WW II, a British focus  




Chapter VI
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Into Germany to Victory - February - May 1945

At this time the brigade was still equipped with Sherman Is and IIs, but the proportion of tanks equipped with 17-pounders had doubled since D day, each regiment now having 24. Troops consisted now of two 75 mm and two 17-pounder tanks.

On February 18th, still as the armoured brigade of 11th Armoured Division, we moved to Tilburg, for the last time leaving the area of Weert, the hospitable inhabitants of which had made us regard it as our continental home. At the same time 14th Light Field Ambulance left us. They had been with us since July 1942, but henceforth independent armoured brigades were not allowed to have their own field ambulances. On the 23rd we moved by night across the Maas to a concentration area around Cleve. 11th Armoured Division were the right division of 2nd Canadian Corps and were to pass through Guards Armoured Division on the Goch-Calcar road directed south of Udem while 3rd Canadian Division attacked towards Udem from the north-west. The Sharpshooters were to be under command of 159 Brigade in exchange for 4 KSLI who were under us. At 6 o'clock on the evening of the 26th The Greys and 4 KSLI crossed their start line and soon made their first objective. After that opposition increased. They continued the attack with the aid of natural and artificial moonlight and after a hard night's fighting had reached the railway line south west of Udem by five o'clock in the morning with 150 prisoners, 4 SP guns and 2 tanks to their credit. By this time 3 Canadian Div had cleared all but the extreme south-west corner of Udem. At first light 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC passed through The Greys and 4 KSLI. Progress was slow; the ground was very boggy, almost impossible for tanks, and there was only a gap of a few hundred yards between the anti-tank ditch round Udem and the thick woods, full of bazookas and infantry, supported by a few SPs, which ran all along our long open right flank.

Shortly after mid-day The Sharpshooters with 3rd Monmouths under 159 Brigade began to pass through the Canadians to capture the ridge south-east of the town which overlooked the whole area we were fighting in. Considerable trouble was experienced with SPs, but by half-past four they had reached the upper slopes of the ridge, the 44th and 2 KRRC clearing the woods on the right flank and linking up with them. This they had completed at six, with the capture of 60 prisoners, Greys and 4 KSLI stepping up behind them to cover the approach to Udem from the south, which 3 British Div on our right had not yet reached. During that night and the following morning The Sharpshooters with 159 Brigade succeeded in forming a bridgehead over the stream beyond the ridge and extending it beyond, in spite of constant interference from SPs on the exposed right flank, which caused several casualties including the acting CO, Major Grey Skelton, who had taken over when Lt-Col. Bill Rankin was wounded on the 24th at a brigade "O group".

In the afternoon of that day, March 1st, the brigade concentrated east of the stream, under cover of smoke, 4 RHA coming into action in full view of the enemy at a range of 1500 yards. At 1540 hrs the brigade attacked the Schliessen line in two groups. On the right 2 KRRC and 44 Royal Tanks, on the left 4 KSLI and The Greys. The ground was completely waterlogged and the whole area overlooked by the Hochwald and the high ground north of Sonsbeck.

While the right group made slow but steady progress in spite of intense shellfire, SP anti-tank guns and pure bog, the left group came to a stop, the tanks completely bogged and the infantry unable to get forward in the face of intense MG fire from well-prepared defences. Further north however we had found a way into the line by a road which was over our boundary, but not being used by the Canadians on our left. The Greys got half a squadron and a company of KSLI there to hold the start line while the rest were extricated with difficulty and moved round behind them. This took till long after dark.

Meanwhile the 44th and 2 KRRC had closed right up to the Schliessen line, but were still clearing woods on their long open right flank, which they continued to do during the night. At 3 o'clock on the morning of the 2nd, The Greys and 4 KSLI attacked southwards between the two lines of trenches on the edge of the forest. All went like clockwork: soon after first light they crossed the anti-tank ditch by Scissors bridge and captured the high ground on the edge of the forest overlooking the valley in which the rest of the brigade was. Here they defeated a counter-attack, which cost the enemy dear, and consolidated their gains, being heavily and accurately shelled all day. In the afternoon 2 KRRC and 44th cleared the southern end of the line in the face of bitter opposition, but had not completely cleared it by last light. This was done during the night and the following morning.

