Italy: US 5th Army advance towards the Po valley

The 10 Division advancing in Italy in April 1945.
The 10 Division advancing in Italy in April 1945.
After the 126th Mountain Engineers, 10th Mountain Division cleared a demolition, a tank of the 751st Tank Battalion, who is in support of the 10th Mountain Division, advances on Tole, Italy.
After the 126th Mountain Engineers, 10th Mountain Division cleared a demolition, a tank of the 751st Tank Battalion, who is in support of the 10th Mountain Division, advances on Tole, Italy.

The US Fifth Army began its spring offensive in Italy, after the US 92nd Division had launched diversionary attacks and the British Eighth Army had advanced from their positions in the east. There were delays as they waited for the weather to clear before the main thrust began with attacks by 10th Mountain and 1st Armored Divisions on the 14th.

They faced experienced German units, largely intact compared with the ad hoc battle groups that were formed in Germany at this time, although hampered by growing shortages of equipment and ammunition. Hitler had refused permission for them to withdraw to highly developed defensive positions on the banks of the Po river itself.

Instead they fought on the ridges and hills on the edge of the Apennines. These provided “excellent defensive positions and fields of observation” in the words of the US History, but, once broken, it was difficult to organise an orderly withdrawal from such positions.

Private First Class Richard Ryan of Company I, 85th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division:

The morning of April 14 dawned clear and warm, but the uneasy quiet was soon shattered by our artillery as it began bombarding enemy positions.

While waiting for orders to attack, I opened a can of K rations — ham and eggs – and munched on a couple of hard-as-rocks biscuits.

I had barely finished eating when we were on our way into the valley. The air was thick with heavy-clouds of smoke from our support fire. After advancing about two hundred yards, I looked around. The valley was carpeted with men – spread out and moving steadily forward.

Our artillery barrage was still raising smoke ahead of us — when suddenly it stopped. Then I heard the roar of P-47s as they raced in to strafe enemy positions.

We quickly reached the heights. They rose in ridges like a washboard. German artillery had already zeroed-in on every ravine and hiding place we might use. When we reached the top of the second draw, all hell broke loose. Machine gun bullets began zipping overhead. A man in front of me was hit. The frantic shouts of “Medic! Medic!” could be heard above the bedlam.

Our company sneaked around the side of a hill and began shooting at some farmhouses below us. We had been receiving sniper fire from the buildings. Three or four of our men on the forward slope were shot. My platoon leader was hit in both shoulders and a leg, and his runner was mortally wounded. Jim Keck, who teamed up with me in the squad, was struck in the left hip. The bullet deflected off the hip bone, ran up his side, and exited just below the armpit.

Another soldier dashed toward one of the houses. He threw two grenades – killing one of the snipers—before being shot through the head. We continued our advance — moving rapidly across a couple of open fields. Enemy mortar and artillery fire was heavy. I watched one large shell spinning end over end, screaming its death cry, before hitting the ground about two hundred yards ahead of me.

After what seemed hours of running, creeping, sprawling, and shivering with fear, we finally reached our objective – Hill 913. By this time, it was late in the afternoon. There was a short exchange of hand grenades with enemy troops on the other side of the ridge.

Suddenly, a couple of German soldiers – waving white flags—crawled out from their bunker in a ravine behind us. They were motioned to head toward our rear lines. Surprisingly, they were fired upon by their own men. These same snipers also began working on us. One man after another was picked off—mostly leg wounds.

By nightfall, enemy shelling had slackened. Buck and I were on the nose of the hill and subject to counterattack. We began digging a foxhole but struck stone about two feet down. A couple of wounded soldiers were on the ground near us. One of the men had been shot in both legs, the other in the chest. The medics never showed up, so we carried them down to the first aid station.

At daybreak, the Germans launched a heavy artillery barrage. Shrapnel was zinging everywhere, clipping the bark off trees and branches just above our heads.

It was late in the morning before we dared move to another foxhole farther down the hill. We remained there all day and until the following afternoon when the Germans withdrew.

This account appears in Packs On! Memoirs of the 10th Mountain Division in WWII

John D. Magrath
John D. Magrath

Also part of this action was Private First Class John D. Magrath, Company G, 85th Infantry regiment, 10th Mountain Division, who was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor:

He displayed conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty when his company was pinned down by heavy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire, near Castel d’Aiano, Italy.

