One man’s valiant attack wins the battle

Men of the King's Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) moving up, Holland, 19 September 1944.

Men of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) moving up, Holland, 19 September 1944.

A member of the PAN (Partisan Action Netherlands) guides British troops to German positions near Valkenswaard, 25 September 1944.

A member of the PAN (Partisan Action Netherlands) guides British troops to German positions near Valkenswaard, 25 September 1944.

As the Allies came to terms with the failure of Market Garden to provide a dramatic new breakthrough, the men in the field had to come to terms with a relentless war with no swift end now in sight. After the rapid advances after Normandy they now came across a much stiffer German defence line. Robert Woollcombe with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers sums up the mood at the end of September:

The heavy grey days passed. Days of local infiltration and counter-attack; perpetual stand—to; and artillery fire churning along drear tree—lines. Godforsaken tracks that led nowhere or anywhere. The snarl of the hidden spandau in a fir plantation.

The strange voice in German sounding through a wood where the Divisional I.O. broadcast propaganda, and R.A.F. Typhoons circling in the sky. And lonely, derelict farms, and more dull names. . . . Gasthuishof. . . . Fratershof. . . . and some benighted buildings through the woods called Olland: for these names were now the work of the devil. And thoughts turned with persistence to when the relief might come.

For moral fatigue was on everyone. The strength was low. Replacements were not catching us up. There were not enough officers, nor enough N.C.O.s, and not enough jocks. We had come a long way. There were many enemies. There had been no proper respite or refit since leaving England and it was so throughout the Division. In three months its casualties had reached a total of 7000 killed, wounded and missing.

It was so throughout the Army, and men were beginning to talk about the Army now. Caen to Arnhem had been the road, and the Army, men were saying, not without peculiar pride, was “played out”.

But the Americans in their great numbers were spreading over the West, and soon it was being rumoured that still another United States Army was concentrating behind the Front, to carry the last phase of the war into Germany. Which did not work out quite like that.

September went out and the war carried on. It was Nicht Kaput.

See Robert Woollcombe: Lion Rampant: The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from D-Day to the Rhineland

Yet even if men were tired of the war, the war went on. Elsewhere on the British front they were coming to terms with a completely new terrain, a land of polders and dykes. It was to prove to be a miserable place to fight the war as winter approached. In places the line was as fiercely fought over as ever:

Corporal Harper VC

Corporal Harper VC

In North-West Europe, on 29th September, 1944, the Hallamshires attacked the Depot de Mendicite, a natural defensive position surrounded by an earthen wall and then a dyke, strongly held by the enemy.

Cpl. Harper was commanding the leading section in the assault, with his objective a length of the wall. The enemy was dug in on both sides and had a perfect field of fire across 300 yards of completely flat and exposed country.

With superb disregard for the hail of mortar bombs and small arms fire which the enemy brought to bear on this open ground, Cpl. Harper led his section straight up to the wall and killed or captured the enemy holding the near side.

During this operation the platoon commander was seriously wounded. Cpl. Harper at once took control of the platoon. He reorganized it. The enemy on the far side of the wall were at this time throwing grenades over the top. Cpl. Harper at once climbed over the wall, himself throwing grenades, and in the face of heavy close range small arms fire personally routed the Germans directly opposing him. He took four prisoners and shot several of the remainder of the enemy as they ran. The prisoners he brought back across the wall.

Still completely ignoring the heavy spandau and mortar fire which was sweeping the area, once again he crossed the wall alone to find out whether it was possible for his platoon to wade the dyke which lay beyond. He found the dyke too deep and wide to cross, and once again he came back across the wall, and received orders to try and establish his platoon on the enemy side of it. All this time the area was subject to intense cross machine-gun fire and mortaring.

For the third time he climbed over alone, found some empty German weapon pits and himself providing the covering fire urged and encouraged his section to scale the wall and dash for cover to those trenches. By this action he was able to bring down sufficient covering fire to enable the rest of the company to cross the open ground and surmount the wall for the loss of only one man.

Cpl. Harper then left his platoon in charge of his section commander and once more walked alone along the banks of the dyke in the face of heavy spandau fire to find a crossing place. Eventually, he made contact with the battalion attacking on his right and found that they had located a ford.

Back he came across the open ground and, while directing his company commander to the ford he was struck by a bullet which fatally wounded him and he died where he was hit, on the bank of the dyke.

The operation was more difficult than expected due to the Battalion on the right, which was doing the main attack, crossing the start line very late, with the result that at the time of the platoon attack all enemy weapons were concentrated on it.

The area attacked was very heavily defended and from this area 93 prisoners were eventually taken and some 30 dead Germans counted. The success of the Battalion in driving the enemy from the wall and back across the dyke must be ascribed to the superb self-sacrifice and inspiring gallantry of Cpl. Harper. His magnificent courage, fearlessness and devotion to duty throughout the battle set an example to his men rarely equalled.

Such conduct in the face of direct close range enemy fire could have but one result. But before he was killed, Cpl. Harper by his heroism had ensured success for his Battalion in a most important action.

His action, moreover, enabled the main objective to be reached by the battalion on the right who, together with another battalion, were completely checked on other parts of the front. The success of the attack on the Depot de Mendicite can thus fairly be attributed to the outstanding bravery of Cpl. Harper.

Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment rest in a Dutch village, 24 September 1944.

Men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment rest in a Dutch village, 24 September 1944.

A Vickers machine-gun team of 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 59th (Staffordshire) Division in position in a field of corn at Someren in Holland, 21 September 1944.

A Vickers machine-gun team of 7th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, 59th (Staffordshire) Division in position in a field of corn at Someren in Holland, 21 September 1944.

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