591 History Part 10 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
The Division Moves to Holland
On 22nd January the Squadron set off north with the remainder of the Division to Holland. Not without many misgivings, for, on the whole, and in comparison with the lot of the infantry, life in the Ardennes had been reasonably comfortable in spite of the intense cold. All reports from Holland, on the other hand, suggested that the only place that bleak and shattered country was likely to offer was a chicken shed for the Squadron office.
Though one of the bloodiest battles of the war had swept through and back across the Ardennes country, though many villages were but heaps of charred wood and rubble, the Belgians who lived there showed an incomparable fortitude. Though Germans, Americans and again Germans had overrun their villages and invaded their houses their affection and welcome for the new invaders of the 6th Airborne Division was very real and very touching. Their chickens and eggs sometimes vanished overnight, sometimes even some trinket or household god filched from a shattered house by some unthinking soldier, but the Squadron still cherishes the "Certificate of Clearance" given by the Mayor of Haversin, written in the most elaborate French, touching not only on the virtues of the "incomparable soldiers" of 591 but paying tribute to the glory of the 6th Airborne Division, the British Army, Winston Churchill and the "undying bond between our two great countries." The Mayor must have spent some time in its composition though probably not so long as the combined talents of the Squadron officers in its translation.
A countryside of breath taking beauty which now only the danger of lurking mines and boobytraps was to be exchanged for the desolate, windswept unknown of Holland - unknown dangers among a strange people, speaking an unknown tongue. Even the boobytraps had not been without their compensations and many a sapper had the blessings of heaven called down upon him and carried the undying gratitude of a cottage family (to say nothing of a hatfull of eggs) for removing from some backyard with elaborate stage management a harmless two inch mortar bomb, which, they assured him, was a "Boche mine."
On the night of the 22nd January the Squadron moved into a village near Panningen, two miles from the Maas [river] below Venlo. The Division had taken over a sector facing the Germans across the Maas which the 15th Scottish Division had held in comparative peace for some four months. German patrols had crossed the river (latterly in some force) but there had been no real fighting since the Germans were driven back across in the autumn by the Guards Armoured Division. For many miles of the river the line up of forces on both sides was about equal. After the failure of their offensive in the south it was fairly certain that the Germans would not launch another in this area or anywhere else for some time. "Well informed circles" in fact considered that never again could the Germans take the offensive anywhere, but "Well informed circles" had not foreseen the Ardennes offensive and the prophecy was treated with some reserve throughout all ranks. Meanwhile, the 2nd British Army was gathering itself for the all-out attack which, a few weeks later, was to bring it after much bloody, bitter fighting to the banks of the Rhine. When the 6th Airborne Division took over the sector of the Maas from Venlo to Roermond, little was known of the pending British offensive or of the extent to which this sector would be involved. Across the river, however, there were Germans and it was never the policy of the Division to allow Germans within range of our guns or of fighting patrols to remain leading a quite untroubled life.
Within a few hours of arrival the Brigade Commanders were laying plans for "harassing shoots" and for extensive patrols across the Maas. The Squadron was placed in support of 5th Brigade, holding 3 miles from Baarlo to Kessel. Settled down in their village, although the worst fears of discomfort were not realised, it was no holiday camp. Adequate accommodation for the civilian population and for the thousands of troops infesting the area just did not exist but after much reshuffling of Dutch families it was possible to get the whole Squadron under various roofs - albeit in some discomfort and squalor. It took a little time to get used to walking from the kitchen of a cottage straight into the cowshed and the stench of cows and pigs hung over everything.
It was not a prosperous community but few families had less than seven or eight children. Clogs were the common footwear and the practice of shedding these on entering the house and lining them up along the corridor in strict order of size was one to which at least one officer, stumbling home in the dark, could never get accustomed. None of the people spoke any English at all and although the sappers soon picked up the Dutch for "eggs" there were few eggs to be had. They were a sturdy honest people but with none of the effusiveness of the Belgians and amongst them were some whose temperament and way of life was more German than Dutch. Perhaps this was not surprising for Germany itself was not far away, and from vantage points on the river here the wooded outposts of the Siegfried line could be clearly seen.
One of the first tasks given to the Squadron was to lay an anti-personnel minefield of about 100 yards in length as part of the forward defences of the area held by the 12th Parachute Battalion. It was intended to use British shrapnel mines, during the cleaning and preparation of which the combination of a shrapnel mine, a hammer, a nail and Sapper H.D. Smith nearly reduced the effective strength of 1 Troop but fortunately he was dissuaded in time from his activities.
For approximately three quarters of a mile back from the river the ground was overlooked from the enemy side and untenable during daylight except in the villages of Kessel and Baarlo. It was possible to use the road between Baarlo and Kessel during daylight, but only by walking bent double in the shadow of the hedge. All transport was strictly forbidden on this road. The feelings of the Brigade Commander therefore can be imagined when, while making the journey on foot and observing proper precautions, a 3-tonner belonging to 591 roared past full of raucous, unarmed sappers. Even at Kessel there were gaps between the houses and open stretches under direct observation from the opposite bank at which it was not desirable to loiter. One particularly unhealthy gap was nicknamed "Spandau Alley" since it was covered 24 hours a day by a German machine gun. Daylight excursions in the Kessel area were never dull and the speed with which some heavily-built officers covered the danger spots had to be seen to be believed.
At night, however, platoon positions were occupied in this area and posts manned right on the river bank. It was not possible, however, to keep a full enough watch on the river, particularly on dark nights, to prevent German patrols from crossing. These patrols were generally most thoroughly planned by the Germans and carried out with the greatest resolution and audacity. On the very first night that the 12th Battalion were in position, one of these patrols succeeded in capturing a sentry of the Battalion and taking him back with them across the river. Admittedly the sentry was a newly joined reinforcement, but this highly trained and brilliantly led Battalion were stung to the determination that Germans must never again wander at will their side of the river.
On the night of 23 January, Captain Harbord carried out a reconnaissance for the minefield which was to form part of the plan to deter these nocturnal visitors; at the same time further down the river at Kessel Captain Beaumont was making reconnaissances of the river bank to find suitable places from which patrols from the Brigade could launch boats. Several similar reconnaissances were made during the following nights by the officers of the Squadron, of none of which it could be said that they were a "dull routine job." At night enemy, too, manned posts right on the river bank and the slightest suspicious movement was certain to draw instant fire. Even clad in which camouflage smocks it was not easy to examine carefully the river bank and the approaches thereto without attracting the attention of itchy fingered sentries 80 yards away across the river. One of these reconnaissances was immediately beside a sluice gate in the middle of which a German machine gunner was known to take up position each night and the officer carrying it out had to crawl across 30 yards of open ground and back - a journey which took three quarters of an hour and cost him half a stone in weight.
A good picture was finally built up of all the places along the Brigade front from which patrols could be launched but the river itself presented something of an obstacle. On the enemy side it had flooded across the low banks to a distance in some places of 100 yards and the current was such that only well trained oarsmen could hope to get an assault boat across without being carried completely away downstream. Amongst the infantry it could not be expected that sufficient men skilled in watermanship could be found, particularly when the choice had necessarily to be limited to those most suitable for patrolling the other side.
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