The History of 591 Antrim Airborne Squadron, Royal Engineers, 6th Airborne Division
by Major Jack, 1945
Page 1, 2
The Campaign in Germany
Seldom before can England have known in March such a glorious spell of weather as that which set in during the second week and was to last well into April and see the Allied Armies across the Rhine and deep into the heart of Germany. To those of the Squadron waiting in their transit camps in the peaceful Suffolk countryside for the day that would see them dropping and gliding down among the German defences across the Rhine, the weather, perhaps, did not seem so glorious. Wild rumours flew around that if the weather forbade an airborne operation on the day he had fixed for the crossing, Montgomery would not wait - and spirits rose. Then it was said he would wait two days - no more. Still hopes were high. But as the day drew nearer and not a breath of wind arose, not a suspicion of cloud to darken the calm blue skies, the treasonous hopes of a cancellation faded.
Not all the Squadron was to take part in the airborne operation. Engineer tasks during the initial phase were limited and one of the lessons of Normandy had been that to send in Sappers with a fighting role only was an expensive policy, and not justified. During the very short breathing space in England after the Holland campaign, the parachute squadrons had been hastily reorganized as Airborne Squadrons on a two troop basis with a greatly increased, though bastard, establishment of vehicles and equipment. Squadron Headquarters and half of the now 1 Troop were to go overland, the remainder by air. Of these, 2 Troop were to land by parachute with the 5 Parachute Brigade Group to provide whatever Engineer assistance might be needed, while the remaining half of 1 Troop were to go in by glider in support of 6 Airlanding Brigade Group.
This party had more specific tasks. 6th Airlanding Brigade were to land immediately to the right of 5th Brigade, about three miles in from the Rhine, seize the village of HAMMALKEN and hold the line of the river to the south, the extreme right hand boundary of the Division. Across this river there were two fair sized bridges which were to be seized by "coup de main" parties of the 1 R.U.R. and 52 Oxf and Bucks. The task of the sappers accompanying these parties was, firstly, to ensure that they were not blown by the Germans and secondly to prepare them hurriedly for demolition in case a dangerous counter attack should develop.
Accompanying each coup-de-main party was to be one sapper party, five in strength, with a jeep and trailer carrying principally "General Wade" charges, explosives, cable and exploders, together with handaxes and other tools valuable to the sapper assault role. In case of casualties these parties were each "doubled up" with exactly similar parties to land with the Battalions, while a further two gliders carrying Captain HARBORD and his troop Headquarters were to go in with Brigade Headquarters carrying reserves of explosives, mines and as much as possible in the way of tools and other Engineer equipment likely to be of use.
For the mounting of the operation the troops were scattered over four transit camps and were to take off from as many different airfields, but at each detachment all preparations went ahead smoothly, each man was briefed again and again and spirits were universally high. As one of the officers of the Squadron remarked, "Whenever I begin to get the creeps about this op I go round and have a word with the chaps - it always revives my morale." Perhaps the most continual source of depression was the large scale maps and aerial photographs in the briefing rooms. At every visit further marks representing newly dug German gun and defence positions, drawn on from the latest intelligence reports by an assiduous I.O., would spread like some noxious disease across the landing areas. One morning a particularly vicious looking machine gun post was found marked at the exact spot on the corner of a copse chosen for 2 Troop H.Q. The HQ was hastily changed.
The 23rd March was for many of the Division a second D day. All the previous day the sun had blazed in a cloudless sky and as at 0300 hours the convoys of men started to wind slowly through the narrow Suffolk lanes to the airfields, not a breath of wind stirred the dimly seen trees and hedgerows. Morale is never very high at that time of the morning but everyone knew now that the show was "on". News had come back that the first assault of the Rhine by the Commandos against WESER had been launched through the night according to plan and that the first troops of the 15th Scottish Division who were to drive through and link up three miles inland with the Airborne had crossed the Rhine and were making good progress.
As dawn broke the final adjustments to aircraft and equipment were being made, the inevitable "hot char" was going the rounds and at 50 different airfields throughout East Anglia the engines of 1000 aircraft were bursting into life. The first plane carrying the men of 2 Troop was scheduled to take off at 0719, and, to the minute, it roared down the runway, rose and banked to join the throng of marshalling aircraft streaming in from all points of the compass. Within half an hour the whole airborne strength of the Division was heading in perfect formation across the coast of France, south to the rendezvous with the 17th U.S. Airborne Division, there to form one mighty aerial armada and swing north for the Rhine and Germany. 1000 hours was zero hour and the first of 2 Troop were to jump at 1015 hours. In the planes there was an atmosphere of cheerful confidence that could almost be felt - the confidence of men who knew they were going into a well-planned battle that could have but one outcome, and where the risks were as small as human forethought and ingenuity could make them.
This was the last big blow of the war and down below, the armies massed before the Rhine would be looking up and wishing them well. The remainder of 591 would be down there too, half envious, half anxious and proudly replacing long hidden red berets for the khaki berets imposed on them in the name of Security. What further need to hide the fact that Airborne troops were amongst the advance guard on the banks of the Rhine when already far away across the wooded slopes dim white specks of parachutes could be seen as the leading troops of 3rd Brigade swooped down on the bewildered Germans.
2 Troop Jumps the Rhine
As the planes of 2 Troop ran up towards the Rhine, the planes that had dropped 3rd Brigade could be seen away to the north, in perfect formation, heading steadily homewards from the dropping zone. There seemed to be no gaps in the formation and no stragglers - a most cheerful sign. On the Rhine below it seemed strange to see no activity whatever, none of the busy plying of rafts, the columns of waiting transport or smoke and confusion of battle that had been expected. All was deadly quiet and peaceful beyond the steady roar of the engines. There must have been many who thought in those few moments that the Germans had asked for an armistice, that all was over bar the shouting.
If there were, their hopes were rudely shattered a few moments later as it became very clear that the German ack-ack gunners, at least, had not given in. As the red light flashed and the sappers shuffled clumsily into line, with many a last furtive look at the static line, the planes lurched to the crack of bursting shells and clearly from the ground below came up the frenzied rattle of machine guns. The pilots (and who shall blame them?) accelerated and climbed rapidly to avoid the flak and when the green lights flashed there were few men who jumped from less than 1000 feet.
It takes some time to reach the ground by parachute from 1000 feet and over, nor is the journey particularly pleasant in broad daylight in a country where the natives are hostile, but, although many hair raising tales were told later of bullets whistling through the rigging lines, there were no casualties among the sappers between the planes and the ground. Sapper STAPELY solved the problem of a long slow descent by jumping out immediately on top of the officer whom he had been adjured to follow closely, with the result that his kitbag became entangled in the officer's rigging lines and the two of them reached the ground in record time. A few sappers landed well away from the main body but on the whole the sticks were very well concentrated on the ground and by the afternoon all the stragglers had joined up with the Squadron at the rendezvous.
On the ground, utter confusion reigned for a short time. The planes had unleashed the men of 5 Brigade upwards of a mile from the correct dropping zone and bewildered bodies of men from 13th Battalion, 12th Battalion, 7th Battalion and Brigade H.Q. were milling around in all directions among the tracks and small woods which seemed to bear no relation to the maps and aerial photographs. Fortunately cover was plentiful and there was no immediate opposition from the Germans in the area in which the sappers collected.
