The Allies had consolidated their position over the Rhine. The fighting from now on was very unpredictable, the German forces were still capable of putting up very significant resistance and the battle for western Germany was far from won. Yet the quality and resolution of their forces varied enormously – and nobody knew quite what the next encounter with them might bring.
Sydney Jary commanded 18 Platoon of the 4th Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry, as they began their advance into the heart of Germany:
The Battalion crossed the Rhine in Buffaloes, amphibious tracked vehicles, on the morning of 26th March. From that day a new war started, the kind of war envisaged fifteen years before by General Fuller and Captain Liddell Hart: a war of rapid advances by armoured columns supported by motorised infantry. These were mainly platoon and company encounters, but a vicious battalion battle did take place at Lochem. This pattern continued until we reached Bremen.
With cohesion rapidly disintegrating, the Germans were organised into battle groups of anything from platoon to battalion strength: ad hoc formations ranging from pathetic Volksturm (Home Guard) to experienced SS and parachute detachments and even an officer cadet training school. Some put up token resistance and ran away. The best, including the officer cadets, fought with skill and ferocity.
Our day usually started before first light when orders for the next day’s advance were given, including the planned route, objectives and details about the armoured regiment we were to support. We usually “married up” with our armour soon after dawn. Sometimes we rode hanging on to the tanks; at other times troop-carrying vehicles were available.
About two miles to our front across flat and unfenced farmland lay Sinderen, a small village five miles east of the Rhine. Our advance was to take us there along a straight road, bare except for one house on its right hand side and about eight hundred yards short of the village. “D” Company led the Battalion with 18 Platoon forward. We had a troop of Sherman tanks under command which followed my Platoon along the road.
It was a dry day and we advanced quickly to within one hundred yards of the lone house. For no good reason the leading Sherman suddenly moved forward of our leading section and halted beside the house. It had barely stopped when I saw it shudder and a small cloud of dust arose from it. A second later I heard a resounding metallic clang and the whip crack of a high velocity gun.
As we rushed forward to surround the house the Sherman’s crew baled out shaken but unharmed. Two MG42s opened fire, sending long bursts high over our heads: a sure sign of inexperience.
Taking up positions around the house, the Platoon went to ground and followed its usual drill. In an advance to contact, when 18 Platoon came under fire — even if the enemy was unlocated — our Bren gunners fired one magazine in their general direction. Each rifleman also fired five rounds rapid. My idea: I considered it good for our morale and it showed the enemy that we were aggressive. It also gave me time to think.
I surveyed our front through my binoculars. At first I could see nothing, but a haystack to our right front interested me. It seemed to be moving slightly. Suddenly it fell apart and a German Mk IV self-propelled gun drove away from it with some soldiers hanging on top. One of our Bren gunners immediately poured bursts of fire at this tempting target. This was taken up by our second Bren but the third gun, being behind the house, could not engage. The self-propelled gun, which had obviously knocked out our Sherman, got away. Its passengers did not.
After this little episode I thought it time that I told Freddie, who was three hundred yards behind, what had occurred. I was briefing my runner, Private Thomas, behind the house when I heard the cry: “Sir, they are charging us.” Sure enough, from about one hundred and fifty yards ahead, a well spread out line of about twenty Germans were putting in a bayonet charge. Brave lads, they didn’t stand a chance. I gave no orders except “Cease fire”. Not one got within seventy yards of us.
See Sydney Jary: 18 Platoon. For a long time 18 Platoon was on the reading list for aspiring British officers at Sandhurst, ’18 Platoon’ is one of the best subalterns books – probably the best – to come from the Second World War.’General Sir David Fraser GCB OBE DL