86TH FIELD REGT RA (HERTS YEOMANRY)
3 JUNE 1944 TO 9 APRIL 1946
LT. BECK [B. TROOP GPO]
FROM THE BATTERY CMD POST LOG
AND EXTRACTS FROM
LETTERS TO HIS WIFE
Sidney Beck, 26 May 1945, Stedorf
This text is copyright under the Berne convention.
All rights are reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, 1956, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrical, chemical, mechanical, optical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without my prior permission as copyright owner.
© Benjamin S. Beck 2000-12
One of the many problems connected with the planning of D-Day was the best means of giving fire-support to the assaulting infantry during the approach run to the beaches. Bombing did not meet the case, Naval gunfire would not be sufficient nor concentrated enough, the infantry could not support themselves as they normally would in the last stages of an attack. It looked as though the infantry would have to cover the last few thousand yards to the beaches without any protection from the enemy until someone had a happy idea. Why not put the Field guns into landing craft and let them fire over the heads of the craft carrying the infantry until they reached the beaches?
The 86th (Hertfordshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment R.A. under the command of Lt. Col. G.D. Fanshawe R.A. (later Brigadier G.D. Fanshawe D.S.O., O.B.E., R.A.) were given the task of perfecting the technique of firing from moving ships, a role never before allotted to the Royal Artillery and justifying once again its motto “Ubique”. The first experiments were carried out at Poole, in Studland Bay, in July 1943 using 25 pdr. guns on a Valentine tank chassis shackled in the hold of Landing Craft (Tanks) (L.C.Ts). Later a demonstration was given to the Master Gunner of St. James, Field Marshal Lord Milne, who travelled in the LCT carrying the four guns of B Troop of 341 Battery and watched the Regiment’s fire concentrated on the beaches while the LCTs steamed at 6 knots towards the target area. The fire was directed on to the target by a Forward Observation Officer (FOO) travelling in a small assault craft ahead of the LCTs and in wireless contact. The LCTs were kept on their correct line of approach by wireless signals from an accompanying motor launch fitted with radar.
The success of the idea was assured. It only remained to perfect the technique and train the infantry and artillery to co-operate. Further demonstrations and experiments were carried out at Kilmarnock and Tignabruich. After experiments with American equipment (the Priest 105 mm S.P. Gun) the Regiment was finally equipped with their assault guns - Sextons (25 pdr. guns mounted on a Ram tank chassis). In April and May 1944 final exercises were carried out in Studland Bay, co-operating with the infantry in realistic representations of D-Day under the watchful eye of General Montgomery. Here the problems of water-proofing, loading and unloading were all tackled and solved. By the middle of May 1944 everyone knew his job.
Towards the end of May the Regiment was concentrated in a tented encampment near Romsey, Hants (C 14 as it was known). The pretext of preparation for another exercise was kept up as long as possible but finally abandoned when the photographers arrived to take last pictures of the complete Regiment and individual Batteries. From then on time was taken up with packing, putting the finishes to the water-proofing (the L.A.D. and Battery Fitters working overtime to complete this very difficult work in time) and writing the last letters home.
Just before D-Day. Sidney Beck in front row, 6th from left
The Regiment was now divided into parties according to the craft on which the vehicles and men were to travel. The guns and crews remained at C.14, the soft vehicles which were not wanted in the early stages were sent away to rejoin us after the landing (nearly seven weeks later). The Observation Post crews joined their respective Infantry Companies. B Troop O.P. party comprising Capt. Perry, Bdr. “Joe” Meyer, and Gnr. Barker, were attached to the 7th Green Howards. They embarked on May 31. The trip to the docks was memorable only for the enormous loads consisting of a 68 wireless set, three days rations and a thousand and one articles of equipment which might “come in useful” - which were hung around every part of their anatomy, causing many rude comments about Christmas trees from the infantry. After three miles of footslogging through the streets of Southampton they were inclined to agree that the criticism was justified. When embarkation on the LSI Empire Lance was completed it slipped anchor and took up station in the middle of a line of a dozen LSIs anchored in the Solent.
A Troop O.P. party (Capt. Hall, L/Bdr. Waterton, L/Bdr. Mitchley and Gnr. Frost), whose job in the assault was to act as F.O.O. and control the fire of the Regiment during the run-in shoot, travelled by vehicle to the docks. After loading their small L.C.S. they ran alongside the LSI Empire Mace and were hoisted aboard.
Meanwhile back at Romsey Camp the gun-end officers and men were receiving the final briefing from the C.O. All place names were given in code with the exception of two, La Riviere and St. Leger. All maps and aerial photographs were carefully studies and the outstanding features and their code names committed to memory. Apart from the fact that we knew France was the destination no hint of the part of the coastline was given at the briefing. La Riviere was the name of the small seaside town where we were to land. Its causeway, shown clearly in the photographs as bristling with machine gun nests was to be our first target on the run-in shoot. As the infantry approached the beaches we were to lift our range to the area of the lighthouse which was a suspected observation post. St. Leger was the name of the high ground whose capture would mark the success of the first stages of the invasion.
During this period the O.P. crews in the confined space of the L.S.Is had their monotonous life relieved by Brains Trusts and Quizes, relayed by the ships loudspeakers; P.T. on deck; practice boat drill; briefing and the inevitable rumours and speculations. Daily checking of wireless sets, small arms and equipment was as strict a part of the routine as was a visit to the very excellent canteen. The Solent was choc-a-block with ships of all shapes and sizes ranging from Mulberry components to Destroyers and Cruisers all straining at the leash, waiting for the starting pistol which would set in motion the largest amphibious operation the world had ever seen. Tension was apparent on board, aggravated by frequent and depressing weather reports and unsettling forecasts.
At last, to everyone’s relief D-day was announced for June 5th. On board the L.S.Is maps were distributed, final briefing was carried out, equipment loaded into L.C.As messages from Monty, Eisenhower and the King were received. The L.C.Ts up anchor and began running down the Solent passing the great L.S.Is. Waves were running high. Off the I.O.W. the convoy stopped and hung around until a signal ran through the fleet. We turned round. Postponed. The suspense aboard all ships was almost unbearable.
The great decision was taken. Once again the Armada set sail despite most unfavourable weather reports. The L.C.Ts weighed anchor at 1000 hrs, once more passed the great L.S.Is and once more the waves were running high. Capt Perry and Capt Hall flashed signals by lamp “Good Luck” to 341 Battery’s L.C.T. as they steamed by. As we passed the Needles and felt the first Atlantic Swells we knew there was now no turning back. The documents marked “Not to be opened until the last possible moment” were now opened. Messages to the Troops from the King, Eisenhower, Montgomery and 50 Div Cmdr were read out in the Army Shelter under the bridge. Final briefing with correct names as well as their code names were given and the last instructions
Everyone was by now wearing his Mae West (life belt) and a check was made to see that everything was securely fastened down and the ammunition secure and dry. Spray and waves were washing over the sides. Soon we began to feel queer and the bags, vomit, began to be produced. The wind was dead against the bows, the boat heaving and swaying, chains and shackles grinding against each other and the tanks, the boat’s engines revving at high speed against the high wind. There was little comfort for anyone. Some tried to sleep in their vehicles.
B Tps L.C.T. was towing a fast motor launch to save its fuel. Three times before night fall the towing cable snapped with the strain of the constant buffeting of the waves. In the end it was cast adrift to come along under its own power. It was almost dark before we finally said the land was out of sight.
The L.S.Is carrying out O.P. parties did not sail until 1800 hrs. Accompanied by an escort of motor launches and led by H.M.S. Kingsmill (on which our C.O., Lt. Col. Fanshawe travelled) the passed the Needles at dusk. That night, unbeknown to the enemy the greatest Armada in the world was assembling off the coast of France in the very face of the enemy. Silently, in the wild darkness of that stormy night, darkened ships, no lights showing anywhere, plunged and tossed their way across the Channel. Peering in the darkness from the bridge of the L.C.T. one would have imagined one alone under the sky.
Reveille on the L.S.Is was 0230. Breakfast at 0300 on eggs and bacon. In the bowels of the ship, lit only by weak orange lights, sleepy soldiers loaded into L.C.As. At 0345 the tiny L.C.As were lowered in the darkness into a vicious sea, which tossed the 25 foot craft about like corks. A Tp O.P. party set off independently in their L.C.S. to position themselves to observe the run in shoot. B Tps O.P. party continued with the leading company of the 7 Green Howards. It was a 7 mile journey to the Normandy coast - a three hour journey of acute abdominal discomfort to one and all.
On board the L.C.Ts the long uncomfortable night came to an end at 0430 when preparations were begun for the run-in shoot. Blankets stowed away, a hasty breakfast snatched by those who felt capable of eating, ammunition prepared and guns checked. Wireless silence which had been maintained for more than 10 days was broken at 0530 as sets were switched on and communications checked. By now it was light enough to see the most amazing sight. The sea was literally alive with ships of all shapes and sizes as far as the eye could see. Just ahead were the small L.C.As of the 7 Green Howards and on either side were long lines of DUKWS, all heading in the same direction, all intent on the strip of beach still out of sight. The run-in shoot began at 0645 hrs while the L.C.Ts carrying our guns were still 7 miles from the coast. It was the signal also for the Navy to open up. Fast destroyers raced past the L.C.Ts firing their guns at the coast and even drowning the noise of our own guns.
H hour, the time for the first troops to set foot on the beaches was 0720. As the L.C.As approached the coast they were greeted by spasmodic fire from the German coast defence battery of 150 mm guns at Mont Fleury and the rattle of Spandaus. A great pall of smoke drifted along the coast line, the remains of the smoke screen laid by our aircraft and the smoke from the burning buildings from the bombardment and bombing.
A few L.C.As were seen to go up on mines by the majority picked their way through the mines to land safely. As the L.C.As ran the last 1000 yds to the beach the Regiments guns, still firing from the L.C.Ts and doing great work on the causeway, shifted their attention to the lighthouse area.
The 7 Green Howards landed at 0750, ahead of schedule. Their first objective was the capture of the Mont Fleury battery which dominated the coast. Although they landed on the wrong beach, B Tp O.P. party, after trudging across the sand, joined up with the attacking Company and pushed on towards the enemy Battery. (1)
Meanwhile the L.C.Ts carrying the Regiments guns were steaming up and down off the coast waiting their turn to beach. The three craft carrying A, C & E Tps beached first. A Tp went into action immediately on the narrow strip of beach with water lapping round their tracks. Enemy infantry and tanks were worrying the 7 Green Howards attacking the Mont Fleury Battery. The fire of the guns was directed on to the enemy by Capt Perry and Capt Greig (an F.O.O. attached to the Battery for the operation). With this support the Green Howards rushed and overpowered the enemy battery, the enemy gunners being demoralised by the very heavy bombing and naval bombardment during the assault.
By this time (0845) the second half of the Regiment were due to land. It was getting difficult to find a clear spot on the beach. The strong wind and tide had made the first boats ground almost sideways to the coast instead of head on and far too much of the beach was covered by ships’ sides. Also boats which should have pulled away after unloading had been damaged or stuck and the beach was fast becoming jammed.
B Tps craft came in along side an L.C.T. which had already beached. The first vehicle off its ramp had stuck in the water and in consequence none of the vehicles behind could get off nor could the landing craft close its ramp. Fortunately B Tps L.C.T. made a perfect beaching.
The R.E. detachment on board rolled out the roly-poly (a long hessian carpet strengthened with iron bars to form a firm base for the vehicles and prevent them cutting deep grooves in the sand) and the Sappers waded ashore. They were a Beach Maintenance Party. The guns had a short distance to run through water, dragging behind them flat “porpoises” containing ammunition.
Capt Hall, already landed, his part in the run-in shoot having been most effectively carried out, was waiting on the beaches to direct the vehicles and guns.
We joined the single line of traffic making for the only exit from the beach. The beach was by now a narrow strip between high water mark and the tide, crammed with boats and vehicles and men in seeming confusion. Rolling clouds of smoke from burning buildings and grass formed a fitting background. The first German prisoners standing dazed and bewildered amid all the activity were a centre of interest. One prisoner lifted a wounded Tommy out of the path of the vehicles.
The road leading from the beach passed a deep anti-tank ditch cut out on either side. If the Germans had mined the strip of road in between or cratered it, out exit would have been difficult.
B Tp went into action alongside the knocked out casements of the Mount Fleury Battery, only recently captured. The Command Post was established in a bomb-crater. Three Centaur tanks, manned by Royal Marines also occupied the area and for the first and last time in the campaign B Tp had 7 guns. As soon as they were in action, the other half of the Regiment were moved up from the beaches and A Tp came alongside B Tp to form a Battery Position.
Meanwhile Phase II of our particular operation was going successfully and by 1030 hrs the high ground west of Ver-sur-Mer was captured with little opposition. As previously arranged, a flying column of carriers then formed up in the village for its dash to capture the vital river bridge at Creully. Capt Perry’s carrier, which had landed separately on another part of the beach arrived at its appointed RV in time to go with the flying column.
As soon as possible the Battery moved forward to an area just north of Ver-sur-Mer. By 1230 hrs the new position was well established in time to give fire support to the flying column. This had by-passed the village of Crepon, had met and disposed of a small body of enemy infantry with H.E. and had reached the outskirts of Creully. The bridge was held by one enemy platoon. They were soon disposed of by a very accurate shoot from B Tp and a swift attack by the Green Howards. The vital bridge was ours.
The 5th East Yorks and another Coy. of the Green Howards were still meeting opposition at Ver-sur-Mer and Crepon in the rear of the flying column. Enemy mortars and snipers were very active. Progress was slow and by 1530 hours our infantry were held up between Ver and Crepon.
Meanwhile the flying column cleared Creully after much opposition by snipers and the ubiquitous Spandaus. However a position was consolidated south of the village and by 1400 hrs Capt Perry had established an OP. From here he engaged an 88mm SP gun which was forced to withdraw.
At 1600 hrs the Green Howards of the flying column, having reorganised, started the advance to the final objective with R B and Capt Greig as F.O.O. and a squadron of 4/7 Dragoons in support. The advance proceeded for ½ mile then the trouble started with four Shermans being brewed up in quick succession and infantry casualties being caused by small arms and mortar fire from wooded positions. The 88mm SP guns and enemy infantry were engaged by both Major Loveday and Capt Perry with directed fire from the Battery. By 1700 hrs the advance was again under way only to be held up by murderous fire from very heavy guns right on top of the advancing companies. This was quickly appreciated as being Naval salvoes and here the flexibility and efficiency of the Regimental wireless net saved very heavy casualties being inflicted on our men. The Battery Captain (Capt Kiln) who was still at sea in an L.C.I. was in touch with the Navy on a second wireless set. He was contacted on the Regimental net and he in turn contacted HMS Ajax and stopped the fire.
Pushing on, the infantry were again held up by enemy infantry who were swiftly dealt with by the Dragoons tanks. Within half an hour the infantry were again advancing, leaving behind 50 Germans en route for the P.O.W. cages on the beach.
Coulomb was entered but the southern outskirts were the target for Nebelwerfers, mortars, guns and Spandaus. All the fire was coming from fortified farm buildings housing what was known to be a Radar station. Capt Perry engaged with the Battery who shot perfectly.
It was then dusk and orders were received to form a Battalion pivot on the high ground west of Coulomb. Fire from the Battery was maintained to cover the withdrawal and no more was heard from the farm buildings until next day.
At the pivot slit trenches were dug, tea brewed and the first meal of the day consumed at midnight.
The Battery, busy supporting the flying column, had not been able to advance beyond Ver-sur-Mer. The E. Yorks were still held up between Ver and Crepon and everyone was troubled by snipers. Many snipers were hiding in the woods just behind the Battery Position and on one occasion shells from our Sherman tanks engaging the snipers landed in the Battery area, fortunately without damage. The Battery remained in that position for the night. All night long the rattle of A.A. guns from the beaches and the moving patterns of the tracer shells told their story of the desperate enemy air attacks on the beaches and shipping. We thought of the R.Es beach company who had landed with us and thanked our stars they were on the beach and not us.
That night, unbeknown to the Battery, Major Loveday was lying seriously wounded in an open field alongside his motor cycle. Returning from a late conference he was shot through the lung by an enemy sniper. Unable to shout above a whisper he lay semi-conscious in the track until found at dawn by a Signals Sergeant. He was evacuated to England where he made a remarkable recovery, enabling him to rejoin the Battery later in the campaign.
Advance parties moved off at 0530 hrs but the infantry were still held up before Crepon. A little battle took place close to the Battery area as 200 German soldiers were driven out of the woods behind the guns by flame throwing Shermans. About 0800 hrs the opposition at Crepon had been overcome and we prepared to move. By 1000 hrs we were on the road, passing through Ver-sur-Mer, Creully and St Gabriel. Bewildered French peasants stood by the roadside waving gaily to us, but for the most part the villages were deserted. The scenery was reminiscent of Kent - orchards, cornfields, wooded vistas, quaint villages. But the cornfields contained dead Germans, the villages were shattered and the edges revealed knocked out 88mm SP guns. The new gun area was in an open field S of St Gabriel, just short of a small crest. On the further crest our tanks could be seen manoeuvring before dashing over the top. The Battery Command Post established itself in a ditch between the two gun troops and we stayed there the night.
The night was memorable for an alarming report that parachutists were seen dropping around the area. Everyone stood to from 0100 - 0400, patrols toured the area looking for the enemy in ditches by the roadside. It was dangerous work in the dark - you were liable to be shot by your own sentries! After weary hours of watching we came to the conclusion that someone had mistaken the trees on the skyline to be parachutists!
The enemy were putting up stiffer resistance at Brecy, Rucqueville and Martragny. The Battery retired about a mile to join the other two Batteries who were in action in a wooded area due west of St Gabriel. There was more cover in this area which appeared to have been an enemy position quite recently. Copies of Mein Kampf and other books were found in a dug-out, which a miscellaneous collection of German Army equipment.
We were heartened today to see more British tanks going up to the front - a good sign that the work on the beaches was going well. We were now too far from the beaches to hear the AA guns but the tracers were still visible at night.
We had a busy period of firing between 1800 - 2000 hrs as our OP engaged enemy tanks and motorised transport seen on and crossing the high ground of the St Leger feature.
The Battery moved up and established a position around a farm on the northern outskirts of Martragny. Our Machine Gunners had occupied the position the night before but had moved on as the advance continued. Except for an occasional farm woman the village was deserted. There was a considerable amount of firing during the day - enemy concentrations at Buceéls and in a wood S of Lingévres were shelled and a Divisional target was fired on a cross roads which became known as Jerusalem Cross Roads.
Our OPs were now established on the crown of a hill overlooking Tilly-sur-seulles, a feature marked on the map as Pt 103. The enemy were still in the woods and villages on the lower slopes and the OPs were not in a very happy position. To reach them it was necessary to go across country, the main roads and lanes being either in enemy hands or under enemy fire. Lt C.B. McCaie our A/CPO had to take a Sherman tank to the OP and took with him TL.B’s carrier to bring him back. Unfortunately nothing further was heard or seen of this party. Later we learned that the tank and carrier were ambushed. Lt McCaie was killed by a grenade thrown into the turret and the crew of the tank and carrier were taken prisoners. (2)
A welcome sight was the arrival of our first mail. The letters had been written on 31st May and only just reached us - but it was a welcome sign that the Army Post Office was now functioning.
During the night we fired several D.Fs tasks and harassing fire tasks in support of our OPs around Pt 103. They had a very exciting night as the enemy made repeated attempts to dislodge them.
During the morning the 7th Armoured Division moved down from Bayeux to attack Villers Bocage and we fired in support of their advance. At midday we moved a mile or two west and south and occupied an orchard just north of Jerusalem Cross Roads.
Our OPs on Pt 103 were still having a very sticky time. L/Bdr Butcher and Gnr Whitelock of B Tps Carrier crew were wounded by mortar fire splinters and had to be evacuated.
Our troops make determined efforts to capture Tilly-sur-Seulles but the enemy brings up tank reinforcements and holds on grimly. The battles raged all day involving considerable firing from the gun end. A very hard and exciting day for everyone, especially the OP.
A warm sunny day, much quieter than yesterday, with everyone reforming and regrouping. We got time to study our surroundings, improve our slit trenches and generally improve our comfort. Numerous DF targets were fired during the day on many areas between Tilly and Jerusalem Cross Roads. Enemy concentrations around Cristot were repeatedly shelled, four Corps targets and two Divisional ones around the town. Maj. Corke assumed command of Battery. (3)*
There were reports that the enemy were withdrawing from Tilly but they proved false and severe battles developed in and around Tilly in the afternoon. All OPs reported heavy mortar and machine gun fire and the Battery was called upon to fire many DF tasks towards the evening. An enemy Ferdinand SP gun was reported near the Jerusalem Cross Roads in the morning but no-one appears to have seen it. 22 Armd Bde of the 7 Armd Div succeeded in entering Villers Bocage only to be forced to withdraw when our infantry were unable to consolidate. British daily papers for June 8th arrived. (4)
Our infantry met murderous Spandau and mortar fire in another fruitless attempt to capture Lingevres and the road to it from Tilly. Capt Hall advancing on foot with the leading infantry was killed and L/Bdr Mitchley, his OP/A wounded during this attack. Many targets were engaged by the guns today, tanks, mortars and infantry all being effectively dealt with. A very hard, tiring day for the gun end and every one depressed at the new of A Tp commander. (5)*
After yesterday’s very noisy spell we had a relatively quiet day as both sides regrouped. Casualties on both sides had been very heavy yesterday. In the morning an OP spotted some enemy tanks in harbour near Lingevres and they were heavily shelled. During the day several members of the Battery managed trips into Bayeux where our wagon lines were established in the grounds of a large farm.
This morning 49 Div attacked Cristot, supported by a barrage. We fired 144 rounds per gun. To the west of Tilly the DLIs put in another attack and by sheer courage advanced two miles. Our total ammunition expenditure for the day was 1147 rds. No letters arrived today and we hear that supplies are held up by bad weather. However, each man receives 5 cigarettes as a personal gift from Monty to 50 Div. At night a very heavy AA barrage keeps us awake as enemy planes fly low overhead. Two are shot down behind us.** (6)
Another quiet day as our infantry regrouped. There is intermittent mortaring of our front line areas and Lt Col Fanshawe is wounded in the hand by mortar splinters. Some more reinforcements arrive and we listened eagerly to their stories of England. We were disturbed by their accounts of Buzz bombs.*** (7)
This being a Sunday it was relatively quiet and peaceful. Many of the Battery managed to visit Bayeux and have a look at the Cathedral and the replica of its famous tapestry which was on view. Many, too, sampled Calvados wine for the first time and at least one member of the Battery had to be carried back to the gun position. (8)
Rain and wind all day make conditions for our infantry and OPs simply terrible. Another unsuccessful attack was made against Hottot and we were called upon to fire stonk after stonk. Major Swann, who was 342 Battery Commander was killed in action during this attack. By tea time we had fired 1050 rounds. A fierce counter attack developed before dark and we fired a further 600 rounds before the enemy gave up the struggle.* (9)
The struggle for Tilly and Hottot became more fierce. We fired 1350 rounds during the day in support of the attacking infantry. Tilly changed hands several times during the day but by nightfall our troops were at last in full possession.** (10)
A day of rest and reorganisation. We had a change round of officers. Major Corke became our B.C., Capt Kilne went to 342 Battery, as B.C., Lieut Wood became A Tp Commander, Lieut Dorey was appointed B.K., Lieut Craston became CPO and Lieut Kalbraier A Tp GPO. We were visited by men of the Gloucester Regiment who were taking over the line. They were shown the self propelled guns which were to support them and they cheerfully exchanged experiences with the gunners. The gunners did not want to become Infantrymen and strangely enough the infantry had no wish to become gunners. Our recce parties went ahead and prepared a new position near Buceels.
We had an early morning move. We passed the ruins of Jerusalem Cross Roads where gangs of Res were already clearing the roadways. A Tp occupied a small orchard with B Tp in front in an exposed position in a corn field. B Tp hid their Sherman and Command Post under a tree and L/Bdr Lathwell planted branches all round and converted it into an artificial copse. The Battery Command Post found a comfortable barn but dug an emergency post in the field behind, just in case. The OP joined the 1st Bn Hampshires in action opposite Hottot.
We learned that the OPs were restricted to firing only 30 rds HE in 24 hrs. Supplies of all kinds had been held up by the worst gale for years which had been raging in the Channel for the last 5 days. This explained why we had received no mail for over a week. B Tp acquired a pet hen (found by BSM Thompson in a lane with its legs trussed together!) The hen laid and immediately the Troop Command Post staff drew up a roster!
We fired several counter mortar targets during the day. Our OPs were subject to harassing mortar fire from the neighbourhood of Hottot. They were enduring very uncomfortable conditions in slit trenches in open fields and hedges and the OP crews were relieved every 24 hrs. During the afternoon there was some aerial activity. A low flying ME 111 roared across the area hotly pursued by a Spitfire who was chased by another ME 111. Unfortunately we never saw the finish. An enemy plane was a rare sight which was a great tribute to the RAF. Lt. Bartlett posted to Battery.
A warm sunny day and we never fired a round all day. The long awaited mail arrived and a gift of 5 cigarettes a man from the 50 Div Cmdr. In the early evening we fired our first Army Group target. An enemy heavy AA Bty near Caen had been giving our Marauders a lot of trouble. Before the Marauders bombed Caen that night we fired 10 rds gunfire from the Army Group artillery. From our gun position we could see the terrific pall of smoke over the target area. Later the Marauders went in and made a successful raid. That evening we were busy preparing for a barrage in support of an attack by 49 Div on Cristot.
The barrage began at 0415 hrs and we fired 128 rds per gun. Later the CRA reported “Barrage was a tremendous success”. As the attack progressed we fried another barrage of 110 rds per gun at lunch time, cursing as always at the frequency with which meal times coincided with a period of hard firing. We were called upon to fire many opportunity targets and firing continued all night with harassing tasks. Just before dusk “F” Sub gun had a premature, fortunately outside the bore and no one was injured. During the day, which had been overcast, 5 MEs flew over the gun position and caused quite a stir. The bofors gun about a quarter of a mile in front of our guns opened up and joined in the general noise.
It rained and blew all day and we felt sorry for the infantry. 49 Div was still progressing and had reached Cheaux and Rauray supported by several fire plans and giving us considerable firing. In our exposed position there was little shelter from the elements and our canvas bivvies gave little comfort to the resting gunners. We were cheered however by two sackfulls of mail but the letters spoke of more buzz bombs and created some uneasiness of mind.
We were cheered by the news of the capture of Cherbourg by the Americans and we all began to speculate when it would be ready for use as a port for supplies and reinforcements. The Big Plan must be going well. Our work during the day consisted mainly of small fire plans in support of patrols of the 1st Bn Hampshires in and near Hottot. In the night we fired on a number of targets giving a warm welcome to 2 SS Panzer Divs arriving on our front. Monty himself sent the order and told us to “Give it to them hot”. We did! Also engaged fire plan for 1 Hants who sent out a patrol under cover of fire to capture a prisoner. Patrol successful. (11)
A relatively quiet day, but the night was as noisy as ever with harassing targets. Our C.O. visited the Battery area and congratulated us on our shooting. We were also reminded that there was such a thing as blanco! During the day B Tp command post had “acquired” a duck which was promptly named Donald. The Recce Party found it wandering about in a deserted farm near Cristot which had been visited as a possible new gun position. Donald was put in an empty ration box lined with straw. As he seemed to thrive on Army biscuits he solved the problem of our surplus Compo biscuits. (12)
A Tps S.P.s now looked like apple trees while B tp were endeavouring to disguise themselves as farm implements. The Air OP took a calibration shoot during the morning, otherwise the day was quiet. In the evening we were placed under 4 hrs notice to move. The enemy threatened a counter attack on Rauray. In the event of success, 33rd Tank Bde would counter attack with the 86th in support. Recce parties were out and returned in the dusk with gloomy reports about a bad position.
During the day a fleeing FW 190 roared across the gun position. Our Bren gunners opened up and Sgt Stow, to his great relish, fired his Browning from G.B. Sherman.
Harassing fire targets all night, during which we fired nearly 600 rds.
We took another look at our new gun areas, just north of Cristot in open fields which were pitted with shell holes as a result of our barrage last week. There were dead cattle everywhere and the stench was terrible. Cristot itself was deserted and shell-torn. We “rescued” two ducks from a deserted farm and they joined B Tps hen at the Command post.
In the early evening an enemy shell landed about a quarter of a mile short of the guns. At the same time we witnessed a most cheering sight. A long black stream of Lancasters and Halifaxes roared overhead and we could see their bombs dropping some way in front. Huge clouds of smoke drifted NE in the strong wind. We learned that Villers Bocage was the scene of this terrific raid. At least three planes were seen to be hit by Flak. Later in the evening we learned that the 12 Panzer Div was located in Villers Bocage and the surrounding woods and suffered great punishment in the raid.
We heard that the enemy attack on Rauray did not materialise and we did not move after all. We continued supporting the 1st Hants, still in position opposite Hottot. The OPs reported that a D.F. target we fired last night had produced screams of agony.
Last night some enemy shells landed near E Tp position. We took the warning and spent the day digging our bivvies in. At nightfall everyone was sleeping below ground level.
An unpleasant rainy day spent in our bivvies with occasional targets. An enemy prisoner captured during the afternoon reported the position of an enemy Bn HQ. The target as recorded as M.100, which showed how much work the Command Post staffs had been doing with their target records. M.100 was engaged at 2000 hrs.
We learned from Capt Dorey who had just paid a visit to the beaches that A Tps L.C.T. was stranded on the beach with two gaping holes in its port side. It must have run onto some mines on its second voyage.
