On the 8th February the British XXX Corps had launched Operation Veritable, a massive combined attack, with the Canadian 1st Army, that was part of a larger Allied plan to push the Germans back to the Rhine. A significant part of the attack went through the the German ‘Imperial Forest’, the Reichswald.
In the British Army the largest single tactical infantry unit was the Battalion, comprising around a 1000 men when at full strength, organised into four Companies, each with subordinate Platoons, and a Headquarters unit. Many British Regiments had several Battalions, which might fight in completely different theatres from each other. The 5th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, recruited from the far north of Scotland, found themselves in the Reichswald, beginning their attack on the 9th February.
The following description of one day’s fighting describes how a battle might unfold for a typical battalion strength infantry attack. Their objective was the Hekkens/Kranenburg crossroads, about 600 yards beyond a known anti-tank ditch through the forest. Somewhere in the forest they knew they would encounter German parachute troops, known to them as “the little para boys”, because of their youth, although respected for their fighting abilities:
At 0100 hours on February 11, “C” Company led off cautiously down the road, with “D” and “A” following, and a heavy barrage sweeping the ground ahead of them; and as far as the bend in the road they met nothing. Heavy rain was falling. Progress was slow and there were many halts, but nevertheless we were advancing and our hopes began to rise.
After half an hour the leading section approached the anti-tank ditch, and as they went forward to investigate it all hell broke. Spandaus opened up all along the front, straight lines of tracer were striking the trees and flying off in all directions, grenades burst.
They went to ground in a ditch by the roadside, with the Germans still firing at point-blank range. There was a hurried consultation, carried on in whispers in case the Germans would hear it, and a section was sent to work round the flank and discover the enemy strength; but before they had gone far, four more spandaus opened up and pinned them.
There were more consultations, more expeditions; and always there were more spandaus. The Germans were in the ditch in strength, and try as we might we could not get to grips with them.
… [They now threw the reserve ‘A’ Company into the battle – but they came under heavy mortar fire as they approached the German flanks. The survivors from ‘B’ Company had been dispersed amongst the other three companies to make up for heavy casualties earlier]…
The Colonel — he had already been wounded in the neck, but refused to do anything about it — made his mind up. He tried our reserve wireless set, but there was heavy interference and he could not make himself understood. He went back to tell Brigadier Cassels that we could not reach Hekkens without tanks.
The Brigadier promised us tanks in the morning, and a scissors bridge to get them over the ditch.
The Colonel returned and found little improvement. It was an abominable place. “C” Company and Battalion H.Q. were so close to the Germans that they could hear the N.C.O.’s giving their fire-orders; and the leading men were inside grenading range. The ditch was deep, but not deep enough to stand in.
There was so little room that at one time men were lying on top of each other three-deep to keep under cover. Outside, the fixed lines of the spandaus were firing tracer at stomach-height; and the only safe way forward was to crawl along the ditch, over all the bodies. In places the piles of humanity were so deep that even this method left the crawler exposed.
The stretcher-bearers, unable to stoop and carry simultaneously, did magnificent work in carrying the wounded back through the hail of bullets in the open, but many of them were hit.
Leslie Forshaw-Wilson, who took over command when Colonel Sym went to Brigade, had been wounded before he could issue any orders. Hector Mackenzie took over and continued to explore the enemy flanks.
The Colonel resumed command, and gradually the congestion in the ditch was sorted out. Bodies were only one deep now. The firing slackened. By dawn only a few snipers were active, and after the alarms of the night there was relative peace.
Then began a long and anxious day. The lull did not last. Shortly after daylight the Germans concentrated every weapon they had, and for hours on end we were shelled and mortared and grenaded. The spandaus were firing almost continuously, now so deadly that it was impossible to move in the forward positions.
Shells were bursting in the trees, not in ones or twos, but by the score, throwing great splinters of steel and wood at the men lying prone in the ditch. We heard the pop-pause-pop-pause-pop of the mortars, flattened ourselves and counted twenty; and down they came all round us, bursting in the treetops, on the road, everywhere. There was a nasty little yellow rifle grenade, too (it was one of these which had wounded the Colonel) which we had not met before and did not want to meet again. Casualties were mounting, and still the stonk of high explosive continued.
The tanks arrived in time to scupper a counter-attack coming in at us from the right; but neither they nor the bulldozer which accompanied them could linger, for an eighty-eight had come to life and was cracking armour-piercing shells straight down the road. They withdrew.
We felt very lonely. Between the bursts of firing we could hear the rain dripping from the branches of the trees. Our ammunition began to run low, and men risked their lives to carry fresh supplies up the ditch. All the time the stretcher-bearers were carrying casualties back. Food arrived, but it could not be issued.
Late in the morning the Colonel, who should have been in hospital hours before, passed out cold (‘I can’t think why,’ he said afterwards) and his place was taken by Major Powell.
At mid-day we were ordered to withdraw. Donnie Munro was killed carrying the message to the forward companies.
The tanks retumed a little later and kept the German heads down while we drew back into the forest. And that was the end. Our job, though we only then realised it, was done. We had not taken the Hekkens crossroads, but we had pinned down every German capable of defending them and another brigade had been able to walk in behind the backs of the defence.
It met hardly any opposition: every reserve the Germans possessed had by this time been drawn up to our ditch. When the Para-boys found they were almost surrounded they melted away, and the Hekkens/Kranenburg road was clear from end to end.
Our two nights in the Reichswald had cost us nineteen killed and sixty-five wounded.