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- J Cooper
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- 17 November 2003
Following our return from Normandy in September 1944, we spent our days re-equipping the unit and in further training based on the lessons learnt from our first experience of active service.
Called to combat in the Ardennes
Suddenly, just a few days before Christmas, we received orders to proceed overseas to combat the German advance through the Ardennes. The advance party was dispatched immediately, following a homily from our commanding officer.
‘In no uncertain terms’, he said, ‘we’re going to rectify a situation that has arisen as a result of the failure of those troops to carry on the good work that we had done on D-Day’. This was a medical unit not an infantry battalion.
Go to war on an egg
On this occasion, the division was to operate as light infantry and not as airborne troops. We sailed to Belgium and travelled by truck through Belgium and France.
On arrival, it was necessary for us to obtain billets and rations, the latter including over 200 eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day. Despite short notice of the influx of extra troops, the RASC — Royal Army Service Corps — managed to meet our requirements.
The weather was extremely cold, although the temperature must occasionally have risen above freezing.
On one occasion I saw a fence of posts and chicken wire that was just one sheet of ice. It had apparently thawed slightly before freezing again, suspending the icy drops of water.
Towed out using snow chains
Another occasion found us delivering supplies after dark to one of our companies. The approach was up an incline that sloped from left to right with a row of troughs in the centre. Being close to German lines, we were not permitted to show any lights on our vehicles.
All was well on our arrival, but as we left our truck slid sideways down the slope. It stopped just short of a vehicle that had obviously been stationary for some days and was completely iced in. Several efforts to extract ourselves merely found us edging nearer and nearer to the vehicle. We were rescued only when something heavier, fitted with snow chains, towed us out.
Establishing a dressing station
The German advance was quickly stopped, and we moved forward, passing through all three battalions in our brigade. We saw no troops at all after this as we continued our advance.
We did not stop until we’d found a building that was suitable for our main dressing station. An enemy unit had so recently occupied it that we found the fires still burning. We stayed for several days, during which time we were evacuating casualties forward, as we were ahead of the battalions.
This was our position until we received a visit from the deputy-assistant divisional medical officer. It had taken him several days to locate us, and he was annoyed by this and ordered us to move back some four miles.
The reason our colonel gave for our position was that it took us longer to pack up than the infantry so it was necessary for us to be ahead of them when we were moving forward! However, this was not accepted as sufficient justification, and the order still held.
Comparative luxury and calm
We moved on to occupy a convent, which was centrally heated and therefore, in view of the extremely cold weather, an excellent billet.
By early February, though, the danger was over, and we were pulled back to a village not far from Antwerp, where we spent approximately a week. Our unit was billeted in private houses for bed space, but all our meals were taken in a school.
A sergeant and I were billeted with a family consisting of a father, a mother and two daughters. We spent pleasant evenings together, sitting around the stove.
This was Flemish country. Yet, while the father spoke only Flemish, his wife also spoke French and the daughters a little English, which they had learnt from the American troops.
Sometimes the girls understood us, or we’d revert to our schoolboy French, hoping to communicate with their mother. Either the girls or their mother would translate the conversation into Flemish for the father. You can appreciate our difficulty in explaining that we went to war with aeroplanes without engines.
Defending against the Germans and the cold
Following this pleasant interlude, we moved into Holland to take over the defence of a line on the Maas. This position had previously been held by the 15th Scottish Division, who had been recalled to take part in exercises for the mainland crossing of the Rhine.
Our first night was spent in a village hall, which had all its windows broken. As it was still very cold, I just took off my boots and grey coat [sic] and got into my sleeping bag. My boots I placed on the floor beside me, and I put my grey coat [sic] on top of my sleeping bag as an extra blanket.
In the morning, snow had drifted through the unglazed windows, and my boots were frozen to the floor. Quite a tug was required to release them.
The following night, a small group of us found accommodation in a loft above a cowshed. Wishing for hot water for a shave in the morning, we went to the farmhouse. Despite using sign language, we were not able to communicate successfully with the farmer’s wife until one of the party — a Geordie — said, ‘Het watter.’ To our surprise, this produced results.
In general, the locals were none too friendly. The Germans had recently been driven across the river and were entrenched on the far bank. Those from thereabouts were probably concerned that they might return and wreak vengeance on those who had been too friendly with us.
We also had trouble travelling around. Following a thaw while we were there, many of the roads collapsed. For days at a time nothing heavier than a jeep was allowed out. Unfortunately, we did not know from one day to the next which roads were closed.
