Saturday, 6 November 2010

November 1944 - Overloon and Veulen

We spent the month of November holding and strengthening our grip upon the ground which the Division had won in the battle for Venray.

The first three days of it were spent in positions around the reservoirs which we had already held since the middle of October. In those three days, we had two strange contacts with the Boche.

On the night of All Saints, one of his small patrols on an advanced reconnaissance, came upon an anti-tank gun which was sighted on A Company's right flank. The sentry could see three men in the darkness, and not being satisfied with the reply to his challenge, opened fire with his Sten gun.

The patrol withdrew but one of its number re-appeared a few minutes later along some of the companys slit trenches. He danced about the slitters crying "Tommy, come out" but all he evoked was a stream of small arms fire from the vigilant sentries. He was hit but was able to withdraw and seemed to make his escape into the darkness.

The company immediately stood to and a platoon went out to chase the intruders. No trace of them was seen that night but next morning the body of one of the patrol was found in a ditch in front of the company lines, proving the accuracy of our sentry's shooting.

Two nights later a party from D Company, assisted by the Pioneer Platoon under Lt Shimmin, was laying a belt of mines across our front. Inevitably they made a noise and this must have attracted the attention of the Boche.

It was a clear moonlit night and a small Boche patrol was able to infiltrate, under cover of a wood, between our covering party and those who were laying mines. In a matter of seconds they opened fire with a Bazooka, injuring two of our men, and, before counter action could be taken. the patrol had made off into the woods not to be seen or heard again.

This was almost our first direct experience of vigorous and offensive patrolling by the Boche and we saw something more of it in the next position about a mile East of Overloon.

Here we were holding another part of the same line opposite Smakt and Maashees at the most Northerly end of the Boche bridgehead West of the Meuse. In many respects it was a position without undue appeal: living conditions were slit trenches which flooded all too easily and then gradually crumbled, while tactically it was insecure, for companies were spread out over a vast expanse of wooded country to such an extent indeed that it took the best part of two hours to walk round all the Battalion positions.

In spite of this, however, the Boche was less concerned with our own front than with our neighbour; a Squadron of the Reconnaissance Regt who covered our left. While they were dealing nightly with patrols varying in strength from a few men to a platoon equipped with captured Brens and Stens and closely supported by artillery, we were left in comparative peace.

Never the less we were glad to leave this position after four days and move into reserve at St Anthonis. Most of the Battalion knew it well. I A and B Echelon had been there for almost a month and every man had had at least one spell of 48 hours resting there. Many friendships were now renewed. We also experienced the consequences of any rest period, complete checks of AF G 1098 stores, MT and clothing and equipment being carried out. But there was much to do besides these necessary acts of officialdom.

Large parties visited cinema and ENSA shows in St Anthonis, Deurne and Helmond. Others went to the Corps Rest Camp and to Brussels, though these parties had by now become part of the Battalion routine. At the same time Field Marshal Montgomery visited the Division and decorated, from the Battalion, Captain J. Montgomery, MC, C/Sjt W. Sharkey, DCM, Cpl W. Reid, MM and Rfn A. Charles, MM, all for distinguished conduct in the early battles.

We were also visited by the Commander of the Wing of Typhoons that had supported us in recent operations and tokens of co-operation were duly exchanged. A Rifleman presented the Wing Commander with a captured Luger pistol and in return received a handsomely mounted RAF badge. This was an immensely successful occasion and a suitable concourse of press reporters wrote it up colourfully for the home press.

Finally, the Commanding Officer found this opportunity to speak to the Battalion as a whole. He had spoken in Hawick and again when we left Caen, on a few days rest before crossing the Orne to attack Troarn. Now, on this third occasion, he was able to review five months of the campaign and point out bow favourably our casualties compared with those of other Battalions in proportion to the amount of fighting that we and they had done.

He forecast further fighting for the Battalion in the near future, and events soon proved him correct. Soon we heard that our Division was to take part in a renewed attack to eliminate the enemy bridgehead West of the Meuse. It was to be initiated from the South and launched in a North Easterly direction against the weakest flank of the Boche position.

Within the Division our Brigade was to begin the attack and this necessitated a move to positions South of Venray so that we could then in our turn attack North Eastwards towards Wanssum on the Maas.

On 1st November the Battalion moved from Overloon to the village of Veulen, about a mile South of Venray. There we spent some days waiting upon the progress of the offensive further South and when it came our turn to attack, we found that the Boche had gone leaving behind him a formidable series of minefields and roadblocks.

These and the mud, which was universal, precluded the possibility of a swift chase, and though with the other two Battalions we kept leapfrogging forward, no further contact with the enemy was made, On 26th November, units of the 15th Scottish Division had driven up from Horst across our front through Tienray to Blitterswijk and on the 27th we were ordered to relieve them in the area Blitterswijk - Meerlo in order to release them for mopping up operations further South.

Only on the night of the relief did we - or our Scottish friends learn that, contrary to general belief, there remained a considerable pocket of enemy on this side of the canal, based on Wanssum - or that part of it which lay on the east bank of the canal. We were left with the task of eliminating this and so making good the whole line of the Meuse.

It is as well at the outset to gain a clear picture of the ground upon which this nucleus of resistance was based. Wanssum itself is a large village split in two by a broad canal which draws into the Meuse half a mile further North. The two parts are normally connected by a causeway which had, however, been thoroughly destroyed by the Germans during their retreat.

British troops were already installed in the Western half but were cut off from the other side by this expanse of water. Blitterswijk is about 3000 yards due East of Wanssum, and Helling, a mere hamlet, lies about 700 yards to the South. Good roads ran East to Blitterswijk and Southwards to Helling and to Meerlo where part of the Battalion was already in position.

Along the axis of these two roads the country was extremely flat and open though between Helling and Blitterswijk was an area of undulating ground well covered with woods of varying density. North East of Wanssum lay the Meuse and another Macadam road ran down to the river at which point a ferry could then convey men and vehicles to Well on the right bank of the river.

The perimeter of the defensive positions which the Germans had taken up, was clearly defined by a length of single dannert wire which ran from the canal across the Helling - Meerlo road seven or eight hundred yards South of Helling and then swung away North East towards Blitterswijk - crossed the Wanssum - Blitterswijk road half a mile West of Blitterswijk and then carried on North to the Meuse. Though not a formidable obstacle in itself this wire was known to have mines and booby traps attached to it.

November 30th was fixed as the day for the attack. It was to be done by night, as preliminary reconnaissance had revealed the flat and coverless nature of the ground. We had no reason to suspect sustained opposition because since this offensive had begun, the tendency of the Boche was to cut and run, rather than face a set piece attack.

It seemed improbable that he would continue to hold this bridgehead for long because by November 30th he had undoubtedly withdrawn all his effectives behind the river, excepting the rearguard which was holding the pocket. Their task was done and it seemed logical that they too should go.

The Commanding Officer decided to attack with two companies with D Company attacking westward from Blitterswijk and C Company northwards from the outskirts of Meerlo. D Company was to make good to the woods and houses about 1500 yards beyond the wire along the main road to Blitterswijk, and C Company was to capture Helling and then push on into Wanssum.

Zero hour was fixed at 0500 hrs; this would allow, it was hoped, time for C Company to get into Wanssum and under cover before the Boche could bring down observed fire upon the town from the opposite. B Company were to be held in reserve in Meerlo but were not expected to be committed.

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