Ardennes 1945, 51st Highland Div

Discussion in 'NW Europe' started by stolpi, Dec 29, 2016.

  1. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    1. KO'd Panther at Lavaux

    I ran into some new pictures of a disabled Panther in the Ardennes on You Tube. This tank was knocked out by a 17-pounder SP gun of the 51st Highland Division on 12 January 1945 at the tiny settlement of Lavaux, which is located on the high ground to the south of the town of La Roche-en Ardenne. These pictures evoked memories of the research I carried out in the mid-nineties for a booklet on the 51st HD in the Ardennes. It also reminded me of how hard it was in those days - in the (almost) pre-internet age - to get access to pictures like these ...

    Panther Hives.jpg

    Panther Hives 2.jpg

    Panther Hives 6.jpg

    see at 29:54 and onwards:



    PS. Just noticed that it was touch-and-go with these images, since the documentary in the meantime has been removed from You Tube.
    PPS. Bedee tracked the documentary down, it popped up elsewhere on the net, so link is now restored . Thank you Bedee!
     
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2018
  2. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    The Panther tank was disabled by a 17-pounder SP gun (Archer) of the 241 Btty, 61st Anti-tank Regiment supporting the attack of the 7th Argyll& Sutherland Highlanders on Lavaux on January 12th, 1945.

    The Troop commander,Lieutenant Charles L. Young, earned an immediate MC for this action ...
    award 16 Young 61 ATk regt.png award 16a Young 61 ATk regt.png

    ... while Trooper Sidney S. Cottingham, the gunner of the17-pounder, was awarded a MM for scoring direct hits on the enemy tank.
    award 30 Cottingham 61ATk Rgt.png award 30a Cottingham 61ATk Rgt.png

    From the Map references, given in the recommendations, the positions of both vehicles can be pinpointed as follows:
    Map Hives.jpg

    This is the better known photograph of the derelict Panther held at the IWM. The damage to the sprocket-wheel is clearly visible:
    KO'd Panther.jpg
     
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2017
  3. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    The Panther crew was captured later that afternoon by the men of the 7th Argylls in an outflanking move. After the direct assault by 'A' Coy, which started at 12:00 hours, had failed, the battalion commander, Lt.Col. A. Mackinnon, decided to send his ‘B’ Company, together with the Shermans of no.3 Troop, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, by a road to the right to Lavaux. By the time ‘B’ Company, covered by the lay of the ground, entered Lavaux it was 16:20 hours and daylight was beginning to fade. The tanks tried to engage the disabled Panther at Lavaux but the slope was so slippery that they were unable to get up to it to finish it off. The crew from the Panther tank, however, was taken prisoner by the infantry.

    Map Hives a.jpg

    I met one of the soldiers of 'B' Coy, Pte John McCreery, who was present at the time and gave me his story: "By late afternoon we were pushing on to our next objective. We were climbing to the top of a ridge when we spotted an enemy tank huddled to the side of a house. The tank and it’s crew were captured offering no resistance. What we thought to be a remarkable piece of luck turned out into a tragedy within a few minutes. We had obviously been spotted by Jerry during this episode, he whipped a shell over killing two of our section, Lance-Corporal Braithwaite and Private Taylor – such are the fortunes of war. Incidentally the tank crew made off in the ensuing confusion. We shot at them and must have hit some of them, but they escaped in the gathering darkness.”

    Darkness had already fallen when Colonel Mackinnon reinforced his hold on Lavaux by moving ‘D’ Company into the village, closely followed by Battalion HQ. The Panther tanks in the wood edge to the southeast of Hives, cause of all the trouble, were heard rumbling off in the night. Five POWs were taken at Lavaux, they later were identified as members of the 3rd Company of the 2nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which belonged to the 2nd Panzer Division, an armoured unit that had been badly mauled in the earlier stage of the Battle for the Ardennes near Dinant. The enemy force that defended Lavaux most likely was a mixture of Panzergrenadiers and tanks from the Panzer Lehr and/or 9th Panzer Division, since the 2nd Panzer Divsion had completely run out of operational tanks.

