The History of 591 Antrim Airborne Squadron, Royal Engineers, 6th Airborne Division
by Major Jack, 1945
Page 1, 2
Roll of Honour
Captain F.G. HARBORD
Lieutenant G. WHARTON
Lieutenant L. SHAND
Lieutenant P.R.H. McCRIRICK
Lieutenant G.S. WADE
Lieutenant DeWATTEVILLE K.A.
Corporal J. REARDON-PARKER
Corporal W. KELLY
Corporal J. [RATON?]
Corporal T. ROGERS
Lance Corp K.W. BRANSTON
Lance Corp T.A. FRASER
Lance Corp F.T. WHALE
Lance Corp K.W. LEA
Sapper G. THOMPSON
Sapper D. WHEELER
Sapper F. WOLFE
Sapper J. YOUELL
Sapper J.J. EVANS
Sapper A. AUSTIN
Sapper L.J HART
Sapper P. COYLE
Sapper R.A. [HEAN?]
Sapper P.T. [DOBSON?]
Sapper S. [DAVISON?]
Sapper F. McHUGH
Sapper S. [MARRACK?]
Sapper D. JOB
Sapper S. [KEYWORTH?]
Sapper P. [PARRY?]
Sapper J. STOBIE
Sapper J. McMANUS
Sapper G. KERRY
Sapper W. HOBSON
Driver A. HANDLEY
Driver G.I. PALIN
Driver F. FIELD
Driver L. [STEELE?]
Killed in Action
24 March 45
17 June 44
21 Aug 44
17 Jan 45
24 Mar 45
6 June 44
6 June 44
24 March 45
24 March 45
6 June 44
6 June 44
9 June 44
9 June 44
6 June 44
6 June 44
6 June 44
6 June 44
6 June 44
6 June 44
9 June 44
11 June 44
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
24 March 45
9 June 44
24 March 45
6 June 44
10 June 44
24 March 45
24 March 45
The Following Were Made Prisoners of War and Have Since Returned to the United Kingdom
Major P.A. WOOD
Captain A.F. JACKSON
Lieutenant K.H. BEST
Lieutenant A.B. OLIVEIRA
Lance Serjt S. FORREST
Corporal R.W. TORRINS
Lance Corporal P.S. HITCHCOCK
Sapper C.M. BARTLETT
Sapper C.T. LAW
Sapper P. SUTCLIFFE
Sapper Y. BLYTH
Sapper J. BOWMAN
Sapper O.C.D. MITCHELL
Sapper J.F. VEITCH
Sapper K.H. FISHER
Sapper T.C. CARTER
Sapper A.W. ROSS
Sapper J. READ
Driver H. BARRETT
The Following Were Wounded in Action
Lieutenant D.H. THOMAS
Lieutenant J.R. FISH
Lieutenant A.C. LITTLE
Lieutenant P.G.L. MITCHLEY
Lieutenant R.M. MERRILL
Lieutenant P.A. COX
S.S.M. H.K. PEDEN
Serjeant F.W.B. LENNON
Lance Serjt. W. MILLS
Lance Serjt. H. ADAMS
Lance Serjt. P.C. CONDIE
Lance Serjt. G.O. FOSTER
Lance Serjt. A. FRASER
Corporal W. HAYNES
Corporal [?] STONER
Corporal F.H. SANIERS
Corporal J.E. JACKSON
Lance Corp. J.H. BOWDEN
Lance Corp. F. SHERIDAN
Sapper [?] OSGOOD
Sapper R.G. FARLEY
Sapper [?] WITHEY
Sapper W.T. AUSTIN
Sapper T. GREEN
Sapper J. HILL
Sapper A. HOLT
Sapper A.E. GRANT
Sapper W. HOBSON
Sapper D. JEWELL
Sapper J. OWENS
Sapper A. DRUMMOND
Sapper P. MURRAY
Sapper D. READ
Sapper J. KENDALL
Driver [?] HODGSON
Driver W.M. BELAMERE
Driver H. DUNN
Driver R. GODDARD
Driver A. OLDFIELD
Private J.T. BARLOW
Private S. NORRIS
It is hoped at some time in the near future to publish, for private circulation, a history of the Engineers of the 1st Airborne Division and that this will be followed by a similar history of the 6th Division. For these I was approached to provide a history of 591 Airborne Squadron.
Since the full Squadron history is not likely to feature in either publication and since to produce 60 copies of typescript is, almost, as easy to produce as one I am circulating this book (if such it can be called) to as many as possible of the former members of the Squadron.
That most of these had left for Palestine, for Malaya, or for "civvy street" by the time this story came to be written has made it impossible to gather all the material I would have liked. Not only details of operations but the personal stories of hardship and heroism, or humour and rascality that lurk in the memories of officers and men and which, however poorly strung together, must make a most human and moving history - and perhaps even a scandalous one! This is but the framework on which those who helped to make the history can rebuild their own experiences as a paragraph here and there stirs the memory.
I have been greatly helped by Captain HINSHELWOOD, Lance Serjeant TAYLOR and the few remaining members of the Squadron, particularly with the earlier history. There must be many grave omissions and even more inaccuracies, but in spite of these I hope that for those who have served in the Squadron the story may have some interest. Certainly the writing of it has brought home to me vividly the privilege that has been mine in Commanding the Squadron for the past fourteen months.
BULFORD, 20 Dec 45.
The Origin of "591"
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, "591", then known as the "Antrim Fortress Company, R.E.", was stationed in a fort on the shores of Belfast Lough, County Down. Raised some two years previously as a territorial unit, they had been converted into a Searchlight Company, R.E. and were to spend the first twelve months of the War as part of the anti-aircraft defences of BELFAST.
In October 1940 the first laborious steps were taken to reform the unit as a Field Company and about 30 men under Captain BURES moved to PORTAFERRY, south of BELFAST. It was intended that the remainder of the unit left behind at the fortress should be relieved by Gunners of low medical category at an early date and should follow on. Unfortunately, this plan fell through and, although augmented on Christmas Day by 100 recruits, of the original Irish Territorials only thirty crossed with the unit to England the following month.
The Non-Fighting Forties
At HALIFAX a further fifty recruits joined the unit and Major WHITE took over command. After intensive individual and unit training at 22 training centre, followed by a month at WALLINGFORD bridging camp, the unit moved to LUTON as a Corps Field Company R.E. in 2nd Corps.
In the summer of that year the unit came under command of 76th (Norfolk) Division near NORWICH, to be followed by a six month spell under 11 Corps before finally settling down in 54th Division, stationed at WOODBRIDGE in Suffolk. During this period they were employed for the most part on the building of defence works and camp in common with most other Engineer units in Britain.
On 3rd October 1942 Major P.A. WOOD took over command of the unit at WOODBRIDGE. By now, works were giving place to serious training. With the Division the unit took part in ambitious exercises and a considerable part of the winter was spent in bridging and in realistic training in demolitions and mines.
The spring of 1943 found the unit still at WOODBRIDGE, by now a highly trained, fit and happy entity. Under the leadership of Major WOOD and the encouragement of being at last firmly established as an operational unit, a fine unit spirit prevailed and, though the number "591" casually allotted during foundation at HALIFAX had meant little then, it was now "something" to belong to 591 (Antrim) Field Company R.E.
About this time the 6th Airborne Division was born, and during the spring and early summer vigorous [?] was carried out for the Division throughout the country.
Conversion to Airborne
It was in May that an "Airborne Circus" arrived with 54th Division to impress on the Divisional Engineers the glories and excitement of going to battle by air. It was no surprise to learn very shortly after that all the Companies were to be converted to Airborne. Of the three field companies of 54th Division, 249 Field Company was to be transferred in its entirety to form an Airborne field company and 286 to form the Airborne Field Park, while parachute volunteers were to be called for from 591 to form a second parachute squadron RE in 6th Division. The response was great, for the thought of being dropped from the unit was even more appalling than the thought of being dropped from a plane, but amongst many of the older men it was found that although the spirit was willing the flesh was weak and after an exacting medical examination many were rejected.
Of the now 591 Parachute Squadron thus formed, a little under half were from the original unit. The rest was made up of men who had volunteered from 249 and 286 companies and of fresh intake. Immediately, Major WOOD started a most intensive fitness campaign. P.T. and hardening was the order of the day, all the day, and when, on June 2nd, 1943, the Squadron moved to the Airborne Training School near CHESTERFIELD, there was no one for whom the rigorous "pre-parachute" training held any terrors. As training ended on each day, admittedly, there were many who had to crawl on their hands and their knees to their bed, but the late evening it was possible to count practically the whole Squadron in the "[?/", the "STATION" or dancing at the notorious Chesterfield "[?/".
On 15th June the Squadron moved to RINGWAY. As against the normal run of parachute volunteers who pass through the training schools as individuals, the officers and men of 591 were extraordinarily fortunate in being able to go through all stages as a unit. In the "sticks" into which they were divided for the parachute training, all the men knew each other well and there is little doubt that the inflection "if old so-and-so can do it so can I" helped many to "screw their courage to the sticking point" when the moment came for that first terrifying leap from the balloon cage. Of the whole unit only two men failed to complete the course, and the only accident was a comparatively slight one. The Squadron's "pocket parachutist" 5' 3" Sapper VEITCH, decided during one of the later jumps that the orthodox parachute descent was too dull, hurtled to earth inextricably mixed up with a container he had met as he left the aircraft. Though badly shaken, he survived to jump again.
Some weeks later, Lieutenant OLIVEIRA, newly posted to the unit, had an even more harrowing experience while doing his first two jumps from the Ringway balloon. His parachute failed to open and he was left hanging helplessly by the static line 15 feet from the balloon cage and 685 feet from the earth. After a hurried conference between the instructors on the ground, it was decided to lower the balloon. Any second the helpless figure might break loose and crash to certain death. Not till Lieutenant OLIVEIRA was very near the ground did the sickening tension relax for a moment and when he finally touched down a gasp of relief ran round the field. Himself 6 feet 4 in height, he of course touched down a trifle sooner than most people in a similar predicament. Within half an hour he was doing another jump.
The course completed, the Squadron, now fully trained parachutists, went on a well earned 14 days leave before settling down in BULFORD, firstly to reorganization and re-equipped as a Parachute Squadron, and then to the serious task of training for the operation that almost certainly lay ahead. Whether in sapper training, fieldcraft, battle drill, the use of arms or physical fitness only the very highest standards were accepted and troop and squadron exercises of every conceivable nature were held to ensure that every officer and man knew his job as a sapper and as an airborne soldier. Later, the Squadron took part in Brigade and Divisional exercises of the most testing and exacting nature. The underlying principle of all training throughout the Division was that every man must be the master of his job and of his weapons, that he must be resolute in thought and action and that even though weary, cold, hungry and divorced from all leadership or support, he must be able to carry on. As the Divisional Commander said in one of his inimitable and colourful talks after an exercise, "If you see a German crawling up to your position at night, don't come and tell me about it, get down on your knees and thank God for sending him! - Then wait till you see the whites of his eyes...." The more general engineer training was not entirely forgotten during this period and time was found for a fortnight's "wet" bridging at WYKE REGIS in March 1944.
D Day Rehearsals
By the end of the month, however, it became clear that training was being directed along definite lines and that the day of invasion was approaching fast. Among the first in the Squadron to become aware of this was Captain HINSHELWOOD who, with a small party working under the strictest secrecy and against time, barricaded a small house hidden away in the lanes to the north of Amesbury that was to become the centre of Divisional planning for the D day operation. Here, a growing number of officers pored over the maps and large scale models of the Normandy coast and it was not long before the O.C. had been admitted to the secret list and briefed in the tasks the Squadron was to perform.