Volunteering to act as a scout, armed with only a rifle, he charged headlong into withering fire, killing 2 Germans and wounding 3 in order to capture a machinegun. Carrying this enemy weapon across an open field through heavy fire, he neutralized 2 more machinegun nests; he then circled behind 4 other Germans, killing them with a burst as they were firing on his company.

Spotting another dangerous enemy position to this right, he knelt with the machinegun in his arms and exchanged fire with the Germans until he had killed 2 and wounded 3. The enemy now poured increased mortar and artillery fire on the company’s newly won position.

Pfc. Magrath fearlessly volunteered again to brave the shelling in order to collect a report of casualties. Heroically carrying out this task, he made the supreme sacrifice–a climax to the valor and courage that are in keeping with highest traditions of the military service.

Italian civilians cutting flesh from a dead German horses along the side of the road. 20 April 45
Italian civilians cutting flesh from a dead German horses along the side of the road. 20 April 45

British confront looting and fraternisation in Germany

Comet tanks of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, crossing the Weser at Petershagen, Germany, 7 April 1945.
Comet tanks of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, 11th Armoured Division, crossing the Weser at Petershagen, Germany, 7 April 1945.
Stuart VI  light tanks pass half-tracks and other vehicles of 15th (Scottish) Division during the advance to the River Elbe, Germany, 13 April 1945.
Stuart VI light tanks pass half-tracks and other vehicles of 15th (Scottish) Division during the advance to the River Elbe, Germany, 13 April 1945.
Churchill tanks of the Scots Guards, 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying men of the 10th Highland Light Infantry, 15th (Scottish) Division, negotiate a crater during the advance to the River Elbe, 13 April 1945.
Churchill tanks of the Scots Guards, 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying men of the 10th Highland Light Infantry, 15th (Scottish) Division, negotiate a crater during the advance to the River Elbe, 13 April 1945.

As several units were paused to rest in Germany following the Rhine crossing, there was uncertainty as to whether they would be called upon for further assaults or not. In places the Germans were surrendering, elsewhere the fight was as fanatical as ever. There was time for reflection, no man now wanted to be killed or maimed in a war that would surely end very soon.

Colonel Martin Lindsay, commanding 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, had been recalled to front line duty in his forties in July 1944, due to the casualties suffered in Normandy. He now calculated that, up until the Rhine crossing, 102 different officers had served under him since Normandy, filling the 30 officer positions in the Battalion. 55 officers had served in the 12 rifle platoons, with an average service of just 38 days – 53% had been wounded, 24% killed, 15% invalided and 5% survived.

On the 10th April the Battalion was resting in Emsburen, where, looking at the memorial in the local church, he realised that the losses in the Wehrmacht, especially on the Eastern front had been very much heavier than the British Army had suffered:

It was an odd situation, for we did not know whether we had fought our last battle and only a little gentle mopping-up remained, or whether there was still a lot of stiff fighting ahead of us.

This might well have been so, since we were routed on Bremen and the Hun was reported to have two para divisions there (even though without their parachutes) and to have brought up a marine division from Hamburg.

I felt that we should take the last pockets slowly, and not lose a man more than we could help. By this I meant send over every bomber we possessed until there was nothing left, and then turn to the next place.

But I was not sure that this was what the public wanted. They wanted the war to be finished as quickly as possible. Unfortunately they had already been told by the Press that it was virtually over.

It was said that there were 130,000 dozen bottles of bubbly in Bremen, but it was suggested that this was a rumour in order to encourage us to capture the place more quickly.

At this time there was a good deal of chat at all levels about the Army’s two most serious problems, fraternisation and looting. Very strict instructions had been given about fraternisation, which was defined for us as:

(a) Talking (except on duty), laughing and eating with Germans. (b) Playing games with them. (c) Giving them food or chocolate, even to children. (d) Shaking hands with them. (e) Allowing children to climb on a car. (f) Sharing a house with them. All this was quite right and one only hoped it could be enforced as it was completely contrary to the nature of the British soldier.

Looting presented a greater problem since it was so hard to define. Difficulties arose over such articles as cars, food, luxuries like eggs and fruit, prohibited articles such as cameras and shot-guns, and wine. We had more or less come to agreement amongst ourselves that we were going to take only:

(a) What was necessary to make ourselves more comfortable, such as bedding or furniture.

(b) Luxuries that the Huns could well get on without, e.g. eggs and fruit, but not food such as meat or poultry.

