Fierce fighting on the Abyssinian border

This was the first British offensive in the area since the Italian occupation of Somalia. Brigadier William Slim’s attack initially made good progress but his small force of tanks were damaged by the rocky ground and by mines, and the spares were destroyed in the constant air attacks that followed.

 

Artillery in action, shelling the Fort.
Officers in a concealed position watching the shelling of Fort Gallabat.
Indian troops in the Sudan
Troops from the Fifth Indian Division during training before their advance into Italian occupied Abyssinia – now Ethiopia.

From the Military Situation for the week:

Gallabat was captured by the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade on the 6th November. It was then lost again on the 7th November as the result of enemy air counter-attack, and partially recaptured on the 10th November. The action continues.

The town of Gallabat lay just inside the Sudanese border with Abyssinia. It had been occupied by the Italians. British Empire forces in the Sudan, jointly administered by Egypt and Britain, began their offensive to re-take Italian East Africa with this action. This was the first British offensive in the area since the Italian occupation of Somalia. Brigadier William Slim’s attack initially made good progress but his small force of tanks were damaged by the rocky ground and by mines, and the spares were destroyed in the constant air attacks that followed.

British troops examining and bringing in captured Italian guns during the action.
Leading pilots of No. 1 Squadron SAAF pose for a group photograph in the back of a lorry, during a hunting expedition at Agordat, Eritrea. Left to right: Captain A Duncan, Captain A W Driver, Lieutenant R Pare, Major L A Wilmot (Commanding Officer) and Captain B J L “Piggy” Boyle. Duncan achieved four victories during the East African campaign, Driver became the most successful Commonwealth fighter pilot in East Africa with ten victories, Pare and Boyle scored five victories each and Wilmot scored one victory and one shared victory before he was shot down over Makale on 23 February 1941 and imprisoned.

The Italians attack in the Desert

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

The British A9 Cruiser tank as commanded by Lieutenant Rea Leakey in September 1940. It was relatively lightly armoured and only had a two pounder gun but was fast and proved effective against the Italians.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.
Turret crew of a 1st Royal Tank Regiment A9 Cruiser Mk I tank at Abbasia, Egypt, 30 May 1940.

Mussolini had opportunistically joined the war as soon as he saw that that Hitler was poised to defeat France. He had high hopes that he might expand his African ‘Empire’ by seizing British territory. On paper his armies were well placed to succeed, especially while Britain was distracted by the threat of invasion at home.

In practice the Italian army was much less enthusiastic than their national leader, especially after they managed to shoot down their commander in chief. Their capacity for battle was demonstrated in the way that they attacked on the first day.

The British General, Lord Wavell’s forces in Egypt were massively outnumbered by the Italians, whose invasion of Egypt had long been expected. The British strategy was to keep the bulk of their forces in reserve, leaving only a small screening force on the border itself.

Lieutenant Rea Leakey was commanding a tank with 1 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment), based in the western desert of Egypt – facing the Italian Army in Libya. When the attack came, on the 13th September, Leakey was part of this small force, which was deployed to present what resistance it could whilst minimising casualties – the orders were to ‘make a fighting withdrawal, but under no circumstances are tanks to be lost in battle’:

The Italians heralded the start of this venture with a heavy artillery bombardment, most of which hit the empty desert, and their bombers gave us a larger dose than usual. When the dust and smoke cleared, we saw the most fantastic spectacle.

The Italian Army was advancing towards us led by motor cyclists riding in perfect line – dressed from the right. Then came the tanks, again in parade order, and they were followed by row after row of large black lorries. Adams stared at them for a minute, then turned to me and remarked, ‘Bloody hell, Tidworth Tattoo – we can’t spoil their march past.’

We had a battery of 25-pounder guns supporting us, and they started dropping their shells into this vast target moving towards us. When our tanks were spotted, the column of vehicles heading for us halted, and in no time they had unloaded guns and the battle was on.

We were now given the order to form ‘battle line’ and race towards the enemy at full speed with all guns blazing. It was certainly an exhilarating ride. We must have frightened the enemy even if we failed to kill them, but when we were some 400 yards from them, the order came to turn tail and get out of the cauldron. Our Commanding Officer obeyed orders – no tanks were to be lost. And indeed on that charge we were lucky, even though most of the tanks had been hit and a number had to be backloaded for major repairs.

Credit must be given to our experienced drivers like Doyle. If they missed their gear-change on the turn, the tank would present an easy target to the anti-tank gunners.

And so throughout that day we moved slowly back towards Mersa Matruh, fighting these inconclusive actions but certainly taking a toll of the enemy. When darkness fell we moved a few miles back into the desert, knowing full well that the Italians were as tired as we were, and equally as hungry. It had been a tiring day and we had been bombed and shelled almost continuously from dawn to dusk.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives

Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
Men of the 2nd Cameron Highlanders with a Bren gun set up between rocks during training at Mena Camp near Giza, Egypt, 4 June 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.
An Indian rifleman with a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) Mk III in the prone firing position, Egypt, 16 May 1940.

