- Contributed by
- Don Aiken
- People in story:
- Alfred Donald Aiken
- Location of story:
- North West Europe
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 September 2005
Cap badge of the Reconnaissance Corps R.A.C. 1941 - 1946
My Bit in WW2— Chapter Four
From the Breakout to the Rhine
1944 August 18th
Then the beginnings of the break-out began, and we moved forward to take up our position.
We advanced from there to Mt. Picon. - not a mountain, but a high rising area of land with a Spot Height of 365. Here I remember seeing a Military Policeman stood on a road junction steadfastly directing the advancing convoys of Army vehicles, enveloped in clouds of red dust, and under constant bombardment from enemy shells. It was here too that we were paused for a few hours, and on investigating the familiar smell of death nearby, we found a German soldier lying in a covered slit trench. His face was a huge ball of maggots. We managed to get hold of some chloride of lime and scattered this all over him. I still remember the disgusting sight of the maggots flowing from his face like a living stream.
22nd August - Falaise
25th August - Vernon and Seine crossing
30th August - Beauvais
1st September - Arras
3rd September - Tournai
4th September - Lille
The American Army had now fully broken out of their less defended sector of the front, almost all the German tank forces having been thrown against the pivot point of Caen. This allowed them to partly encircle the German army from the South and a simultaneous pincer movement by our troops from the North entrapped thousands of enemy troops who were trying to flee through the only gap left at a village called Falaise.
This now became a killing field, with all the Allied gun-fire and the concentrated attacks by our rocket-firing dive-bombers (Typhoons) being rained down on the fleeing Germans. Thousands of the enemy were killed and, as we passed through the devastated area in pursuit of those who had managed to escape, I remember seeing bodies piled on top of bodies to a height of several feet.
The Free French Armoured Division was ordered to advance on Paris, and we moved on to the Seine, in the vicinity of Vernon., and there we indulged in the luxury of a short bathe in the river.
Now the advance was in full flow. Our Regiment was put in as the spear-head of the advance which we did at rate of 60 miles in one day, and passing through towns whose names had been made familiar to me from stories of the First World War, which took place here thirty years earlier. Amiens, the Somme, Cambrai, Arras, Lille and Armentieres. Places which had been fought over for months, even years. We passed them by in a few days.
Often the advance was slowed by the enthusiasm of the local populace of the small towns and villages as we passed through.They were overjoyed to see Allied troops after years of oppression. Sometimes we were temporarily halted by the French Resistance who had cornered German troops in woods etc., and were asking our assistance. We had to refer them to our follow-up troops as speed of advance was paramount.
The Germans tried to slow down our progress in any number of ways, such as mines across the roads, or even sods strewn on the roads to simulate mines.
On one occasion when my Armoured Car was leading the advance along a narrow road lined with trees, I suddenly noticed a thin wire which had been tied across the road at head height between two trees. We managed to stop in time to investigate it and found that one end was fastened to the trigger of a Panzerfaust aimed at the centre of the wire and loaded with a rocket grenade.
We were the first troops to cross the border into Belgium and at that point we were relieved by the Guards Armoured Division who passed through us and took up the spear-head.
We were then used to protect the Northern flank of the narrow corridor which was being made through Belgium, and to prevent the escape of the remnants of the 9th. German Army which had been cut off between the corridor and the Northern coast.
5th September - Berchem
6th September - Ghent/Courtrai
7th September - Gheel (cross Albert Canal)
11th September - Burg Leopold (cross Meuse/Escault Canal)
We were positioned thinly along all the bridges which crossed the Escaut Canal. At each bridge was positioned , typically, one Anti-tank gun, a section of Assault troops and one Armoured car. Although the actual coverage probably differed from bridge to bridge.
As night fell we heard the noise of gun-fire at the next bridge further down the canal, and stood ready for action when the fire had abated. It wasn't very long before we heard the noise of approaching German tanks and other vehicles. The first vehicles moved towards the bridge and we opened fire with all we had. The vehicles withdrew away from the canal and we didn't hear from them again.
