The last V2, and the end of enemy action on British soil

Ruined flats in Limehouse, East London. Hughes Mansions, Vallance Road, following the explosion of the last German V2 rocket to fall on London, 27 March 1945.
Ruined flats in Limehouse, East London. Hughes Mansions, Vallance Road, following the explosion of the last German V2 rocket to fall on London, 27 March 1945.

The last V2 to cause a fatality had landed in Orpington in Kent on the 27th March, there is an account on BBC People’s War. Ivy Millichamp became the last civilian to become a fatal casualty of enemy action on British soil during the war, the last of 67,100 civilian deaths during the war. She was the only fatality of the Orpington explosion, although earlier in the day 134 people had been killed in the second worst V2 incident of the whole war at Stepney in East London. The disparity in casualty figures merely reflects the randomness of the V2 attacks.

Ivy Millichamp who died aged 34 when a V2 rocket hit her home in Kynaston Road, Orpington.
Ivy Millichamp who died aged 34 when a V2 rocket hit her home in Kynaston Road, Orpington.

Of course nobody knew for certain that this was the last V2 action and there was no public commemoration of the event, then or later. The British government was doing its best to keep the lid on news of the attacks.

The devastation at Kynaston Road, Orpington where housewife Ivy Millington was killed in her kitchen by Hitler's last V2 rocket.
The devastation at Kynaston Road, Orpington where housewife Ivy Millington was killed in her kitchen by Hitler’s last V2 rocket.

The last enemy action of any kind on British soil had occurred on 29 March 1945, when a V-1 struck Datchworth in Hertfordshire. It exploded harmlessly in fields. Since the German V1 launch sites were well out of range of Britain by now, it must be presumed to have been an air launched rocket.

On 23rd March 1945 a V2 rocket had landed on Uppingham Avenue in Stanmore, North London. Civilian defence worker George Beardmore reflected on the aftermath of the incident and the impact it had had on local people, in his diary a week later:

30 March

Another rocket, and worst of the lot, landed at the top of Uppingham Avenue. I remember some time ago cycling down Weston Drive into Uppingham and thinking that if a rocket landed there it would make a right mess. And it had, if only because the damned thing had landed plumb on all three mains — water, gas, electricity. Water and gas had become mixed with the result that far down the hill in Kenton householders were being warned by loud-hailers from police-vans not to make use of any of the services.

I don’t have anything to do with the service engineers but, my word, they had arrived first according to report, and were still busy repairing and making up when I left. The rocket had landed at 3.40 in the morning, killing nine people among whom was a 9-year-old boy who had been flung out of bed, through the rafters, and into a back garden ten houses away – at first, nobody had been able to find him.

As I watched the mass funeral (Union ]ack, Bishop of Willesden, Civil Defence, WVS, and the Controllers’ cars lined up for three hundred yards) tears came to my eyes not with the grief and distress caused to survivors but with the incalculable trouble to which they will be put, months and years of it, before they can resume any sort of normal life and the incident becomes only a tale to tell to the grand-children.

Even obtaining an everyday thing like soap has its problems, let alone the replacement of identity-cards, ration-books, personal papers, with which I can give some help. In fact, I suggested to the WVS that they leave some bars of soap in my office for dispensation; it duly arrived, and within a day it had all gone.

Also here for the first time I had an official from Public Assistance sitting at my side, giving away money — not loaning, giving.

This incident was also made memorable by the office I had set up suddenly catching fire, provisionally put down to a short in the electricity supply creating a spark that set alight a small gas-leak. Luckily only seven or eight of us were inside the house, and we managed to get out in a mad scramble without casualty.

A moment later, in the street and watching the blaze, which had started at the back, I remembered the infinite pains with which the WVS had gathered and collated information about the inhabitants of the affected houses before and after. Without thinking twice about it I threw myself inside, swept the papers up in my left arm and while shielding my face with my right arm bolted outside again.

The only damage resulted from the right side of my head catching fire. At least, there was a strong smell of burning and I found the hair singed off. No medals for rescuing papers. Now if they had been a baby instead…

Last week the famous crossing of the Rhine at Remagen. According to the press one might think that we had had little opposition (Frankfurt taken, General Patton eighty- five miles into Westphalia) but my guess is that such optimism is on a par with the paucity of news about rockets.

Here at Harrow we hear some of the bangs and occasionally get the things ourselves but according to Jean’s aunt at Blackheath (not wholly reliable, I shouldn’t think) they hear and sometimes get four every hour. Group reports come through daily as 48 dead or 19 dead or 22 dead.

Only as far away as Buckinghamshire the peasantry knows nothing of rockets, and in Manchester all they learn is from one line of news in the paper: ‘In south England there was some enemy activity. Casualties and damage are reported.’ As I said before, it’s like trying to conceal news of an earthquake.

See George Beardmore: Civilians at War: Journals, 1938-46

A scene of devastation following a V2 rocket attack, somewhere in the south of England. In the foreground, a casualty is being carried away on a stretcher, whilst in the background, Civil Defence workers continue to search through debris and rubble, checking for any other survivors. The remains of a building can also be seen. According to the original caption, the rocket fell here "about two hours ago".
A scene of devastation following a V2 rocket attack, somewhere in the south of England. In the foreground, a casualty is being carried away on a stretcher, whilst in the background, Civil Defence workers continue to search through debris and rubble, checking for any other survivors. The remains of a building can also be seen. According to the original caption, the rocket fell here “about two hours ago”.

Two very different Germans consider the future

Two old members of the Volksturm seem relieved to have surrendered to British troops in Bocholt, 28 March 1945.
Two old members of the Volksturm seem relieved to have surrendered to British troops in Bocholt, 28 March 1945.
Displaced German civilians cooking a meal in the town of Rees, 28 March 1945.
Displaced German civilians cooking a meal in the town of Rees, 28 March 1945.

In Laubach in western Germany one man had maintained a small act of resistance against the Nazis throughout the war. A mid level civil servant, Friedrich Kellner deliberately set out to record every detail and nuance of Nazism as it affected ordinary Germans.

I could not fight the Nazis in the present, as they had the power to still my voice, so I decided to fight them in the future. I would give the coming generations a weapon against any resurgence of such evil. My eyewitness account would record the barbarous acts, and also show the way to stop them.

