DAVID BROOK - THE RHINE CROSSING APRIL 24/25 1945
This story is extracted from a letter dated from David Brook to Herr Nitrowski, who has written an excellent account of the British and Airborne actions of Operation Varsity. Herr Johann Nitrowski was 17 years old in March 1945, and became a schoolmaster in Hamminkeln. In writing his book, he of course included German Army archives and has additional information and photos. He takes part in the annual pilgrimage by RHQ PARA, and takes the visitors round the battlefield. He holds the view that the local people were relieved that the war had now stopped in their area.
Many people in this country do not even know that troops went into battle from gliders and even those that do are under the impression that we always crashed haphazardly about the place, whereas in fact we were briefed to land on a precise spot. A friend of mine, Dicky Richards, had to land by the bridge over the River Issel so that his troops could capture it. They did. I flew ‘E’ Squadron of the Glider Pilot Regiment and we were each given an individual parking space on the East side of the railway station which was our objective. As you will see we were not so precise as Dicky Richards, in that the prevailing circumstances caused us to overshoot the station by a few hundred yards. Nevertheless to fly for 4.5hrs at 110kts from an airfield in England to a small town station in Germany in order to capture it is what we were trained to do, and in the light of today’s technology and navigational aids may perhaps seem to have been more difficult than in fact it was.
It was the largest airborne armada ever carried out. Our briefing told us that the R.A.F. had flown hundreds of sorties over the leading area for weeks beforehand and knocked out all the anti-aircraft or flak positions. Os the ground we were told that the 7th Parachute Division and that 84th Infantry Division were waiting for us together with a few thousand Volksturm and a Panzer Division available in the vicinity of Bocholte.
We had taken off soon after dawn from Birch Airfield near Colchester in Essex. Our 60 formations of Dakotas and Horsas slowly wheeled round gaining the 2,500 feet flying height and forming up until we had joined with the other1,000 odd combinations forming one continuous line and heading out for the Channel. In number 52 in the seemingly endless stream, the leading gliders and their tugs disappeared over the horizon as we headed towards Brussels and we knew that behind us the stream continued, the tail of which would take half an hour at 120 mph before it reached our current location. High above us could be seen the silver spots of escorting fighter cover and we changed direction at pre-determined places some three or four times in order not to make our destination obvious. That we need not have bothered was shown to us later by the strength of the welcoming committee that awaited our arrival!
Our met forecast had told us of a fine day with clear skies and a Westerly 2-5 breeze. Visibility would be good so that we would easily be able to identify our landing place from the perfect sand-table model of the area which we had studied. This showed every house and building, the river and railway line, almost every poplar tree in the district and, of course, the railway station which was our particular objective.
Some 15 minutes before landing we approached the Rhine and we were surprised to see the ground partially obscured by slowly drifting smoke. This had not been mentioned at our briefing! It came, I believe from the great artillery barrage put up by Montgomery which again was the largest of the whole war including that at El Alamein. Probably adding to this was the smoke from the complete destruction caused to Wesel by Lancasters which we had been told would ‘knock it out’ at midnight prior to a Commando crossing of the river. The Rhine showed in silver glimpses below and ahead of us and we began checking off points ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘’Z’, leading up to our pull-off point. After ‘Y’, our tug crew, seeing other unfortunate Dakotas beginning to be hit and some going down in flames at a height that no-one could escape from, began asking us whether we had gone far enough. "Matchbox - are you ready yet?" ‘No’, I replied, and on we went searching for the landmarks we had memorized whilst searching for our positions on the map.
