CHAPTER FIVE

Winter Quarters

THE SCHELDT

AFTER THE FAILURE of Market Garden, Montgomery described its only legacy—the long, thin salient to Nijmegen—as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany.” This was a characteristic piece of braggadocio by 21st Army Group’s commander. Privately, he cannot have believed it. The point of that “dagger” drove nowhere until the spring of 1945. To hold the eastern “blade,” a sixty-mile front, he was obliged to retain for weeks the services of the two U.S. airborne divisions which had seized the corridor in September 1944. In October the most urgent objective for Montgomery’s forces lay in the opposite direction from Germany: the Antwerp approaches. Tedder wrote: “I was never able to convince myself that at any stage until we held Antwerp, Montgomery really believed that we could march a sizeable army to Berlin with our existing resources of supply and maintenance.”

First Canadian Army was committed to the unglamorous yet vital task of clearing the Scheldt, and above all the defences of Walcheren Island, to open the shipping path to the port. Operations began on 3 October, with a devastating air attack against the Westkapelle Dyke by 247 Lancasters of Bomber Command. When the RAF aircraft turned for home, the great earth wall that had held back the sea from Walcheren for 400 years was breached. Within a few days, large parts of the island were under water, flooding some German positions, at the cost of 125 Dutch civilian lives. But during the first ten days of October the ground advance made slow progress. Throughout the campaign, the Canadian Army suffered even more acutely than the British from a shortage of men. Because many French-Canadians bitterly opposed participation in “England’s war,” Canada’s prime minister Mackenzie King decreed in 1940 that only volunteers would be sent overseas, and that even these men would fight only in Europe. As a consequence, by 1944 some 70,000 fit Canadian soldiers—the “zombies” as they were known—remained at home, doing nothing more useful than guarding prisoners of war. “We had five divisions, or the equivalent, of trained men sitting back there in Canada,” lamented a Canadian officer bitterly, “and that s.o.b. Mackenzie King just wouldn’t send them overseas.” At the very end of the war, when 15,000 non-volunteers were drafted for overseas services, more than three-quarters of them deserted before embarkation.

Meanwhile in the field, Canada’s fighting forces suffered constant manning difficulties. When the units which had trained for so long in England before D-Day were eroded by battle casualties, the quality and fighting power of the Canadian Army deteriorated, to the chagrin of those who commanded its units in battle. The Black Watch of Canada, for instance, had suffered heavily in Normandy, and by October possessed only some 379 men in its rifle companies, of whom 100 were recent replacements. Many of these proved wholly untrained, to the point of being unfamiliar with infantry small arms. When they met German paratroops in an attack on 13 October, they were heavily mauled, losing 183 casualties including fifty-six killed. That night, the survivors were given a hot meal and a movie show. When officers learned that the scheduled entertainment was entitled We Die at Dawn, a less provocative alternative was substituted.

On 16 October, the commander of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Denis Whitaker, was consolidating his battalion’s positions after a successful assault when the German 6th Parachute Division counter-attacked. Whitaker was appalled to see his A Company commander shamelessly about-turn and disappear towards the rear. “Unfortunately,” wrote the colonel later, “when men see their own leaders turn away from battle, it becomes a very natural choice that they shall follow, and that is what happened on Woesdrecht Hill. I . . . had to watch this horrible sight, those wretched men running panic-stricken down the hill towards us. I pulled out my revolver and stopped some of them at gunpoint.” Whitaker’s battalion suffered 167 casualties, including twenty-one killed. One of his other company commanders checked the German assault by calling down artillery fire on his own positions.

On 31 October, the CO of the Black Watch of Canada, Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Ritchie, wrote a note for his battalion’s war diary: “ ‘Battle morale’ is definitely not good, due to the fact that inadequately trained men are, of necessity, being sent into action ignorant of any idea of their own strength, and, after their first mortaring, overwhelmingly convinced of the enemy’s. This feeling is no doubt increased by their ignorance of fieldcraft in its most elementary form.” Individually, many Canadians made fine and brave contributions to the war. Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds was among the outstanding corps commanders in north-west Europe. Some Canadian officers who volunteered for service with British units showed themselves exceptional soldiers. But collectively, the Canadian Army was a weak and flawed instrument because of the chronic manning problems imposed by its nation’s politics. Canada’s soldiers paid the price of their prime minister’s pusillanimity on the flooded battlefields of Holland in the winter of 1944.

Eisenhower told Montgomery, undoubtedly rightly, that he was unconvinced 21st Army Group was giving sufficient priority to Antwerp: “I believe the operations designed to clear up the entrance require your personal attention.” The field-marshal grudgingly reinforced the Canadians with four British divisions, which pushed north towards the Waal. A painful struggle followed. Some 10,000 Germans in the so-called Breskens Pocket inflicted on the Canadian 3rd Division some of the most miserable fighting of its war, amid the October rains and floods. The Wehrmacht’s 64th Division, core of the Breskens defence, was one of the most effective formations under Model’s command. The Leopold Canal, which had caused such grief during the first Canadian crossing attempt in September, required a major assault operation three weeks later. A soldier of the Toronto Scottish recorded in the battalion’s war diary for 9 October: “Living conditions at the front are not cosy. Water and soil make mud. Mud sticks to everything. Rifles and brens operate sluggishly. Ammunition becomes wet. Slit trenches allow one to get below the ground level, but also contain several inches of thick water. Matches and cigarettes are wet and unusable.” A Canadian officer, Major Oliver Corbett of the North Shores, said: “The whole Scheldt battle was company attacks, day after day, sometimes two or three attacks in 24 hours . . . We were soaked all the time. Along the dyke was the only place a soldier could dig in.”

