- Contributed by
- Gavin W S Dudley
- People in story:
- Gavin W.S. Dudley
- Location of story:
- Belgium and Germany
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 December 2004
Travels of a Captain R.E (Searchlights)
GAVIN W.S. DUDLEY, O.B.E.,
Croix de Guerre (BELG) (avec Palme)
Chevalier de Leopold II (avec Palme)
PART THREE — Into Belgium and across the Rhine
It was in late September, 1944, when the Regiment lumbered into Belgium in the track of 21st Army Group’s advance in pursuit of the retreating Hun. The direction was roughly north-east from Paris and the boundary between ourselves and the US 2nd Army under its well known commander, General Patton, must have been a rough line such as Paris, Campaigne, Soissons, St Quentin, Mons (I remember linking up the city of Mons in my mind with Mons, the first awful battle of WWI (against the same enemy).
I know that the Regiment passed through Brussels in daytime (of this passage a little more in due course), during early October,1944. The US 2nd Army Group were south of the declared border making for Rheims, Luxembourg and Saarbrucken and, of course, the RHINE miles ahead, at full speed before the Hun could blow up all the bridges.
So the Autumn of 1944 passed into history. All that I can vaguely remember is the mass of vehicles on the move towards Brussels, the destruction of roads, villages, towns, etc. by the Germans, and of course, by the allies pursuing the German armour; the constant threat of German counter-offences and, of course the welcome by the French patrols and the normal country people.
Just imagine, please, 5th South Staffs. S/L detachments, a full REME, Signals, Supply (fuel etc.) NAAFI, and other sections - a rough total of 2700 men, 700 vehicles, lorries etc. - all in a long, ever-hesitating string of moving objects on poor roads between the area of Paris (France) and Brussels (Belgium), our eventual destination—and all becoming thoroughly MIXED UP with thousands of tanks, half-tracks, armoured cars, carriers, trucks, tankers etc. etc of the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and the Empire Forces; all pressing on into Belgium, and passing broken down, burnt-out vehicles and cars, and, of course, streams of Huns, pow's, wounded soldiers and thousands of displaced civilians.
Well, well - roughly 150 miles - Paris to Brussels and we took about a month to do it!! The Regt. lost only one Searchlight with its attendant 10 ton lorry en route!!!
Whilst 21st Army Group was wending its way towards Brussels in Belgium, unknown to us, the great airborne operation of ARNHEM, Holland, was fought and lost - Sept.17th to 26th. Under Lt. Gen. Browning some 30,000 British, American and Polish troops were dropped by more than 1,000 aircraft in the region of Arnhem with a view to facilitating the final allied drive into the heart of Germany. After fierce fighting, the allied survivors had to be withdrawn.
(See the film ‘A Bridge too Far’ - excellent).
All that I remember is that while passing through Brussels many of us, including myself, noticed how unfriendly they were towards the British. In general the citizens of Brussels appeared largely unaffected by the war - Brussels was largely untouched by bombing - the shops were open, particularly the sweet and chocolate shops, with never an offer of cakes or coffee to us, let alone garlands of flowers, etc. (so unlike Paris and the French).
I began to ask why on earth were we fighting the Germans - to save the Belgians ? (After all, Leopold I had surrendered to the Germans in May 1940, thus allowing their Panzers to flow across into France, direction DUNKIRK (!!) without telling us or the French).
Our final destination was Louvain (now Lenven) 40 kms east of Brussels. And it was during the beginning of October 1944 that all officers in our brigade were called to meet General Horrocks, our Corps Commander, to speak to us about the next steps - entry into Germany and over the RHINE. He was outstanding. We were fighting a brutal enemy. We were entering Holland and the Rhine land. We had done so well in freeing France of the Hun; now we were out to get Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy. I remember some of his words: “You are going on relentlessly into Germany. It’s going to be tough. The Germans have invented only one thing - that is how to wage WAR. They have tried twice before, France in the 1870’s, France again in 1914, and now again, France 1940 - but now France is free again—and so, gentlemen, on into Germany. God bless you all”. Very stirring stuff!!
We, in the 5th S. Staffs S/L Reg .RA, soon learnt of an idea called ‘moonlighting’. Choosing a night with low cloud, the searchlights with 40,000 ft. range and very powerful, would be switched on either straight into the faces of the German defenders and then switched off, leaving the Germans dazzled, or to aim for a patch of low cloud, switch on, and then illuminating a large area of ground or German defences.
None of this happened, luckily, to us. The pace of the war heated up considerably and it became essential to open up the Port of Antwerp in the Scheldt Estuary for the supply of fuel, ammunition, armour and men for 21st Army Group.
So the Regiment was posted again to go north to Antwerp (Anvers), 40 miles or so north of Brussels. Off we went and found sufficient billets for our Regiment and for one other down by the docks.