In doing so he took an extremely perilous course. So many other like minded Germans had ended up in concentration camps, which few survived. His diary reveals what many Germans knew about the war, including a widespread understanding of various aspects the Holocaust, based on first hand accounts from troops returning from the east.

On 27th March he had written about the imminent collapse of the front near him:

The German army is fleeing!

Since yesterday evening, March 26, 1945, cars heading toward the direction of the east have been racing past our building. We could not sleep the whole night because of the noise. The “best army of the world” (as it was so often called) is fleeing back.

To Where? To the Weser? God, you fools, you were not able to defend the Atlantic and Siegfried Line, as well as the Rhine. What do you think you can do inside Germany? Despite what those who would prolong the war might still invent, the dissolution is complete–and it is but a short time before the war machine itself comes to a stop.

Then an uncommonly serious and extremely heavy time of the reconstruction begins after this worst of all wars. And there are very few people who are in the clear; the war affected everyone’s thinking and actions completely until the war was at its end. The hangover will last longer than the greatest pessimist can imagine.

Then on the 29th March the Allies finally arrived:

Shortly after 3 p.m. there are noises on the street. In the cellar of our building are gathered those wounded in the name of Goebbel’s propaganda, and some neighbors, all overawed. Among them, naturally, are the Party members, who do not have a clear conscience. These believe the approaching Allied soldiers will behave like the German soldiers did in Poland, etc. This sheepish fear gives me pleasure. I do not pass up the chance to make scornful remarks.

We go outside to the courtyard entrance and see the advance guard drive by: tanks, armored cars, trucks, and jeeps. For the first time we behold Americans. The soldiers are outstandingly equipped. Their appearance is remarkably good, well-fed. There is no comparison between the Germans’ material and the Americans’. Anyhow, the American army makes an impression of excellent, disciplined troops. I want to hope that this good impression will continue to remain in the future.

Read more of his diary entries in English at Friedrich Kellner: Selected Diary Entries

German civilians pass burning buildings in Bocholt, 29 March 1945.
German civilians pass burning buildings in Bocholt, 29 March 1945.

Meanwhile in Berlin the senior Nazis continued to delude themselves that the situation was in some way salvageable. Propaganda Minister Jozef Goebbels was also an assiduous diary keeper throughout the war. His diaries give no hint of impending doom, let alone any sense of panic. He continued to write long detailed, daily analyses of the international scene and the war situation right up until the 9th of April.

On the 29th March he surveyed the eastern front, and considered a confidential report on the war in western Germany. He was still making plans for resistance to occupying Allies:

The report starts by saying that large-scale demoralisation has set in in the West, that a vast army of stragglers is on the move eastwards, that east-bound trains are crammed with armed men, that there is no longer any question of firm cohesion anywhere, and that in places detachments of Volkssturm can be seen marching westwards while the regular troops set off towards the east.

This is, of course, extraordinarily menacing and gives rise to the greatest anxiety. I am convinced that we shall succeed in re-establishing some sort of order in this wildly milling mob. But, the war having moved so far onto German territory, we can no longer afford to abandon large areas as is usually associated with such proceedings.

The Americans are already saying that they are only 150 miles from Berlin. This is not true but I believe that they are trying to divert our attention in a false direction …

Hannover was raided yesterday in addition to Berlin. The two raids were described as medium to heavy. Reich territory was clear of enemy aircraft during the night. For the first time for 35 days Berlin was not given the compliment of its Mosquito raid. Among the inhabitants of the Reich capital this produced a sort of definite disappointment. When the Mosquitos did not arrive in the evening, everyone naturally expected that they would come during the night. They probably stayed away for reasons of weather.

I am now very busy with the so-called Werwolf organisation. Werwolf is intended to activate partisan activity in enemy-occupied districts. This partisan activity has by no means got off to a good start.

Here and there certain noticeable actions have been reported such as, for example, the shooting of the Burgomaster installed by the Americans in Aachen; for the moment, however, no systematic activity is visible.

I would like to take over direction of this partisan activity myself and I shall possibly ask the Fuhrer to give me the necessary powers. I shall set up a newspaper for Werwolf and also make available a radio transmitter with powerful beam facilities; both will carry the same name. Announcements both in the news- paper and over the radio will be in definitely revolutionary terms without any external or internal political restraints.

In the present war situation Werwolf should be what the Angriff [ Nazi newspaper – ‘The Attack’] was during our struggle period [before the Nazis came to power] when we were fighting not only for Berlin but for the Reich; in fact it should be a rallying point for all activists who are not prepared to adopt the course of compromise.

See Final Entries 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels

Displaced German civilians queue for water rations, 28 March 1945.
Displaced German civilians queue for water rations, 28 March 1945.
Rations being handed out to displaced German civilians, 28 March 1945.
Rations being handed out to displaced German civilians, 28 March 1945.

US infantry v Panzers in house to house fighting

Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers from the American 17th Airborne Division pass through Dorsten in Germany, while an Achilles tank destroyer waits, 29 March 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers from the American 17th Airborne Division pass through Dorsten in Germany, while an Achilles tank destroyer waits, 29 March 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers of the 17th US Airborne Division, Germany, 29 March 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying paratroopers of the 17th US Airborne Division, Germany, 29 March 1945.

The penetration into Germany was now proceeding on a broad front, with the British, Canadian and US Armies all involved in daily battles, large and small.

Raymond Gantter had arrived in France in September 1944 as a replacement private with the US 1st Infantry Division. A relatively old man at 30 years old, by March 1945 he was a sergeant in charge of a platoon.

He devotes a whole chapter to the fighting his Company was involved in throughout 28th March, the battle for the small town of Geisbach. He began the day with a pre – dawn reconnaissance with a small squad to find the way into the town for the whole Company. Shortly after the Company arrived, as they were clearing the the town from house to house, a group of Panzers and self propelled guns arrived and the situation was reversed. They had stumbled upon a marshalling area for German armour preparing a counter-attack.

