A Diary of My Time at Arnhem September 1944.
Ever after D-Day, the units of my division were ready for action. In fact we moved to our Concentration Areas, drew parachutes and were briefed for different operations more than five times. The situation became such that every time something was on, there was wild betting on the probability of it not coming off, and on the chances of 48 hours leave. There were even wilder rumours, and I remember one time where there was quite a row in my tent, because one of the boys had said that according to the Platoon Sgt it was all off, whilst another boy had been told officially that the operation would definitely take place. Well, after everybody had got very heated, it was established that this time again the operation had been cancelled. The cancellations were actually at extremely short notice. Once especially, we had been told to prepare for a 1am breakfast, and were told at about midnight that we could sleep on.
When we were told on a Saturday that once again we were confined to camp, nobody really thought seriously that this was our last day in England, moreover we were supposed to drop at lunchtime, a quite incredible hour for an airborne operation.
On Sunday we left our camp at about 7.30 am, full of beans, as we were told that if the operation should be cancelled again, we would get a long leave the first long leave for months. However our holiday mood changed somewhat when we arrived at the aerodrome and saw row after row of gliders standing there ready to take off. We were in excellent spirits, as at last the period of waiting had finished and we were given a chance to do something decisive to bring the war to a speedy end.
Before taking off we gave some last touches to our equipment, were photographed by an RAF Officer, and had a few words from our Major. We also got some Sunday papers and some of the holiday spirit was actually recaptured. At 10 o'clock we emplaned, and twenty minutes later we left for Holland. The journey on the whole was quite comfortable, and we made very good time. We overtook a huge flight of Dakota's with their gliders, and soon enough we saw our first bit of Holland, mainly under water. There was no sign of life. However when we got further inland the inundations ceased, and on the word “five minutes to go” I actually saw some people in a farmyard waving to us with towels and a tablecloth.
We then crossed the river Lek. ‘Red Light-Green Light’, everybody moves forward as the men in front disappear through the hole. The slipstream hits you, and before you have gathered all your senses the 'chute has opened, and you swing gently in the light breeze. The more or less complete absence of Flak puzzled us at first, but the local inhabitants told me later that all German anti-aircraft installations in that area had been bombed very severely twice that morning.
After dropping we all assembled at our Rendezvous, went into defensive positions and waited for the brigade to come down. Our job was the marking of the Dropping Zone (DZ), and that is why we jumped 20 minutes before “H” Hour. We had an hour to spare which we spent chatting to the local inhabitants, sunbathing, sipping our first Dutch water and eating our first Dutch apples. Soon after, gliders came in on a neighbouring Landing Zone, and we had a hard time dodging the tow-ropes which the tugs discarded. One Glider landed near the fringe of a wood on the north, end of our DZ and to our astonishment we saw a party of Germans march out hands up. Well, we certainly thought we were in for a picnic.
At the appointed hour our brigade came over in three waves, and within ten minutes a hundred planes had disgorged their human cargoes. The actual landings were better, as far as we could judge, than on any of the previous exercises. The brigade then moved off to capture the vital bridge, accompanied by our good wishes.
Soon after the brigade had disappeared over the horizon there was a second invasion, this time it took place by bicycles. Masses of laughing men and women came up to gather the 'chutes which were to provide them with much needed material for new frocks, etc. There was a lot of chaffing, and we all felt very grand.
We then marched off to join the rest of the company. After an uneventful three mile march, we got there just in time to dig-in, and to cook ourselves some supper. We spent the night in alternative watches, and got about four hours sleep. This had been a very good “D” day, Sunday, September 17th 1944.
Monday, 18 September.
After breakfast we had time for a wash and shave, and then prepared to move off. Our job this day was to mark a Supply Dropping Zone which had been in enemy hands the previous night, but which we hoped was ours by the morning. We were fortunate enough to find some Reconnaissance Corps troops who cleared the way for us; but the enemy had been pressed back, and thus we were able to get to the appointed place in a fairly swift, even if cautious advance. As soon as we had arrived, we dug-in, in a very good position covering the section that we were responsible for, laying out the navigational aids. We had also taken four prisoners from an SS Regiment who had lost contact with their unit. They were dressed in their new camouflage suits which consisted of a jacket and trousers covered with green, brown and yellow spots, and which are excellent for their purpose. We called them “Zoot-suits”. As our position was rather exposed, it was decided to take these prisoners from one of the enemy's crack units, back to Brigade HQ When their escorts had arrived, the prisoners,-instead of marching back-, suddenly threw themselves to the ground and cowered and squirmed, wailing for mercy, a most unpleasant sight.
We then were visited by an officer who had trained with some of us, and who had run into a spot of trouble with his platoon during the previous night. He and four of his men were the sole survivors, and he asked us for directions.
Looking up into the sky I admired our fighter cover weaving to and fro, chasing each other in one huge circle, when they suddenly peeled off one after the other and started machine gunning us. I had just time to jump into my slit-trench where I cowered for the next ten minutes with the roar of the Messerschmitts - or Spitfires 109 as we came to call them- and the whistle of their bullets making the ears tingle. However, no harm was done, and we settled down to cook our lunch.
At last our planes came in, and were greeted by fairly strong flak. The drop was very successful, but nobody turned up to fetch the supplies, finally the Recce chaps with us, decided that they would move as many containers as possible during the night, and we were ordered to go back to our company. We got there by about 7 pm, only to be told to be ready to move in half an hour’s time, as all the forces available were to form one big perimeter. So we hurriedly made some tea, and packed up again.
