Today we continue local historian Dorothy Ramser’s dramatic account of how British gunners found themselves surrounded by ruthless German Panzer Grenadiers during the Battle for Veghel, part of Operation Market Garden, in the Second World War.
As we heard yesterday, the men of 342 Battery, including Dorothy’s father, were being sought by 20-year-old gunner Denys Hunter, who had spent a cold wet night searching for them.
Meanwhile, as Dorothy reveals: “the men of the isolated battery were mentally preparing themselves to be taken prisoner, or worse still, being killed.”
In their desperate plight, the men of 342 Battery were ordered, at first light, to make for Veghel “as quickly and quietly as possible”.
“The crossing into Veghel itself, was over a drawbridge and under a portcullis, which was the focus of all the German guns.
“The plan was to time the crossing of the battery’s Sexton SP guns, in between enemy shell bursts.
“So, with the American paratroopers of 101 US Airborne providing covering fire, the drawbridge into Veghel was lowered, and 342 Battery sped through, heads down, helmets firmly on, and with a prayer on their lips whilst, under withering enemy fire.
“Miraculously nobody was injured.”
Their “escape” came as a major relief to their American allies, who had learned of their plight during the previous night.
“Betting had been brisk among 101st US Airborne as to the chances of 342 Battery being marched off into captivity. The odds had certainly been in favour of captivity.”
Dorothy said the dramatic flight into Veghel came at a point in the battle “when patrols from both sides were infiltrating each other’s positions almost at will. The village of Veghel was the sad scene of wrecked buildings and burning vehicles.”
And that constant change in positions was almost the undoing of Dorothy’s father.
For as she goes on to reveal: “My dad said that one day it was his turn to work out the firing positions for the guns (they were moved frequently, often several times a day to prevent enemy artillery zeroing in on them).
“He was busy sticking flags in a field, deep in thought, when he heard a faint metallic noise which he believed was coming from the green undergrowth at the edge of the clearing.
“Battle-hardened to any hint of imminent danger, he stopped for a moment and listened, and squinted towards the bushes and trees, thinking he’d probably imagined it. Then he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye and quickly looked in that direction.
“He could see there was a ruined stone farm building, which the undergrowth had invaded, and within the ruins to his utter horror, he could see a camouflaged German self-propelled gun.
“Fortunately for him, he was a keen runner, a Wallsend Harrier during civilian leisure hours, and he was up and running for his life towards the cover of trees at the edge of the field in seconds.
“It wasn’t long after that the enemy gun opened up on him personally, which sent clods of earth showering over his head as he fled, zigzagging his way to safety, despite wearing heavy army boots!”
The soldier, gunner Denys Hunter, who had been sent out to look for the 342 Battery, meanwhile, had his own lucky escape at the hands of the Germans, as Dorothy explains.
Accompanied by signaller Williams, another soldier, and the Battery commander, Denys drove along a woodland track near Veghel.
“At the end of the track were three or four houses that were quite modern.
“Their commanding officer told them to go ahead and make an observation post, and drove off, without another word, leaving the three bewildered young soldiers standing there with a wireless set to transmit from.
“They went into one of the empty houses and into a front room on the ground floor, where they set the radio down in front of the bay window.
“They then brewed tea to drink with their thick ‘hard tack’ biscuits, after which they dozed under the window.”
But they had a rude awakening.
“Suddenly, they heard boots on the log pathway which surrounded the house. Stock still, eyes staring, senses alert, hearts thudding like pistons and hardly daring to breath, the three soldiers waited.
“By this time, it was starting to get dark, and the little lights dancing on the wireless set, would twinkle like beacons and be spotted immediately by a keen-eyed German.
“Denys hissed urgently ‘switch the thing off!’
“Then they heard German voices and the scrape of boots right outside the house, and realised that their worst fears had been well-founded. Nobody moved a muscle, desperately trying to hear the faintest movement of impending discovery.
“The German patrol was outside for 10 minutes, which, as Denys said, to them seemed like hours.
“Then, the Germans started to walk away, still chatting, leaving only a faint aroma of German cigarette and an enormous sense of relief in their wake.
“For some reason they hadn’t bothered to check the house, had they done so, there would have been no escape for the three British men who spent the remainder of the night in front of the wireless set waiting, not daring to sleep and with nothing substantial to eat.
“The next morning, the battery commander returned, and probably didn’t notice the resentful looks from his subordinates, who had been given a worthless mission which had almost got them captured.”
The following day, the Germans were finally dislodged from Veghel.