Among the British formations further south, Private Kenneth Pollitt advanced into the old fortress town of ’s-Hertogenbosch with 7th Royal Welsh Fusiliers on 26 October. A young Dutchman wearing the Orange armband of the Resistance dashed to meet Pollitt’s platoon, and volunteered to show the way through the streets, because he desperately wanted to play some part in the liberation of his hometown. They reached the town hall, where even amid continued fighting local people were offering celebratory glasses of wine to every passing British soldier. They moved on towards the south bank of the canal, failing to notice a German tank tucked in beside a building on the far side, 150 yards away. Its gun fired. Most of Pollitt’s section collapsed dead or wounded. His corporal was hit in the stomach, face and legs. The Dutch boy was dead. “That one shell cost our platoon more casualties than we had suffered since Normandy.” Pollitt dashed into a nearby monastery, and tried to find a window from which he might get a shot with his PIAT. The Germans had disappeared. Next morning, he heard cheering, and ran out on a house balcony to see men of the East Lancashires making a dash across a canal bridge. Yet, even as they watched, a German sniper dropped one of the spectators stone dead. Carelessness on the battlefield was often cruelly punished. Shelling started, from both sides. Pollitt watched curiously as a dispatch rider, obviously very drunk, stood in full view in the street and blazed wildly in the direction of the German positions with a tommy-gun. He was fortunate enough to survive, “the only man I saw drunk in action in the whole campaign.” It took the British two days to secure ’s-Hertogenbosch and its network of canals, just one among a hundred such bitter and destructive little actions.

image

Third Canadian Division finally completed the capture of the Breskens Pocket on 4 November, having lost 314 killed, 231 missing and 2,077 wounded. They took more than 12,000 German prisoners. On 1 November, British and Canadian troops staged three amphibious landings on Walcheren. They fought their way through the streets of Flushing to secure the town. On 3 November, after several Canadian attempts had been bloodily repulsed, 52nd (Lowland) Division finally forced the causeway to west Walcheren. On 5 November, Allied troops entered the town of Middelburg. In all, it took eight days of fighting and cost some 7,700 casualties to secure the island. Bitterness persisted within both Canadian and British units over the manner in which they had been driven again and again to assault the Walcheren causeway, at heavy cost, even as the island was being taken from the other side by amphibious assault. The Scheldt actions have been given scant attention by students of the north-west Europe campaign because they seemed inglorious and lay far from the direct path to Germany. Yet for all those who took part, including the Dutch people struggling to survive in the midst of a battlefield, they provided a dreadful experience. Wilhelmina Helder, a twenty-year-old girl in Middelburg, spent two weeks among a hundred people in a cellar while bombs and shells thundered down above them. On 6 November, the trapdoor opened to reveal a very dirty Canadian soldier peering down at them. Her eighty-six-year-old grandmother said thankfully, almost euphorically: “I can go home.” Yet she emerged to find her house submerged beneath the floodwaters which now covered huge areas of the Dutch battlefield. The old woman died that night.

The guns did not finally fall silent on Walcheren until 8 November. The opening of the Scheldt had cost 18,000 casualties. The Royal Navy was obliged to clear 267 sea-mines before the estuary was navigable. The first Allied ship unloaded at Antwerp only on 28 November, eighty-five days after “Pip” Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division first seized the docks. Until that date, almost every ton of Allied supplies had to be trucked or carried across the devastated French rail net from the Normandy beaches or the Channel ports, most of which had now been cleared of their German garrisons. It is scarcely surprising that the Americans showed little patience with Montgomery’s professions of eagerness for a rapid dash into Germany when he and his forces made such heavy weather of performing one of the most vital strategic tasks of the campaign. The operations to open Antwerp were the overwhelming preoccupation of 21st Army Group between the failure of Market Garden and November 1944. By the time the job was done, it was plain that the British would make no important progress towards Germany until the wet, dismal winter was past its worst.

First Canadian Army was left to hold a long line east–west along the estuary of the Maas and up the Waal, then turning south down the Arnhem–Nijmegen salient. Northern Holland remained in German hands. The difficulties had now become apparent of attacking across the Dutch flatlands. The British focused their main forces upon the eastern axis towards Germany, and maintained only a holding front against the German forces occupying northern Holland.

Dempsey’s Second Army began a long series of operations to make ground into Germany. The Siegfried Line ended some miles north of Aachen, so the British faced no major German fortifications. They were now fighting eighty miles from the heart of the Ruhr. But through October and November, in awful weather and on difficult terrain, they encountered disappointment after disappointment as they struggled to find a way through. An attack by VIII Corps into the Peel Marshes took five days to cover three miles, where the few roads were heavily mined and fiercely defended by Student’s paratroopers.

That operation was broken off on 15 October. The Germans launched an impressive counter-attack of their own twelve days later, against the American 7th Armored Division on the British right. The Germans regained some ground, caused considerable mayhem and prompted Bradley to relieve the commander of 7th Armored. The British VIII and XII Corps spent the entire month of November clearing the Peel Marshes, closing up to the River Maas early in December. The neighbouring XXX Corps pushed painfully through Geilenkirchen, twelve miles north of Aachen, to touch the Roer in mid-December. The officer commanding 5th Royal Tanks, Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Leakey, reflected the mood of many British units at this time: “The regiment had seldom been out of the action throughout the war . . . and they had certainly had their bellyful. The 5th fought as hard as any . . . even so, I missed that ‘urge to go.’ ” The CO of 1st Herefords, George Turner-Cain, found it painful to contrast the lack of enthusiasm among his own men with the dogged performance of the Germans:

. . . hard fighting and heavy casualties had a depressing effect on morale all round. Men became jumpy and unwilling to go forward in the face of fire or possible fire, unless led by their leaders. The Germans, who were highly disorganized, fighting in penny packets and not in formations, were showing splendid spirit and defiance, fighting until told to withdraw . . .

Major-General “Pip” Roberts wrote of the difficulties that winter: “Now, mistakes and failures could only delay the end. Of course we wanted to finish the war as quickly as possible, but at what cost? Unless morale was high, we would not achieve our objectives; heavy casualties in a fruitless battle will not help morale. We must try to win our battles without heavy casualties; not very easy.” Montgomery once described his unhappiness when Churchill conveyed to him American reproaches that the British seemed unwilling to take their share of casualties. “It was you, Prime Minister,” responded the field-marshal, “who told me that we must not suffer casualties on the scale of the Somme.”

