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- Cpl J Cooper
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- 17 July 2004
THE ARDENNES AND THE CROSSING OF THE RHINE
WITH THE 195 AIRLANDING FIELD AMBULANCE.
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 serice.
Suddenly just a few days before Christmas we received orders to proceed overseas to combat the German advance through the Ardennes. The advancing party, of which one was despatched immediately, following a homily from our commanding officer, who told ‘in no uncertain terms where going to rectify a situation which had arisen as a result of the failure of those troops to carry the good work which we had done on D-Day’, this is a Medical Unit not an Infantry Battalion.
On this occasion the division was to operate as light infantry, not as airborne troops, we sailed to Belgium and travelled by trucks through Belgium and France. On arrival it was necessary for us to obtain billets and rations, the latter included over 200 eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day, despite the short notice of such a sudden influx of extra troops the R.A.S.C. managed to supply our requirements.
The weather was extremely cold although the temperature must occasionally have risen above freezing as on one occasion I saw a fence of posts and chicken wire that was just one sheet of ice, apparently haven thawed slightly and then frozen the drops of water before they fell. On another occasion we were delivering supplies to one of our company’s after dark, and being so close to German lines we were not permitted to show any lights on our vehicle. The approach to which was an upward slope which also sloped from the left to the right with a row of troughs in the centre, all was well on the approach but as we left our vehicle slid side ways down the slope, stopping behind a vehicle which had obviously been stationary for some days and was completely iced in, several efforts to extract ourselves merely found us getting nearer and nearer to that vehicle, and we were only rescued when a heaver vehicle fitted with snow chains towed us out.
The German advance was quickly stopped, and we moved forward, passing through all three Battalions in our brigade, after which we did not see any troops at all as we continued our advance, we did not stop until a suitable building was spotted, this was taken over as our main dressing station, and it was very soon realised that it had been occupied by an enemy unit, so recently that the fires were still burning. We stayed there for several days, during which time we were evacuating casualties forward, as we were ahead of the Battalions. This was the position until we had a visit from the Deputy assistant divisional medical officer, who was annoyed, as it had taken him several days to locate us, and he ordered us to move back some four miles. The reason given by our Colonel for our position was that as it took us longer to pack up than the infantry it was necessary for us to be ahead of them when we were moving forward! This was not accepted.
We then occupied a Convent, which was centrally heated and an excellent buillet in view of the extremely cold weather.
By early February the danger was over, and we were pulled back to a village not far from Antwerp where we spent approximately one week. Our unit was billeted in a private house for bed, but all meals were taken in a school. A sergeant and I were billeted with a family consisting of a Father, Mother and two Daughters, and we had pleasant evenings sitting around the stove. This was Flemish country and the Father spoke only Flemish, the Mother also spoke French and the Daughters had a little English which they had learned from the American troops. If the girls understand us we had to revert to our schoolboy French hoping that the Mother would understand. The girls or the Mother then would pass the conversation in Flemish to the Father. You can appreciate our difficulty in explaining that we went to war with aeroplanes without engines.
Following this pleasant interlude we moved into Holland to take over the defence of a line on the Mass, previously held by the 15th Scottish Division, who were recoiled to take part in exercises for the main land crossing of the Rhine.
Our first night was spent in a village hall, which had all its windows broken. It still being very cold, I just took my boots and grey coat and got into my sleeping bag, my boots I placed on the floor beside me and my grey coat on top off my sleeping bag as an extra blanket. In the morning snow had drifted through the un-glazed 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. Whishing for hot water for shaving in the morning we went to the farm house, but despite using sign language we were unable to communicate successfully with the farmers wife until one of the party — a gordie- said ‘het watter’ To our surprise this produced results.
In general the locals were not too friendly, but with the Germans having recently been driven across the river, and entrenched on the far bank, they were probably concerned that they might return and take vengeance on those who had been too friendly with us.
We also had trouble travelling around as whilst we were there many of the roads collapsed, following a thaw and for days at a time nothing heaver than a jeep was allowed to go out. Un-fortunately you did not know from day to day which roads were closed.
In due course we in turn were relived, and returned to our camp in Bulford, being granted ten days leave prior to our anticipated participation in the Rhine crossing. Whilst on leave we heard that the American Troops had captured intact a railway bridge over the Rhine and we hoped that this might obviate the need for an Airborne landing which, although no formal announcement had been made, we knew was imminent.
On the 20th March we were moved to a transit camp, as part of the U.S. Airborne Corps, with Lt 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 6000 lbs; each glider carried 24 men or a jeep and 15 men or a jeep with a trailer and 6 men. The average weight of a man and his personal equipment was 210 lbs, and the weight of every piece of extra equipment had to be determined. A great deal of juggling was entailed so that eventually the contents of each glider were as near as possible to the maximum payload, without exceeding it. The glider that I was to travel in carried a jeep and 15 men. The jeep occupied the centre of the glider with 9 men at the front and 6 men at the rear of the glider, the jeep effectively cutting off communication between the two parties.
On the 23rd of March all officers and N.C.O’s. were called to a briefing which was very thorough. Aerial photographs of the area of the landing zones were shown to us as these were in 3 D we got a very good idea of the terrain and were actually able to pick a point at which to assemble after landing, from where we would proceed to the building which had been chosen as a suitable for the Main Dressing Station. We were also advised that along the base of our triangular landing zone were high tension power lines, and the glider pilots were warned not to come to low although there was no current passing along the cables as the R.A.F. had bombed the power station. We were also told that aerial observation had seen no heavy artillery in the area and the operation was regarded as ‘A Piece Of Cake’ Indeed, General Montgomery, we were told had expressed the view that he did not think that we were really necessary but that we were thrown in as a makeweight, - Not exactly morale raising.