The first discomforting thumps of anti-aircraft fire thudded near us, and black smears appeared suddenly close to us whilst the rattling of small pieces could be heard as they struck our plywood skin. Suddenly through a gap in the drifting smoke we saw the small town of Hamminkeln with its church spire below us. Our landing Zone was the furthest East of all and proved to be the most hotly defended, and now with gliders loosing off all around us we pulled the ‘tit’ having been wished good luck from our tug, which performed the steepest 180° turn to port and for home I have ever seen, whilst we pushed the nose down to increase our flying speed of 110 knots to 140. Others seemed to be climbing in comparison as they pulled up to the usual gliding speed of about 80 knots. But the scene was worrying. It was not what we had expected. Gliders were being shot down all around us by a concentration of flak from the positions which later we were to find in the woods, and other places missed by the RAF. Our only chance we felt was to disobey the instructions of our CO Brigadier Chatterton and get down to the ground as quickly as possible. “Do land those gliders slowly”, he had told us as we had gathered around him sitting on the grass at Birch the day before, “otherwise you will smash your nose wheels and never get your loads out quickly.”
In different circumstances, this would have been correct, but had we carried the order out and floated around to achieve a spot-on perfect training touch-down on our parking lot, I might well have finished up where many of my friends did: 52% of ‘E’ Squadron pilots were killed or injured as compared with 25% over the whole operation. Of 416 British gliders which reached the battlefield, only 88 landed intact, but it was calculated afterwards that every glider was hit in the air. It was in the air and on landing that most of the casualties of E Squadron occurred.
We had shed 1,500 feet off our height in a tense minute or two as we shot earthwards amid the huge black shapes of our friends cart-wheeling and diving in uncontrolled ways never intended as tails, rudders, flaps or whole wings were shot off. We were not aware of the tense troops behind us who could do nothing but pray, or of the fully laden jeep and trailer which would crush us if we dived in helpless as we saw one Horsa do. Luckily the free flight of a Horsa was heard as a gentle hiss, but as we increased speed to 140 knots it was a roar of wind as we spotted the railway line and seconds later the station. I saw a battery of 5 Bofors guns frantically training on us as we flashed by too fast for them to score yet another victim. We made our 90° turn dipping the starboard wing down to the earth to bring us north of the station and travelling down on the East side of the track, but already we knew that we were flying too fast to land alongside the station. We sped straight as a die over the fields at about 50 feet and passed the station having got our speed down but still well over that laid down for the application of half flap. We nevertheless applied it, and in the culmination of rising tension of the last few minutes of the flight of our lives never even marveled at the fact that the flaps held. Forward with the stick forcing the 6 ton machine to hit the ground before it was anywhere near ready to. Bang on the ground and thump went the huge Dunlop wheels and we were in the air again. We knew what we were doing, but I would not have been a passenger in the back for twice our flying pay! A leapfrog of 300 yards and the first of several rows of 6 foot high angle iron stakes and wire fencing crossing our path was smacked down as if it were matches and string. This time she stayed down and rumbled, roared and shook at 60 mph through more fences as a terrified group of German soldiers ran for the cover of a road-side hedge and ditch ahead of us. "Look" I said, “Germans"! I mean allowing for the fact that we had had breakfast only a few hours before in England and also that air travel was virtually unknown in those days compared with now, who would one expect to see in Germany but Germans? Nevertheless that was my reaction to the sight, in real life, of those ominous steel helmets and unmistakably hostile grey uniforms of respected and brave enemies, who however just at that moment quite sensibly had decided that being in the way of a huge glider with an 88 foot wing span and 6 tons behind it was to be avoided if at all possible. I remember as if it were yesterday the sight of the slowest rather heavily built soldier as his broad stern disappeared as he clambered desperately up a bank and disappeared behind trees.
The Horsa came to a halt in soft soil warm with the early spring morning (or was it just that when later I found myself laying in it that I was sweating?). Winter corn was showing well through in which our main wheels had ploughed shallow furrows that were to prove a comfort a few minutes later.