We marched in the dark through a small village, following our horse and cart requisitioned from the farmers whom the company had been billeted on, and after many a stop, arrived on the outskirts of that fashionable suburb Osterbeek. There we dug-in, in the grounds of a hotel on the north edge of a road at the foot of a small hill behind us. We spent one of the most unpleasant nights I can remember. The Germans were extremely close, but in the dark we could not locate them. German submachine guns crackled all around us, tracer bullets from heavy machineguns whistled close overhead, and the whiz of Mortar bombs and shells formed the background to this infernal choir. At midnight a German plane appeared suddenly over our place with a searchlight beating down on us. He then dropped a flare which, dangling from its parachute descended very, very slowly. But wonder of wonders nothing happened.
Tuesday, 19 September.
We had quite a good breakfast this morning. It consisted of porridge and some dehydrated meat. Sid and I who shared rations, as fighting partners, thought we could splash out a bit, as there would be not a chance for a hot lunch, anyhow. We were to go to the same field as yesterday for another supply drop, and also to fetch the Polish Gliders down, or at least some of them. As our Platoon Officer expected trouble, we had to leave behind our packs.
We made our way very cautiously through a mile and a half of No-Man’s Land, which was in fact a big forest; and we reached the railway line finding nothing but three deserted Dutch bicycles which we immediately annexed. We went over the railway line in a rush, as it was still in the line of fire of a German pill-box, and nearly fell into one of our own Bren gun positions. As soon as we had arrived in the previous day's positions, we started digging again; after that unpleasant experience we had had. Again we laid out our navigational aids, and then just lay there, waiting for our planes to arrive. I fell asleep near my slit-trench when Sid suddenly woke me. German fighters were in the air again, and in greater strength than yesterday. I shot into the trench like lightning, and none too soon, as was shown by a bullet that went into the side wall of our trench an inch and a half above my neck. For the next fifteen minutes which seemed to stretch like years we were strafed properly. Then the storm passed, and we shook the dust off our clothes. Although the aerial of our wireless had been shot off nobody came to grief.
We then continued waiting. At about 2 pm Messerschmitts and also a few Fokkerwolfs paid us a return visit. Again nobody was hurt, although a few haystacks and a farmhouse went up in flames. The only awkward thing was that ‘Jerry’ by now definitely knew what we were waiting for, and that we could expect a pretty tough flak barrage. Our expectations were even surpassed when the gliders and planes came in at long last, four hours late. The gliders landed more or less alright, but the supply planes had a hell of a time. We observed one Dakota making two runs over the DZ with one of his engines on fire. He made sure of dropping all his supplies in the right place, and once his mission was completed he just disintegrated. Six more planes were lost that time.
Two sections of our platoon went round the Dropping Zone directing the new-arrivals to their respective destinations, and giving Morphia to the badly wounded. Meanwhile there was intensive sniping and even machinegun fire. Then somebody put down smoke and the position became pretty sticky, as some troops on our left withdrew. We blew up our wireless and went again into all round defence. Meanwhile the company had ordered our withdrawal by wireless. Just as we were getting ready to pull out, we observed some movement in our rear and were also fired on, from that direction. The enemy was about 60 yards away. We opened fire at our individual targets, and the enemy stood absolutely rigid. The enemy appeared to be more surprised than we were. We gave a pretty good account of ourselves but had to obey our orders of withdrawal,
On reaching the road we noticed that the withdrawal was general, as masses of people went by. Our Platoon Commander decided not to join these people, but to make his way across the woods to the Wolfheze-Osterbeek road, and then to march back to the company’s position. We crossed the railway and made our way through the woods again. There was an ominous silence which became disconcerting when we suddenly came on some Germans killed, just before reaching the highway. Very much fearing a trap we marched up and down the road, but in the end we got to our positions without a scratch. We were all very downhearted as practically all the supplies had been lost, and we had not even had time to blow them up.
During the day our company had been very badly sniped on, and it was decided to move across the road and take up positions on that slope which had been to our rear. There we dug-in again, in a position which proved to be the best we ever had. We were on the fringe of a wood (actually between 5 and 10 yards inside it), had two wire-mesh fences to our immediate front, then a field about 75 yards wide, and then there was another wood that was held by the enemy. At midnight we had some lukewarm tea, and then we tried to snatch some sleep, shivering with cold, we were being mortared, but the bombs went harmlessly overhead.
Wednesday, 20 September .
We spent the greater part of the early morning burrowing deeper into the earth, spurred on by intermittent sniper, Mortar and Self-propelled gun fire. The company sent a small party down into the house which we had evacuated the night before. They installed a Bren-gun in it, and did some excellent work. On that part of our front the "killing-ground" was only 15 to 30 yards but was used with great success. The routine was actually quite simple. The men manning that position would hear a German half-tracked vehicle come up, stop and go back again. Five minutes later the German infantry would be seen approaching and when sufficient were in the field of fire, our men would just let them “have it”.
Here is another story to show the close nature of the fight on that side of our little wood. The Corporal who was in charge of the party in the house, we had evacuated, had to satisfy a natural urge during the course of the day. The WC was in a little shed across the fenced-in courtyard. As soon as he had settled down, he heard some suspicious noises, and looking up he saw a party of Germans trying to get through the fence. He picked up his Sten, shot the first German dead, winged two more, and the enemy retreated. The Corporal then finished his business undisturbed.
However let us return to my own front. There we really had a pretty easy job, as the enemy insisted on parading up and down the fringe of the opposite wood where we could pick him off like rabbits.
This went on for quite some time when suddenly one section of Germans shouted in German "Don't shoot, we are number 8 assault group, where is the company?" So we stopped firing, and Cpl ‘R.’ shouted back (also in German) "Come on, come here and surrender." After that there was quite an amount of shouting to and fro, which lasted for five minutes. In the end we told them that if they did not come across to us within one minute we would fire. They shouted back for our name, but made no move to come over, and so we fired.
