THE FADING MARGIN: serial 12

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Winter of  ’44

Part Two

It may be that the absence in almost three weeks at Helmond of any chronicled references to a refit indicates a Freudian forgetfulness. Or perhaps their priority was insufficient for the restricted space of a 3- or 4-days-to-the-page diary. Letters written and received occupy a large part of the text. From the start in 1944 to the finish in 1945, Forces Mail was monumentally praiseworthy. 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. Speculation regarding home leave, anxiety about a possible transfer to infantry, and diversionary trivialities (novels; card games; pseudo-intellectual arguments) all appear in passing. Repairs and re-equipment do not get a look-in.

By contrast, a battery party dominates the entries for three days. It was I who was appointed to organise it and I wished that I had had the help of my R.A.F. brother David, who was a past master in such things. Instead, a local hotelier, who, I suspected, was a leading light of the black market in anything to do with his trade, almost entirely relieved me of the task. The battery officers’ mess possessed a handsome stock of champagne which with typical prowess in such matters the beau major had secured through the good offices of the brewer’s daughter when we were in Antwerp. That it was still largely intact was already remarkable; that it should be put to the hazards that might be expected on the far side of the Rhine seemed to be a risk too far and there was general agreement that now was the right moment for making hay while we stlll had the  sunshine. Having, in the first instance, gone to the hotelier in order to borrow suitable glasses, I was asked if I might be interested in oysters. I am not sure that I had yet ever eaten oysters, but I knew that the beau major most certainly would have done, and that other senior officers in the regiment, who would be our guests, might easily be glad of them. The shellfish would come from Bergen-op-Zoom, not far north of Antwerp, which was famous for them, my hotelier friend said. And if we fancied brown bread and butter there would be no difficulty. Large quantities of miscellaneous supplies were now coming in through the port of Antwerp, which helped to explain the possibility of other attractive things to eat and  drink at no detriment to the welfare of the Dutch people.

Then there were girls. A party would be much better fun if there were music and dancing, and dancing called for girls. There was nothing sleazy about the hotelier, and when he was quick to volunteer that he was not thinking of professional, or even amateur filles de joie, but of perfectly respectable young women, his own two daughters among them, I believed him. Anyway, he was obviously right in his estimation of what the occasion required, and with the proviso that I would need to get the approval of my masters for any arrangements that the two of us might provisionally make, I had a glass of Dutch beer with him before returning to the battery to report on my morning’s work. There were no objectors, though someone said that it all sounded a bit too good to be true.

But it was true. The party was held in an only slightly damaged church hall. The colonel of the regiment, the adjutant and two of the battery commanders (the third was in hospital) came along with sundry other guests from other units. The champagne came into its own. The food and other drink were unstinted and very good. Typically Dutch, the four girls all spoke English, and although outnumbered by men by about five to one were fun. There was a three-piece local band and a radiogram. I went to bed at 3 am “dead weary”, having been congratulated for an achievement that was almost wholly that of the hotel keeper and his wife.

THE DARK OF THE FOREST

 “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 alongside a Canadian Field Regiment. 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 Reichswald (the German Forest) and the outposts of the Siegfried line on the western banks of 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 in spite of bad shoulder pains until woken by the heavies going over”, says a 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 German survivors, many pathetically young, streaming back past us to the prison cages with shuffling steps and staring eyes. “Look at ‘em; fucking 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.

“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. Here the regiment remained until returning to concentrate at Groesbeek on 12 Feb as guns were now out of range and lack of roads made it impossible to get forward into the forest, where several positions were chosen but never occupied”.

The uncharacteristic vehemence of the much-quoted, meagre, 20-page pamphlet that is the regimental history, its paper close on sepia and crumbling with age, sets a scene for which Wagner at his darkest might provide the music. Day after day, the weather – rain or sleet – was appalling, the ground comparable with the mud of Passchendaele, 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. Swiftly, 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 forward as close as possible to the fighting and through an imposition of movement discipline, to 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, swaddled in blankets, slept in the back of the truck, I sheltered underneath, cocooned in ground sheets and my officer’s issue valise. For the few days and nights of our special (“vital”, the colonel said) duty we were sustained by rum, cigarettes and frequent brews of tea.

For many a man, most especially, and as usual,  many a poor bloody infantryman, what became known as the Battle of the Reichswald was the worst battle since Normandy.  ”No assault in this war has been conducted in more appalling conditions”, said the Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower. “This was the grimmest battle in which I took part during the war”, says General Horrocks. “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”.

