North East soldiers gave up their lives in the forest of fear

Troops tread warily through the Reichswald Forest.
Troops tread warily through the Reichswald Forest.

Today local historian Dorothy Ramser begins her account of Operation Veritable, a little-known yet extremely crucial battle of the Second World War.

As Dorothy says, many men from the North East fought this campaign, and many tragically will remain there forever.

Troops and gunners taking part in Operation Veritable.

Troops and gunners taking part in Operation Veritable.

Her account is told from the perspective of one Royal Artillery regiment, the 86th Hertfordshire Yeomanry Field Regt R.A., which on February 2, 1945, left for Nijmegen in their Sexton self-propelled guns, to where the Army was being assembled for the coming offensive in the Reichswald Forest.

“The snow had started to thaw,” reveals Dorothy, “and five days later, some roads were already under water and starting to collapse with the weight of the heavy military vehicles.

“By that evening, the regiment was ready to take part in the assault, and at 4pm, their 25-pounder guns came out from under their camouflage and moved to their firing positions.”

Slit trenches were dug, and 4,800 rounds were dumped at each battery position. Ahead of them was the elite German First Parachute Army, well dug in, waiting in the darkness in the trenches and pillboxes of the fortified villages.

“The regiment was to support 6th Guards Armoured Brigade, under the command of 15th Scottish Infantry Division, and the plan was to attack through the heavily-defended Reichswald Forest and breach the Siegfried Line, to reach the west bank of the River Rhine.

“The assault was to continue day and night, and to assist movement and observation during darkness, artificial moonlight - ‘Monty’s Moonlight’ - was provided by Search Light Batteries.

“It was a daunting task, and the forest was the most feared of all the obstacles – nine miles long and five miles wide, dark and dense, with only one good road around its edge.

Anti-tank ditches covered in barbed wire zig-zagged across the whole territory.

“The towns had been transformed into strong-points defended by elaborate trench works and anti-tank ditches, with a tremendous number of weapon-pits, machine gun and anti-aircraft posts, wire fences and minefields.

“The men hated the Reichswald Forest, describing it as cold, dark and damp, and devoid of all sunlight. It must have been a sinister place, even in peacetime.”

Dorothy reveals that the total ammunition tonnage provided for the artillery at the start of the operation (for three days) was the equivalent in weight to the bomb-drop of 25,000 medium bombers.

“A 20-mile artillery smoke screen would be in operation at the beginning of the assault, which was the longest of the war.

“Reveille for the gunners was at 4am on that dark, misty morning. All was quiet at the gun end as they prepared the Sextons and checked ammunition stacks.

“On February 8, at 4.30am, Operation Veritable commenced with a thundering barrage as 1,300 guns of the artillery began pouring high explosive into the German positions.

“It was the greatest artillery barrage in British history.

“An Allied officer described the opening of the battle by saying: ‘There was continuous roll of heavy gunfire that was punctuated by staccato bursts of machine gun fire from all sides.

“‘At 0740hrs, almost a complete silence descended on the entire front for a period of a full 10 minutes to locate active enemy batteries.

“‘A few birds were still flying across the sky in a bewildered manner, as the artillery took up their theme again, and the tempo accelerated as the full weight of the guns was brought to bear against the enemy.

“‘The gaunt trunks and torn branches of trees, ruined farm buildings, and the smoke and cordite fumes that swept across the area all contributed to the strangely fascinating panorama of war.

“‘As H-Hour approached, the noise increased and a new note was added by the sound of armour moving forward and planes passing overhead.

“‘The armour lurched forward with all vehicles stripped for action – one tank still had a frying pan dangling from the back of the turret. There was an air of urgency and tense expectation.’”

For the artillery, this fire plan was only the beginning of almost 14 days of constant firing.

“The gunner’s job was not an easy one,” added Dorothy. The man behind the gun rarely had any rest.

“It meant repeated moves for the guns and huge amounts of ammunition needed to be transported by lorry, gun-pits dug and an unceasing amount of calculations to be worked out for firing the guns with accuracy.

“There could be no error, for the lives of our own infantry were at stake.”

Joe Cattini, a 342 Battery Driver, gave this eyewitness account of the battle.

“There was a heck of a barrage to get into Germany. We were deafened by it! The guns fired so much the gunners had to pour water onto the gun barrels to cool them when they got overheated.

“As drivers we were kept very busy, carrying ammunition, petrol and all sorts of supplies.

“We weren’t just supplying our regiment sometimes we had to supply other units too.

“It was very rough driving, you see there were very few proper roads in the Reichswald Forest.

“At first we were positioned on the edge of the forest, opposite the German positions, so we made dug-outs then cut down trees to lay on top to give us some protection from the shelling.”

Next time: The battle rages on, with one British soldier saying: “We were fighting to preserve our way of life.”