Familiar tensions resurfaced between British and Americans. “The Sketch had a big write-up for the Yanks about their attack at Overloon,” George Turner-Cain wrote on 19 October. “We had to clear part of the wood for them. Rex took in a couple of platoons, killed about 20 Huns and brought back 17 prisoners. The Yanks had sat looking at the place with a battalion of infantry plus tanks. They appear to sit down opposite the enemy and wait for them to retire, rather than pushing continually. They use an abundance of artillery and air bombardment to break the enemy will to defend, then follow up on the ground.” Yet throughout this period Montgomery continued to press for a reinforcement of U.S. divisions to strengthen the British axis of advance. It is hard to overstate the scepticism which these demands provoked among the Americans. “When you analyse how difficult it would have been for the British to accomplish anything, even in the beachhead or coming across France, except where we were pulling them along,” said Bradley scathingly after the war, “why would he [Montgomery] think the British would step out and win the war while the Americans stood still? He wanted to take a bunch of Americans to do it with.” Bradley’s aide Hansen observed not without satisfaction: “The British have had tough going in attempting to clear out Antwerp. They have grabbed a tiger by the tail in attempting to flank the Siegfried line . . . they know now it cannot be done.”

To put the matter bluntly, and in a fashion that would deeply dismay those British and Canadian soldiers who suffered so much “at the sharp end,” 21st Army Group’s only substantial strategic achievement since the great dash across France and Belgium in August was the clearance of the Antwerp approaches, a task that should have been accomplished at negligible cost early in September. Even if some American commanders such as Patton and Gavin expressed doubts about the determination and skill of their own soldiers, they saw nothing about the British performance in Holland in the winter of 1944 to persuade them that their allies possessed grit or military gifts greater than those of the U.S. Army. The Australian Chester Wilmot, generally an admirer of British rather than American military conduct in north-west Europe, nonetheless observed brutally “what was at this stage the gravest shortcoming of the British army: the reluctance of commanders at all levels to call upon their troops to press on regardless of losses, even in operations which were likely to shorten the war and thus save casualties in the long run.”

Freddie de Guingand, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, confided to Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay on 28 November (according to the admiral’s diary) that he was “rather depressed at the state of the war in the west . . . the SHAEF plan had achieved nothing beyond killing and capturing a lot of Germans, and that we were no nearer to knocking out Germany . . . The higher direction of the war had been bad in the last 2 months . . . Ike’s policy was only skin-deep and anyone could deflect it.” Between the beginning of November and mid-December 1944, British Second Army advanced just ten miles.

LIVING AND DYING

THE WEATHER INFLICTED much misery upon the combatants before the compound of enemy action was added. It was the wettest winter in Holland since 1864. “Some people begin to believe that Our Dear Lord has become pro-Nazi,” wrote a Dutch doctor. Incessant rain reduced the battlefield to a quagmire, on which the movement of men and supplies was a Sisyphean task. The concentration of millions of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of trucks and armoured vehicles among the waterlogged fields and woods of north-west Europe made a mockery of mobility. The simplest military operation became a movie translated into slow motion. The living conditions of infantry in the forward positions resembled those of Flanders thirty years earlier. British boots and serge battledress were notoriously pervious to damp. Sodden canvas web equipment stiffened. Mould and rust became endemic. Men snivelled relentlessly, with common colds and ’flu, even without more violent threats to their well-being.

The soldiers of the Western armies were products of modern industrial societies. It is hard to overstate the transition inflicted upon them by warfare. Young men possess remarkable powers of adjustment to new circumstances. British and American soldiers had been expensively trained to endure hardship. But few became wholly inured to battlefield life. They were required to become creatures of the wilderness, perpetual campers and boy scouts, living in foxholes which allowed their occupants to sleep sitting, but seldom to lie prone. Every soldier spent far more time digging than shooting. It required the labour of many weary hours to contrive a hole deep enough to shelter a man effectively from shellfire. Within days of creating such a refuge, he was required to move on and repeat the process. Soldiers performed every natural function in the open; ate clumsy alfresco picnics of nourishing but monotonous food; lived in filthy and often damp clothing that went unwashed for weeks, even months; and were subject to the arbitrary authority of those appointed to lead them. This allowed individuals negligible discretion over their own lives in small things or large, through the seven days of the week and the eleven months of the campaign. Intelligent men found that among the hardest parts of war was the need to accept orders from stupid ones.

Routine was interrupted only by injury, death, spasms of movement from one drab patch of countryside to another or brief periods of rest. Mysteriously, attacks always seemed to be scheduled for Sundays. It became a luxury to enjoy the occasional opportunity to occupy quarters in a ruined building, a few days billeted in a farmhouse or factory. This was a life stripped of privacy and culture, in which men struggled to retain self-respect. A few enjoyed the opportunity to use weapons and to kill people; rather more learned to take pride in soldiering well; but many remained uneasy prisoners of their uniforms. Each day, they were forcing themselves to do things which did not come naturally, and indeed it would have been a tragedy for their societies if it had been otherwise.

Then the enemy took a hand. Mines, booby traps and skilfully sited German guns inflicted a toll on each small advance. There was none of the exhilaration of dashing charges across great swathes of country. Men were permanently filthy and wet, and often frankly demoralized. “There was a change of mood after Arnhem,” said Captain “Dim” Robbins. “One just didn’t feel the same. We were getting rather tired.” One of Lieutenant Roy Dixon’s comrades warned him dourly when he joined his unit: “We don’t want any Victoria Crosses in this troop.” Everyone knew that there would now be no big breakthrough before spring. It seemed a sorry business to risk one’s life to attack some battered Dutch hamlet or marshy map reference when the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Even when nothing important was being done, there was a relentless round of digging, patrolling and manning positions which could steal a man’s life as irretrievably as a big attack.

George Turner-Cain commented ruefully on the aggressiveness of German patrolling, the manner in which the enemy often reoccupied ground which the British thought was cleared. “Dim” Robbins’s CO rebuked him for walking upright when German tanks were firing airburst shells among the trees above them. Robbins said: “I’d simply got into a state of mind in which I didn’t care any more.” A shell fragment hit the officer beside Robbins, decapitating him. The man’s head fell into Robbins’s hands. He himself was hit in the eye by a splinter, which removed him to hospital almost until the war’s end.

