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.
With the Germans still in disarray the Allies were pushing on rapidly eastwards across France. In the north, after a short sharp battle, the British had captured a bridgehead over the Seine. Every bridge had been destroyed by Allied aircraft attempting to block the German retreat, now it was necessary to quickly build their own bridges to enable the pursuit.
Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill was in charge of a Troop of four Sexton self propelled guns and was to cross the Seine late on the 28th:
I viewed the pontoon replacement with great trepidation — the Seine is very wide at this point (approximately 215 yards), with a high water level — and led the guns to the west bank at 1800 hrs, just as the sky was darkening. I watched closely as tank by tank negotiated the pontoon bridge, a procedure that did nothing to increase my conﬁdence. A pontoon bridge is no more that a series of ﬂat sheets laid transversely over a series of pontoons laid side by side.’
As it is a ﬂoating structure, secured to the banks at both ends, it is not, in my untutored opinion, a particularly stable arrangement. Thus, as the tanks went over, they appeared to wobble from side to side and we wondered if their tracks were submerged below the lapping surface of the river.
If ever a jar of rum was needed, now was the time. No such luck, however. On the west bank, engineers and military police were in command, signalling each tank over at the appropriate moment. The richness and extent of their vocabulary was to be admired, but they did a marvellous job.
Then it was our turn and the sky was getting darker. In front of me was an American White half-track, which served as the Troop Gun Command Post, with the GPO (Charles Coad) in charge. 3 RTR had gone on ahead, and we were behind the tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 23rd Hussars. I was behind the GPO in my Bren carrier (known as TLD).
As this was a lightweight vehicle of some 4 tons, compared to the 32-ton Shermans of the tank regiments, it meant that, as they cockled on the pontoon, they caused the Bren carrier to wobble even more.
The Seine stretched away each side, with a width of over 200 yards, and it looked most forbidding with its strong ﬂowing current. The sky darkened by the minute, which did not improve driving conditions.
The drivers’ eyes were glued to the narrow line of the pontoon, knuckles glowing white as their hands tightly gripped the steering tillers. Some drivers later reported cramp from their feet arching sensitively over accelerators and clutches. Neither was the way forward made any easier by the wash thrown up by the vehicles in front.
The ﬁrst few yards were not too bad, but then, as the pontoons sagged under the weight of the tanks, water sloshed over the tracks so that the roadway in front temporarily disappeared from view. It was a nightmare drive and it was with huge relief that we found ourselves safely on dry land on the opposite bank of the river at Vernonnet, a small, pleasant riverside settlement, now completely deserted.
By now the night was pitch black and, with all the action and tension of the past few hours dissolving into slight relief, we then found ourselves entirely alone. No other units were in sight or sound. I bunched the guns nose to tail, forming up in the little square of Vernonnet.
My job was to see that every one had crossed over safely, so it was with considerable relief that I was able to report to the GPO that all was well. Then the worry began to nag again as our detachment from the rest of the convoy produced an unreal situation. There were no inhabitants or anyone else to be seen and we began to feel lost. The tank regiments had gone ahead and there seemed to be no other units behind us. It was strangely quiet and somewhat sinister.
Ever since D-Day the British and Canadian forces in Normandy had been slugging it out with the Germans at the eastern end of the bridgehead. Now, with the battle for the Falaise pocket over, they suddenly found no opposition in front of them. They were able to race forward to the east, just as the US forces had done earlier.
It was a dramatic change in circumstances, that took time to adjust to. John Stirling was with the Royal Dragoon Guards:
I think it was the most exciting and sensational time I shall ever have in my life. We drove south ﬁrst through Condé-sur-Noireau and Vire. Then we swung east towards Argentan and the Seine.
At ﬁrst we moved gingerly. At every corner and every wood one waited to hear the familiar boom and snarl of a piece of “hard”. But the noise never came. It seemed incredible after all these weeks, that we could motor ten miles down a main road without being ﬁred on.
But the ten miles mounted to twenty and still there was silence and still the speedometers ticked on. We could not understand that the rout of the German Seventh Army was now almost complete, that the Falaise pocket, round whose outskirts we were driving, was the scene of the biggest disaster the victorious Wehrmacht had ever experienced.
This was the real thing. This was the Breakthrough. We saw the remains of a retreating army. Burnt-out vehicles that the RAF had caught, abandoned vehicles that had broken down, derelict vehicles that had run out of petrol, dead horses, broken wagons, scattered kit and equipment.