The German advance continues

Slept for a few hours in grounds and then took up position and started digging. Very tiring recce, in afternoon, of new position, maps inaccurate, this was cancelled by order to withdraw same night. Went up with Coy Comdrs and C.O. to recce position along main road on race course. Got company in about 11 p.m.

German built pontoon bridges allowed their advance to continue even where bridges had been blown up – a Panzer crosses the Maas on the 16th May.

The British Expeditionary Force now faced the very difficult task of conducting a fighting retreat across Belgium:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Thursday 16th

Withdrawal generally not quite to plan, and Kerr came in too soon. Forward battalions not even clear at 3.15 a.m. By this time all the company were back on the roads leading in to the village. [?] Section 10 Pl only members of the company who were in contact with the enemy. Saw Michael Kemp tonight going back with his company. We did not quit Ottemburg till 3.45. Had sent C.S.M. , Coy H. Q. and 12 Pl back previously, about 2 a.m. to the 1st Bound. After 1 1/2 hours they gave us up as lost, and started withdrawing. Continue reading “The German advance continues”

Churchill offers "Blood, toil, tears and sweat"

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.

German tanks in forest
German armour was making a surprise advance through the Ardenne Forest that would outflank Allied forces that had moved forward into Belgium.

Events in France were now unfolding very rapidly. The German ‘Blitzkrieg’ was making dramatic progress, unnerving the French government and many in the senior military command. Winston Churchill would make six visits to France during the following weeks, attempting to find a way to help the French keep fighting. There was a danger that those at home would be equally unnerved by the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht.

 

 

Churchill, on his third day as Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons for the first time as war leader:

To form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations, … have to be made here at home.

In this crisis I hope I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today. I hope at any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, all make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

Let that be realized; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

German troops on road in belgium 1940
German troops continue to march forward into Belgium while disarmed Prisoners of War are sent to the rear

Meanwhile in Belgium some of the British Army had reached their allotted positions and were preparing their defences:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Monday 13th May.

We spent today digging and made very good progress all round. The position was a good one on the forward slopes of a ridge over the River Lasne. The ground on this side of the river was not so good, being thickly wooded and obscuring the obstacle. 12 Pl [Platoon] were on right, P.S.M. Fleming, Peter 10 Pl. , and P.S.M. Kerr 11 Pl on left. A certain amount of enemy bombing and machine-gunning. Enemy bombing of Ottenburg which we could see from our position. Great difficulty in getting some of the Belgians to evacuate: this was finally done. Spent another night in the woods without any discomfort. Coy. nil marching. Self 4 miles.

Entry No.4, for the first entry see 10th May 1940.

See TNA WO 217/15

 

Allied breakout and pursuit by tanks in Italy

Now there was not time to think, for the Germans, having recovered somewhat, began to shell and mortar the place. A bunch of German prisoners who were making their way to a hastily prepared P.O.W. compound, hands above their heads, suddenly disappeared in a wave of smoke and dust as their own shells crashed down among them. When the air cleared, few got up: those who did, moved more swiftly still, their faces a mask of petrified fear. This was war also. There was no doubt about it, this sudden swoop by a British crack cavalry regiment had taken the enemy completely by surprise!

Bologna fell to 8th and 5th Army troops on 21 April. This picture is one of a series taken during the advance to the city. This particular image shows an old Italian woman sitting mourning in the ruins with a coffin waiting for the dead. Despite a warning to get out of the town before the Allied air attack, many people remained.
Bologna fell to 8th and 5th Army troops on 21 April. This picture is one of a series taken during the advance to the city. This particular image shows an old Italian woman sitting mourning in the ruins with a coffin waiting for the dead. Despite a warning to get out of the town before the Allied air attack, many people remained.
Infantry of the 1st King's Own Royal Regiment start to dig trenches in an orchard near Vedrano, 21 April 1945.
Infantry of the 1st King’s Own Royal Regiment start to dig trenches in an orchard near Vedrano, 21 April 1945.

In Italy the final assault by the British 8th Army and the US 5th Army was making good progress, having broken through the last of the prepared German defensive lines. After nearly two years of struggle, in which it had seemed that there would always be one more mountain ridge to be taken, that were finally out into open country. Now the Allied superior strength and air superiority could be given full reign.

The 6th Armoured Brigade included the 17th/21st Lancers, an amalgamation of two old established cavalry regiments. The 17th Lancers had taken part in the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Now they took part in a rapid thrust north-west designed to disrupt German attempts at an orderly withdrawal.

Lieutenant Stiebel of the 17th/21st Lancer describes the situation on the 22nd April:

When we reached the meadow I saw a double-storeyed farmhouse ahead and movement in an upper window. The best way to clear out any enemy was to fire an H.E. shell on ‘delay’ — a turn on the screw on the fuse head delayed the explosion of the shell by 0.05 seconds; enough to allow the shell to penetrate the walls before exploding inside the house. My gunner fired at the floor level of the upper storey and so managed to spread the effect to both floors. He then fired Browning at the surviving Germans who speedily evacuated by the back door.

