Discussion in 'The Brigade of Guards' started by dbf, Jul 3, 2015.

  1. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Last edited: Nov 3, 2020
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  2. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD


    From a purely personal point of view -


    August - September 1944.

    I liked the orchards of NORMANDY because, although the apples were invariably uneatable, the orchards themselves provided friendly and unwarlike harbours and if any form of high explosive disturbed the trees it came more as a regrettable incident than as a natural and persistent consequence of war. But this one was a special orchard because we stayed in it for a specially long time and incidentally a number of rather special things happened during that time.

    In the first place I produced a son and heir - not of course in the orchard. In fact I am bound to admit that neither my personal intervention nor the orchard could have in any way have affected the issue at this stage. But the most miraculous thing happened. In a facetious mood i might so easily have said to my wife: “All you have to do is produce the thing and I’ll jump into a plane and nip over in time to put his name down for Eton.” And in the same vein she would have replied: “Surely Monty would lend you his Dakota, I believe it’s quite comfortable.” And then I would have resumed my speculation as to whether he would still have that “worried old Chinaman” look by the time I first saw him after the war.

    But it was a very special orchard and Monty’s plane was indeed very comfortable and it had a beautiful blue carpet and I landed in the right place. When, 24 hours later, “Russ”, the American Pilot, put the great big Dakota down in a very small clover field near BENY BOCAGE, I preferred to go on thinking that I had had a dream in which an old Chinaman with a worried look was sitting on a blue carpet and complaining bitterly of the shortage of CALVADOS.

    The war had simply receded from our orchard and the Division was left to lick its wounds while the Officers made gastronomic sorties towards the most promising of the liberated resorts. With NANTES, RENNES, ANGERS, BLOIS and ORLEANS falling to the Americans, the chances of liberating Cognac (and several cases of what it stands for) loomed high. I was granted three days and an armoured car in which to accomplish this mission, but lack of initiative coupled with the non-amphibious qualities of a ‘Staghound’ prevented me from making good. After making my escape from an American H.Q. near LAVAL, where I was (quite rightly) held as a doubtful character with dishonourable intentions, I made my way to ANGERS. On the way the roads had been completely deserted, the sun had shone and a countryside completely untouched by “the military” had presented the most refreshing sight. Many liberated villages had as yet seen no signs of their liberators and to our amazement and material gain the crew and I found ourselves reaping the plums (these were later augmented by eggs, butter and wine) and for the three days we ate like the proverbial fighting cock).

    At ANGERS it was confirmed that the LOIRE remained a defensive flank between the THIRD U.S. ARMY and the fleeing Boche and no bridges remained between TOURS and the sea. With a sense of frustration we turned back and beat a somewhat ignominious retreat. After driving for three hours in the blinding rain I saw in the failing light a very promising looking avenue, and sure enough, at the end was a picturesque old chateau owned by a picturesque old General (Le Guerier by name) who appeared at his window with a nightcap on his head.

    A comfortable night in a real bed, good food and the inevitable political discussion and we set off back in the direction of dead cows, dust and destruction.

    But what of our orchard? Monty paid a visit and decorated some of those who had received immediate awards, the Secretary of State visited us and saw men’s dinners, Anthony EDEN visited us and brought a pretty secretary. Finally, the Major-General came out for two nights from ENGLAND and provided an excuse for a gala dinner in a hurriedly borrowed marquee. And the sun shone and everything in the orchard should have been lovely. But somehow it wasn’t. Resistance in front was getting less and less, the Division was rested and almost back up to strength and everyone felt it was our turn to share in the fun. Nobody could have guessed at that time what our share was destined to be. The news came at 9.45 a.m. one morning over the telephone from Corps H.Q. “The Division moves tonight on transporters. Send representatives to a conference at Army H.Q. at 10 o’clock” - “This morning? it’s 75 miles away” - “Yes. This morning and don’t argue”. There was no further argument. John HARVEY and I set off in a Jeep to drive through the famous FALAISE GAP in order to get our orders, leaving others to cope with the almost insurmountable task of getting the Division on to the road at such short notice. I still think the journalistic mentality is entirely misrepresentative of the British outlook and is a growing menace to our national good sense. It doesn’t come so much from the reporters and the facts which they report as the twist that is applied before going to press. I do not believe that the British public revels in the horrors of the FALAISE GAP. I met no one who had seen and smelt it who was not nauseated. But at least the lurid descriptions were no exaggeration. Although the Air Force were billed as the executioners and undoubtedly did what is described as “a good job”, it was interesting to see what an incredible shoot the tanks and even the field guns had had at ranges down to 400 yards. John and I reached our conference some three hours late. We were to go right through and, if possible, cross the SEINE at 8 o’clock the following night - nothing less! The distance was approximately 120 miles. The vehicles were mostly tracked and the SEINE was not yet bridged. The fact that it came off only a few hours later than planned is a wonderful tribute to the powers that be for maintaining complete confidence in their foresight.


    Nothing succeeds like success and the higher command, who seldom get much credit, have certainly had the courage to back their luck in this campaign with the wonderful results which we have all shared. Our orders left no time for coffee-housing. We decided to part company, John to take our one plane (which had come up to join us) and return with the orders while I cajoled the very exhausted pilot of another plane into flying me over to 30 CORPS H.Q., under whose command we were coming. Their H.Q. was just South of the small bridgehead over the SEINE at VERNON. I learned that the bridgehead was to be expanded during the night and the bridge completed. I think the pilot was as thrilled as I was to see the SEINE again and, after taking off for the return trip, headed north-east instead of south-west. Even I noticed the difference and we came to the unanimous decision that it was a bad mistake. The General made the same trip next morning and at one time could see the as yet unliberated PARIS, so that I suspect him of actually encouraging his pilot. Generals are like that; the most incautious of men! The Division parked (that was really all it amounted to) for the night at L’AIGLE. It was evident that the motley collection of staff officers awaiting their arrival were in a ‘desperate’ state and would have to live on the country for at least the ensuing meal. I went to the nearest farm and with no difficulty at all succeeded in looking pathetic. They were the nicest of farmers. A goose was killed, plucked and we were told to return in an hour. At 10.30 p.m. we sat down round a neatly laid table lit by candles in bottles and partook of one of the most appetizing meals I can ever remember, while the family vied with each other to tell us in detail the atrocities which the Germans had committed on members of the resistance group during the last few days when they realised they would have to continue the withdrawal. What an excellent and generous host the average French farmer is though. I believe this has come as a surprise to many of their liberators, particularly amongst the Officers. The British soldier is the most spontaneously friendly of all creatures and it would never occur to him that a foreigner would be otherwise. But a great many Officers, in peace time, had just enough experience of the less attractive type of Frenchman to be surprised by the tough, honest friendliness of the peasant.

    Next day we were to cross the SEINE and I went forward in the morning to meet Battalion harbour parties and find a concentration area within the Vernon bridgehead north of the river.

    After meeting-up, Charlie TYRON and I went on in a Jeep together and both felt as we crossed the pontoon bridge that a monumental milestone had been left behind. (The fact that I crossed the same bridge six more times during the day detracted not at all from this sensation).

    During all that night and the early morning the Division passed over the bridge and concentrated on the high ground to the north with a minimum of fuss and the greatest efficiency, which only goes to prove that people are only really happy when they are busy.

    11th ARMOURED DIVISION and 8th ARMOURED BRIGADE had crossed before us and the cry was “How soon could we go on and pass through 8th ARMOURED BRIGADE to take our place on the right of 11th ARMOURED DIVISION”. There were those who considered that lack of petrol might secure a few hours rest, but they were soon disillusioned and by lunch time we were off again streaking towards BEAUVAIS.

    That was, I suppose, our first experience of driving quickly through country that was still virtually in enemy hands and one understood at last, with a feeling of great relief, that liberations was not necessarily co-related to destruction.

    As darkness fell the leading troops passed the 8th ARMOURED BRIGADE and halted at AUNEUIL, about 12 miles short of BEAUVAIS. At that time I found myself feverishly trying to pass the column in order to convey what were obviously going to be unpopular orders to 5th GUARDS ARMOURED BRIGADE, who were in the lead.

