Companies were casualties too, Eric Barlow and Pat Kavanagh of "A", and Bill Davidson, C Company, all wounded. Battalion Headquarters had not been spared, Leslie Golding joined the hospital list. I wandered back to Company H.Q., and in casual conversation with the C.S.M. remarked that a regular soldier like himself, was surely able to arrange something to keep us warm. He didn't say anything, but disappeared into the chateau. A little later, I noticed him signalling for me to join him behind a parked vehicle, and he then produced a mug of rum, which he offered me. The two of us drank it between us, and suddenly I was warm and comfortable again.
Few people outside the 13th. Battalion, know the full story of Bure. Our casualties in killed and wounded, for only a few men became prisoners, are almost identical with those of 2nd.Battalion at Arnhem Bridge, and there the similarity ends, except that both Battalions took on "Tiger" tanks with inadequate weapons. Rightly the men of the 2nd. Battalion, won world wide acclaim for their gallant exploits, and the heroism of all involved, recognised by the award of numerous decorations to all ranks. Our sacrifice earned just five medals. For a unit to engage the enemy in close combat, when heavily out gunned for three days and nights as we had done, demanded leadership at the top, of the highest quality, which we had in full. It went un-recognised.
Before we left the chateau, several changes in command were made. "Dizzy" Gethin was now O.C. B Company, with Maurice Seal, re-called from Brigade to be his 2i/c, and "Baggy" Allen reverted to his old post as Adm. Captain.
Later that morning we moved to Wesselville, with a minor scare on the way, when the convoy leader took the road back to Bure by mistake, but nobody followed, and eventually we arrived at the correct destination. While the Battalion rested, Padre Foy, returned to the village, and all our dead received a Christian burial. On the 9th. January we relieved the 8th. Battalion in Humain where there were signs of recent fighting., but it had been air strikes that were the cause of all the damage. Several heavy tanks Tigers and Panthers had been destroyed in the village, and a number of houses, badly knocked about as well. It was a miserable place to be, and the cold was more intense than ever. The nights were interrupted by "Buzz" bombs (German pilotless aircraft) passing over-head, en-route for Antwerp. One afternoon, we held our own winter sports down a winding lane running from a hill behind the village and finishing at a knocked-out Tiger tank. Home made sleighs and toboggans were used, but not many competitors finished the course without at least one spill. While we were there, I took the opportunity to tell the platoon how pleased I was with their efforts during the battle and of my particular pride in the way they had behaved during the night march out of Bure. Twice I went as Company rep. on recce parties seeking better billets, but to no avail, so small and isolated were the villages in this part of Belgium. However on 17th the Battalion settled in Wellin, and now we were clear of the "war zone". None of the houses had been damaged, and there was a large built-up area around a square. The Mortars and Machine Gunners occupied the Town Hall, with Battalion H.Q., and the Officers billetted in a large estaminet across the road. We were non-tactical, and transport ran each night into Dinant with its bars and cinema. A large party of re-inforcements (non Para) arrived from 21 Army Group Pool and were posted to the Rifle Companies, and I really landed on my feet, when I managed a night in Brussels. There were several little matters requiring attention at various locations in the area. The Subalterns drew lots for the privilege and I was the winner.
Accompanied by the Orderly Room Sergeant, and a member of A Company, to be taken to Corps H.Q., as he was going home on compassionate leave, I set off for the capital city in a 15cwt. truck, one bitterly cold morning. A couple of calls had to be made en-route, and then Corps Rear had moved using up more time, hence it was dark before we booked in at the leave centre. I had a bath, smartened my self up, and went down to the bar, and started chatting to an R.A.S.C. subaltern, who like myself was on his own, but a fellow Officer had given him a list of recommended bars and night clubs, so after dinner in the Officers Club, we set off on a tour of the night life. We started off in a large Beer-hall with an "umph-pappa" band. After that, I can remember an endless succession of dancing girls and sultry songstresses, and one large beer hall with an "um-pah-pah" band, before tumbling in to bed in the early hours.
The following morning there was still a number of calls to be made, followed by lunch, and a visit to the Officers shop, where I bought a pair of brown "Don R." type boots. These were very popular, since gaiters didn't have to be worn with them. It was dark before we arrived back in Wellin, even then, I was surprised how quiet and deserted the place seemed. The estaminet housing H.Q. was in darkness, and the door closed, as was the platoon billet in the Town Hall, and there wasn't a soul about. Where had every-one gone? I had an idea, my O.C. had occupied a billet off the main square. I went across and knocked on the door, and as soon as Madame opened it , I knew I had come to the right place. "Un moment, Monsieur" and she bustled back to her kitchen, reappearing with a message for me. Obviously a last minute thought for it was scribbled in pencil, on part of a cigarette packet (and Andy McLoughlin didn't smoke). The message was clear enough - "We have gone to Holland. Follow on. Good Luck"
BATTALION CASUALTIES BURE
KILLED IN ACTION
Major Bill Grantham, Lieut. Alf Lagregan, Lieut. Tim Winser.
Capt. Leslie Golding, Lieut. Bill Davidson, Lieut. Eric Barlow, 2nd.Lt. Pat Kavanagh, 2nd.Lt. Arthur Prestt.
MACHINE GUN PLATOON
KILLED IN ACTION
Private W.J.Sears, Private N. Scott, Private R.A. King.
Sergeant A. Whalley, Corporal A. Williams, L/Corporal Ross, Private O'Brien.
Holland - 25th January 1945
I reported to the "Town Major" in Dinant and he arranged billets for the night, and next morning pointed us in the right direction for Holland. Within the hour we had picked up the "Pegasus" signs marking the Divisional axis, and all we had to do was to follow these, and before nightfall re-joined the Battalion in the Dutch village of Heldon.
Holland was not as welcoming as Belgium had been. The Dutch had suffered far greater privations than their Belgian neighbours, and now in the fifth winter of German occupation for part of their country, many of them were close to starvation, besides the German border was only a few miles away across the river Maas. Recent events in the Ardennes, too must have been fresh in their minds.
The winter weather here also seemed more severe, there being no sheltered valleys, only vast open stretches of frozen, snow covered farm land. Initially, we were not in contact with the Boche, but only the next day, I attended an "O" Group and the Colonel informed us that we were shortly to move to Kessel, and there occupy a defensive position. The small town itself, was on the banks of the river, where there was a ferry crossing over the 100 yard wide Maas, the far side of which was in enemy hands. My task with the Machine Guns would be to bring defensive fire down along the stretch of river in front of the Battalion, and I was told to produce my plan.
A "recce" of Kessel and its outskirts, revealed the river in flood, with the water over-flowing the tow-path, and lapping at the walls of riverside buildings. Any positions dug on the outskirts, would be under direct observation from a low rise just beyond, and which was surely occupied by enemy forces. However, a study of the map revealed that south of Kessel, the river turned east then south again, forming a big loop, in which nestled the hamlet of Waije. In that area, I reckoned, I could position the guns in an indirect fire role, and not be under observation. We would be firing at 4,000 yards, and I would lay my "beaten zones" (the pattern of the bullets on the ground) right across the Battalion front, and in this manner I would prove I had been right to train the gunners in the use of the dial sights - and this was the plan I submitted to the Colonel. "You will be outside my defensive perimeter" was his immediate re-action, and after inspecting the map continued, "and what is more, you will be out of the Brigade area too. In fact you will be in the 3rd. Brigade's sector, and I will have to do some liaising to arrange it."
Next day I was told to present myself at the H.Q. of 8 Para. and I was looking forward to doing so, since the 8th. were commanded by the best known Officer in the Division - Colonel Alastair Pearson, whom I knew by repute, but had never met. I was to be disappointed, Major George Hewittson was in temporary command, and I barely had time to explain the reason of my visit, when in walked Brigadier James Hill, 3rd. Brigade Commander.
Major Hewittson told me to discuss my planned location with his Intelligence Officer, who had his own table in the room. I already knew Ivor Jones, since in 1942 he had been "I". Sergeant in the 6th. Battalion, when I was Platoon Sergeant of 8 Platoon. Once we had settled that there were no sub-units of theirs occupying the area I had in mind, we were talking about the activities of our old Battalion in Italy. How-ever, I couldn't help hearing the two commanders discussing the employment of Machine Gun Platoons, and in particular the Brigadier's statement to the effect that "they should really be located back from the river in indirect fire positions, but we don't have dial sights".
Minutes later he came across, and spoke to Ivor, and then he turned to me. I introduced myself, and he asked the reason for my visit. Keeping as straight a face as possible, I explained my mission, and he then wanted to know how we could manage to perform such a task. I had to tell him the full story of how we had acquired the sights in Normandy, and had hung on to them ever since. This was my one and only employment of "one-up-manship" on a Senior Officer. Before the arrival of the Brigadier, I don't think Major Hewitson had been too keen to have another battalion's MMG Platoon in his area; but the Brigadier's intervention changed all that.
Within 48 hours, I had agreed my exact positions with Major Bob Flood, in whose Company area we would be. The guns were already dug in, with my right flank covered by a platoon down on the bank of the Maas, some 100 yards away. To our left front, and a-top a slight rise was another platoon, affording protection on that side. The guns I sited along a slight depression, screened from view except from one direction, where a farm track gave access to the house and buildings of Platoon H.Q.
It was a bit of a squeeze with thirty odd men in the one house, but there was one room per gun detachment, a tiny attic which Frank Egleton and I shared, and this still left the kitchen for the cooking, with its table, round which the Sergeants and I ate our meals. Slightly to the rear of the house stood a large wooden chicken shed, and here we dug an undercover deep trench latrine.
We were completely self contained. Rations were delivered nightly - generally by Fred Tiramani himself - and Fred Pengelly, one of my regular soldier, volunteered his services as cook, and made a first class job of it.
By day we rested, but from the evening "stand to" until the morning "stand down", every-one was fully dressed and armed, the guns were manned, and we were all on alert. The three Platoons of the 8th. Battalion and ourselves, were all connected by field telephone to Company H.Q. By night, I had to be immediately available, since the drill was, if any out-station rang in, then the rest listened in to the conversation, and hence were kept fully informed of any happenings, and the O.C. Company could issue any instructions necessary. Most of the nights were uneventful, and the phone was quiet, but one night, only just after "stand down", it rang and I picked it up to hear the river bank O.P. [Observation Post] (only 100 yards from our position) reporting a small boat in mid-stream approaching them. For several tense minutes I listened to the running commentary as the craft gradually came in to the side, with the final almost whispered report that it had grounded and that men were dis-embarking. Then the anti-climax - it was a patrol from a neighbouring unit, which because of the strong current had been swept downstream, and had come ashore in our area, having failed to reach the far bank.
Each after-noon, I walked the couple of miles to Kessel, to attend the Colonel's daily briefing. Head Quarters were established in a draughty old school, so different from the warm snug kitchen at the farm, but the exercise was welcome, and I was kept informed of the activities going on round about. One day "Claude" Millman showed me a letter he had received from the War Office Department dealing with men missing in action. They were seeking information about the nine men of my stick who had not made the R.V. on "D" day. Seemingly they had not been notified to the War Office as P.O.W., and this was the first indication I received that they must be presumed dead. I was able to inform the authorities that our aircraft H for "Hellzapoppin" of 299 Squadron had failed to return from the operation and the air-crew were also missing, and I know from copies of letters in my possession, passing between the two Ministries. It was my report which prompted them to liaise over the matter.
On another occasion, I was informed that when the rations were delivered that night, Private Morton, with all his kit was to be sent back. I asked the reason for this, and was told "under age" enlistment. I have to admit I was greatly surprised by the news, because of all the young re-inforcements after Normandy, he was easily the most impressive physically. A big, strong Ulster lad, he revelled in any opportunity to demonstrate his strength. When I gave him the news on my return, I asked him how old he was, "Sixteen" was his reply. He was glad to be go-ing home, but would miss the camaraderie and friendship he had enjoyed while serving in the gunners. I for my part could only express admiration for his discipline and maturity. I would not have wanted to go through the experience of Bure as a sixteen year old.
One truly significant event occurred while we were in Holland. "Monty" had been appointed Colonel Commandant of the Regiment, and taking advantage of 6th. Airborne's presence on the continent called a meeting of all Senior Officers, where the decision was taken to form a Regimental Association. We were all urged to join, and to persuade the N.C.Os and Privates to do like-wise. It was stressed how important the backing of a strong body of Old Comrades was to the post-war development of the Parachute Regiment. Unfortunately the organisation to enroll members, was not established until a year later, when many of the early parachutists had already been discharged, and so were in ignorance of the Regimental Association.
Between Kessel and Waije, there was another small hamlet on the river bank called Kesselijk, which initially remained un-occupied. Eventually A Company moved in, and the following day at briefing, Jack Watson reported that across the river from his new location, the Boche were moving about freely in the day-time. His Bren guns were not much use at that range, but there were some tempting targets. I said provided the Signals could provide telephones and line, I could locate an O.P. with A Company, and we would liven things up a bit. Over-night the Signals laid the line, and from then on, each morning at "stand to", one of my N.C.Os with an escort, took up his position in Kesselijk, where he had a clear view across the Maas, and acted as fire controller. When a suitable target presented itself, he phoned the map reference to Platoon H.Q., we converted this information into a range, angle of sight, and deflection left or right of the Zero line. Once all this had been set on the sight and it re-zeroed, the order to fire was given.
Our first target was the best one. A Company had reported the daily queue for the mid-day meal, so we waited for this to form, before engaging it, causing complete havoc. There never again was such a tempting target, but most days we managed some shooting. We were limited to 500 rounds per gun per day, since ammunition was being stock-piled in preparation for the operation to clear the Boche, from the area between the Maas and the Rhine, away to the north. Most of the N.C.Os down to Corporal had the opportunity to man the O.P., and most found some reason to fire off their day's ration of Mark V111 Z.
I can't say how good our shooting was (it was a great morale booster to the Platoon), but we certainly made a nuisance of ourselves, as far as the Boche was concerned, for twice he came looking for us. On the first occasion, a fighting patrol infiltrated A Company, and destroyed the house which they imagined the guns were firing from. When this failed to stop the torment, they tried again, and this time attacked the house used by the 8 Para. Platoon, immediately to our left front. They were spotted in time and a sharp fire fight ensued, before the patrol, having lost surprise withdrew to the river. An attempt was made to cut them off from their boat, without success, thus ending a rather anxious half-hour.
Everyone remained on full alert all night, and the routine was organised so that breakfast was served immediately after "stand down", then after washing and shaving, as many as possible slept until mid-day. One morning as soon as I had finished eating, I was approached by "Rommel", who announced "Sir, your bath is ready" --- and so it was. Entirely on his own initiative, he had used the farm's wash house copper to boil water, filled a big oak tub (possibly used to pickle meat), and that was my bath. There were two of these tubs, and the Sergeants were next in the "pecking order", and over the next three days, the entire Platoon enjoyed a hot bath, courtesy of Private Rodden. He even produced a roll, certifying that every member of the Platoon had done so, and he continued to provide this service for the remainder of our stay in Holland.
On one of the daily visits to Battalion H.Q., I was informed that there were some re-inforcements to join the Platoon. For the greater part of my route I took each day, I was under observation from the far side of the river. But if my movements were noticed, nothing was done about them. I always had one of the Gunners for company, and for the return journey, we split the re-inforcements up into pairs, and strolled back to the Platoon farm with different distances between groups. This gave me an opportunity to talk with the newcomers, learn a little about them and their training, and also put them in the picture regarding the Platoon and our present role. They had joined the Re-inforcement Company shortly after we had left Larkhill, and had received a months machine training under Alan Daborn, and Sergeant Tommy Lathom. Once again some excellent young soldiers joined us, including Norman Mountney, who in a little over twelve months time, would be the Platoon Sergeant at the age of nineteen.
It was evident to us all, that "Monty's" offensive to clear the Boche from the west bank of the Rhine, in what has become known as the Battle of the Reichswald, had started. The thunder of the massed regiments of artillery were clearly audible, and at night the sky was bright with the artificial moonlight of the searchlights. The 8th. Battalion positions were taken over by the 12th. and one afternoon just as my Sergeants and I were about to sit down for our tea meal, in walked Colonel Darling, their C.O., (later to be General Sir K.T. Darling, G.O.C. Northern Army Group in N.A.T.O.) and we all stood up.
