|"Don't leave me Sarge"|
"Keep 'em moving"
At Vught it was obvious to everyone that a major operation was looming, though we had no idea as to what that operation or target was. We knew it involved clearing woods, as every company, in turn, was exercised in wood clearing, though the training did not prepare us for what we were to find.
On 8th February we moved into our concentration area at Mook, a much-shelled village three miles from the Dutch - German border, on the banks of the River Maas. We were ready for our share in what was to be some of the most severe fighting ever to take place in Europe. If ever there is a Hell on earth, this place was it. The Forest was dark and foreboding and in a way, terrifying.
The Battalion left Mook by route march after a hot meal at about 0230 hrs, 9th February, for the long approach march to the forest. We reached the forest at first light without sustaining any casualties, to find the Black Watch in control, though the situation was somewhat fluid with enemy snipers everywhere. We advanced on a one company front, "D" Company leading. We had a troop of three tanks supporting us but, after only about 200 yards we encountered a huge crater, which succeeded in halting the tanks, so "D" Company continued to advance alone. We accounted for several enemy strong points, machine-gun posts etc., en route, and took some eighty odd prisoners. I lost one of my boys on the first day. There were three Germans wearing SS uniform coming in under a white flag. Two were supporting the centre one who was bandaged and wounded. I sent out a young lad, (he had only been with us three days) to bring them in. When he reached them the wounded German stood up and shot my boy between the eyes. He was just eighteen years of age. We emptied our guns into those Germans. We would be reluctant to honour a white flag again. About 300 yards further on we were hit with what seemed to be every type of weapon the Germans possessed. We were pinned down good time. The Jerry snipers then started in earnest. The density of the forest took us completely by surprise. We thought it was only the poor buggers in the Jungles of Burma that didn't see the enemy until they were ten yards away. It was only possible for one man at a time to pass between the trees.
I was taking cover behind a tree; I had a corporal about five yards to my right and two privates on my left. Bullets were taking the bark off the tree just above my head. Shots were coming in from all directions, from our front, left and right flanks, and even from behind us. I shouted to my boys to lay still and wait for the tanks. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw the corporal's head gently nod and his chin rested on his chest, a snipers bullet had hit him just above his right ear. When I looked to my left both of the privates were dead also, one with a head wound, the other through the throat. One of the boys was only nineteen years old.
The "Crocodile" tank (Flame throwing tank) arrived on scene and sprayed the tops of the trees with hundreds of rounds of machine gun fire, toppling the snipers out of their roosts, that and the fact that "B" Company were flanking them saved "D" Company. We gained our objective with a final bayonet charge and the three tanks we had set out with firing high explosives at point blank range into enemy dugouts.
We continued to advance along a track with the tanks on our right flank, until we reached a cross track, which was taken mainly due to "C" Company. Snipers were still firing at us from all directions. It had taken the Battalion all day to advance 1500 yards. The Germans were mainly Paratroopers, mostly fanatical, who kept firing until wiped out, usually at point blank range, with hand to hand fighting not uncommon.
At one point we had run out of ammunition and we finished off one position, attacking and killing the occupants with our trenching tools. Do you know you can take a mans head clean off his shoulders with a trenching tool. It was a particularly bloody affair but they were never going to surrender, and as the saying goes Kill or be Killed. Those defenders suffered a particularly violent and bloody death. We spent that night consolidated in the cross track area and 2nd Seaforth moved through us to take the lead at first light 10th February.
The Seaforths hadn't got far before they were held up by determined resistance from the German 7th Parachute Division. 5th Camerons were immediately ordered to push through this enemy pocket. We in "D" Company were ordered to push round the right flank. We advanced, supported by "Crocodiles", but the fighting was intense and bloody. The "Crocodiles" would spray long spurts of flaming liquid as they went, the screams of those on the receiving end were terrible. The smell of burning flesh is something that stays with you forever, a horrible sickly sweet smell. One of the tank commanders could be seen in the turret of his "Crocodile", he had a blood stained bandage round his head and he was screaming all sorts of obscenities at his targets as he went. Those tanks certainly saved us a lot of casualties. We still had, what was now becoming normal practice, of having to fight at really close quarters. When you are fighting a man at arms length and closer, you can smell him, smell his fear, and your own. Kill or be killed.
We eventually fought our way through the enemy and left the remainder to be duly mopped up by the Seaforths. We continued our advance for about another two miles until darkness fell. The night was pitch black, bitterly cold with a heavy drizzle forming a mist. We had to hold onto the bayonet scabbard of the man in front to avoid getting lost on our way to our bivouac for the night. "B" Echelon arrived late that night with a hot meal for us. Again we had been under constant fire all day. A few enemy shells landed in our area during the night, a result of which 2930651 Sergeant A. Mackenzie, who won the Military Medal at St. Honorine in June 1944, was wounded and evacuated.
While breakfast was being dished out next morning, (11th February), a German fighting patrol infiltrated the H.Q. area. Apparently the only casualties were a few food containers, though the people who lost their breakfasts were none too happy. Once we had beaten off the patrol we settled in our positions for the rest of the day, avoiding the odd incoming shell. Again due to casualties to the Battalion, "D" Company was split up and shared out amongst the remaining three rifle companies. We remained in our positions for two days. We were shelled at fairly regular intervals causing a few casualties.