    “You will push on during the night, starting at 2 a.m.” they said “and secure the bridges over the Somme east of AMIENS as early as possible tomorrow”. That’s what I said they said - I won’t repeat what they said back.

    Unfortunately the enemy were holding a defile on the main road immediately north, but a diversion was found and punctually at 2 a.m. and in spite of what they said, the column moved on. At 2.30 a.m. I jumped off the top of my tank in the darkness straight on to the neck of the driver, who was sleeping below. For a few moments the night air was charged with well expressed expostulations, after which he went off to sleep again quite unmoved and apparently unhurt.

    The next morning I went with the General to call on the nearest Armoured Regiment of 8th ARMOURED BRIGADE and found Dumbo DUNKERLY in command with Sim FEVERSHAM Second-in-Command - both old friends... We crossed the road to what was obviously a stud farm, where the HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY were parked. Only later, after passing on, did I learn that ten of the horses in training there belonged to James HENNESSY. A right and left.

    Possibly the Germans were no more surprised than we were to find that evening that we had covered another 60 miles and with very little resistance had crossed the river North of VILLERS BRETTONEAUX. And maybe the F.F.I. were a wee bit surprised to find that the odd assortment of weapons which they unearthed from barns and cellars as we passed and brandished with more exuberance than safety, were often enough to march off dozens of bewildered Germans. It was a bewildering day because they really had meant to hold the SOMME and with no trouble at all we really had got a long way through them. Every civilian came with a story of so many Germans in such-and-such a wood. Some shots rang out in a wood as some self-propelled field guns passed. This they considered an effrontery and, with somewhat unorthodox tactics, turned off the road and charged. The onslaught flushed no Boshe, but eight wild boar which were heavily engaged without success.


    And tomorrow, ALBERT, ARRAS, and if possible DOUAI, a mere 45 to 50 miles. Surely, we can’t get away with this indefinitely. And, sure enough, ALBERT was a hornets’ nest, but the rest of the column careered gaily on shooting up “runners” on the way till by evening the main body was north of ARRAS with one Battle Group in DOUAI.

    The welcome in ARRAS was terrific and I am glad I drove through with the General, for he was the one person to whom it must have meant the most. It was here that he was wounded and got his Military Cross in the last war and he had no need of a map to find his way, much to AYLMER’s relief.

    It is extraordinary how the “V” sign has caught on. It is completely spontaneous in every village one passes through. I wonder if one will ever know how big a part it played in building up resistance in occupied countries. Another universal habit of the liberate is to write messages of welcome all over the vehicles a they slowly nose their way through the crowd. AYLMER’s scout car bore the inscription “Vive la R.A.F.” in large letters on the side. The DIVISION was concentrating on the high ground north of ARRAS and as we arrived two British fighters hovered inquiringly over our heads, circled round to get the sun in their backs and then came in with all guns firing. It was a magnificent sight and up went three ammunition lorries and a great deal of abuse. AYLMER, without a word, walked over to his scout car and added tot the inscriptions “Less two Spitfires”.

    But ARRAS was not enough. There were still some hours of daylight and there were also some very impatient MICKS who had their eye on DOUAI. So the IRISH GUARDS Group took DOUAI. But not without a fight and some damage to the most important bridges on the far side of the town.

    Our orders were to concentrate the DIVISION around DOUAI next morning and do some hurried maintenance. On no account would patrols cross the frontier into BELGIUM. We would be told why later.

    Early the next morning Tom BLACKWELL and I set off in a jeep to find a suitable area around DOUAI. We found the MICKS’ H.Q. in a cafe in the main square and also the senior members of the F.F.I. with whom, with great initiative, they had established excellent contact. I had not realised until then how really well organised the Underground movement had been. They had been patrolling on their own all night, knew which bridges were intact, where pockets of enemy were lurking, etc. What an extraordinary war this is! As one careers around the countryside looking for concentration areas, civilians come out, first with amazed, and then wildly happy expressions. If you stop they swarm over the vehicle, cover it with flowers and fruit and offer wine. And yet in the woods an occasional burst of Spandau fire and out come another 10, 20, 50 prisoners usually followed by a lusty yokel with a rusty musket and a grin from ear to ear.

    Tom and I were delighted with ourselves. We had found a vast aerodrome with concrete runways (not very damaged) and hangars. What better for a day’s maintenance? We ought to be everyone’s ‘blue-eyed boys’.

    Half an hour later I listened in to the Corps Commander, who came forward to give out orders. We were to go straight for BRUSSELS, 11th ARMOURED DIVISION for ANTWERP. But we were not to start until about midday because our advance was to be preceded by airborne landings, which in turn would be preceded that evening by saturation bombing on all aerodromes up to the frontier.

    Saturation bombing on a lll aerodromes up to the frontier? And here we are within a few miles of it and the whole DIVISION sitting around picking their sprockets and tickling their carburettors on the biggest one of all time. I believe very few people in the DIVISION knew the reason for an ‘All Stations’ message reading “All ranks will immediately dig slit trenches and hold ground-to-air recognition signals readily available”. But the blue-eyed boys are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

    Nobody liked the plan. Maybe we were becoming over-confident, but we felt that the landing was unnecessary and the preliminary bombing programme sheer folly! Above all, we felt that, given a fair start in the morning, we would make BRUSSELS on our own but that, if we had to wait until midday, pockets of resistance would be more organised and hours of daylight too scarce. It may sound ungrateful, but it was with profound relief that at about 9 p.m. we heard that the storm which had sprung up would prevent the landings and that we could go forward in our own time.

    Our own time was 6 a.m. Except for one Squadron of the HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY, who declared that they had further to go and that it would be unfair if they weren’t allowed to start a quarter of an hour earlier.

    This reference to fair play was due to the General’s plan. Each BRIGADE throughout this campaign was identically composed of two Battle Groups each containing the armoured and infantry Battalion of the same Regiment. Each BRIGADE was given a road to themselves. Which could reach BRUSSELS first? The form was as follows:

    On the right 32 GUARDS BRIGADE had the main road (a wonderful road) and they were putting 2nd Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion WELSH GUARDS with fast Cromwell tanks in the lead. On the other hand, being a main road it was likely to be better defended.

    On the left 5th GUARDS ARMOURED BRIGADE had the GRENADIERS in the lead, but the road was very twisty and hard to read and the tanks were slower.

    The book was made. At 6 a.m. “Les jeux sont fait - rien ne va plus”. The starter had no trouble at all - everything was facing the right way and the whips were out.


    Only a running commentary of the race could give a proper picture of the excitement carried with it. It was not just an 85 miles drive - there were stiff pockets of resistance on the way, sometimes on the right but mostly on the left. But the spirit of competition was irresistible and it was quite obvious that nothing could stop us that day. Towards the end of the afternoon the WELSH GUARDS met strong opposition in HAL, some 15 miles from BRUSSELS and the GRENADIERS were almost abreast on the left Centre Line.

    Due to the hold-up, I found myself at the safe end of the WELSH GUARDS and finally travelled into BRUSSELS on the roof of 32nd GUARDS BRIGADE A.C.V., finding no better excuse than that of a kind of steward to see fair play. Also, from over-excitement and from shouting on the wireless, I had lost my voice and could not join in with “Tipperary”. But I was in a position to confirm that the Welshmen won the race by a short head.

    Everyone has described the reception in BRUSSELS. “Unbelievable” is the only word I can find for it, but our wireless conversations gave perhaps the best indication:

    BRUSSELS is a big place and one Armoured Division could easily get lost in it. The General had therefore allotted areas of responsibility beforehand and these consisted of key road junctions round the outskirts. He was naturally anxious to know whether they had been reached.

    “Hullo GEORGE ALBLE DOG - Have you reached objective yet? - over.”


    “What’s the trouble? Are you meeting opposition?”

    “Yes. The population.”

    and later:

    “Hullo GEORGE - Thank God it’s raining. Moving forward to objectives now - out.”

    But by the morning I would go so far as to suggest that noone had reached his objective nor had the faintest idea where he was, except Brigadier Norman GWATKIN, who slept the sleep of the just at the Royal Palace. But after all, BRUSSELS was our objective and that had been reached in no uncertain manner.