One of the most important tasks in the Divisional plan was the destruction of a formidable battery near the village of MERVILLE which overlooked a considerable stretch of the beaches and hinterland over which the left flank of the British invasion force were to assault. The 9th Parachute Battalion was entrusted with this vital task with, in support, 2 Troop of 591 Squadron under command of Captain JACKSON. The battery was thought to consist of four 150mm guns established in two concrete emplacements, twelve feet high and five feet deep, the thickness of the concrete walls being 6 feet 6 inches and the roof above them covered with 13 foot of earth. All doors giving access to the position were of steel and the main armament was defended by 120mm dual purpose guns and several machine guns. The position was surrounded by a cattle fence which enclosed a minefield 100 yards in depth. This was bordered on its inner side by a barbed wire fence 15 feet thick and five feet high, the fence in many places being doubled. At the seaward side of the battery was an anti-tank ditch 15 feet wide and 10 feet deep. To complete the defences additional minefields had been laid across all the open approaches to the battery and machine guns had been sighted to cover them. Finally it was estimated that the position was held by between 180 and 200 men.
The Battalion were to land by parachute and assault across country while three gliders manned by picked men from the Battalion and sappers were to crash land on the battery itself. For the glider party were chosen six sappers while the remainder of the Troop were to drop with the main body of the 9th Battalion.
Rehearsals for this operation were incredibly thorough and, the Battalion Commander having chosen an area where the conditions were very similar to those foreseen in Normandy. 2 Troop moved early in May to a village near NEWBURY and there constructed an exact replica of the MERVILLE battery. Mechanical excavations and bulldozers were rushed to the spot from all over England and working all day and by the light of headlamps throughout the night, the job was completed in a week. Tubular scaffolding, hessian, and camouflage netting were used to simulate the battery position built exactly to scale from many aerial photographs, while miles of wire were used to build the outer defences. Even the anti tank ditch was not forgotten. The work complete, the Battalion immediately began realistic rehearsals, and again and again the assault was run through on the ground until every man knew the plan and his own part in it by heart.
To the remaining troops of the Squadron was to fall the task of clearing the landing zone east of the CAEN Canal of poles and other obstructions, to provide safe landing strips for the gliders scheduled to follow those on the heels of the parachute troops on the early morning of D day. Aerial photographs showed clearly that poles had been erected closely over the whole landing zone, and indeed over all open ground along the coast. Although at first it seemed as though this would impose a very large risk of disaster on the gliderborne troops, it was eventually decided that sufficient of them could be blown or cut down by sappers dropping in the first wave.
Although the task was more straightforward than that allotted to 2 Troop, preparations were no less thorough. Countless trees were cut down by the sappers in the New Forest, carted to BULFORD and erected on the moorland to the north of the camp. Simple but foolproof drills were rehearsed repeatedly until, like the sappers of 2 Troop, "word perfect". For the destruction of the poles, explosive "sausages" were designed, consisting of 5 lb of plastic stuffed into a bicycle tyre inner tube which could be easily carried and quickly wrapped round the base of a pole. Each man was to fly in with two of these "sausages" hung around his neck while others were carried in kitbags by five men in each plane and in containers. In addition, each man was to carry firing accessories and sharpened shovels for attacking the poles. To further ensure the success of the task, a party of five sappers, including Lieutenant MITCHLEY and Sergeant McCULLOCH, were to land with a party of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company ahead of the main airborne invasion force to mark the line of trees bordering the landing zone and to act as guides to the rest of the sappers.
By the middle of May all training had been completed and everything that human ingenuity and forethought could devise for the success of the operation had been done, from the final checking of wireless sets and mine detectors to the issue of gum to chew during the flight over. On 25th May the Squadron moved to a transit camp near the Airfields at FAIRFORD and BROADWELL. Briefing completed, the planes loaded and the final checks were made of equipment. There was little to do except sit quietly back and to wait for The Day. Everyone was in the most tremendous spirits, buoyed up by the thought that they would be amongst the very first in the great invasion, and too preoccupied with their own particular tasks to worry unduly about the dangers attending them.
"Whatever Happens the Party is On"
On 4th June the word flashed round "Tonight's the Night", but an hour before the first troops moved off for the airfields, it was learnt that bad weather had forced a postponement for 24 hours. At noon the following day, however, the news was that whatever happened, the party was "on" that night. The weather was still such as would have meant the immediate [end?] of any normal airborne exercise, but this was not a normal exercise and General EISENHOWER could wait no longer. In the late evening the troops moved over to the airfield, chutes were fitted, the final inevitable hot tea went the rounds and, while the O.C. went round wishing each sapper "good luck", the hundreds of planes marshalled around the darkened airfield broke into a growing roar as one after another "warmed up". The planes began taxiing slowly to the runway and at 1045 the first one took off and the invasion was on.
In Advance of the Van
The flight, on the whole, was uneventful until the coast of France was reached. Here a barrage of anti aircraft fire met the Airborne Armada, considerably upsetting much of the navigation. Since the dropping and landing zones were only between one and two minutes flight from the coastline the upset was a serious matter. Even more serious was the strength of the wind and many of the first waves of troops were scattered widely over areas very far from the correct dropping zones.
Of the two parties of 2 Troop who jumped with the 9th Battalion, one plane load under the command of Captain JACKSON were dropped many miles from the objective at BOURGAINVILLE. Too scattered to offer effective resistance to the strong enemy forces in that area, they were one by one rounded up and taken prisoner, not, however, without putting up a brave fight for it with their limited arms and ammunition. Sapper READ was wounded, losing an arm, and Sapper HANDLEY was killed in lone gallant fights against hopeless odds. Lieutenant BEST, joining up with a party of infantry, formed a guerilla band who roamed about for 14 days behind the enemy lines, causing considerable alarm and despondency among the Huns before finally being taken prisoner within half a mile of the British lines.
The other plane load under the command of Lieutenant HINSHELWOOD were dropped in the swampy ground in the valley of the DIVES between VARAVILLE and ROBEHOMME. They were widely scattered and, after much tribulation, joined up with an element of "C" Company of the Canadian Parachute Battalion. With them, they helped in the defence of VARAVILLE, where there was much spirited fighting and 17 German prisoners were taken. The next day they withdrew in a hectic forced march to the forward positions of 3rd Parachute Brigade at LE MESNIL.
Of the gliders which were to land on top of the battery position, one broke loose shortly after taking off and got no nearer to the objective than BASINGSTOKE to the great chagrin of Lance Sergeant MILLS and the other occupants. Of the other two, both got into difficulties crossing the coast but, although repeatedly hit, they were finally crash landed, the one half a mile from the battery, the other in an orchard just outside the perimeter where the occupants, including Corporal SAUNDERS, put up a magnificent fight for four hours against a platoon of German reinforcements hurrying to reinforce the hard pressed garrison of the battery.
The task of the sappers had been primarily that of destroying the guns once captured and secondly of lending all possible engineer assistance to the assaulting battalion. The Bangalore torpedo parties were to be provided entirely from the infantry. In the end the Battalion had to carry out the assault with no sapper assistance whatsoever and with their own strength decimated by casualties and the haphazard dropping of the parachutists. The defences were no less formidable than had been foreseen but the objective was secured in the face of tremendous odds, the garrison eliminated and the guns destroyed.
Meanwhile, 1 and 3 Troops, dropping further to the west on the D.Z. north of RANVILLE, had fared little better. Although none of the plane loads actually landed on the D.Z., all were within a reasonable distance. As they leapt from the planes, still lurching and tossing in evasion of the coastline flak, they were met by a hail of small arms fire from every corner, it seemed, of the ground to which they were all too slowly floating. On the ground, however, in the shelter of woods and orchards they were able to gather together in reasonable order and make their way to the R.V. at a small copse south of the D.Z. This took considerably longer than had been hoped and by 0100 hours only twelve men under Lieutenant JAMES and Lance Sergeant FOSTER had collected there. Although FOSTER had dislocated his shoulder in landing, he and Lieutenant JAMES immediately organized the party and started on the clearing of the poles on the D.Z.
As the first piece of luck it was found that most of the poles were flimsier than had been expected and blowing them could be abandoned since they could be pulled down by hand. The plan was to clear four strips running parallel to each other, two for the Horsa gliders and two for the Hamilcars. Working frantically but methodically they had by 0215 hrs cleared the two Horsa strips, during which time they were joined in the work by the majority of the rest of the sappers under Captain SEMPLE who then took command of the party. Apart from the initial phase, enemy opposition was slight since the rest of the Brigade were soon keeping the enemy fully occupied around RANVILLE and the RANVILLE bridges.
At 0300 hrs when the first of the HAMILCAR started to circle overhead their strips had been practically completed. As it happened, it mattered little for, like the Horsas, very few came in to land along the strips at all, but swooped in from every point of the compass, swerving past each other like a swarm of startled bats to crash through the remaining poles and plough their way through the ground. Dawn revealed a scrap heap stretching as far as the eye could see, but the casualties, either to men or equipment, were surprisingly light.
The Squadron Takes Stock
By 0500 hours the Squadron, having completed the clearing task, moved into the BAS DE RANVILLE to dig themselves in to defend the position. A party remained to salvage containers from the DZ, for which task a pony and trap was commandeered from the local French. The strength of the Squadron at the time was disheartening to say the least of it. Nothing was known of the fate of 2 Troop, the O.C. and the whole of his plane were missing, as were the second in command, Captain DAVIDSON, and several of the men from 1 and 3 Troop who had been dropped wide of the DZ. Lieutenant THOMAS had been shot in the shoulder on the DZ and several sappers had been injured when they landed.
Later that day, Captain DAVIDSON and two sappers arrived in the Squadron area. Dropped near the village of AMFREVILLE, they had been cornered in a ditch by a section of Germans as they were trying with two infantrymen to establish their bearings. One of the infantrymen was killed by a grenade almost immediately and another badly wounded. Completely surrounded, they held out for almost an hour before the serious condition of the wounded man caused them to surrender. For three harrowing hours they were forced to lie with a heap of wounded in the centre of the village square while a fierce fight raged around them between the Germans and the attacking Commandos. When the Commandos finally won the day they were set free.
Unfortunately, however, there was to be no sign of Major WOOD and his plane load. Forced by flak and the weather many miles from the dropping zone, their plane was hit by shellfire shortly after crossing the coast. Losing height rapidly, the pilot flashed the red light and the first of the stick baled out. Of these, Major WOOD, Sapper LAW, Sapper BARTLETT and Lieutenant OLIVEIRA, whose chutes had barely opened as they hit the ground, were later taken prisoner. Fire was raging through the plane as the next man jumped to his death, his parachute pack ablaze on his back, while behind men struggled frantically to free themselves from burning necklaces of explosive they carried as the plane dived and hurtled to earth. Four men managed to extricate themselves from the wreckage, including Lieutenant SHINNER, who, finding himself hanging upside down by his harness, cut himself free with his fighting knife. From the blazing wreckage came the screams of the other nine sappers trapped and wounded. As Lieutenant SHINNER, with one arm shattered, struggled to help them, the Germans now swarming towards the wreckage, sprayed it again and again with machine gun fire until one by one the screams died out as the sappers died a ghastly death.
During the afternoon of D day, 1 and 3 Troop completed their briefed tasks by laying an anti-personnel minefield in the forward defences of RANVILLE. Late that night during the checking of these fields two more sappers were wounded by shellfire.
The Germans Counter Attack
Meanwhile, fierce fighting developed in the area to the south of RANVILLE as, in the late afternoon, the enemy launched the expected counter attack, supported by tanks, armoured vehicles and self propelled guns; an attack preceded by heavy mortaring and shelling of the whole RANVILLE area. The attack was beaten off by the 12th and 13th Parachute Battalions who had been fighting magnificently since 0100 hours, although neither was able to muster more than half its strength from the widely scattered drop. That evening, exactly to the planned minute, the gliders bearing the 1st Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles flew in to land in text book fashion on the landing zone, now adequately cleared of obstructions, and to occupy LONGUEVAL.