    McCreery.jpg

    Hives house 5.jpg
    Position of the Panther as seen from Lavaux. The house and disabled Panther were beyond the crest of the hill. The infantry climbed up the slope and captured the tank crew. The supporting tanks were unable to follow. It was only when the leading rifle platoon reached the high ground that they were spotted by the other enemy tanks.
     
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2018
  4. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery Patron

    BRAITHWAITE, MALCOLM
    Rank:
    Lance Corporal
    Service No:
    14412173
    Date of Death:
    12/01/1945
    Age:
    20
    Regiment/Service:
    Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
    7th Bn.
    Grave Reference:
    IX. A. 1.
    Cemetery:
    HOTTON WAR CEMETERY
    Additional Information:
    Son of Thomas Guy and Dorothea Braithwaite, of Kew Gardens, Richmond, Surrey.


    TAYLOR, JOHN
    Rank:
    Private
    Service No:
    14717981
    Date of Death:
    12/01/1945
    Age:
    20
    Regiment/Service:
    Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
    7th Bn.
    Grave Reference:
    IX. A. 2.
    Cemetery:
    HOTTON WAR CEMETERY
    Additional Information:
    Son of William P. and Mary McKane Taylor, of Glasgow.
     
  5. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    'A' Coy's attack on Lavaux

    The objective of the 7th Argylls' attack was to take Lavaux and then press on to the settlement of Beaulieu, astride the secondary road that stretched from Champlon to Ortho and was used by the rearguards of the 5. Panzer Army in their retreat to Houffalize. The Argylls were to pass through the positions of the 7th Black Watch at Hives, which had been seized the previous night 11/12 January. As Lavaux covered the enemy's last escape route he was reacting strongly to any threat in this direction.

    Passage from my book:

    "Staring intently ahead into the mist that veiled the landscape, the men of Colonel Cathcart’s 7th Black Watch at Hives, noted a distinct change in the situation as soon as day broke on the 12th. The enemy - contrary to what had become his habit - had not pulled out during the night. At about 08:20 hours the outposts reported that they could make out enemy tanks and infantry at Lavaux. Ten minutes later they reported an enemy tank, believed a Panther, shooting up Hives from a concealed position to the southeast of the village. For a time it looked as if a counter-attack was about to develop. [... ] To engage the enemy at Lavaux, Colonel Cathcart called for artillery support. At 09:30 hours the Field guns layed down a concentrated barrage on the small settlement, as well as on the roads leading out from it to the south and southeast. The shellfire continued for over an hour. The Medium guns of the 5 AGRA also joined in and put in a total of 304 rounds. To allow for a more elaborate artillery preparation, H-hour for the attack, which originally had been set at 10:30, was set back to 12:00 hours. At 11:00 hours the Medium guns laid down an especially heavy concentration – some 320 rounds - on Beaulieu, while the 24 guns of the 126 Field Regiment RA started to blaze away at enemy positions in and around Lavaux. Shells whisteld and whined overhead in streams. The din of the explosions was terrific and it seemed as if none of the enemy could survive such a devastating cannonade.

    Then, at noon, time had come for the 7th Argylls to launch the assault and ‘A’ Company, led by Major Hugh De Lancy Samwell, set off, pushing in extended order down the open slope to Lavaux; two platoons forward and one in reserve. The attack went badly from the start. The men were clearly silhouetted against a snowy backdrop. Halfway down the slope the enemy opened up with every weapon he had and the two leading platoons were pinned down and unable to move. Every attempt to move forward failed, it was even impossible to reach the wounded men who were lying in exposed positions in the fields. The supporting Shermans of No.3 Troop [Northamptonshire Yeomanry] did not fare better. No sooner had the leading tank emerged in the open, then it took a direct hit from a Panther firing from the edge of a wood some 1700 yards to the left and brewed up. Major Samwell, the Argylls’ much respected company commander, who was standing near the tank was killed.


    The fight for Lavaux continued on all afternoon. The enemy held all cards and completely commanded the open ground. Three Panther tanks were made out, sited in concealed positions on the overlooking wooded ridge to the southeast of Hives; one or two more were in Lavaux. The Northamptonshire Yeomanry tried to engage them, but it was an uneven fight. The British Sherman tanks were hopelessly out-gunned by the powerful high-velocity guns of the Panther and before long a second Sherman, the tank of Troop Sergeant Warren, was hit and also brewed up. Some time later a third one was lost. Hives also was subjected to shell and mortar fire which caused further casualties among the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. In one of the intermittent bursts of enemy shell fire a tank driver was hit while outside his tank, and Corporal McGranahan was killed when a mortar bomb hit the turret of his tank.

