Friday, 5 November 2010

29th to 30th November 1944 - Attack on Wanssum

Most of 29 November was spent in close and careful reconnaissance of the ground by Company and Platoon Commanders. It was a deliberate operation, and for once, time for discussion of plan, study of air photographs and finally decision, was adequate for commanders at every level. Additionally C Company sent out a small patrol under Sjt Barrett to ensure that the Boche had not disappeared in the night. Vigorous MG fire from the orchards at Helling revealed him in position and keenly hostile to any movement.

At 0500 hrs November 30th the attack began on the left. C Company under Major Murphy, who had recently rejoined the Battalion from a staff appointment at Second Army HQ, moved forward to the line of the wire. Here a party of Pioneers under Lt Shimmin cut the wire and neutralised some mines that were attached to it. Once the breach was made the first platoon passed through and advanced up the main road towards Helling, closely followed by Lt Shimmin and his Pioneers.

The nature of the ground and the weather soon made it clear that this attack was to be no easy one. The night was clear and a brisk wind kept the sky free from clouds permitting the full moon to shine with unabated intensity. The ground was quite flat and with visibility of at least 150 yards, advance was fraught with difficulty and peril.

This was soon evident when having found the houses just South of Helling clear, the leading platoon came under vicious machine gun fire from two directions - half left from the orchard and directly to the front from the houses of Helling itself. The platoon was effectively pinned to the ground and attempts to get forward or manoeuvre only resulted in casualties. Back at the wire Major Murphy appreciating what had happened, began to work a second platoon up the left flank along the bank of the canal.

This platoon had reached a point almost level with the right hand platoon when it too came under intensive fire from two spandaus in the Western edge of the orchard. The Germans had the ground thoroughly traversed by fire, and were taking full advantage of the moonlight and their own strong positions.

Major Murphy now decided to withdraw his two platoons to their original forming up positions in order to shoot this stubborn resistance with heavy mortar and artillery fire. 2" Mortar had been used by both the forward platoons but neither was successful in silencing the spandaus. Accordingly orders for withdrawal were given and transmitted to each platoon by Rifleman Beattie the Company Runner.

On the right however, it was unfortunate that just after receiving this order to withdraw, Sjt Hammersley who was commanding the platoon, was wounded and evacuated and it seemed certain that the order to withdraw never reached the bulk of the platoon, or indeed the Pioneers under Lt Shimmin.

At all events, only five men from the platoon and none of the Pioneers returned to the forming up place. Subsequently Major Murphy observed five rifleman being taken back under German escort, one carrying a Red Cross Flag and another a stretcher. Later, Lt Shimmin and Sjt Raffaelli, the Platoon Serjeant, were also seen going back under escort and the same afternoon a civilian told us that he had witnessed the passage of 15 British soldiers through Wanssum on their way to the ferry.

Six graves were afterwards discovered in the orchard at Helling where they had been buried by Dutchmen. Somehow it seems that the Boche must have advanced from his positions and surprised our men by a sudden appearance. The facts are that 'C' Company's casualties in this action were 6 killed, 4 wounded, and 12 missing, while the Pioneer Platoon lost Lt Shimmin and 7 ORs missing.

On the right 'D' Company under the command of Major Bird had been more successful. At 0415 the Company had moved out of Blitterswijk handing over its defensive commitments in the town to 'A' Company who were to remain there as a firm base. At 0500 the Company moved off towards the first obstacle - the wire - and soon the Pioneers under Cpl Genovese began a breaching operation.

Here they found not mines hut explosive charges attached to the wire, and not being able to reach and neutralise them, they had no alternative, but to cut the wire, pull it and set off the charges. This seemed to make a considerable report but the wind dispersed it and no harm resulted.

The first MG did not open up until the second platoon had passed through the gap in the wire; it fired at close range but hit nobody, and Lt Campbell, commanding the platoon covering the advance to the first Company objective a ruined mill - led his men in a charge upon the position. On gaining it he found no Boche but the spandau and a panzerfaust were left behind.

The leading platoon under Lt Hancock experienced similar opposition. These men came under heavy fire from a wood between themselves and the objective, but getting into the wood they worked forward employing the tactics of throwing a grenade at a position and then rushing it. This was done with great initiative and dash by Lt Hancock in spite of two slight wounds, and his leading section commander Cpl Harrigan.

The denseness of the wood made progress slower, and when the Boche positions were reached, again the bird had flown, though in great haste judging by the amount of equipment he left Behind.

The third platoon having survived without incurring any casualties, a severe spell of Boche DF fire along its line of approach, now came up and pressed on to the mill which was occupied without further difficulty. Nor was any. more opposition encountered in gaining the second objective, the western edge of the wood some distance north west of the mill.

The final objective, a wood to the south of the second, was not easily won. Two or three Boche positions located in the approaches to it were treated with 2" Mortar and PIAT fire but not until they were charged by a platoon did the Boche finally give way, then abandoning arms and equipment. Altogether 'D' Company in gaining its three objectives, captured six spandaus and six bazookas.

Under the leadership of Major Bird this attack had been extremely successful, and the Company now consolidated it's objectives, digging in under the spur of shells fired from the Boche side of the Meuse.
Major A C Bird

It was soon clear however that although the enemy had given ground in face of the determination and spirit of 'D' Company's assault he retained a perimeter defence of East Wanssum albeit reduced, which he had no intention of giving up. 'D' Company were now established south of the Wanssum - Blitterswijk road, but two or three wooded areas north of the road were known to contain Boche.

Between Wanssum and 'D' Company, the enemy, ejected from the woods, had reorganised his defence in a house some 500 yards from our men. Opposite 'C' Company there was still no evidence of withdrawal from Helling.

On our side nothing more could be done until nightfall as every approach to the Boche positions now involved traversing open and flat ground. Therefore Lt-Colonel Harris now planned to renew the attack by night, attacking with 'B' Company towards Wanssum from a point south west of 'D' Company's wood.

Simultaneously 'D' Company were to cross the main road and clear the houses and wood on the north side of it. Meanwhile during the day we continued to be offensive, several "Mike" shoots were brought down on Helling. 'D'- Company passed the afternoon sniping at the Boche; Rifleman Hopper killed or wounded six and Rifleman Roberts two more. During the afternoon under cover of a white flag a party of Germans came forward of their positions to bring in the wounded and dead.

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