Lieutenant "Doc" Harvie

Lieutenant W. Alex Harvie


Unit : No.2 Medium Machine Gun Platoon, Support Company, 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment

Army No. : CDN 150


"Doc" Harvie was from Regina, Canada, and had been a medical student at Manitoba University, Winnipeg, before joining the army. In April 1944, the 21-year-old was posted to the 2nd South Staffords under the CANLOAN scheme, and took command of No.2 Medium Machine Gun Platoon. The following is his account of the Battle of Arnhem, jointly given with Lieutenant Philip Turner, a fellow Canadian of No.15 Platoon, as printed in Honour for All, by Allan A. Machie, 1946.


Harvie: Our boys didn't get a chance to go into action in Normandy on D-Day. We were reserve troops and as things turned out were not needed, so when we heard about the Dutch operation we were all pretty anxious to get cracking. We had had endless exercise, but never the real thing. We got another disappointment, however, when my outfit was told it was not going with the majority of the airborne division on D-Day to Arnhem, but was going on the second 'lift' on D-plus-one. Some of us began to worry there wouldn't be any Jerries left for us when we arrived the day after the party had started.


Turner: My job is to command the rifle platoon, so on the morning of the take-off, I got the boys down to the glider, finally checked the equipment and clambered aboard. At the briefing before loading we had heard that, so far, the airborne boys who had landed the day before - that is, on D-Day - were getting along all right, that they had had little opposition when coming down to land but that the Germans could be expected to mass more flak to greet us.


Harvie: I command a Vickers machine-gun platoon with our guns mounted on keeps, so my boys and their equipment occupy four gliders in all, but we had practiced loading and unloading so often that the machines were filled in a couple of ticks. Almost before we knew it we were airborne in our Horsa glider, riding high above the towplane, with a swarm of other gliders and towplanes formatting all around us.

        The trip across the North Sea was really dull, with nothing to remind us we were going into battle except the cheery wise-cracks of the  boys and the rushing of wind outside the glider. Once across the Dutch coast we could see huge areas where the Germans had flooded the countryside, with occasional houses standing deep in water. And then our rubbernecking ended abruptly as we crossed the wide Waal and began approaching our landing zone near Arnhem.

        The Horsa lost speed with a jerk and I realized that we had cut off from the towplane and were now on our own. Down below I could see several fields almost covered with broken gliders, looking like toys carelessly tossed aside. There was light flak coming up, but we were going down too fast to worry, and then in a matter of seconds we hit the ground near the field's edge, skidded onward through a row of trees, which tore off the glider's wings with a terrific lurch. Our Horsa came to rest not more than 100 yards from the spot we were told to aim for.

        Two companies dropped on D-Day already held the perimeter of the landing zone for us, so we unloaded in comparative safety, rolled the jeeps out and started to move off for our battalion rendezvous. The battalion, we knew from briefing, was supposed to be slowly fighting its way back along the Neder Rhine to relieve our paratroopers holding the bridges in Arnhem.


Turner: My trip over was just as uneventful as 'Doc's' but once we got to Arnhem we ran into trouble. Due to the confusion of so many gliders littering the ground, my Horsa was landed in another landing zone about three miles from the place where we were supposed to touch down. As we assembled after alighting the Germans opened fire on us with rifles from a fairly long range. We took cover and returned the fire, and shortly after the Germans beat it.

        My platoon was supposed to provide a rearguard for the whole battalion which was slowly moving from west to east toward Arnhem, giving protection to a convoy of ammunition which we had to get through to the boys in the town, so without knowing exactly where either my company or the rest of the battalion was, I led my men back toward Arnhem, keeping a watchful eye on our rear. By dusk Jerry snipers had caught up with us, so the platoon took cover in the buildings alongside the road and returned the fire all evening of D-plus-one.

        So far the fighting was not so bad. The Jerries hadn't closed in enough to use their multiple mortars, which were to cause the bulk of our casualties later on, and from signs we could see, it looked as if the Arnhem battle was definitely going our way. Anyhow, we were convinced that any hour we would hear the British 2nd Army's guns coming up from Nijmegen and see the first of the Guard's division of tanks nosing up to the Neder Rhine. Little did we dream what the next few days held in store for us.


Harvie: At the close of D-plus-one, my jeeps, with mounted Vickers, were assigned to protect the rear of the ammunition convoy which was moving along the road from Oosterbeck to Arnhem, trying to reach the battalion headquarters, and all during D-plus-two we moved slowly along the road at a walking pace. We had little action that day but the forward units protecting the convoy must have constantly run into trouble for we seemed halted more than we moved.


Turner: During the night of D-plus-one we continued backward along the road, and as the platoon halted in preparation for  a brush with the Jerries, the rest of my company joined me. We dug in and stood to all night and before the first light on D-plus-two, still doing a rearguard job, we began backing up toward the Arnhem bridge. The whole company was walking behind the transport column with 'Doc's' jeeps just ahead of us.

