The Western Front, 24th March 1945

The Advance to the Baltic



Two Carriers of the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment


By the 27th March, the remainder of the 6th Airborne Division was able to commence its advance. Having taken the opportunity to secure an unopposed bridgehead across the Issel on the previous day, the 3rd Parachute Brigade was ordered to exploit eastwards in the direction of Erle, as part of the Division's general advance on Lembeck. The 9th Parachute Battalion got proceedings off to an eventful start; at 06:40, having come under enemy fire, "B" Company attacked Klosterlutherheim and a sharp action ensued, but within half an hour the village had been captured along with 184 Germans and a further 12 killed. The Battalion fortified itself within this locality but soon found their position precarious, coming under continual enemy pressure, most notably from self-propelled guns, and they were at one stage surrounded. At noon, however, American tanks, later followed by infantry of the 17th Airborne Division, passed into the Battalion lines and the situation calmed down.


Earlier in the day, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, having been unable to spare time for breakfast, moved off in heavy rain at 05:30. "B" Company, meeting negligible opposition, passed swiftly through the village of Burch and continued towards the woodland that was their next objective. Arriving at 09:30, No.4 Platoon came under fire from a Tiger tank blocking the road, but it withdrew after being hit by a PIAT. The Canadians dug-in around their objective but suffered casualties when they came under a considerable barrage of fire from a number of tanks and self-propelled guns based in woodland a quarter of a mile away. Faced with the unhappy prospect of having no choice but to make a frontal assault on these without the benefit of any artillery or armoured support, "B" Company were preparing to carry this out when, most opportunely, a squadron of tanks and armoured cars appeared on the scene. These obligingly returned heavy fire on the enemy positions whilst the Battalion went forward, forcing the enemy to beat a hasty retreat and so leaving the Canadians in possession of the wood.



The 5th Parachute Brigade, with the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment scouting ahead, then passed through the 3rd Parachute Brigade and took over the advance on Erle. The Reconnaissance Regiment entered Brunen without incident, but thereafter they brushed several pockets of enemy resistance and their progress ground to a halt. Coming under fire from some 20mm flak guns during the afternoon, "B" Squadron ordered its tank troop to attack these and several were duly silenced. Further probing of the enemy position though revealed that it was more substantially garrisoned by infantry and several self-propelled guns. "B" Company lost three tanks to the latter and could make no further headway.


The 7th Battalion, leading the 5th Parachute Brigade, was ordered to assist the Reconnaissance Regiment in clearing the enemy from this area. At 17:00, finding "B" Squadron pinned down on the enemy's front, Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin moved his "B" and "C" Companies around their right flank, leaving the remainder of the Battalion and its vehicles with the Reconnaissance Regiment with orders to follow up the main road once the way was clear. Battalion Headquarters and "B" Company continued to move further around the enemy position and towards its rear, whilst "C" Company made ready to attack their flank. This move, however, did not take place as the ground was found to be most unsuitable for an infantry assault, and so, as the light was also failing, Major Keene ordered his men to dig-in for the night before attempting a different attack in the morning. As they were carrying out these orders, the Company was spotted by the enemy, who then illuminated their positions by using tracer rounds to set light to nearby haystacks. "C" Company came under a heavy volume of fire and were pinned down; one of their platoons was badly caught out and lost 5 men killed and 16 wounded.


Due to the closely-wooded country and various other problems, radio communications within the 7th Battalion had broken down, and so Lieutenant-Colonel Pine-Coffin knew nothing of these developments. "B" Company, in contrast, had taken up its positions without much difficulty, with two platoons securing the crossroads in the enemy rear, and another pushing forward to act as a standing patrol along the road. This platoon had a most profitable night, taking numerous men prisoner who were quite unaware that the British had penetrated so far around their flanks. Acting on the information of one of these, Lieutenant Hinman led an 8-man patrol at midnight to attack two anti-tank platoons, and, quite remarkably, they captured 40 Germans, 14 guns of varying calibres, 8 37mm anti-aircraft guns and a collection of machine-guns at a cost of one casualty. With the way now cleared somewhat, "C" Company were ordered to take advantage of this success, and by 02:00 they had secured the crossroads and were digging-in. The road was now open and the advance could resume.


While all this had been going on, the 13th Parachute Battalion had given this area of contention a wide birth and pushed forward to occupy the high ground overlooking Erle. Due to a further breakdown in communications, Brigade Headquarters were unaware that they had achieved this, and so the 12th Battalion, who were to carry out the assault on Erle itself, were instead ordered onto the high ground, only to find their sister unit already in occupation. It had been hoped that Erle could have been taken unawares during the night, but much time had been lost to this trek across country and dawn was now approaching, yet it was raining very heavily, and the significant reduction in visibility that this offered was a welcome substitute. "C" Company led the Battalion into the town as it was beginning to get light, and the enemy, once alerted to their presence, erupted with a considerable amount of wild firing. The paratroopers nevertheless fought their way into the town and within 15 minutes each company had captured its objectives. Fighting continued for a full hour, but at its conclusion some 200 Germans had been killed or taken prisoner. This tally was increased shortly after when, quite ignorant that Erle had fallen, a column of enemy vehicles and despatch riders were shot up as they entered the town. Now that the presence of the British had become clear, German artillery shelled the town, but all were well dug-in by this time and few casualties resulted.