With an honesty that is typical of of his memoir, he describes how his men fell back in retreat, out of his control. On meeting his Company commander he was ordered back into town, at which point two of his men fell out with “battle nerves”. The day was far from over:

The platoon now consisted of fourteen men, and I formed two squads of seven men each. The captain and I walked to the edge of the road and he pointed out where he wanted us to go. He talked easily and warmly, saying it was a dirty job but it had to be done, and the curse on my conscience lightened a little. I had the choice of returning by the road, risking fire from the enemy-occupied buildings, or going back the long way, up the creek. The road was the shorter route, and I chose that.

A last checkup of weapons and ammo and we were off, snaking from building to building and moving steadily back to the junction and the walled courtyard. It was a happy return: Shorty was there. He was in the cellar of the house with a weapons platoon survivor named Johns who was a helluva good Joe. It was good to see Shorty. En route to the creek he’d found his way blocked by the guns of an S.P. and he’d been forced to crawl back to the house. He and Johns had stuck it out alone there, almost entirely surrounded by Germans. We maneuvered into position, a few men at this vital point, a few men at that. We were back at our old stand on the company’s left flank. The remnant of the third platoon was on our right.

The hours that follow are blurred and lost. The things I remember are vivid with the clarity of nightmare, real enough in the physical terms of their expression but terrifying through distortion, twisted and hideous because some fundamental discipline had been violated. There was shelling and there were tanks and self-propelled guns, the rattling cough of machine guns and burp guns, the high staccato of rifles.

These provided the orchestration for certain tableaux: dusty glimpses of gray uniforms, green uniforms… the flicker of movement in the window of the house across the street, and your hands swinging the rifle to your shoulder in a single fluid motion … the patient resistance of the trigger under your tightening finger, the sudden punch of recoil… the stone barn and the thorny hedge… the dead soldier who lay on his face in the ditch, his hand stretched to the gray stone, the blackthorn. His head was bare and he was very blond, very young… the nape of his neck as defenseless as a child’s. On the edge of the road lay his bazooka… so near, only a grave’s length away.

The Germans were all over: in the houses across the street, in the house next door, in the fields and orchards. They were sure of their victory now, and a little careless.

Glancing up the road, I spied two Germans less than a hundred yards away. They were sprawled carelessly in the ditch near the junction, a light machine gun mounted beside them. They were smoking cigarettes with an air of indolent assurance. At my wave, Lieutenant Freeman joined me at the comer of the barn; we chose targets wordlessly and fired.

The enemy was now solidly entrenched in the houses across the road. A little below us the road bent sharply, curving into the heart of town, and the large building at the bend in the road was infested with snipers.

Peering around the dung heap that sheltered me, I studied the windows of the house, hoping for an incautious German to show himself.

Suddenly a German soldier ran from the courtyard, disappearing around the bend in the road before I could raise my rifle. Cursing my slowness, I waited for another German to make a move. Fifteen seconds later a second man sprinted from the courtyard, and my finger was already tightening on the trigger when I realized that this man was American. He was empty-handed and his head was bare, and before he vanished around the bend in the road I recognized him as Weymeyer, a third platoon man. But what the hell… ? As I blinked in startled wonder, another German darted from the courtyard and after Weymeyer, and again I was caught with my sights down.

I heard the story later: Weymeyer had been captured, dis-armed, and ordered to follow the first German to the place where American prisoners were being collected. Somewhere beyond the bend in the road Weymeyer had overtaken the first German. Seizing his erstwhile captor’s rifle, he beat him to death with it and escaped before the second guard reached the scene. (Weymeyer was sent to OCS in Paris, and his boldness became a company legend.)

Another incident of the day: a German tank rolled up to a house where a few stubborn Americans still held out and thrust the muzzle of its 88 in the front window. The tank commander stood in the open turret and in perfect English made a speech to the doggies within, advising them in tones of good- humored cajolery to come out and surrender peaceably “because you’re already whipped and you’ll only get killed if you continue to fight.”

While he wooed them, they left quietly by a rear window, crawled to the house next door, and shot him as he harangued the empty building. (I talked with some of these men later: they were cocky with triumph but still bristling at the recollection of the German officer’s arrogance. “The nerve of that sonofabitch!” they said. “The nerve… !”)

See Raymond Gantter: Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II .

A Sherman Crab crew of 1st Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry share a brew with American 16 Corps engineers, Germany, 28 March 1945.
A Sherman Crab crew of 1st Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry share a brew with American 16 Corps engineers, Germany, 28 March 1945.

British infantry attack against dug in Fallschirmjäger

Troops of the 6th King's Own Scottish Borderers advance warily along a lane, past the bodies of German soldiers, east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
Troops of the 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers advance warily along a lane, past the bodies of German soldiers, east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
43rd (Wessex) Division troops and vehicles in the main street of Xanten, 11 March 1945.
43rd (Wessex) Division troops and vehicles in the main street of Xanten, 11 March 1945.

The fighting in World War II is sometimes characterised as the brilliant German military mind, with his skilfully deployed troops and highly motivated men being overcome by the overwhelmingly better firepower of the Allies with their air superiority. Such a characterisation ignores the reality of most battlefields at the time. Ultimately it was necessary for the Allied men on the ground, the infantry, to get to grips with the opposition, often in a very real sense. No amount of firepower could overcome well dug in defenders alone.

The battle in Germany was fought against a mixed collection of defenders, some diffident, some very determined. Yet by now the Allied infantry had become a match for the best of them and were equally skilled and determined. It was the individual tenacity of the ordinary infantryman, together with the courageous leadership seen at section level (25th March), or at the Platoon leader level (26th March) that won the overall battle. An insight into the Company level command completes the picture.

Twenty three year old Peter Hall was a Temporary Major commanding ‘A’ Company in the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, 43rd Wessex Infantry Division, they faced German Fallschirmjäger, parachute troops, in prepared positions on an autobahn :

The autobahn was not, really an autobahn at all. It was still under construction. It was a heaped-up embankment which offered superb fields of fire against an assaulting force. Furthermore, this excellent defensive position was occupied by elite and determined parachutists and backed by skilled enemy artillery. The enemy had had time to site machine-gun positions forward of the autobahn. The 27th March was going to prove, for both sides, a very hairy day!

It was a miracle of military efficiency that, in spite of incredible logistical difficulties, we crossed the start line on time, and with the correct groupings. Then, things started to go wrong. From start line to the objective for the assault the distance was about 1000 yards.

