Sunday, 7 November 2010

March 1945 - Watch on the Rhine

At Winnekendonk we presided for several days over the liquidation of the Wesel pocket, being held for the most part at 12 hours notice to assist in clearing it up. Looking at a map it was not difficult to see the resemblance between the Wesel pocket and the Wanssum pocket.

Both positions were comparatively easy to defend, each being surrounded on three sides by a great river and a broad tributary, and in both cases supporting artillery and anti-tank guns could be brought up close behind these water obstacles and employed with devastating effect.

But times had changed, and the German now found himself unable to afford the luxury of a pocket; every available man was needed to hold the line of the Rhine itself. On the night of 8/9 March, he withdrew from the West bank.

3 British Infantry Division's new role was now made known. It was to take up positions along the Rhine from Rees to Emmerich and hold them with two very definite purposes. First, no enemy was to be permitted to set foot upon our shore, and if any party succeeded momentarily in doing this it was to be wiped out.

Secondly, everything possible was to be done by way of observation during the day to build up a clear picture of the enemy's dispositions on the far bank.

The Battalion was allotted a front of approximately 3,000 yards. North East of Calcar and South West of Rees. Rees stands at the head of a right angular bend in the river, and downstream past the town, the river runs due West for about 4,000 yards and then swings sharply North again towards Emmerich. This Westerly stretch along which the Battalion took its stand was obviously to be of immense importance.

Although the utmost security about forthcoming operations was maintained, it did not require excessive imagination to realise that this was the ideal site for a assault crossing of the river, and the perfect springboard for the capture of Rees which was the focal point of four first class reads.

On our own side the roads leading towards the river from the main Calcar - Xanten lateral were in excellent condition, and there were useful tracks which led down from a tarmac lateral road some five hundred yards back from and parallel with the river, to the river itself. Finally, limiting the German's view of our own side of the river was a band or bank which ran the whole way along the river and represented the high water mark of the river in flood; although there were breaches in it at various points, it was well suited to conceal large scale movement of troops and supplies.

The scope and extent of the preparations that soon began left no doubt in the minds of all ranks that this was definitely one of the sites for the assault, and spurred them on to carry out the Battalion's commitments to the utmost of their ability.

Tremendous effort was demanded and found. By night on the river bank five standing patrols at four hundred yard intervals along the water's edge were found by the Battalion, and behind them, three Companies were forward, alert and prepared for any emergency.

During the day five O.Ps were manned from dawn to dusk so that every part of the Battalion front was covered from several angles, every detail of enemy movement on the far bank was religiously catalogued, and by the end of our residence, we had obtained a shrewd idea of how the enemy was disposed on the far bank.

On only one occasion did the Hun tread upon the soil of our Battalion area, and then not for long. The night of 21 March was as black as Erebus: visibility was nil. At about 0200 hours one of the river bank patrols from 'A' Company, under Lt P. Haley, heard sounds of splashing and attempts to disembark from a boat.

They moved at once towards the place and opened a withering fire in the direction of the sounds. It was returned by the NCO in charge of the German patrol, but only for a short time. Coming upon the patrol, Lt Haley took prisoner one of the Germans, and later a search revealed the body of the NCO riddled with bullets.

The third member, for the prisoner revealed that there were three, was presumed by our own men, and by the prisoner himself, to have been drowned when he attempted to climb back into the beat. He could not swim and the craft had capsized in the course of the fight.

There was little recreation for most of the Battalion in these circumstances of a 24 hours day's vigil. Yet in spite of it we still managed to honour and venerate St Patrick, if not with traditional ceremony, at least with festive good fare. Geese, turkey, and pigs alike bowed their heads passively in observation of this perennially great occasion, and a moderate supply of beer and wines did something to compensate for the unbroken watch which the tactical situation impelled us to maintain.

Each day, the plan for the crossing of the Rhine became more clear to us as we watched the preparations that were being made, and throughout, we found it interesting to speculate upon how close we had come to carrying out the assault crossing ourselves.

When the Division was resting between Malines and Louvain, it had been earmarked for the crossing at the point where 15 Scottish Division eventually crossed. At that time the great assault through the Reichwald Forest had been launched, and it was designed to coincide with a similar attack by the Ninth U.S. Army across the River Roer towards Cologne.

But on the eve of this attack the Germans shattered the Roer dams, and held up the American thrust for 18 days, and so were able to switch extra divisions to the Reichwald front against the Second Army.

3 British Infantry Division which had to that date been husbanded for the crossing of the Rhine, was now committed near Goch and Weeze, relieving 15 Scottish Division who had borne the brunt of these German reinforcements, and who were now with drawn to Tilburg for refitting and training to force the Rhine.

The "build up" for the operation conveyed the impression that no effort or expense was being spared to make this operation a success. Overnight, the whole Battalion area became carpeted with guns and rocket of every known calibre, and extensive ammunition dumps everywhere sprang into existence.

The roads became heavily signed with notices showing points of embarkation, beach assembly areas, tank tracks, PW cages, and a host of other things, so that it soon bore a strong resemblance to the Normandy beachhead.

At the same time reconnaissances of the river bank were being made nightly by Sappers, frequently under the escort of our patrols, and daily from our O.Ps by practically every officer from Lieut.-General Sir Miles Dempsey, KGB, DSO, MC, himself to the most insignificant subaltern in the assaulting Division - many specialist RA, RE, RASC, RAOC, REME, each with his own problem to solve all visited the O.Ps in unbroken succession.

Much of the visibility was obscured during the day by an artificial smoke screen which veiled the enormity of the preparations that were being made. It hovered over the forward companies the whole day long, and its sickly, choking smell made living conditions almost impossible.

The assault came, above all as a tremendous relief to the afflicted troops.
The night of the 24/25 was the opening of the attack, and that afternoon all companies were fully informed of the plan, and a message from Field Marshal Montgomery was read out. Soon after this, the much heralded barrage began.

From 1700 to 2100 hours the roar of gunfire continued without a break, and at 2100 hours, the moment of assault, it was stepped up to a veritable furore. Thousands of guns, from British Naval pieces to 4.2 Mortars and 25 pounders, drummed out an inspiring challenge which must have struck fear into the heart of the most steely foe.

Most impressive of all were the multi-barrelled rockets or "mattresses", terrifying machines, each of which in half a minute unleashed 360 rockets, every one burning its way through the air with a screech that as frightening to hear.

All through the night, the pace was kept up, and although preparations had been made for enemy counter-battery, little was seen or heard of it and we were thankful to report next morning that no casualties had been sustained.

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