In spite of the desperately weakened strength of the Division during the first few hours of D day, the general picture as darkness fell was a heartening one. The bridges across the River ORNE and CAEN Canal had been seized and held, the battery at MERVILLE had been silenced, the demolition belt along the line of the River DIVES as part of the defence of the Divisions left flank had been most successfully completed and the villages to the south completing the Division's perimeter were firmly held.
The following day the enemy launched another counter attack and the 13th Battalion, in particular, were desperately engaged in the village of HEROUVILLETTE. For a time the position was critical and the Germans succeeded in forcing their way into RANVILLE, but they were driven back and the position was once more restored. On the left of the small perimeter now held by the Division east of the ORNE, the 5th Parachute Brigade, supported by Commandos, were also involved in bitter fighting. The Germans had succeeded in holding in strength the village of BREVILLE, and it was from here, in conjunction with a further attack towards RANVILLE from the south, that they launched on 11th June their all-out offensive to reach the banks of the ORNE. A captured operation order revealed later that their object was "to liquidate all British forces east of the ORNE". The "British forces", however, refused to be liquidated. German forces once again reached the outskirts of RANVILLE and their tanks and infantry even debouched from BREVILLE on to the landing zone, a mile from the ORNE, but again they were driven back, never again to attempt seriously to dislodge the Division from its bridgehead.
During this hectic period, the Squadron, reinforced by the remnants of 2 Troop from VARAVILLE, remained in the fringe of the fighting at RANVILLE. Shelling of the Squadron area was heavy throughout and on the 9th June Sapper KERRY, Sapper WHALE and Sapper HART were killed and three other sappers wounded within an hour. The following day Sapper PALIN was killed and Lieutenant FISH and three sappers were wounded, again from shellfire. After another spell of shelling a little later, while checking up on casualties, an NCO noticed that the slit trench of Sapper WILEY had been blown in by a shell landing nearby. All that could be seen of Sapper WILEY was the soles of his boots pointing out from the debris. Deciding that he had most certainly "had it", the NCO went on to attend to other casualties. Some time later he was amazed to see Sapper WILEY unscathed and unshaken going about his work. Though buried alive, he had managed to dig his way out. About this time, too, the Squadron lost their sergeant major when "Beefer" PEDEN was evacuated back across the river with shell shock.
Among the many tasks that fell to the Squadron the main one was the laying of minefields as part of the defence of the RANVILLE area. In salvaging containers from a German minefield, another sapper was killed by an "S" mine and in 2 Troop Sapper HOBSON and Sapper GRANT were wounded while laying anti personnel mines in a German minefield at SALENELLES. On the 17th June the Squadron were to lose two more badly needed officers when Lieutenant WHARTON was killed and Lieutenant LITTLE seriously injured while trying to salvage equipment from a German minefield near OUISTREHAM.
Other tasks included the fortification of Divisional Headquarters, a large house at RANVILLE which early became the main target of the German gunners and the digging in of tanks to defend the village. A few days later Divisional Headquarters moved to a line of quarries further north, about a mile from the River ORNE, where, with millions of sandbags, the Divisional sappers constructed formidable shelters against the cliff faces to shelter the sorely tried "brains" of the Division.
During the following weeks the bridgehead was reinforced from across the ORNE and the Divisional front closed in to hold the left flank from the coast, through BREVILLE and LE MESNIL to just north of TROARN. This line was held though at the cost of many casualties, until the order for a general advance on 17th August. Most of the casualties were from sniping and from shelling and mortaring which was heaviest in the area of LE MESNIL.
On 21st June, 3 Troop moved up to this area in support of 5th Parachute Brigade and, before they had time to get organized or to dig in, found themselves in the thick of a mortar "stonk". Shortly afterwards, Private NORRIS, the Troop cook, was to distinguish himself. He set up his cookhouse in one of the buildings of a pottery which, just as the meal he had prepared was ready to serve, received a direct hit from a shell. The building collapsed, but after a few minutes NORRIS emerged from the debris unscathed. Telling Captain BEAUMONT that he was afraid the lunch had been spoilt, he immediately set about improvising another and was soon serving food to an appreciative troop.
Three nights later, during another period of heavy shelling, a private staggered into the Troop position badly shocked and injured in the thigh, shouting that he was being followed by a German sniper. Although mortars were still bursting all around, Sapper FARRELL left his trench and went out in search of the sniper. Though unsuccessful, he did much to restore the spirits of the Troop on his return by going the round of trenches with hot tea though mortars were still falling and the only sane place to be was below ground.
These and other incidents were typical of the spirit in which the sappers of 3 Troop, and later of 1 Troop, reacted to a period of acute discomfort and constant danger in the forward area. There, work was chiefly the building of shellproof "Command Posts" for the Brigade, a more or less standard pattern for which was finally evolved a framework of stout round timber supporting two to three feet of earth and stone covering an excavation four feet deep and about ten feet by six in size, the whole being thoroughly bolstered with sandbagging. Other tasks of the troops while in this area were the laying of small anti personnel minefields and trip flares around the forward defences, and, occasionally, the disposal of bombs.
There were some casualties and 1 Troop were unfortunate in losing Captain HARBORD early on when he was wounded in the chest by a shell splinter. Two days later Lance Sergeant FOSTER was also evacuated after being shot by a sniper while making a reconnaissance for a machine gun post to deal with the sniper in question.
A Swimming Feat
A few weeks before the Division started their great advance to the Seine, a bedraggled unshaven parachutist arrived at Divisional Headquarters, announced that he had just swum from FRANCEVILLE to OUISTREHAM and asked to be directed to 591 Parachute Squadron. It was Driver JACKLIN, one of the ten who had jumped with Major WOOD from the ill-fated Headquarters plane on D day. Failing to join up with any of the others, he lived for a month in the country around FRANCEVILLE, sheltered from time to time by French peasants, and making repeated attempts by night to make his way back through the German positions. He had no success for they were thickly held and every yard of ground was covered. Finally he decided to make his way to the coast and swim to the British held beaches across the mouth of the ORNE. To reach the sea he had to work his way through a deep minefield, a task it took him three nights to accomplish, making his progress on the "one man land" at the end of each night to lay up nearby during daylight. Reaching the sea, he was fortunate in finding that the current was not against him but even so, swimming strongly, it took him five hours to cover the 2½ miles to OUISTREHAM beach. The garrison of OUISTREHAM, their minds full of rumours of German "swimming saboteurs" would not be convinced by his story and he was sent under escort to the Airborne area.
The Collapse of the Wehrmacht
Early in August MONTGOMERY's tremendous "left hook" through the Divisional area striking east of Caen began to develop, with FALAISE as its objective. The Germans to the south were in wild retreat eastwards through the rapidly narrowing FALAISE gap and it was obvious that the German formations facing the 6th Airborne Division to the north must soon pull out or be hemmed in on the coast. On the night of the 16th August they began to retreat and the Division immediately gave chase, pushing them down to the River DIVES along the whole length of the front. Withdrawing over the river the enemy had blown all the bridges behind them. The Divisional area was chosen as the main road leading east from TROARN and here three bridges had been demolished immediately beyond TROARN. Of these, the main one over the River DIVES was that blown so spectacularly by a party of 3rd Parachute Squadron in the early hours of D day. Repaired by the Germans, it had now been even more thoroughly demolished and presented a gap of 100 feet.
591 Squadron were called forward to TROARN together with a column of F.B.E. and work was started on the bridging of the three gaps. The first of these, tackled by a party from 2 Troop, presented little difficulty and 20 feet of FBE decking was laid across between the stone abutments of the demolished bridge, after a certain amount of excavation. Three hundred yards down the road at a larger gap over a tributary of the DIVES an FBE trestle was erected by another party under Lieutenant THOMAS in the centre of the river bed, and 40 feet of FBE decking laid from abutment to abutment of the demolished bridge. It was then possible to start work in earnest on the major task of bridging the DIVES. The site chosen for the FBE was 100 yards downstream of the demolished bridge.
A Bridging Disaster
100 feet of bridge was required to span the gap and at about 2100 hours building of the first raft was started. Meanwhile Somerfield track and chase packing had been laid for the approaches to the bridge and a party under Lieutenant MITCHLEY with fifteen tipper lorries were loading rubble from the ruins of TROARN church and pouring it into the river immediately upstream of the demolished bridge behind a small dam. A most effective ford was erected but it was to have a disastrous effect on the FBE bridge downstream. Built of necessity at the extreme limits of articulation it was completed at about 0430 hours the following morning. On the immediate run off from the bridge on the far side was a large crater to fill which the officer in charge of the building sent a lorry load of rubble, followed by a D4 bulldozer. Due to the building of the ford, the water level had dropped slightly, though in the dark this was not noticed. Half way across the bridge suddenly broke under the weight of the D4 which sank to the bottom of the river.
Only a few minutes before, word had been sent back to the CRE that the bridge was open and the reactions of the impatient Divisional and Brigade Commanders when they later found that it was still impossible to push forward can be well imagined. Bren carriers and a few tanks were put across by the ford but all wheeled traffic was still held up the wrong side of the DIVES. Meanwhile, further equipment was rushed down to the site, the bulldozer was towed ashore and work started on another bridge. The bankseats were lowered considerably to allow more play and by 1100 hours the bridge was open.
The Division Sweeps On
From then on, traffic poured across the bridge and the Division again took up the chase. The delay had been unfortunate but by no means disastrous and what little advantage it had given the enemy was quickly dissipated as the assault of the Division gathered momentum. At PUTOT EN AUGE and DOZULES attempts were made to stand and fight before small river barriers but these were soon crossed, the enemy outflanked and again swept back. Not till the line of the river TOUQUES was any effective stand to be made. Here, around the town of PONT L'EVEQUE the Germans, considerably reinforced, imposed bitter fighting on 5th Parachute Brigade before heavy casualties forced them to continue their retreat.
North of the town, 3 Troop under Captain BEAUMONT assisted the crossing of the TOUQUES by constructing a class 9 bridge using German pontoon equipment located at a German engineer dump in the neighbourhood. The "mechanics" of the equipment were soon mastered by the sappers and no difficulties at all were experienced in the construction.
Earlier, a party of 2 Troop under Lieutenant LOCKEY and Lance Sergeant CAMPBELL who had been on a roving commission with the leading infantry for some days, built an improvised foot bridge to assist the Royal Ulster Rifles across a tributary of the river. This was probably the first time in the history of military engineering that a dead horse has been used as a trestle bent.
Two days after the breaking of the enemy resistance at PONT L'EVEQUE, Airborne troops entered PONT AUDEMER, twenty miles further on near the estuary of the SEINE. During their final lightning push the Squadron completed its last task of the campaign when a party under Captain HIMSHELWOOD with the aid of two TX 18 bulldozers successfully opened the main route through a mountain of debris from the demolitions of a large railway bridge spanning the road at a height of 100 feet.
PONT AUDEMER captured, the Division dropped from the chase to settle down for 10 glorious days among the people they had so spectacularly liberated. Many were to find Gallic hospitality almost as exhausting as the 50 mile advance, and every bit as exhilarating. Exactly six months after D day on the 6th September, the Division embarked for SOUTHAMPTON. The ranks of the Division were sadly thinned, not least those of 591 Squadron, many of whose finest officers and men had given their lives or were eating their hearts out in some German prison camp, but the tasks set the Division had been accomplished, their battle honours won.
