Friday, 5 November 2010

16th to 19th September 1944 - Crossing of the Meuse - Escaut Canal

On the night of 18/19 September, 2 RUR carried out an assault crossing of the Meuse - Escaut Canal. It was the Battalions first river crossing in North-West Europe, though for this it was by no means untrained.

In Scotland on schemes on the banks of the Tees, the Battalion had gathered a rich harvest of experience, and on a lake near Flers all ranks had the opportunity to remind themselves of the mechanics of river crossings.

The Pioneers revised their knowledge of building a class V raft and drivers were practised in driving on and off a raft and in motoring across different types of bridging both by day and by night.

Finally, everyone learned about the capacity and performance of a storm boat which had been produced as a means of crossing large rivers. The Battalion therefore, was not unacquainted with the technique of river crossing when it embarked upon this enterprise.

We set out from the area of the Seine on 16th September knowing that we would soon be called upon to carry out an operation of this kind. The distance was about 230 miles and in that time the Battalion passed through many towns and villages that have become household words in the history of the Battalion. We passed by Amiens, and then a whole series of names: Albert, Bapaume, Flesquieres, Moeuvres, Cambrai, Valenciennes, Mons: which recalled the activities of the second Battalion in the last war.

Later on we came to Louvain and older members of the Battalion were able to revive more personal memories of those days in France and Belgium before Dunkirk. Some of them even managed to slip off the main road and dally for an hour or two at a little place called Lezennes where the Battalion spent nine happy months in 1939/40. A tumultuous welcome was received.

The Battalion arrived at Petit Brogel on the South side of the Escaut Canal in the afternoon of 17th September. Here we heard that the task of the Brigade was to broaden the bridgehead over the canal made by 50 Division some four miles further west; and this was to be done in the next two or three days.

Little could be done on that day, for the men were tired after a journey of about 220 miles in cramped conditions. Early next morning we heard that the crossing would be done on that night, 18/19 September. It was clear that the time factor in this operation would still by a thick ground mist, though later mitigated by artificial moonlight which had been arranged for the attack.

It was a night without rain or cold, morale was high, and all ranks confident in the success of the operation.

At 2100 hrs the Commanding Officer attended a co-ordinating conference at Brigade, where final details were settled between Commanders and Supporting Arms. Then he went down to the Command Post which had earlier been established in a house about 200 yards from the canal bank.

Communication to Brigade was duplicated in that there was a 22 set in the Command Post and a 19 set some 200 yards away manned by the Adjutant, Captain K. G. Perona-Wright, who had a line direct to the Command Post. Within the Battalion the Command Post was in contact by 18 set with companies and additionally with each crossing place by line.

By 2315 hrs forward companies were in the assembly areas and anxiety was soon felt about the assault boats which had not arrived. It subsequently turned out that the sapper NCO in charge of the boats failed in the dark to make contact with the Officer Commanding S Company, Major T. N. S. Wheeler, at the rendezvous.

Infantry carrying assault boats in preparation for crossing the Meuse-Escaut canal at Lille-St Hubert, 19 September 1944 (IWM)

When they did finally arrive C and B Companies both supplied their own carrying parties, and valuable assistance was rendered also by the Pioneer Platoon in a great effort to get the boats launched without serious delay. This was the period when our guns opened up and the enemy was not slow to respond with accurate Mortar fire. Both companies continued the good work in these trying conditions and sustained casualties.

Infantry carrying assault boats in preparation for crossing the Meuse-Escaut canal at Lille-St Hubert, 19 September 1944 (IWM)

At this stage Rifleman Greene one of the batman of B Company, drew upon himself particular distinction. While forming up with the boats, mortar fire came once more from the other side, and the men went to ground. With great coolness and far surpassing his normal duties he continued to erect the assault boats and at the same time urged others to do likewise. This great example produced the necessary effect.

Both companies now pressed forward with great determination. In B Company a compass bearing had been taken from the assembly point to the canal by Captain H. M. Gaffikin so that the problem of direction finding to the canal was solved. There remained the difficulty of the ground.

