Sunday, 7 November 2010

24th to 25th April 1945 - Assault on Kattenturm

On 24 April, at 1000 hrs, the Commanding Officer gave out his orders in the backyard of Bn. HQ. It was a glorious day and the weather, fine for three successive days, seemed to augur well for the night's operation.

It was to be an imposing operation and the machinery for orders was on an appropriate scale. '0' Group in this case consisted of 28 different people, while the operation order produced by the Adjutant, Capt. Hatton, ran to some sixteen pages.

The intention was clear; 2 RUR would, capture Kattenturm and seize the bridge. Zero hour was to be midnight, and companies were to lead exactly as practised, and be ready to move up to a forward assembly area by 2130 hrs. From that point it was the responsibility of the Buffaloes to put us down at the "debuffing point" on the bund.

On landing "C" Company was to clear the bund and establish a firm bridgehead to cover subsequent landings. "A" Company clearing the bund, "D" the main axis for about six or seven hundred yards; and then "B" Company was to pass through and seize the bridge.

Finally "C" Company was to leave its bridgehead advance up the main road for some five hundred yards and consolidate. If the bridge was secured, the main road would be thrown open, our transport would join us, and the whole operation would immeasurably be speeded up.

An impressive number of guns were deployed for this operation. They had started to wage a private war with the Germans for some nights previously, and it was hoped that a normal barrage on this night would efface the sound of the Buffaloes plodding across the floods.

Artillery support could not be as close as usual on account of the infirm timings imposed by the Buffaloes. They were, however, on call, and a preliminary canter by the mediums early in the evening did much to demoralise our foe.

Beside the normal gunner support, a pepper pot had been arranged. This consisted of a hotchpotch of 4,2 Mortars, Machine Guns, and Bofors firing in a ground role, operating against known enemy positions and probable areas of defence. It was to continue incessantly from about 2200 hrs. onwards, and Bosche prisoners were later to remark how disconcerting they had found it.

Finally, a single Bofors gun was detailed to fire three rounds at one minute intervals along the line of the Buffalo route in order to assist them in maintaining direction.

Morning and afternoon were spent in briefing the whole Battalion, and then most people snatched a few hours rest before the rigours of the night, which was certain to be a sleepless one. At last preparations were complete, and at 2100 hrs. the companies marched down to the waiting Buffaloes and climbed aboard.

It was a warm, yet fresh, Spring evening, with a glorious sunset, and the men were whistling and singing in great spirits as this strange convoy moved forward. At a forward assembly area just South of Leeste, we paused for an hour to drink hot tea and a tot of rum before settling down to the business of the night.

Again the note of cheerfulness among all ranks was predominant. Everyone knew that this advance would be the longest that the Buffaloes had ever made, and appreciated the difficulties that faced them.

As zero hour approached an air of rising excitement was visible and tangible in every member of this attack. Never had morale been higher, or the Battalion more certain of its ability to defeat the Bosche and achieve its purpose.

At last the word was passed down the line. Everybody clambered aboard, and a great roar rose up as 47 Buffaloes sprang into life. Just as the convoy was moving off the Brigade Commander, with a clutch of press reporters, arrived, and wished the Battalion good luck and bon voyage.

The barrage had already begun, but now there was a marked crescendo and it seemed certain that the sounds of the Buffaloes were effectively muffled. On our left the "pepper pot" could be seen in action as hundreds and thousands of tracer bullets and young shells winged through the air, lighting the sky in a veritable galaxy of colour and sound.

Overhead the three guiding rounds of Bofors tracer sailed periodically by. They looked mysterious, almost ghostly, and so evidently fired for a specific purpose that we thought that the Bosche might tumble to it, until we realised that the trace was in the base of the round, and so would not be seen by the other side. The sound of the gun firing would have been impossible to pick out among all the noise that was going on.

The convoy moved on past the point just North of Leeste where the Second-in-Command, Major Wheeler, had established his control point for vehicles that were to be ferried over later, and where the Adjutant was in position with the rear link wireless set to Brigade Headquarters.

The column was a memorable sight. The moonlight was so vivid, and the night so luminous that the ugly silhouettes of these monstrous amphibians could be seen at six or seven hundred yards distant. Somehow one could not help but think of H. G. Wells' fantastic conceptions in "Shape of things to come". Yet here were machines, at once more strange and more practical than anything he devised, being used in the year of grace 1945.