"Hello Dixie", he said "What are you doing here. I thought this was my Battalion area?", and before I could answer, he continued "Is that Golden Syrup? It's one of my favourites. I haven't had any since I was a schoolboy, -- mind if I join you?" Where-upon he sat himself down, and tucked into bread and syrup with the rest of us. Perhaps I should have explained, that when Fred Tiramani delivered our rations each evening, he some-times produced a little treat (such as the syrup), and he even on request supplied flour and yeast, enabling Frank Egleton and Fred Pengelly to bake fresh bread for the Platoon.
By the middle of February not only had a general thaw set in, but the Boche had also been driven from the strip of territory lying between the Maas and the Rhine, and there no longer was any tactical necessity for us to stay in our present location. The Americans were moving up from the south, and on the 20th arrived to relieve us, and they were full of wonder at our dial sights, and our ability to engage a target we could not see. We were ready to move immediately I had completed the hand over, and marched first of all to Kessel to join the rest of the Battalion, and then on to Helmond. Here we entrained for Belgium.
Early next morning while it was still dark we arrived in a large prosperous village near Brussels, and stayed for 24 hours. The following day we moved to an airfield where the R.A.F. operated a shuttle service, flying in supplies, and on this occasion ferrying us back to U.K. on the return flight. It was late in the afternoon when my plane load was called forward, and without further to-do the pilot took off.
It was strange to be flying without a parachute and this caused some comment, mainly light hearted, but when in mid-channel we flew into dense cloud and couldn't even see the wing tips, we were not so happy. Possibly sensing our concern, the plane's Navigator came from the cabin to announce "we are flying on instruments and guided by radar, so there is no cause for alarm". Our worries however continued, and when half an hour later, he re-appeared and informed us that we were about to descend through the cloud and would shortly be landing at Broadwell, we frankly didn't believe him. Down we went, lower and lower, and finally broke through the cloud only a few hundred feet up, and lined up to land on the runway. I was always glad to get out of the aircraft when parachuting, and it was with the same feeling of relief that I de-planed that February evening. The safe landing seemed a near miracle to us earth-bound warriors, who could easily get lost on moonlit nights in clear visibility. Transport awaited us, and before mid-night we were back in Newcome Lines, Larkhill.
ORDER OF BATTLE - 21ST. DECEMBER 1944
THE MACHINE GUN PLATOON
Platoon Commander: Lt, "Dixie" Dean
Platoon Sergeant: Sgt Alf Whalley
Batman/Runner: Pte Vic Smith
Wireless Operator: Pte Alf Head
Range Taker: L/Cpl. Charlie King
NO ONE SECTION
Sergeant Arthur Higgins
Lance/Sergeant John Surgey
Corporal "Paddy" Greer
Corporal Jack Carr
L/Cpl "Jock" Ross
Private Tom Howell
NO TWO SECTION
Sergeant Frank Egleton
Lance/Sergeant F. Drew
Corporal Alf Williams
Corporal Cyril Andrews
L/Cpl. Tony Cabrera
L/Cpl. "Jock" Grant
RANK AND FILE
Private Tommy Stephenson, Private Bill Price, Private "Taffy" Price, Private Fred Lewis, Private Roy Marsh, Private Fred Pengelly, Private "Pop" Sears, Private "Bunny" May, Private "Phil" Phillips, Private McKenzie, Private Moss, Private Mossop, Private Morton, Private R.A. King, Private Norman King, Private R. Scott, Private "Rommel" Rodden, Private Harry Meek, Private O'Brien, Private "Ginger" Langton, Private Bill Doughty.
CASUALTIES ARDENNES. KILLED IN ACTION. - JANUARY 4TH. 1945
PTE. RON KING.
PTE. NORMAN SCOTT.
PTE. BILL "POP" SEERS.
WOUNDED IN ACTION ARDENNES. - 4TH. JANUARY 1945.
L/CPL. "JOCK" ROSS.
SGT. ALF WHALLEY.
CPL. ALF WILLIAMS.
Operation Varsity 24th. March 1945
Re-Organisation and Re-Training
This time our overseas excursion only warranted a seven day period of leave, hence by early March we were back in training once again - and on this occasion knew in advance what the future held in store. During our days in Holland the Boche had been cleared from the west bank of the Rhine in 21 Army Group area, and on the morning after we reported back from leave, we assembled in the camp hall, and Brigadier Poett informed us we had returned to the U.K. for one purpose only - to prepare for an operation over the Rhine. For security reasons he couldn't tell us the date or location when this would happen, only that we had a little time to absorb the re-inforcements and get ourselves physically fit again.
Even when the existing members of the Re-inforcement Company were distributed throughout the Battalion, we still lacked a number of N.C.Os and Private soldiers, but were up to strength in Officers. Eric Barlow and Bill Davidson, wounded at Bure, were now recovered, Eric rejoined A Company, and Bill was now Assistant Adjutant. Leslie Golding, too was fit again, taking over R Company. Of the Subalterns left behind when we rushed to the Ardennes, Geoff Otway filled a vacancy in "A", Alan Daborn like wise in "C", while three newcomers, "Nobby" Prior, Chris Selwyn and Jack Birkett became the B Company Platoon Commanders. During the re-training. Dick Burton sprained an ankle, and Basil Disley replaced him in "C".
I had not been entirely satisfied with the performance of some of the young soldiers, so I made a few changes, leaving the platoon two short of establishment, but re-inforcements were expected. Frank Kenny I was pleased to see, had recovered from his parachuting injury. He rejoined us, promoted to Lance Sergeant, as a Section 2i/c. Jack Carr and Tony Cabrera became full Corporals, and there were first stripes for Tommy Howell, "Ginger" Langton and Fred Pengelly.
The spring of 1945 was one of the best I can remember, too good in fact, as the warm sunny days dried the ground so hard, we were banned from playing rugby. This followed a series of accidents to key personnel in the Brigade. We had some great days on the field firing ranges - the Platoon was in good shape and morale was high. My combination of young enthusiastic N.C.Os, with a stiffening of seasoned regulars, was proving ideal. There were frictions from time to time, but nothing serious - living together in that Dutch farmhouse had been a great experience for all. I certainly knew a lot more about the gunners as individuals, who had surprised and delighted me with their industry, ingenuity and resourcefulness. They were a great bunch of men, and I was proud of them.
We really had no idea at all, how long we must wait for our next bit of action, but one evening we were in the bar of the Garrison Theatre, when word reached us that the Americans, had captured intact, a bridge over the Rhine - the bridge at Remagen, so we toasted our Allies, but knew it would make no difference to our plans. I was informed of the Platoon's allocation of aircraft, a very generous one of four Dakotas - ten men per stick, as far as we were concerned, and a total of forty planes for the Battalion. What a difference from the days in 1942 and '43 when a dozen old clapped out Whitleys, was all that could be mustered for a Company exercise. It came as a big surprise on the morning of 19th., as the barrack square at Larkhill filled up with transport, and then it was all systems go.
Orders soon came round that we were to move to our transit camp next day. This was a great surprise, since the Battalion still lacked the draft expected from the Depot. However they arrived during the afternoon, and Privates Blake and Colquohon joined us in time to be part of the frantic activity which occupied us all for the rest of the day and into the night. We knew that once the link up had been made with the ground forces, we would stay in Germany and participate in future operations, so we took with us any extra items that might be required, when fighting as ordinary infantry. Before nightfall the sea tail party, commanded by "Baggy" Allen departed for Tilbury docks, and I received the detailed movement order for the next day.
The transit camp this time was to be at Shudy in Suffolk - convenient to our take-off airfield of Wethersfield. It was a long trek from Salisbury Plain, and not surprisingly took all day, the later part spent driving along country lanes, devoid of all habitation except small villages and hamlets. It was a bright spring day, and the scene at one of the two hourly halts, is still firmly etched in my memory. The convoy halted deep in the country, where there was a wide grass verge on which to stretch our legs, and alongside it ran a neatly trimmed hedge, just coming into leaf. Beyond this a field of winter wheat, several inches high, and a brilliant emerald green in colour, rose gently to the horizon. To one side, in a slight hollow, could be seen the red tiled roof of the farmhouse and buildings, and running away at an angle, was a line of washing, fluttering in the breeze.
Briefing - Shudy
Shudy was a Nissen hutted camp in a parkland setting of fields and small woods, and beneath the trees was a carpet of violets and primroses. Compared with the greenfield site at Keevil prior to "D" Day this was luxury. Everything was under cover, the cookhouses manned by permanent staff. There was electricity and ablutions with hot water - there were even beds for us all.
We still had no notion of when the operation was to take place, but thought it couldn't be far away since the first parade next morning was a drive to the airfield to draw and fit chutes. After half an hours drive along country lanes, the transport dropped us at dispersal sites around the perimeter of Wethersfield, where the Dakotas were parked and numbered to match the stick "chalk" numbers . No air crew were about, and we also waited for the wagon carrying the chutes to arrive. The four planes allocated to the Platoon were all together, with the Mortars waiting at the adjacent one.
We were busy fitting our chutes, when the wagon carrying the crew arrived, and they introduced themselves to us, saying what a great honour it was for us to be carried into battle by such an illustrious Squadron. They certainly were very experienced. Apart from the Normandy operation, they had participated in the South of France drop, and also flown twice during "Market Garden" (Arnhem), and what they didn't know about dropping parachutists wasn't worth knowing. Boy would they come in slow and give us the best jump we had ever had from no more than 500 feet. Once chutes had been fitted to the satisfaction of Sergeant Kenny (stick commander), we placed them on our seats in the plane, said "Good- bye" to our intrepid flyers, and then returned to camp, to receive the first of our briefings.
This was only a general one and was given to the whole Battalion by the C.O. himself as we sat on the grass in front of a large scale reproduction of the battle area. Two Airborne Divisions were to be employed - ourselves and the American 17th., which would be going into action for the first time - together we formed the XVIIIth. Airborne, commanded by Major-General M. Ridgeway of the American Army. Our own former commander "Windy" Gale would be his deputy, while the over-all commander was Field Marshall Montgomery.
It was a rather unusual plan, the C.O. explained for two reasons. Firstly the water borne assault would precede the Airborne one, and secondly we were to be dropped right on top of our objectives. Doing this, would immediately deepen the bridge-head, and frustrate any early counter attacks, while at the same time we would be taking out of the battle a lot of the Boche artillery, as we were going to land right in the middle of them. We ourselves would be within the range of our own guns, massed on the west bank of the river. Our drop would be in daylight on the coming Saturday morning at 10:00 hours, and this would be some twelve hours after the infantry had crossed by assault craft. The D.Z. was in flat open country, some four miles west of the river, and close to the town of Hamminkeln. All necessary features were pointed out on the large scale reproduction.
After lunch, along with the Company Commanders and other Specialist Platoon Officers I reported to the briefing hut, prepared by the Intelligence Section. In the centre of the hut was a sand model of the Hamminkeln area, while on the walls, large scale maps and enlarged air photographs of the district were displayed. The Colonel started his detailed briefing with the assault across the Rhine by the infantry, which was to be made between the towns of Rees to the north and Wesel further south. Two divisions were involved - 51st. (Highland) and 15th. (Scottish), and prior to their crossing the town of Wesel would be attacked by heavy bombers of the R.A.F. Of the two Airborne Divisions, the 6th. would be the left hand one, with 3rd. Brigade dropping first onto a single D.Z., two miles beyond the west bank of the river. 5 Brigade would over-fly them a further couple of miles and they too would land on a single D.Z. Finally the 6th Air Landing Brigade would deepen the bridge-head still more, and seize crossings over the river Issel, and the town of Hamminkeln itself. Great emphasis was put on the amount of artillery support we were to receive - after all we were going to drop right on top of the Boche guns, and our minds had to be set at ease on that score. For the two hours immediately before "P" Hour, every known German gun site was to engaged by the massed artillery of 21 Army Group under the code name "Apple Pie".
Of the three Battalion Groups in the Brigade, 13 would drop first, followed by 12, and finally 7th. Battalion. The D.Z. was flat open farm-land slightly north-west of Hamminkeln, and we could expect to meet opposition from the moment we landed, but once we had made the "rendez-vous", Company objectives were only hundreds of yards away. The Machine Gun positions would be in A Company location, providing covering fire to the Battalions left flank, and since we were to dig in alongside the A Company rifle platoons, we would be amply protected. It didn't sound too dangerous an under taking - at least there was no 21 Panzer to worry about this time, and I left the briefing fully confident of the Platoon's ability to successfully carry out the task given us.
During the next two days, each Platoon in turn had the freedom of the briefing hut for half an hour, but before that maps and air photographs were issued to all senior N.C.Os as well as the Officers, and we were able to study these at our leisure. The Platoon itself, didn't enter the hut until early Thursday afternoon, and I had a distinguished audience for my briefing, as the local District Commander - a Major General - was paying a courtesy visit to the camp, and naturally wanted to be put in the picture. This coincided with my use of the briefing facilities, and so he sat in on my orders. The old boy (he must have been in his mid-forties), was most impressed by the amount of detail given to every man in the Battalion.
The weather had been set fair all the week, and it must have been the same on the continent, since we knew early on the Friday that the operation was definitely on, and there wasn't to be a 24 hour postponement this time. It was a very busy afternoon, now we knew it was on - the final check of the guns was made, and "kit bags" loaded, magazines of personal weapons filled, grenades primed, water bottles filled, and 24 hour ration packs broken down. We were only carrying one - so confident were the higher authorities that the link up with supply chain being quickly made. There would not be time in the morning, so all had to be ready that afternoon. Then there were last letters to be written.
The final event of the day was to be an open air Church Service in the evening, and after that, there was a Frank Sinatra film in the main dining hall. Knowing that it would not be possible on Saturday morning to have a final little pep talk with the Platoon, I went along before the Service and found them lounging about on the grass in the evening sunshine. They gathered around informally, and I said my little piece, hoping to allay any fears they might have. Earlier we had received copies of Field Marshal Montgomery's Order of the Day, which started with the statement "21 Army Group will now cross the Rhine". Stirring words, and if Monty was so confident it could be done, then so were we. Some senior Officers I know didn't like him, but as far as I know, we all had complete confidence in his leadership. I also emphasised again, how important it was to get to the R.V. as quickly as possible, and how dependent the Battalion was on our supporting fire in the early stages of digging in. Finally I wished them all "Good Luck" and I'll see you all in Germany. But even as I said it, I couldn't help thinking, this is the last time I will be speaking to some of them.
It was still not time to fall in for the Service, so I stayed talking to them, moving from one little group to another as I did so. I was just moving away from one lot of men, when I was approached by Private Bill Colquohon, one of the re-inforcements who joined us earlier in the week. "This is only an exercise we are going on, isn't it Sir?" he asked in all innocence. As gently as I could, I explained that this was the real thing, "but there was nothing to worry [about as he] was with some first rate soldiers, the rest of the Platoon would look after him, and show him the ropes". I then spoke to Sergeant Fred Drew, his Stick Commander, asking him to keep an eye on the youngster as far as possible. The service which followed was something special, with us all gathered informally in front of a make-shift altar. Brigadier Poett and his staff. who were sharing the camp also attended, and Padre Whit Foy, again rose superbly to the occasion. He was blessed with the ability to involve his congregation emotionally in his services, and yet at the same time satisfy our involvement. Hence you came away, spiritually and morally uplifted, and on that sunny March evening, he was at his best. His text that night was "In my fathers house are many mansions" which he used to prepare us for the dangers, and even death which we would all be facing the next morning.
Reveille was 03.00 hours, and as I made my way through the trees to the ablution block, the silence was broken by the raucous roaring over-head of a V.1. "Doodle-Bug", which must have been one of the last to be launched against this country. The administration instructions for Normandy, had stipulated the serving of a fat free meal, at least two hours before emplaning. It was just as well no such orders were issued for operation "Varsity". Breakfast consisted of, porridge, bacon and fried potatoes, bread and marmalade. Daylight came as we drove to the airfield, and on our way we passed the gates of another camp, whose occupants must only just have departed, since the permanent staff were still waiting there, and gave us a great cheer as we passed.