A Sqn on the right lost two tanks to German Panther tanks and the Hurribomber – Rover David – was called in. This resulted in a direct hit one Panther and the other badly crippled.

Then I got the order to move on to Poggio Renatico — about 5-6 miles away — at full speed. My Sergeant’s tank would not start right away so I took the lead and drove off (My troop corporal’s tank was having the gun problem).

At the turn-off to Poggio, the Germans had set up a road-block of a few carts, rails and planks. These we burst through and away we went at between 25 and 30 m.p.h. I shouted ‘Tally-Ho’ over the wireless which was not appreciated by James Maxwell! Sergeant Cormack’s 2nd troop was right behind me.

There were Germans breaking cover all over the place and we chased them with our machine guns. The bow gunner was given ‘gun control’ which meant that he fired at anything he could see. On the road to my right — some 1000 yards away — I saw a German convoy of about 40 vehicles including transporters. Trying to shoot at them with the very long barrelled gun, traversed to the right, we only got one shot off before the gun started to hit telegraph poles and this swung the turret to face the rear.

Concentrating our efforts to the front, we shot at every farmhouse and haystack — many burst into flame as there was fuel stored in them. A German horse-drawn convoy was seen heading towards us and was shot off the road by the bow gunner. All the tanks behind also joined in the fray and I had to ask them to stop firing ahead because, where the road went slightly to the left, I was getting machine gun fire from the rear around my ears.

There was a freshly dug hole in the middle of the road and I told my driver to slow down in case it was a mine. From a house nearby a German stepped out and fired a Panzerfaust (Bazooka) at us but he hit the bank in front and showered my face and hand with grit. He only had the chance before Cormack, riding behind me, riddled him with his Browning.

I saw a train over to the right and it consisted of an engine and two or three cattle trucks. In an open doorway was a man sitting with his legs hanging out and the train was moving slowly towards Poggio. I was certain that everyone behind me could have seen this but it later appeared that Maxwell had not. I could not traverse my gun to the right to engage this target because of the telegraph poles, nor could I have stopped or slowed down as the tanks behind would have all bunched up and, also, because I was very much involved with my immediate front, I left it to others to deal with.

As we approached the town of Poggio, dozens of Germans and civilians appeared with white flags but there was nothing I could do about them. The whole scene was of chaos with people running in all directions. To encourage the confusion my driver sounded the hooter continuously, which was very loud and alarming – but unfortunately not as spectacular as the sirens with which our previous tanks were equipped.

Into the first house in the town, we fired a shell and, turning half-right into the main street, we fired two more rounds of H.E. straight into a mob of milling Germans, horses and vehicles. James Maxwell told me to turn left to skirt the town and that anti-tank guns were firing at the main column of our tanks from that direction.

I was driving along very carefully with a high wall on my right. Beyond the end of the wall, suddenly a tracer shell passed by about 10 yards ahead of me. I reversed to the cover of the wall and could clearly see the tracer shells going off aimed at our tanks — the tracers were travelling just above the level of the road surface. Beyond the end of the wall there was an open gap before a wooden shed. I moved forward to try to see where the enemy guns were and hid my tank behind the shed. The guns were somewhere to the south of the town but there was so much dust about that I could not give an accurate position.

Two other tanks joined me and we tried firing round the sides of the shed. The gunners must have seen our move because they then set about trying to demolish the shed that gave us cover, so we withdrew behind the wall. They then fired several airburst shells over us. I could see the smoke from the guns but could only guess that their position was on the Reno bank.

Dick Tamplin got hold of a German who told him that there were four 88mmm Anti-aircraft guns on the Reno levee which were positioned to protect the bridge from air attack. Our F Battery of 12th R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] under Major Cecil Middleton, who was riding on a tank with our R.H.Q., now engaged the 88’s with every gun they could muster and must have secured a hit because there was a large explosion from that area.

The 'Tankman'. Sergeant A G Williams of 17/21 Lancers in the turret of his Sherman tank at the main Headquarters of the Eighth Army in the San Angelo area of Italy, April 1944. Sergeant Williams from Woodford Bridge, Essex left England in November 1943, landed in North Africa, and from there was sent to Italy.
The ‘Tankman’. Sergeant A G Williams of 17/21 Lancers in the turret of his Sherman tank at the main Headquarters of the Eighth Army in the San Angelo area of Italy, April 1944. Sergeant Williams from Woodford Bridge, Essex left England in November 1943, landed in North Africa, and from there was sent to Italy.

Trooper Buckle was in a tank of C Squadron’s Headquarters and describes the situation after their arrival in Poggio:

Suspicious movements were reported from the upstairs room of a house quite close to us. Captain Wilson ordered Jack Pole to train his gun on this and put a shell through the window. With great relish, Jack did just this and as the tank rocked slightly from the impact of firing, there, just ahead of us, we saw the front of the room torn out.

