Sunday, 7 November 2010

May 1945 - Journey's End

One disaster clouded the completeness of triumph in Bremen. When "D" Company had reached their objective, Major Bird MC, Lt. Hancock, and a section set off in the company carrier to contact the 51 Highland Division in Huchting. Not far from the Company Headquarters there was a fearful explosion, and it soon became apparent that the carrier had activated the most diabolical of all German mines - the magnetic mine. There were no survivors.

This was the second accident of its kind within the month, and in each case a high percentage of the casualties had been fatal. Major Bird, a gallant leader, who had brought his Company triumphantly through many actions; Lt Hancock, whose unassuming bravery and steadfastness in action had won universal admiration; and L/Cpl McCoy, Rfn McGlennon MM, Rfn Stevens, and others who constituted the very core of "D" Company. The loss of these men in this cruelly wasteful manner stunned and shocked the whole Battalion.

One last tragedy was reported, and all the more tragic because it occurred on May 9th., the day after the official cessation of hostilities.

Major C. R. P. Sweeny, MC, on his way back to Field Marshal Montgomery's headquarters was killed in a motor accident. Major Sweeny had left the Battalion at Meerlo, in January, to become one of the Field Marshal's liaison officers; but although this was five months ago, the memory of him had remained vividly dear to those who know and had fought with him.

The tribute of Field Marshal Montgomery himself is appended elsewhere, and nothing need be added to it. No death could bring more forcefully the truth that war takes away the finest and the best of mankind.

On 13 May, at the special request of the Field Marshal, a burial party of four officers - all of whom had known Major Sweeny personally - twelve men and four buglers, journeyed to Tactical Headquarters, 21 Army Group to assist at the funeral. He was laid at rest on Luneburg Heath near Hamburg.

The great events of early May 1945 found the Battalion resting quietly in Delmenhorst after the exertions of the final battles. The main direction of Second Army was now across the Elbe towards Wismar and Lubeck on the one hand, and Hamburg, Kiel and Copenhagen on the other.

Then came the great news of the surrender of the German Armies in the North to 21 Army Group, and three days later the signature of general surrender at Rheims. We listened slightly dazed to the announcement of these great events - for they happened too swiftly for their significance to be fully realised or understood.

Already we had begun duties of an Army of Occupation. First at Delmenhorst, then at Mettingen near Osnabrück and finally at Gelsenkirchen in the heart of the Ruhr we wrestled with a few of the vast problems with which the Allies have been called upon to deal. These were new problems which could be faced against a background of triumph for the war was over, and the Battalion felt satisfied with the part it had played in winning it.

But in enjoying the laurels of victory, the sacrifice of those who fell must never be forgotten. The Battalion's total casualties in killed, wounded and missing, were 49 Officers and 755 other ranks, which is virtually the complete turnover of a single Battalion.

Fortunately this grim total was spread fairly evenly over the entire campaign and so reinforcements could be absorbed and moulded without the spirit and stamp of the Regiment being lost. It can be truly said that in spite of all, the Battalion maintained unimpaired fighting spirit and its tradition of good cheer.

This story has been mainly concerned with the deeds of the more glamorous part of an Infantry Battalion, the fighting soldiers of the Rifle Companies. It would be unbalanced, however, to close the narrative without reference to the members of Headquarter Company, the Signals, Intelligence, Orderly Room Staff, Regimental Police, and those at "A", "B" and "F" Echelons.

Their work though not spectacular, was vital to the continuity of the Battalion's life and without their high standard of efficiency and service, which was maintained and enhanced as the campaign wore on, many of the Battalions successes would have been jeopardised.

Typical of this standard and spirit was our Quartermaster, Capt. Henniker MBE, who, rich in experience, guided the Battalion tirelessly and faithfully through the tortuous paths of supply under the conditions of active service. He finished the campaign as the only Quartermaster in the Brigade who had seen the campaign from D day to VE day, and as the only officer in the Battalion who had seen both campaigns in North West Europe from beginning to end.

Another character who must be mentioned here is the "Fighting Padre" Fr. J. O'Brien, who landed with the Battalion on D Day and saw the campaign to its close. From the earliest days, he made himself peculiarly a part of the Battalion, and his perennial cheerfulness was the salvation of many a drooping spirit in the difficult days which confronted us.

Soon after VE Day celebrations were complete, it was announced that 3 British Infantry Division would represent the United Nations in Berlin as the British element of the Garrison troops in the capital. It would indeed have been a fitting "end of the road" for a division which had alone in the Second Army, fought as an entity from D day to VE day.

But it was not to be. The scheme was cancelled and the final journey from Recklinghausen to Berlin depicted at Appendix D did not in fact take place.

The story of an Infantry Battalion can afford to finish on a note of eulogy for the Infantry. What better than a passage from Lord Wavell's famous article: "The Infantry man always bears the brunt. His casualties are heavier, and he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other arms . . . So let us write Infantry with a Capital I; and think of them with the deep admiration they deserve. And let us Infantrymen wear our battledress like our rue, with a difference, and throw a chest in it, for we are the men who win battles and war."

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. Stayed up until 4am reading this history. My Dad is the Sgt Bonass mentioned here, who landed at Sword on 6th June 1944. Later known as Herby Bonass of 2 RUR and served in Palestine and East Africa after WW2, then Egypt, Cyprus, BAOR Dusseldorf, Belfast, BAOR Iserlohn. Finished in 1966 as WO2 with the London Irish (TA) based at the Duke of Yorks barracks in the Kings Road, Chelsea. Was a military advisor on 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines' in the 60's and helped organise the 1965 Burma Star reunion at The Albert Hall in the same year.