The water seemed to emphasise the line of these silhouettes, and the first companies were quite prepared to expect a warm reception as their craft drifted into view.

"C" Company crossed the startline at midnight, "A" and "D" Coys in two parallel, snake like columns at 0020 hrs. The route was expertly taped and lit to the startline, and subsequently the leading Buffaloes dropped off buoy lamps to guide those who followed.

Not a single Buffalo was either lost or permanently bogged, even though all of them were severely tested by the almost perpendicular slopes of the Canal. One of the Buffaloes had to tranship its load in midstream, and in Tactical Battalion Headquarters the 22 set wireless link to the Adjutant and to Brigade was for some time marooned 50 yards from the shore. But both were soon recovered and set on their way, thanks to the inspired recovery drill and co-operation of the Buffalo Commanders.

When "C" Company were still 50 yards from the crook of the bund which they were to consolidate as a bridgehead, two red verey lights went up from behind it, and immediately small arms and bazooka fire began to come at the Buffaloes.

They pushed on unflinchingly however, and landed each of the three platoons exactly on the parts of the bank which had been prearranged as the platoon objectives. This was not done without incident.

The left hand platoon under Sjt McAleavy, cleared its objective after an exchange of rifle shots, and collected six prisoners. On the right, the leading section, under Cpl. McMullan, rushed from their Buffaloes to find two 3.7 flak guns just being brought into action against the Buffaloes.

This section promptly disposed of the crew by killing one, wounding five, and capturing eleven others. It was a great start, and a vital one, for if the guns had been allowed to fire, it might have been disastrous for the oncoming Buffaloes. As it was, two guns were now turned and fired against Arsten until the ammunition ran out.

Quite a lot of resistance remained to be mopped up even after "A" and "D" Companies had come into land, and "C" Company in a thorough search of this part of the bund, found many Boche skulking in their slit trenches. Not all of them however.

As the first troops of "A" Company ran ashore, they were greeted by a fusillade of panzerfausts, which burst all round them, wounding several of them, including Sjt. Bonass. This was disconcerting but was not allowed to hinder the advance; a quick rush, a few shots, and the Company's first prisoners were brought in.

"A" Company's advance along the bund now began, and it swiftly became clear that theirs was to be a difficult passage. The enemy was dug in all along the bund, which was only about four yards wide, and he was defending his positions stubbornly with unsparing use of panzerfausts and small arms.

The leading Platoon of "A" Company fought its way along the bund, literally "winkling" the enemy from every position. It was precarious fun, for the Boche kept popping up from the backside of the bund, appearing and firing usually at point blank range.

Rfn Loughran was sniped as he crawled across the bund to deal with one of these posts, but straightaway Rfn. Mellon crawled across and brought him back with bullets whistling all round.

Casualties were sustained in twos and threes but the advance went on.

The opposition was particularly stiff round a large house set back about twenty yards from the bund. It was defended obstinately with spandaus and many panzerfausts, and a fierce fight waged between this knot of opposition and a platoon of "A" Company under Lt Songest. Several NCOs and men, and Lt Songest, were hit, though he was able to retain control until the action ended.

A second platoon was brought forward by the Company Commander, Major Tighe-Wood MC, who was continually forward giving encouragement, and keeping his men cool and steady in these difficult conditions. But this platoon was in fact never deployed, because a gallant rush by Cpl. Lambourne and his section - from Lt Songest's platoon - had carried the position.

The reason for the opposition now became apparent. In the garden of the house was a well concealed 88 mm gun, in perfect working order. Fortunately it had been unable to traverse sufficiently far to the left to trouble the Buffaloes. It was a great success and Cpl Lambourne was subsequently awarded the MM for his supremely courageous performance.

This splendid action of "A" Company broke the back of resistance of Kattenturm. The Company fought magnificently, displaying throughout a determination to crush the enemy and gain their objectives.

Typical of this fighting spirit was the behaviour of Rfn Wilkes, the company runner, who, though hit in the face by the explosion of a panzerfaust, refused to be evacuated until the action was complete; or again that of L/Cpl. Dalton who, when all other NCOs in his platoon had been wounded, took over the duties of platoon Serjeant and carried on in a most able manner.

