|"Don't leave me Sarge"|
"Keep 'em moving"
On 3rd October we had dug in near Best just north of Eindhoven, and we were to stay in this area for about three weeks. Most of the activity consisted of aggressive patrolling. We would send out patrols with varying weaponry. I went on one patrol where we took two companies’ worth of Bren guns and let loose thousands of rounds of ammunition. Other patrols would take all the Mortars with them, and so on. Eventually Jerry decided he’d had enough and pulled his forward defence lines back. The area was closely wooded, and one day, when we were out on patrol, we spotted a pig scurrying about. Not wanting it to end up in Jerry hands, we stalked it. The officer who was leading the patrol went up one side of a hedge and I went up the other, when the pig poked its head through the bushes it received a burst of Sten gun fire through its head. We broke a branch off a tree, and slung the pig by its legs and carried it back, looking for all the world like returning big game hunters. Two days later we all had a fine feast of pork. We also captured a dozen chickens. We decided to keep these for our platoon and returned to our billet to have near enough a chicken each. They were far better than compo rations.
During our time in and around the Best area, we liberated a couple of factories. One being the Bata shoe factory and the other was a silk factory. We went through the shoe factory with the thought that we would all soon be the proud owners of a new pair or pairs of shoes. We searched everywhere for a pair of shoes but they were all left feet, not a complete pair anywhere. At least we laughed about it. On entering the silk factory we were confronted by small arms fire from Jerry. As we fought our way through the factory we realised that the place manufactured silk stockings. We were stuffing pairs of silk stockings into our tunics even as we fought the Germans. They no doubt were doing the same until we interrupted them. The stockings had only cost us some of His Majesty’s ammunition. Five of the Germans had paid the ultimate price.
It was about this time that I, with a dozen others including Captain Lamb and Major Parker, were sent on leave to Antwerp for four days rest and relaxation. There is no doubt in my mind that the C.O. knew I was close to breaking point. I was feeling particularly low and probably showing the first signs of battle fatigue. Although the leave was given with the best intentions, it turned out that we were subjected to almost non-stop bombardment by V.1. Flying Bombs and V.2. Rockets. Just after we arrived in Antwerp, a Military Policeman, who was directing traffic at a crossroads, received a direct hit. They only found one of his white gauntlets. The cinema also took a direct hit, killing several hundred soldiers, a fact that was hushed up by the powers that be, until after the war. It got so bad that we pleaded to be sent back to the line and our comrades. If we were to die, better to be in familiar surroundings with friends and comrades. Little did I know what was ahead of me.
22nd October saw all ranks being briefed at the sand table for our next attack. The sand table was a model come map of our objectives. Each company was given a 200-yard front.
On 23rd October the Battalion moved to 1500 yards from the start lines at 2100 hours for an attack on the small town of Schijndel. The date being chosen because it was the anniversary of El Alamein. “A” and “B” companies were to seize the objectives and we “D”, and “C” companies would pass through them and form up ready for a second assault the following morning. We were to have the usual weight of artillery, mortar and heavy machine gun support. We were to advance under “Monty’s (artificial) Moonlight”. Artificial Moonlight was created by our searchlights shining on the clouds, the reflected light aiding our advance. As it turned out, it appeared that the defenders rather than the attackers gained the advantage.
As soon as “A” and “B” companies crossed the start line and hit open ground they were hit with intense defensive fire, mainly from Spandau machine guns, and sustained heavy casualties, only a depleted “B” company reached its objective.
“A” company had lost their company commander wounded, and were nearly wiped out. We in “D” company were launched round “B” company’s flank in an attempt to gain “A” company’s objective.
Again, as soon as we were in the open, the Spandau’s opened up on us. The two guys either side of me were both hit. The one on my immediate left was killed instantly as Spandau bullets ripped into him. He was hit and ripped open diagonally across his body from shoulder to opposing hip. It was if his body had been unzipped.
I managed to lie flat to the ground in a furrow on the edge of the field we were in, wishing it were a lot deeper. Machine gun bullets and tracer just whistling over my head, I was powerless to do anything. I laid like that for most of the night, listening to the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.
I managed to inch my way toward the Spandau, which was firing on fixed lines, down the shallow depression I was in, with bullets whistling just over my head. I passed the body of our dead Lieutenant and the body of our company commander Major A. N. Parker. There were at least twenty dead Camerons lying in that field. It made me all the more determined to get to the Jerry responsible. I eventually made my way round the back of his position and could see he was a German Parachutist. He was, I guess, about five feet six tall. I finally got into a position where I could get to him. I launched myself at him and hit him full in the face with all the force I could muster with a right fist. I was on top of him. I began punching him, kicking him, I was strangling him. I hit him in the face with the rifle butt, God help me I wanted to kill him with my bare hands. Lucky for him, the Adjutant, Captain Lamb pulled me off him, but even as he was being carried away I tried to shoot him. The C.O. took me to one side to calm me down, I was screaming at him, “look at all my mates dead, Major Parker, all the boys. I still sometimes cannot understand why I was not allowed to finish the Jerry off. Major Parker had been a good commander and friend and a very brave man.
