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 :
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”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The Allies had begun their counter-attack against the German Ardenne offensive and by the 27th the siege of Bastogne had been lifted. It remained close to the front lines. The Battle of the Bulge was still very far from over – but from now on would be dominated by the Allied attempts to push the Germans back.
Amongst journalists covering the war perhaps none was more remarkable that Martha Gellhorn, whose determination to get as close to the front as possible led to many evasions of Allied officialdom, including impersonating a stretcher bearer to get onto the beaches of D-Day.
As soon as the siege of Bastogne was lifted she set off to see for herself:
They all said it was wonderful Kraut—killing country. What it looked like was scenery for a Christmas card: smooth white snow hills and bands of dark forest and villages that actually nestled. The snow made everything serene, from a distance.
The road to Bastogne had been worked over by the Ninth Air Force Thunderbolts before the Third Army tanks finally cleared the way. A narrow alley was free now, and two or three secondary roads leading from Bastogne back to our lines.
“Lines” is a most inaccurate word and one should really say “leading back through where the Germans weren’t to where the Americans were scattered about the snowscape.” The Germans remained on both sides of this alley and from time to time attempted to push inward and again cut off Bastogne.
A colleague and I drove up to Bastogne on a secondary road through breath-taking scenery. The Thunderbolts had created this scenery. You can say the words “death and destruction” and they don’t mean anything. But they are awful words when you are looking at what they mean.
There were some German staff cars along the side of the road: they had not merely been hit by machine—gun bullets, they had been mashed into the ground. There were half—tracks and tanks literally wrenched apart, and a gun position directly hit by bombs.
All around these lacerated or flattened objects of steel there was the usual riffraff: papers, tin cans, cartridge belts, helmets, an odd shoe, clothing. There were also, ignored and completely inhuman, the hard-frozen corpses of Germans. Then there was a clump of houses, burned and gutted, with only a few walls standing, and around them the enormous bloated bodies of cattle.
The road passed through a curtain of pine forest and came out on a flat, rolling snow field. In this field the sprawled or bunched bodies of Germans lay thick, like some dark shapeless vegetable.
We had watched the Thunderbolts working for several days. They flew in small packs and streaked in to the attack in single file. They passed quickly through the sky and when they dived you held your breath and waited; it seemed impos- sible that the plane would be able to pull itself up to safety. They were diving to within sixty feet of the ground. The snub—nosed Thunderbolt is more feared by the German troops than any other plane.
You have seen Bastogne and a thousand other Bastognes in the newsreels. These dead towns are villages spread over Europe and one forgets the human misery and fear and despair that the cracked and caved-in buildings represent.
Bastogne was a German job of death and destruction and it was beautifully thorough. The 101st Airborne Division, which held Bastogne, was still there, though the day before the wounded had been taken out as soon as the first road was open.
The survivors of the 101st Airborne Division, after being entirely surrounded, uninterruptedly shelled and bombed, after having fought off four times their strength in Germans, look — for some unknown reason — cheerful and lively. A young lieutenant remarked, “The tactical situation was always good.” He was very surprised when we shouted with laughter.
The front, north of Bastogne, was just up the road and the peril was far from past.
At Warnach, on the other side of the main Bastogne road, some soldiers who had taken, lost and retaken this miserable village were now sightseeing the battlefield. They were also inspecting the blown-out equipment of two German tanks and a German self-propelled gun which had been destroyed here.
Warnach smelled of the dead; in subzero weather the smell of death has an acrid burning odor. The soldiers poked through the German equipment to see if there was anything useful or desirable. They unearthed a pair of good bedroom slippers alongside the tank, but as no one in the infantry has any chance to wear bedroom slippers these were left. There was a German Bible but no one could read German. Someone had found a German machine pistol in working order and rapidly salted it away; they hoped to find other equally valu- able loot.
The American dead had been moved inside the smashed houses and covered over; the dead horses and cows lay where they were, as did a few dead Germans.
Tank Commander Trevor Greenwood and the 9th Royal Tank Regiment had been almost continuously on the move since they had landed in Normandy in June. They had fought their last battle at the end of October, which finished with Greenwood removing the body of a friend from a tank that had been hit alongside his. The body had been cut in two by an armour piercing shell.
They had then prepared to assault the Dutch town of Roosendaal which was reported to be heavily defended. At the last moment the Germans had chosen to withdraw. The 9th RTR were very relieved to discover that not only did not have to fight for the town but they were given a period of ‘rest and recuperation’, living in private houses in the town.
Greenwood and his men found themselves living in a bar-cafe. They were having “an incredibly easy time”, only having to see to daily tank maintenance and attend a number of lectures of such topics as VD and the procedure for de-mobilisation after the war. No-one was getting their hopes up, they knew thay would be back in battle soon:
D +165 Saturday 18.11.44
Fine morning, but cold and windy. Courses until 12 noon. Indoors all afternoon — too comfortable in these billets to bother about going out.
We are being well looked after — waited on hand and foot. Fires, tidying up, etc. all done by civvies. Unfortunately, none of the people in the house speak English, but we manage to converse somehow. It is really amazing how much ‘conversation’ is carried on by means of a few words, signs and pantomime.
Attended 15 Troop’s party this evening. The troop is billeted in a separate café with quite a good dance floor. Each member’ of the troop invited a lady friend, making about 30 of us in all. The major and SSM were also invited. Unfortunately, we only had a portable gramophone for a ‘dance band’ — it was more or less useless, but the dancers managed somehow.
Refreshments were surprisingly good — the lads having been scrounging and buying for a couple of days beforehand. There was plenty of beer — from stocks in the café. We also had whisky and gin and cordial from the sergeants’ mess ration. Also bully beef sandwiches — and several dozen fancy cakes bought in Antwerp yesterday. Chocolate too was fairly plentiful, thanks to the issue of 3.5 bars per man during the day.
There was some dancing, and a few games, in which kissing seemed to be the principal feature. These Dutch lassies certainly enjoy kissing! The party finished about midnight, I believe.
Saw signs of a huge heavy bomber raid on Germany today. There were hundreds of bombers overhead during the afternoon: objective Munster. We are now completely out of touch with the war here. Our first few days in Roosendaal were disturbed by heavy gunfire, but there is now complete silence — apart from the occasional roar of a bursting flying bomb in the distance.
Judging by news reports, the Belgian government is having trouble with the ‘patriot army’ — the latter refusing to hand in their arms, maintaining that there is still work for them to do.
From my observations of the men who constitute these Maquis forces in Belgium and France — also Holland — I am not surprised at this development. What is the nature of the work still ahead of them? To fight the enemy within? They certainly form a potential threat to any form of reactionary government — or a return to the old order of dominance by the wealthy.
The Belgian govt. have offered to incorporate the ‘patriots’ in the regular army. This seems very much like an attempt to hoodwink them. Once in the army, they would cease to be free men able to assert themselves. The ultimatum to hand over all arms expires at midnight tonight. Meanwhile mass meetings seem to be the order of the day in Belgium.
I am living in an aroma of cheap scent at the moment. This morning, our host here — a very obliging Dutchman of 37 years — showed me a small bottle of scent — ‘tis goot’ he added. And then he poured some of the stuff on my hair and clothes — thinking no doubt he was doing me a favour. I had the smell with me all the evening at the party — a sickly, heavy smell: faded violets, or something.