591 History Part 19 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
Norway - Further Reorganization of 591
With the end of the war in Europe, it was early seen that the future of the 6th Airborne Division lay in the Middle or Far East. This imposed considerable reorganization on the Divisional Engineers since obviously the large number of officers and men in the lower Release Groups could not accompany the Division. It was finally decided that all the higher release group men in the other units should be gathered in 3rd Airborne Squadron [3 Para] and the Field Park, while those in the lower release groups should gather in 591.
249 Airborne Field Company was to become the Depot Company. Meanwhile, a similar reorganization was taking place in the 1st Airborne Division to provide a squadron of regulars and men of higher release groups to replace 591 Squadron in the 6th Division.
[The War Office issued a chart which gave each service person a demob number, according to year of birth and length of service. The older the person, the longer they had served the lower the number, the younger with less years of service got a higher release number, and could therefore remain in service for a few more years and be shipped off to the far east with the 3rd Parachute Squadron as release was not imminent.]
A New 591 Joins 1st Division
Returning from disembarkation leave, the new Squadron within a few days was en route for Norway to become a part of the 1st Airborne Division. It was a drastically altered squadron which finally settled in to a camp near Oslo. Many of the men, and most of the officers, had gone to 3rd Squadron and in a very few weeks were to be sailing as part of 5th Brigade Group for India and the Far East. Others had gone to 286 Field Park and were to find themselves by the end of the summer in Palestine with 6th Airborne Division proper. Of the officers, only Captain Hinshelwood and Lieutenant Lockey remained, and though amongst the NCOs the proportions were higher, all but twenty five of the sappers and drivers had been posted. Of the replacements, the vast majority were from 249 Field Company, including Captain SMERDON, Captain BENCE, Captain WOODCOCK, Sergeant Major CUNNELL and several of the senior NCOs.
Though many old friends throughout the unit had been posted, and though everyone was very naturally regretful at leaving a Division which had come to mean so much, there was a great promise that from the material now gathered under the banner of "591" an equally fine reputation could be built up in the 1st Airborne Division. At [unreadable] camp near Oslo the final interchange with 9th Squadron was effected and a few days later they left by plane for England and the 6th Division.
The Situation in Norway
First impressions of Norway were that there was no food, no cigarettes and far too many Germans. Until the whole Norwegian picture could be seen in its proper perspective it was difficult to accept as a matter of course the daily sight of Germans driving about the roads unguarded in large staff cars or on high powered motor bikes. The capitulation of the 100,000 strongly armed German forces in Norway had been a direct consequence of the German collapse .......... in Europe and had obviously not been dictated by the sight of the Allied Occupational Force of some 8,000 operational troops, though surrender orders had been issued throughout Norway by the German High Command. The German forces were still a potential menace. Holding all the vantage points in the country, well armed, with colossal reserves of food and ammunition they could have held out wholly or in groups for many months. A very thick velvet glove, therefore, covered the iron hand of the liberating army.
Fortunately, the Germans had no fight left in them and, since they seemed likely to organize their capitulation with Teutonic thoroughness they were, to a large extent, encouraged to do so by the Allied Command. They were encountered throughout the country in every available camp, organizing their own distribution of food, transport and the deployment of their forces to the various tasks that were to be imposed upon them.
The Wehrmacht on Mine Clearance
Of these by far the largest was the lifting and disposal of the 200,000 mines laid by them during their occupation throughout the length of Norway. By the time that 591 Squadron arrived in Norway this stupendous task had been got in motion by the CRE [Commander Royal Engineers] of 1st Airborne Division and, under the supervision of the Divisional Engineers, was well under way.
From 9th Squadron were taken over the supervising of commitments over an area stretching 100 miles in every direction from Oslo and within a few days of arrival small parties of sappers under an NCO had been despatched to some of the more distant areas in which the Germans were working. The German parties comprised, for the most part, Engineers or men who had been specially trained in the lifting and neutralization of mines. The programmes for clearance of the various areas were entirely worked out by the German staffs and the main task of the Squadron IO [information officer] was to ensure that these programmes were complied with. No easy task when the cumbersome machinery of the Allied Disarmament Commission imposed a delay of four days on all orders to the Germans!
