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A Brush With Brigadiers

by brianrainetaylor

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Brian Raine Taylor
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26 November 2004

A Brush With Brigadiers.

My first action in the Army was with the 52nd (Lowland) Division, a Scottish Infantry Division which had crossed into North West Europe in the Autumn of 1944; paradoxically the Lowland Division's members had trained in the Cairn Gorms, and had the word "Mountain" on their sleeves. I was a wireless operator at the headquarters of 157 brigade. By that time Allied troops had occupied the South side of the estuary of the River Scheldt in Holland and had taken the great port of Antwerp, but the enemy still occupied the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland on the North side of the river and from there he prevented shipping from reaching the port. The division was given the job of crossing the river and clearing the enemy from these islands; they were not really islands as they were connected to each other and to the mainland by narrow isthmuses, but they felt like islands.

I found myself, on the morning of 26th October, sitting in a "Buffalo" (a tracked amphibious vehicle which looked a bit like an old-style tank but which had no armour, no armament, and no roof) in the middle of the Scheldt, as part of an invading force. We had boarded our Buffalo at the small coastal town of Terneuzen and were now part of a small flotilla of similar craft, plunging through the water in an ungainly fashion, whilst ahead lay the unknown; for most of us it would be our first encounter with "action", and all of us must have looked ahead with trepidation, both to the experience and to the new insight it would give on ourselves

"My" Buffalo was a command vehicle, and amongst its complement were three brigadiers who were, I suppose, the "command". People at that level are not particularly thick on the ground, and it seemed foolhardy to site three of them in one rather flimsy vehicle which was about to come under fire - particuarly when there was no escape route. I wondered at the time what could have been the command structure which made it right for them to be together in this way, but the 52nd Division's History ("Mountain and Flood") has made their presence understandable. For various reasons a temporary command structure had been set up to deal with the South Beveland part of the operation, and the two brigadiers commanding the brigades involved in the operation (156 and 157) were temporarily under the overall command of a third brigadier. These three were, sensible or not, grouped together in this one Buffalo.

I was operating a wireless set during this crossing, but I cannot remember details of the traffic which passed through it. It was, of course, at the disposal of the brigadiers as a sort of telephone, but my main recollection is of the continuous call of "Report my Signals" which I, and operators like me, used to ensure that we were still in contact with each other. The earlier part of the crossing was uneventful, although it was accompanied by the sound of artillery, a sound which was to become so familiar a background to our lives; as we progressed, however, we could see various
patches of smoke hanging over South Beveland and, as we got closer in, mortar-bombs began to churn up plumes of spray and smoke in the sea around us. Someone was trying to drop them on
top of us and, if they succeeded, we would have no chance of survival; even a close miss would be fatal, as we had no protecting armour and no roof at all. In fact, none came close enough to damage us, or any other craft as far as I could see. I had been on so many exercises where mock shells had exploded that this operation had an unreal feeling for me, and I was not as scared as I felt I should have been. The Buffalo plunged on, unnaturally thrusting us all into danger and driven, one felt, by someone inhuman - or was it superhuman - who had lost the emotions that most of us are prey to. No small-arms fire was directed at us, and in fact the front-line had by then been pushed inland a mile or so.

There was not a lot of evidence of war as we came up to the land except for the body of an enemy soldier which was lying in the open on the foreshore, and I wondered why he had not been under some sort of cover. Once ashore the Buffalo's first obstacle was a dyke which it ran up with too much ease. When we got to the top of it our driver, no longer in the least superhuman and suddenly recalling that survival might depend on keeping away from skylines, drove fast over the other side with almost disastrous consequences; I was at the front-end (or was it "bow" in an amphibious vehicle even if it was now on land?), and, before I knew what was happening, I found a wireless set (a "22" set it was), three brigadiers and one or two other men on top of me. Brigadiers had always semed pretty remote rather ethereal individuals, who appeared from time to time wearing red hats and had to be saluted by anyone else in sight except other brigadiers; but these ones were just then very far from being remote, and all too substantial. I cannot recall ever being so close to one again. I think that it was the nearest I ever got to being invalided out of it all, but all that happened was that my finger was very slightly grazed and a couple of drops of blood were drawn. Had, I not, I thought, been "wounded in action" at the very start of my war and did not the fact that three brigadiers were responsible fit me for some award or other despite the minimal nature of the wound? Alas, the brigadiers forgot all about me, and I went through the next three years or so being ordered about (though never again "wounded"), by lesser mortals..

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