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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.