We later learned that the gun-fire that we had heard from the next bridge had a little story-line to it.
It is the practice of Anti-tank gun-crews to remove part of the firing mechanism of their gun and conceal it, when they are not on stand-to, so that in the eventuality of being infiltrated by surprise, the enemy would be unable to use the gun.
This had been the case here, when suddenly they had been awakened by the look-out who had heard the approaching Germans. But they couldn't remember where the part had been hidden! Panic set in. They searched high and low - but without success. All the time the Germans were getting nearer. A very strong force, consisting of several tanks, armoured cars and field guns. Soon the leading tank was rumbling onto the bridge. Found it ! Shaking fingers put the mechanism together; nervous hands adjusted the sights. Then, when the tank was already in the centre of the bridge, - Bang! Bulls-eye!
After a heavy exchange of fire, the Germans took some losses because of the hidden positions of the defending guns, and there was a lull in the fighting. Then a German officer appeared carrying a white flag. The Officer in charge of the bridge defenders met him on the bridge, where it was agreed for the Germans to remove their dead and wounded on condition that they moved back and didn't return. A funny episode which couldn't have worked out better if it had all been planned.
17th September - Advance on left flank of 30 Corps to Mol and Valkenswald
18th September - Hasselt and Eindhoven (link up with US 101st Airborne)
19th September - Grave (link up with US 82nd Airborne)
20th September - Cross Nijmegen Bridge over the River Waal
22nd September - Elst
24th September - South bank of Rhine (west of Arnhem)
Until 17th October - Continuous patrols on "Island" (between Arnhem and Nijmegen)
It had been decided to strike up through Holland on a narrow front in an attempt to seize a corridor which would reach over the Rhine and into Germany; opening up the way to Berlin.
Airborne Troops were dropped on a line up through Holland with the objective of capturing all the bridges on the line of advance.
XXX Corps would quickly create the corridor and take over from the airborne troops. The first line of smaller bridges was to be captured by the US Airborne; and the last one (at Arnhem) was to be taken by the British Airborne Troops.
Initially everything went quite well. The advance progressed rapidly; and it was during this time, whilst we were moving up behind the Guards Armoured Division, and in a period when our advance had been cut off by a German attack, that Monty stopped his staff-car, had a few words with us and handed out some packets of fags.
Very welcome !
In a few days XXX Corps had arrived at Nijmegen and captured the large bridge over the Waal. When we arrived at Nijmegen the battle for Arnhem, a few miles up the road, was taking place. This was doomed to failure, as history knows, and I won't add to it here.
The result was that the whole advance bogged down and, with the approaching winter, conditions would soon be unfit to make a further assault to cross the Rhine. We took up various defensive positions along the perimeter of our territory and a few minor successes were achieved up and down the line but it became obvious that we weren't going anywhere for a while.
17th October - Venray
18th October - Aachen
At this point it was decided to consolidate and regroup.
Part of this regrouping meant that 50th. Division, which had been badly reduced in strength, would be disbanded and broken up to make up losses in other Divisions.
With this in mind we, 61st. Reconnaissance Regt., were sent back to a small town called Iseghem (Izegem), which is situated in Belgium, close to the French border. We were billeted in various houses, cafés and so on, and our H.Q. and cook-house was situated in the railway goods yard. All our vehicles and equipment were taken to a dump somewhere on the road to Antwerp. We had a few days of wonderful bliss. Nothing to do but have a few drinks in the cafés and idle our time away.
We hadn't reckoned on the Germans. They had realised that the defensive strength of the US Army in the Belgian Ardennes forest was not good, with only 4 Divisions holding a front of 80 miles long.
16th December - Reform and move to Namur
17th December - Dinant
21st December - Hotton and St Hubert
Hitler himself had ordered 3 Armies, totalling twenty-one Divisions (although well below strength), to be assembled in Germany ready for a huge counter-attack.