To give some idea as to how confused and how fluid the fighting was, a couple of incidents stand out. One of our guys was walking back to his position after drawing breakfast from the cook's truck, a mess tin in each hand. He saw three men coming towards him on the same track, heading for the truck. When they were close enough in the early morning half-light, he realised that they were Germans. He brought in three prisoners with his breakfast. On the same day a German corporal was captured carrying a bag of mail to what had once been his company area.
After what had been two days of comparative rest, "D" Company was revived and the Battalion moved to the village of Hekkens. We knew another attack was imminent. We were to attack Hervorst. The village was dominated by a tree covered hill about two miles from Goch, and formed part of a reserve line of the Siegfried Line: which consisted hereabouts of enormous Pill-Boxes, buried deep under hillocks of ground, all mutually supporting and housing 150mm guns.
At last light on 16th February, behind a heavy barrage, we left the forest and crossed the river at Hekkens, and advanced on Hervorst. Apart form the inevitable mines, we met relatively light resistance, taking out a few Spandau machine gun positions. Hervorst was taken and "C" and "D" Companies advanced a further mile in the direction of Goch. During the advance a thick mist came up off the river and made visibility so bad that we captured some Germans before they knew we were amongst them. We then bedded down for the night, as usual, cold and wet.
During the night of 17th-18th February "D" Company moved east of the wooded hill of Hervorst to clear the intervening ground and link up with the 5th Seaforth. When we finally halted and encamped, I couldn't find "Porky". Somebody told me that he had been seriously wounded. He had been caught in a blast from a mortar shell, having the back of his legs shot away. It was a serious wound as he was immediately evacuated back to England. (I was to see "Porky" again after the war, visiting each other at various times. The last occasion being about 1965. He and his wife were holidaying in Clacton and drove to Ipswich to visit me, where we had a night of reminiscing, with the odd dram of whiskey. "Porky" was to emigrate to Australia the next year to be with his son and his family. He had been there about two years when he was diagnosed as being terminally ill. "Porky" died shortly after, I believe, a belated casualty of that "bloody Reichswald").
During our attack we were pinned down by heavy shell and machine gun fire from a gun emplacement well dug in. Our officer managed to contact a tank and sent it to our aid. When it reached us I got the platoon in cover behind it. I got on the inter-com phone at the back of the tank and directed the fire of the tank. The second high explosive shell it fired scored a direct hit, blowing the Jerry anti-tank gun into the air. The remaining Jerry's emerged waving white flags shouting "Nicht Schissen". Two of the boys started out to bring them in, but I stopped them. After what had happened on previous occasions I was tempted just to shoot them on the spot, but instead, I got them in front of the tank and made them lead our advance. If their comrades wanted to shoot us they would have to kill their own first. All's fair in war.
During the advance through the Reichswald, I was confronted by a Jock leaning against a tree, he asked me for a cigarette. I gave him a cigarette and lit it for him, and he just rolled round the tree and fell to the ground. He had a large hole where his stomach and intestines should have been. Neither he nor I realised he was already dead.
The Battalion took over a sector of the line from 5th Seaforth, near Asperden, where we spent our time for three days, on active patrols and being subjected to the usual shelling and mortaring. We had the odd lighter moment, not the least of which was watching Rocket firing Typhoons having a go at Jerry. It was always an enjoyable experience, when being on the delivering side.
On 25th February an attack was made on a nearby village, which contained three Pill-boxes, and it was surrounded by an anti-tank ditch on three sides, with a river on the fourth: the garrison consisted of two full strength Infantry companies.
At 2200 hours after a heavy barrage the attack went in, we had reached our objectives after about an hour, Jerry giving up without a fight. "C" Company were ordered to capture the third Pillbox. They couldn't find it. The officer was convinced that he was in the correct location. Apparently, a willing prisoner volunteered to guide the company to the pillbox, it was so well disguised as a farmhouse that it defied detection even in daylight. Interrogation of the prisoners revealed that their officer was absent at a conference when the attack went in. The Jerry's decided that the only shots to be fired would be at any German who tried to repulse our attack. We took 200 prisoners that day. So ended the battle for the Reichswald. We had been under almost constant fire, from 9th February to the 25th., Reichswald had cost 5th Camerons three officers and twenty other ranks killed; eleven officers and one hundred and forty five other ranks wounded. This surely can't go on much longer.
We had taken some unexpected casualties at certain times during the Reichswald battles. When we moved through the Seaforths to take the lead they would tell us that the way ahead was clear. We would move out in extended line and before we had gone far we would come under mortar and machine gun fire. "Bloody Seaforths said it was clear". It was later rumoured that they had a German in their ranks, he had been masquerading as a Jock for about three months and was tipping off the Jerry's as to our movements. If the story is true, he was only discovered as a result of being wounded during a bombardment and being treated at an aid station. It might also explain why we suffered casualties during our advance during the Battle of the Bulge, as the Seaforths were lead battalion that day.
On 28th February the Battalion moved to Nijmegen, where we enjoyed eight days rest. On 4th March the pipes and drums played (with the massed pipe bands of the 51st Division) at Hervorst, during the visit of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The next move was on 8th March to Belgium--and its importance was obvious. In the village of Kinrooi, on the West Bank of the River Meuse, the Battalion began its preparation for the crossing of the Rhine.
Entrance to the Reichswald cemetery, Germany
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