591 History Part 12 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
The Thaw Versus 2nd Army
Meanwhile, the rest of the Squadron were not by any means idle. When the Division first arrived in Holland the country was still frostbound and deep in snow, and sapper tasks were limited to general reconnaissance. A thaw was threatening however, and it was not difficult to foresee the havoc that this would play with the Dutch roads. Few had any substantial foundation and once the top surface had disintegrated they would become roads in name only. Thousands upon thousands of lorries, tanks and equipment passed increasingly to and fro as the 2nd Army gathered itself for the coming offensive. It was a race against the weather and the 2nd Army lost, for on 1 February the thaw broke and within 24 hours roads that had been smooth and frost hardened were reduced in places to an impassable morass. Lorries and tanks sank impotently into the porridgy mush of shingle and mud, while for miles in every direction convoys stood head to tail for hours on end, unable to move in either direction.
That Montgomery was able, in spite of this cruel setback, to launch the offensive on the appointed day was due almost certainly, as he himself admitted, to the incredible achievements of the Army's Engineers, working with almost fanatical zeal to keep open the lines of communication. In this the sappers of the 6th Airborne Division had played their part. The brunt of the work fell on the Field Company, but the Squadron had plenty to do, digging out the rotted portions of road, hewing and carting trees, laying corduroy surfaces, pouring hard core into potholes, laying new culverts, opening up draining systems across the fields and bolstering up the sagging road embankments.
On the first day of the "thaw flap", 3 Troop were put on to cutting trees near Baarlo. Working till 5 o'clock, they felled 150. The following day they were given the task of felling 200 before knocking off. They started half an hour early and with every man from the Troop Commander down hacking and sawing in a fine frenzy of enthusiasm the task was finished by 1130!
Mine clearance, too, became an important task once the snow had disappeared. Fortunately, most of the fields lain by the Germans had been marked by previous British troops before the snow fell, there were, however, still many tracks and areas that were suspect. Practically every known type of German mine was found on this front and without exception they were laid to a regular pattern at well measured intervals and, once the pattern had been determined, clearance could generally proceed apace. It is doubtful whether the Germans ever found this with a minefield laid by British troops, though whether they attributed the irregularity of our mine patterns to the natural cunning of the British swine or to the real reason may never be known.
Most of the early mine clearance tracks were to open new tracks and deployment areas for the Gunners. Having finished one of these tasks and having been congratulated by the Gunners on their cleverness in finding some 20 R-mines,[Riegel mines?] a party of sappers blew the lot in one pile in a nearby field. The explosion was terrific and a thick black column of smoke rose above the area. Within two minutes German shells were falling accurately and in some profusion around the gun area, causing considerable irritation to all and straining still further the traditionally delicate relations between the Sappers and the Gunners.
Considerable mine clearance had also to be carried out along the routes forward across the last three miles to the river that it was planned to use when the 2nd Army offensive was launched. Most of these routes led along narrow, muddy lanes, across fields and through woods, and much of the Squadron's time was taken up with the reconnaissance of these routes and their development. The fields, after the thaw, were for the most part waterlogged - the few passable lanes narrow and bordered by deep ditches. To find routes suitable for tanks and tracked vehicles was a continual headache. The Division, however, was to return to England before these were put to the test.
Mine Clearance With Dogs
Early in February the attachment to the Squadron of a "Dog Platoon" gave rise to some excitement and conjecture. They had a reputation for detecting mines more thoroughly and quickly than any sapper or mine detector, but it was with some scepticism that a party of 1 Troop launched them on their work at one of the large known minefields. The "platoon" consisted of some thirty dogs and four "handlers" under a platoon commander (human). This was not, as was widely thought for some time, B.O.W.O. Contrary to expectation, few of the dogs were Alsatians or even thorough-breds, in fact mongrels had been found to be the most easily trained and the most thorough in their work.