We, the infantry, had to advance over flat, open country, with practically no cover from the enemy’s machine-gun fire. And this was intense! We had to rely, solely, on the principle of fire and movement (which I have described earlier) and close with the enemy as quickly as we could.

An additional complication was that, although the actual day of our assault was sunny, the ground was sodden and muddy. It eventually proved impossible for tank movement. Although this was a major disadvantage, it did not detract from the ferocious firepower that my supporting troop of tanks were able to bear onto the enemy. This was a contributing factor to our final success in this particular, hard-fought engagement.

‘A’ Company had advanced to within about 200 yards of our objective when our supporting tanks bogged down. Stuck in the mud. I went forward to the troop leader’s tank and pressed the button on the rear of the vehicle. This should have made it possible for voice communication between us by telephone. For some reason it was not working! The tank just sat there like an enormous iron elephant’s turd. No response from the crew inside. Their machine gunner continued to pour hot lead into the heaped-up autobahn – but not where I wanted it!

It was vital that I talk to the troop leader, and so I clambered up onto the tank and banged, with the butt of my machine pistol, onto the closed-down lid of his turret. An age seemed to pass. I felt like Long John Silver’s parrot, perched on his shoulder when he was leading the pirate charge against the stockade in Treasure Island. I was 10 feet off the ground and there was a lot of ‘rubbish’ roaring about.

Under these circumstances, an infantryman finds that the ground would be a very pleasant place to be! Eventually, the turret trap opened. The troop leader’s head appeared. “What the bloody,” he started to say. “Shut up and listen!” I snarled. “You’re stuck and can’t move. We can and we’re going to. I’m going to do a shallow right-flanking movement onto the objective so that we won’t mask your fire. You will concentrate everything you’ve got onto the following specific areas.” I indicated them by pointing.

“Keep an eye on our movement. It won’t be text-book pretty but we will go split-arse. When you see a red verey light, you will stop firing AT ONCE! Got that?” “Wilco,” he said. “Wilco” means I hear and will comply.

[He then sprinted across the battlefield to arrange supporting fire from the neighbouring ‘D”Company]

I sprinted back noticing little splashes of mud exploding around me. I was being targeted by a Spandau machine-gun. I managed, somehow, to step up a gear or two! I made it back to Peter Wade’s platoon.

“Peter” I gasped, “We’ve got masses of covering fire. We’re going to attack in echelons of platoons. That’s your objective. Get going!” “Right,” he answered. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

Off he went, but unfortunately, not very far. An undetected Spandau machine-gun, immediately on the right flank of his advance and forward of the main enemy positions, opened fire. Peter was severely wounded in the leg and a number of his guys were killed. Although wounded, Peter threw a smoke grenade to his right which obscured the view of the enemy from our advance. A vital factor in our eventual success.

“‘A’ Company,” I yelled, “Follow me!” We dashed forward, rather like a bunch of Fuzzie-Wuzzies in the battle of Omdurman. I would not have scored any ‘Brownie points’ for this manoeuvre had it been an exercise on Salisbury Plain, but we made it.

As we hit the objective what I knew would happen, did! The enemy hit the position which we, minutes ago, had occupied, with a most ferocious Artillery Hate. Fritz was employing his normal defensive tactic: slow down the assault with small arms fire and then, hit it with all the big stuff at your command. In this battle there was lots of it; our speed of advance frustrated the enemy by seconds!

I was sorry for the tankies but, not unduly concerned. Cocooned as they were in their iron contraptions, the worst that they could expect was a headache, unless a tank sustained a direct hit in its petrol tank. I was much more concerned with my own wounded and about ‘D’ Company who had no such protection. However, we had turned the enemy’s flank. ‘A’ Company had kicked open the door and the eventual success of the battalion attack was assured.

This is part of a longer account which appears in Rogers and Williams (ed): On the Bloody Road to Berlin: Frontline Accounts from North-West Europe & the Eastern Front, 1944-45, from his unpublished memoirs, Tales of a Disorderly Officer.

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.
Two young German soldiers, one injured, the other dead. As they advanced into Germany, the Allied soldiers were constantly surprised at the extreme youth of the enemy forces.
Two young German soldiers, one injured, the other dead. As they advanced into Germany, the Allied soldiers were constantly surprised at the extreme youth of the enemy forces.

Forward Platoon makes contact as they enter Germany

Winston Churchill crosses the Rhine in a jeep with Lt-Gen Miles Dempsey, GOC 2nd Army, 26 March 1945.
Winston Churchill crosses the Rhine in a jeep with Lt-Gen Miles Dempsey, GOC 2nd Army, 26 March 1945.
40mm Bofors gun of 319 Battery, 92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in action in the ground support role east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
40mm Bofors gun of 319 Battery, 92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in action in the ground support role east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, the latter standing in a jeep, talking to Scottish troops near the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, the latter standing in a jeep, talking to Scottish troops near the Rhine, 26 March 1945.

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

Teenage German POWs captured east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
Teenage German POWs captured east of the Rhine, 26 March 1945.
A line of German prisoners taken by 6th Airborne Division at Hamminkeln, 26 March 1945.
A line of German prisoners taken by 6th Airborne Division at Hamminkeln, 26 March 1945.

A brittle German resistance continues to be dangerous

British paratroops in Hamminkeln during the Allied airborne landings east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
British paratroops in Hamminkeln during the Allied airborne landings east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
British airborne troops with a 6-pdr anti-tank gun in Hamminkeln, Germany, 25 March 1945.
British airborne troops with a 6-pdr anti-tank gun in Hamminkeln, Germany, 25 March 1945.

The Allies were suddenly firmly established on the east bank of the Rhine. The last natural German defence line had been breached and the expected battle of attrition avoided. It was also a massive psychological blow to many of the German troops, in many minds there was no rational explanation why the war should go on.

As the Nazis used ever more ruthless measures to deal with anyone even suspected of straggling or desertion, it remained difficult for German troops to surrender, even if they, and sometimes even their officers, saw no point continuing. There were a number of instances of a apparently strong resistance suddenly collapsing. Allied troops would come to resent Germans who fought and killed and then, when their position became untenable, suddenly surrendered and expected to be treated honourably.