    I, personally, have a sob-stuff story to tell of little interest to others, but here goes.

    In the grey light of dawn on a May morning in 1940 I found myself standing with my heart in my boots in a village street in ST. AGATHE (West of BRUSSELS). The unshaven face of (then) Brigadier Jack WHITTAKER loomed up and he said: “You must get that park opened up for your Battalion to collect up before moving on back.” With difficulty I woke up the owner, an old and at first peevish man, who wanted to know what the trouble was. I had no alternative but to tell him. By then his wife, a kindly old lady, had joined him. In a moment I saw the realisation, the implications, the full horror of the situation written on their faces. It was 5 a.m. The old gentleman handed me the keys without a word. By that evening I have no doubt the Germans were asking for them.

    On this famous evening it was evident that Divisional H.Q. was not going to function if it entered BRUSSELS. So Rupert GERARD and I sought a location just north of HAL, which is very close to ST. AGATHE. We parted company and combed the lanes for a suitable site, proceeding (as far as I was concerned) with a certain amount of caution. I turned into the avenue of a Chateau and saw a window go up and a face peer out. On to the steps came an old lady with her youthful son. Incredulous surprise, then inarticulate little phrases and much mopping of eyes. She also said nothing but for a different reason. I wish it had been ST. AGATHE, but even then I felt the same as one feels when one finishes the last paragraph of an interesting book.

    There are two aspects to liberating a capital like BRUSSELS. One is to ensure that the enemy leave and do not return. The other to show a population who are extending a delirious and whole-hearted welcome something to symbolise the event.
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  3. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    Jimmy INNES and I went in the next morning to arrange with the local authorities the route and time for the General to drive past the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and then hand back to the Burgomaster his truly beautiful city. It was a hazardous task, because every time one stopped to ask the way one was hauled from the car and soundly kissed by both sexes. Had it been possible to discriminate, the task might have been taken a great deal longer. As it was, we fought a gallant withdrawing action and rejoined our H.Q. to drive in under the protection of the tanks at 3 p.m.

    Nobody in BRUSSELS can have stayed indoors that day, or for that matter had a meal until dark. We were scared of an air raid, and in the middle of the procession, the Bosche, who was still on the aerodrome outside the town, fired five rounds of H.E. into the are of the Palace gardens. The results could have been horrible but thank God they were parting shots and that was the last we heard of him.

    But what of the insurance against the enemy’s return? The winners of the race, under Jim LEWIS, had appropriately enough set off down the Waterloo road and, showing their accustomed dash, had seized the golf club where (quoting Henry Cotton as a reference) they set up their H.Q. It may, of course, have been coincidence, and it is a fact that their establishment had been increased by one Belgian, a resident of BRUSSELS whom they had acquired en passant. But the golf club turned out to be the centre of the local black market and for two well deserved days the spear-head of the advance were virtually “unfit for war”.

    In the meantime, the fact that we were at war with Germany had to be borne constantly in mind and while the gilded staff were having fruit, flowers and bottles thrown at them, the GRENADIER Group (1st and 2nd Battalions) were ordered to capture LOUVAIN, some 15 miles to the north east. The aerodrome was still held and the main road was covered by 88 mms. But the GRENADIERS remembered the night four years ago when, much against their will, they were ordered back from LOUVAIN and they were particularly keen to return the compliment. They also knew another way round and by evening the good news came through that LOUVAIN was ours and that the airdrome would soon be ‘de-loused’.

    The General took another measure of internal defence. The Belgian Brigade had been brought in under his command. That night British troops were only allowed out on duty while the Belgians were left to ‘recapture’ the centre of the town.

    By now Divisional H.Q. had retired behind the railings of the Palace Gardens for local protection and by the evening of the second night were looking forward to the flesh-pots but, perhaps in the nick of time, orders arrived for the continuation of the advance the next morning.

    I had spent the afternoon in what I shall always regard as my correct ‘milieu’ - the wine vaults of the customs house. We had discovered the dump for all the requisitioned stocks of wines and spirits of the German Army. The Belgian officials, with a true and generous appreciation of the situation, had declared that it was now ours for the taking. Maybe it was as well that we had to move on the next morning.

    I arrived back happy but speechless at dusk to learn that the General would give out orders in the tent between the Command Vehicles in half-an-hour’s time. As he as starting a paraffin lamp caught the big map and within five minutes the Sappeurs Pompiers were trying in vain to extinguish ‘the nerve centre of the GUARDS ARMOURED DIVISION’. I have read several accounts in the newspapers of the entry into BRUSSELS. One reads: “And as I write by the light of the great bonfire which the populace have lit in the Palace Gardens to celebrate …”.

    In spite of this ‘disaster’, the Division moved out at first light while the GRENADIERS, who were already at LOUVAIN, took up the lead. The ALBERT CANAL was the objective, 45 miles away, and by nightfall the ALBERT CANAL had been crossed, but not before all the bridges had been blown.

    Still vicious, I had stayed behind to fiddle with some details about handing over our Brave Belge to the incoming Brigade and picking up a Battalion of Brave Dutch who were coming on with us. At the same time I was to stay at Corps H.Q. (now in the Laaken Palace Gardens) to bring on the orders for the next day. I was told to listen in on an important conference at 2.30 p.m. It was certainly important. By 4.30 p.m. most of the details for this most ambitious of all operations had been settled with the airborne staff who had flown from LONDON for the purpose.

    Being a cautious Officer I had decided to leave in time to regain Main H.Q., the far side of DIEST, before dusk because there is no more naked feeling than driving up the axis the night after the leading troops have passed. One is so apt to share it with odd German columns who are probably as lost as oneself.

    But circumstances decreed otherwise and, with Tony BEAUMONT as a welcome companion, and the entire operation order for the invasion of HOLAND as an unwelcome stowaway under the seat, we set off into the dark and very wet night.

    At the cross roads on the far side of LOUVAIN we had to decide whether to take the right or left centre line. Out of the darkness loomed an ambulance. “Which have you come down?” we said. The cheerful face of a Cockney R.A.S.C. driver drew near “Left, ‘ad a bit of fun up there. We’ve just collected these ‘ere” pointing to the ambulance. “Let’s see if we can have a screamingly funny time up the right one” I said to Tony. Just then David RASCH appeared “The right road is full of wrecked and burning vehicles” he said. It didn’t occur to one to doubt that they were Germans and luckily most of them were - about 200 of them as, on a later trip in daylight, I was able to verify. Some of them knocked out by aircraft and some by our advancing column. But some, unfortunately, were the leading vehicles of the Brave Dutch. They had just walked into five German tanks who, like angry wasps, had bumped our axis by mistake and stung before pushing off into the darkness.


    The bridgehead had been made at BEERINGEN and Colonel Splosh JONES and flung a beautiful Bailey over the ALBERT CANAL during the hours of darkness. Everyone was delighted, except the Boche who, to use the correct military term, had shown himself very sensitive and by midday with the WELSH GUARDS held up at HECHTEL and the COLDSTREAM beating off strong counter attacks on the left short of BOURG LEOPOLD it became evident that we would have to stop thinking in terms of flowers, fruit and kisses and get down to some steady stuff. At one moment during that very complicated day, it even looked as if the bridge might go when a desperado force of one Officer and 40 S.S. troops crept on to the barges nearby after knocking out no less than 40 supply vehicles. That was a tricky day, with the DIVISION very spread out and reports of enemy in every wood on the map.

    The next day, in the words of the Corps Commander, ‘Smelt better’. With 11th ARMOURED DIVISION crossing the bridge and coming up on our right, the two Divisions drove Germans like coveys of partridges from one side to the other and by the evening a very large number were either killed or in the bag.

    In the A.C.V. we have a spare wireless set which is apt to flick to the B.B.C. about 1 o’clock. That day while they were announcing that British troops had captured BOURG LEOPOLD, Brigadier Errol PRIOR-PALMER was saying on the other set “BOURG LEOPOLD is full of Boche and I have told my chaps to sit back outside it and wait till we can lay on a proper attack.” The B.B.C. can’t always be right.