There was no more time to admire the view as a rather persistent MG 34 turned its undivided attention on our Horsa. It was a much faster rater of fire than our Bren was unmistakable and I recall the Captain of the small group of Ox & Bucks Light Infantry that we were carrying, who had recently won his MC on D-Day, saying as they struggled to open an uncooperative door “This is f....... terrible”. I saw them pile out at last and realising that I was still wearing my flying helmet, dived hack into the cockpit to dress properly for the occasion by fastening on my round pudding basin of an airborne helmet. As I made back for the doorway a steady stream of bullets banged through it and I decided that a slight delay in my departure was necessary and dropped down-behind large crates of stew which were stored under the troop seats. I watched fascinated as the machine gunner slowly raked the glider back and forth from stem to stern. The jeep just in front of my nose became a sort of colander and petrol flowed over the flat wooden flooring. Realising that my feet and legs were sticking up in the cockpit by being draped over the foot high step between the cabin, I strove to pull them down and up into my chest and made myself as small as possible. I remember thinking that this was probably the time in my life when I should say some prayers for it to last a little longer than the 22 years I had so far enjoyed. But then deciding that this would not be acceptable in view of the fact that I had neglected to say them in the ordinary way in which 1 had been brought up for some considerable time, I consciously made the decision to remain silent.
The noise of battle outside my plywood coffin (later I was to learn that the three men at the back behind the trailer never got out and were already dead) was overwhelming in its intensity and I barely heard a voice shouting my name and urging me to get out if I was still there as German tanks were coming. There was a pause in the machine gun fire as no doubt the gunner reckoned that no-one else was likely to be in a fit state to get out and I made a headlong dive landing on the soft (warm?) soil some 4'6’’ below. It was now that I lay behind the portside main wheel in the furrow it had made and watched the first of several German anti-airborne troops roaring down the road a few yards ahead of us, not on tanks but on the half-tracks which they had designed specially for the opposition of unwelcome visitors like the 6th Airborne of which I was a temporary member by reason of being an Army Air Corps Glider Pilot. In fact my role when I reached the ground safely, which I had at last now achieved, was as PIAT man. That is to say I was supposed to use this weapon for its designed purpose of knocking out tanks instead of which it was still with the rest of the gear in the Horsa. All I had on me was my personal 9 mm automatic which I proceeded to fire in earnest at the men seated on the half track and the motor cyclist following them, all of which had the unmistakable mien of hunched shoulders and crouched bodies of people who were no more wishing to find themselves just at that moment where they were than we did. At any rate they did not stop and mop us up in our vulnerable state as they could easily have done, but disappeared down the road in the roar, crack and bang of battle. Some of this noise, although only like the piccolo of the full symphony orchestra, I now discovered was coming from another battery of light anti-aircraft guns which I could see just to my right on the side of the Railway track. Evidently they had temporarily tired of knocking our gliders out of the sky which I could see strewn all over the field we were on in every state of destruction. I could see dead men lying everywhere, each a pathetic little heap, and only two live ones some distance off firing back from behind the wheel of their glider. I then found that the Captain and the rest of the men including my co-pilot were sheltering in a small weapon pit recently vacated by the first Germans I had seen who had thoughtfully made way for us. Meanwhile the battery had turned its 3 guns down at a low angle and was proceeding to fire at my Horsa. I felt a blow as if a hammer hit me on the right shoulder. The shells were bursting just above me and unknown to me in the heat of the moment, I now had a piece of one in my shoulder. I decided that it was time to move. The same idea appeared to occur to all of us that we had landed here to do a job and so far had done nothing very much except keep our heads down. The Captain was obviously feeling much better since he had got out of the confines of the Horsa and unrestricted now proceeded to lead an attack on the gun position. We had to run directly at it and another memory, which is etched in part of me forever, is of turning round as I ran to have what proved to be my last look at the Horsa which had carried us here so well. I was in time to see a shell hit the glazed nose of the machine which was also the closed cockpit and from a nice shining ‘office’ it instantly collapsed in drooping pieces. Had I been able to maintain my glance I would have seen her go up in flames destroying everything in her including the 3 unfortunate bodies in the back, of which I was told days later by a seasoned veteran that one was the worst he had seen on any battlefield. Apparently his charred remains stuck in the ground upside down with the iron tips on his boots being all that remained of his uniform stuck to his heels.