Reveille on the 24th of March was at 02:45 and after breakfast of bacon and eggs — Why did condemned men and a hearty breakfast spring to mind? — We were transported to the main airfield and our boarded our gliders at 07:00. The towing planes were Halifax bomber aircraft after circling the airfield to get into formation. We set off for Germany, being warned that the weather was poor we could expect a bumpy ride. The 195 Field Ambulance occupied 13 gliders out of the total armada of 1300, and in addition there was about 1400 Paratroopers.
The flight was uneventful until we neared the Rhine, where a smokescreen set up by our land troops covered the countryside making it difficult for the pilots to detriment our exact position. The landing area comprised a circle approximately 20 miles in diameter the nearest point to the Rhine being some 10 miles East of the river. British troops were to occupy one half of this and the Americans the other half. Also adding to the difficulties of the pilots we were met by fighter planes and the tugs and gliders had to weave. Although as promised, there was little heavy artillery fire. (It must be remembered that gliders were made out of ply wood and very susceptible to light A.A and even small arms fire) The gliders were cast off at 3000ft 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 threw the floor of our glider later leading to difficulties in getting the jeep out.
My instructions were to be first out of the rear section and to receive the packs of the remaining occupants, this I did and my first sight on disembarking was a 88mm self propelled gun, fortunately pointing away from us. It was not fortunate for a Hamilcar glider which was lager than our Horsa which landed and proceeded to unload its cargo of two armoured cars laden with ammunition, the first 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.
Having put all our packs on the ground I noticed a hole some 24” in diameter through the tail of the glider and not very far from the place I had been occupying.
We had been told at the briefing to be careful not to cause any unnecessary damage to the gliders, as it might be wise to recover them for further us. 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.
Bearing in mind we set about disconnecting the tail section of the glider, which according to the drill which we had performed on many occasions was accomplished by unscrewing eight quick release bolts, being care full to release the last two simultaneously when the tail would fall away from the fuselage, this was done most meticulously, but nothing happened. Again dismounting we swung on the tail in an effort to dislodge it but without success. All what happened was that the glider rocked onto its belly!
We then discovered that the platform upon which the pilots rested there feet, had been forced up around their waists and despite the instructions regarding unnecessary damage, we decided that the only coarse of action was to chop away the nose of the glider. This we did the pilots were realised and we had an aperture large enough for the jeep to be driven out, the driver started up the engine and realised the clutch, but due to the damage to the floor of the glider the wheels of the jeep were resting on the ploughed earth and simply just spun. Pieces of the glider that had been chopped off to release the pilots were pushed under the wheels and when the driver tried again the jeep shot out like a Champaign cork from a bottle and travelled 100 yards before the driver could stop it and return to us we loaded the equipment onto the jeep and after a discussion to determine the direction of the assembly point, we were persuaded by rifle fire to take refuge in a near by farmhouse. This we found was already occupied by a glider party from Brigade Headquarters, and two men were resting on a vegetable clamp ready to return fire. Unfortunately some of the firing was coming from behind them and they were told to retreat to the safety of the farmhouse. As they got up from there positions 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 gard one side of the farmhouse. So there I was at an open window and protected by a mattress, on gard armed with a pistol with which I doubted I could hit a barn door at six paces with, fortunately I was not called upon to prove it!
At approximately 15:00 we saw the Brigadier Major, a very large Scot, wearing a kilt, strolling across the landing zone and we were advised that our route to the Main Dressing Station was clear, so we made our way there.
The initial casualties had been fairly heavy, first count revealed a loss of 40% of the brigade, but a number had been taken prisoner, only to be realised after a brief period and able to rejoin there units. Of the 13 gliders carrying 195 Field Ambulance Personnel, one cane down in Holland, one with 15 personnel was captured as it landed, but were realised by the Americans a few hours later and a third carrying 25 personnel was also captured and they remained as prisoners of war till the end of the hostilities.
The work on the Main Dressing Station was hectic, and by midnight a 700 bed hospital was fully operative. In addition to the blankets carried buy the unit; additional supplies were scrounged from the locals. Apart from these duties I had been occupied as a stretcher-bearer, and as the wards were on the upper floors, this was heavy work. At midnight half the unit was stood down and I was able to get some sleep till 06:00, at this time I had to complete a state of unit report for Divisional Headquarters. After seeing that off by despatch rider, and a wash and shave at the cattle trough in the yard we finally had some breakfast, this being the first meal since leaving England over 24 hours earlier. Incidentally whilst washing and shaving I met one of my colleagues from the office. He was in the Light Artillery who were supporting our division, although as mentioned we had not eaten for over 24 hours we were sustained during that time by cigarettes and continuous.
Despite our losses, the objective of the brigade was the capture of two intact bridges over the river Issel had been accomplished and during that afternoon the 15th Scottish Division, spearheading the land troops reached us and crossed the river. The bridgehead was now secure and we were able to start evacuating casualties.
The division re-organised to advance in the pursuit of the retreating Germans. The 195 Field Ambulance move on the 26th of March, and travelling some 30-40 miles a day we passed numerous groups of unarmed Germans solders of about 20-30 strong. Ungarded they were making there way towards the Rhine and captivity. It seemed that the end of the war was at last close. The advance quickened, crossing the Weser near to Hamelin (of pide piper fame) and then Elbe to reach Wismar, on the Baltic on the 2nd of May. Here we met the Russians, who had advanced from the East, this was the first meeting of the Allied Forces. We stayed Wismar until the official announcement of victory on the 8th of May 1945, when we returned to our barracks at bulford then flying home from Lunberg Heath
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