(c) Forbidden articles we wanted for our own personal use, such as shot-guns, cartridges, cameras, field-glasses.

(d) Wine (which was mostly looted from France already).

There was an anti-looting strafe at Brigade H.Q., and the Commander ordered that nothing which was not an article of Army rations was to be served in their mess.

The Brigade Major told me that while the Commander was pinned down as it were, on the throne that morning, a Jock of his passed his field of vision with a side of bacon, followed shortly after by another with a wireless set, followed a few minutes later by a third with a goose under his arm. Whereupon he rose in his wrath, sent for his Brigade Major and issued several fresh edicts, the effect of which was that there would probably be no looting at Brigade, for at least a week.

See Martin Lindsay: So Few Got Through

Sherman tanks of the 1st Coldstream Guards, Guards Armoured Division, shooting at enemy positions in a wood during the advance in Germany, 13 April 1945.
Sherman tanks of the 1st Coldstream Guards, Guards Armoured Division, shooting at enemy positions in a wood during the advance in Germany, 13 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders during the advance in Germany, 29 April 1945. Pte Fred Greener pushes a bicycle loaded with mortar bombs.
Men of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders during the advance in Germany, 29 April 1945. Pte Fred Greener pushes a bicycle loaded with mortar bombs.

Allies launch the last big offensive in Italy

A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by 'C' Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.
A casualty is brought back across the River Reno during operations by ‘C’ Company, 1st London Irish Rifles to establish a bridgehead across the river, 6 April 1945.

The long hard slog up Italy was nearing the end. The Allies were almost out of the mountains, the natural defensive features that had favoured the Germans and hindered progress since 1943. Now they were ready to push north east into the open country beyond Bologna towards the River Po. The US 5th Army would attack on the left the British 8th Army on the right.

Major Ray Ward commanded A Company of 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. ‘It was a big push, one of of the biggest of the war’, although little remembered now by comparison with the other big attacks in northern europe. A Company had the task of seizing the banks of the River Senio before the other companies moved through their positions:

The morning of Monday 9 April 1945 heralded the noisiest day I have ever lived through.

At 1440 hours, four hours and 40 minutes before H-hour, A and D companies pulled back from the positions at the river bank. At 1505, sections from A Company ran forward and threw and fired cortex mats to blow up mines and booby traps on top of the near floodbank, then withdrew 200 metres under covering fire.

All four companies then lay low in their assembly areas, to be clear of the artillery bombardment. Fifteen minutes later, all hell broke loose.

For four hours, the Germans were bombarded by artillery and mortars and bombed and strafed at intervals by hundreds of Allied aircraft. Thousands of fragmentation bombs hit enemy artillery dugouts and reserve areas. Sunset that day illuminated a hellish pall of smoke and dust across the German lines. The noise was thunderous. For the beleaguered Jerries it must have seemed like the end of the world.

Even for the battle-hardened troops on our side, it was an unnerving experience. For the rookies in our battalion it was a terrifying one. Some, not many, had little stomach for it and took a powder. They didn’t get far. They were soon rounded up by MPs to face court martial. To run away and leave your comrades in these circumstances was shameful and unforgivable and they deserved all they got.

Inspecting our assembly area, I was furious to find two young Jocks cowering in their slit trench, clearly too afraid to move. ‘Get out of there! Noise won’t hurt you,’ I yelled. They wouldn’t budge, even when the sergeant major appeared at my side and threatened to shoot them. ‘Miserable bastards. Fuck!’

I’ve no idea what happened to them, whether they caught up later or deserted. I had enough on my plate to bother. I had some sympathy for the poor devils, having seen the effect of bombing and shelling on better men. The Senio was the most frightening introduction to frontline soldiering they could have had. Fortunately their behaviour wasn’t copied by any of the Jocks in A Company, who went forward to the attack resolutely when the time came.

During that frightful commotion — shells whining and aero engines whirring overhead, the crumps of exploding bombs and sporadic return fire – we were compelled to lie huddled in our slit trenches. I made periodic tours of our position, assuming an air of nonchalance I did not feel, to cheer the men up and show them there was nothing to be afraid of.

They thought I was mad, but on that day I didn’t much care what happened to me. If I was killed, as so many others had been in the long campaign, I would have died in a cause most of us believed in.

Nevertheless I was convinced I would survive the war, despite tempting providence by an occasional show of reckless bravado. Luck was everything. Experience seemed irrelevant. Mortar stonks killed two of our men and wounded seven others as they sat waiting for H-hour. CSM Carruthers, one of the battalion’s most seasoned regulars, a veteran of Sidi Barrani where he had won the Military Medal, was shot and killed by a sniper.

