I had the privilege and good fortune, as a young Battery Commander of 24 in a Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, to be appointed in July 1944 to command a totally new unit called 2nd Forward Observer Unit, R.A. (Airborne) which, as I soon discovered, was to be part of the British 6th Airborne Division, then fighting in Normandy. Few soldiers are fortunate enough to be involved in the formation of a totally new unit, fewer still in a unit whose make-up was unique in that it was to be one-third British, Royal Artillery and two-thirds Canadian, Royal Canadian Artillery, so I was particularly lucky in that appointment.
2 FOU, (soon to be known in the Division as either “the FOO” or “Two FOO”) had a comparatively short life as Army units go, but it quickly made its mark and those who were in it can take pride in its achievements.
The first question that we all asked on joining was “What is a FOU?”. No one in the Divisional Rear Party in Bulford seemed to know and it took a trip to Normandy, where the Division was busy pushing the Germans back to the River Seine, to find out. The Commander Royal Artillery [6th Airborne Division], “Tubby” Faithful gave me his orders and priorities: we were to direct the fire of any ground force artillery in range of the Division and to take a leading role in countering the fire of the German mortars which had been so deadly in Normandy. He required from us long range wireless communications, perfect radio procedures, good artillery fire control by the forward observation parties and everyone to be highly proficient in counter-mortar duties.
The motto of 6th Airborne Division was “GO TO IT” and 2 FOU did just that.
What does one remember of those far off days.
The months of intensive training in the autumn of 1944 on Salisbury Plain, with parachute training for those who had not already got their parachute wings, the arrival of the forward observation parties from Normandy (only five parties remaining of the twelve, who had left England on ‘D’ Day), learning lessons from then and from 1 FOU, who had been in the Battle of Arnhem, interminable radio exercises, counter-mortar exercises parachuting and gliding with the infantry battalions of the Division and working with our new Liaison Sections, who arrived from the Canadian Army in November. Our Christmas leave in December 1944 that wasn’t. With less than 24 hours notice and on the very day that we were meant to go on leave the whole of the Division was heading eastwards to Tilbury for embarkation for France. We landed at Ostend on Christmas Day and set off as fast as we could for Dinant on the River Meuse and the Battle of the Bulge.
The bitter cold and snow of the Ardennes in December and January and, in particular, the vicious little Battle for Bure, where 13th Parachute Battalion had heavy casualties and 2 FOU’s counter-mortar organization succeeded, in its first engagement, in successfully directing the fire of our own artillery and silenced the heavy German mortar fire which was being aimed at the Battalion in the village.
The strange interlude for most of February 1945, when the Division held the line of the River Maas in Holland between Roermond and Venlo while the great battles raged in the Reichswald not very far away. 2 FOU had observation posts established in the villages along the river. It was during this period that a deep penetration patrol was sent across the flooded river under the command of Captain ‘Ken’ Boss, during which it had to fight its way out of a tricky situation, an action for which Captain Boss was awarded the Military Cross.
The return to Winterbourne Gunner at the end of February 1945 leaving part of the Unit behind in Holland, 7 days leave and then a hectic 3 weeks in March during which the Unit checked its equipment, took part in several exercises, received and despatched to Holland in 48 hours two sound ranging sections, left for the marshaling camps and airfields in East Anglia and duly played it part in the airborne assault across the River Rhine on 24 March.
The battle itself, and the quiet satisfaction in knowing that 2 FOU had carried out in every respect all that it had been required to do. The weeks and months of training had paid off.
The advance across Germany, with plenty of fighting and 2 FOU observation parties being very active in shooting our own artillery and in counter-mortar work. A particularly unpleasant battle took place in mid-April when 6th Air Landing Brigade forced a crossing of the River Weser against determined opposition. Captain Sid Mooney was awarded the Military Cross for the part his observation party played in this operation.
The preparation for an airborne assault across the River Elbe, which never took place; and the final dash from the Elbe to the Baltic with the Division under orders to reach Wismar before the Russians got there, thereby preventing them from getting into Denmark.
Who can forget the almost farcical situation of the airborne soldiers roaring up one side of the road intent on reaching Wismar and the German Army hurrying down the other side of the same road, intent on getting away from the Russians, with both Armies in far too much of a hurry to waste time shooting at each other; and the final irony of all when we drove through one small town whose square was packed with German soldiers and transport, they lined the streets and cheered us on; in their eyes we had saved them from certain retribution.
Meeting, and halting, the Russians at Wismar, the surrender of the German Forces to Field Marshall Montgomery on 5 May, and VE Day on 8 May; and the curiously flat, rather aimless feeling when it was all over and we had nothing else to do.