Preparing for the Rhine crossing
In due course, we were relieved. We returned to our camp in Bulford, where we were granted ten days’ leave prior to our anticipated participation in the Rhine crossing.
Whilst on leave, we heard that American troops had captured intact a railway bridge over the Rhine. We hoped this might obviate the need for an airborne landing, which, although no formal announcement had been made, we knew was imminent.
Making up payloads
On 20 March, we were moved to a transit camp, as part of the US Airborne Corps, with Lieutenant General Gale, our divisional commander, as our second in command. Here we were kept busy making up payloads for the gliders.
The maximum load for a Horsa glider was 6,000lb. Each glider carried either 24 men or a jeep and 15 men, or a jeep with a trailer and six men. The average weight of a man and his personal equipment was 210lb, and the weight of every piece of extra equipment had to be determined.
Learning to juggle weights
This entailed a great deal of juggling so that, eventually, the contents of each glider were as near to the maximum payload as possible without exceeding it.
The glider I was to travel in carried a jeep and 15 men. The jeep occupied the centre of the glider with nine men at the front and six at the rear, the jeep effectively cutting off communication between the two parties.
Using three-D aerial photos
On 23 March, all officers and NCOs were called to a very thorough briefing. We were shown aerial photographs of the area of the landing zones. As these were in three-D, we got a very good idea of the terrain.
The photos enabled us actually to pick a point at which to assemble after landing. This would be the point from which we would proceed to the building chosen as the main dressing station.
Avoiding the power lines
We were advised that there were high-tension power lines along the base of our triangular landing zone. The glider pilots were warned not to come too low, even though, as the RAF had bombed the power station, there was no current passing through the cables.
We were informed that aerial observation had seen no heavy artillery in the area, and, indeed, that the operation itself was regarded as ‘a piece of cake’. We were told that General Montgomery had even expressed the view that he did not think we were really necessary, that we’d been thrown in as a make-weight — not exactly morale raising.
Bacon and eggs for breakfast
Reveille on 24 March was at 02:45, after a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Why did condemned men and a hearty breakfast spring to mind?
We were transported to the main airfield and boarded our gliders at 07:00. The towing planes were Halifax bomber aircraft.
Anticipating a bumpy ride
After circling the airfield to get into formation, we set off for Germany. We’d been warned that the weather was poor and to expect a bumpy ride.
The 195th Field Ambulance occupied 13 gliders out of the total armada of 1,300. In addition there were about 1,400 paratroopers.
All fine until the Rhine
The flight was uneventful until we neared the Rhine, where a smokescreen set up by our land troops covered the countryside. This made it difficult for the pilots to determine our exact position.
The landing area comprised a circle approximately 20 miles in diameter with the nearest point to the Rhine some ten miles east of the river. British troops were to occupy one half of this, the Americans the other half.
Nose-diving into a ploughed field
To add further to the pilots’ difficulties were the fighter planes, between which the tugs and gliders had to weave in and out. Although, as promised, there was little heavy-artillery fire, it has to be remembered that the gliders were made out of plywood and therefore very susceptible to light AA or anti-aircraft fire, and even to small-arms fire.
The gliders were cast off at 3,000ft and came down to ground level in three swoops. Despite the warnings received at the briefing, the under carriage of our glider did catch the power lines, and we nose-dived into a ploughed field. The skid, a landing device, in addition to the tricycle wheels were forced through the floor of our glider, later leading to difficulties in getting the jeep out.
Direct hit on a Hamilcar glider
My instructions were that I was to be first out of the rear section. I would then receive the packs of the remaining occupants. This I did.
My first sight on disembarking was of an 88mm self-propelled gun. Fortunately, it was pointing away from us. While fortunate for us, it was not fortunate for a Hamilcar glider.
Larger than our Horsa, the Hamilcar landed and proceeded to unload its cargo of two armoured cars laden with ammunition. The first of these had just reached the foot of the ramp when the 88 gun scored a direct hit, sending the whole assembly into the air in a terrible explosion.
Hole in the glider’s tail
When I’d finally put all our packs on the ground, I noticed a hole some 24 inches in diameter through the tail of the glider. It wasn’t far from the place that I had just recently been occupying.
In Normandy, fighting had taken place over a period of two or three weeks over the landing zone, and a great deal of damage had occurred to the gliders. At the briefing before our most recent departure, however, we had been told to be careful not to cause unnecessary damage to the gliders, that it might be wise to recover them for further use.
