[page last updated 14 May 2015]
591 History Part 16 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
Bridging the Dortmund-Ems Canal
No.2 Troop, who had arrived early in the town [of Greven], found themselves a billet in a large house beside a factory which was the concentration point of most of the air bursts. The unhealthy situation, however, was more than compensated for by the ample stocks of wine discovered in the cellars. Later, they were joined by the rest of the squadron. That night it was learnt that the Squadron was to build a Bailey Bridge 10 miles further on across the Dortmund-Ems Canal. While the bridging equipment was being marshalled, a reconnoitre party went forward to meet the C.R.E. [Commander Royal Engineers]at the H.Q. of 3rd Brigade, who had pushed forward during the evening to the banks of the canal. The main road bridge had been blown and also another bridge half a mile south, serving as subsidiary road. To build at the main road bridge would have involved considerable approach work on the far side, and though the preliminary reconnaissance suggests that the other bridge was poorly served by roads on the other side, it was finally decided that this was the better site.
This was accessed through the hamlet of Schmedehausen, due south of Munster/Osnabruck Airport.The Bailey Bridge was
replaced in 1950 with a more substantial bridge, and replaced again in 1998-99.
The current bridge is known as Schmedehausener Brücke DEK No.98 (DEK=Dortmund Ems Kanal)
Captain Semple and S.S.M. White went to the main road bridge, the C.R.E. and the remainder of the reconnoitre party to the other. Here they found a lone sentry in a slit trench by the abutments who said he thought some of his company were at the other side of the river. A few minutes later he was to be joined in his man-trench by two large sapper officers, when their rather exposed reconnaissance of the river bank attracted the attention of a German mortar position immediately across the canal. Their aim was most accurate, the slit trench most inadequate, and under a hail of bursting shells they raced back to the Company H.Q. in the village, lowering considerably the track record for 220 yards.
Early the following morning the bridging train moved up to a concentration area a mile from the canal, and Captain Semple went forward with a party to make a more detailed reconnaissance of the bridge. By now, two companies of the 8th Battalion were across the river and had penetrated about a mile in depth, but both the bridge and the village behind it had become the target of German S.P. [self propelled]guns further back and shells were falling as thick as autumn leaves. To attempt to bridge seemed suicidal, but towards midday there came a lull - the decision was taken to start and within half an hour work had started on the bankseats and the first of the bridging lorries had arrived. From then until the bridge was finally opened to traffic not a shell was fired from the German side.
The approach to the abutments rose steeply over the banks of the canal in the shallow waters of which lay the tangled wreckage of the former bridge. 120 feet of double construction was needed to span the gap and at 1800 hours all the excavations were completed, the first panel was placed in position. At almost the same moment a low flying German reconnaissance plane screamed overhead, pursued by the deafening, clattering roar of Oerlikons [20mm cannons] mounted on the canal bank. It seemed certain that from then on the bridging party would received attention from German artillery or aircraft.
Meanwhile as darkness fell the pace of building slackened and the original estimate of the time of completion faded to a pious hope. On the narrow road leading to the bridge there was no room to unload stores or to lay them out and confusion, without a vestige of light, was inevitable. Moreover, the steep rise of the road up the abutments meant that each panel and transom had to be lifted twice the normal height. All through that bitterly cold night the sappers laboured and cursed as one thing after another arose to impede construction, while for miles back in [over field and road], packed end to end down every road and lane the tanks and transport of half an army waited silently for the word that was to send them tearing across the bridge to get to grips once more with the enemy.
Every five minutes or so a fresh staff officer or the liaison officer of some obscure formation would arrive at the bridge to enquire aggressively, plaintively, or obsequiously, when the bridge would be finished. From the harassed and short tempered bridge Commander they got, irrespective of rank, the same answer. Nor was it a particularly polite one. Of all the people the one with the most reason to be impatient was the C.R.E., on whose estimates the whole Corps plan and timings had been based. Of all people, he had the most right to criticise the slowness of construction, but from him came nothing but encouragement and finally praise on a well planned job.