‘No one,’ Mac had observed grimly at Faenza, ‘get’s out of the infantry. Just the cowards, and the dead.’

About 10 minutes before we were to go over the top, Churchill tanks drove through our position to shoot up the enemy on the floodbanks. Immediately afterwards, Wasp and Crocodile flamethrowers trundled up to within 25 metres of the near bank. For five minutes, they blazed away at suspected enemy dugouts.

Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.
Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tank supporting infantry of 2nd New Zealand Division during the assault across the River Senio, 9 April 1945.

The banks of the Senio sizzled with flame and the air stank with petrol fumes. Oily black smoke billowed towards us. The armoured vehicles withdrew.

Dozens of fighter-bombers came over, streaking above our heads to strike further terror into the hearts of the enemy. They made several low-level attacks with bombs and cannon, hitting enemy artillery and spandau positions, forward HQ areas and any Jerry foolish enough to move. By this time, the mere sound of aero engines kept enemy heads down.

Then came the final run, a dummy one. Under its cover, the assault companies of the 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand divisions launched their attack.

At 1920 hours, we sprang from our trenches and sprinted forward through the flames, smoke and fading light. We knew we only had seconds to seize the Senio before Jerry, sheltering in his bunkers, recovered from the bombardment and grabbed his weapons.

Charges designed to blow a hole in the floodbank for us failed to explode, as the leads had been cut by shelling. In the event, that didn’t matter. My men scrambled up and captured the near bank, hurled cortex matting down the reverse slope and flung a kapok bridge across the narrow trench of the river. Within minutes, we were across and up and over the far bank, and secured a bridgehead.

I gave some Jerries a burst from my tommy gun to keep their heads down. I saw one of my men have a miraculous escape. He trod on an S-mine which shot up in front of him and hung in the air, chest high. It failed to explode. The Jock collapsed in a dead faint.

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara

A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.
A Sexton 25pdr self-propelled gun crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, 10 April 1945.
A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 1945.
A Churchill tank of the North Irish Horse crossing the River Senio over two Churchill Ark bridging tanks, Italy, 10 April 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

Bitter struggle to end Japanese resistance in Mandalay

Two British soldiers on patrol in the ruins of the Burmese town of Bahe during the advance on Mandalay.
Two British soldiers on patrol in the ruins of the Burmese town of Bahe during the advance on Mandalay.
Troops of the Indian 19th Division in action against Japanese positions on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city.
Troops of the Indian 19th Division in action against Japanese positions on Mandalay Hill overlooking the city.
A Japanese supply dump burning in Mandalay after an Allied air attack.
A Japanese supply dump burning in Mandalay after an Allied air attack.

The British advance south in Burma was making dramatic strides. After taking Meiktila they moved on to Mandalay, arriving on the outskirts of the city on the 9th March.

There followed some very intense, fierce fighting as the Japanese sought to defend their positions from underground bunkers established in old Buddhist temples and catacombs. The terrain was very different but the techniques for overcoming the Japanese would have been very familiar to the US Marines on Iwo Jima.

John Masters was an officer with the 19th Indian ‘Dagger’ Division:

We stood, so to speak, on top of Mandalay. We also stood, at much closer range, on top of a good many Japanese. The temples, cellars and mysterious chambers covering Mandalay Hill were made of reinforced concrete.

The 4th Gurkhas had taken the summit, and no Japanese was alive and visible; but scores of them were alive, invisible, in the subterranean chambers.

A gruesome campaign of extermination began, among the temples of one of the most sacred places of the Buddhist faith. Sikh machine-gunners sat all day on the flat roofs, their guns aimed down the hill on either side of the covered stairway.

Every now and then a Japanese put out his head and fired a quick upward shot. A Sikh got a bullet through his brain five yards from me.

Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through the concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Very light down the holes. Sullen explosions rocked the buildings and the japanese rolled out into the open, but firing. Our machine-gurmers pressed their thumb-pieces. The japanese fell, burning.

We blew in huge steel doors with Piats, rolled in kegs of petrol or oil, and set them on fire with tracer bullets.

Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and licking sheets of fire from flame-throwers. Grimly, under the stench of burning bodies and the growing pall of decay, past the equally repellent Buddhist statuary (showing famine, pestilence, men eaten by vultures) the battalions fought their way down the ridge to the southern foot — to face the moat and the thirty-foot-thick walls of Fort Dufferin.