Next day, as a result of the heavy casualties and lack of numbers, “D” company was disbanded in order to reinforce “A” and “B” companies. The attack continued and our blood was up as a result of what had happened. We were so quick with our advance that the tanks could not keep up with us. We finally took all our objectives by early evening and we settled in some pinewoods just west of Schijndel. We had lost eight officers and sixty - three other ranks, of whom a high proportion were, as usual, N.C.Os.
My favourite Company Sergeant Major went missing again before the attack and conveniently reappeared when it was safe to do so. This time he had been caught out by several others, including those in higher authority. He was hastily transferred, for his own safety. Several people had told him to watch his back, inferring that he would likely as not meet with a nasty and probably fatal accident. I had previously warned him to keep out of my sights. He was lucky not to have been shot by his own side. When we went in on an attack, I would perhaps be in the lead with the officer toward the rear, or vice versa. The men were told if any of them tried to do a runner, they would be shot. I was under orders to shoot anyone that turned tail and ran. Whether I would or could was never tested. Major Parker always told the company that he would shoot anyone running away. It was said to everyone, but directed at the odd one or two. There were a couple of guys who just couldn’t take anymore. They shot themselves in the foot. At least they had not run away in the midst of battle, jeopardising their comrades. You always relied on the man next to you, to cover and support you.
I picked up a German Schmeisser machine gun during this battle. This particular gun was a marvellous thing. It would fire both German and British ammunition. It was strictly forbidden, but I carried that gun with me until the end of the war.
It was about this time that I had a bad experience of having to follow an order that I knew to be pointless. It has haunted me ever since. I had been ordered to take my platoon to clear some woods and farm buildings. I tried to argue that it was a pointless exercise as we had already cleared that particular area. I had sent six guys forward up an avenue of trees and was just organising another squad when the tank, which was covering our advance, loosed off an air burst. The tank, it was sign written “Cock`O the North”, when covering an advance always had its gun loaded and ready to fire over our heads. It was a total accident but the tank commander slipped on the firing mechanism and fired a premature round.
The shell was an airburst and unfortunately it hit the trees and caught the six guys who were about twenty yards away from me. The blast from the explosion singed my hair, and what turned out to be part of a young boy’s head, hit me in the face.
When I got to my boys, three were dead and three had been terribly maimed. One had all his buttocks shot away, another had an arm and his shoulder missing, the third seemed to be bleeding from every part of his body. I can still picture the young lad to this day. He was only eighteen years of age, Ginger haired, I believe he came from Glasgow. The wounded were screaming, screaming at me not to leave them. “Sarge`, don’t leave me, Sarge`”. I was trying to reassure them, to calm them. I told them I would not leave them and administered the syrettes of morphine that I always carried round my neck. I wanted to cry but knew that I must not let them see that I was scared for them. I knew there was no hope for any of them, as I watched their colour turn to grey. I ordered the carrier forward and we took a door off the nearest building to act as a stretcher on top of the carrier. I got them to an aid station but one had died before we got there and the other two died shortly after. It was an utter waste of life. I still, after more than fifty years hear their screams and see their faces, faces of death. “Sarge`, don’t leave me Sarge`”. When I was on my own, later that night, I shed my tears; I sobbed uncontrollably for a while.
I always tried to look after my boys in my section. They never went short of a smoke or a dram of Whiskey. Sergeants had a monthly Whiskey ration. There might be perhaps twenty or so Sergeants going into an attack but there might only be ten left after the attack, thus the remainder would share the Whiskey and cigarette ration. I always shared it out amongst my boys in my section. I always thought that if I looked after them they would look after me. It seemed to work.
The tank commander went bomb happy once he realised what had happened, nobody blamed him, in fact it was an unpleasant thing to see. He seemed to go instantly insane; He has had to live with that tragedy all his remaining days.
Our officer on the other hand wasn’t to be forgiven. On my return I reported to the C.O. that the officer concerned had been drunk. I could not forgive him then and I still can’t forgive him to this day. We were all in the same situation, living on our nerve ends, wondering if to day was to be our last. Subsequently he was relieved of his duties and disappeared from the 5th Camerons. I don’t know his full punishment but, whatever he received, he had it coming. He was still alive.