We were up early, at 0300 hrs, to fire a short Fire Plan to support two fighting patrols sent out by the Devons who were operating to the east of the Hants. They got one prisoner, killed 2 and wounded 2. The Devons had 5 casualties and the Fire Plan was prolonged to 0420 hrs to help get the casualties out. Today was American Independence Day. At 1200 hrs we fired a Salute to America target on the village of Anctonville, firing supercharge at extreme range. Recorded as target U.S.1. (13)
Flying low below the clouds 8 ME swept across the gun area in the afternoon. All the Brens and Brownings opened up. BSM Thompson from the turret of G.B. claimed a direct hit as one plane was seen to fall smoking behind the woods near Chouain. The Bofors AA gun site in front of B Tp was hit, one man killed and two men wounded. In the evening more MEs flew over, but too high for small arms fire.
We fired two barrages in the early morning on the Hottot road. At 1200 hrs the 1st Hants sent out patrols which became over confident and got ambushed. We fired two emergency targets to help get the wounded out. (14)*
About 1330 hrs we dived for our slit trenches. For about 10 mins the Regimental area was shelled by 105 mm which fall about 300 yds from the Battery Command Post. Splinters flew across both Tp positions. The only casualties were a few cows. It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good - a cow attacked a pig and wounded it. Anyway that was Corbin’s story and he killed the pig “which gave itself up” . . . so it was pork for dinner that day. (15)**
After yesterday’s shelling we were relieved to learn that we were to move forward tomorrow. Recce parties prepared the new position near La-Belle-Epine.
In the afternoon the Corps Cmdr visited the Regt. but was confined to 342 Battery area. For the first time for a long time we fired no HF tasks during the night. Instead loud speakers were tried on a new enemy division - the 276 Div consisting largely of Poles which had just come into the line.
We moved forward to a position just South of La-Belle-Epine, half the Regt moving at a time. We were now supporting the 1st Bn Gloucesters of 56 Bde who had moved into position in the difficult wooded country just North of Granville. On the way to the new gun area we passed through Verrieres and Lingevres both badly ruined by our shell fire. We were cheered by the sight of several knocked out Panthers at various cross roads and everywhere there were signs of very heavy fighting. The new gun area was difficult to occupy and each troop had difficulty in siting their Command Post. The Battery Command Post moved 3 times, their original farm house being filthy and overrun with many dirty undressed children, all apparently under 7 yrs old. They finally established themselves in a hole in a field magnificently roofed by Sgt Hicks with some “salvaged” oak beams. A Tp guns were at the back edge of this field, camouflaged with nets and vegetation. B Tp were on the other side of the lane with their guns lining the hedge and their pivot gun, H Sub, in a different field from the other three. The ground sloped down to a stream in front of us and beyond lay a wooded hill on the other side of which was the enemy. A few men who had been lucky to get a few days rest at a camp on the beach, returned in the afternoon and tormented us with their stories, especially one, about a bottle of beer a man. Major Corke established the first Battery Tac H Q and at first we all wondered whether it ought not to have been called “TIC HQ”. However we got accustomed to the idea and Sgt Hicks German motor cycle and side car was in great demand
2300 hrs. Much bombing of Caen by Lancasters.
The night staffs of all the Command Posts worked all Night preparing a Fire Plan “Maori”. There was a long lift of targets which were on call to code names of animals. At dawn the South Wales Borderers on the Right and the Essex on the left started their push to cut the Hottot road.
All morning progress was very slow, the enemy making much use of mines fields and well concealed Spandaus. In the early afternoon enemy tanks and infantry moved up to counter attack. Our leading troops ran into a mine field in an orchard and Capt Pamphilon, F Tp Cmdr was killed and his OP/A badly wounded on a mine. By 1530 hrs a gap was made in the mine field, but the enemy threw in another counter attack. Fighting continued until dusk with the enemy staging many attacks which were all broken up by our concentrated artillery fire. At the end of the day we had advanced about 1000 yds with heavy casualties to the South Wales Borderers. During the day Capt Wood and A Tp OP crew had narrow escapes. A 105 mm shell burst just in front of their carrier without causing any casualties or damage. Later they were nearly crushed by our own tanks advancing over the ditch they were occupying. A hard day at the gun end which was now well established. Tac HQ had settled down well in a small cafe and they had started their own counter battery organisation. However, Tac HQ caused a heavy strain on our depleted DR service. Some troops in the neighbourhood told us of an ME that strafed the main road behind the gun position about tea time, and sure enough it appeared at 1630 hrs - no damage inflicted however, except on the nerve of RHQ staff who were living by that road.
Enemy counter attacks threatened all during the day but exchanges of artillery fire seemed to deter the enemy. A fairly quiet day at the gun end and some of us made friends with some nearby American first aid men. They were eager to swop anything for a tin of sardines and as we were sick to death of them we made some quick deals. “Camels”, ham and egg paste, (Americans say they can’t stand the goddam stuff) and Nes Cafe were very welcome.
Our OP crews were about 5 yds away from a U.S. Post and maintained a close liaison. The American fire orders caused some amusement, “Don’t fire till I tell you Hank” seemed to be the equivalent of our “Fire by order”. The noisy Thunderbolts overhead also reminded us that we were directly on the flank of the U.S. Army. During the last few days there had been a few reports from the OPs that some rounds were falling short. Although another Regt was suspected our C.O. called a GPOs conference and our guns were re-calibrated on the latest measured wear data. We had done so much firing since D day that the guns were now well settled in and the wear had been appreciable. Just before dusk we saw in the distance to the east the great bombing offensive against the Caen area. Over 450 bombers and more than 2000 tons of bombs were used in this raid we learned from the radio the following morning. In the gathering gloom we could see the bright flashes of enemy A.A. fire and the scarlet glow of the many fires from the town below.
At dawn the S.W.B’s and the Essex were again counter-attacked by the enemy at Granville. The enemy used mortars and H.E. on our forward troops all through the attacks and Lt. Jones at 462’s O.P. was fatally wounded by a direct hit on his carrier by a 105 mm. shell. After 90 minutes the attacks were broken up and the remainder of the day was relatively quiet. During the early evening the Glos. sent out small patrols to brew-up a knocked out enemy tank to prevent the enemy salvaging it. The Essex however mistook the patrol for enemy sappers and the patrol was pinned down by heavy small arms fire from our own troops. So the project had to be cancelled. Once again the night duty staffs in the Command Posts had a busy time preparing a fire plan for tomorrow. (16)
The Hants and Dorsets over on our left flank made another great effort to capture the Hottot salient where the enemy had been holding out fiercely for some weeks. We swung left to support them by firing a smoke screen on the flank of a rolling barrage. It was a long screen covering the top of a long hill up which our troops had to fight to capture the main road through Hottot. As the enemy were well entrenched the attack progressed very slowly and the smoke screen was stopped several times. In the end after we had fired more than 340 rounds of smoke the fire plan was abandoned. Later we learned that the Colonel of the 1st Bn. Hampshire Regt. was killed leading his men on this very difficult task. Our own front was quiet all day, our O.P’s tried unsuccessfully to score a direct hit on the knocked out German tank. Another patrol was arranged to brew it up but in view of yesterday’s farce the Glos decided to call it off. (17)*
A red letter day for everybody. This was D plus 37 for most people and for the first time since D minus 2 we could rest our aching gums and eat real white bread again. But better news was to follow and the B.K. became the hero of the day when he produced a bottle of beer per man. It cost 15 francs and you had to return the bottle but it was Tennants of pre-war standard and strength. The beer also brought with it a spate of rumours of big moves and some of us were convinced that the Regiment was returning to England to make a fresh landing. Yes it was a lovely bottle of beer and a lovely rumour but they both went quickly. However there were moves in the wind as our recce parties went off and the infantry changed over positions.
Another quiet day in which we heard still more rumours and speculation was rife. There was little firing and only patrol activity on our front. We heard of a possible source of veal but were not likely to get any before we moved. Cleaning and personal maintenance were the order of the day. Our letters were arriving fairly regularly which helped no end to keep up our morale but our letters home seemed to take much longer. We saw only an occasional newspaper and we looked forward to the daily issue of the T.T. Times usually read out over the Tannoy. This position pleased B. Tp’s pets and we got a lot of fun watching Donald the Duck leading his two bigger sisters down to the stream. (18)**
The Regiment made all preparations to move. The O.Ps. returned, lines were reeled in and ammunition handed over to the 74th Field Regt. We had a full day’s maintenance and packing. In the midst of these quiet preparations machine guns opened up in the woods in front of us and bullets whizzed low over the gun area. We manned our weapon-pits and grasped our rifles, wondering if an enemy patrol had broken through. Telephone lines buzzed and Capt. Dorey led a small patrol into the wood on a recce. For an uncomfortable 15 minutes the Battery Area was swept then all was quiet. Later we learned that the 1st Royal Tanks were exercising their guns in the wooded area and we were getting the ricochets. We breathed again and the incident made a very good yarn when recounted to our friends in the residue who arrived in the morning, having left England on D + 36. They had many tales to tell us of narrow escapes from V1s and exciting times in the channel. They brought with them our NAAFI Rations. Writing paper was now very scarce and there was some competition to get the eight or nine writing pads. In the afternoon recce parties departed to a new gun-area and we were warned to move in tomorrow.
A hot dusty day for our move. The tanks travelled across country via special tank tracks marked with white tape. The route took us through Lingevres and Buceels, missing Tilly. The track took us across open corn fields, through orchards, down twisty sunken lanes, across streams and main roads, past knocked-out tanks, dead cattle, mined farmhouses and across gun positions of neighbouring Regiments. Our route was plainly marked by the long cloud of dust which drifted high across the Normandy countryside. One could be excused losing one’s way in such conditions. The soft vehicles, who left after the tanks, arrived quite some time before them. Our new Battery Area was in the middle of large open cornfields with not a shred of cover for miles. In this area, just S.E. of Fontenay le Pesnel, were packed more guns than we had seen the whole campaign. We were only about 100 yards from two troops of the 116 Field Regt. (of 59 Div. who we were supporting.) We learned that the enemy was less than 2500 yards away and despite the blistering hot sun we dug frantically fast. Ammunition, 500 rounds per gun, was already in position when we arrived but it all had to be dug in and prepared for tomorrow’s fire plan. We were so cramped for space that “A” Echelon was placed 300 yards in front of the guns. “B” Echelon was in the village of Duoy St. Marguerite. In the evening Major Corke and Capt. Wood joined the Northants Yeo. at Audreieu in preparation for the dawn attack tomorrow.
Dawn came in quietly under cover of a thick mist and we awoke to find all around us in the cornfield Shermans and Churchill flame-throwing tanks waiting silently for the attack. They belonged to the 33rd Armoured Brigade who were supporting 59 Div. in the attack on Noyers railway station which barred our way into Villers Bocage from the East. The attack began at 0530 hrs. when the air suddenly became alive with shells from the massed guns. A colossal barrage. In the first two hours we fired over 1500 rounds from the Battery and the noise was terrific. We ate our breakfast as we fired. Firing continued all day. By tea-time we had expended over 1000 rounds and by midnight out total expenditure was 3370 rounds. Cordite fumes swirled around the guns and in the evening hung low over the ripening corn. A very hot, tiring day, not relieved by any good news. 177 Brigade on our left had a very bad start when 12 Shermans ran into a cunningly concealed mine-field. Despite this they reached their objectives but being too weak on the ground were counter-attacked before they had time to consolidate and were driven back almost to where they started. 197 Brigade on the right reached the station and church at Noyers after some bitter fighting but owing to the failure on their left had to withdraw again to prevent exposing themselves to a flank attack. At 2300 hrs just after it had got really dark, the whole area was raided by single German bombers. Bombs and flares were dropped over Caen away on our left. The A.A. fire was terrific and we lay in our slit trenches watching the patterns woven by the tracer shells.
Anti-personnel and oil bombs were scattered over a wide area but fortunately none landed near the battery.
The attack was resumed at 0500 hrs. but owing to heavy and effective enemy D.F. fire on our forming-up areas the attack did not really get going until mid-day. We then fired a quick barrage to cover the advance of flame-throwing tanks, then targets followed in quick succession. We had five O.Ps. out in action and orders for Mike and Uncle targets rained upon the Command Posts. By evening a certain amount of progress on our front had been made and our troops consolidated for the night. Almost immediately afterwards the Division on our immediate left flank were severely counter-attacked. From 2000 hrs. onwards the whole Divisional Artillery fired D.F. tasks in rapid succession and the roar of the gunfire thundered over the cornfields. At 2200 hrs. the situation had not improved and 59 Div. Artillery joined in with H.F. tasks. For two solid hours until midnight we kept up a rapid rate of fire on several targets and the whole area as far as the eye could see was one sea of belching flame and cordite fumes with the ground trembling under the roar. In the middle of all this confusion the German single raiders visited the area. The A.A. fire was even more intense than last night and to give the lie to the person who said “It’s one of ours” a plane dropped huge orange flares directly overhead. Night changed instantly into day and our faces took on ghastly hues in the unnatural light. A rain of A.P. bombs crackled down away on our left; a stick of H.E. bombs fell on either side of the roadway about 300 yards behind the guns and a farm to our right rear went up in flames. Every man stayed at his post and the guns kept up their murderous rate of fire. Then at midnight a hush fell over the great gun-area as the guns ceased firing. Except for the noise of weary gunners picking their way through piles of cartridge cases and ammunition salvage and the crackling of the burning farmstead everything became unbelievably quiet. We turned in to our blankets with a feeling of triumph.
Those of us who had been on night duty saw an unforgettable dawn. The Eastern sky was filled with every conceivable shade of red from rose-petal pink to vivid scarlet with great feathery clouds extending over the dome of the heaven. Into this beautiful scene a long black stream of Lancaster bombers came in from the coast, circled south of Caen, dropped their bombs and wheeled for home. For over an hour the long procession wound its way against the background of scarlets and yellows and gold. Later, as the sun rose, another stream of bombers, Liberators and Fortresses, flew overhead further inland to keep a most intensive bombing of the areas supplying the German front line. This was a prelude to a hot and dusty but quiet day and we relaxed from yesterday’s excitement. We learnt that the station at Noyers was in our hands but that most of the town was still strongly held by the enemy. The C.O. congratulated the Regt. on its fine performance yesterday, especially during the air raid in the evening.
This started as a normal day when we suddenly got orders to move. No one was quite clear what was happening but there were rumours that we were going to have a rest. We had heard this one so many times that we didn’t believe it until we heard mention of harbour area parties and a non-tactical order of march. The rumour was confirmed and everyone was happy. We made another dusty cross-country journey to finish up in some orchards near the village of St Andre. The journey was noteworthy for two incidents. In the middle of a field we met an old Padre of the Regiment. The second one was more personal. The C.O. had a private bet that a carrier could negotiate a stream which had proved difficult for some tank drivers. He chose the last carrier in the column for the experiment which happened to be R.B. (19) Edwards made a very gallant effort but the passage had been too badly cut up by all the S.P.s and the carrier stuck fast in the centre of the stream. A Sherman and an S.P. were required to tow it out by which time it had filled with water and all the kit was ruined. It began to rain and L/Bdr. Sharp had the unenviable task of getting the carrier to the rest camp. Needless to say he succeeded.
Originally we were told that we would spend four days at the Rest Area but in the end we had eight days of well earned change from battle conditions from July 20th to July 28th. I say “change” rather than rest as we were soon to learn that resting and maintenance were impossible at one and the same time.
We had an unfortunate start as our first day was completely miserable in steady pouring rain. We did make an attempt at cleaning and maintenance but the C.O. on his first visit quickly showed us that our attempts weren’t Yeoman Standards. The only man who earned his favour was a man who was getting wet cleaning his vehicle. To clean your vehicles you want water, and what better supply can you have than good honest-to-goodness rainwater? That was the dictum, so out of our bivvies we came and set to to remove the mud of 8 weeks battle. It was a hard lesson to learn but it was one we never forget and when next we were to have a “Rest” period the mud and grime of battle came off very quickly and we were able to devote more time to recreation.
Kit checks, tool checks, inspections, cleaning and maintenance occupied most of our time in the first three days and it was not until the last few days that we were able to see the countryside and visit Bayeux and neighbourhood.
One piece of very useful work was done and that was the conversion of our ammunition half tracks into GPOs Trucks. L.A.D. worked overtime in cutting back doors and welding gadgets inside and undoubtedly the efficiency of the Regiment was greatly increased by this change over. It was in fact quite a hard time for all fitters and we were to see the value of their work later in the great dash to Antwerp!
During the course of one of his inspections the C.O. observed a camouflage net lying in a corner of B Tps orchard. “Hugh! what’s this doing lying about” he snorted and poked it with his cane. “Quack! Quack!” replied the camouflage net. Peering closer he snorted again “Hugh! what’s the meaning of this? Ducks? Loot I suppose, well, I’ll look into this, but I don’t want to see them again, see!”
So the fate of Donald the Duck and his companions was sealed. Very regretfully Tydeman wrung their necks and one evening prepared a sumptuous spread for certain friends of Donald’s.
He died in a good cause and it was the best meal we had had since leaving England.
One memory of the camp which stands out in my mind was the memorial service to our fallen which we held on the Sunday morning. Our casualties, especially in Officers, had been high. In action we had been too pre-occupied to remember them, but there in the quiet Normandy Orchards we suddenly realised they were no longer with us. It was altogether right and proper that we should remember them and we were grateful to the C.C.R.A. for adding his dignity to the service.
One could not help being struck by the incongruity of the setting in the grounds of a French Chateau, just recently a German H.Q. where the Nazi Officers slept with their French mistresses. British soldiers stood in a hollow square. L/Sgt. Bracey, so familiar at a typewriter, had an air of solemnity as he played the piano, brought by the Padre in a lorry and manhandled by the R.S.M. into position. There was a jarring note when an over zealous B.S.M. of another Battery dressed his men by saying “For Christ’s sake get into line!”. Yet somehow, with all this incongruity, we did manage to create a tiny British Church under the open sky and for a brief while paid our respect to the dead and the mystery of life.
Our chief recreation lay in trips to Bayeux for ENSA shows and to sample the Normandy wares (and women?). If memory serves me right the films showing were “Wintertime” with Sonja Henje and “Going My Way” with Bring Crosby. Although we had seen both these films in those far off days of Romsey we did not much mind seeing them again once again. There was the usual ENSA Concert Party at the Bayeux Theatre, with plenty of jokes about the sea-sick soldiers and how the comedian found his way to Normandy by following the trail of vomit-bags in the channel!! For most of us it was our first visit to a Continental Theatre and we were interested in the little private boxes on ground level and the crude latrine arrangements.
There was the Cathedral to see, the replica of the tapestry and that quaint carved wooden pulpit. On the Sunday afternoon there was a football match between a British Services team and the Bayeux Sporting Club. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and many of the local inhabitants turned out in their Sunday best to watch the game. Just over two months ago German soldiers were playing here, but they never played any French teams and the people did not come to watch.
We were surprised by the excellent football the French played, their goalkeeper giving a very fine display. I can’t remember the result I fancy the French won by the odd goal. But I do remember that once a rabbit dashed across the field and the players and spectators as one man, forgot the game. In his headlong dash, the rabbit left the pitch littered with the bodies of players who had made vain dives to catch him. The crowd jumped to their feet and cheered like mad before the frightened creature made a headlong dive into the crowd near the goalposts. An Irish Guardsman caught him and in a trice the rabbit was dead and being tucked away in a Battle Dress blouse. It took some time to get the game restarted.
One other feature of Bayeux was the bath where upwards of 50 soldiers had hot showers all in one large room together, where the attendant shouted “Time” after every 7 minutes or so, to permit another 50 to bathe. However, out bathing facilities improved, and at the end of our stay in the rest area we had the pleasure of using for the first time a Mobile Laundry and Bath Unit. Admittedly it was a bit draughty in the marquee but it was a great boon to get a complete change of laundry and receive new shirts and towels for the worn ones we handed in.
No description of our rest area would be complete without a passing reference to the sports side. With our limited resources we did play a few games of soccer and, by a little “Press-gang methods” we persuaded certain people that they could play hockey. The pitch was covered with mole-hills and ant-hills but even this and Meyer’s inexperience in goal does not quite explain why 342 Battery beat us by 14 goals to nil!
Last, but not least, was the pleasant invitation from the Devon’s who were resting in the orchards just behind us, to visit their concert. Somehow or other they had contrived to make a stage with curtains and screens. From somewhere and by means only the infantry know, they had acquired a piano. Bdr. Jarvis fitted up a Tannoy system. The Devons Company Commander was an amazingly forceful person who got us singing community songs and rattled of sketches very quickly. Those who were there will never forget the sketch of the dying soldier lying in a shell hole pitifully crying for water. In a nearby shell hole lies another wounded soldier who does the Sidney act and throws over his water bottle with it last few precious drops. Does the dying soldier drink the water? Of course not, he’s British. He whips off his gaiters, out’s with his brush and cake of blanco, AND BLANCOES!
Yes, we appreciated those jokes at the end of our rest camp. But when all said and done we were just a little sorry when we heard that we were to go back into action and begin work again. We were to relieve the 90th Field Regt. who were up by La Belle Epine. La Belle Epine! Heavens! We were there on July 7th and it is now July 28th! Three weeks and our front line has not moved forward. Things must be very difficult. Were the Germans going to succeed after all and prevent us from breaking out?
Very soon we were to learn that at that very moment the breakout was just beginning and we would soon be beyond La Belle Epine.
Our “Maintenance Period” at St. Andre came to an end and we took over the gun positions occupied by the 90th Field Regt. R.A. near La Belle Epine. We were still with 50 Div. supporting 2nd Bn. Glos. The Battery Command Post was established in a cottage near the main road with B Troop immediately behind and A Troop a little further back on the front edge of a wood. A Troop took over the actual gun positions of a troop in the 90th Field. We settled in fairly leisurely as there was little fighting on our front at that time. In the evening rumours of big moves started circulating.
All through last night tanks and armoured vehicles rumbled past the Battery Command Post travelling East to West. The ground and air trembled for hours on end as a great switch of armour from one front to another took place. We heard vague stories that the Americans had broken out of their bridgehead in the Cherbourg peninsula and were driving rapidly South. The British armour was going to push down parallel with the Americans and exploit the breakthrough. Little did we know at the time that this was the beginning of the operation which trapped the German 7th Army in the “Falaise Gap!” During the morning we joined the big traffic move and advanced to a gun area just a mile or two North-East of Caumont. B Troop were established in a cornfield with A Troop and the Battery Command Post down in a small valley behind. The Command Post was in a group of farmhouses also being used by the infantry. In the afternoon a Bn. of D.C.L.I.s moved onto our gun positions and dug themselves in along the hedges and in the corn in front of our guns. The area was very congested with troops and vehicles. Later we learned that 3 British Corps were concentrating for a big attack South of Caumont. 30 Corps in the centre, with 8 Corps on our right, 12 Corps on our left. 30 Corps were attacking with 43 Div. on the right, 50 Div. on the left. The Regiment was directly in support of 50 Div. At dusk the Luftwaffe spotted the concentration of troops and paid us a visit. A few bombs landed in the Battery Area, 3 very close to the Battery Command Post, smashing many windows and wounding Gnr. Sturgess. The only other notable event of the day was our first issue of fresh rations, and our evening meal consisted of beef, peas and potatoes, followed by rice (not from tins). Dumping programme 2400 H.E.
A Sunday morning with low misty clouds which obscured our Aiming Posts. We began firing at 0600 hrs in support of 50 Div. At 0815 hrs we switched to the right to support 43 Div’s attack. Then at 0930 hrs out of the clouds came roaring our Lancaster bombers which dropped their bombs on the hilly ground a few miles South of the gun area. We were close enough to see the big bomb bays open and the bombs dropping. The attack slowed down owing to the thick minefields encountered and our targets became spasmodic. However, our expenditure for the day was over 2,500 rds. We had one unfortunate experience during the day when a shell burst in the trees over the heads of the D.C.L.I.s waiting to go into action. Fortunately only one person was wounded and not very seriously.
The day was spent in support of 43 Div. From our end it was a boring day firing long periods at rate ½, neutralising villages. This was the beginning of those unpleasant targets where the G.P.O. orders “Continue firing until ordered to stop.” Each troop fired on the same target alternately an hour at a time! Even our food was beginning to bore us again. This was the third day running we had had rice for a sweet and we were beginning to want our Compo duff again. In the evening we were ordered to move at 2000 hrs. The Advance Parties went off and we formed up in the cornfields. The roads however, were so congested that we bivvied down beside our vehicles and had a cold wait. We finally moved at 0300 hrs.
We arrived at the new gun area at approx. 0600 hrs, the Advance Parties having spent an uncomfortable night waiting for us. According to the map we were at La Recusoniere, a few miles S.E. of Caumont, but except for a few farm buildings there was little of note in the area. The battle position was a little obscure and we were a little surprised to find that the front line infantry were dug in the hedges just behind our guns. Except for a troop of M 10s directly in front we were apparently the most advanced troops in our sector. The Battery Command Post occupied the only visible large farm. The farm buildings were in ruins but the house itself had suffered little damage and the wall clock still ticked and chimed the hours. A barn containing 3 huge cider vats was littered with small items of clothing, books, papers, furniture, clogs etc. In the fields were dead cattle, and one wounded cow caused B Troop some embarrassment. There was not much activity and we spent the day digging in the warm sunshine.
A relatively quiet day and we fired a few concentrations in support of the infantry who had been occupying our gun area. They cheered when they heard we had knocked out a tank just before they moved off. The advance went well and Recce. Parties went off at 1800 hrs. The Regiment was ordered to Cease Fire but as soon as we were formed up Ready to Move we were ordered back into action. Much good-humoured swearing but we were in action again in record time.
However, we moved off again at 0800 hrs and arrived at our new position near Jurques at about 0900 hrs. The position had been recced hurriedly and in a mist obscuring the scenery in front. As the mist cleared we saw we were on the forward slope of a hill and were overlooked by a high crest due South of us. The position of the enemy was obscure and we were a little apprehensive as we watched our own infantry clearing the woods up to the skyline to our right front. About lunch time some enemy mortar shells fell in Jurques about 500x to the East. Approximately at 1500 hrs some H.E. shells landed in B Troop field and some near A Troop Command Post. Sgt. Fielding of E sub was wounded by a shell splinter and was being attended in the lane behind B Troop when more shells landed. The A.P. shells hit B Troop’s No 3 gun and ricocheted over the Battery Command Post behind. One shell pierced the barrel of G sub and killed Gnr. Cox sitting in the layer’s seat, wounding L/Sgt. Smith and Gnrs. McIntosh and Howarth. Capt. Parry, B Troop Commander, spotted the tank causing the trouble which was firing from the top of the crest in front. With Bdr. Tulloch, Collinge and Stockton of E sub they engaged the tank at 2000 yes with A.P. and H.E. scoring at least 3 direct hits. The enemy tank caught fire and withdrew as the Regiment put down a concentration. Our position having been observed, we obtained permission to move the Battery to a position on the reverse slope a little further from Jurques and we spent a relatively peaceful night despite some enemy shelling of the mediums behind.
An unpleasant night followed an uncomfortable day. We were worried by intermittent Boche shelling of the mediums behind. Also some shells fell in Jurques. We fired a complicated harassing fire target on the Boche escape road all night. 2 guns firing H.E., 2 guns firing smoke and 2 guns firing airburst. B Troop had only 2 guns in action. (H sub in workshops, G sub knocked out by the tank yesterday). Gunner Cox who was killed on G sub was given a simple burial in the 43 Div cemetery. We heard that the Boche were retreating fast and that we were to join an armoured thrust that night. We moved at 2100 hrs in the gathering darkness and mist. Roads were very congested in Jurques and we waited patiently in the ruins in the bizarre glow of burning buildings. Eventually we got clear of Jurques and headed South towards Montamy. At approx 2300 hrs we halted in the village of le Mesnil Azouf. The newly liberated French people clustered round our vehicles and offered wine, but dispersed quickly when an infantry carrier caught fire and the infantry made frantic efforts to remove the ammunition.
The advance seemed to be held up temporarily and we were ordered into action immediately. In the eerie darkness we journeyed down sunken lanes where the stench of decaying flesh was very strong. We were in action by 0200 hrs and immediately fired two targets to assist our O.P.s. Just before dawn we were ordered forward to the original position allocated to us at Les Moeux a few miles West of Mount Pincon. We retraced our route along the sunken lanes and watched out tracks crushing the many carcasses of dead horses lying in the lanes. Our new position was occupied before first light and when dawn finally came we found that both troops were so close together that the G.P.O.s seriously considered forming a 7 gun troop using one Command Post. The idea, however, did not find favour! When we were settled in we were able to examine our area. The Battery Command Post was in a farm where the barns were stacked with enemy small arms ammunition. In the grounds of the farm there were two dead German soldiers, killed last night according to the dazed French farmer. The area seemed to have had a heavy mortar barrage and several animals were lying dead and wounded. L/Bdr. Sharp performed very humane work with his sten by despatching two cows and a farm horse out of their misery. Some excitement was caused when we heard over the Regimental net that B Troop O.P. had captured a German tank intact! Sure enough, Capt. Perry and L/Bdr. Lathwell arrived at the Command Post, driving a German Mk. iv. Except for a puncture radiator it was intact and everyone swarmed over it for souvenirs. In the end Capt. Perry chalked “Mined” all over it to prevent it being damaged as Army H.Q. had been given its location. A knocked out German motor cycle combination in the lane near the Command Post provided another source of souvenirs. We fired a few Regimental targets, but the attack up the West slopes of Mount Pincon did not begin until tomorrow. Towards evening A troop were ordered forward to a very advanced position within a thousand yards of the front and overlooked by the enemy. They were to fire a smoke screen to support the attack.
Bank Holiday in England but no holiday for A troop today. They were right among the F.D.L.s and had an uncomfortable time owing to shells and mortars. The smoke rounds prepared for them were never sent up as sniper patrols were ambushing transport. A troop were ordered to stay put because movement would have brought down heavier fire and probably disclosed the plan of attack. The infantry attack up the West slopes on Mount Pincon began badly, the infantry meeting heavier resistance than expected. We fired several Victor targets on enemy concentrations. But by sheer determination the infantry pressed on and by nightfall had gained the most dominating feature of the Normandy battlefield - Mount Pincon - the key to victory.
