Personal recollections from world war two veterans and civilians.
AN INFANTRYMAN'S AFTERNOON ACTIVITIES
Recollections of a Welsh infantryman fighting in Holland in September 1944It was late September 1944 and the early Autumn weather was pleasantly warm. I had joined the Battalion (2nd South Wales Borderers) about a month before, together with 20 or so newly-trained young soldiers, just after the breakout from Normandy. Whereas much of the Allied efforts then concentrated on the pursuit of the shattered German forces to their next defences on the Belgian canals and further East towards the Dutch/German border, our Battalion, which had recently come under the command of the 49th Infantry Division, paused in the pursuit in order to assist in the capture of the important port of Le Havre. 'A' Company suffered many casualties initially but, eventually, the Port fell rather more easily than had been expected, after heavy bombing, which, unfortunately, resulted in the civilian population suffering along with their German occupiers.
After a brief rest at a village near Dieppe, we rejoined the main Allied effort and while moving up we witnessed the great air armada on its way to the various dropping zones, which culminated in the 1st British Airborne Division's heroic efforts to capture the bridge at Arnhem. We were ecstatically welcomed by the Belgian populance who piled our troop carriers and other vehicles with fruit and flowers as we moved up to our next engagement area.
"You look quite a fit strong lad, you can be our PIAT man." I didn't bother to ask what had happened to the previous operator of the PIAT.One of my early impressions on joining the Battalion on active service was that there was quite a difference between the rigid discipline of the Training Regiment and that which prevailed in an active service unit. Although discipline was well-maintained, there was much closer camaraderie. For instance, during our brief rest after the Le Havre operation, I noticed a keen card school in operation, comprising three "old sweats" - private soldiers all - two stretcher bearers and the Company Commander's batman and, to my surprise, I noted that the fourth member of the school, in shirtsleeves and showing no badges of rank, was our Company Commander himself Major John Dauncey! Of course, all four had served together for a long time, experienced the drama of D-Day and, fortunately, remained in one piece throughout the bitter Normandy Campaign. There is nothing like danger shared to forge that sort of comradeship.
On joining the Rifle Company to which I had been assigned, my Platoon Sergeant, Jack Wallen, had greeted me with the words "You look quite a fit strong lad, you can be our PIAT man". The PIAT was a rather cumbersome mobile antitank weapon (the name 'PIAT' is an acronym of "Projector Infantry Antitank"). I didn't bother to ask what had happened to the previous operator of the PIAT. The other new member of the two-man team was another "new boy", Tom Hyde, whose duty was to carry ammunition for the PIAT - six bombs in two cases holding three each.
Our first taste of action on rejoining the Allied advance after our rest was our crossing of the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal at night, holding on by the skin of our teeth to our little enclave which came under attack when our presence was discovered. Fortunately, early next morning we got a couple of tanks over the canal, which swayed the balance, despite the loss of one of the tank commanders, who was shot through the head when directing his gunners during our counterattack which enabled us to move on to capture the town of Ryckevorsel, about a mile north of the canal. Fortunately, we encountered no German armour so I didn't have to use my PIAT. Our own tanks, however, caused absolute devastation to the German infantry attacking our positions prior to our advance and we were able to take many prisoners during our own counterattack.
Bridgehead monument at Rykevorsel, Belgium
Bridgehead monument at Rykevorsel, Belgium
We were then called upon to mount another attack a few days later in open country just a few miles beyond Ryckevorsel. Apparently, it was a diversionary effort while the main thrust was made by the rest of our Division and other elements of the 1st Corps. (1st Corps comprised 49th Division, 6th Airborne Division, 51st (Highland) Division, 7th Armoured Division and the Polish Armoured Division). Our attack was a purely local affair, with the limited objective of cutting a road along which the German. defences were dug, in order to keep its use from the enemy and to keep him uncertain as to from where the main attack would emanate.
"we came upon a young soldier from one of the other Platoons. He was wounded and crying for help. I took a chance, put down my PIAT and dragged him into a nearby shell-hole, assuring him that our stretcher bearers would be along to get him evacuated. I didn't know his name and never saw him again"Our Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Trevor Bevan, was a fine junior officer, who always explained the plan and purpose of our every operation, making it all sound routine and straightforward, however hazardous - almost like a training exercise. Just before the attack started Lieut. Bevan singled out the PIAT team - me as the operator and Tom Hyde the bomb carrier. "Now look" he said, "You two have got to stay together. It's no use us having the weapon in one place, and the bombs in another". He was still rankled by the failure of the team (before Tom and I joined the Battalion), to destroy a German Tiger Tank. This happened, apparently, when the Platoon got into some houses during a skirmish in a Normandy village and down the road came this tank. The Tiger tank was a formidable piece of weaponry - far superior to any tank the Allies possessed but, fortunately, for us in far less numbers and not always operational due to fuel shortages. Apparently by the time the bombs were fused (they could not be carried fused as they detonated very easily) and the PIAT was loaded and ready for action, the tank had gone on its way, unaware of the presence of our troops in the houses.
Of course, looking at it the other way, it may have been fortunate that the PIAT was not ready for action in time as the Tiger tank was heavily armoured and the first shot would have needed to destroy it, otherwise it could have then demolished the houses and obliterated the Platoon. We assured Lieut. Bevan that we would make sure we stayed together, but in the event it didn't work out quite like that!