The Campaign in the Ardennes
Practically all the training prior to D day had centred around assault engineering, 100% efficiency in the use of explosives, hasty demolitions and improvisations, and there is no doubt that every Engineer of the 6th Airborne Division who flew in on 6th June was trained to the highest peak for the particular task that lay before him. Further, the standard of physical fitness and of skill in all the arms carried fell little short of that of the infantry. To reach these standards in the all too short prelude to D day left little time for the normal training of field Engineers - [?], water supply and the use of mechanical equipment, road construction and a host of other of the stocks in trade of a field unit. Bailey bridging had had to give way to parachute training, road construction to "road bashing".
It was not foreseen that the Division, once their initial task had been completed, would remain for almost three months in a ground role, and certainly not in a mobile ground role. During the exhilarating advance to the Seine the sappers did all that was required of them and more under the most appalling handicaps of shortage of transport and equipment but there is little doubt that fully trained officers and men could always have produced quicker results. In no respect was this more noticeable than in bridging, and so it was that in October and November arrangements were made with the SME for the training of each unit for a fortnight.
Little instructional help could be provided, obviously, from an overworked SME staff, but by sending officers and NCOs in advance to pick the staff's brains and by other subterfuges, sufficient talent was produced to ensure a fortnight's training that was to be of tremendous value in the months to come. The Squadron was particularly fortunate in Captain SEMPLE, to whom no aspect of bridging presented the slightest mystery and, enhampered by officers and NCOs (the majority of whom were trained on a separate course) he was able to get the very most out of the short time available. Mention should perhaps be made of the terrific boost to the general morale of the sappers provided by the daily spectacle on the hard of an officers' party carrying Bailey panels, rowing frantically and erratically against the current and generally suffering all the hardships of wet bridging. It was perhaps unfortunate and certainly remarkable that only one officer actually fell into the water and that the men were not present at the time.
"Don't You Know it's all Been Changed?"
While the Squadron splashed and cursed in the Ripon mud, VON RUNDSTEDT launched his great offensive in the Ardennes. Each day the news got worse and, when finally 3 Squadron and 591 Squadron were recalled immediately to Bulford there was little further doubt that the 6 Airborne Division was to be thrown in to help stem the German advance in Belgium. Christmas was very near and few comments on VON RUNDSTEDT were printable. In Bulford the atmosphere was electric. Part of the Division had already left for port, DRs roared noisily everywhere, all phones rang incessantly. Never was there so much to do in so little time. That amongst all the frantic gathering of equipment, documentation, clothing and briefing, time was found for a full scale Christmas Dinner on December 23rd was perhaps a tribute more to the traditional dogged insistence of the Britisher on his rights than to any brilliant staff work or organisation.
On December 23rd, three days after leaving Ripon, the Squadron was in a Folkestone transit camp, and at midnight on Christmas Day the last men embarked. Rumour was rife of packs of U-boats prowling in the Channel, of newly laid minefields and hostile shore batteries within whose range the convoy had to pass. Certainly the Channel at that time was no place in which to linger, but the dangers were probably exaggerated by Airborne soldiers unused to this method of going to war.
From Ostend the Squadron moved to DEERLYCK, a clean, compact little Belgian village untouched by this war but, by all accounts of the inhabitants, the centre of most of the heavy fighting in the last. It was known by now that the Division was to take up a position on the Ardennes front and that was about all that was known. The only source of news was the BBC, generally 24 hours behind the battle. The spearheads of the German advance were threatening NAMUR and DINANT and it seemed that once the Meuse was crossed anything might happen. Among the people of DEERLYCK there was certainly no panic although had the German offensive succeeded, had the Meuse been successfully crossed, German tanks might well have been roaring through the village within 24 hours. There was much talk of German parachutists having landed in the neighbourhood and all day groups of villages stood around gesticulating and chatting excitedly. There was no despair amongst them but certainly there was bewilderment.
The Squadron was billeted in the village school where to pass the time the local schoolmaster was persuaded to give elementary lessons in French. Amongst the villagers he had something of a reputation as a collaborator and his one aim in life was to secure from the Squadron in return for his doubtful service as general interpreter a bottle of whisky. He was not successful.
Into "the Bulge"
At last orders came through to move up to the fighting area. The roads were icebound and the temperature dropped alarmingly each hour. That the next stage of 100 miles was made without a single mishap was a great tribute to the Squadron drivers. The smashed trucks that littered the roads the whole way told a sorry tale of less fortunate convoys. The last stage was made at a convent in the little village of STAVE, 20 miles from Dinant. Without fuel or light in the bitter cold it did not seem as though the stay were to be a comfortable one, but the Mother Superior, a grand old lady of 85 crippled with rheumatism, hobbled around the village in a blinding snowstorm, rousing the villagers, loosing off at each one a stream of French, and very shortly most of the Squadron were billeted in warmth and comfort.
It was New Years Eve. There was little enough with which to bring in the New Year and in any case the situation still called for the utmost vigilance on the part of everyone. But the first day of the New Year brought the first authentic and full news of the battle. The Germans had been beaten back from CINEY and CELLES and had withdrawn beyond ROCHEFORT. The great Christmas offensive had failed. All the way round the salient the Germans had driven into the American front the news was of German withdrawals. Limited withdrawals, for the Germans had very considerable strength in the salient and it was clear that they intended to set the pace. Their plan was obviously to hold the perimeter of their salient with the utmost resolution while the armour within withdrew in an orderly manner. To avoid at all costs the neck of the bulge being squeezed or cut, and their army being encircled. The Allied plan was to drive simultaneously from the north and south of the bulge and the heaviest fighting was to take place there. 6 Airborne Division had been allotted a sector on the western tip of the bulge in the general area of ROCHEFORT. The divisional role was to hold this sector but at no time to take the offensive, since it was obviously unwise to persuade the Germans eastwards.
The Squadron was put in support of 3 Parachute Brigade, who were to hold ROCHEFORT and the line of the railway running northwest to MARCHE. Part of the original plan made rather hastily before the fog of battle had cleared was that 9th Parachute Battalion should hold the village of GEMEL, two miles north of ROCHEFORT. Ordered to contact the battalion commander in GEMEL, an officer of the Squadron was making his way there along treacherous roads littered with burnt out tanks and guns when he met the battalion commander coming back over the hill in his jeep "ventre a terre" (which is French for "[?]opish like".) It appeared that the Germans were holding GEMEL and intended to stay there.
Fortunately the whole tactical picture was soon clarified and that day the Squadron moved up to HAVERSIN, from where they were to operate for most of the Ardennes campaign. Searching for billets in this battle scarred area for 200 men was excellent training for the post war house hunting and equally fruitless. Many of the villages were reduced to a heap of rubble, few had many habitable houses and all were littered with burnt out tanks and guns, dead cows and all the inevitable messy stinking flotsam of a bitter battle. Every stitch of accommodation towards the front was inhabited by infantry, while to the rear for miles every conceivable class of gunner unit had stuck their signs on every door.
The Squadron was particularly lucky therefore in securing a large completely weatherproof chateau, shabby and bare of furniture, but warm, and in those days warmth was everything in a country suffering under the coldest spell of a century. More than one story was told of infantry outposts, too weary to cover themselves properly or to take exercise, losing a foot overnight through frostbite. No amount of clothing seemed to give enough warmth and to drive for more than 5 minutes in a jeep was purgatorial. Dvr GREENALL arrived back one day from a D.R. run to Divisional Headquarters quite literally frozen stiff. His motor bike collided with the steps of the chateau and he collapsed on the ground bent in the position in which he had been riding. He was carried indoors and laid out on the floor still in this posture, and it was some time before vigorous massage and rum from the sergeant major's room had restored him to normal.
The roads, of course, were still icebound and one of the priority Engineer tasks became the maintenance of gravelling parties. Divisional Headquarters, established in the Chateau d'Ardennes, a country seat of the King of the Belgians, early called for sappers to sand their considerable drive. Captain HINSHELWOOD's Troop were given the task, and, "acting on information received", to quote the Police reports, he sent three tippers to HAVERSIN station to load with "sand" from railway trucks in the sidings. The sand was soon literally laid along the length of the drive, turning the ice overnight into the most satisfactory slush. Delight was expressed by everyone except the Station master, whose frantic letter the following day revealed that £800 worth of chemical manure had been stolen from his yards by "les soldats anglais." The letter was passed hastily to Civil Affairs.
There was never, during the Ardennes campaign, any shortage of legitimate engineer tasks and the opportunity to function as normal Divisional Engineers was generally welcomed. Transport, of course, was still desperately short but the excellent staff work of HQRE produced tools considerably in excess of the miserable Airborne establishment and mechanical equipment and "tippers" always appeared a miraculously short time after a signal to the Adjutant. There was never really enough to go round and what there was had to make impossible trips, often by night, over icebound roads.
In the middle of a rather disorganized move up along the congested roads to HAVERSIN, Captain HARBORD and his troop were rushed forward to repair a demolished bridge on the main road to ROCHEFORT. It was the Squadron's first attempt at improvised bridging in the field and in a creditably short time the road was again open to Class 9 traffic. Railway lines were ripped from the line two miles away and used as beams at 9" centres. Railway sleepers served as stringers covered with 1" decking. At the same time the banks of the stream were "bulldozed" in and a class 40 ford constructed. The whole task, including considerable drilling of the bankseats and the erection of handrails, was completed in 24 hours.
Meanwhile, another party under Lieutenant WADE was rushed to ROCHEFORT to improvise a route from a farm track on to the railway line and along the main road at ROCHEFORT station. This task, involving considerable navvying and the removal of 300 yards of permanent way, provided a useful bypass through a labyrinth of streets blocked with rubble and the wreckage of German and American tanks, the way would finally be barred by one of the innumerable blown bridges.
German and American bodies were still being carried away by dejected glassy-eyed Belgians and no one who visited ROCHEFORT could be left in further doubt of the magnificent fight put up by the Americans to stem the German onslaught. "They fought to the last man" is a hackneyed phrase, but the Americans at ROCHEFORT did. Not one came out alive and "the last man" could be seen sprawling, rifle still in hand, across the pavement or at the breach block of an anti-tank gun, killed as his last round crashed into a Tiger tank 10 yards from the muzzle.
To 2 Troop under Captain HINSHELWOOD was allotted the unending task of road maintenance over a considerable area. Where every yard of every road was like a skating rink only the important stretches could be sanded by craters and blockages from wrecked equipment were innumerable; and always below the snow and the wreckage the hidden menace of uncharted mines. Detachments were provided to the battalions in the line living around the wrecked villages before JEMELLE and HARGIMONT. The Germans had found time before retreating to lay many boobytraps and where every house was a shambles concealment of these was easy. The infantryman's blind faith in the ability of any sapper to scent out and neutralise them in a matter of minutes was touching but misplaced. Fortunately, however, there were no casualties though a number of particularly ingenious traps were neutralised.
Sappers on Patrol
The battalions were patrolling nightly at this time into the enemy positions and generally an Engineer member was included since it was thought that the approaches were mined. Cpl WILSON, who went out with one of the first patrols, did a particularly good job of work in producing on his return an accurate plan of a belt of tellermines laid in the snow across and around the bridge crossing the railway lines at HARGIMONT. L/Cpl BOWDEN went with another patrol whose navigation was indifferent and after wandering for some hours in the barren wastes before JEMELLE they bumped into an enemy machine gun post dug into the railway embankment. The Germans opened heavy fire but a hasty retreat into the mist avoided casualties.
Patrolling into the enemy held villages was not easy. The ROCHEFORT - LE MARCHE railway was the northern limit of enemy held territory. Machine gun positions commanded most of the line, and the few tracks leading across or under the line were all mined. On the enemy side of the line the ground fell steeply to the villages of ONS, HARGIMONT and GEMELLE and in many places a sheer cliff 100 feet high made passage impossible. In HARGIMONT were three small roads bridges. Should there be any general advance the road through HARGIMONT would become a "main lateral" and it was of the utmost importance therefore to secure accurate information of the state of these bridges. To this end, Captain LOCKEY and Sapper BROWN set out with an infantry patrol on the night of 5th January. The patrol lost their bearings and were split up, and penetrated no further than the railway line.