After struggling across the first little stream, they had then to launch the boats into the canal. This involved hauling the craft up a steep bushy incline of 45 degrees for some 15 feet. This was extremely heavy and tiring work and, on the right, had it not been for the example and determination of the two leading Platoon Commanders, Lts H. D. D. O'Neill and E. G. Barker, and CSM Lutton, much valuable time might have been lost.
Lieutenant H.D.D. O'Neill - Platoon Commander C Company 

On the left enemy mortar fire began to disorganise the boat loads, but Major J. C. S. G. de Longueuil swiftly reorganised and encouraged his men, urging them forward into the boats with great zeal and himself crossing with the first flight though originally he had intended going with the second flight with his Headquarters.

The crossing itself was uneventful, though at one point a hail of bullets cut the water not far away from B Company's boats. On the left the principal excitement occurred when one of the boats slipped away with one man in it, but some stout paddling soon restored this position.

C Company landed and moved forward towards their objectives without incident, and established a small bridgehead about 500 yards deep. They had hardly reported in position when a second message was received that a counter attack was being made from the left flank. Machine gun fire was coming from the tow path at about 100 yards range, a prelude to an attack with rifles and grenades.

This danger to the open flank had been appreciated before the crossing and two dismounted sections of the Carrier Platoon had been attached to the company to strengthen the left flank. But even with this assistance the left flank remained an anxiety, and, in the dark, this attack penetrated the Carrier screen into Company Headquarters where Captain L. F. Laving, the Second in Command, was killed.

Captain L F Laving - C Company Second in Command

The situation for the moment was serious, but Major de Longueuil quickly gathered together all available men and repelled this invasion with great determination. The Boche left two dead behind and many more were thought to be wounded. Immediately the Company Commander asked the Commanding Officer for further reinforcement for the left flank, whereupon the Commanding Officer ordered D Company to cross, to safeguard this dangerous flank until daylight and then to advance to Ds own objectives.

On the right, B Company had quite a different story to tell. When the whole company was safely across the canal the advance to the first objective began. This was a pathway 200 yards inland which was reached safely. There was quite a lot of machine gun fire from the Boche firing across the front, and some 8 cm mortar bombs dropped close by but there were no casualties, and the advance continued on a compass bearing to the final objective, a point on the main road just North of the little village. This was made good without further trouble and a firm position established upon it.

Patrols were now sent out along the main road Northwards towards the railway and Southwards into the village. Both confirmed that the Boche had positions in the area of the level crossing, but was in strength in the village.

It soon became clear however that B Company's position was utterly unknown to the party in the village, for German Medical Orderlies evacuating some casualties fell into our hands and they were astounded at being taken.

At this point Captain Gaffikin spoke to the Commanding Officer on the wireless. He explained the situation and felt that in the dark he could not safely enter the village himself without someone taking over his position and constituting a firm base while he cleared the houses. Accordingly Lt Colonel Harris ordered A Company to cross as soon as possible and then to join B Company. Officer Commanding A Company, Major Sweeny, MC, was then to decide in consultation with Captain Gaffikin, which company was best placed for clearing the village.

At 0345 hrs A Company crossed the canal and on reaching the far bank was met by two guides from B Company who led A Company to their area. The crossing had been without incident, but on this move a curious event took place. At one of the halts an NCO sat down by a haystack, turned to speak to the soldier sitting beside him, and discovered that his neighbour was a German soldier. Both he and his weapon, which happened to be a machine gun, were put out of harms way.

When the companies joined up it was decided that as B Company was already in position, B would therefore remain fast while A Company cleared the village from the North.

Scarcely had this plan been set in motion when the sound of a scuffle was heard in the ditch and five Germans debouched from it to surrender to Lt M. Betty, Commander of the leading platoon. Then the first house was approached. Some resistance was offered but when machine gun and rifle fire were vigorously returned some 10 Germans gave up the struggle, came out and were made prisoners.

By this time it was getting light, though visibility was obscured for some time by a thick morning mist. Suddenly the noise of horse drawn transport was heard approaching from the village and then two farm carts emerged from the mist, loaded with Germans, a variety of machine guns, bazooka, and small arms, and an assortment of looted food and drink.

