In Holland the British Army were trying to keep the pressure on the Germans with continued attacks. The 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division found itself in a particularly wet and uncomfortable spot near Nijmegen, where it was often impossible to dig trenches because the water table was so high.
Kasteel Hemmen or Castle Hemmen was not a castle at all but a fine country house. It had already been captured by the Allies some six weeks before, but they had to abandon it when the Germans flooded the the surrounding area, leaving it in a very exposed position. Now another attack was to be made.
The plan was for the infantry to advance supported by tanks, with an artillery barrage to support them as they made the final attack. Of course things did not go according to plan, the tanks were unable to traverse the icy ground – but the attack went ahead anyway. Corporal John Oakley’s platoon was to make the a frontal assault up a tree lined avenue, while two other platoons advanced through the woods.
Oakley, eighteen years old at the time, describes the attack on the 20th January 1945:
However, our progress up the tree-lined road continued. Lieutenant Kernick was leading the Platoon up the right side of the road, with two sections. I was leading the remainder, my section on the left using the trees as cover, darting from one tree-trunk to the next, exposing ourselves as little as possible to the small-arms fire, which was increasing as we got nearer.
At this stage we would have welcomed the artillery and mortar barrage on the enemy positions to keep their heads down as the German defenders, now about 200 yards away, were able to fire at us and the rest of our Company on the left, almost with impunity, apart from a few bursts of fire from our bren-gunners. The German defensive positions were in front of ‘The Castle’ and appeared to be comprised of low mounds of stone and rubble from the ruined building protecting their trenches, which could not be dug very deeply because they would have flooded from the general surrounding water-level.
The final advance, over about 100 yards to the objective would have been suicidal without an artillery barrage and we had been suffering casualties on both sides of the road as we were nearing the end of the avenue. At this stage, Lieutenant Kernick shouted across the road “how many of you are over there Corporal Davies?” Up until then I had been too busy to note who I had with me while bullets were cracking past me or thudding into the tree trunks which I was using as my cover. I was surprised to find that I was on my own and reported accordingly. He shouted “We are not going to get much further, give us some covering fire and we will get ourselves out of here”. I poked my head round the base of the tree-trunk protecting me and popped away with my sten-gun at the German positions. My efforts were probably completely ineffective as this crude little submachine gun was very much a close range weapon.
I then had a better idea. In my left hand ammunition pouch I had the spare magazines for my sten-gun but in the right hand pouch I had a Mills grenade which is a high-explosive and also a phosphorous grenade. I had never used either in combat but had done so in training and from that experience I knew that the phosphorous grenade created a lot of smoke. I threw it into the road and it made ideal cover for our withdrawal.
The first man I passed on the way back was Private Brown – “Brownie” to everybody in the Company – I don’t think anybody ever knew his Christian name!. He was courageous, almost to the point of recklessness sometimes. He was the comedian of the Platoon and one of his regular remarks was “No bloody German is ever going to kill me”. He had a terrible wound in his head and was dead. “Brownie” always wore his steel helmet on the back of his head and it appeared to me that from the position and severity of the wound, a bullet had hit the under rim of his helmet and ricocheted down into his skull, whereas if he had worn his helmet in the proper manner the bullet probably would have hit the crown of his helmet and been deflected upwards, leaving him unharmed and no doubt he would have regaled us with some amusing remarks about the incident later.
I was relieved to find Ellis and Bryson, our Bren-gun team both uninjured a little further behind, told them we were abandoning our advance for now and to get back to somewhere safer with the rest of the Company while we still had the smoke cover, through which the occasional burst of small arms fire was coming.
I then came upon “Hughsie”, Private Hughes. He was the veteran of our Platoon – 26 years of age and he seemed like an old man compared with the rest of us. He often grumbled that he was a trained driver/mechanic and he had no business in a Rifle Company. Hughes had a bullet wound in the chest, together with some lesser wounds in his arm and he was in a bad way. With that, two of our stretcher bearers arrived on the other side of the wide water-filled ditch at our side of the road.
Hughes was a smallish man and I managed to lift him to pass him over to the stretcher bearers but had to do so via the icy cold water which was about three feet deep. Hughes was groaning and was weakly muttering something incoherent in between his groans but was being comforted in a rather rough sort of way during the handover to the stretcher bearers who were saying something like “come on Hughsie, stop your moaning and don’t be such a cissie, we’ll soon put you right.” He died some minutes later.
I got out of the water on the ‘safe’ side of the ditch where the remainder of the Company , (including the rest of our Platoon who had got back across the road safely, bringing their wounded), had taken up defensive positions – the ground was rather too hard to dig in and in any case the water table would have flooded our slit trenches once we were down a couple of feet at the most.
The next morning, with ample artillery support, and our own bren-gun carriers (light armoured vehicles) equipped with flame-throwers, ‘The Castle’ was captured with comparative ease and few casualties on our side
Private Thomas Vernon Brown, service nr. 14719016, died 20 January 1945 at age 21.
Private Albert Hughes, service nr. 4198168, died 20 January 1945 at age 26.
Read the whole of John Oakley’s account at secondworldwar.nl, a site with a number of recollections by Allied soldiers including men from the US Rangers and other American units.