Shortly after that there was quite some confusion in the opposite wood. There was a lot of shouting in German and English, and apparently our men were driving back the Germans. We unfortunately had to cease firing for fear of hitting our own men, and could only look on. Our men, who turned out to be Glider Pilots managed to clear most of the opposite wood, but the enemy regained it in the afternoon. Meanwhile we were still being sniped at from the field, but as we could not locate the sniper we just did not take much notice of him, and he really did very little harm.
The water situation had become very critical, as there was not any in either of the houses which were under our control. Therefore we had to organise parties under Cpl. ‘R’ who went into the nearby village where we had to take the water of the inhabitants, who had filled all kinds of vessels before it had been turned off. The people there made the best of a bad job, parting with the water quite cheerfully, and then returned to their cellars after giving us also some apples. Of course, these parties were not as quiet, as one might think, as the enemy controlled the main street with his light machine-guns, and also had a few snipers distributed round the village. But we never came to any harm, and the Cpl even managed to shoot an enemy sniper who had missed him.
There was a supply drop in the afternoon on the Landing Zone now firmly in enemy hands, but some supplies landed in our lines, owing to faulty navigation. Actually one of our chaps was just cooking for the section when a basket containing foodstuffs nearly fell on top of him. We all grinned about this house to house delivery, and I must admit, also at the thought of the contents. When distributed, it was just over the amount one normally gets for 24 hrs. Still, there were cigarettes and sweets for everybody, which we had been very short of.
Shortly after that we could hear some dance music coming from somewhere along the road, and indeed, the Germans had put up a loudspeaker. Not only did they entertain us with swing music, which touched one quite peculiarly, as we were just "Standing-to", but they also invited us in English to keep a date with an armoured car down the road,-recognition sign...a white hanky. Well, faithless lovers that we are, we did not keep the date.
We then settled down to a fairly quiet night. We had our three Bren-guns manned and ready for action, watching the wood opposite, where the enemy was moving about quite a lot. It was also necessary to have one man walking from position to position to make sure that the gun teams were fully awake, and to report to the Platoon Commander roughly every five minutes. We were that tired.
There also had been a message that the Second Army was approaching, indeed that their Artillery
Liaison Officer was already in touch with us.
Thursday, 21 Sept.
We had a very decent breakfast from the previous day's food supplies, and then started digging again, as the ack ack fire had been very heavy, and a lot of splinters had come down on us. Early in the morning there was quite some confusion, and a lot of shouting on the opposite side of our field, The voices sounded like British and German, but in the end we established, by listening and with the aid of field-glasses, that all troops over there were enemy, and we settled down to a very successful day's sniping. Things went so far, that sometimes a man chatting to another man would pick up his rifle, shoot an enemy, and continue in his sentence.
Two sections were on immediate "stand-to”, whilst the other two were kept in a sort of wakeful reserve. But the targets were at times so inviting that most of us rushed forward to the edge of our wood, just to get our man. The Company Sergeant Major went round our different positions, and somehow he always managed to be where there was something doing. He really enjoyed himself.
Sid, that morning shot two Germans who had exposed themselves rather too much, and after he had done it, he turned round to us muttering apologetically! "They asked for it,-they definitely asked for it, standing there in the open.” With that he returned to the lunch which he was preparing for us.
During the night the Germans had built themselves some blockhouses on the fringe of their wood, from some of the logs which were lying about, and we very much regretted the absence of incendiary bullets, especially as they had a few snipers in them. As usual we also had some Mortar and Self-propelled gun shells falling around us, but as they were becoming so much part of our lives, nobody paid very much attention to them.
There was another supply drop in the afternoon, but this time the planes were escorted by a fighter cover, and there were some aerial combats. Suddenly a particularly nasty anti-aircraft gun stopped firing and two minutes later half a dozen rocket-firing Typhoons zipped over the horizon shooting up that gun emplacement. The explosions were so strong that the ground shook under us, although the gun must have been at least three or four miles away. We were all very cheered as this was our first fighter-cover since "D” day. Unfortunately most of the supplies dropped to the enemy again.
A Self-propelled gun came up the road in the early afternoon, and ‘L’ the Piat gunner of 2 Pln., rushed out into the road to make sure of stopping it. He only succeeded partly with his first shot, and just before he could give it the “coup de grace” he was shot into his stomach, and staggered off the road. He was rushed into hospital by a medical jeep (i.e. a jeep belonging to a Field Ambulance, carrying large Red Cross flags). Those jeeps could drive up and down our front fairly safely, while all other traffic was shot at. The Self-propelled gun meanwhile got going again and drove up to the corner of the wood opposite our own fire-positions. One of our snipers saw it just in time, shouted to the Bren-gunner "ranging round", and fired a tracer bullet. By some sort of extraordinary coincidence or good aiming, he hit the petrol tank, and the thing promptly started burning fiercely. For the rest of the day, our Bren-gun team gave their undivided attention to those Germans who tried to dismount or salvage their gun. They finally succeeded in getting it away during darkness paying an extremely heavy price.
This afternoon the water fetching party was a slightly more exciting affair than that of the previous day, as the sniping was more accurate and also as we got a very cordial welcome from some mortars. However we got some water and even some more apples, but the unpalatable truth was that our position was nearly completely encircled now, and although extremely strong, we had no water inside our defensive circle. Coming back from the water fatigue, we learnt that our right flank had been broken, and that encirclement was now a reality, as the enemy controlled all our supply routes by fire, if not by men. We were cheered however by a few salvoes from the 25 pounders of the Second Army across the Lek. Also there was news that the Poles had dropped in the afternoon on the south bank of the river, and were linking up with an armoured British formation.
