Personal recollections from world war two veterans and civilians.


Recollections of a Welsh infantryman fighting in Holland in November 1944

"...He had sustained this wound, amongst others, in taking on a German tank with his sten-gun. Naturally, he came off second best."
It was some way into January 1945. It was a severe winter and the Dutch landscape was snow-covered. It was cold but we were quite comfortable. Our Company was in a reserve position, two or three miles behind the front line and we had the benefit of shelter in a small group of houses, the inhabitants of which had departed some time previously, probably to the safety of Nijmegen about five miles away to the South East and over the River Waal.

Our Platoon Commander was Lieutenant Kernick. He had rejoined the Battalion and taken over our Platoon about six weeks previously, having recovered from wounds received in Normandy. His facial expression gave the impression of a sardonic, even supercilious smile. This was because of an angry reddish coloured scar, which extended from the corner of his mouth right along his left cheek to his earlobe. He had sustained this wound, amongst others, in taking on a German tank with his sten-gun. Naturally, he came off second best. Lieutenant Kernick seemed a rather reserved sort of character in the early days of his command of our Platoon. Since our previous Officer, Lieutenant Trevor Bevan, was killed in October the Platoon had been under the genial command of Sergeant Jack Kronen. He was completely unflappable and did the job excellently, but he was quite different from the strict, rather bullying type of sergeant we youngsters had got used to when doing our Infantry training.

Infantrymen of The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, who are wearing British winter camouflage clothing, on patrol near Nijmegen, Netherlands, 22 January 1945. - National Archives of Canada.
Lieutenant Kernick's reserve broke down somewhat upon his being awarded the Military Cross. He called the Platoon together and said "Boys, I have been awarded the Military Cross, but I don't look upon this decoration as mine. I just happen to be in charge of you and I see it as an acknowledgement of the splendid work of the Platoon. I am proud of you all." No doubt he was partly right but the "splendid work of the Platoon" which he referred to would probably not have been accomplished without his fine leadership.

The events leading to his decoration were the efforts and performance of the Platoon in undertaking what was known as a "fighting patrol". I have to confess that I have never understood the logic of "fighting patrols", when a lightly armed body of Infantry, usually of about Platoon strength, (in active service conditions a Platoon would rarely be up to its full strength, so we can think in terms of 24 to 28 men), this "fighting patrol" would go out into "no-mans land" often in broad daylight, to try and cause whatever aggravation it could to the enemy who would usually be dug into, or occupying good defensive positions. As I say, I have never understood the logic of "fighting patrols" but anyway I only ever attained the rank of sergeant in my brief military career, so I suppose my superiors would know better!

Gunners of "B" Troop, 5th Battery, 5th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, firing a 25-pounder (11.4 kg) gun. - National Archives of Canada.
Our "fighting patrol" disturbed the enemy near a small village and after sustaining some casualties, got itself, while under attack, into a nearby farmhouse and outbuildings, which it defended resolutely. Having beaten off the first attack, our thoughts, naturally, were to get back to our own lines. Unfortunately, the enemy attack was renewed with increased vigour and it appeared only a matter of time before our positions were overrun. In the meantime, however, Pte. Abbot, operator of our "No.9" radio set, managed to get in touch with Battalion Headquarters giving them our position. They in turn contacted our Artillery, who with their 25 pounders and after only one or two ranging shots, put down a marvellously accurate barrage over our heads and amongst our attackers. During this barrage, the patrol rapidly vacated the farm buildings and got back safely to our lines, taking some of our wounded but having to leave behind those who were killed, or wounded, prior to our getting into the farm buildings and who were lying in the open. An "Auster" spotter aircraft surveyed the scene the next day and estimated 30 to 40 dead Germans lying before our positions. We didn't gloat. The general attitude was "poor blighters, it could so easily have been us". On reflection, on a purely "numbers for and against" assessment, this particular fighting patrol was logical after all. I stand corrected!