Lieutenant Inman, who had joined the unit from 3rd Squadron, handled not only this but all the manifold complications of the control of Germans and the lifting of mines with thoroughness and tact throughout the unit's stay. It was once said, rather unkindly, that he was the only officer who did any work in Norway. The Germans normally worked in small parties of 10 under an officer or NCO. Supervising each party were one NCO and a sapper whose main task was to check the areas cleared against those shown on the minefield plans or records. The fields had in most cases been laid with the utmost care and the records were elaborate and most accurate. Three fatal accidents occurred in the parties under the Squadron's supervision but in each case the fault lay with the Germans employed in lifting and not with the plan.
No.3 Troop Go North
Within a few days of the arrival of the main body of the Squadron, 3 Troop under command of Captain Hinshelwood were sent 300 miles north to organize and supervise mine clearance in the Trondheim area. Captain Hinshelwood, Lieutenant Lockey and some of the Troop established themselves on the small island of Holde accessible only across 100 miles of torturous track and a ferry which ran once a week. Detachments were sent to two other equally inaccessible places on the coast at Aalesund and Kristiansund. In this area, Captain Hinshelwood with a battalion of Germans under command, organized the clearance of some 87,000 mines, a task which was completed 6 weeks later, well ahead of schedule.
It was not all work at Holde by any means and within a few days of arrival the local paper announced a forthcoming football match, "The Red Devils v. Holde" Since the total strength of the "Red Devils" on the island was twelve, the winning of the match was a highly creditable performance. A few days later the correspondence column on the same newspaper carried a letter from the indignant pen of Lieutenant Lockey. On the island were the usual percentage of people to be found in all communities whose sole concern was the advancement of their own ends. Some of these had been complaining that demands for German labour to cut their grass, to lift imaginary mines from their doorstep and to generally provide cheap labour around their farms had been refused by the British Commander (Captain Hinshelwood). Lieutenant Lockey pointed out in vigorous language, translated by the attached interpreter into equally vigorous Norwegian, that the Germans had more important work to do and would continue to work solely under British direction. Relations with the remainder of the inhabitants were more than cordial and it was with real regret that the sappers said 'goodbye' to Holde in the middle of August.
Perhaps the highlight of the occupation was the visit of the Crown Prince to the island. As the sole British troops within 100 miles the detachment provided a guard of honour to meet the Crown Prince as he landed from his destroyer on the town quay. Captain Hinshelwood was presented to the Crown Prince, complemented on the smartness of the guard and on the work the sappers had done and later dined (and wined) with the Prince.
The Housing Problem
Shortly after No.3 Troop had left for Holde the Squadron was faced with the very serious problem of accommodation. That at NOR[?]TRAND was held on sufferance from the Border Regiment, themselves desperately overcrowded. All efforts by the advance party to secure a camp or billets had been met with promises, denials, orders and counter orders from the harassed staff of Command Headquarters, but no accommodation. The position arose in that most of the suitable camps were held by Germans whom the Disarmament Commission were naturally reluctant to move. The rest were inhabited by men of the "MilOrg", [militær organisasjon] the Norwegian underground army - now very much above ground.
An ideal camp was found in the hills outside Oslo at Lutvann, but the inevitable Milorg were lying around in it sunbathing, and although they were delighted to see British soldiers, it seemed that it was quite impossible for them to move. The Norwegian Army were approached and after days of delicate negotiation between them and the Milorg word was received that the 591 Squadron could move into the Lutvann in two days time. The next day this was cancelled. Three days later the same message was received only to be cancelled again at the last minute. Again the message was received, and, no cancellation having arrived the Squadron moved to Lutvann, burning their boats behind them by handing over the only shelter they had in Norway to the Border Regiment. Before this move the precaution had been taken of confirming the orders with the Milorg Commander at the camp and with no less a person than the Chief of Staff to the Norwegian Army in Oslo. It was something of a surprise, therefore, to be met at the camp with the news that the Milorg were not moving afterall.
While the Squadron bivouacked on the side of the road, excited discussions were held with the Norwegian Army Commander and his staff in Oslo. It appeared that the Chief of Staff (who had conveniently departed on leave) had no authority to order the Milorg out. Further discussion revealed that no one had any authority to order the Milorg to do anything. They were put under the discipline of the Army, were all impatient to get back to their homes and had threatened, if ejected from Lutvann, to call a nationwide strike of all the Milorg in Norway, to the great embarrassment of everyone.