    Seeing the predicament of his forward company, Colonel Mackinnon promptly called for a number of ‘Victor Targets’ - a fire concentration on an assigned target by all of the division’s Field and supporting Medium guns within range. The artillery fire, ably directed by Captain Robert MacKilligan, of the 126 Field Artillery Regiment, did - at least for a while - drive off two Panthers in the wood, while the Mediums accounted for an enemy ‘Grille’, a 150-mm self-propelled infantry gun, at Lavaux. Captain MacKilligan manned an OP in an exposed position, a farmyard in full view of the enemy lines. During the action the building received several direct hits from the enemy tanks, practically demolishing the house and causing a number of casualties among the OP party in the upper part of the house. Private James Stewart, a stretcher bearer from the 7th Black Watch, ran across the street and at very great risk to himself, being in full view of the enemy tanks, tried to get at the wounded, whose exit had been blocked by fallen masonry. Although the house was shelled again Stewart continued to work until he reached the wounded and with other assistance, he succeeded in bringing them back to safety. One man of the gunner OP was killed."

    Trooper Claude Martyn, of the 1st Northampronshire Yeomanry, earned a MM for saving his troop sergeant, Sgt Warren, from death by fire:
    award 55 Martyn  1NY.png award 55a Martyn  1NY.png

    Capt. Robert G.W. MacKilligan, of the 126 Field Regt RA, who was acting as F.O.O. to the 7th Argylls earned a bar to his M.C. for his action at Hives (the recommendation erroneously dates it to Jan 13th):
    award 5 MacKilligan 126 Field RA.png

    Pte James Stewart, of the 7th Black Watch, received a MM for rescuing wounded from the artillery O.P. on the outskirt of Hives:
    award 43 Stewart 7BW.png award 43a Stewart 7BW.png

    Lt. Col MacKinnon received a DSO for his handling of the attack:
    award 4 McKinnon 7 ASH.png award 4a McKinnon 7 ASH.png

    00000147.jpg
    Soldiers of the 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders move up to the forward lines during the Battle in the Ardennes.

    Some of the stories of the Argyll veterans of 'A' Coy, I interviewed back in the '90-ies:

    Cutland.jpg

    Lieutenant John R. Cutland, a platoon leader in ‘A’ Company: "I was commanding the leading platoon of ‘A’ Company. We had to advance over a wide stretch of open ground, slightly dropping off to the left. The enemy held the woods at some distance to the right and left. I was to secure an area around an isolated house, an already knocked out Panther standing beside it. Some Sherman tanks were supporting our attack, but they stayed under cover at Hives among the houses and orchards, which were fenced off by a stone wall. One of the tanks fired at the Panther tank at my request in case there was anyone sheltering behind it. Leaving the houses I advanced two sections up. I was with the leading left section when we were met with rifle fire from woods to our half right. Within a few minutes we were also fired upon by either self-propelled guns or tanks in the woods to our left. I was the first to be hit by several pieces of shrapnel and then we had other casualties. I was laying on my back with my feet to the starting line looking up the slope. I saw that there were more casualties. The leading two sections tried to turn back leaving two or three men behind trying to help the wounded. It was then that we were stonked by mortar fire and more people were killed. Sometime later my own lads came out with two stretchers and we were allowed to lift the wounded without being hindered by the Germans. I was taken to Company HQ where, prior to being evacuated to the rear, I was told that Major Samwell was killed by tank fire. He was standing near a Sherman tank when he was killed. I was taken to the RAP and thence to a Field Dressing Station. Finally I was evacuated by hospital ship back to England. We cursed the snow in the Ardennes, but I am sure that I am alive because the severe cold slowed down the bleeding from my wounds.”


