Battle of Bure – Paratroopers v Tiger Tanks

A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, 14 January 1945.
A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, 14 January 1945.
A Bren gunner in the snow on the front line in Holland, 7 January 1945.
A Bren gunner in the snow on the front line in Holland, 7 January 1945.

The British 6th Airborne Division had been recalled to England following Normandy. When the Battle of the Bulge broke out they were amongst the reserve troops swiftly brought up to mount the allied counter-attack. In early January the German forces had reached the village of Bure, Belgium, where the tip of their advance came to a halt. The 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion was ordered to attack Bure on the 3rd January.

Major ‘Jack’ Watson recounts how their attack almost failed before it started when they were subjected to devastating fire as they were forming up, when about a third of the force become casualties:

We marched to a wood which overlooked Bure, our first objective. This was the furthest point in the German offensive to which the German tanks had advanced. Our task was to evict them from Bure.

The forming-up was “A” Company on the left, “B” Company on the right, and “C” Company in reserve. My task was to attack Bure with “B” Company to secure the high ground. We were formed up ready to go in at 13.00 hours on 3rd January. It was a bloody cold day, still snowing heavily, and even going through the wood to the start line was very difficult because the snow was as much as three or four feet deep in some places. We were wearing normal battle equipment, parachute smocks, helmets.

We formed upon the start line and looked down on this silent and peaceful village. The Germans knew we were there; they were waiting for us and as soon as we started to break cover, I looked up and I could see about a foot above my head the branches of trees being shattered by intense machine-gun fire and mortaring. They obviously had the guns on fixed lines and they pinned us down before we even got off the start line. This was the first time I’d led a company attack and within minutes I’d lost about one-third of them.

I could hear the men of my left-hand platoon shouting for our medics. We were held up for about 15 minutes because of the dead and wounded around us but we had to keep moving. We were about 400 yards from Bure and so as quickly as I could, I got my company together and gave the order to move. We had to get under the firing and get in the village as soon as possible. On the way down I lost more men including my batman. One man took a bullet in his body which ignited the phosphorous bombs he was carrying. He was screaming at me to shoot him. He died later.

We secured the first few houses and I got into one with my Company Headquarters. What I did not know was that “B” Company had also suffered badly in the attack. Their company commander, Major ‘Bill’ Grantham, was killed on the start line together with one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Tim Winser. His Company Sergeant Major, Moss, was mortally wounded. The remaining officers, apart from Lieutenant Alf Largeren, were wounded. He led the much depleted company to their objective, but was later killed during the day, trying, with hand grenades, to clear a house held by a German machine-gun post.

Once I had got into the village it was difficult finding out just what was going on. I pulled in my platoon commanders to establish that they were secure and to start movement forward. It was eerie. We would be in one house, myself on the ground floor and my signalman telling me that there were Germans upstairs, and at other times they would be downstairs and we upstairs. It was a most unusual battle.

Our numbers were getting very depleted as we moved forward from house to house. I eventually got to the village crossroads by the old church. In the meantime I had informed my C.O. exactly what was going on, and he decided to send in “C” Company, who were in reserve, to support me. By that time their 60 ton Tiger tanks started to come in on us. It was the first time I had seen Tigers, and now here they were taking potshots, demolishing the houses. I moved from one side of the road to the other deliberately drawing fire. A tank fired at me and the next thing I knew the wall behind me was collapsing. But, a PIAT team came running out, got within 50 yards of the tank, opened fire and smashed the tank’s tracks. They were very brave. It went on like this all day – they counter-attacked, but we managed to hold them. They pushed us back – we pushed forward again.

The 'King Tiger', or Panzer VI B , had up to 7inch thick armour at the front.
The ‘King Tiger’, or Panzer VI B , had up to 7inch thick armour at the front.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, emerges from his foxhole armed with a PIAT, 28 December 1944.  The Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank fired a 2.5 pound charge which was effective up to 100 yards away for armour less than 4" thick, although a skilled user could only accurately hit such a target about 40% of the time.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, emerges from his foxhole armed with a PIAT, 28 December 1944.
The Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank fired a 2.5 pound charge which was effective up to 100 yards for armour less than 4″ thick, although a skilled user could only accurately hit such a target about 40% of the time. The user usually sustained bruising from the recoil.

It became difficult to keep the men awake – after all they were tired, we had no hot food. All through our first night they were shelling and firing at us and we were firing back. When we told H.Q. we had German tanks in the area they decided to bring in our own tanks in support, but they were no match for the Tigers. We had Sherman, and by the end of the battle 16 of them had been blown up. We were reinforced by a company from the Oxf and Bucks, commanded by Major Granville – by that time I was down to about one platoon in strength. The Oxf and Bucks went forward, but they were not out there very long before they were forced back into our positions.

