591 History Part 11 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
Watermanship on the Maas
A boating school was therefore set up about 20 miles further down the Maas, to which Lieutenant De Watteville, Serjeant Lenagan and five other NCOs were sent to train selected parties from each battalion in watermanship. The state of the river here was very similar to that on the Brigade front and much valuable training was achieved, particularly in the silent employment of assault boats.
Meanwhile an alternative means of crossing the river had been suggested by one of the inhabitants of Kessel. There was, he said, a tunnel which ran from the waterfront at Kessel under the river and came out at a farmhouse on the enemy side. He even pointed out the entrance to this tunnel, an overgrown heap of rubble approached by a semblance of rough steps. Though the possibility of making the passage was slim, even were a tunnel found, it could not be ignored and a party, under Captain Hinshelwood, attempted to blast open the entrance. A "beehive" charge was blown against the supposed entrance, the only result of which was to cause considerable alarm and despondency amongst the villagers and to awaken the interest of the Germans 200 yards away across the river. The prospect was therefore abandoned.
Since valuable time was slipping by while the selected patrols were at the Boating School, it was decided to send a small party across from Kessel in an assault boat manned by sappers from the Squadron, it being assumed by the infantry commanders that all sappers are necessarily expert watermen. Though the assumption was a little flattering it was fairly easy to select a party for the task and on the evening of 6 February an assault boat with muffled rowlocks and gunwhales and with the floor covered in cocoanut matting was taken to a creek on the outskirts of Kessel. The party consisted of Corporal Wilson,
Sapper Brown, Sapper Heston, Sapper Hockley and Driver Winston. The infantry patrol was one officer and one private. The long feared thaw had set in a few days before and the Maas was now a swirling flood. Even with six oars the crossing seemed a formidable task and it was decided to unwind signal cable on a specially silence reel as the crossing was made to cut down the risk of being carried completely away downstream and to make the return trip, at least, a little easier. The plan, however, miscarried. The sappers rowed valiantly but the padding round the gunwhales and in the boat was soon drenched and added considerable to the load. Moreover, the cable would not unwind as planned and within a very few minutes it was trailing in a wide arc under the water. Although there was half a mile of it on the drum, the party was barely half way across when the full length had run out and also well past the point at which the patrol had planned to land. It was decided therefore to cancel the patrol and without attracting the enemy's attention to boat was manoeuvred back to Kessel.
The following night a further attempt was made with a fresh sapper party under Serjeant Adams and including Sapper Witham and Sapper F.S. Brown. This time the padding had been considerably reduced, the current was a little more favourable and a crossing was made after five minutes strenuous and extremely harrowing rowing. The patrol fetched up further down the enemy bank than planned and sighted a German patrol a short distance away. At the same time it was found that the boat was filling rapidly with water, probably as a result of fouling the submerged wire entanglements during the approach to the enemy bank. The party therefore had no option but to return hell for leather for the home shore, which they reached with the barest margin, the boat sinking almost as they jumped ashore. Another attempt to cross the river was made the same night by an infantry officer in a canoe, but the canoe capsized during launching and this patrol, too, had to be abandoned.
Later, the first of the trained parties returned from the boating school and hopes were high of many successful crossings. Bad luck, however, dogged their early attempts. All these patrols were aimed at discovering the enemy strength and distributions across the Maas but it was now becoming increasingly urgent to have a good picture of the mine and wire defences and of the anti tank ditch running parallel to the river some 800 yards back, since there was now a strong possibility of this sector featuring in the offensive planned for the British 2nd Army. An Engineer reconnaissance was called for and on 8 February Lieutenant Lockey and Lance Serjeant Mills made the first successful crossing of the Maas and reconnaissance of the far side.
For the crossing they chose a "Rob Roy" canoe [a kayak]that had been found on the riverside at Kessel. Both had been working throughout the day and the previous night with their troops and no elaborate preparations were made. Shortly after dark of a pouring wet night they made their way to the river bank in the marshes 800 yards upstream from Kessel. Immediately facing Kessel on the enemy side a road led down to a boathouse which the Germans were suspected of manning each night. It was planned to land well upstream of this point and from there to proceed inland.