Our acting Company Commander was Captain Harry Reid, Major Dauncey having just been promoted to the command of a Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the rank of Lt. Colonel. I don't know who took his place in the card school! The attack duly got underway late afternoon, after we had had a hot meal some distance from our "start line". Unless we were in a particularly hazardous position, or very close to the enemy, we very rarely had to rely on emergency rations - the food nearly always came through in heat-conserving containers - all credit to our Company Quartermaster-Sergeant and his cooks. Our own mortars, assisted by some artillery, laid down a bombardment on the enemy positions, as far as they were known and we advanced over open country, slightly uphill towards our objective. 'C' Company accompanied us on our left, moving through a lightly wooded area. We soon came under quite heavy small-arms fire from defensive positions not pinpointed by our supporting artillery. One of our early casualties was Captain Reid. He turned round with his battle dress top drenched with blood from a bullet wound in his neck. He calmly said "keep it going lads, I had better get this seen to". We assumed that the bullet had severed an artery and that he would be lucky to survive, losing so much blood but survive he did - he was back in action with us not very long afterwards - within a couple of months as I recall.
Although we were suffering casualties, we had to press on as fast as we could to our objective and comparative safety once we had cleared the defenders out of their positions. Our leading Platoon, slightly to our left, had already got there, and already enemy prisoners were emerging. We had to negotiate some barbed wire boundary fencing, which all took time and I was finding it hard going on the charge with the PIAT which, as I recall, had a weight of 34 lbs. and was getting heavier by the second! Nevertheless, "Tom the Bombs" and I kept up with the others until we came upon a young soldier from one of the other Platoons. He was wounded and crying for help. I took a chance, put down my PIAT and dragged him into a nearby shell-hole, assuring him that our stretcher bearers would be along to get him evacuated. I didn't know his name and never saw him again - perhaps he survived, was evacuated to the UK and missed the remainder of the War - I hope this was the case. The thing that always amazed me about our stretcher-bearers was the lack of clear identification, which made their job more hazardous than it needed to be. German stretcher-bearers and first-aid personnel wore a large white jerkin covering the whole of their upper body and emblazoned with a large red cross, back and front. They would then only become a target for homicidal idiots. Our own stretcher-bearers wore a rather inconspicuous armband marked with a red cross measuring about four inches and unless they were operating in the company of a jeep or other vehicle conspicuously marked, from a comparatively short distance they looked just like any other of our troops, apart from being unarmed.
Bridgehead monument at Rykevorsel, Belgium
Bridgehead monument at Rykevorsel, Belgium
I set off again with my FIAT and realised that I was now some way behind the rest of the Platoon and had lost contact with Tom Hyde despite our assurance to Lieut. Bevan!
"One of our early casualties was Captain Reid. He turned round with his battle dress top drenched with blood from a bullet wound in his neck. He calmly said 'keep it going lads, I had better get this seen to'"By the time the Platoon had got into the German positions, which were fairly makeshift, basically being the roadside ditch deepened and enlarged, I was still in the open and the sole target for some of their riflemen on our left, who had not yet been flushed out by 'C' Company. I was lucky they didn't appear to have a machine gun to deal with me but I could see that I stood very little chance of getting into the cover the now captured German positions, as I had about 25 yards to go. However, I had noticed that there was a slight depression in the surface of the field, in line with the direction I was running and at a right angle to the source of the firing. I therefore decided to use it as cover, dramatically falling prone into it, hoping to give the impression that I had been hit, and that the German infantrymen would then lose interest in me. It was not to be, however, and bullets continued to go past me with a sharp crack or hit the cover of the ground to my left. Nevertheless, it was some comfort to know that by my lying as flat as I could in the shallow dip I was now presenting a small target, which up to now they had failed to hit. However, I was sufficiently pessimistic about my prospects to utter a rather naive prayer, which went something like "O.K. God, I suppose I am going to get killed. I love my mother very dearly and I know she loves me. Will you please comfort her when she gets the news".
After a short while, the shooting at me stopped but I remained where I was, now in safety, calculating that more than one rifle was trained on me, just waiting for me to break cover, so I was in no hurry just continuing to give a good impression of being dead.
Eventually, however, I decided that it would be worth making a break, as the German defenders on the left, now, by the sound of things, appeared to be fully occupied as our 'C' Company made further progress. I grabbed my PIAT, and made a dash for the roadside ditch through just three or four single shots, and rather alarmed my friends when I arrived, hurling myself into the trench to comments like "blimey, we thought you were dead". I must have given a very realistic impression of lying dead, and Lt. Bevan was very forgiving about my tardy arrival on the scene. He, too must have thought I had been killed. 'C' Company eventually finished their job on our left, but they could have saved me a lot of anxiety if they had done so a little earlier. Our little local task completed and the main attack having gone in as planned elsewhere, we were then withdrawn in the early evening and made ourselves fairly comfortable for the night.
We received our next lot of reinforcements to replace our casualties in time for our next operation. Amongst these new boys was a strapping Yorkshire lad called Ted Corbett, who found himself immediately in charge of the PIAT (I obviously couldn't be trusted with it, and became a rifleman again). For some inexplicable reason he had quite an affection for the weapon which he used with distinction on a number of occasions subsequently. Lieut. Bevan would have been pleased with him, but, sadly, he was killed just a couple of weeks later, after leading the Platoon with his usual dash and bravery in the capture of the village of Brecht. Ironically, the most dangerous part of the operation had been completed when Trevor Bevan(*1) fell, but that is another story.
These recollections where written by John A. Davies. He was an infantryman in the 2nd Battalion of the South Wales Borderers. The battalion was part of the 56th Independent Brigade when it landed on D-day and later joined the 49th Infantry Division. Later in the war the battalion transferred to the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division.
*1 - Lieutenant Trevor Pugh Bevan, service nr. 311464, died 20 November 1944 at age 22. He is buried at the War Cemetery in Geel, Belgium. Son of Giraldus and Gladys Bevan, of Cymmer, Glamorgan.