A quiet morning in which A troop rejoined the Battery. In the afternoon we moved North and East to a new gun area near Ondefontaine. There was a very large concentration of artillery here and the Battery was rather cramped in one field. To the South East we had a very good view of Mount Pincon. Our troops on the summit and on the approaches were being shelled intermittently by the Boche, who were still entrenched on some of the slopes of the hilly ground. Vickers machine gunners of the Middlesex Regiment were dug in around our area but fortunately did not have to fire while we were there. We made friends with some small children from the farms nearby. They were refugees from the villages in the battlefield and were very grateful for the sweets and chocolate we gave them.
Gunner Jennings arrived with a new S.P. for B troop. There was a slight reorganisation in the Battery and Sgt. Couzins and Sgt. Atkin took over duties of Nos 1 in B troop. The morning was fairly quiet and some of us managed a quick bath behind the hedges. In the early afternoon we moved forward again, but we had a sudden target before we moved, when the engines were running. Luckily we remembered our drill and the B sets came into their own. We discovered that the new position was right bang on top of Mount Pincon with B troop just below the crest. (20) The Recce parties were shelled before we arrived but fortunately without casualties. In the woods on the slopes of the crest were hidden tanks of the 7th Armoured Div. We took a short walk to the top of the crest and visited the F.O.O. of a neighbour Regiment. There was a glorious view South towards Conde and one caught glimpses of the battle in front as shells burst in the villages and columns of dust indicated transport on the move. Walking back from the crest in the sunset one had a magnificent view of the Northern battlefields of Normandy and one saw in fancy a silver gleam of water at the Normandy beaches. Certainly the old saying “He who holds Mount Pincon holds Normandy” is true and we now felt that come what may, the Germans could never throw us back into the sea. But it was going to be a long, hard, artillery battle before the enemy were finally cleared out of Normandy.
There was little firing in the morning but the enemy were still shelling the forward slopes on Mount Pincon. Recce parties went forward and the Battery moved at 1500 hrs to the area of Le Plessis Grimault. Our dust attracted some shells but we arrived without casualties. But we were not long left immune. We had not been in position more than an hour when the area was shelled for about 20 minutes by the Boche 155mm shells. A troop and the Battery Command Post were most unfortunate. A troop had 3 casualties. H.Q. had 4. B.S.M. Markham, T.S.M. Wilson, Gnr. Jefferson and Gnr. Offord were seriously wounded and evacuated to England. Sgt. Bullock, Gnr. Chapman and Pte. Gibbs were slightly wounded and evacuated, to return some weeks later. We dug ourselves in deeper and the Battery Command Post evacuated its farm and orchard and moved to a deep ditch in a hedge behind B troop.
We were still a bit shaky after yesterday’s casualties. We cursed all tanks and any vehicles which caused dust as we were not far from the main axis of advance. There were many shells falling near the main road in front of us, but fortunately no more came our way. Our targets were mainly counter-battery and the C.O. spent much time in finding the guns that shelled us yesterday. After several shell-reps we managed to obtain the services of the Air O.P. At last we got the exact location and we fired scale 10 rapid from the Regiment. We weren’t troubled any more by their guns in that position.
Quiet day. Very dusty. Papers arrived with rumours of Himmler’s death and Göring being wounded. Fired a big barrage at 18.45 hrs. and had orders to move early in the morning.
Another quiet, sultry day with few targets. Other artillery units passed through us and we appear to be the rearmost field unit.
Moved in the early morning mist. Our Recce. parties had an R.V. on the crest of the road overlooking St. Pierre. An infantry officer reminded them they were in full sight of the
enemy and they hastily withdrew. We occupied a difficult position in a deep hollow, with guns of the R.H.A. high up behind us firing over our heads. We did not stay long but
moved over to a position on the flank of the road, just short of St. Pierre. The position seemed to have been a German M.G. nest, guarding some cross tracks. We had the advantage
of their slit trenches. They came in useful very early. Barely had we recorded Zero Lines when four shells landed on B. Troop’s position. The slit trenches saved us from casualties.
Later we were not so fortunate. Some more random shells arrived in the afternoon. One landed alongside H. Sub’s gun,
killing Gnr. Roberts instantly before he had time to take
cover. He was buried that same evening. Lt. Treble rejoined the Battery. (21)
Another short advance through St. Pierre itself on to some high ground to the West of Proussy. In the little valley were remnants of German equipment, left behind at a burnt-out farm. Some dead Germans were lying in the hedges, and the whole scene was a picture of desolation and misery, torn and blasted by our heavy shell fire. We had a scare as we recorded Zero Lines. U.S.A. Thunderbolts suddenly dived on us and dropped bombs and machine-gunned the roadway, close to the Regt.’s position. We hastily burnt yellow smoke and hung out air-recognition strips and after circling dangerously low once or twice they sheered off.
The Battery C.P. really meant to dig itself in. Capt. Dorey blasted a hole out of the ground, much to the annoyance of all the C.P.O. Acks whose boards were literally covered in dirt and dust when the cloud cleared away!
In this position we had the unpleasant experience of being in front of our heavy machine guns. Men of the Cheshire Regt. were stationed on the high ground behind us, with their Vickers Heavy Machine guns firing directly over our heads. Their deadly chatter, echoing loudly in the little valley, shattered the quiet evening. At times it was difficult to speak and the C.O. had to postpone his Order Group temporarily!
A longish journey across country, through sylvan glens, ripening cornfields, dusty country lanes, to occupy a position north of Conde-sur-Noireau. Our forward infantry had almost reached the river bank and were preparing for an assault crossing. We were to fire a smoke screen on the high ground east of the river. A difficult position to occupy with tall poplar trees along the hedges making crest problems difficult. The enemy kept up an intermittent shelling of the roads behind us and the village of Proussy. Little firing during the day. We were unlucky to suffer one casualty. A shell from one of our guns exploded prematurely outside the muzzle and wounded Bdr. Boud of F. Sub. A “blighty” one and we saw him off to England regretfully. We did not see him again until he rejoined the Battery at the end of the campaign.
A thunderstorm in the evening helped to cool us after a warm day’s moving and digging. Frogs and toads came to greet us during the night, with glow worms and phosphorescent tree roots to add to our interest.
The crossing of the Noireau was completed successfully under cover of our heavy artillery fire. We were not called upon to fire the smoke screen. After the early morning activities we had a quiet restful day. In the evening we packed up ready for a move and there was an air of excitement and expectation everywhere. The news was good. The Americans were near Versailles and Marseilles had been captured. Our own front was quiet with all our objectives captured, and we were preparing to move off for fresh fields to conquer. We were to join the famous 11th Armoured Division.
First, however, we were to have a short “rest”. We journeyed back a few miles of beautiful scenery with some glorious views over the wooded valley of the Noireau, just lately the scene of some bitter fighting. It was almost midnight before we had bivouacked amid some quiet fields and trees and could enjoy the quietness of the stars untouched by shells and targets.
Our “rest” was very short. Recce parties set off at 10.00 hrs. to discover a route to Flers. The river Noireau had not yet been bridged at Conde. In recceing a route to Conde, our C.O. and C.O.2. had been blown up on a mine in their Jeep. The C.O. had a lucky escape. Major Morgan-Smith, however, was not so fortunate and had to be evacuated to England with a damaged leg. The recce parties had to make a long detour to find a bridge intact large enough to take our guns. They reached Div. H.Q.R.A. only to find the H.Q. had moved. By mid-afternoon, the recce party entered Flers and had the chagrin to be held up by the M.P. on duty to allow the remainder of the Regt. to go roaring through that newly liberated town. During the long journey the recce party had been out of wireless contact with the Regt. and did not know that the bridge at Conde had been completed, enabling the guns to take the short cut to Flers.
The civilian population had given us all a wonderful reception. An M.P. on traffic duty said “I can’t do anything with them. They’ve kissed me, they’ve hugged me, they’ve slapped my back, they’ve given me wine, they’ve heaped flowers on me. Now they are doing my job for me”. Sure enough there were two French youths with F.F.F. armbands in the centre of the town directing the Army traffic as if they had been trained to the job.
The guns occupied a position east of Flers among cultivated ground, a tribute to the resourcefulness of the Troop Leaders and G.P.O. Acks who had no technical equipment with which to do the occupation, most of it being with the recce column impatiently bringing up the rear of the traffic column.
In action just East of Flers, but not for long. The Falaise Gap was rapidly becoming the Falaise Sack and everyone was on the move. Advance parties moved at 0800 hrs and by 1000 hrs the Regiment was in action just West of Briouze. The position was very good, plenty of room in wide fields and plenty of cover. Other 25 pdr. Regiments were already in action near us and under the trees and hedges we found stacks of German ammunition and some rocket bombs. Major Scammell had become second in command to replace Major Morgan-Smith who was evacuated yesterday. Capt. Perry went to 452 Battery as B.C. and Capt. Benson (now Major Benson) assumed command of B troop. He saw his troop for 5 minutes before dashing away to join the 15th/19th Hussars whom we were now to support. We watched their tanks (Cromwells - which some of us were seeing for the first time) go racing down the main road through Briouze while others chased across our gun positions by-passing Briouze to the North. Advance parties went off almost as soon as we were in action but the whole column came for a halt for about 4 hours. The Americans, who were advancing rapidly on Argentan from the S.W. had advanced so quickly that they had cut our centre line. The British 11th Armoured Division were held up by a couple of American M.P.s who claimed they had to keep the road open for U.S. troops! The matter took a little sorting out but by 1500 hrs the 11th Armoured Div. resumed its advance along the centre line, the U.S. troops having come too far North. There was tremendous congestion on the road, so swift was the advance, and it took a considerable time for the Regiment to pass up the column on this long march. On either side of the roads we saw knocked out German tanks and vehicles, the remnants of the proud 7th Army knocked out by our Typhoons and our shelling. We were catching up on the enemy and buildings were still burning where the Hun tried to make a stand. It was almost midnight before the guns reached the new area S.W. of Ecouche. The advance parties were only kept awake by studying the stars while they patiently waited 5 hours for the guns (and food) to arrive. It was almost 2 a.m. before anyone got a meal and many could not face the prospect of M & V at 2.a.m. and went to sleep instead! Except the unlucky night duty men who had to fire some harassing rounds till day break.
We did not move again until midday which gave us a little time to recover from yesterday’s very tiring march. This time we moved onto the Southern outskirts of the town of Ecouche itself. The town had been badly battered by shells and bombs and we had some difficulty in negotiating the piles of rubble. The two gun positions were in exposed fields outside the town with the Battery Command Post in a small quarry about 40 feet below ground level. Between this quarry and the town was a much larger quarry which became the hiding place for the whole of the Regiment’s wagon lines. We were very interested to find that the town itself was occupied by a brigade of the Free French Armoured Division. They had been in occupation of the town for almost a week and had suffered some casualties when the town was bombed by Allied aircraft. They were very well established in the town, being on very good terms with the local people. We understood why they were called the “Free French!” In the evening two of the French soldiers approached B troop Command Post and asked us to warn our sentries not to disturb them in the bushes! The sentries’ comment was “Just give us the chance!” However, rain, the first for nearly a fortnight, put a damper on our feelings and our rejoicing. I blush to record that owing to an error in the trp Command Post B troop fired 60 degrees off for line on a harassing fire target! We calculated, however, that the 3 rounds gunfire must have fallen among the Germans opposite the American front, who probably thought they were surrounded and gave themselves up.
We got sudden orders to move in the morning. The C.P.O. decided to take his tank on the advance party and dashed off in fine style determined not to be late. Alas, he forgot to unfasten the canvas covering the Battery Command Post and dragged it after him out of the quarry!. With the calmness born of long patience the C.P.O.A.s restored order as though this sort of thing happened every day. We moved due North out of the Écouché into some open ground fringed with orchards. We had just time for a meal when we moved on again. The Colonel gave the order “Move Independently” and there was a grand sight as 6 columns of guns charged across country all converging on one narrow road, the road to Argentan. Our gun area was in the open fields about 3 miles West of Argentan whose ruined skyline we could just see over the rising ground. Away to the North were wooded hills where we watched our Typhoons diving and circling; columns of smoke rising to show where they had “Killed” another vehicle or dump. There was no firing to be done and it seemed quite peaceful in the open fields until drenching rain drove us into our bivvies.
It was still raining heavily in the early morning as we packed up and prepared to move on again. We were ready to move by 0845 hrs but it was 0945 hrs before we were on the road owing to traffic congestion. Just as the last vehicle in the Regiment reached the road the head of the column in Argentan was halted at the Brigade Start Point. We waited for nearly 3 hours in the pouring rain, surveying the ruins of what was once a beautiful old world town. G.I. Joes picked their way over the rubble and the inevitable jeeps dashed around, splashing us with water coloured brickred from the pitted road. At midday we moved on again only to be pushed off the road a few miles further on while more tanks went through. We finally occupied positions W of Exmes but our targets were well out of range and we quickly moved on again. We got a terrific reception from the villagers at Exmes before finding our final position for the night W of Croissilles. The Command Post and wagon lines were well established at a large farm and the hospitable farmer and his wife, to say nothing of their charming daughters, distributed as much cider and Calvados as we could drink. There were many refugees from Croissilles living in this farm, all very pleased to see us. Eggs and butter were welcome additions to our compo rations.
The advance continued, this time without any rain. We moved first to a position N.E. of the village of Le Merleraut. It was in large open pasture land, the grounds of a modern chateau which was formerly a Nazi S.S. H.Q. A troop and the Battery Command Post were in the area of one of the farms belonging to the chateau. It was while waiting for the second in command to finish his recce at this position that the advance party were given a “rocket” by a Brigadier for not deploying the Regiment! The chase went on and we had our fastest move of the campaign. The route was changed while we were on the move and we caught up with the advance parties. We were held up only once when some snipers in the woods caused some trouble and the local French Maquis warned us of mines. At last, after a week of moving down lanes we came onto the main road to L’Aigle and made rapid progress. We received a grand welcome from the town of Aube-sur-Rile before going into action just South of it facing towards L’Aigle. The C.P.O. found another hospitable farmer and his wife. This farmer turned out to be a very active member of the French Maquis and was most willing to cooperate.
We were ordered out of action. No-one was quite clear what was happening, but later we learnt that the whole of the 11th Armoured Division were being rested for maintenance and replenishment. There was talk of a dash to the Seine. We settled down to the routine of maintenance that we had learnt at St. Andre, our first rest area and prepared to make ourselves comfortable. There was great rejoicing when we heard that Paris had been freed by her own citizens and the French Armoured Division. A great day for France and freedom everywhere and our good farmer the Maquis killed the fatted calf in our honour. He was so pleased and proud to have us that he kept inviting his friends to come and be introduced. We learnt that he had been supplied with arms by parachute. He also told how some of the Maquis in the neighbourhood had been shot by the retreating Germans.
We were getting ourselves more comfortably established. Gnr. Dyson had fitted up a bath, well, if you can call it that. It consisted of a large farm tub behind a canvas screen. You could get inside and get a jolly good soaking and hide yourself completely, but it was a little difficult to get in and out. Sgt. Hicks had now acquired another German motor-cycle and combination and made the air hideous as he drove around the Battery area. Another addition was a captured German half-track which was presented to Major Corke. It became an object of interest and a bone of contention, noone being able to decide whether it would make a good Officers Mess or a mobile Command Post. In the end we began to convert it into a Command Post, wondering whether the Div. Commander would allow us to keep it. We began preparation for an inspection by the C.R.A. and we made fri3ends with our neighbours the 13 R.H.A., living in the fields between us and the town of Aube.
For a few days we remained in this quiet backwater while the tide of war still surged on. Paris had fallen and a new army from the Mediterranean was advancing swiftly up the Rhone valley driving towards the Belfort Gap and the Swiss frontier. Everywhere in central France the Maquis were rising and disarming the disorganised enemy. To the North of us the Canadians advancing along the coast were approaching the mouth of the Seine and Le Havre. In the meantime we rested, cleaned and repaired our vehicles. We received two new S.P.s in replacement of two that had given good service. It was not all work and some of us were lucky enough to get into L’Aigle where wine was freely distributed. The local French had hidden these stores of wine in the river and today, feeling quite certain that the enemy would never return, they hauled the casks and bottles out and rejoiced in traditional style. The town had suffered quite badly through shell fire and the Church had many scars.
The morning was spent in preparation for the C.R.A.s visit. Looking bright and gleaming as though they had just come from the production lines, our vehicles made a brave show as the C.R.A. gave them a close scrutiny. The proceedings were enlivened somewhat when a burst of Bren Gun fire startled everyone. At first snipers and an ambush were suspected, until we saw the red-faced Bren Gunner who thought the trigger was a little dirty! Some of us in the afternoon took time off to have a swim in the river Rile which flows through Aube. One approached the river through the local electricity works badly damaged by shell fire and sabotage. A mined 88mm gun on the roadside was another reminder that there was such a thing as war, but we quickly forgot that in our enjoyment of the sun and water. Someone found an old rowing boat built for four; but somehow or other about 20 Herts Yeomen got in with much pushing and shoving, with the result that many unexpected duckings took place.
The Regiment was placed under a moment’s notice to move and we spent the whole day packing and standing by. An unpleasant and unsatisfactory day and we finally re-pitched our tents and waited for tomorrow. The only interesting things to look at were the hundreds of vehicles of all descriptions which roared past our area. There was something big in the wind but we heard only rumours.
Our Recce parties left at 0830. The Regiment once more lined up ready to move but owing to road congestion we did not leave until 1700 hrs. This was the start of a great adventure but we did not realise then how great an adventure it was going to be. This, the first of our long moves, was a 10 hour non-stop journey which took us nearly 90 miles to the village of La Chappelle on the west bank of the river Seine. It was very, very dusty on the roads after the long columns of tanks had passed through and many of us suffered from eye-strain and swollen lids. As we arrived at our harbour area in the undergrowth on the outskirts of the village, searchlights swept the sky to the north over Le Havre and to the south towards Paris.
Bleary-eyed, we awoke before dawn and made a hasty breakfast. In the early morning light we journeyed into Vernon and, after a short wait, rumbled across the famous pontoon bridge alongside the iron bridge destroyed by our bombers. The steep bank on the east side had a commanding view of the crossing, and had the Germans been at all organised they could have made the crossing very sticky for us. The approaches and exits from the bridge had been shelled early on, but we crossed without incident and roared up the steep winding road. High banks, wooded and overgrown, flanked the road, ideal for ambushes; and a burnt-out recce car showed where one ambush had succeeded. Further on, we passed a burnt-out Panther with the blackened, twisted bodies of the crew lying awkwardly on the turret and hull. At the top of the hill, with the Seine behind us, we roared into action on some open ground, now muddy from the steady rain. Behind us, our waggon lines parked in the area of a burning farm and haystack. We did not remain long here. At 1100 hrs the C.O. ordered “Move independently”, and again we charged across flat open fields to our new R.V. On the way we passed Capt. Perry and R.B. waiting in a lane with the reserve squadron of the 15/19 Hussars. Ahead of them we had a fine view of the other squadrons in extended order advancing cautiously across open country seeking the enemy. At 1430 hrs came another quick cross-country move. The going was becoming more sticky. The wheeled vehicles were frequently in difficulties and the motor cyclists had a tiring time. We were now at the village of Cantiers but remained for an hour before another quick advance go Gamaches en Vexin. Here we roared into action alongside a large and prosperous French Chateau, whose occupants barred and shuttered their windows in case we fired. We just had time to eat a hastily prepared meal before making another dash forward. We passed through the town of Etrepagny, whose inhabitants gave us a great welcome. Flags and bunting already decorated the houses although the leading tanks had only just passed through. Our gun area for the night was north of the town, in a small hollow. Behind us a large explosion in the town caused a huge fire, but we were too tired to worry what caused it. Despite the tiring day and the miserable rain, everyone was elated with the advance and the hearty welcome everywhere.
The advance continued at dawn in the pouring rain. Again we moved independently but B troop were a little too independent. The “George” Truck, followed by three carriers, took the wrong turning and headed south instead of north. Approaching a village, they spied a tank with its gun pointing up the road. Fortunately, it turned out to be a Sherman which had just liberated the village. We had a hasty conference with the Tank Commander who told us that the last things seen going up the road we came down was a German horse drawn Battery!. The half track and carriers hastily turned round and returned the way they came, but not before the happy populace had plied us with wine and beer and thrust eggs into our eager hands. The Battery in the meantime had occupied an open position north of Sancourt. We were not called upon to fire and very soon made another dash forward. In the late afternoon, there were rumours of harbour parties and we actually set off to our new area. The roads became very congested and the Regiment was ordered off the road to allow more tanks of the 11th Armoured Division to move up. Here we waited an hour or so cheered by the sight of long columns of prisoners marching back down the column. Then came a surprise. At 2000 hrs we were told that we were moving immediately to Amiens, more than 70 miles away! It got dark early because of the heavy rain and no lights were allowed except tail lights. Stealthily we journeyed through the night, passing through sleeping villages whose inhabitants peered anxiously at us from behind curtained windows. It was a great strain on our drivers and operators to keep awake but they did and we arrived safely. Later we learnt that in this night march we passed clean through six enemy divisions.
Dawn found us on the outskirts of Amiens and we were immediately ordered into action just off the main axis. As we dashed out to our gun platforms, the tanks and mobile Bofors guns engaged some enemy M.T. and S.P. Guns in the valley to the left of us. Ammunition exploded intermittently as the enemy vehicles “brewed up”. We heard over the air that our leading tanks had entered Amiens. We had two more moves before lunch time finishing up at the village of Dury about two miles from Amiens. Here our leading tanks had used their flame throwers to sort out the enemy and the Command Post staff turned fire-fighters to quell the blaze at the farm they had chosen as our H.Q. We managed a hot meal, the sun came out and, while waiting to move on, some of us journeyed up the main road to peer over the hill at Amiens. We had a clear view of the Cathedral towers and the spire of the city. Away to the right on the horizon was the famous Vimy Ridge and through glasses one could just discern the striking white monument to the fallen of that other war. In the late afternoon we packed up and had our triumphal entry into Amiens. The people were almost hysterical with joy, and gave us a marvellous reception. Everywhere were Union Jacks, Tricolours and Old Glories; and everyone tried to shake hands with a Tommy. All too swiftly we were out of the city and into action north of it. As we came into action the leading tanks were only a thousand yards ahead and were being engaged by enemy guns. The tanks consolidated for the night and we spent that night as the most forward artillery of the spearhead supporting the 3rd R.T.R. and the 23rd Hussars. We turned in for a well-earned rest, glowing with the knowledge that we had made history, for history would surely remember that audacious advance from the Seine to Amiens right through the enemy defences (and the capture of the German Commander in his pyjamas!).
Another day of general advance all along the line. We left our bridgehead position just north of Amiens and advanced swiftly across country keeping to the main axis as much as possible. We were heading in the general direction of Arras and with the memory of our welcome in Amiens still vivid we looked forward with anticipation to the liberation of that town too. We passed through a village containing dark-skinned men in a foreign uniform who waved cheerily at us. These were French Senegalese troops whom the Germans had kept as prisoners of war and who had just been liberated. We journeyed through woods containing curious heavily camouflaged buildings which we suspected to be connected with V1 flying bombs. The thought that we were at last putting an end to the ordeal of Southern England and cutting off the V1 sites kept us eager to push on swiftly. We were bypassing any resistance. Occasionally French Men and Women told us excitedly that 200 Germans were hiding in some woods or other on our route but we could not stop to worry about them then. We knew the infantry following up would deal with them, our job was to push on, we were the advance guard. And push we did. By nightfall we had travelled 45 miles and encamped at the village of Savy a few miles West and North of Arras which was not, after all, on our centre line. The Col. congratulated the Regiment on the excellent advance. Although we travelled cross country all the way the main body travelled by road. Yet we never lost ground and all our guns were in action by midnight at the right place. Great celebrations in the village that night, we were the first British Troops the villagers had seen. Our Fighter Bombers gave us a scare when they dived on the village but yellow smoke and strips convinced them we were friendly.
Another great day of liberation. Again the Regt. moved off at 0700 hrs and continued the northward advance. Our route lay through the great industrial area of Lens. This was the first time we had entered an industrial area and we were given a truly magnificent reception from the great crowds of people lining the streets. The crowds were so great that progress could only be made at a crawling pace. In consequence the more adventurous French boys and girls crowded onto the tanks and we looked more like a carnival procession than a fighting column. A great day for the D.R.s whose pillions were very much in demand by all the fair Mademoiselles. Cries of “Bon Sante”, “Good Luck”, “Goodbye”, “Vive le Tommy”, “Welcome” filled the air and we were pummelled and slapped and pushed and jostled and our hands wrung almost from us by the delirious people. Just as we entered Lens we were told a sad story of a woman who did not live to rejoice. During last night a small patrol of British Troops entered Lens and were sheltered by this woman. Unfortunately they were discovered but made their escape. The Germans left Lens 4 hrs before we entered this morning but before leaving they shot this brave woman. We were more eager than ever to push on. Capt. Benson was shown a magnificent O.P. on the top of the railway station at Bethune by the Maquis. Here he saw about 200 of the enemy and some Anti-Tank guns less than 500 yds away but alas, the guns were on the road and he was not allowed to use the Mediums. We were brought into action on the outskirts of Lens on some open ground in front of a huge factory. There was a rumour of a report on the Maquis radio that the Germans had asked for an Armistice. We were sceptical especially when at 2300 hrs we had a stand to. Tank alert was ordered and we turned our guns through 160 degrees to face the left rear. However the report of the tanks also came from the Maquis and we turned in at midnight without firing a shot.
The 5th Anniversary of Britain’s entry into the war with Germany. And what an anniversary! The most tiring and exciting day of the war. Our advance to the Belgium frontier continued by leaps and bounds, as we went into action and out again in record time. Just before midday the column was held up while the Regt. was passing through the town of Avelin. Enemy inf. guns and tanks hiding in woods on either side of the road ambushed the column after the leading tanks had passed through. Suddenly a fusilade of shots rang out and the line of 3 tonners carrying ammunition and petrol burst into flames. Our B.C. Major Corke dashed down the column in his jeep to investigate the danger. As he was passing a blazing truck the ammunition exploded. Major Corke was killed instantly, the driver Gnr. Brown was blown through the windscreen and his hand was sheered off above the wrist by another piece of shrapnel. Mardell the signaller had an amazing escape, his set was smashed to smithereens yet he escaped with shock and minor injuries. Meanwhile in the town of Avelin itself the Battery went into action in the streets as tank alert was signalled. Sgt. Couzins of E sub was ordered forward with his S.P. to recce the position and establish himself at the north entrance of the town. Turning the corner he saw in the valley to his right, less than 2000 yds away an enemy 6 gun Battery in action. E sub immediately engaged No 1 gun over open sights and with their 3rd round knocked out the enemy gun. They fired a few more rounds at the gun crews who took fright and dashed to shelter across the open fields. By this time the rest of the Regt. were in action south of the town of Avelin and E sub was pulled back to join the Troop. While this was going on the burning trucks close to the gun area were still cascading ammunition. Major Scammell of 462 Battery took an S.P. into the wood and shot up the H.Q. of this enemy pocket hidden in a Chateau, capturing 4 Officers and 87 O.R.s as prisoners. British and enemy wounded were lying on the road side being tended by our ambulance men as we prepared to continue the advance.
After about two hrs delay we advanced giving the burning vehicles a very wide berth. Just as well we did because it meant going below the skyline. No sooner did we set off than the German tanks on the opposite side of the road opened up. They had kept quiet during our mopping up and no one suspected their presence. Vehicles that went too near the crest were fired on. The C.O. ordered 342 Battery into action below the crest and they put down a smoke screen while the remainder of the column dashed past. The whole exciting affair was a very creditable performance. Undoubtedly the skill and coolness displayed by everyone in the sudden emergency saved many lives and many vehicles in the column. Sgt. Couzins was mentioned in dispatches for his action on this day. We were now catching up with the enemy and prisoners became an embarrassment. Some were wounded and we had to carry them all the way in our transport. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon we crossed the Belgium frontier. A great occasion and the joy of people reached new heights. Now we understood why we were called the B.L.A. We now knew what it was to see people overjoyed. As we journeyed on through Courtrai and Tournai we had a confused picture of frantically waving men, women and children all with eager arms outstretched to touch “Tommy”. Gay blooms vivid reds and yellows were tossed into our tanks and fruit, tomatoes, biscuits, and bottles of beer were thrown up and skilfully caught. In Normandy it was “Cigarette pour papa” but here in Belgium the people were giving us cigarettes!!! Whenever a tank stopped the crowds surged forward swarming all over the tanks and babies would be held up to be kissed by “Tommy”. On and on we raced in a mad dash through Belgium. It was every man and vehicle for himself no speed limits. Towards nightfall we began to look anxiously at our petrol supplies and watch our overheating bogies. Antwerp tonight - Could we make it??? That was the great question. Darkness fell and weary eyed we followed the red light of the tank in front. There was confusion in some towns where collaborateurs were being rooted out. Furniture was moved into the streets and set ablaze and the burning buildings gave a bizarre look to our tanks racing through the streets. Patriots added to the confusion by firing their small arms into the air. It began to rain and we finally received orders to harbour for the night in a large open field just south of the town of Assche. Away to the south east a great blaze lit the sky. It was the Palace of Justice at Brussels set on fire by the Germans before Brussels was liberated by the Guards Armoured Div. It was well after midnight before we were resting.
At dawn we were on the move again! We passed through Assche at the same time as our leading tanks entered Antwerp. 15/19 Hussars whom we were still supporting were ordered to guard the western approaches to Antwerp as it was thought that the Germans cut off at the coast might attempt to break through. We went into action near Lebbecke just south of Antwerp and all our brens and tanks were sighted facing west. Flat dykeland here, cultivated land split up into allotments. The Battery Command Post in a Flemish house whose greenhouses were stacked with tomatoes. Lt. Kalbraier went back to last night’s harbour area and he and Edwards brought back 3 Germans. They were searched amidst a curious throng of soldiers and civilians, and we stared in amazement at the thousands of francs that were taken from their pockets. Between them they possessed nearly 1,000,000 French francs! We were rather astonished to see the Belgiums patting the Germans on the back and even shaking hands with them! Maybe it was plain curiosity although there may have been something in the prisoners’ story that they were Greeks.