The Seaforth Highlanders encountered one such incident in their attack on Groin. Lance-Corporal Green tells the story:

We were all in No 5 section,’ he said. ‘There was a Corporal Purchase, and Gray was the bren gunner, and there was Hayes, and Hay and Hanson, and myself . we’d been together a long time ? right through everything – and we were all good mates. Captain Gardiner came up and called for volunteers, and Corporal Purchase says “We’ll go.” Captain Gardiner says: “It’s important. The place must be got. ” And the Corporal says: “We’ll do the job properly if I have to do it myself. ”

‘We got 16 Platoon to put down mortar smoke and high explosive in front of us, and set off down the road. The house and the trench were on the left of the road, and that was the side where Mr. Manson was held up, so when the smoke cleared a bit and we were fired on we dived into the ditch on the right. It was a good ditch and we were able to work along it fairly fast until we hit the drain.

That was the start of the business. The drain cut the ditch and the road at right angles, and a wee bridge carried the road over it; so of course that meant we couldn’t crawl any farther. It meant we would have to nip out of the ditch, run across the bridge, and get back into the ditch on the far side. The Boche were only seventy yards away. They weren’t fast enough to catch Purchase and Gray when they made a dive for it; but of course they were just waiting for us, and whenever we showed ourselves we got a burst through our hair.

‘We thought the pair of them would wait for us and give us covering fire to help us over the gap: but nothing happened. I stood up beside a telegraph pole, and before a burst put me back into the ditch again I’d just time to see three spandaus and a hell of a lot of Boche in a big trench, and Purchase and Gray disappearing round the end of a house about forty yards away from them.

‘The bullets were going through the grass a foot above our heads. We heard a bren firing, and then a sten, and we heard them shouting: “Give up, you bastards! The Seaforths are here!” That must have been when they charged. There were a few bursts of spandau, and then silence.
‘We knew what that meant. They were our mates, and we were all boiled up. “To hell with this,” I said. “Come on.”

‘We ran over the bridge, and into the ditch again, then across the road to the cover of a house, and then round to the Boche side. Purchase was lying about twenty yards from the trench, and Gray was almost inside it. There wasn’t a scrap of cover for the last forty yards. The two of them had gone at it baldheaded, and there were three spandaus and forty-six men in the trench. Of course they were hit. They were hit all over. But they’d made the Boche look their way, and 16 Platoon had been able to get into the big house while the panic was on.

‘We were mad when we saw them lying there. We didn’t know what we were doing. We stood in the open, not even shooting, and called the Boche for all the names in creation, and yelled at them to come out. And so help me, they did. A wee white flag came over the edge, and then an officer, and then two or three, and then the whole issue. Forty-six of them. The officer was one of those right clever baskets – big smiles all over his face ….

‘Purchase was the best section leader ever we had.’He died. Gray, though he had a burst clean through him, lived to receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal and survive the war. His bren was found actually inside the German trench.

The whole circumstances of the attack can be read , with an accompanying map, at 51st Highland Division.

DUKW crews (including one soldier wearing a top hat) rest by the roadside east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
DUKW crews (including one soldier wearing a top hat) rest by the roadside east of the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
DUKW amphibious vehicles ferrying supplies across the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
DUKW amphibious vehicles ferrying supplies across the Rhine, 25 March 1945.
A Universal carrier unloaded from a Hamilcar glider during the Rhine crossing, 24-25 March 1945.
A Universal carrier unloaded from a Hamilcar glider during the Rhine crossing, 24-25 March 1945.
A Class 40 pontoon bridge over the Rhine, 25 March 1945
A Class 40 pontoon bridge over the Rhine, 25 March 1945

Operation Varsity: Glider attack across the Rhine

Operation VARSITY. Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings tow Airspeed Horsa gliders over the French countryside shortly after crossing the English Channel, en route to the landing zones east of the River Rhine.
Operation VARSITY. Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings tow Airspeed Horsa gliders over the French countryside shortly after crossing the English Channel, en route to the landing zones east of the River Rhine.
Operation VARSITY. Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine. Above them, Dakotas towing Airspeed Horsas fly a divergent course towards their objectives.
Operation VARSITY. Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine. Above them, Dakotas towing Airspeed Horsas fly a divergent course towards their objectives.
Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders.
Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders.

Operation Plunder, the amphibious assault across the Rhine, was already underway. Operation Varsity, the largest airborne assault of the war now followed. The plan was to seize vital territory in the Wesel area, east of the Rhine in preparation for the main thrust of the Allied forces deep into Germany. The German forces were already diverted by the fortuitous seizure of the bridge at Remagan by US forces, and the establishment of a strong bridgehead in that area.

5.5-inch guns firing in support of the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.
5.5-inch guns firing in support of the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.
Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins.  Germany, 1945.
Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins. Germany, 1945.

Denis Edwards was with D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was not only a veteran of Normandy but had participated in the very first attack of D-Day, the assault on ‘Pegasus Bridge’. Now they were doing it all over again:

The airfield of departure for our battalion was at Birch, in Essex, from where the take-off began at 0630 hours. About sixty aircraft, gliders and tugs, were queued for take-off.

A strange event occurred at this time. One of the corporals who had been with us in the Normandy campaign had by this time been promoted to sergeant of his Platoon. While waiting to enplane he had a premonition that the aircraft was fated and doomed. He ran off, only to be later detained, tried, stripped of his rank and sentenced to military detention.

He might well have received a more severe sentence than a few months’ detention had it not been for the fact that his premonition was justified. The glider in which he would have travelled took a direct hit and was destroyed with no survivors.

Regrettably, the Germans knew only too well that we were on our way and they were ready and waiting. Following the British glider-borne landings in Normandy and Arnhem in 1944 the Germans had certainly realized that the most effective way to deal with the British troop-carrying Horsa, and the equally large and flimsy Hamilcar gliders was to hit them with incendiary bullets.

Perhaps even tracer bullets were sufficient to set these large and slow gliders aflame long before they reached the ground. Bullets zipped through one side of the flimsy plywood fuselage and out of the other as we approached our landing zone, and as we came in to land part of one wing, an aileron, and the tail section were shot to pieces by shellfire.

