In the first week of August we moved rapidly Southwards from one camp to another; Villers Bocage (the ridge of high ground taken at last,) and the town a heap of rubble after a 500 plane attack; Briqassard, St Germain (where George and I found a very tricky spot to do survey in) then onto Aunay Sur Odon and Mount Pincon, the highest spot in Normandy and a valuable prize for us. Aunay was another heap of rubble (another 500 plane raid) it looked like some scene in Flanders during the last great War, with heaps of rubble which hid the streets ( a town about the size of Sidcup) not one brick left standing on another, and the lovely church now shattered, its broken nave and tottering spire bearing testimony to the futility and stupidity of war; the very grave yard torn open by bombs, and above all the smell of death; a grim place to pass through. We did on the afternoon of a Summer’s day, the dust making the shattered stumps of trees even more ugly on the eyes. On Mount Pincon we were split up, and some Six of us joined the “S” troop 4-pen again which was to be used as quick deployment of sound ranging, this was better, and it was to be a mobile column which was a sign of a break through. We set of for the Western end of the bridgehead in the area of Vires, and joined “X” troop and the 11th Armoured division. The Yanks were closing in on Argentan, the British troops in the Caen area had taken the town and had pushed down to Falaise (the Canuks were here) and in the Pincon area the 43rd division had pushed down in the area of Conday Sur Seule. To the South the Yanks had taken Le Mans and Tours and were pushing on towards Paris. Still the Germans made no attempt to escape from the rapidly closing pocket; why? Our mobile column set off the next morning and we tagged behind, but apart from a few 88’s it was very quiet with not a sign of the German air force. Vassey fell then Fleurs (where the population gave us a great welcome) then onto Xmes and Ecouche and finally Argentan where we joined up with the Yanks. The pocket was almost sealed and the Germans were starting to pull out, but the slaughter was terrible. The gap was commanded by guns from both sides and the RAF played havoc with his transport. It was now about the Second week in August. The weather is growing very hot indeed, and the chase is on at last. Argentan is a ruin if ever there was, with the Cathedral on fire and the roof fallen into the nave, the streets littered with debris and the pavements thronged with weeping people returning to their shattered homes. War is costly, not only in lives but in material and people’s happiness. We camp just outside the town and make friends with some of the local people; then on again along the main road to Paris some 140 Kms away. We often go into action with the 4-pen, but every time we get the base surveyed and wired the enemy pulls out and we pack up. Suits us every time. We are now in open country, which is a sweet change after the close orchard country of Calvados in Normandy. The plains stretch away in the distance towards the river Seine; it is cloudy with showers of rain. The Falaise gap is now sealed and its contents are being liquidated. The Germans who escaped have fled across the Seine to join their 15th Army, who, contrary to all expectations do not attempt to hold us at the Seine with its cliff like banks. The roads are littered with German War material; Tanks, guns and trucks. Here and there German corpses are spread eagled across the grass verges together with groups of dead Horses (he used a lot of these fine animals to draw his gun carriages) lie by the roadside, their limbs stiffened in grotesque positions, their nostrils covered with hard caked foam, and their innards sprawled all over; a most pitiful and nauseating sight; how they stunk. To the North on August 17th a general advance was made by the air borne troops, who since D Day had held the pivot of the line in the Orne Canal area, and in ten days after rapid forced marches and surprise attacks they reached the outskirts of Le Harve, a remarkable feat. On the 20th they captured Pont L’Eveque; crossed the River Touges, and on the 24th their van comprising the Devons reached the town of Tours itself where they received a great welcome. Here the Devons it is recorded, commandeered a fire engine and a milk float (it must be remembered that they were airborne troops and without transport etc) and in these set out for Honfleur. Being run on gas neither of the vehicles could surmount the hills. The first was being driven by a fireman wearing his brass helmet, the second by its owner the milkman. They took the leading platoon, somewhat hampered by the presence of an interpreter whose knowledge of English was less than theirs of French, to within a mile and a half of the town.; thence the Devons went forward on foot, and found themselves amid cheering crowds in the main square of Honfleur. The 6th airborne were truly in advance of the van. By August 17th more than a million allied troops were sweeping towards Germany, and the Yanks were soon to reach the Vosges and link up with Pattons Army from the South of France.. The 21st Army group presently crossed the Seine and the Somme and were not halted until they were past Brussels; but back to my diary.