Wethersfield seemed deserted and we drove directly to the dispersal point, where the Dakotas were parked. At Keevil on the evening of 5th. June, the aircrew had been there to welcome us - a move much appreciated, but now there wasn't a soul about. There was still time to go before chutes were to be fitted, and so, as if we wanted to delay such actions until the last possible minute, we hung around, and watched as a mighty armada of "Flying Fortresses" collected over head.
At last things couldn't be delayed any longer. The door had been removed from the plane, but we required the ladder to enable some-one to get inside, and hand the chutes down. We all gathered round the door, Frank Kenny, was given a leg-up into the fuselage, on the floor of which were several bundles. These came to life, and revealed the crew, who hastily dressed. Then one said "Gee fellars, what about chow?", and they disappeared cross the tarmac in search of their breakfast.
Before we emplaned, Sergeant Cope of the Mortars came across. He had three men refusing to fit their chutes (Vic Wraight the Mortar Officer was one of the victims of the hard ground and was going over by glider). He wanted me to try and change their minds. I said, that at this stage, I wasn't going to start giving direct orders. They had been isolated from the rest of the stick, and I emphasised the difference between refusing to jump on an operation and on an exercise, stressing what a serious Military offence it was. I then asked them individually if they understood, and were they prepared to continue their action. They all knew what they were doing, but were not going to change their minds. By now it was time to get on board, so they were left for the A.L.O's staff to deal with.
Our crew were still missing, Sergeant Kenny checked us over, and gave the order to emplane. We sat inside and waited. All around engines were being started and run-up. Eventually a jeep came screaming up, out jumped four bodies, who climbed aboard, pulled in the ladder, and disappeared into the cock-pit cabin. Within seconds the engines coughed and spluttered into life, and only moments later we started to roll along the perimeter track towards the run-way.
From my seat in the fuselage I could look out of the door, and watched as the aircraft neared the run-way from both directions of the perimeter track in a constant stream. As they reached the end of the run-way, they turned along it, staggered on either side, and crawled forward, until all forty aircraft of the Battalion group were lined up. We waited a few minutes, engines ticking over, then with a mighty blast all engines were revving at maximum, planes straining at the leash momentarily, brakes off, and down the runway raced the complete Battalion group. Faster and faster as if in a race, then the feeling of relief as the plane lifted off the tarmac, upwards climbing engines at full throttle to get you airborne, and finally that feeling in the pit of your stomach as the pilot eased back and assumed normal flying speed I was always happier once take off was safely accomplished since an incident in 1942 at Netheravon, when the brakes of a Whitley seized, and the plane ran into a hangar, killing half the stick. Once airborne the "jump master" came out of the cabin and handed round cigarettes, but on learning that few of us smoked, disappeared and returned to hand round candy. He then went back into the cabin, and we saw no more of him for two hours and more.
Over the Rhine
We had a long flight ahead, in the region of three hours duration. Initially we flew over southern England, crossed the North Sea to make a landfall in Belgium, and somewhere over that country linked up with the American Division, flying from airfields near Paris. They must have been ahead of us, since they were never in sight, but later on over Holland we under-flew the tugs and gliders of the Air/landing forces involved in the operation. There was plenty of time for contemplation, and I wondered just how much longer my luck was going to last. I carried no St Christopher's, rabbits feet, or sprigs of white heather -- nor on this occasion did I have any premonitions of any sort.
When we first boarded the plane, we noticed four "flak suits" of body armour, and now the jump master came and collected the same, returning to the air crew cabin. He next re-appeared, to announce "Twenty minutes to go", and he proceeded to the rear of the fuselage.
We busied ourselves with the standard drills, first of fitting equipment (we were all jumping with "kit bags"), then hooking up, finally checking equipment, before moving to the door. All was in order, and the next orders would come from the jump master, but when I looked for him he was hardly visible. Dressed in his "flak suit", he had gone into the Elsan closet cubicle at the rear, and pulled several inflatable rubber dinghies the plane carried in case of ditching, across the doorway in front of him so only his face was visible. He now announced "O.K. you guys, I'll despatch you from here".
Frank Kenny, Stick Commander would have none of this. He came forward - to act as despatcher, and we all unhooked. Sergeant Kenny took No.1 hook, and moved to the rear of the door while the rest of us moved down one hook After a further check that we were all hooked-up correctly, I again positioned myself in the doorway.
How long all this took, I have no idea, but looking out there was no signs of any military activity, only peaceful farmland, and we were flying much too high for dropping. On we flew, with quite a wide river passing below. Surely that's not the Rhine, I thought, it's wider than that, and besides there were no signs of life of any sort around it. A burning farmhouse came in sight, then it was the Rhine after all, I realised. "Look at that", was the cry from behind. I turned my head. Number 2 was pointing to the starboard windows. A large group of Dakotas, lower than us flew past in the opposite direction, and from one a long tongue of orange flame streamed from one engine.
I didn't want to be reminded that such things could happen, so I turned to look out of the door again, and what an impressive sight it was, and one which I will never forget. The airmanship of the American pilots was absolutely superb, as we flew in a tight box nine abreast in three "vics" of three. Our aircraft was the left hand one of the right hand "vic" of the second flight of nine. Back and front, left and right, Dakotas gently rose and fell as the pilots expertly kept formation. But my eyes were on one plane only - the one in the centre of the leading "Vic", because I knew that when bodies started falling from it, it would not be long before I too would be taking that one, inevitable step forward.
"Surely it's time the planes descended to the dropping height of 500 feet", (we were flying some where near 1000 ) I was thinking, when the ground below was covered with abandoned parachutes as we passed over 3 Brigades D.Z. They must all have reached their R.Vs in good time - there wasn't a soul in sight, but I knew now we were on our correct course, and there were only two miles to go, and the drop was but a minute away.
I would be dependent on the "red and green" light signals, since our jump-master and his communications with the pilot were not available to us. We were still flying high, and faster than normal dropping speed too. Standing in the door, you could watch as the under-carriage was lowered and "half- flap" applied to reduce the flying speed, but this wasn't happening as we ran-in to the D. Z. Now we were over the woods and ahead I could see the open farmland on which we were to drop. It couldn't be long, and my eyes were riveted on that lead aircraft. A blob appeared underneath it, then another and another and soon all the planes in the leading flight were disgorging their human cargoes. On came the "red" - a last look down to make certain we were clear of the trees, and I was tensed ready to jump "Green on - Go" - whether Frank Kenny gave the order or not, I don't know, but I am sure the Dakotas were no-where near stalling speed, and flying nearer 1000 than 500 feet.
The impact of the former, was immediately apparent once my chute had developed, and I had released the "kit bag", and lowered it to the end of the recovery rope. Instead of dropping below me, it swung upwards level with my head, before running backwards, as my chute oscillated wildly. I didn't look down or around, my efforts were concentrated on curbing the pendulum effect of the swinging parachute. I realised the ground was coming up fast, and I was in for a backward landing. My feet didn't touch - at least not to begin with. Only feet from the earth, something caught my legs at ankle height, and I was thrown over onto my right shoulder. There was no wind and my chute collapsed slowly around me.
All was quiet, apart from the departing planes - seemingly the "apple pie" treatment applied to the Boche guns had been successful. I tried to get to my feet and there was a sharp jab of pain in my right shoulder - the arm was useless and just hung at my side. Using the left arm and hand only I got out of my harness, but couldn't unpack the "kit bag", so I hid it under a bush at the side of the track, adjacent to which I had landed. In order to do this simple task, I first of all had to negotiate a post and wire fence. This type of fence criss-crossed the part of the D.Z. I had landed, and was responsible for the bad landing I had made. Coming in backwards, my heels had caught the top strand of wire, pitching me onto my shoulder. These fences can't have shown up on the air photos, and we had not been warned of their existence. Fortunately, I only had to cross one such obstacle - once over the track, I was on open fields.
On Enemy Territory
Facing the line of fly-in, and looking half left, I tried to locate the tower of an electricity sub-station which was the landmark to guide us towards the rendez-vous. I couldn't make it out, nor could I find any other distinguishing features, since the area was covered in a cloud of smoke or possibly mist. Whatever it was, visibility was limited to a couple of hundred yards. Before leaving Larkhill, our jumping jackets (a discardable over garment) had been painted on the back with a 12 by 18 inch black rectangle, surrounded by a one inch white border, and this played a big part in movement off the D.Z. We started to move back along the line of fly-in, and I collected those who had dropped nearby. The 12th Battalion were now landing, and as one figure came trotting up, I called "Good morning Sir, enjoy the jump?" to their C.O. "Yes, yes" he replied "have you seen my Battalion?", which I thought a pretty silly question, since they were landing all around us.
At last the Boche came to life, and Spandaus opened up from our right, and bullets started to fly, but not too close to our little group. The visibility was so poor, I don't think we made a clear target, but the men with me must have been some of the re-inforcements going into action for the first time, since they all dived to the ground. A couple of calls "On your feet, let's get off this D.Z.", and we were moving again.
The Battalion were funnelling to woods, where a road made a dog-leg turn. Some must have dropped quite close, and had already flushed out parties of Boche. Arthur Higgins was in charge of one such party, and was busy dis-arming and searching a size-able group of the enemy. As I approached and greeted him, he asked me whether I would like a "Schmeisser" (Machine Pistol) or a "Lueger" (Revolver). Since I was already carrying a Sten and 9mm. Pistol, to say nothing of several grenades and a fighting knife, I settled for a very fine pair of Artillery binoculars, with a magnification of 10 by 50, far superior to the Army issue ones.
The scene was rather chaotic, with a hundred or more men milling around, and Officers and N.C.Os trying to sort out Companies and Platoons, but the Boche gave up and showed no fight at all. Men continued to arrive from all directions. Some-one must have kept a look-out, and called "There's a jeep coming". It had to be enemy, so we all took up positions covering the road, and prepared to open fire. Then another shout "Don't shoot-it's Sergeant Webster", and indeed it was. Some- how or other he had convinced the German Medical Officer driving the vehicle to hand it over.
Order was gradually being restored, and the R.S.M. was left to do the tidying up, as the Colonel took his "O" Group across to a nearby cottage. It was un-occupied, and the Colonel gave out orders for the move from the impromptu R.V. and the seizing of the objective. When he had finished, and we were about to re-join the main body, I asked David Tibbs, to have a look at my useless right shoulder. "You've dislocated it" he said. Private Bert Roe MM (one of our conscientious objector Medical Orderlies) was there, and he cut me out of my smock, removed battle dress blouse and shirt, before resetting the shoulder joint. It was then strapped in position with elastoplast, and my arm put in a sling. They then re-dressed me, fastened my equipment about me, slung the Sten over my shoulder, and we moved back towards the woods.
Orders had been given, and the Battalion was on the road heading towards our designated objective, and I joined up with the gunners. Sergeant Egleton reported on the strength of the Platoon. Nine men were missing, and two guns and tripods, but strangely we had the condenser cans. Again two senior N.C.Os weren't present, namely Sergeants Drew and Kenny, so John Surgey was temporarily acting as Section Commander.
The Air/landing Brigade gliders were coming in to a really hot reception, as we marched along the road, and the Boche gunners had woken up at last. Gliders are "sitting ducks" coming in to land, and very few must have landed completely intact. There was no opposition on the ground, and the Battalion took up the pre-briefed positions. One of the missing gun teams awaited us - Jack Carr, and Tommy Howell had landed almost on top of their planned position, and had set up their gun firing across the D.Z., before the gliders started to arrive. Their adventures were not over though, for shortly after, a Hamilcar glider came diving straight for them, and they had to get out of the way P.D.Q. (pretty damned quick). The glider caught the gun, knocked it over, breaking the traversing handles, and then smashed into a large wooden farm building to the rear. Even before the roof tiles had stopped falling an engine could be heard running, and then a Bren carrier drove out as if nothing un-toward had happened. The two Glider Pilots were un-harmed and they disappeared with the carrier to their own R.V.
Digging-in, though essential, was always a bit of a bind, but not on operation "Varsity". To begin with it was an ideal site - the earth was sandy, and free from stones and tree roots, but most important of all, were the local volunteer diggers. Well I think they volunteered their services, because they reckon a volunteer is worth ten pressed men, and no-body who didn't want the work, could have produced such excellent weapon slits. We marked out what was to be dug, and then handed picks and shovels to our Boche P.O.W.
They were still hard at work, when the Division's re-supply arrived. We knew from the briefing that it was expected, but had no idea what a show we were about to witness, every bit as spectacular in its own way as the glider fly-in on the evening of "D" Day.
Once again it was heralded by the growing roar of multiple engines, this time approaching at a much greater speed. The ever mounting crescendo of noise came from the rear, and was overhead almost as soon as the first whisper, and a long line of four engined Liberators, flying abreast, flashed over, and immediately the sky below was filled with multi-coloured chutes, floating gently to earth. Suddenly one of the left hand planes rose almost vertically skywards, hung there for a moment, then plunged to the ground, exploding in a mass of flame and black smoke. Then all was silence again.
While the position was being dug, I took the opportunity to ask around for information about the missing members of the platoon, and learnt that three had definitely been killed, attacking an "ack-ack" gun site at the bottom end of the D.Z. Others had been involved in this little action, and were able to confirm the report. Sergeant Drew and the youngster Private Colquohon, whom I had asked the N.C.O. to look after, were two of the killed. "Taffy" Price, who until now, had fought in all our battles completely unscathed, was the third. Armed with this information, I walked across to the second section digging-in 100 yards away, and told John Surgey, that he was now officially Section Commander. He, like myself had started his Army service, in a Young Soldiers Battalion, and on "D" Day was not even acting as a gun number, so he had come a long way in nine months. In fact now all the N.C.Os, apart from Arthur Higgins who was a Lance-Corporal when he joined the Gunners, the remainder of them, were either Privates on my posting in January '44, or when they joined as re-inforcements. Yet the Platoon functioned, tactically and administratively, as well as ever. Clear evidence of the quality of the war time volunteers, the Regiment attracted.
Once the drop was over, and the objectives consolidated, Operation "Varsity" was very much a non-event ------ the aim of overwhelming the Boche defences with a devastating display of air power, rendering him incapable of any counter response, achieved 100 per-cent success. If there were any counter attacks they never penetrated the defences through to our positions, and once the P.O.W. had dug the slits, we "stood-to" and waited.
Evidence of the violent re-action by some ack-ack guns lay all around. In the next field to us, an American "Curtiss Commando" (similar to the Dakota in looks, but larger and employing a double-door jumping technique), had forced landed on its belly. The GIs, were un-injured, and for a time stiffened our defences, until secure communications with their own unit were established. Broken gliders littered all the surrounding fields, and an inspection of the Hamilcar to our rear, revealed a trailer loaded with spare Brens and boxes of already filled magazines for the same. Of the four Vickers dropped, one gun and tripod were missing, two were complete, while the fourth was capable of firing, though damaged. To boost the fire power of the Platoon, all except the gun teams, acquired a Bren and a couple of boxes of magazines. Had a counter attack developed, we would have had a rare old shoot out, but as I said before, nothing happened. We can't have been the only ones who raided the re-supply gliders, because next morning Harry Watkins (C.Q.M.S. of A Company) came round with orders to confiscate such acquirings, since there was a genuine need for them elsewhere in the Division. But that didn't stop me from accusing him of being a spoil sport. Later I was pleased he had, since for several days we marched, carrying everything on our backs. In fact the resupply of damaged and missing weapons was every bit as rapid as that in Normandy, and our losses were replaced before the advance across Germany got under way the following afternoon.
The morning mist - if it was mist that hampered visibility - burnt off as the sun rose, and the afternoon sunshine was really warm. Away in the distance, a vapour trail rose vertically sky wards, and some one identified it as a V.2. Rocket. A size-able body of troops were approaching along the road, they had already cleared an A Company out post, so I knew they were friendly, I recognised the leading Officer as Basil Disley. All his party had been dropped in the woods, short of the dropping zone, so clearly some of the pilots had given the "green" jump too early, resulting in many men making tree landings, and some were shot still in their harness. There were none of the missing Gunners in the party.
A Quiet Night - On Into Germany
The arrival of this party, co-incided with a visit from the C.O., who, on seeing me with my arm in a sling, wanted to know the reason, and I explained why. I have to admit that by now, I was feeling distinctly rough, and it must have shown, since the Colonel called for my batman, and instructed him to put me to bed. Jock Sloane retrieved one of the re-supply parachute, laid it in the bottom of our slit trench, and wrapped in that I was glad to settle down. Before I did so, I asked Frank Egleton to arouse me at "stand-to". He deliberately mis-understood me, and it wasn't until dawn next morning, that I was woken. It had clearly been, an uneventful night.