On March 4th 159 Brigade with The Sharpshooters passed through us and our battle of the Schliessen line was over. On the 7th we left 11th Armoured Division and moved to 12 Corps training area near Eysden on the Meuse in Belgium, to train for the crossing of the Rhine. 44th Royal Tanks were entirely re-equipped with amphibious tanks and spent a hectic ten days training in the River Meuse. We returned to the area of Sonsbeck and Udem on the 16th, the 44th coming up on the 22nd to a concealed assembly area near Xanten. We were now under command of 15 Scottish Division, who were to assault the Rhine under 12 Corps. They began their assault in Buffaloes of 33 Armoured Brigade in the early hours of March 24th. At 4 o'clock in the morning the 44th moved from their assembly area to a final forming up area by the river's edge on the extreme right of 15 Scottish Division's sector opposite the village of Bislich.

Shortly before half-past six they began to cross, their recce parties having crossed beforehand with the leading buffaloes. A few German MGs were still active on the left of the crossing area, but the only dangerous fire was from guns and mortars directed on the area of the crossing itself. By eight o'clock fifty-five of their tanks were over, four having been hit before entering the water and two in midstream. There they met up with the leading battalion of 46 Brigade, after helping 44 Brigade to clear the northern outskirts of Bislich. Turning north they cleared the east bank of the river between the two bridgeheads and went to clear the village of Mein. Throughout the 25th they were engaged in extending the bridgehead to the north and north-east, joining hands with 6 Airborne Division and one squadron coming under the latter's command. 4 BRA began to cross the river by raft in the afternoon and were all over after dark. During the night The Greys, 2 KRRC and Tac Brigade HQ crossed by the Class 40 bridge at Bislich which was receiving constant attention from the Luftwaffe. On the morning of the 26th The Greys and 2 KRRC under command of the brigade advanced north between 6 Airborne Division and 15 Scottish Division and opened up the road to Haminkein against quite stiff opposition. The Sharpshooters with 44 Brigade came up on their right later in the day, 44 Royal Tanks, less the squadron with 6 Airborne Division, concentrating west of Haminkein.

The whole brigade was concentrated in this area by first light on the morning of the 27th, when we passed to command of 53rd Welsh Division to lead the advance towards Bocholt from Ringenberg, held by 157 Brigade under 6 Airborne Division. We had to wait for a Class 40 bridge to be completed, which it was at nine o'clock. The Greys and 2 KRRC passed through Ringenberg and were soon fighting enemy in the woods to the north of the town and the farms to the north-east. While they were clearing a start line for 160 Brigade astride the main road and pushing out to the north-east to the wooded high ground, The Sharpshooters grouped with 4 RWF, carried in Kangaroos of 49 APC Regt, attacked and cleared the ridge to the east of the high ground, taking several prisoners. Quickly exploiting their success, they made a bold dash through the thick woods and bogs, halting in the failing light about three miles south-cast of Biemenhorst. 44th Royal Tanks supporting 160 Brigade were on the outskirts of Dingden by last light, their squadron which had been with 6 Airborne Division, supporting 158 Brigade on their left. Both groups continued the advance during the night: at first light The Sharpshooters and 4 RWF found themselves engaged in a fierce battle with enemy on all sides, supported by 88s forming the defence of Bocholt. As the 44th with 160 Brigade advanced beyond Dingden, Greys and 2 KRRC were pinched out and moved round to the east of The Sharpshooters and 4 RWF, clearing the woods on their right flank, from which they had had considerable trouble. At last light The Sharpshooters and 4 RWF attacked again and captured the road running east from Biemenhorst, the start line for 160 Brigade's attack on Bocholt that night, in which one squadron of The Greys took part.