About the Third week in August we rejoined the Troop at Laigle (recently bombed by several Forts which had missed their target, and had caused much damage and casualties in the town itself.) We were stationed just outside the town in a Chateau with some Twenty rooms; fully furnished, and a lounge complete with piled carpet and radio, a swimming pool in a formal garden, and an orchard; the Pears just right for eating, so who could ask for anything more. We stayed here some 4 days only and then came the orders to move; the date was somewhere around the 20th August. We left Laigle around 01-00 hrs, tempers were very short, and we lost our DR Frank Duffy in an accident. We passed through Laigle quietly and made the main road for Evereux. We were to do survey on the banks of the Seine for the guns of 5 Agra who were to cover the Sappers building Two bridges across the Seine at Vernon. Some of the 43rd division were already across by boat and had found the enemy waiting. As we travelled through the night, a violent electrical storm could be seen in the North East. We reached Evereux next morning and pushed straight on to a small village called La Chappelle, not far from Vernon and the Seine. We made camp in the outfields of a farm house whose owner was a Scot and made us unusually welcome. The weather was perfect and we went straight out on survey along the tops of the cliffs on the South bank of the Seine (I should have said the West bank.) here the cliffs are high and well wooded and run down, not direct to the river, but to a very flat plain some Two miles wide, which borders the Seine itself. On the other side the cliffs rise steeply from the river itself. The mediums and 25 pounders were in action as we surveyed in gun positions and an SR base. Where the rest of the regiment were nobody knew or cared; its best on ones own. A few ME’s paid the area a visit and one of our OP’s made a forced landing. There was little counter artillery fire, but he did score several hits on the bridges, however the 43rd division were across and the 11th Armoured were waiting for the second tank bridge to be completed. We had a pleasant time in these few days by Vernon and I even managed a brief flirtation with a girl called Paulette Foubert; very sweet she was too, and still is. One night some little time later, Three of us were ordered to join the 7th Medium, (our old friends from the desert) and they were in camp some little distance away. That night and early morning the 11th Armoured division crossed the bridge at Vernon, the chase was on, and later the Guards Armoured division crossed also. We crossed (3 men in a Jeep) in the cold and the rain the same day and tagged behind in case the tanks ran up against any obstacles. It was very cold and very wet; what a fickle climate. The last week of August saw the great chase across Northern France by several mobile columns. The Northern one towards Abbeville and the Channel Ports of Dunkirk and Zeebrugge; our column towards Amiens, Arras and Vimy (across the battlefields of the last War) into Belgium towards Brussels. The Yanks and the French Divisions continued towards Paris and Luxembourg. We saw no action for days as the enemy insisted on retreating at the maximum of speed and several times we deployed but the guns never fired. Onwards we went through Amiens, across Vimy Ridge, through Lens towards Lille into action. It was nearly the end of August, in fact the last day.