After a wash, shave and breakfast, I felt much better, and since there was nothing happening, I walked across to Battalion H.Q., enquiring after the missing members of the Platoon. I was surprised to find Jack Watson there, until he explained he was standing in for Roy Leyland, who had been called to help out at Brigade, since both the Brigade-Major( Mike Brennan) and Ted Lough (D.A.Q.), were wounded. "Claude" Milman was acting O.C. A Company, with Bill Davidson as temporary Adjutant. I asked what other casualties there had been, and learnt that both my two particular friends in the Battalion were out of action - "Joe" Hodgson was missing, and Freddie Skeate was a walking wounded. The only Officer known to have been killed was Chris Selwyn of B Company - in action for the first time. Of my missing gunners, the gun team of Corporal Tony Cabrera and L/Corporal "Ginger" Langton, were dead, while Sergeant Frank Kenny, and L/Corporal Fred Pengelly were reported wounded. Eric Barlow told me later, that the two young N.C.Os had been part of his group, who had all landed in the trees, and subsequently fought their way through to join the battalion. He warned them that carrying the gun and tripod on their shoulders made them an obvious target for snipers, and advised them to abandon these. They refused to do so, and were indeed picked off, as a result.
The Casualty Collecting Post was in a large barn across the yard, so I walked over, and found Fred (Skeate) standing outside, unconcernedly smoking his pipe. After his shrapnel wound had been cleaned and dressed the previous day, he returned to his Company, but now that all was quiet, was being evacuated to the Field Hospital, and indeed as we spoke, his name was called, and off he went. Inside the barn, I found Fred Pengelly, lying on a stretcher. He looked pale, but was in good spirits, and on my return to the Platoon area, I sent Tommy Stephenson, his pal in the section, to have a word with him.
Now that I definitely knew the fate of my missing, there were letters to be written to their next of kin. It wasn't a task I relished, but it had to be done, and now was as good a time as any, since in the farmhouse alongside the position, I would be able to sit at a table to do so. But first I practiced writing with my left hand. Having satisfied myself that the results were readable, I laboriously finished the task. Next, I performed the much more pleasing duty, of promoting Cyril Andrews to L/Sergeant, as he was the new Section Corporal.
Early in the afternoon, friendly armour in the form of Sherman tanks moved through on the road to Hamminkeln, thus confirming that the link-up with the water-borne assault had been made. Later in the day, we too were on the move, following in their tracks, and now we saw what terrible havoc the ack-ack guns had caused the gliders. Hardly a one escaped damage, but the railway yard on the outskirts of the town was the scene of indescribable chaos. The yard had tall trees on three sides, and several Horsas of 2nd.Ox. and Bucks. had hit these and then seemingly out of control, flopped heavily to the ground, breaking up as they did so. The gliders were simply heaps of fire-wood, and the casualty rate doesn't bear thinking about. However they had succeeded in their main task of seizing intact the bridge over the river Issel, and indeed of holding it against any counter-attack. Over the bridge we passed a Panther, knocked out by a 6 Pounder of the R.U.R. [Royal Ulster Rifles]. It had slewed off the road, and into a ditch. We didn't advance much further that evening, before occupying a farm, and settling down for the night, but were on the move again at first light.
March 26th. was a frustrating day of stops and starts, and it was cold, with a drizzly rain from time to time. The Boche hereabouts still showed fight, and attempted to hinder the advance at every turn. With the 7th. (Light Infantry) Battalion in the lead, our move forward was interrupted several times as minor skirmishes were fought to clear the road. At one point the R.A.F. caused further delays, since in the course of isolating the Rhine crossing bridge-head, they had completely flattened a village on our route, forcing us to detour across country, to avoid the massive bomb craters. Late in the after-noon, resistance stiffened, and judging by the amount of firing that could be heard, the 7th. had quite a fight on their hands. Even after dark, the frequent rattle of M.G.42s and Brens were clearly audible, and by now we were close on the heels of 7, waiting on the fringe of Brunen. Brigadier Poett came along in his jeep, from the direction of the village, and took the 13ths Recce Group into the nearest house, and proceeded to give orders for a night infiltration march, out flanking the enemy, and occupying the dominating high ground to their rear.
Peter Downward and a section of his Scouts were the route finders, and since I wanted to be on the objective early, in order to carry out a reconnaissance for gun positions, I tagged along immediately to his rear. We moved away to the right of the road, advancing cautiously along hedgerows several hundred yards, before the last man of the Scouts halted, and signalled us to get down. I waited perhaps five minutes, and then crawled forward to find out what was happening. Twenty yards ahead lay a track leading to a farm which had to be crossed, and there was a sentry posted at a gateway. Two men of the Scouts, had been detailed to dispose of him as quietly as possible. We waited tensely in the dark, and then one of the would-be assassins came scuttling back to report that all was well - it was a 7th. Battalion sentry. As the two killers had closed on their victim, he could be heard, softly humming to himself, "Jumping through the hole". The rest of the out-flanking march passed without incident, the high ground was taken and then one of the Companies, moved on the village from the rear, catching the Boche completely unawares, and resulting in quite a number of P.O.W.
Next morning the 12th. passed through us, and at an "O" Group, I learnt it was to be a rest day for the Battalion. This being the case, David Tibbs suggested that I go back to the Advanced Dressing Station (run by Divisional Medics), for some-one there to inspect my shoulder, and arranged a jeep to take me. The A.D.S. was housed in a pleasant villa on the outskirts of Hamminkeln, and when I reported, details were taken of myself and my injury. I was shown into a room at the front of the house, and told to wait. There were a number of others waiting, all bandaged somewhere about the body, but there were seats for everyone, and we all had a tale to tell. An N.C.O. entered and called out a list of names, and they followed him out of the room. This was repeated, and gradually the room was emptying, so when he next appeared, I asked where they were going? "Back to the Field Hospital", he replied, "every-one in here is an evacuation casualty."
I didn't like the sound of that information - the further I was sent to the rear, the longer it would take to re-join the Battalion. The windows in the room were large, extending almost to floor level, and were wide open. I recognised a jeep from the Brigade Field Ambulance (225 Para. Fd. Amb.), arrive, and I walked out of the window, I climbed aboard and was driven back to the battalion, reporting that nothing further needed doing.
For the next three days we marched, covering in the region of 30 kilometres a day. We were never the leading battalion, hence most of the route lay along minor roads and tracks. There was no opposition, and in fact no sign of the German Army at all, but we saw, for the first time D.Ps, who were soon to become a common sight as we advanced further into Germany. These Displaced Persons were the slave labourers of the Reich, forced from their homes in Eastern Europe, and made to work unpaid in factories and workshops. The conditions under which they lived must have been little better than the concentration camps, for they were close to starvation, and the thin striped uniform they wore, could not hide pathetically thin bodies .Now as the Allies advanced, they were set free to roam the countryside, picking up what scraps of food they could, and living mainly in the woods.
Late on the afternoon of the third day of our march, the maps showed us approaching Coesfeld, a small town lying on the east bank of a river, and as the Recce Group neared the crossing, Jack Watson whose A Company were in the lead, reported the bridge destroyed, but he had sent a patrol to investigate an alternative crossing on the right flank. Questioned by the C.O. he said no-one had gone to the left to see if there were any possible crossing sites away in that direction. Once again, I received orders to investigate, and "Jock" Sloane accompanied me along the river bank, where within a short distance we came across a mill with a weir running from one side to the other. It was only wide enough to take one man at a time, so "Jock" covered me as I went over to investigate. The far bank was devoid of any human beings, so I reported back, and in the gathering gloom, we all crossed by the weir. We reformed and carried out the C.Os plan to clear the town in the dark. My task was to hold the open left flank, and I sited the guns along a sunken lane running at right angles to the axis of advance. Once more there was no enemy interference, the town was entered, swallowing up the rifle companies, and we dug in, spending a quiet night there.
As day-light came during stand-to next morning we were able for the first time to take note of the immediate surroundings, although to begin with these were shrouded in mist. As this slowly cleared, what looked like an enemy strong point became visible across the field, and this was confirmed when Boche soldiers appeared. I couldn't open fire, since I didn't know the location of the rest of the Battalion. The problem was solved, when white flags were displayed, and friendly forces wearing red berets came on the scene and rounded up the prisoners.
During the morning, a platoon of the Divisional R.A.S.C. caught up with our advance, and it was obvious that we were expected to "bash on regardless". The seats in the trucks were boxes of "Compo" rations, but we had no cause to break into them that day, for after a short ride we came to the outskirts of Greven, and here once again the advance was halted by a blown bridge. We moved on foot as far into the town as possible, and for the first time since entering Germany occupied the houses on either side of the main street. It was exactly a week since we had dropped, and already we had penetrated well over 100 kilometres, chiefly through open country and small villages. Of the civilian population we had seen little, and even Greven the first size-able place on our route was deserted. A small force was detailed to protect the Sappers as they built their bridge, but the rest of us enjoyed the luxury of a roof over our heads.
Platoon Headquarters occupied a "do it yourself shop", at least they sold taps, washers and the like, but nothing of any use to us. Behind the shop however, was a large wooden building housing a Wehrmacht clothing store, with one very collectable item, hanging in a cupboard was a brand new Officers greatcoat made in a quality woolen cloth, and lined throughout with Astrakhan fur. It fitted me perfectly - but I had no means of transporting it, so it remained in store. The next day was Easter Sunday, and Padre Foy held his service in the town's cinema, and C/Sergeant Ted Hewitt complained that no-one was bothering to turn up for meals. We were all "living off the land" - every house was well stocked with eggs, and most had a ham hanging in the larder, and in the cellars were row upon row of bottled fruit, with strawberries a particular favourite.
Our little holiday didn't last long, and on 2nd. April transport moved us forward to the outskirts of Longerich, a pleasant little town at the foot of a wooded ridge, which formed a natural defensive position. But no attempt was made to hold up our advance, and once through the built-up area we turned off the road into a large quarry and waited for darkness. Now for the first time a German city appeared on the maps -- Osnabruck and it was not too far away.
12th. Battalion were in the lead clearing the axis of advance, and 13th. were the follow-up battalion. I have never been able to understand why we were deployed off the road; after all the 12th. were dealing with any opposition encountered as the advance was made, so I assumed we would move along the road, a tactical bound to the rear. If we had done so, we would have been spared a great deal of misery. On this particular stretch of road, the Boche was determined to delay us as much as possible, and there followed an almost continuous run of minor skirmishes ahead of us, with the night's silence punctuated by a series of bursts of machine gun fire, the exploding of grenades, and the occasional Verey light arcing into the sky. Every time this happened we went to ground on the rain sodden pastures, and soon the moisture seeped through our clothing, and we got wetter and wetter. The wetter we got so we got colder, and I became very miserable indeed, especially as I thought there was no need for it, and the necessity to cross a large number of fences and hedges didn't help to improve my morale. At one stage there was a feeble attempt to ambush the rear of the column, resulting in a single casualty - the Regimental Sergeant Major -- I wonder how the Boche identified him, and back he went to hospital. We struggled on like this for six hours of "stop start" "up down", until finally the C.O. called an "O" group. All of us crowded into a cottage, and had just started inspecting the map by torchlight, when in came the Brigadier, and he much to my relief said he was calling a halt to the nights advance. In the morning we were to pass through the 12th. and would form the vanguard. The most important thing now, he finally said, "Get a good night's sleep, a hot breakfast, and be on the road ready to move at dawn." It didn't take long to work out that the "good night's sleep" would be all of three hours.
The Battalion spread itself out in the village, and with minimum sentries settled down to get what sleep we could. Breakfast arrived in the dark, and it was a bit of a scramble to get everyone served, and resulted in men marching to war mess tins in hand, and eating as they went along. Fortunately the first part of the route had already been cleared, and shortly after moving off a Squadron of Churchill tanks from 4th. (Armoured) Battalion Grenadier Guards caught up with us, and deployed a troop on either side of the road. The Battalion were advancing with a company in open formation on the fields along our axis, so each now had tanks in immediate support, while the rest of the Battalion kept to the road, along with the reserve tanks. What had been an uncomfortable, morale sapping night, turned into a most exhilarating day. The Boche was still trying to delay the advance, but at the first sign of resistance the Churchills replied with H.E. [High Explosive] and machine guns, and as houses were set a-blaze, out came tumbling the prisoners. There was only one serious attempt to hold us up, and this occurred immediately the two leading companies had crossed a railway line, and the ground ahead rose gradually to a low hill feature, and here the Boche seemed to mean business. The companies went to ground as the Colonel called for an artillery concentration on the enemy position, with the tanks blazing away too, as the rifle companies moved forward under the barrage. I got the Machine Guns in position along the railway just in case we might be needed, but no such luck. It was a perfect example of a well co-ordinated attack, employing guns, tanks and infantry, and the whole thing went like clockwork with A and C Companies seizing their objectives, where they halted, allowing the rest of us to catch up. "Dizzy" Gethin's B Company were in the process of clearing a few houses bordering the road as the C.Os command group approached, "There's no need for that" the Colonel called, "you are only holding up the advance", and he sounded very annoyed. The search was called off, and by that time we were almost clear of the houses, there was only one more and then open fields again. "Take a look at that one" the C.O. said to Peter Downward. He took several of his Scouts, knocked in the door, and out came a dozen fully armed Boche.
The advance continued unopposed for several miles and we were within sight of the outskirts of Osnabruck before we came under fire once more. Concentrated machine guns from some distance away on the right were sweeping the road, causing the leading company to take cover. The "Recce" group moved into a farmyard, and I went to see if I could identify the Boche position. A low wall ran from the farmhouse itself to a barn a few yards away, and I crouched behind it searching the middle distance with my binoculars. I was aware that one of the "Churchills" had manoeuvred into the gap to my rear, but the firing of its main armament -- a six pounder gun took me entirely by surprise. There can't have been more than three yards between us when the gunner let fly. The sound was deafening, and the blast threw me violently against the wall of the house, leaving my head ringing, and myself completely deaf. No apologies, the tank drove forward, firing as it went at some imagined target. It must have been great fun in an armoured unit when there were no anti-tank guns about, for I got the impression the Grenadiers were having a field day.
While this little incident was tidied up, the C.O. called an "O" Group, since we were now in sight of the morning's objective -- a road junction on the western fringe of the city. The armour now departed, clearly they didn't mean to get involved in any street fighting that might lie ahead. A Company were in the lead as the Battalion set off on the next stage. On the left of the road were a succession of substantial detached houses, with large gardens, and to their front enjoyed a view over a broad shallow valley. The road ran slightly up-hill towards the "T" junction we were making for, and away to it's right were more large houses, and we had a clear view into the back gardens, and it was from that area the Boche opened fire on the leading platoon. A Company deployed to deal with the situation, while the rest of us went scrambling over back garden fences and hedges, out of sight of the enemy and arrived un-opposed on the objective. Since A Company were already involved in clearing the houses adjacent to this, gradually the other rifle companies were sucked into the confused street fighting, leaving myself and my two Section Commanders alone.
I had been given my tasks in the consolidation of the road junction defensive position, and had Arthur Higgins and John Surgey with me, so after I had carried out my "recce", I told them their section areas and tasks, and left them to make their own detailed dispositions. Since the guns which were moving at the rear of the column had not yet arrived, I decided to have a closer look at the building that Colonel Luard had designated as his Battalion Head Quarters, at his briefing. It was easily the most distinctive property of the neighbourhood, standing on a little hillock, with a commanding view back along the line of advance, and the fact that it was constructed in a golden coloured stone, made it really stand out. The Colonel had called it a "road house" in his orders, and that is what it looked like from the distance -- a way-side hostelry, where food and drink were served.
Closer at hand I wasn't too sure. The gardens which surrounded the building were laid with lawns and shrubs, and were well tended, but the windows were small and of buff coloured glass. And there was no front door. "Jock" Sloane and myself walked its full length before finding the entrance - a stout wooden door with a heavy iron catch. Inside was a long gloomy corridor, the sides of which were piled high with cardboard coffins containing charred bodies, victims of a recent air raid. It was the city crematorium, and we were glad to get out of the place into the warm sunshine.