Two mornings in succession, Corporal Denis Thomas’s Honey light tank dashed down a road to reconnoitre German infantry positions, hosed them with machine-gun fire and returned safely to the British lines. The third day, 6 October, proved once too often. The tank found its usual path blocked by felled trees. On turning right into a village, there was a heavy explosion against the hull, which stopped the engine and severed the electrics—a Panzerfaust impact. The crew bailed out, Thomas more slowly than the others because he was injured in the leg and side. He had to struggle to pull himself over the breech of the gun. Once on the ground, he ran clumsily into a nearby house. He regretted his choice of refuge as soon as he saw a rifle barrel protruding from a window. Then several Germans clumped in, carrying rations and other booty they had taken from his tank. At first, they did not see Thomas. He tapped the shoulder of one man, whose startled hands instinctively shot up in surrender. The injured tank gunner explained that he was the one who was giving up. An English-speaking lieutenant appeared, who genially introduced Thomas to the huge soldier who had fired the faust which crippled the Honey. Then the prisoner was led out of the back of the house to a motorcycle sidecar which took him to a field hospital. A German doctor who tended his wounds inquired how old Thomas was. Nineteen, said the Englishman. The doctor shook his head disbelievingly and muttered: “Sixteen.” Of the tank’s crew, the wireless-operator was also captured. The lieutenant in command escaped up a drainage ditch. The driver was killed by “friendly fire” as he sought to re-enter the British lines.

The crusade to liberate Europe, upon which many men of the allied nations embarked with real idealism in June 1944, had degenerated into a series of sodden local manoeuvres. These roused few expectations among higher commanders, and cynical resignation among those who had to carry them out. Many men remarked upon the changed mood in Belgium and Holland that winter, the faltering of the commitment displayed by those who had landed on the Norman beaches in high summer. “After the airborne operation failed, we seemed to run out of ideas,” remarked Bill Deedes. “We moved very slowly. We did what Julius Caesar used to do two thousand years earlier—we went into winter quarters.” There was never any open admission by British commanders that they had abandoned hopes of a breakthrough, but the facts speak for themselves: until the German assault in the Ardennes, 21st Army Group moved nowhere far or fast.

For those occupying forward positions during the hours of daylight, positional warfare imposed immobility and boredom, while requiring constant vigilance. Beyond the enemy’s line of sight, men laboured on the daily round of fatigue duties—ration-carrying, washing and repairing vehicles, priming grenades, filling magazines, cleaning weapons. Intense activity began when darkness fell. During the hours when civilians slept, soldiers were obliged to exploit their invisibility. There were trenches to be dug, mines to be laid, units to be relieved, supplies to be brought forward. Even where there was no gunfire, the night silence was broken by the muffled thud and clink of spades, subdued voices and distantly moving vehicles. Patrols were sent out, often across a river or canal, to probe the German lines and sometimes bring back a prisoner for intelligence purposes. Each such small operation was a nerve-racking ordeal for those required to creep in darkness across water-logged countryside, poised every moment for the explosion of a mine or trip-flare, the rattle of enemy fire. Men were always tired, because even when there was no great battle to be fought, the simplest everyday tasks—cooking, finding a tolerable place in which to sleep, wash, defecate—become major challenges on a battlefield.

Thoughtful men, reared on the tradition of British bungling in the First World War, were pleasantly surprised by the administrative competence of the 1944–45 army, in which mail and rations never failed to appear. It is hard to overstate the importance of letters from home to morale in every theatre of war, and commanders knew it. “I was terribly impressed by the sheer efficiency of everything,” said Roy Dixon. “Everybody talks about the chaos of war, but to us it didn’t seem that chaotic at all. All the ordinary worries of peacetime life were taken away from us. We simply had to drive our tanks, and fight.” Above all, American and British soldiers could take for granted a privilege denied to the rest of Europe—a sufficiency of food.

One of the more squalid manifestations of the presence of more than three million men in open country beyond reach of sanitation and—not infrequently—even of properly dug latrines was the ubiquity of human waste, as well as every other form of garbage. Ammunition boxes, half-empty ration packs, tins, paper, shell cases, signal wire, burned-out vehicles, abandoned foxholes, decaying human body parts, bomb craters, discarded munitions polluted great tracts of Belgium, Holland, France and now also Germany. Most of the metalled roads of Europe were ravaged by the passage of tracked vehicles. Men learned to live in a world of drab camouflaged greens and browns, in which the only primary colours were those momentarily generated by explosives.

“There was something happening all the time,” said Edwin Bramall, “but it was all small-scale stuff—patrol actions where you threw a few grenades, lost men on schu-mines, took one or two prisoners. We were advancing inch by inch.” Before the chilly grey light of dawn, each side’s snipers took up position in front of the lines, commencing motionless observation with binoculars and telescopic sights. It was a cold-blooded business, studying so closely the humdrum activities of men whom it was one’s duty to kill. A British sniper watched “Fat Hans,” as he christened a portly German private, for several days. The man’s routine was always the same. At dawn, he lifted his MG42 machine-gun on to the parapet of his trench and fired a test burst—what Bill Deedes described as “the grim rasp of a spandau clearing its throat.” Then Fat Hans stamped backwards and forwards, swinging his arms across his chest in search of warmth—and rashly exposing the top half of his body. One morning a single British rifle bullet terminated his appearances, to the mild regret of those of his enemies who had been diverted by his homeliness.

Even after years of war, some men retained scruples about licensed homicide. “It is believed that certain individuals are not suited for the business of killing,” observed a U.S. Army report regretfully. A Swedish soldier of the U.S. 563rd Field Battery practised for months handling his .50 calibre machine-gun. Yet when a Luftwaffe fighter made a rare appearance, flying so low that its pilot’s face was visible in the cockpit, the soldier’s fingers froze impotent on the trigger of his gun. Lieutenant Peter Downward commanded the sniper platoon of 13 Para. He had never himself killed a man with a rifle, but one day he found himself peering at a German helmet just visible at the corner of an air-raid shelter—an enemy sniper.

I had his head spot in the middle of my telescopic sight, my safety catch was off, but I simply couldn’t press the trigger. I suddenly realised that I had a young man’s life in my hands, and for the cost of one round, about twopence, I could wipe out eighteen or nineteen years of human life. My dithering deliberations were brought back to earth with a bump as Kirkbride suddenly shouted: “Go on, sir. Shoot the bastard! He’s going to fire again.” I pulled the trigger and saw the helmet jerk back. I had obviously got him, and felt completely drained . . . What had I done?

