Holland: Death in a minefield on the front line

American and British troops meet at a mobile bath and laundry unit, 15 October 1944.

American and British troops meet at a mobile bath and laundry unit, 15 October 1944.

A Sherman tank of 13/18th Hussars, 8th Armoured Brigade keeps watch over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 15 October 1944.

A Sherman tank of 13/18th Hussars, 8th Armoured Brigade keeps watch over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 15 October 1944.

The character of the war in north west Europe was now changing rapidly. The swift advances of the Allies had come to an end and both the British and the Americans found themselves engaged in bitter slogging matches against determined German defenders. The shorter, dark days and cold wet weather was to make for a miserable experience for all involved.

Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill describes life on the front line in Holland.

The weather was appalling, the drenching rain was intense and the days were permanently dark. It was bitterly cold. The locality was wooded and gloomy, the enemy were around us in some considerable numbers and the area was extensively mined. South of Oploo was not a comfortable position to be in, but there was no alternative.

On the night of 14th – 15th October Powdrill had to go forward with supplies for the Forward Observation tank, referred to as the RDon, which was concealed on the edge of woods, much closer to the enemy. He went forward in a carrier with Driver Smith:

… easing his way slowly in the dark night in first gear, through the wood along this narrow track, past a lone, empty cottage on the left that was probably the forester’s accommodation in normal times, and stopping just short of the edge of the wood where RDon was hidden in the trees and well camouflaged.

We managed a pleasant hour yarning about various incidents and drinking a mug of hot sweet tea, but still very conscious of the proximity of the enemy. We were a little apprehensive, too, as we had to manoeuvre our way back in the dark through the minefield.

We managed it by being extra careful, sometimes stopping for me to have a closer look by getting out and examining the ground in front (it was possible to walk over some German mines because the human body did not have sufficient weight to set them off — a tank or a Bren carrier was a different matter).

We eventually got back to the guns, safe and sound, thankful that it was not our job to spend the spooky night up there, although our gun position was not exactly a safe haven. I had only been back at the guns about an hour when an order came for the journey to be repeated, the reasons for which I forget. I was engaged in some task or other at the Command Post and a newcomer, Second Lieutenant Patrick Delaforce, a very young officer, was ordered to undertake the task.

He took my Bren carrier, with Driver Smith at the wheel, and I briefed Patrick on the route to go so as to avoid the mines. He had been given different orders, however, that required a change from the route I had taken. Naturally those orders took precedence over what I had to say and I was pleased that Driver Smith was going, as he was conversant with some of the risks.

Unfortunately, the changed route apparently had not been reconnoitred and the inevitable happened — the carrier was blown up on a mine. Driver Smith was killed instantly, his left leg torn off at the thigh. Patrick was injured, sustaining a severe head wound (he told me years later that he still has a piece of metal in his head).

RDon’s crew at the sharp end heard the explosion and, fearing the worst, conveyed this sad news to us over the wireless. Lance Bombardier Muscoe and I immediately ran about half a mile along the track, oblivious of the mines, to the scene of the tragedy. The carrier was laid on its side, with Driver Smith’s torn leg still on the clutch pedal, his body some yards away, having been pulled clear by RDon’s crew. He lay lifeless under a blanket.

We looked around in the dark night, out of sight of the Germans nearby, who must also have heard the explosion, amidst the proliferation of mines, for some suitable place to bury him. We were near to the forester’s empty cottage and the only place we could dig a shallow grave without undue disturbance from the enemy was, incongruously, by the front door of the cottage, just where a doormat might have been placed. We buried Driver Smith, said a few words over him and forlornly made our way back.

Patrick, I think, was attended to by RDon’s crew. Back at the guns, everyone anxiously wanted to know what had happened and there was great sorrow as Driver Smith was a popular member of the Troop. He was also one of the two oldest among us, having a wife and a young daughter at home.

Field Marshal Montgomery with King George VI after an investiture at 21 Army Group Headquarters, Holland, 15 October 1944.

Field Marshal Montgomery with King George VI after an investiture at 21 Army Group Headquarters, Holland, 15 October 1944.

A sniper demonstrates the superior 'Hawkins' prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.

A sniper demonstrates the superior ‘Hawkins’ prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.

The flak ship Vp1605 MOSEL, escorting the Norwegian freighter INGER JOHANNE off Lillesand, engulfed in a torrent of fire from Beaufighters of No 404 Squadron, one of which can be seen passing overhead at mast height, 15 October 1944. The ships were attacked by 21 Beaufighters and 17 Mosquitos of the Banff and Dallachy Wings. The MOSEL eventually blew up and sank.

The flak ship Vp1605 MOSEL, escorting the Norwegian freighter INGER JOHANNE off Lillesand, engulfed in a torrent of fire from Beaufighters of No 404 Squadron, one of which can be seen passing overhead at mast height, 15 October 1944. The ships were attacked by 21 Beaufighters and 17 Mosquitos of the Banff and Dallachy Wings. The MOSEL eventually blew up and sank.

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