591 History Part 6 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
The Campaign in the Ardennes
Practically all the training prior to D-day had centred around assault engineering, 100% efficiency in the use of explosives, hasty demolitions and improvisations, and there is no doubt that every Engineer of the 6th Airborne Division who flew in on 6th June was trained to the highest peak for the particular task that lay before him. Further, the standard of physical fitness and of skill in all the arms carried, fell little short of that of the infantry. To reach these standards in the all too short prelude to D-day left little time for the normal training of Field Engineers - [?], water supply and the use of mechanical equipment, road construction and a host of other of the stocks in trade of a field unit. Bailey bridging had had to give way to parachute training, road construction to "road bashing".
It was not foreseen that the Division, once their initial task had been completed, would remain for almost three months in a ground role, and certainly not in a mobile ground role. During the exhilarating advance to the Seine the sappers did all that was required of them and more, under the most appalling handicaps of shortage of transport and equipment but there is little doubt that fully trained officers and men could always have produced quicker results. In no respect was this more noticeable than in bridging, and so it was that in October and November arrangements were made with the SME [School of Mechanical Engineering in Ripon, Yorks]for the training of each unit for a fortnight.
Little instructional help could be provided, obviously, from an overworked SME staff, but by sending officers and NCOs in advance to pick the staff's brains and by other subterfuges, sufficient talent was produced to ensure a fortnight's training that was to be of tremendous value in the months to come. The Squadron was particularly fortunate in Captain Semple, to whom no aspect of bridging presented the slightest mystery and, enhampered by officers and NCOs (the majority of whom were trained on a separate course) he was able to get the very most out of the short time available. Mention should perhaps be made of the terrific boost to the general morale of the sappers provided by the daily spectacle on the hand of an officers' party carrying Bailey panels, rowing frantically and erratically against the current and generally suffering all the hardships of wet bridging. It was perhaps unfortunate and certainly remarkable that only one officer actually fell into the water and that the men were not present at the time.
"Don't You Know it's all Been Changed?"
While the Squadron splashed and cursed in the Ripon mud, Von Rundstedt launched his great offensive in the Ardennes. Each day the news got worse and, when finally 3 Squadron and 591 Squadron were recalled immediately to Bulford there was little further doubt that the 6 Airborne Division was to be thrown in to help stem the German advance in Belgium. Christmas was very near and few comments on Von Rundstedt were printable. In Bulford the atmosphere was electric. Part of the Division had already left for port, DRs roared noisily everywhere, all phones rang incessantly. Never was there so much to do in so little time. That amongst all the frantic gathering of equipment, documentation, clothing and briefing, time was found for a full scale Christmas Dinner on December 23rd was perhaps a tribute more to the traditional dogged insistence of the Britisher on his rights than to any brilliant staff work or organisation.
On December 23rd, three days after leaving Ripon, the Squadron was in a Folkestone transit camp, and at midnight on Christmas Day the last men embarked. Rumour was rife of packs of U-boats prowling in the Channel, of newly laid minefields and hostile shore batteries within whose range the convoy had to pass. Certainly the Channel at that time was no place in which to linger, but the dangers were probably exaggerated by Airborne soldiers unused to this method of going to war.
From Oostende the Squadron moved to Deerlijk, a clean, compact little Belgian village untouched by this war but, by all accounts of the inhabitants, the centre of most of the heavy fighting in the last. It was known by now that the Division was to take up a position on the Ardennes front and that was about all that was known. The only source of news was the BBC, generally 24 hours behind the battle. The spearheads of the German advance were threatening Namur and Dinant and it seemed that once the Meuse [River Maas]was crossed anything might happen. Among the people of Deerlijk there was certainly no panic although had the German offensive succeeded, had the Meuse been successfully crossed, German tanks might well have been roaring through the village within 24 hours. There was much talk of German parachutists having landed in the neighbourhood and all day groups of villages stood around gesticulating and chatting excitedly. There was no despair amongst them but certainly there was bewilderment.
The Squadron was billeted in the village school where to pass the time the local schoolmaster was persuaded to give elementary lessons in French. Amongst the villagers he had something of a reputation as a collaborator and his one aim in life was to secure from the Squadron in return for his doubtful service as general interpreter a bottle of whisky. He was not successful.
Into "the Bulge"
At last orders came through to move up to the fighting area. The roads were icebound and the temperature dropped alarmingly each hour. That the next stage of 100 miles was made without a single mishap was a great tribute to the Squadron drivers. The smashed trucks that littered the roads the whole way, told a sorry tale of less fortunate convoys. The last stage was made at a convent in the little village of Ståve, 20 miles from Dinant. Without fuel or light in the bitter cold it did not seem as though the stay were to be a comfortable one, but the Mother Superior, a grand old lady of 85 crippled with rheumatism, hobbled around the village in a blinding snowstorm, rousing the villagers, loosing off at each one a stream of French, and very shortly most of the Squadron were billeted in warmth and comfort.
It was New Years Eve. There was little enough with which to bring in the New Year and in any case the situation still called for the utmost vigilance on the part of everyone. But the first day of the New Year brought the first authentic and full news of the battle. The Germans had been beaten back from Ciney and Celles [Celles-en-Hainaut] and had withdrawn beyond Rochefort. The great Christmas offensive had failed. All the way round the salient [the bulge] the Germans had driven into the American front, the news was of German withdrawals. Limited withdrawals, for the Germans had very considerable strength in the salient and it was clear that they intended to set the pace. Their plan was obviously to hold the perimeter of their salient with the utmost resolution while the armour within withdrew in an orderly manner. To avoid at all costs the neck of the bulge being squeezed or cut, and their army being encircled. The Allied plan was to drive simultaneously from the north and south of the bulge and the heaviest fighting was to take place there. 6 Airborne Division had been allotted a sector on the western tip of the bulge in the general area of Rochefort. The divisional role was to hold this sector but at no time to take the offensive, since it was obviously unwise to persuade the Germans eastwards.