A British report on the autumn fighting showed overall casualty rates per thousand of 7.71 battle; 1.27 accident; 0.05 self-inflicted wounds; 2.06 battle exhaustion. Almost a third of all wounds were caused by shell splinters, 15 per cent by mortars, 30 per cent by gunshot. Blast, burns and mines each accounted for 10 per cent. Mishaps with weapons were a constant source of grief. Corporal Stan Proctor was proudly displaying a captured Luger when it went off, hitting a dispatch rider in the leg. The man fell to the ground moaning: “It hurts, it hurts.” An angry sergeant-major said unsympathetically: “You don’t expect it to tickle, do you?” Proctor felt deeply embarrassed, because it was his third accident with firearms.

Sometimes it seemed that something more than chance decided a man’s fate. Dr. David Tibbs was driving up a snowclad hillside, recovering British dead. With him was a stretcher-bearer, Billy Roper, a pacifist like many of his kind. Roper suddenly cried out: “Please sir, stop, sir!” Tibbs did so. “Why, Billy?” he demanded. “Because the Lord tells me I should, sir,” said the man earnestly. Next day, another officer who saw their jeep tracks in the snow reported that they had halted on the edge of a German minefield. God meant a lot to many men of that generation, especially Midwestern Americans. “I could worry every minute of every hour if it were not for my faith and trust in God,” Staff-Sergeant Harold Fennema from Wisconsin wrote to his wife. “I know his presence is everywhere, and I have resigned myself to his will. Army life has been and always will be a shroud of uncertainty.”

Most of Dr. David Tibbs’s work consisted of patching up men for transfer to field hospitals, but he also found himself treating puncture wounds, for which he had little training, and even carrying out tracheotomies. One of the harshest tasks for every battlefield medic was to make an instant judgement about which men might survive and which were hopeless cases. Many doctors gave the latter swift and massive injections of morphine. Bullet wounds were usually clean, but mortar and shell fragments inflicted grotesque injuries. Tibbs was horrified to find himself confronted by one man whose shoulder had been pierced by a falling baulk of timber, which protruded from his chest. He was still alive and conscious, though plainly doomed. Men sometimes shouted aloud: “I’m not going to die! I’m not going to die!,” despite having had all the flesh stripped from their lower limbs by blast. No normal soldier ever grows wholly inured to the spectacle of other young men hideously mangled by deliberate human intent.

Almost all soldiers found disposal of the dead a distasteful task. Corporal Iolo Lewis put his hand on a shrivelled body and felt the flesh hardened into carbon, which upset him deeply: “Nothing had prepared me for the smells of war, above all that of roasted flesh. It was very unnerving for a young lad.” Corporal Andy Cropper, a tank commander in the Sherwood Rangers, was sent to identify some dead comrades:

I saw a line of soldiers in uniform, feet towards me. Slowly I walked along searching. Sometimes, I had to step between them to get a better look at a face, half turned away, or a regimental insignia that was partly obscured. None of them appeared to be grossly mutilated. No separate messes here—officers rubbed shoulders with privates, a sergeant-major with a corporal. All had the same waxen pallor, some eyes were closed, some open, but all unseeing. At last, I had found one of the lads—old Harry, who was never on net. I touched him. He was icy cold, and somewhat rigid. Carefully I removed one of his identity discs. I did it as if he were asleep and I didn’t want to awaken him. I stood before him for a few seconds. I didn’t pray. I didn’t think. It wasn’t homage really, just a sort of “cheerio, Harry.”

Recovering bodies often demanded the collection of mere human fragments, sometimes hanging on bushes and trees. David Tibbs, though a medical officer, recoiled in revulsion from the spectacle of pigs snuffling around the separated torso of a much respected sergeant, who had been leading his company into an attack. “When people ask me what war is like,” Tibbs said afterwards, “I tell them to imagine that.” Some commanders of fighting units refused to allow their own men to handle corpses, arguing that it damaged morale. The task then fell to Field Hygiene Sections. Sometimes it was impossible to reach the dead for days. Even veterans flinched at bloated corpses, the skin of their fingers swelling green over the nails. Some remains had to be sprayed with oil and creosote before they could be handled, especially if they had been badly burned in armoured brew-ups. During the Scheldt battle, 52nd (Lowland) Division’s Reconnaissance Regiment found scores of German dead, who had been lying in the Leopold Canal for a fortnight. Their padre Captain Charles Bradley asked for volunteers to help bury them. Not a man came forward. “That’s quite all right,” said Bradley mildly, “I do understand.”

Shortly afterwards, an astonished soldier reported that the padre was digging graves entirely alone. One by one, men sheepishly drifted over to assist him. When the awful job was done, the priest asked: “Do you mind if we have a little service? I know they are our enemy, and it’s through them that we are here. But they all belong to someone. They are all somebody’s son, husband or father. They have come and paid the price for their country, as we are paying the price for our country. Whoever they are, everyone deserves a proper burial.” Padre Bradley held his service for the German dead.

It was an even worse task to clear human body parts from damaged tanks. In the U.S. 3rd Armored Division, the repair crews one day baulked at addressing a mess of twisted steel and charred flesh which had been towed into the depot. A tall, weedy soldier from the maintenance battalion stepped forward, and surprised his comrades by doing the job single-handed. He said afterwards: “I figured somebody had to do it. I have a younger brother who’s a rifleman in 1st Infantry somewhere forward of us. If he was killed, I would like someone to recover his body so it could be given a decent Christian burial.” It was hard to remove the lingering stench of death. Maintenance units did their best, by respraying the interior paintwork before handing over a repaired Sherman to a new crew.

Just as in the First World War, infantrymen cherished periods of quiet on their front, and were happy to pursue a policy of “live and let live” with the Germans opposite, especially at night. But most commanders considered it their duty to keep the enemy awake and to dislocate his activities. Thus, unless there was a friendly patrol out in front, in darkness flares were sent up at irregular intervals to illuminate no-man’s-land. Machine-guns fired on fixed lines where German troops were likely to be moving. There were spasmodic mortar barrages. The business of attempting to kill your enemy was seldom adjourned for long.

