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A Short History of the 8th Armoured Brigade

CHAPTER IV

 

Geilenkirchen to the Rhine.

As the first snow began to fall the 8th Armoured Brigade was ordered South to Maastricht. Between 9th and 13th November all Regiments moved down to the area of Brunssum, except the 12th Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who remained guarding the Western Approaches until the 25th.

The 43rd Division had taken over the sector of the line North-West of Geilenkirchen from an American Cavalry Regiment and the junction between the two armies now lay just to the West of the town. Both armies were hard up against the Siegfried Line, concrete bunkers existed in profusion, which, well sited, commanded open glacis slopes sewn with mines and Dragon’s Teeth. So good was their camouflage that many had positively grown into the landscape.

The Americans were to attack South of Geilenkirchen in order to draw off enemy reserves and 48 hours later a double United States and British attack was to go in on either side of the town to pinch out this important bastion of the Siegfried Line. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were to support the 84th United States Infantry Division, the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and l3th/l8th Hussars the 43rd Division while the Essex Yeomanry covered both assaults.

At first light on 18th November the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry led the 84th United States Division in the assault upon this redoubtable line. The “Rail Splitters”, as they were called, had not fought before but more than made up for any lack of experience by quite outstanding courage. The objective was the village of Prummern; a tremendous day’s fighting ensued during which the spectacular performances of the “Cab Rank” Typhoons completely immobilised movement of German reserves. In spite of deep mud which added to the difficulties and rendered Flails ineffective, Prummern was in our hands by nightfall. At mid-day, following a terrific barrage and 24 hours of continuous indirect MG fire, the l3th/l8th Hussars with 5th Dorsets assaulted the Northern outskirts of Geilenkirchen, while the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards supported the 214 Infantry Brigade in a model operation to cut the escape road East of the town. Both were entirely successful and by 1700 hours Bauchem, Niederheide and Tripsrath were in our hands. It was on this evening that a Battery of Essex Yeomanry, in response to a call for fire by a leading Troop Leader on a party of escaping Boches, succeeded in actually destroying the target within 90 seconds of the six figure map reference being passed. The next day dawned to grey skies and sheets of rain. The battlefield which had always been bad now became a sea of liquid brown mud in which no wheeled vehicle could move. All replenishment. had to be carried out by Honeys and Weasels. Had the Shermans not been fitted with the extended end connectors to their tracks no tank movement at all would have been possible.

Geilenkirchen, now pinched out, soon fell but the battle continued in drenching rain and appalling conditions for over a week as one by one villages fell into our hands. Such names as Beeck, Wurm and the Hoven Woods will long be remembered by those mud-soaked troglodytes who emerged from their cellars, forever smiling.

At the conclusion of this memorable battle, Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery visited the Brigade and decorated officers and other ranks with four D.S.Os, seven M.Cs and eleven M.Ms The Brigade now became Corps mobile reserve and “Foxforce” was formed; all units had, however, to take turns up in the line where conditions were extremely trying. 552 Company Royal Army Service Corps supplied one platoon for the Corps Composite Company which spent a long period holding the centre of the line.

Early in December the 34th Tank Brigade came up to relieve the armour round Geilenkirchen which permitted a breathing space for rest and maintenance. A field firing exercise called “Linney Head” was carried out in order to introduce the 52nd (Lowland) Division to co-operation with armour; on one day of this exercise Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey the Army Commander and Lieutenant-General Horrocks were present.

About mid-December 30 Corps H. Q. was moved back to prepare for a big operation in the North and the 8th Armoured came under 12th Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Ritchie. Very extensive preparations were made for the defence of the Corps Area and the 12th Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps dug a number of lay back positions in mud which had now given place to frost and ground which had become like iron. On the 17th news came of the great Rundstedt offensive in the Ardennes. Eight German divisions in concert with a large Parachute Drop were launched against the Americans. This was the German left hook towards Liege; it appeared certain that the right hook would come straight for Maastricht through the ‘Brigade sector. This unpleasant thought, however, did not prevent Christmas from being celebrated in traditional manner and a great day was enjoyed by all who could be spared from duty.

The New Year opened with the last desperate offensive delivered by the G. A. F. All Allied Aerodromes and many roads were strafed throughout the day but the Luftwaffe casualties were extremely heavy.