We spent the night at Lebbecke before moving to the outskirts of the town of Willibroek. During the night a D.R. from the Regt. had been shot by Germans making their way through our lines. Advanced parties went off armed to the teeth consisting of 341’s Half track, 3 Officers & 3 Acks armed with Brens at the ready. The Regt. occupied an allotment area just west of the town. We were given a respite by being allowed to maintain ourselves at half strength and half the Battery had a drink and a song in the local inns and houses.
Still in Willibroek. The Battery Command Post had a comfortable time established in a house which was once a collaborateur’s. Plenty of Nazi emblems and literature all over the house. The day was spent on maintenance and cleaning up. Some got baths at the local public baths. The hospitable people visited our bivvies and mended our clothes. The children were a great delight. Every soldier was a Pied Piper with a swarm of children running round him. They were clean and fresh in bright coloured clothing. They shook hands with everyone. In the morning they walked round the gun area presenting a lovely red tomato to everyone. The other half of the Battery who were due to visit the town were disappointed. Just as we donned our “Glad Rags” for the first time for a long time we were ordered to move. That night we entered Antwerp and we went into action on the southern edge with our guns trained across the heart of the city. We managed to accommodate ourselves in private houses once the homes of the Nazis and we spent a very comfortable night. There was a battle going on in the northern suburbs as our troops tried to cross the Albert canal. The enemy were firmly established in factory buildings.
We were in action several times during the day and the battle still continued north of Antwerp. Our firing broke many house windows in the neighbourhood. However this did not stop us making friends with the local population and everyone soon organized a place to get his feet under the table. We had come to the conclusion that we liked the Belgians. The shops in the town were closed but most of the cafés were open. Nearly all the windows carried bills, printed in English “The Belgium people are grateful to their British and American liberators”. People were dancing and drinking yet less than a mile away, across the canal one could hear the vicious rattle of machine guns and occasionally the quick, sudden rush and bang of an 88mm shell and the whine and bang of our own shells going the other way. Through the streets raced a lorry from which men were throwing the first edition of the first free paper published in Antwerp since the liberation, a communist paper.
For the most part a quiet day with a few targets across the river. Our O.P. crews had a most curious time. To reach their O.P.s they drove through Antwerp in their Shermans, would stop and do some shopping on the way then drive up to a building, catch the lift to the roof and spend the rest of the day observing the enemy in the factory areas. A most odd experience watching a battle fought with desperation by men and tanks while down in the streets below men and women were going about their daily business apparently unconcerned. In the afternoon Major Kiln of 342 Battery was wounded in the legs while assisting members of the White Brigade (Belgian resistance movement) deal with some Germans. Capt. Benson and R.B. crew joined in this little battle. L/Bdr. Beavis fired the 75mm at the Spandau nest under the railway bridge. The first round from the gun bounced on the road a few yards in front of the tank but after the rather startled Beavis had adjusted his sights he scored a direct hit on the enemy post. We received orders to be ready to move at a moment’s notice and everyone was confined to the Battery Area. Many private little celebration parties had to be called off.
All the neighbourhood turned out to wish us luck and wave good-bye as we rumbled south out of Antwerp. We had made many friends and were very loathe to leave such a hospitable neighbourhood. We journeyed south through Malines then headed east towards Louvain. Malines had been heavily bombed and many groups of sullen looking workers started gloomily at us as we roared past their ruined homes. We went into action near the Albert Canal opposite Beeringen. The tanks harboured near the road-side just behind us. We had a comfortable and quiet night.
We were expecting to move at 0900 hrs but received sudden orders to cross the new Baily Bridge and we moved at 0730. A lot of scurrying around got us on the move dead on time. We passed through battered Beeringen where the Guards Armoured Division had made the bridgehead. We roared into action in some open cultivated ground near a village called Het Hemerigh a few miles from the bridge. We now learned that we had been placed under command of an A.A. Brigade who had been given the task of forming an anti-tank screen to protect the bridgehead. We dug ourselves in and made all preparations when after about 2 hours intensive work we were again moved. To give all round defence in the bridgehead, two Batteries of the Regiment were to be prepared to fire towards the North while our Battery was to be prepared to fire over the southern zone. The move to our new areas was made rather hurriedly and resulted in a most farcical situation. Somehow or other B Troop’s gun area had also been allocated to C Troop of 342 Battery. Before anyone realised the error the guns of both troops arrived simultaneously at the appointed field crashed through the hedges and ran on to their gun platforms. The field became a scene of feverish activity as 8 gun crews began digging slit trenches. 8 sets of Tannoy wires were run out, latrines and weapon pits were dug at a furious pace and two sets of Troop Leaders and G.P.O. Acks called out angles, to the guns. The villagers must have wondered what was going on as they saw two gun troops pointing at each other! However C Troop quickly realised their mistake and dashed off leaving B Troop the victors. The Battery quickly established itself in this village of Kursaal. A Troop were on the south eastern outskirts with B Troop and the Battery Command Post on the north side. Local defence was of first importance and Bren guns and weapon pits were sited and prepared.
The anti-tank screen was never called upon to defend itself against a tank attack and our stay at Kursaal was quite a rest area. As usual we soon made friends with the local population and made full use of the local inns and cafés. Our first night in the village saw members of the Resistance Movement cutting the hair off women collaborateurs and generally ill treating half a dozen men who had collaborated. Rough justice was meted out by the crowd of angry villagers and the 6 men had to be placed in the local gaol for their own protection. We played the local football team and won a very sporting game 7-1. The Belgian team were awarded a penalty but the skipper refused to score from it and merely tapped the ball slowly to our goalkeeper. We were quite near Beeringen and were fortunate in being allowed to use the very welcome pit-head baths. It made quite an exciting journey as Jerry was making several attempts to bomb the bridge at Beeringen and the anti-aircraft defences were constantly in action. While at Kursaal we received a welcome present from the 11th Armoured Division. Each Troop received a dozen bottles of wines and liqueurs, about 1500 cigarettes, 50 packets of tobacco and some cigars. This “loot” came from a train captured in the railway siding at Antwerp and the whole trainload had been split up between the Regiments in the 11th Armoured Division which had captured Antwerp. However we were not sorry when, on the 14th September we heard we were to rejoin the Guards Armoured Division. There was something smacking of indignity to belong to an A.A. Brigade in an anti-tank role and were glad to resume our status as a Field Regiment once more.
Our days as members of the anti-tank screen were finished and we said goodbye to Kursaal and moved up to the Escaut Canal. We passed through Beeringen and Bourg Leopold little realising that the next time some of us would see these towns would be en route to England for leave. But that would be 5 months later! There was a considerable amount of artillery already in position along the banks of the Escaut Canal. Our position was less than 500 yards from the canal and we could see clearly the woods on the far bank. Our forward troops had a small bridgehead on the opposite bank and were slowly mopping up the woods on either side of the road leading north from the bridge. The guns and Command Posts were in the back gardens of houses in the village of Lommel. The civilians were still going about their daily lives unconcerned with the preparations for battle going on around them. We baked some bread in the wall-oven of one farmhouse. We had an amusing time trying to explain to the farmer that we wanted to bake bread. And it took him a long time to explain to us we did not need bread tins, the bread was baked on a hot iron pan.
A fine sunny day spent in preparation for the fire-plan. The details of the next operation were explained. The map of Holland was shown to us and the route to the Zuyder Zee pointed out. We learnt of the big Airborne Invasion to start tomorrow. The British 1st Airborne Division were to be dropped at Arnhem, the American 82nd at Nijmegen and Grave, the 101st U.S. Airborne Division to be dropped north of Eindhoven at Zon and guard the road to Grave. As soon as the airborne invasion started the Guards Armoured Division would break out of their bridgehead over the Escaut Canal. Advancing along the only main road they were to race at all speed to Arnhem and if possible push on to the Zuyder Zee. We were going with the Guards but we had the role of defending the supply route. Advancing as we would be through enemy territory on a single road our supply lines would be particularly vulnerable. Speed was essential to the whole operation and we could not succeed if the supplies were cut. To defend the route, 3 squadrons of the 15/19 Hussars, each with a Battery of the Regiment attached, were to form small strong points along the route. Working on conjunction with the American troops we were to keep the supply route open at all costs. 341 Battery were to be the first across the canal. Our squadron of the 15/19 Hussars were to link up with the U.S. paratroops at Zon and we would defend the bridge there. 342 Battery would pass through and help defend the bridges at Veghel. 462 Battery would pass through them and go to Grave. So for the first time since Normandy we would really operate as independent batteries. It looked an awful long way to the Zuyder Zee and there seemed too many S.S. troops en route. But the thoughts of the Airborne Invasion and the daring scale of the plan made us confident it would succeed. We turned from studying the map to prepare for the barrage, the “milk-round”, which would be fired before the breakout from the bridgehead. As we discussed the plans for tomorrow’s attack optimism ran high and many of us began making plans for spending Xmas at home! Little did we know where we would spend Xmas Day! No one had heard of the Ardennes then except as the place where Queen Astrid of Belgium was killed.
Another fine bright day. Zero hour was about 1300 hrs. It could not be fixed until the Corps Commander actually saw the Airborne Troops coming over. The morning was passed watching squadrons of bombers and fighters passing to and fro high overhead. Then came thrills. Lightning fighters and dive-bombers made daring low level attacks on enemy gun positions just across the canal. As zero hour approached Typhoon rocket planes added their deadly attacks on the enemy. These pilots seemed more daring than ever as they dived low into the A.A. fire. Then in the distance to the north west we could dimly make out the long trail of gliders making their way to Zon and Grave and Arnhem. The “Milk-Round” began almost at once and a terrific concentration of shells was poured into the enemy gun positions surrounding the bridgehead. After this we fired a rolling barrage to saturate both sides of the main road as the leading tanks edged their way forward towards the Dutch border. Immediately the barrage was over, our battery ceased fire and moved over the canal by the Bailey Bridge. We went into action again about 1000 yards or so from the bridge immediately in front of a Battery of Medium guns. In this open space just north of the canal were packed many hundreds of tanks and vehicles and guns. Shells from our own guns on the other side of the canal were whistling overhead as the “Milk-Round” went on and another barrage was fired. Our leading tanks were meeting stiff opposition. The first 9 were knocked out in the space of 200 yards!
We dug in. At dusk the bridgehead area was subjected to heavy enemy shelling for nearly 45 minutes and although many shells fell close noone in the Battery was injured, although one man was evacuated with shell-shock. During the night the enemy staged a counter-attack on the bridge, attacking the factory area to the east of Lommel. After some sharp fighting they were beaten off.
Another long day of firing as our tanks made efforts to break out. Road blocks south of Eindhoven were causing great difficulty but with the great cooperation of the Typhoon rocket-firing planes, enemy resistance was gradually worn down. Evening however, found the Battery still in action just a 1000 yards from the Escaut canal bridge and quite close to the main road. Remembering last night’s shelling we began to dig even deeper. A German sniper opened up from the flank and bullets whistled uncomfortably close. It was getting dark and he was difficult to locate. Soon however we had worse worries than snipers, the Luftwaffe arrived. Several Ju 88’s dived bombed the bridgehead area. Many H.E. bombs and A.P. bombs rained down bursting like crackers down the line of guns, amongst the concentrated vehicles, down each side of the road, and around the bridge approaches. We spent a most uncomfortable half an hour shivering in our slit trenches, watching the scores of tracer shells weaving patterns in the sky. A troop had some remarkable escapes. One A.P. bomb fell on the end of a slit trench where several men were sheltering. The trench collapsed. Two men only were slightly injured. One A.P. bomb burst on the back of T.L.A. carrier setting it on fire. When things became quieter we surveyed the damage. Apart from minor splinter damage 3 of our 3 tonners were riddled with A.P. splinters and were immovable. T.L.A.’s fire was soon put out and this vehicle was OK. A medium gun just behind us was knocked out by a direct hit and the A.A. gun guarding the bridge was also a casualty. There were many small fires burning all around the area but considering the concentration of troops and material our casualties were remarkably light. It had been a very trying time for all concerned. It was our first experience of deliberate air attack on our own position and it wasn’t pleasant. Already we were revising our opinions about being home for Xmas. (Later we learnt that Lt. Harry Dovey R.A., C.P.O. of 342 Battery was killed by an A.P. bomb as he crossed the bridge over the canal to recce. a gun area for his Battery).
At last we received orders to move. We lined up on the main road waiting to cross the Dutch border. Then we moved up into Eindhoven and received a very colourful reception from the inhabitants. All the girls and women were wearing orange; orange dresses, orange shirts, orange sashes and orange ribbons in their hair. Flags gaily waving and everyone very happy at the liberation. The people whenever we stopped a few minutes always wanted to know where the Prince was, Had we brought him with us? They seemed to expect us to produce him out of the back of our vehicle. A few miles north of Eindhoven we went into action on the north west side of Zon, a village important for its canal bridge on the main supply route. Our gun position was on the edge of a large open space which was an astonishing sight when we arrived. Great Horsa gliders were strewn haphazard all over the fields at various angles. Some with their noses in the woods bordering the fields, some crashed with their tails jutting awkwardly into the air, others with their noses gaping high in the air where they had been opened to unload jeeps and equipment. In the woods we met the American gilder pilots living in holes and bivvies made of crashed gliders. Living on their pack rations they were very glad to see us and our guns. In the late afternoon 6 Panthers started shelling Zon and the bridge from the S.E. setting fire to the American Hospital. The U.S. Divisional Commander came to the Command Post and our O.P.s manned the Church tower directing our guns on to the tanks. An enemy tank put an A.P. shot through the Church steeple but did not dislodge Lt. Craston. With our artillery support and the threat of an attack by the 15/19 Hussars tanks, the Panthers withdrew. Later a few enemy planes raided the area dropping A.P. and H.E. bombs around the bridge and down the main street of Zon. Our water-cart was a casualty. When the enemy tanks began shelling the bridge the water-cart was drawing water from the canal and received a direct hit. The driver and his companion managed to escape and crawled back to the gun position. During the night there was intermittent sniping from the surrounding woods but it passed off quietly.
The enemy tanks returned to the attack in the morning. The 15/19 Hussars put in an attack supported by our gunfire. We got two and the 15/19 got four. Total bag for the morning six Panther tanks - and another dangerous threat to the supply lines was removed. At midday the American ground forces began to raise clouds of red smoke. Very soon another great sky train of gliders arrived overhead. One train went on towards Nijmegen but the other circled overhead. The Dakotas wheeled round, cast off their gliders and made for home. We saw one or two gliders hit by Flak and crash into the trees a few miles from the gun position. The enemy A.A. fire was generally quite heavy. About half an hour later we had the astonishing sight of watching parachutists landing from Dakotas. As the flight of about 50 Dakotas roared towards us the sky suddenly filled with great green mushrooms and we could plainly see the men swinging underneath. They landed about a mile from the guns and there was a great hunting for souvenirs! In the evening we had another scare of tanks approaching Zon and we had 100% stand to for several hours.
The American Glider Pilots with whom we were now firm friends began to pack up to make their way back down the route. Their instructions were to get back to England as soon as possible. One of them, a Lt. Sheppard, offered to phone our relatives when he arrived back in England and we eagerly gave him our phone numbers. He promised to spend his first Sunday in England sitting in the phone box phoning all the numbers we had given him. He did - the following Sunday. He left us on the Friday! That afternoon more gliders and supplies were dropped by parachute. The sky was more cloudy and taking advantage of the extra cover enemy fighters attacked the returning Dakotas directly overhead. Three of the transports were shot down in flames in as many minutes and it was an awe-inspiring sight to see them crash behind the trees. We spent the day searching the woods, picking up the surplus equipment left by the Americans. Tommy guns, blankets, parachutes, harness, torches and many items of food and cigarettes etc., were added to each man’s store.
We said goodbye to our friends the Glider Pilots who left the landing ground at Zon to make their way back, as best they could, to Brussels and England. We scoured the woods for souvenirs. The B.B.C. news that morning gave us details of the Government’s demobilisation plans and the increased pay and allowances. First impressions were that the plan seemed fair and reasonable. The only black spot on the demob. horizon was the Japanese war, but we noted with satisfaction that a large army was not expected to be needed. We all hoped that the Japanese war would end very quickly once Germany had been defeated! There was trouble further up the main axis where the enemy had cut the main road at Veghel. We were ordered forward and hurriedly packed up. The road was congested with traffic and there was a long stream of transport belonging to the British 1st Airborne Division. By a queer coincidence we saw the cheery face of Sgt. Ruggles our old M.T. storeman looking out of place under a pink beret. Traffic was at a standstill in St. Odenrade but we found our way through and took up a position just east of the main road and south of Veghel. Our O.P.s found the Americans in Veghel hard pressed as the Germans were astride the road leading north from the town. A fire plan was quickly laid on and under cover of this the Americans succeeded in driving the enemy back some distance from the road. In the afternoon some shells from a German 88mm gun landed on B troop’s gun position wounding Sgt. Hazeley, H sub No. 1., in the back of the neck. He was evacuated to St. Odenrade which was itself subjected to intermittent shelling. Overhead there was much aerial activity as great armadas of gliders and Dakotas passed to and from the Arnhem area. We saw many gliders caught by enemy A.A. fire, but it was cheering to see them landing behind us at Zon. We felt rather unprotected in that position. The area to our right flank had not been cleared. There were no Allied troops there and our local defence had to be strong and alert all night.
A very, very exciting morning for our O.P.s and hard work for the gun end and command post staffs. The enemy, intent on preventing supplies reaching Arnhem, made repeated attempts to capture the road from Veghel. Supporting his attacks with 88mm guns he kept the Americans and the 15/19 Hussars hard pressed all the morning. Our O.P.s, under constant shellfire, did great work in bringing down fire from our guns on to enemy concentrations. Many attacks were broken up before they got moving. Others were stopped by our shell fire just when the Americans were in a dangerous situation. The gun end were kept constantly on the alert answering many calls for fire. The Battery Command Post was now a miniature H.Q.R.A. A battery of 25 pdrs., a battery of mediums, and a battery of 3.7 H.A.A. guns had been surveyed on to our grid. Telephones were laid to them and all orders for fire were passed on so that the O.P.s had quite a useful concentration of artillery to call on. The H.A.A. guns put down airburst concentrations over the enemy which proved particularly effective. By tea time the excitement died down and the enemy withdrew defeated, and the route was saved, for a time anyway. Our O.P.s had had a very difficult time. Capt. Perry M.C. R.A., our acting B.C., was wounded in the legs by shell splinters but insisted on carrying on. He was later evacuated and once more we were without a Battery Commander. Capt. Benson again took over command of the Battery. Convoys again started moving up the main axis and we slept a little more soundly at night when we learnt that our infantry recce. had reached the canal bank to our east and found the area clear of the enemy. We were also heartened by the sight of many more sky trains of planes carrying supplies to the front. On their way back some Stirlings gave us a thrill by skimming the trees over our gun positions. We could not help noticing the absence of gliders or wondering why it was necessary to keep sending so many supplies by air. We had had little news from the front. We could not have made contact with our airborne troops yet. Things were not quite according to plan . . . . . . !
A Sunday, warm and sunny. The road was open and everything was on the move again. We packed up and journeyed through shell-torn Veghel passing the wreckage of carriers and vehicles knocked out in yesterday’s severe fighting. A German light tank near the road was still smouldering. There were dead German soldiers sprawling in the ditches by the roadside. We had quite a long journey up the famous “Club” route through Udem! We crossed the Maas at Grave by the magnificent steel bridge, marvelling at the manner in which it was captured intact. On either side of the river we saw gilders sprawled in the open fields. After crossing a large canal bridge partly damaged, we turned south along the canal and went into action due west of a large wooded hill in the woods of Groesbeek, destined to be our home for many uncomfortable days ahead. But now we were fairly comfortable and in good spirits. We had had our first glimpse of Germany (the Reichswald forest could be seen from the road near Grave) and we were anticipating crossing the border soon. Our gun position was near some Dutch farms and we made full use of the amenities which included electricity! Sgt. Stow, B troop G.P.O.A. had brought a German wireless set all the way from Normandy and soon we heard dance music all day long. We anxiously listened to the news bulletins. We knew enough about the situation to realise the undercurrent of anxiety in the news and our eyes turned north to Arnhem some 10 miles away where the rumble of guns continued all day and night. There was a sense of relief when the evening news announced that our patrols had crossed the Dutch Rhine, but we knew that these patrols should have been across days ago if the plan was to succeed.
Great aerial activity with many exciting views of dog fights between our fighters and German sneak raiders. We saw a few planes shot down over Arnhem and Nijmegen. The canal bridge behind us was the object of an attempted bombing raid by enemy fighter planes. We suspected the enemy were using jet planes as there were peculiar whistles in the air that we had not heard before. The bombs which fell harmlessly in the fields behind us seemed to have dropped out of the blue as no planes were visible. We heard that the main supply route was cut again yesterday after we left Veghel. The enemy put in a determined counter attack and actually over ran the gun position we vacated yesterday morning! Our brother battery, 342 Battery, who had remained in action had a very difficult time in the counter attack, one Sergeant being killed by a direct hit on his gun by an 88mm shell. We received this information from Bdr. Castle who had been left in charge of X Tank which had got ditched leaving the gun position. He and the driver had to leave the tank in its ditch when the Germans cut the road just ahead. During the early evening the Germans were driven from their positions. When Bdr. Castle returned to the tank he fount it still a “Goer”, but the inside had been stripped of its fittings. News was still vague and disturbing. Our thoughts were still with the boys at Arnhem. That night we stood outside our bivvies in the dark and watched the almost continuous flash of gunfire. To the north the skyline, as far as we could see, was illuminated by the brilliant yellow flashes of cordite. The continuous dull roar of the guns throbbed in the air and at times the ground trembled with the intensity of the barrage. It went on for hours, seemingly without a pause, and we stood silent and fascinated wondering . . . . . . We’d seen nothing like this before. There was something angry in the air, as though great dragons were at bay, roaring and spitting defiance. Was it the last assault crossing, the crown of the operation, or, and noone dared to voice these thoughts, was it withdrawal, a desperate rearguard action? Sometime after midnight there was a sudden hush and the horizon darkened and quietened. We turned in, puzzled but hopeful.
Bad news travels fast. It was a withdrawal. The news seeped through that our patrols had been withdrawn across the Lower Rhine and our gallant paratroopers brought back. The details were vague and the full import of the news did not sink in at once. We were diverted from the news by the many aerial sorties flown by our Spitfires and we saw Tempests (freed from the Battle of Britain and the V.1.s) for the first time. There were many enemy sweeps over Nijmegen and we watched many individual combats. It was like the Battle of Britain in miniature and we watched fascinated. Close to us an air O.P. kept buzzing up and down flying over the wooded hills in front of us and doubling back each time enemy fighters were around.
We moved to Groesbeek woods passing through the outskirts of Nijmegen. U.S. Airborne troops were still in action along the main road leading south through the woods. Loosely hanging telephone wires adorned the trees on either side of the road. Our guns positions were to the east of the road in a clearing on the edge of the wood. To our right a battery of the Essex Yeomanry were already in action in a little hollow. From the top of the slight rise in front we could look straight into the enemy lines and see the menacing shape of the thick Reichswald forest barring our advance. The gaunt shapes of Horsa gliders stood out awkwardly against the skyline, many of them were scattered in the fields and hedges in front of us. We didn’t like the position with both troops cramped in a small hollow among scrub and small trees, and the guns were too crowded. During the first hours of darkness sneak raiders bombed Nijmegen, the woods echoing with the roar of A.A. guns and the many tracer shells weaving patterns in the sky.
B troop were moved back a few hundred yards across the main road to a small clearing in the woods. A well camouflaged position but, surrounded by trees, gun-laying was very difficult and the surveyors had difficulty in fixing positions. We spent the day digging in, cutting trees, and generally reinforcing our bivouacs.
The following letter from Lt-Gen. Horrocks was received and read out to the guns over the tannoy system. We took another look at the map and went over the past battles and wondered what lay ahead. The bleak day and the long dark nights left us a little despondent:-
For some weeks now, 30 Corps has been privileged to lead the advance of Second Army. Our recent operation, which started last Sunday week, was one of the most daring that has ever been attempted in modern war.
In conjunction with the Airborne Corps, we were asked to penetrate deep into enemy territory, alone one road, and to force a passage over three of the most formidable rivers in Europe.
We have burst through the enemy’s defences and have secured a passage over two of these rivers. We now stand poised between the second and third river, ready to advance again as soon as our larders have been re-stocked.
I should like to congratulate all ranks on this magnificent achievement, and I have received the following letter from the Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Montgomery.
“Your Corps has done splendidly and I congratulate you, and every officer and man in the Corps. Please tell them all how well I think they have done.”
I want all ranks to realise that the German is putting up a stubborn resistance as we approach his frontier. He is, however, very stretched, and provided we can maintain the offensive as we have done in the past, he is bound to crack in time.
Very soon I hope we shall be advancing in to Germany, and carrying the war on to German soil.
Well done 30 Corps.
(sgd) B.G. Horrocks.
Main HQ 30 Corps.
26 Sept. 44. Lieut-General.
Commander 30 Corps.
Lt-General Horrocks to-day paid an all too short a visit to the Regiment and had only time to visit F Troop of 462 Battery. His visit coincided with another burst of enemy shelling, some shells landing within 50 yards of the Corps Commander who remained unmoved. Many of us managed a hot shower and change of clothing in a mobile bath unit under a large marquee in the grounds of a large house in Nijmegen. An aerial battle was fought overhead as we finished and once again the German fighters withdrew in a hurry. At night the enemy put in a desperate counter-attack from the direction of Beek towards Nijmegen. The woods echoed and re-echoed to the sound of guns and mortars all night. Many enemy shells landed around our gun positions. We were firing many targets the range gradually dropping, 4000, 3000, 2000, 1500 ----- and we were beginning to wonder. Our forward O.P. was overrun and had to evacuate hurriedly in the dark. Our fire became so concentrated however that the enemy could not consolidate and slowly the range crept up until we breathed a sigh and relaxed when the Cease fire came with our range back at 4000 odd. But it had been a nerve shattering night and noone got much sleep until dawn.
A troop moved back a few hundred yards behind B troop and the Battery Command Post evacuated its house on the main road and joined A troop in the wooded valley behind B troop. A troop’s old position was too exposed and last night’s attack had been very uncomfortable. There were more heavy gun duels last night with some long range shelling of Nijmegen Bridge. Enemy sneak raids at night caused considerable A.A. fire and many splinters fell around our gun positions.
We spent the day doing the George Washington stunt, felling trees right and left. By nightfall every dug-out had a log roof of sorts and we all slept more comfortably and easier in mind. More bombs dropped on the town at dusk. The rain and cold winds of the past few days which had added to our misery had passed and the sun shone all day. Our infantry straightened the line to the south and south west, pushing a little farther up the River Maas valley. We had two O.P.s acting as Liaison Officers with the 3rd British Infantry Division. Our other O.P.s were in the windmill at Groesbeek along with gunner officers of the American 82nd Airborne Div. We fired several targets on the American sector and our American friends were very much impressed by the accuracy of our gunnery. That night it was bright moonlight and relatively quiet after last night’s strain but the occasional enemy shell whistling through the trees kept us alert and watchful. Just before dawn A troop’s old gun position and the area just in front of B troop was heavily shelled, but there were no casualties.
Our C.O. obtained permission to rest one battery at a time. The poor weather, the darkness of the Dekkerswald forest, and the constant shelling had all combined to make everything depressing. The disappointment of Arnhem, too, did not help morale and a change and rest would do everyone good. Our battery was the first to rest and we moved into Nijmegen barracks at 1115 hrs. much to everyone’s relief. They were not exactly luxury quarters, many windows being missing, the lights bad, and no soft beds but we were between four walls and had a little more protection from the weather and the enemy. In the grounds behind the barracks there was a H.A.A. Battery in action complete with Radar. They had been mainly employed in a ground role until this recent burst of aerial activity on the part of the enemy. We wondered whether we were going to have peaceful nights after all, and we looked anxiously at the few remaining panes of glass. Around the outside of the building were underground air-raid shelters which were the permanent homes of many of the Dutch families. Little knots of civilians sat around the entrances, women busy cooking food on improvised stoves and some hanging washing. Many small children played around our vehicles as we washed off the mud and filth. The night passed off quietly after all, although we heard the guns firing from the Dekkerswald.
We spent the day in cleaning and maintaining our guns, engines, and small arms. Some of us managed a short walk into the town smoking German cigars, 20 per man, captured in a train in Nijmegen station by the American paratroopers, and visited the canteens which had been opened in the centre of the town. We tried to visit the famous single span bridge but the enemy kept it under intermittent heavy shelling and the approaches were not safe. The area around the bridge was devastated and looked like a miniature Stalingrad with ruined factory buildings standing out gauntly along the river bank. We made friends with the A.A. gunners and discovered they were alongside us at the battle for Veghel. They showed us the secrets of the Radar and we were fascinated by the green waves on the television showing the presence of enemy planes. Two enemy planes approached within 2000 yards of the position while we watched but went off without any hostility. In the afternoon there were some jet plane attacks on the Nijmegen bridge, one jet being shot down by a Spitfire much to everyone’s delight. A small bombing raid of 6 Mitchells was broken up by enemy A.A. fire and we saw one crash in the direction of Arnhem.
Last night there was some heavy shelling of the bridge and centre of the town which kept us awake. In consequence the Officers and O.R.s Clubs were temporarily closed some shells having fallen uncomfortably close. It was now 342 Battery’s turn for a rest and we returned to our old gun positions in the Dekkerswald. We were back in action by 1215 hrs. We found our little log cabins still standing and we spent the day improving them and fixing up lights. We had managed to scrounge odd parts from wrecked gliders including tail and wing lights which worked admirably off our wireless batteries. While we were away an American 105mm Battery had occupied our gun position and their gunners had built other dug outs from which we profited.
