After the bitter struggle for Overloon and Venray, the British still confronted a determined German defensive position west of the Meuse River. The advance slowed as the British tried to replace heavy casualties and then became a miserable slogging match for the remainder of November.
The Germans had by now ample time to build their defences. While Hitler was placing his faith in his miracle weapons – the V2 continued to hit London and Antwerp – some of the simplest technologies were to prove very effective in establishing defensive positions.
Royal Engineer Brian Guy describes how their tactics evolved in the field:
We were now battering at the gates of the German homeland on the Dutch side of the border in the Limburg area, and had to set about breaking his hold on the vital Dutch/German border areas. What follows is a recollection of one of the hardest fought, bloodthirsty, and sometimes, for us, very peculiar episodes of the war in North West Europe.
This battle took place in driving rain amongst the muddy tracks that wandered through the dense conifer woods and over the Molen Beek, this little stream that had been mined on the banks and even under the water, and at the same time was under heavy shell and mortar fire.
Sometimes, sadly, whole groups of men were blown to pieces. During this ferocious fighting, our guns at Oploo made the ground tremble beneath our feet. But by now Overloon and Venraij lay safely in our hands, taken against fierce resistance. Meanwhile we had to deal with a new type of mine: we called them Rigler mines.
Under heavy fire we cleared them by the thousands, and not knowing what to do with them, we stacked them up in ditches or on top of the ground criss-crossed in stacks. With an officer on a motor bike, I made my way down from our battle area to where they were clearing the thickest of these mines and on the way we had to run over a dead Gennan who was lying in the deep-rutted sand tracks. We could not avoid him, the sand ruts were very deep.
When we got there the officer told one of the men to take a mine off away from the rest and see if it was booby trapped. We had turned round and were on our way back to our own area of the fighting when, from behind us, came a gigantic explosion. We yanked the bike around and went back but the whole area was devastated, swept clean of all life.
All those that had been present had disappeared. Sadly, as happens in these circumstances, we put wooden crosses there in the knowledge that later, when they were to be buried in a proper place, there would be noth- ing for the burial squad to find.
During this battle we had to deal with a quarter of a million mines, the worst of these was the Schu mine which was made of wood and could not be detected. These mines were causing a continuous stream of casualties with horrific injuries. The accepted way to find these mines was to crawl along on hands and knees prodding the ground in front with bayonets. Under heavy fire, an unpleasant task, coupled with the loss of those of us, who unfortunately, prodded them in the wrong place and paid with our lives.
How to counter this carnage? Then someone came up with the idea of getting an ordinary garden roller which we did. We welded spikes around the roller barrel, then a soldier would push this roller in front of him, and when it went over a Schu mine, it would blow up and the garden roller would fly up in the air on its specially elongated handle, and then drop down again.
To protect the soldier, he had a cut down gas mask over his eyes with long gauntlet gloves and a woven rope protector strapped round his groin.
Just try to imagine a full scale, ferocious war going on, with heavy aitilleiy and mortar fire and, in the middle of it all, a lonely soldier pushing a garden roller across the battle field and in not too much of a huny, in case he went too quickly and missed detonating the mine. I was one of those lonely soldiers.
And this was demonstrated in front of Field Marshal Montgomery’s second in com- mand, Air Vice Marshal Tedder.
The outcome of all this was, a short entry in the company’s war diaries, stating simply: “The garden roller experiment was a washout.” In fact, it worked surprisingly well, but could not cope with uneven ground.
Shortly after this episode Brian Guy was seriously wounded and flown back to England, eventually being discharged with a 100% disability pension. This account appears in Charlotte Popescu (ed):War’s Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War.