We saw the brutal sadism of the SS. Everything had been thrown out of the French houses, breakables broken, materials ripped, pistol shots through the cider barrels, an axe for the windows and farmhouse and all the livestock killed and removed — to establish the supremacy of the Herrenvolk over the lesser people — and sheer bestiality.
Not every unit experienced the rapid movement through north east France that was to become known as’The Great Swan’. There were still some Germans fighting a rear guard action, trying to buy time for the surviving remnants of their army to retreat over the Seine and further east. On the 23rd there was bitter fighting in the town of Lisieux, as Sergeant ‘Snatch’ Boardman relates:
As we drove into Lisieux the road was packed with infantrymen waiting to move forward. The 51st Highlanders were having to fight house to house, street by street and had to capture the Basilica which dominated the area…
As we approached the forward position the constant stream of stretcher-bearing Jeeps with badly injured troops from both sides was indication of the resistance being encountered. As our troop of three vehicles came up to the Queens infantry, their young officer indicated the enemy positions. The platoon was in a single file and keeping close against a wall.
I cannot remember ever feeling more pity for them than I did on that occasion. As the Bren crew went forward they became instant casualties. The Piat crew took up the leading position. The platoon was soon either dead or wounded.
Inside the Basilica 2,000 civilians were sheltering. Sergeant Boardman was to take Bren gun and climb to the top of the Basilica from where he fired on Germans running away, although he apparently failed to locate German snipers hiding elsewhere in the building. Overnight the last Germans would silently withdraw.
On the 19th August the 1st Polish Armoured Division had just managed to close the ‘Falaise Gap’ through which the surviving remnants of the German Army in Normandy were attempting to escape. Major Stefanowicz advanced his detachment of tanks and infantry onto Hill 262, Mont-Ormel, overlooking the Chambois-Vimoutiers road. On reaching the top they discovered the spectacle of the mass German retreat proceeding in the valley below them. They were soon adding to the general carnage.
The position held by the Poles suddenly became of critical importance, the Germans were desperate to take it. Units from 2nd S.S. Panzer Corps, who had already escaped from the pocket, were ordered back to take the hill. Now the Poles were alone and surrounded, waiting for the Canadian tanks to break through to support them, they faced wave after wave of German attack.
Canadian Artillery forward observer Captain Pierre Sévigny had been attached to the Polish Armoured Brigade. His guns, located further back, were to play a crucial role in defending the isolated outpost and he left a vivid account of the engagement:
The Polish major called his officers together and spoke to them all in French, for my benefit:
“Gentlemen,” he said, “the hour is grave. The brigade is completely isolated. The enemy is still fighting: his only escape routes are those you see to the right and to the left. There is nobody except us who can stop them: that is what we shall try to do! Surrender is out of the question! As Poles! This is what I propose to do: the infantry will hold the lower ground and will withdraw to the higher ground only in the last resort, the tanks will remain here in the little wood with engines stopped to save petrol. My Command Post will be in this old house where we are now (Boisjos Manor House).”
Addressing me, he asked:
“Can you lay down fire from your guns right round the hill?”
I replied in the affirmative. Everybody shook hands and we went to our posts. I zeroed in my guns on four points where I expected enemy attacks. That way they would later be able to fire with accuracy whenever they were wanted.
The night began. The men were calm. They did not know how grave the situation was. About midnight there was firing near the crossroads we had already shelled. Once again I gave the order: “Five rounds per gun!” We heard explosions and the cries of the wounded. However, firing broke on the left, then on the right. The enemy was attacking everywhere at the same time. At the foot of Coudehard hill there was bloody, hand-to-hand fighting all night. We lost many men and all we had for the wounded was a little iodine.
Sunday, August the 20th
Daylight came: it was absolutely essential for us to reorganise and contract our defence perimeter. All attacks had been repulsed but our losses during the night had been considerable. And it was still going on! Fortunately our dominating position ensured that we could not be surprised…! We fired without ceasing, the machine-guns and rifles grew red hot!
In the end the enemy pulled back but he still threatened the right. Attention! He was about to pass the first two points I had pre-ranged. I quickly gave the order to my signaller. The shells fell, the Boches were thrown back in disorder!
A lull. We were not short of things to trouble us: the major had been hit in the chest by a shell splinter. We had exhausted our rations, there was scarcely half a bottle of water left per man; ammunition was scarce! Suddenly, over on our left, we heard the sounds of numerous tanks moving! The Canadians! At last! We looked for the green flares. Nothing! We came down to earth: they were German tanks advancing on us.
