But the initiative was not allowed to remain the monopoly of the Germans. In the last fortnight of our Watch on the Meuse, active patrols across the river were initiated along our entire Corps front.
After the restoration of the situation in the Ardennes, the Allies had taken up the offensive again when the Second Army attacked North and East of Geilenkirchen to close up to the line of the River Roer.
On the Eastern front the Russians were making striding advances across Poland into Germany, and it was soon obvious that great events were impending on our own front. It became of vital importance that the enemy's layout should be effectively pinpointed and identifications should be secured, and in fact that the slightest change in enemy dispositions was at once made known to the Higher Command.
With this background the first patrol was planned. It was to be led by Lt Hancock of 'D' Company assisted by Lt Hogan of 'A' Company and composed of the Battalion's Battle Patrol which had been reborn at the beginning of the year. Under Captain Baudains, MM, it had journeyed to Grave on the lower Meuse for training in the science of boating, and there had mastered the technique on a far broader and more stormy stretch of the river than that opposite Lottum. They came away from Grave proficient at probably the trickiest part of their task.
Nor was any effort spared on the side of reconnaissance and planning. The patrol commander spent a whole day in an excellent OP, surveying the ground he was to traverse from no greater distance than four hundred yards.
The Commanding Officer obtained an aerial view of the objective from an afternoon's cruise in an air OP. Careful reconnaissance was made of this bank and a suitable creek discovered in which the boat could be concealed and ultimately launched.
Simultaneously, careful study of the ground was made on sand models, panoramas, and air photographs; here we were much assisted by the timely arrival of the "snow sortie", flown four days before with the snow lying on the ground as it was to be on the night of the patrol.
Also a considerable programme for the supporting arms was prepared, to cover the sound of the launching of the boat, rowing across, landing, and cutting the double apron fence which had been observed along the far bank of the river, and for seven nights before the night of the patrol, the Gunners, 4,2 and 3" Mortars, and the MMGs, shot altogether for a spell of ten minutes duration at various times, so that on the night in question, the enemy would suspect nothing unusual in such a barrage.
An extensive "escape" programme was prepared for the event of the patrol running into strength with which it could not deal. The Gunners were to fire a box barrage within which the patrol was to withdraw, and simultaneously Mortars were to harass Lomm and its environs.
A considerable body of small arms fire on pre-selected targets was at the disposal of the patrol commander should he find himself in difficulties. This body remained on our hank under the guiding hand of Captain Baudains, MM, who could open fire on hearing a whistle from the patrol commander, and who was in contact by line with the Commanding Officer and Major Nicholson, RA, in the Gunner OP in Lottum.
Everything possible was done to provide for an emergency, even though in the event it was not necessary.
The patrol's objective was a group of houses called Hoeken which lay between the hostile village of Lomm and the East bank of the river, that is opposite our own right hand Company in the village of Lottum. The intention was to discover whether Hoeken was held by night and if so in what strength. If possible the patrol was to take a prisoner.
On the night before the patrol was to cross, the boat was carried down to the small creek a few hundred yards up stream from Hoeken. At last at 2000 hrs 31 January, the boat was slipped down into the mainstream, and at the very moment of the crash of the opening salvo of the anti-sound programme, the paddles of the patrol hit the water.
In five minutes the whole party, Lt Hancock, Lt Hogan, and seven men were on the other bank. Here they had the misfortune to land on a mud bank, and sink in almost to their waist in mud, extracting themselves only with utmost difficulty.
This was a wretched start, but the patrol soon recovered itself, cut the wire, and when Lt Hogan and three Bren guns had been left to cover the boat on the bank, Lt Hancock and four men started forward.
Hoeken consists of five houses in a line some two hundred and fifty yards back from the river. What used to be the gardens of these houses stretch 75 yards down towards the river and are hedged off parallel to the river line forming an enclosure about 100 yards long.
South of this enclosure is scraggy orchard, so thinly peopled with trees as hardly to deserve such a name. Between the orchard and the enclosure is a track leading up to the Southernmost house in Hoeken.
The patrol had almost reached this track when the excitements began. Sounds of footsteps were heard coming from the Southern end of the orchard and, throwing themselves flat, they saw three of four men pass within a few feet of them. Simultaneously they heard coughing in the direction of the point from which this party seemed to have come. This was subsequently confirmed by the boating party and the first enemy position was established.
Moving Northwards after this tense moment, the patrol lay up next within view of the Southernmost house in Hoeken in which much activity was observed; light flared out as the door was opened and closed, sounds of occupation could be heard, and tracks in the snow could be observed heading away from the house in the direction of the position which had already been located. Clearly it was the platoon billet and headquarters.
Now the party continued North to halfway up to the enclosure and then forced their way through the thick hedge and fence that bounded it. Scarcely had they done this when two more sentries walked past not two yards away from the patrol; who, baulked by the hedge, were badly placed to seize them quietly.
When they had passed, the patrol moved back out of the enclosure hoping that they would return, but in this they were disappointed. Another piece of ill-fortune came later when Lt Hancock having laid up close to the Northern houses of Hoeken and heard nothing, returned to the track between enclosure and orchard just in time to see two more men walking from the HQ across the orchard to the located position. Once more the patrol was unfortunately placed for snatching a prisoner.
After moving about and lying up for four and a half hours, the patrol now returned to the bank, since Lt Hancock considered his men too cold profitably to continue. Recognition signals with the boating party were successfully made and the whole party re-embarked without further incident.
Having left at 2000 hrs they were back again by 0030 hrs. No prisoner had been brought hack, because being unfortunately placed on the two most promising occasions, the patrol found no opportunity in which silent success was certain to be the outcome; and Lt Hancock felt that with only four men at his disposal, any sound of struggle would place the whole enterprise in jeopardy.
As it was the patrol was able to return with exact information about enemy dispositions and habits in Hoeken without the enemy even realising that anyone had been there. It was the perfect reconnaissance patrol.