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'Fire Orders' Chapter 17a

by Douglas Burdon via his son Alan

Contributed by 
Douglas Burdon via his son Alan
People in story: 
Doug Burdon, Forward observation Signaller
Location of story: 
The Reichswald Forest
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 June 2004

Chapter 17a

Forest And Escarpment

Our Division was pulled out of the line in December and deployed in Northern Belgium as von Rundstedt's Ardennes offensive threatened temporarily to cross the Meuse and strike northeast towards Antwerp. The Division also supplied a composite force, the Reconnaissance Regiment, with infantry, artillery and engineer units under its command to hold the vital Meuse bridges at Vise and Huy, including the Liege area, but it was not engaged. Because of this offensive, "The Battle Of The Bulge", we were at half an hour's notice to move to the assistance of the Americans should it be necessary. As it turned out, the Americans held firm, the offensive failed and we were not called upon. It was the Christmas period, but with us, as with our American friends, it passed almost unnoticed. We celebrated the season of Peace On Earth, Goodwill To All Men with our liberated French Brandy.
The Division returned to the line in mid-January and took over the same sector we had fought over during the Geilenkirchen offensive. Here, we took part in the limited operations to eliminate the
German salient west of the River Roer, and, attacking on the 21st. January, we captured Waldenrath, Uetterath, Dremmen, and several other villages. The Hampshires and the Wiltshires took most of the 800- 900 prisoners captured. Opposition was not very heavy, the enemy being£ too preoccupied with his efforts to pull back across the river.
The Reichswald Forest was the next major obstacle to be overcome and the start of our participation in the battle for the forest found us in Roger Dog parked on a rough track at the edge of the forest awaiting the order to go in. Our attack was scheduled to start at 05.30 hours but the powers-that-be had us at our start line at 02.30.hours. The cold was intense. Our breaths were exhaled as little puffs of vapour. The temperature had been falling steadily for days and the air was so cold we could almost grab it by the handful. Even that brass monkey would have suffered.
I was in the back seat, keeping a listening watch on the No,19 set, Nobby was in the driving seat, ready to act as driver/ operator should I have to get out and go forward with the No.18 set, and Captain Gibb sat beside him. From time to time we would get out and stamp about on the iron-hard ground and flail our arms about our bodies to try to get warm, but after a couple of minutes back in the carrier we would be as cold as ever again. The armour-plated side of the carrier sent an icy-cold spasm through my entire body every time my shoulder touched it. In the confined space of the compartment such contact was unavoidable. The forest was ominously quiet. We dare not start up the engine to warm ourselves in case the noise betrayed our position to the enemy. The time of waiting dragged. The action we were about to take part in was a big one, because the Reichswald Forest was the last major obstacle between us and the River Rhine and the Germans were not likely to surrender it readily. Little did we know, as we sat there, that our attack, confidently expected to succeed in four days, was to drag on much longer because of a sudden change in the weather and the surprisingly stubborn resistance of the enemy.
We heard afterwards that two of the brigades in the Division, 129 and 130, had gone in before us, suffered heavy casualties, and been withdrawn. But we did not know this, as we waited the order to go in, or we might have been more apprehensive than we were. Nor did we ever find out whether what we had heard was true or not. One fact did emerge, eventually. The battle for the Reichswald Forest cost the Division more casualties than it had incurred during the whole of the campaign since landing in Normandy.
As I sat listening to the quiet burblings of the radio the shadowy figure of an infantryman appeared almost noiselessly beside the carrier. "Hey, gunner, got your mug handy?" he whispered. I said nothing, but unstrapped my mug from my haversack that rested on top of the radio and held it towards him. He filled it with a dark liquid from a large stone jug. "Here, drink this. It'll warm you up a bit," he advised, and then moved to the front of the carrier and did the same for my companions.
Not knowing what the liquid was, I took a hesitant sip. The sudden warmth of it went right through my body to my toes. It was rum. Not weak, watered-down stuff, but real 'gut-stripper'. Someone must have raided a warship to get it. The feeling of comfort and relaxation that each warming sip induced almost defies description. I made the luxury of each sip last as long as possible before taking another. I had never been much of a drinker, certainly not of rum, but how I enjoyed that mugful: I am sure it saved me from freezing to death. At any rate, it certainly made the time of waiting more bearable.