The troop was to R.V. with Brigade H.Q. in a large copse whose shape on the maps and photos was quite distinctive but from the ground was not so easily found out. Very soon, however, the various bodies of men were marshalled by officers with a fair idea of their bearings and the first party of sappers under Captain BEAUMONT set off confidently to the R.V. The final approach to the R.V. was about half a mile of open field with no cover whatsoever. As the masses of heavily laden troops stumbled haphazardly across the open, the sky, filled with silently circling gliders as 6th Airlanding Brigade came in to land, sweeping slowly and helplessly through the barrage of fire from the German 88mm guns hidden around the countryside. It seemed impossible for any to survive as far as the ground as one after another was picked off like a sitting pheasant, either to disintegrate in the air or dive drunkenly earthwards.
One crashed some 200 yards to the left of the R.V. and from the blazing wreckage exploding ammunition and shells sprayed the air, while from a cottage behind it one of the 88mm guns, baulked of further prey in the air, was lowered to fire over open sights at the men struggling for the R.V. Many were hit, including Sapper REED and it seemed as though a bloody massacre might develop, but either from shortage of shells or fear of capture the fire lessened and most of the men were able to reach safely the sanctuary of the Copse. It was to prove a poor sanctuary, however, for the German guns were soon to range on this fruitful target into which so many men had poured and the corner of the copse in particularly was a minor hell of bursting shells for some time, but never for a moment was there chaos or panic. The men of the Field Ambulance, although depleted themselves, very quickly had a first aid post established while from a shell hole in the field outside the copse the Brigade Commander directed the Brigade battle over the wireless.
It was soon known that the 13th Battalion and the 7th Battalion were gathering in reasonable strength in their appointed areas to the north, while the 12th Battalion who had RV'd on the east side of the copse were already sending out fighting columns to mop up gun positions and to liquidate the pockets of Germans established in the cottages and farms stretching around to the outskirts of HAMMALKEN. The remainder of 2 Troop came in in two small bodies and all were soon digging in on a sector of the west side of the copse immediately below Brigade H.Q. One shell burst right in the middle of Troop during the digging, killing instantly Sapper HOBSON, one of the most popular sappers in the Squadron and a fine soldier. It was only a few weeks before that the transfer of his twin brother from the infantry had been effected. The brother had come in by glider and for the first 24 hours it was feared that there was a double tragedy, but the glider that he was in with Lance Corporal COWLARD and two other sappers cut adrift over Holland on the way in, and all joined the Squadron safely the following day.
Early in the afternoon the Troop moved from the copse and took up a position between Brigade HQ and HAMMALKEN in one of the farms recently cleared by the 12th Battalion. The clearing had been thorough and the corpses of German soldiers littered the house. Here they were joined by Lance Corporal COULDING and the others who had been in the second 2 Troop glider. They had landed with the remainder of 5th Brigade glider party on the dropping zone. Driver OLDFIELD was wounded but otherwise the party, including the jeep and trailer, was intact.
The Gliders Fare Badly
Meanwhile, disaster had overtaken the gliderborne element of 1 Troop. Captain HARBORD's glider, which was found the next day, had grounded within 20 yards of an 88mm gun and he, Sapper ADAMS, Sapper JOB and Driver FIELD were killed outright. Corporal EATON and his party of four sappers were all killed when their glider crashed in the woods far away from the Divisional area. Lieutenant DE WATTEVILLE's glider with Corporal ROGERS and three other sappers crashed in flames in the American area to the south and they and the two glider pilots were all killed.
The glider carrying Lance Sergeant FRASER and his party was hit while coming in but the pilot managed to crash land to the north of the D.Z. As the party were breaking out of the wreckage an 88mm gun nearby opened up at them over open sights. Lance Sergeant FRASER was wounded and took cover in a nearby trench. Sapper McMANUS and Sapper STOBIE, while running for cover, were mown down by machine gun fire from a German post 50 yards away and both were killed. Of the whole party, only Driver WINSTON and one of the glider pilots succeeded in getting safely back to the Airborne positions, after more than one hectic skirmish with the enemy.
The Gallantry of a Scots Sapper
Of the six gliders supporting 6th Airlanding Brigade, one only landed intact at the right place. This carried the party under Lieutenant COX in support of the 1st R.U.R. They crash landed within 100 yards of the bridge that was the Battalion objective and were immediately fired on from the houses surrounding the bridge. The party leapt from the glider, scattered in all directions and, forming up quickly with men of the R.U.R. who had landed nearby, returned the enemy fire with interest. A German half track loaded with soldiers was actually crossing the bridge as the gliders came in and it seemed at first as though the situation was desperate. Meanwhile Sapper DRUMMOND and Sapper McGETTRICK, separated from the rest, had found shelter in a copse away to the right. Immediately opposite them, a bare 50 yards away, a machine gun manned by the Germans had opened up a murderous fire. Sapper DRUMMOND decided immediately that this post must be wiped out.
Calling to McGETTRICK, his Bren gun blazing at his hip, he charged into the open towards the German position. He was shot, stumbled and fell but on his feet again in an instant. He rushed forward with wild Highland cries, still firing. This was too much for the Germans, who threw away their weapons and leapt out of the trench with their arms in the air. But for his gallant action, heavy casualties might have been inflicted by this post and his award of the Military Medal a few weeks later was indeed well earned.
Soon the handful of R.U.R. and the other sappers had the situation well in hand and all German resistance ceased. The bridge had been prepared for demolition but the Germans had no chance to blow it. The charges were found to be quite effective and Lieutenant COX decided that little was needed to supplement them in his task of ensuring that an effective obstacle could be blown should a counter attack develop. A firing point was established and the party, which included Lance Corporal TABERNER and Driver PRATT, dug themselves in for a well earned but short lived rest.
A Bridge is Blown in the Nick of Time
Meanwhile, it was assumed that the sappers with the coup-de-main party of the Oxf and Bucks had landed and completed their similar task on the bridge at RINGENBERG further north along the river. This was borne out by a report from Brigade H.Q. that the bridge was almost prepared. The report was false, however, and it was soon learnt that no sappers whatsoever had arrived with the Oxf and Bucks. Fortunately at this time Corporal TAYLOR reported at Brigade H.Q. with his complete glider load of four sappers, a jeep and a trailer load of explosives and tools to supplement the desperately depleted forces of troops and with Lieutenant COX they moved to RINGENBERG. By this bridge there was a house, now held by men of the Oxf and Bucks but the last 200 yards down the road to this house and the bridge was under direct fire and impassable, further, the bridge itself was completely observed by the Germans who had withdrawn to the edge of a wood 200 yards across the river, and though it was possible to reach the bridge by a ditch and examine it closely, quite obviously it could not be prepared for demolition during daylight but explosives and sappers were hastily marshalled and as darkness fell Lieutenant COX and Corporal TAYLOR made their way to the house by the bridge.
The Germans were most active from the wood across the fields. There was considerable small arms fire and the noise of tanks and transport being moved about. A counter attack seemed imminent and the Oxf and Bucks, badly depleted in numbers, were desperately anxious that the bridge should at least be ready to blow. It was intended to lay General Wade charges across the bridge but even in the dark getting them there was no picnic for a machine gun was firing on fixed lines directly on to the bridge at frequent irregular intervals.