There was still no sign of the "F" Echelon transport, but sounds of fighting came from the built-up area, otherwise the place was deserted. Around the corner of the "road house" came Jack Birkbeck - the Platoon Sergeant of the Scouts, and a Battalion character. A gamekeeper in civilian life, he was soft spoken and always very polite, though a fearless warrior in battle I understood. "Excuse me sir, I think I've been hit". I gave a little laugh, "Come now Sergeant, you've seen enough action to know if you've been hit or not". "I know" he went on, "but I felt this sudden jab of pain in my calf, but there's no blood and all I can see is a burn mark in my trouser leg". "We'd better have a look then", I said, so he pulled his trousers out of his gaiter and raised it until it was up to his knees, and surely enough a bullet had passed clean through the fleshy calf muscle, without causing any bleeding. I left him to make his own way to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post].
My two Sergeants had completed their recces. and we sat on the steps of the crematorium looking back along our axis of advance, expecting the transport carrying the guns. We hadn't taken the trolleys to Germany, and as soon as the Battalion sea-tail jeeps had caught up, we had been allocated two jeeps and trailers, and the days of "long-carries" were over. But there was no sign of them at all, nor could we see anyone else. The rifle companies, judging by the sounds of battle, were heavily involved in the city, and I presumed the road along which we had moved, must still be under enemy fire. I pulled out the map and saw that parallel to the main road, and a few hundred yards west of it, a track led back to the farm buildings where the C.O. had issued orders for the final advance, and where I had last seen Frank Egleton and the gunners. Telling the Section Leaders to stay, in case the transport did arrive, I set off with "Jock" Sloane to walk back via the track. Fortunately, as I had surmised, there were no Boche in the way, and we quickly linked up with Roy Leyland and the "F" Echelon transport. He was surprised to see us, since as I thought the main axis was still under enemy fire, but using the alternative route, which was nothing more than a farm track, I brought the transport through to the road junction, which had been the Battalion objective, until they became embroiled in the street fighting, We unloaded all our stores, and got the two jeeps under cover, and started to dig in. Clearly the defence of the road junction was to be the Machine Gun Platoon responsibility, and I wasn't sorry not to be involved in the street fighting. Urban areas are not the place to use Vickers, as we had learnt to our cost at Pont L'Eveque and Bure.
Perhaps my initiative in getting the transport forward, led to tragedy for one member of the Battalion, since the forward companies reported over the air to Battalion H.Q. that they were running out of ammunition, and calling for a re-supply. Bill Webster, on the establishment, R.E.M.E. Fitter Sergeant, but impossible to be kept away from the fighting, volunteered to take this forward in a jeep and trailer, and drove off into the city.
The exact location of the leading troops was not known, and they were not keeping a look out back down the street, since they reported to H.Q. that a jeep and trailer had driven through their positions, and crashed after being shot-up by the Boche. Medical Orderlies had been observed removing a body from the wreckage. Immediately he received this report, the Colonel despatched the Doctor and Padre under the safety of a Red Cross flag, to do a deal with the German Commander - 20 Boche P.O.W. in exchange for Sergeant Webster. They were too late, he was already undergoing surgery, and David Tibbs agreed with the surgeon, it would be folly to move him. Although badly wounded, he received first class treatment, both from surgical and nursing staff. Initially he was completely paralysed from the neck down, but with great determination and courage, made a full recovery.
Later in the day units of the Commando Brigade passed through and took on the task of clearing the city. We had a quiet night, and next morning all was peaceful, and I was in my Command Post, which was always sited close to one of the section positions, making a leisurely survey of the broad, shallow valley before me. I caught sight of a jeep moving along the road in the valley bottom towards another part of Osnabruck. I was watching its progress with my binoculars, when suddenly a "Panzerfaust" (German hand held anti-tank rocket) was fired in its direction, and I could clearly note where the projectile was fired from. Within minutes I had the nearest guns engaging the area, and gave it five minutes concentrated fire, without observing any results. This little incident is significant, because it was the last time that I as a soldier gave the order to open fire, on an enemy target.
For the next week we rolled relentlessly forward, moving in transport most of the time, and it was a good thing the R.A.F. had established complete mastery of the skies, since there was a series of water obstacles to be crossed. All bridges had been destroyed, and the Sappers must have worked non-stop, but there were inevitable delays, and huge queues of vehicles, standing nose to tail frequently built up, and would have been easy targets for ground attack Focke-Wolf 190's but they never appeared. At this stage of the campaign, we really thought we were on our way to Berlin. We knew we were operating on the right flank of 21 Army Group, but didn't realise we were moving north-eastwards towards the Baltic coast, and not due east in the direction of the capital of the German Reich.
Map handling became a bit of a problem. We didn't lack the relevant ones - there were just too many of them. Each morning as we assembled for briefing before another days "joy-ride", Harry Pollak and his "I" section unloaded sheet upon sheet on us, varying in scale of 1/500 to 4 miles to the inch, and it required a certain amount of mental effort and skill, folding them first of all, and then fitting them into your map case in the order they would be required.
This wasn't a problem for us all. On a morning towards the end of the first week in April, 13th were following behind 7 Para. We were all moving in T.C.Vs, and 7 also had some supporting armour with them. The whole column rolled steadily across the flat, featureless countryside with the aim of seizing the crossing of the river Leine at Neustadt, before it was destroyed. By late morning we had advanced a fair way towards our objective, and then ahead of us Boche 42,s opened up on 7 Para, still in their trucks we later heard. Immediately we were all out of the transport, and dispersed about the fields. The Colonel called an "O" Group, and Andy McLoughlin turned up with a school boys atlas - the C.O. was not amused. Some-how one of the Companies, I think it was C, got involved in a bit of a scrap, and suffered some casualties. Sergeant Scott, Medics, another N.C.O. who liked to get forward, went off to help and also got himself killed. He was an exceptionally brave man, and held the Military Medal.
Eventually the Boche were sorted out, and we continued on foot, shortly afterwards coming to the spot where 7 Para. had been shot up in their transport, and a number of T.C.Vs. all with flat tyres, shattered windscreens and bearing numerous bullet holes, stood abandoned on the road. The fight had been for Wunstorf air-field, a permanent Luftwaffe station, and having captured it, 7 Para. were now in Neustadt. We followed into the outskirts of the town, and learnt the bridge was intact, but were waiting until dark, before attempting its capture. The explosion of the demolition charges broke the night's silence, and we later learnt that the assault force were actually on the bridge when it was blown.
Word must have come in overnight that 6th. Airborne were to go into Corps reserve, with 15th.(Scottish) Division taking on the advance. That must have been how an Army Corps. operated, with the leading Division changed over, when the Corps Commander considered his vanguard was tiring. But we weren't tired, or I didn't think so. It was exhilarating work chasing the Boche, and never giving him time to prepare any defences as we had been doing. Now the speed of the advance definitely slowed, and I don't think it was because the Boche were more numerous or better armed. 15th Scottish were reckoned to be one of the best Infantry Divisions in 2nd. Army, but I think they were more tired than us, for they had been slogging it out since shortly after D Day, and lacked the benefit of two periods of rest and retraining back home such as we had enjoyed.
Change of Appointment
Forewarned of the movement into reserve, the C.O. had sent a Company to occupy Wunstorf, and the rest of the Battalion joined them there next morning. It was an unbelievably luxurious billet in the middle of the battle. Clearly just as the R.A.F. returned from day or night operations to their home comforts, so did the Luftwaffe. Wunstorf was a permanent station, with modern brick built barrack rooms and messes, and the kitchens were far superior to any British Army ones. Unfortunately all the equipment was electrically operated, and useless since there was no power. Menacingly outside every building stood a large bomb, but they were ignored.
The Officers Mess was a complete contrast to the timber built war time building we occupied back at Larkhill. Here was the luxury of a top class hotel, and in the midst of battle we slept between clean sheets, with running water (albeit only cold) in our bed rooms. Unfortunately the bar stock of wines and spirits had been cleared, but there was still draught beer in one of the barrels. This was a strong brown ale, much appreciated, but supplies were exhausted on the first night.
In the ante-room were several table lamps. One of these consisted of a handsome brass stand and a large parchment shade, which was covered with signatures, presumably of mess members. Since we were now in that category, three of the subalterns (I was one, and I think the others were Peter Downward and Basil Disley), added our own. A day or so later we returned to the Mess at mid-day to find the lamp was missing, and enquiries revealed that a number of Senior Officers from Divisional Headquarters had called. One of them was particularly interested in the lamp, and had subjected it to a closer inspection than we had done. Among the signatures he found those of Herman Goering - head of the Luftwaffe - and Willie Messerschmitt - famed air-craft designer, and without further todo - in the words of the day, he liberated it. I now know that "any-one who was any-one" in the Luftwaffe had signed that shade, including Adolf Galland - their leading fighter ace, and Hannah Reiss, Hitlers personal woman pilot.
We rested for five days and then moved to the town of Celle, where the Company were billeted in a silk worm factory. On the lawn in front of its impressive entrance stood two flag poles and we flew a Union Jack alongside the black Battalion flag - they made a brave show to-gether, fluttering in the spring sunshine. The day after we arrived came exciting news - 5 Para. Brigade were put on stand-by for an operation in support of the assault crossing of the river Elbe, and this put me in a dilemma, for it was to be a rifle company only drop. The D.Z. on the eastern bank of the river would be well within range of the artillery, and the provision of the extra equipment needed when heavy weapons were dropped, and which had to be brought out from England, would cause an unacceptable delay. Having fought all the way from Normandy with the Battalion, and never missed any of the action, I wasn't doing to be side-lined now. But it would mean deserting my beloved gunners, and that caused a lot of heart searching. In the end my selfishness won, and I set about getting myself on the operation.
Andy McLoughlin was now commanding B Company, where 6 Platoon was commanded by a sergeant - the only one in the Battalion - so it was to him I went with my plan. Again I knew it was a waste of time to say outright to the C.O. "I want to go on this operation". I had to be a little more subtle. In B. Company were a lot off young soldiers and N.C.Os., with not many experienced old hands to guide them, they had suffered heavy casualties in Bure.
I went to see Major McLoughlin and confessed my plan to him, and to my great joy he was in full agreement with my proposals. The idea was that he should go to the Colonel, and ask for my transfer to his company, since the young N.C.Os. and men of 6 Platoon really were in need of an Officer to lead them on the forthcoming operation, and that he had talked to me, and I was quite willing to be transferred. Exactly what he said to the C.O. I don't know, but the plan worked and I duly took over 6 Platoon. This was my first command when I joined the Battalion back in September, 43 and a lot had happened since then - there wasn't a single member of my original platoon still serving with them, and compared with the Machine Gunners were very in-experienced warriors. However there was some good young N.C.Os, who were eager and willing to learn, but I had to have a "blitz" on the standard of weapon cleaning - some-thing in the Gunners we had been most particular about.
The first opportunity to see how my new command could function, came a couple of nights later, when the Company were despatched to investigate the ambushing of a Despatch Rider, by "Were-wolves". It was a dark stormy night, and our investigations of the where-abouts of these under-ground fighters failed to find any trace of them, so returned to billets untested.
6th. Airborne were still in reserve, but started to move up on the exposed right flank of 2nd. Army, with no other friendly forces between us, and the left hand American formation. There was a small Panzer force operating in this gap. We moved up during the day, always along minor roads, and would occupy a village, where a road came in from the east, and here we would dig in, and hold the place over-night. The following morning we would be on the move again to another such location, and there the process was repeated. Twice during these advances, we saw evidence of the activities of the rogue Panzer force. Brewed-up tanks littering the village through which we were passing.
We marched into Vierin one morning, ready to dig in once more, and this time 6 Platoon's responsibility included the only road entering the place from the east. Our day time slits we dug on the fringes of a worked out quarry, slightly east of the main built up area, and enjoyed excellent observation, north, east and south. By now we were not very far behind the main advance, and several times during the day I provided Headquarters with "shell-reps" (compass bearings taken on the sound location of enemy artillery, and with binoculars it was possible to note the movement of small bodies of Boche in the north). We were quite isolated in the quarry, although covered by another B Company Platoon and John Surgey's section of Vickers, but before nightfall we withdrew to the gardens and buildings of the most easterly of the village farms. Forward of the place and blocking the road, I placed two large farm carts, so positioned that nothing could drive straight through. After stand down, I checked the sentries, and then retired to the farm-house to get my head down for the first half of the night - Platoon officers and their Platoon sergeants always spent half the night each on the alert - and on this occasion it was my turn to rest first. I was hardly asleep, before Sergeant Adams was shaking my shoulder, "There's something coming up the road" he said.
I put the platoon on full alert, and sent a wireless message to Company H.Q. informing them of this development, and I then joined the section covering the road. What-ever it was on the road, had halted at our obstruction, and it was not possible to make out exactly what it was. Leaving Sergeant Adams and one section to keep a close watch, with safety catches off, I led the other two down the roadside dry ditch, and with cries of "Hands Up" and "Hande Hoch", surrounded a horse and cart and a body of men. We separated bodies and transport, although a girl on the cart was permitted to stay there. Some-one seized the head collar and guided the cart through the road block, behind it came the men, hands in the air and escorted by two sections of fixed bayonets.
Quite honestly I thought it was a ruse to put us off our guard, so once in the farmyard off the road, the men were searched for weapons, and the cart given a thorough inspection, but we found nothing suspicious. We had an oil lamp in the house, and I decided to see the men one at a time, while the rest were kept separated and under armed guard. I wasn't going to be caught napping. I informed Company, and then had the first of the prisoners brought in. I was seated behind a table, and I noticed he was wearing an old battle-dress. When we had first approached the cart along the ditch, I had heard them talking together in English, so I asked who he was. Standing smartly to attention, he gave number, rank, name and then added his Scottish regiment. I wanted to know the reason for his presence in that part of Germany, and he explained that he was captured by the Boche in France in 1940, and since then had done farm work always under-guard, but their guards had disappeared, and he and his companions had set out to find friendly forces in the west.
Yet Another Change
"And the girl?" I asked. She was a slave labourer of Eastern Europe, the girl friend of the Frenchman (that too was news), and she was pregnant. His story seemed plausible to me, and I didn't think any German capable of imitating the broad Scots accent of the teller of such a story. I asked him to rejoin his comrades, and in turn interviewed two others, again on their own. Their stories only differed in one respect, the name of the Scottish Regiment in which they were serving at the time of their capture. I was convinced they were genuine ex-P.O.W. seeking freedom in the west, so I had them all brought inside, and since I had received no word from Company H.Q., I walked around talking to them about their experiences and bringing them up to date with the latest war situation. One thing puzzled me though, none of them looked me straight in the face, even when I was interviewing them individually, they seemed more concerned with the top of my head. Then, it suddenly dawned on me what interested them so much. I was asked "What unit are you then Sir?". It was my headdress - these soldiers, all members of the original 51st. Highland Division, forced into surrender at St. Valery in 1940, and who had spent the last four years in this remote part of Germany, had possibly never heard of the Parachute Regiment, and, clearly had never seen a British soldier wearing a red beret before.
All this socialising was very pleasant, but we were front line troops, liable for action any minute, and I badly wanted them off my hands. Company H.Q. was in a big house just up the road, and leaving Sergeant Adams in charge, I escorted the group back there, and was told to settle them in the out buildings for the night. I mentioned the pregnant girl, and was told to take her to one of the bedrooms, which I did accompanied by her French lover. I only had my torch to light the way, and indicate the room with its double bed, but I will never forget the beautiful smile of thanks that simple peasant girl gave - this was a luxury un-dreamed of for her.
The Boche had not been that far away all the time, and next morning "Nobby" Priors platoon carried out an attack on the neighbouring village, but Jerry had pulled out over night. Later we moved on to Kahlstorf. Here there was no need to dig weapon slits, some-one had already done the job for us, but I was to receive bad news from a different quarter.
An Army Cinematograph Unit caught up with Battalion, and were due to show a typical Hollywood musical in a large barn, in B Company area. As I stood outside "Baggy" Allen joined us, and asked me "What are you doing here?" Rather facetiously I answered, "What do you think I'm doing here?" "But I thought you were at Div. H.Q." "And what would I be doing at Div. H.Q.?" "Well you are the Brigade L.O. [Liaison Officer]"- I must have looked exactly as I felt- completely dumfounded "It's true" he continued, "we all know about it at Battalion H.Q."
