AN ACCOUNT OF THE OPERATIONS OF THE 52ND LIGHT INFANTRY BETWEEN 1st MARCH AND 1st JUNE 1945
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL JOURNAL OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY NUMBER 98 SEPTEMBER 1945
Soon after our last letter was written the Americans came and took over our positions on the Maas. We then motored through the night back into Belgium. We were quartered and warmly welcomed in the villages of Herzele, Essche St. Lievin and Steenhuyze, about twenty kilometres south-south-east of Ghent. Here we remained for a few days maintaining vehicles and equipment, doing a little drill and all the other things one does in rest areas. The Regiment was then flown home from Nivelles aerodrome in Dakotas, landed near Oxford and returned once more to Bulford. A party of transport drivers and non-airborne transport, plus a few extra jeeps and motor-cycles, remained behind under the command of Major A. C. Mason, so we all gathered that it would not be long before we were back on the Continent.
After a week’s leave we returned to Bulford to find that mysterious things were going on behind locked doors. There was a full-scale brigade glider exercise from airfields in the Bury St. Edmunds area and soon afterwards—on the 20th March—we found ourselves “sealed” in a transit camp at Birch, near Colchester. There was much poring over maps, photographs and models. Our equipment and weapons were carefully checked, and gliders loaded. We met and consulted our glider pilots.
The details of the flight plan were complicated by the fact that the Regiment was to fly from two different airfields, but was nevertheless to land in company groups on top of the objectives, and all witbin the same space of a very few minutes.
24th March...In the very early morning of the 24th March we started off in transport for the aerodromes—the unfortunates scheduled to fly from Gosfield having to start an hour before those flying from Birch itself. On the airfields the R.A.F. had everything superbly organized. There was a minimum of hanging about and just as dawn broke we began to take off. We quickly formed and headed for the Channel. We had four hours in the air, but it was a smooth, fine day, and there was no air-sickness. We flew over the Rhine just north of Wesel and at this point we were rudely awakened from the doze into which many had dropped. Anti-aircraft fire from heavy flak guns began to come up at us. The sound was rather alarming and the puffs of black smoke around us, seemingly right amongst the other gliders in the flight, were distinctly unfriendly. Furthermore, tug aircraft with gliders behind them flying in formation, cannot afford to take evasive action. However, it appears that very few gliders were badly hit by this heavy flak, though one or two Dakotas were seen to have an engine on fire.
It was as we came over our landing zone that we really ran into trouble. We had known during the briefing that there were light flak positions scattered around our area. But we did not know then that the ground haze would prevent the R.A.F. from strafing these. As the gliders cast off and circled for the landing they were greeted by fire from 20-mm. guns. On the Regimental landing zone alone there were four sites, each containing four guns, each gun having four barrels. The result was unpleasant. There was scarcely a glider that did not receive a hit somewhere. In several cases the pilots were hit and bad crash-landings resulted. The quartermaster, having both pilots out of action, brought in his glider himself. In some gliders ammunition was hit and the aircraft blew up in mid-air. In others the petrol tanks of the jeeps were holed and fires started—a Horsa, constructed mainly of wood and glue, burns very easily. Some gliders landed off. target, a few, including one containing orderly room and Regimental headquarters staff, unfortunately on the enemy side of the perimeter.
However, owing to the outstanding skill and courage of the pilots, a useful percentage of the gliders landed correctly on their chosen objectives and by 1100 hrs we were able to report that all our objectives had been taken and that the road and railway bridges across the River Issel were intact Captain Bousfield, of A Company, had landed almost on top of a German half-track, which was immediately commandeered.
To begin with, the battle was confusing, for in addition to the private battles going on around the company objectives, ammunition was continuously exploding in the burning gliders, and it was hard to tell how much of the apparent firing was intentionally hostile.
Most of the troops manning the anti-aircraft positions were of low calibre. Over a hundred were taken prisoners, and the remainder felt uncomfortable amidst the crashing gliders and made off eastwards. When the initial fighting was over and the ammunition no longer exploding, a strange hush covered the whole area, and we were able to take stock of our position. It was estimated that we had suffered 50 per cent. casualties, a figure which proved later to be just about correct. The aid-post staff, helped by Captain Prentice and his section of the field ambulance, did wonderful work under conditions of bad overcrowding.
We were particularly short of supporting weapons, for the mortar gliders had been very unlucky, and it was found impossible to unload the jeeps and guns from several gliders, for these were under enemy observation, and in many cases the nose of the aircraft had been smashed in landing. Fortunately the wireless set of the forward observing team was by now working and we knew that we could call on the medium artillery west of the Rhine as well as on what remained of our own light regiment.