The following night it was decided to limit the patrol to Captain LOCKEY and a kindred soul from the 8th Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant BROWN. Crossing the railway line, they negotiated the cliff noisily on their backsides and very much faster than was intended, but without raising an alarm. Making their way to the village they found the first bridge unguarded and inspected it at their leisure. The shortest route to the next bridge was straight down the village street, so down the village street they went. The village was alive with Germans but none were alert enough to notice the shadowy figures gliding quickly from house to house. Reaching the bridge safely, they struck across the gardens at the back of the village to the third and last one. While they rested in the shadow of the parapet, a German was heard strolling down the road towards them, whistling and flapping his arms in the cold. Immediately they decided to waylay him and take him back as a prisoner, but within a few yards of them he turned and strolled back. It was perhaps rather fortunate for everyone that he did, for the two found it difficult enough as it was to get through the village, up the cliff and back to their own lines. This patrol was later held up by the Battalion as a model patrol, receiving full and special mention in the Battalion [magazine?] and training directives. As an Engineer reconnaissance patrol, too, it could not have been bettered, providing as it did all the information so urgently needed of the roads and bridges in HARGIMONT.
The role of passive defender was beginning to tell on Brigadier HILL and the impertinence of the Germans in withdrawing in their own time was not to be borne. It was decided therefore to launch an attack on JEMELLE and the villages opposite the Brigade front. The attack down the road from ROCHEFORT would be asking for trouble. Similarly an attack across the railway line was ruled out by the sheer drop running the whole way the other side. To the east of JEMELLE a wide fast flowing river formed a formidable barrier, all bridges over which had been demolished with Teutonic thoroughness. It did, however, seem possible that an attack could be launched across this river and the high ground the other side stormed before complete surprise was lost. The Brigadier asked for an Engineer reconnaissance of this stretch of the river that night to find out the practicability of fording or wading the river or, if necessary, of using assault boats.
For the patrol were chosen Lieutenant MERRIL and Corporal ROGERS, that grand NCO and footballer known to everyone as "Curly", later to be killed so tragically in the airborne assault of the Rhine. As always, there was little time for detailed planning of the patrol, which had to be completed by midnight, partly to minimise the risk of bumping into one of the German patrols that seemed to sally forth each night with Teutonic regularity at that hour, but mainly because a fairly considerable artillery "stonk" had been laid on to harass the Germans in the JEMELLE area from midnight onwards. One grid square had been put "out of bounds" to the Gunners to give the patrol a chance but as Lieutenant MERRIL remarked, "Those grid squares are ruddy small."
The patrol, clad in gym shoes and denims with hands and faces masked and armed with a revolver apiece, set out at 2100 hrs from a platoon HQ of the Canadian Battalion in ROCHEFORT. Very little patrolling had been done beyond ROCHEFORT and although the wooded hills on the right of the railway provided a good approach to JEMELLE the going would be slow. It was therefore decided to go straight down the railway line and hope for the best. Climbing gingerly over the remaining girders of the demolished bridge across the raging torrent that bounds ROCHEFORT, the patrol hit the railway line and crept gingerly along the footpath to the side. After half an hour it was obvious that much greater speed would have to be made at the risk of noise, and the pace was increased to almost normal walking speed. The frequent crackle of ice underfoot did not improve matters and on more than one occasion the party slipped on the sleepers half hidden in the snow. For the greater part of the way the line ran through steep cutting to 100 feet on either side and since this was officially German occupied territory, the minds of the patrol were rather occupied with the ease with which the most indifferent German marksman could pick them off. Of cover there was none.
About half past ten they reached the railway bridge spanning the river at JEMELLE, after covering just over two miles. A four span masonry arch bridge 100 feet high, it had been most thoroughly demolished. Climbing down the embankment to the water's edge beneath the bridge, the patrol found themselves within twenty yards of the first house in JEMELLE. Several buildings spread right down to the water's edge and beyond the river bank for several hundred yards lay in open fields. Every yard was completely overlooked from the other side of the river where the banks rose steeply to the railway station and the windows of a dozen houses peered suspiciously across. To carry out the reconnaissance as planned seemed now a far more exacting task than it had appeared from the map. The party sprinted silently across to the first house, slipped over a wall and climbed on a narrow ledge past a shed immediately on the river bank. Clinging precariously on this ledge, they heard slow heavy footsteps on the road ten yards away. The footsteps halted; the patrol froze with their hearts beating a tattoo against the shed wall. There was a cough and the footsteps slowly retreated down the road. Since all the villagers were under curfew it was obviously a German sentry. The road he was patrolling overlooked the field and the river bank, but Lieutenant MERRIL decided to bank on the traditional inattentiveness of sentries and both sprinted silently to the cover of a bush 30 yards up the river.
Here they had their first chance to study the river but it needed little study to see that any crossing by infantry was out of the question. The current was torrential, there was a sheer drop of five feet to the water and the strongest swimmer could not have made the passage. The temptation to write off the whole prospect there and then and get back as quickly as possible was strong but Lieutenant MERRIL felt there might be a ford position higher up and creeping cautiously along the bank under the cover of the merciful roar of the river but not fully outlined against the snow to any observer within half a mile, they were rewarded after some three hundred yards, where a small breakwater of stones spanned the river. There was little drop from the bank and it seemed as though a passage could be made to the other side where a steep path wound up past a cluster of cottages. To make completely sure, however, and risking observation from the cottages, he plunged into the water and succeeded in wading half way across. Although buffeted waist high by the torrent, it seemed possible for any sure footed soldier, fully armed, to make the crossing. "We had the answer," said Lieutenant MERRIL, "and there seemed little point in admiring the scenery further. I scrambled back to the bank and whispered to ROGERS 'Let's get!' and believe me we got. There was no sound of the sentry when we got back to the cottage by the bridge and chancing that he was at the other end of the road we sprinted across to the bridge, climbed the embankment and made pretty good time down the line. We didn't quite run, but believe me, I was glad to get clear of that cutting. Every yard this time was a yard in the right direction and we didn't worry so much about the noise we made. If we'd known what we knew later we might have been more careful, for when we had got finally through the itchy fingered Canadian outposts to Battalion Headquarters and were making our reports over a hot whisky and cocoa, news came through of a German patrol that had moved right up to the outskirts of JEMELLE along the high ground behind us. God knows why they didn't shoot us up, perhaps they didn't want to start anything."
The patrol had an amusing sequel. The following day there was a general readjustment of the Divisional front and 3rd Brigade moved over to a sector near LE MARCHE. The attack on JEMELLE was, of course, abandoned, but the patrol report was handed over to 5th Brigade who took over in the area of ROCHEFORT. Some days later, when it was fairly certain that the Germans were withdrawing from this area, 7th Parachute Battalion had the task of securing JEMELLE. A full scale, carefully planned tactical approach was made by the battalion through the high wooded ground bordering the railway line to the crossing place selected by the patrol. The battalion B echelon was to proceed along the road from ROCHEFORT to JEMELLE as soon as the village was secured. Unfortunately the battalion made heavy going through the thickly covered precipitous hills and it was with mixed feelings and with more than one sprained ankle that they stumbled into JEMELLE to find that the cooks' trucks had already arrived and that a hot meal awaited them!
During this period there was little rest for officers or NCOs. Apart from general road and Engineer reconnaissance dozens of reports a day of suspected minefields had to be investigated. The Americans in the first frantic days of the German offensive had strewn the whole area with mines, the records of which were scanty and hopelessly inaccurate. The countryside was a foot deep in snow and any large scale mine clearance was out of the question but it was possible, after countless and harrowing reconnaissances, to clear belts on roads and to wire off the more dangerous dumps in the verge. Casualties from American mines were later to be heavy.
On 4th January, it seemed likely that the enemy were withdrawing in that area, at attack was launched in the direction of WAVREILLE with the object of preventing the enemy from consolidating on a new line further back. It was here that the only stiff fighting of the campaign was experienced by the Division, the 13th Parachute Battalion fighting a gallant but bloody battle at BURE where the Germans counter attacked in great strength.
One result of this push was the opening up of the ROCHEFORT - HANS SUR LESSE road previously dominated by the enemy. The road for most of its length was cut out of the thickly wooded hillside. Before withdrawing, the Germans dropped many large trees across the road, forming a considerable road block. Captain BEAUMONT and his troop were given the task of clearing this of booby traps and in a very short time with a D4 bulldozer had cleared all the trees. The troop then went on to HANS SUR LESSE where a blown bridge was delaying considerably movement to BURE and the 6th Brigade fighting area. The village handymen had already thrown a temporary timber bridge across the gap but it was the flimsiest structure and would scarcely take a jeep. However, there was a timber mill within 50 yards of the site and within a few hours the sappers had erected two trestle bents beneath the "bridge" and after some laborious calculations it was agreed that the structure would now take Class 9 traffic. Its general appearance, however, was not such as to inspire much confidence in those who had to cross it and the next day a newly painted sign appeared at the head of the bridge with the inscription "51 - BEAUMONT's FOLLY." The river here, fordable even for lorries, had no suitable approach. Working all through the night, however, carting and laying stone and felling trees, the sappers produced an approach that would take Churchill tanks though there was little to be seen after 24 hours of the 70 tons of stone that had gone to its making.
By 8th January it was clear that the Germans were pulling out of the whole westernmost tip of their bulge. On the left flank of the Division the 51st Division was driving through LE MARCHE and the 3rd Parachute Brigade established themselves strongly to the south of LE MARCHE and across the
the house, but whatever his motive it was certain that sixth feet of Bailey bridge and considerable time had been saved by his treachery. Through the medium of a dozen different interpreters it appeared that he knew of the whereabouts of some "minen" in the village but since accurate descriptions were impossible it was decided that he himself must guide the party. Supported by the least decrepit of the male population, he led the party and the entire village up the lane to a tunnel under the railway that had been barricaded very thoroughly with the villagers' furniture. On the barricade, he said, there were "nix minen" but at the end of the tunnel there were twelve "tellerminen." Rather rashly, the sapper officer started to climb the barricade but half way up his eyes came level with a wire, and at the end of it a pull igniter in a 4-kilo charge. Descending gingerly, he gave the German to understand that he was not amused, that his "treachery urge" must be curbed and that he had better remove the boobytrap very quickly. This he did, and the whole party withdrew, the villagers deciding to postpone the recovery of their furniture.
The Opening of Routes
In the next village of ONS there was no bridge and it seemed possible that there were no further obstacles to the opening of the lateral route other than mines beneath the freshly fallen snow, but to sweep six miles of road with detectors would impose an impossible delay. A primitive sweep was carried out between JEMELLE and ONS by driving a jeep in the tracks cleared ahead by two shuffling mutinous privates, only half convinced that the weight of a man will not set off a tellermine. Nothing was found and meanwhile a bulldozer was urgently required to remove a road block and fill a crater in a tunnel on the main road at JEMELLE. It was decided to bring one through on a transporter from LE MARCHE.