"A" Company took some 40 prisoners, and besides this, killed and wounded an appreciable number. Booty included the 88 mm gun, three lighter flak guns, and a host of small arms. As against this, their own casualties were one officer and 24 wounded, and most of these were fortunately not serious. "A" Company has much cause to be proud of this achievement.

Meanwhile "C" Company's bridgehead was now the scene of furious activity. Vehicles, anti-tank guns, and men poured out of the Buffaloes and were directed onwards by Capt. Gray who, as Battalion Landing Officer, had come in with "C" Company to search out a landing ground and routes forward for vehicles.

"D" Company had pressed on, simultaneously with "A" Company, but the German defences were without depth, and apart from a few snipers which were cleared without much trouble, "D" Company's advance was unopposed.

Tactical Battalion Headquarters moved up close behind "D" Company and established itself at the Eastern end of the village for the duration of the attack.

"B" Company had landed without incident, and as soon as "D" Company reported their objectives gained, "B" Company was slipped through towards the greatest prize of all, the Kattenturm bridge.

Almost at once they came under fire from the road and a large house to the left. The leading section, under Cpl. Holt, rushed the position and eliminated it, whilst another section dealt swiftly with the house, and soon the advance was resumed.

Lt McCrainor, the leading platoon commander, had been given orders by Major Cummins to push on as fast as he could towards the bridge and to bypass any opposition which was not sufficiently serious to detain him.

At the cross-roads near the bridge they encountered opposition, and were able to do this; and by slipping round the enemy, they seized the bridge before it could be blown, quickly establishing themselves on both sides of it.

Subsequently the enemy on the cross-roads and along the bund, where it went towards the bridge, were liquidated at leisure.

Altogether 4 Officers and 20 or 30 other ranks and one camp follower were discovered in the Company locality; so that had the position been assaulted frontally, serious opposition might have been met. As it was the Sapper reconnaissance party, following close up behind the leading platoon, quickly rendered innocuous the two bombs which were found sunk into the side of the road as a demolition charge; and soon a bulldozer arrived to assist in the clearance of a formidable road block which the retreating Germans had left behind on the bridge.

"B" Company had begun their advance soon after 0330 hrs., and it was just after first light when the great news passed through that the bridge had been won intact. Now "C" Company left the bridgehead area - for the attack on Arsten which 2 Warwicks were launching, had eliminated any threat to it now - moved up to the main road and completed the consolidation of the area and rounded off the Battalion's part of the attack.

5 Officers and 128 other ranks was the final total of prisoners, while an 88 mm and five other smaller flak guns were captured, above all the bridge had been seized intact.

There can be no doubt but that complete surprise had been achieved. One of the German officer prisoners said afterwards that so certain was the Bremen garrison commander that the attack would come up the line of the Brinkum road that the 88 mm gun had been taken off its wheels and given an arc of traverse which was limited to a particularly vulnerable part of the main road.

He thought that the turning manoeuvre which the Battalion had carried out was the finest thing tactically that he had seen done by British troops in the whole campaign, and with the rest of the prisoners, he gazed goggle-eyed at the "Schwim-Panzer" which had traversed what was considered to be impassable country.

The award of the Distinguished Service Order to Lt.-Colonel Drummond was a fitting conclusion to such an enterprise. Since he had taken command, the Battalion's chain of successes had been unbroken, and now the campaign had been wound up in really superb style.

This last operation had been at once the most spectacular and the most difficult that the Battalion had undertaken, and, without doubt, the completeness of the triumph was due largely to his bold plan and resolute leadership.

During the rest of the day, I KOSB and 2 Lincolns passed through to capture a vital cross-roads and a factory without much opposition, and later I KOSB resumed the advance, pushing through Bremen, pausing during the hours of darkness and resuming at first light, to reach the main railway line.

In order to release them to begin this advance we were moved up to the area of the cross-roads for the night, and next morning at 0800 hrs, assisted by a squadron of tanks from 22 Dragoons, we cleared a built up area on the far side of the railway, and completed 9 Brigade's part in the attack on Bremen.

There was virtually no opposition, but again the PW total was well over 100. The battle for Bremen was thenceforward in the hands of 8 Brigade, part of which began to pass through us at about 1300 hrs.

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