The enemy left us in peace during the day to prepare our positions. But at about 2000 hrs. Lieutenant Stone was wounded leading a patrol to deal with a further light flak position which had been annoying C Company. The patrol killed two Germans and took two more prisoners. Shortly after this B Company began to hear movement of tracked vehicles in Ringenburg, and the mediums began a series of impressive and encouraging shoots. However, tanks and some infantry approached B Company’s bridge and the infantry got into the houses just on the other side of the river. Our 6-pounders were seen to score hits on the enemy vehicles, but at about 0230 hrs. one large tank came perilously close—we hoped it was actually on the bridge— and the order was given for the bridge to be blown.
The enemy then started working around to the northern part of our position. They infiltrated a small party between A and C Companies, which were very thin on the ground, and one platoon of C Company was overrun. A Company counterattacked northwards to clear the enemy out and a company from the 12th Devons moved up to their former position whilst they did this job.
The strengths of companies, as far as could be ascertained, were: A, 4 officers, 56 soldiers; B, 2 officers, 45 soldiers; C, 4 officers, 52 soldiers: D, 5 officers, 58 soldiers. --War Diary.
25th March.--As daylight came there was more tank activity between Ringenburg and the river, and two Mark IV’s were definitely identified. We asked for Typhoon support, and soon after 0700 hrs. they made the first of a series of attacks with rockets and cannon which were continued throughout the day. They paid particular attention to Ringenburg and the neighbouring Woods and we saw several clouds of black, oily smoke which showed that their journey had not been unnecessary.
In the early morning we reported to brigade that we could now be sure that no enemy remained within our perimeter. But they continued to make a nuisance of themselves very near us. There was sniping from the enemy side of the road bridge, and Captain Moncrieff was killed. Movement was seen at intervals during the day to the north and north-west of D Company, which in the evening made a raid to clear the houses where the enemy were lurking. Artillery and mortars were also used, and some buildings set on fire. Before last light A Company again sallied forth along the line of the road leading northwards. They came under fire from several places; in one instance enemy fired from behind a group of civilians who were displaying a white flag, and Lieutenant Gunter was wounded. At this stage Lieutenant Arkell’s platoon, having landed on the wrong side of the Rhine, arrived to rejoin A Company.
Advanced parties from the 157th Brigade of the 52nd Division arrived in the evening and soon after midnight their platoons began to take over. The whole of our brigade area was subjected to spasmodic 88-mm. fire during the night, and our artillery continued to harass Ringenburg and other suspected areas.
26th March.--By 0600 hrs. the 52nd had been relieved and were concentrated west of Hamminkein. Later in the morning we started to march eastwards in the wake of the rest of the brigade, which was making for the high ground overlooking Brunen (K52/A24). We finally took up a reserve position west of this ridge. Here we stayed for two nights, because the roads were now becoming jammed by a most impressive stream of armour and guns which came flooding across the Rhine bridges. Here, too, we were joined by Major Mason’s party and by the transport officer’s sea-tail. We also received officer reinforcements.
27th March.--Our immediate neighbourhood was known to be clear of enemy and we all had time for a bit of rest and maintenance. The padre returned to the landing zone and began the unpleasant task of finding, identifying and burying our dead. One hundred and three members of the Regiment were buried near Hamminkeln during the day and subsequent days.
28th March.--This day was the beginning of a long series of “swans” which was eventually to bring us face to face with the Russians. We marched to Rhade, where we spent one night, and then pushed on to Coesfeld. Here we expected opposition, and an attack was laid on, but Coesfeld had been dealt with very thoroughly by the R.A.F. and we walked unmolested into a foul-smelling, partly burning ghost town peopled mainly by Russian and Polish slave workers. We had a complete day in Coesfeld, and had a real chance to sort ourselves out.
31st March.—Leaving Coesfeld in the morning, we trekked quietly along the road to Greven, but from Greven onwards it was far from quiet. We had to move in the dark into a thickly wooded area north-east of the town, and just short of the Dortmund—Ems Canal. We had nothing but small-scale maps, and from these company positions had to be chosen and found. To add to our difficulties, there were many flak positions in the area, and some Germans skulking about in the woods. Furthermore, conditions were most unfavourable for wireless. The result was ap extremely uncomfortable night for everybody. We had some casualties from the German artillery, and a few from our own. Major Molloy and some others of C Company were wounded by small-arms fire. But when daylight came things were quieter. The companies reviewed their positions and altered them where necessary; and large numbers of Germans, disliking the fire of our medium artillery, and seeing themselves surrounded by red berets, started to walk in and give themselves up.