Fear seized men in different ways. Corporal Patrick Hennessy’s troops were embarrassed one day when their young officer burst into tears. One wireless-operator would never leave his tank in the forward area, even at night. A sergeant-major bringing up supplies to the tanks, who back in England had seemed a rock-like figure, turned and bolted for the rear in his jeep when German shelling started. In “Dim” Robbins’s company, a sergeant-major and his own batman sought to escape action through self-inflicted wounds. He sent both men for court-martial. “All the ones who said before we landed in France ‘Can’t wait to get at ’em!’ turned out to be useless,” said Lieutenant Roy Dixon. “We had an ex-boxing blue who ran away.” A squadron commander of 2nd Fife & Forfar Yeomanry was dismayed to find one of his men hiding in a barn to escape going into action. The trooper was persuaded to return to duty. Another soldier narrowly escaped court-martial after leaping out of his tank in action and pelting towards the rear.

“The British soldier is a little slow-witted,” suggested a German intelligence report of November 1944. “The NCO is for the most part very good. Junior officers are full of theoretical knowledge, but in practice generally clumsy . . . not really trained to be independent. The rising scale of casualties has led the British Command recently to behave more and more cautiously. Favourable situations have not been exploited, since the leadership has not responded to the new situation quickly enough.” The Germans, however, praised British intelligence, reconnaissance, camouflage and ground control of air support. A report from 10th SS Panzer Division suggested that some recent German attacks had been compromised by noisy and visible preparations which had attracted British attention. The most successful tactic in winning ground against Montgomery’s men, it concluded, was “an inconspicuous infiltration into an enemy sector weakly occupied by infantry.” Propaganda loudspeakers were deployed by both sides during static periods. In 15th (Scottish) Division’s sector late in September, a British officer broadcast a brutal running commentary to the German lines during an incoming Typhoon strike. This, he claimed, yielded a useful trickle of prisoners and deserters.

Given the overwhelming Allied superiority of resources, the Germans’ psychological dominance of the battlefield was remarkable. A British intelligence report on the morale of German prisoners, composed after the Scheldt battles, concluded in some bewilderment: “Few thought that Germany had any hope of final victory; most had had their fill of fighting and recognised the futility of continuing the struggle. Nevertheless, they all fought hard. The deduction would seem to be that no matter how poor the morale of the German soldier may be, he will fight hard as long as he has leaders to give him orders and see that they are obeyed.” Patrick Hennessy said of the Germans: “We felt they were more professional than we were.” “Dim” Robbins, a career soldier, “always felt conscious that German small arms were better than ours. And if you spotted a Tiger tank, you simply stopped. They handled those tanks with such dexterity and accomplishment, it was fascinating to watch. There was a marked difference between their performance and ours.”

Professor Sir Michael Howard, who possesses the unusual distinction of being both a military historian and a veteran of combat against the Wehrmacht, wrote frankly:

Until a very late stage of the war the commanders of British and American ground forces knew all too well that, in a confrontation with the German troops on anything approaching equal terms, their own men were likely to be soundly defeated. They were better than we were: that cannot be stressed too often. Every Allied soldier involved in fighting the Germans knew that this was so, and did not regard it as in any way humiliating. We were amateurs . . . drawn from peaceful industrial societies with a deep cultural bias against all things military . . . fighting the best professionals in the business . . . We blasted our way into Europe with a minimum of finesse and a maximum of high explosive.

For even a modest local attack, the firepower deployed was awesome. Operation Clipper on 18 November involved four battalions of 43rd Division in an attack on the town of Geilenkirchen. The outlying village of Bauchem was bombed before 5th Dorsets began their assault. Then ten minutes of artillery fire delivered forty-nine tons of explosives on to the objectives. Three hours of mortaring provided a further forty-four tons, together with eighteen tons of 20mm, 40mm and 75mm tank ammunition. All this was followed by thirty minutes of medium artillery fire—73.5 tons of explosive. When the infantry attacked, they met little resistance and suffered only seven casualties, four of which were due to British shells falling short. The enemy’s positions were found to be held by 150 demoralized men of 183rd Volksgrenadier Division, mostly Austrians occupying open trenches. Of these around 15 per cent had been killed or wounded. Next day, a British battalion attempted a further advance without a barrage, but halted after suffering eleven casualties and insisted upon waiting for artillery support. In a subsidiary attack on Bauchem, the 4.2-inch heavy mortars of 8th Middlesex fired 10,000 bombs in three hours.

Statistics for Clipper highlight the scale of fire support the Allies routinely employed. They also demonstrate that, while mortar and artillery barrages could be effective in demoralizing poor-quality enemy troops, they inflicted remarkably few casualties against men occupying entrenched positions. Finally, the aftermath of Clipper illustrates the lack of enthusiasm displayed by infantry for pressing home an attack without massive “softening up.” Their psychological dependence upon artillery and air power was very great. And given such colossal expenditures of ammunition, it is scarcely surprising that there were chronic shortages. Throughout November and December, British twenty-five-pounder guns were restricted to forty-five rounds a day. Supplies of medium artillery ammunition had to be diverted from the Mediterranean. The Americans were in no better case. Allied troops often considered themselves to be suffering heavy German artillery fire, but nowhere on the front in the winter of 1944 did the enemy possess either the guns or the ammunition to match the weight of British and American fire.

It is sometimes supposed that Allied problems of supply disappeared once Antwerp was opened. In reality, severe difficulties persisted until late January 1945. Though Antwerp possessed a discharge capacity of at least 80,000 tons a day, for months stores moved from the dockside to the armies at a much slower rate. Even in early January, only 10,500 tons a day were being cleared off the quays. The Germans maintained a ferocious V-weapon barrage—between September 1944 and May 1945 nearly 7,000 rockets and flying bombs landed in the city and port, inflicting more than 10,000 casualties, most of them civilian. There was a strike among Belgian dockworkers in January, in pursuit of more rations and better working conditions. As for the rail system, it was easy enough to replace track, but far more difficult and time-consuming to repair French bridges and tunnels systematically destroyed by the air forces before and after D-Day. The Allies burdened themselves with supply requirements which were wildly extravagant by German or Russian standards, but deemed essential to sustain the armies of the democracies. In the autumn and winter of 1944, some U.S. divisions were diverted on their transatlantic passage to holding camps in Britain because the means to support them on the continent were lacking. Vast logjams of rail cars persisted east of Paris, and supply-stock record-keeping remained deplorable. Confidence among the fighting commanders in General Lee’s handling of the supply system, which was widely deemed a scandal, remained at rock-bottom. Still Eisenhower would not sack him.