Pete brought up the medium artillery, and the 5-5s hurled their 60-pound shells at the wall, over open sights, from four hundred yards. The shells made no impression. He called in the air force. P-47s tried skip bombing, B-24s dropped some 1,000-pound bombs, some inside the fort and some outside – among our troops.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay

It was not until the 21st that the British found a way into the old redoubt of Fort Dufferin through the sewers – but the remaining Japanese had withdrawn during the preceding night.

Royal Air Force Thunderbolt fighters in formation during operations against Mandalay. In order to clear the Japanese from Mandalay the Allies made full use of their air superiority.
Royal Air Force Thunderbolt fighters in formation during operations against Mandalay. In order to clear the Japanese from Mandalay the Allies made full use of their air superiority.
British artillery bombards Fort Dufferin, the key to the Japanese defences at Mandalay.
British artillery bombards Fort Dufferin, the key to the Japanese defences at Mandalay.
An aerial view of Fort Dufferin at Mandalay under aerial attack.
An aerial view of Fort Dufferin at Mandalay under aerial attack.

Fresh U.S. troops move up to the front line

Cologne was bombed by the RAF for the last time on 2nd March and occupied by US troops on 6th March. The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) stands seemingly undamaged (although having been directly hit several times and damaged severely) while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. The Hauptbahnhof (Köln Central Station) and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, 24 April 1945.
Cologne was bombed by the RAF for the last time on 2nd March and occupied by US troops on 6th March. The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) stands seemingly undamaged (although having been directly hit several times and damaged severely) while entire area surrounding it is completely devastated. The Hauptbahnhof (Köln Central Station) and Hohenzollern Bridge lie damaged to the north and east of the cathedral. Germany, 24 April 1945.
Infantrymen of the 4th Infantry Division move through the debris littered city of Prum, Germany.
Infantrymen of the 4th Infantry Division move through the debris littered city of Prum, Germany. 1 March 1945.

The United States would suffer over 550,000 casualties in north west Europe between the invasion of France in 1944 and the end of the war, 104,000 men would die in this theatre alone. The British were now struggling to replace the casualties that they had sustained. America had a steady supply of young men who would fill the gaps in the ranks. There were men yet to cross the Atlantic who would have still have time to die in the cause of freedom.

In March the casualty rate was similar to that of July 1944, the height of the Normandy fighting. Amongst those arriving fresh to the battlefield and yet to see action was eighteen year old rifleman Jack R Blann:

We moved out of town a little distance directly toward Cologne and soon came to the top of a hill where there were bodies of dead Germans laying everywhere. There were two German Mark 5 tanks knocked out over on one side of the hill and there were dead German soldiers laying all around the vehicles. We felt that this action must have occurred all day before, although the vehicles were still smoking.

Beside one of the vehicles, we noticed that one of the Germans was still alive, even though he had been blown almost in two and his legs were missing. His eyes were open and he was moaning. There was no way that this man could recover from such wounds. In fact, we couldn’t understand how he had managed to live this long. We were all disturbed by the suffering that the man must be enduring, so one of the officers walked over and closed the man’s eyes, and shot him in the head with his forty five.

From the hill, you could see the battle line still quite some distance in front of us and you could see the bursting artillery in the distance all along the front. The panorama stretching before us reminded me of some of the panoramic drawings of battles that I had seen in Life Magazine. The line seemed to bulge out in the direction of Cologne and it looked as if some of our troops must be getting pretty close to the big city.

At this time, a big armada of B-26’s flew over and began to bomb Cologne and the roads around the city. We were so close to the bombers that we could see the bombs as they left the planes. There was no flack going up against them, probably because the retreat had thrown the antiaircraft defenses into confusion.

Some of the men looked around the dead Germans on the ground around us to see if there were any valuables that might be worth picking up. As for myself, I never became hardened enough that I could loot the dead. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the dead soldiers. It was hard enough to just look at these men, killed at such a young age.

One good looking young German boy had long black hair that was usually combed straight back from his forehead. Now it had fallen forward over his face. I could see myself lying there.

We left the hill and went down into a little ravine where we waited for our orders. While we were there, chow came up and we had a hot meal. I picked up some old German and French money laying on the ground in the ravine, probably discarded by some of the looters because it apparently had no value.