Addendum to Author’s original diary
This section of my diary covers our activities when the 3 of us were ordered to join the Armoured column moving towards Amiens and Lille. We were attached to the 7th Medium regiment RA. In our party Sergeant Hawkins, Ken and myself, and our duties were to provide “Bearing Pickets;” pickets for the 7th Medium as and when required. Sgt. Hawkins the observer, me the “Books” taking down the readings from the Theodolite manned by Hawkins, and Ken working his magic with a “Marchand” Calculating machine. This was done by shooting the Sun (as is done at sea.) in order to obtain true co-ordinates on the map as to where we actually were. From this information the guns were given a bearing picket (a gun must know where it is exactly before it can fire onto an unseen target viz. the enemy guns.) Where the Sun didn’t shine, we couldn’t operate, but we were often in demand. Our transport was One Jeep with a trailer in which we carried the Theodolite and calculating machine and our Kit. Each of us was armed with a Sten gun. There were some incidents during our chase and once we were approached by 3 French Women each wearing head scarves over their shorn heads. They had been in consort with the enemy and their village had sent them packing, but to where? Our schoolboy French was adequate and we coped with their chatter. About their predicament we could do nothing, but we gave them tea and sent them on their way. I often wonder what became of them. When rejoining the Column Sgt. Hawkins drove cross country to save time and en route we liberated a small village whose name I did not record. We were certainly the first allied troops in our column to enter, as the village was not on the main axis of the advance. We were given a noisy reception and were invited to to step onto the balcony of a small “Marie” and where from nowhere 3 flags were produced and draped over the balcony; the “Tricolour” the “Stars and Stripes” and our own “Union Jack.” Amid plaudits from the entire village below, wine was found and in our best French shouted from the balcony “Vive La France;” “Vive les Etats Unis” and finally Vive L’ Angleterre.” This was heady stuff, and after more toasts we were on our way; duty called, and we soon rejoined the column. During our advance towards Amiens we found ourselves off the road when the enemy brought our advance to a halt. Along side us were a convoy of German vehicles abandoned by the enemy, and their engines still running. It shows how close we were behind the spearhead of the advance, i.e. our Armour and Infantry. Some of the trucks were captured Bedfords. Some were loaded with Brandy in casks but we had no room. As we awaited further orders Two Germans arose from the ditch where they had been hiding, hands over their heads shouting “Kaput, Kaput.” One was a Bavarian in his 50’s, the other a young man perhaps 16 or 17 years old. Both were frightened as we were each armed with loaded Sten guns. Opposite was an abandoned German Ack Ack site, so we assumed the site to be their former regimental position, when it was overrun by our forward elements. We searched them and looted their possessions, mostly French letters; hundreds of them. Ordered by an officer in the column to take them to the POW cage Two miles back, we set out back along the road; the 2 Jerries and Ken in the back; me in front with Sgt. Hawkins who was driving, and both of us armed, which was just as well because on passing through a village we ran a gauntlet of French Women (mostly) who saw the Germans in the back and spat and cursed them no end. “Sales Boches” they cried, and both Germans and Ken received a rich offering of Spittle. They would have pulled the Germans out had we not shown our guns. The 2 prisoners were afraid and cowed in the back, their faces covered with “Spittle.” We soon found the POW cage in a meadow, and handed over the Germans. We then regained our position in the column which was moving on. On the same day we found 5 dead Germans in a deep ditch by the road side, killed by some high velocity weapon. They were in a line in the ditch; perhaps the “Maquis” were on the scene first. Later at some cross roads Sgt. Hawkins had to weave the jeep through the corpses of many Germans sprawled all over the place.
The Hun was leaving large pockets of troops behind with few guns as support, in the forests around Lille, this being to hinder our advance and to shell the main roads along which the entire 21st Army was moving. We went into action near the village of Carembault on the main Lille road. To the left of the road the edge of the forest was about some Two miles away, and in here he had some SP’s which were firing on the 25’s situated on the flat in front of the forest. The 7th were in action on the flank, and further round a Brigade of 50 division were in action. It was estimated that several thousand Germans were in this pocket, and it fell almost the same day as Brussels fell.
September 3rd Apart from a few shells which came my way there was nothing of importance, as we hadn’t seen a German plane for weeks and weeks, and we didn’t want to either.
September 4th Off we went into Belgium along a good road and delightful countryside. Belgium is a charming country, and this time it escaped the major destruction it suffered in the last War. We were not going to Brussels however to be part of the liberating force; we howled, no Wine, Women and song for us at this party. We tagged on faithfully with the 7th Mediums towards the great canal system of Northern Belgium, and here the 21st Army came to its first halt.
A series of Canals across the Northern plain of Belgium and the Southern frontier of Holland proved obstacles, behind which the tired 15th German Army could gather up reserves and pull themselves together. Our trouble was our supply lines, were still based on Cherbourg and the artificial port of Arromanches, and the Germans with their stubborn garrisons were still denying us the use of Le Havre, Boulounge Calais and Dunkirk. We came to a full stop at the Albert Canal, and went into action outside the villages of Westerloo, Tongerloo and Oosterloo; quaint names indeed. The enemy was making the life of the infantry a hell on Earth, and no tanks were across as yet. The 11th Armoured had left us some while back, and with one fell swoop had seized first Boom and finally the greatest prize of the War so far; Antwerp and its great docks intact, but the Germans firmly entrenched on the islands in the Scheldt, commanded the entrance to Antwerp docks, and Walcharen was to be a tough nut to crack. We then joined the 74th field of 50 division (still Three of us Sgt. Hawkins, Ken and myself) and found ourselves off to Diest and across the Leopold Canal to Beeringen and into action, and then back to the troop camped on a farm not far from the Escaut canal. Things were very vague as to what was happening on our flanks, and we awaited orders having quite an easy time for a while gridding captured maps. Then the great news was given to us about the proposed airborne landings in Holland; the date September 16th. Here is the plan.