At dusk we marched off to cross the Dortmund—Ems Canal by means of a bridge whose back had been broken by the RA.F. On the other side of the canal we sat down and waited until our transport came across by the sappers’ bridge, and then, as leading battalion, advanced once more.
2nd April.--After passing through Ladbergen D Company came under fire from a flak position beside the road. Some casualties were caused by airburst and 20-mm. fire, but supporting fire was called for and the enemy position was liquidated. It contained twelve flak guns of the 10.5-cm. calibre, as well as sundry machine guns. D Company continued to advance, being held up occasionally at strategic points by fire from mobile 20-mm. guns.
In the afternoon a squadron of tanks of the 4th Armoured Grenadier Guards arrived and A Company, working with them, passed through D Company.
The rest of the journey to Lengerich was unopposed, but in the evening C Company ran into heavy machine-gun fire in the wooded hills to the north-east of the town, and it was decided to hold positions close around the town for the night.
3rd April--We moved peacefully behind the parachute brigades, along the Osnabruck road as far as Hasbergen, where we found comfortable billets and prepared to have a couple of days’ rest. We did have one night with few commitments to fulfil in the way of patrols and sentries, and we ate our fill of the rations for which we had not had time during the previous day. But the next morning lorries arrived and we started on a long trip due east and then northwards, through villages which the Royal Ulster Rifles had cleared, and past thousands of recently liberated Allied prisoners.
We halted for a short night, and then, working again with tanks, led the brigade down to the River Weser. We were worried slightly by “bazooka boys,” who knocked out two of the tanks, and we waited once or twice while the other tanks “drummed up” offending houses. On reaching the river banks, and while preparations for the crossing were being made, we were subjected to a long and unpleasant bombardment from heavy flak guns east of the river, but surprisingly few casualties resulted and our own artillery kept the enemy guns quiet while the assault boats went across.
The river is wide, and was flowing fast, so that it was no easy task to land at the chosen place. Meanwhile the engineers, pioneer platoon and reconnaissance platoon were engaged in rafting essential vehicles across. Once the raft, complete with jeep, broke away and was carried rapidly down-stream until it was stopped by a bridging party lower down. And the slippery approach made the rafting operations doubly difficult. B Company, first across, captured the village of Wietersheim, and D and A Companies pushed through them towards Frille, where they fought their way from house to house into the village.
6th April.--In the early morning A Company attacked a battery of anti-aircraft guns on railway mountings—the guns which had caused us trouble during the previous night—and collected many prisoners and some useful booty. C Company. which had hitherto been on the western bank, came across and was also joined by the remainder of our transport, for which the sappers had been making a bridge farther down-stream.
Apart from occasional ineffective fire from a roving self-propelled gun, the day was fairly quiet, but during the following night A and D Companies reported hearing enemy movement, tracked vehicles included, to the east. Mortars and artillery engaged defensive-fire tasks.
7th April.--In the afternoon A and D Companies saw tanks and infantry and were mortared by the enemy. We expected an attack, but the tanks circled round to the north of us and started annoying the Devons. In the early part of the night tanks were again heard, but this stopped later, and in the morning deserters came in with the information that the enemy, hearing of the American crossing farther south, had withdrawn to Rusband.
8th April.--We were taking no chances, however, and at 1100 hrs. the Regiment put in an attack on the hamlets of Frillerbrink and Heinrichs Teich, where there were signs of very recent occupation, though no opposition was encountered. At 1500 hrs we started on a long and tedious march, arriving late at Winzlar, near the Steinhuder Meer. The parachute brigades were up to the River Leine ahead of us and we had no operational role on Winzlar. We had a very welcome night’s rest, and the following morning were told that we should remain there for at least forty-eight hours.
We received a draft of about 120 reinforcements from reinforcement holding units. The promised forty-eight hours had half elapsed when we were told to get on transport and go to Heitlingen. Here we really were to stay for a while. The 15th (Scottish) Division came through us and we became corps reserve. We received a further batch of reinforcements, and fine spring weather gave us the opportunities we needed for getting ourselves cleaned up.
14th April.--After various degrees of readiness to move had been given us—depending upon the progress of the 15th Division—we motored up the road through Ceile. But as the situation in Uelzen was “firming up” we had to spend a night in the. woods north of Celle. The following afternoon the roads at last became clear enough to use, and we moved up to take over the village of Nettelkamp, east of Uelzen, from the 9th Cameronians. On the way the column was bombed by jet planes, but the 52nd had no casualties.