Crawling on their stomachs backwards and forwards on to the bridge, Lieutenant COX and Corporal TAYLOR worked for an hour fixing the charges; as the last connexion was made came the unmistakable sound of German tracked vehicles approaching the bridge from the wood. The Company Commander of the Oxf and Bucks, on the wireless to Battalion H.Q., called for permission to blow. As the request was flashed from Battalion H.Q. to Division, Corporal TAYLOR and Lieutenant COX were frantically running out cable and fixing the exploder as the noise of the approaching tanks grew louder; within seconds the order to blow came back over the wireless and was shouted to Corporal TAYLOR bending tensely over the exploder. As he pushed the button, the first tank reached the bridge, there was a roar, a blinding flash and both bridge and tank were blown into a hundred pieces. It was the sapper's dream come true and the counter attack was effectively broken.
The Division Consolidates
During that night and the following morning counter attacks developed in the 6th Brigade area but all were effectively beaten off. To the south of the Divisional area, too, there was considerable firing throughout the night as the troops from the Rhine slowly drove the Germans back through the woods towards HAMMALKEN. The situation was most fluid and it was not until midday of the following day that the 8th Parachute Battalion finally broke through the woods to the east to make the first effective linkup between 3rd Brigade and the rest of the Division. Shortly afterwards, it was known that the 15th Scottish Division were in touch with 3rd Brigade and that on the other flank of the Division contact was finally established with the American Airborne Division who had dropped on the previous day in the area north of WESEL.
The whole of the Divisional area was now finally held, the bridgehead across the Rhine strongly established, but casualties, particularly among the gliderborne troops, had been heavy. The cost to the Troop and a half of 591 Squadron was found to be two officers and 15 other ranks killed, two missing and six wounded. Among these were the cream of the Squadron and the loss of Captain HARBORD in particular was keenly felt by every man.
2 Troop continued to hold their position in the farmhouse beside Brigade H.Q. and though no fighting developed in this immediate area shelling throughout the second night was particularly heavy. If it inflicted no casualties, it certainly interfered with a well earned rest.
Into the Heart of Germany
The following day, the remainder of the Squadron, together with most of the transport, arrived from across the Rhine but before there was time to reorganize properly the Division was already stabbing impatiently forward on the first stages of their magnificent drive to the Baltic, and within 24 hours the Squadron was harbouring south of BRUNNEN, five miles further into Germany. The move in support of 3rd Brigade was a laborious one, along routes through sparsely inhabited woodland that were little better than sand tracks. From all around columns of dark smoke arose from smoldering ruins of farm houses and cottages that had paid the price of offering resistance. Later, as the news spread back into Germany that surrender would preserve their homes, each house at the approach of British tanks and troops came out in a rush of fluttering white flags, sheets and even underclothes.
During the early stages of the advance, the Division was barred from the main roads to allow of the full deployment of the 11th Armoured Division on the left and the Squadron had its first taste of the work that it was to be mainly employed upon till the Baltic was reached - the opening of routes and their maintenance. As one Brigade after another leap frogged forward in daring bounds, overrunning all resistance and outstripping the remainder of the 2nd Army, recce parties were found in time from the troops to move with the most forward elements, the remainder of the troop following in the main column, hastily improving crossings of streams, flinging in trees and rubble to restore the worst of the road surface, removing road blocks and signing routes for tanks and wheeled vehicles.
In the first bound to BRUNNEN the tracks had to cater only for one Brigade for one day and apart from route reconnaissance and signing there was little required to be done. The Squadron harboured in some farmhouses south of BRUNNEN. Here Sapper STAPELY was rebuked for trying to get going a small private car found in one of the barns. Conscience in the matter of civilian transport was to become very elastic in the days to come but these were early days and the Squadron was not yet into its stride.
BRUNNEN itself became a target for German gunners and trying to get through with convoys wedged head to tail was a rather harrowing business. There was spasmodic shelling too of the Squadron harbour area but no casualties were sustained. The following day the Squadron moved with 5th Brigade towards ERIE, a leap of ten miles that was not achieved without opposition and three tanks of the armoured Recce Squadron leading the Brigade were knocked out, but an ambitious night attack completely confounded the enemy and the town was taken. In ERIE itself 1 Troop were called upon to remove several formidable road blocks of reinforced concrete and it was here that the first German addition to the Squadron's establishment of transport was made in the shape of a 3-ton diesel lorry with a 6-ton trailer. The first of many such requisitions that were to ease the problems of the Squadron's B echelon.
Early the following morning both Troops joined the 5th Brigade column in a spectacular drive that was to carry it 20 miles to the town of COESFELD. For most of the way the advance was along sand tracks through thickly wooded country. There was no information whatever as to the opposition likely to be met, but the spirit of the day was "Bash on regardless." Although the leading Battalion travelled in "Kangaroos" and on the tanks of the supporting Squadron of Churchill's of the Guards Independent Armoured Brigade, and the advance was fast, there is no doubt that a determined enemy could have wrought havoc on the thinly drawn out column stretching back for miles through country that lent itself everywhere to defence. Nor was it always possible, in an advance which outstripped all attempts at route signing, to know which way the leading troops had gone and very early in the day half of 1 Troop, who had stayed behind to open up a sand bagged stretch, took a wrong turning and for an hour blazed a lone trail far to the right of the Brigade column.
All that day, parties of sappers throughout the length of the Brigade's passage slaved to keep open the route for the hundreds of following B Echelon vehicles, throwing diversions across fields, ramping across deep potholes in the sand, unditching with their winch lorries and vehicles of every description. By nightfall the Brigade had linked up with the remainder of the Division at COESFELD. 2 Troop, however, were working well into the night, unditching vehicles and building rough culverts to get forward the miles transport, bogged down on the narrow lanes across the open marshlands on the final approaches to the town.
COESFELD itself had been most thoroughly blitzed by the Allied Air Forces, the streets were feet deep in rubble, bridges and culverts had been blown by the Germans and to pass any of the Division through was absolutely out of the question. 249 Company and 3rd Squadron were soon fully employed in opening up a diversion to the south of the town and meanwhile it was decided that 5th Brigade should strike out to the north and drive through the difficult wooded country to the next objective.
A Few More Prisoners
Early in the morning some of the Squadron officers went out with a subaltern of the Recce Squadron in a scout car to find a route on which the Brigade could start its advance. It was known that the enemy were in greater strength than previously around COESFELD and that opposition might be expected to stiffen. As they struck north across a rickety bridge and left the forward infantry patrols behind them, they noticed, as a first ominous sign, that white flags no longer fluttered from the scattered houses on the way, but the success of the Division had imbued everyone with such a superiority complex that it never occurred to them that anyone might open fire or attack them and, with maps spread on the roof of the car perched precariously on the turret they struck off across the fields into the blue.
Finding a likely track through a thick belt of woodland, they were jogging unconcernedly down it when the car pulled up with a jerk and a shout from the driver below, who was fortunately a little more alert, called their attention to dim figures digging behind the trees 200 yards ahead. Immediately there was a wild scramble for Sten guns which after a short frantic search were disentangled from the debris in the cab and thrust up at them. There was no room for everyone to get down in the cab and so, putting as bold a face on it as possible, the party drove forward brandishing their arms with menace but with little confidence. As they drew near, four rifles could be seen pointing directly at them from behind the trees. They stopped and for a second the world stood still, then the moral advantage of two red berets and an armoured car won the day and eight Germans slouched sulkily out with their hands in the air. They were Engineers and had just made up charges against the trees and were about to fire them.
