Before mid-January 67 years ago the Wehrmacht’s last great offensive was spent, the Battle of the Bulge over and the Ardennes front secured. Reliable casualty figures are not easy to come by, but upwards of 15,000 of the Allied forces (the overwhelming majority American) had been killed and possibly three time that number of the enemy.  With the additional loss of some 800 tanks and 1,000 aircraft Hitler’s final throw of the dice had been made at a cost of disastrously weakening the Russian front.

“The Division was withdrawn from operations in this area on 11 January, 1945, and the regiment went into a rest area near Liège”, says the history of the 81st Field Regiment R.A, 53rd Welsh Division. “From there it moved to Helmond, in Holland, to refit”

Some of us made vigorous use of our leisure time. Skiing equipment was found in Liège and lessons were given by the Battery Commander on snow-covered terrain close to our billets. “An exhilarating sport and quite easy to learn as regards simple runs” observes my diary, naively.  For “simple runs” understand pushing off from the top of the slope and stopping after a straight descent not by design but because of exhausted momentum. It was the birth of an unhealthy delusion. Subsequently, in another country, it abetted a repeat performance, and when that too was blessed by beginner’s luck encouraged a dangerous belief that boldness might be a dependable friend. The day was to come when, still untaught but not wanting to be upstaged by younger companions, I applied the philosophy to a late afternoon run on a steep slope in the Vorarlberg when pistes were in shadow and icy. The following week saw me on crutches.

Whatever was supposed to have constituted the “refit” at Helmond, the process remained a mystery to my diary: nothing to indicate a comprehensive renovation or replacement of our essential equipment. We seem to have had good billets (“slept well in proper bed with sheets”) and to have been well catered for (“after 2 gins and large dinner, too sleepy to write letters”) and although there are mentions of snow there are few about being cold. Nearby was a Canadian unit that was to be involved in the forthcoming Rhine offensive. I visited it in the hope of finding an officer I had met in England, found him, and returned richer for gifts of a kerosene camp stove,  toilet soap, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Canadian Club whiskey and winter underwear that included hugely comforting long johns.

It my be that the absence in almost three weeks of any chronicled references to a refit indicates a Freudian forgetfulness. Or perhaps their priority was insufficient for the limited space of a chronicle restricted to three or four days-to-the-page.  Speculation regarding home leave, anxiety about a possible transfer to infantry and diversionary trivialities such as novels, card games and pseudo-intellectual arguments all appear in passing. Repairs and re-equipment do not get a look-in. Frequent comments on the swift progress of the Russians towards Berlin (“amazing, wonderful, terrific”) strongly hint at an ever-increasing desire for an end to the war.

There was also “The party”.  Though the diary had little space for it, memory  is more respectful. It was I who was appointed to organise it and I wished that I had had the help of my R.A.F brother,  a past master in such things. Instead, a local hotelier almost entirely relieved me of the task. Three months after Montgomery’s catastrophic strategic errors of the early autumn, the port of Antwerp was at last open, furnishing us with better than basic supplies at no detriment to the welfare of the half-starving Dutch people.  The battery officers mess possessed a handsome stock of champagne which with typical prowess in such matters the Battery Commander had secured through the good offices of the brewer’s daughter in Belgium (See December blog, The Winter of ’44). That it was still largely intact was already remarkable and there was general agreement that now was the right moment for making hay while we still had the sunshine. That it should be put to the hazards awaiting us on the far side of the Rhine seemed a risk too far. Oysters came from Bergen-op-Zoom. There was a three-piece local band and a radiogram. There were comely Dutch girls. Though it fell a touch short of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of Waterloo, it was in no less incongruous a contrast to what came after.

“During the night 3-4 Feb 1945 the regiment moved to Nijmegen where it concentrated with two other field regiments of the Division and in cramped and uncomfortable quarters remained until moving into battle positions. On 7 Feb, ammunition was dumped in a forward position in the village of Groesbeek and preparations made to open fire at 5 am.”

Thus, the eve of Operation Veritable, intended to clear the enemy from the Reichwald (the German Forest) and the outposts of the Siegfried line on the western banks ot the Rhine, preparatory to crossing that river and driving on into Germany itself. “The build-up was awesome in its magnitude”, says the biography of its overall commander, General Sir Brian Horrocks: “200,000 men; 25,000 vehicles; 1,300,000 gallons of petrol; 10,000 smoke generators …”.  Every available heavy bomber of the Tactical Air Force was to be in support.

“Slept well in tent until woken by heavies going over”, says a diary scrawl for the night of the 8th. “Counter-battery fire from 5 am for two hours, then smoke, then all hell let loose”.

It was a hell that turned the forest to matchwood and before noon sent shell- shocked enemy  survivors, many pathetically young, streaming back past us to the prison cages with shuffling steps and staring eyes. “Look at ‘em; f—–g master race”, muttered one of the battery sergeants in whom, as with the great majority of the soldiery by that time, pity was not to be found.

Adapted from a forthcoming serialisation of  The Fading Margin. To be continued.


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