Hemmen 'Castle' Our quiet, comfortable few days in reserve were about to end. Lieutenant Kernick called his N.C.Os together. I was one of them, a corporal, 18 years of age, going on 19 the following month. "We have a job to do" he said. "Tomorrow we have to attack and take The Castle' at Hemmen." (the attack was scheduled for 20 January 1945.) 'The Castle' as we called it, was quite well known to us. We had, in fact, occupied the area up until about six week before but the Germans had flooded much of the surrounding area as a defensive measure and it was felt that we would then be rather out on a limb from our other front line positions, so it was decided to vacate the area. Subsequently, although in the prevailing wintry conditions both sets of adversaries would have opted for a quieter life, it was considered that we should move our front line positions forward generally and 'The Castle' came into the scheme of things. ''The Castle' was in fact a fine country house, comparatively undamaged when we first occupied it but subsequently pounded from time to time by our artillery once it was known that it had been reoccupied by the enemy. It commanded a view, beyond some open space in front of it, down a straight tree-lined road. Due to the flooding of much of the area, it was going to be difficult to get at the objective other than up the straight road, although there was some drier ground to the left as one approached it. Nevertheless, it was obviously going to be quite a tough nut to crack in an attack from the front, even though it was comparatively lightly defended. At first light we set off across country through the snow, having to divert here and there because of the flooding. When we arrived in the immediate area, the attack had already started and 'D' Company had already cleared a street of houses en route to 'The Castle' without suffering many casualties and had taken a number of prisoners, some badly wounded.

It was our turn then to keep things going. Our Platoon was to keep advancing up the avenue towards the objective in the company of two Canadian tanks who would protect us by spraying the German positions with intensive machine-gun fire to keep the enemies' heads down, while we advanced up the avenue towards the objective in comparative safety. Once we got to the open ground in front of 'The Castle' our artillery would put down a barrage on the German positions, covering us , as in previous assaults almost to our arrival amongst the enemy positions, by which time the survivors would be ready to surrender. In the meantime, the other two Platoons of the Company would be making progress on the left and would join us in the final assault.

Unfortunately, the plan suffered an early setback. The two tanks could not cope with the slippery, icy condition of the road and slid off it into the wide ditches alongside.

The uncharitable thoughts of our Company were that they didn't fancy the job, as they would be sitting ducks with no room to manoeuvre if the enemy positions included an antitank gun in their defences.

However, our progress up the tree-lined road continued. Lieutenant Kernick was leading the Platoon up the right side of the road, with two sections. I was leading the remainder, my section on the left using the trees as cover, darting from one tree-trunk to the next, exposing ourselves as little as possible to the small-arms fire, which was increasing as we got nearer. At this stage we would have welcomed the artillery and mortar barrage on the enemy positions to keep their heads down as the German defenders, now about 200 yards away, were able to fire at us and the rest of our Company on the left, almost with impunity, apart from a few bursts of fire from our bren-gunners. The German defensive positions were in front of 'The Castle' and appeared to be comprised of low mounds of stone and rubble from the ruined building protecting their trenches, which could not be dug very deeply because they would have flooded from the general surrounding water-level.

The final advance, over about 100 yards to the objective would have been suicidal without an artillery barrage and we had been suffering casualties on both sides of the road as we were nearing the end of the avenue. At this stage, Lieutenant Kernick shouted across the road "how many of you are over there Corporal Davies?" Up until then I had been too busy to note who I had with me while bullets were cracking past me or thudding into the tree trunks which I was using as my cover. I was surprised to find that I was on my own and reported accordingly. He shouted "We are not going to get much further, give us some covering fire and we will get ourselves out of here". I poked my head round the base of the tree-trunk protecting me and popped away with my sten-gun at the German positions. My efforts were probably completely ineffective as this crude little submachine gun was very much a close range weapon.