We had landed close by a small farmhouse and I and another man ran up to it. A large barnlike door was closed and I fired some bullets through it before bursting it open. We ran in to find a room at the side with a large pile of turnips and hay on the floor. Evidently a cow or two had recently departed together with their owners to a quieter place. Relieved to find that we had captured a building without having to clear anyone out, I realised that I could not move my right arm anymore and that a sharp pain in my shoulder with a stiffening of the arm had developed so I transferred my automatic pistol to my left hand and turned to see the very energetic approach of the Ox and Bucks Captain, his face red and perspiring with the nervous and physical energy he had been under. He ran up pushing a young tough looking German paratrooper ahead of him. "Here, Glider Pilot,” he said, “you have been wounded; stay here and guard this prisoner until we come back.” At which he raced off with a small group of men and I pushed my prisoner back into the house and sat him down on the heap of turnips telling him to keep his hands over his head.
High up there was a small window through which I could still see glimpses of gliders flashing past, and I marveled at the sheer weight of noise which was now turning into a continuous heavy roar. Looking at my watch I remembered our briefing when we had been told that half an hour after landing, 250 Liberators would fly over at only 250 feet to drop re-supply in the shape of large airborne containers on small parachutes. This was what was happening now, but my small view of what had happened so far led me to suppose that I could be merely part of a bigger disaster even than Arnhem. There after all, the first main landings had taken place without much opposition. Here at Hamminkeln all I knew was that our Glider's load had been mainly destroyed and all I had seen was destruction of other gliders and the pinning down of those that had got out by the guns of the heavily defended landing zone.
The effects of the trauma of landing, the capture of the gun battery and loss of blood from my shoulder wound combined now in the driest of throats and mouth so that I craved a drink that was unavailable. Looking down I saw a nest of hens’ eggs on the ground and keeping my eyes on my prisoner I stooped and picked up an egg, broke and swallowed it. This greatly amused the tough looking and potentially dangerous prisoner as it clearly proved that his Country's propaganda that the British were starving as a result of the MUM Boat campaign was true. In fact of course we had all been given a first-class breakfast of eggs and bacon before we had left. For many it had been their last meal on earth, but to me that egg was the best thing I had tasted, although it was the first and last I have ever eaten raw.
I was in a sombre and doubtful mood wondering how all this might end when I heard the Captain’s voice outside shouting “Glider Pilot: are you still there?" I gave him the all clear and he ran in looking hotter than ever and panting that I should take the prisoner up to join ‘the others’ at the Hallway Station. In some surprise I asked him then if we had captured it. It seemed incredible that those remarkable men of the Ox and Bucks and the Devons had pulled themselves out of their smashed gliders - my own was the only one I saw land almost undamaged albeit for a short time - and successfully challenged defensive positions to achieve our objective. He assured me that the station was ours and I therefore left the house and set off with my charge up the railway line. The chaos here was indescribable. Trucks were overturned and the huge broken remains of a couple of Horsas lay across the tracks. Men were lying alongside the rails as if to shelter from the small arms fire which was still heavy and banging about my ears. The German seemed in no hurry as if he knew they were his own sides bullets and would not harm him, but I felt no such inclination to stroll up the line between the open fields on either side as if nothing was happening and I urged him into a trot.
So we arrived at the station which was more like an ordinary house and where an extraordinary sight met us. The red beret of the 6th Airborne was everywhere. The place was seething with men. Wounded were being carried in by the brave unarmed medical corps who rushed out to the smashed wrecks of gliders to carry the wounded back, completely ignoring the constant small arms fire which criss-crossed the fields from defensive slit trench positions, yet to be subdued.
I handed my prisoner over and west into the station house. Shattered bodies lay everywhere on the floors, their camouflaged smocks torn and mastered by shot, grenade or mortar and stained with the mixture of earth and blood. I recognised a fellow pilot who was in great pain having received a bullet through the bottom of his foot which had continued up into his leg. The elderly Stationmaster sat groaning quietly on the only chair. A stray bullet had hit him in the stomach, I think. He looked bewilderedly at the mass of life and death around him which had so suddenly destroyed the former peace and quiet of his small country station.