Then it began to sprinkle, and we began huddling around each other to talk about what the future might hold for us. All of us were hoping that maybe we would never catch up with the front line, but of course, we all knew that sooner or later we would.

See Jack R Blann: A private’s diary: The battle of Germany as seen through the eyes of an 18 year old infantry rifleman

See Hyperwar for casualty figures.

A medic helps an injured soldier through a rubble filled street. Saar-Lautern,-Germany 3 March 1945
A medic helps an injured soldier through a rubble filled street. Saar-Lautern,-Germany 3 March 1945

An infantryman makes his first kill

"Then came the big day when we marched into Germany--right through the Siegfried Line."
“Then came the big day when we marched into Germany–right through the Siegfried Line.”
 A mortar crew of the 20th Division runs for cover between bursts of German shell fire in Julich, Germany. 23 February 1945.
A mortar crew of the 20th Division runs for cover between bursts of German shell fire in Julich, Germany. 23 February 1945.

Raymond Gantter was one of hundreds of thousands of “replacements” – young US infantrymen who only joined their unit when they arrived in France or Germany. They often had a difficult time assimilating into groups of more experienced soldiers. Gantter was one of the lucky ones, a relatively older man who soon found his feet and moved rapidly through the ranks in the remaining few months of the war.

Late February saw Gantter occupying a ruined house on the front line in Germany as his squad awaited a German counter-attack:

It’s hard to write this next part, because this is where I killed a man. The first one. The first one I was sure of.

It ought to be told simply, because it’s important that you should understand what it’s like — how you feel when you have trapped a small, running creature between the cold sights of a deliberate gun and pulled the trigger, and suddenly the creature has stopped running and is lying there, and now it’s a man and his body is naked and soft and crumpled.

It ought to be told without hint of boast, and yet so that you would see there’s something of the bragging boy in the sense of achievement; it ought to be told without sentiment, and yet so you would see what a big thing it is.

I saw a German soldier rise from behind the protective shoulder of the ridge and start to run to the rear, sprinting across the open field toward the hills. Perhaps he was a runner, a messenger – I cannot remember that he carried a weapon.

It occurred to me later that he must have been young and very green, because he ran in a straight line, an easy course to follow with the sights of a rifle. He had unbuttoned his over-coat for greater freedom in running, and the skirts flapped like huge blue wings around his legs.

He was a moving dot of blue, a clumsy blue object to be stalked deliberately… now, impaled within the sights, the blue coat was enormous, presenting itself to my squinted eye like a cloud, like a house, like a target painted solid blue on the firing range at Camp Wheeler.

I squeezed the trigger and he fell. He did not move again, and the skirts of the blue overcoat made a patch of unnaturalcolor in the field where he lay.

For a moment I was triumphant and my eyes lingered on my prize, confirming it. There he was! … He was there, still lying there, and it wasn’t a game any longer. He hadn’t risen to his feet, dusted himself off, and thumbed his nose at me gaily before starting to run again. He lay there, quiet now, and he hadn’t moved, and I laid my rifle on the floor of the attic – carefully, because of the plaster dust – and put my head in my hands. I wanted to be sick, but there wasn’t time to be sick.

And I thought, Poor bastard … he was hungry and cold, too … scared and homesick and missing his people and tired of war. And I was sick and ashamed because I never hated him, never him specifically, and I never wanted to kill him.

And it was an evil and an ugly thing that this man, this particular Hans or Ludwig or Emil, should lie dead on a field because I had willed it; it was an evil and an ugly thing that this particular man should never again hear music or feel the hands of his children upon his face.

Then I picked up my rifle and went back to my job. The fight lasted throughout the day, and other men in blue-gray went down, not to move again, but their falling did not hit me as a personal thing. They were moving targets, that was all. But again and again my eyes turned back to the figure lying quiet in the stubble, the blue overcoat like wings beside him.

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

American soldiers hold up a sign reading "This is Julich Germany, sorry it is so messed up, but we were in a hurry! 29th (Blue & Grey) Div." 24 February 1945.
American soldiers hold up a sign reading “This is Julich Germany, sorry it is so messed up, but we were in a hurry! 29th (Blue & Grey) Div.” 24 February 1945.
A young German officer captured by troops of the 102nd Infantry Division , Ninth US Army near Gevenich, Germany, February 1945.
A young German officer captured by troops of the 102nd Infantry Division , Ninth US Army near Gevenich, Germany, February 1945.