While the party pulled the charges off and smashed their rifles, further bodies were spotted darting in and out of the trees further down the avenue. Shouting to the driver to turn, they bundled the eight prisoner on to the roof and the bonnet and the two officers sheltering amongst them, the truck set off hell for leather back down the track. Two shots whistled harmlessly over their heads but they were soon back in less hostile country.
A few hours later, 5th Brigade were on the move and two section of 2 Troop under Captain BEAUMONT went with the 12th Battalion who were in the lead. As the Battalion column moved down this avenue they were met with heavy fire. Further trees had been blown across the track and while the Sappers tried to clear the route a fierce fight developed between the 12th Battalion and what turned out later to be a Battalion of fanatical Nazi Youth. For some hours there were violent interchanges of fire while German light mortars shelled the waiting column behind. Here were some casualties but the 12th Battalion eventually won through to the open ground and better routes beyond the woods, taking many prisoners.
Meanwhile, the advance had been badly held up and since the main route from COESFELD was now open, the remainder of the Brigade moved forward along the axis to GREVEN, the 12th Battalion pushing on on their own through the rougher routes to the north, taking with them the half of 2 Troop under Captain BEAUMONT. Before GREVEN the roads were packed for miles back with a solid mass of transport trying to move in both directions at once. No longer was the Division moving on an individual axis but on the main Corps route. To add to the confusion, a battery of German S.P. guns from some two miles ahead were firing air bursts over the town at unpleasantly frequent intervals. To open routes through the town 249 Coy were strengthening a bridge across to the right of the town, while an Engineer company of Corps Troops built a Bailey Bridge across the River in the centre of the town. This task took some considerable time, since the bridge was unfortunately allowed to dive into the river during launching, and meanwhile tanks, Cars and lorries continued to pour into the packed streets and squares of the town.
Bridging the Dortmund-Ems Canal
2 Troop, who had arrived early in the town, found themselves a billet in a large house beside a factory which was the concentration point of most of the air bursts. The unhealthy situation, however, was more than compensated for by the ample stocks of wine discovered in the cellars. Later, they were joined by the rest of the squadron. That night it was learnt that the Squadron was to build a Bailey Bridge 10 miles further on across the Dortmund-Ems Canal. While the bridging equipment was being marshalled a Recce party went forward to meet the C.R.E. at the H.Q. of 3rd Brigade, who had pushed forward during the evening to the banks of the canal. The main road bridge had been blown and also another bridge half a mile south, serving as subsidiary road. To build at the main road bridge would have involved considerable approach work on the far side, and though the preliminary reconnaissance suggests that the other bridge was poorly served by roads on the other side, it was finally decided that this was the better site.
Captain SEMPLE and S.S.M. WHITE went to the main road bridge, the C.R.E. and the remainder of the Recce party to the other. Here they found a lone sentry in a slit trench by the abutments who said he thought some of his company were at the other side of the river. A few minutes later he was to be joined in his man trench by two large sapper officers, when their rather exposed reconnaissance of the river bank attracted the attention of a German mortar position immediately across the canal. Their aim was most accurate, the slit trench most inadequate, and under a hail of bursting shells they raced back to the Company H.Q. in the village, lowering considerably the track record for 220 yards.
Early the following morning the bridging train moved up to a concentration area a mile from the canal, and Captain SEMPLE went forward with a party to make a more detailed reconnaissance of the bridge. By now, two companies of the 8th Battalion were across the river and had penetrated about a mile in depth, but both the bridge and the village behind it had become the target of German S.P. guns further back and shells were falling as thick as autumn leaves. To attempt to bridge seemed suicidal, but towards midday there came a lull - the decision was taken to start and within half an hour work had started on the bankseats and the first of the bridging lorries had arrived. From then until the bridge was finally opened to traffic not a shell was fired from the German side.
The approach to the abutments rose steeply over the banks of the canal in the shallow waters of which lay the tangled wreckage of the former bridge. 120 feet of double construction was needed to span the gap and at 1800 hours all the excavations were completed, the first panel was placed in position. At almost the same moment a low flying German reconnaissance plane screamed overhead, pursued by the deafening, clattering roar of Oerlikons mounted on the canal bank. It seemed certain that from then on the bridging party would received attention from German artillery or aircraft.
Meanwhile as darkness fell the pace of building slackened and the original estimate of the time of completion faded to a pious hope. On the narrow road leading to the bridge there was no room to unload stores or to lay them out and confusion, without a vestige of light, was inevitable. Moreover, the steep rise of the road up the abutments meant that each panel and transom had to be lifted twice the normal height. All through that bitterly cold night the sappers laboured and cursed as one thing after another arose to impede construction, while for miles back in [over field and road], packed end to end down every road and lane the tanks and transport of half an army waited silently for the word that was to send them tearing across the bridge to get to grips once more with the enemy.
Every five minutes or so a fresh staff officer or the liaison officer of some obscure formation would arrive at the bridge to enquire aggressively, plaintively, or obsequiously, when the bridge would be finished. From the harassed and short tempered bridge Commander they got, irrespective of rank, the same answer. Nor was it a particularly polite one. Of all the people the one with the most reason to be impatient was the C.R.E., on whose estimates the whole Corps plan and timings had been based. Of all people, he had the most right to criticise the slowness of construction, but from him came nothing but encouragement and finally praise on a well planned job.
Once the bridge was finally launched, the bridge was rapidly completed to take class 9 traffic and as dawn broke tired but satisfied bridge commander, sitting on the girders, waved the first vehicle across. For an hour traffic forged rapidly across almost head to tail. Then the bridge was closed while a troop of 249 Field Coy under Captain RANCE "doubled up" the girders on both sides to bring the bridge up to class 40. They had had some [unreadable] of this work and completely confirmed it the Chief Engineer with the speed in which it was accomplished. Christened [unreadable], it carried a tremendous volume of traffic for some weeks. And it was with some chagrin that the Squadron read later in the papers that a Bailey Bridge built the following day by a Corps Field Coy had been officially opened by Field Marshal Montgomery as the thousandth Bailey Bridge in Europe. It was felt that [unreadable] was just as likely to be the thousandth bridge and that a recount should be called for!
Early in the next morning the Squadron moved across the canal and harboured some [unreadable] miles further east at LENGERICH. The route beyond the canal for some way was practically across country and 1 Troop were called upon to assist in the very heavy maintenance work involved. It was at LENGERICH that Captain SEMPLE "acquired" a large, rather ancient Mercedes saloon which for some weeks was to be an accepted feature of the Squadron column. It was later to be relegated to the Quartermaster and could be met practically everywhere in Northwest Germany, churning manfully along, loaded to the gunwhales with spare stores, NAAFI supplies or just plain loot.
The Drive to Minden
From LENGERICH 2 Troop moved forward to take part with 3rd Brigade in the most spectacular leap in the whole of the Division advance to date. Skirting OSNABRUCK, for which heavy fighting was in progress, the British column, with the usual Squadron of tanks in the lead, swung out into the long valley leading to the River WESER. To the north ran a canal parallel with the Brigade's axis and beyond this for miles the country was flat and open. A mile to the south ran a high wooded ridge, dominating the whole countryside. Far beyond this ridge it was expected that an American column was also striking for the WESER, but both flanks of the Brigade were completely uncovered and overlooked.