    By that night there were enough troops over the CANAL to allow us to turn our attention to our proper role - that of pushing on. Both the WELSH and COLDSTREAM had taken quite a knock, the WELSH being unable to disengage from the enemy who were holding the key village of HECHTEL strongly.

    Undeterred by the fact that BOURG LEOPOLD and HECHTEL barred the way to our only two roads, the General made a plan to pass the GRENADIERS and the IRISH across ‘Pirbright country’ through the middle and, with the same spirit of competition, whoever could get to the ESCAUT CANAL first was to cross it.

    This, like many subsequent days, was what one might call ‘pregnant with incident’, but it would take a military manual to contain them all. Suffice it to say that the HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY, with their uncanny knack of finding a way round, reached the CANAL and reported the bridge at the DE GROOT BARRIER intact but strongly held. The GRENADIER were close and were confident favourites. But two S.Ps and five 88mms at the last fence were proving more than nuisance value. Darkness had fallen and suddenly the news came through. They’re a ‘terrible’ body of men, the MICKS - the had rushed the bridge in the failing light and - ‘Holy Mother of Jaisus’ - they had got it in the bag, together with the four 88mms and the startled Boche who had failed to defend it. It was in fact a brilliant operation which I cannot attempt to describe. It is somewhat ironical that David PEEL who had carried out the final task of rushing tanks over the bridge should have killed the next morning in a counter attack which come in at first light.

    Moments of stress invariably have their comic relief. Two days ago, the situation had looked a bit untidy and as we reached Brigadier George JOHNSON’s headquarters the General went straight to the caravan and started making a plan. Almost immediately there was a loud explosion, the map jumped up and the spent missile came to rest at our feet - it was made of cork and had ‘Pommery and Greno’ written on it - we had evidently arrived just after ‘elevenses’!

    Next day the WELSH GUARDS decided that they were no longer amused by HECHTEL and, emulating our gallant allies, ‘went to town’!

    I have written pages - far too many pages in any case - about the headlong rush, but each event during these days contained far more incident than most of the early ones put together. HECHTEL was a particularly fine action and flushed over a battalion of S.S. troops, 50% of which were either killed or wounded. S.S. troops should all be either killed or wounded, but preferably the former.

    The Bridgehead over the ESCAUT CANAL was assured and now we were to get several days respite until the monumental plan, which I had heard of in BRUSSELS and which now was undergoing some modification to suit the situation, was all set to be launched.

    “Top up, tidy up, tails up - and no move for several days” was the next order we received from Corps.

    It is not the task of junior staff Officers to question orders. If the intention is clear they should be carried out with the minimum of delay. - By midday a comfortable Ford saloon, borrowed from the Germans, was streaking towards BRUSSELS carrying Tom BLACKWELL, Dick TAYLOR and myself, each one bent on the execution of his duties.

    Passing through LOUVAIN (this time in the daylight), I fell to the unforgivable urge of reminiscing. Why does one imagine that it will be of the slightest interest to others to hear that Battalion H.Q. was in that barn up the sunken road and that you will never forget how funnit was when old so-and-so fell off his motor-bike when a gun went off behind that haystack? I had just got to the bit about how we slept the night of 10th May 1940 on the edge of the BRUSSELS aerodrome when it loomed in sight. And what a sight. Over 300 Dakotas parked nose to tail alongside the waiting convoy of lorries. We stopped to watch them taking off over our heads in a regular stream when suddenly a Fortress, obviously in distress, bounced on the near end of the runway and came ploughing through wire fences and the root fields towards us.

    “No tarrying by the wayside” we said. “We must push on to our objective” and trod on the accelerator.

    Our first objective was ‘Le Filet de Sole’ a restaurant by the Marche. To quote the menu would, in the circumstances, constitute an act of aggression. What, we wondered, was all this about the starving Continent. It has been the same everywhere, not only in the expensive restaurants which thrive on what they call the Black Market which is in fact none other than the normal, but expensive, retail channels.

    Was it, I wonder, because we didn’t know, or was it to disguise our own admirably controlled but very real shortage of at any rate the more appetising articles of food in ENGLAND. Pate de la Maison omelettes - Petit Poussin - but I said I wouldn’t ….!

    BRUSSELS was still wonderfully gay but more under control than when we had left and it was possible now to walk unmolested and visit the shops - very well stocked shops.

    In fact a peace time air seemed to prevail and after a hot bath and a glass of champagne we were satisfied that we were carrying out our orders to the letter.

    It would be simpler to draw a camouflage net over the remainder of a very funny evening, which ended with cooking ourselves breakfast in the kitchen of the sixth and last night club we had visited, in all of which we had been greeted with the doubtful but popular welcome of “Good-bye Tommie” and in none of which we had been allowed to pay a cent.

    The weather was perfect and the biggest of all gambles was on now. Back in our respective H.Q. we learned the last details of the plans for the Airborne landings. And with the help of Dutch experts, air photographs and special maps we studied the natural obstacles which lay in the path of our dash to link up with the ‘Birdmen’ and pass through them to the ZYDER ZEE.

    It was a wonderful plan. We were worried about one thing only and that was the initial break-out from the ESCAUT bridgeheand. An armoured Division depends largely on momentum for its success and usually relies on the poor bloody infantry to make the hole so that it can get a flying start.

    But in this case the advance had been too rapid and the P.B.I. were not yet available. So we would have to break out on our own. The difficulties were fully realised and, at last, we were given a ‘cab rank’ of Typhoon rocket bombers on call and the Squadron Leader in person up near the front to call his flock out on to our targets. It worked wonderfully and messages of good will were afterwards exchanged with the R.A.F. on all levels.

    But why, I wonder, is it still necessary to butter up the AIR FORCE after every operation. At their own job the AIR FORCE have maintained and enhanced a magnificent reputation, but to believe the glowing accounts of perfect ground and air co-operation would be and will be in the future to live in a fool’s paradise.

    It worked on this occasion because all eyes were on this break-out and the Squadron Leader in person controlled his own aircraft from the ground. But how many times on previous occasions had we waited for two hours while somebody somewhere decided whether our targets were suitable and then heard the all too familiar “Not accepted”. This is not an inter-service snake - it is the expression of a fairly universal feeling that in this respect there is room for improvement on both sides. As long as Air Support remains “a favour” which invariably receives its message of thanks afterwards, it won’t really work. In the operation order for the CAEN battle in the paragraph headed “Troops under Command and In Support” figured H.M.S. RODNEY. The support was invaluable, but there were no congratulatory ‘signals’.

    “This next Operation will give you enough to bore your grand-children for the rest of your lives” the Corps Commander had said at an eleventh hour Conference, which he held at BOURG LEOPOLD. Well, I reckon the grandchildren are for it all right.

    If you were to stick seven needles in a row, lick your piece of cotton and expect to thread it through all seven eyes in one shot, you would have about as much chance as a camel of becoming a rich man. Maybe I slipped up somewhere, but at any rate this plan lacked nothing in ambition.

    There were seven major water obstacles to cross, over 100 miles to go and one Armoured Division advancing (because of the unsuitable tank country) on almost a one tank front. The Airborne Army were to seize and hold the seven bridges while we linked them all up and debouched on the far side. If we missed the hole and splayed the thread with any one of them, it would need some frantic licking to get it through the next.

    In previous advances we had usually only ourselves to worry about. But this was a kind of self-inflicted Relief of Mafeking in seven instalments. Everyone was slightly over-excited.

    At midnight the news came. Operation definitely on - Airborne landings at 1300 hours - GUARDS ARMOURED DIVISION will advance at 14.35 hours. “Why the 5?” was all we could think of to say.
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    Early the next morning Divisional H.Q. moved down to a specially unattractive factory on the canal about 600 yards from the famous bridge.

    From the word “Go” it was evident that this was a tactical indiscretion. The Gilded Staff soon came in for some fairly heavy shelling and mortaring and that night it seemed certain that an enemy counter-attack was coming in over the virtually undefended canal. We need hardly have worried, however, because the most vulnerable flank was held by Aylmer TRYON, whose tent was pitched on a slag heap. Remembering his field craft, he struck the tent to clear his field of fire. An hour later, when the flap was over, he returned to find his slit trench full of rain water. There is no justice!