Next morning 2 KRRC relieved 53 Recce Regt at Krechting and they and The Greys completed clearing up to the river, their one squadron continuing to help clear up Bocholt. The Sharpshooters joined 71 Brigade ready to pass through Bocholt and the 44th came back to us. At first light on the 30th the brigade passed through Bocholt directed on Rhede and Oding. The Greys and 2 KRRC formed the leading group followed by Tac Bde HQ and 4RHA, 44 Royal Tanks in reserve grouped with 2nd Monmouths. Rhede was clear. A demolition beyond could not be crossed by Scissors: it was repaired by Sappers while Greys and 2 KRRC found a way round to the west and the 44th went round through the woods to the east. The Greys met only a few odd bazooka teams before meeting the 8th Hussars at Grosse Burlo. They and 1 RB were up against a determined party of enemy astride the road south of Oding, which was their objective as well as ours. We tried to find away round to the left but struck nothing but impenetrable bog. We spent that night behind the 8th Hussars, watching our left flank. The following morning 8th Hussars and 2 Devons cleared Oding, Greys and a KRRC passing through heading north. After clearing some enemy from the woods north of the village, the road petered out and no more enemy were found. We now had orders to concentrate the brigade clear of Oding, which we did, The Sharpshooters with 71 Brigade having by now got beyond Vreden.

On April 1st 2nd Mommouths left us, and the brigade moved by devious tracks with the help of a series of Scissors bridges to a further concentration area north-east of Winterswijk. By the end of the day The Sharpshooters, supporting 158 Brigade when they passed through 71 Brigade, had reached the edge of Gronau. Our task for the 2nd April was to diverge from the main axis beyond Vreden and clear the road to Epe then advancing on the right of 158 Brigade to Ochtrup, 1 HLI joining us north of Vreden in place of 2 Mons. Greys and 2 KRRC led again, meeting no opposition but a series of demolitions before reaching Epe.

These were by-passed by the leading vehicles where possible, some crossed by Scissors bridge or by culverting. A number of concrete road blocks were met which were broken up by 17-pounder fire and then removed by tank-bulldozer. We had to wait for some time for the bridge to be completed at Epe, which it was in the late afternoon. The Greys recce troop had by then made contact with enemy south of Ochtrup and The Sharpshooters on our left were held up by a strong post covering the main road west of the town: Greys and 2 KRRC put in an attack at last light and continued after dark, clearing the high ground and built up area south of the railway.

The 44th had meanwhile come up and taken over protection of their right rear. 1 HLI were brought up close behind in the first half of the night prepared to pass through 2 KRRC if we had to clear the whole town. We did not get a definite decision from the Welsh Division as to whether we or 158 Brigade were to clear it until after midnight. The enemy withdrew from Ochtrup during the night, 158 Brigade occupying it at first light. 160 Brigade passed through while we searched the area south of the town, clearing many mines and road blocks. The Sharpshooters returned to our command but remained with 158 Brigade ready to support them while The Greys moved to Neuenkirchen, supporting 160 Brigade in that area. A counterattack by 15 PG Division was expected from the north and the brigade less The Greys and 1 HLI, who had reverted to 71 Brigade, moved on the 4th to the high ground north-west of Wettingen in div reserve.

On the 5th we passed to the command of 52nd Lowland Division for the first time. The Greys, relieved by The Sharpshooters in support of 160 Brigade north-west of Rheine, moved though Rheine supporting 155 Brigade in forming a bridgehead over the Dortmund-Ems canal. By last light Brigade HQ was on the south edge of Rheine, 44th and 2 KRRC concentrated just north of the town. Soon after first light on the 6th The Greys were over the canal and up in Dreierwalde with 155 Brigade.

While they continued the advance towards Hopsten, the brigade, with 44 Royal Tanks, 2 KRRC, 5 KOSB and 4 RHA under command, passed though 155 and 156 Brigades towards Spelle, carrier patrols of 2 KRRC having already reached the railway line. South of Spelle the enemy were holding a bridgehead which knocked out a recce patrol of 44th and was well supported by artillery and mortars from the north.