The major then decided on a bold manoeuvre. The best defence was still attack: and we set off to meet the enemy with twelve tanks! We soon saw the silhouettes of sixteen, enormous, German tanks, Tigers! The battle began and within three minutes of the start we had lost six tanks to one of theirs!
Only the artillery could save us! Crouching in a hole I used a portable radio to send orders to my signaller to relay to the guns. And I waited: had I studied my map thoroughly enough? Had I marked the targets well enough? Would the guns fire in time?
The steel monsters were still coming, firing with all their weapons. I saw the sparkling of their machine-guns: their 88s whistled over my head. What were our gunners doing? The leading tank was only 500 metres away…, 400 now, 300, 250, 200! It was all over! I no longer dared look! Yet, I looked again: 150 metres, 100 metres. I dived into the bottom of the hole, pressing my face to the earth, not daring to move. Death would come to me in seconds, of that I was sure…. Instinctively, I murmured a prayer….
Then, suddenly, a hurricane, rolls of thunder, the ground trembling! Death? Life? Could it be possible? Was this help? Our guns were firing! What I was hearing were our shells! And there, in the hole, I laughed and cried! Stupidly I raised my head, but only for an instant! We were saved! With unparalleled accuracy and at a prodigious rate of fire, unknown till then, a cloud of shells burst over the enemy.
The Boche hesitated. Five tanks were burning like haystacks. My gunners had orders to fire all their ammunition! The attack was broken: the Germans retired, pursued by the Poles who destroyed another three tanks! How I congratulated my men on the fine work they had done!
… Nevertheless the attack was soon renewed. Our losses mounted constantly…. but now I could not believe my eyes: the Boches were advancing towards us singing, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”! We let them come to within 50 yards, then we mowed down their ranks…. More waves followed…. When the fifth came we were out of ammunition. The Poles charged them with the bayonet!
During that day we suffered eight attacks like this! The enemy was exploiting our weakness, but what fanaticism he showed! One of the wounded near me looked like a child: I read the date of birth in his paybook: April, 1931! He was thirteen years old. How horrible!
We took prisoners. Some of those from the Wehrmacht were of Polish birth. They were asked if they would join us: anyone who accepted was given the rifle and paybook of one of the dead! They were unexpected, precious reinforcements. The S.S. and those whose paybooks showed that they had taken part in the invasion of Poland in ’39 received no mercy!
About 6 o’clock the attacks ceased. The battlefield was a scene from a nightmare! On the flanks of the hill thousands of corpses made a veritable rampart. We had been forced back to the top of Hill 262. Around the wood, which was about 600 metres long and 300 metres across, now filled with the wounded, we had dug trenches which were to be held at all cost! Aircraft tried to drop supplies to us but all the containers fell behind enemy lines.
At nightfall that Sunday evening the major called his officers together: out of sixty only four were fit to fight, three lieutenants and myself, all the others, including the major himself, were more or less seriously wounded. Lying in terrible pain on some straw, the Polish major found the strength to pull himself upright and give his instructions. I will never forget his words:
“Gentleman, all is lost. I do not think the Canadians can relieve us. We have no more than 110 fit men. There is no food and not much ammunition: five shells per gun and fifty rounds per man! That is very little…. even so, fight on! It would be useless to surrender to the S.S., you know that! I give you my thanks: you have fought well. Good luck, gentleman, this night we will be dying for Poland and civilisation!”
Canadian tanks finally broke through to relieve them on the 21st August.
The whole account can be read at BBC People’s War, it is an extract from “Dans la tourmente de la guerre”, by M. l’abbé Marcel Launay, published in France.
The Balance-sheet of this fearful confrontation:
The Poles, who went into this fight with eighty-seven Sherman tanks against all the remaining weaponry of the German Seventh army surrounded on the plain of Tournai – Aubry – St-Lambert, lost 325 dead, 16 of whom were officers, 1,002 wounded and 114 missing. Eleven tanks were destroyed.
The Germans had about 2,000 killed, 5,000 taken prisoner, including a general, six colonels and 80 officers. They left on the battlefield 55 tanks, of which 14 were Panthers and 6 Tigers, 44 guns and 152 armoured vehicles, 359 vehicles of all types were destroyed.