During the evening "stand-to" the Germans again sent over their invitation to surrender, but nobody paid attention to the loudspeaker. We then prepared our kits for a move, as it had been decided that our position really was rather too far forward, and we were to sneak out from under the noses of the enemy, and take up positions on the perimeter in Osterbeek. The hours of waiting were rather nerve-racking, especially as the enemy tried to draw our fire, we were strictly forbidden to fire at all, and our "killing ground" was covered by a Bren belonging to the rear-party, firing on fixed lines.
We were really rather sorry to leave so favourable a position. The other two platoons in particular had all the reason in the world to be very pleased with themselves, as they saw the immediate results of their handiwork, the enemy dead piling up at about 25 yds. from them. Anyhow the result impressed some visitors so much, that there was a rumour, that our company sent out their men to kill six Germans before breakfast.
At last at 1.30 am we moved out in one big Indian file. The enemy fired some flares just at the wrong moment, but as we stood perfectly still, he overlooked us, and did not realise what was happening. That night we marched into a wood near Brigade HQ and lay there until dawn. We had practically no sleep at all.
Friday, 22 Sept.
Early in the morning we moved to the other end of that particular wood, past Brig. HQ. That fringe actually ended at some crossroads, on the right of which (opposite the wood) was the former German hospital, on the left the new English hospital, and on the fourth corner was a fairly large private house which, together with two more houses, my platoon was to take over. We crossed the road at the double, as it was under German observation, reached our house, and relieved some glider-pilots who had held that villa for the last 36 hrs.
Regarding the British Hospital there goes quite a good story which, even if not quite true, does characterise the status given to the Red Cross, which was fairly faithfully observed by both sides. Apparently when the house had been taken over at first, there had not been very much time to paint a big Red Cross sign, and rather a shabby little thing was hung up on the door. Up rolls a German tank, sees the British activities in the grounds, and starts shelling the house, when suddenly the doors are flung open and out rushes an irate British officer, huge Red Cross flag in Hand, calling the German tank commander all the names under the sun. The German realising his mistake, becomes most apologetic, and leaves with the advice that a far larger Red Cross painted on a white background and with a red circle round it was really all that was wanted.
When we crossed over, there were actually some German stretcher-bearers on the road shouting “Red Cross, nicht schiessen". The Germans had been allowed the further use of their hospital, and we seem to have been allowed to use the German water supply for our hospital. Anyhow both hospitals and their grounds were strictly "out of bounds" for fighting troops, which of course made our position rather difficult, as we had no field of fire. However we started digging-in in the back and front gardens. While we were digging in the back garden, the boys in the front garden shot up a German Volkswagen containing two German Pay Officers, who had apparently become slightly mixed up.
We were allowed to sleep alternately for about two hours, so that only 50% of the platoon were really on the look out, but the sector was very quiet, except for some very unpleasant Mortar fire, and snipers in the back gardens. Some of us were too tired to sleep with the noise of battle drawing us out. We had two men to cook for us, which they did very well, although occasionally they would sneak of to snipe a sniper, usually successfully.
One of our first acts on taking the house over had been the knocking out of as many windows as possible, and although we had at times very heavy mortar fire and shelling, we never had a single casualty through glass splinters. Of course we barricaded the windows later on, and also had snipers in most rooms.
During the late afternoon a Dutch civilian lorry passed our positions, containing six hatless people. As soon as they were passed our house, one of the men put on a German tin hat, smiling very pleased with himself. Our Bren gunner saw that and put a whole magazine into the lorry which promptly started burning, and suddenly blew up with a terrific bang. The ensuing fire was so fierce that it spread to a neighbouring house and it continued for several hours.
That night I fell several times into some sort of trance. I would just sit immobile, even if I had been in the act of doing something, and I would live quite vividly some sort of action, registering quite clearly both my physical and mental sensations. Then I would wake up and find myself in exactly the same position, which I had started the trance in. How long they lasted, I don't know, but at the time I thought them frightfully dangerous.
That night we had the first rain since our arrival. I was lucky enough to be able to sleep in an outhouse, but when on guard, we had to be in an open slit trench. That night we got about five hours sleep. In the afternoon, we had been told that our positions were to be held until relief came, which was expected the next morning. Later I heard that it had been attempted to build a Pontoon bridge across the river, but that the current had been too strong for it. How much truth is in this assertion, I really could not tell. Again there had been the encouraging whistle of our own shells passing overhead.
Saturday, 23 Sept.
The morning was wet and cold. We tried to shelter the best we could, and there were some quite interesting and ingenious attempts at waterproofing and camouflaging. In the midst of all this activity we were being sniped at rather too accurately from our rear, where there was a house occupied by some civilians, a badly wounded officer and two medical orderlies. Anyhow we made sure that there was no German hiding away, and it still puzzles us where or who the sniper was. Although he caused lots of unpleasantness he did not cause any casualties, and that is the main thing after all. However the patrol proved to be quite fruitful, as there was a huge plum-tree in the back garden of the house, and we had a jolly good breakfast off it. Then the three of us returned to our own house through some more back gardens, picking up carrots and potatoes on the way. For now we had to live on the land, as we were very low in rations, and the houses were not too well stocked, although they belonged to wealthy people. The most one could hope for in the average house, were bottled vegetables, some very cheap jam, lots of soup and gravy cubes, and if you were very lucky a loaf of bread, (a rye and potato mixture, with a very pleasant taste if you are hungry). Naturally there were exceptions, and I know of one house where the cellar was full of wine and champagne, a magnificent solution to the water-problem, if used within limits. There were also people who were not as lucky as we were. Some were still fighting in the woods, and they had no cellars or back gardens to help them in their supply problem.