Two unidentified privates of The Edmonton Regiment priming No.36 Mills fragmentation grenades for grenade range qualifications, Shoreham, England, 26 March 1942. - National Archives of Canada.
I then had a better idea. In my left hand ammunition pouch I had the spare magazines for my sten-gun but in the right hand pouch I had a Mills grenade which is a high-explosive and also a phosphorous grenade. I had never used either in combat but had done so in training and from that experience I knew that the phosphorous grenade created a lot of smoke. I threw it into the road and it made ideal cover for our withdrawal. The first man I passed on the way back was Private Brown(*1) - "Brownie" to everybody in the Company - I don't think anybody ever knew his Christian name!. He was courageous, almost to the point of recklessness sometimes. He was the comedian of the Platoon and one of his regular remarks was "No bloody German is ever going to kill me". He had a terrible wound in his head and was dead. "Brownie" always wore his steel helmet on the back of his head and it appeared to me that from the position and severity of the wound, a bullet had hit the under rim of his helmet and ricocheted down into his skull, whereas if he had worn his helmet in the proper manner the bullet probably would have hit the crown of his helmet and been deflected upwards, leaving him unharmed and no doubt he would have regaled us with some amusing remarks about the incident later.
"...stretcher bearers who were saying something like "come on Hughsie, stop your moaning and don't be such a cissie, we'll soon put you right." He died some minutes later."
I was relieved to find Ellis and Bryson, our Bren-gun team both uninjured a little further behind, told them we were abandoning our advance for now and to get back to somewhere safer with the rest of the Company while we still had the smoke cover, through which the occasional burst of small arms fire was coming. I then came upon "Hughsie", Private Hughes(*2). He was the veteran of our Platoon - 26 years of age and he seemed like an old man compared with the rest of us. He often grumbled that he was a trained driver/mechanic and he had no business in a Rifle Company. Hughes had a bullet wound in the chest, together with some lesser wounds in his arm and he was in a bad way. With that, two of our stretcher bearers arrived on the other side of the wide water-filled ditch at our side of the road. Hughes was a smallish man and I managed to lift him to pass him over to the stretcher bearers but had to do so via the icy cold water which was about three feet deep. Hughes was groaning and was weakly muttering something incoherent in between his groans but was being comforted in a rather rough sort of way during the handover to the stretcher bearers who were saying something like "come on Hughsie, stop your moaning and don't be such a cissie, we'll soon put you right." He died some minutes later.

I got out of the water on the 'safe' side of the ditch where the remainder of the Company , (including the rest of our Platoon who had got back across the road safely, bringing their wounded), had taken up defensive positions - the ground was rather too hard to dig in and in any case the water table would have flooded our slit trenches once we were down a couple of feet at the most. I then sought news of the rest of my section. Privates Lewis and Scourfield were alive and unharmed having been pinned down but, luckily, not getting hit. Young Egan also was unharmed but, sadly, was killed the next day when we completed the operation. "Old Man" Brown (25 years old) was uninjured, but Williams "43" (in a Welsh regiment, with so may Davieses, Joneses, Thomases and Williamses, the final digits of the army number helped identification). Anyway, Williams "43" had been seriously wounded and had been evacuated but we heard later that he appeared to be comfortable. I can't decide whether Williams "43" was lucky or unlucky. We had trained together and joined the Battalion together just after the breakout from Normandy. He was wounded in one of our early actions which kept him from us for about four months and had only returned to us just a few days before this present action. On the whole, I suppose perhaps he was lucky because he made a full recovery from his latest wounds which kept him out of combat until the end of the War.

The next morning, with ample artillery support, and our own bren-gun carriers (light armoured vehicles) equipped with flame-throwers, 'The Castle' was captured with comparative ease and few casualties on our side.

We were then withdrawn to our "rest area" in Nijmegen, billeted with Dutch civilian families in Hindenstraat, where we had spent our previous rest. These families were having to live frugally through shortages of food, but were very kind and welcoming, treating us as their own sons. On this occasion they did not have to accommodate as many of us. but as one of the fortunate ones, I was able to renew my acquaintance with Mr and Mrs Arts and their two young sons Harry and Rudi. I think we all deserved our rest.

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 - Private Thomas Vernon Brown, service nr. 14719016, died 20 January 1945 at age 21. He is buried at the cemetery Jonkerbos in Nijmegen. Son of Charles F. and Annie V. Brown, of Aberavon, Port Talbot, Glamorgan.

*2 - Private Albert Hughes, service nr. 4198168, died 20 January 1945 at age 26. He is buried at the cemetery Jonkerbos in Nijmegen.

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