Lieutenant WADE was detailed to bring it through. He was acting as "shuffler" in front when just short of a road block of trees a tellermine exploded immediately behind the cab of the transporter, wrecking it completely. The driver, who was slightly wounded in the leg, and Sapper MURRAY, manning a Bren gun at the back of the cab, were hurled to the ground. The D4 was later recovered unscathed but the "shuffling sweep" was completely discredited. A party under Lieutenant MITCHLEY arrived shortly after to prove the scene of the accident. They quickly found three other tellermines 43 buried an inch below the road surface, all of which were neutralised "in situ" by Lance Corporal LEA, an incurable mines expert. A fourth was found and in unscrewing the fuse the mine exploded, killing him instantly and badly wounding Sapper JEWELL and Sapper GLOVER. Lieutenant MITCHLEY, though less seriously wounded, was in considerable pain and suffering from shock but for half an hour he organised the dressing and care of the wounded sappers before allowing himself to be evacuated. Another party arrived later and completed the proving without further accident, the final pattern being revealed as three rows of four tellermines. Water was poured on the snow and the exposed tarmac thoroughly examined for signs of mines. Nevertheless the following day, shortly after the road had been reopened, an American truck was blown up at the same spot and two hours later a Bren carrier, fortunately with only slight injuries to their drives. The undetected mines, it was discovered, had been buried 18 inches beneath the road.
Once traffic was flowing freely on the LE MARCHE - ROCHEFORT road, attention was turned to the road from ONS leading forward to HARSIN. The Squadron was given the task of opening this road and from there round to LE MARCHE, a route likely to be of tactical importance. A small bridge at the start of this road had been blown, but it was found possible to ramp down with the D4 rescued from the minebelt down the road and construct a rough culvert with 6 inch PSJs and timber planks. Meanwhile Lieutenant LOCKEY and half of 2 Troop embarked with detectors on sweeping the road and verges to HARSIN. It was painfully slow work, not made more pleasant by the fact that the last mile was well beyond the forward infantry positions. An infantry protective party had been arranged but it did not materialise. At one cottage towards the end they were told of three Germans in a nearby barn and work was abandoned while Lance Corporal SHERIDAN and a party secured three prisoners - the first of the Squadron's bag. It was felt, however, quite rightly, that to patrol and detect at the same time was "not on" and the party were about to withdraw when the infantry protection arrived. The incident provoked a member of the Squadron to the following parody of Lewis Carrol in the next issue of "HOLDFAST", the Divisional Engineers weekly paper.
"If fifty men with mine detectors swept it for half a year
Do you suppose" the General said, "that you could get it clear?"
"I doubt it" said the CRE, shedding a bitter tear,
"Not while the leading infantry are two miles in our rear."
The remaining half of 3 Troop under Captain BEAUMONT had meanwhile started road clearance from the LE MARCHE end of the loop and here trouble was found straight away. 500 yards from the junction with the main road a masonry arch bridge was blown. Within this 500 yards there were two considerable road blocks of felled trees and a liberal sprinkling of mines was a virtual certainty. A narrow path was swept to the bridge down which Warsop drills and other tools were dragged on improvised sledges and excavations started for the bankseats of a Bailey bridge. The sledges were a sensible precaution, it being considered that to carry the weight of a Warsop drill was to tempt providence. Numerous boobytraps were found on the obstructions, all of the 4 kilogramme pull igniter type and beneath the debris, resting on its back, a TOPF mine complete with glass igniter - the first of this ingenious and deadly type that the Squadron had seen. A mine detector was tried against it (not very hopefully) but without the slightest reaction.
When, therefore, the obstructions had been finally removed and the road swept with detectors as far as the bridge, it was felt that something more must be done before traffic could be invited to drive down - other TOPF mines might well be buried in the road beneath the snow. Short of shovelling off every yard of snow there seemed no solution. It was then that the very real genius of the sapper for improvisation shone out in Corporal STONER, who devised a method of mine clearance which, though 100% successful, is never likely for obvious reasons to appear in any training manual. To the controls of the D4 bulldozer were attached 30-yard lengths of cable. The D4 started off at a steady pace, its blade on the road surface and from the comparative safety of 30 yards, Corporal STONER, a cable in each hand, was able to drive it with complete control, stopping or accelerating at will by a slight tug on the lines. The result of this very thorough "ploughing", carried out with many a shout of "Mush Mush", was a road cleaned to the black tarmac of all snow which could safely be said to be clear of mines. The risks were the destruction of valuable but not irreplaceable equipment and the possible wounding of the driver. They were more than justified by the results.
The approach being now clear, work started in earnest on the bridge. Only the two feet in the centre of the arch had been blown and even from springing to springing of the arch was only twelve feet, but it was to take a complete troop working incessantly 16 hours to span the gap with a Bailey bridge. By far the greater part of the time was taken in cutting away some ten feet either side to a depth of 18 inches or more. The ground was frozen solid and it was not until nightfall that any equipment other that Warsop drills and handpicks was available. The Warsop drill was designed specially for airborne operations in that it could be dropped from aircraft in a container and carried on the ground by one man. Beyond this its virtues were limited, although with expert maintenance and handling it could be relied upon to excavate in soft earth rather quicker than a good sapper with a spade.
Although during this bridging operation there was, perhaps, little real danger of an attack from the enemy it was certainly carried out beyond the immediate forward positions of the infantry. Forward to the left the area was well consolidated for several miles but to the right there was a considerable area stretching across to the forward lines of 6 Airlanding Brigade which had scarcely been patrolled. Only that morning a pocket of Germans had been rounded up by a patrol in a farmhouse 1½ miles away and there was a strong possibility that other pockets were lurking in the area, either with the idea of giving themselves up or of screening the general retreat by causing as much disturbance as possible amongst our forward troops. However, to work without light was as impossible as to work silently, and risks of enemy interference had to be accepted. Truck headlights were turned full on at both ends of the bridge and as the work gathered pace the din was such that a Squadron of Tiger tanks could have reared up unnoticed. The "Warsop Concerto" of drills, the clink of picks and uneerie whine and rattle of the 15 cwt compressor were joined with the hoarse calling of orders and the cheerful curses of frozen but enthusiastic sappers. Amid this deafening hubbub two white clad figures emerged unnoticed from an adjoining ditch into the glare of the headlights. Clad in gym shoes, white smocks and balaclavas and armed with "silent Stens" they announced to a startled Captain BEAUMONT that they were a listening patrol from the Battalion behind with the task of determining whether any Germans were in the area. They were led to a mug of hot tea whose strength finally convinced them of the party's nationality and spent the next half hour listening to the satisfying music of "Men at Work."
At midnight 3 troop were relieved by 2 troop, for three hours, time enough to drive back to HAVERSIN, have a hot meal and an hour's rest in warmth. No praise can be too high for the way in which 2 troop worked during the relief although the task was not theirs and though they had been called out very shortly after a late return tired and cold from their own tasks of mine clearance and road repair further down the road. It was typical of the spirit in which throughout all the campaigns the sappers tackled every task given to them. When there was work to be done they did it; when there was none they expected to rest and generally did - with equal thoroughness.
As dawn broke everything was at last ready for the building of the bridge. The total length was only 30 feet, surely the smallest Bailey bridge in Europe, and Captain BEAUMONT decided to build it without launching. The gap at the top of the arch was such that it seemed an easy matter to manhandle the panels into position from the other side. In fact it was not easy and manoeuvring the transoms into position was even more difficult. The delay imposed was perhaps slight in comparison with the delay in excavation, but it was decided by common consent that given a similar task in future it would definitely pay better dividends to go to the extra trouble of fixing rollers, building a "nose" and carrying out an orthodox launch. The text book, in fact, is always right. At 0900 hrs the first truck drove over the bridge and 3 troop returned to HAVERSIN, hungry, cold and exhausted but with the satisfaction of a hard job well done.
More Hun Beastliness
During these past few days the Squadron had been working almost exclusively in the area from which the Germans had just withdrawn. Amongst the country folk that were met in the village or outlying cottage it is safe to say that there was not a man between the ages of 15 and 50 nor a single dry eyed woman. Everywhere one was met with the harrowing cry "they have taken our men." "When will our men come back?" For the countryside had been stripped by the Boche as they retreated of every fit male. In chains they were driven back to forced labour with the German army or to Germany itself. One of the mineclearing parties were resting for ten in the village of HAVERSIN when a disheveled wild eyed old man staggered to the door of the first cottage with the news from the neighbouring village that a batch of these civilian prisoners had been murdered by the Germans. The news spread like wildfire from cottage to cottage and soon the road was cluttered with groups of wailing, gesticulating women, old men and children. To the sappers the story seemed unlikely, such action pointless, but within 24 hours the gruesome story of the "Massacre of Bande" blazoned on the front pages of every newspaper in the civilised world, to shock humanity again with the senseless, sickening depravity to which Germans can sink.
The cynics said it was just clever propaganda but there were no doubts amongst the men of the 6th Airborne Division for the heartbroken women of these villages were the wives and mothers of the massacred men and the village of BANDE was but two miles away. It was there that a reprisal for some minor misconduct amongst the civilian prisoners that fifteen of the less robust men were bound hand and feet and pushed down the steps to the cellar of one of the houses. A German officer standing behind the door shot each one cold bloodedly in the back of the head as he stumbled past. The cellar was then sealed. When the men of the 8th Parachute Battalion entered the village some days later the whole sordid tragedy was revealed.
The next day they were buried with military honours, sorrowing Belgians from all the surrounding countryside filing slowly past the coffins laid out in the village street covered with British and Belgian flags and decked with flowers. It is certain that all the airborne soldiers who went to BANDE, and those who heard at first hand of the massacre, fought the more fiercely for it and in the months to come many scores of German soldiers died quick unpleasant deaths in reprisal.
More Mine Accidents
For the remaining days in the Ardennes no major tasks came the Squadron's way though there was still much work to be done on road maintenance and mine reconnaissance. Almost daily there were reports of casualties to men and vehicles from all over the Divisional area, in every instance from uncharted American mines. Where minefields had been laid by the Americans, there had been some attempt at marking and fencing them off, but the countless roadside dumps were completely unmarked and rarely visible beneath the snow. On 11th January Lieutenant KNOX of 3rd Parachute Squadron was killed when one of those American MI mines exploded for no apparent reason while he was preparing a dump of them for demolition at LE MARCHE station.
The following day Lieutenant WADE of 591 Squadron was sent to reconnoitre and destroy a dump of mines at WAHA which were considered dangerously close to the roadside. Some of the mines were frozen to the ground and while attempting to move one the whole pile exploded, killing Lieutenant WADE instantly and wounding Lieutenant COX standing by the jeep some distance away. It was found later that in cold weather with this type of mine ice was liable to form inside which caused pressure on the inside plate and strained the shear pin to such dangerous limits that the slightest movement would in some cases set off the mine. Had this been known before, two valuable officers might have been spared.
It was certainly true of the campaign in the Ardennes and later in Holland that the casualties from allied mines far outnumbered those from enemy mines. Although two days after Lieutenant WADE was killed, Driver GODDARD and Lieutenant MERRIL were blown up on a German tellermine. They were driving along the main road south from LE MARCHE, a road which had been thoroughly checked for mines a week before and along which literally thousands of vehicles of all types had passed. By some amazing chance nothing had actually passed over a single mine buried on the side of the road. Perhaps the mechanism of the mine had been faulty, but certainly when Lieutenant MERRIL and his jeep passed over it, there was nothing wrong with its functioning. It exploded immediately behind the front seat, tossing the jeep a mangled wreck on to the verge. Lieutenant MERRIL and Driver GODDARD were hurled many yards down the road. Driver GODDARD, severely wounded, was at one time not expected to live but made a miraculous recovery during the following months. Lieutenant MERRIL, though not dangerously wounded, was to find a sitting position the least comfortable to adopt during many weary months in hospital.