    Jenkins.jpg

    Private A.C. Jenkins a rifleman in ‘A’ Company: “We watched our first section heading on down the road, descending into a shallow valley with some kind of stone hut at the bottom. As the leading section reached this there was a burst of machinegun fire and the crump of exploding shells which between them claimed several killed and wounded. Some of the latter staggered back with wounds which you would have thought would have disabled them. Perhaps the cold served to dull the pain. One man for instance was shot through both feet from toe to heel but managed to get back on his own unaided. In the meantime the other section still halfway down the slope had met the same fierce reception. Our turn to advance was coming up and our company commander Major Samwell, decided to accompany us with two Shermans of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry lending support. Somewhat reluctantly we all moved out. Then the source of all troubles was spotted; some Panthers on the high ground to our left. Just a few yards later, seconds after Samwell ducked behind the lead tank to report back via the telephone link carried at the Sherman’s rear for just that purpose, there was a blinding flash and a shower of sparks and metal. A shell from one of the Panthers had struck a glancing blow. I can remember seeing the Major falling in a hail of metal fragments, some of which must also have hit Lance-Corporal McCormick just in front of me. He was the bane of the Sergeant-Major’s life, and at 33 seemed almost a grandfather to us mere 19-years-olds. With a wife and several children back in Glasgow he should never have been serving in a rifle company. Understandably the rest of us legged it back to the barn, where we started from, as fast as we could. For their part, the Panthers and our tanks backed off. By this time the ‘powers that be’ realized that there was no way forward down our road – ‘B’ Company later advanced via a different route."

    Only after dusk fell, could the survivors crawl back to safety and could parties of stretcher bearers move in the open to search for and attend the wounded.

    Blades.jpg

    Private James A. Blades was with one of the forward sections: "We were told to attack on the left flank and we went down the side of some houses into the open field which sloped down into the valley. We had not gone very far before we were shot to pieces by machine gun fire and mortars. We suffered heavy casualties, because we had no cover – I say we lost ten men from the platoon. We just buried ourselves in the snow and hoped for the best. Can you imagine khaki battle dress against a snowy background; laying in the field unprotected one movement meant death. I well remember Corporal Dugie Payne, saying in a whisper: “For Gods sake don’t move”. We laid in the field till it became dusk, which seemed to be an eternity. Then we crept out. When it was completely dark we went back to recover the dead and wounded.”

    Ops 12 Jan 45.jpg
    Map (from my booklet) of the operations on Jan 12th, 1945. The Argylls eventually captured Beaulieu during the night of 12/13 January against slight enemy opposition and ambushed several enemy vehicles during the night, including another Panther - while a second one got away. The bulk of the Germans forces by that time had fallen back towards Ortho.

    Fragment from the War Diary 7 Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders re the operations on 12 and 13 January 1945
    7 ASH War Diary 1.jpg 7 ASH War Diary 2.jpg 7 ASH War Diary 3.jpg 7 ASH War Diary 4.jpg 7 ASH War Diary 5.jpg

    The following men were killed in action at Hives:
    001 BAUCKHAM SL 14757900 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    002 BRAITHWAITE M 14412173 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    003 CROMBLEHOLME FJ 5393317 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    004 IRVING H 4129482 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDER
    005 MCCORMICK J 2977663 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    006 MUSGROVE W 1791811 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    007 SAMWELL HDL 73830 7TH BN 13/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    008 SPICER SM 5677975 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
    009 TAYLOR J 14717981 7TH BN 12/01/1945 ARGYLL AND SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS

    010 WATERHOUSE RN 106186 126 FIELD REGT 12/01/1945 ROYAL ARTILLERY

    011 MCGRANAHAN HB 7952224 1ST NORTHAMPTONSHIRE YEOMANRY 12/01/1945 ROYAL ARMOURED CORPS
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2018
  6. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    At the roadside near Lavaux lay this wreckage of a German SP gun: a s.IG 150 mm Grille. It was knocked out by artillery fire during the fight:

    SP at Hives 1.jpg
    SP at Hives 2.jpg
     
    Last edited: Dec 30, 2016
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  7. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

  8. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Situation today ... (courtesy of Street View)

    Hives house 2.jpg
    The house where the Panther hid behind has been modernized, but still exists. It also contained an infantry stronghold with two MG's

    Hives house 1.jpg
    View from the house over the open ground towards Hives. The church spire of that village is visible in the distance, to the left.

