[page last updated 14 May 2015]
591 History Part 13 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945
Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
PLEASE ALSO REFER TO THE [ MAPS CLICK HERE] TO FIND LOCATIONS MENTIONED ON THIS PAGE.
The Campaign in Germany
Seldom before can England have known in March such a glorious spell of weather as that which set in during the second week and was to last well into April and see the Allied Armies across the Rhine and deep into the heart of Germany. To those of the Squadron waiting in their transit camps in the peaceful Suffolk countryside for the day that would see them dropping and gliding down among the German defences across the Rhine, the weather, perhaps, did not seem so glorious. Wild rumours flew around that if the weather forbade an airborne operation on the day he had fixed for the crossing, Montgomery would not wait - and spirits rose. Then it was said he would wait two days - no more. Still hopes were high. But as the day drew nearer and not a breath of wind arose, not a suspicion of cloud to darken the calm blue skies, the treasonous hopes of a cancellation faded.
Not all the Squadron was to take part in the airborne operation. Engineer tasks during the initial phase were limited and one of the lessons of Normandy had been that to send in Sappers with a fighting role only was an expensive policy, and not justified. During the very short breathing space in England after the Holland campaign, the parachute squadrons had been hastily reorganized as Airborne Squadrons on a two troop basis with a greatly increased, though bastard, establishment of vehicles and equipment. Squadron Headquarters and half of the now 1 Troop were to go overland, the remainder by air.
[For more detail on the Sea-borne element of the 591 Parchute Squadron (Click) for the Transport Distrubition page of the Rhine Crossing and the 2nd section as narrated by 3rd Parachute Squadron's Captain Shave gives details about the crossing, journey through Belgium, Holland via the Venlo Bridge over the River Maas and then waiting to cross the Rhine via the Xanten FBE/pontoon bridge to join up with the Airborne element at Hamminkeln.]
Of these, 2 Troop were to land by parachute with the 5 Parachute Brigade Group to provide whatever Engineer assistance might be needed, while the remaining half of 1 Troop were to go in by glider in support of 6 Airlanding Brigade Group.
This party had more specific tasks. 6th Airlanding Brigade were to land immediately to the right of 5th Brigade, about three miles in from the Rhine, seize the village of Hamminkeln and hold the line of the river to the south, the extreme right hand boundary of the Division. Across this river there were two fair sized bridges which were to be seized by "coup-de-main" parties of the 1 R.U.R. [Royal Ulster Rifles]and 52nd Ox and Bucks. The task of the sappers accompanying these parties was, firstly, to ensure that they were not blown by the Germans and secondly to prepare them hurriedly for demolition in case a dangerous counter attack should develop.
Accompanying each coup-de-main party was to be one sapper party, five in strength, with a jeep and trailer carrying principally "General Wade" charges, explosives, cable and exploders, together with hand axes and other tools valuable to the sapper assault role. In case of casualties these parties were each "doubled up" with exactly similar parties to land with the Battalions, while a further two gliders carrying
Captain Harbord and his troop Headquarters were to go in with Brigade Headquarters carrying reserves of explosives, mines and as much as possible in the way of tools and other Engineer equipment likely to be of use.
For the mounting of the operation the troops were scattered over four transit camps and were to take off from as many different airfields, but at each detachment all preparations went ahead smoothly, each man was briefed again and again and spirits were universally high. As one of the officers of the Squadron remarked, "Whenever I begin to get the creeps about this op I go round and have a word with the chaps - it always revives my morale." Perhaps the most continual source of depression was the large scale maps and aerial photographs in the briefing rooms. At every visit further marks representing newly dug German gun and defence positions, drawn on from the latest intelligence reports by an assiduous I.O. [Information Officer], would spread like some noxious disease across the landing areas. One morning a particularly vicious looking machine gun post was found marked at the exact spot on the corner of a copse chosen for 2 Troop Headquarters. The HQ was hastily changed.
The 23rd March was for many of the Division a second D-day. All the previous day the sun had blazed in a cloudless sky and as at 0300 hours the convoys of men started to wind slowly through the narrow Suffolk lanes to the airfields, not a breath of wind stirred the dimly seen trees and hedgerows. Morale is never very high at that time of the morning but everyone knew now that the show was "on". News had come back that the first assault of the Rhine by the Commandos against Wesel had been launched through the night according to plan and that the first troops of the 15th Scottish Division who were to drive through and link up three miles inland with the Airborne had crossed the Rhine and were making good progress.
As dawn broke the final adjustments to aircraft and equipment were being made, the inevitable "hot char" was going the rounds and at 50 different airfields throughout East Anglia the engines of 1000 aircraft were bursting into life. The first plane carrying the men of 2 Troop was scheduled to take off at 0719, and, to the minute, it roared down the runway, rose and banked to join the throng of marshalling aircraft streaming in from all points of the compass. Within half an hour the whole airborne strength of the Division was heading in perfect formation across the coast of France, south to the rendezvous with the 17th U.S. Airborne Division, there to form one mighty aerial armada and swing north for the Rhine and Germany. 1000 hours was zero hour and the first of 2 Troop were to jump at 1015 hours. In the planes there was an atmosphere of cheerful confidence that could almost be felt - the confidence of men who knew they were going into a well-planned battle that could have but one outcome, and where the risks were as small as human forethought and ingenuity could make them.