The canoe was launched silently and without incident and the pair, both paddling on the same side of the canoe, were soon shooting across the river with little loss of way. As they reached midstream, however, the full current caught them and for some minutes they fought a frantic, losing battle against the teeming waters. It seemed certain that they would either capsize or that the noise of their frenzied paddling would call down a murderous fire from the enemy bank. At last, however, the struggle lessened as they reached the quieter currents near the far shore and a dozen swift purposeful strokes brought the nose of the canoe hard into the bank, 700 yards downstream from the point at which they had started. They leaped silently ashore and as they lay sweating and exhausted in the cover of a small bush there were sounds of someone approaching; a second later a figure was silhouetted against the sky and a German soldier slouched six foot from them and disappeared in the direction of the boathouse.
This seemed to confirm the suspicion that the boathouse was used as a night post and after a few minutes to recover their breath they crawled off in the opposite direction for about 100 yards and then struck inland. There were many boxes of Schu mines scattered around, rotted by the flood, and obviously there was a big chance that these and other antipersonnel mines were laid immediately inland from the river, but it was decided to risk this and pushing on as quickly as they dared they stumbled across a communication trench about 100 yards in, running parallel with the river. After a quick look round they clambered into this, but getting out the other side was harder than it seemed, and it was only after ten minutes scrabbling at the crumbling wall of the trench that they managed to heave and pull each other out. From here they struck diagonally across to the road leading down to the boathouse, reconnoitering for mines the cold-blooded way - in other words if they didn't blow up there was a good chance that none had been laid.
Reaching the road, they were striking east to where this crossed the anti-tank ditch when they heard what sounded like the butt of a rifle banging on the ground and the murmur of voices from this crossing. They lay down to listen but nothing more could be heard but the swish and patter of the rain. Drenched to the skin they lay for five minutes, for ten minutes, then Sergeant Mills whispered to Lieutenant Lockey that they should be getting on. There was no answer. He nudged him but without response. Lieutenant Lockey was sound asleep! Roused at last, they made their way away from the enemy post at the crossing, over to the anti-tank ditch. Here there were trip wires and following these for some way they found a plank bridge across the anti-tank ditch.
Across this they crawled on their stomachs, measuring the width in elbow lengths and the depth with a plumb bob. On the other side of the ditch there appeared to be no trip wires or wire defences but quite definitely there were Germans for voices could be heard in almost continuous murmur. It seemed no place to linger, time was getting on, and they decided to call it a day. Striking towards the river they had gone a short distance when mortars started to whistle and crash around them - fired from the BRITISH side of the river! Face down on the ground, they cursed that ill-briefed mortar officer for some minutes. When the barrage seemed to have stopped they moved swiftly forward to find another communication trench. Following this, it led them into the trench which they had first met on leaving the river. They were now but a few minutes from the canoe and the fears that must have been preying on them throughout the last hectic hour came to a head. Had the canoe been discovered? Were there Germans lurking beside it waiting for them to walk into their trap? Had the canoe been accidentally carried away downstream? All these and a dozen other blood chilling thoughts flashed through their minds as they crawled cautiously across the last few yards to the spot where the canoe was hidden, grateful, for once, for the covering noise of rain now falling in torrents.
It was still there and, undoing the painter [fastening rope], they threw caution to the winds, leapt aboard and paddled madly for the home shore. This time, with each stroke bringing them nearer to safety, warmth and a hot drink the crossing was made in half the time with only a few hundred yards less of the way. Shooting on the last few strokes through the legs of a telegraph pole rising from the flood they came safely to rest in the lee of the Kessel waterfront and within twenty minutes were giving their reports of what was to be rated the most daring and successful patrol carried out by the Brigade. Not only were the patrol able to pinpoint German posts but valuable information was provided of possible mined areas, of wire defences, trip wires and above all, the effectiveness as an obstacle of the anti-tank ditch.
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