It was a glorious opportunity for the Germans but they never took it. Though here and there from villages on the route opposition was offered, it was mercilessly stamped out. The aim of the Brigade was to seize a crossing of the canal to the north, but here at last the Germans had the upper hand and every now and then a distant boom followed by a thick black column of smoke rising slowly into the air would announce that another of the many bridges across had been blown. The bridges were in fact seized by the 8th Battalion, one half blown, the other still stocked with explosive, but by then MINDEN was almost in sight and the opportunity of seizing a bridge across the WESER itself was not to be missed.
Not till the outskirts of MINDEN were reached was the column seriously halted. Here some well hidden guns immediately to the right of the road opened fire and had to be dealt with by the tanks, while small parties of Germans armed with "Bazookas" opened fire on the column. It became clear that MINDEN itself was probably strongly defended and to launch an attack through the heavily built up outskirts of the town with night approaching was a formidable task. The Brigade Commander called [a halt for?] the night after a spectacular advance [50?] kilometres.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant COX and [half of 2 Troop?] were sent back to remove the charges from one of the bridges seized by the 8th Battalion, and to bridge over the hole blown in the other, the remainder of the Squadron were moving up from the rear and that night harboured in the outskirts of MINDEN. Early the following morning the Brigade moved into MINDEN, the threat of another column approaching from the south and of the reduction of the town to rubble by the Air Forces having induced the local commander to offer no resistance. The bridges across the WESER had by now been blown and another to the north of the town had been partially blown. This a party from 2 Troop repaired with girders and decking to Class 12 and the same day the Squadron moved with the Brigade to an area north west of MINDEN to rest in reserve for 48 hours.
The Assault of the Weser
It was decided that 6th Airlanding Brigade should make an assault across the River WESER some two to three miles north of MINDEN, that town having now been taken over by the Americans, who, it was suspected, were a little sore at having been beaten to it by the British. For the assault, 2 Troop were put under command of 6th Brigade with the task of building and working assault boat rafts in support of each assaulting battalion. That morning half the troop, under Captain BEAUMONT, moved forward to the Brigade marshalling area. Unfortunately one section, under Sergeant FOSTER was misdirected at a crossroads and were not seen for two hours. Further men from 1 Troop, summoned over the wireless, had just arrived to replace them when Sergeant FOSTER and his party drove up having penetrated, unknown to themselves, deep into enemy territory and taken one prisoner. The half troop then moved forward through a thickly wooded country not yet properly cleared, to the river bank, marshalled themselves in a brickworks, and waited for the assault by the R.U.R. to go in.
There was a short lull in the shelling but shortly afterwards the noise of repairing the boat on the home shore brought down further fire. At this time, Lieutenant McKERRACHER and his section were the only people not taking cover but under the inspiring leadership of himself and Corporal STONER the section carried steadily on with the work. About 0330 hours, however, shelling became really heavy and the party withdrew for a couple of hours, returning to work till 1000 hours, when, no further sapper assistance being required, the rafting was handed over to the infantry and they returned to the Squadron harbouring area after working under the most harrowing conditions almost continuously for eighteen hours.
The party under Captain BEAUMONT had a less spectacular time, for although they succeeded in setting up a ferry and getting some stuff across, they were operating very close to the site at which 249 Field Company were battling with the current to get across a Class 9 F.B.E. bridge and it was found impractical to continue with the rafting, which was called off by the CRE.
The Race for the Leine Bridges
The same day, 1 Troop in support of 5th Brigade moved forward across the completed F.B.E. in a big drive to the river LEINE, 60 kilometres away. This tremendous leap, now a commonplace in the Division's advance, had again the object of seizing crossings of the river. 1 Troop, however, carried with them two lorry loads of assault boats since the Brigadier was determined to get a foothold across the river even if all the bridges were blown.
Two miles short of the river reports were received that both the bridges were still intact. Germans had been seen at the southernmost bridge and there seemed not a moment to lose. With a swift and brilliant manoeuvre, the 12th Battalion swung across and seized the bridge, the Battalion Commander leaping from the leading tank to pull apart the firing wires laid on the bridge. Lieutenant COX, moving as sapper recce officer immediately behind him, completed the removal of the charges while the Germans were driven back by the leading infantry and an undamaged Class 40 bridge was in our hands.
Complete success seemed certain, and in high spirits the 7th Battalion struck off in 3-tonners to the north to secure the other bridge. At the last minute it was decided to send a small sapper party to report on the bridge and to remove the charges. All reports suggested that the tanks of the Recce Squadron already had command of this bridge and it was not expected that there would be a fight for it. Corporal TAYLOR and Sapper BROWN (A) were quickly briefed and scrambled on to a passing 3-tonner to join the Battalion column moving out across the open country to the north. The road led across NEUSTADT airfield and half way across this heavy fire was opened on the 3-tonner from the cover of the Aerodrome. Bullets whistled through the canopies of the lorries and there were several casualties among the leading troops. Leaping for the cover of the roadside ditches, the fire was returned. A vigorous fight ensued and it was some time before an outflanking movement subdued the opposition, which was found to be, again, a company of Hitler Youth, hell bent on dying for the Fatherland.
Some of these managed to retreat towards NEUSTADT and half a mile further down the road a crater was blown in the face of the leading troops, killing one of them on a motor cycle as it ran, it was believed, over a trip wire connected to an aerial bomb buried in from the road bank. A similar bomb in a home made trolley was found a short time afterwards by Corporal STONER in a small tunnel dug under the road a short distance away. The crater, filled with water from a broken water main, made a formidable obstacle but a detour was found and the Battalion shortly after launched a company attack on the bridge at NEUSTADT.
Corporal TAYLOR and Sapper BROWN moved with the leading platoon, who, as darkness fell, approached the bridge along the river bank from the south. Within a short distance of it they struck off west into the outskirts of the town and, due to a slight misunderstanding, another platoon came into the lead. The troops were now facing down the road towards the bridge 100 yards away. There were sounds of shouting and hurried movement on the bridge itself and, without more ado, the platoon charged down the road. Corporal TAYLOR, now with the following platoon, suddenly saw a column of smoke, as from a burning fuse, rising from the bridge. Too far back to do anything about it, he was shouting for the troops to get back, when, with a deafening explosion, the bridge blew up. The platoon were half way across the bridge and practically every man was killed.
Some reached the far side, many of them wounded, and there was an urgent call for the assault boats. It had been decided in the afternoon, however, after the seizing of this bridge by the 12th Battalion, that these would not be needed and they had been dropped from the Battalion column. It was some time before they were eventually brought up for the Squadron and it was the early hours of the morning before a section under Lieutenant LOCKEY were operating a ferry service alongside the bridge. This continued until midday. Later a Corps Field Company spanned the broken archers with a Bailey bridge.
The Squadron had meanwhile moved into comparatively comfortable billets in some married quarters adjoining the aerodrome. Here they were to remain for some days while the 15th Scottish Division passed through to take up the chase and the Division settled down to the first rest since the Rhine. During this period a certain amount of maintenance was carried out of the surrounding roads and even a little training, but for the most part the main Squadron activities were smoking, sleeping, drinking and eating. Each section seemed to have its own hoard of eggs and other delicacies and the Squadron cooks, with their mounting stocks of normal Army rations, fought a losing battle against a dozen small parties "brewing up" their own meals in every odd corner continuously throughout the day.