    Hives house 3a.jpg
    View from the British perspective with the enemy positions indicated. The settlement of Lavaux is located in the valley to the right. From here the men of 'B' Coy, in the afternoon of the 12th, climbed up to the disabled tank. After capturing the enemy crew they were spotted by the Panthers on the edge of the wood.

    Hives house 4 SL a.jpg
    The approximate position of the 17-pounder SP . From here Trooper Cottingham managed to hit the left sprocket-wheel of the Panther ... one hell of a shot.
     
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2017
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  9. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake Gunner Tours

    Stolpi,
    I have a hard copy of a draft book on the British (or is it just 51 HD) in the Ardennes. I weas handed it on a GBG visit I organised in 2011. Is it yours by any chance?
     
  10. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Panther Ardennes.jpg

    The action at Hives was a typical example of the armoured delaying action, in which the Germans had always excelled. Benefiting from terrain and weather they had held the Highlanders at bay long enough for most of their forces to escape across the Ourthe to Houffalize. In the heavily compartimented terrain, where there was few space to out-manoeuvre the enemy defenses, the Panther tank had proven itself the enemy’s chief asset, especially when in a concealed position and protected by an infantry screen. Its powerful 75-mm high velocity gun was deadly accurate and could knock out a Sherman from a distance of 2000 yards with ease. Its sloped frontal armour was so tough that most Allied guns could not deal effectively with it. Since the deep overcast had prevented the use of air support, not a single tactical plane could interfere at any time during these days, only patient infantry attacks and heavy concentrations of shell fire could force the enemy back.
     
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2017
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  11. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Beaulieu night 12/13 January 1945

    Another fragment of my booklet with the sequel of the Argyll's operation:

    "Colonel Mackinnon received the order to press on the attack overnight and told ‘B’ Company to move forward to Beaulieu. The road was heavily mined and the only vehicle ‘B’ company had, the Bren carrier of the Gunner O.P., was blown up on a mine, luckily without casualties. 'B' Company was followed in its wake by ‘D’ and Battalion Tac HQ, who set out on foot from Lavaux at 2300 hrs carrying wireless sets and batteries. The battered ‘A’ Company was left behind at Hives, later that night it moved to Lavaux. The leading company carried out the advance so silently that Beaulieu was reached without any opposition and a few surprised Germans were taken prisoner. Two particularly were found in a cellar by the Signal Officer who was just as surprised as they were. The time was now about 0045 hrs, 13 January. Mackinnon’s men had barely reached the place and not yet taken up positions when a big halftrack suddenly appeared down a side road and charged into the middle of Battalion HQ personnel who were standing in the street. After some confused small arms fire, the Germans quickly recovered from their surprise and very quickly made off in their vehicle before a PIAT – the only anti-tank weapon carried by the battalion at the moment - could be brought to bear on it. One of the Germans standing next to the driver was believed to be hit and wounded. Colonel Mackinnon at once set about to organize the defense. While Battalion Tac HQ set up in the center of Beaulieu, ‘D’ Company was covering the left (eastern) flank and ‘B’ the forward (southern) and right (western) flank. Though the Argylls now sat astride the German escape route, it was a tenuous hold. There were only two rifle companies without heavy weapons – the anti-tank guns in particular were very much missed. A hundred percent stand-to was observed for the remainder of the night. At 0200 hrs the unmistakeable sound of heavy armour was heard approaching along the road from the south and soon after two Panthers clattered into the village street followed by an enemy staff car. ‘B’ Company, not without difficulty, knocked out one with a PIAT from a 40 to 50 yards range. The second tank managed to get away in the darkness. One man was slightly wounded when the tank gave off a few bursts with its machine gun. The staff car was captured. Shortly after this incident a big German truck entered Beaulieu from the east. The truck together with three unwitting occupants were captured – they had no idea the British had occupied the village. During the remaining hours of darkness there was some desultory shelling of the battalion area, but this caused no casualties. By 0430 hrs the road from Lavaux finally was cleared of mines and four of the battalion 6-pounder anti-tank guns and a troop of tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry managed to get up and there were many sighs of relief.