We are now in early November, and the Germans had started to use their vicious V.2 Rockets, not only over England but also over the build -up of Allied forces in Belgium. While waiting for further orders, I was in my office (2nd Nov. I seem to remember), when suddenly a V.2 Rocket landed and exploded about two streets away. I happened to be facing it and in came the glass and cut my face badly. Luckily the Reg. M.O. was close by and patched me up with only my eyes, nose and mouth showing!!
Our next posting was out of Antwerp into Holland to work along the northern shore of the Scheldt Estuary, (60-80 miles), watching out for German fighter bombers (of which I don’t remember one! since the Russians now were into Poland and German a/c were all required there).
In the meantime, I do remember being greeted by the Dutch (many of them), who seeing my face in bandages, commented on this fact and asked whether I had killed any of the Boche and, of course, I had to say that I had never, as yet, seen even an alive Hun, (tho’ I had seen quite a few dead and quite a few POWs on their way to the cages).
Within a few days, mid-November the Port of Antwerp was cleared of mines and open to allied shipping. The weather was wet and cold!! Very cold.
Now came a complete turn-around in my war!
During the great advance of the allies, after the relief of Paris and therefore of France, - in the north and north-eastern parts at any rate - we found that the Germans had left pockets of resistance in a few places: (Quite normal in previous wars for a defeated enemy to have such ‘pockets’ left behind to act as ‘thorns’ to disturb the ‘smooth’ advance.
The Germans were no different. They left behind 8,000-9,000 men in Calais, 5,000 in Boulogne, but as many as 10,000-12,000 in Dunkirk - a much more important port, being an oil-refinery of some size: oil and gas. Also, as some of us came to believe later on, Field Marshall Rumstedt was planning the last of the defensive- attacks by the Germans in WW2 against the western allies. We suspect that he knew that one of the tasks of 21st Army Group was to start the training and arming of a new French Army Corps in this area of N/NE France - a vital duty for it gave the French new hope and vigour.
Anyway, more of this anon. The Scheldt Estuary and Antwerp was now open to allied shipping in the much needed supplies of fuel, ammunition, food, reinforcements of men and material, now that we were on the threshold of GERMANY. In the event, we still had to fight our way to BERLIN.
So my war suddenly altered course, thank the Lord. My Regiment was ordered to supply two Searchlight/Bofor detachments to leave the Antwerp area and go to the Dunkirk area and to join a Czechoslovakian Armoured Brigade and 2 companies of a British Field Artillery battery.
Our duties were to surround the city Dunkirk and to prevent any of the 10,000 or so Germans from breaking out from the city to join up with General Rumstedt’s last effort to effect a corridor between 21st Army Group and the American 2nd Army both aiming eastwards towards Germany — and of course, BERLIN.
Capt. Dickson and myself received our orders from the Colonel of the Czech Armoured Brigade to go immediately to Dunkirk and to take over sufficient temporary accommodation in WORMHOUT, 40kms south of Dunkirk while details were being worked upon by our Divisional Commander and our 2nd Army Group about civilian accommodation, etc.
Capt. Dickson was in charge of the area S/SW and West of Dunkirk and myself was i/c of the area S/SE and East of Dunkirk up to the Belgium border. I found a suitable house in La Panne, just over the Belgium border on the coast (North Sea coast), looking down the almost straight beach to Dunkirk, past the rubble of concrete gun emplacements. I began to realise the power of my searchlights (and their range of 35,000-40,000 ft.)
EARLY DECEMBER 1944
Each S/L troop had one captain, one 2nd Lieutenant, 6 S/Ls, 6 electronic sound locators, 6 diesels, 2 guns and 6 multiple ‘pompoms’ (taken from B26 bombers) and about 160 other ranks including 8 sergeants — about 180 men in all. My first job was to find sites for my six searchlights and accommodation for the detachment of soldiers for each. Each site had to have a good view of Dunkirk from any higher ground outside the flooded area (the Germans had opened all the flood gates around the city and port).
However, good use was made of the mass of destroyed gun emplacements that lined the beaches for miles along the coast on either side of the city and port of Dunkirk!
Results - very successful. Two near to BERQUES, two around SOCX and two at LA PANNE (my HQ on the Belgium/French border).
DECEMBER 1944 TO FEBRUARY 1945
I remember the icy cold winter, which iced over all the flooded areas around the city of Dunkirk. Visiting a couple of S.L. sites, we spotted a couple of ‘inflatable’ dinghies with about 30 Germans being pushed over the iced-up main canal (Dunkirk to Berques). We illuminated them (late evening 5 to 7pm.) and shot them up. They soon scuttled back to the nearest houses, leaving behind some bodies and two ‘flat’ boats. Two other sites reported more or less the same.
The Ardennes offensive was on, the town of BASTOGNE was being brilliantly defended by the US 2nd Army Group without air cover due to weeks of freezing fog covering N.E. France (very COLD). I remember too the welcome I had when I explained to Monsieur and Madame, the owners of the main chateau in Socx that I wished to place an S.L. detachment near the chateau and the church (both excellent vantage points, 40' above sea level) to control Dunkirk.