27th October found us riding into action atop Sherman tanks towards Vught. We were delayed at the start line due to the tanks and carriers getting bogged down in the mud, we were greeted with anti - tank and machine gun fire but we had gained all our objectives by midnight.
When we cleared the cellar of the Burgomeisters house not only did we take the resident Germans prisoner; we released the Burgermeisters wife. She hugged and kissed me and did not want to let me go. It turned out that she was from Scotland and I told the C.O. He managed to get a message to her family in Scotland to let them know she had been liberated and was in good health.
The people were so grateful that they gave me a simple wooden plaque engraved with the picture of Vught Town House.
It is inscribed, ‘VUGHT GEMEENTE HUIS’.
Next day the local civilians emerged from their hiding places and gladdened our hearts. It was good to see their obvious enjoyment and relief from enemy fire and occupation. Vught contained the first concentration camp to be liberated by the allies, and gave us an insight into some of the more ghastly horrors yet to be revealed. Its liberation is officially credited to the Canadians, but 5th Camerons were fighting under command of the Canadians at the time. When we entered the camp there were bodies hanging from the gallows near the gates.
In the afternoon we were once more on the move, we had been tasked with “mopping up” near the Aftenvaterings canal. The C.O. had told us that we were not killing enough Germans. From now on we would drag them into the street so he could see how many we were killing. After the concentration camp at Vught we didn’t really need telling. Any German wearing a black S.S. uniform was never given the opportunity to surrender. If any others refused to surrender at our first request, they were never given the option again.
At mid-day 30th October we route marched to Waalwijk, which we occupied in the early afternoon. We received a tremendous welcome. We were trying to fight a battle at the same time as receiving the freedom of the town. The main square was crowded with the local population as we were trying to get to our objectives. The Germans succeeded where we had failed in clearing the place. The Germans started to shell the main square; I’ve never seen so many people disappear so quickly.
On 4th November 5th Camerons were to carry out an assault crossing of the Aftenvaterings canal. Carrying their boats, the assault companies, “A” and “B”, went up the canal bank, over into the water and across to the other side, without a single casualty, remarkable, especially as they had captured about a hundred prisoners within half an hour of landing. I was a part of a support company during the crossing and we crept up the bank and fired off as much ammunition as we could at the Germans in their dugouts on the far bank, about forty yards away. Also, Divisional artillery laid down their usual formidable amount of shells. Those boys always did us proud. We had an understanding with our artillery, “You lay down the shit and we’ll make sure Jerry doesn’t get to you”. It always worked. We followed up our assault almost immediately and seemed to take the Germans totally by surprise and we had secured the whole area by 3 a.m. on the morning of 5th November.
On 6th November I was again on the move, to Heusden. The Battalion suffered again from heavy mortaring. Advancing through Heusden, we heard an explosion ahead of us and we soon came across the burnt and bombed remains of what looked like a church. It turned out to be a Municipal building. The SS had herded over a hundred and thirty women and children into that building, then they blew it up. The next building to be liberated was being held by men in the Black uniform of the SS. As we closed in on them, the survivors emerged shouting “Nicht Schissen” and kamarad. Nicht Shissen my arse. We shot them without a second thought. From that day on, any German wearing the black SS uniform, would not get the option of surrendering to us. Even the green clad Whermacht would only get one chance to surrender. If they did not accept the first offer they did not get the chance again. The Pioneer boys got the job of clearing that building. Ted Murcar, on his return to Heusden in 1994, for the 50th Anniversary of their liberation, could not face entering that building again. The horror of all those bodies, especially the children, had stayed with him in his nightmares.
We were relieved during the evening, which seemed to take an eternity, and marched back, first to feed, then embus for Udenhout, far to the south.
Next day, 7th November, we once again moved by transport to Someren, to relieve a unit of the 7th U.S. Armoured Division. Total chaos seemed to reign but, by some miracle Jerry didn’t seem to notice, as two days later we were bombarded with propaganda leaflets depicting well known American leaders as war mongers. We in turn were relieved two days later. We were moved to Someren Zeide, where we were billeted for four relatively comfortable days.
On 13th November we were briefed by the Commanding Officer in a large barn and learnt that we were to carry out another canal crossing, the Nederweert canal. 5th Camerons were ferried across by boat and in Buffaloes, on 14th November. Thankfully, I crossed riding in a Buffalo and played across by a piper riding in the lead vehicle. The crossing went well and we had taken our objectives in less than the time allotted, and with light casualties. We consolidated our positions and spent a cold and uncomfortable night followed by an equally cold day.