    By midday the IRISH, who were to lead, started drawing up nose to tail just short of the bridge and the General walked over to pass the time of day with them. He would be very pleased if they got EINDHOVEN that night, and the rest would be swallowed up the following day.

    At 1245 p.m. the Fighters appeared - swarms of fighters diving furiously every time a flak gun opened up. What a welcome bonus that was, for German flak guns are anti-tank guns as well. And then over to the West, flying very low in a solemn train came the airborne fleet. 1415 hours and the air was rent by the opening strains of the barrage.

    1435 hours (these last five minutes must have been a strain even for a MICK) and they were off. “Advance going well - leading Squadron has got through” - but there is always some bloody German who sticks his head up on an occasion like this. Suddenly eight leading tanks of the second Squadron were in flames and had the next eight been able to get by, the same fate awaited them. Marshy country and a causeway road does not give the tanks much of a chance.

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    How exactly they did it, I don’t know. But as I have said before the MICKS are a terrible body of men. Soon reports of 250 prisoners and a great many dead came through and the column moved steadily forward. We were through and the armoured cars of the HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY were unleashed on their reconnaissance role, fanning out ahead of the column. VALKENSWAARD was passed and EINDHOVEN, the eye of the first needle lay ahead.

    Bump! A concrete emplacement, strongly defended barred the main road.

    Immediately the GRENADIERS, following behind, struck off down the lanes to the left, but one after another the frail old wooden bridges over the dykes collapsed under the tanks.

    The news came over the wireless “Stable-boys have contacted Feathered Friends”. The armoured cars had found tracks through the woods and got right through to join the first American paratroops. This was splendid news, but it didn’t mean that the tanks could follow.

    It hardly takes me to comment on the qualities necessary in a commander, but they seem to include the appearance of firm confidence with sympathetic appreciation of the difficulties when things are going a bit wrong.

    At about 6 p.m. the General went up to meet Brigadier Norman GWATKIN at the MICK’s H.Q. It was soon quite obvious that everyone knew they were going to get through to EINDHOVEN that night. And, as dusk fell, the opposition cracked and we had joined hands with the first of our feathered friends, 101 U.S. AIRBORNE DIVISION. The General had every right to be pleased.

    The Americans held EINDHOVEN clear for us, also the roads up to the WILHELMINA CANAL but as we passed through, the bridges over the latter at SON and BEST went up.

    But what of it! The tanks had to stop for the night - and to throw a bridge over the canal at SON was just what the Sappers were pining for - particularly with German prisoners to help prepare the approaches.

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    The bridge would be ready at 6 a.m. So infectious was the enthusiasm of the Sappers, that at one point during the night, when an inquisitive Gunner Officer was standing on the approaches he was told in perfect English by one of the prisoners that he was in the way and that in his opinion he was holding the whole bloody thing up.

    At 6.10 a.m. the first tank crossed the bridge and the advance continued. This time with the GRENADIERS leading.

    The next 40 miles were covered in under 3 hours and, with the help of the American ‘birdmen’, five out of the seven needles had been threaded. It is interesting to look back on that rapid drive through ST. OEDENRODE, VEGHEL, UDEN and over the vast bridge at GRAVE. The spectacular, though uneventful, advance will be remembered long after the bitter fighting which took place on this road in our wake when for three days it was bombed, shelled and continually cut by enemy columns.

    Speeding up past the column the General made for General ‘Boy’ BROWNING’s H.Q. between the two rivers. It was a great re-union and, incidentally, the ‘hat-trick’ for the GRENADIERS - The leading troops and both Generals. Two prominent GRENADIERS, the A.D.C. and the G.2. drank most of the General’s supply of whisky in his car on the strength of it!

    What now? Well, the bridge was still intact but not in our hands. The paratroops had had their time cut out to hold the high ground near their dropping zone and only one Battalion had got into the town of NIJMEGEN. Once the gaff was blown that an Armoured Division had arrived surely the bridge would follow suit.

    The story of the hard fighting in the town and the eventual capture of the bridge on the following morning has been told already in a garbled form and will doubtless be told many more times with a great more detail and accuracy. It is not the kind of event to be discussed in a few lines. Suffice it to say that the American Combat Team undertook a daylight assault crossing under suicidal conditions with a glorious disregard of either detail or danger, and the GRENADIERS carried out an action which will be hard to match in this war. Six hundred yards of bridge span some 100 feet hight over the river, with Germans on each side, Germans lurking in the demolition chambers of each pier and even Germans in the girders - personally I’d rather have a cup of tea! But they made it and the Sappers swarmed like gremlins over the bridge throwing charges and Germans indiscriminately into the river (They alone winkled out 80 Boche from the demolition chambers under the bridge itself) and again everyone was overjoyed except the Germans.

    The sixth needle had been hard to thread and the cotton was badly splayed. The road from NIJMEGEN to ARNHEM is a causeay through low-lying fields. Things did not look rosy for tomorrow.

    Dawn came with a thick mist. The HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY (perhaps this was their most brilliant action) saw their opportunity and slipped through. Soon they reported in observation on the South bank of the NEDER RHINE just opposite the stranded 1st AIRBORNE DIVISION.

    But the tanks could be heard by the enemy. The mist lifted and up went the first four victims of the Anti-Tank screen.

    Infantry were required and soon infantry were produced in the shape of the 43rd DIVISION.

    Six and a half out of seven and I think five for neatness. The DIVISION had temporarily shot its bolt.
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    If only because the NIJMEGEN bridgehead has produced the most exciting ‘Tattoo’ we are ever likely to see it cannot go unmentioned. In military parlance you hear people say “I feel a bit naked on my left flank”. Well, I reckon this must be a nudist colony.

    On that first evening the Commanders held a Conference in the pine woods, during which I was told to send the following message to the Gunners.

    “When the mediums come up tell them to get into action straight away with one battery facing East and one West.” “Sir”, I said. I passed the message. “You know we already have a Field Regiment facing North and the second one facing South,” was the answer. “That’s right” I said, because for once I was completely in the picture.

    I will not attempt to describe the relief of 1st AIRBORNE DIVISION, as this is an epic story in which the DIVISION took no direct part. Never let it be said though that this heroic effort was a wasted one. But for them, the German forces which they contained would almost certainly have made the NIJMEGEN bridge impregnable or, at least, the bridgehead extremely unhealthy.

    Meanwhile never can those who like this kind of thing have had fewer dull moments. The resources of the Division were stretched to say the least of it.

    Patrols of 2nd HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY dispersed to the four winds, as much as 30 miles apart, were reporting fantastic engagements.

    In one place, cut off entirely from us, they were directing our artillery on to targets passed to them by the isolated paratroops in ARNHEM. In another they had discovered a ferry in perfect working order, but on the far bank. They were in telephonic communication with the Dutch on the far side who might be persuaded to bring it across. Might they use it? “No.” They were already far enough afield. Further down the river they observed a steamer flying the German flag and towing four barges. They were manoeuvring into a favourable position to engage. Shortly afterwards - “Steamer damaged - three barges sunk”. We passed the following signal in reply - “Congratulations on brilliant naval action. Splice Mainbrace.” They did.

    But the spirit of unorthodox actions was far from over. On the way up Divisional H.Q. had been temporarily halted South of the GRAVE bridge when an American D.R. approached with an urgent request for help. One of their patrols were being hard-pressed in OSS and cold not hold out much longer. A force consisting of two tanks of the General’s protective troop and one Section of the Divisional Defence platoon, under Patrick O’DONOVAN, set off to cover the eight miles in record time. After a while the message came back “Afraid we have damaged a lot of buildings, but have over a hundred prisoners”. Suddenly it dawned on us - this was the great German food dump we had vaguely heard about. A Company of 5th Battalion COLDSTREAM GUARDS was immediately despatched to strengthen up the position. They arrived just in time to find the town ablaze and Boche running in every direction. Though hopelessly outnumbered, O’DONOVAN’s fore appeared quite oblivious of the fact and had wrought great distruction. Their tactics bore the hallmark of simplicity. The order of march was as follows: Patrick leading set the house on fire with 75 mm H.E. Claude DU CROS with his section of infantry close behind, took prisoners, the local fire brigade following put the fire out. A Franciscan Father on a lady’s bicycle brought up the rear and administered the Last Sacrament.