I will always take off my hat to Color Sergeant ‘Harry’ Watkins. How the hell he found us I do not know, but he did. We were still scattered in the houses along the main road in the center of the village. He brought us a stew which was good and hot, and we were able to get men into small groups to have food and then get to their positions in the houses.

At one point in the battle, Sergeant Scott R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps], went forward in an ambulance to pick up casualties. A German Tiger, which had been fighting us all day, rolled forward alongside him, and the commander seeing him unafraid said, “Take the casualties away this time, but don’t come forward again, it is not safe”. Even Sergeant Scott knew when to take a good hint!

This whole of this account and many more individual stories can be read at Henri Rogister’s Battle of the Bulge Memories.

The original recommendation for the MC awarded to Major Watson can be read at Paradata

Lieutenant P Bickepsteth of 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade briefs his men during a counter-booby trap patrol in the village of Nieuwstadt, Holland, 3 January 1945
Lieutenant P Bickepsteth of 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade briefs his men during a counter-booby trap patrol in the village of Nieuwstadt, Holland, 3 January 1945
Troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade take cover as a mortar bomb explodes in a stream in the village of Nieuwstadt, north of Sittard, 3 January 1945.
Troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade take cover as a mortar bomb explodes in a stream in the village of Nieuwstadt, north of Sittard, 3 January 1945.

Nuremberg – ‘a near-perfect example of area bombing’

RAF aerial view of Nuremberg, showing the winding lanes of the old medieval town in the centre.
RAF aerial view of Nuremberg, showing the winding lanes of the old medieval town in the centre of the city.

The RAF had begun the war with just light and medium bombers with limited range and poor defences – and the majority of bombs fell miles from the target. Half way through the war, with virtually no other means of hitting back at Germany, the expansion of RAF Bomber Command had been made a priority. The enormous heavy bomber fleet that could now be deployed regularly was a product of these earlier decisions. Bombing techniques had also become more refined and well practiced. When conditions were right, bombing could now be highly concentrated and utterly devastating.

Several German cities that had so far been relatively untouched would suffer as a consequence of this culmination of putting resources into bombing. Nuremberg, home of the Nazi mass rallies before the war, had particular significance on the RAF target list. Beyond that there was no consideration given to the historic value of any particular town or city – this well preserved medieval town within Nuremberg was, like most other towns, also close to an industrial centre and a rail hub.

The RAF Bomber Command Campaign Diary records:

2/3 January 1945

Nuremberg: 514 Lancasters and 7 Mosquitos of Nos 1, 3, 6 and 8 Groups. 4 Lancasters were lost and 2 crashed in France.

Nuremberg, scene of so many disappointments for Bomber Command, finally succumbed to this attack. The Pathfinders produced good ground-marking in conditions of clear visibility and with the help of a rising full moon. The centre of the city, particularly the eastern half, was destroyed. The castle, the Rathaus, almost all the churches and about 2,000 preserved medieval houses went up in flames.

The area of destruction also extended into the more modern north-eastern and southern city areas.The industrial area in the south, containing the important MAN and Siemens factories, and the railway areas were also severely damaged. 415 separate industrial buildings were destroyed. It was a near-perfect example of area bombing.

RAF reconnaissance picture for post raid evaluation.
RAF reconnaissance picture for post raid evaluation.

In this raid 1,780 civilians were killed and an estimated 10,000 made homeless. The city would be revisited by the USAAF in February. The total casualties for the city were over 6,000 dead, 90% of the old city was destroyed, ultimately it was ‘easier to record the historic buildings that were just damaged’ rather than try to list all this that had been lost.

Bomb damage to the Nuremberg rail yards.
Bomb damage to the Nuremberg rail yards.

Not included in the casualty lists were the numbers of Russian POWS who were killed in the raid. They were already suffering murderous conditions at the hands of the Nazis, surviving in desperate circumstances where they were forced to work, on pain of being beaten or shot, in miserable conditions with inadequate food. George Beeston, a Belgium slave worker was friendly with the Russian POWs and saw how they suffered during the raid and after it:

The January 2nd 1945 [air] raid was also particularly mortal for the Russian POWs ‘surviving’ in the camp located somewhere near the Nuremberg railway marshalling yard and the MAN factory.

The camp had one air raid shelter, one trench covered with metal sheeting and a thin layer of soil. It was the same type of protection we had in the Suedfriedhoflager [forced labourers camp near the southern cemetery].

The drama that happened during the air raid was explained to me by a surviving POW: A petroleum incendiary bomb fell on the center of the trench badly burning some POWs. A number of them ran towards one end of the shelter, the others towards the other end. This is where the most unexpected happened. It does not occur once in a million times, two explosive bombs falling so close to one another and in a straight line. One bomb fell on one end of the shelter, the second bomb falling on the other end of the trench, leaving an horrible carnage of mangled bodies.

