591 History Part 7 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
Sappers on Patrol
The battalions were patrolling nightly at this time into the enemy positions and generally an Engineer member was included since it was thought that the approaches were mined. Corporal Wilson, who went out with one of the first patrols, did a particularly good job of work in producing on his return an accurate plan of a belt of tellermines laid in the snow across and around the bridge crossing the railway lines at Hargimont.
Lance Corporal Bowden went with another patrol whose navigation was indifferent and after wandering for some hours in the barren wastes before Jemelle they bumped into an enemy machine gun post dug into the railway embankment. The Germans opened heavy fire but a hasty retreat into the mist avoided casualties.
Patrolling into the enemy held villages was not easy. The Rochefort - Le Marche [Marche-en-Famenne]railway was the northern limit of enemy held territory. Machine gun positions commanded most of the line, and the few tracks leading across or under the line were all mined. On the enemy side of the line the ground fell steeply to the villages of On, Hargimont and Jemelle and in many places a sheer cliff 100 feet high made passage impossible. In Hargimont were three small roads bridges. Should there be any general advance the road through Hargimont would become a "main lateral" and it was of the utmost importance therefore to secure accurate information of the state of these bridges. To this end, Captain Lockey and Sapper Brown set out with an infantry patrol on the night of 5th January. The patrol lost their bearings and were split up, and penetrated no further than the railway line.
The following night it was decided to limit the patrol to Captain Lockey and a kindred soul from the
8th Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant Brown. Crossing the railway line, they negotiated the cliff noisily on their backsides and very much faster than was intended, but without raising an alarm. Making their way to the village they found the first bridge unguarded and inspected it at their leisure. The shortest route to the next bridge was straight down the village street, so down the village street they went. The village was alive with Germans but none were alert enough to notice the shadowy figures gliding quickly from house to house. Reaching the bridge safely, they struck across the gardens at the back of the village to the third and last one. While they rested in the shadow of the parapet, a German was heard strolling down the road towards them, whistling and flapping his arms in the cold. Immediately they decided to waylay him and take him back as a prisoner, but within a few yards of them he turned and strolled back. It was perhaps rather fortunate for everyone that he did, for the two found it difficult enough as it was to get through the village, up the cliff and back to their own lines. This patrol was later held up by the Battalion as a model patrol, receiving full and special mention in the Battalion magazine and training directives. As an Engineer reconnaissance patrol, too, it could not have been bettered, providing as it did all the information so urgently needed of the roads and bridges in Hargimont.
The role of passive defender was beginning to tell on Brigadier Hill [external website link]and the impertinence of the Germans in withdrawing in their own time was not to be borne. It was decided therefore to launch an attack on Jemelle and the villages opposite the Brigade front. The attack down the road from Rochefort would be asking for trouble. Similarly an attack across the railway line was ruled out by the sheer drop running the whole way the other side. To the east of Jemelle a wide fast flowing river formed a formidable barrier, all bridges over which had been demolished with Teutonic thoroughness. It did, however, seem possible that an attack could be launched across this river and the high ground the other side stormed before complete surprise was lost. The Brigadier asked for an Engineer reconnaissance of this stretch of the river that night to find out the practicability of fording or wading the river or, if necessary, of using assault boats.
For the patrol were chosen Lieutenant Merrell and Corporal Rogers, that grand NCO and footballer known to everyone as "Curly", later to be killed so tragically in the airborne assault of the Rhine. As always, there was little time for detailed planning of the patrol, which had to be completed by midnight, partly to minimise the risk of bumping into one of the German patrols that seemed to sally forth each night with Teutonic regularity at that hour, but mainly because a fairly considerable artillery "stonk" had been laid on to harass the Germans in the Jemelle area from midnight onwards. One grid square had been put "out of bounds" to the Gunners to give the patrol a chance but as Lieutenant Merrell remarked, "Those grid squares are ruddy small."
The patrol, clad in gym shoes and denims, with hands and faces masked and armed with a revolver apiece, set out at 2100 hrs from a platoon HQ of the Canadian Battalion in Rochefort. Very little patrolling had been done beyond Rochefort and although the wooded hills on the right of the railway provided a good approach to Jemelle, the going would be slow. It was therefore decided to go straight down the railway line and hope for the best. Climbing gingerly over the remaining girders of the demolished bridge across the raging torrent that bounds Rochefort, the patrol hit the railway line and crept gingerly along the footpath to the side. After half an hour it was obvious that much greater speed would have to be made at the risk of noise, and the pace was increased to almost normal walking speed. The frequent crackle of ice underfoot did not improve matters and on more than one occasion the party slipped on the sleepers half hidden in the snow. For the greater part of the way the line ran through steep cutting to 100 feet on either side and since this was officially German occupied territory, the minds of the patrol were rather occupied with the ease with which the most indifferent German marksman could pick them off. Of cover there was none.
About half past ten they reached the railway bridge spanning the river at Jemelle, after covering just over two miles. A four span masonry arch bridge 100 feet high, it had been most thoroughly demolished. Climbing down the embankment to the water's edge beneath the bridge, the patrol found themselves within twenty yards of the first house in Jemelle. Several buildings spread right down to the water's edge and beyond the river bank for several hundred yards lay in open fields. Every yard was completely overlooked from the other side of the river where the banks rose steeply to the railway station and the windows of a dozen houses peered suspiciously across. To carry out the reconnaissance as planned seemed now a far more exacting task than it had appeared from the map. The party sprinted silently across to the first house, slipped over a wall and climbed on a narrow ledge past a shed immediately on the river bank. Clinging precariously on this ledge, they heard slow heavy footsteps on the road ten yards away. The footsteps halted; the patrol froze with their hearts beating a tattoo against the shed wall. There was a cough and the footsteps slowly retreated down the road. Since all the villagers were under curfew it was obviously a German sentry. The road he was patrolling overlooked the field and the river bank, but Lieutenant Merrell decided to bank on the traditional inattentiveness of sentries and both sprinted silently to the cover of a bush 30 yards up the river.