Curtains flapped in the gentle breeze and through the jagged masonry and splintered woodwork we saw the bed, the wardrobe and other fittings. It seemed unreal somehow — as though we had suddenly intruded into some family’s private domain. In a way we had of course and when nothing seemed to move in there or indicate any signs of anyone having been there, we felt less elated. Indeed, later, even Jack Pole said he felt guilty of vandalism. But that is war.

Now there was not time to think, for the Germans, having recovered somewhat, began to shell and mortar the place. A bunch of German prisoners who were making their way to a hastily prepared P.O.W. compound, hands above their heads, suddenly disappeared in a wave of smoke and dust as their own shells crashed down among them.

When the air cleared, few got up: those who did, moved more swiftly still, their faces a mask of petrified fear. This was war also. There was no doubt about it, this sudden swoop by a British crack cavalry regiment had taken the enemy completely by surprise!

Transport containing rations and supplies were abandoned in one main street and I remember how surprised we all were to see this supply train. It consisted of carts drawn by horses. Perhaps the Germans were getting short of petrol as had been reported, otherwise why this mode of transport? This wasn’t difficult terrain either.

What impressed me most of all however was the stoicism of the horses. There was no panic, no bolting as machine guns rattled, pouring a steady stream of bullets up that very street. I cannot recall one horse moving — nor one shot, amazingly enough.

These accounts appear in the Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by Achilles 17pdr tank destroyers, wait to go forward near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, supported by Achilles 17pdr tank destroyers, wait to go forward near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers are carried forward on Sherman tanks near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.
Men of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers are carried forward on Sherman tanks near Ferrara, 22 April 1945.

Irish Guardsman takes on battalion of Panzer Grenadiers

Daylight came, the sections “stood down” and began to think seriously of breakfast. Out of the wood rolled two self-propelled guns; their first shots hit the tank posted as a sentry on the road. Behind the self-propelled guns came a company of infantry. The tank went on fire as soon as it was hit, and the crew baled out. Guardsman E. Charlton, the driver, stopped to look at the German infantry running down the road. He climbed on to the burning tank, unhooked the Browning machine gun from the turret and jumped back into the road to meet the Germans. He faced them four-square, firing steadily.

Surrendering German civilians pass a Churchill tank of 6th Guards Tank Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.
Surrendering German civilians pass a Churchill tank of 6th Guards Tank Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Armoured Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.
Churchill tanks of 6th Guards Armoured Brigade in Uelzen, 18 April 1945.

Of the six Victoria Cross awards to the Irish Guards, two were earned in the Second World War. Both were for single handed attacks against large groups of German troops, one with a Bren Gun, the other with a Browning machine gun. In the first John Kennealy survived to go on to write a memorable autobiography. In the second Edward Charlton, after the not inconsiderable feat of removing the Browning from a burning Sherman tank, carried on fighting even though he lost his left arm – and he did not survive to tell the tale:

No. 1 Squadron and No. 3 Company moved into Elsdorf and sent a troop and a platoon to occupy Wistedt, two kilometres to the west. They passed a pleasant evening shooting at transport flushed from Rotenburg by the 32nd Brigade, but the night was disturbed by the sound of troop movements closing in on them. The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, was retiring from Bremen.

The morning of the 21st April began with heavy rain. At first light the troop of tanks in Wistedt moved out of the centre of the little village to cover the roads leading into it. In front of the village rose a small hill, thick with trees and silent in the rain.

Daylight came, the sections “stood down” and began to think seriously of breakfast. Out of the wood rolled two self-propelled guns; their first shots hit the tank posted as a sentry on the road. Behind the self-propelled guns came a company of infantry. The tank went on fire as soon as it was hit, and the crew baled out. Guardsman E. Charlton, the driver, stopped to look at the German infantry running down the road. He climbed on to the burning tank, unhooked the Browning machine gun from the turret and jumped back into the road to meet the Germans. He faced them four-square, firing steadily.

A bullet struck his left arm; he moved to a gate in the hedge and supported his arm on the top bar, still firing. His left arm was hit again, and he propped the Browning on the gate, firing and loading it with one hand. A final burst of fire shattered his right arm, and Charlton collapsed by the gate, the Browning on top of him.

The Germans swept over him, but Charlton had ruined for them the effect of their sudden attack; the platoon and the other tanks had recovered themselves. The Germans carried Charlton away, but he was already dying, and there was nothing they could do for him except bury him with the honour he deserved.

A German officer who took part in the attack was later sent from a prison camp to the 2nd Battalion to show them Charlton’s grave, as he had talked so much about the bravery of an Irish Guardsman.

See A History of the Irish Guards in the Second World War.

Edward Charlton VC
Edward Charlton VC

Because no surviving officers or NCOs had witnessed Charlton’s actions, it was the accounts of the Germans that led to the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross:

In Germany on the morning of 21st April, 1945, Guardsman Charlton was co-driver in one tank of a troop which, with a platoon of infantry, seized the village of Wistedt. Shortly afterwards, the enemy attacked this position under cover of an artillery concentration and in great strength, comprising, as it later transpired, a battalion of the 15 Panzer Grenadiers supported by six self-propelled guns. All the tanks, including Guardsman Charlton’s, were hit; the infantry were hard pressed and in danger of being over-run.

