591 History Part 8 : compiled by Major Allan Jack dated 20 Dec 1945Note: Additional notes to Major Jack's History of the Squadron are in blue italics
... the house, but whatever his motive it was certain that sixty feet of Bailey bridge and considerable time had been saved by his treachery. Through the medium of a dozen different interpreters it appeared that he knew of the whereabouts of some "minen" in the village but since accurate descriptions were impossible it was decided that he himself must guide the party. Supported by the least decrepit of the male population, he led the party and the entire village up the lane to a tunnel under the railway that had been barricaded very thoroughly with the villagers' furniture. On the barricade, he said, there were "nix minen" but at the end of the tunnel there were twelve "tellerminen." Rather rashly, the sapper officer started to climb the barricade but half way up his eyes came level with a wire, and at the end of it a pull igniter in a 4-kilo charge. Descending gingerly, he gave the German to understand that he was not amused, that his "treachery urge" must be curbed and that he had better remove the boobytrap very quickly. This he did, and the whole party withdrew, the villagers deciding to postpone the recovery of their furniture.
The Opening of Routes
In the next village of On, there was no bridge and it seemed possible that there were no further obstacles to the opening of the lateral route other than mines beneath the freshly fallen snow, but to sweep six miles of road with detectors would impose an impossible delay. A primitive sweep was carried out between Jemelle and On by driving a jeep in the tracks cleared ahead by two shuffling mutinous privates, only half convinced that the weight of a man will not set off a tellermine. Nothing was found and meanwhile a bulldozer was urgently required to remove a road block and fill a crater in a tunnel on the main road at Jemelle. It was decided to bring one through on a transporter from Le Marche [Marche-en-Famenne].
Lieutenant Wade was detailed to bring it through. He was acting as "shuffler" in front when just short of a road block of trees a tellermine exploded immediately behind the cab of the transporter, wrecking it completely. The driver, who was slightly wounded in the leg, and Sapper Murray, manning a Bren gun at the back of the cab, were hurled to the ground. The D4 was later recovered unscathed but the "shuffling sweep" was completely discredited.
A party under Lieutenant Mitchley arrived shortly after to prove the scene of the accident. They quickly found three other 'tellermine 43s' buried an inch below the road surface, all of which were neutralised "in situ" by Lance Corporal Lea, an incurable mines expert. A fourth was found and in unscrewing the fuse the mine exploded, killing him instantly and badly wounding Sapper Jewell and Sapper Glover.
Lieutenant Mitchley, though less seriously wounded, was in considerable pain and suffering from shock but for half an hour he organised the dressing and care of the wounded sappers before allowing himself to be evacuated. Another party arrived later and completed the 'proving' without further accident, the final pattern being revealed as three rows of four tellermines. Water was poured on the snow and the exposed tarmac thoroughly examined for signs of mines. Nevertheless the following day, shortly after the road had been reopened, an American truck was blown up at the same spot and two hours later a Bren carrier, fortunately with only slight injuries to their drives. The undetected mines, it was discovered, had been buried 18 inches beneath the road.
Once traffic was flowing freely on the Le Marche to Rochefort road, attention was turned to the road from On leading forward to Harsin. The Squadron was given the task of opening this road and from there round to Le Marche, a route likely to be of tactical importance. A small bridge at the start of this road had been blown, but it was found possible to ramp down with the D4 [bull dozer] rescued from the minebelt down the road and construct a rough culvert with 6 inch RSJs [rolled steel joists] and timber planks. Meanwhile Lieutenant Lockey and half of 2 Troop embarked with detectors on sweeping the road and verges to Harsin. It was painfully slow work, not made more pleasant by the fact that the last mile was well beyond the forward infantry positions. An infantry protective party had been arranged but it did not materialise. At one cottage towards the end they were told of three Germans in a nearby barn and work was abandoned while Lance Corporal Sheridan and a party secured three prisoners - the first of the Squadron's bag. It was felt, however, quite rightly, that to patrol and detect at the same time was "not on" and the party were about to withdraw when the infantry protection arrived. The incident provoked a member of the Squadron to the following parody of Lewis Carrol in the next issue of "HOLDFAST", the Divisional Engineers weekly paper.
"If fifty men with mine detectors swept it for half a yearThe remaining half of 3 Troop under Captain Beaumont had meanwhile started road clearance from the Le Marche end of the loop and here trouble was found straight away. 500 yards from the junction with the main road a masonry arch bridge was blown. Within this 500 yards there were two considerable road blocks of felled trees and a liberal sprinkling of mines was a virtual certainty. A narrow path was swept to the bridge down which Warsop drills and other tools were dragged on improvised sledges and excavations started for the bankseats of a Bailey bridge. The sledges were a sensible precaution, it being considered that to carry the weight of a Warsop drill was to tempt providence. Numerous boobytraps were found on the obstructions, all of the 4 kilogramme pull igniter type and beneath the debris, resting on its back, a 'TOPFmine' complete with glass igniter - the first of this ingenious and deadly type that the Squadron had seen. A mine detector was tried against it (not very hopefully) but without the slightest reaction.