    Private John McCreery of ‘B’ Company remembers that night at Beaulieu: “As we continued to push on towards Beaulieu we came across mines in the road at varying intervals, a sign that Jerry was pulling out. Nightfall brought us to our objective, a tiny settlement of not quite a dozen of farmlots grouped around a crossroads, which was taken unopposed. During the course of the night however, a German Panther got among our company position. As we were taking up position in the dark we heard an enemy tank moving – we thought - away from us, however it apparently turned and suddenly rumbled in among our company. One of the crew with a white handkerchief was walking in front of it to point the way. I and the other members of my section hid in a barn and the tank passed through without being fired upon. Our platoon leader, Lieutenant Binn, called for the PIAT to be brought up. He grabbed the weapon and fired it at the tank and shot a track off. Though immobilized the tank still had some fight left and let off some machinegun bursts. Eventually the crew surrendered, but only after some of the infantry had climbed on the tank deck. Questions were asked! How did he manage to get amongst us before being challenged! At dawn the following morning, our platoon was moved to a look-out post with the strict instruction that if there was any movement in front of us, we were to engage it, and the words of the company commander were: “If your grandmother comes down that road, shoot her!”
    Private Jim Keith, a wireless operator in ‘D’ Company: “We marched into Hives without opposition. The next thing I remember is the tank episode. It was a crystal clear starry night, frosty, and the tanks could be heard a long way afar. As they neared everybody looked for cover and they passed the top of the street we were on. I heard afterwards that our chap with the PIAT was on one side of the road, but his mate with the PIAT bombs was somewhere else, so he had no chance to get a shot at them.“



    tumblr_nk76vuTrsl1rhvtmko1_500.jpg
    PIAT = Projector Infantry Anti Tank


    1200px-PIAT_cropped.jpg



    Beaulieu Map 2a.jpg

    "During the day’s operation the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders sustained 35 casualties of which nine were fatal. On 13 January, several more prisoners were taken, which belonged to the 9th Panzer Division; two were from the Panzer Lehr Division – who stated that their officers had left them, taking their self-propelled guns with them. In the afternoon a patrol of the 7th Argylls found the nearby village of Cens clear of enemy. At Bealieu and Cens the Argylls discovered a lot of abandoned and knocked out enemy equipment, among others a mobile 88-mm gun, three halftracks, four 3-tonner trucks, two Panther tanks (including the one knocked out during the night) a staff car and five self-propelled guns."

    Road to Wemblay.jpg
    The small road leading up from the village of Wemblay which was used by the retreating Panthers on the night to the 13th (courtesy Street View).
     
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2018
  12. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    2. Captured German SPW halftrack at Ortho

    Another well known picture of the Highland Division in the Ardennes is that of a captured German SPW (halftrack) with soldiers of the 5/7 Gordon Highlanders, 153 Bde, painting the divisional markings on to it. Less known is the story behind the capture of this enemy vehicle which was revealed to me by veterans of the 5/7 Gordon Highlanders, when we visited the village.

    Ortho halftrack.jpg
    Ortho, Company Sergeant Major Tom Aitkenhead, 5/7 Gordon Highlanders, paints the Divisional markings on to a captured halftrack (photo IWM).
     
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2017
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  13. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Ortho was seized by the 153 Brigade of the Highland Division on January 13th. With the other battalions of the 153 Bde having secured the villages of Thimont and Hubermont against stiff enemy resistance by early morning of the 13th, the 5/7 Gordon Highlanders were called up from reserve positions in the small bombed out town of La Roche to continue the advance to Ortho. Like Beaulieu a couple of miles to the west, Ortho lay astride the enemy route of withdrawal. But, when the Gordons entered the village by mid-morning, the Germans had already escaped to the east and it was taken without trouble. At the same time, the 1 Gordon Highlanders, who were ordered to seize Nisramont, the next village to the east, saw their advance delayed by determined enemy opposition. Nisramont was secured not until the evening, and only after six Panther tanks were heard rumbling out of the village off into the night towards the east.

    O8DBCMFT.jpg
    At La Roche-en-Ardenne soldiers of the 51st HD huddle around an improvised camp fire for some warmth. They are waiting for their turn to move up to the forward line on the high ground to the south of the town. One of the veterans of the 5th Black Watch remembered: "it was intensely cold, something like minus 20 degrees of frost. During the night we had to keep everybody moving, because of the cold. If anybody sat down, you were told that you were to get them up and walk them up and down, not to let anybody sit still. A hot meal was brought up to us and we collected it from our lorries which had brought it up, put it into our mess tins. I remember it was Beef stew. I ate the stew as quickly as I could, because I was cold and hungry. But when I came to the rice pudding which was in my other mess tin, I found that there was already a thin coating of ice on the top of it."