The following day the valid [fit] and the wounded were forced to come to work escorted by their guards pushing them along. It was a vision of hell: Men walking with self-made crutches, some of them had their wounds covered with filthy rags soaked with blood, the valid helping the wounded.

A Russian POW friend told me that the dead and the dying were incinerated, the dead and the dying being piled up on top of one another. A few days later some of the valid and the non-valid were employed on recovering the German victims from the ruins, others were digging mass graves.

The most dangerous activity Russian POWs were compelled to carry out was to remove un-exploded bombs and mines. An extra ration of food was their reward, one may call this “Price of Death”. The bombs bedded deep in the ground first had to be cleared.

This was the job of a team who was constantly exposed to an explosion. When the bomb was cleared a bomb disposal POW carried out the most critical part of the exercise, that is diffusing the detonator and making the bomb safe for removal. In some cases the bomb had entered a building which made the excavating more difficult.

See Soviet Prisoners Of War 1942-1945 in Nuremberg; An Eyewitness Report

The Allied entry into Nuremberg at the end of the war.
The Allied entry into Nuremberg at the end of the war.
Attempt to recreate the end of war view using Google Earth. Note the Opera (now State Theatre) and St Lorenz on the left, and the repaired Laufer Schlagtum in the centre. Thanks to Adam Lawrence.

Operation Bodenplatte – disaster for the Luftwaffe

Some of the p-47 fighters that were destroyed on the ground at Metz airfield during Operation Bodenplatte.
Some of the p-47 fighters that were destroyed on the ground at Metz airfield during Operation Bodenplatte.

To support the German offensive through the Ardennes the Luftwaffe had planned a co-ordinated operation to try to neutralise the Allied fighter bombers. The heavily outnumbered Luftwaffe had made little impact on the battle so far. Rather than directly confronting the Allied fighters in the air, Operation Bodenplatte aimed to destroy as many Allied fighters on the ground as possible. News Year’s Day was the first day that the weather would be favourable from early morning. Luftwaffe pilot Willi Heilman of III Gruppe recalled the early morning excitement:

We were awoken at 3 o’clock in the morning and half an hour later all the pilots of JG 26 and III/JG54 were assembled in the mess room. Hptm. Worner came in with the ominous envelope already open in his hand. ‘To make it brief boys, we’re taking off with more than a thousand fighters at the crack of dawn to prang various airfields on the Dutch-Belgian border’

Then followed the details of the take-off, flying order, targets and return flights. Brussels was the target of III/JG 54. The whole mission was to be carried out at less than 600 feet until we reached the targets so that the enemy ground stations could not pick us up. To this end, radio silence was the order until we reached the target.

We were given a magnificent breakfast, cutlets, roast beef and a glass of wine. For sweets there were patries and several cups of fragrant coffee.

The last minutes before we were airborne seemed an eternity. Nervous fingers stubbed out half smoked cigarettes. In the scarlet glow the sun slowly appeared above the horizon to the east. It was 8.25am. And the armada took off …

This account, together with many more, appears in To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes 1944-1945

The moment a FW 190A is ripped apart under the guns of an Allied fighter - 1944-45.
The moment a FW 190A explodes under the guns of an Allied fighter – 1944-45.

Despite the careful planning Operation Bodenplatte did not achieve the level of surprise hoped for, only a minority of attacks were to hit undefended airfields. The Allied fighters were soon in the air and the large numbers of very inexperienced German pilots who had been pressed into service paid the price. To make matters worse the secrecy surrounding the operation meant that German anti-aircraft units had not been warned about it and more low flying planes fell to ‘friendly fire’.

The Luftwaffe lost 143 pilots killed and missing, while 70 were captured and 21 wounded – it was the worst single day’s losses for the Luftwaffe. These pilots were irreplaceable.

Although the Allies are estimated to have lost almost 300 aircraft destroyed and about 180 damaged on the ground, these were empty aircraft and such was the Allied supply situation most planes were replaced within a week.

Contemporary film of aerial combat and ground strafing by planes of the 8th Air Force during this period:

The Luftwaffe were now irreparably weakened as the Allied continued with not just the widespread fight bomber attacks, in support of the Army, but the heavy bombers’ assault on German cities. These continued at the same intensity that they had reached in 1944 – in the remaining months of the war 470,000 tons of bombs would fall on Germany, more than twice the tonnage that had fallen in the whole of 1943.

Amongst the targets for the RAF on 1st January 1945 was the familiar site of the Dortmund-Ems Canal, a key route in German industrial supply. In 1940 a raid on the canal had led to the first Victoria Cross for Bomber Command. Now another member of Bomber Command was similarly recognised:

Portrait of George Thompson, a wireless operator with No 9 Squadron, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on 1 January 1945 during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal near Ladbergen, Germany.
Portrait of George Thompson, a wireless operator with No 9 Squadron, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on 1 January 1945 during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal near Ladbergen, Germany.

