British soldiers fighting in the Second Word War faced danger and the threat of death on a daily basis.
Here, local historian Dorothy Ramser recalls the moment gunners from Battery 342, the 86th Hertfordshire Yeomanry Field Regiment Royal Artillery, who were fighting in the Battle for Veghel, in Holland, found themselves isolated from their comrades – and surrounded by ruthless enemy troops.
The account is made even more dramatic, by the fact that Dorothy’s father, a 31-year-old sergeant, at the time, was caught up in the fighting.
As Dorothy reveals, September 24, 1944, was “a bad day” for 342 Battery who had been supporting the 44th Royal Tank Regiment and the 101st US Airborne Division in their push for Veghel Bridge over the Willemsvaart Canal.
“As night time fell, and although they were still answering fire calls from 101st US Airborne, the men of 342 Battery made a sickening discovery,” explains Dorothy.
“The infantry of 231 Brigade of the 50th Northumbrian Division, had moved north to a new position, leaving the gunners with no support, in an area that was infested with Panzer Grenadiers and enemy tanks. What is more their position was well known by the enemy.
“The men of 342 Battery knew it was going to be a very long and anxious night, with the enemy never far away and often surrounding them.
“Knowing that two days before, in Eerde, the Germans had been murdering civilians in cold blood probably didn’t help to ease their minds.
“My father who was a sergeant of one of the regiment’s Sexton self-propelled guns, wrote in a letter to his older brother Francis, a station master at Bear Park, of his night with the isolated battery.
“He told of the tension of complete silence throughout the night, when even the smell of a cigarette could give their position away, and how it got to one of the men, who in his temporary panic, was in grave danger of alerting the nearby Germans as to where they were, so was quickly suppressed.”
With the men and their guns still isolated, a 20-year-old gunner, Denys Hunter, was sent out in A Jeep by the Battery commander, Major Whitmee, to try to locate them. But when he got to their last know position, they had gone.
“He drove off again in the dark, in the direction he hoped they’d taken.
“After a while he came to an abrupt and terrified halt, when he was confronted, to his horror, by the sight of Panzer Grenadiers blocking the road – and they were definitely looking his way.
“Survival instinct and adrenalin kicked in, and Denys threw the jeep around, pressed the accelerator to the floor, gunned the engine and hurtled round the bend in the road under a hail of enemy gun fire.
“He eventually got back to Veghel and saw that the 101st US Airborne Division had set up a checkpoint, with an anti-tank gun in the middle of the road.
“There was a wood on the left beside the road-block, with a wide road running alongside, so he parked the Jeep there and went to identify himself to the paratroopers before going to report to Major Whitmee.”
With the major asleep, he gave his report to a corporal before “watching in the inky darkness” for any signs of 342 Battery. Tomorrow: What happened to Dorothy’s dad and his brothers-in-arms.