Things were much quieter in the woods and we settled down, wondering how long this hole in the corner existence was going to last. Receiving mail and writing home were our chief pleasures.
The chief event of the day was the great procession of Lancaster four-engined bombers going in to bomb places behind the German front. Coming in from the west in a great long straggling line nearly a 1000 of them passed overhead on their way to the targets. A most encouraging sight.
Another great sky procession of Lancasters flew overhead today. This time flying very high and much more spread out than yesterday’s procession. The whole Armada took nearly half an hour to pass. We thought they were bombing Cleve and the area beyond. We were too far away to see the bombs fall or hear them burst but we could see the most terrifying sight of the huge great black smoke cloud rising higher and higher over the distant trees. When the last bombers passed over, the top of the cloud was almost as high above the ground as the bombers and they had flown in at a great height. There was a terrifying moment when one bomber was hit by an enemy A.A. shell and exploded in mid air. One moment there was a bomber flying along with many others, the next there was a crimson and yellow ball of fire which disappeared into a black ball of smoke rapidly growing into a large dark cloud in the clear sky. That dark cloud hung in the sky for some time but we saw no wreckage. Everything must have disintegrated in a split second. There were at least three planes hit in that raid over the target area alone.
Things were relatively quiet except for some occasional mortaring. The Germans were using there Nebelwerpers to great effect. The “Moaning Minnies” as we called them had a horrible sound which could only be described as a noise like a tank in pain! In those thick woods they sounded very near and terrifying. To combat them and locate them there were some secret Radar anti-Mortar stations located in the woods. They worked in conjunction with the artillery. As soon as a minnie fired the Radar got its map reference which was immediately phoned to the nearest Battery. The Battery then fired about 3 rounds gun fire on that map reference and the Radar even told us where our shells were falling in the dark! The mortars seemed very active around us and we were kept fairly busy at night. Every time a mortar fired the artillery fired back ten fold and “Nebelwerping” must have been a dangerous business those days. However Jerry seemed to be using Radar to locate our Radar as the station attached to our Battery was shelled quite heavily and accurately one night and we came in for some of the “Overs”! Fortunately little damage was done except to morale, most of the shells burst in the trees and the splinters did not penetrate our log shelters. The enemy was also using long-range guns 210mm, possibly railway guns at Kranenburg, to shell Nijmegen bridge. We became accustomed to the sound of the gun in the still evening, the hum and whistle of the shell on its way and the dull echoing sound as it burst in the town below us. The days were not very busy and we found occasions to visit the town to use the local modern swimming bath where costumes were not necessary. The weather was miserably wet at times and our shelters were not by any means rain-proof. Some reinforcements arrived and Capt. Hawkins arrived to act as Battery Commander.
On October 12th we were relieved by the 55th Field Regt. R.A. (Somerset Yeomanry) who had been withdrawn from the “Island” (the area between Nijmegen and Arnhem). The armour of the Guards Armoured Division was being rested for full maintenance and we joined the rest of the Division around Grave. We were billeted in the area of Schaijk and Reek, two small Dutch villages which were hamlets, mere collections of farm dwellings.
The billets were scattered and were not very comfortable. Sleeping quarters were the barns adjoining the Dutch farms. Often the barns were shared with cows and pigs. There was straw on the ground and a roof over one’s head but that was the end of comfort. The houses and barns were fitted for electricity but the power station at Hertogenbosch was still in the hands of the enemy. For lights we relied on a few paraffin lamps and our own Battery supplies. Our signallers soon got busy and installed a radio relay system using our 19 sets and Tannoy system. The W.C.s were as crude as all farm houses and we were forced to dig our own in the fields.
The neighbourhood was very full of troops and the small villages were quite inadequate to house us all. Our village was also being used as a petrol storage dump. The roads, lanes and fields were lined with stack upon stack of Jerry cans and oil-drums.
This was to be our “Rest” area for over a month although when we first arrived we expected to stay less than a fortnight. From the start it never looked like being a rest. New men had arrived to replace our casualties and they had to be trained and fitted into our team. New detachments had been formed and young N.C.O.s promoted to more important posts who had not had much experience in handling their new men. So from the start we got down to some intensive training. Our usual day’s time-table was as follows:-
Marching & Rifle Drill 0945-1045
Gun Drill 1115-1230
After that there was little to do except go to bed as it got dark early and the electricity was not on.
P.T. probably came in for more abusive language than any other item on the programme. The Dutch villagers stared to see us at crack of dawn, Officers and men alike, running up and down the lanes in boots, slacks and pullovers.
Some of the lectures given in the period after breakfast were A.B.C.A. talks as well as Army subjects. We were urged to fill up forms to place us on the electoral roll for the next General Election. The most popular subjects dealt with demobilisation. The A.B.C.A. pamphlet entitled “Show me the way to go home” had just reached us and we learnt more of the details that we had first heard at Zon. The natural reaction to the title was “We don’t need any showing, just give us the chance!”
Among other lectures the Officers, W.O.s, and senior N.C.O.s were able to hear a very stirring account of the recent battles from the Corp Commander himself. In the modern barracks at Grave which were now the H.Q. of the Guards Armoured Division, Lt-General Horrocks told the Officers and N.C.O.s:-
“No other Division in the Army could have done what your Division did” referring to the gallant dash to Arnhem and the daring capture of the Nijmegen bridge by 3 tanks of the Irish Guards. Among other flattering things the Commander said “This Division has the finest Artillery in the whole British Army”. He stressed the vital importance of the capture of Antwerp and the necessity of freeing the port before any further advances were made. That phase of the campaign was now on, and we were warned it would take some time and not to expect to be home for Xmas. Despite this sober note we all came away from the lecture full of optimism. The Commander’s great personality and unbending optimism left us in no doubt of ultimate victory and morale went up 100%. We returned to our training with a new energy and understanding.
Marching and Rifle Drill came in for a full share of abuse. Why seasoned soldiers who had fought all the way from the beaches should have to shoulder arms again could not be swallowed. The presence of a drill sergeant from the Scots Guards however, showed the importance attached to this discipline and we found we were still soldiers after all, and not heroes.
We did attempt a certain amount of sport, mainly soccer, but lack of any equipment or clothing prevented many men from enjoying this healthy recreation. Our loading tables for D-day did not allow us any excess weight and there had been no room to carry our sports kit. So we scratched around in denims and army boots without getting much kick out of the game.
Evening recreation was very restricted but after a while things got organised and many got their “feet under the table” in some of the less crowded farms. There was a dance hall at the nearby village of Oss and many happy evenings were spent there. A queer story went the rounds about the “wonderful wizard of Oss”. During the battles for Arnhem, Oss had been in no-man’s land. A British Officer located a large food-dump in Oss with a Dutchman in control. The Germans, of course, knew of its whereabouts. Somehow or other the Dutchman managed to supply both sides with food, sometimes issuing food to Germans at one end of the store while British were drawing food from the other!
Among other recreations the cinema at Grave barracks was very popular. The film “This Happy Breed” proved good fare for the troops. The audience’s reaction was very amusing. The opening scenes spoke of demobilisation and there were bursts of ironic laughter from the soldiers who had been “Shown the way to go home” in A.B.C.A. and were preparing for the next battles. There were loud murmurs of sympathy for the returned soldier who, after four years in the trenches, came home to family squabbles, domestic work and troubles. But the film satisfied a nostalgic longing for the sights and sounds of home and of English voices and we returned to our Dutch barns a little happier.
One other form of recreation which must not be forgotten was the radio. It was a great boon even though reception was not always good. Here for the first time we were taunted by the sweet voice of Mary of Arnhem from Radio Arnhem, a secret German station. With infuriating ease this station cut out our news broadcasts with popular jazz. At times, so clever was the interference, we did not know whether we were listening to Arnhem or the B.B.C., and when they did allow us to hear the news we found it cleverly “doctored” by Goebbels. But Mary became a joke and the programme became a joke too and an occasion for swearing, and morale went up instead of down.
Of the other pleasant memories of Reek those who were lucky enough to get 48 hours leave to Antwerp have probably the best. We had made many friends in Antwerp and our Adjutant was able to arrange accommodation for a limited number there. Later, rest hotels were established by 30 Corps H.Q. in that city, and many of the Regiment had most enjoyable times. This was the beginning of the V1 and V2 attacks on Antwerp and many men returned with tales of narrow escapes.
As recounted earlier many new personnel had joined the Battery and settled down amongst us. We were pleased to welcome back however an old friend, L/Bdr. Butcher who had been wounded on D+3.
We lost a valuable officer when Lt. A. Birrell was injured in a car smash on Oct. 21st. He broke his arm and sustained facial injuries. Lt. Craston who was with him had a narrow escape and got away with a cut under the eye. Lt. Beck had an even luckier escape finishing up under the front wheels of Lt. Birrell’s truck without suffering any injury.
During this long rest the war affected us but little. We saw the occasional V1 fly overhead. About October 23rd the long expected attack on s’Hertgenbosch began as part of the battle of Antwerp. We could hear the rumble of guns in the distance and watch the flashes at night. Then on Oct. 29th the electric lights blazed out from all the farms in Reek and we knew that s’Hertgenbosch had fallen and the power station was in Allied hands.
Early in November we began making preparations to return to the Dekkerswald. Digging parties went out each day to the woods, clearing trees and constructing bivvies and command posts. Having learnt our lessons we built solid log roofs and on the whole the bivvies were well constructed. But all our hard work came to nothing, for we never occupied that gun position.
Mention must be made of a memorable C.O.’s conference in Reek. All the officers in the Regiment gathered at a small cafe in the main street. Accommodation was rather limited and the C.O. asked the proprietor to provide another form for the officers to sit on. This was quickly forthcoming and the C.O. began his lecture. Hardly had he started when the over-zealous proprietor, proud at having his cafe used as a “G.H.Q.” struggled in with another huge form. The C.O. waited patiently and began his lecture again. He had reached the same point when the door burst open again and another huge form appeared. Suppressed laughter nearly stifled the younger officers. When this happened a third time with the C.O. in the middle of the same sentence, the roar of laughter in which the C.O. joined finally convinced the proprietor he was exceeding his hospitality. When the C.O. was able to give his talk we heard the very gratifying news of his award of the D.S.O. and the receipt of a personal handwritten letter from Gen. Sir Miles Dempsey, C.O. 2nd Army, congratulating the Regiment on its excellent part in the dash to Arnhem.
Tragedy married the end of our stay in Reek. On the afternoon of November 4th a party from our Battery had been visiting the baths in Nijmegen and had tea in the O.R.s canteen before returning. As they were leaving the canteen an A.P. bomb dropped from a daylight sneak raider fell between two of our waiting 3 tonners. Bdr. C. Sharp was killed and many injured by fragments. The injured were L/Sgt. Bullock, Bdr. Castle, L/Bdr. Lathwell, L/Bdr. Smith A., Gnrs. Dixon, Bishop, Biston, Smith B., Chambers, Maxey, and Dowling. Fortunately none of the injured were very seriously hurt but we were stunned at the loss of Bdr. Sharp.
The following day November 5th we received sudden orders to move. At 1215 in the middle of dinner we were told to move at 1400 hrs. We had been resting for over 3 weeks and had unpacked almost everything moveable. There was a most unholy scramble and many had indigestion but we moved punctually at 1400 hrs. During the last few days the Germans had succeeded in driving a wedge into our lines opposite Venlo and at one time were dangerously threatening Helmond and even Eindhoven where 2nd Army H.Q. was established. We were moving to the Venlo front to relieve the 13 R.H.A. who had been having a difficult time in unpleasant conditions.
So ended a pleasant lull in the campaign. That night as we harboured in the pouring rain in the area of Oplou - St. Anthonus we thought longingly of our billets in Reek even though they were not the acme of comfort.
We relieved 13 R.H.A. on the Venraij sector. The wind was blowing half a gale, sleet, rain and snow swirled around us as we crossed the bleak, shelterless country. Muddy tracks and treacherous ground made going slow and difficult. Fortunately the gun positions were centred around the only farms in the area and the command post staffs at least could get some shelter from the elements. We had no O.P.s out but we fired several regimental concentrations, mainly counter battery tasks. During the night a few enemy planes circled overhead. Some bombs dropped nearby and shook our farms. One narrowly missed 342 Battery’s Command Post.
Another day like yesterday although the wind had dropped somewhat. We were still sending men on 48 hours leave passes to Antwerp and they gloated as they left us in our misery. We fired a few concentrations but the front seemed pretty quiet and the enemy appeared to have withdrawn to his positions around Venlo.
One of our neighbour batteries disgraced itself by dropping a few rounds short during the night and disturbing our infantry. This was the first occasion this had happened to the Regiment and everyone felt the disgrace. During the day the Colonel carried out tests with 222 fuzes and came to watch F sub carry out the test. The enemy must have wondered what the activity was.
The weather was drier but conditions underfoot were still bad. There were more tests with 222 fuzes but no other firing. To while away the time the B.C. Capt. Hawkins had organised a Lotto School in the Command Post barn and it proved very popular.
There was a change of plan, 13 R.H.A. were recalled and relieved us. Owing to the muddy ground and churned up tracks many of the 13th’s tanks and guns got bogged and the change over took several hours. We were fortunate and managed to drive straight off, a tribute to good recce of the route and some skilful driving. We learnt that the whole of 43 Div were moving south and we were to join the column at midnight at Eindhoven. We harboured along the main road between Geldrop and Eindhoven. We ate our evening meal and rested in the front rooms of houses and cafes lining the road. A few slept on chairs, others sat and talked. Punctually at 1230 a.m. the occupants of the houses shook the sleeping forms and gave us all a cup of hot coffee (ersatz, no milk and no sugar - but very welcome). We had just got time to eat a hot meal (The cooks had not slept) and drink hot tea before setting out at 0130 hrs.
The long dreary drive through the darkness, tail to tail, took us through Diest, Beeringen and Bourg Leopold. Two flying bombs passed overhead on their way to Antwerp. Dawn found us once more in Holland, down in the queer shaped part called the Dutch Appendix, the province of Limburg. By 1430 hrs we were in action in the little village of Born, a few miles north of Sittard. We were the first British soldiers seen in the village and were made very welcome. U.S. troops had captured the village only a few days earlier. For about a fortnight the village had been no-man’s land, U.S. troops occupying it by day and the Germans by night. The inhabitants had been living in the cellars. The fighting had not damaged the village very much and we found comfortable houses with electric light laid on.
We settled in quickly, with a rest room organised in a café. We learnt a little more of the plans. The Americans were moving further south in the Aachen sector and the British taking over the old area. There were many guns moving up and we learnt we were not to stay put very long. We took the chance of having hot showers in the miners baths at the pit-head just outside Sittard.
There was little activity and we spent the time getting to know our new Dutch friends. We learnt that women were not allowed to wear trousers and that the Priests preferred them to wear silk-stockings rather than the attractive knee-length white stockings. The Priests had a lot of power, a Dutch school teacher said “If the Burgomaster says a thing should be done one way and the Priest says it should be done a different way, the second way is always best.”
Our recce parties entered Germany for the first time. They were to prepare gun positions in the village of Grotenrath just over the Dutch border, a few miles south of the strongly held town of Geilenkirchen. As we entered the enemy country and passed the frontier posts there were many evidences of the hard fighting the Americans had had to make to punch a hole into the Siegfried line. Shell-torn houses lined the roads, shell holes and mortar splinters on the pavements, torn trees and broken telegraph poles littered the roadside. We found that E and F troops of the Essex Yeomanry were already in action in Grotenrath and we were to take over their gun positions. There was a detachment of U.S. service men stationed in the village and a swop of rations was effected to make a change of diet! The village presented a dreary sight in the mud and sleet and snow which had marked our first day in Germany. We all slept that night in the rooms of a large house, the occupants having been told to sleep in the cellars.
The bad weather continued with mud and sleet making the task of dumping ammunition and preparing gun positions very trying. Many of the ammunition lorries stuck in the treacherously soft ground and most of the ammunition had to be dumped some distance from the gun platforms. The villagers were warned that they would have to evacuate to-morrow but there were many conflicting rumours as to their fate. A young German R.C. Priest endeavoured to squash the rumours. Most of the villagers were either very old or very young. The children ran away and hid when we British first arrived but they were playing with the American soldiers. We learnt that all the inhabitants were being sent to Holland before the battle but no one was quite clear as to the fate of the cattle and poultry. The cellars appeared well stocked with potatoes, vegetables and apples and the shelves were lined with bottled fruits and pickled vegetables. Many of the houses contained religious paintings and ornaments.
A great day in the annals of the Herts Yeomanry. The whole Regiment crossed the border and entered German soil to occupy the positions prepared by the advance parties. There was another cause for celebration as our old Battery Commander, Major Loveday, who had been wounded on D day returned to his Battery at Born and was able to lead his Battery over the border. Despite the muddy ground we quickly settled in and made ourselves comfortable, nearly every man was able to sleep under a roof and many discovered beds and mattresses to sleep on. There were many private celebrations and feasts as gun crews and command post staffs cooked sumptuous meals to celebrate their first day inside Germany. The souvenir hunters were quickly on the job and an amazing variety of articles were turned over. The fire plan for the next operation “Clipper” arrived towards the evening and the staffs had a busy time wading through the calculations.
All the civilians left the village to-day and we had full possession of the houses. We had the responsibility of feeding the animals. B troop alone had 8 cows, 2 horses, 2 sheep, 4 pigs, several dogs and various rabbits, poultry, geese, etc., to attend to. The gunners enjoyed milking the cows. The operation orders for “Clipper” were studied in more detail. The fire plan was in four phases. Phase I - the 84 U.S. Div with the British tanks and Sherwood Rangers in support were to put in a right hook around Geilenkirchen to capture Prummern. Phase 2 - The British 43rd Div were to left hook and capture Bauchen, Suggerath and the high ground to the N.E. of the town. By the end of Phase 2 Geilenkirchen should be dominated by our troops on the high ground either side making Phase 3 the thrust through the centre an easy cleaning up operation in the town itself. Phase 4 - was the consolidation by 43 Div advancing to capture the villages north of Geilenkirchen. Our O.P.s were to go with the Sherwood Rangers. Towards the evening the weather became worse and rain began to fall steadily. Later the mediums and heavies began the softening up process. We had sudden information that the 15 Pz Div were reported in Geilenkirchen and the field artillery joined in the bombardment to harass them. (Later we learnt that the 15 Pz were not in the town that night but were en route for the Venlo area. Whoever was in Geilenkirchen on the 17th took a good pounding).
“Clipper” began at 0030 hrs. Our fire plan on Phase I commenced at 0445 hrs and continued throughout the morning. The gunners snatched breakfast in between pauses in the programme. Phase I was completed by mid-day a little behind schedule. Phase 2 began at 1430 hrs and the 43rd Div met some tough opposition. However Phase 2 was completed successfully by the end of the day and Phase 3 was fixed for 0700 hrs on the 19th. In the evening there was some enemy air activity but our own heavy bombers were out in great force and we watched the German searchlights flashing around the skies as wave after wave of the armada went over.
Phase 3 was duly fired at 0700 hrs and the mopping-up went smoothly. The sun came out and things seemed to be going well. We were ordered forward and we changed the shelter and warmth of our comfortable billets for the open air and bleakness of the countryside. Our gun position was in the shallow trough of two low hills about two miles S.E. of Geilenkirchen. It was cultivated ploughed land, soft and treacherous with no sign of shelter. A farmhouse about ½ a mile to our left rear held out hopes for the Command Post but it was reported to be mined. Away to our left were the ruins of a brick factory which we soon learnt was subject to heavy enemy shelling. To our left front we could just discern the shattered roofs of the village of Bauchen, a grimy, shattered, hollow ruin after its terrible poundings. Phase 4 was fired soon after we were in action. The going was heavy and opposition stiff and the phase was not completed by nightfall. The Americans too, on the E. of Geilenkirchen were finding opposition much heavier. The Germans did not intend to let Geilenkirchen, in the very heart of the Siegfried Line, succumb quite so easily. Enemy shelling harassed the main Bauchen-Geilenkirchen road which ran just the other side of the low ridge in front of us. Just a slight increase in range and the shells would have landed amongst us.
The night passed off comparatively quietly, and the infantry resumed the attack without making any progress. Dug in 88’s caused great trouble and our guns were constantly in action to engage the many targets called for. The wind freshened in the afternoon bringing fine drizzling rain. By nightfall it was pouring steadily and the ploughed land became a mudbath, the rain flowing along the ruts and turning the vehicle track marks into miniature rivers. A rum ration went some way towards raising our spirits but could not dispel the gloom caused by the constant drumming of the rain on the tightly stretched canvas bivvies.
Driving wind and rain continued all day. The weather was simply appalling, clothes and boots were mud begrimed. A journey round the guns was an effort as each foot step sunk deep into the mud or slithered on the wet soil. Empty ammunition boxes formed a path of stepping stones from bivvies to guns. You had to be nimble footed else you were likely to slip on the greasy surface. Our cooks who had been valiantly struggling to cook our meals and hot tea under a most inadequate canvas cover gave up the unequal struggle and were sent to a broken down farm among the wagon lines. Our food was brought up in containers in a carrier which only escaped bogging in the deep ruts through the skill of the driver. The weather had kept the infantry and the enemy quieter today and the only targets fired by us were harassing ones, or counter battery.
Extract from a letter1 to home:- “What was once a sown field is now a sea of mud. The tracks are deep channels of water where the tanks have bitten deep in the mud. Behind each gun you can see a wet shiny strip of canvas slanting above the slippery mud. Some of the luckier gun crews have a fire in their bivouac, a stove looted from a German house in Grotendrath, and you may see a piece of piping smoking from one end of the canvas. The canvas is by no means waterproof, the wind has torn it in several places and the men have placed tins and mugs under the holes to catch the rain. The floor may be lined with wet straw but that does not prevent the ground from becoming slippery as the boots treat in the mud. The “bivvies” are draughty, low and dark. You cannot stand up so you lie on your bed, but your boots are muddy and you are cold, so you take off your boots and crawl into your bed in wet clothes. It is too dark to read so you think you will go to sleep or perhaps think, or possibly compose a letter, but you never get any further in your thoughts, every few seconds one or other of the Regiment’s guns will fire shattering all your thoughts. You start again and the gun nearest you fires, shaking the earth and the bivvies causing a lump of wet mud to roll onto your face. You compose yourself again pulling the blankets tighter over your head, yet you cannot shut out that thud! thud! thud! of the hammering of the guns. Despite all this not one of us would change places with the P.B.I. whose life these days must be absolutely hell”.
Ammunition and supply wagons were having so much difficulty in negotiating the mud that our Shermans were constantly in action rescuing and towing bogged vehicles around, until they themselves got stuck and had to pull each other out.
The battle for the villages N.E. and N.W. of Geilenkirchen continued in all its ferocity in spite of the deadly rain. This was the fourth day of almost continuous rain and we wondered if we should ever get our guns and tanks off the muddy ground. The Battery Command Post were washed out and transferred to the “mined” farm house half a mile away. Our guns were kept in almost constant action as target after target was wirelessed back. Tiger tanks and 88’s were causing a lot of difficulties. Capt. Benson had a field day, almost constantly on the “air” asking for fire. Smoke screens were fired in rapid succession. The supply of smoke ran short and ammunition had to be transferred from the other batteries, a most difficult task. Wagons could not get near the guns and all the troops available carried the boxes by hand over the slippery ground to keep the guns supplied. It was a difficult day for smoke screens, the smoke pillaring instead of spreading. To keep the screen going the O.P.s increased the rate of fire. The supply of ammunition broke down and the Regt. reported “Smoke Expended”! Capt. Wood in R.A. had a narrow escape when a German 150 mm shell landed behind the tank, “Unhealthily close” was the comment. Towards dusk the downpour settled into steady rain, sunk to a drizzle and finally ceased. As we sighed with relief news came that we were to go out of action in the morning and return to Born. No more welcome news could have been given to the tired and miserably wet gunners.
We returned to Born in high spirits. The move from the gun area was not made without great difficulty in getting out of the mud. One S.P. belonging to 462 Battery was unlucky enough to get one track in a deep rut and sank slowly over on to one side. A very big headache for the L.A.D.
Our friends at Born were highly delighted to see us and we were soon able to forget the discomforts of warfare around their homely firesides.
We remained at Born until December 6th and there was little of importance to relate about that period. The morning after we returned, Nov. 25th, reveille was sounded by German shells landing in the village punctually at 0730. All the shells fell in open ground, narrowly missing our billets and our vehicles. More shells fell punctually at 0730 on the morning of the 28th November but again fell on open ground and by a miracle no damage was done. The first two days we were out of action cleaning up after the mud of the last few days. We finally occupied our old gun positions and settled down to support the 2nd Irish Guards who were holding the line on our front. There was very little firing to do, our only real scare came on the evening of December 3rd when we were called upon to fire D.F. tasks at 2330 hrs, one of our patrols got into difficulties with a Nazi patrol and we had to cover its withdrawal.
Here at Born we had our issue of winter clothing. Besides the usual gloves, woollens, and leather waistcoats there were some wellington boots and, most welcome of all, brand new tank suits, waterproof with zip fasteners and hoods. They were issued to tank and gun crews only, but not every member was lucky enough to have one. If only we had had them at Geilenkirchen we might not have been quite so miserable.
The heavy rains of the past weeks had brought their attendant difficulties. The river Maas flooded its banks and the pontoon bridge North of Masstricht was in great danger of being washed away. Traffic was held up for hours each day, no tanks or heavy loads were allowed to cross and the congestion was terrific. One S.P., H sub, which had been in for repair was stuck on the far side of the river and had to remain there for two days. The crew were supplied with rations daily by means of a 15cwt. which was allowed to cross the bridge. The Germans had spotted our supply difficulties and recce planes, jet propelled, flew over during the day to observe the battle of the floods.
Floods too, caused difficulties in maintaining communications. Our O.P. was near the river bank and the telephone line was under water for quite some distance.
Nothing could stop us playing sport, however, and on November 30th the Battery soccer side played an R.A.S.C. team at Geleen and won by a comfortable margin 6-0.
December 1st saw the recce parties off to new positions east of Sittard. They had a warm welcome in the new villages, heavy enemy shelling of the outskirts making them take cover in ditches. We were relieved when we later discovered we were not going to stay in those villages after all.
On December 4th our thoughts turned to home. The first details of the plans for home leave in the New Year were announced and speculation was rife as to how the plan would work.
We moved to Grootdoenrade a few miles East of Sittard and just short of the German border on December 6th. Reluctantly we handed over our positions in Born to the 6th R.H.A. (The following morning the gun area previously occupied by B Troop in Born was very accurately shelled by the enemy, again causing no casualties).
Grootdoenrade proved to be a long straggling village, muddy and badly drained. Our vehicles were parked in orchards, the men billeted in the small houses. We were staggered at the number of small children in the village; one gun detachment were living in a house where the family consisted of 16 children and a 17th was on the way!
We remained there until December 17th, the time being spent mainly on maintenance. The tank crews had a busy time fitting special shoes to the tracks of the Shermans to get a better grip on the soft, muddy ground. An attack was preparing on the Sittard triangle to Heinsberg and it involved crossing open ploughed land, soft and treacherous to tanks. Snow fell on the 9th and the resulting thaw made conditions even stickier. There was little recreation available in the village and journeys were made to the Guards cinema in Geleen whenever possible. The O.P.s had a little work to do manning auxiliary posts to give other O.P.s of neighbouring Regiments a rest. At one time they were observing with a platoon of R.A.S.C. drivers who were holding the line at this part of the front!
The chief topic of conversation was leave and the ballot system and the method of making out the leave rosters. The very misleading accounts of the system given over the B.B.C. and in the newspapers caused a certain amount of resentment and harsh feelings when the full details of the system were known.
Preparations for the attack went on and we began to prepare gun positions in open fields just west of Gangelt and inside the German border.
On the morning of Sunday December 17th an officers conference was held to decide the training programme for the coming few weeks. The impending attack had been postponed indefinitely. In the afternoon orders were suddenly received to prepare gun positions on the edge of Grotenrath itself, and to be prepared to occupy them at a moment’s notice. The sudden change of plans set everyone wondering, but no inkling of what was impending reached us. In the evening there was more aerial activity than for a long time and bombs were dropped near Sittard and Geleen. Later that night a lone raider dropped a stick of A.P. bombs over the village which missed the northern end of the village by less than 300 yards and dropped harmlessly in the fields.
We did not occupy the gun areas around Grotenrade after all. Just as well, they were shelled a few hours after we left! We were ordered to be in action by 1200 hrs in the village of Estenrade, right on the German border. By 1155 hrs we were ready, fairly comfortably settled in the village. A Troop’s Command Post was in the downstair room of a modern farm. Everyone took a great deal of care over local defence and A troop especially dug some very effective weapon pits and slit trenches. Except for a few H.F. tasks after dark we had no firing to worry us. Just before midnight a message was received that parachutists were being dropped behind our lines. Dark objects had been seen floating through the sky over our front line troops. Gliders were suspected so Stand-To was ordered for a time and guards doubled and everyone on the alert. A few lone raiders dropped bombs indiscriminately in the villages around us but none came our way.
First rumours of the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes reached us but for the moment we could not see how it would affect us. We heard that we were to go to a rest area in Belgium near Louvain and train with the Guards for a special operation. Great speculation as to the reason for this but the prospects of Christmas out of action in Belgium were very tempting. There was little firing during the day. We did engage a German bridging party on one part of the front but the results were not observed.
The seriousness of the German offensive still had not sunk into our consciousness. We evacuated our positions at Estenrade at 1500 hrs and joined the column of the Guards division leaving Sittard and Geleen. It was to be an all night march. The guns and tanks had a cross country route to avoid the towns and main roads to relieve congestion. In Sittard and Geleen the inhabitants anxiously watched the long line of vehicles apparently in full retreat. Some civilians began packing their possessions and joined the line of vehicles, not wishing to remain any longer.