    Soon hungry eyes, both British, American and German, were turned on this dump, growing more and more hungry as our lines of communication remained cut. It was a colossal dump, containing food enough to feed an army. This, in the circumstances, was fortunate because, for a few days, there was no other means of carrying out this essential task.

    But OSS was situated too far away to make it possible during the first few days to spare a force to guard and maintain communications to it. So each morning a protected convoy was organised and sent off. The dump was admirably administered by the Wizard of OSS, a Dutch foreman who doled out the supplies in an orderly manner and obtained a signature for them. On the second day it was noticed that the last signature on the previous day came from the nearest German unit. What a wonderful nation we are for standing in queues.

    During this time the rest of the DIVISION were also dispersed to the four winds. The IRISH and WELSH under 5th GUARDS ARMOURED BRIGADE were North of the NIJMEGEN bridge endeavouring at the same time to enlarge the bridgehead and to dodge the wide range of high explosives which the Boche were continually and successfully launching at the bridge.

    The GRENADIERS, cheated of the rest they deserved after their strenuous NIJMEGEN battle, were whistled off again South of the GRAVE bridge to try and re-open the supply line from the North.

    But the COLDSTREAM, who had been doing some good steady stuff all the way but somehow rather missed the limelight, were now under command of 83 U.S. AIRBORNE DIVISION as a mobile reserve on the right flank.

    “British Troops enter Germany” we heard on the B.B.C. Their reserve of mobility had carried them over the frontier and they had spent a happy day charging around and shooting up everything they could see. “Nulli Secundus”. Perhaps they aren’t always bloody well second after all !

    And now, from lengthening nights and lowering temperatures we have but on inadequate defence - a veil of operational silence.
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    From APPENDIX, October 1944 War Diary, 2 WELSH GUARDS

    Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 04.27.56.png

    Although there is no name or signature on this account, it seems very likely (to me) it was penned by the same man as the one above...

    (Hennessy - Cognac!)
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    “Hello BLACKBOID - Hello BLACKBOID.”

    “This is RADAR calling BEESWAX. How are you receiving me?”

    “Receiving you fine and dandy. Watch out for re-supply, but still no BLACKBOID.”

    For the first few nights following our arrival at NIJMEGEN, this fruitless quest for “BLACKBOID” was repeated by a deep mysterious Brooklyn voice which, punctually at 6 p.m. every morning, came up on our wireless net.

    This was our first experience of actually working with the Americans and we found much to admire in them. The way they had taken on the assault crossing of the WAAL in daylight and their cheerful aversion to any form of fuss - their readiness to part at any time with the delicacies of their excellent pack ration - even their unorthodox method of passing what is normally stereotype form of military procedure - the situation report.

    “Everything fine and dandy and a smile on everybody’s face” was their official report after a somewhat severe enemy counter-attack. And, after all, that was precisely what we wanted to know.

    But what is more, these feelings appeared to be mutual. At any level and in any walk of life your own company, whether in commerce or in war, is the only one that can really be relied upon to do the thing properly; your own department the only one which is not composed entirely of unsympathetic lunatics. It would be inhuman, therefore, for Allied troops not to have a good ‘bicker’ occasionally. But there could scarcely have been less between British and American formations who have actually worked together in the field.

    Yes, Yes, of course, the NIJMEGEN Salient - Would I ensure my quick return to civilian life, I wonder, if I were to compare the situation of the local commander during those first few days to that of a harassed housewife.

    Harassed, because the FIRST AIRBORNE DIVISION at ARNHEM, like a beloved son about to make a name for the family at the ‘Varsity’, had met with an accident on the event of his exam - because the newly acquired NIJMEGEN bridge, like a newly acquired cook, was a precious liability which had to be insured and matched with constant apprehension for signs of going without previous notice - harassed, because the very much reduced U.S. AIRBORNE troops on the hills to the right flank, like a bomb damaged roof to the weather side of the house, would find it difficult to keep out the elements - and because the 100,000 Germans left in that strip of HOLLAND between ourselves and the sea threatened to pass our way as evacuees pass on from inhospitable neighbours. And harassed above all because the one and only supply route, like the local delivery van, was out of commission for several days and the larder must suffer accordingly.

    I was present when the housewife, in the form of the Corps Commander, returned, through the night and through the enemy positions, from a visit he had paid to the Army Commander. He had summoned a conference at 10 a.m. by wireless and arrived at 9.55 a.m., wearing a recently acquired Airborne Jerkin and a smile which I believe he must have worn since birth.

    Three minutes with his Divisional Commanders to get the latest picture, two minutes in significant solitude with General ‘Boy’ BROWNING, and the decision was made. The ailing son was to be fetched home from ARNHEM University and already orders were being issued for the ambulance, the hot bath, the best possible meal, all the things which were to share in the homecoming. I left with the impression that I had met the calmest of housewives in the most harassing of situations.


    If decisions are judged by the weight of their consequences, this one will rank high. It takes ‘more than somewhat’ to order a withdrawal at the end of a record 500 mile breakthrough - an advance which, given this extra piece of good luck, threatened to win the war - a withdrawal which, however unimportant it had become tactically, gave the enemy the chance he had been longing for - a piece of news that was good; and gave to our own troops just that suspicion that in some way they had ‘bogged it’. But no one, I feel, will ever question its wisdom.

    Those early days did not hang fire for this decision. They were brim full of incident and besides, there was always ‘BLACKBOID’. Surely one day this most prodigal bird would come home?

    In the first place, the Luftwaffe, sensing correctly that we had temporarily outstripped our advanced landing grounds, gallantly returned to the fray and within 30 minutes of our arrival thirty M.Es skimmed the roofs of our vehicles. “Couldn’t have missed them” said a disconsolate Aylmer at dinner that night - “Those last two were in the bag” he insisted later while munching an apple. “What went wrong?” I asked sympathetically. “Couldn’t get the cover off my Bren” he said with an air of disquiet and retired to bed.

    Next day our fighters could be seen coming in to land on a precarious strip hastily prepared in a loop of the river bed which had dried out flat and hard, and that afternoon a reception committee was there to welcome the intrepid Luftwaffe.

    Aerial combat viewed from a safe position on the ground always brings to me memories of the dogs playing on the lawn. But the sight of a German fighter in the mirror of my Spitfire would probably very soon alter my views on the good clean fun of war in the air. At any rate we all did our share of rubber-necking during these encounters and certainly got our money’s worth.

    Fortunately there were, during those first few days, more reasons for keeping our heads in the air than keeping them down. Armadas of Dakotas, preceded by their swarm of attendant fighters, would fill the skies with parachutes bearing “re-supply”, very little of which reached our troops in ARNHEM, and the POLISH AIRBORNE BRIGADE, of which the same must be said. On the third day, to our amazement, the Dakotas circled to land in batches of forty - all would park neatly head to tail, quickly off-load and up again as the next forty came in. No fuss, no delay - apparently no-one directly operations, but it went like clockwork.

    And then the unforgettable sight of the Stirlings flying low under a heavy cloud bank searching round just over our heads for their exact bearings before making a final run in to drop supplies on the pocket handkerchief which was the 1st AIRBORNE DIVISION.

    I reckon those great big unmissable four-engined bombers collected a lot of silent prayers as they swung unflinchingly in to perform that desperate mission of mercy from which, inevitably, many did not return.

    Every night with quaint old-world charm, “BEESWAX” had received “BLACKBOID’s” emissary. All, we were constantly reminded, was fine and dandy, but still no “BLACKBOID”.

    That afternoon the Air Armada bore a strange look as it loomed in sight and soon it was apparently that each aircraft had a glider in tow. Here was the much-needed reserve Brigade fluttering down to land on the flat fields of HOLLAND. Here, in fact, was the long-awaited “BLACKBOID”.