Listening to the bullets ripping through woodwork around us was none too pleasant, but amazingly none of us was hit by them. Even more miraculously, unlike most of our comrades in other gliders and those paratroops who jumped, we suffered no casualties at all during the actual landing.

The gliders had to land in open ground and the well-positioned German forces equipped with their tanks, artillery, mortars, heavy, medium and light machine guns, accompanied by well-positioned snipers, picked us off at will as we sought what little cover was available. The casualty figures testify to the advantage enjoyed by the defenders as we delivered our cargoes of thirty men at a time, gift-wrapped in plywood Horsas.

My own twenty-six-man platoon was relatively lucky and every one of us got clear of our glider and reached the station yard where we took refuge from the murderous German fire. The yard covered a considerable area, part of it being stacked with neat piles of timber, each approximately the size of a two—storey house.

Unfortunately it turned out that the Germans were using these stacks of timber to cover their approach as they advanced towards us. We spent the first few hours playing hide-and-seek among the wood-piles, dodging the German Mk IV tanks which trundled up and down the rows of stacked timber seeking us out.

We were not equipped to deal with German heavy tanks. Indeed, the anti-tank guns that we did possess, six-pounders which could dispose of even a Tiger at close range, were almost certainly still within the Hamilcar gliders used to transport our heavier equipment. The concentration of enemy fire over the landing zones would have made it virtually impossible for such weapons to be removed. Most men were just thankful if they were able to crawl away from their gliders and find some sort of shelter from the incoming German fire.

If German tanks dared to roam about in daylight they were quickly neutralized by RAF Tempest and Typhoon rocket-firing aircraft. The Luftwaffe was virtually out of action by this time, out of fuel if not quite out of aircraft, and these Allied aerial tank destroyers were unopposed. They could afford to loiter close by until called in whenever tanks posed a threat.

It was a very one- sided match and in the open and in daylight the tank stood little chance. When moving about in close cover, however, such as the timber yard at Hamminkeln, or with smoke cover, or at night or in semi-darkness, then the German tanks became a problem — quite terrifying and lethally dangerous to lightly equipped infantry.

After our nerve-racking game of hide and seek with the German tanks, we were finally forced to vacate the yard. We withdrew to D Company s arranged rendezvous point on the other side of the glider landing zone. We then moved up to take over the river bridge, defending it against repeated enemy attacks and probes with tanks and infantry.

It was some time later — I am unsure of the exact time for reasons that will become clear, but probably in the late afternoon or evening — that my section was sheltering below a high railway or river embankment when the enemy began a powerful bombardment of the area. A lot of heavy stuff was crashing in all around the place and, without well-dug trenches such as we had in Normandy, it was impossible to find anywhere that offered good protection.

There were several of us crouched in the lee of the embankment when apparently a large shell exploded on the top of the bank just above my head, killing many of those in the immediate area, as well as some others who were further away. I neither remember the shellburst nor anything more for a period of thirty-six hours or so.

See Denis Edwards: Devils Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45

A Sherman ARV (armoured recovery vehicle) and other specialised armour moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
A Sherman ARV (armoured recovery vehicle) and other specialised armour moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
German prisoners under guard during the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.
German prisoners under guard during the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.

Operation Plunder: The first wave get across the Rhine

Bursts of German anti-aircraft fire fill the sky above Wesel, Germany, as 80 Avro Lancasters of No. 3 Group attack the town in preparation for the 21st Army Group's assault across the River Rhine, (Operation VARSITY) on 24 March 1945. Photograph was taken from the British positions on the west bank of the River.
Bursts of German anti-aircraft fire fill the sky above Wesel, Germany, as 80 Avro Lancasters of No. 3 Group attack the town in preparation for the 21st Army Group’s assault across the River Rhine, (Operation VARSITY) on 24 March 1945. Photograph was taken from the British positions on the west bank of the River.

James Byrom was a pacifist by conviction and refused to serve in the combat arms of the military. Yet as a Medic he found himself in one of the most hazardous posts in the army, flying in a glider with the airborne troops that would be landing on the east bank of the Rhine. He seems to have been relatively unperturbed, and much encouraged by the morale boosting briefing that they got before departure:

The curtain raiser to what the Staff planners had tactlessly called Operation Varsity Plunder was the Brigadier’s tonic address.

‘No doubt,’ he admitted, ‘you will find some Germans when you reach the ground. But you can take it from me they will be bloody frightened. Just imagine the sensations of those wretched Germans cowering in their slit trenches when – Lo and Behold! – wave after wave of you blood- thirsty gentlemen come cascading down from the skies! What would you do in their place?…’

He paused, while imagination boggled, then pursued more sternly: ‘But let there be no misunderstanding. If anybody does shoot at you, you will ignore him completely. Your job is to hasten to the rendezvous and not to amuse yourself by returning his fire.

And if I find any of you gentlemen going to ground I will come round in person and kick his bottom. If you happen to hear a few stray bullets you needn’t think they are intended for you. That, gentlemen, is a form of egotism!’

See James Byrom: The Unfinished Man

Men of the 15th Scottish Division leave their assault craft after crossing the Rhine and double up the east bank to their assembly point near Xanten.
Men of the 15th Scottish Division leave their assault craft after crossing the Rhine and double up the east bank to their assembly point near Xanten.
British commandos of the 1st Commando Brigade man two Vickers machine guns in the shattered outskirts of Wesel. The 1st Commandos had formed the spearhead of the British assault by making a surprise crossing in assault craft on the night of 23 - 24 March under a barrage of 1500 guns
British commandos of the 1st Commando Brigade man two Vickers machine guns in the shattered outskirts of Wesel. The 1st Commandos had formed the spearhead of the British assault by making a surprise crossing in assault craft on the night of 23 – 24 March under a barrage of 1500 guns

The airborne assault would come on the 24th but the surprise river crossing was to be undertaken late on the 23rd. Trooper Albert Bellamy was with the 51st Highland Division and one of the first across the river:

On the afternoon of March 23rd, at 5 p.m., a terrible artillery barrage from numerous guns commenced to pound enemy positions inland. It was the biggest concentration of artillery I have seen over here. The barrage was augmented by several batteries of rockets which went off, hundreds at a time, with a terrifying roar.

