Saturday, 6 November 2010

January 1945 - Watch on The River Meuse

Excitements in the New Year began early. The Germans were as weary as ourselves with the Watch on the Meuse, and were determined to break the monotony.

Punctually at midnight on New Year's Eve, they opened up with a riot of small arms, mortar and artillery fire along the whole length of the front. Tracer soared aimlessly and abundantly into the air, and the roar of guns sounded for five minutes like the prelude to an assault.

Next morning at about 1000 hrs, half a dozen German fighters, the first we had seen for some months, swooped low over our positions. They were part of a large force distributing a New Year greeting to British and Canadian airfields throughout Belgium and Holland. 1945 had certainly begun with a swing.

Then again, the exhilaration of the prospect of leave to the United Kingdom greatly stimulated those who had been abroad since the inception of the campaign. The first party - only five men left the Battalion on January 1st, were in the UK by January 3rd, and returned some ten days later. Subsequent parties were larger, and during January and February 13 Officers and 144 Other Ranks were sent on leave by this scheme.

There can be no doubt of the benefits which this short period at home bestowed. It corrected a certain staleness wrought by six or seven months active service, and enabled the recipients to return and face their particular problems with a fresh mind and outlook.

Operationally our role remained static, holding the line of the Meuse. At the beginning of the year we were in the Swolgen-Broek-Huizervorst sector, some three miles South of the Blitterswijk-Wanssum country that the Battalion knew so well.

Later, after a brief week in Brigade reserve at Horst, we held the stretch of the river above Lottum. All these villages were little known to the general public, but they are stamped indelibly upon the minds of those who lived in them. They were held more as a series of isolated strongpoints, than as mutually supporting bastions of defences, for with a Divisional front of some 25 miles, Companies were inevitably scattered, gaps between them were often Immense, and consequently penetration by enemy patrols was all too easy.

Our own patrolling policy was in the main designed to destroy the enemy if he succeeded in landing on our shore. The Battalion area was in every case divided up between Companies, and each Company was responsible for dominating its area throughout the night.

This involved a heavy patrolling programme, each Company generally finding two or three patrols, often of many hours duration, every night. As far as the individual rifleman was concerned, this meant that one night he was on guard, and the following night on patrol, and on the third night he was back again on guard, and this in conditions of extreme cold when snow was often thick on the ground.

This was the policy throughout the time that we were on the Meuse - from 27th December to 7th January, and after a week's rest, again from the 17th January to 10th February, observation and sleep by day, intensive patrolling by night. By the final date it was a relief to hand over the position and escape from this exhausting routine.

Even this vigilance did not prevent the Germans crossing the Meuse in small parties and slipping through our defensive screen.

One night we were informed by I K.O.S.B. on our right that a party of 40 Huns had been seen landing on the banks of the Meuse and were approaching our positions. A suitable welcome was prepared but nothing more was seen of them, and an offensive patrol failed to discover them. At times enemy patrols were seen and chased, but they often escaped into the darkness.

Others fell foul of minefields, which had been laid with complete abandon by our predecessors. One morning a German patrol of three men were challenged by 2 Lincolns on our left and on taking to flight had been pursued into our area. Here both searcher and quarry fell foul of an anti-personnel minefield, and when day broke it revealed that 2 Lincolns patrol commander had been killed, and of the Germans, one was killed, one captured, and the third was sitting in the middle of the minefield, fearfully aware of the danger of his position.

The area was well in observation from the far bank of the river and attempts to retrieve him, even under a red cross flag, evoked salvoes of shellfire from his fellow countrymen, upon whom he did not hesitate to vent his spleen. As a result he stayed out in the cold until darkness and was then brought in by our Infantry Engineer Platoon who had to neutralise mines which were actually lying within inches of his body.

On another occasion a Corporal and two men came up against 'C' Company's forward platoon; the two men were both pinned down and captured, and the Corporal, although he escaped our clutches, was known by subsequent interrogation not to have got back to his unit.

On the whole, though, all the advantages lay with the offensive patrol, and for every one German party that we saw probably five or ten others came over, carried out their reconnaissance and returned without us knowing anything about it.

One small party was definitely known to have passed through a front line Battalion and penetrated almost to Horst, some five miles back from the river: it was captured on the river bank in the act of returning, having only just failed to complete its mission.

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