    “BEESWAX” was deliriously happy, but we were sad for never again did we hear the Golden voice from BROOKLYN.

    Once more down to earth to survey a complex scene.

    The men of ARNHEM - the survivors - had been withdrawn more successfully than many had believed possible and arrangements were made for their return home.

    “A Prophet is not without honour but in his own country, amongst his own kin and in his own house”.

    Maybe I’ve got that wrong, but on the way back one of these stalwarts, leaning on the tailboard of the truck which was bearing him in the direction of home, shouted to a recumbent IRISH GUARDSMAN “Havin’ a good rest chum?”

    “Glory be to God and haven’t we been fighting since D Day NOT Friday,” was the answer.

    I really believe that only the British can stomach such hearty abuse with placid good humour.

    “Maintain the initiative”. How often has this important principle of war been repeated?

    And certainly the plans were there. Terrible things we were going to do to the ‘feelthy boche’.

    But gradually it became apparent that one could not go gaily on into GERMANY with supplies that took nine days to come up a road which at several points during its latter stages passed within two miles of the enemy.

    And gradually it became all too apparent that seasons change and that October is an unattractive month in the North of HOLLAND. Perhaps we had not had time to think - perhaps we had wishfully ignored the subject. At any rate the prospect of a winter campaign suddenly loomed up as compelling and ominous as a thunder cloud.

    Maybe it was the oppression of this thunder cloud, maybe the slight disappointment, perhaps even reaction from a prolonged period of excitement and physical fatigue that produced an unmistakable under-current of depression.

    Under the heading: “If I were King”, not many people at that time would have jotted down: “Go and visit my troops in NIJMEGEN”. But he came. And if the NAAFI had not yet arrived with its supply of polish, at least the spit was there. Within two days, battledresses were spotless and pressed, vehicles were clean and the ‘Piccadilly Boys’ (as our rival formations have been heard to call us) were almost as disgustingly immaculate as when they left that famous thoroughfare.

    Depression had died a natural death overnight.

    Meanwhile, Divisional Headquarters, in an abortive attempt to impress the forward troops, had moved into a village named NEERBOCHE and the Battalions continued to rush from flank to flank countering whatever threat the Intelligence Staff had placed their money on at the time. Thus the 2nd Battalion WELSH GUARDS, most mobile of all reserves, crossed from one side to the other of the NIJMEGEN bridge on three successive nights.

    Metaphorically speaking, this massive great bridge was constantly in the limelight, for never a day went by without some form of attack being directed on to it. Jet propelled aircraft bombed it with sickening accuracy - pilotless planes fell harmlessly to commit ‘hari-kiri’ hundreds of yards away - between one and four hundred shells fall on or around it every day and finally - Oh dear! Oh dear! - the Venetian Divers! Those twelve intrepid seal-like figures who swam downstream to lay their devastating charges against the massive piers of the bridge.

    Individual skill and courage deserves its measure of luck, even for the enemy, and these men must certain be considered unlucky not to have achieved more than an embarrassingly large hole in the deck of the main bridge though the railway bridge, which had been used for vehicle traffic, was successfully destroyed.

    The horse had so nearly escaped that every available locksmith was called in to attend to the stable door.

    Thus the doubtful honour of defending the NIJMEGEN bridges once more fell to the DIVISION and Lieutenant J.O.E. VANDELEUR (3IG) was given a unique command. This included Naval experts on boom construction, heavy A.A. prepared to engage anything, even a destroyer if it appeared in the river, smoke-screen experts to maintain a continuous screen from observed artillery fire during the day and searchlights to illuminate the water during the night. The versatile commander flew his flag from a Duck (D.U.K.W.), several of which were under command for river patrols. Not even a precious cook could have received more courteous attention.


    In this way the bridge came literally into the limelight during the hours of darkness, presenting an eerie, but strangely impressive, sight in the Artificial Moonlight. During the third successive crossing of the 2nd Battalion WELSH GUARDS, Jim LEWIS was standing in the middle of the bridge urging his snorting Cromwells on to ‘The Island’ and saying “This reminds me of BUDAPEST. I can just imagine a girl in an evening dress gazing down into the silvery water...” Surely a fertile imagination is the greatest of all gifts.



    A pleasantly familiar phrase and though the gun was a rusty old ‘hammer’ and the conveyance an Armoured half-track, the sun was shining with a crisp sparkle and the whole situation smelt of Cambridgeshire.

    We met at 10 o’clock. A quick comparison of arms and ammunition deserves a mention.

    Perhaps the least reliable was Nigel’s early NIJMEGEN model, whose right barrel had splayed near the muzzle after a trial shot on the previous evening. The choke barrel, however, remained unimpaired and rendered valiant service throughout the day.

    Then there were the two old hammers from TILBURG which, though nominally 12 bore, coyly refused admission to the normal cartridge of that calibre. On the other hand, a third, a single barrel from HERTOGENBOSCH was the clinging type, resolutely refusing to relax its hold on the spent missile.

    Where there’s a penknife there’s a way, and soon sufficient cartridges had been scraped and shaved to defeat the whims of the most temperamental of breeches.

    During the years of occupation the Germans have compelled civilians to dig holes at regular intervals along the high-roads to provide immediate cover from Allied air attack. Their time was not wasted. The guns got into position in these improvised butts and the first drive proved a tremendous success.


    It was necessary for the beaters to conform with the general unorthodoxy of the day. Every time a covey went forward time was given for reloading. The scene in the line of butts resembled the last moments of the defence of LUCKNOW. Officers running from hole to hole, tearing feverishly with their finger nails at reluctant ejectors or exchanging mis-shapen cartridges. “Keep the powder dry” was the general cry.

    Had there been Sloe Gin for lunch, there would scarcely have been time to drink it, for there was armourer’s work to be done - cartridges to be trimmed.

    During the first drive after lunch an improbable looking Dutch Sportsman, dressed in black striped trousers and patent leather shoes, coerced and finally dragged Tom, who was flank gun, to a gap in the dyke some 200 yards away. He was quite right and two big coveys streamed over Tom’s head. Delighted, we presented the Dutchman with a hare. Only later did we learn that it was on his preserves that we were shooting. It was as we were walking up the last root field that a regrettable breach of etiquette occurred. The dykes with their attendant strand of barbed wire were treacherous obstacles. Nigel misjudged the stake off with the inevitable, but undyingly humorous, result. As he touched ground the NIJMEGEN wonder disintegrated into the three recognised parts and (unaided for the first time that day) out fell two unspent cartridges.

    If not to the last man, we had certainly fired the last round and with 17 1/2 brace of Partridge, 7 hares and a duck we called it a day - a day to be remembered when a pair of Purdey sidelock hammer-less ejectors and the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire came once again into our lives.

    It as about this time that a very hight level decision was made - a decision which was to be far-reaching in its effect.

    It appeared that the Ministry of Gastronomic Warfare had for some time shown concern at the lack of precise information regarding conditions prevailing in those principle production centres of Gallic sunshine - RHEIMS, BORDEAUX and COGNAC.

    It was decided to set up a Committee, for which Tom BLACKWELL and I, with commendable alacrity, made it know that we were willing to sacrifice our time and undivided attention.

    The round trip to COGNAC was 1500 miles and the time was limited. It was necessary, therefore, to make the most meticulous preparation. Cold roast partridge was stowed in the ‘boot’, bottles of Montrachel - gifts from the entry into BRUSSELS - were laid lovingly on the back seat. Above all, we felt, we must be worthy of the Ministry by whom we had been commissioned. Maybe we would have been better advised to pay more attention to the mechanical defects of our ‘mount’ for the first half of the journey from NIJMEGEN to PARIS took fourteen exasperating hours.

    I can never regard motor cars quiet impersonally. Some have wilfully malicious characters, searching for the most inconvenient circumstances in which to leave one stranded. Others bear their lameness with a regretful and stout heart. This car, a French-built Matford, ill treated and driven by the Germans, seemed grateful for the very little we could do for it. Surely, we argued, it wold be as anxious as we were to return to its native city. But for this illogical and wishful line of thought, we would not have persisted and the mission would have failed at the outset.