There were a considerable number of Germans in the woods east of the canal, mostly from Gross Deutschland SS Panzer Training Battalion, but they were surprised by our appearance in their rear and gave little trouble. Shortly before last light 5 KOSB cleared the area south of the stream, supported by RAF Typhoons and a squadron of the 44th. Meanwhile The Greys with 155 Brigade were just south of Hopsten where there was considerable opposition. On the morning of the 7th 2 KRRC and 44 Royal Tanks tried to advance north towards Schapen. This proved impossible owing to bog and lack of bridges, but we managed to collect a number of prisoners and inflict damage on the enemy in the attempt. 155 Brigade had captured Hopsten during the night and it was now decided that the brigade should lead the advance to Halverde as soon as we could get through Hopsten, again a matter of boggy tracks until the bridges west of it were complete. 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC were to lead, The Sharpshooters, now returned from 160 Brigade, being in reserve, grouped with 5 KOSB, neither yet relieved from watching the north flank between Hopsten and Spelle: Greys with 157 Brigade were to pass through towards Recke during the night. 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC began their attack, by-passing Hopsten from the south, at about six o'clock. There was a considerable amount of shelling and a certain number of bazooka teams about.

By dark they had reached the road east of Hopsten and continued their advance during the night by artificial moonlight to Halverde, taking about 40 prisoners. At first light The Sharpshooters and 5 KOSB in Kangaroos passed through Hopsten and continued the advance from Halverde to Weese. An enemy company at Weese were surprised by our appearance from the rear and were soon liquidated. Voltlage, two miles to the north, presented greater difficulties. The first tank to go up the road towards it was blown up near the bridge and every attempt to outflank met with impenetrable peat bog. 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC meanwhile had moved round through Recke and tried to find a route forward to the right of The Sharpshooters, but without success. The Sharp-shooters eventually found a way forward and attacked with 5 KOSB in Kangaroos, supported by RAF Typhoons at six o'clock. In spite of the fact that one company in Kangaroos took the wrong turning and drove straight into the middle of the village, all went well in the end. By nine o'clock the whole village had been cleared and was on fire after some stiff fighting which brought in over a hundred prisoners. Owing to the many possibilities of demolitions on the road north of Voltlage, the div commander decided to transfer the main thrust to the road further east leading to Uffeln. 52 Recce were in contact with a small party of enemy covering a bridge on this road. Unfortunately the road was cratered during the night: it was therefore some time before the 44th and 2 KRRC could get going on the morning of the 9th, though the carriers soon found enemy in the woods beyond the crater.

For the rest of the day the 44th and 2 KRRC fought their way forward against the most determined resistance by Germans of a NCOs school from Hanover. Vinte was cleared by early afternoon and the final attack to clear Neuenkirchen went in about six o'clock. Meanwhile The Greys with 155 Brigade had relieved The Sharpshooters and 5 KOSB, who came round behind the 44th and 2 KRRC. At last light, the infantry carried in Kangaroos, they passed though Neuenkirchen and advanced unopposed by artificial moonlight to Uffein.

156 Brigade relieved us during the night and the brigade, less The Greys who stayed behind under command of 52 Division, began a long move round to join 53 Division on the Weser. Tanks crossed the Ems-Weser Canal south of Vinte, wheels having to go all the way back through Rheine. Our route lay through Wester Kappeln, Halen, Veune and Welplage to Diepholz, Sulingen and Siedenberg to a concentration area round Asendorf, a move of over a hundred miles, much more for the wheels. The first tanks got in just before dark, the rest of the brigade following all through the night. There we had two days maintenance and rest, both badly needed, The Greys rejoining on the evening of the 12th. Our future task was to cross the Aller at Rethem, as soon as the bridge there was complete, advance up the road towards Walsrode to open up a gateway through which 7th Armoured Division could break out, and then swing north-west to outflank the enemy holding Verden. For this task we were to have 6 RWF in Kangaroos under command and The Sharpshooters were to support 158 and successive brigades of 53 Division in the direct advance on Verden down the east bank of the Aller.