The battle of Arnhem, Nijmegen and Grave
Zero Hour 17th September 1944
After our break through to the Northern part of Belgium, something akin to panic prevailed among the German troops in the Dutch islands and the mainland itself, and they had but one defensive position left before the Rhine and their own frontiers. It was provided by Three rivers; the Meuse which, when it crosses the Dutch Frontier, becomes the Maas; the Waal, which is the main branch of the German Rhine; and the Lower Rhine. Had the 21st Army not been saddled with supply difficulties, we might have crossed these barriers and reached Germany. The line of the Albert Canal was defended by what was left of the German 15th Army and they held us there to the West of the Beeringen (where we had crossed) for some time, baring the way into the lowlands of Holland and the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The rivers mentioned formed a very important section of the German defence line, as the Siegfried line peters out in the neighbourhood of the Reichswald. Between the end of this forest and the Waal at Nijmegan runs a ridge of ground, which, though only 633 feet in height constitutes the only range of hills in Holland. It is heavily wooded and it is possible to observe the country for many miles from its top; and here lies Arnhem. The Germans anticipated an attack here and greatly reinforced their AA sites, and used Dutch labour (including young children) to dig a defence line from the Waal to the sea. Field Marshal Montgomery had Two courses open to him; (ı to remain where he was, content with his quick advance to date; (ıı cross the Three rivers in one fell swoop and gain the victors crown; he chose the later. He assembled in England his airborne troops which comprised Three divisions. 82nd and 101st American, and the British 1st airborne. This was the plan as told to us as we sat and listened in a barn not far from the Dutch frontiers. The American divisions were to form corridor of which the axis would be the Eindhoven-Veghel-Grave-Nijmegan-Arnhem road. Its formation would ensure a swift and straight advance to the gate of Germany; we, and he (Monty) hoped. The bridges over the canals and rivers along the road, notably the Nine-span steel bridge at Grave; that crossing the Maas-Waal canal west of Nijmegan, the great single span steel road bridge and the railway bridge at Nijmegan, and the bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem were to be seized; a tall order, and more than 20,000 troops were to be used. Here are the dispositions. The 101st division is to create that part of the corridor from Eindhoven to Grave, and the 82nd division that part from Grave to Nijmegan, and to capture the high ground overlooking the exits from the Reichswald. The 1st division were to seize Arnhem and the road bridge. and these Three divisions were to form a carpet for the 2nd Army which pushing up by road from the Escaut Canal hoped to break the last barrier before the Reich; and pour into the Ruhr and the great plains of the North.
September 17th As we make our own preparations to join the armoured column which is to make the dash, the first of the airborne troops are spotted going into action, and the sky is black with planes. This attack was made in daylight as we had complete mastery of the air (we hoped) and feared little from his fighters. The 17th saw us on the way to the Escaut Canal, and we spent Two days in the village of Linden, whilst the armour tried to batter its way through to Arnhem, in an attempt to make contact with the 1st airborne, and that night the Luftwaffe was more than active bombing the bridges across the canals. Two days later we set off to dash through the very narrow corridor leading to Eindhoven and Nijmegan (narrow is the word) and the Hun was continually breaching the road as we sat huddled up in the cold on the road, while tanks and trucks went up in flames. So far the airborne attack had been successful and the great bridges had all been seized; only the 1st Airborne were in trouble. We reached Eindhoven (bombed the night before by the spiteful Luftwaffe.)
Grave As we approached the captured bridge at Grave; and in the Blackness of night a frightened G.I. “popped out” from behind a hedge seeking recognition, this at the point of his Automatic. Having given him the information he required we sped across the bridge. We, if he did but know it, were as scared as he was. Between Grave and Nijmegan we followed with field artillery in the wake of our armour which was being shot up by lots of German 88’s.