    Fragment from my booklet:

    "In early morning of January 13, Colonel Irvine’s 5/7th Gordons moved up the precipitous road towards Roupage and before long the soldiers trudged across country through knee deep snow. The leading company entered Roupage unopposed at 0730 hrs. Three POWs were taken. Colonel Irvine then received orders to take Ortho. While he let the battalion take breakfast, he sent a patrol of ‘B’ Company to recce ahead. This patrol under Lieutenant J. Paterson returned with four POWs, reporting the village clear. Thereupon Irvine sent ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies to Ortho which they occupied. The village was clear except for some snipers. As soon as the road to Ortho had been cleared of mines the infantry was joined by a troop of tanks of ‘B’ Squadron, 144 Regiment RAC. After dark they were followed by the remainder of the battalion and the rest of ‘B’ Squadron’s tanks.

    Private Bill Roberston of ‘C’ Company: “On to Roupage. We made our way through wooded hills, pine trees heavy with snow. Sometimes the snow was up to your knees. At one stage I remember we were walking in single file round a hill with British tanks nearer the crest of the hill. There was much engine noise and revving of tracks. We looked up to see a 30-ton tank sliding towards us, completely out of control. Our column scattered as the tank slid past us to the lower ground. We later learned that the tank ended up near the bottom of the valley, still on its tracks and the crew unscatched – with the sergeant dryly reporting his new position to his troop leader over the wireless. At other times there was a complete silence. We had heard that some troops were issued with white camouflage smocks and trousers, but we had no such luxury. Corporal Johnie Baird – my section leader - said: “This is daft, we all stand out like dogs balls!!”. It was getting colder. Somewhere along the line we were in position around some stone-farm buildings when we took shell fire, close enough to be lethal. Someone shouted that it was American. I cannot quite imagine how communication was made, but it did stop eventually.”

    The area around Ortho was littered with abandoned enemy vehicles and equipment, some destroyed by artillery fire, others left behind for mechanical failure or lack of petrol. Private John Tough of ‘D’ Company: “There were lots of dead Germans lying about. We dug in beside a German cemetery with about one hundred dead Germans and one American grave. It was just beside a house at the end of the village. A war correspondent came along and took our picture looking at the graves, so it is in Picture Post somewhere".


    Ortho.jpg

    "Private Bill Robertson of ‘C’ Company: “Our section took up position in a house which had been gutted and had straw placed in the lower rooms. It had been very recently evacuated by the Germans and their litter was around what had been a sleeping area. There was no water or anything else for that matter and the deep snow around the house was dotted with brown and yellow holes … outdoor toilets! Later we took up a defensive position in a field beside a road that ran into the village, with what seemed to be a knocked out German halftrack on the side of a hollow road. It was a long night in a previously dug slit-trench. We did stag-duty (standing guard) throughout the night. One of our number carried an incongruous alarm clock and being what must have been the coldest night, it stopped … frozen! After stand to at first light it gradually dawned that we were alone and that the enemy had gone. At this point we went over to the halftrack to have a closer look. It was one of the most incredible sights I have seen, for though the vehicle was largely undamaged, all the occupants were dead. They must have been killed by blast for they were otherwise unmarked. There were about ten or twelve German soldiers inside and most still sitting on both sides of the vehicle. Each men looked a seasoned veteran, over six feet, muscular, all heavily armed and each carried a signed photograph of Adolf Hitler. The sequel of the story is that our Company Sergeant-Major had the halftrack painted with our division symbols. It became a company vehicle all the way back to Turnhout and Haaren [Holland] before someone decided that it was not official transport.”

    Re the weather: on the night of 12/13 January temperatures at La Roche dropped to minus 18 degrees Celcius; on the high windswept plateau south of La Roche the perceived temperatures probably were even lower.