As a result of constant and accurate shelling the bridge at Rethem was not completed until midday on the 14th. As soon as it was ready, 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC crossed, securing Altenwahllngen and Kirchwahlingen with little difficulty. Resistance then became stiffer, the thick woods being full of German Marines armed with bazookas and spandaus and moderately well supported by artillery. Some progress was made, delayed by the necessity to pass through The Sharpshooters and a host of other units to join 158 Brigade to the north. By last light 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC were halfway to Eilstorf, and The Greys and 6 RWF were over the river and moving out to the right. After dark with the aid of artificial moonlight, 2 KRRC patrolled into Eilstorf while The Greys and 6 RWF drove straight though the enemy infested woods to the high ground east of the village. 4 RHA crossed the river and were in action round Altenwahlingen at first light, when the 44th and 2 KRRC began to clear Eilstorf and The Greys and 6 RWF attacked Kirchboitzen. Both attacks succeeded in the face of considerable and determined opposition, and the 8th Hussars, leading 22nd Armoured Brigade, were passed through the right flank of The Greys. We now swung north, The Greys and 6 RWF attacking Vethem and the 44th and 2 KRRC Sudkampen. There were a number of SPs about and both villages were defended with vigour. While Vethem was being cleared, one squadron of The Greys and two companies of 6 RWF slipped round it and by a quick dash across country reached Idsingen, 4 miles to the north, before dark, overrunning a number of guns. Meanwhile 44 Royal Tanks and 2 KRRC had cleared Sudkampen: by artificial moonlight they continued the advance to Nordkampen and cleared that too. Our total bag of prisoners for the day was 16 officers and 539 other ranks, all of the redoubtable 2nd Marine Division: many more had been killed.

At first light on the 16th the 44th and 2 KRRC began to clear the road up to Idsingen while the rest of The Greys and 6 RWF joined them at Idsingen, followed by Tac Brigade HQ and 4 RHA. Continuing the advance northwards The Greys found the bridge on the road to Groote Heins blown and defended. A scissors bridge was put down and one squadron and a company in Kangaroos crossed before the bog became impassable. 44th and 2 KRRC advanced north-east from Idsingen while an improvised bridge was built over the ruins. This was completed by two o'clock, by which time The Greys were on the main road south of Bendingbostel, which was strongly held. 44th and 2 KRRC were relieved by 53 Recce and began to concentrate behind The Greys. Bendingbostel was attacked in the late evening and Greys and 6 RWF had cleared it and seized a bridge to the west by last light. 44th and 2 KRRC then passed though them by artificial moonlight and attacked Klein Sehlingen and Kreepen, both of which had been cleared by first light, though there were still a large number of enemy in the woods all round. Relieved by 53 Recce Regt, The Greys and 6 RWF passed through the 44th and 2 KRRC at Kreepen and moved straight across country with little opposition to cut the main road north of Verden. During the day large numbers of prisoners were collected from the woods we had encircled or passed through, culminating in a haul of 273 by 4 RHA. During all this time The Sharpshooters had been supporting all the brigades of 53 Division in turn, entering Verden with 71 Brigade at about the same time as The Greys reached its northern outskirts.

On the 18th 6 RWF left us and The Greys joined 52 Division, who were to continue the advance to Bremen. The brigade, consisting only of 44 Royal Tanks, 2 KRRC and 4 RHA began to advance north at first light. Kirchwalsede was captured without difficulty, but Westerwalsede was found to be strongly held, a complete battery of 88s covering the approaches from south and east. By an encircling movement on both flanks the north edge of the village was entered with little difficulty, but a stiff fight ensued before it was entirely cleared up. Pushing on to the north, a line of guns was found covering the only crossing over another boggy stream. This was attacked in the afternoon with complete success and the bridge over the railway beyond captured intact. Continuing after dark 2 KRRC and the 44th captured the main road bridge over the railway and the important crossroads in the woods to the south. 9 Officers and 403 other ranks were captured and four 88s and nine 105s captured or destroyed.