Meanwhile things were happening down the road, pass the hospitals where we were still holding some houses. Apparently the Germans had started some sort of attack against our people down there. Anyhow it was decided that our Bren group should move to the other side of the road where the field of fire was far better, although the position was very exposed. Five of us crossed the road to the wood. I was given the post of guarding the right flank of our little group, and with the hospital grounds straight in front of me, I faced a group of houses half right. There was some lively ambulance traffic, but as far as I could see our jeeps were never fired at.
I noticed suddenly a hand appearing in the first floor window of the house, I was observing, and after three unsuccessful attempts of pulling the curtain, I gave it a burst, whereupon every thing was quiet. Next I saw two of my friends from another platoon come across the road. One of them was wounded in his thigh and his mate had cut away the trousers and applied a shell dressing. Their legs were red with blood, but both seemed to be in fairly good spirits. They were the only remnants of their section which had been attacked very heavily in their house by a German tank and several machine-guns. The wounded boy went into hospital, whilst the other one joined our platoon for the day, where he did extremely useful work, cleaning our magazines and guns. By evening he had completely recovered from his unpleasant experience.
All through the morning it poured with rain, and we were under a constant and heavy mortar-bombardment, apparently directed at a battery of 3 inch mortars slightly to my sight rear. After roughly 90 minutes of this they were silenced. But the splinters fell all over the place, at times cutting off branches as thick as my fore-arm. We finally had to leave our position as a sniper had got us more or less trapped, and had already wounded the Bren gunner very badly. So we re-crossed the road and rejoined the rest of our men.
Some more people of the other platoon that had to give ground joined us, led by Sgt ‘T’. who apparently had done quite marvellously well. He certainly had six holes in his smock where a burst had whizzed through without touching him. ‘B’ who came with him was wounded in his leg, but refused to go to hospital as he wanted to have another crack at “Jerry".
Meanwhile one of our sections was getting an extremely rough handling, with sniper and machine-gun bullets and hand grenades whizzing to and fro. Two of us were told to go up and see what we could do. I was just in time to give some covering fire, as they just prepared themselves to chuck a few grenades into the living room of the house opposite, where the Germans had a light machinegun. The third grenade hit the mark fair and square, and even blew out a big chunk of wall. Anyhow the enemy steered clear of that room for the next 24 hrs. Cpl ‘E’ was killed that morning, during some sort of hand grenade duel, his trench was under machine-gun fire, and he popped up at the wrong moment.
On my return to my own house, I noticed that they had had a direct hit from an 88 mm. shell which had made rather a mess of things. Luckily it had not been a high explosive shell. But despite all this turmoil and some more very successful sniper hunting, the cooks (or rather the two men who had volunteered for the job) had made some excellent broth.
The Germans realising that they could not achieve a break through on our part of the front, had now shifted their attention to some houses about half a mile north, and they were halfway successful, that is, they did break in, but the gap was afterwards sealed off. That meant a lot more snipers in our rear. We therefore sent a small force to hold a deep trench to the rear of the fourth house along our road. Sgt ‘T’ and his men were to go supported by our Bren-group, of which I was now a member. We had not been long in the trench when we were shot at and sniped. Then all was quiet, and we cautiously popped up, when suddenly two mortar bombs exploded right in front of us, rather too near. Sgt ‘T’ then ordered us to retire and a third mortar bomb hit a tree behind us, just to speed us on our way.
Six of us took up position in number 4 house, which up to now had not been occupied by us. It was a very nice and cultured house, and what struck me most of all, was a whole bookshelf full of English books. The people were absolutely charming, making a fire for us to boil the tea, and also giving us two bottles of French wine to warm us a little. They all were also very interested in the proceedings and starved for news, and I remember especially a little boy of about nine who followed all our preparations of converting the living room into a fortress with the eyes of an expert. Four of us stayed downstairs, whilst two went to the top of the house to do some good work, sniping. A little later we were joined by a man who had a leg wound, and we made him fairly comfortable in the corridor, giving him tea and wine.
Looking out into the back-garden, I suddenly thought, I saw the ruddy face of some enemy, hiding away in a cabbage patch. I fired a few rounds, but the face did not move. In the end we decided to have a closer look at it, and sneaked up cautiously. When we were only about 10 yds. away we fired again, and again without any sort of result to be observed. This was extremely puzzling and made us look again. We then got the solution of the riddle. The enemy was a huge pumpkin. So back we went to our previous position feeling slightly ridiculous.
On the whole things quietened down a bit now, and we were ordered to exchange our Bren, with that of another section which fired only single rounds. We did this unwillingly, especially as we had found time after time, that the Bren really was the best remedy for snipers. But it was thought that the other section had more need of it than we.
Shortly after this exchange, we heard some lively small arms fire on our flank, which was approaching us. We therefore took up battle stations. We heard a lot of movement in the courtyard of the neighbouring house, but as our view was barred by a seven foot brick wall, we could not risk lobbing over any grenades for fear of getting our own people. This went on for some time, when suddenly the enemy dropped a few smoke grenades. The smoke was very dense, and we could not see more than about a yard in front of us. Our position was really very weak, and expecting an attack from the rear we withdrew to number three house. (We had been in number four house).
During the withdrawal, which really was only about 15 yds., I had become separated from my Bren-gunner who had seen a sniper, and went out on his own to get him. Unfortunately the gun had a stoppage just at the decisive moment, and the sniper got in first. Our man though bleeding very badly, did not give up at once, but tried to clear the stoppage, and had another crack at the enemy.
The expected attack did not materialise, but I think the Germans used the smoke cover to get one or two snipers into positions very close to us. Anyhow after a short interval they sent over some flares, as dusk was breaking, but as nobody showed himself, they had to content themselves with a vicious burst of fire at the corner of our porch. Sheer waste of ammunition.
Meanwhile our Sgt who had reported the withdrawal to the Platoon Commander came back, apparently with orders to retake the fourth house. He walked quite openly towards that house, saying: "Oh, nothing really has happened, everything is alright." When the newly installed enemy sniper spotted him, and shot him through the heart.
