DARK ROAD TO THE RHINE. sequel to A Dutch Treat, posted 0n 21st JanuaryPosted: January 31, 2012
‘IT WAS THE GRIMMEST BATTLE in which I took part during the war’, said General Horrocks, commander of Operation ‘Veritable’ the British attack on the Reichswald which had started on 8th February. ‘No one in their senses would choose to fight a winter campaign in the flooded plains and dense pinewoods of Northern Europe, but there was no alternative. We had to clear the Western bank of the Rhine if we were to enter Germany and finish off the war’.
‘Probably no assault in this war has been conducted in more appalling conditions’, said the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower.
“On 9 February the Regiment moved to a position in very boggy country where every house had been almost completely destroyed and it was difficult to find any firm platform for the guns or cover for the gunners. It was probably the worst position that was occupied during the whole European campaign”.
The uncharacteristic vehemence of the regimental history introduces a scene for which Wagner at his darkest might provide the music. Day after day, the weather – rain or sleet – was appalling, the ground a quagmire, the dense forest itself hardly less hostile than the bocage. On our front, only one metalled road ran eastwards through the Reichswald and it had not been improved by the RAF or by our own shelling. Unmetalled ones had additionally suffered from the almost unrelenting rain. Urgently, a number of traffic controllers were briefed, each of us equipped with a signal truck, a driver, a wireless operator and a Bren gun, our purpose being to get as far forward as possible and through an imposition of movement discipline try to relieve the problem of congestion.
Selective memory is of rain, mud, cold and moments of fear when the sound of enemy tanks was heard during the night, and fear of a different kind when wounded survivors of our infantry engagements emerged from the forest (“There, but for the grace of God…”). While my driver and wireless operator, swaddled in blankets, slept in the back of the truck, I sheltered underneath, cocooned in ground sheets and my valise. For the five days and nights of our special (“vital”, the colonel said) duty we were sustained by rum, cigarettes and frequent brews of tea.
During the next few weeks there are numerous – perhaps eloquent – blanks in my diary. For many a man, what became known as the Battle of the Reichswald was the worst battle since Normandy. As usual, it was the poor bloody infantryman who had most to complain of and my laconic scribble “Infantry scare” betokens and absurdly belittles what until now had been no more than an occasional anxiety: something that one knew could happen but which, were it to do so, would be so awful that the theoretical notion had been thrust far back in the mind. Though the statistics were not then widely known, it was a common and accurate perception among us that the expectation of life for a junior infantry officer was little, if any, better in the current European campaign than it had been in the notorious killing fields in which our fathers’ had fought on the ‘Western Front’. As far back as the end of the battle for Normandy the War Office had been obliged to trawl for replacements among the other front-line formations. By the beginning of the battle for Germany the need had become urgent. Most at risk were those whose age and demobilisation numbers signified that even with the end of hostilities they would still have a year or two to serve. On both counts I was a prime candidate.
It was now that the upgrading of occasional anxiety to something not far short of terror was achieved with the adjutant’s ‘this hurts me as much as it hurts you’ announcement that on a day a fortnight hence I was to be returned to England for transfer and a month’s retraining; if he had donned a black cap before making it the gesture would not have been inappropriate. Only two months, perhaps, before I would find myself leading foot soldiers into the attack either here or in the jungles of Burma. I had sometimes wondered how a platoon commander found the courage to face his next patrol or a member of a bomber crew to climb aboard his Lancaster for another flight over Germany. Soon, I would need to find out. Less than two months before a nightmare would come true.
Was it some power from the unfathomable depths of the mind that now took control? Was what my diary recorded as a ‘severe gastric affliction‘ in truth a psychcosomatic disorder? If the mind supposed that so trivial an inconvenience might gain me sympathy or ameliorate fear it was in for rude enlightenment. This was neither the time nor the place for tender loving care. Changes of location varied from the disagreeable to the unspeakable. “Move again. Command post filthy and freezing and no means of heating. Dead weary. Slept in greatcoat at bottom of trench. Horrible position in ruined farmhouse, said the diary.Semi-starvation and massive doses of the new wonder drug, sulfaguanidine, were the M.O’s effective aids to soldiering on. Helpful, too, was the certain knowledge that not far away were men who would have given everything they owned to have been half as comfortable as oneself, and as safe.
On 16 Feb the regiment was ordered forward and was in action by 13.45 hrs. A week later it moved to Goch, where it came under small arms and artillery fire. On 8 March, after fighting continuously for one month, the Division was withdrawn to rest and refit until 21 March, when the regiment moved to a hide within the gun area prepared for Operation Plunder and the crossing of the Rhine.
That more than a month had passed and I was still with my battery when we crossed was so wondrous, unexplained and priceless a thing that thereafter and for the rest of the campaign I hardly dare acknowledge it for fear that it might not be true. After the war I asked the adjutant if he knew what had brought about my reprieve. Not a clue, he said. Most probably just a slip of the pen somewhere.