AN INFANTRYMAN'S NIGHT-TIME ACTIVITIES
Recollections of a Welsh infantryman fighting in Holland in November 1944
Lance Corporal Edward Denys Hawkins. Source
We were relieved, then, to come out of the line for a few days, and having dried ourselves off, we moved to another part of the front, in the salient between Nijmegen and Arnhem, where the 2nd British Army's vain and valiant efforts to relieve our airborne troops in Arnhem had petered out in late September.
This part of the front had been fairly quiet after the failure to capture Arnhem but as in any campaign various probing efforts were made by both sets of adversaries, if only to remind each other of their presence.
* a carrier - a lightly armoured open topped tracked vehicle
Sergeant Jack Wallen.
Photo courtesy: John Wallen.
We had just got ourselves settled, manning our defensive positions (always 100% "stand to" at dawn and dusk), when Sergeant Jack Wallen, our acting Platoon Commander, arrived. We got on very well and invariably exchanged a bit of banter. 'You're a good listener aren't you Dai" he said. "I hang on your every word" I replied. "Ah" he said "Its not me I want you to listen to - its them". At the same time jerking his thumb towards the German positions. "Jerry is pretty active around here at night and a couple of Hallamshire lads have disappeared mysteriously, presumably snatched from their trenches by German patrols. They have just set up a listening post out in "No-man's-land because of this to try to give some early warning, so take two of your Section and come with me." Privates Abbott and Oakley were nearby so I detailed them to follow Sgt. Wallen and me. Abbott and Oakley, like me, were 18 year olds but having joined the Battalion at the same time as me by this time were fairly experienced campaigners.
"Right Dai" he said, "you'll find a field telephone at the end of this line. If you just follow it you won't get lost. Contact Company H.Q. when you get there, keep your heads down and you'll get relieved in three hours time. If you get disturbed when you are in position, let Company H.Q. know about it and scarper. You aren't out there to do any fighting".
It was fairly straightforward journey of just two or three hundred yards beyond our trenches and through mainly open ground. The sky was overcast and there was no moon, so it was almost pitch dark. However, we found the field telephone out in the open and almost up against a hedge to the front of us. My first thoughts were that it was not a very good place to operate from as we could see absolutely nothing in front of us. Upon reflection, I appreciated that as we would be operating in pitch darkness, and our job was just to listen, it didn't matter, and our concealment was of the utmost importance.
We had been in position for possibly an hour when we heard signs of movement to our right and on the other side of the hedge. We froze, keeping absolutely silent; there was a pause and the movement restarted, got nearer and stopped again. These were the very circumstances in which, to use Sergeant Wallen's words, we were to "contact Company H.Q. and scarper". However, having used the field telephone to report our arrival in position, there was no way I was now going to set up the wretched squeaking and whirring noise with the enemy just the other side of the hedge!
I therefore motioned to Abbott and Oakley to get ourselves back quietly about thirty yards and instructed them, upon my signal to shoot as rapidly as they could with their rifles at the area of the sound while I emptied the magazine of my sten-gun at the same target. We then got back through our own lines to our Company Headquarters, where I reported on our little action, explaining why I had not used the field telephone and suggesting that the contraption received some oil by the time it next needed to be used. I realised by this time that if I had had greater presence of mind I could have removed it with us, perhaps used it at a safer distance from the enemy, and not abandoned it. I was keeping my fingers crossed about this but our Company Commander, Major McIlvenna didn't reprimand me and said we should send a patrol back out there to see what had happened. I felt obliged to volunteer but he sent us back to rejoin our platoon and set about organising a stronger and better armed body of men for the job. I had the feeling that perhaps he didn't trust me and I couldn't decide whether I was offended or relieved! Anyway, this patrol never got itself under way because we had hardly got ourselves back to our platoon positions when there were several bursts of small arms fire, directed mainly at the house we were occupying and there was a big scramble to get ourselves into our defensive positions and to see that every firing positions was occupied. The problem we had at the house, however, was that the German small-arms fire, naturally, was directed at the windows, so initially it was almost suicidal to attempt to return the fire through a hail of bullets discharged mainly by two "Spandau" (MG.42) machine guns, which we could always identify by their phenomenally rapid rate of fire - about 20 rounds per second if I remember correctly. It was the standard light machine gun of German Infantry Regiments and we usually comforted ourselves in the knowledge that the high rate of fire made it difficult to control with very great accuracy. However, at the range from which they were being fired, (about 60 yards), accuracy didn't really come into the reckoning.
The other problem we had to be alert to was the probability that while we, and the rest of our platoon dug in on our left were pinned down by all the activity in front of the house, part of the German raiding party would slip past them and get around the back and into the house unopposed. I therefore, took Pte Schofield and we got ourselves each side of the back door, semi-concealed in some shrubbery. We had hardly done so when two figures came hurtling out of the gloom. Instead of shooting them I challenged. Thank God I did! It was Major Ncllvenna and his batman. He was a Company Commander who led from the front (and by the end of the campaign he was wearing two "wound stripes" on his lower left sleeve as testimony). He satisfied himself that we were looking after ourselves as best we could and departed saying he had better visit our adjoining platoon to see how they were coping. I can't imagine that he actually felt as calm as he looked.
When I had taken out my "listening patrol", Jack Wallen had put three replacements in the house and these included Ted Corbett and His PIAT and Pte Protheroe with his 2" mortar, so we had a variety of weapons to defend ourselves with once we were able to get our heads up without being killed instantly.
It was easy to locate the enemy machine guns because apart from their proximity -close enough to see the flashes from all their small arms when they were fired - it was the normal German practice to intersperse tracer bullets in the ammunition belts feeding their MG42s. Whereas this helped them in directing their fire, it also gave away their position. Ted Corbett took his chance with his PIAT from an upstairs window and blasted the more troublesome "Spandau" with a first-time direct hit. This made life much easier for the other defenders, particularly as some of the platoon in their outside positions were now able to get their heads up and begin to make a better contribution to our defence.
I went back into the house to collect Protheroe and his 2" mortar. It was not a very accurate weapon and it was not practical to use it in its normal mode as this would mean having to fire the bombs almost straight up in the air against targets so close. However, one of the standard items of ammunition for this weapon was a parachute flare - just what we needed in our situation. I alerted our defenders to our plan - to fire the flare and once it illuminated the area, to let fly with everything we had, irrespective of whether targets could be really clearly identified. The plan worked perfectly. I can't remember how long the flare was up for, but our counter attack sounded very impressive with the rest of the platoon outside joining in with their automatic weapons, and Ted Corbett getting a couple of extra shots in with his PIAT. Shortly after the flare had burned itself out it suddenly became very quiet and peaceful. Our attackers had obviously decided to call it a day.
Anybody listening to all the racket from a distance would have assumed that it was a very bloody skirmish. Our attackers certainly suffered several casualties but if they had come better equipped for the operation then I think the outcome could have been quite different. A couple of "panzerfausts" - portable bazooka-type antitank weapons which, like our PIAT were ideal for "house busting" - would have made a lot of difference. As it was, our platoon suffered only two casualties, neither serious. One was Pte. Oakley. He was back with us in a couple of weeks - just in time to participate in the fighting patrol operation in which Lt. Kernick won his Military Cross. Oakley was killed in that operation. A pity his recovery hadn't taken a little longer...
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 - Lance Corporal Edward Denys Hawkins, service nr. 14499046, died 22 November 1944 at age 18. He is buried at the War Cemetary in Venray. Son of William and Elizabeth M. E. Hawkins, of Newport, Monmouthshire.