[page last updated 14 May 2015]
591 History Part 17 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
There was a short lull in the shelling but shortly afterwards the noise of repairing the boat on the home shore brought down further fire. At this time, Lieutenant McKerracher and his section were the only people not taking cover but under the inspiring leadership of himself and Corporal Stoner, the section carried steadily on with the work. About 0330 hours, however, shelling became really heavy and the party withdrew for a couple of hours, returning to work till 1000 hours, when, no further sapper assistance being required, the rafting was handed over to the infantry and they returned to the Squadron harbouring area after working under the most harrowing conditions almost continuously for eighteen hours.
The party under Captain Beaumont had a less spectacular time, for although they succeeded in setting up a ferry and getting some stuff across, they were operating very close to the site at which 249 Field Company were battling with the current to get across a Class 9 F.B.E. [folding boat equipment ] bridge and it was found impractical to continue with the rafting, which was called off by the CRE. [Commander Royal Engineers]
The Race for the Leine Bridges
The same day, 1 Troop in support of 5th Brigade moved forward across the completed F.B.E. in a big drive to the River Leine, 60 kilometres away. This tremendous leap, now a commonplace in the Division's advance, had again the object of seizing crossings of the river. 1 Troop, however, carried with them two lorry loads of assault boats since the Brigadier was determined to get a foothold across the river even if all the bridges were blown.
Two miles short of the river, reports were received that both the bridges were still intact. Germans had been seen at the southernmost bridge and there seemed not a moment to lose. With a swift and brilliant manoeuvre, the 12th Battalion swung across and seized the bridge, the Battalion Commander leaping from the leading tank to pull apart the firing wires laid on the bridge. Lieutenant Cox, moving as sapper recce officer immediately behind him, completed the removal of the charges while the Germans were driven back by the leading infantry and an undamaged Class 40 bridge was in our hands.
Complete success seemed certain, and in high spirits the 7th Battalion struck off in 3-tonners to the north to secure the other bridge. At the last minute it was decided to send a small sapper party to report on the bridge and to remove the charges. All reports suggested that the tanks of the Recce Squadron already had command of this bridge and it was not expected that there would be a fight for it. Corporal Taylor and Sapper A Brown were quickly briefed and scrambled on to a passing 3-tonner to join the Battalion column moving out across the open country to the north. The road led across Neustadt Airfield [Wunstorf Airbase ] and half way across this, heavy fire was opened on the 3-tonner from the cover of the Aerodrome. Bullets whistled through the canopies of the lorries and there were several casualties among the leading troops. Leaping for the cover of the roadside ditches, the fire was returned. A vigorous fight ensued and it was some time before an outflanking movement subdued the opposition, which was found to be, again, a company of Hitler Youth, hell bent on dying for the Fatherland.
Some of these managed to retreat towards Neustadt and half a mile further down the road a crater was blown in the face of the leading troops, killing one of them on a motor cycle as it ran, it was believed, over a trip wire connected to an aerial bomb buried in from the road bank. A similar bomb in a home made trolley was found a short time afterwards by Corporal Stoner in a small tunnel dug under the road a short distance away. The crater, filled with water from a broken water main, made a formidable obstacle but a detour was found and the Battalion shortly after launched a company attack on the bridge at Neustadt.
Corporal Taylor and Sapper A Brown moved with the leading platoon, who, as darkness fell, approached the bridge along the river bank from the south. Within a short distance of it they struck off west into the outskirts of the town and, due to a slight misunderstanding, another platoon came into the lead. The troops were now facing down the road towards the bridge 100 yards away. There were sounds of shouting and hurried movement on the bridge itself and, without more ado, the platoon charged down the road. Corporal Taylor, now with the following platoon, suddenly saw a column of smoke, as from a burning fuse, rising from the bridge. Too far back to do anything about it, he was shouting for the troops to get back, when, with a deafening explosion, the bridge blew up. The platoon were half way across the bridge and practically every man was killed. [Some 25+ members of the 7th Battalion were killed in the explosion or died from injuries received on 10th Aprl, with further casualties to the Battalion as it raced across the airfield before hand.]
Some reached the far side, many of them wounded, and there was an urgent call for the assault boats. It had been decided in the afternoon, however, after the seizing of this bridge by the 12th Battalion, that these would not be needed and they had been dropped from the Battalion column. It was some time before they were eventually brought up for the Squadron and it was the early hours of the morning before a section under Lieutenant Lockey were operating a ferry service alongside the bridge. This continued until midday. Later a Corps Field Company spanned the broken archers with a Bailey bridge.
The Squadron had meanwhile moved into comparatively comfortable billets in some married quarters adjoining the aerodrome. Here they were to remain for some days while the 15th Scottish Division passed through to take up the chase and the Division settled down to the first rest since the Rhine. During this period a certain amount of maintenance was carried out of the surrounding roads and even a little training, but for the most part the main Squadron activities were smoking, sleeping, drinking and eating. Each section seemed to have its own hoard of eggs and other delicacies and the Squadron cooks, with their mounting stocks of normal Army rations, fought a losing battle against a dozen small parties "brewing up" their own meals in every odd corner continuously throughout the day.
A spell of glorious spring weather set in and the war for a time was forgotten. The padre held a short open air service on the first Sunday morning and the Squadron made its first three abortive attempts to see Bing Crosby in "Going my way" - continually promised for showing in the aerodrome cinema but never coming that way. It was to be billed twice more at various halts during the coming move to the Baltic before the Squadron finally saw it, sitting on the floor of a draughty barn in a farm house south of Luneburg.
On to the Elbe
A little over a week later the Division was once more on the move and the Squadron went forward some twenty miles to Celle. The 15th Scottish Division had made no very spectacular progress and they were then held up around the next town of Velzen. Uninformed comment in the Division was not very complimentary to the 15th Scottish, but in fact they had bumped into the first really considerable German striking force that had been met since the Rhine, to which the burned up tanks that littered the villages near Velzen bore grim testimony.
At Celle vague and ugly rumours were heard of a concentration camp a few miles away which the 11th Armoured Division on the left flank had overrun. The camp was Belsen but at that time the name meant little to anyone. Here too the Squadron lost Sapper Trousdale who was seen heading down the wrong road on a motor bike to reappear a week later with an incredible tale of capture and escape from across the Elbe. From Celle the Squadron moved through a succession of short halts in small villages to an area east of Velzen and from there to a few miles south of Luneburg and the Elbe where they shared the village for a week with 3rd Squadron. The Division was not greatly committed during this period and tasks for the Squadron were few.
A new Division, the 5th, had passed through by this time and were assembling for the assault with other formations of the River Elbe. It was planned at one time that 5th Parachute Brigade should be dropped beyond the Elbe as part of this assault and that a sapper party from the Squadron should also take part. For this party were chosen Captain Semple, who had not been allowed to take part in the Rhine crossing, Sergeant Lemmon who had at last caught up with the Squadron from hospital and ten sappers of whom the only one had been in the Rhine crossing was Sapper Stapley. The party was withdrawn from normal work but the project was finally abandoned to the relief of all but the most fanatical parachutists.
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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