Once the bridge was finally launched, the bridge was rapidly completed to take class 9 traffic and as dawn broke tired but satisfied bridge commander, sitting on the girders, waved the first vehicle across. For an hour traffic forged rapidly across almost head to tail. Then the bridge was closed while a troop of 249 Field Coy under Captain Rance "doubled up" the girders on both sides to bring the bridge up to class 40. They had had some experience of this work and completely confirmed it to the Chief Engineer with the speed in which it was accomplished. Christened "Antrim Bridge", it carried a tremendous volume of traffic for some weeks. And it was with some chagrin that the Squadron read later in the papers that a Bailey Bridge built the following day by a Corps Field Coy had been officially opened by Field Marshal Montgomery as the thousandth Bailey Bridge in Europe. It was felt that "Antrim Bridge" was just as likely to be the thousandth bridge and that a recount should be called for!
Early in the next morning the Squadron moved across the canal and harboured some 8 miles further east at Lengerich. The route beyond the canal for some way was practically across country and 1 Troop were called upon to assist in the very heavy maintenance work involved. It was at Lengerich that Captain Semple "acquired" a large, rather ancient Mercedes saloon which for some weeks was to be an accepted feature of the Squadron column. It was later to be relegated to the Quartermaster and could be met practically everywhere in Northwest Germany, churning manfully along, loaded to the gunwhales with spare stores, NAAFI supplies or just plain loot.
The Drive to Minden
From Lengenrich No. 2 Troop moved forward to take part with 3rd Brigade in the most spectacular leap in the whole of the Division advance to date. Skirting Osnabruck, for which heavy fighting was in progress, the British column, with the usual Squadron of tanks in the lead, swung out into the long valley leading to the River Weser. To the north ran a canal parallel with the Brigade's axis and beyond this for miles the country was flat and open. A mile to the south ran a high wooded ridge, dominating the whole countryside. Far beyond this ridge it was expected that an American column was also striking for the Weser, but both flanks of the Brigade were completely uncovered and overlooked.
It was a glorious opportunity for the Germans but they never took it. Though here and there from villages on the route opposition was offered, it was mercilessly stamped out. The aim of the Brigade was to seize a crossing of the canal to the north, but here at last the Germans had the upper hand and every now and then a distant boom followed by a thick black column of smoke rising slowly into the air would announce that another of the many bridges across had been blown. The bridges were in fact seized by the 8th Battalion, one half blown, the other still stocked with explosive, but by then Minden was almost in sight and the opportunity of seizing a bridge across the Weser itself was not to be missed.
Not till the outskirts of Minden were reached was the column seriously halted. Here some well hidden guns immediately to the right of the road opened fire and had to be dealt with by the tanks, while small parties of Germans armed with "Bazookas" opened fire on the column. It became clear that Minden itself was probably strongly defended and to launch an attack through the heavily built up outskirts of the town with night approaching was a formidable task. The Brigade Commander called a halt for the night after a spectacular advance 90 kilometres.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cox and half of 2 Troop were sent back to remove the charges from one of the bridges seized by the 8th Battalion, and to bridge over the hole blown in the other, the remainder of the Squadron were moving up from the rear and that night harboured in the outskirts of Minden. Early the following morning the Brigade moved into Minden, the threat of another column approaching from the south and of the reduction of the town to rubble by the Air Forces having induced the local commander to offer no resistance. The bridges across the Weser had by now been blown and another to the north of the town had been partially blown. This a party from 2 Troop repaired with girders and decking to Class 12 and the same day the Squadron moved with the Brigade to an area north west of Minden to rest in reserve for 48 hours.
The Assault of the Weser
It was decided that 6th Airlanding Brigade should make an assault across the River Weser some two to three miles north of Minden, that town having now been taken over by the Americans, who, it was suspected, were a little sore at having been beaten to it by the British. For the assault, 2 Troop were put under command of 6th Brigade with the task of building and working assault boat rafts in support of each assaulting battalion. That morning half the troop, under Captain Beaumont, moved forward to the Brigade marshalling area. Unfortunately one section, under Sergeant Foster was misdirected at a crossroads and were not seen for two hours. Further men from 1 Troop, summoned over the wireless, had just arrived to replace them when Sergeant Foster and his party drove up having penetrated, unknown to themselves, deep into enemy territory and taken one prisoner. The half troop then moved forward through a thickly wooded country not yet properly cleared, to the river bank, marshalled themselves in a brickworks, and waited for the assault by the R.U.R. [Royal Ulster Rifles]to go in.
Map of the route taken by the 591 Parchute Squadron through Germany in March/April 1945.
(click map to enlarge it)
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