It was a cold, uncomfortable ride in the darkness with many long, weary halts. The advance parties had gone to prepare areas in Rhode St. Pierre, N.E. of Louvain and we journeyed in that direction through Hasselt and Diest. On the main road to Louvain from Diest we were diverted south in the direction of Tirlemond. No explanation was given for the change of plan. Breakfast was eaten by the roadside but everyone was too tired and cold to appreciate it. We received orders to billet in the town of Hackendover just east of Tirlemond. Everyone had quite a comfortable billet, the recce parties hurriedly switched from Rhode St. Pierre, had done their difficult job well. However, we were to stay one night only. Orders came to send a Battery to the Welsh Guards in the town of Jodoignes and 341 Battery were ordered to go.
A quiet leisurely move to Jodoignes. Recce parties again had a difficult time finding accommodation. The Welsh Guards Battalion had already taken the best and were well settled in. However, we were lucky to find a convent school where the girls were breaking up for the Christmas holidays and the Sisters very kindly put the school at our disposal, the Battery quickly settling in to its strange surroundings. There was every prospect of spending Christmas in this town and everyone quickly set about making up for lost time and preparations were soon in full swing.
We continued our optimistic preparations for Christmas. We discovered that a dance had been arranged for Christmas Eve by an American Unit who had been living in this town and were called away when the German offensive began. So we took over all the arrangements, had tickets printed, the band re-engaged and the Burgomaster sent out fresh invitations. Christmas provisions arrived in small quantities, tinned turkey being the chief item of interest. Some mail arrived to add to our interest and then the long awaited ballot for the first leave roster was announced. The lucky ones had a lovely Christmas present. The disappointed consoled themselves with the fact that they had still the prospect of leave in Feb. to look forward to. Of war news we heard little. V1’s were seen several times during the day passing directly overhead.
A Sunday, a fine, clear, frosty morning with a warm sun and a brilliant blue sky whose surprising clearness and fine weather changed the course of history. In the morning recce parties consisting of Major Loveday, Capt. Dovey, Lt. Treble and Lt. Beck journeyed to Namur to take a look at the rolling countryside. In the event of the Germans breaking through to the Meuse at Namur, the Welsh Guards Battalion the recce element of the Guards Division, were to fall back gradually and draw the leading Germans on to the remainder of the armour waiting around Jodoignes and Tirlemond. Possible gun positions around Namur were picked out by the recce parties. The Battery would have to retreat with the Welsh Guards and we wanted some idea of routes and possible areas. North of Namur the high ground gave a magnificent view of the great procession of bombers passing overhead towards the battle front. Taking advantage of the brilliantly fine weather the Allied Air Forces were pounding Rundstedt’s supply lines with a ferocity unequalled in the campaign. An aerial battle developed directly overhead as enemy fighters tried to intercept. The battle was fought at a great height with vapour trails the only indication of the swift battle. One fighter was observed at a great height to be in flames and before the startled recce party could get to a place of safety the burning plane crashed within 50 yds of them. It proved to be an American built plane but nothing could have survived that terrific crash and the burning wreckage was unrecognisable. On the return to Jodoignes a flying fortress was seen to crash in flames just a few miles from the town. The dance arranged for the evening had to be cancelled in the end. Orders were received to impose a strict curfew after 10 p.m. owing to the activity of parachutists behind our lines. We heard of two Germans dressed in American uniform and driving a jeep having been stopped outside the town last night. However, there were many private parties in the local inns and houses that evening, offensive or no offensive we were determined to enjoy our Christmas. Then at 2200 hrs we were warned to prepare to move early in the morning. Definite orders were not received until 0030 hrs and we were to be ready to move at 0400 hrs.
Punctually at 0400 hrs the armoured column led by the Cromwells of the Welsh Guards roared out of Jodoignes heading for Namur. A cold frosty morning which made the sleepy eyes water. The Battery crossed the Meuse at Namur and were in action by 1000 hrs on the S.E. outskirts. The Welsh tanks had taken up defensive positions on the high ground on the S.E. of the town dominating the main road leading to Namur from Marche. The O.P. (R.B.) party were installed in a house on the crown of the hill close by one of the forts forming a ring around Namur, with a commanding view of the rolling ground in front. Information was meagre, noone quite knew where the enemy was. A flying column of 3 tanks was sent towards Marche and returned at nightfall having about reached Marche without seeing any sign of the enemy. News was received that German tanks had almost reached Dinant but had been beaten back. All day aerial activity had been very great and everyone was cheered up by the reports of the great aerial offensive. The radio, however, was still broadcasting news which had been delayed 48 hours and it was hard to convince the local population that the situation was improving. Our Xmas dinner was a sad affair after all, the usual compo pack meal ate rather hurriedly and unappetising. We were too tired to celebrate in the evening and got as much rest as we could.
Another fine sunny day, cold and frosty. The squadron of Fire and Forfar Yeomanry we were also supporting went out on a short recce. A troop supported them and moved forward to a position several miles S.E. of Namur . The Welsh Guards sent another flying column to Marche which returned with eggs but no sign of the enemy. The Belgian owner of the house where B troop’s O.P. party were installed returned this morning. He had left his wife and son when he heard the Germans were coming and had made his way to comparative safety across the Meuse (many Belgian men did this). He had come back after two or three days when he found the situation improving but he was still very worried and slept fully clothed. More aerial activity all day with enemy flak visible many miles East and S.E. of Namur. After dark German fighter-bombers staged a short, sharp raid on Namur, the objectives apparently being the road and railway bridges over the Meuse. The railway sidings were just behind the Battery position and the bombs dropped uncomfortably close. A huge piece of steel came through the roof of the Battery Command Post, a café, and broke through the floor, fortunately no casualties. Later we received orders to join the remainder of the Regiment who had moved to Givet on Christmas Eve.
The 6th Airborne Division hastily flown over from England on Xmas Day, arrived and took over positions from the Welsh Guards. Pink berets were to be seen everywhere. The Battery formed up and drove back through Namur crossing to the west bank of the Meuse. We journeyed down the west bank through some of the most magnificent and enchanting scenery we had seen the whole campaign. It was a crystal clear day, the frost covered fields and hills sparkling in the bright sunshine. Steep cliffs of coloured rocks rose sharply from the river bank at times reminiscent of the Cheddar Gorge. All the way to Dinant excited Belgian men, women and children waved and cheered and we waved back cheerily for encouragement. We crossed the river again at Dinant and continued our journey south to the village of Falmignoul.
We were in action by 1430 with B troop down in the valley at the north end of the village, A troop on the crest of a hill to the west of the houses and the Battery Command Post in a café in the centre of the village. The Fire and Forfarshire Yeomanry took up defensive positions on the high ground a little distance to the east. The news that the Germans were now having great supply difficulties after the terrific bombing attacks and stories of German S.P. guns being captured intact where they had run out of petrol and been abandoned made very cheering news. We decided to trust to luck and eat our Christmas Dinner to-morrow.
The morning was spent in preparing the dinner. A small school was located near the Battery Command Post where the dinner could be cooked and two class rooms would do for seating both gun troops. The H.Q. troop men were to be seated in the café used by the Battery as a Command Post. Each troop vied with the other in improvising decorations for its room and they were quickly made, colourful with seasonal greetings chalked on the blackboards. Chairs and tables were collected from four nearby cafés, the owners gladly cooperating. They said “When Tommy eats his Xmas dinner everything must be all right”. Roast potatoes, tinned turkey, pork, peas, greens, bread sauce and apple sauce followed by Christmas pudding and sauce. Each man also had 2 bottles of beer, a few sweets, an apple or orange, cigarettes and a cigar. The Officers and Sergeants assisted in serving and afterwards joined in the community singing and the cheers for the cooking staff under L/Sgt. Welch. The celebrations were continued in the evening in the many cafés in that small village. The Officers had their Xmas dinner in one of the cafés. They thought they would miss it when the Battery Commander was suddenly called away for orders at 1845 hrs but he returned with no important and news and an excellent meal was enjoyed.
The B.C.s orders last night were to arrange for Capt. Benson to go out with a tank patrol. The Fire and Forfarshire Yeomanry and the Rifle Brigade did a long tour of the surrounding countryside visiting the chateau belonging to the King of the Belgians. There was no sign of the enemy except for some knocked out Mark iv tanks. Capt. Wood was taken to hospital suffering from jaundice.
The last two days of the year were quiet and uneventful except for an occasional visit by German fighters which did not molest us but appeared to be attacking the bridge at Dinant. On the 31st Lt. Craston, our C.P.O., received an urgent telegram to report to War Office on the 1st, flying from Brussels. It was an unexpected summons. We learned later he was to act as an instructor in India on firing from L.C.T.s during an assault landing.
Destined to be the year of victory but victory seemed a long way away down in the Ardennes shut in by the hills. We learnt that we were to move forward tomorrow, the 29 Armoured Brigade, whom we were supporting were going over to the attack to find the retreating Germans. Snow fell during the night and all the morning followed by a sharp frost leaving the roads icy and treacherous.
Lt. Craston’s driver returned with the news of yesterday’s daylight attack on Brussels aerodrome by numbers of enemy fighters. There seemed to have been a number of such impudent sweeps over Southern England and aerodromes in Belgium and Holland. We made a very difficult and slow advance over the now icy roads to occupy a position at Wellin, only to learn we were out of range and had to push on again to Resteigne. It snowed again during the day and towards evening froze again. The last few miles of the journey were some of the most difficult hours of driving our tank drivers had to endure. The cold was intense and the roads just sheets of ice. The journey took us up and down steep hills. The upward journey negotiated painfully and slowly, hugging the bank, the downward journey covered by a series of slides and rushes often finishing up against the parapet of a bridge over a deep gorge. Often our hearts beat fast as we wondered whether the parapets would hold the weight of 30 or 40 tons of steel sliding against them. One S.P. slid against the side of a house on a downward slope and was quite unable to move any further and the crew had to spend the night by the roadside. It was long past dark before the guns reached their area and almost midnight before one could report the Battery ready for action.
Units of the 6th Airborne Division went over to the offensive to-day, driving the enemy back along two roads, one to Bure and Grupont, and the other to Wavreille. Our O.P.s were supporting the tanks of the Fife & Forfarshire Yeomanry of the 29th Armoured Brigade. The advance on the left to Wavreille made good progress despite the arctic conditions and by the evening our O.P.s were in Wavreille. The drive to Grupont, however, met stubborn enemy resistance, the enemy making good use of the high ground. Our tanks succeeded in entering Bure, but not in clearing it, enemy guns and mortars from the neighbouring hills keeping up a murderous fire. An enemy gun on one hill received considerable attention from our Battery and was effectively silenced.
The Battle for Bure continued without either side making any progress. Bure changed hands several times during the day. At midday the Battery moved forward to positions in Belvaux. Billets and accommodation were very poor indeed and as snow fell heavily all day life was very miserable. Mike and opportunity targets were fired in and around Bure until late evening and the firing continued throughout the bitterly cold night on harassing Fire targets.
Slightly less cold, but dark menacing snow clouds hung low overhead. Activity around Bure continued all morning. About 14.00 hrs. the enemy made a desperate attempt to recapture Bure. A company of enemy infantry supported by some tanks and heavy mortar fire attacked down the snow-covered hill slopes. Major Whitmee (30) who was our O.P. in Bure spotted the attack in sufficient time to bring down the Regiment’s concentrated fire with very great effect. One tank was hit and reversed, causing the others to withdraw. The enemy made repeated attacks all afternoon, using their mortars with harassing effect on our troops and O.P. Each time, however, Major Whitmee’s efforts brought the Regiment’s fire down on the attackers and broke up each attack. At night the enemy gave up the unequal struggle and Bure remained firmly in our hands. Major Whitmee was awarded the M.C. for his gallant actions on this day which undoubtedly saved Bure and our troops.
After yesterday’s activity it was all quiet at the gun end at Belvaux and at the front. Snow fell heavily all day and conditions for friend and foe alike were appalling.
The weather improved sufficiently for us to catch a glimpse of the sun, but it was soon blotted out by a thick haze over all the snow-covered fields and woods. We waited all day to move forward, but the bridge ahead before Wavreille had not been completed.
Snow and cold wind with dark clouds and visibility nil made another depressing day of inactivity. Recce parties prepared positions in Wavreille itself, but although the Battery was at one hour’s notice to move we remained at Belvaux another day.
Although our billets at Belvaux were poor we were loath to make the journey to Wavreille. The weather was intensely cold with a strong breeze making visibility difficult. The harrowing journey was completed painfully slowly in the afternoon, several of the half tracks requiring winching over the difficult route. A great tribute to our drivers that we all arrived safely.
Our new billets gave us more protection from the cold elements and with no firing all day our spirits rose a little. The monotony of the day was only relieved by maintenance and prospects of another move, this time to Forrieres. The Recce parties had a difficult journey over the icy roads, but their work was wasted as no further moves were made.
For us, the battle of the Ardennes was no over. The enemy had withdrawn, his last final fling for victory having ended in a complete rout. Our only battle now was with the elements, and we did our best under difficult conditions to keep warm and healthy. Hot baths were constructed and although very draughty and amateurish they provided all our immediate wants. The news of the Russians’ great advance, taking advantage of the Germans’ defeat in the West, kept our spirits up and we spent many hours discussing the many rumours about our future plans. Even when Capt. Dorey departed on January 16th we only knew our future area was Diest with no knowledge of our future role. However, our hopes for a rest period were borne out when we received our Marching orders in the evening.
We left Wavreigne at 0900 hrs and began the difficult journey back to our rest area. The soft vehicles left later, took a different route, and arrived at the new area the same day. The tanks and guns were to take two days over the journey. Roads and hills were still coated with ice and progress was slow. Hills needed a team of men with staves and iron railings to push under the tracks to catch a grip. Cross country routes were tried only to end up with an S.P. in a snow drift. Negotiating a steep hill, H sub slipped and only avoided going over a steep drop by ramming a tree, bending the barrel somewhat!
Petrol wagon Q6, travelling with the tanks, ran over a mine in the road buried under the frozen snow. Gnr. Brennan was wounded in the legs and the vehicle was written off. The remarkable thing about the incident was that nearly the whole of the Regiment had passed over the mine before it went off. We felt thankful to have escaped from the Ardennes before the thaw set in. There must have been many mines scattered indiscriminately during the fighting which had lain hidden under the snow.
We stopped the night near Huy, the villagers being very hospitable. Next morning we crossed the Meuse, journeyed through Tirlemond and finally arrived on Jan 18th at Schoenderbueken, a small village west a few miles from Diest. R.H.Q. were in a Montaign and 342 and 462 Batteries in Sichen.
We learned that on the 17th Gunner Walters, B troop’s very good D/R, was seriously injured in a collision with a U.S. lorry and was dangerously ill in hospital in Namur. He died two days later. If he had only lived another day he might have made a complete recovery. He was mourned by everyone.
Our new billets were very comfortable, everyone sleeping in private houses. The village itself was rather isolated and in some bleak, cheerless country. On the 19th we were greeted with driving hail and snow which made life very miserable.
A dance was organised in the one and only village hall behind a café. It was a great success, the village turned out on the Sunday evening and as the civilians were admitted free the place was packed. There were children in arms as well as numerous small children running around the dance floor. It was difficult to dance but the villagers did not mind. Some of the men danced in their trilby hats and coats. The band was a wonderful organisation - a self-styled 10 piece band which had only three different types of instruments and had a limited repertoire. One dance very popular with the villagers, a combination of the Boston Two Step and a gallop, was played about 8 times in one hour. The café proprietors mixed a wonderful drink called “egg flip” which had plenty of flip but no egg. There were many sore heads the following morning!
The weather remained cold and bleak with more snow, at one time the temperature dropped to 10 degrees F. Despite the cold football was organised, B troop especially playing three games in one week on the snow covered fields. The week’s work consisted mainly of maintenance and painting with intensive training of the Technical Assistants and Driver Operators.
We found that the village was on the V1 route to Antwerp and several times during the day and night they were heard and seen passing directly overhead followed later by the crash of the A.A. barrage as they approached Antwerp. Once or twice a loud explosion shaking the windows and doors told us of a “kill”.
Two new officers joined us on the 24th January. Lt. Warren and Lt. Lowther who became our very capable C.P.O. and A.C.P.O. respectively.
Another dance was organised on the following Sunday Jan 28th. It did not go with quite the same swing as before as the café proprietor had just been caught with 42 lbs of W.D. biscuits and a parachute in his cellar and he was not feeling so well disposed towards the British Army! Later, on February 4th, we missed 10 packs of compo rations but they were never traced. So we lost the equivalent of 140 mens rations for one day! We knew that the villagers were very short of food. On the first day there the housewives asked for the bacon fat we were going to throw away after breakfast. Later we were astonished to see them serving this fat up as the main dish for supper. Potatoes seemed to be their one and only source of food, although eggs seemed fairly plentiful.
January 29th - 31st saw the first examinations for the Technical Assistants which were held at Sichen. They finished just in time as on February 1st the tanks and guns were suddenly sent away north to, at that time, an unknown destination.
During the period of rest the war had taken a decisive turn with the Russian offensive sweeping all before it in its attempt to reach the Oder. On the Western front the chief activity had been the cleaning up of the Sittart triangle in a very wintry and hard action, mainly by the 7th Armoured Division. Hitler had broadcast to the nation on Jan 30th on what was to be the last of the Nazi birthday celebrations and his voice had sounded gloomy and despondent. The time had come for a great offensive in the West to crush the German armies between the Siegfried Line and the Rhine. Unknown to us preparations for this great offensive had been going on for several weeks and possibly months.
The period from February 1st to 7th was spent in preparation for the coming Reichswald battle. A terrific concentration of artillery was prepared in the Groesbeek and Dekkerswald forests south and south-east of Nijmegen. The Regiment’s guns were harboured in the eastern fringes of the forest. They travelled up to Nijmegen on February 1st halting for a night’s lodging in a school in Eindhoven. The water supply was not too clean and on arrival in the woods at Nijmegen all the gun crews were smitten with dysentery which made an unpleasant beginning. All vehicles and tents were fully camouflaged and all movement in daylight was kept to a minimum. Fires, too, were kept under control and all round the life was rather miserable in the bleak February weather.
On the 6th February the soft vehicles, which had remained behind at Schoenderbucken, were moved up. They had to take a very long and devious route via Bourg Leopold, Tilburg, s’Hertogenbosch, Oss and Nijmegen. The last part of the journey was completed in darkness. The road at times ran through flooded fields and only very careful driving in the darkness prevented some very nasty accidents. It was almost 0600 hrs on February 7th before the weary-eyed drivers at last threaded their way through the muddy forest tracks and harboured their vehicles in the woods.
A temporary Battery Command Post was established and work commenced immediately on preparation of task tables and gun programmes for the biggest barrage of all time. The fire plan was due to commence at 0400 hrs on the 8th February. No preparation in the open was allowed before 1600 hrs on the 7th February owing to the necessity of maintaining surprise up to the last possible moment. At 1600 hrs our guns came out of hiding and moved on to their gun platforms. Then began the task of digging slit trenches and new bivouacs, troop and battery command posts and preparing the 4800 rounds which had previously <been> dumped and camouflaged alongside gun platforms. That night a party of sappers gathered on our gun position and went silently into the darkness to begin their dangerous work of clearing the minefields. Tanks carrying bridging equipment moved up and lined the tracks through the Battery area waiting for the signal to advance.
Somewhere before midnight our night bombers roared low over the forest and dropped a great weight of bombs just behind the enemy lines. The roar of the engines and the bombs echoed through the forests for a long time disturbing the weary gunners.
D day for operation “Veritable”. Reveille was at 0400 hrs. A light mist blanketed any noise and the silence was quite eerie as we picked our way in the darkness to our guns and ammunition stacks. All around in the woods one could imagine hundreds of sleepy gunners preparing hundreds of guns and thousands of shells for the great offensive. Then at 0430 hrs it began. The “Milk Round” came first - Gen. Horrock’s term for our counter-battery tasks. All the guns in the world seemed to be firing at once and the roar was terrifying. The trees doubled every sound as the leaves and branches through back echoes. All round us A.A. Bofors guns were firing tracer shells and the sky seemed filled with tiny balls of red and pink sliding through the air over the tree tops. Every now and again a roar like an express train sounded above the gun fire as the Rocket batteries in the valley behind opened up. The firing and banging went on without pause until 0945 hrs and at 1000 hrs the big barrage started. More than 1200 guns were engaged in this barrage and the noise beggars description. Some enemy shells landed in front of our guns less than 200 yards away but the explosions were not heard above the general din. Fortunately there were no casualties although some members of the Echelon had narrow escapes. At 1500 hrs we ceased firing although the barrage was still continuing. We moved forward about 3 miles over muddy and shell torn ground and established a position in some open fields east of Groesbeek. Our recce parties went ahead to establish new positions in Kranenburg and had to remain there all night. The tracks and routes were track deep in mud and the congestion on the routes was terrible. There was no hope of moving the Regiment any further that night. We resumed firing and kept it up until dusk. At 1845 hrs there was a sudden silence and for precisely two minutes that day not a sound of a gun or shell was heard. Then at 1847 the noise began again and continued without pause all through the night. Some enemy guns firing from behind the Reichswald worried us during the night, several shells falling on the gun position but doing little damage in the soft ground.
We had managed some sleep but at 0400 we were firing again to support the general advance. After breakfast we move in to Kranenburg. We journeyed across the battlefields which had been the scene of the previous day’s barrage. It now looked like a battle scene of the 1914-18 war. Gaunt trees scarred and broken, empty shells of houses, burning hay ricks, trenches and dug-outs caved in, tangled heaps of barbed wire, and everywhere the pockmarks of shell craters. There were no signs of any recent dead although there were some ugly sights of dead Germans who must have been dead for some weeks, if not months, still unburied. The wreckage of gliders was a reminder of the airborne invasion last September. On the main road from Nijmegen to Kranenburg we saw one of the reasons for the congested routes. The fields to the north were flooded while the ground on the south was so wet and soft that many of our Churchill tanks had sunk in the treacherous mud. Heaps of rubble in the streets of Kranenburg were being bull-dozed away. The gun positions allocated to us in the south west corner of the town were almost impossible to occupy. Mud and water surrounded everything. Vehicles and tanks were bellying themselves in the soft ground requiring winches and tank recovery vehicles to get them onto relatively firm standing. After much hard work in shocking conditions we at last organised a Battery position. Very few of the houses were habitable after the terrific barrage but a room and a cellar here and there provided some comfort. A Churchill tank carrying a searchlight took up position in rear of our position and at night floodlit the area, pointing its beam over the town. With others in the neighbourhood it turned night into day and our gunners working on the guns were silhouetted against the night sky. German planes circled overhead and dropped several bombs in the neighbourhood of the searchlights and the guns. Near misses, less than 300 yards away.
Flood waters were still rising and the roads in the town were becoming almost impassable. We kept an anxious watch on our guns to see that they did not sink too deeply in the mud. Fortunately there was little firing to be done. The initial stages of the attack seemed to have gone well. The overwhelming barrage had done its work. Now the only thing really holding up our advance was traffic congestion due to the floods. The searchlight tanks moved up in the afternoon and we guessed we would move on in the morning.
Before moving off in the morning our route on to the main road was sign posted with aiming posts to mark the depth of the water. This was most essential, the roads were pitted with shell craters and some unsuspecting motor cyclists had got a ducking when their cycles disappeared under the water in a shell hole. The procession to the main road looked like a water carnival instead of a Regiment of Artillery. We passed a long line of vehicles waiting patiently on the main road and after journeying across country on slightly higher ground we established a Battery position on the north eastern corner of the Reichswald forest. We were quickly in action with targets in the centre and northern suburbs of the town of Cleve. That night, to add more to our discomfort, there was a sharp drop in temperature and the gun area was quickly covered in a light layer of snow. By dawn it had all disappeared.
We received orders to join an Armoured column which was to make a thrust south out of Cleve. We were to support the Churchill tanks of the 44th Armoured Brigade who were operating with the 15th Scottish Division. Orders had been given and received somewhat hurriedly and some mistake occurred about our R.V. However it happened, the Battery found itself leading the armoured thrust! Our guns were about to pass over the newly constructed Bailey Bridge in the centre of the town when we were fortunately stopped by our Battery Commander. We hurriedly parked our vehicles in side streets and cleared the main road to let the cumbersome Churchills and Flails go lumbering through. No sooner had they crossed the bridge than Jerry started shelling the main road and the bridge approaches. The bursting shells sounded loud and close in the confined area of the piles of rubble. The buildings were empty shells of rubble after the terrific bombardment by air and artillery. We managed to turn our guns and tanks around, make our way back up the column, and go into action in the back gardens of some houses on the western edge of Cleve. Here we fired over the housetops at the enemy guns and mortars shelling our leading troops. Jerry now opened up from a different direction. One or two guns sited near Emmerich to our N.W. and on the farther bank of the Rhine kept up a constant shelling of the centre of Cleve all the afternoon and early evening. It was a little disconcerting to hear enemy shells come whistling from the direction of the left rear and we were kept “on the listen” all day. Some shells burst uncomfortably close in the trees lining the avenue behind our guns but did no damage. The houses in whose back gardens our guns were sited were very modern and were the only ones in Cleve undamaged. So we managed a fairly comfortable night sharing the cellars and ground floor rooms with the infantry.
We remained at Cleve all day. Progress generally was slower as tougher opposition was reached. 53rd (W) Division were reported to be making very good progress through the heart of the difficult Reichswald Forest. Flood waters were steadily rising and we watched the water gradually seeping into the back gardens where our guns were in action. We looked for alternative positions in the town but every field and garden was waterlogged. If we were forced to move by floods we should have had to go into action either on the roads or on the piles of rubble. Most of the firing during the day was by our Medium artillery. A great deal of excitement was caused by the frequent raids of German Jet planes. They had spotted the congestion of traffic in Cleve and along the waterlogged roadways and they did their best to add to our difficulties. They came gliding out of the sun before we were aware of them. Usually their presence was heralded by the rattle of our Light A.A. guns and the stream of tracers which went up in all directions. Our Light A.A. guns with their multiple Browning Machine Guns and Multiple Bofors did some very fine work. Coming in at a very fast glide the Jets would release their bombs, which could be plainly seen on their way down, and then zoom away at an amazingly accelerated speed as the Jet came into operation. The pilots were clever, always choosing a moment when our Tempests and Spitfires were not around. The Canadians who were fighting an amazing battle with Dukws and Buffaloes in the flooded regions of the Rhine, had now cleared up the area as far as Cleve and were moved into the town. A long line of Crocodiles (armoured infantry carriers) parked in the avenue behind our guns. More and more Dukws were to be seen on the main road as they were the only means of keeping the supplies coming through. The German plan of flooding the area by breaking the dams further up was certainly causing us some embarrassment. It had also meant that the American 9th Army, who should have attacked across the River Roer on February 10th were held up. This enabled the Germans to concentrate all their defences in the North, making our progress even more difficult.
A fire plan was fired in the morning to cover the advance of our troops south from Cleve. The advance went well and we were ordered forward in the afternoon. German Jet planes arrived as we prepared to move and our journey through shell torn Cleve was accompanied by the roar and rattle of A.A. fire and the crashing of bombs. A difficult job to find your way through the piles of rubble and the shell and bomb craters, streets and roads were non-existent. We passed a burning building set on fire by an enemy bomb only a few minutes before. Our new position was just north of the German town of Bedburg whose red-roofed buildings we could just see ahead. The frightened inhabitants of some nearby houses were turned out to make room for our Command Posts and off duty crews. More mobile searchlights were established around our gun area making night into day.
Another Regiment was moved into our gun area and we were moved forward a mile or two on the eastern outskirts of Bedburg. At first sight it looked a reasonably good position. The Battery Command Post and B troop Command Post were in houses on one side of a track leading up a valley. The guns were in the open fields, B troop’s near the track, A troop some 200 or 300 yards from the track with their backs to a small wood. We were concealed below a crest, and by breakfast time we were fairly well settled in. We knew however that the enemy were less than 1000 yards away. The main road which ran over the crest away on our right was subject to enemy mortar fire and we wondered when the enemy would locate us. We were not to wait long. Between 0900 and 1000 hrs our Churchill tanks began to edge forward up the valley along the track past our guns, it was their forming up area before advancing.
The noise of their engines brought down a concentration of mortar fire. The track, it appeared, was one of the German Defensive Fire Tasks. Mortar shells landed around the tanks and around the buildings housing the Battery Command Post. Their house was too near a track junction which appeared to be the centre of the D.F. task so, during a pause in the mortaring, the Command Post made a hasty retreat into the cellar of the house adjoining B troop Command Post. The Command Post signallers, Corbin, Green and Turpin did some very fine work relaying the telephone wires while the mortaring was still continuing. The fire plan for the attack began at 1000 hrs and the gunners were kept very busy all day firing concentration after concentration on enemy infantry and mortar positions. All the time a continuous mortaring of the track was kept up. Occasionally shells landed in the woods behind A troop, in the gardens of the houses, and alongside B troop’s guns. G Sub nearest the track were in an uncomfortable position and were later moved to the corner of the wood. We received some attention from German Artillery; three shells, probably 105 mm, fell around F sub without doing any damage beyond puncturing a few items with splinters. The Command Post Staffs busy working out fireplan after fire plan were lucky to be established in some very strongly reinforced cellars. We were struck by the general strength of the reinforcement and lay-out of the cellars. It occurred to us that this was another example of the German thoroughness. Even the cellars of the houses had been brought into the scheme of the Siegfried Line defences. These cellars were probably intended for sheltering German infantry and Headquarter Staffs. They proved very useful to us and were largely responsible for the fact that we survived the mortaring without any casualties to personnel. B.S.M. Thompson’s motor cycle became a casualty when a mortar shell landed in B troop’s front garden. Our R.S.M. was wounded by mortar splinters when a mortar landed behind his vehicle. All the batteries and R.H.Q. had been worried by the mortaring and we were all very relieved when nightfall came. The mortaring ceased about 1600 hrs and we were not troubled again. We had a busy night harassing the enemy with artillery fire.