Next morning the cross roads became very lively with a SP firing direct on to it and infantry counter-attacking through the woods. By midday however the woods had been cleared and our hold on the area extended in all directions. In the after-noon we were relieved by 158 Brigade, with whom were the Sharpshooters, and moved back to an area northeast of Verden to come under command of 52 Division again. In the six days since crossing the River Aller the brigade had completely defeated most of the 2nd Marine Division, capturing 39 guns and a mass of equipment. We had fought day and night without stopping, advancing thirty miles against the continuous opposition of some of the best troops the Germans could muster.

The Sharpshooters remained with 53 Division. On the 20th The Greys were supporting 156 Brigade round Etelsen and the 44th supported 157 Brigade on their right, in capturing Voilcersen, while 2 KRRC took over the right flank astride the main road to Rotenburg.

On the 21st The Greys continued the advance with 156 Brigade against stiff opposition, the 44th with 157 Brigade coming up on their right through the woods. Shellfire was heavy and there were a large number of 88s and nebelwerfer about. The Sharpshooters with 53 Division were approaching Rotenburg from the south.

On the 22nd the 44th supporting 157 Brigade had a fierce battle all day against the mass of 88s and 20 mms forming the outer anti-aircraft defence of Bremen. By the end of the day they had reached their objectives north of Achim after some tough fighting. On the 23rd the 44th extended to the north, cutting the autobahn and capturing Oyten, while The Greys supported 155 Brigade advancing west from Achim, which had been captured during the night. 2 KRRC meanwhile were stepping up covering the right flank between 52 and 43 Divisions. On the 24th The Greys continued the steady advance towards Bremen, supporting 157 Brigade up to the railway at Malendorf. This really finished the serious fighting for Bremen. On the morning of the 25th The Greys supported 156 Brigade and later 155 Brigade right into the heart of the city, the main trouble being rubble from the recent bombing, though odd panzerfaust parties were a nuisance. On the morning of the 26th, the 44th supported 157 Brigade passing through into the dock area, no opposition being met at all. We remained in Bremen until the 28th, when we joined 51st Highland Division near Bassen on the autobahn east of Bremen.

We were to have helped them in their advance to the north, but there were no bridges and we moved again late in the day to Eversen on the road from Verden to Rotenburg ready to rejoin 12 Corps next day. On the 29th The Sharpshooters rejoined us, having supported all and sundry in 53 Division in clearing up the area round Rotenburg, and we set off on one of our long treks, mostly by track to save the cobbled roads. On arrival in the area of Salzhausen, twelve miles south of Winsen, the Brigade, less The Greys, came under 53rd Division again, The Greys coming under command of 6th Airborne Division in 8 Corps on our right.

On May 1st the Greys began to cross the Elbe with 6th Airborne Division at Lauenburg and one squadron of The Sharpshooters also crossed with 1st East Lancs of 158 Brigade. Events were obviously moving fast, but in spite of that, we were amazed to hear that The Greys had met the Russians at Wismar, each squadron supporting a brigade of 6th Airborne Division. They had travelled without stopping all day as fast as their tracks would carry them, heedless of the crowds of Germans withdrawing in front of the Russians. On the 3rd the remainder of The Sharpshooters crossed the Elbe at Geesthacht and drove unopposed into Hamburg with 158 Brigade on the morning of the 4th. The rest of the brigade moved later in the day and occupied Bergedorf, between Geesthacht and Hamburg.

At eight o'clock on the morning of May 5th 1945 all opposition on the front of 21st Army Group ceased. So for 4th Armoured Brigade finished five years of fighting during which we had seldom been out of the line. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany had been our battlefields. The sign of the Black Desert Rat will we know be remembered by many people of many lands; by our enemies we hope with respect: by our friends we trust with gratitude and affection, as we remember them.

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