Operational tasks for the Divisional Engineers having come practically to a standstill, the CRE decided that the Engineers would be best employed on building timber bridges to replace the several Baileys that had been put across during the campaign. The limitless supplies everywhere of timber of all descriptions provided an invaluable opportunity for practical training in improvised bridging and for leaving behind the Division when it left something of real value to the community for a long time. Work was started by the Squadron on foundations to a bridge to replace the Bailey built by 1 Troop at JEMELLE, and at the same time plans were prepared and preliminary excavations done for a large timber trestle bridge replacing that blown by the Germans across the main river at ROCHEFORT. The trestles were to be 20 feet high and the span just under 70 feet. The river here was a raging torrent likely to rise at least 10 feet when the thaw came. To provide secure foundations and erect the trestles seemed likely to prove a difficult but highly interesting Engineer task and it was with very real regret that the Squadron learnt, soon after work had started, that the Division was moving to Holland and that work must be abandoned. Probably the most disappointed person was Captain SEMPLE who had designed a most workmanlike bridge and who was to be in charge of the construction.
The Division Moves to Holland
On 22nd January the Squadron set off north with the remainder of the Division to Holland. Not without many misgivings, for, on the whole, and in comparison with the lot of the infantry, life in the Ardennes had been reasonably comfortable in spite of the intense cold. All reports from Holland, on the other hand, suggested that the only that bleak and shattered country was likely to offer was a chicken shed for the Squadron office.
Though one of the bloodiest battles of the war had swept through and back across the Ardennes country, though many villages were but heaps of charred wood and rubble, the Belgians who lived there showed an incomparable fortitude. Though Germans, Americans and again Germans had overrun their villages and invaded their houses their affection and welcome for the new invaders of the 6th Airborne Division was very real and very touching. Their chickens and eggs sometimes vanished overnight, sometimes even some trinket or household god filched from a shattered house by some unthinking soldier, but the Squadron still cherishes the "Certificate of Clearance" given by the Mayor of HAVERSIN, written in the most elaborate French, touching not only on the virtues of the "incomparable soldiers" of 591 but paying tribute to the glory of the 6th Airborne Division, the British Army, Winston Churchill and the "undying bond between our two great countries." The Mayor must have spent some time in its composition though probably not so long as the combined talents of the Squadron officers in its translation.
A countryside of breath taking beauty which now only the danger of lurking mines and boobytraps was to be exchanged for the desolate, windswept unknown of HOLLAND - unknown dangers among a strange people, speaking an unknown tongue. Even the boobytraps had not been without their compensations and many a sapper had the blessings of heaven called down upon him and carried the undying gratitude of a cottage family (to say nothing of a hatfull of eggs) for removing from some backyard with elaborate stage management a harmless two inch mortar bomb, which, they assured him, was a "Boche mine."
On the night of the 22nd January the Squadron moved into a village near PANNINGEN, two miles from the MAAS below VENLO. The Division had taken over a sector facing the Germans across the MAAS which the 15th Scottish Division had held in comparative peace for some four months. German patrols had crossed the river (latterly in some force) but there had been no real fighting since the Germans were driven back across in the autumn by the Guards Armoured Division. For many miles of the river the line up of forces on both sides was about equal. After the failure of their offensive in the south it was fairly certain that the Germans would not launch another in this area or anywhere else for some time. "Well informed circles" in fact considered that never again could the Germans take the offensive anywhere, but "Well informed circles" had not foreseen the Ardennes offensive and the prophecy was treated with some reserve throughout all ranks. Meanwhile, the 2nd British Army was gathering itself for the all-out attack which, a few weeks later, was to bring it after much bloody, bitter fighting to the banks of the Rhine. When the 6th Airborne Division took over the sector of the MAAS from VENLO to ROERMOND little was known of the pending British offensive or of the extent to which this sector would be involved. Across the river, however, there were Germans and it was never the policy of the Division to allow Germans within range of our guns or of fighting patrols to remain leading a quite untroubled life.
Within a few hours of arrival the Brigade Commanders were laying plans for "harassing shoots" and for extensive patrols across the MAAS. The Squadron was placed in support of 5th Brigade, holding 3 miles from BAARLOO to KESSEL. Settled down in their village, although the worst fears of discomfort were not realised, it was no holiday camp. Adequate accommodation for the civilian population and for the thousands of troops infesting the area just did not exist but after much reshuffling of Dutch families it was possible to get the whole Squadron under various roofs - albeit in some discomfort and squalor. It took a little time to get used to walking from the kitchen of a cottage straight into the cowshed and the stench of cows and pigs hung over everything.
It was not a prosperous community but few families had less than seven or eight children. Clogs were the common footwear and the practice of shedding these on entering the house and lining them up along the corridor in strict order of size was one to which at least one officer, stumbling home in the dark, could never get accustomed. None of the people spoke any English at all and although the sappers soon picked up the Dutch for "eggs" there were few eggs to be had. They were a sturdy honest people but with none of the effusiveness of the Belgians and amongst them were some whose temperament and way of life was more German than Dutch. Perhaps this was not surprising for Germany itself was not far away, and from vantage points on the river here the wooded outposts of the Siegfried line could be clearly seen.
One of the first tasks given to the Squadron was to lay an anti-personnel minefield of about 100 yards in length as part of the forward defences of the area held by the 12th Parachute Battalion. It was intended to use British shrapnel mines, during the cleaning and preparation of which the combination of a shrapnel mine, a hammer, a nail and Sapper SMITH H.D. nearly reduced the effective strength of 1 Troop but fortunately he was dissuaded in time from his activities.
For approximately three quarters of a mile back from the river the ground was overlooked from the enemy side and untenable during daylight except in the villages of KESSEL and BAARLOO. It was possible to use the road between BAARLOO and KESSEL during daylight, but only by walking bent double in the shadow of the hedge. All transport was strictly forbidden on this road. The feelings of the Brigade Commander therefore can be imagined when, while making the journey on foot and observing proper precautions, a 3-tonner belonging to 591 roared past full of raucous, unarmed sappers. Even at KESSEL there were gaps between the houses and open stretches under direct observation from the opposite bank at which it was not desirable to loiter. One particularly unhealthy gap was nicknamed "Spandau alley" since it was covered 24 hours a day by a German machine gun. Daylight excursions in the KESSEL area were never dull and the speed with which some heavily-built officers covered the danger spots had to be seen to be believed.
At night, however, platoon positions were occupied in this area and posts manned right on the river bank. It was not possible, however, to keep a full enough watch on the river, particularly on dark nights, to prevent German patrols from crossing. These patrols were generally most thoroughly planned by the Germans and carried out with the greatest resolution and audacity. On the very first night that the 12th Battalion were in position, one of these patrols succeeded in capturing a sentry of the Battalion and taking him back with them across the river. Admittedly the sentry was a newly joined reinforcement, but this highly trained and brilliantly led Battalion were stung to the determination that Germans must never again wander at will their side of the river.
On the night of 23 January, Captain HARBORD carried out a reconnaissance for the minefield which was to form part of the plan to deter these nocturnal visitors; at the same time further down the river at CASSEL Captain BEAUMONT was making reconnaissances of the river bank to find suitable places from which patrols from the Brigade could launch boats. Several similar reconnaissances were made during the following nights by the officers of the Squadron, of none of which it could be said that they were a "dull routine job." At night enemy, too, manned posts right on the river bank and the slightest suspicious movement was certain to draw instant fire. Even clad in which camouflage smocks it was not easy to examine carefully the river bank and the approaches thereto without attracting the attention of itchy fingered sentries 80 yards away across the river. One of these reconnaissances was immediately beside a sluice gate in the middle of which a German machine gunner was known to take up position each night and the officer carrying it out had to crawl across 30 yards of open ground and back - a journey which took three quarters of an hour and cost him half a stone in weight.
A good picture was finally built up of all the places along the Brigade front from which patrols could be launched but the river itself presented something of an obstacle. On the enemy side it had flooded across the low banks to a distance in some places of 100 yards and the current was such that only well trained oarsmen could hope to get an assault boat across without being carried completely away downstream. Amongst the infantry it could not be expected that sufficient men skilled in watermanship could be found, particularly when the choice had necessarily to be limited to those most suitable for patrolling the other side.
Watermanship on the Maas
A boating school was therefore set up about 20 miles further down the MAAS, to white Lieutenant DE WATTEVILLE, Sgt LENEGEN and five other NCOs were sent to train selected parties from each battalion in watermanship. The state of the river here was very similar to that on the Brigade front and much valuable training was achieved, particularly in the silent employment of assault boats.
Meanwhile an alternative means of crossing the river had been suggested by one of the inhabitants of KESSEL. There was, he said, a tunnel which ran from the waterfront at KESSEL under the river and came out at a farmhouse on the enemy side. He even pointed out the entrance to this tunnel, an overgrown heap of rubble approached by a semblance of rough steps. Though the possibility of making the passage was slim, even were a tunnel found, it could not be ignored and a party, under Captain HINSHELWOOD, attempted to blast open the entrance. A "beehive" charge was blown against the supposed entrance, the only result of which was to cause considerable alarm and despondency amongst the villagers and to awaken the interest of the Germans 200 yards away across the river. The prospect was therefore abandoned.
Since valuable time was slipping by while the selected patrols were at the Boating School, it was decided to send a small party across from CASSEL in an assault boat manned by sappers from the Squadron, it being assumed by the infantry commanders that all sappers are necessarily expert watermen. Though the assumption was a little flattering it was fairly easy to select a party for the task and on the evening of 6 February an assault boat with muffled rowlocks and gunwhales and with the floor covered in cocoanut matting was taken to a creek on the outskirts of KESSEL. The party consisted of Corporal WILSON, Sapper BROWN, Sapper HESTON, Sapper HOCKLEY and Driver WINSTON. The infantry patrol was one officer and one private. The long feared thaw had set in a few days before and the MAAS was now a swirling flood. Even with six oars the crossing seemed a formidable task and it was decided to unwind signal cable on a specially silence reel as the crossing was made to cut down the risk of being carried completely away downstream and to make the return trip, at least, a little easier. The plan, however, miscarried. The sappers rowed valiantly but the padding round the gunwhales and in the boat was soon drenched and added considerable to the load. Moreover, the cable would not unwind as planned and within a very few minutes it was trailing in a wide arc under the water. Although there was half a mile of it on the drum, the party was barely half way across when the full length had run out and also well past the point at which the patrol had planned to land. It was decided therefore to cancel the patrol and without attracting the enemy's attention to boat was manoeuvred back to KESSEL.
The following night a further attempt was made with a fresh sapper party under Sergeant ADAMS and including Sapper WITHAM and Sapper BROWN F.S. This time the padding had been considerably reduced, the current was a little more favourable and a crossing was made after five minutes strenuous and extremely harrowing rowing. The patrol fetched up further down the enemy bank than planned and sighted a German patrol a short distance away. At the same time it was found that the boat was filling rapidly with water, probably as a result of fouling the submerged wire entanglements during the approach to the enemy bank. The party therefore had no option but to return hell for leather for the home shore, which they reached with the barest margin, the boat sinking almost as they jumped ashore. Another attempt to cross the river was made the same night by an infantry officer in a canoe, but the canoe capsized during launching and this patrol, too, had to be abandoned.
Later, the first of the trained parties returned from the boating school and hopes were high of many successful crossings. Bad luck, however, dogged their early attempts. All these patrols were aimed at discovering the enemy strength and distributions across the MAAS but it was now becoming increasingly urgent to have a good picture of the mine and wire defences and of the anti tank ditch running parallel to the river some 800 yards back, since there was now a strong possibility of this sector featuring in the offensive planned for the British 2nd Army. An Engineer reconnaissance was called for and on 8 February Lieutenant LOCKEY and Lance Sergeant MILLS made the first successful crossing of the MAAS and reconnaissance of the far side.
Lieutenant Lockey [?]
For the crossing they chose a "Rob Roy" canoe that had been found on the riverside at KESSEL. Both had been working throughout the day and the previous night with their troops and no elaborate preparations were made. Shortly after dark of a pouring wet night they made their way to the river bank in the marshes 800 yards upstream from KESSEL. Immediately facing KESSEL on the enemy side a road led down to a boathouse which the Germans were suspected of manning each night. It was planned to land well upstream of this point and from there to proceed inland.