There was a marked contrast in the outlook, background and behaviour of different British regiments. The old county infantry units did their business quietly and without fuss or illusions. They looked askance at aggressively smart cavalrymen like the 13th/18th Hussars, whose commanding officer Lord Feversham, a portly Yorkshire landowner, slept in blue silk pyjamas, and displayed an unaffected reluctance to wake up in the morning. As Feversham fought his way through Holland, he was considering an alternative offer of employment as governor of Madras. His officers’ mess was famous for its addiction to high-stakes roulette and chemin-de-fer. General James Gavin remarked of some British units led by professional soldiers: “They seemed to be much more relaxed about the war than we were, and made themselves as comfortable as they could whenever they could . . . At times, they seemed to enjoy the war.” The attitude noted by Gavin partly reflected a familiar, studied British upper-class nonchalance in adverse circumstances. Yet it is perhaps true that some British soldiers resented the war less than their American counterparts. Brigadier Michael Carver of 4th Armoured Brigade observed: “I just accepted how long it took to finish the business—I was fairly cynical then. This was life for me—it was what I did.”

Carver was a professional soldier wholly intolerant of amateurishness or inadequacy in others. He had risen to command an armoured brigade at the age of twenty-seven. He said later: “You couldn’t afford to let a man remain in command if he had ‘lost it.’ I got rid of the CO of the Sharpshooters, who had a DSO and two MCs, when I found him cowering behind a tank, shaking under shellfire. His regiment had become scruffy and idle.” To some, it seemed remarkable that an officer as abrasive in addressing superiors and subordinates escaped dismissal. Carver said unapologetically: “I kept my job because I did it bloody well.”

A FEW MILES behind the lines stood the thickets of camouflage-netted tents and vehicles which marked formation headquarters. Every Allied divisional HQ required the services of some 150 men, a corps slightly more, and their German counterparts significantly less. Those who served generals in the rear areas incurred little physical risk, save from the road accidents which took an appalling toll in the theatre of operations. Bradley’s 12th Army Group HQ somehow found employment for 5,000 men, and Eisenhower’s notoriously bloated staff was three times larger. There were many idle and useless mouths among the “pen-pushers.” Yet, for the men at the heart of directing operations, the strain was daunting. There is a myth cherished by some front-line soldiers and amateur students of war that staff officers enjoyed a “cushy” life. Yet those doing the vital operational planning and organization of logistics worked far harder than any peacetime civilian. There were no weekends or holidays, only relentless labour until the small hours of morning, underpinned by awareness that the welfare and indeed survival of hundreds of thousands of men were in their hands.

More than a few senior staff officers succumbed to exhaustion or nervous collapse. Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, the highly respected Freddie de Guingand, had to spend several weeks in an English hospital bed in the autumn of 1944. The health of General Sir John Kennedy, British Director of Military Operations, broke down after four years in his post. Most senior commanders worked punishing schedules. Guderian complained that he was sometimes unable to go to bed until 0500 if Hitler was in talkative mood. The German Chief of Staff, a man of fifty-six, had to be at his headquarters again three hours later. Sir Alan Brooke found Churchill’s midnight monologues an acute strain. The CIGS was unable to take the afternoon naps favoured by the British prime minister. Most of the men making the vital decisions of the Second World War had been born in the nineteenth century. They were now in their fifties at least, yet obliged to work at a pitch of intensity few civilians of their age could tolerate. “Every day I feel older, more tired, less inclined to face difficulties,” Brooke wrote gloomily in his diary. Montgomery, usually among commanders, adhered to a rigorous personal routine which allowed him to go to bed each night at 9:30 p.m. His immediate subordinates were not so fortunate. Chronic exhaustion was as normal a state for generals and staff officers as it was for the young soldiers who did their bidding in waterlogged foxholes.

The horizons of fighting soldiers of all nationalities became entirely bordered by their own company, the view discernible from the parapet of a foxhole. Most knew the name of the unit’s colonel, but few generals registered upon their consciousness. The thoughts of even intelligent and educated men were dominated by tiny matters such as whether the day’s rations would contain canned stew, whether the unit might get to a mobile shower unit. “The outside world didn’t seem to matter much,” observed Bill Deedes. “Every soldier was overwhelmingly preoccupied with getting through the day, and avoiding being killed or wounded. I never remember being very frightened, because I was so preoccupied with doing whatever job I had been given—getting my company to wherever they were supposed to be on time.” Opinion was divided over whether family ties at home were a help or an impediment in supporting the strains of battle. Some men believed that it was better to be unattached, but “Dim” Robbins thought that being married with a small daughter helped him a little as a soldier: “There was always someone who was interested in you—somebody you could feel that you were doing this for.”

It was a curiosity of the campaign that British newspapers reached men in the front lines, often within forty-eight hours. Many fighting formations published their own modest newssheets, to provide a minimum of information about events outside their own sector, but most men scarcely bothered to read them. A proposal was put forward to produce a British Army newspaper, matching the Americans’ Stars & Stripes. The British secretary of state for war, Sir James Grigg, commented scornfully to Montgomery on the two journalists who were suggested as its editors: “[Tom] Driberg—Austrian, Jew, Anglo-Catholic, churchwarden, homosexual, communist. Hannen Swaffer is Jew, unwashed near-communist, toady of Beaverbrook.” Grigg’s tone suggests that he could have enjoyed a congenial dinner-party conversation with the men whom the war was being fought to destroy.