Our progress through the forest was frustratingly slow, and at one point it was necessary for us to take shelter in a woodman's hut. The weather was still bitterly cold, but icy rain, that slashed at our faces and dug into our clothes as though blasted from a shotgun, had displaced the severe frost and transformed the iron-hard ground into a quagmire. Quick movement of trucks, tanks and guns was impossible. Mud was everywhere. In some parts of the forest, where the Germans had deliberately flooded it as a means of slowing our progress, it was so deep that men were drowned when their tanks sank into it up to their turrets. Historians writing about it afterwards described it as being worse than the mud at Passchendaele in 1917.
The hut was a solid wooden structure and the only item of furniture it contained was a rough-hewn wooden table that stood in the middle of the earthen floor. The night was foul, and a lot of confused shooting punctuated the continuous hissing and swishing of the rain; and that shadowy figure, just a little blacker than the night, could be either friend or foe.
Captain Gibb and three of our infantry colleagues studied the map with the aid of a carefully shaded angled torch while Nobby and I kept watch. As they quietly discussed the local situation and tried to plan future moves another sound crept gradually into the night; the sound of a vehicle labouring slowly in our direction. The torch was switched off immediately and we sought what cover we could. The sound grew louder as the vehicle drew nearer. Soon the vague shadowy shape of a truck became dimly visible in the blackness. It stopped near the hut. The shape of the truck looked somewhat familiar. So did the two figures that got out of it and plodded laboriously through the mud towards us. The truck was M.5, "D" Troop's maintenance truck, and the two men were our own pals. In spite of the atrocious weather conditions and the blackness of the night, not to mention the unwelcome attentions of the enemy, they had managed to find us from my last radioed map reference. It was a most commendable effort on their part.
They had brought the requirements I had radioed for earlier; a box of rations for the three of us, a 'bank of dags' (two heavy duty 12.volt batteries for the No.19 set), and the mail.
Nobby and I helped the men to transfer the stuff from the truck to the carrier and the used batteries from the carrier to the truck, then the men returned to their truck and disappeared into the night. I connected the new batteries to the radio and returned to the hut, having first called up the others on the Battery net to make sure I was still in contact with them.
All three of us had received some mail. I had three letters, and I was able to recognize the handwriting on two of them. One was from my mother and the other from my wife; but the third one puzzled me. It was addressed in a small, neat, and obviously feminine hand that I did not recognize, and it was postmarked Kidderminster. "Kidderminster?" I queried, of no one in particular, when I saw it. "I don't know anybody in Kidderminster. Who the hell can be writing to me from there?"
"Why not open it? That might help. " Nobby suggested.
I slit the envelope open and pulled out the contents. It was a small card, and I could only stare at it in sheer disbelief. "It's a Valentine," I exclaimed. "I've got a bloody Valentine." A prolonged ripple of laughter came from the others. "What does it say?" Nobby wanted to know.
I read out the brief message. "Always hoping. Blondie."
Another subdued titter came from the others, followed by one or two unprintable comments about my morals or lack of them - then we got on with the job in hand.
It was a simple little incident that would have had no effect on anyone at any other place, or at any other time, but coming as it did at that particular place, at that particular time and in those particular conditions, it seemed somehow to relieve the tensions of our thoroughly unpleasant situation. Somehow, the night did not seem quite so bad after that.

Beckendorf and Hau, two of the villages in the forest, were the scene of some fierce close-encounter fighting. We entered Hau while it was still in enemy hands and drove Roger Dog close under the hedge that fronted the garden of the first house we came to. Small arms fire came from all sides. The Worcesters spread out and set about the task of trying to drive the Germans out. It was a revelation to see how they were able to take cover when no cover seemed possible.
I dashed along the garden path hauling the remote control cable behind me as usual, and charged into the house. The only occupants were an elderly couple who seemed totally bewildered by what was happening and shuffled down into the cellar when we entered.
The room I entered was a long one. A window at the far end offered a good view of the front garden and the land beyond the road, and the window directly opposite the door looked on to the house next door. A long wooden settle like an outsize church pew occupied the long wall from the door to the front window and an equally long table stood in front of it.
I snapped the headset/handset on to the remote control cable and placed it on the table. Activity was everywhere. Rifles and machine guns spat their spite in all directions. Men ran from cover to cover as they sought better protection, firing as they did so. Occasionally, someone would hurry into the house, converse briefly with one of his colleagues, and hurry out again.
After a while the house seemed to become more tenable and I settled down at the table with my pad and pencil and concentrated on the radio. My rifle leaned against the end of the table.
I do not know how much noisy time elapsed as I sent and received information, watched the comings and goings of other men and kept an eye on what was happening outside the window, but I had a sudden sixth sense premonition of impending danger. Acting instinctively, I slid quickly to the floor, taking my equipment with me. An instant later a German appeared at the window opposite and sprayed the room with a quick burst from his Schmeiser. The wall behind the settle was well and truly perforated. Another quick burst followed almost immediately and the German disappeared from the window, riddled with bullets from a Worcester Sten.
The fighting continued with unabated fury, with neither side showing any sign of surrendering the village. Try as we may, we could not dislodge the Germans, some of whom were in the house next door. They were not front line troops but a mixture of men from many different units and of various medical categories, yet they fought with the tenacity and the doggedness of fully-trained infantry.

continued in 17b

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