The Polish contribution to the war was quite disproportionate to their numbers. Poland itself suffered terribly at the hand of both the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. A thoroughly researched 2019 study by Andrew Rawson paints a comprehensive picture of all aspects of Polish involvement in the war, including the the experiences of the ‘free’ expatriate armies, the repression and murder of both Polish Jews and Christians, and the Polish resistance and underground armies. This is his summary of I Polish Corps:
The I Polish Corps
Around 6,000 Polish soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division were evacuated from La Pallice, near La Rochelle, in June  and the division was rebuilt in Scotland. They would protect the coast until the end of the war. The rest of the soldiers who escaped France were organised by General Marian Kukie1’s I Corps’ headquarters into two fully manned brigades and five cadre brigades in September 1940.
It had gathered around 14,000 men by the end of the year and one regiment had been armed with tanks and turned into the 10th Armoured Brigade. The 1st Tank Regiment expanded into the 16th Armoured Brigade and 2nd Infantry Regiment was reorganised as the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade in the autumn. A training brigade was also organised at the end of the year.
The 1st Armoured Division was formed the following spring and all the Polish troops were brought together under the renamed I Polish Armoured-Mechanised Corps. The corps acquired a new commander soon afterwards, General Mieczyslaw Boruta—Spiechowicz, and it completed training for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe while guarding the Scottish coastline.
The 1st Armoured Division was commanded by General Stanislaw Maczek and was attached to the First Canadian Army in Normandy at the end of July 1944. The ‘Black Devils’, as they were known, were involved in Operation Totalize, starting on 8 August, and they were engaged in heavy fighting for Chambois and Mont Ormel. They then fought a fierce battle in their Sherman and Cromwell tanks to stop the Germans escaping from the Falaise Pocket, as part of Operation Tractable.
The 1st Armoured Division advanced along France and Belgium’s north coast, reaching Breda in Holland soon after the Germans had fled. After a few quiet months following the failure of Operation Market Garden, the division moved along the Dutch-German border at the beginning of 1945. It crossed into Germany in April and reached Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s northern coast on 6 May. General Maczek accepted the surrender of the East Frisian Fleet and ten infantry divisions around the naval base.
Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski commanded the 1st Parachute Brigade; his original plan was to prepare for an air drop into occupied Poland to help the underground. The British government convinced the Poles to support the Normandy campaign instead but so many operations were cancelled that they asked to be dropped into Warsaw during the August 1944 uprising. That request was also turned down because it was considered too difficult, and the 1st Parachute Brigade landed in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden instead. Only a few Poles made it across the Rhine, into 1st British Airborne Division’s bridgehead, but their actions did assist the evacuation across the river.
The 16th Armoured Brigade spent some time with the lst Armoured Division but it was never deployed to the Continent. All the Polish troops in Germany assembled under I Corps when the war ended and they were engaged on occupation duties until they were disbanded in June 1947.
Although the US forces had found themselves in the thick bocage country for most of the time they spent in the Normandy bridgehead, the British experience had been more varied. The large tank battles around Caen had been fought in much more open country. Operation Bluecoat had not been as successful as Montgomery hoped and he now renewed the attack with Operation Totalise.
As the British and Canadian forces now pushed south in an attempt to link with the US forces, they encountered the bocage country, some of them for the first time. Bill Bellamy describes the difficulties of fighting by tank in the bocage:
It was the first time that I had felt any apprehension about an attack and how to handle it. Whether the briefing lacked conviction, or whether I just missed the comforting presence of Piff Threlfall I don’t know, but I had a feeling of gloom about the day ahead which didn’t leave me until we started to advance at first light on the morning of 8 August.
Once we had passed through our own lines and were moving cautiously out across the fields into unknown country, I forgot all my fears and settled down to enjoy the challenge. It was a brilliantly sunny, warm day, the initial going was good and although we were able to report the occasional AP shot and saw vehicles at a distance, we didn’t actually come up against organised resistance until about O800hrs. Then Bill Pritchard, nosing through a hedge, was fired at by an anti-tank gun which, happily, missed him.
In the meantime however, all hell was let loose on our right and both the other troops in the squadron were reporting attacks, some of their tanks being knocked out. By this time we were still well to the north of Cauville, I wasn’t yet in sight of the village itself, and the ground was rapidly becoming impossible for tank movement. It was real ‘Bocage’ with 2—4 feet high banks topped by thick hedges, interspersed with trees.