A spell of glorious spring weather set in and the war for a time was forgotten. The padre held a short open air service on the first Sunday morning and the Squadron made its first three abortive attempts to see Bing Crosby in "Going my way" - continually promised for showing in the aerodrome cinema but never coming that way. It was to be billed twice more at various halts during the coming move to the Baltic before the Squadron finally saw it, sitting on the floor of a draughty barn in a farm house south of LUNEBURG.
On to the Elbe
A little over a week later the Division was once more on the move and the Squadron went forward some twenty miles to CELLE. The 15th Scottish Division had made no very spectacular progress and they were then held up around the next town of VELZEN. Uninformed comment in the Division was not very complimentary to the 15th Scottish, but in fact they had bumped into the first really considerable German striking force that had been met since the Rhine, to which the burned up tanks that littered the villages near VELZEN bore grim testimony.
At CELLE vague and ugly rumours were heard of a concentration camp a few miles away which the 11th Armoured Division on the left flank had overrun. The camp was BELSEN but at that time the name meant little to anyone. Here too the Squadron lost Sapper TROUESDALE who was seen heading down the wrong road on a motor bike to reappear a week later with an incredible tale of capture and escape from across the ELBE. From CELLE the Squadron moved through a succession of short halts in small villages to an area east of VELZEN and from there to a few miles south of LUNEBURG and the Elbe where they shared the village for a week with 3rd Squadron. The Division was not greatly committed during this period and tasks for the Squadron were few.
A new Division, the 5th, had passed through by this time and were assembling for the assault with other formations of the River ELBE. It was planned at one time that 5th Parachute Brigade should be dropped beyond the Elbe as part of this assault and that a sapper party from the Squadron should also take part. For this party were chosen Captain SEMPLE, who had not been allowed to take part in the Rhine crossing, Sergeant LEMON who had at last caught up with the Squadron from hospital and ten sappers of whom the only one had been in the Rhine crossing was Sapper STAPELY. The party was withdrawn from normal work but the project was finally abandoned to the relief of all but the most fanatical parachutists.
1 Troop Assist Another Division
No German troops were left by this time west of the Elbe but there was a strong possibility that the gathered remnants of the Wehrmacht would turn and fight at the river, almost as formidable an obstacle as the Rhine. Nothing could be left to chance and a considerable British force was built up around LUNEBURG. The fears proved groundless, however, and the crossing by commandos and 5th Division was made with little opposition apart from occasional air strafing. Class 9 and Class 40 rafts were soon in operation and to be supplemented later by a Class 9 F.B.E. bridge and a Class 40 Bailey bridge. The sappers of 5th Division being employed with Corps Engineers on the bridging of the ELBE, Lieutenant LOCKEY and 1 Troop were lent to 15th Brigade of that Division for their advance forward from LAUENBURG, the terminal point of the Elbe crossing.
Early the following morning a party with Lieutenant LOCKEY went forward to fill in with a bulldozer a reported crater in the road a few miles north of LAUENBURG. The task completed, they went forward to the village of WITZEEZE, which the leading Battalion was supposed to have captured, to clear the route of mines. As the sappers entered the village from the east they met the forward elements of the Battalion stealing in from the west. From the next town, two miles away, the enemy appeared to be offering some resistance and there was a certain amount of mortaring of WITZEEZE. A section of sappers was sent forward with the leading platoon, clearing on the way a few TOPF mines.
The platoon was pruned down by fire just short of POTRAU. The planned attack developed into a company, and then into a full scale battalion attack with armoured support. And, after some 16 hours, POTRAU was seized - together with the German mortar section defending it. Meanwhile, Corporal TAYLOR had been sent with a sapper officer of 15th Brigade to recce a gap a mile short of POTRAU to the right. There were no enemy in this area but the officer decided that a look at the gap through binoculars would suffice. His estimation of the gap was ten feet. On reaching the spot later it was found to be 40 feet and it was necessary to bridge it with Bailey Equipment - this exploit, it was later learnt, on unimpeachable authority, that the officer was awarded the M.C. for this exploit!
The German "Frogmen" are Thwarted
Meanwhile, 2 Troop were put in support of 6th Airlanding Brigade who crossed later to LAUENBURG and pushed on through 3rd Brigade to the country between LAUENBURG and BOIZENBURG. Although the Wehrmacht, as such, had, by this time, seen the writing on the wall there were still small formations prepared to show fight and guerilla activity had been something of a menace [unreadable]. On one occasion far back on the main Corps route they had destroyed a tank and a transporter with panzer [schreck?] in the dead of night in the middle of a bivouac area.
At LAUENBURG it was rumoured that [unreadable] "frogmen" were trying to swim down the canal leading from the south of the town to the Elbe, there to blow up the newly constructed bridges. Although most people were sceptical of this it was decided to take all precautions, and Corporal HOBBS and a party were stationed on the bridge spanning the canal half a mile from the Elbe with the task of throwing charges of gelignite into the river at frequent intervals throughout the night. The sceptics were confounded when the next morning three "frogmen" dressed in rubber suits, web footed shoes and respirators were hauled exhausted from the river a mile upstream.
The move with 6th Brigade involved no other sapper tasks and no fighting. The only fight was for accommodation in this thinly populated area. To find a roof for the Squadron, Captain SEMPLE, Lieutenant FISH and a party set off for a large house by the banks of the Elbe in an area unexplored by 5th Brigade or 3rd Brigade. Driving up to the main door with regrettably few precautions, they hammered loudly on the door for some minutes. Glancing casually back, Lieutenant FISH was slightly startled to see an armed German soldier approaching them a few yards away. He decided, however, the war really was over and was taken in charge of by Driver HORTON who came up behind him. The house was found to be full of women and children from the neighbouring cottages who were immediately ordered to quit. Later, a casual glance into a barn near the house revealed a crowd of 45 surly, disgruntled but fully armed German soldiers, of whom Driver HORTON took command and, in a matter of minutes, had had searched, numbered and knocked into shape in an almost [unreadable]. If they expected courtesy or softness from the British Army they must have been sorely disappointed in Driver HORTON.
The Squadron had 24 hours of comparative luxury in the mansion during which time they were rejoined by 2 Troop and Lieutenant FISH with a small party carried out a most useful reconnaissance patrol of the routes through the woods beyond the outposts of 6th Brigade. A patrol during which a few minutes of "[unreadable]" stuff produced a prisoner in the shape of a German soldier from a village some miles away, bearing, in his [unreadable] to those near LAUENBURG to hold out to the end. He was told he was a little late.
The Collapse of the Wehrmacht
The next day the Squadron swept up in the most spectacular drive of the whole war which was to carry the Division 50 miles to the shores of the Baltic at WISMAR. The Russians were driving west from STETTIN, BERLIN had fallen and, as a first hint that the German Army had at last packed in, a trickle of German lorries, unescorted flying white flags, were seen passing back to the Elbe and captivity. As the Divisional columns swanned northwards the trickle grew into a flood as whole formations of the German army poured into the axis, at first in orderly columns of their own transport then in an unending rabble of bicycles, farmcarts and sullenly marching troops. It seemed as though half the German army had fallen into the Division's hands. No paper count was ever made but the figure was well over 30,000.