The mortaring began again in the morning but kept more to the original area around the old Battery Command Post. The Canadians began a push down on our left flank and we fired a considerable number of targets in support. The mortaring ceased about midday as the advance continued and by evening everything was relatively quiet. During the night however another attack was launched using the searchlights to illuminate the battlefield and we were kept busy into the early hours. Enemy resistance was still very dogged but progress was made.
More attacks were launched in the morning and we continued firing on fire plans and opportunity targets. In the afternoon we moved forward to a position about halfway between Cleve and Goch, close to the south eastern corner of the Reichswald Forest. That had now been completely cleared and we had almost completed a circle around it since leaving Nijmegen. Our new position was in open ploughed fields thick with mud under the rain of the past few weeks. The Battery Command Post was established in a Pig Sty the only habitable part of a ruined farm. Troop Command Posts stayed in their half tracks, it was too muddy and unpleasant in holes in the ground. To the right of the position a long belt of barbed wire staked to the ground flanked by hastily dug trenches ran the whole length of the fields and out of sight over the crest. More of the Siegfried Line defences which had been outflanked.
We remained in this position all day. Twice during the day we had to turn our guns back through 160 degrees and fire towards our left rear over the gun position we had recently left. B.S.M. Thompson left us to go back over all the Regimental gun areas since Nijmegen and collect all the salvage and unused ammunition that had been left lying around. To-day the Canadians attacked to cut the road running East from Goch to Calcar. We watched the Crocodiles (infantry carrying tanks) go dashing across the fields on our left moving up to the start line. Enemy shells fell on the crest but no vehicles were seen to be hit. We fired in support of the attack which succeeded. During the night a German counter-attack was staged on our east flank with the object of cutting in two the Canadian forces astride the main road from Goch. A terrific struggle went on in the valley running parallel to the one our gun position was in and enemy tanks and infantry were reported less than a mile away to our left rear. The Regiment “stood to”, guns swung round and laid out on new S.O.S. tasks and everyone was on the alert. For once no searchlights were blazing and we strained our eyes in the inky darkness searching for the first signs of opposition. Nothing happened and we turned in at 0130 hrs.
To-day was calm after last night’s tension and we had time to make ourselves more comfortable. The Battery Command Post found the farm possessed a good cellar and evacuated their pig sty. Some excitement was caused during the day when an A.P. shot from a tank gun struck G.A., A troop Command Post half-track. Fortunately it did little damage. One or two other stray rounds whizzed over the position during the day, “overs” from a tank battle the other side of the crest. We found time to listen in to the wireless. Radio Arnhem was still jamming the B.B.C. but we noticed the change in the tone of the propaganda. The German radio was trying to persuade us to join forces with the Germans to fight Russia. “You are going the right way, going East” said Radio Arnhem “that’s the way Germany wants to go, why do you make it harder for her?”. To reinforce this line they tried to make out that the British and Germans were really old pals. They broadcast a “touching” little radio drama where a British Tommy capturing a wounded German soldier in a shell hole discovers they had been at school together before the war and they embrace each other as long lost friends. What a difference from their earlier propaganda and what a difference from the propaganda to their own troops in which the British soldier was always shown as the enemy and always would be the enemy. No we weren’t fooled and it caused us many a good laugh.
Another day of small fire plans. The weather worsened again and we were confined to our tents in the pouring rain. Our recce parties went off in the afternoon and stayed away all night.
A complete contrast to yesterday. A lovely sunny day with blue skies and white clouds giving a pleasant foretaste of spring. It made our move forward so much simpler and pleasant and made our new position look attractive. It wasn’t really. The guns were in a large open field and the tracks cut deep grooves in the soft earth. The Battery Command Post was in a farm in front of the guns. Behind the guns was another line of farmhouses housing another Regiment. A few hundred yards behind them was a windmill which was subsequently blown up by our sappers. The Germans appeared to be using it as a target, shells were seen to burst around it as we arrived. A few miles to our right we could see the ruined buildings of Goch, some fires still burning. Our troops had not yet cleared it although most of it was not in our hands. The day was remarkable for the aerial activity on both sides. Our Typhoons had a field day, lining up in the sky waiting their turn to dive onto targets which were proving a thorn in our side. In the afternoon many squadrons of medium bombers were over bombing targets not far behind the front. We were close enough to hear the explosions and see the “mushrooms” of smoke billowing up. It looked at first as though they had bombed our own troops in Goch by mistake. During the morning and again before dusk, German jet-propelled bombers visited the front. Each plane was greeted with a terrific concentration of A.A. fire and the sky at one time seemed filled with little puffs of A.A. smoke. Bombs were dropped at several places all around but no serious damage was done. Each attack was over very quickly and they were reminiscent of the shots in a news film of an attack on a fleet at sea.
A day of intense artillery activity as our troops attempted to clear the crowded areas to the east and south east of Goch on the way to Weeze and udem. The fighting was very hard and artillery support was almost continuous. We fired over 1500 rounds in 12 hours. More aerial activity during the day, mainly our own Typhoons continuing their deadly work. They were always a fascinating sight to the gunners who time and time again expressed admiration of the daring of the pilots as they dived low through intensive enemy A.A. fire. In the evening, during a pause in operations, the leave roster was drawn and the lucky men going on leave in March were jubilant. Glum faces from the unlucky D-day men who now knew they had got to wait until August for leave (unless the war ended earlier).
More heavy work with plenty of fire plans and targets. The enemy retaliated and some shells fell in the Regimental area and among the guns of our neighbouring Regiment. The evening was spent in preparation for Fire Plan “Leek”, a preliminary bombardment for an attack by 53 Div on our right towards Weeze. Ammunition wagons arrived just before midnight and with considerable difficulty made their way in the dark across the muddy ground to unload alongside the guns.
We were still unloading ammunition when the fire plan began at 0130 hrs. It continued without pause until 0515 hrs necessitating firing on a different target every 3 minutes. It says much for the high standard of training that, despite the weariness of the gunners after previous long days of firing, not a target was missed during the four hours bombardment. The attack by 53 Div progressed slowly and we were called upon for fire support during the day. Towards evening more ammunition arrived and another load around midnight. Tracks and fields were almost impassable to the ammunition lorries and we had to use our Sherman tanks to tow the trucks to the guns. This had its disadvantages as the tanks cut our telephone and tannoy wires. It was no joke for the signallers repairing torn wires in the mud and rain of a dark night. More enemy shells landed in the Regimental areas, both A and B troops having shells on their positions, fortunately without casualties.
An unfortunate accident happened on E sub today. While moving the S.P. to a new platform a shell resting on the wireless cover rolled on to the floor of the new fighting compartment. It exploded, injuring Sgt. Couzins who was standing in the compartment and causing shock and burns to Gunner Hargreaves the driver. They were evacuated quickly by the M.O., Gunner Hargreaves returning after a few days, but Sgt. Couzins was sent to England and, much later, discharged with a “gammy knee”. Apart from this incident the day was relatively quiet.
A day of general advance by our infantry and tanks. We were now beginning to feel the benefit of the Attack across the River Roer by the American 9th Army which had been postponed owing to floods. The Canadians on our left flank advanced about four and a half miles in the direction of Calcar while our own troops penetrated to the surroundings of Udem. We fired many targets in support of these attacks. Capt. Benson had a field day with many opportunity targets and in turn was mortared severely, fortunately without casualty.
Things began to move. Traffic on the main routes was “frozen” until 1800 hrs daily to allow priority vehicles to move up. A Battery of Canadian Medium Artillery came into action about a quarter of a mile behind us, firing over our rear towards Calcar and beyond the Rhine, and we secretly cursed them each time they roared. News came that the Americans making good progress in their push were less than 15 miles from Cologne. A rumour ran around that a German P.O.W. had stated the war would end at 11 o’clock today. Another rumour from German civilians was that Ribbentrop and Von Papen were in London. This was the last place we would expect to find them, unless, as someone suggested, they were in Scotland Yard.
It was so quiet and peaceful on the gun position that we could hear the larks in their morning flight. There was a hint of sprint in the air and after the strain of those long days and nights of continuous gun fire the peace and quietness was very refreshing. The battle front had surged forward in the last two days and we had been left behind for a short breathing space.
Our peace was shattered by the news that Capt. J.M.M. Wood R.A., A troop Commander, had been killed in action at 1700 hrs. While in his Churchill tank on the outskirts of Kervenheim, a mortar shell landed on the hull killing him instantly. It was a great loss not only to the battery but for the Regiment with whom he had been very popular. We prepared to move forward but owing to road congestion we remained in action in this position for another 24 hours.
A day of movement. We left the position at 0830 hrs, crossed the road from Goch to Calcar and finally took over a gun position near Bucholt previously occupied by 33rd Field Regt. R.A. Their guns were still having difficulty in limbering up as our guns roared on to their platforms. Some battered farm houses on our left provided shelter for the Battery Command Post. A great sow, recently killed and hanging from a beam, attracted our attention and we looked forward to a change of diet. Over the crest of the fields in front we could clearly see the twin towers of the cathedral of Udem rising from the still smoking ruins of the town. The waggon lines established themselves in a convenient wood on our right and everyone settled down for a comfortable night. However, we received sudden orders to join an armoured thrust by the Guards Armoured Division from Goch. The enemy were crumbling quickly and the intention was to follow up and link up with the swiftly advancing Americans as early as possible. We retraced our tracks across country back over the route we had followed that morning, past our old gun position and finally lined up on the main road into Goch from Cleve, just on the outskirts of the town. We just managed to get our tents pitched in a field beside the road when sleet and rain arrived to make conditions unpleasant.
A day of no movement. We kept in a state of readiness all day expecting to move and as we had dismantled our tents we had to endure the snow showers as best we could. Later, as there seemed little prospect of moving, we repitched our tents and prepared to stay another night. Traffic moved slowly up and down the road but there was no great movement of transport. We heard the R.E.’s were having difficulty with blown bridges and bomb craters. We had time to reflect and talk about the news and the American advance. For the last few weeks ever since the opening of the Reichswald Forest battle on Feb. 8th the British newspapers had been silent about the activities of the British 2nd Army. The Canadians had been given all the publicity and from the newspapers and B.B.C. reports one would have imagined that the British had been sitting comfortably holding the line of the Maas river down as far as Roermond without doing any fighting.
Now the Americans having been held up by floods so that the British and Canadians troops had fought alone for two weeks or more, had made sensational advances against very weak resistance. They had stolen all the headlines and still no credit had been given to the British troops who had just fought the most bitter and difficult battles of the whole campaign in atrocious weather against many natural obstacles. Such was the trend of our rather bitter thoughts as we stamped up and down to keep warm on that bleak and icy road. There was a diversion at 1600 hrs when a car passed with loudspeakers blaring “Mr. Churchill will be passing through shortly”. We could hardly believe our ears but decided to stay by the roadside and watch. Sure enough, about half an hour later, preceded by a number of Military Police on motor cycles, two large black saloon cars drove by, each carrying a small Union Jack over the bonnet. In the leading one were the Prime Minister and Sir Alan Brooke. The Prime Minister was clearly visible, cigar in one hand, hat in the other, moving it up and down rather mechanically. There was no cheering, everyone gave most correct and military salutes. Churchill looked just a little grim and serious. Probably he realised that no one was in a mood for cheering, still weary after a hard battle, still remembering our casualties, still remembering that the war was by no means over, still bitter about the newspaper reports and just a little puzzled why we had to wait hours and hours on a roadside in the cold while the Americans advanced all the time. There were more salutes for “Monty” as he drove past behind the Prime Minister’s car. There was rather an ironical cheer, half suppressed, as another saloon boldly labelled “Press” quickly followed the leading two saloons. As we returned to our cold vigil we reflected “Winston gets around a bit”, “Travels more than any other bloke in the world”, “He must be feeling well satisfied to have set foot on German soil once again”. “That will make Hitler eat another carpet when he knows” said a wag. We learned later that just beyond Goch, the Prime Minister fired a super-heavy gun into the German lines on the other side of the Rhine. Just before 1800 hrs the column began to move and we hurriedly packed up, stowed away our tents and cookhouses and moved off. Traffic jams in the ruined streets of Goch were frequent and progress was painfully slow. By now it was dark and the route difficult to follow. We remained on the road, moving forward slowly, for eleven weary hours and in that time we covered just less than eleven miles. Our route took us through Weeze, Kevelaer, and Wetten, all of which had seen bitter fighting.
It was almost 0530 hrs before were finally established in our new gun area in open cultivated fields about half a mile west of the town of Kapellen. We had changed direction from south to east and the enemy now had their backs to the Rhine. The American and British troops had linked up and the remnants of the German Army west of the Rhine were achieving a miniature “Dunkirk” in the area opposite Wesel on the Rhine. Our new position was centred around some isolated farmhouses, untouched by the war, where the civilians were still living their normal lives. We established ourselves in the barns and settled down for a comfortable night.
But at 0300 hrs we had another early move. A few miles further towards the Rhine we occupied some open fields just behind a stretch of woodland. We were in action by 0430 hrs very apprehensive about the woods which were reported to contain 500 German paratroops. From woods on our immediate left flank came the sound of falling shells. A considerable concentration of shells plastered the woods and we were not a little anxious until we learnt it was the guns of a neighbouring Division supporting infantry mopping-up operations on our flank. It was the first time many of us had been near the receiving end of one of our own artillery concentrations and the experience was a little worrying to say the least. A long line of Scots Guardsmen, fine upright soldiers, made their way past our gun area and passed through the woods in front. We supported their advance to capture the town of Bonninghardt. Its fall enabled us to move up to within a mile of the town in a large clearing in the woods. There were still odd mines scattered in the area and the woods had not been completely searched for hidden troops.
The German pocket opposite Wesel was gradually growing smaller as the Canadians pushed south towards Xanten and the Americans pushed north towards Wesel. The Germans were still resisting steadily in the centre beyond Bonninghardt and appeared to have quite a concentration of “Moaning Minnies” (Nebelwerpers). In the enclosed area of the woods they sounded quite close, the woods on our left coming in for some attention.
The Scots Guards put in an attack in the centre of the pocket, pushing N.E. from Bonninghardt. The Welsh Guards formed a strong left flank protection. The battle was quite a noisy affair although most of the firing came from our own guns and tanks. The Welsh Guards tanks established themselves on some high ground and firing over the heads of the advancing infantry empties their guns into farm houses and buildings and likely pockets of resistance. Our O.P.s with the Welsh Guards had little firing to do although they had quite a hot time when a German anti-tank gun began picking off the Guards tanks. After two had been “brewed up” the others had to withdraw. The Regiment was kept busy answering calls for fire from the Scots Guards and there was some effective shooting at tanks and guns in the region of Alpon. By nightfall all the objectives had been taken and the battlefield was glowing with the fires of many burning farmsteads. During the night the R.E.s built a bridge over a stream under some deadly harassing fire from German guns.
The bridge having been built the Scots Guards resumed the advance in the morning and advanced another 1000 yards or so against very stiff opposition and intensive mortaring and shelling. The shelling appeared to be from guns firing from the opposite side of the Rhine and the enemy was suspected of using some tall factory chimneys, at Buderich on the Rhine, as his O.P.s Just before Dark Moaning Minnies became very active all along the perimeter of the pocket, harassing all our forward troops and lines of communication. The Regiment was kept busy answering calls for neutralisation as the O.P.s kept obtaining bearings on the Nebelwerpers.
In the afternoon the Coldstream Guards having relieved the Scots Guards during the night, put in a strong frontal attack on the town of Menzelen. The Regiment fired a long smoke screen on the flank of the attack to prevent observation from the high ground at Xanten. As the Guards crossed the railway embankment and made for the main road they ran into withering D.F. fire from all arms. The Regiment engaged many Mike and Uncle targets and the Coldstreams, pressing home the attack, got astride the main road and entered Menzelen. That night, just before and after dusk, saw a great increase in enemy mortaring. Nebelwerpers seemed to be firing from many points in the remnants of the pocket. All targets were quite haphazard and it was guessed that the enemy were having a last fling before withdrawing across the Rhine. The whole Divisional Artillery kept up a steady bombardment of the suspected mortar areas and the approaches to the Rhine crossing for over two hours.
A thick mist or a haze of smoke overhung the Rhine banks and the enemy pocket, or what was left of it, in the early morning. Reconnaissance aircraft were out early and met some A.A. opposition but otherwise everything was very quiet. About 0900 hrs our observers saw two huge explosions in the mist from the direction of the bridges. It was at first thought that ammunition dumps had been blown, but it was soon learned that the bridges at Wesel had been blown. The battle west of the Rhine was over. The artillery put down a heavy concentration around the bridges for a short while, then all firing ceased and everyone relaxed.
Footnote to the Reichswald Battle. The following letter was received from the F.R.A. 15 (S) Inf. Div. whom we supported from Feb 8 - Feb 20 1945:-
I have not met so far, a more willing and co-operative band of chaps than yours. I and many besides felt at the very start, that being “with us” you were also “of us” and that made things very easy for me and my staff. I have received kind words from those concerned in the battle for our part. You may be sure that I wish it to be well known that 25% of the credit goes to your Regiment with the grateful thanks of the 15 (S) Div. I had no time to visit your Regt., but I should like, somehow, for you to say thank you to the Gunners from us all.
We came out of action but remained in the area of the woods near Bonninghardt until the 14th March when we moved into billets at Nijmegen. The main building was a large school in the centre of the town which we shared with a civilian relief organisation. They were always wanting extra rooms for furniture storage and it was decided to billet all of B.H.Q. into private houses where they were made very welcome.
We settled down for the usual bout of admin. work and maintenance with painting as the usual side line. We were given double leave vacancies for Brussels which cheered the Battery. On March 16th Capt. R.C.T. Anderson joined the Battery from the 65 Medium Regiment and took over the duties of A Troop Commander.
Nijmegen itself was looking more organised now and less full of troops than when we had last seen it in February swarming with the staffs of nearly all the artillery units in the 2nd Army. It was now possible to view the famous bridge without fear of being shelled and watch the barges unloading at the quayside. However, we were not entirely out of danger. On the night of the 16/17 enemy shells from a long range gun landed in the centre of the town close to our vehicle park and billets. One shell exploded on the doorstep of the Battery Office house but apart from splattering the front with mud and stones it did little damage. Sgt. Watson and Sgt. Daniels who were standing just inside the doorway were fortunate to escape injury. Another shell landed on the roof of the house where Capt. Revie R.E.M.E. our cheerful L.A.D. officer was billeted and disturbed his sleep. There were other near misses including one that burst in the trees in front of the Battery Officers Mess. We were all very lucky to escape any injury or damage that night.
During this time the most intensive preparations for the assault crossing of the Rhine were being made. We learned that the Regiment’s guns were to cross the Rhine on specially constructed rafts. These rafts were sections of Bailey bridges on four pontoons and the whole contraption was winched across by special winches operated by R.E.s. Our officers witnessed a demonstration of these rafts on the canal at Nijmegen.
The area on the west of the Rhine which was to be the scene of the assault crossing was one vast concentration camp of vehicles and artillery. It was labelled “The Pig Hotel” and was protected from enemy view by a long smoke screen which stretched for several miles. An ammunition party was sent on the 19th March to our alloted gun area to assist in the dumping of ammunition. All movement and work was carried out at night.
On March 20th the Regiment moved into a concentration area on the south eastern corner of the Reichswald Forest. The weather was warm and springlike and we might have been on one of the many exercises in England that we had practiced for D day itself. The organisation for the Rhine crossing followed that of D day almost to the letter. On the 21st March we were split up into our various groups according to bridge classification, rafts or Buffaloes and general priority. The S.P.s were to cross by rafts, the carriers by Buffaloes and the half tracks and soft vehicles were to cross by the bridges when they had been constructed. We were to be reassembled as a Regiment in a marshalling area on the East of the Rhine and everyone was briefed with the routes, signs and code names.
But first we were to join in the preliminary bombardment and barrage to support the assaulting infantry. On the night of March 21/22 we moved up to our alloted gun position at Gesthuysen, about a thousand yards from the Rhine bank and about 5000 yards due south of Rees. We were obliged to make a very circuitous route via Goch, Weeze, Udem, through the Hochwald Forest (which had been the scene of some hard fighting by the Canadians) through Marienbaum and then cross country to Gesthuysen.
The journey from Weeze through much bombed Udem and through the woods was made without any lights and it says much for the skill of the drivers that everything went smoothly, all vehicles parked at their appointed places. We arrived about 0400 hrs on the 22nd and by first light every man and vehicle was out of sight and camouflaged around farm buildings. The fine weather and the smoke screen enabled us to get a certain amount of necessary digging and preparation done during the day.
We received the orders and fire plan for the operation (called “Plunder” and the C.O. prayed no one would take the word seriously) on the morning of the 23rd. The 51st Highland Div whom we were directly supporting were to make the first crossing at 2100 hrs. At 0400 hrs on the 24th the 15th Scottish Div on our right were to make another bridgehead just north of Wesel. We were to be prepared to support both Divisions. An airborne landing was scheduled to take place in the early morning to secure the main routes from the bridgehead and to neutralize the enemy artillery which was known to be concentrated N.E. of Wesel. The objective of the 51st H.D. was to capture the town of Rees by a pincer movement from N.W. and S.E. Once Rees had been captured work could begin on the construction of pontoon bridges. These bridges were given code names of famous Thames bridges, Waterloo, Lambeth and London Bridge, the latter to be a class 40 bridge capable of taking tanks. Our guns went into position at 1500 hrs. Zero hour was 2100 hrs when the first landing crafts were to set for the short journey across the Rhine. There was no preliminary bombardment, the operation began with the roar of massed guns at zero hour and the firing continued all night. Bofors, mortars and rocket guns all joined in and the air was alive with tracer shells being pumped into the defences on the opposite bank. Soon after midnight an unfortunate accident occured on D sub of A troop. No one will ever know what happened but it would seem that in loading the gun in the dark the loader accidentally hit the shell fuze against the breech. Normally this would not cause an accident but the fuse must have been faulty. The shell exploded killing instantly the occupants of the compartment, Bdr. Hawkesworth, Gnr. Rawlinson and Gnr. Unwin. It was a grim reminder that the shells the gunners handled so easily were lethal. We had become so accustomed to them that we had almost ruled out the possibility of danger, the safety devices were known to be fool proof. Some weakness in manufacture could be the only possible explanation. It is a tribute to the high standard of manufacture that out of all the thousands and thousands of shells we had handled only two were known to be faulty.
The operation was going well. Both bridgeheads had now been established and the Allies, including the Americans, had now four bridgeheads over the Rhine. We were cheered by the sight of the airborne landing. Soon after breakfast the Stirlings, Dakotas and gliders passed low overhead to disappear behind the smoke and haze on the opposite bank. We saw the Dakotas and Stirlings on their way back roaring low over the great gun area. A Stirling hit by A.A. crashed about half a mile in front of our guns. A steady stream of vehicles passed over the fields to our right along one of the marked tracks leading to the Rhine banks. The stream slowed down and stopped as it was realised that opposition in and around Rees was still very fierce. S.S. Paratroops were holding out in the centre of the town effectively preventing us from starting the building of our bridges.
Our Recce party was standing by all day to cross the Rhine but opposition in Rees was still fierce. We fired many targets during the day and eventually Rees fell and bridging operations were begun. We were warned to be prepared to move into action on the Rhine bank immediately opposite Rees. The area alloted was almost impossible, tall trees restricting the arc of fire. We remained at Gesthuysen another night. A new position was recced in the dark and reported O.K. but too near the Rhine to be healthy.
In the afternoon the Battery moved forward and occupied the new position in fields on the Rhine bank immediately opposite Rees, and between the two bridges Lambeth and London. Lambeth was in use but London was still under construction. We had our first view of the Rhine flowing past Rees whose battered and ruined buildings were reflected in the water. We were just commencing to dig our slit trenches when shells burst jut behind us very close. A few moments later one landed within 10 yards of GB half track fortunately without damage. We realised we were in a German Harassing Fire target area as we were not observed. It was decided to move both B troop Command Post and the No 1 gun which were directly in the line of fire. Just as well. No sooner had they moved before more shells arrived in the same area. A troop were a little further east with the Troop Command Post in a ruined house. Another shell landed on the corner of the house smothering everyone with brick dust and dirt but causing no casualties. The Germans were obviously shelling all the bank opposite Rees in an endeavour to prevent us bridging. It was not a healthy area for a Battery to be in and we obtained permission to find a quieter area. It was dark before we moved but we were able to withdraw a 1000 yards and still be in a position to give support. Before we moved, however, our recce parties left us and crossed the Rhine over the Lambeth bridge. Our new position was directly in the rear of London bridge which the R.E.s were working hard all night to complete. It was about 2300 hrs before we had dug ourselves in again and were organised. During this time the intermittent shelling of the banks had continued and German night bombers visited the area. They were met by a most intensive A.A. barrage. Some bombs were dropped near the bridges but we did not hear of any casualties or damage. The recce party having crossed the Rhine went to Speldrop about one and a half miles N.W. of Rees. While surveying the area enemy mortar shells landed in the streets killing Gunner Southgate, the very likeable and pleasant A troop G.P.O.A. who was assisting the recce.
We ceased fire at 0430 hrs and prepared to cross the Rhine. The class 40 London Bridge had been completed during the night by magnificent work by the R.E.s. All our previous plans for crossing were cancelled as it was now possible to cross as a complete Regiment. At 0600 hrs we began our crossing and it was a proud moment when we roared up the bank on the opposite side and entered the rubble strewn streets of Rees. On arrival at Speldrop we first learned the news of Gnr. Southgate’s death. We stayed at Speldrop for a few hours only, moving on through Millingen. Our route was changed while on the move as the dispersal point was under small arms fire. We went into action alongside the railway running south from Millingen and about 2500 yards from the autobahn still in enemy hands. We had to share the area with a 25 pdr. Regiment of 43 Div. who had also been allocated it as their gun area. Ruined farmhouses made comfortable Command Posts.
We remained near Millingen for two days. Opposition was still very strong in front and we were galled at the news of crumbling resistance on all the other fronts. Jerry must have been informed that 30 Corps were to make the assault at Rees, he always put his strongest opposition against 30 Corps. However, after some grim fighting, Arnholt and Isselburg were captured. The Canadians having pushed N.E. from Rees and also Emmerich, the bridgehead was now secure. As previously ordered we were to join the Guards Armoured Division and break out of the bridgehead. Our objective was originally Munster but as that had already been taken by the 6 Airborne Division and the 6th Guards Brigade we were given the objective Bremen. March 29th was rather a sad day for the Regiment. Lt. Col. Fanshawe D.S.O. O.B.E. R.A. had been promoted Brigadier and C.R.A. of 3rd British Infantry Division. He came round to all the troops to tell us the news personally and to wish us luck. We said goodbye to him very regretfully. Our second in command Major Gordon Finlayson assumed command temporarily.
The Guards started to pass through and as they journeyed through the dust and ruins of Rees and passed the happy “Jocks”, the Jocks called out good humouredly “Mind the paint”! We waited to join in the column and at 1800 hrs were on the move. However, we did not get very far and the whole Regiment harboured in a large field beside the road between Arnholt and Dinx Perlo.
The Division split into two Brigades each taking a different centre line to speed-up the advance. We joined the Welsh/Scots Guards group and were given the left centre line. We passed through Dinx Perlo soon after breakfast and entered Holland once again. Between there and Aalten we went into action quickly alongside the road but were not called upon to fire. The Germans were apparently relying mainly on demolitions to hold up our advance. The demolitions would be covered by small parties with panzer fausts and spandaus who withdrew as soon as an organised attack had been arranged. We were forced by the demolitions to journey across country and along narrow country tracks rather than on the main roads. We bypassed Aalten passing through Lichtenvoorde and Zieuwent. On one occasion we had to cross a canal by a very flimsy wooden structure not worth calling a bridge. A sigh of relief went up as each tank or S.P. edged safely across. We kept to the West of Groenlo and occupied a position near the village of Beltrum.
The advance continued in the morning. We struck the main road again at Eibergen and made good progress through Haaksbergen. Some opposition was met on the approaches to Enschede and we occupied a position in the village of Boekelo some 2 to 3 miles West of the town. Our Typhoon bombers looked dangerous as they dived towards our column at one stage, but they were attacking some 88mm guns a little ahead of us and we breathed again as they passed low overhead. At Boekelo the R.H.Q. established itself in a house where the owner spoke English. He had a telephone which was still working and he obtained information about the situation in Enschede by ringing up various phone numbers. Some valuable information about enemy locations was thus obtained and passed back. Attempts were made to enter Enschede from the N.W. but the canal bridges were blown before our tanks could get across. At one bridge two of our tanks succeeded in getting across before the bridge was finally blown and the tank crews did some fine work mopping up the retreating demolition party. Our tanks succeeded in entering Enschede that night but were held up by S.S. troops resisting strongly in the area of the aerodrome on the N.E. outskirts.
We moved at dawn and occupied an allotment and playing field area in Enschede itself. A fire plan was prepared to support an attack on the aerodrome but during the night the S.S. men had withdrawn and the road was clear. Lt Col. R. Symonds arrived and assumed command of the Regiment. We pushed on towards the German border, passed through Oldenzaal and were then held up at a canal bridge outside Nordhorn. The R.E.s built a new bridge in a few hours. The Battery went into action alongside the bridge as the leading tanks dashed into Nordhorn. As they approached the outskirts the Air O.P. reported a trainload of troops at the station. A few minutes later he reported the train had left, news which we received with a mixture of relief and chagrin. We had thought at first that they had just arrived! It was a novel experience to be crossing the enemy border once again, this time into a fairly modern town. All the houses in the streets were sporting white flags. There was not a soul to be seen except away on our right where a few curious civilians could be seen watching us from their back gardens. The first bridge in Nordhorn had been blown but not completely demolished and it was possible to get across. The second bridge, however, was completely destroyed. A third further north was only partly damaged and it was decided to repair that as soon as possible. The houses near the blown bridges were on fire and when night came they helped to light the R.E.s work but made it very warm for them.