I now joined the section holding the house, the porch of which I was guarding. Another new-arrival from one of the battalions and I shared the picket on the porch, all through the night. When it was really dark we went out to shift the body of our fallen comrade and to see if he was really dead. We had no time to bury our killed.
This night was supposed to be our last night, as we were going to be relieved by some Polish parachutists the next morning. Anyhow I took my two energy pills (I believe they are caffeine) so as to keep wide awake, and not have any more trances. These pills had immediate effect, and there I sat thirsting for action. Well, in the end I had to content myself, whistling all the German songs I knew, to attract the enemy to his doom. Unfortunately I had less success than the "Lorelei".
There again had been some supporting fire by the Second Army and also a flight of Typhoons. After that we had been attacked by some German fighters, but as they could not come too low for fear of hitting the houses, they did not do any damage. Of course there had been the routine shelling by a Self-propelled gun, enlivened this time by some heavy Spandau fire (Spandau Heavy Machine Gun.). Once during the night I heard two Germans moving about in the grounds of the house opposite. One of them coughed slightly, whereupon the other immediately hushed him. In order to enforce that lesson, I fired a few rounds at them, most probably not hitting anybody. That night we had about four hours sleep.
Sunday, 24 Sept.
The enemy started his day's programme with a few belts fired from his heavy machine gun, but the rounds passed harmlessly between our house and number four house. However there was a sort of unpleasant feeling, as those bullets were able to cut through brick walls quite easily as we had found out the day before. Also the gun was so near that the ground shook slightly with every explosion of the round leaving the gun. However this was really only to wake us, and after he had achieved this, the enemy stopped, and there was a breakfast lull. Unfortunately we had nothing to breakfast with, except a few cigarettes which did not go round very far.
Then the owner of the house, our host, made his morning inspection, and he was slightly put out when he discovered that eight men instead of three had slept in the house part of the night. However he was soon mollified when we told him that we were sure to be relieved, or at least reinforced that day. He even went so far as to offer us a delicious meal of potatoes, spinach and some Black Market lard for lunch. We were extremely thankful for this, and our host went off to give the necessary directions to the other members of his household.
We then settled down to the usual routine of sniper hunting. My prospective victim must have got wise to my sinister intentions, and absolutely refused to show up, even when I exposed myself in the most inviting postures. Other members of the crew had more luck. One of my pals sat motionless behind a curtained window for two hours and then succeeded in shooting a sniper, who was looking out of the window in the house opposite, right between the eyes. Another of our boys saw a German Officer forcing one of his men to try and throw a grenade at us from a big bay window. The Officer had drawn his revolver. But man shot them both.
We then saw three big Messerschmitts chasing one Spitfire, who probably lured them into some sort of aerial ambush. We regretted that we could not observe the outcome of the chase. Punctually at ten the enemy started taking our house under some sort of shell fire. We were hit several times and had also some very nasty near misses. Every time a shell exploded near us we were lifted into the air, and gently set down again. How none of us became "bomb-happy” seems a miracle.
At about 11.30 am there was lots of movement, and deep guttural voices could be heard approaching us from the rear. We immediately gave a sort of general alarm, but the expected enemy turned out to be the Poles, who came to relieve us. About a company of them was to take over our positions. Well, we were very glad to have them, although it was difficult to explain to them the position, especially as far as the snipers were concerned, as the majority of them seemed to have practically no English at all. Thus it came that they had to learn in a few hours what we had learned in about two days, and they paid very heavily for it as far as casualties were concerned. In the process of giving them the general outlines of the different snipers' positions, I was slightly wounded and had to retire to the kitchen for the rest of the day.
I forgot to mention that a medical jeep had come in the morning to fetch the wounded, and that it drove up in front of the different houses quite unmolested, in a street where it was otherwise unsafe for either side to show as much as the tip of the nose. This observance of the Red Cross had gone on all the time and showed a certain spirit of chivalry of both sides. The story goes of a British medical orderly who ventured out into No-Man's Land to treat some wounded men in a house there. Turning a corner, he ran into a German tank, the commander of which leaned out of his turret and asked him what he was doing there. After hearing of the mission the enemy tank commander replied: “Well, I'll let you pass and also come back. But please don't give my position away. Play the game, I left Oxford in '39." And the medical orderly did play the game.
I arrived in the kitchen just in time to have the excellent meal which our very kind host had prepared for us. It actually was cooked by a very simple peasant girl from Zeeland, our host's maid, whom I had to convince at first that the kitchen was really quite safe. She wore the national costume, and was a very cheery soul, talking all the time in her native dialect which was extremely hard to understand. As I was the only one who had at least a scant idea of Dutch, I was often called on to interpret for the two boys who were helping her with the cooking and the washing up. More often than not I would fall down over the translation, but that only added to the fun. Anyhow I liked to hear her talk, it was like the twittering of birds. After the meal, when everybody had gone, and I was trying to get some sleep, she bent over me and touched my hands to see if I was really warm enough. When she saw that I was awake, she fetched a cushion and some lemonade, and would not rest until I was utterly comfortable. I then told her that she should go to the cellar as the shelling had started again, and she would be much safer down there.
My section Sgt then came with a glass of Cognac from our host. Just as he was bending over me to give it to me, a short burst from a German sub-machine gun (Schmeisser) came in through the shutters, the bullets whizzing harmlessly into the wall above our heads. I am afraid I spilt some of the Cognac, when I ducked a little more, which really was a great pity, as the Cognac was the best I have ever tasted. We both were very glad that this had not happened when the kitchen was full with our people having their Sunday lunch.