The Squadron was put in support of 3 Parachute Brigade, who were to hold Rochefort and the line of the railway running northwest to Marche. Part of the original plan made rather hastily before the fog of battle had cleared was that 9th Parachute Battalion should hold the village of Jemelle, two miles east of Rochefort. Ordered to contact the battalion commander in Jemelle, an officer of the Squadron was making his way there along treacherous roads littered with burnt out tanks and guns when he met the battalion commander coming back over the hill in his jeep "ventre a terre" [flat out/with all due haste]. It appeared that the Germans were holding Jemelle and intended to stay there.
Fortunately the whole tactical picture was soon clarified and that day the Squadron moved up to Haversin, from where they were to operate for most of the Ardennes campaign. Searching for billets in this battle scarred area for 200 men was excellent training for the post war house hunting and equally fruitless. Many of the villages were reduced to a heap of rubble, few had many habitable houses and all were littered with burnt out tanks and guns, dead cows and all the inevitable messy stinking flotsam of a bitter battle. Every stitch of accommodation towards the front was inhabited by infantry, while to the rear for miles every conceivable class of gunner unit had stuck their signs on every door.
The Squadron was particularly lucky therefore in securing a large completely weatherproof chateau, shabby and bare of furniture, but warm, and in those days warmth was everything in a country suffering under the coldest spell of a century.
More than one story was told of infantry outposts, too weary to cover themselves properly or to take exercise, losing a foot overnight through frostbite. No amount of clothing seemed to give enough warmth and to drive for more than 5 minutes in a jeep was purgatorial. Driver Greenall arrived back one day from a D.R. run to Divisional Headquarters quite literally frozen stiff. His motor bike collided with the steps of the chateau and he collapsed on the ground bent in the position in which he had been riding. He was carried indoors and laid out on the floor still in this posture, and it was some time before vigorous massage and rum from the sergeant major's room had restored him to normal.
The roads, of course, were still icebound and one of the priority Engineer tasks became the maintenance of gravelling parties. Divisional Headquarters, established in the Château Royal d'Ardenne, a country seat of the King of the Belgians, early called for sappers to sand their considerable drive. Captain Hinshelwood's Troop were given the task, and, "acting on information received", to quote the Police reports, he sent three tippers to Haversin station to load with "sand" from railway trucks in the sidings. The sand was soon literally laid along the length of the drive, turning the ice overnight into the most satisfactory slush. Delight was expressed by everyone except the Station master, whose frantic letter the following day revealed that £800 worth of chemical manure had been stolen from his yards by "les soldats anglais." The letter was passed hastily to Civil Affairs.
There was never, during the Ardennes campaign, any shortage of legitimate engineer tasks and the opportunity to function as normal Divisional Engineers was generally welcomed. Transport, of course, was still desperately short but the excellent staff work of HQRE [Headquarters Royal Engineers] produced tools considerably in excess of the miserable Airborne establishment and mechanical equipment and "tippers" always appeared a miraculously short time after a signal to the Adjutant. There was never really enough to go round and what there was had to make impossible trips, often by night, over icebound roads.
In the middle of a rather disorganized move up along the congested roads to Haversin, Captain Harbord and his troop were rushed forward to repair a demolished bridge on the main road to Rochefort. It was the Squadron's first attempt at improvised bridging in the field and in a creditably short time the road was again open to Class 9 traffic. Railway lines were ripped from the line two miles away and used as beams at 9 inch centres. Railway sleepers served as stringers covered with 1inch decking. At the same time the banks of the stream were "bulldozed" in and a class 40 ford constructed. The whole task, including considerable drilling of the bankseats and the erection of handrails, was completed in 24 hours.
Meanwhile, another party under Lieutenant Wade was rushed to Rochefort to improvise a route from a farm track on to the railway line and along the main road at Rochefort station. This task, involving considerable navvying and the removal of 300 yards of permanent way, provided a useful bypass through a labyrinth of streets blocked with rubble and the wreckage of German and American tanks, the way would finally be barred by one of the innumerable blown bridges.
German and American bodies were still being carried away by dejected glassy-eyed Belgians and no one who visited Rochefort could be left in further doubt of the magnificent fight put up by the Americans to stem the German onslaught. "They fought to the last man" is a hackneyed phrase, but the Americans at Rochefort did. Not one came out alive and "the last man" could be seen sprawling, rifle still in hand, across the pavement or at the breach block of an anti-tank gun, killed as his last round crashed into a Tiger tank 10 yards from the muzzle.
To 2 Troop under Captain Hinshelwood was allotted the unending task of road maintenance over a considerable area. Where every yard of every road was like a skating rink only the important stretches could be sanded by craters and blockages from wrecked equipment were innumerable; and always below the snow and the wreckage the hidden menace of uncharted mines. Detachments were provided to the battalions in the line living around the wrecked villages before Jemelle and Hargimont. The Germans had found time before retreating to lay many boobytraps and where every house was a shambles, concealment of these was easy. The infantryman's blind faith in the ability of any sapper to scent out and neutralise them in a matter of minutes was touching but misplaced. Fortunately, however, there were no casualties though a number of particularly ingenious traps were neutralised.
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