For the next few weeks there are numerous – perhaps eloquent – blanks in the junior officer’s diary. Such entries as there are make for dismal reading. They record a “this hurts me as much as it hurts you” announcement by the adjutant that on the grounds of age and demobilisation number I had been nominated at Divisional level of authority for early transfer to infantry. If my informant had donned a black cap for the disclosure it would not have been inappropriate. A gastric affliction required several days of semi-starvation and medication. 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”. An easement of such woes 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.

A SEVENTH HEAVEN

“On 16 Feb the regiment was ordered forward using the 51 Div main axis and was in action by 13.45 hrs. On 24 Feb it moved to Goch where it came under small arms and artillery fire. It remained in this muddy and uncomfortable place until 1 March, then advanced through Kevelaer to a position west of Issum. On 8 March, after fighting continuously for one month, the Division was withdrawn to rest and refit. On 21 March the regiment moved to a hide within the gun area prepared for Operation Plunder and the Rhine crossing, which started on 23 March”.

While the Division was resting and refitting, a secondment to ‘B’ Echelon now came upon me like a sunburst on a dark midwinter day. Every fighting formation has its non-fighting support organisation in the shape of its ‘B’ Echelon, which necessarily exists at a considerable distance behind the lines. In almost any circumstances, life there is to be preferred to life further forward: accommodation incomparably more comfortable, meals more appealing, hours of duty more predictable and less onerous, the dangers of hostilities, to put it mildly, much reduced. In short, the battery and ‘B’ Echelon are two different worlds. In March 1945, to be posted out of North Rhine Westphalia to the suburbs of Wemmel, a few kilometres from the centre of Brussels, was to have an inkling of what the Israelites must have felt on receiving marching orders for the Promised Land .

“Lucky man”, said my fellow battery officers with unconcealed envy.

“Be sensible”, said the regimental doctor, the M.O. “Go easy on the booze and late nights” .

Most likely, the posting was a gesture of kindness, not to say generosity, on someone’s part; not impossibly that of the M.O. The job was an undisguised sinecure. Ever since Normandy, those who laboured in the organisation that supplied the material requirements of our forward units had been demonstrating their competence and in no discernible way now needed the services of a junior officer of field artillery; or if they did, forbore to let him know. Nobody appeared to expect me to do anything useful except to keep out of the way. Of the eleven nights during which I was absent from the battery in Germany, only two – the first and the last –  were spent at Wemmel; all the rest either in Brussels or at the cottage near Waterloo.

Seventh heaven is not too immoderate an appraisal of that interlude. With insignificant interruptions, I spent the whole of it in company with my friends of the Christmas party. It was time that went in walks in the Parc du Cinquantenaire or the Bois de la Cambre or the Forêt de Soignes. It went in shopping for luxuries to send back to England or gifts for present friends. It went in midmorning coffee or lunch in the Taverne du Passage, a classic Belgian brasserie in the heart of the city, conveniently owned by a close and generous friend of Mac. It included wining and dining, in or out. And in dancing at Boeuf sur le Toit or in someone’s drawing room with the carpets rolled back. It went in sometimes glorious sunshine and expeditions from the cottage to the battlefield of Waterloo. It went arm in arm, hand in hand. There was a lot of laughter. There were tears now and then. There were earnest conversations late into the night.

We were very young. We were Denise and Christiane and Françoise and Madeleine, and Léon and Marcel and Jean-Pierre, and I. Four years ago we had all been adolescents; now, we were young men and without exception outstandingly attractive young women. After four years of German occupation, Brussels was free. The war could hardly last much longer.

Then, on 22 March, making a trip to Wemmel, “just to show the flag”, as I complacently put it, I was told that I was to report back immediately to the battery. In the cause of urgency, I borrowed a motorbike, rode into the city for a last evening with Denise, Marcel and Madeleine, said goodbyes at midnight with my own eyes dry but my cheeks again wet with tears, and with half a moon shining on the cobbles rode back to join a fast convoy of ammunition and medical supplies that reached Kevelaer, near the German border, before dark next day. A few hours later I was back with the guns. That night our bombers went over in strength and we heard the distant thunder of their assault on enemy positions near Wesel. Shortly after 9 pm, supported by the greatest artillery barrage of the war, infantry of the 51st Highland Division in their amphibious “Buffaloes” were crossing the Rhine.

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NEXT FRIDAY, 8  February Serial 13:  Chapter Eight, Götterdämmerung. 

‘A month later, we reached the Elbe. We reached it by way of successive scenes of devastation that depressed the spirit without raising so much as a tremor of sympathy for a population that seemed dazed by bombing, shelling and disbelief at finding themselves still alive’.

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