Do you suppose" the General said, "that you could get it clear?"
"I doubt it" said the C.R.E., shedding a bitter tear,
"Not while the leading infantry are two miles in our rear."
When, therefore, the obstructions had been finally removed and the road swept with detectors as far as the bridge, it was felt that something more must be done before traffic could be invited to drive down - other TOPFmines might well be buried in the road beneath the snow. Short of shovelling off every yard of snow there seemed no solution. It was then that the very real genius of the sapper for improvisation shone out in Corporal Stoner, who devised a method of mine clearance which, though 100% successful, is never likely for obvious reasons to appear in any training manual.
To the controls of the D4 bulldozer were attached 30-yard lengths of cable. The D4 started off at a steady pace, its blade on the road surface and from the comparative safety of 30 yards, Corporal Stoner, a cable in each hand, was able to drive it with complete control, stopping or accelerating at will by a slight tug on the lines. The result of this very thorough "ploughing", carried out with many a shout of "Mush Mush", was a road cleaned to the black tarmac of all snow which could safely be said to be clear of mines. The risks were the destruction of valuable but not irreplaceable equipment and the possible wounding of the driver. They were more than justified by the results.
[Remotely controlled mine detection and detonation is now commonplace, seventy years later, but when the artcle was written Cpl Stoner's invention was pioneering remotely controlled equipment]
The approach being now clear, work started in earnest on the bridge. Only the two feet in the centre of the arch had been blown and even from springing to springing of the arch was only twelve feet, but it was to take a complete troop working incessantly 16 hours to span the gap with a Bailey bridge. By far the greater part of the time was taken in cutting away some ten feet either side to a depth of 18 inches or more. The ground was frozen solid and it was not until nightfall that any equipment other that Warsop drills and handpicks was available. The Warsop drill was designed specially for airborne operations in that it could be dropped from aircraft in a container and carried on the ground by one man. Beyond this its virtues were limited, although with expert maintenance and handling it could be relied upon to excavate in soft earth rather quicker than a good sapper with a spade.
Although during this bridging operation there was, perhaps, little real danger of an attack from the enemy it was certainly carried out beyond the immediate forward positions of the infantry. Forward to the left the area was well consolidated for several miles but to the right there was a considerable area stretching across to the forward lines of 6 Airlanding Brigade which had scarcely been patrolled. Only that morning a pocket of Germans had been rounded up by a patrol in a farmhouse 1½ miles away and there was a strong possibility that other pockets were lurking in the area, either with the idea of giving themselves up or of screening the general retreat by causing as much disturbance as possible amongst our forward troops. However, to work without light was as impossible as to work silently, and risks of enemy interference had to be accepted. Truck headlights were turned full on at both ends of the bridge and as the work gathered pace the din was such that a Squadron of Tiger tanks could have reared up unnoticed. The "Warsop Concerto" of drills, the clink of picks and uneerie whine and rattle of the 15 cwt compressor were joined with the hoarse calling of orders and the cheerful curses of frozen but enthusiastic sappers. Amid this deafening hubbub two white clad figures emerged unnoticed from an adjoining ditch into the glare of the headlights. Clad in gym shoes, white smocks and balaclavas and armed with "silent Stens" they announced to a startled Captain Beaumont that they were a 'listening patrol' from the Battalion behind with the task of determining whether any Germans were in the area. They were led to a mug of hot tea whose strength finally convinced them of the party's nationality and spent the next half hour listening to the satisfying music of "Men at Work."
At midnight 3 troop were relieved by 2 troop, for three hours, time enough to drive back to Haversin, have a hot meal and an hour's rest in warmth. No praise can be too high for the way in which 2 troop worked during the relief although the task was not theirs and though they had been called out very shortly after a late return tired and cold from their own tasks of mine clearance and road repair further down the road. It was typical of the spirit in which throughout all the campaigns the sappers tackled every task given to them. When there was work to be done they did it; when there was none they expected to rest and generally did - with equal thoroughness.
As dawn broke everything was at last ready for the building of the bridge. The total length was only 30 feet, surely the smallest Bailey bridge in Europe, and Captain Beaumont decided to build it without launching. The gap at the top of the arch was such that it seemed an easy matter to manhandle the panels into position from the other side. In fact it was not easy and manoeuvring the transoms into position was even more difficult. The delay imposed was perhaps slight in comparison with the delay in excavation, but it was decided by common consent that given a similar task in future it would definitely pay better dividends to go to the extra trouble of fixing rollers, building a "nose" and carrying out an orthodox launch. The text book, in fact, is always right. At 0900 hrs the first truck drove over the bridge and 3 troop returned to Haversin, hungry, cold and exhausted but with the satisfaction of a hard job well done.
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