        Several times we were halted while the forward elements shot their way through Germans blocking the column, and once we were held up two hours while a pocket of Jerries was cleared out from a German barracks dominating the road.

        Apparently intelligence learned that the Germans were coming up in strength on our flank to attack the road, so my whole company was ordered to leave the roadway and occupy some high ground in the woods overlooking it. If there had been many Germans in the woods they must have scrammed when they saw us coming, because in a short time we had cleared out the stragglers and dug slit trenches inside the wood. Then, from some distance away, the Germans opened up with multiple mortars, which the boys unanimously agreed were Jerry's most effective weapon. There was little we could do but put our heads down and trust to luck, but the Germans, as usual, were reluctant to follow up the mortaring with an infantry attack. Instead, they sent two Tiger tanks into the woods after us, which came crashing through the trees, firing as they came.

        With no anti-tank weapons and with many boys cut down by flying shrapnel, we were ordered to retreat. We pulled out along the road until we came to a country church, reorganized our badly cut up company and dug in. There we were to stay until ordered to evacuate.


Harvie: While the Tigers were rampaging about the woods, the Germans moved up their mortars and opened up on the transport column on the road. It didn't take long for them to make a complete mess of most of the column. The transport vehicles, that is the jeeps, were ordered back and some of them made it, but in a matter of minutes most of the jeeps were flaming and ammo was exploding in all directions. Three of my jeeps with the Vickers were hit and in the confusion a fourth disappeared. Later I discovered it had joined another Vickers platoon holding out at the church, where Phil was, but I couldn't get through to it. I checked my boys and learned that I was separated from all except eight men of my platoon.


Turner: My first job when we got dug in around the church was to collect my platoon, but many of them had been wounded or killed so I finally rounded up 30 men of my company and helped the company commander to dispose of them around the church. I dug a slit trench about a hundred yards from the church, which we planned to use as an outpost covering the road.

        So far we were not too badly off for food, as we each carried 48-hour rations, and in the excitement of the first day's fighting we hadn't eaten much, but on the third day after landing we were reduced to half rations and on the fourth we had none. From then on we lived on vegetables which we could scrabble from the ground in the vicinity of the church. Most of us were punch drunk from lack of sleep, however, for we had been standing to almost continually since we hopped out of our Horsa.

        On D-plus-three, and on most days thereafter, those wonderful R.A.F. types flying unarmed Dakotas tried to get through to us to drop supplies, but because our lines and the Germans were seldom more than 100 yards apart naturally many canisters fell into the Jerry positions. It was agonizing to lie in our slit trenches and see panniers of food, ammo and medical supplies drop just 200 or 300 yards away from us, right into the Jerry lines. Some, of course, dropped behind our positions but whenever we tried to go out and pick up the canisters lying in no-man's land between the lines, the Germans opened up on us with mortars. After a few such experiences, we decided it was better to be hungry than dead.

        After D-plus-three my recollection of events becomes hazy for one day was very much like another. The Germans kept infiltrating our lines and occasionally snipers would pop up behind us and we would detail a couple of men to clean them up. Hour after hour it was more of the same. A constant guard was kept and when things were quiet some of the men would snatch at sleep while the others forced themselves to stay awake.


Harvie: When I dug in with my eight men from my platoon alongside the road, not far from the church where Phil was, I was joined by four paratroopers and two Poles who appeared from nowhere and decided they would fight alongside us. We had no communications with other units and every time we would try to send parties down the road during daylight, the Germans would open up with mortars from the high ground overlooking our positions. At night time it was too confused to move about contacting friends for the situation was so scrambled that the Jerries and our boys constantly got mixed up. Actually I learned, just before our evacuation, that my improvised platoon position was just a hundred yards from my company commander, Major Jock Buchanan, and the same distance from Phil, but I did not know it at the time. Hours, then days passed, but time meant nothing to us. We slept when we could, ate if somebody miraculously produced vegetables and kept our heads well down in the trenches to escape the drenching German mortar fire.

        When things quietened down temporarily I inched backward a few score yards and found a South Staffordshire officer, Major Robert Cain. From then on I joined up with him and served under his command until we were ordered to evacuate.

        Cain probably turned in the outstanding individual performance of the whole Arnhem battle, although many men of Arnhem were heroes. He had become separated from his company early in the fighting, and out of the confusion he improvised a new company of some 80 men along the road just west of the church. There he remained, holding that sector from about D-plus-two until the end.

        One day, D-plus-two or three, I don't quite remember which, a German Tiger tank came lumbering down the road towards us. Cain grabbed a Piat and a few bombs and sneaked round behind a house near the church. From just under 100 yards he fired and with the first few shots brought the tank to a halt. Some of the crew were killed, but others leaped out and ran, so Cain took half a dozen men with him and chased after them. When they were out of range he returned to the tank, which was still capable of doing us great damage, and from closer than 50 yards knocked it out with two Piat bombs.

        The last Piat he had fired too close to a wall and the blast from the bomb smashed him in the face, but when his men carried him in, blood streaming down his face, he refused to go to the regimental aid post and instead went right back into front slit trenches and encouraged his men.