The infantry, which incidentally was the 51st Highland Division, boarded the ‘Buffalos’ at 7 p.m., and at 7.15 p.m. we moved off to the starting point which was one and a half miles from the river.

Our troop leader was first and I was in the second craft manning the gun. We reached the river a few minutes to 9 p.m. and at exactly 9 o’clock the first ‘Buffalo’ entered the water and the rest followed. We manoeuvred into formation and headed for the opposition shore, which was just discernible through the mist. Our hearts were anywhere but in the right place, for we did not know what to expect, but the expected onslaught did not materialise, and we touched down at exactly 9.03 p.m. – three minutes which seemed like three years.

We had a very nasty moment when the enemy sent up a brilliant flare and brightly illuminated the whole river, but nothing happened.

The operation was a success and took the enemy completely by surprise.

The flag of the – Battalion was carried in the leading craft and was the first flag to cross the Rhine in the last war; thus history repeated itself. The flag is moth eaten and held together by netting. The colours are brown, red and green and mean ‘Through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’.

We waited until the infantry had disembarked on the river bank and then returned to the opposite bank. Owing to the bank being very steep at this side, several futile attempts were made to climb it. Meanwhile the Germans had got our range and there were several near misses by mortar and shell fire.

After a few minutes we then managed to reach the top of the bank and the proceeded to the loading area, where we loaded up with Bren carriers and other necessary equipment. A few shells dropped in the bridgehead but little if any damage was done. We then crossed the Rhine a second time and proceeded, 300 yards inland to the unloading area. Everything had been arranged so carefully and the organisation was marvellous.

On the return trip our craft brought back 20 prisoners – the first to be taken in the operation.

For the next three days we worked a ferry service without either rest or sleep, taking across vital supplies until the first bridge was built. Meanwhile a large ferry was taking across tanks to support the advancing infantry.

See 51st Highland Division

A Buffalo comes ashore on the east bank of the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
A Buffalo comes ashore on the east bank of the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
Men of the 1st Cheshire Regiment crossing the Rhine in Buffaloes at Wesel, 24 March 1945.
Men of the 1st Cheshire Regiment crossing the Rhine in Buffaloes at Wesel, 24 March 1945.
Men of the 5th Dorsetshire Regiment crossing the Rhine in a Buffalo, 28 March 1945.
Men of the 5th Dorsetshire Regiment crossing the Rhine in a Buffalo, 28 March 1945.

The US Pacific Fleet prepares for Okinawa

Vast array of American warships just offshore of naval base on Mogmog Island in the Ulithi Atoll, part of the Caroline Islands.
Vast array of American warships just offshore of naval base on Mogmog Island in the Ulithi Atoll, part of the Caroline Islands.

The battle for Iwo Jima was not yet over, but the US Fleet was readying one last amphibious island assault, Okinawa. This was the last assault before what everyone expected would be the last big battle, the invasion of Japan itself. Okinawa, closer to Japan than any of the islands that the US had seized over past three years, was needed as a staging base for that ultimate goal.

At remote Ulithi atoll in the Caroline islands the extraordinary American amphibious war machine spent a last few days assembling.

Russell Davis was a veteran of Peleliu but even he was stirred by the sight of the vast fleet at anchor:

The troop holds smelled of sickness; the side decks were whipped with rain and slippery with spray from the roll of the ship; and over the front and rear decks swarmed the sea itself as the bucking, swaying transport clawed up waves and slammed down troughs.

The last day and night we had been running through squalls, and the sea was still high-rolling when we came into the anchorage at Ulithi; and there, as far as we could look, until a dripping wet sky shut down on the far horizon, was the greatest gathering of ships in the history of the world.

There were transports, unending as common soldiers of the line. Patrol boats were like corporals; destroyers like sergeants; cruisers were lieutenants; carriers were colonels; and the battlewagons were generals. There was an army of ships arrayed in the anchorage at Ulithi.

In such an army, the great Spanish Armada would have been run over and never sighted. There had never been as big a gathering before and there never has been anything as big since. Even the sickest and most bitter Marines came to the rail to look at the sea might of their country, and to feel, no matter how scared they were, some pride that the troops were the heart of the gathering. The great ships were there to serve and protect the troops.

Chief looked at it all, shook his head in wonder, and asked a question that had occurred to all of us: “How can we lose?” Murph said: “We can’t lose. But you know something? This is the first time in this war I’ve really felt sure of it.”

Everyone else agreed with Murph. After Ulithi there was never any question about our certain victory. The only question was When? For the next few days, as our transport moved around the anchorage, we hung at the rail, identifying the different ships. I had never seen a Landing Ship Dock (LSD) before. But there it was, with its high, blunt prow and its cranes. Ships could be put right inside it. I had never seen a new battlewagon or the big carriers. Our early carriers had been midgets.

Even when we coasted by the dark and gaping holes blasted in the side of the carrier Franklin, we were sure that nothing could hurt us: we had too many ships. And even when the maps and photos of the beach and hills of Okinawa were brought aboard – when we could see the sea wall that had to be scaled, and the high swirls of ground beyond the beach – we still felt confident.

“This will be our last big one,” the rumor said. “This will cave-in the Japs. We’re throwing the whole bundle at ’em on this one.”

See R. Davis: Marine at War.

Also impressed by the spectacle at Ulithi was another Marine, E. B. Sledge:

We lined the rails of our transport and looked out over the vast fleet in amazement. We saw ships of every description: huge new battleships, cruisers, sleek destroyers, and a host of fast escort craft. Aircraft carriers were there in greater numbers than any of us had ever seen before. Every conceivable type of amphibious vessel was arrayed. It was the biggest invasion fleet ever assembled in the Pacic, and we were awed by the sight of it.

Because of tides and winds, the ships swung about on their anchor chains, and each day the fleet looked new and different. When I came topside each morning, I felt disoriented. It was a strange sensation, as though I were in a different frame of reference and had to learn my surroundings anew.

The first afternoon at Ulithi a fellow mortarman said, “Break out the field glasses, and let’s see how many kinds of ships we can identify.” We passed the mortar section’s field glasses around and whiled away many hours studying the different ships.

Suddenly someone gasped, “Look over there at that hospital ship off our port bow! Look at them nurses! Gimme them field glasses!”