Many British soldiers were both jealous of the Americans’ vast resources and sceptical about their allies’ manner of fighting a war. “The contrast with our own way of doing things was enormous,” said Major John Denison. “They fought in a quite different way, approaching every operation like a gang of builders—very informal. We thought U.S. officers did not look after their men in the way we did. It was sacred in the British Army to ensure that your soldiers got a hot meal every 24 hours.” Almost every British soldier resented the power of American wealth in his battered homeland. A private of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, passing a column of American troops newly arrived from Britain, shouted sourly at them: “How’s my wife?”

“The Americans seemed very strange to us, and not terribly friendly,” said Lord Carrington. “We asked some of their officers to dinner once, at the time of the Ardennes, and they never even bothered to reply.” David Fraser shared his view: “We thought of the Americans without a great deal of respect, as unsoldierly and slovenly. Our views were ill-informed and unfair. The truth was that they had everything we would have liked and didn’t have.” Corporal Patrick Hennessy said: “Funny lot the Americans—we felt they were roughly on our side, but we resented the way they lorded it in England.” Edwin Bramall, who later became a field-marshal, greatly admired the U.S. Navy and air force, and the specialist arms of the U.S. Army. But he argued: “The Americans are least good at small-unit leadership.” There may be some truth in this, but when David Fraser spent time as a liaison officer with the U.S. Airborne, his respect grew. “They did things in a different way from us, but it was impressive. At first I thought their planning left too much in the air, but then I decided that this was a plus. We were too precise about telling people how to do things.” British criticisms and resentments were reciprocated, of course, by Americans, who often found the British snobbish, patronizing, slow and lazy. A USAAF pilot arriving to join a squadron in England late in 1944 recorded “a general feeling that the British were no longer pulling their weight in the war.” It is less remarkable that these beliefs and tensions existed than that they were overcome to make the alliance work as well as it did.

Thanks to the chronic British shortage of manpower, rear units were combed to provide infantry replacements. Some of those who now found their way unwillingly to rifle companies would never have been accepted for front-line service earlier in the war, and were often poorly trained. “Many men are weak in handling their weapons,” reported a company commander. “I know several who did not even know that a grenade had to be primed. Some NCOs cannot map-read, even on roads.” While every week brought new American formations into the line, in the British Army battalions and even divisions were being broken up to maintain the strengths of others. This was a painful business for those concerned, given the strong loyalties bred into British soldiers by the regimental system. It was also worrying to those at the summit of command, who saw Britain’s order of battle visibly shrinking. Churchill complained testily to Montgomery: “It is very difficult to understand this cutting-up of first-rate units.” Platoon commanders, who bore the brunt of officer casualties, were desperately hard to replace. 21st Army Group sent a signal to the adjutant-general late in October: “Deficiencies in infantry officers now such as to seriously prejudice future operations.” This provoked a blunt response, asserting that there was no possibility of finding more officers without cannibalizing existing units.

The gulf was almost unimaginably wide, between the life of the front-line soldier and that of hundreds of thousands of supporting troops, manning heavy gun batteries, maintenance depots, post offices, mobile laundries, rear headquarters, signal centres, field hospitals, who faced negligible peril and much lesser discomforts. Staff-Sergeant Harold Fennema from Wisconsin, serving with the U.S. 66th Signal Battalion, wrote to his wife: “I don’t think this outfit will ever go anywhere that might be dangerous. I’m not at all sorry about it, because I want to come home in one piece.” Stan Proctor, a brigade headquarters wireless-operator with 43rd (Wessex) Division, wrote in his diary, at a time when bitter fighting was taking place further forward: “A very pleasant day. Signals Office duty in the morning, and an afternoon relaxing with the Heynens girls . . . sold 250 cigarettes for 25 guilders . . . to see Bing Crosby in Going My Way.” Proctor was disconcerted to be told that his services were required with an infantry battalion. He protested vociferously, pointing out that while he had already served time with a line unit, others had served continuously at headquarters since D-Day: “I had by this time lost the wish for the comradeship with the infantryman . . . My time at Brigade had been during some of the quieter spells. Now that things were going to hot up, I was to go back. I objected—to the extent of offering back my stripe, but it made no difference.”

When front-line soldiers escaped from imminent peril for a few hours, their desires were usually pathetically simple. Soldiers talk much about women, but on the battlefield their private cravings are seldom sexual. A British officer described his men’s priorities as “char, wad, flick and kip”—tea, food, a movie and sleep. “We thought about girls much less than about food and sleep in a bed,” said Edwin Bramall. Once out of the line for a time, however, women and alcohol became obvious magnets for many men. Visiting a brothel offered the most realistic prospect of sexual congress. A post-war U.S. Army report on the disciplinary difficulties of controlling rape deplored the fact that brothels were officially off-limits to GIs. The same establishments which had serviced the German Army during its occupation now welcomed the Allies. Green crosses by day and green lights by night guided soldiers to condom-issuing stations, which did not prevent the U.S. Third Army from achieving an average monthly VD rate of 12.41 per 1,000, comfortably exceeded by the Canadian score of 54.6 per 1,000. In a nice exercise of official hypocrisy by the British Army, it was adjudged a moral bridge too far for medical officers to undertake inspections of prostitutes. The incidence of venereal disease among all troops rose sharply after the liberation of France and Belgium where, as a disciplinary report observed sardonically, “the civil population accorded the army a comprehensive welcome.”

AS THE RELENTLESS rain of autumn gave way to winter ice and snow, it was hard for British officers, as well as their men, to escape despondency. Far from ending the war in 1944, there were now fears that the Germans might be capable of protracting their resistance through 1945, a shocking prospect. “There is a feeling of optimism at SHAEF,” Montgomery wrote to Brooke on 21 November. “There are no grounds for such optimism.” A gloomy 21st Army Group assessment on 24 November emphasized the steady arrival of German reinforcements, and the natural strength of many hostile terrain features: “Let us therefore face a situation in which the enemy gets stronger every day. His strategic reserve is very limited, and he is in doubt where to use it first.” Two days later, Montgomery’s staff estimated German strength in the west at seventy-one weak divisions, equivalent to thirty-five full-strength formations: “This is a larger total than we have had to face for many a long while.” Most of the allied soldiers who landed in France on 6 June and in the weeks thereafter were imbued with a sense of mission, even crusade. Now, however, this had been displaced by mere acknowledgement of a bloody task to be completed, and if possible survived.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!