I just could not believe him. What had I done to deserve this punishment, for that is what I considered such a posting. To be sent back in disgrace was unbelievable. As I walked in a daze to H.Q. I wracked my brain trying to decide what had brought about my dismissal, and I was furious too, that I had not been informed personally before others must have gossiped about it. I had to hear it from Colonel Luard, but I was not going to grovel and ask him to change his mind, after all I had done my job to the best of my ability and if that was not good enough, then I wanted no further part in the 13th.
Bill Davidson took me in to see the C.O. "I know why you've come, and you just have to accept the situation. I was given no option. Colonel Pine-Coffin (C.O. of 7Para.) has requested the re-call of his officer in view of the coming operation, and I have to find his re-placement. Furthermore, the officer I send must be known, not only to the Brigade Staff, but to the other Commanding Officers also. There are only three of you in that category, my Intelligence and Signals Officers, neither of whom I can spare, and yourself. So as you will understand I had no choice in the matter. We all have to accept decisions we do not like." I couldn't argue, I was so thoroughly dejected and miserable about it all. I had cooked my own goose; had I stayed with the Gunners, then the outcome might have been different, but not now.
Next morning I handed the Platoon over to Sergeant Brimmicombe, who in 1943 had been my Platoon Sergeant in 9 Platoon, and departed disheartened to Brigade H.Q. I had always got on well with Brigadier Poett, on the few occasions there was cause to, and again I was warmly received. He welcomed me to his staff, hoped I would find my new work interesting, "and" he concluded, "you will find the experience of working at Divisional Headquarters, invaluable in your post-war career" "Excuse me sir?" I asked "But could you please explain that last remark". "Why, when you have received your Commission in the Regular Army - you do intend to do that?" Much as I enjoyed my war time military life, I had no intention of prolonging it any further than necessary, and informed the Brigadier of that. "But I particularly asked for an officer who intended to make the army his career - never mind I'm not going to change things now, you'll find plenty to interest you in your new post". I just did not know what to think, but one thing was clear, I had been sent packing for reasons I had yet to find out.
It was Major John Wrightson, G2. Operations to whom I reported, and was handed over to Jim Cardwell, my predecessor, who showed me round and introduced me to my fellow Liaison Officers.
Divisional Headquarters was, I soon found out, a larger and more complex organisation, than I had imagined it to be. Tactically it was divided into two parts, "Main" and "Rear", and it was of the former that I was now a member. Here were found the G. and I. Staff - I stood for Intelligence, and I believe G was simply General, but they were the people who ran the fighting. At "Rear", were the A and Q Staff --- A for Administration, and Q for Quartermaster. Then there were the separate H.Qs. of the Gunners, Sappers, Signallers, Medics, Transport, Ordnance, and R.E.M.E. (Mechanical Engineers). They all had their own Staffs, and there were attached personnel, such as air-photo interpreters, and the mysteriously named "Phantom" - a special signals unit. Since the Division were not in contact with the enemy, both branches were located in the same village, but kept their distance from each other. All the work was done in specially designed vehicles, fitted out with desks and equipped with radios. The senior Staff Officers all had their own caravans, parked away from the rest, presumably so they could work in peace and not be bothered by all the activity around the "ops" wagon. The Liaison Officers worked from a tent, organised as an Information Room, erected alongside the "ops" vehicle, where all the work was done, and the whole organisation was spread around the village, in gardens and open spaces.
On my way up from Brigade, I had resolved to put my disappointments behind me, and to try and make the most of my new job. It was easy work, reading each signal as they came in from the different Brigades of the Division, or from the other formations in the Corps, and then marking them in chinagraph pencil on the relevant maps, so that any caller could quickly learn the battle situation. There was very little activity really, 15 Division were slowly clearing the Boche from the territory west of the Elbe, but were taking their time about it, and all 6 Airborne were doing was to tail along in their rear. I had also been told to familiarise myself with the Headquarters "Order Of Battle", and to learn to recognise all Staff Officers down to Grade 2 (rank of Major) and what their titles and functions were. This again was no problem, and I was soon talking about "CRASCS" and "CREMES" [Commander Royal Army Service Corps and Commander Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers] with the rest of them - and knowing what I was talking about.
Final Day of Action
Despite my former misgivings, I was enjoying the freedom of my new posting, I only had myself to look after, and the work taxed neither brain nor energy, but I did miss not having a platoon to look after and the warm companionship of N.C.Os and men. I had not seen anything of 13 for several days, however late one afternoon when Div. H.Q. were dispersed either side of a heathland track, they started to pass through, and I walked down to have a word with my former colleagues, and I could not help but notice there were two new Captains in the Battalion. Normally as soon as a vacancy for promotion occurred due to a battle casualty, there was promotion for some-one. But there had been vacancies for two Captains since the day of the Rhine crossing 5 weeks ago now, and yet they had only been filled after I had been posted away. Headquarters followed behind and set up shop near Luneberg Heath, since 15th. (Scottish) were now in strength on the west bank of the Elbe.
I did not often have messages to take to 5 Brigade but one afternoon towards the end of April, I was called to the Operations caravan, where Major Wrightson handed me a sealed message to be delivered urgently to General Bols, who was attending a conference at my Brigade H.Q. At last I had something important to do, and arrived as the General and all three Brigade Commanders came down the steps of the house where H.Q. was established. I saluted the General and handed over my message, and then stood to one side, in case I was needed to carry any reply. There was no need, for after reading the signal, the General turned to the others and said "That's it then - off - the operation's off". The air-borne crossing of the river Elbe was cancelled.
The journey back was a more leisurely affair, for the road traffic was particularly heavy, as the build up of equipment for the assault over the river was well under way, but it was a big surprise to pass several large convoys of tank low-loaders carrying naval landing craft. They made an incongruous sight, hundreds of miles from the sea.
Each morning I read any messages which had come in during the night, before marking up the maps, and we now started to receive information from patrols operating on the east bank of the river, and they all indicated little or no opposition in the planned assault area, and I realised that the actual crossing was not too far away. Consequently on 30th April Headquarters moved to a concentration area, close to Luneberg airfield. The map showed a track running through the pine woods but it had been developed and formed a concrete road, linking dispersal areas for the Luftwaffe. Along the length of the road were sand-bagged protected bays, each of which had held a German fighter aircraft. But the R.A.F. must have had a field day, as now they were simply burnt out wrecks. A small Wehrmacht horse-drawn convoy had also been shot up - at least I assumed they had been horses. Now they were bare-bone skeletons, picked clean by the scavenging hordes of liberated slave workers, a common sight by this time everywhere we went.
The big advantage of being a Liaison Officer was that I knew in advance of all the moves the Division were to make, and next day we travelled the few miles to the assault crossing area, and only then did I realise what a fantastic job the Royal Engineers did in bridging rivers like the Rhine and Elbe. It can't have been more than 48 hours since the first British troop had landed on the far bank, but already a floating pontoon bridge over 100 yards long was in full use. Traffic control and timings were spot on and there was no waiting about at all, but the Luftwaffe made one of their rare appearances, and a single jet engined fighter-bomber attempted to destroy the bridge in the middle of our crossing, thankfully the bombs fell well off target. Never the less, I felt very exposed while the vehicle in which I was travelling traversed the river. There was both a speed and vehicle distance limit, strictly enforced, and I was glad when the wheels were running over the ground once more.
A couple of days were allowed the Division to sort themselves out, for once again we would be in the lead, and H.Q. moved into the pleasant little town of Lauenberg. On the night 2nd May, I was duty L.O., which meant sleeping in the tent alongside the "Ops" caravan, and through reading the signals sent to the Brigades over the past two days, knew the break-out from the Elbe bridge-head was to start early on the morning of 3rd. I was not roused to deliver any last minute instructions, and had enjoyed several hours sleep, when the duty staff officer, one of the G.3s - a Captain sent for me and instructed me to take over - all was quiet, and he was going to get some sleep, but I was to wake him if any contact was made with the enemy.
Nothing was happening in the Divisional sector until just before dawn, when both Parachute Brigades, who were to advance along different axis, started moving forward, and notifying H.Q. of their progress. I had to mark all such advances on the map, but since no contact had been made with enemy forces, I didn't arouse the Duty Officer. He looked in on his way to breakfast, seemed satisfied with my efforts, and said he would relieve me once he had eaten. Reports were now coming in thick and fast, and I was thoroughly enjoying being at the heart of the Divisions activities. 3rd Brigade announced news of the rapturous reception they received on passing a large British P.O.W. camp. on their route. Both Brigades had the same town as their days objective, and from the rate of progress being made 3 Brigade were going to win the race. Then they sought permission to exploit beyond the day's set limit, since there was no opposition what-so-ever. "Bash on to the Baltic" or words to that effect was the order, and Wismar on the Baltic coast was the new objective. Shortly after these instructions had been issued, I went to have my breakfast, and when I returned a small "Tac" [Tactical] H.Q. to control the advance was all but ready to move. Major Wrightson detailed me to be their route finder, and explained that I was responsible for the safety of the small group of vehicles that made up the force, with special emphasis placed on the need to watch out for patrolling aircraft.
We were soon clear of Lauenberg, and out into the open country and a clear road ahead, with not another vehicle of any sort in sight. It was a glorious May morning of cloudless skies and warm sunshine and an open jeep was just the vehicle from which to appreciate them. Steady progress was being made when I noticed away in the distance, aircraft circling and diving as though engaged in shooting-up some ground target. They were to far away for me to be able to identify as either friend or foe, so I played safe. Ahead was a small copse, and I halted the jeep, telling the driver to reverse into the cover of the trees, and signalled to the rest of the vehicles to do like wise. There was ample room between the trees for this, but there also, was a lot of low under-growth. As one of the Command trucks backed-in, the engine back-fired, and immediately out from the bushes came a party of German soldiers - arms raised in surrender. One of the Intelligence Officers with us took charge of them, while I watched the road ahead trying to decide if the planes I had seen were friendly or not. Eventually they came close enough for me to identify them as R.A.F. Typhoons, and then I got the small convoy back on the road. There were no more incidents, and by mid-day we were on the heels of the vanguard, and halted in the small town, which had been the original objective for that day. The vehicles were dispersed and camouflaged along a side street leading off the town square. My jeep had been borrowed for one of the Staff officers to go visiting the Brigades, and instead I was standing up in the front of the Command "ops" wagon, with my head through the Bren aperture in the roof of the cab. The place seemed deserted, as had all the miles of countryside through which the advance had taken us that morning, but then things started to happen.
Ahead of me lay the road to Wismar and the coast, and down that road started to come the retreating Wehrmacht. To begin with the formations were organised and under control of their Officers, and the sound of their marching, brought the civilians to their door-steps. The children came first, excited as ever by the sight of the military, then old men, most likely their grand fathers and themselves survivors of an earlier German defeat. They were stony faced and sullen, too shocked to show any emotion, and finally the women could contain their curiosity any longer and they joined the other members of their families on the pavement. But they were unable to hide their feelings, and wept openly at the sight of the once proud and invincible German Army, as it now fled in terror from the avenging Russians. For the remainder of the afternoon they continued to pass, taking not a blind bit of notice of us, whom they out-numbered thousands of times over. Late in the after-noon, the remainder of the Divisional H.Q. "Main" convoy caught up with us, and we then continued on the road to Wismar.
Once out of the confines of the town, the sights were even more impressive. Not only was the road one mass of flee-ing Boche, but so were the fields on either side, and now any semblance of order and control had vanished.
While we were stationary in the town, the retreating troops had been foot-sloggers for the most part, with only the odd wheeled vehicle mixed in, but now armour of all descriptions rolled past us in the fields. Clearly these were the last remnants of much powerful formations, but they would have been a mighty adversary had they chosen to stop and fight. Tiger and Panther tanks there were in considerable numbers, along with S.P. guns, and the dreaded 88s, to say nothing of the large half-track personnel carriers - something the British Army sadly lacked. For mile upon mile we drove through the once all conquering Wermacht - I had never paused to consider how the war might end, but surely that was what I was now witnessing, and how proud I was to be "in at the kill", but couldn't help wondering how much more satisfyiny the sight must be for any soldier involved in the Dunkirk evacuation, or the early set-backs in the Western Desert, Greece or Burma. At one stage a Fiesler Storch small aircraft, used by the Boche as an artillery spotter, circled over-head and then landed alongside us. The crew descended from the cockpit and joined the marchers.
I was disappointed we had not reached Berlin, but Wismar was a pleasant enough town, with no signs of any sort of war damage, although that might have been otherwise had we not arrived when we did, for the link-up with the Russians was effected on the eastern outskirts. It was early evening as Divisional H.Q. vehicles spread themselves out, under the trees of a square in the residential suburbs, and for the mess took over a large house in an adjoining side street. Next door was the Swedish Legation, flying their flag of neutrality, and we were instructed to avoid all contact with the occupants, since they were rabid pro-Nazis.
There were still the situation maps to mark up, as not all 2nd. Army formations had stopped fighting, but generally it was a very relaxed existence, shattered one meal-time when the Deputy Provost-Marshal (senior Military Policeman in the Division), recounted the ghastly horrors of the Belsen Concentration Camp he had been to visit with the Head of the Divisional Medical Services, and later produced photo-graphs he had taken himself of the unbelievable obscenities which had been inflicted on the inmates. The common sight of the starving slave workers had alerted us to the bestiality of the Nazi regime, but I don't think any of us were prepared for the scenes the D.A.P.M. revealed to us.
Some-one decided we wanted smartening up, and organised a barber, who set up his chair under the trees, with more seats for his customers. I was on duty in the Information Room, and in walked Colonel Luard and Major Roy Leyland . I don't think they had come for any specific purpose, and were certainly in no hurry, since they decided to join the queue for the barbers services. One of the duty clerks told me to report to Major Wrightson, who handed me a message to be delivered to Brigadier Poett as speedily as possible, and I had to explain that was not possible since he was away on a visit to the Russians. In that case, I was to give the signal to the Brigade Major, and again I informed the G2. that he was with the Brigadier, but added that the C.O. of the 13th. Battalion was outside. "My compliments to Colonel Luard, and ask him please to come to the caravan, on a matter of some urgency." The Colonel was closetted with the G2 for only a few minutes, before he emerged calling for Roy Leyland to join him, and they drove off together.
Later when the file copy of the signal arrived, I learn't what all the excitement as about. A Military Mission was being sent to Copenhagen to accept the surrender of the German forces in Denmark, and 5 Brigade were to provide a Company for their protection. Naturally Colonel Luard detailed one of his own Companies, and what a good turn I did the lads of 6 Platoon, for it was B Company that got the job. They still talk about the reception they received from the Danes, and the unbelievable hospitality they enjoyed during their stay.
Next day I was told to pack my bags once again, as I was now to be 6th. Airborne Liaison Officer at Corps Headquarters - a doubly interesting appointment, since for the operations east of the Elbe, we were once again under command of the XVIIIth. U.S. Airborne Corps, and that was the higher formation for the Rhine Crossing Operation. Their location was Gadebusch, on the map a small town 50 miles from Wismar, and I was provided with a driver and a two seater scout car in which I made my daily runs between the two H.Qs.
The first half of my journey was along good roads, through pleasant though deserted country, until I reached the small town of Mecklenberg on the shores of a large lake - the Schwerinersee. War had not affected this part of the German Reich, no bombs or shells had fallen in the built up areas, and fronting the lakeside ran a wide tree lined boulevard, with handsome villas of buff coloured stone stood overlooking the calm waters of the lake. In the middle of the town the road crossed the lake on a raised causeway, and I thought what a lovely little place it was. But all its inhabitants had fled before the advancing Russsians and I never saw a single soul on my way through. The second part of the journey was along minor roads, in some places, little better than farm tracks, and on the outskirts of Mecklenberg, was an enormous collection of German P.O.W. You could not call it a camp, since there was not a single building to be seen, just thousands of bodies, hemmed in by barbed wire and the ground covered with make-shift shelters. Fortunately for them the weather was dry and sunny, and whenever I passed by, my former adversaries lay stretched out sun-bathing.