        On the last afternoon in the Arnhem pocket three Tigers broke through our forward positions and came down the road towards Cain's makeshift company. Our position appeared hopeless. We had run out of Piat bombs and had no anti-tank weapons left, but Major Cain had one last brilliant stroke. He rushed to a light 75 howitzer artillery piece we had which was still working, helped the gun crew to manhandle it out of the gun position and wheeled it around the houses until it was facing the lead tank. The Germans, sensing what he intended to do, laid down a curtain of small arms fire and the tanks were firing wildly at him, but he urged the gunners on, then trained the fieldpiece on to the leading tank. The first shot brought it to a halt and the others wheeled about and left us.

        It was inspiring to serve with him for all during our hard pressed days and nights he kept appearing with grenades and Piat bombs which we had scrounged from knocked out positions.


Turner: It was not until about 5 o'clock on Monday afternoon, a few hours before the evacuation began, that 'Doc' found me. During a lull in the Jerry mortaring he came down the road to the church where my boys were still holding out. We hadn't retreated an inch from our original stand. That was only because the German troops opposing us had no desire to close in for hand-to-hand fighting. If we had had their advantages in mortar fire plus the tanks, we would easily have pushed them way back behind Arnhem. They relied on saturating us with shells and bullets. Even at night they would send up scores of Very lights and then rain a stream of machine gun tracer bullets over our heads all night long. Occasionally they would lob long-range rifle grenades into our positions just to keep us on the jump.

        Some of the Jerries were admittedly cheeky devils. One night one of them crept right into our positions and opened up with a light machine gun just 25 yards away from my slit trench. Before I could reply one of my sergeants got him with a grenade. Another night a German sniper passed through our outposts and parked himself in a house 25 yards behind us. In the morning light he opened up on us but before he had done much damage we had exterminated him.

        German S.S. troops resorted to their usual tricks. They donned the uniforms of dead or captured British and Polish soldiers and tried to infiltrate our positions. One daring Jerry in Polish uniform, who even knew the correct password, walked up to one of our company sections and coolly asked in a foreign accent, which the boys thought was Polish, how many Bren guns they had. He then walked calmly back in the direction of the German positions before our startled gunners could open fire.

        Around about supper time on Monday - which of course meant nothing to us as we had had nothing to eat for several days - a sergeant-major crawled to my slit trench and said Major Cain wanted to see me, so I reported to the stable where Cain had his headquarters and there was given the details of the evacuation. At that time the scheme for getting out, which we code-named 'Operation Berlin' was only provisional, but at dusk a runner came to me and confirmed the plan. Going from group to group I briefed my men and from the until about midnight we stood to, expecting Jerry to attack. For the past two or three days we had heard the British 2nd Army's guns on the south side of the Neder Rhine and that evening they laid down a concentrated fire on the Jerry positions to make them think we were about to make a large counter-attack. Just after midnight, having wrapped our shoes in bits of blankets and parachutes to muffle the noise, we began the withdrawal, each man holding the airborne jacket of the man in front. Our actual movement towards the river was fairly uneventful, or at least quiet in comparison to the din we had endured for eight days, and it was not until almost three on Tuesday morning, when we were about 150 yards from the river's edge, that the Germans opened up. Mortars began flying around us but they were probably hit-and-miss shots as Jerry began to guess that we were withdrawing. With the mortars came thousands of tracer bullets passing overhead, mostly high. This was largely for psychological reasons, to intimidate our men, but they produced the opposite result for as long as they were high we knew there was not any danger in walking upright.

        Holding on to each other, most of us got to the river without trouble, but the Germans obviously got wise to our withdrawal about then and began lobbing over mortar shells about three to five minutes apart. Until they could load on to the boats the men scattered and took to the ground, and in this confusion I lost the bulk of my platoon. When we reached the other side only four of my platoon men and myself showed up.


Harvie: I went out some hours earlier than Phil, long before Jerry had any idea we were going, so what was left of my platoon - that is eight men and myself - attached to the improvised company of Major Cain's, reached the river bank without any trouble. Down on the river edge rough shapes of assault boats showed up and after the walking wounded were loaded, we inched across the mud flats and waded into the water up to our knees.

        Alongside the boat a Canadian soldier of the Canadian engineers company that did the bulk of the evacuation job grabbed me under the shoulder and heaved me aboard. 'Come on there,' he said, 'It ain't very healthy out here.' I remember thinking how nice it was to hear a Canadian voice again. Then he thrust out his hand and said 'Hope you don't mind a Canadian cigarette.' Those were the sweetest words I'd heard in many long months.

        The rest of our story is pleasant. On the far bank we were given hot tea with rum in it and blankets around our shoulders and then we set off walking towards the medical station south of the river where we were loaded in trucks and driven down the Nijmegen-Eindhoven corridor. But after going through eight or nine days of the battle of Arnhem, there is only one thing we would like the world to know. And that is that in the opinion of two Canadians the British Tommy is the finest fighter in the world.


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