Meanwhile a party of Poles had been pinned down by the snipers between our house and the next, and my Sgt decided to give covering fire with all the guns he had. Only I did not know this, and when suddenly there was a terrific roar from all the different weapons. I thought the enemy was attacking in strength, and so I got up took my .45 and limped out to the rear-porch to do what I could. We were then officially stood down and told to get as much sleep as possible.
Unfortunately we were not destined to enjoy our rest in peace and quiet, because somehow or other the enemy managed to shoot into our front windows, a thing he had not been able to do up till then. Anyhow soon bullets were flying all over the place, bursting through the doors and being a thorough nuisance. After quite a lot of unpleasantness, a Polish medical orderly bobbed his head into the kitchen, and told me that the kitchen was not safe any more, and I should go into the cellar where I would be out of the way in the case of any eventualities. So to the cellar I went joining our Dutch friends. They immediately set up a camp bed for me and insisted on my lying down, although they were frightfully cramped for room.
We had some very good chats with each other, especially about when the relief would come. I gave rather too rosy picture to them, but I only told them what I thought I knew. That it turned out to be untrue, was bad luck, and was caused by our own misinformation. Our host and I then went in for some strategy, mapping out the future trend of our campaign, and also chatted about England and mainly London, where he had many friends. My Sgt had been wounded during the latest firing, and was moved into the kitchen. The Dutchman, who had become very fond of him, immediately went up, gave him a mattress and blanket and also took a bottle of champagne up to him. The good people then invited me to have some tea with them, and share their food again for supper. I had nothing to return their kindness but a very few cigarettes, which they loved after the terrible tobacco which the Germans had sold in Holland.
All through the day a 3" mortar in our rear had been shelled by the enemy but again and again he returned the fire to his last round, despite a really savage cannonade. A very plucky show.
At nightfall things died down slowly, and I went up into the kitchen to sleep there, and wait for somebody to take me to hospital-as I thought. The Sgt had lost a lot of blood, but did not complain, all he asked for was a cigarette, which I could luckily supply. At about eleven my platoon's medical orderly came along to fetch me. He told me that the platoon had taken up a new position, a school house, about 400 yds away as the crow flies, but at about a mile’s walk. Did I feel fit enough to come. Well of course I did, and I then and there decided to stay with the platoon as long as possible, as the situation did not seem to have improved despite the Polish reinforcements. Anyhow the Platoon Sgt set a good example by staying with the platoon although his body was full of splinters and his right wrist was broken. That had happened on Saturday morning. He kept with us all the time, and eventually came back to England with us, where he hid to go to hospital.
On the way back, we stopped to give some treatment to a Pole in the house next to ours, who had some very nasty wounds in both his legs, and who under the treatment behaved magnificently. Back in Platoon HQ I picked up a rifle and a beret as I had given away all my equipment when I had been wounded. We then crossed the road a bit higher up, and went through the wood, which now was infested by German snipers. However we arrived unscathed and not even shot at, at our destination. There it was decided that I should go to the Company HQ to be seen to by our medical Sgt. This was consequently done and I noticed the most interesting fact that, although the wounds were really only scratches, and I am not fainthearted, I did get a funny feeling in my stomach. I suppose it was some sort of shock, anyhow a couple of glasses of an excellent '37 "Nierensteiner" which the CSM offered me, came in most useful. I then was told to spend the night at HQ as I was not much use at the moment, and the position really was not too bad. Thus I managed to get my first five hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Monday, 25 Sept.
My first act in the morning was to give my rifle, which I could not handle anyhow, to a friend of mine who had just more or less recovered from a slight face wound. Then two of us, who were slightly incapacitated, were told to go upstairs into the bedroom where we could lie down and would be out of the way. But very soon the shelling increased to such an extent that it was deemed wiser to have us on the ground floor. Luckily the Germans shelled us with contact Mortar bombs, so that despite their size (the enemy now used 6" bombs) they did only very little damage to houses. The shelling went on all day, as a matter of fact it increased in intensity, and later on 88 mm shells were intermingled. We could not do anything but lie on the floor and hope for the best. Nobody talked very much.
The food in this house was very good. The house itself had been very well provided for, and there was a grocer's shop just about 50 yds away, which had had one or two visits from our people. After breakfast there was a general stand-to, though I never could find out why, as to me, anyhow, this part of the front seemed extraordinarily quiet as far as small arms fire was concerned. During meal times, I sometimes took over the onerous duties of a look-out, but quite uneventfully.
The shelling would go on for about an hour or even 90 minutes at a time, and then there would be lull of about 20 minutes during which our own men or even German medical orderlies would come round like the salvage men at home, shouting "Any wounded". There also was apparently some sort of truce, as the hospitals which the Germans had taken over the day before, were to be evacuated. But unfortunately I don't know very much about this, except for seeing medical officers pushing wounded men, German or English, along the road in weird contraptions.
We held one civilian in that house who had come to us with a very peculiar story. He apparently had been sent from some German authority to tell us, that unless we stopped using the ground within 100 yds of the hospital grounds, or some such nonsense, they would blow the hospital sky-high, which sounded very fishy especially as there were also German wounded there, and I understand quite a number of them. Finally we had that man taken to Divisional HQ, and I wonder what they made of him and his wonderful story.
It is amazing how much good a war can produce in men at times. I remember the case of one man who was always cursing (and not alone) and a certain Corporal. They always were at loggerheads and the situation, was really rather difficult. But all this was forgotten as soon as we had landed. And on the third day I actually heard the man apologising to the Cpl for the past frictions. This was in the midst of battle, after both had shown their mettle.