It was then pointed out that 591 Squadron had been solemnly promised the camp, that they were now camped with all their household goods on the fields outside, and that if nothing could be done they would be marched down to Oslo to bivouac in the main square outside Army Headquarters. Something was done, and that night the Squadron moved in to an uneasy partnership of the camp with the Milorg. Two days later the last of them moved to another camp that they'd known about all the time. There was no strike and no hard feelings - many of them being subsequently entertained at Squadron dances.
Other Adventures in Norway
Their reluctance to leave the camp was understandable. The accommodation consisted of a number of delightful log chalets hidden away among the trees. Each had a bathroom, hot water, radiators, electric light and a telephone. At times, the accommodation almost ran to one room per man. At the end of the camp stood a magnificent two storeyed recreation hall whose verandahs looked out over the tree tops to Lutvann lake. Here, a week after their arrival, the Squadron held the first of a most successful series of Squadron dances.
In the early days there was a ration of one bottle of champagne per man, and always there were liberal supplies of wines allotted to each unit from the vast stores held in the country by the German army. Entertaining the Norwegians was not, therefore, difficult and in return there were few in the Squadron who had not got "their foot under the table" somewhere in the neighbourhood after a few days.
Several attempts were made to teach the Norwegians the English way of playing football but the results were not impressive. At one match there was a definite threat of the spectators joining in with drawn knives and the series was abandoned.
A Bouquet from the G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding]
It was the practice for the units stationed near Oslo to provide for four days at a time a ceremonial guard outside the Headquarters of Norway Command. After a week of intensive training under the Sergeant Major, groomed with a care normally reserved for film stars, a guard from 591 was mounted which would not have shamed the Guards themselves. It earned high praise from everyone and produced a personal message of congratulation from the G.O.C. - the second only that had been given in seven weeks. Some time later another guard was produced which, in the opinion of the Sergeant Major, was even better than the first but this time no bouquets were forthcoming from the General. No doubt he felt that since both those he had issued were to sapper units of the Division, further praise should be withheld.
By the beginning of August all mine clearance in the Squadron area had been completed and the detachments were recalled (reluctantly) from the villages throughout the country in which they had enjoyed for some time a monopoly of attentions from the Norwegians.
"Tusen Takk" [Thousand thanks]
As the end of the Division began to move back to England, and to many not even the prospect of 14 days disembarkation leave could stifle the regret at leaving a land overflowing with blonde, berry brown, beautiful women, of sun worship and champagne. A country where women, clad in little more than a handkerchief, could drive alone in jeeps through the streets of the capital without exciting comment, and where to leave a party before four in the morning was almost a breach of hospitality.
The quayside at Oslo as the troopships left was thronged with cheering Norwegian men and heartbroken Norwegian women, and there is no doubt that in the years to come any man revisiting Norway had only to say "I was in Airborne" to be assured of a Royal welcome.
Swan Song on the Severn
Shortly after the return to England it was learnt with regret that the 1st Airborne Division was to be disbanded. To the Engineers of the Division was granted a reprieve to carry out Engineer work in the Southern Command, as the highlight of which a party under Captain Woodcock were rushed to Bristol to repair a gale damaged ferry pier on the Severn and to build on the wreckage the Squadron's last Bailey bridge. This feat was dramatically acclaimed in the local papers who spoke in glowing terms of "husky paratroopers of the famous 591 Airborne Squadron whose last task was to throw a Bailey bridge across the Dortmund-Ems Canal." (CLICK for News Report]The Tribute, though, inaccurate, provided a pleasant climax to the story of 591 Squadron. A story that had its beginnings on a peaceful Irish Lough and was to unfold over the skies of Normandy, in the frozen forests of the Ardennes, on the desolate banks of the Maas, across the plains of Germany, and among the friendly hills of Norway. A story, not of valour and achievement more glorious than that of any other unit of the British Army, but of the part the Squadron played in the final victories - and the price it paid.
contact website [page last updated 03 August 2013]