‘The only way out’ for an infantryman

Vickers machine gunners of the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, 15th (Scottish) Division, lay down harassing fire in support of forward elements during the battle for Goch, 20 February 1945.

Vickers machine gunners of the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment, 15th (Scottish) Division, lay down harassing fire in support of forward elements during the battle for Goch, 20 February 1945.

A universal carrier and Humber scout car with infantry of 43rd (Wessex) Division during the advance on Goch, 17 February 1945.

A universal carrier and Humber scout car with infantry of 43rd (Wessex) Division during the advance on Goch, 17 February 1945.

The British Canadian advance on the northern flank in western Europe was making progress, pushing out of the Reichswald Forest and entering the first German towns.

For the men who had been in the line since August the unrelenting business of the infantry was taking its toll. Every day the casualties mounted. The ordinary soldier was only too aware that his number would be up sooner or later. There was only one way out of their situation, other than death.

R.M Wingfield had recently been promoted to Corporal in charge of a section of his infantry platoon.

Ahead, up a slight gradient four hundred yards in front of us, was the anti-tank ditch.

There was someone in there.

We lay down to regroup. All was ready. There was only one thing left to do. No—one wanted to give the order. I gulped and, turning to my section, shouted, “Fix bayonets!” That seemed to bring us all to life. I heard the nasty snick of the bayonets locking home. I pulled out the “Safety” of my Sten and stood up. Men to right and left stood up.

No-one moved. We all stared at the ditch ahead. This was a bayonet charge. We had practised it before, stupid men in training trying to raise an empty scream while prodding a sand- bag. This thing was no practice. It was the dread problem of “Him or Me”; that problem which had never arisen yet and which we assumed would never arise. These men in the ditch were not going to give up easily. Oh God, let it be him!

I fingered my Sten, looked to right and left and set off at a rapid walk. I glanced at my mate “Smoky” on my right. He licked his lips, grinned a dead grin and closed me to bring me under the protection of his bayonet. I should have to spray with my Sten and hope for the best.

The alignment was all to hell. I was leading an arrow-head. We broke into a trot, a run, a mad charge, screaming, yelling. One hundred yards away the lip of the ditch was lined with waving bits of white paper.

“So you’re trying to pack up now, you bastards! It’s too bloody latel” we roared and swept on. I sprayed a burst at the paper. It went down. Fifty yards . . . forty yards . . . thirty . . . twenty . . . and, with a wild yell, I was over and in.

The trench was ten feet deep. I hit the bottom with a crash and saw grey-green figures. I squeezed the trigger. Oh, God! A jam! Before I could shake out the cartridge a voice said: “What the fornication do you lot think you’re doing?”

We had charged our own “B” Company with an assortment of Germans varying from very dead to petrified with fright.

The next ten minutes, with the bubble of fear pricked, were spent in mutual recriminations, curses and remarks on the Higher Authority’s ancestry. There might have been serious casualties, casualties which would have been unnecessary.

Some stupid bastard had blundered. It was a bloody miracle we won the war when nobody knew where the hell anybody else was half the time.

In the middle of the curses and attempts to regroup Jerry Defensive Fire came down. We hit the ground, “B”, “D” and the German prisoners in a hopeless jumble.

The gunnery was, fortunately, of a low standard as no shells came in among us. One straggler on the edge of the ditch was hit in the shoulder as he dived into the trench, rolling to the bottom in a shower of earth and stones.

We bandaged him as neatly as we could. He didn’t seem too bad, so we said how much we envied him, wrapped him in his gas-cape to prevent shock and gave him a cigarette. From the smile on his face we gathered that “Jack” was certainly All Right.

The barrage stopped.

That seemed to be the lot for the time being. We consolidated. I helped to booby-trap the trench with trip-flares and the inevitable tin cans.

Two men took the only casualty to the Regimental Aid Post. We watched him go with envious eyes.

Shortly after this Wingfield was himself wounded, in the stomach, and after an unnerving several hours on the battlefield, was eventually retrieved by the stretchers bearers. He recovered to write his memoirs. See R M Wingfield: The Only Way Out

Sherman Firefly tanks move through the ruins of Kleve on their way to support the attack on Goch, Germany, 16 February 1945.

Sherman Firefly tanks move through the ruins of Kleve on their way to support the attack on Goch, Germany, 16 February 1945.

Churchill tanks drive along a badly damaged street in Kleve, Germany, 12 February 1945.

Churchill tanks drive along a badly damaged street in Kleve, Germany, 12 February 1945.

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