The building suddenly came under mortar attack and the walking wounded were told to go below into the cellar. I found myself sitting next to a Captain and as a bomb exploded closer to the building I muttered a few soldiers’ expletives only to be reprimanded for my language. Peering closer at this officer I perceived in the gloom that he was a padre and apparently wounded. I got up and left him, climbing first to the ground floor again and then upstairs to the bedrooms, the floors of which were covered with seriously wounded men lying on stretchers unable to protect themselves against the possible collapse of the ceilings, let alone the roof itself. I gave one a cigarette and sat down with them and waited. Another bomb burst close to the front of the building and as I was waiting for the next one to come through the roof, which with the accuracy of persistent short range mortar fire was inevitable, I heard the heavy thudding of one of our Brens. The mortar fire stopped. Some of our boys had gone out and silenced it.
I left them lying on their stretchers under the dust, the stink of cordite and a battle still on them, waiting patiently for the time when they could be moved to an advanced Field Hospital. I went downstairs and a medic poured Sulphamide powder into my wound and applied a First Field Dressing. It was to be a week later in England before a piece of shrapnel was removed.
The troops had now dug themselves in and were preparing for a night counter attack. The walking wounded were told to get themselves to a large country house about half a mile away known as Gut Vogelsang. We walked through trees, some with great difficulty, the seriously wounded being carried on stretchers. It was nightfall when we saw the tall imposing building among the trees. Exhausted, I lay down on the floorboards of a large downstairs room. I dozed fitfully and later was aware of a trooper in an adjoining small room which had the door open gasping in a terrible way at about 120 to the minute. He had fearful chest injuries and had been injected with morphine by the small toothpaste like tubes with a needle which we all carried. They had turned him over on what remained of his chest and left him.
For some time now the heavy background rumble of Monty’s artillery on the other side of the Rhine had been growing in intensity and the house was beginning to vibrate. I noticed that at about half hourly intervals as if at a stroke the noise increased in volume as the barrage lifted and crept nearer. The whole earth seemed to be shaking now, and one could not identify individual explosions. It was just one vast eternal explosion that never varied, or dropped for a second only to get closer and closer to where we were. “A creeping barrage” I thought, “I wonder whether they know exactly where we are and whether they will stop in time?”
Outside the machine guns started up again as the promised counter-attack developed. Close fighting was taking place in the orchard round the house and the woods beyond. Our Ox and Bucks, Devons and R.U.R. were defending our position whilst the barrage lifted again so that it must only be half a mile away, or so it seemed. The noise increased until it filled everything, the building was now shaking and I could not believe that we were going to live through it. I could not conceive of a noise any greater than this. It seemed to fill my whole being and when suddenly it stopped it was as instantaneous as if the conductor of a symphony orchestra had waved his baton for the final chord. The silence that followed for a minute or so was uncanny and I realised that something was missing. As the barrage had stopped so had the struggle for life of the wounded trooper. After the terribly fast gasping for air the silence was uncanny.
In the morning some tea was prepared in buckets and I chewed a few more of the concentrated biscuit-like food from my 24 hour pack which was all any of us had had to eat since leaving England.
Later we learned that the tanks from the Panzer Division were approaching down the Autobahn. A little Air OP Auster appeared, circled and dipped only to be fired at. It climbed up again and continued circling lower when again it danced away from some light ack-ack. The dodging and circling by the brave army pilot continued until the first of the ‘Taxi Rank’ rocket firing Typhoons arrived. One by one they dived over our heads and the whooshing of their rockets hissed off to find their mark until the threatened tank attack was no more.
At 10 a.m. the link-up between the Airborne forces and the 2nd Army was forged. The operation had been an unqualified success opening up as it did the way to the Ruhr and heartland of Germany. But of the 8,000 British Airborne troops, over 1,000 were casualties and of these by far the greatest percentage of killed and wounded was sustained by the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry and the Glider Pilots who carried them to the easternmost landing zone round the railway station.
Source: David BrookRead More