Whereupon, entirely on his own initiative, Guardsman Charlton decided to counter-attack the enemy. Quickly recovering the Browning from his damaged tank, he advanced up the road in full view of the enemy, firing the Browning from his hip. Such was the boldness of his attack that he halted the leading enemy company, inflicting heavy casualties on them. This effort at the same time brought much needed relief to our own infantry.

For ten minutes Guardsman Charlton fired in this manner, until wounded in the left arm. Immediately, despite intense enemy fire, he mounted his machine gun on a nearby fence, which he used to support his wounded left arm. He stood firing thus for a further ten minutes until he was again hit in the left arm which fell away shattered and useless.

Although twice wounded and suffering from loss of blood, Guardsman Charlton again lifted his machine gun on to the fence, now having only one arm with which to fire and reload. Nevertheless, he still continued to inflict casualties on the enemy, until finally, he was hit for the third time and collapsed. He died later of his wounds in enemy hands. The heroism and determination of this Guardsman in his self-imposed task were beyond all praise. Even his German captors were amazed at his valour.

Guardsman Charlton’s courageous and self-sacrificing action not only inflicted extremely heavy casualties on the enemy and retrieved his comrades from a desperate situation, but also enabled the position to be speedily recaptured.

THE LONDON GAZETTE, 30th April, 1946

Recovery vehicles prepare to tow a Sherman tank of the Irish Guards out of a stream where it landed after collapsing a bridge on the slip road leading to the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945. The tank was evenutally recovered undamaged.
Recovery vehicles prepare to tow a Sherman tank of the Irish Guards out of a stream where it landed after collapsing a bridge on the slip road leading to the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945. The tank was evenutally recovered undamaged.
A camouflaged Sherman Firefly of the Irish Guards and infantry guard a section of the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.
A camouflaged Sherman Firefly of the Irish Guards and infantry guard a section of the Bremen-Hamburg autobahn, 20 April 1945.

Operation Veritable – British and Canadians attack

It has been said that no two attacks are ever alike, and that was exemplified in this battle. Every night as soon as it was dusk, the 3rd Canadian Division set out on what were almost maritime operations, each one designed to capture one or more of the villages which, owing to the flooding, looked like small islands jutting out of the sea. Artillery would fire on the village while the Canadians in their buffaloes (amphibious vehicles) sailed off across the intervening lake and carried out their assault. On their right was an entirely different type of operation carried out by the 44th Brigade of the 15th Scottish. Their task was to breach the northern extension of the Siegfried Line, consisting of anti—tank ditches, mine-fields, concrete emplacements and barbed- wire entanglements.

Infantry and armour in action at the start of Operation 'Veritable', 8 February 1945.
Infantry and armour in action at the start of Operation ‘Veritable’, 8 February 1945.
Sherman tanks assemble for the start of Operation 'Veritable', 8 February 1945.
Sherman tanks assemble for the start of Operation ‘Veritable’, 8 February 1945.

On the northern flank of the Allied front in north west Europe the British XXX Corps and the 1st Canadian Army now launched a massive assault on the German lines. Operation Veritable pushed south east to join up with the US Ninth Army and force the Germans up against the Rhine. The month long battle was intended to coincide with Operation Grenade, the US Ninth Army pushing north west in a pincer movement. However after the Germans flooded the ground in front of the Americans, preventing any attack in the south, Operation Veritable went ahead anyway.

The British and Canadians found themselves constricted by the terrain of the Reichswald Forest and progress was slower than expected over the wet, muddy battlefield.
,
Lieutenant-General Horrocks who commanded XXX Corps, writing after the war, describes how the attack was launched:

By the evening of 7th February our concentration was complete, and the woods and outskirts of Nijmegen were thick with troops, guns, vehicles, workshops, tanks—all the paraphernalia of modern war. It would have been almost impossible to drop a pea into the area without hitting something. This was probably the last of the old-type set piece attacks because, in face of the threat of tactical atomic missiles, no concentration like this can ever take place again.

Though the difficult and complicated concentration had been achieved secretly, our prospects of a swift success had dwindled since the original plan had been made. The thaw had been a great blow, because in front of us in that low-lying valley the going was certain to be bad. Luckily for my peace of mind I did not realise then just how bad.

The second handicap concerned the attack of the American 9th Army. The Germans had wisely blown the dams, and the Roer river had become so flooded that no passage over it would be possible until the flood waters had subsided. How long this would take was anybody’s guess.

The flood would enable the Germans to concentrate every available reserve against us. We were faced with a battle of extermination, slogging our way forward through the mud. Not a pleasing prospect at all.

With these thoughts in mind I climbed into my command post for the battle in the early hours of 8th February. It was a cold, grey, miserable dawn with low clouds and rain, heralding several days of stormy weather. My command post was a small platform half-way up a tree, and from here I had a wonderful view over most of the battlefield. The noise was appalling, and the sight awe-inspiring.

