Bleak winter battle for British troops

German troops taking part in the Battle of Ardennes
German troops taking part in the Battle of Ardennes

This is the story of a little known British battle in the village of Bure, during the Battle of the Ardennes, in Belgium, on December 16, 1944, writes South Shields’ history enthusiast Dorothy Ramser.

Although written with the guidance of my research into the participation of my father’s regiment in this battle, it is the story of all the British soldiers, many from South Tyneside who fought in this cold deadly place, and endured the same hardships during Christmas 1944 and New Year 1945.

When Germany’s Von Rundstedt’s winter offensive was launched, 86th Hertfordshire Yeomanry Field Regiment Royal Artillery was in action in the area of Jabeek and Raath, south east of Sittard, supporting the Guards Armoured Division.

On December 19, billeting parties were sent to the Louvain area where the division was to go for training and rest.

So, on the afternoon of December 20, 86th Field regiment was getting ready to move to Rhode-St Pierre, a village not far from Louvain, where they were to occupy billets at Christmas.

The men were pleased with the idea that they would be out of danger and action for a few days, and the thought of preparations for their Christmas meal was a welcome respite from the death and destruction they saw on a regular basis.

One of the gunners was a wonderful Romany soldier who never came back to the gun position without a plump chicken or even a suckling pig tucked under his arm!

So the men had high hopes of sitting down at a table with a tasty meal in front of them – which beat a cold slit trench hands down!

Then came the dreadful news – the move was cancelled, and the regiment was to leave at once for the Ardennes, with the Guards Armoured Division.

The Germans had launched a dangerous offensive which had caught the Americans off guard and was starting to look like a very serious threat.

The journey was extremely slow because of the icy conditions and poor visibility.

On the morning of the 21st, the weary gunners arrived in the village of Hakendover, only 12 miles from their starting position.

The division was ordered to guard against any German attempt to cross the River Meuse, to get to Brussels.

Despite the move, it was thought the regiment would be spending Christmas in Hakendover, which meant that they could start their preparations for a hot Christmas meal.

They took over the village school and decorated it as best they could, and managed to get plates and cutlery – a real luxury – and everyone was looking forward to some festive cheer during a bleak war.

Beds were made up in stables, hay lofts and sometimes a soft feather bed was offered in the home of a kind civilian. Very soon the stew pots were simmering, and the troops and villagers sat down to a meal together. The Belgians provided most welcome beverages of coffee and cognac! These pleasant surroundings were not destined to last long, however, as the regiment was ordered to prepare to move immediately.

After they had covered 20 or 30 miles, the weather started to change.

The further they went, the colder it got, and by the time they made their first stop to brew some tea there was a light covering of snow on the ground.

As the regiment advanced into the Ardennes – in freezing weather conditions – the atmosphere became very tense.

The villages were in darkness, no troops could be seen, and very occasionally a jeep raced passed, going in the same direction as they were – the front.

As the light began to fade, the regiment slowed down, the light snowfall had frozen and manipulation of tanks and Sexton Self Propelled guns on the treacherous country roads had become increasingly difficult.

Vehicles slid about helplessly. Anything available would be thrown under the tracks of the Shermans and SP guns to gain some grip.

A Scammel lorry, with all sorts of equipment at hand, followed the armoured column in case a vehicle needed winching out of the snow.

On Christmas morning, 342 Battery of the regiment crossed the Meuse with 23rd Hussars (in which my mother’s brother Fred Cook served as a tank driver in B Squadron) and onwards to a position 10 miles east of Beauraing where they were ordered to form a defensive position.

Conditions were Arctic, and the gunners spent most of the time trying to keep warm and not get frostbite. Daytime temperatures never rose above freezing and nights were a mind-numbing minus 20 degrees. It got dark at 4pm and the morning didn’t dawn until 8am.

The SP guns made of steel, accentuated the cold and even though the gunners had been issued “zoot suits”, a lined all-in-one suit with a hood, it still penetrated and chilled them to the bone. Digging slit trenches for cover in ground frozen solid was no easy feat.

Daily tasks were normally accomplished with ease, but the weather was so cold that the simplest of jobs proved difficult.

The worst task was pouring a hundred or so gallons of petrol from jerry cans into the tanks of Shermans and SP guns.

Each of the cans was coated in ice, and by the time it was emptied, gloved hands were frozen to the sides. Climbing over the tanks and guns was, in itself, hazardous as they had become so iced up the crews had to open access doors with crow bars and sledge hammers.

The extreme cold even affected a soldier’s sleep.

A nap for an hour huddled in a slit trench or under a tarpaulin was usually all that could be managed.

Many infantrymen suffered from frost-bitten feet. Some soldiers were lucky enough to find shelter in a barn or a ruined building.

So being given the opportunity of a bed in one of the local houses was a huge relief to a frozen exhausted soldier.

My dad was welcomed into the home of the Wathelet family, in Wellin, on January 2, 1945. On leaving, eight-year-old Michel presented him with a dedicated photo of himself. Seventy years on, and Michel, who lives nearby, has never forgotten Sgt. Dickson.

British infantry platoons, leading Alsatian dogs, were seen by the gunners marching towards the battlefront. The dogs were used for the life-saving task of smelling out mines laid deep in the snow.

Leading patrols of the German 7th Army were less than 10 miles from the River Meuse. An occasional burst of machine gun fire, several explosions and plumes of smoke was about the only action seen so far, but nevertheless 342 Battery found targets worthy of attention.

In this cold miserable place, the gunners ate their Christmas dinner of corned beef and hard tack biscuits.

That day, the heavy fog that had kept Allied aircraft grounded, lifted and air attacks on German positions, in support of ground attacks could recommence.

The sight of bombers and Typhoons seeking out the enemy must have lifted the spirits of the cold soldiers on the ground. They saw one flight of Typhoons roar over their position and release their rockets at a column of enemy tanks.

Despite the morale-boosting air strikes, the worst of the fighting for these men was still to come, as Dorothy reveals tomorrow in the next instalment of her fascinating account.