16th November found us on the move again in readiness for yet another canal crossing, the Uitwaterings or “Zig” canal.
5th Camerons were astride the main road south of the bridge at Ruggleshe by last light. One of our patrols reported movement and small arms fire in an area near a blown bridge. At first light on 17th November the Zig canal area was subjected to fire from all weapons and “C” company was ordered to try a crossing. At about 8 a.m. “C” company began dashing over the collapsed bridge and were all over and digging in within half an hour despite heavy Spandau fire. About an hour after the initial crossing, Jerry woke up and started firing everything he had at “C” company, Bazooka, shell, mortars and machine guns. “B” company helped “C” by manoeuvring the company Brens up onto the canal bank and fired at the general area of the German defenders. We in “A” company went over to reinforce “C” at about 0930 hours. For the next two hours we seemed to be on the receiving end of every weapon that Jerry possessed, culminating in a smoke screen being laid to cover the German counter attack. As soon as the first smoke was launched, we could see Jerry charging across the open ground towards us. Our artillery and tanks opened up and along with the fire we were putting down, Jerry was suffering very heavy casualties. They must stop advancing but, these guys must have been fanatics, we didn’t finally stop them until about 1330 hours. We were close to running out of ammunition, though carrying parties succeeded in supplying us before nightfall, despite being sniped at. At about 2200 hours 2nd Seaforth passed through us and we spent an undisturbed though rather damp night.
During the early morning of 18th November Divisional Engineers erected a class 40 bridge over the canal at the point where “C” and “A” companies had fought so hard. This bridge became known as “Cameron Bridge”. In a congratulatory message, the Corps Commander wrote:
“Had not the 5th Camerons held onto their foothold on the east bank of the Zig canal, the advance of the whole Corps might well have been delayed for an appreciable time”.
Cameron Bridge, Zig canal, Holland, November 1944
On 19th November 5th Camerons were relieved by the 49th Division and we moved to what was an already overcrowded town of Heythuijen for four days rest. On the fifth day the Battalion moved by motor transport to Nijmegen, and from there, by route march into the line. The change over was carried out in heavy rain, and, everywhere was covered by thick mud. It took nearly all night to relieve a Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division. Nobody had any sleep. We were on the “Island”.
The “Island” was an area between the Waal and Neder Rhine rivers. There was no hand-to-hand contact here, though life was not to be easy as approaches to our positions were in full view -- and lay opposite what must have been the only hill in Holland. The water in front of the “Bund” could be seen to be rapidly rising. At 0330 hours on 3rd December we were ordered to pack immediately. Operation "Noah" was put into action. The Germans had burst the dyke in 2nd Seaforth area. The “Island” was being flooded. We evacuated our positions at 1400 hours and slowly made our way to higher ground. At one point I had to get our Bren gunner onto my shoulders, as he was less than five feet tall, the water coming high up my chest. He couldn’t swim, but then nor could I. I only managed to find my way off by following the line of a fence, the top of which was just above the water level. Nijmegen bridge was under fire and so we got to the bank of the river and were picked up by the Canadians using storm boats, wooden framed canvas boats propelled by a small outboard motor, and ferried to relative safety, all this in a heavy sleet storm.
From here, motor transport took us to Oss, near s`Hertogenbosch. Better billets (a large Roman Catholic monastery and schools in s`Hertogenbosch it-self) were made available on 6th December. The Battalion settled down to what was to be one of the happiest rest periods spent during its time in Europe.
One of the lighter moments was when the C.O. returned to find the monks, adorned in their brown cassocks, being put through the mystic rites of a Scottish religious dance by the Quartermaster. The monks, in all innocence, were being taught the “Hokey-Cokey”.
During this respite we were visited by the Commander in chief, Field–Marshal, Bernard Law Montgomery, and a investiture was held in St Michiel-Gestel on 15th December, and I took my turn on stage to receive the Military Medal from Field - Marshal Montgomery. Photographs were taken and I had mine autographed by Bernard Law Montgomery.
2934077 Sgt. George Sands 5th Queens Own Cameron Highlanders receives his Military Medal from Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.
I can’t remember whether it was in Eindhoven or Nijmegen but, there was a Philips factory there. The factory comprised of three sections. The Germans were apparently using the middle section, I believe they were producing electronic or radio equipment. That middle section was attacked and bombed by a squadron of Mosquito fighter-bombers. They completely destroyed that centre section with only minor blast damage to the buildings on either side, buildings occupied by mainly Dutch people. Not bad for a plane made out of wood.
On 19th December the Battalion returned to the “Island” and took over from 1st Black Watch. 24 hours later we were on the move South and East.
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