One evening we camped in a farmyard. We were with the TAC HQ of the armoured column. Into the yard was brought a captured German artillery gunner, and whose 88’s had been causing so much damage. The RSM (some of his tank crews having been killed) was all for shooting the German on the “Spot.” The RSM had to be restrained by his CO, and the Hun was taken away to the nearest POW cage.
We were told that the Guards Armoured division had captured the bridge at Nijmegan after a fierce battle in the Walkhof area (an old castle on the approach to the bridge.) When we came into Nijmegan shortly afterwards we saw chaos. Lots of Boy Scouts with their “Carts” loaded with civilian possessions were evacuating the city.
The artillery was blasting away at the Germans around Arnhem and all was confusion and noise, whilst overhead Dakota’s kept dropping supplies to the 1st Airborne.
We approached the great steel bow of the bridge and there were many German dead strewn across the road and pavements. They looked very young; probably the “Hitler Youth” perhaps. We took the bridge (Nijmegan) at speed, as it was being shelled by the enemy.
Battle situation report. The battle from Arnhem to the South was fluid and confused. The American 101st division still held the bridge at Grave (over which we had passed the night before) the 82nd Airborne were fighting in the Reichswald area, and the Guards Armoured (including we Three) were at Nijmegan.
At Arnhem the 1st Airborne were being sorely pressed; the Germans throwing in all they possessed; guns, tanks, planes and infantry.
The 2nd Army (a great deal of which had got through before the corridor was closed by the enemy) could not reach Arnhem to relieve the 1st Airborne; further North than the great bridge at Nijmegan. They could not push in any strength. (We were across with some of our armoured column.)
A valiant attempt at relief was however made by the 43rd division (The Wessex) who, on the 22nd September reached the banks of the Lower Rhine, covering the last Ten miles with enemy Tiger Tanks in clumsy pursuit. The “Dorsets” tried to cross in “Ducks” but the banks were too steep and it was a failure; but a brave try. Four Companies did manage to cross in assault boats but were pinned down by relentless fire. (German heavy mortars and machine guns.)
An attack by our troops to reach higher ground at Oosterbeek failed. All efforts to reach the 1st Airborne were in vain.
The 2nd Army put over a barrage but did not alter the course of the battle. It was near Oosterbeek (a place called Zutphen) that 300 years ago Philip Sidney lay dying of a mortal wound and gave his water to another saying “Thine need is yet greater than mine.”
Back to us; late September We were in action in and around Nijmegan doing survey for the guns of the 2nd Army and the American Airborne. We were now camped in the village of Malden, in a schoolhouse.
We then crossed the Bow Bridge (rather like the Newcastle one) and gained the village of “Slijk.” Here we stayed 10 days, doing with the rest of the troop some hectic survey, and often under fire from the Germans at Arnhem. The Germans were active again in the air and we saw their first Jet Propelled fighter in action. Doing some survey one day (observer and booker) in the lee of the great bridge we were shelled by German 88’s with these new fighters overhead; very noisy indeed.
End of September The corridor between Eindhoven and us was being open and shut on a regular basis with the Germans shelling the bridge at Grave.
September 25th-26th The 1st Airborne are to be pulled out from Arnhem.
Night of September 25th-26th This task began at 22-00 hrs with a heavy barrage from our guns of the 2nd Army. This was to cover the withdrawal and make the enemy think we were “Reinforcing.”
The Survivors of the 1st Airborne made their way in silence to the lower banks of the Rhine, the wounded, under care, being left behind. The Germans, though tired, were suspicious. The Borfers” of the 43rd division; and from the South bank fired “Red Tracers” every minute to mark the passage of retreat. We in the middle as it were, had a “Grandstand” seat. Many of the 1st swam across, and some were drowned.
September 27th Their long ordeal was over. 3,000 survivors out of the original 10,000 were brought out to the comparative safety of Nijmegan. The plan had not been quite successful and after the war a film was made called “A Bridge too far;” How true.
Nevertheless, a great deal had been done, and the 1st Airborne had written a glorious chapter in the Annals of the British Army.