The next operation known as “Blackcock” was to begin as soon as the ground, by now completely snow covered, would carry tanks; its object was to destroy all German troop East of the Koer between Roermond, Geilenkirchen and Sittard. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry were to support 52nd (Lowland) Division in a frontal attack while the rest of the Brigade with under command 155 Infantry Brigade were to operate independently under 7th Armoured Division. The plan was to follow close on the heels of the 7th Armoured, break-out at the north end of the line and then to turn sharp right, coming down behind all the German positions confronting 52nd (Lowland) Division.

On the 16th January as the operation began, a thaw set in; bridging difficulties delayed 7th Armoured and by the time the Brigade was launched the country was again a sea of mud. The plan was a bold one and depended for its success on the ground carrying tanks over the marshy area along the Pepinus Brook. The 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards fought their way forward throughout the night of the 18th and crossed the brook with success; by morning they were on the outskirts of Konigsbosch, the Headquarters of the enemy defensive system. Panic ensued and after a brief fight they occupied the town. By now, however, the crossing of the Pepinus was almost impassable and only one Squadron of the l3th/l8th Hussars struggled over before a German S. P. came up and by knocking out 4 tanks in the bottle-neck rendered all further progress impossible. Efforts were made to cross throughout the day but the project had to be abandoned. The chance of the Brigade swanning through all the German rear areas was ruined by a thaw which only lasted three days. The operations of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards with the 4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers in the rear of the German line had great effect ‘and 52nd (Lowland) Division s frontal attack met with little resistance. On the evening of the 19th the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry made contact with the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards.

In the meanwhile the remainder of the Brigade was withdrawn and came under command 52nd (Lowland) Division, and the l3th/18th Hussars were pushed through to exploit the success of the other two Regiments. Snow and frost had now returned and for six more days the battle continued in temperatures as low as 12 ° of frost. Village after village fell to our attacks and the operation culminated in the capture of Heinsberg, where brilliant work by the Air O.P., Captain Mollison, destroyed 3 Panther tanks which were covering the forward slope leading into the town.

News of great Russian advances was now being received and their leading troops were reported 100 miles East of Berlin on 29th January. On this day the Essex Yeomanry came out of action for the first time since 14th of November.

The next big operation was already being put into motion; six divisions were concentrating in the Nijmegen area to drive East through the Reichswald Forrest. The Brigade reverted to the command of 30th Corps and moved North via Turnhout. Within a week the concentration of troops was complete and at 0530 hours on the morning of 8th February the greatest “Pepper Pot” in history was opened up. Every type and size of weapon took part in a bombardment which lasted five hours. All tanks of the Brigade fired an average of 300 rounds per gun.. The weight of metal sent over exceeded that of the preliminary bombardment at Alamein. Good progress was made on all fronts for the first six miles but the 53rd Division failed to capture, Cleve and the important Marterborn feature. 43rd Division with the Brigade in support were brought up and after a sharp fight, in which Sherwood Rangers’ tanks hunted German S. Ps round the houses, Cleve was in British hands.

The 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards came up on the left with 214 Brigade and after a very sticky night fought an immaculate action through- Marterborn, past “Tiger Corner” -to the ground overlooking the Cleve — Goch Railway. The 13th/18th Hussars temporarily remained in Nijmegen.

German reaction to this operation was immediate; dykes along the Rhine were blown and huge masses of water swept across the great flat valley carrying all before them. Hundreds of cattle were drowned, villages isolated, subsidiary dykes burst and ‘finally that last ‘link with Nijmegen, the road through Kranenburg, was flooded to a depth of 3 feet. Two divisions in the Cleve area were now completely isolated and here great credit must go to the 552 Company Royal Army Service Corps and the gallant “Windmill Platoon” who contrived to have available at Cleve no less than 700 25 pounder rounds per gun for the Essex Yeomanry. Amphibious supply was quickly organised and a fleet of DUKWS could be seen sailing across the flooded fields between the tree tops.

