Troops faced splinters of death in the forest

As British troops fought for control of the Reichswald Forest, during Operation Veritable, during the Second World War,they made a harrowing discovery, as local historian Dorothy Ramser reveals, in the latest part of her account of this little known, yet crucial conflict.

Monday, 20th June 2016, 8:58 am
Updated Monday, 20th June 2016, 10:03 am
Operation Blockbuster.

“The battlefield was a scene of wrecked houses, craters, splintered and broken trees – dead Germans lay unburied for days as the enemy withdrew,” explains Dorothy.

“The flooded route was pitted with shell holes into which unsuspecting motor cyclists would disappear, and advancing units were attacked by the deadly Luftwaffe twin-jet-propelled Focke Wulf 163 planes.

“The Scottish 15th Division, supported by the artillery of the regiment, achieved their first objectives on time, whilst sappers moved forward to breach the deadly minefields and bridge the ant-tank ditches at Nutterden and Materborn.”

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At this stage, the army noted that signs of battle fatigue were to be seen among the men.

“The going in flooded areas was difficult and conditions often almost impossible, with mud deeper than anything encountered since D-Day which made life hell for the Allied army.

“By February 9, the flooding was seriously affecting the whole operation. The exhausted infantry were often obliged to wade through waist deep water. The Sappers had a terrible job as they repaired roads working in liquid mud, rain and wind. If a vehicle got bogged down it was blown up or bulldozed off the road. Nothing was allowed to halt the British advance.”

It was now that the exhausted British troops came upon a cemetery of 1,000 graves, which was discovered south of the village of Bedburg.

Dorothy reveals that the cemetery was later investigated by an Allied Atrocity Commission.

“The cemetery was adjacent to an asylum, and 537 of the graves were Jewish.

“Hundreds of inmates were still in the building, cringing in cellars, while the battle roared round them. The cemetery was filled with white grave markers, each oddly bearing the date of April 20 – Hitler’s birthday.”

Dorothy’s account goes on to say that in Kranenburg, every house had been shattered.

“The retreating Germans had prepared the long avenue of trees, leading into the town, by drilling holes into them for dynamite so that once blown they would block entry to the advancing Allies. But fortunately they never got to fill them with the charges.

“By the time 86th Field Regt. R.A. moved into Cleve, a large part of the fortified town was rubble. It was a fierce, bitter struggle to take Cleve, fighting was house by house and street by street, and often hand to hand. Every window was a firing point for a sniper or a machine gun. Houses had collapsed into the streets and vehicles were embedded in the ruins.”

Dorothy reveals that while the fighting for Cleve was happening, the battle in the deadly forest continued, where wood splinters from shell bursts killed as easily as a bullet.

“The Siegfried line lived up to its reputation and held out until the 10th, when 15th Scottish Division gained a foothold in the warren of formidable German defences. Then, along with the men of 86th Field Regiment RA, they struck south from Cleve and captured Goch, with the 51st Highland Division.

“During each advance made by the gunners, they were obliged to use the gun aiming posts to mark the depth of the water.”

On February 16, the regiment moved to a position half-way between Cleve and Goch to be able to support 15th Scottish Division’s attack on Goch itself two days later.

“By midnight, the Scottish Division was fighting on the outskirts of the town. At the same time the soldiers of 86th Field Regt R.A. had had a troubling night when the Canadians on the Goch-Calcar road were over-run by a German counter-attack, and enemy tanks and infantry were reported just 1,500 yards behind the regiment’s gun area, which was too close for comfort.

“The regiment was ordered on complete ‘stand-to’ for many tense hours.

“In the meantime, the gunners prepared to defend the gun positions if they were put under attack. Thankfully, the Canadians restored the situation by the morning of the 19th, and the tension among the gunners eased.”

Denys Hunter, of the 342 Battery, details the battle, saying: “Every Sexton SP Gun had a 50-calibre machine-gun. If the battery or troop was under threat from attack, they would lager and form a defensive circle. Soft vehicles were in the inner circle, then the Sextons, then the Sherman tanks on the perimeter. The battery had four Bren carriers as defence as well as extra Bren Guns and each gunner had a rifle. The Sten guns were never carried loaded, as there was the likely chance of it going off by itself and wounding the soldier.”

As the weather deteriorated and snow fell, then sleet and icy rain, the resistance of the Germans increased.

“Water levels again rose, and in some places supplies were brought to forward positions by amphibious vehicles. Sappers tipped and hammered bricks from German buildings into rubble roads. While others made roads of discarded petrol tins and ammunition cases.

“The town of Goch, much like fortified Cleve, was held by German fanatics and had to be virtually destroyed to capture it. The soldiers discovered six big notices in a nearby cemetery among the broken tombstones ‘Achtung Minen!’ The Germans had mined their civilian dead.

“A sign at one of the crossroads, emblazoned with two large red and black swastikas, read: You are now entering Germany – be on your guard!

“ Signs which provoked a smile were few, but this one did ... Visitors car park, Russians welcome!

l Tomorrow: The Germans hit back.