Lining the rail of the hospital ship were about a dozen American nurses looking out over the fleet: A scuffle erupted among us over who would use the field glasses first, but we all finally had a look at the girls. We whistled and waved, but we were too far away to be heard.

At Ulithi we received briefings on the coming battle for Okinawa. This time there was no promise of a short operation. “This is expected to be the costliest amphibious campaign of the war,” a lieutenant said. “We will be hitting an island about 350 miles from the Japs’ home islands, so you can expect them to fight with more determination than ever. We can expect 80 to 85 percent casualties on the beach.”

A buddy next to me leaned over and whispered, “How’s that for boosting the troops’ morale?” I only groaned.

See E. B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

USS Wasp, USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, USS Hancock, USS Ticonderoga, and other warships at Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, 8 Dec 1944.
USS Wasp, USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, USS Hancock, USS Ticonderoga, and other warships at Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, 8 Dec 1944.

‘Maximum effort’ to ‘soften up’ the Rhine

Boston Mark III, AL775 ‘RH-D’, of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Attlebridge, Norfolk, in flight.
Boston Mark III, AL775 ‘RH-D’, of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Attlebridge, Norfolk, in flight.
North American B-25B Mitchell Mk I, FK161, the first Mitchell to be delivered to RAF Bomber Command, summer 1942.
North American B-25B Mitchell Mk I, FK161, the first Mitchell to be delivered to RAF Bomber Command, summer 1942.

With the Allies on the banks of the Rhine it was obvious to the Germans that they faced an amphibious assault and probably an airborne assault in the near future. They should have been in a strong position, having had a long time to prepare defences in depth. Yet their Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had taken a heavy toll on their last remaining reserves.

Then the surprise survival of the bridge at Remagen had served to unbalance their forces. Hitler had been desperate to close down the bridgehead at Remagen and had drawn off reserves that could have been vital to the anticipated vulnerable areas elsewhere on the Rhine.

With near complete air superiority the Allied bombers were now pounding the German positions. The role of the medium bombers, a sometimes neglected aspect of the bomber war, was as vital as ever. Squadron Leader Malcohn Scott DFC, a Mitchell navigator in 180 Squadron later recalled:

For more than a week during March 1945 the Mitchells and Bostons of 2 Group had been pounding targets in the Rhineland in close support of the 21st Army Group fighting its way to the great river barrier. Some 22,000 British, Canadian and American casualties had been suffered in clearing the area between the Maas and the Rhine.

Xanten, one of 2 Group ’s earlier targets and more recently the recipient of a devastating night raid by Bomber Command, was now occupied by British and Canadian troops. The last strong bastion of the German troops on the west side had fallen and within a few days the rest of the territory was cleared and the Allied armies stood on the west bank looking at the remains of the Wesel bridge blown up by the retreating Germans.

For the six squadrons of 137 and 139 Wings in 2 Group the targets now shifted to the east side of the Rhine. At least two, occasionally three, raids were made each day on marshalling yards, communication centres and bridges, oil dumps, billeting areas and barracks, artillery emplacements and troop concentrations. Some penetrations were deeper to important rail centres but mostly attacks were concentrated in the Weser-Emmerich-Munster area where Plunder, the code name for the overall operation covering the Rhine crossing, was to take place.

Maximum effort had been ordered and quite often up to fifteen aircraft per squadron took part instead of the usual dozen aircraft in two boxes of six.

Montgomery’s preparations for the Rhine crossing were, as always, massive and painstaking: troops being ferried to the rear echelons to practise ‘boat drill’ and the handling of small craft up and down the muddy banks of the River Maas at night in preparation for the real thing.

There could be no misleading or attempted feints this time. Within a mile or two, the Germans could estimate where the Allied crossing would be made. As Kesselring wrote, ‘The enemy’s operations in a clearly limited area, bombing raids on headquarters and the smoke-screening and assembly of bridging materials, indicated their intention to attack between Emmerich and Dinslaken with the point of the main effort on either side of Rees.’ The only questions facing the enemy was when and how?

Always before, the Allies had launched a parachute and glider attack as a prelude to the full force of the main assault. Kesselring could but wait to see where the paras dropped, or so he thought. In the meantime, RAF medium bombers and Typhoons and the 9th AF Marauders and Thunderbolts carried on with their now familiar role of ‘softening up’ the area around the chosen points of the great river and the hinterland of the proposed bridgeheads on the east bank.

One important road and rail junction town and troop-billeting area was Bocholt, which became the object of almost daily attacks and quickly gained a reputation for providing a very warm reception. On 18 March it was bombed and again two days later. We all got back but with our aircraft and a few aircrew heavily peppered by shrapnel.

The next morning, 21 March, Bocholt was again listed as the target. On the bombing run No. 1 in the box was badly damaged and an air gunner’s leg was almost shot away but the pilot retained control and made an emergency landing at Eindhoven. No. 2 in the box received a direct hit as the bombs fell away and virtually disintegrated, taking down No. 3, an all-Australian crew, from which one parachute was seen to emerge. This belonged to an air gunner who although captured on landing was freed eight days later by advancing British troops. The pilot of No. 4 was severely injured, shrapnel smashing through his right thigh bone but he managed to retain consciousness long enough to get his aircraft back over friendly territory after bombing, before passing out. The mid-upper gunner then took over the controls and managed under the pilot’s guidance to crash land at the first airfield en route without further casualties.

The leading aircraft of the second box was seriously damaged by flak, wounding an air gunner but the pilot pressed on, bombed and led his formation back over the Rhine before breaking away to force land at Eindhoven. Bocholt deserved its thick red ring on the map as a place to be avoided if possible!

Of the twelve 180 Squadron Mitchells that had left Melsbroek earlier only seven returned to base, all with varying degrees of flak damage and some with wounded aboard.

This account appears in Martin Bowman(ed): The Reich Intruders: Dramatic RAF Medium Bomber Raids Over Europe in World War Two.

The 5.5-inch guns of 235 and 336 Medium Batteries, Royal Artillery, fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
The 5.5-inch guns of 235 and 336 Medium Batteries, Royal Artillery, fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
Royal Artillery 7.2-inch howitzers being brought up to fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
Royal Artillery 7.2-inch howitzers being brought up to fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.