Monsieur was overjoyed and pointed out the spire of the church, the tip of which had been shot away by the Germans in 1940 to act as a bearing for both German guns (1940) and our own aircraft (1945). He also pointed out where he had hidden the engine and gearbox of his large Citroen car that then remained safe and sound in the middle of a large haystack. (The family had one son - the youngest - and three daughters - a delightful family and remain friends of my own family to this day).
So the war progressed. I took two 48 hour leaves in Paris. For the first leave (1945) I went to the British Officer’s Club and asked for some girl to guide me around Paris. “Certainement! Voulez vous une blonde ou une Brunette?” I replied a blonde SVP;- --“Vonez ici SVP à neuf heure du matin”. Lo and behold, a delightful 18 year old awaited me. She was quite simply splendid. Her family had an enormous chateau in Normandy and another house in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris - very rich. How they escaped from the Germans, I don’t know, but years later I heard that Monsieur had even managed to hide a 1937 S.S. II (forerunner of the Jaguar) tucked away in his ‘cellar’ together with hundreds of bottles of exquisite French wine!
So the WWII progressed. The Czechs, once a fortnight or so, would raid the Eastern suburbs of Dunkirk, searching for prisoners. It was quite exciting! At night I would place my HQ Searchlight on the beach (French/Belgium borders) and illuminate that part of the city within range of the beam. Meanwhile, a Czech attachment would crawl or move under the beam of bright light into the city & seize a number of prisoners from the German defences, who were blinded by the beam of the searchlight. After a few minutes the HQ S.L would be towed behind an old Hun gun emplacement and “dowsed”.
Within minutes the Hun would shell the original site and hit nothing. I would have moved my HQ light to another bit of the ruins along the coast and ‘switch’ on. The Hun must have thought there must have been quite a Battery of SL’s facing them - I think that was why I was given the Croix de Guerre (Belge) after the was in 1946!!
U.K. leave in 1945 - 2weeks - glorious. The war ended while I was on leave and I had to rush back to La Panne (during one of the worst channel crossings I have ever experienced!) to find that the 5th South Staffs. SL Regiment had been posted to Germany as part of the Army of Occupation 1946/47 near to HILDEHEIM - 3" of snow - with ski-ing in the Black Forest at BAD SALDETFURTH.
There we found a concentration camp nearby - a cruel and nasty one where thousands and thousands had died - but the citizens of Bad Saldetfurth professed to know nothing!! So we got a lot of blown-up photographs of the camp, pasted them up along the whole length of the main street, blocked off the side roads, mounted a searchlight and a Bofors gun at each end, and made the Germans walk up and down for three days and nights - the Germans soon learned their lesson, even though a few would say that the pictures of the concentration camp were false!
I remember ordering the Mayor to produce, within two days, a car for every officer and one smaller one for each Sergeant in charge of a SL Detachment, together with 36-40 radios and 6 pianos (one for each Detachment /Group).
I also remember that one German refused to hand over his very nice DKW - “Because it had no wheels”. I was angry and I remember saying, “We are the victors now. We are, however, humane, unlike Hitler and what he would have done had he conquered England.” I reminded him of Mein Kampf, in which Hitler had threatened to halve the population of England by using the concentration camp or enforced slavery in the German mines and factories (for V.2 rockets etc). I gave him 24 hours to find the wheels and to have his car ready and moving by 12midday the next day, or else….!! The car was ready, complete with tyres and petrol in the tank. A fellow officer found Goering’s Mercedes-Benz - what a car!!
Two months later we were told by Gen. Montgomery (21st Army Group) to hand back all pianos, cars etc. to their German owners. The age of ‘Fraternisation’ had started.
In February 1946 I was demobbed.
While in Germany, ABCA (Army Bureau of Current Affairs) had given us pamphlets about ‘Future Opportunities for Employment’. I was immediately attracted to H.M. Colonial Service and I applied for entry into NIGERIA as a cadet administration officer.
I also ordered my first post-war car - an M.G. TC - lovely in shining black cellulose. But in April, I got peritonitis and had to have an immediate operation, arranged for me within hours by my sister, Pamela. The operation was successful and I was left with two tubes sticking out of my tummy - very painful. However, I remember my mother telephoning whilst I was in the hospital and telling me that a NEW TC Midget 2-seater sports car (black) had been delivered to Stradishall, my home.
In July, I was instructed to go to the Colonial Office in London for an interview. In spite of looking very pale and weak, I was selected for Nigeria and was told to be ready to depart by October.
In October, 1946, I left for Nigeria: and It was only then that I received news that I had been awarded the Croix de Guerre (Belge) and Chevalier de Leopold II, both ‘avec palme’ - to this day I know not what for!!
So ended World War II.
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