This was the last big blow of the war and down below, the armies massed before the Rhine would be looking up and wishing them well. The remainder of 591 would be down there too, half envious, half anxious and proudly replacing long hidden red berets for the khaki berets imposed on them in the name of Security. What further need to hide the fact that Airborne troops were amongst the advance guard on the banks of the Rhine when already far away across the wooded slopes dim white specks of parachutes could be seen as the leading troops of 3rd Brigade swooped down on the bewildered Germans.
2 Troop Jumps the Rhine
As the planes of 2 Troop ran up towards the Rhine, the planes that had dropped 3rd Brigade could be seen away to the north, in perfect formation, heading steadily homewards from the dropping zone. There seemed to be no gaps in the formation and no stragglers - a most cheerful sign. On the Rhine below it seemed strange to see no activity whatever, none of the busy plying of rafts, the columns of waiting transport or smoke and confusion of battle that had been expected. All was deadly quiet and peaceful beyond the steady roar of the engines. There must have been many who thought in those few moments that the Germans had asked for an armistice, that all was over bar the shouting.
If there were, their hopes were rudely shattered a few moments later as it became very clear that the German ack-ack gunners, at least, had not given in. As the red light flashed and the sappers shuffled clumsily into line, with many a last furtive look at the static line, the planes lurched to the crack of bursting shells and clearly from the ground below came up the frenzied rattle of machine guns. The pilots (and who shall blame them?) accelerated and climbed rapidly to avoid the flak and when the green lights flashed there were few men who jumped from less than 1000 feet.
It takes some time to reach the ground by parachute from 1000 feet and over, nor is the journey particularly pleasant in broad daylight in a country where the natives are hostile, but, although many hair raising tales were told later of bullets whistling through the rigging lines, there were no casualties among the sappers between the planes and the ground. Sapper Stapely solved the problem of a long slow descent by jumping out immediately on top of the officer whom he had been adjured to follow closely, with the result that his kitbag became entangled in the officer's rigging lines and the two of them reached the ground in record time. A few sappers landed well away from the main body but on the whole the sticks were very well concentrated on the ground and by the afternoon all the stragglers had joined up with the Squadron at the rendezvous.
On the ground, utter confusion reigned for a short time. The planes had unleashed the men of 5 Brigade upwards of a mile from the correct dropping zone and bewildered bodies of men from 13th Battalion, 12th Battalion, 7th Battalion and Brigade H.Q. were milling around in all directions among the tracks and small woods which seemed to bear no relation to the maps and aerial photographs. Fortunately cover was plentiful and there was no immediate opposition from the Germans in the area in which the sappers collected.
The troop was to R.V. [rendezvous]with Brigade H.Q. in a large copse whose shape on the maps and photos was quite distinctive but from the ground was not so easily found out. Very soon, however, the various bodies of men were marshalled by officers with a fair idea of their bearings and the first party of sappers under Captain Beaumont set off confidently to the R.V. The final approach to the R.V. was about half a mile of open field with no cover whatsoever. As the masses of heavily laden troops stumbled haphazardly across the open, the sky, filled with silently circling gliders as 6th Airlanding Brigade came in to land, sweeping slowly and helplessly through the barrage of fire from the German 88mm guns hidden around the countryside. It seemed impossible for any to survive as far as the ground as one after another was picked off like a sitting pheasant, either to disintegrate in the air or dive drunkenly earthwards.
One crashed some 200 yards to the left of the R.V. and from the blazing wreckage exploding ammunition and shells sprayed the air, while from a cottage behind it one of the 88mm guns, baulked off further prey in the air, was lowered to fire over open sights at the men struggling for the R.V. Many were hit, including Sapper Reed and it seemed as though a bloody massacre might develop, but either from shortage of shells or fear of capture the fire lessened and most of the men were able to reach safely the sanctuary of the Copse. It was to prove a poor sanctuary, however, for the German guns were soon to range on this fruitful target into which so many men had poured and the corner of the copse in particularly was a minor hell of bursting shells for some time, but never for a moment was there chaos or panic. The men of the Field Ambulance, although depleted themselves, very quickly had a first aid post established while from a shell hole in the field outside the copse the Brigade Commander directed the Brigade battle over the wireless.
It was soon known that the 13th Battalion and the 7th Battalion were gathering in reasonable strength in their appointed areas to the north, while the 12th Battalion who had rendezvoused on the east side of the copse were already sending out fighting columns to mop up gun positions and to liquidate the pockets of Germans established in the cottages and farms stretching around to the outskirts of Hamminkeln. The remainder of 2 Troop came in in two small bodies and all were soon digging in on a sector of the west side of the copse immediately below Brigade H.Q. One shell burst right in the middle of Troop during the digging, killing instantly Sapper Hobson, one of the most popular sappers in the Squadron and a fine soldier. It was only a few weeks before that the transfer of his twin brother from the infantry had been effected. The brother had come in by glider and for the first 24 hours it was feared that there was a double tragedy, but the glider that he was in with Lance Corporal Cowlard and two other sappers cut adrift over Holland on the way in, and all joined the Squadron safely the following day.
Early in the afternoon the Troop moved from the copse and took up a position between Brigade HQ and Hamminkeln in one of the farms recently cleared by the 12th Battalion. The clearing had been thorough and the corpses of German soldiers littered the house. Here they were joined by Lance Corporal Coulding and the others who had been in the second 2 Troop glider. They had landed with the remainder of 5th Brigade glider party on the dropping zone. Driver Oldfield was wounded but otherwise the party, including the jeep and trailer, was intact.
Map of the route taken by the 591 Parchute Squadron through Germany in March/April 1945.
(click map to enlarge it)
ALL images and content on this website are copyright - DO NOT copy or use without permission via e-mail. Contact website