The beaten Wehrmacht were not allowed to proceed entirely without question. Hot as the pace was to reach the Baltic there was always time to stop and eject senior German officers from their palatial staff car, and few of the mass of Germans packing the road who were foolish enough to display the glint of a watch on their wrist kept it for long. At one halt in the jam of traffic an obsequious German officer speaking perfect English approached one of the Squadron officers and complained "I say, old man, one of your men's just taken my watch, surely that's not cricket?" He was told that by the time he got to the end of the column he'd be lucky if he had his trousers left.
Late that afternoon, standing outside the newly acquired billets in WISMAR, the Squadron advance party saw their first Russian soldiers. Grim faced, swarthy men riding their motorcycle combinations flat out through the town towards LUBECK. Apparently their orders were to seize WISMAR and LUBECK and so to LUBECK they went, oblivious to the fact that WISMAR was in the hands of the 6th Airborne Division and that LUBECK had fallen to the British some time before. A few hours later, they flashed back and looking equally grim. From then on a very firm [unreadable] line was maintained east of WISMAR.
The war, so far as the Squadron was concerned, was now over and the official declaration of VE Day some days later came as something of an anticlimax. Even to celebrate it with a day off was difficult, since most days were 'days off'. Days spent strolling around WISMAR, bathing in the estuary as 'guests' of the WISMAR rowing club, yachting at the [invitation?] of the WISMAR yacht club, bathing, eating, drinking and trying to avoid the advances of the unscrupulous Fraulain. A large motor boat was brought up on its trailer from a factory by the Elbe in which Lieutenant FISH and a handful of enthusiasts cruised around the estuary. Fortunately, most of the enthusiasts were mechanics. More seaworthy was a harbour launch, referred to "ad nauseum" by Sergeant LEMON as "my launch". This was not used entirely for pleasure, however, being employed for some days in towing barge loads of German ammunition and explosives far out into the Baltic, there to be sunk.
The day before the Squadron left for LUNEBURG to fly home, Sergeant LEMON and a party of eight sappers were briefed to cross the Baltic on this launch to COPENHAGEN as escort to a convoy of pleasure yachts. At the very last moment it was decided that the risk of attracting a magnetic mine in an all-metal boat was too great and the launch was left behind. The yachts reached COPENHAGEN and their crews, amongst whom was the Sergeant Major, enjoyed four days of Danish hospitality before flying back to England arriving a day after the main body of the Squadron.
Norway - Further Reorganization of 591
With the end of the war in Europe, it was early seen that the future of the 6th Airborne Division lay in the Middle or Far East. This imposed considerable reorganization on the Divisional Engineers since obviously the large number of officers and men in the lower Release Groups could not accompany the Division. It was finally decided that all the higher release group men in the other units should be gathered in 3rd Airborne Squadron and the Field Park, while those in the lower release groups should gather in 591. 249 Airborne Field Company was to become the Depot Company. Meanwhile, a similar reorganization was taking place in the 1st Airborne Division to provide a squadron of regulars and men of higher release groups to replace 591 Squadron in the 6th Division.
A New 591 Joins 1st Division
Returning from disembarkation leave, the new Squadron within a few days was en route for Norway to become a part of the 1st Airborne Division. It was a drastically altered squadron which finally settled in to a camp near OSLO. Many of the men, and most of the officers, had gone to 3rd Squadron and in a very few weeks were to be sailing as part of 5th Brigade Group for India and the Far East. Others had gone to 286 Field Park and were to find themselves by the end of the summer in Palestine with 6th Airborne Division proper. Of the officers, only Captain HINSHELWOOD and Lieutenant LOCKEY remained, and though amongst the NCOs the proportions were higher, all but twenty five of the sappers and drivers had been posted. Of the replacements, the vast majority were from 249 Field Company, including Captain SMERDON, Captain BENCE, Captain WOODCOCK, Sergeant Major CUNNELL and several of the senior NCOs.
Though many old friends throughout the unit had been posted, and though everyone was very naturally regretful at leaving a Division which had come to mean so much, there was a great promise that from the material now gathered under the banner of "591" an equally fine reputation could be built up in the 1st Airborne Division. At [unreadable] camp near OSLO the final interchange with 9th Squadron was effected and a few days later they left by plane for England and the 6th Division.
The Situation in Norway
First impressions of Norway were that there was no food, no cigarettes and far too many Germans. Until the whole Norwegian picture could be seen in its proper perspective it was difficult to accept as a matter of course the daily sight of Germans driving about the roads unguarded in large staff cars or on high powered motor bikes. The capitulation of the 100,000 strongly armed German forces in Norway had been a direct consequence of the German collapse [unreadable] in Europe and had obviously not been dictated by the sight of the Allied Occupational Force of some 8,000 operational troops, though surrender orders had been issued throughout Norway by the German High Command. The German forces were still a potential menace. Holding all the vantage points in the country, well armed, with colossal reserves of food and ammunition they could have held out wholly or in groups for many months. A very thick velvet glove, therefore, covered the iron hand of the liberating army.
Fortunately, the Germans had no fight left in them and, since they seemed likely to organize their capitulation with Teutonic thoroughness they were, to a large extent, encouraged to do so by the Allied Command. They were encountered throughout the country in every available camp, organizing their own distribution of food, transport and the deployment of their forces to the various tasks that were to be imposed upon them.
The Wehrmacht on Mine Clearance
Of these by far the largest was the lifting and disposal of the 200,000 mines laid by them during their occupation throughout the length of Norway. By the time that 591 Squadron arrived in Norway this stupendous task had been got in motion by the CRE of 1st Airborne Division and, under the supervision of the Divisional Engineers, was well under way.
From 9th Squadron were taken over the supervising of commitments over an area stretching 100 miles in every direction from OSLO and within a few days of arrival small parties of sappers under an NCO had been despatched to some of the more distant areas in which the Germans were working. The German parties comprised, for the most part, Engineers or men who had been specially trained in the lifting and neutralization of mines. The programmes for clearance of the various areas were entirely worked out by the German staffs and the main task of the Squadron IO was to ensure that these programmes were complied with. No easy task when the cumbersome machinery of the Allied Disarmament Commission imposed a delay of four days on all orders to the Germans!
Lieutenant [probably INMAN], who had joined the unit from 3rd Squadron, handled not only this but all the manifold complications of the control of Germans and the lifting of mines with thoroughness and tact throughout the unit's stay. It was once said, rather unkindly, that he was the only officer who did any work in Norway. The Germans normally worked in small parties of 10 under an officer or NCO. Supervising each party were one NCO and a sapper whose main task was to check the [areas?] cleared against those shown on the minefield plans or records. The fields had in most cases been laid with the utmost care and the records were elaborate and most accurate. There fatal accidents occurred in the parties under the Squadrons supervision but in each case the fault lay with the Germans employed in lifting and not with the plan.