Here they had their first chance to study the river but it needed little study to see that any crossing by infantry was out of the question. The current was torrential, there was a sheer drop of five feet to the water and the strongest swimmer could not have made the passage. The temptation to write off the whole prospect there and then and get back as quickly as possible was strong but Lieutenant Merrell felt there might be a ford position higher up and creeping cautiously along the bank under the cover of the merciful roar of the river but not fully outlined against the snow to any observer within half a mile, they were rewarded after some three hundred yards, where a small breakwater of stones spanned the river. There was little drop from the bank and it seemed as though a passage could be made to the other side where a steep path wound up past a cluster of cottages. To make completely sure, however, and risking observation from the cottages, he plunged into the water and succeeded in wading half way across. Although buffeted waist high by the torrent, it seemed possible for any sure footed soldier, fully armed, to make the crossing. "We had the answer," said Lieutenant Merrell, "and there seemed little point in admiring the scenery further. I scrambled back to the bank and whispered to Rogers 'Let's get!' and believe me we got. There was no sound of the sentry when we got back to the cottage by the bridge and chancing that he was at the other end of the road we sprinted across to the bridge, climbed the embankment and made pretty good time down the line. We didn't quite run, but believe me, I was glad to get clear of that cutting. Every yard this time was a yard in the right direction and we didn't worry so much about the noise we made. If we'd known what we knew later we might have been more careful, for when we had got finally through the itchy fingered Canadian outposts to Battalion Headquarters and were making our reports over a hot whisky and cocoa, news came through of a German patrol that had moved right up to the outskirts of Jemelle along the high ground behind us. God knows why they didn't shoot us up, perhaps they didn't want to start anything."
The patrol had an amusing sequel. The following day there was a general readjustment of the Divisional front and 3rd Brigade moved over to a sector near Le Marche [Marche-en-Famenne]. The attack on Jemelle was, of course, abandoned, but the patrol report was handed over to 5th Brigade who took over in the area of Rochefort. Some days later, when it was fairly certain that the Germans were withdrawing from this area, 7th Parachute Battalion had the task of securing Jemelle. A full scale, carefully planned tactical approach was made by the battalion through the high wooded ground bordering the railway line to the crossing place selected by the patrol. The battalion 'B' echelon was to proceed along the road from Rochefort to Jemelle as soon as the village was secured. Unfortunately the battalion made heavy going through the thickly covered precipitous hills and it was with mixed feelings and with more than one sprained ankle that they stumbled into Jemelle to find that the cooks' trucks had already arrived and that a hot meal awaited them!
During this period there was little rest for officers or NCOs. Apart from general road and Engineer reconnaissance dozens of reports a day of suspected minefields had to be investigated. The Americans in the first frantic days of the German offensive had strewn the whole area with mines, the records of which were scanty and hopelessly inaccurate. The countryside was a foot deep in snow and any large scale mine clearance was out of the question but it was possible, after countless and harrowing reconnaissances, to clear belts on roads and to wire off the more dangerous dumps in the verge. Casualties from American mines were later to be heavy.
On 4th January, it seemed likely that the enemy were withdrawing in that area, at attack was launched in the direction of Wavreille with the object of preventing the enemy from consolidating on a new line further back. It was here that the only stiff fighting of the campaign was experienced by the Division, the
13th Parachute Battalion fighting a gallant but bloody battle at Bure where the Germans counter attacked in great strength.
One result of this push was the opening up of the Rochefort to Han- sur-Lesse road previously dominated by the enemy. The road for most of its length was cut out of the thickly wooded hillside. Before withdrawing, the Germans dropped many large trees across the road, forming a considerable road block.
Captain Beaumont and his troop were given the task of clearing this of booby traps and in a very short time with a D4 bulldozer had cleared all the trees. The troop then went on to Han-sur-Lesse where a blown bridge was delaying considerably movement to Bure and the 6th Brigade fighting area. The village handymen had already thrown a temporary timber bridge across the gap but it was the flimsiest structure and would scarcely take a jeep. However, there was a timber mill within 50 yards of the site and within a few hours the sappers had erected two trestle bents beneath the "bridge" and after some laborious calculations it was agreed that the structure would now take Class 9 traffic. Its general appearance, however, was not such as to inspire much confidence in those who had to cross it and the next day a newly painted sign appeared at the head of the bridge with the inscription "591 - BEAUMONT'S FOLLY." The river here, fordable even for lorries, had no suitable approach. Working all through the night, however, carting and laying stone and felling trees, the sappers produced an approach that would take Churchill tanks though there was little to be seen after 24 hours of the 70 tons of stone that had gone to its making.
By 8th January it was clear that the Germans were pulling out of the whole westernmost tip of their bulge. On the left flank of the Division the 51st Division was driving through Le Marche and the 3rd Parachute Brigade established themselves strongly to the south of Le Marche and across the...
contact website [page last updated 26May2013]