Our men engaged them at close range, taking advantage of having caught this little convoy entirely unawares. The Boche soon recovered and with great agility removed the guns from the trailers and brought them into action. The resistance was not, however, long sustained. A section of Lt Betty's platoon quickly slipped round to a flank and a well placed 36 grenade from Sjt Peel clinched the matter: the whole party surrendered.

More resistance was met in the next house, but again this was subdued by Bren Gun fire and five more prisoners taken. With this group there was a sapper of our own Division who had been captured whilst on a reconnaissance with his officer the night before. He had spent an exciting night with the Boche and told how bewildered they were on discovering that they were surrounded and cut off.

A Company from that point had no further difficulty in clearing down to the canal, so that now, bridging could begin immediately. A Company returned to the North of the village and Major Sweeny was given fresh orders from the Commanding Officer. As the Lincolns, who had battled through the night against much heavier opposition than we had to face, had all companies across on the right, the Commanding Officer decided that our main danger remained the left flank.

Consequently, D Company having at first light gone forward to the railway crossing, some 700 yards beyond C Company, A was now brought over from the right flank to look after the left. Just before this, Major Sweeny, MC, had begun to advance towards his original objective, the railway crossing, but had been troubled by heavy machine gun fire from this position. One burst unfortunately killed 2/Lt J. Morgan, a young platoon commander who had recently joined us.

Bridging and rafting were now going ahead with great gusto and by 0900 hrs Anti Tank Guns and ancillary Jeeps were being shipped across. By 0930 hrs the Anti Tank Guns were positioned, a section being with each of C, B and D Companies. At about that time priority transport began to cross the sappers Class 9 Bridge, so that by 1000 hrs the Battalion can be said to have been firm, secure, and prepared for any eventuality.

In this attack we inflicted the following losses on the enemy: in men, 4 killed 44 taken prisoner, and a substantial number believed wounded; in material, one 22 mm gun, 12 machine guns, 8 X 8 cm mortars, bazookas, 5 cm mortars, and a host of rifles and other small arms with large quantities of ammunition for each weapon. As against that our losses were 2 Officers killed, 1 Other Rank killed, and 13 wounded.

There can be no doubt that much of this success can be attributed to the manner in which the intention of the Commanding Officer was carried out. The key to the defence of the canal was the small village opposite Lille St Hubert. The defences there controlled the only bridging site opposite the main. Lille St Hubert - Achel Road. Additionally they covered the ground to the east and could stop any threat to their left flank, in fact, at 0215 hrs the Lincolns operating on the right of the main road, in reporting three companies across the canal, stated that they were being held up by fire from these buildings and requested us to clear them with all speed. Nor can it be doubted that we should have sustained grievous losses had an attack been launched direct from the left. Many lives were saved by the prescient decision of Captain Gaffikin to strike Northwards through the dark to the road and then swing South to clear the village backwards.

The excellence of signal communication throughout the operation also deserves comment. Both the Commanding Officer and Brigade were kept fully informed of what was going on and at critical moments the Commanding Officer was always able to speak directly to Company Commanders concerned.

It is a tribute to the signals that Battalion Headquarters was able to remain on the South bank until the completion of the operation, thus avoiding the interruption and possible loss of contact which a crossing during the battle might have entailed. In fact Battalion Headquarters was not set up on the other side until 0945 hrs, its constituents crossing soon after 0900 hrs.

In view of the short notice given for this operation, the lack of full preparation and the absence of detailed knowledge of the enemy and his dispositions, the Battalion had good reason to be satisfied with the part it played. Subsequently the MC was awarded to Major de Longueuil whose handling of C Company had done much to ensure the success of the operation, and the MM to Rifleman Greene for outstanding devotion to duty.

Major J C S G de Longueuil receiving Military Cross from Montgomery in 28 April 1945 in a barn near near the bank of the River Elbe after he had transferred to become Second in Command of 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, part of 6th Airborne Division (IWM).

No comments:

Post a comment