3 Troop Go North
Within a few days of the arrival of the main body of the Squadron, 3 Troop under command of Captain HINSHELWOOD were sent 300 miles north to organize and supervise mine clearance in the TRONDHEIM area. Captain HINSHELWOOD, Lieutenant LOCKEY and some of the Troop established themselves on the small island of HOLDE accessible only across 100 miles of torturous track and a ferry which ran once a week. Detachments were sent to two other equally inaccessible places on the coast at AALESUND and KRISTIANSUND. In this area, Captain HINSHELWOOD with a battalion of Germans under command, organized the clearance of some 87,000 mines, a task which was completed 6 weeks later well ahead of schedule.
It was not all work at HOLDE by any means and within a few days of arrival the local paper announced a forthcoming football match, "The Red Devils v. HOLDE" Since the total strength of the "Red Devils" on the island was twelve, the winning of the match was a highly creditable performance. A few days later the correspondence column on the same newspaper carried a letter from the indignant pen of Lieutenant LOCKEY. On the island were the usual percentage of people to be found in all communities whose sole concern was the advancement of their own ends. Some of these had been complaining that demands for German labour to cut their grass, to lift imaginary mines from their doorstep and to generally provide cheap labour around their farms had been refused by the British Commander (Captain HINSHELWOOD). Lieutenant LOCKEY pointed out in vigorous language, translated by the attached interpreter into equally vigorous Norwegian, that the Germans had more important work to do and would continue to work solely under British direction. Relations with the remainder of the inhabitants were more than cordial and it was with real regret that the sappers said 'goodbye' to HOLDE in the middle of August.
Perhaps the highlight of the occupation was the visit of the Crown Prince to the island. As the sole British troops within 100 miles the detachment provided a guard of honour to meet the Crown Prince as he landed from his destroyer on the town quay. Captain HINSHELWOOD was presented to the Crown Prince, complemented on the smartness of the guard and on the work the sappers had done and later dined (and wined) with the Prince.
The Housing Problem
Shortly after 3 Troop had left for HOLDE the Squadron was faced with the very serious problem of accommodation. That at NOR[?]TRAND was held on sufferance from the Border Regiment, themselves desperately overcrowded. All efforts by the advance party to secure a camp or billets had been met with promises, denials, orders and counter orders from the harassed staff of Command Headquarters, but no accommodation. The position arose in that most of the suitable camps were held by Germans whom the Disarmament Commission were naturally reluctant to move. The rest were inhabited by men of the "MILORG", the Norwegian underground army - now very much above ground.
An ideal camp was found in the hills outside OSLO at LUTVANN, but the inevitable MILORG were lying around in it sunbathing, and although they were delighted to see British soldiers, it seemed that it was quite impossible for them to move. The Norwegian Army were approached and after days of delicate negotiation between them and the MILORG word was received that the 591 Squadron could move into the LUTVANN in two days time. The next day this was cancelled. Three days later the same message was received only to be cancelled again at the last minute. Again the message was received, and, no cancellation having arrived the Squadron moved to LUTVANN, burning their boats behind them by handing over the only shelter they had in Norway to the Border Regiment. Before this move the precaution had been taken of confirming the orders with the Milorg Commander at the camp and with no less a person than the Chief of Staff to the Norwegian Army in Oslo. It was something of a surprise, therefore, to be met at the camp with the news that the Milorg were not moving afterall.
While the Squadron bivouacked on the side of the road, excited discussions were held with the Norwegian Army Commander and his staff in OSLO. It appeared that the Chief of Staff (who had conveniently departed on leave) had no authority to order the Milorg out. Further discussion revealed that no one had any authority to order the Milorg to do anything. They were put under the discipline of the Army, were all impatient to get back to their homes and had threatened, if ejected from LUTVANN, to call a nationwide strike of all the Milorg in Norway, to the great embarrassment of everyone.
It was then pointed out that 591 Squadron had been solemnly promised the camp, that they were now camped with all their household goods on the fields outside, and that if nothing could be done they would be marched down to OSLO to bivouac in the main square outside Army Headquarters. Something was done, and that night the Squadron moved in to an uneasy partnership of the camp with the Milorg. Two days later the last of them moved to another camp that they'd known about all the time. There was no strike and no hard feelings - many of them being subsequently entertained at Squadron dances.
Other Adventures in Norway
Their reluctance to leave the camp was understandable. The accommodation consisted of a number of delightful log chalets hidden away among the trees. Each had a bathroom, hot water, radiators, electric light and a telephone. At times, the accommodation almost ran to one room per man. At the end of the camp stood a magnificent two storeyed recreation hall whose verandahs looked out over the tree tops to LUTVANN lake. Here, a week after their arrival, the Squadron held the first of a most successful series of Squadron dances.
In the early days there was a ration of one bottle of champagne per man, and always there were liberal supplies of wines allotted to each unit from the vast stores held in the country by the German army. Entertaining the Norwegians was not, therefore, difficult and in return there were few in the Squadron who had not got "their foot under the table" somewhere in the neighbourhood after a few days.
Several attempts were made to teach the Norwegians the English way of playing football but the results were not impressive. At one match there was a definite threat of the spectators joining in with drawn knives and the series was abandoned.
A Bouquet from the G.O.C.
It was the practice for the units stationed near OSLO to provide for four days at a time a ceremonial guard outside the Headquarters of Norway Command. After a week of intensive training under the Sergeant Major, groomed with a care normally reserved for film stars, a guard from 591 was mounted which would not have shamed the Guards themselves. It earned high praise from everyone and produced a personal message of congratulation from the G.O.C. - the second only that had been given in seven weeks. Some time later another guard was produced which, in the opinion of the Sergeant Major, was even better than the first but this time no bouquets were forthcoming from the General. No doubt he felt that since both those he had issued were to sapper units of the Division, further praise should be withheld.
By the beginning of August all mine clearance in the Squadron area had been completed and the detachments were recalled (reluctantly) from the villages throughout the country in which they had enjoyed for some time a monopoly of attentions from the Norwegians.
As the end of the Division began to move back to England, and to many not even the prospect of 14 days disembarkation leave could stifle the regret at leaving a land overflowing with blonde, berry brown, beautiful women, of sun worship and champagne. A country where women, clad in little more than a handkerchief, could drive alone in jeeps through the streets of the capital without exciting comment, and where to leave a party before four in the morning was almost a breach of hospitality.
The quayside at OSLO as the troopships left was thronged with cheering Norwegian men and heartbroken Norwegian women, and there is no doubt that in the years to come any man revisiting Norway had only to say "I was in Airborne" to be assured of a Royal welcome.
Swan Song on the Severn
Shortly after the return to England it was learnt with regret that the 1st Airborne Division was to be disbanded. To the Engineers of the Division was granted a reprieve to carry out Engineer work in the Southern Command, as the highlight of which a party under Captain WOODCOCK were rushed to BRISTOL to repair a gale damaged ferry pier on the Severn and to build on the wreckage the Squadron's last Bailey bridge. This feat was dramatically acclaimed in the local papers who spoke in glowing terms of "husky paratroopers of the famous 591 Airborne Squadron whose last task was to throw a Bailey bridge across the Dortmund-Ems Canal." The Tribute, though, inaccurate, provided a pleasant climax to the story of 591 Squadron. A story that had its beginnings on a peaceful Irish Lough and was to unfold over the skies of Normandy, in the frozen forests of the Ardennes, on the desolate banks of the MAAS, across the plains of Germany, and among the friendly hills of Norway. A story, not of valour and achievement more glorious than that of any other unit of the British Army, but of the part the Squadron played in the final victories - and the price it paid.