By 2300 hrs the bridge was ready. It was decided to push on with the aim of capturing, intact if possible, the bridge over the Dortmund-Ems canal at Lingen, some 20 miles away. Two squadrons of the Welsh Guards tanks with our O.P.s Capt. Anderson in R.A. and Lt. Beck in R.B., and Scots Guards infantry riding on the back of the Welsh Guards tanks got across the second bridge in Nordhorn before it collapsed. It was impossible to repair it for another 8 hours at least. The leading Squadron Commander decided to push on and trust to luck. Headlights which had been used to negotiate the bridges were switched off and then the tanks raced out into the darkness. The remainder of the column, including the Battery’s guns, were stuck in the streets of Nordhorn and on the outskirts and had to remain there all night. The leading tanks ran into a German 88mm gun being towed by a captured Sherman. Before the surprised Germans could man the gun it had been knocked out. It blocked the road however and a detour had to be made in the darkness across country, very tricky work. Small arms fire was met from certain farm houses which were brewed up by the tank guns and soon the trail was marked by burning buildings. After an exciting dash through woods the leading tanks entered the town of Lingen only to be held up by a road block in front of the all-important bridge. The infantry were now dismounted, some to clear the obstacle, some to dash across the bridge. As the leading tank was passing the obstacle and about to dash across the bridge it was blown. Our infantry, on the opposite bank, came under withering small arms fire. Under the covering fire of the tank guns they managed to scramble back across the ruins of the bridge, not without a few casualties. For the rest of the night tank crews slept in their tanks on the roadside.
The Battery was early across the reconstructed bridge at Nordhorn and were in action by 1000 hrs in the woods due west of Lingen. Lt. Beck and Bdr. Meyer established an O.P. in the Church tower at Lingen but the view from the top of the 200 feet high steeple was disappointing. The town was subject to spasmodic shelling by German 88mm guns making the area around the bridge difficult for R.E.s to work. At the gun end Bofors A.A. guns joined the Battery and were later to prove very useful.
Troop and Battery Targets were fired on enemy positions on the opposite canal bank. The bridge area was still subject to 88mm fire. During the day a few German fighters paid surprise visits to the area, strafing the column of vehicles halted on the main road and strafing the Battery gun position. The Bofors guns had a field day and all the gunners enjoyed themselves firing off their Brens and rifles whenever a German fighter. <sic> 3 Div, who had reached the canal on our right, were planning to make an assault crossing of the canal at Lingen when news came that the Household Cavalry had discovered a bridge over the canal a few miles north of Lingen was still intact. A mixed force of Coldstreams and Scots Guards were rushed to the bridge and after a short sharp engagement when the Company Commander distinguished himself by superb leadership the bridge was captured intact.
A fire plan was fired today to assist 3 Div in the capture of the town of Lingen. Pushing south from the captured bridge the infantry advanced against very stubborn resistance through the streets of the town and by nightfall it was completely in our hands. The fire plan on Lingen was very effective, many direct hits on buildings and areas of resistance were observed. The enemy again sent over several fighters which again strafed the Battery area giving our gunners several more opportunities to use their small arms to good effect. We suffered no casualties whereas our Bofors guns claimed two planes shot down.
The Welsh/Scots Guards group were ordered to break-out of the bridgehead at Lingen and push on. Objective for the night for the Division was Bremen. We had reckoned without the enemy and the first attempt due west failed. The road entered a thick forest and here it was blocked and mined. The leading tank went up on a mine and a bull-dozer brought up to push the obstacle away was knocked out by an 88 mm gun firing directly down the road from the other end of the forest. The road block was covered by spandaus and panzerfausts and a Coy. Commander of the Scots Guards was killed while leading his men through the woods to clean-up the pocket. Better progress was made in a push towards the N.W. This time, however, we were held up by four 88mm anti-aircraft dual purpose guns which put down an effective air-burst barrage over the leading tanks. Here there was some effective cooperation between the Air O.P., the artillery and the ground forces. The Air O.P., through our B.C. Major Loveday, directed the fire of our guns on to the enemy and kept it there while our tanks and infantry deployed. This effectively kept the German gunners down in their shelters. When our tanks and infantry were about 200 yards from the enemy guns the Air O.P. stopped the shelling and before the enemy gunners had time to recover all four guns were overpowered and captured. The column did not advance more than 6 miles from Lingen that day. The Battery, after a short cross country journey to get past a traffic jam on the roads, established a position near the village of Brockhausen and remained there the night.
The head of the column, which had spent the night among burning farms in Nordholte, were due to move off at 0800 hrs. A barrage had been arranged with the Medium Artillery to cover the woods on either side of the road about 800 yards ahead of the start point. Something went wrong with the transmission of the map reference and at 0750 hrs it was realised that the barrage start line was on Nordholte itself. Frantic efforts were made to delay the barrage and at the same time withdraw our leading tanks but at 0800 hrs the medium shells began to fall all around the leading tanks. Fortunately the infantry had not been ordered to mount on the tanks and they remained safely in their slit trenches. One shell landed alongside R.B. and covered the crew in mud and filth as they were scrambling into their tank. For two minutes there was confusion as tanks backed hastily down the roads but the shelling was stopped before any casualties were caused. The advance was resumed and the R.E.s neutralised four 250 lb bombs prepared to blow a bridge but after about 3 miles a road block was encountered covering the entrance into the town of Lengerich. An enemy S.P. gun on our left flank opened up and knocked out the two leading tanks as they tried to make their way around the road block. It was decided to put in a full scale company attack on the town of Lengerich. The Battery, which was on the move, went into action just past the village of Nordholte and a fire plan was prepared. Typhoon bombers were signalled and before the attack went in they put in some effective rockets on the town and enemy positions. After a preliminary bombardment of wooded areas around the town the attack went in. Advancing cautiously behind the tanks the infantry entered the town to find it deserted except for a few women and old men. Not a shot was fired by friend or foe. The leading squadron of the Welsh Guards pushed on to the village of Handrup and linked up with the Coldstream Guards who, advancing on our right flank, had made slightly better progress. They had caught the enemy retreating from Lengerich unawares and had inflicted quite a few casualties. The Battery remained in action just east of Nordholte.
During the night the farm buildings housing the leading squadron were deliberately shelled by enemy 105 mm guns. The crew of R.B. had a lucky escape. Just before going to bed in a barn they decided not to take any chances and transferred their beds to the tank, alongside the barn. Two shells landed on the barn roof right above the place where they would have been sleeping. R.B. tank was covered with a thick layer of brick dust when they woke up in the morning. The Battery moved up to the fields in front of the village of Handrup in the middle of what had been the target area for last night’s enemy shelling. During the morning the enemy kept up harassing fire with one or two guns on this area and a very uncomfortable time was had by all. The Sergeant in command of a mobile A.A. gun was killed by a direct hit. Some shells landed alongside the main road killing the driver of the Colonel’s jeep. We were not sorry when we were ordered to move forward and occupied an area just west of the village of Ohrte. A burning farmhouse housed the Battery Command Post, the weeping farm woman causing us some embarrassment. The head of the column was held up by more road blocks and blown bridges at Berge.
The column pushed on beyond Berge for about 3 miles before being held up by a blown canal bridge in the middle of some woods. The enemy were quite strongly entrenched in the woods and a full scale attack was necessary before a bridge could be built. The Battery was moved into position a mile east of Berge in some rather pleasant fields. While preparing for the fire plan an official photographer arrived and took photographs of A Troop’s S.P.s firing during the fire plan. While our guns shelled the woods around the blown bridge our tanks and infantry crossed the canal by a flimsy bridge a mile to the west and attacked the enemy from the flank and rear. The opposition was quickly disposed of, more than 100 dead were counted in the woods as a result of the shelling. Work on the bridge was begun immediately but as there was no hope of completing it before dark it was decided to consolidate and remain the night. While our little action had been going on another squadron had pushed on and reached the Hase Canal, about a mile and a half beyond the first canal. The bridge there had also been blown and the R.E.s worked all night to complete both bridges.
The town of Menslage, which was on the main axis of advance, lay just north of the Hase Canal. All the bridges over the canal had been blown, the one we had captured was about a mile and a half to the west of the town. To enter Menslage it was necessary first to capture the village of Herbergen which lay to the N.W. Both the secondary canal and the Hase bridges having been completed during the night, the leading squadron crossed the Hase canal under cover of a morning mist but failed to enter Herbergen which was defended by a well concealed and determined enemy. The Battery was moved up to give better fire support and occupied a position between the two canals, directly opposite Menslage, and less than a mile from its buildings which could be seen quite clearly. A company attack on Herbergen took place, the Welsh and Scots Guards and artillery cooperating very well and many prisoners were taken. The enemy withdrew into Menslage itself, the woods immediately behind the Church, and to some farm buildings and woods to the north of the town. The latter were most effectively shelled by the Regiment in a most accurate shoot, the first rounds bursting on the roofs of the farms. In ranging on the enemy in the woods behind the Church in Menslage, the first ranging round passed straight through the Church steeple, and the second grazed the slated sides of the steeple.
Another company/squadron attack was launched on Menslage itself accompanied by a bombardment of the town by the Regiment’s guns. From their gun areas the Battery could clearly see their own shells hitting the targets and destroying the Church steeple which eventually caught fire and was burned down. Its fall caused consternation as it had been used by everyone including the Survey Regiment as a G.A.P. or an R.O. In a very short time the town was in our hands. The enemy had used his mortars and air burst 88’s to good effect in the early stages of the attack, timing his defensive fire to coincide with our barrage and giving the appearance of short rounds from our own guns. His mortaring caused several casualties and mines proved difficult. The enemy, however, suffered very heavily. Many of the prisoners looked very young, some little more than boys of 14. In the middle of the firing a dozen enemy infantry were seen to be attempting to escape westwards in front of the guns. A Troop quickly organised a mobile patrol who chased them. The scared enemy jumped into the canal but the determined gunners made them swim back again. They were marched off into custody by some very triumphant looking gunners.
The action at Menslage had been quite a decisive one and the advance was continued by the Coldstream Guards, the Scots/Welsh group reorganising after their recent losses. The Battery remained in action at Barlage but the day was quiet. We heard the tragic news of the sudden death of President Roosevelt and everyone mourned him as though they had lost a very close friend.
We rejoined the column with the Coldstreams still in the lead. We moved north through Menslage and its burnt out Church to the outskirts of Loningen then turned east towards Vechta. We stayed the night by the railway track just east of Altenbannen, about 4 miles east from Loningen and about 5 miles N.W. of Quakenbruck. During the day at one farmhouse where the Battery Command Post lodged for a short time they discovered a Russian suffering from starvation. He was too bad to move and the Doc. sent him to hospital in the ambulance.
Quite a long move was made today, the advance having progressed considerably since Menslage. We moved to the village of Wetteremstek about four and a half miles due west of the large town of Cloppenburg. The Guards Armoured Division were billeted in the surrounding villages and there were many rumours that they were preparing for a dash into Denmark. The prospects of more liberating pleased us immensely and there was much speculation about who would go to Copenhagen. However, a more immediate problem was to settle in in our new village. It had not been cleared and our first duty was to search the houses and disarm any troops. Nothing of interest was found.
We remained in this rest area for 3 whole days doing maintenance and generally cleaning up after the long advance from the Rhine. A Troop had acquired a car and painted RA 2 on it. We lived in tents in the fields not far from the main road. There were not sufficient houses to hold all the troops. The time went by very quickly. The end of the war was in sight as the Americans were reported to be 13 miles from Berlin. On April 17th the Guards Armoured Division resumed its advance to support the left flank of the drive by the 11th Armoured Division who were heading for Hamburg and beyond. We remained behind and came under command of 51 HD for the impending attack on Bremen.
We had a long journey today to get into our new position. The route took us via Visbek, Wildeshausen, Harpstedt and Ippener. That had been the main axis of advance of the 51st H.D. and the more direct route was not practicable as it was still in enemy hands. Ippener was about 7 miles due south of Delmenhorst the large town 7 miles west of Bremen whose capture was essential before the main attack on the port. Our new area had not been cleared of mines before our arrival and we made a very careful occupation. A good position with plenty of cover in front from large woods. The weather was dry and sunny and everyone quite happy. Our O.P.s joined the Derbyshire Yeomanry who were operating on the left flank and meeting opposition in patches. We fired a few small fire plans as they continued the work of clearing up villages.
We spent the day preparing for the fire plan in support of the attack on Delmenhorst tomorrow morning. There was little firing and we spent the time investigating our surroundings. In the woods immediately in our rear we discovered 3 railway sidings very heavily camouflaged with high mounds of earth on either side to protect them from bombing. Further in the woods we discovered a huge dump of bombs in an underground shelter. So heavily camouflaged was the whole area that it must have gone undetected. We received fresh rations again today, the first since the Rhine crossing. We were glad to say goodbye to the compo packs although we had all managed to obtain a few eggs to vary the diet.
Delmenhorst fell without firing a shot and the carefully prepared fire plan was never fired. Our recce column edged cautiously into the outer suburbs, saw white flags everywhere and were met by the Burgomaster in the centre of the town. It was being used as a hospital town, the hospitals and large houses were crammed with wounded soldiers and bomb casualties from Bremen. The whole area was one large hospital. In the morning the Battery moved up to the area of Adelheide, a little village 2 miles south of Delmenhorst and close to a large F.W. aerodrome. The Battery Command Post established itself in a Kindergarten school outside of which was a wicked looking German anti-tank gun. Another knocked out gun was further down the road and in the field where B Troop’s guns were in action we discovered four light A.A. guns firmly dug in and abandoned intact.
We did not fire all day. Twice during the day we saw R.A.F. four engine bombers raid Bremen heavily. Our O.P.s in tall buildings in Delmenhorst had a very good view of the whole raid. We received the newspapers today with the first pictures of the horrible scenes inside some of the worst German concentration camps that had been liberated by the Americans. We were absolutely revolted by the pictures and the descriptions. We became more contemptuous of the Germans’ docility and their gullibility in permitting such horrors in their midst.
We came under command of 3 British Infantry Div and had the pleasure of working under our former Colonel, now Brigadier Fanshawe, as C.R.A. for the first time. We moved through Delmenhorst and Mackenstadt and occupied a position at Erichshof a mile south of Brinkum and 5 or 6 miles from Bremen! A Troop’s guns were in the back gardens of suburban villas, B Troop’s were some 400 yards behind on the front edge of a small wood. We were just out of sight of the tall buildings and chimneys of Bremen. We began immediately on preparations for the fire plan for the attack. Four Divisions were operating, 43 Div and 52 Div were advancing up the east bank of the R. Weser (having forced a crossing above Verden) 51 H.D. and 3 Div were to attack Bremen from the west and south respectively. The area between 3 Div’s front and Bremen had been flooded by the enemy. It was planned to make a feint attack with 51 Div from the west and then send in 3 Div for the main attack. The infantry were to be carried in Buffaloes and other amphibious vehicles across the flooded area and take the enemy by surprise from the rear. Capt. Potter was attached to the Battery today.
The enemy having refused all appeals for surrender the attack on Bremen was begun. We were kept busy all day firing fire plans as each phase of the operation was completed. The outlying suburbs of Kattenturm, Arsten and Habenhausen were captured in turn. Strong opposition was met from the Sports Arena and the aerodrome works and aerodrome. Our troops remained on the outskirts of the aerodrome that night. All day long a steady procession of Marauder bombers passed high overhead. Six at a time they flew in at regular 15 minute intervals and systematically bombed the heart of the Bremen dock area. From our gun area we could see the great billowing cloud of smoke and dust rise into the sky as each wave of bombers passed over and dropped their deadly load. This went on all day without ceasing.
We had another tiring day of heavy firing as 3 Div fought their way into the western suburbs of Bremen. By evening they were astride the railway bridge across the Weser and the western suburb was completely cut off from Bremen. 43 Div and 52 Div were making slower progress in the south east suburb of Bremen. S.S. troops in the barrack area were still holding out fiercely. All day the Marauders kept up their regular circuit over the city and clouds of brick dust and rubble rose high in the air. Typhoon rocket bombers joined in the destruction and caused great havoc.
All organised resistance in Bremen itself had come to an end. Except for mopping up operations the city and port had been captured. German guns to the north of the city were still venting their spite, however, and one unlucky shell landed on the main road near Brinkum. Bdr. Waterton, A Troop’s cheerful N.C.O. i/c Sigs who was riding a motorcycle back from a visit to the O.P. crew had just reached that part of the road and was killed instantly. He had a likeable personality and being one of the longest members of the Battery he was mourned by everyone. The Regiment heard of another big loss today. Lt. Coultas our very able and young Survey Officer who had been B Troop G.P.O. in England had been missing for two days. His body and that of his driver and the remains of their jeep were found in the aerodrome at Delmenhorst. They had run over a mine.
After all the noise of the last three days the day was quiet and peaceful. It was noteworthy for the 20 crates of “Beck’s Beer” obtained from a brewery of that name in Bremen. How the brewery had survived the bombardment we did not know as all the surrounding buildings were flat. Its contents however did not survive the “peace” very long. What the various army lorries did not take away the freed slave workers of all nationalities consumed in a riot of drunken happiness. This was the first beer we had tasted since Xmas and although it was weak and German it went down very well. At the instigation of Bdr. Rigg our C.P.O.A. it was decided to publish a weekly Battery newspaper or magazine and the first ideas and suggestions were discussed today.
The war was not over with the capture of Bremen. In the peninsula between the Weser and the Elbe the enemy were fighting a strong delaying action in their retreat towards the coast and the ports of Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven. 51 H.D. were now detached from the Bremen sector and moved across the Weser to clear up the left flank of the Guards Armoured Division who had advanced beyond Zevern. Our Regiment joined 51 Div; it involved a long all day drive through Syke and Thedinghausen crossing the R. Weser by the pontoon bridge between Intschede and Daverden. At the entrance to the bridge was an M.P. post where all captured German transport was impounded. A Troop said goodbye regretfully to their R.A.2. The route passed north of Verden through Holtenbuttel and Walle and then via the main road to Rotenburg. Here we turned due west past the aerodrome where dummy wooden aircraft were still standing in position. We crossed the autobahn between Hamburg and Bremen at Stuckensbortel and finally occupied gun positions in the village of Eckstever, about a mile and a half from the autobahn. The Battery Command Post established themselves in the Burgomaster’s farm, the two troops were on the northern outskirts in open fields. A nice point of fraternisation occurred here. The woman and daughter of the farm where B Troop’s Command Post was established presented us with 7 apples and 6 eggs on the arrival of the recce party. When they knew more soldiers were coming they immediately made two lovely large cream cakes with real dairy cream. They were good! One or two prisoners were taken here. One man dressed in civilian clothes arrived at the Command Post worn out and haggard. He said he had lost his papers in the bombing of Bremen. He was walking to Berlin where his family were sent to escape the bombing of the port! He was dumbfounded when we told him the news that the Russians were in Berlin and went off quietly to the P.O.W. cage.
We remained at Eckstever another day. We were not called upon to fire, apparently there was little opposition in this part of Germany. We heard the story, reported true, of an artillery R.H.Q. which was billeted in a house owned by two women (age not stated). They were a little difficult and to help induce them obey the soldiers told the women that Hitler was dead. They immediately asked to be shot saying that life was no longer worth living. It was decided that it would be fraternising to fulfil their request and they were left alone. The next morning they were found dead in bed, they had taken poison!
We were ordered forward and made our first journey along an autobahn. We were not able to get up a great speed as the fly-over bridges at various points had been blown and the piles of rubble only partially cleared away causing obstacles. We followed the route taken by the Guards Armoured Division up to Zevern then went N.W. towards Bremervörde. The road from Zevern to Bevern was one of the worst roads we had met the whole campaign. For a distance of about a mile and a half the enemy had made huge craters in the road every 100 yards by exploding 500 lb bombs and sea mines. The R.E.s had had a most difficult time filling in the craters or bridging them with small Bailey bridges all of which were difficult to negotiate. It was necessary to send the tanks and S.P.s across country. To make matters worse a German gun would occasionally shell the area of the cratered road. We managed to get through without loss and established a gun position in the fields and in front of some marshy woods just east of Bevern. Bremervörde had not yet been captured. The Battery Command Post were in some farm buildings on the eastern edge of the village, with the guns about half a mile further east.
51 Div put in an attack on Bremervörde today supported by our fire and captured the east side of the town. The enemy retaliated with heavy artillery fire, shelling the main road into Bremervörde from Bevern. An S.P. gun on the move was hit and brewed up. An enemy concentration was fired on Bevern itself but fortunately all the shells dropped around the main road and the western edge, missing our Battery Command Post. Some casualties were caused in 462 Battery when a shell scored a direct hit on their Command Post truck Y.
The bridge over the river and canal in Bremervörde was completed during the night and in the early morning the canal was crossed and the town captured, not without some sharp fighting. The enemy again shelled the main road but again no shells came our way. At 2245 hrs Sgt. Stow, tinkering with his radio, picked up a historical broadcast on the German radio. A voice announced in England “Hitler is dead”. A great cheer went up in the darkness of the woods when Sgt. Stow gave out the news over the tannoy. The news was confirmed at 2300 hrs on the English station. At 2310 hrs we heard a further announcement from the German radio repeating a proclamation made by Admiral Doenitz on assuming the title of Fuehrer. Afterwards all German radio stations were heard playing solemn organ music with Wagner’s Götterdammerung much in evidence. Now, we thought, the war will not last much longer. We were disappointed to hear that Count Bernadotte the Swedish representative of the International Red Cross, had denied having met Himmler or brought back any proposals from Himmler, but we took a little comfort from the thought that he did not deny having met any high ranking German official. We went to bed hoping that perhaps he had met Admiral Doenitz.
We remained at the position just south of Bremervörde all day while the Guards Armoured Division advanced north-eastwards towards Stade and the Elbe estuary. There was no firing all day and only an occasional shell from the German guns on our left disturbed our tranquillity.
Unknown to us negotiations for the surrender had already begun. We, however, thought the war was never going to finish. The leading troops of 51 Div broke out from Bremervörde and pushed N.W. towards Cuxhaven and Bremerhaven. We were moved up to support the advance and went into action near the village of Ebersdorf. On the crest in front we watched the infantry deploying for the attack and saw them rounding up prisoners from the woods on the west of the village. In the ditches by the roadside we saw several dead Germans killed in that morning’s fighting. We had passed three enemy S.P.s knocked out by our earlier shelling. The next two villages on the route Grossenbarn and Meckelstedt were captured by midday and we moved up to an area just south of the first named. The only fitting description for the new position was “The Blasted Heath” and as it had boggy patches it was treacherous to the heavy vehicles. Towards the evening we saw several enemy jet planes operating behind us trying to bomb Bremervörde and the supply columns. We stayed the night in that position.
Soon after breakfast we moved forward and occupied what was destined to be our last position in action. Our leading infantry were held up by a blown bridge between Lintig and Bederkesa. Our O.P. was in the windmill in Lintig and had a very commanding view of the area in front. A troop went into action immediately south of the village and close to the windmill. B troop about 800 yards in rear on the front edge of a small wood. A fire plan was arranged for 1200 hrs but it was delayed until 1300 hrs; just before it was due to begin it was further postponed by the O.P. who reported that a German Officer had just reported to the leading troops to negotiate a surrender. This was wonderful news!
Our enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when almost immediately afterwards some German guns on our left flank began shelling the western edge of the village and the roadways running west and N.W. from Lintig. We were forced to retaliate during the afternoon as the enemy shelling was kept up intermittently, and we fired one or two concentrations on the suspected enemy gun areas. Major Scammell from our O.P. sent news of the progress of the surrender parleys. It appeared that they were on a much larger scale than our own particular front. We received orders not to fire during the talks but no one had passed this order to the German guns who were still firing on our flank. Then at 2030 hrs Lt. Treble heard the first B.B.C. announcement that a general surrender of all German forces in Northern Germany was to begin at 0800 hrs on the 5th May. The news spread like wildfire. In the dark of the village street excited soldiers from all Regiments were calling and shouting to each other “It’s all over” “Have you heard?” “8 o’clock tomorrow” “Yes, Official”! Sounds of singing and cheering came from all the occupied farmhouses and already men with bottles in hand and happy faces were linking arms and parading the streets. Indoors we all gathered to hear the B.B.C. 9 p.m. news bulletin and hear for ourselves the news we had waited so long to hear. Many private celebrations went on in the village until a late hour. We went to bed wondering whether the German gunners had also heard the news. It would be a most cruel stroke of fate to get hit on the last night of the war.
At 0800 hrs we all turned to each other and said with a great sigh of relief “It’s all over”. We ate our breakfast with a lightness of heart and with a relish that we had not enjoyed for many a long and weary day. The news continued good as we heard more B.B.C. news bulletins and heard that German forces in Denmark and Norway had also surrendered. A farcical situation developed on our own front. The enemy in Bederkesa refused to allow our R.E.s to repair the canal bridge as they said only a truce existed and not a surrender. The day was wild and windy with showers but we did not mind and celebration continued. Appropriately enough “Fanfare”, the Battery magazine, published its first edition to-day.
On May 6th we moved to the village of Wiepenkathie near Stade. We celebrated VE Day with a bonfire and a sing-song. Some Russian slave-workers entertained us with some traditional songs. Later we joined the Guards Armoured Division and moved to the Cuxhaven area on May 12th to assist in the disarming of the German Wehrmacht. We remained for a week in the village of Oxstedt, a few miles south of Cuxhaven and searched the surrounding area for weapons and hidden dumps. The most interesting part of our new area was the Krupps Experimental Ordnance Station where we saw trial V1’s, penetration testing blocks and some new guns. One gun in particular, a coastal defence gun set in a most enormous concrete emplacement, was the largest gun we had ever seen.
On May 18th we were moved south and occupied the village of Stedorf near Verden on the Aller. We settled down to a thorough search of the buildings and of the neighbouring countryside and to general maintenance and cleaning up. May 31st, a day of warm sunshine, saw the whole Regiment on parade for an inspection by General Sir Alan Adair commanding the Guards Armoured Division. In a short speech of farewell he referred often to “The epic days” we had seen with the division. The Division was moving to the Ruhr area, but we were to remain and become under command of 51 HD again who were to administer the Verden area.
A Thanksgiving Service was held in Verden Cathedral on June 3rd. Our representatives were each presented with a souvenir programme of the Service. June 9th saw the Guards Farewell to Armour parade at the Rotenburg aerodrome where representatives of the Battery saw the Guards drive away in their armour and return marching in true Guards style as the reformed Guards Division.
There followed a period of uncertainty and unsettlement. News came that the Regiment had been allotted a role in the Burma campaign. There were rumours of return to England, of training periods in California, of flights to India and many other fanciful projects. Speculation was rife about the effects of these moves on the demobilisation scheme. Then came the concrete news that Age and Service Groups 1-26 were not eligible to go to S.E.A.C. and the Regiment was reformed to include only Age & Service Groups 27 and over. Arrangements were made to send our 1-26 groups to the Essex Yeomanry, who replaced them by men of group 27 and higher. This break-up of the two Regiments occurred in July and there were many private and public farewell parties. Most notable were the parties of the Regimental Sergeants’ Mess and 341 Battery in the hotel at Dorverden.
At Verden, May or June 1945; Sidney Beck standing at left.
Finally, in the early days of August, our S.P.s, brightly painted and looking as fresh as though just off the production lines, were made ready for handing over to the R.A.O.C. authorities. Before this happened, however, the Regiment staged a demonstration for the benefit of H.R.H. The Prince Regent of Iraq, who was the guest of General Horrocks. Then, when we were preparing to return to England at any time, came the shattering news of the atom bomb and the swift ending of the war with Japan. Another period of uncertainty followed, which lasted for a considerable time. We resigned ourselves to a role of occupation troops in Germany and made preparations for the harsh winter. 341 Battery moved into more comfortable quarters in Verden and became the envy of the remainder of the Regiment. There they stayed until April, 1946, when, along with the other Field Regiments of the H.D. they were finally disbanded. 341 Battery ceased to exist on April 9th, 1946, the Regiment finally disbanding a few days later.
1. A Troop landed 0755 hrs.
" in action 0815
B Troop landed 0840
2. L/Bdr. Tagg, Smith, Brookes & Dudonis P.O.W.S.
3. Ammo Exp.
June 12th, 0600 - 1800, 191 H.E.
June 12/13, 1800 - 0600, 715 H.E.
4. June 13, 1316 HE.
13/14, 110 Rds H.E.
Received trace for first Barrage 0700 hrs. Tilly Area & Lingevres to West
5. Capt. Hall buried at Lingevres.
6. Ammo Ex
To 1800 - 1147 H.E.
To 0600, 17/6/44, 14 H.E.
7. Lt. Heywood A.F. & 6 O.R.’s.
8. 18/6/44 To 1800. 492 HE.
9. Rolling Barrage fired from 13.05 to 15.55 hrs H.E. V. Slow.
10. ? Log Book shows,
20th 0500-1800 - 1371 HE.
20/21 1800- 0600 - 139
11. Ammo Exp.
28/29, 1800-0600 hrs. - 1538 HE
Air O.P. took Calibration shoot.
13. Rest Camp started. Lt. Hayward & 2 men each from A & B Tps. went.
14. July 5th Beginning of “Stonk” Barrages. Opening line & final line given as Stonks, interpolating for intermediate lines. Quicker to calculate.
15. 1830 hrs. Air O.P. registering targets.
Fresh party goes to Rest Camp. Capt. Wood now working alternate nights with Capt. Perry.
Naafi expected Thursday. Tea vans known to be operating. Mail situation good. 2 days from England, but mail back taking 9 or 10 days
18. Biscuits again to-day!
Fresh party to Rest Camp. (2)
19. With Lt. Beck on board. My kit ruined! The C.O. just laughed!
20. 341 & 342 alongside with 462 in rear.
Capt. Cherry of 462 injured & Bdr. Ingram’s brother killed during a tank battle we were supporting.
I am willing to include links to other relevant and useful sites, if drawn to my attention.Readers of this diary are likely also to be interested in the parallel experiences of 342 Battery recalled by Gunner Kaye. Anyone interested in the 1944 action at Lingevres might like to take a look at Stewart Coupar’s website.