We set about disconnecting the glider’s tail section. According to the drill that we had performed on many occasions, this was accomplished by unscrewing eight quick-release bolts. We had to take care to release the last two simultaneously, at which point the tail would fall away from the fuselage.
This was done most meticulously, but nothing happened. In an effort to dislodge the tail, we swung on it. It was all to no avail, because all that happened was that the glider rocked on to its belly!
We then realised that the platform upon which the pilots rested their feet had been forced up around their waists. Despite our instructions regarding unnecessary damage, we decided that the only course of action was to chop away the glider’s nose. This we did, and the pilots were released.
Ejected like a champagne cork
We then had an aperture large enough for the jeep to be driven out. The driver started up the engine and released the clutch. However, due to the damage to the floor of the glider, the jeep’s wheels were resting on the ploughed earth and simply span.
A solution was found whereby pieces of the glider that had been chopped off to release the pilots were pushed under the wheels. Consequently, when the driver engaged the clutch again, the jeep shot out like a champagne cork from a bottle. It travelled 100 yards before he could stop and return to us.
Stepping into the breach
We loaded the equipment on to the jeep, but after a discussion to determine the direction of the assembly point, rifle fire persuaded us to take refuge in a nearby farmhouse. We found that the house was already occupied by a glider party from brigade headquarters, with two men resting on a vegetable clamp ready to return fire.
Unfortunately, some of the firing was coming from behind the men, who were told to retreat to the safety of the farmhouse. As they got up from their position, one was hit in the leg, and two of our party dashed out and brought him in.
The officer in charge, seeing that I had a revolver, detailed me to guard one side of the house. So there I was at an open window, protected only by a mattress, armed with a pistol with which I doubted I could hit a barn door at six paces. Fortunately, I was not called upon to prove it!
Heavy casualties at the dressing station
At approximately 15:00, we saw the brigadier major, a very large Scot, wearing a kilt, stroll across the landing zone. We were advised that our route to the main dressing station was clear, and so we made our way there.
The initial casualties had been fairly heavy. A first count revealed a loss of 40 per cent of the brigade. A number had been taken prisoner, only to be released after a brief period and therefore able to rejoin their units.
Of the 13 gliders carrying 195 Field Ambulance personnel, one came down in Holland. Another, with 15 personnel, was captured as it landed, although the POWs were released by the Americans a few hours later. A third carrying 25 personnel was also captured, and the men remained prisoners of war till the end of the hostilities.
Operational 700-bed hospital
The work at the main dressing station was hectic, and by midnight a 700-bed hospital was fully operative. In addition to the blankets carried by the unit, extra supplies were scrounged from the locals.
Apart from these duties, I had been occupied as a stretcher-bearer. As the wards were on the upper floors, this was heavy work.
Shaving at the cattle trough
At midnight, half the unit was stood down. I was able to get some sleep till 06:00, at which time I had to complete a state-of-unit report for divisional headquarters.
After seeing the report off by dispatch rider, I had a wash and shave at the cattle trough in the yard. While I was there, I met one of my colleagues from the office. He was in the Light Artillery, which was supporting our division.
Finally, we ate some breakfast. It was the first meal we’d had since leaving England over 24 hours earlier, although we’d been sustained during that time by cigarettes.
Mission accomplished, evacuation begins
The brigade’s objective, the capture of two, intact bridges over the River Issel, had been accomplished despite our losses.
During the afternoon, the 15th Scottish Division spearheading the land troops reached us and crossed the river. The bridgehead was now secure. While we were able to start evacuating casualties, the division reorganised to advance in pursuit of the retreating Germans.
Passing unarmed German soldiers
The 195 Field Ambulance moved on 26 March. Travelling some 30 to 40 miles a day, en routewe passed numerous unarmed Germans solders in groups of between some 20 to 30 strong. Unguarded, they were making their way towards the Rhine and captivity.
It seemed that the end of the war was at last close.
First meeting of Allied forces
The advance quickened, crossing the Weser near to Hamelin (of Pied Piper fame) and then the Elbe to reach Wismar, on the Baltic, on 2 May. Here we met the Russians who had advanced from the East. This was the first meeting of the Allied Forces.
We stayed in Wismar until the official announcement of victory on 8 May 1945, when we returned to our barracks at Bulford, flying home from Lüneberg Heath.
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