Gadebusch, was a dreary place compared with Wismar, and the L.Os billet resembled a typical council house in a British industrial town, and the accommodation was very cramped. Luckily, I did not spend a great deal of time there. Immediately after breakfast each morning, I visited the Corps Signal Office, picked up the confidential mail for Division, which I then delivered to Wismar, and spent the rest of the day there, until late after-noon, when I made the return journey, carrying written reports and returns.
It was a very democratic Headquarters, as we all stood in the one "chow line" waiting to be served, and then sat or stood around as we ate. The Captain in charge of the "Phantom" Signals unit was the only other English officer, and we both wished we could be back on British "compo" rations, finding the American equivalent lacking in variety. There were perhaps another six L.Os - lowest rank Captain, and my room mate was a Lt. Colonel. from Army H.Q. I never did find out what their duties consisted of, since when I left in the mornings, they were in the L.O's Office, and that is where I found them on my return. To them I was "Dizzy", after a well known basket-ball player, or so they told me.
One of the perks of being "on the staff", was that you were in on all the big events, such as the Victory Parade held in the main square of Wismar, only days after we arrived there. Once across the Elbe, the Division's armoured support regiment were the Royal Scots Greys, with their Shermans. The American Field Workshops were not equipped to deal with British Churchill tanks - hence the change, and they put on a marvellous display, driving past two abreast, immaculate in appearance, and the hulls of the tanks decked with fresh greenery. Officially the war was not over, but on the first Sunday in Wismar, 6th. Airborne held their Thanksgiving Service in the Nikolaikirche, a fine old brick built church in the centre of the town. The staff occupied the choir stalls, and "Now thank we all our God" was sung even more fervently than it had been on the hill-side at Arromanchess the previous September. Major-General Matt Ridgeway - Corps Commander read the lesson, later in his career he was a very distinguished Officer, commanding Allied Forces in Korea, and afterwards all N.A.T.O. Forces in Europe.
But the biggest event of all occurred the next day 7th. May, when Field-Marshal Montgomery met Marshal Rokossovsky at Divisional H.Q. and we all turned out for this historic meeting. "Monty" arrived first and awaited his Russian counterpart in an open field in front of "A" mess. The Russian General was greeted with a salute of nineteen guns, fired by the Light Regiment of the Worcestershire Yeomanry, and then inspected a Guard of Honour from the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry before returning to join the British G.O.C. Monty turning to his interpreter, said "Tell the Marshall, that I have this morning taken the surrender of all German forces in the West". That was it then the war in Europe was over, and I heard the announcement of it from the Great Man himself.
May 8th. was Victory Day, but my celebrations were very muted. I followed the usual routine, drove to Wismar and spent the rest of the day there. I was back at Corps H.Q. for supper, and then sat around in the office on hard backed chairs. We had a gramophone (whether looted or not, I don't know) but only one record of "Way down in Memphis, Tennesse", which was played over and over again. There was no liqour at all, so there were no toasts to Victory, but shortly before mid-night a band could be hard approaching, and we all tumbled out into street. We watched the musicians as they passed, illuminated in the headlights of several jeeps. Then some-one fired his carbine into the air, and soon every-one was doing the same, and this went on as long as supplies of ammmunition lasted. Next morning, I again returned to Div. HQ. and spent the day there. As I approached the Signals office in the late afternoon, one of the Signallers had a set tuned in to the BBC, and he called to me that there was about to be a report from Liverpool. I went across to listen, thinking that this would connect me to home and family on this great day. "I am speaking from an office, overlooking the river Mersey, where all day the ferry boats and other ships in port have been blowing their sirens. fog horns and hooters in their own Victory salute. I'll open the window so you can hear them better." Not a sound. Not even a single peep. I did feel let down.
My new posting only lasted a little over a week. Even as soon as we reached Wismar, rumours were circulating, that we had no right to be there at all, since an agreement made at one of the International Conferences, allocated that part of Germany to the Russians, and so it proved to be. Our Allies did not trust us at all - on every single road and track leading east they set up road blocks with armed sentries always on guard. Behind these they behaved like savages, and soon every farmhouse within sight was a smoking ruin, and we also received personal accounts of the treatment being handed out to the German civilians in the Russian zone. At Barthe was a large ex P.O.W. camp, of mainly American air-crew, who were now "prisoners" of the Russians, for they were not allowed to leave the camp, nor would the Russians provide transport to move them westwards.
Several enterprising ex P.O.W. did manage to evade the Russians and turned up at our H.Q., to give first hand accounts of the barbaric way the Russian soldiers were treating the German civilian population. I have to admit that all the Russians I saw, seemed to have originated from the eastern extremities of the Soviet Union, from Mongolia and such places, and did not appear to have much intelligence. Now, if accounts were to be believed, the German women in the Russian occupied territory were treated as slaves, and most houses had been thoroughly ransacked. Eventually the Americans tired of the "shilly-shallying" tactics of the Soviet authorities, and flew in a large force of "Flying Fortresses", and air-lifted to freedom all the occupants of the Barthe camp.
By the middle of May, we knew we were to return home, prior to the Division joining the Far East Land Forces - how right had been the "wags" who interpreted the initials of our European postal address - British Liberation Army - as Burma Looms Ahead. (I know from post-war reading, that but for the virtual annihilation of 1st. Airborne at Arnhem, we would have travelled to India months earlier).
Advance Parties from the 4th. Infantry Division, newly arrived from Italy, reported to our H.Q., and I was recalled, since the Division was back under command of one of the British Corps. I was eager to get back to the 13th. now we were heading out east, and one evening after a call on 5 Brigade, I drove on to see my old friends, and arrived just as they were about to sit down to supper, and the Colonel invited me to join them. Fred Tiramani promised to drive me home afterwards, so I dispensed with the services of my driver, and sat down with my former colleagues, who were living in great style in a lovely old country house. "Compo" rations improved considerably when served with several glasses of wine - we didn't enjoy such delights at Division, but I reckoned the fighting soldiers were entitled to their share of the spoils of war. But my evening was really made, when the C.O. told me that he already the Brigadier had consented to my posting back to the 13th. immediately on returning to Salisbury Plain.
Mission accomplished. Wined and dined, I said my farewells. Fred drove up with an open jeep, and I took the front passenger seat, while "Baz" Disley and Peter Downward came along for the ride. The village of Moltow which housed 13th. was linked to the main road by a long earth track with open farmland on either side. We set up a small deer which started to run alongside us not twenty yards away, and quickly a battery of four 9mm. pistols were brought to bear on this inviting target. Fortunately the road ahead was straight, which was more than could be said of our shooting.
I now had to acquaint myself with the details of the return of the entire division to England, a journey from the shores of the Baltic, across Europe to the Channel coast, before a sea-borne crossing to U.K. It was the first occasion since my joining the H.Q. about a month ago, that such a detailed movement was ordered, and I was greatly impressed by the thoroughness and yet simplicity of the plan produced. The Division was divided into five roughly equal sized groups, and on "Day" one, the first of these groups moved to Luneberg air-field, where the transport with drivers was detached from the main body of troops, who on "Day" two were flown home in R.A.F. Dakotas, and the transport started on the overland haul to Ostend -- the embarkation port for all mechanised vehicles. Now that the barrack block accommodation at Luneberg was empty, the next of the main groups moved in, also on "Day" two. So it went on until "Day" five, when the last of the groups (Divisional H.Q.) moved to the air field, and by then the leading group were sailing from Ostend. I was beginning to appreciate the efficiency of Staff Officers, they really knew what they were doing.
One evening before Group One started on their way, I was Duty L.O., and all the rest had gone for supper. I was alone in the forward end of the HQ. caravan, sitting in front of the sliding window which opened into the main part of the vehicle, where the RASC clerks worked. I heard a motorcycle drive up and halt. The rear door was opened, and a Despatch Rider entered and handed a message to the duty clerk, who signed for the signal, before entering the details in his log book for me to sign. The signal was from Corps. HQ, with a Top Secret Immediate classification. Leaving the duty clerk to mind the office, I took it over to the mess and apologised to Major Wrightson for interrupting his supper as I handed him the envelope. After he had finished reading, he passed it back for me to read, and then asked, "What action do we take on this?" Being a clued-up young staff officer of one months service, I confidently replied, "Repeat the signal to all addressees on the Divisional distribution list - some for action, others for information". "Do you think you can draft the message?". "Yes Sir" - it only had to be copied, using all the correct abbreviations. "Good, off you go and do so". - I really was "chuffed" that the G2 had such confidence in my ability. "And bring the "skin" (the original draft duplicated for distribution) for you to sign" "No -- there's no need for that, you can sign it." This decision surprised me - I had read every written instruction issued by Division since my arrival, but not one had been signed by an L.O. before.
Back to Larkhill
I returned to the "Ops" caravan, drafted the signal on the appropriate Army form, and passed it through to the duty clerk for preparation. When that had been done, I signed the "stencil", and the message was then duplicated and distributed. Half an hour later, I was eating my supper all alone, when "Steevie" (Lt. Stevenson R.U.R., Airlanding Brigade L.O.) arrived, "You're in deep trouble" he said "and you are to report to the Colonel A./Q's caravan without delay." (This was no longer my old Company Commander of Charlie Company in 1943, Lt./Col. Gerald Forde M.C. had been killed on the Rhine Crossing operation) I knocked on the door and was told to enter.
The Colonel A/Q was seated at his desk, and Major Wrightson G2 (Ops) was standing behind him. I saluted, "Is this your signature?", I was asked, as a copy of my signal was shown to me. "Yes Sir" "And what is your rank?" "Lieutenant, Sir" "And do junior officers generally take it upon themselves, to sign Divisional Orders?" he asked sarcastically.
He really had built up a good head of steam by this time, and let me have it in no uncertain terms. The message I had repeated to all formations of the Division was from the senior Administration Officer at Corps. HQ. My sin was, in sending out that signal, I had upset his carefully prepared plan to have rations, petrol, oil and lubricants available at the various Staging Posts, which themselves had already been designated by Corps. Now by my precipitous action, he was forced to make new arrangements. The G2 stood grim-faced while I received the dressing down of all time, and I dreaded to think what sort of treatment he had received. I deemed it wise to keep my mouth shut - but I knew I was innocent of all charges for all I had done was to repeat the orders received from a higher authority Corps HQ.
My punishment, and I am sure it was meant as a punishment. was to assist one of the Air-photo Interpretation Officers, in bringing Divisional H.Q. transport home. The Officer in charge was an Emergency Commissioned Captain, as opposed to being a career Officer, and I always enjoyed a happier relationship with such, and he put me in charge of the Recce. Advance party.
Divisional H.Q. were the last group to report to Movement Control at Luneberg, and next morning, immediately after breakfast, travelling in the General's Humber (minus pennant), and accompanied by a 3 tonner carrying the cooks and their equipment, I set off for the next Staging Post location. Once there I sought a suitable site to park the vehicles, and organised the field kitchen, so a hot meal was ready when the main body arrived, and see that latrines had been dug. I also had to find the Supply Point, where the rations etc. were available. The drivers would sleep in the backs of the vehicles, but I had to organise billets for the Officers in the party.
Memories of the route are vague, but the high spots were the crossings of the rivers Elbe and Rhine. Both are formidable water obstacles, and I was able to appreciate the achievements of the Sappers in bridging them. The last of the staging posts before Ostend, was on the outskirts of Brussels, where a local prosperous family made us most welcome, and insisted the Officers dine with them and also provided us with beds.
At the end of the fourth day after leaving Wismar, the convoy drove into the docks at Ostend, and I could not help but notice that one of the staging posts where we "perched" for the night, was the one detailed in the signal I signed. I may never have commanded a Division, but I can boast, as I am sure very few Lieutenants can, that a complete Division, complied with an instruction I signed.
Two evenings later, having disembarked at Tilbury earlier that day, we drove into the grounds of Syrencote House, Netherhaven, the home base of 6th. Airborne H.Q. - I had been there once before - to draw pay for the Battalion as part of my duties as Orderly Officer. The place was deserted except for the Camp Commandant - the rest had all gone home on 28 days leave. It was too late to think of rejoining the 13th, but I wasted no time in the morning, and organised a jeep to run me the few miles to Larkhill. Newcome Lines were also deserted, so there was no greeting for the "prodigal son" ------- just a railway warrant and a ration card. The rest of the battalion had already been on leave for 24 hours - I'd missed a day already of my leave, but it was worth it to be back with the 13th.
ORDER OF BATTLE 24TH. MARCH 1945.
LIEUT. "DIXIE" DEAN.
SGT. FRANK EGLETON.
PTE. "JOCK" SLOANE.
NUMBER ONE SECTION
SERGEANT FRED DREW.
L/SERGEANT JOHN SURGEY.
NUMBER ONE GUN
CORPORAL JACK CARR.
L/CORPORAL TOM HOWELL.
NUMBER TWO GUN
CORPORAL CYRIL ANDREWS.
L/CORPORAL TOM STEPHENSON.
NUMBER TWO SECTION
SERGEANT ARTHUR HIGGINS.
L/SERGEANT FRANK KENNY
NUMBER THREE GUN.
CORPORAL TONY CABRERA
L/CORPORAL "GINGER" LANGTON.
NUMBER FOUR GUN
CORPORAL "JOCK" GRANT
L/CORPORAL FRED PENGELLY
PRIVATE BILL PRICE, PRIVATE "TAFFFY" PRICE, PRIVATE FRED LEWIS, PRIVATE ROY MARSH, PRIVATE "PHIL" PHILLIPS, PRIVATE NORMAN MOUNTNEY, PRIVATE "BUNNY" MAY, PRIVATE HARRY MEEK, PRIVATE McKENZIE, PRIVATE BILL COLQUOHON, PRIVATE "BUSTER" BLAKE, PRIVATE "ROMMEL" RODDEN, PRIVATE "TAFFY" HOOK, PRIVATE ALAN STEEPER, PRIVATE BILL DOUGHTY.
KILLED IN ACTION
SERGEANT FRED DREW.
CORPORAL TONY CABRERA.
L/CORPORAL "GINGER" LANGTON.
PRIVATE "TAFFY" PRICE.
PRIVATE BILL COLQUOHON
MISSING PRESUMED DROWNED.
WOUNDED IN ACTION.
L/SERGEANT FRANK KENNY.
L/CORPORAL FRED PENGELLY.
CORPORAL CYRIL ANDREWS TO L/ SERGEANT.
L/CORPORAL TOM HOWELL TO CORPORAL
Murders in Herouvillette 6th June 1944.
FOR TWO YEARS PRIOR TO 6TH. JUNE 1944 HEROUVILLETTE WAS OCCUPIED BY A GERMAN COMPANY OF 716 PIONEER BATTALION COMMANDED BY CAPTAIN LEO MOLTOR. THE BATTALION COMMANDER STATIONED IN CAEN WAS MAJOR KOCH.
NOMINAL ROLL OF MEN STATIONED IN HEROUVILLETTE.
Hauptmann Leo Moltor
Hauptmann/W Heinz Hartwig
Schirrmann Anton Suerth
Unteroffizier Karl Finkenrath
Unteroffizier Paul Huesgen
Unteroffizier Bert Kuhn
Unteroffizier Franz Wirtz
Feldwebel Helmut Linden
Obergefreiter Peter Konigs
Obergefreiter Erwin Ritter
Obergefreiter Willy Mestrum
Obergefreiter Erwin Rauchstad
Obergefreiter Alois Mahlberg
Obergefreiter Ludwig Krugmann
Obergefreiter Karl Stark
Obergefreiter Fritx Kron
Obergefreiter Willi Weidemann
Obergefreiter Willi Schaekel
Obergefreiter Otto Reinhardt
Obergefreiter Alex Rappo
Obergefreiter Michael Hommelsheim
Obergefreiter Josef Langenkamp
Obergefreiter Herbert Kreutz
Obergefreiter Heinz Landwehr
Obergefreiter Hans Schurmann
Obergefreiter Peter Eismar
Obergefreiter Hans Puttmann
At about 03.30 hours on the morning of the 6th. June 1944, No.2 Section, commanded by Sergeant. Sam Osborne, started to dig their weapon slits approximately 200 yards west of the large stud farm "Ferme du Lieu Haras". As they were doing so, at least two men of the Airborne Division were murdered in the stables there. The following evidence was given by members of the Pioneer Company:----
ALOIS MAHLBERG. At dawn MESTRUM, HOMMELSHEIM, EISMAR and I were sent to the cross roads and found a wounded parachutist. He was taken by MAESTRUM and RAUCHSTADT to the chateau. A bit later HAMMELSHEIM saw a parachutist in a field behind a fruit tree on the opposite side of the road. He was taken prisoner. He was maybe 30 years old and slightly wounded in the legs. Then three motorcycles appeared, two turned towards ESCOVILLE and one continued towards us. We shouted "HALT". I fired at the front tyre. He surrendered. He was maybe 40 years old. He wore glasses and spoke German. I sent him to the Company Office. Half an hour later a jeep with 5 men arrived. EISMAR opened fire. 2 men jumped out and returned fire with a machine gun from the ditch. The driver had been hit right away, 2 others fired from behind the vehicle. The result of this fire fight was 5 dead. EISMAR drove the jeep into the lane. MESTRUM placed the bodies at the side of the road. Later, on the way to ST. HONORINE I heard SGT. LINDEN say to KRON that FINKENRATH had acted in an unsoldierly fashion.