All across the front shells were exploding. We had arranged for a barrage, a curtain of fire, to move forward at a rate of 300 yards every twelve minutes, or 100 yards every four minutes, in front of the troops. To mark the end of the four-minute period when the guns would increase their range by 300 yards they all fired a round of yellow smoke.

So it was possible to follow roughly the progress of the attack, and down in the valley, behind this wall of shells, I could see small scattered groups of men and tanks all moving slowly forward. I was also able by wireless to keep in accurate touch with what was happening.

This was the biggest operation I had ever handled in war. Thirty Corps was 200,000 strong that day, and we were attacking with five divisions in line supported by 1400 guns. It soon became clear that the enemy was completely bemused as a result of our colossal bombardment; their resistance was slight.

The main trouble was mines —and mud, particularly mud. I am certain that this must be the chief memory of everyone who fought in the Reichswald battle. Mud and still more mud. It was so bad that after the first hour every tank going across country was bogged down, and the infantry had to struggle forward on their own. The chief enemy resistance came from the cellars in the villages.

A Churchill tank ploughs along a muddy, heavily rutted forest track in the Reichswald during Operation 'Veritable', 8 February 1945.
A Churchill tank ploughs along a muddy, heavily rutted forest track in the Reichswald during Operation ‘Veritable’, 8 February 1945.

It has been said that no two attacks are ever alike, and that was exemplified in this battle. Every night as soon as it was dusk, the 3rd Canadian Division set out on what were almost maritime operations, each one designed to capture one or more of the villages which, owing to the flooding, looked like small islands jutting out of the sea. Artillery would fire on the village while the Canadians in their buffaloes (amphibious vehicles) sailed off across the intervening lake and carried out their assault.

Buffalo amphibious transporter of 79th Armoured Division, 26 January 1945.
Buffalo amphibious transporter of 79th Armoured Division, 26 January 1945.

On their right was an entirely different type of operation carried out by the 44th Brigade of the 15th Scottish. Their task was to breach the northern extension of the Siegfried Line, consisting of anti—tank ditches, mine-fields, concrete emplacements and barbed- wire entanglements.

Not one single man was on his feet. The ofiicers controlling the artillery fire were in tanks. The leading wave of the assault consisted of tanks with flails in front beating and exploding the mines to clear passages through the mine-fields. Then came tanks carrying bridges and fascines on their backs to form bridges over the anti—tank ditch. The next echelon was flame- throwing tanks to deal with the concrete pill—boxes, and finally infantry in cut-down tanks, i.e., with the top taken off, called kangaroos.

Infantry of 53rd (Welsh) Division in a Kangaroo personnel carrier on the outskirts of Ochtrup, 3 April 1945.
Infantry of 53rd (Welsh) Division in a Kangaroo personnel carrier on the outskirts of Ochtrup, 3 April 1945.

These proved a great boon in the closing stages of the war. They were, I believe, a Canadian invention emanating from the brain of one of their most famous corps commanders, General Simonds. I once saw a whole brigade of the 51st Highland Division in these vehicles being heavily shelled by the Germans. I thought their casualties were bound to be high, but they had only two men wounded.

That night the Germans breached the banks of the Rhine upstream, and the floods started to rise, spreading over our one road. Nevertheless the advance was going well, and I was delighted to hear that the 15th Scottish were moving into the outskirts of Cleve.

See Sir Brian Horrocks: A Full Life

Lieutenant-General Horrocks, March 1945
Lieutenant-General Horrocks, March 1945
The German town of Kleve, photographed from a low-flying Auster aircraft, a few days after the major Bomber Command raid on 7-8 February 1945, carried out as a prelude to Operation 'Veritable', the British and Canadian advance to the Rhine.
The German town of Kleve, photographed from a low-flying Auster aircraft, a few days after the major Bomber Command raid on 7-8 February 1945, carried out as a prelude to Operation ‘Veritable’, the British and Canadian advance to the Rhine.

US 4th Division takes Hill 553 from the SS

I was coordinating the whole show. The crucial decision, for which I was already tensing though» I had a few minutes yet, was when to lift the straight-line, overhead fire of the tanks and TDs. Artillery was also laying down an intense barrage on the hilltop, but its shells arced in with plenty of clearance of the ground troops and could be lifted later. The tough decision was when to lift the 75s and 90s. If I stopped the firing too soon, the Germans would rush out of their bunkers and blast our men when they were exposed on the open slope. If I waited too long, I might wipe out my men from the rear.

 US Army M4 Sherman tanks somewhere in Europe, circa 1944-1945
US Army M4 Sherman tanks somewhere in Europe, circa 1944-1945

The US Army were now pushing into Germany, as the Allies moved up to the Rhine, which would be the final obstacle before they could move into the heart of the Reich. Despite being exhausted by the failure of the Ardennes offensive, many elements of both the Wehrmacht and the SS continued the fight as vigorously as ever.