    Revived by a hot bath, one of the few obtainable in PARIS, and a late dinner, our high sense of duty prompted us to open our enquiry into nocturnal conditions in MONTMATRE. This involved either walking or risking the perils of the ‘Velo-taxi’, a kind of pram attached to the back of a tandem bicycle, for which a charge of approximately 100 francs for 100 yards is asked but very rarely paid. Nothing must be spared in the pursuit of our enquiries. But whichever way round you put it, Tom and a ‘Velo-taxi’ were not built for each other and after five minutes, when the first halt was called due to a flat tyre, all four members of the crew were in an advanced state of exhaustion, two from their propulsive efforts and two from the suffocating fumes of their cigars, for which there appeared to be no outlet from this mobile chamber of death.

    The result of our enquiries into the nocturnal conditions of MONTMATRE will appear (on a limited distribution) as an Appendix to the committee’s official report. As an interim report, however, we are happy to inform those previously acquainted with the district that its decorative art and general amenities appear in no way to have suffered.

    Perhaps we presented a pathetic sight when next morning we started our appeal for more reliable transport. At any rate kind friends at the Embassy took compassion on us and soon we were driving through the deserted Bois de Boulogne and out past VERSAILLES. But not before lunch at the RITZ with two cousins who had just seen their sons “off to war”.

    They were small schoolboys, these nephews, when I last saw them six years ago. Why the passage of time should continually take one by surprise I don’t know, but the sight of one of them marching with this Regiment down the Champs Elysees to entrain for VERDUN and the other making last minute purchases before leaving for NORTH AFRICA seemed more like the first than the sixth year of the war.


    Besides the moat which surrounds the Chateau de la Motte just North of TOURS is an atmosphere of infectious geniality which, in the happy days before the war was enhanced by a good pheasant shoot, a private pack of hounds and an unending stream of cheerfully casual visitors.

    The geniality remains, but we were the first casual visitors they have had for many a long day - so casual that we arrived unannounced and unfed at 7.30 p.m., to be greeted with “Enfin les Anglais”, even before we had established our identity.

    Francois DARBLAY, our huge, goodnatured host, and Maddy who, though a grandmother, has retained more than her fair share of Parisian vivacity, received us royally and from them we learnt something of conditions in unliberated FRANCE.

    The LOIRE, it seemed, was almost an international frontier beyond which Allied troops and the struggling authority of the de GAULLE government had not yet penetrated. Moreover, there was this curious situation of German pockets of resistance around LA ROCHELLE and the North of the GIRONDE which the Allies continued to ignore and the French Patriots attempted, often unsuccessfully, to contain. As I write, the garrisons still hold out - well-equipped, well-stocked and with sufficient tanks to make periodical sorties for plunder with little fear of interference from the ill-equipped F.F.I.

    Why do we make no attempt to eliminate them? The French continually ask. I do not know the answer, though surely it is essentially a French problem. BORDEAUX, inaccessible from the sea tanks to the German pockets at the GIRONDE Estuary, is perhaps the only port remaining undamaged in FRANCE. Soon it must become an essential factor in the restoration of the country, but it is too far and (with the railways destroyed) too inaccessible to affect the Allied war effort.

    With no American troops and, consequently, no petrol, failure stared us in the face when we drove expectantly across the only restored bridge over the LOIRE early next morning. The F.F.I. sensed immediately the importance of our mission (the exact nature of which we were careful not to disclose) and did everything in their power to help. Attempts were made to press into service a 5hp Fiat with a flat tyre and no battery by blending 20 litres of industrial alcohol with our one remaining Jerrican of petrol. But this unhappy marriage was never consummated and finally we turned back to a vast petrol dump near LE MANS.

    “It would never have occurred to me to drive from LONDON to NEWMARKET in order to collect enough petrol to get to PLYMOUTH” was Tom’s only comment as we re-crossed the bridge at TOURS in the late evening bent on reaching POITIERS that night.

    One had only to cross the river to sense immediately the different atmosphere. Our accurate, but devastating bombing of bridges and railways had completely disrupted normal communications and passing almost every village one may see the local vintage Renault or Citroen with two or three blue-clad posteriors protruding from the bonnet and clouds of charcoal, wood or gas-oil smoke pouring from the tail while locals stand around with expressions of doubtful expectancy, hoping to secure a passage to the next town.

    At POITIERS - our first brush with the unofficial Patriot element - it was easy to see how the original members of the F.F.I had been joined by a rabble of unshaven and over-excited youths who, since the departure of the Germans had seen their chance to practice the political doctrine which they had learned from the Spanish communist refugees and, by wearing an arm band and brandishing their rusty weapons at peaceful citizens, have found a means of requisitioning the best hotels, the only motor-cars and, in fact, cashing in while the going is good.

    One must sympathise with the frigid General in his monumental task. Perhaps these enemy “pockets” serve their purpose after all. Perhaps, while she is endeavouring to set her house in order, Mother de GAULLE is not averse to allowing her children to play with the gypsies. I bet the gypsies are hoping for a “Whiteflag” Christmas for all that.


    I was forgetting that our parent Ministry does not concern itself with such sordid politics; at least the “Patron” of the “Chapon Fin” - chef to the late King EDWARD - had not forgotten us. “Nowadays we have nothing to eat” he said, “Would Ces Messieurs consider starting with oysters?”

    Ces Messieurs considered that they would.

    Later, and with that feeling of bonhomie which marches with good food and drink, we returned to the only available but, strangely enough, charming accommodation - the little cafe outside the town bearing the fancy name of “Le Chalet de Venise”.

    I have seven generation of thirsty old ancestors haunting the quaint old cobbled streets of COGNAC and I felt sure, as we drove in the next morning, that they were already popping ghostly corks. From their histories none of them were averse to a good celebration.

    The harvest was in full swing and the sun shining on the vineyards as we stopped to talk to the pickers and gorge ourselves with grapes. I wonder, could we, in these seemingly crazy days, draw a lesson from the life of these grapes who, like human nature, thrive on adversity.

    The best vineyards of COGNAC are on sparse, chalky soil - the grape a prey to the dangers of an unreliable climate. Often Spring or Autumn frosts will destroy in a night a farmer’s entire vineyard on which he has lavished a year of care and protection against the ever present diseases of the vine. Rich soil and better climates may produce bigger, finer looking grapes, but from their life of ease and comfort they grow flabby common characteristics.

    At last the grapes reach maturity, only to be cut off in their prime, crushed in the agony of the press, made to give their all. Imprisoned in a huge vat their turbulent spirit lashes itself into a ferment against such brutal confinement until eventually they emerge into the daylight, a fully-fledged wine.

    This life of persecution is not yet over. The wine must undergo a trial by fire. And from the furnace of the pot-still emerges a spirit which, for purity, vigour and character, stands unrivalled.

    One has seen again and again in this war the courage of the people who have suffered most - the petty complaints of the comparatively untouched. Who knows that from these oppressed and persecuted people will not rise a spirt as unquenchable as Cognac Brandy?

    Certainly, our reception bore out this theory. I had not seen my friends and relations for nearly six years and, during a delirious 24 hours, champagne flowed and everyone talked at once. Hardly a stone remained unmolested by the time we had lowered our last glass of brandy and climbed the stairs.

    During the last two hours between EINDHOVEN and NIJMEGEN the road had been crowded and muddy and that feeling of ‘going back to school’ crept steadily over us. But the weight in the back of the car reminded us that we had not failed in our mission. Surely that ‘pure unquenchable spirit’ would earn our masters’ forgiveness for our truancy.

    Those six days, with all their incident, had seemed to us an age. Maybe the DIVISION had left for BURMA? Perhaps the war was over! - But everything was all too unchanged. It was, I think with a feeling of relief that shortly afterwards news was received that we were to move many miles away to take over an entirely new sector of the front. On the 10th November, the Division was moving peacefully back past the scenes of its earlier victories. The NIJMEGEN nuisance had come to an end.
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  9. brithm

    brithm Senior Member

    Guardsman Smith, Grenadier Guards - Nijmegen Bridge
    Evening Despatch 13th October 1944
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