The return to Winterbourne Gunner in mid-May, leave, the departure in June of all RCA personnel en-route to Canada (the Liaison Sections had left for Canada in late April), the arrival of reinforcements from 1st Airborne Division and the re-forming of the Unit. Six weeks later, in mid July, 2 FOU was on the move again for the war in the Far East, to India and fresh operations in Singapore and Indonesia, and to Palestine. But that, as they say, is another story.”
HQ 2 FOU and HQ, RA 6th AIRBORNE DIVISION.
HQ 2 FOU was to be part of HQ, RA for Operation Varsity, the Rhine Crossing on 24 March 1945.
It took much longer than I had hoped to find HQ, RA, nearly 2 hours in fact. Our Horsa had crashed on landing and it took a long time to unload the jeep and trailer through the tail of the glider. HQ, RA was in a small copse some hundreds of yards from the farm where it should have been. The farm was still full of Germans, who were being sorted out by a unit of American para’s who had been dropped on our landing Zone instead of their own Dropping Zone several miles to the south.
It was a badly depleted HQ when we reached it. The CRA’s glider had had a wing blown off and had plummeted in from 50 feet. He was OK, if a bit shaken, but his I.O. [Intelligence Officer] was badly concussed, his Chief Clerk was dead and his jeep and trailer were a write-off. The Brigade Major (BM, RA) and his detachment were missing (we learned later that they were all casualties) so there was only one jeep and trailer left with the Signals Officer and the control set for the CRA’s Command Net. This was something, anyway.
HQ 2 FOU was depleted as well. Until we turned up it too comprised only one detachment with their jeep and trailer. Fortunately, this had the reserve control set for the Airborne Support Net, the pivotal set for the whole artillery support for the Division. Captain Lane, I think it was, had got the set into operation when we failed to appear (the main control set was in my trailer) and had got the Net organized, exactly as we had practiced on Salisbury Plain.
As soon as I appeared, the CRA told me to take over as acting BM, RA (a post I was to hold for a week) and get a gun state from the Air Landing Light Regiment and the Anti-Tank Batteries. The Divisional Artillery had taken a hammering; the Air Landing light Regiment had only 11 guns in action out of 24 which had left England (a 12th gun arrived that evening and a further four over the next few days, but that was all), all three Battery Commanders were casualties, as were four out of the six OP Officers and there were only two Officers left at the gun end. This loss of Battery Commanders and OP Officers placed an added responsibility on the OP’s of 2 FOU.
As for the two Anti-Tank Batteries, out of the 32 guns which had left England only three were in action immediately, increasing to a total of 12 by nightfall. One of the two Battery Commanders was a casualty.
The one bright spot in an otherwise worrying artillery picture was that 2 FOU had comparatively light casualties (one Officer and three O.R’s killed during the landing [1 x Officer and 1 x O.R. killed and two badly wounded]. All the OP’s with the infantry battalions and the Section Headquarters at the three Brigade Headquarters were in touch with the 2 FOU Liaison Sections with the ground force artillery the other side of the Rhine, so the Division still had very strong artillery support.
HQ, RA was quickly dug-in with the help of some German prisoners and a passing airborne bulldozer and we passed a fairly well organized 24 hours in the hole that was the operations room, with the CRA’s Rear Link Set on one side of the hole and the Airborne Support Net control set on the other side of the hole, trying to listen to two wireless sets at once. Our jeeps and trailers were taken away during the afternoon to assist with collecting the stores from the re-supply drop that had come in at 13.00 hours showering the whole Divisional Headquarters area with containers.
Things got quite busy that evening with several counter-attacks against the Divisional perimeter. We fired a number of defensive fire tasks against these attacks and harassing fire tasks during the night. We were all very busy in the morning when the Germans attacked all three Brigades at the same time. But, 2 FOU had trained for just this situation and we gave the infantry all the fire support that was called for. Captain Boss was seriously wounded during one of these attacks and died several months later.
The rest of 25 March passed fairly quietly, and HQ, RA moved into its farm that afternoon. The vehicles which had gone over by sea and those which we had left behind in Holland arrived the next day with horrific tales of dead parachutists hanging in the trees and crashed and burnt out gliders everywhere, with great expressions of relief that anyone had survived at all.
Two days later the Division started its advance eastwards. I handed over to the replacement BM, RA on 31 March and resumed full operational command of 2 FOU, by which time we were well into Germany. The Division covered 250 miles in the next 11 days with the infantry and 2 FOU OP Parties doing it on foot, fighting many actions on the way. At the end of this period the Division was some miles ahead of the rest of the British 2nd Army on its left and the Americans on its right. One English newspaper described this as “a remarkable feat of arms”.
Source: Lt Col RiceRead More