George Wilson was an officer with Company F, the 22nd Infantry Regiment, US 4th Infantry Division. They had fought their way across Europe since D-Day but the demands of battle were relentless. They had made a night attack on SS positions on Hill 553, only to be ousted by an immediate SS counter attack. The orders came straight back – an immediate daylight attack had to be launched in order that other units would not be outflanked.

They were assigned some tanks and tank destroyers but it was discovered that the ground was too soft for them to to accompany the infantry. Instead they quickly improvised the tactics to allow the armour to provide the necessary fire support. A ‘creeping barrage’, in which the artillery fire slowly moved ahead of the advancing infantry – keeping the opposing defenders heads down until the last minute, always included the risk that some shells would fall short. This was an even more intimidating variation on the same tactic:

We brought our men up against the high bank of the road out of sight of the enemy and lined up the tanks and TDs along the flat stretches, giving them specific target areas in the patches of woods. They would be firing directly over the heads of our advancing men, and they‘d usehigh-explosive shells to keep the Germans under cover while peppering the area with their 30-caliber and 50—cali- ber machine guns. The artillery F0 was also with us, and he had the same targets.

Captain Newcomb then had the men spread out widely, and he personally led them out onto the open hill slope as I directed the tanks and TDs to commence firing.

The only problem in the beginning was the stunning shock waves from the 75mm and 90mm rifles of the armor as the men were still close in. Many of the men had to sling their rifles so they could get both hands up over their ears. The rolling thunder of the big guns made it impossible to tell whether the enemy was firing back; I could not see any evidence of incoming artillery.

With Captain Newcomb in the center and the platoon leaders and their platoons spread out to his left and right and behind him, the attack moved in orderly fashion with everyone walking very fast.

I was coordinating the whole show. The crucial decision, for which I was already tensing though» I had a few minutes yet, was when to lift the straight-line, overhead fire of the tanks and TDs. Artillery was also laying down an intense barrage on the hilltop, but its shells arced in with plenty of clearance of the ground troops and could be lifted later.

The tough decision was when to lift the 75s and 90s. If I stopped the firing too soon, the Germans would rush out of their bunkers and blast our men when they were exposed on the open slope. If I waited too long, I might wipe out my men from the rear.

I was sweating, but at least I could clearly see the men and the shell bursts of our 75s and 90s. I watched closely through my binoculars as the advance continued, and I knew the men were scared to death hearing their own shells whip a few feet over their heads while waiting for the enemy to open up.

All I could do was watch and worry. It was the first time I’d directed that kind of fire, and I could only hope this was not the first time the armor had done it. I also knew that short rounds cropped up occasionally, and I gave a fleeting worried thought to the workers back in the States who had packed the shell cases. Now and then I put down my field glasses and checked the men directly because I didn’t want the magnification to make me think they were closer to the top than they actually were.

When I finally gave the command to fire, the barrage was extremely intense and accurate, giving us exactly what we wanted. The Krauts could not come out in that awful blasting; they must have been terrified, strained to the limit of their nerves. Our men continued to walk rapidly up the slope, and I knew they were not getting any return fire because none of them hit the ground.

My moment was almost at hand, and I watched closely through my field glasses. When they seemed to be only a hundred yards from the edge of the woods I couldn’t hold out any longer, and I signaled the tanks and TDs to cease firing. The artillery F0 then raised his range slightly to clear our men as they reached the edge of the woods. As they got near the bunkers the infantry was firing from the hip.

Most of the Germans were so shaken that they stayed in their shelters. They offered almost no resist- ance as our men moved in and captured them. Their SS commander tried to get them to fight but was unsuccessful. I made my way quickly up the hill, and when I arrived a few minutes later everything was completely in our hands. and our boys were jubilant.

German prisoners were being led out, along with an arrogant SS officer in full dress uniform and long coat. He was mad as hell, and I only wished I could understand his German sputtering.

See George Wilson: If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer’s Riveting True Story

Furious Fourth has more on the 4th Division.

The M36 Tank Destroyer had been brought in service in September 1944, bringing the necessary fire power to deal with the German Panthers and Tigers.
The M36 Tank Destroyer had been brought into service in September 1944, bringing the necessary fire power to deal with the German Panthers and Tigers.

The Red Army races across Poland to German border

During the day we sometimes ran into horse-drawn supply columns. All the personnel and their escorts were dressed in German uniforms. Among them there were all nationalities except for the Russians — Kalmyks, Uzbeks, Tatars,Kazakhs, people from the Caucasus and Poles. Apparently, the Germans did not trust the Russians and did not “allow“ them to serve in supply units. We had different attitudes towards those men, but we did not show cruelty, did not abuse them and did not execute them. I think once we fought a supply column of Kalmyks and soldiers of other nationalities, as they tried to resist — they lost their heads and opened fire on us, and my soldiers did not like it.