1370700 Flight Sergeant George Thompson, R.A.F.V.R., 9 Squadron (Deceased) :-

This airman was the wireless operator in a Lancaster aircraft which attacked the Dortmund-Ems Canal in daylight on 1st January, 1945. The bombs had just been released when a heavy shell hit the aircraft in front of the mid-upper turret. Fire broke out and dense smoke filled the fuselage. The nose of the aircraft was then hit and an inrush of air, clearing the smoke, revealed a scene of utter devastation. Most of the perspex screen of the nose compartment had been shot away, gaping holes had been torn in the canopy above the pilot’s head, the inter-communication wiring was severed, and there was a large hole in the floor of the aircraft. Bedding and other equipment were badly damaged or alight; one engine was on fire.

Flight Sergeant Thompson saw that the gunner was unconscious in the blazing mid-upper turret. Without hesitation he went down the fuselage into the fire and the exploding ammunition. He pulled the gunner from his turret and, edging his way round the hole in the floor, carried him away from the flames. With his bare hands, he extinguished the gunner’s burning clothing. He himself sustained serious burns on his face, hands and legs.

Flight Sergeant Thompson then noticed that the rear gun turret was also on fire. Despite his own severe injuries he moved painfully to the rear of the fuselage where he found the rear gunner with his clothing alight, overcome by flames and fumes. A second time Flight Sergeant Thompson braved the flames. With great difficulty he extricated the helpless gunner and carried him clear. Again, he used his bare hands, already burnt, to beat out flames on a comrade’s clothing.

Flight Sergeant Thompson, by now almost exhausted, felt that his duty was not yet done. He must report the fate of the crew to the captain. He made the perilous journey back through the burning fuselage, clinging to the sides with his burnt hands to get across the hole in the floor. The flow of cold air caused him intense pain and frost-bite developed. So pitiful was his condition that his captain failed to recognise him. Still, his only concern was for the two gunners he had left in the rear of the aircraft. He was given such attention as was possible until a crash-landing was made some forty minutes later.

When the aircraft was hit, Flight Sergeant Thompson might have devoted his efforts to quelling the fire and so have contributed to his own safety. He preferred to go through the fire to succoor his comrades. He knew that he would then be in no position to hear or heed any order which might to given to abandon the aircraft. He hazarded his own life in order to save the lives of others. Young in years and experience, his actions were those of a veteran.

Three weeks later Flight Sergeant Thompson died of his injuries. One of the gunners unfortunately also died, but the other owes his life to the superb gallantry of Flight Sergeant Thompson, whose signal courage and self-sacrifice will ever be an inspiration to the Service.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.

German view of the Invasion of Norway

A comprehensive German propaganda documentary on the invasion of Denmark and Norway. In German with English subtitles. The first of 9 YouTube episodes of approximately 10 minutes each, which will play consecutively if you want. Obviously very slanted towards the Nazi perspective but nevertheless providing a very good overview of the different stages in the campaign. The use of some remarkable pre computer graphics contributes to the very clear exposition of events. Continue reading “German view of the Invasion of Norway”

Captain Langsdorff commits suicide

Captain Langsdorff, after making arrangements for his crew, retired to his room, and wrote his final letters. He then lay down on a German battle flag and shot himself in the head.

The letter left by Langsdorff, addressed to the German ambassador, Buenos Aires:

Dec. 19, 1939

Your Excellency,

After a long struggle I reached the grave decision to scuttle the Admiral Graf Spee, in order to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. I am still convinced that under the circumstances this decision was the only one left, once I had taken my ship into the trap of Montevideo. For with the ammunition remaining, any attempt to fight my way back to open and deep water was bound to fail. And yet only in deep water could I have scuttled the ship, after having used the remaining ammunition, thus avoiding her falling to the enemy.

Sooner than expose my ship to the danger that after a brave fight she would fall partly or completely into enemy hands. I decided not to fight but to destroy the equipment and then scuttle the ship. It was clear to me that this decision might be consciously or unwittingly misconstrued by persons ignorant of my motives, as
being attributable entirely or partly to personal considerations. Therefore I decided from the beginning to bear the consequences involved in this decision. For a captain with a sense of honor, it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship.

I postponed my intention as long as I still bore responsibility for decisions concerning the welfare of the crew under my command. After today’s decision of the Argentine government, I can do no more for my ship’s company. Neither will I be able to take an active part in the present struggle of my country. I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honor of the flag.

I alone bear the responsibility for scuttling the Admiral Graf Spee. I am happy to pay with my life for any possible reflection on the honor of the flag. I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Führer. I am writing this letter to Your Excellency in the quiet of the evening, after a calm deliberation, in order that you may be able to inform my superior officers, and to counter public rumors if this should become necessary.

Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff