- Contributed by
- Norman Fews
- People in story:
- Topper Rapkin, Bram Stoker, Digweed, Wlater Wynn
- Location of story:
- Lower Saxony, Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 May 2005
The battle of El Alamein was Montgomery’s first battle as an army commander, it went well, and then it turned into the usual stalemate. It was at that time in the 1st Royal Dragoons, who were being held in reserve waiting to exploit the breakout. We were ordered to circumvent the Quarthara Depression which was considered impossible by both sides, and attack Rommel from the rear. This action turned the tide of the battle, and after that, Montgomery always insisted that the Royal Dragoons should always be involved in any other attacks which he led.
The battle for the crossing of the Rhine was the last great land battle of the war, and the attack was to be on two fronts; one by 51st Highland Division in the North, and one by 15th Scottish division further South. To comply with Montgomery’s “fetish”, the regiment was split in two: A and B squadrons attached to 51st Highland and C and D attached to 15th Scottish.
The battle of the Rhine was a success, and by early April, the regiment was together again, acting as advance “reconnoitre” for the advancing 2nd army.
“A” Squadron; of which I was a member, was doing advanced reconnoitre between Brunswick and Uelzen, C and D squadrons were doing flank protection for the reconnoitre, with B squadron in reserve.
I was in a group of 17, who were holed up in the forest, overlooking the autobahn, between Brunswick and Uelzen, and our job was to identify any German units which were being sent South to bolster the German defences after the Rhine crossing, but it soon became apparent that the German army was in full retreat northwards, and we were ordered to carry out a triangular reconnoitre of some 40 miles in order to try to find where the German army was going to establish their next line of defence, which we guessed would be on the River Elbe.
We began our patrol at first light, and the first part went well. We checked out a small aerodrome at Dedelsdorf, which had been used for training Luftwaffe pilots, but which had hurriedly been abandoned, and we reported that it would be suitable for the RAF to use for their close support ground to air operations.
In the next village of Hankensbuttel, we were held up slightly by a small calibre anti tank gun situated on a railway level crossing, but this was quickly dealt with. When we entered the village to mop up, we found that the 20mm gun had been manned by the equivalent of the Home Guard, or a Germans Dad’s Army. All of them had been killed, except a young boy — about 14 to 16, who had been severely wounded in both feet and ankles, and was obviously dying. His mother and another woman had managed to get him into a wheel chair, and was trying to take him somewhere for help. Against all the KRR’s (Kings Rules and Regulations) we gave him some of our morphine. My wireless operator reminded me it was against KRR’s to give morphine the enemy, as it was solely for our own use, but I remember telling him that as far as I cared, he stick the KRR’s up his backside, page by page in this case. As a reconnoitre regiment operating for long periods, well in front of your own army, and very often behind enemy lines, we did not have any medical backup, and so each cres was issued with morphine in case of being wounded, and hopefully you would be rescued. When on patrol, you could use all the ammunition you wanted, without question, but every last drop of morphine had to be accounted for in detail.
After Hankensbuttel we carried on the small village of Wittingen but on the approach to the village (say half to three quarters of a mile away), there appeared to be a demonstration in the road, with 50-60 people milling around. The leading “dingo” scout car was ordered to proceed with caution, but he soon reported back that the demonstrators were British Prisoners of War. They had been prisoners since 1940 but had been housed in a small camp near Wittingen and been used as casual farm labourers on the surrounding farms. They had been kept in quite relaxed conditions during the war and had been treated very well by the local farming community, and they had begged us not to shoot up the place as a number of them had long term relationships with the local girls which they hoped would result in marriage after the war was over.
In the event, ther was no need to “shoot up Wittingen” because as we got nearer the village a whit flag was flying from the top of the church steeple and almost every house had white sheetss draping out of their windows.
At Wittingen, our patrol turned north in the direction of Uelzen, and we passed through the two farming villages of Solden and Langenbrugge without incident, as every house and farm was flying the white flag. So far the reconnoitre had gone well, and we ahead of our ETA, so squadron forward radio link sanctioned time for a break and a brew-up. From Langenbrugge we could look down on the village of Bodenteich in the distance 5 k away, and could see that no white flags were flying, so we guessed that it was still occupied by the German army, but we did not know at what strength. We were approaching directly from the south, but there was also a road approaching south-east from Salzwedel, which made ideal conditions for an anti tank ambush. Accordingly, it was decided to change our tactics from a snake patrol, to a leap-frog patrol, in order to minimise the risk. Out patrol was made up of two Daimler armoured cars; the main armament of which was a two pounder gun and a Besa heavy machine, two Daimler scout cars, armed with Bren machine guns, and an American made white scout car with various light weapons. Total complement of men was 16, plus a Polish soldier, who we had released from a POW camp, and who had unofficially agreed to join us in order to act as an interpreter. I was a wireless operator/gunner in one of the Daimler armoured cars.
As the two armoured cars “leap-froged” into Bodenteich, the Jerry’s sprung their ambush from the Salzwedel road, and one the Daimler armoured cars was knocked out. It was engaged first by a detachment of German infantry using rifles and a Spandau machine (the fastest firing machine gun used during the war). Almost immediately two small anti tank guns opened up, and both hit the armoured car. Fortunately, neither shot hit the turret of the patrol tanks, or it would have been “curtains”, but both shots hit the rear engine compartment, and shrapnel penetrated the radiator causing vast amounts of steam, and it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before it would catch fire and blow up. The rest of the troop engaged the Jerry’s with their two pounder and machine guns, and also laid down smoke to give the crew of the knocked armoured car a chance to bail out. Owing to the impact of the two anti tank shells on the strickened armoured car, the driver (Bram Stoker) had lost control, and was in a ditch at an awkward angle. Two of the crew got out without difficulty, but the third member (Topper Rapkin) was obviously wounded, and could not get out under his own steam. As they were struggling to get him out of the turret, a German girl who had been collecting the family’s milk ration from a nearby farm suddenly appeared on the scene riding a bicycle. Much to our surprise, she stopped and helped Bram Stoker and Digweed (Wireless Operator/Gunner) get the wounded soldier out of the armoured car, and carry him the comparative safety of another ditch where she helped stop the bleeding using her own clothes until Sgt Rapkin was carried into Bodenteich by a German stretcher party, and Digweed and Stoker were taken prisoner.
We knew that by now, German medical resources and drugs were in very short supply, and that very often amputation the easiest option for the treatment of even minor wounds. As we had no idea how seriously Topper Rapkin was wounded, we thought it might be a good idea if we could get him back in return for a German prisoner that other members of our squadron might have in “the bag”.
We were both only comparatively small army units out on a limb, so any swap could be quite informal, and unofficial. Accordingly, we sent our Polish interpreter to Bodenteich under the protection of a Red Cross flag, which we improvised from our recognition stripes, which we rarely used anyway because the American Air Force used to use them for target practice — or so it seemed! The local German commander agreed our swap proposal for an SS Officer, but we knew that this was impossible, as the SS never gave themselves up unless they were so badly wounded that they had no other option, and of course, we never took SS prisoners — they were just disposed of.
One of our other troops in the squadron had taken that day the surrender of a German Sgt Major. (an Obbshufuhrer) who was in their pay corps, and who had given himself up carrying a large quantity of money in the hope he could buy himself a cushy billet. The Jerries accepted this compromise, and it was agreed that the exchange should be made later on that evening on the site of our burnt out armoured car.
Once this agreement was made, we stripped out all of the equipment and weapons from our white scout car, and converted it into a make shift ambulance, where we could slip in a stretcher. Originally I was going to accompany the white scout driver to the rendezvous for the swap, but at the last minute, the Jerries insisted the swap could only be made between officers, so I exchanged duties with Lt. Walter William Watkins Williams Wynn. He went into Bodenteich and I took over operating the previously arranged Verey Light signals. The prisoner swap went smoothly, and very much later we were able to hand over Tapper to the army medical corp. who had sent a proper ambulance under armed escort to Wittingen to pick him up.
Tapper had been wounded in the shoulder, but more severely in the leg. He spent almost two years in hospital and an army convalescence home, but in October 1947 he was well enough to travel back to Bodenteich to thank the lady in question, who was called Ursula Babatz, personally for helping to save his life.
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