The canoe was launched silently and without incident and the pair, both paddling on the same side of the canoe, were soon shooting across the river with little loss of way. As they reached midstream, however, the full current caught them and for some minutes they fought a frantic, losing battle against the teeming waters. It seemed certain that they would either capsize or that the noise of their frenzied paddling would call down a murderous fire from the enemy bank. At last, however, the struggle lessened as they reached the quieter currents near the far shore and a dozen swift purposeful strokes brought the nose of the canoe hard into the bank, 700 yards downstream from the point at which they had started. They leaped silently ashore and as they lay sweating and exhausted in the cover of a small bush there were sounds of someone approaching; a second later a figure was silhouetted against the sky and a German soldier slouched six foot from them and disappeared in the direction of the boathouse.
This seemed to confirm the suspicion that the boathouse was used as a night post and after a few minutes to recover their breath they crawled off in the opposite direction for about 100 yards and then struck inland. There were many boxes of Schu mines scattered around, rotted by the flood, and obviously there was a big chance that these and other antipersonnel mines were laid immediately inland from the river, but it was decided to risk this and pushing on as quickly as they dared they stumbled across a communication trench about 100 yards in, running parallel with the river. After a quick look round they clambered into this, but getting out the other side was harder than it seemed, and it was only after ten minutes scrabbling at the crumbling wall of the trench that they managed to heave and pull each other out. From here they struck diagonally across to the road leading down to the boathouse, reconnoitering for mines the cold-blooded way - in other words if they didn't blow up there was a good chance that none had been laid.
Reaching the road, they were striking east to where this crossed the anti tank ditch when they heard what sounded like the butt of a rifle banging on the ground and the murmur of voices from this crossing. They lay down to listen but nothing more could be heard but the swish and patter of the rain. Drenched to the skin they lay for five minutes, for ten minutes, then Sergeant MILLS whispered to Lieutenant LOCKEY that they should be getting on. There was no answer. He nudged him but without response. Lieutenant LOCKEY was sound asleep! Roused at last, they made their way away from the enemy post at the crossing, over to the anti-tank ditch. Here there were trip wires and following these for some way they found a plank bridge across the anti-tank ditch.
Across this they crawled on their stomachs, measuring the width in elbow lengths and the depth with a plumb bob. On the other side of the ditch there appeared to be no trip wires or wire defences but quite definitely there were Germans for voices could be heard in almost continuous murmur. It seemed no place to linger, time was getting on, and they decided to call it a day. Striking towards the river they had gone a short distance when mortars started to whistle and crash around them - fired from the BRITISH side of the river! Face down on the ground, they cursed that ill-briefed mortar officer for some minutes. When the barrage seemed to have stopped they moved swiftly forward to find another communication trench. Following this, it led them into the trench which they had first met on leaving the river. They were now but a few minutes from the canoe and the fears that must have been preying on them throughout the last hectic hour came to a head. Had the canoe been discovered? Were there Germans lurking beside it waiting for them to walk into their trap? Had the canoe been accidentally carried away downstream? All these and a dozen other blood chilling thoughts flashed through their minds as they crawled cautiously across the last few yards to the spot where the canoe was hidden, grateful, for once, for the covering noise of rain now falling in torrents.
It was still there and, undoing the painter, they threw caution to the winds, leapt aboard and paddled madly for the home shore. This time, with each stroke bringing them nearer to safety, warmth and a hot drink the crossing was made in half the time with only a few hundred yards less of the way. Shooting on the last few strokes through the legs of a telegraph pole rising from the flood they came safely to rest in the lee of the KESSEL waterfront and within twenty minutes were giving their reports of what was to be rated the most daring and successful patrol carried out by the Brigade. Not only were the patrol able to pinpoint German posts but valuable information was provided of possible mined areas, of wire defences, trip wires and above all, the effectiveness as an obstacle of the anti-tank ditch.
The Thaw Versus 2nd Army
Meanwhile, the rest of the Squadron were not by any means idle. When the Division first arrived in Holland the country was still frostbound and deep in snow, and sapper tasks were limited to general reconnaissance. A thaw was threatening, however, and it was not difficult to foresee the havoc that this would play with the Dutch roads. Few had any substantial foundation and once the top surface had disintegrated they would become roads in name only. Thousands upon thousands of lorries, tanks and equipment passed increasingly to and fro as the 2nd Army gathered itself for the coming offensive. It was a race against the weather and the 2nd Army lost, for on 1 February the thaw broke and within 24 hours roads that had been smooth and frost hardened were reduced in places to an impassable morass. Lorries and tanks sank impotently into the porridgy mush of shingle and mud, while for miles in every direction convoys stood head to tail for hours on end, unable to move in either direction.
That MONTGOMERY was able, in spite of this cruel setback, to launch the offensive on the appointed day was due almost certainly, as he himself admitted, to the incredible achievements of the Army's Engineers, working with almost fanatical zeal to keep open the lines of communication. In this the sappers of the 6th Airborne Division had played their part. The brunt of the work fell on the Field Company, but the Squadron had plenty to do, digging out the rotted portions of road, hewing and carting trees, laying corduroy surfaces, pouring hard core into potholes, laying new culverts, opening up draining systems across the fields and bolstering up the sagging road embankments.
On the first day of the "thaw flap", 3 Troop were put on to cutting trees near BAARLOO. Working till 5 o'clock, they felled 150. The following day they were given the task of felling 200 before knocking off. They started half an hour early and with every man from the Troop Commander down hacking and sawing in a fine frenzy of enthusiasm the task was finished by 1130!
Mine clearance, too, became an important task once the snow had disappeared. Fortunately, most of the fields lain by the Germans had been marked by previous British troops before the snow fell, there were, however, still many tracks and areas that were suspect. Practically every known type of German mine was found on this front and without exception they were laid to a regular pattern at well measured intervals and, once the pattern had been determined, clearance could generally proceed apace. It is doubtful whether the Germans ever found this with a minefield laid by British troops, though whether they attributed the irregularity of our mine patterns to the natural cunning of the British swine or to the real reason may never be known.
Most of the early mine clearance tracks were to open new tracks and deployment areas for the Gunners. Having finished one of these tasks and having been congratulated by the Gunners on their cleverness in finding some 20 R mines, a party of sappers blew the lot in one pile in a nearby field. The explosion was terrific and a thick black column of smoke rose above the area. Within two minutes German shells were falling accurately and in some profusion around the gun area, causing considerable irritation to all and straining still further the traditionally delicate relations between the Sappers and the Gunners.
Considerable mine clearance had also to be carried out along the routes forward across the last three miles to the river that it was planned to use when the 2nd Army offensive was launched. Most of these routes led along narrow, muddy lanes, across fields and through woods, and much of the Squadron's time was taken up with the reconnaissance of these routes and their development. The fields, after the thaw, were for the most part waterlogged - the few passable lanes narrow and bordered by deep ditches. To find routes suitable for tanks and tracked vehicles was a continual headache. The Division, however, was to return to England before these were put to the test.
Mine Clearance With Dogs
Early in February the attachment to the Squadron of a "Dog Platoon" gave rise to some excitement and conjecture. They had a reputation for detecting mines more thoroughly and quickly than any sapper or mine detector, but it was with some scepticism that a party of 1 Troop launched them on their work at one of the large known minefields. The "platoon" consisted of some thirty dogs and four "handlers" under a platoon commander (human). This was not, as was widely thought for some time, B.O.W.O. Contrary to expectation, few of the dogs were Alsatians or even thorough-breds, in fact mongrels had been found to be the most easily trained and the most thorough in their work. They were trained to scent out explosive and once proficient at this they had an obvious advantage over all times of mine detector. During the latter years of the war the whole trend of German mine design had been to cut down the metal in a mine and make detection with magnetic coil detectors difficult. From the wooden Schu mine with the small igniter as its only metal component, design progressed to the fibre Topf mine with a glass igniter mechanism, completely proof against every known detector, and almost proof against detection by prodding. Every mine, however, must carry explosive, and here the trained dogs came into their own.
Normally three or four dogs were worked at a time, each held by a handler on a long lead. Working towards the suspected area from different directions, the dogs would strain at their leads sniffing vigorously and methodically in an arc of about a yard's width. As soon as they scented explosive they would sniff excitedly over it for a few seconds and then sit down looking back at the handler with a quaint mixture of smugness and expectancy. The handler then prodded the suspected spot with a long thin steel rod and almost invariably a mine was found. If there was one there the dog was rewarded with a meat cube or a lump of sugar and withdrawn to scent in along an adjoining line until finally the whole perimeter of the field was plotted by marking flags.
It was exceptional to work the dogs right inside a minefield for with mines right, left and centre their sense of smell was liable to be badly confused or even, for a time, neutralised. Half an hour was the normal limit of working, after which a fresh dog would be taken on. Before starting the day's work, the platoon commander would bring a mine in the verge and all the dogs before going to work were tried out in its detection. The policy working throughout the working hours was "No mines, no food." This was apt to be hard on the dogs in suspected areas where there were in fact no mines, and they became discouraged or (worse still) began to think of more exciting things like rabbits. Every now and then, therefore, they would be taken back to the planted mine to refresh their memories and their appetites.
Many long tracks and mined areas were proved while the dogs were with the Squadron, but in spite of the obvious superiority in some respects it was by no means established that this method is quicker than using sappers and mine detectors. Along tracks perhaps it was, for the dogs could be taken the whole length of the track, but with mined areas sappers still had to work with detectors within the perimeter plotted by the dogs and although this was not done where Schu or other non-detectable mines had been found on the perimeter, there was always the chance that they might still be found in the field itself. Nor were they infallible in detection as the Squadron were to learn to their regret.
On the third day of this form of mine clearance, a party of 2 Troop under Captain HINSHELWOOD were working with the dogs on some sandy tracks running back through the woods off the main VENLO road. There was one dog who was generally considered the duffer of the party and had been chained to the lorry daily and not employed. For the last shift of this day, however, he was brought on and took part in the proving of the last few hundreds yards of a track. Nothing was found and the dog party packed up and went home. No sooner had they left than Captain HINSHELWOOD, taking a final look round of the area saw the lid of a Schu mine peeping through the sand about fifty yards from the main road. The mine was lifted but obviously the whole of the last stretch had to be re-proved and with Sergeant LEMON and Lance Sergeant MILLS a careful sweep with prodders was started. No less than four Schu mines were found within a space of ten yards. Then, by a tragic and unavoidable chance, Lance Sergeant MILLS touched another mine with his foot. It exploded, severely wounding him in the foot and leg and wounding (though less seriously) Sergeant LEMON. Lance Sergeant MILLS, though conscious throughout, behaved with superb fortitude and it was with very real regret that the Squadron learnt later that he had had his leg amputated below the knee, and that this cheerful and indomitable spirit was to be lost to the Squadron forever. Fortunately, Sergeant LEMON made a good recovery and rejoined the Squadron later in GERMANY, but it was as well that the offending dog was attached to the Squadron for rations only and not for discipline.
It was a sad note on which to close the campaign in HOLLAND, for it was known that the Division was about to return to England, and the next day left by rail for a concentration area near GHENT and four days later the main party arrived by air in England, exactly two months after embarking at FOLKESTONE. A few days later the Balloon went up in Holland and the British 2nd Army crossed the lower reaches of the MAAS and plunged into the bitter, bloody fighting around OLEVES and through the REICHSWALD forest that was to bring them to the banks of the Rhine along the whole of their front, poised for the momentous leap into Germany itself and the last round of the war.
It was not generally known yet what part the Division would play in the crossing of the Rhine, nor how much time would be spent in preparation for it in England. There was to be time at any rate for ten days leave and beyond that few of the Squadron looked.