PETER EISMAR. I was on guard with REINHARDT. I saw some signals and heard noise but did not do any thing. Only when SUERTH came running we roused the men. I saw MOLTOR searching POW and get his paybook and I was ordered to inform Division by phone. I went to the office and told KONIGS. I was then ordered by MOLTOR to get his boots, helmet and MG pistol. In the lane I saw men moving on the road. They were pushing small barrows. I left my bicycle and ran back to the chateau and reported to MOLTOR. He ordered me, MAHLBERG, HOMMELSHEIM and MESTRUM to take up a position at the cross roads as a standing patrol. The road was clear, but 20 metres from the road we came under machine-gun fire. This MG was on the other side of the road. We attacked the position and the firing ceased. We returned to our position and then after a while there was shouting that the enemy were in the farm too. We found one parachutist in the farm. He was wounded in the shoulder. It was still dark. The POW was sent to the chateau. Now two motor-cycles arrived. One of them escaped by taking the road to ESCOVILLE, the other drove on and the driver was shot and wounded in the thigh. He too was taken to the chateau. Now a vehicle with 5 men arrived and we opened fire from 20 metres and they returned fire. All 5 men were killed and their bodies thrown into the ditch. The jeep was pulled into the lane and searched. Some time later a wounded parachutist was seen in the field next to the farm across the road. He too was taken prisoner.
LEO MATHIAS JOSEF MOLTOR. Company HQ was in the chateau in HEROUVILLETTE, with B Echelon in the farm across the road opposite the lane leading to the chateau. At 23.50. a bombardment woke me up. I looked through the window of my billet and saw parachutes. I jumped on my bicycle and cycled to the chateau. EISMER told me he had seen a lot of parachutes over the big fields. I ordered everyone to the race-course and then to their battle stations. On my way to the race-course I saw a parachutist hanging in a tree in a garden, he was trying to get out of his harness. He was about 5ft. 10in. tall. I took him prisoner and handed him over to FINKENRATH. I then went over to the road before returning to HQ. One of my men told me that OBERST KRUG was on the phone. In the middle of the call the line went dead. There was no way of communication with the other Companies. CSM. HARTWIG arrived with 3 Military Policemen. They asked me for the POW, and I got FINKENRATH to fetch them. The MPs left with the prisoners. A bit later as I was again on my way to the race-course, another POW was brought in. He was 5ft. 8 or 9in., stocky build, thin black hair, small moustache, and he had been wounded in the left shoulder which was bleeding. He was taken to HUESGEN. I then ordered EISMAR to fetch my boots, as I was still in my slippers, and also my helmet. He returned and told me he had seen soldiers on the road with trolleys. I ordered HARTMANN to take up a position near the road. A bit later he retuned to say the road was now clear but he had found an MG in the wash-house of the farm just along the road. By now it was getting light. Then a Major, Lieutenant and 2 NCOs from 21ST PANZER DIVISION arrived and I explained the situation to them. Accidentally an armoured half-track and a Platoon of infantry also arrived about this time. The Lieutenant stayed and together we recced the race-course. Half-way across we came under heavy fire. The Major returned and I again explained the situation to him. He left to bring up re-inforcements. MALHBERG reported that the guard near the road had ambushed a jeep. Some time later I was ordered to leave HEROUVILLETTE and take up positions in ESCOVILLE. By 15.00 or 16.00. we could see gliders landing. There was still no re-inforcements for us. A DR arrived with orders for me to move to ST. HONORINE. 2 or 3 months before the invasion I had read out a FUHRERBEFEHL to my Company on orders from Division. FINKENRATH was later awarded an IRON CROSS 1ST. CLASS, on recommendation of an Officer of the Panzer Grenadiers to which he had been seconded along with some other ranks for deployment near ST. HONORINE, where he distinguished himself in counter-arracks. He already held an IRON CROSS 2ND. for service in Russia.
KARL KURT STARK. I was Obergerfreiter 716 PIONEER BATTALION. I slept in a room on the ground floor of the chateau with Obergefreiter KRUGMANN, and was woken by him. Together we went to the courtyard of the chateau. When MOLTOR arrived we were ordered to follow him to the race-course, where we stayed for quarter of an hour, then we were all sent to our battle stations. SGT. SURTH and I patrolled between the two wings of the building. A POW was brought in, with his hands tied behind him. He was taken to the room where FINKENRATH was priming grenades. The POW was an officer and was later collected by the Military Police. After a while FINKENRATH joined me as SUERTH had left. MOLTOR arrived with a prisoner, whom he handed over to FINKENRATH, saying something to him which I did not hear. I followed after FINKENRATH and the POW. I was a bit behind them but I could hear their foot steps. Suddenly there was a flash, and I asked FINKENRATH what had happened. He replied "Der is umgeleg." In the morning Obergefreiter MAHLBERG called out that POW were being brought in. There were three of them, with their hands above their heads. They had been sent without an escort along the lane leading to the chateau. FINKENRATH and I took them into the Company Office where they were searched by Obergefreiter WEIDEMANN. FINKENRATH was instructed to lock the prisoners up, and led them into the stables. We put them in loose boxes 3 and 4. I returned to WEIDEMAN, and then I heard 3 shots, and saw FINKENRATH closing the doors of the loose-boxes. where I later saw three bodies. Obergefreiter KRON brought in another POW, who was also searched by WEIDEMANN, and I saw FINKENRATH nick his watch, before taking him to loose-box No.2. There was another shot. I saw the POW fall to the ground. He had not tried to escape. In the afternoon I left with CPL. RITTER and PUTTMANN in CPL. RAPPO s vehicle. SUERTH also left. I saw three bodies in the stables where FINKENRATH had taken them. On leaving HEROUVILLETTE we met a column of friendly vehicles, and we talked to them about shooting prisoners. MOLTOR had always been very clear about the treatment of POW. We were not to harm them.
ANTON SUERTH. I was on guard with STARK when a POW was brought in. He was later taken away by the Military Police by road. 3 more POW were sent along the lane to the chateau. MESTRUM and MAHLBERG called out "Let the prisoners through". A bit later another prisoner was captured by MESTRUM. He was a big man, 6ft tall. Another POW crashed his motor-bike, which left him with a limp. MOLTOR instructed us to lay the dead along the roadside. He had specifically told us "dassich keener an den Leichen vegreift und ihnen Sachen abnimnt". Later I drank four glasse of cognac with some locals and can't remember anything more until 18.15 hours, when I was ordered by MOLTOR to drive KRUGMANN, BEIER, STEIN, STARK, PUTTMANN, RAPPO and LUDERS to ESCOVILLE.
PAUL HUESGEN. Together with KRON I was on duty that night. Suddenly we saw aircraft and parachutes. We roused all the men and ordered them to the courtyard, where we waited for MOLTOR, who when he arrived ordered us to our battle stations around the chateau. I returned to Company Office and phoned Battalion HQ in CAEN about 01.00, telling them of the landing by parachutists. A POW was brought to the office by MOLTOR among others, and FINKENRATH was told to lock him up. MOLTOR telephoned his other platoons, with instructions to concentrate at HQ.. He also phoned Battalion HQ, that he had taken some enemy prisoners, and asked for re-inforcements. The 1st. Platoon were out with the infantry, 2nd. Platoon could not get across the canal since the bridge at BENOUVILLE was in enemy hands, and the third Platoon were forced to stay in SALLENELLES. At 02.00 hours, the POW were taken away by Military Police. Between 04.00 and 05.00 a second POW was brought in, and locked up in the stables. Half an hour later a third man was brought in and searched by FINKENRATH. This man was carrying both maps and air photos. He was locked in the stables. Later I saw FINKENRATH enter the stables and as he left was putting his pistol back in its holster. My billet was in the MOREL family home. I left the room as I wanted nothing to do with FINKENRATH, who told me I was a softie, I was called to help one of our soldiers who was wounded. Later I had to deal with another wounded man, who was lying in the open 200 metres from the chateau. Under enemy fire I crawled to the man who was wounded in the chest. I gave him first aid and then went for help. LT. MADGE crawled with me to the casualty but by now he was dead. A unit of 21ST. PANZER DIVISION arrived and more wounded were brought in. Again word came that another wounded soldier, this time of 21 PANZER was lying in the field behind the chateau. He had been shot in the thigh. Together with one of his comrades I went for a stretcher, and we went to fetch him in, but he called out for us not to move as he was under MG fire. I was then wounded myself. I remained where I was for about half an hour, and then crawled back on my own. By mid-day I was in hospital in CAEN.
WILLI GERLACH. One IRON CROSS was awarded to FINKENRATH for rapid preparation of the grenades. No report of unsoldierly conduct by MOLTOR was passed on to me. I knew him as a correct Officer.
KARL FINKENRATH. At 20 .00 hours on 6th. June, we left the chateau. An armoured troop carrier had been parked all day in the archway of the chateau. A British mortar bomb had exploded close by, and that was why it had been abandoned there.
HANS PUTTMANN. There were about 24 soldiers of the Battalion in the chateau. SUERTH woke me up, and we went to the armoury behind the chateau and drew our weapons. MOLTOR ordered us to open fire on the parachutists. All the parachutists rallied on a red light which we could see nearer the coast. In the morning I saw a dead soldier near the race-course with his parachute alongside him.
WILLY MOSTRUM. I was billetted with a farmer called Georges. CSM. HARTWIG, and SGTS. LINDERT & SUERTH in an estaminet. The drivers, craftsmen and CPL. LANGENKAMP were in a farm opposite the lane leading to the chateau. At 02.00 hours the alarm was raised "Parachutists". Together with L/SGT. WIRTZ and CPL. MOLLMAN I went to collect my rifle, and we paraded in the courtyard. We were all in a panic. MOLTOR was not there yet. He only arrived quarter of an hour later riding his bicycle and still wearing his slippers. He ordered us all to fall-in behind the chateau. Here he gave out his orders, saying the most likely place for any attack was from the direction of the race-course. We were sent to man the weapon pits dug along the avenue of trees behind the chateau. and along the outer wall of the gardens adjacent to the chateau. Immediately we were in contact with the enemy and L/SGT. KUHN and CPL. KRUGMAN were wounded. CPLS. LANGENKAMP and EINART were badly wounded and died from their wounds. We went individually to FINKENRATH in the armoury and collected hand grenades. At 03.00 MOLTOR sent his driver Stabs gefreiter EISMAR to fetch his helmet, boots and Mg. Pistol. He returned immediately to report that the enemy had positioned a machine gun at the road/lane crossing and he could not get out. MOLTOR detailed SGT. LINDERT, CPLS. MALLBERG, HOMMELSHEIM, EISMAR and myself to deal with this weapon. We did so with a couple of hand grenades. One of our team was wounded, and we were still under fire. MAHLBERG and I got across the road and into the farm. We started to search the buildings, and after a short while heard the call of "Comrade", and found a wounded parachutist. Together we took the wounded man down the lane to the chateau, and handed him over to HUESGEN. This would be between 04.00 and 05.00. The POW was a tall man. I then returned to my weapon slit along the avenue of trees. At daylight, I went with RAUCHSTADT to MOLTOR s billet to collect his boots. At about 07.00 two soldiers on motor-cycles approached our position from the direction of ST. HONORINE. We called on them to halt. One turned off on a side road towards ESCOVILLE but the other continued at full speed towards us. We opened fire and the man fell off his bike. MAHLBERG checked the man while I took a look at the bike. Around 09.00 a jeep with four passengers appeared round the corner of a house on the road from RANVILLE. We opened fire, and a short fire fight ensued, with most of the men in the jeep badly wounded. Two had fallen out of the jeep and the other two were still in it. We left the bodies in the ditch. We pushed the jeep into the lane where it was left for a short while. It was searched by EISMAR and MAHLBERG before being driven into the chateau. In the jeep was a basket with two carrier pigeons, and the trailer was loaded with ammunition, a mine detector, a motor-cycle and a wireless set. Between 15.00 and 16.00 all "B" ECHELON personnel left the chateau, under command of SUERTH. MOLTOR himself accompanied by EISMAR left at 20.00. L/SGT. WIRTZ and I left 10 minutes later. At the end of the lane we picked up MAHLBERG and took the road to ST. HONORINE where we came under the command of the LUFTWAFFE. In the afternoon of the 6th. STARK told me that FINKENRATH had murdered POWs. On the 7th. MOLTOR told me about FINKENRATH, and said that such-like criminal should not get away with their crimes, but dealt with by their own comrades. I never heard MOLTOR give orders that POW were to be shot out of hand, but 2 or 3 months before the invasion, he did read out to us a "FUHRERBEFEL" about POW. I thought this referred to saboteurs, and not fighting soldiers.
All the above information concerning the events in and around LA FERME DE LIEU HARAS (which the Germans call the chateau) was given to me by CARL RYMAN. Not all the witness statements are included, since they only confirm what I have already reported, but there were also some by local Frenchmen. KARL FINKENRATH was the only one tried, found guilty and executed for the murder of 2, possibly 3 POWs in the stables, though in the findings of the court it was conceded that doubtless other men of the 816 PIONEER BATTALION were involved, especially in the deliberate shooting of some of those only wounded when the jeep was ambushed. All together it is reckoned that 7 or 8 members of 6TH. AIRBORNE were deliberately done to death in HEROUVILLETTE on the morning of 6th. June 1944. The possibility exists that 7 of these were:------
14654924 PTE. D. RUSSON 8TH. BATTALION.
T/14367919 DVR. D.W.S. COATES 716 LT. COY. RASC.
3321839 CPL. E.J. BURGESS 12TH. BATTALION.
5097971 C.Q.M.S. J. ISAACS 8TH. BATTALION.
3656971 PTE. S.S. WALTON 8TH. BATTALION.
274820 CPL. R.W. LANGDON 8TH. BATTALION.
14384224 PTE. M. MEIKLEJOHN. 8TH BATTALION.
After the panzers retreated from the village, the following message written in German was found on a blackboard in the village school. "Never again must we endure such a Christmas ---- A man separated from his wife; a son from his mother; a father from his children. Nothing could be more cruel. Life must be for loving and giving."
For his conduct throughout the war, Lieutenant Dean was awarded the Military Cross. His citation reads:
Lieutenant Dean jumped into Normandy on 6th June 1944, as Machine Gun Officer, 13th Battalion (Lancashire) The Parachute Regiment.
Throughout the campaign in Normandy he commanded his platoon with outstanding skill, courage and devotion to duty.
In the battle of Bure in Belgium on 3rd January, a german Royal Tiger Tank with infantry escorting, was advancing down the village street covered by the guns of Lieutenant Dean's Platoon. A gun team was hit and all killed or wounded. At point blank range, Lieutenant Dean, crossed the street. He carried the only survivor to safety, then, inspite of heavy fire from the tank not 100 yards away he returned for the gun. He returned to continue to command his platoon as imperturbable as ever.
He again jumped with his Machine Guns into Germany over the Rhine on 24th March. During this campaign his conduct, cheerfulness, and leadership have been beyond praise, and a wonderful example to all ranks.
"Dixie" Dean ended his military career as a Major. He passed away on Sunday 5th August 2012, aged 90.
See also: Private Farmer.
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