16th April.--During the morning Lieutenant Wilmot and the reconnaissance platoon carried out a very useful patrol, bringing back information about bridges and about some self-propelled guns lying up in woods nearby. At midday A Company, with our usual Churchills in support, led the Regiment in the direction of Kahlstorf. Opposition was encountered near Emern, and on the far side of the village A Company had to put in a set-piece attack with support from the artillery and mortars. While this was going on the whole Regiment was subjected to salvoes of “moaning minnies” and air-burst from self-propeiled guns, causing about twenty-five casualties. Eventually, however, we got to our objective as darkness fell, but blazing houses in the village of Kahlstorf lit up the scene.
The following day was fairly quiet except for a few salvoes of “moaning minnies.”
18th April.--At 0130 hrs. we left Kahlstorf and soon after dawn passed through the town of Rosche on which the Devons had just done a very successful silent attack. We pushed on to Katzien, which we occupied without difficulty at 09(X) hrs. Although there was no enemy in the village, the woods to the east contained a very mixed collection of Germans—PanzerJagers, reconnaissance troops, a railway pioneer company and some flak troops. In the afternoon of the 18th Captain Scott did a long reconnaissance patrol to Polau, where he stirred up a few enemy. A large fighting patrol from B Company the following day were unmolested, but on the 20th Captain Gerahty took out two platoons of C Company through the woods and discovered enemy astride the main road south of Polau. A small battle ensued and some enemy transport was destroyed.
22nd April.--The 5th British Division and some Americans passed through our village, and we again found ourselves in a backwater.
23rd April.--The 52nd marched to Ebstorf for a period of rest, maintenance, recreation and training. We were favoured for most of the time by fine weather, and the billets were good.
29th April.--We marched to Suttorf, where we concentrated in preparation for crossing the Elbe. In the evening of the following day we crossed by the class 9 bridge, turned eastwards and followed the parachutists as far as Horst. Here we struck north and advanced through the night to Nostorf, arriving at 0400 hrs. on the 1st May. About 200 prisoners were collected, and a lot of German transport which was later to prove very useful. The Germans had been having a party the night before, and a number were drunk or suffering from hangovers.
2nd May.—At 0200 hrs. we set out on another night march to Schwartow, stayed there for the afternoon and then set out in transport of all descriptions on the last lap of the journey. Motoring along the road to Wismar, we knew that the German Army was throwing in the sponge. The parachutists had got to Wismar, liberating an Ailed prisoner-of-war camp on the way, and the roads were full of ex-prisoners and a motley collection of Wehrmacht streaming along the axis. It grew dark and we still continued our journey, though very slowly. Carts and lorries full of wounded Germans and others who were too lazy to walk impeded our progress, but neither the time nor the men could be spared to deal with them, for our orders were to push on until we met the Russians. As there was some doubt about the exact positions occupied by the rest of the division, we halted and found billets at Lutterstorf for one very short night, and the following morning went on to our final position at Bad Kleinen, on the banks of the Schweriner See.
3rd May.--Everybody was very tired by a succession of night marches, but on arrival at Bad Kleinen we were faced with new problems which precluded wholesale sleep. Complete divisions of Wehrmacht marched into the little village. The Germans had to be searched, escorted and organized. Many were from hospitals and convalescent companies, so German transport was arranged and German-staffed hospitals for the more serious cases. For several days the trek of civilians also poured into the town, until we had about twelve thousand, complete with horses and covered wagons, encamped in the woods just south of us. Platoons were required to guard these civilians, who had a very healthy respect for the Russians and who would have liked to put a few more kilometres between our allies and themselves, but this could not be allowed, for the roads behind us were already full of the Wehrmacht. Trains full of wounded and refugees pulled into the station and stayed there owing to conges tion farther along the line. For these people, too, water supplies had to be arranged, and medical services organized.
As the days passed, however, the enormous population of Bad Kleinen was gradually dispersed to other villages. The civilians were set on to cleaning the streets and we set about collecting and disposing of all the ammunition and equipment which was lying about. Then we began to enjoy ourselves: swimming and boating on the lake, football, athletics, cinema shows, and a bit of training thrown in for good measure.
Major R. A. A. Smith commanded a guard of honour of a hundred men from the 52nd on the occasion of the meeting between the commander-in-chief and Marshal Rokossovsky, and congratulations on its turn-out and smartness were received from many quarters. Small parties from the Regiment went over the “border” to meet the Russians and returned in various degrees of sobriety. Victory in Europe night was greeted with Verey lights and bonfires of gigantic proportions. From time to time house-to-house searches were made for weapons and for ex-soldiers. Bad Kleinen came round to our way of thinking, and we were sitting very pretty when the gunners from the 5th Division came to relieve us on the 17th May. We went back to Luneburg, where we stayed one night in the cavalry barracks, and then flew home.
Back once more in Bulford we earmarked those eligible for service in South-East Asia Command and then went off for twenty-eight days’ leave or nine days’ according to our future destinations.