The stiffest fighting of all was now to begin. To the East of the Cleve — Goch road lay a series of ridges which had been highly organised for defence, being the lay back position for Goch, the hinge pin of this portion of the Siegfried Line. During four days and four nights, the Brigade supported each Infantry Brigade of the 43rd Division in turn in a continuous assault on this position; 13th/18th Hussars followed the Sherwood Rangers in the assault and their place was taken by the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. Enemy shell and mortar fire was the most intense since the days of’ the Bridgehead and casualties were heavy. On the fifth day the German resistance broke and the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards with 214 Brigade took over 1000 prisoners. The tanks and infantry now stood on the escarpment above Goch and that well known heap of rubble quickly fell into the hands of 15th (Scottish) Division. Throughout the last 10 days the G. A. F. had produced their first jet-propelled ME 262s Day Bombers.

The Brigade was now teamed up with the 53rd (Welsh) division and on 24th February operation “Leek” began. The intention was to drive Southeast astride the river Niers and to capture Weeze. The 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards supporting 71 Brigade were on the right and l3th/18th Hussars in the woods with 160 Brigade on the left. The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry who had suffered heavy casualties in the last operation were resting in Cleve, as were the 12th Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who had until now had all their Companies detached to the Armoured Regiments. Going was difficult and the enemy defences were reinforced by Panther tanks; some progress was made but, as both flanks of the advance were open, it was decided to call a halt till the 51st (Highland) Division on the right and 3rd British on the left came up level. Two days later, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry and 12th Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps having rejoined, a further assault upon the, Weeze defences was launched supported by flame-throwing tanks. By dark the town was surrounded on three sides and during the night patrols entered the outskirts. By 1000 hours on the 2nd of March information came that the town had been evacuated which, coupled with the news of the, rapid American advance Northeast from the Roer, gave grounds for belief that the enemy were pulling out completely. The Corps Commander arrived at Brigade H.Q. a few minutes later and gave permission for the 8th Armoured Brigade to follow up with all speed.

Churchill, equiped with flame thrower

The Brigade less 13th/18th Hussars and with under command 1st Ox and Bucks were rumbling through Weeze by the early afternoon. Disappointment was ahead; the enemy had completed a scheme of demolitions which, in this marshy ground, brought the force to a standstill. All night long craters were being filled in and mines removed but progress was seriously handicapped by lack of Sappers. After superhuman efforts the Brigade entered Kevelaer early next morning and the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards with 1st Ox and Bucks pushed on to Geldern. Kevelaer was the first town to be entered in Germany which was not a complete ruin. After overcoming more demolitions the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and B Company, 12th Battalion The King’s Royal Rifle Corps encountered tank fire on the outskirts of Geldern to which they replied hotly before discovering that their opponents were the leading elements of the United States Army. This constituted the first link-up between the British and American forces. By 1000 hours on the 4th March the “blow” in Geldern had been filled in and the hunt continued to Issum with the Sherwood Rangers now in the lead. Here again all bridges were blown and under observed shell fire: however, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry Bulldozer and the Scissors Bridge solved the problem between them in spite of the continual shelling and by the afternoon a bridgehead was established. All attempts at progress further East were hotly resisted and it became evident that the enemy intended to hold the bridgehead Xanten – Kappellen - Rheiuberg while the Para Army evacuated its heavy equipment across the Rhine.

The enemy dispositions were perfect; they held the line of a tree-covered escarpment dominating a flat coverless plain with a river running through it. The going in the bottom would scarcely carry tanks. After two night attacks and one smoke covered day assault the escarpment was in British hands, and the advance continued in face of fierce resistance across the table land on top. The work of the Air O.P., Captain Mollison, was quite spectacular throughout the whole advance from Weeze: on net to the leading tanks he hunted Panthers, spotted 88s, gave engineer information, recced alternative routes, and directed the fire of both medium and field artillery at the same time.

On the 9th March’ the l3th/l8th Hussars stood on the escarpment looking down upon the Rhine valley with Americans coming in from the South and the Guards Armoured from the North. The remnants of the German Army were either dead, prisoners or East of the Rhine. After exactly a month of continuous action during which every yard of 50 miles had been hotly disputed, the Brigade was at last relieved by the 34th-Tank Brigade and went out to rest.

The following day the Brigade Commander attended a conference at which General Horrocks unfolded the plans for Operation “Plunder”, the crossing of the Rhine.

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