Here again, many of the small fields contained orchards and the trees themselves were so low that often one couldn’t pass beneath them but was forced to jink one’s way through. This made it impossible for the gunner to see clearly and, as the tank commander was bobbing up and down in the turret, or trying to use the periscopes for sighting, it was all rather a nightmare.
There was an added hazard for the gunner, who was sitting down below hunched over his gunsight, in a very cramped position. If he stretched his legs out through the turret cage in order to get some relief and this coincided with the gun hitting a tree while we were on the move, then the turret would have been forced round and off would come his legs. A chilling thought.
In the Cromwell tank it was difficult to remove shells from the racks and maintain a good rate of fire with the 75mm gun. The shells were all stored in bins round the turret floor, but as we were traversing all the time there were few opportunities for the loader to pick them up.
In addition to this, they were about 2 feet 6‘inches long and weighed over 1Olb, so, as one had to load one-handed, they were unwieldy. It was our practice therefore, when we anticipated trouble, for the wireless operator, who doubled up as a loader, to sit with three or four shells across his knees, so that as we fired and the empty shell case ejected, he could reload in a matter of seconds.
This was fine if one was static, but when one was bouncing about in all directions it became both very painful and extremely difficult. By this time we had encountered a great deal of small arms fire, and I decided to call a halt while I reviewed the options open to us.
The two leading tanks were hull-down behind the bank but we could see through the hedge top, and were engaging a number of enemy infantry moving about in front of us. I reported this to Bob and was told to try to probe forward again and see if it was possible to find any way round their position.
I then asked Alan Howard, whose tank was in the hedge about 100 yards behind me, to try to break into the next field to his left and, when he had done that, to come up into line with us. He acknowledged my order, but, just as he was about to move, a number of enemy infantry dashed out from behind the bank on my left flank, at least one of them armed with a Panzerfaust.
Neither Bill Pritchard nor I could fire at them immediately as we couldn’t traverse our turret guns the requisite 90° owing to the density of the hedge itself. Luckily they had not realised that Alan Howard’s tank was still sitting in the hedge behind, and as we two reversed out and started our traverse, he opened up with both machine guns and they dispersed, leaving a number of dead lying there.
It was a nasty moment and I decided that we couldn’t contend with an infantry attack unless we had some sort of a field of fire, so we all charged back through the hedge into more open ground.
Elsewhere the Germans were counter-attacking fiercely, some appreciation of the nature of the fighting can be gained from this citation for the Victoria Cross
Captain Jamieson was in command of a Company of The Royal Norfolk Regiment which established a bridgehead over the River Orne, south of Grimbosq, in Normandy.
On August 7th, 1944, the enemy made three counter-attacks which were repulsed with heavy losses. The last of these took place at 1830 hours when a German Battle Group with Tiger and Panther tanks attacked and the brunt of the fighting fell on Captain Jamieson’s Company. Continuous heavy fighting ensued for more than four hours until” the enemy were driven off, after suffering severe casualties and the loss of three tanks and an armoured car accounted for by this Company.
Throughout these actions, Captain Jamieson displayed outstanding courage and leadership, which had a decisive influence on the course of the battle and resulted in the defeat of these determined enemy attacks.
On the morning of August 8th the enemy attacked with a fresh Battle Group and succeeded in penetrating the defences surrounding the Company on three sides. During this attack two of the three tanks in support of the Company were destroyed and Captain Jamieson left his trench under close range fire from enemy arms of all kinds and went over to direct the fire of the remaining tank, but as he could not get into touch with the commander of the tank by the outside telephone, he climbed upon it in full view of the enemy.
During this period Captain Jamieson was wounded in the right eye and left forearm but when his wounds were dressed he refused to be evacuated. By this time all the other officers had become casualties so Captain Jamieson reorganised his Company, regardless of personal safety, walking amongst his men in full view of the enemy, as there was no cover. After several hours of bitter and confused fighting, the last Germans were driven from the Company position.
The enemy counter-attacked the Company three more times during that day with infantry and tanks. Captain Jamieson continued in command, arranging for artillery support over his wireless and going out into the open on each occasion to encourage his men.
By the evening the Germans had withdrawn, leaving a ring of dead and burnt out tanks round his position.
Throughout this thirty-six hours of bitter and close fighting, and despite the pain of his wounds, Captain Jamieson showed superb qualities of leadership and great personal bravery.
There were times when the position appeared hopeless, but on each occasion it was restored by his coolness and determination. He personally was largely responsible for the holding of this important bridgehead over the River Orne and the repulse of seven German counter-attacks with great loss to the enemy.