All day long there was great fighter activity by both sides, and there were quite a few dogfights. Again we had the support of rocket firing Typhoons, and this time they were in greater numbers than ever before. In the late afternoon three flights of Bostons came over to do some pattern bombing and our morale soared tremendously. We also had the support of our medium artillery on the other side of the river, and we felt that all this close support, really was a very good sign, and that it could not take very long until we were to be relieved. There had been rumours of our tanks having got across the river a few miles East of Arnhem and that they were preparing a big encircling movement now. We were all in this frame of mind when an “O” group of all officers and senior NCOs was called, and we expected that we would make a large scale night attack. We also thought that it had a good chance of success, "as the Germans were particular loath to do any sort of night-work.
However it soon transpired that the General had received permission from the Second Army to try and retire across the river. The position was really worse than we had anticipated as there was no ammunition for anything larger than a machine-gun, and the enemy had brought some very heavy artillery, and was now firing incendiary shells, causing a great many fires, which he stoked up with 88 mm shells'. So we had a last meal, which in any case was really quite filling, as we ate up all our stocks, - the bottled fruit was an especially great attraction. The next two hours were spent in preparation of our night march. We took down most of the lovely velvet curtains to wind them round our boots, so that we could creep out noiselessly and would pass the German lines undetected. Some people blackened their faces, but most of us did not need to as our beards and the dirt of battle were camouflage enough. The waiting was quite nerve shattering. Not only were we under continuous German fire, but our own guns were firing at a very high rate at targets to our front and rear, and it was really quite laudable that they never hit the middle which was us. This went on for about two hours and sounded like one great thunderstorm. The route to the river was a roundabout route through the woods, and we were to march two to three miles, although the river was only 800 yards from our own position.
We left our positions at 9.30 and crossed the road in driving rain without being spotted. That afternoon a prisoner had been brought in belonging to a naval anti-aircraft unit. We could not leave him in the house for fear of his being burnt alive by his own people, nor could we let him go, as he would have betrayed the true state of affairs. We therefore took him with us as far as the beach, where we told to let him go, as there was not even enough accommodation in the boats for our own people, never mind the prisoner. We lay in the cabbage field for the next half hour, being shot at sporadically by some very nervous snipers who could not possibly see us, the rain cut down visibility to a few yards. After about half an hour we moved again and joined another queue. My party moved slowly and quite uneventfully through the woods like a ghost army. To this day I don’t know whom I was with, except that the man in front of me and to the rear belonged to my company. At times it was so dark that we had to grab hold of each other for fear of losing contact. Shouting or calling out were of course quite out of the question. A party of men had gone out earlier on and laid out white stripes for our guidance, and we were very thankful to have them. After what seemed hours we reached the plain which stretched down to the river without a single casualty. Other parties were not quite as fortunate as mine, they ran into enemy strong points and had to scatter to get cover, or also clear them.
Now another period of waiting and lying in the driving rain began. Soon after we had come down the Germans put down one salvo of mortar bombs, but luckily they never repeated that effort. A battalion of the Dorsets had crossed over the river to our side earlier on, and they now held a sort of bridgehead to safeguard our rear, and they then were to be the rearguard, crossing back after our people had been ferried over. We had joined a queue which was pretty crowded and waited slowly for our turn to get to the boats. There were four of them, each capable of taking 25 men, they had a sort of outboard motor and they were handled by Canadian Engineers. Well, after three hours of waiting I was able to get on one of these craft, not without losing my stick though, but I managed to hang on to my Sten. The crossing was uneventful, in spite of the very strong current, and after a short while, we disembarked on more-or-less safe territory.
There were quite a few people still left on the river bank at daybreak, and then the Germans spotted the whole thing. They mortared the boats, and put down heavy machine gun fire on either side of the people who were stranded, so that they were really in a box-Jerry in front, the river in the rear, and fire on either flank. Those people who tried to swim were heavily sniped on and machine-gunned, but quite a few managed to get across. The current was so strong that, you landed a mile and a half down the river, although it was only three to four hundred yards wide. A British Colonel came round to the men who were left and told them: "Gentlemen, there are only three things you can do. Either you fight on, or you surrender or you swim for it. Nobody will think any the worse of you, whatever your choices".
Tuesday, 26 Sept.
On the other side of the river we slithered up and down clay banks, helped by the Canadians, and then came to a road. We had to walk about three or four miles, to me it seemed many more, but that did not matter as we could walk in the open once again without attracting certain destruction, till we got to a barn where we had to queue again but this time for a tot of rum, some cigarettes and a little bread. Some people were luckier and got more, but we were so glad to get something to warm us, and a few cigarettes that we felt really grand. We then went into Nijmegen by lorry where we got our first cooked meal and lots of hot, sweet tea. The war however was not quite finished yet. The Germans somehow contrived to explode the petrol tank of a lorry near our building, which we had to evacuate as it might have caught fire. To this day I am sorry that I had no camera to take a picture of the gathering outside our house. Never in my life have I seen such an assembly of ragamuffins. The effect was increased by the arrival of some people who had swum the river successfully and had arrived at our side without a stitch. Some of them walked about half a mile till they found some kindly people who gave them clothes. There they were in women frocks, or clogs, or overcoats just anything that could be found for them.
There was quite a lot of air-activity (mainly enemy) over the town, but we were bedded down very quickly, and I think nearly all of us had 12 hours sleep.
We stayed for another day, spent mainly sleeping and eating but there were also already some parades, mainly clothing exchanges. General Browning came in the evening to inspect us, and he gave us the very welcome news that we would be going back to England as soon as possible.
We went by lorry from Nijmegen to Louvain, and when in the bottleneck of the corridor, Jerry sent us a shell, which fell 20 yds from our lorries, but proved to be a dud.
After a night in that very hospitable town, which I actually used for sleeping, but some of the lads went out; we went to a Belgian airport in the afternoon. We helped unload the Dakota, which then took us in, and off we were for Blighty.
By Harold BruceRead More