The troops of the 10th Tank Corps 5th Guards Tank Army 2nd Belorussian Front occupied city Mühlhausen (now the Polish city Młynary) the city was liberated from the Nazi troops January 24, 1945.
The troops of the 10th Tank Corps 5th Guards Tank Army 2nd Belorussian Front occupied city Mühlhausen (now the Polish city Młynary) the city was liberated from the Nazi troops January 24, 1945.

The Soviet was now making dramatic progress right across the remainder of occupied Poland and pushing into Germany. On the 24th January they reached the river Oder, the modern day border between Poland and Germany, they were now only 60 miles from Berlin. There was post war controversy between Soviet Generals as to whether they should have pushed on to Berlin at this point and smashed the Germans while they were in disarray. There were still very substantial German formations on their flanks, however, which led to the order to halt and consolidate.

The dramatic advances again raised expectations that the war might end very soon. The BBC, the principal source of ‘independent’ information for most of Europe issued a memo about not raising expectations. They contented themselves with quoting from earlier Nazi propaganda, when the German claim was that the war was being fought well away from Germany:

September 3rd, 1943:
“If we have to fight hard in the East today, at least we do not have to do so at Breslau but 1,000 kilometers from our frontier.”

August 14th, 1943:
“It is all too easily forgotten that this battle is not being fought in the suburbs of Tilsit or on the banks of the Oder but on the Upper Denetz and in the suburbs of Leningrad. That is the way of looking at things which we prefer.”

Twenty one year old Lieutenant Evgeni Bessonov was an officer in a Guards Unit of the Red Army. He commanded a platoon of men who rode on the Soviet tanks, fighting as infantry when the situation arose. From the 12th January to the 24th-25th they advanced over 600 kilometres, as they punched through the German resistance not caring whether they overtook retreating columns of Germans:

It was good that the enemy’s air force was not there, and we could march both during day and night. As a rule, during the night we would stop once for two or three hours. We tried to get into houses, into a warm place.

There were almost no stops during the day, and even if we had them, breaks were short, no more than one hour. It was rare that we stopped for a long time to warm the soldiers. We only had food twice a day — morning and evening; if the kitchen was there, the food was hot.

Thus, in order not to be hungry during the day, we made do with trophies — mostly German tinned meat and hard tack. Sometimes we saw small loaves of black bread in plastic; the bread was not too hard, but it was tasteless. We did not really like it, but we ate it anyway. Our Russian bread would also freeze in our back-packs in the frost, if you did not eat it on time.

There were cases when I slept so well during the night that I did not even wake up during the small night clashes with the Germans that occurred in some villages. The soldiers sympathized with me and did not wake me up; the squad leaders could manage by themselves — if necessary, they fired on the move.

During the day we sometimes ran into horse-drawn supply columns. All the personnel and their escorts were dressed in German uniforms. Among them there were all nationalities except for the Russians — Kalmyks, Uzbeks, Tatars,Kazakhs, people from the Caucasus and Poles. Apparently, the Germans did not trust the Russians and did not “allow“ them to serve in supply units.

We had different attitudes towards those men, but we did not show cruelty, did not abuse them and did not execute them. I think once we fought a supply column of Kalmyks and soldiers of other nationalities, as they tried to resist — they lost their heads and opened fire on us, and my soldiers did not like it.

War is war. I never saw Russians or Ukrainians in supply columns, but met Vlasov’s men in battle many times.[Vlasov was the Soviet General who had switched sides after being captured by the Germans in 1942 and formed the anti-Soviet Russian Liberation Army from Russian POWs] They always put up stubborn resistance and besides that shouted all kinds of offensive curses at us. They knew that there would be no mercy, and we did not give it — we never took them prisoners. Besides, they never surrendered, unlike the Germans.

Sometimes tanks broke down and had to stop for small repairs. In such cases the tank riders would as a rule stay with the tank. But if a tank needed more serious repair, the tank riders would travel along on another tank. One of our tanks broke down, and Sergeant Nikolai Savkin with his squad stayed in that village.

Retreating Fritzes entered the village after we left and burnt the tank in battle. Savkin himself was killed, along with his men, among them Bespalyuk, Polischuk and others… That’s how it was, there were no major engagements, but platoons had fewer and fewer soldiers left…

We went through the whole of Poland fighting constantly. Sometimes the enemy put up stubborn resistance, while sometimes our arrival in a city or a village was totally unexpected for the Germans.

One village still had electric lights and even a policeman on a street crossing when we drove in. At first he did not understand which tanks these were, but as soon as we drove closer, he realized who we were and ran away from his post, he was off like a flash. I have already mentioned that Germans run very fast.

See Evgeni Bessonov: Tank Rider: Into the Reich with the Red Army

Soviet troops are greeted by the citizens of Lodz. Almost all of the city's pre war population of 230,000 Jews had been murdered. Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans, who had been settled in the city by the Nazis, were now fleeing west.
Soviet troops are greeted by the citizens of Lodz. Almost all of the city’s pre war population of 230,000 Jews had been murdered. Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans, who had been settled in the city by the Nazis, were now fleeing west.

Battle of Bure – Paratroopers v Tiger Tanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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