    Picture of the German Graveyard at Ortho, where Pte JohnTough had to dig in nearby:

    s-l1600 15.jpg
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2018
  14. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Before the German halftrack was driven back to the village, the 'contents' of the vehicle was emptied into the side of the road. It was not long before the pile of bodies and equipment attracted a procession of souvenir hunters, soldiers and civilians alike.

    Naamloos.png

    Robertson cut some uniform badges from one of the jackets, which he later showed me. Though he identifies the wearer as a member of the Leibstandarte, this unit was never active around Ortho; beside that the vehicle carries a Wehrmacht (WH) number shield. My best guess is that the halftrack belonged to the Führer Begleit Brigade under command of Otto Remer, which had seen combat to the west of Bastogne in early January 45 and retired through this area. Hence the first rate men and equipment. The occupants most likely were killed by blast from an artillery shell that exploded in the high embankment:
    Uniform Badges.jpg

    Hollow Road 1.jpg
    Site of the hollow road today. Robertson and his section were in position to the right of the road near the trees. When they discovered the halftrack in the roadside, Robertson told me, he and the men in his section at first thought the occupants were asleep. Only on closer examination did they find out that the enemy soldiers were dead (courtesy Street View).

    Hollow Road 2.jpg
    Close-up of the hollow road; this is about the spot where the vehicle was.
     
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2017
  15. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Two of the dead occupants of the halftrack (photos IWM):

    Ortho SPW FBB 2.jpg Ortho SPW FBB 1.jpg
     
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  16. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Ortho western entrance.jpg
    View from the hollow road towards the east. The halftrack was taken back to Ortho some 500 yards down the road and parked in front of a barn. Here the picture with CSM Aitkenhead was taken (courtesy Street View).

    Ortho western entrance 1.jpg
    The shed was torn down after the war and no longer exists (courtesy Street View).
     
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2018
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  17. canuck

    canuck Token Colonial Patron

    Stolpi,
    I think I understand the basic principles of 'blast effect' so I am perplexed by this account. Specifically, how an explosion close enough and with sufficient power to kill the 10-12 passengers could leave the vehicle relatively unscathed. Would the blast have to have been at the rear and from above?
     
  18. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

    Canuck - The veterans were quite certain about this. Some of the dead had their clothes torn open, but otherwise the bodies were relatively unscathed. Bill Robertson told me about the fright this initially caused among his small section, because for a moment the men thought the halftrack crew was asleep and the section was outnumbered by the occupants. When they saw no movement at all, one of the section finally ventured out into the road to have a closer look.

    The road between Champlon and Ortho had been under continuous harassing fire for at least two days, after the British had learned by radio intercepts that it was used by the enemy as an escape route. The embankment at this particular place is higher than the halftrack and forms a hollow road, not unlike the small roads I saw in Normandy. So the blast could easily have come from above, from a shell detonating on top of the high embankment. I'm no expert though ...

    As a small sequel to the story above [which was told to me by a former inhabitant of Ortho] ... the local people also came out of the village to search for usable things, especially clothing and footwear - the people obviously were suffering from the extreme cold and could use any additional items of clothing. This went on for some time, until someone decided that the best way to remove the frozen lined boots - which were prized collectables - from one of the victims was to saw off the legs and put them in a barn to thaw out .... and a big woodsaw was brought up from the village. Luckily, before this could be carried out the village doctor and priest intervened. To put an end to all this, the frozen bodies then were piled up in the meadow boarding the road and burned, as the ground was frozen solid they could not be given a proper burial.

    Ortho embankment.jpg
    Picture of the embankment with a view to the east towards Ortho. The right side of the road is fairly high and the top is much higher than the halftrack. So its possible that the blast could have come from above. (courtesy Street View)
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2018
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  19. Aeronut

    Aeronut Junior Member

    The photo of the captured half-track is interesting and makes me wonder just how many the 51st HD ended up using during the war?
    I have a copy of the Op order for the 1st Bn Black Watch for the capture of Le Havre which includes a German Half-track amongst the ambulances available to the Bn.
     
  20. canuck

    canuck Token Colonial Patron

    Thanks Stolpi,

    That photo offers a better prospective of the embankment height and offers a reasonable explanation for the circumstances. I don't, for a minute, doubt the veracity of the story from the veterans. Strange things happen.
     
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