This began on December 16th., meeting with great initial success and the American defence lines were cut to ribbons.
The situation was becoming very serious, as the whole 'sharp-end' of the Allied forces were in danger of being isolated.
The British forces directed a push down from the north onto the advancing Germans. We were given 24 hours to reclaim our vehicles and equipment and move out to the Ardennes. This we did.
We arrived at Namur a few days before Christmas, and were immediately given the task of contacting a forward unit of US Engineers who had been instructed to blow a bridge over a small river whenever they sighted the German advance. The orders had now been changed to 'blow up the bridge regardless', but radio contact with the Engineers had been lost.
We set off on our mission and we were shocked to see convoys of US troops retreating in total panic. They threw us some fags and shouted that we were going the wrong way.
We approached our destination, and turned a corner to see that the road ran down into a steep valley, with a similar road running round and down the cliffs on the other side. At that moment we heard a loud explosion and knew that the bridge had been blown. We continued for a short way down the road before spotting the US Engineers running up behind the hedgerow and waited for them to arrive. It was then that I observed a German tank on the road across the valley and, almost immediately, a puff of smoke from his 88 mm. gun. There was a whoosh as the shell screamed over my head and took a lump out of the road and part of the tyre from the armoured car which stood a few yards behind me. Within a few seconds our armoured cars had disappeared up the road and round the corner, in reverse.
27th December - Celles
30th December - Houffalaise
31st December — Rochefort
Christmas Day saw the peak of the German advance, and I remember that on that day on returning to base, after a bitter cold day of patrolling through the snowy forests, we were all handed a Christmas celebratory bottle of beer. When I opened my bottle and tried to drink from it - nothing came out - the beer was frozen solid! The only solution was to break the bottle and lick the beer like an iced-lolly.
We spent the next few days in patrolling the hills and woods of the Ardennes, amongst the thick snow and ice which often made the forest trees look like fairyland.
In the end the German offensive failed to break through the defences and ground to a halt.
One of the reasons for this reversal was due to the change in the weather, which had improved so much that the Allied air forces were able to seek out and attack the enemy at will. We had been issued with yellow sheets to display on the upper surface of our cars in order to identify ourselves to our airmen as we patrolled no-man's land. This proved to be a very fortunate forethought on several occasions as we were buzzed spitefully by US planes; forcing us to dive into frozen ditches to gain some protection from the overhead threat. Thankfully, the recognition sheets did their job and we managed to avoid being shot up.
7th January - Laroche
11th January - Ourthe
22nd January - St Joost (nr. Sittard)
25th January - Return to Iseghem and disband
It was now clear that the bold gamble had failed. The German losses had been very heavy and probably ended any possibility of Germany continuing to defy defeat. His last defensive barrier was the River Rhine, and that was going to be the next target.
Meanwhile we were returned to Iseghem, in Belgium, to continue our little rest and to be notified of our new postings.
1945 February 6th.
I had been posted to the 52nd.Reconnaissance Regt. which was the Recce for 52nd. Lowland Scottish Division. We were given the 'MOUNTAIN' shoulder flash to sew on our tunics, along with the St. Andrew's Shield. They were a Division which had been stationed in Scotland for a long time, training for mountain combat in preparation for a possible invasion of Norway. However their first slice of action came when they left England about 2 months after 'D' Day to capture some islands off the Dutch coast. There probably wasn't a mountain for a hundred miles.
I was at last able to fully take up my role as a 'Driver/Operator' rather than a 'Gunner/Operator' because the Scout-cars in this Regt. were Daimlers, not Humbers, and the light armoured cars were manned only by two men, the Commander and the Driver/Radio Operator. These were wonderful vehicles, highly manoeuvrable, and fitted with pre-select gears and the ability to change gear whilst in reverse selection; theoretically allowing the car to go as fast in reverse as forwards.
The Army pressed forward towards the Rhine with one or two spells of heavy fighting. Then, around this time, I was given some home leave.
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