They were trained to scent out explosive and once proficient at this they had an obvious advantage over all types of mine detector. During the latter years of the war the whole trend of German mine design had been to cut down the metal in a mine and make detection with magnetic coil detectors difficult. From the wooden Schu mine with the small igniter as its only metal component, design progressed to the fibre Topf mine with a glass igniter mechanism, completely proof against every known detector, and almost proof against detection by prodding. Every mine, however, must carry explosive, and here the trained dogs came into their own.
Normally three or four dogs were worked at a time, each held by a handler on a long lead. Working towards the suspected area from different directions, the dogs would strain at their leads sniffing vigorously and methodically in an arc of about a yard's width. As soon as they scented explosive they would sniff excitedly over it for a few seconds and then sit down looking back at the handler with a quaint mixture of smugness and expectancy. The handler then prodded the suspected spot with a long thin steel rod and almost invariably a mine was found. If there was one there the dog was rewarded with a meat cube or a lump of sugar and withdrawn to scent in along an adjoining line until finally the whole perimeter of the field was plotted by marking flags.
It was exceptional to work the dogs right inside a minefield for with mines right, left and centre their sense of smell was liable to be badly confused or even, for a time, neutralised. Half an hour was the normal limit of working, after which a fresh dog would be taken on. Before starting the day's work, the platoon commander would bring a mine in the verge and all the dogs before going to work were tried out in its detection. The policy working throughout the working hours was "No mines, no food." This was apt to be hard on the dogs in suspected areas where there were in fact no mines, and they became discouraged or (worse still) began to think of more exciting things like rabbits. Every now and then, therefore, they would be taken back to the planted mine to refresh their memories and their appetites.
Many long tracks and mined areas were proved while the dogs were with the Squadron, but in spite of the obvious superiority in some respects it was by no means established that this method is quicker than using sappers and mine detectors. Along tracks perhaps it was, for the dogs could be taken the whole length of the track, but with mined areas sappers still had to work with detectors within the perimeter plotted by the dogs and although this was not done where Schu or other non-detectable mines had been found on the perimeter, there was always the chance that they might still be found in the field itself. Nor were they infallible in detection as the Squadron were to learn to their regret.
On the third day of this form of mine clearance, a party of 2 Troop under Captain Hinshelwood were working with the dogs on some sandy tracks running back through the woods off the main Venlo road. There was one dog who was generally considered the duffer of the party and had been chained to the lorry daily and not employed. For the last shift of this day, however, he was brought on and took part in the proving of the last few hundreds yards of a track. Nothing was found and the dog party packed up and went home. No sooner had they left than Captain Hinshelwood, taking a final look round of the area saw the lid of a Schu mine peeping through the sand about fifty yards from the main road. The mine was lifted but obviously the whole of the last stretch had to be re-proved and with Serjeant Lemmon and
Lance Serjeant Mills a careful sweep with prodders was started. No less than four Schu mines were found within a space of ten yards. Then, by a tragic and unavoidable chance, Lance Sergeant Mills touched another mine with his foot. It exploded, severely wounding him in the foot and leg and wounding (though less seriously) Sergeant Lemmon. Lance Sergeant Mills, though conscious throughout, behaved with superb fortitude and it was with very real regret that the Squadron learnt later that he had had his leg amputated below the knee, and that this cheerful and indomitable spirit was to be lost to the Squadron forever. Fortunately, Sergeant Lemon made a good recovery and rejoined the Squadron later in Germany, but it was as well that the offending dog was attached to the Squadron for rations only and not for discipline.
It was a sad note on which to close the campaign in Holland, for it was known that the Division was about to return to England, and the next day left by rail for a concentration area near Ghent and four days later the main party arrived by air in England, exactly two months after embarking at Folkestone. A few days later the Balloon went up in Holland and the British 2nd Army crossed the lower reaches of the Maas and plunged into the bitter, bloody fighting around Oleves [Kleve] and through the Reichswald forest that was to bring them to the banks of the Rhine along the whole of their front, poised for the momentous leap into Germany itself and the last round of the war.
It was not generally known yet what part the Division would play in the crossing of the Rhine, nor how much time would be spent in preparation for it in England. There was to be time at any rate for ten days leave and beyond that few of the Squadron looked.
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