91 Anti Tank Regiment: 144 Battery 145 Battery 146 Battery 344 Battery:
THE MAAS 18 OCTOBER 1944- 10 DECEMBER 1944
This time spent on the Maas was probably the strangest of any of the various phases through which the Regiment passed. It began by the arrival of 144 Battery in the area on the 17 October, and ended in a prolonged occupation of the river bank by the whole Regiment. The first intimation of a move northward instead of the expected attack with 15 Scottish to the east which came to Major Geddes was an inconclusive message at nine in the evening of the 16 October from the adjudant, which was followed at midnight by a definite order to the effect that 144 Battery would report to 2 Household Cavalry Regiment at Boxmeer at 10.30 hours the next morning. According to Major Geddes reckoning Boxmeer was firmly held by the enemy, but a third message gave him the map reference on the mornings's rendezvous which was a road junction right in the middle of the village. Everyone was routed out of bed and a fairly early start laid on. Daylight saw Captain Johnston on loan from 145 Battery as Captain G in Captain Aitkens absence, leading the M10's out of the factory. All the kind people who had made the battery's stay so pleasant were there at the gate to wave goodbye, the day manager, the night manager, and their respective families, and the dark lady of the side-long glances, one was even in tears. When Major Geddes arrived at the appointed place he found a L.O from the Household Cavalry and Colonel Thatcher the C.O of 20 Anti-tank regiment. The form was that a force made up of 2 H.C.R and 3 Recce Regiment, under Lt-Col Abel-Smith, commanding the former, was to look after the Maas from the point of 3 Divisions advance back as far as Cuyk, where the southern extremity of the Canadian bridge-head east of the river was met. 144 Battery were under command 20 A/T Regt, in support of Col. Abel-smiths force and farmed out particularly to the recee regiment. The general line of defence was the railway which ran parallel to and, on an average, about one mile from the river, and the battery's area extended from Mullem station to Schafferden station, in the capture of which Lt Crosby had earlier been concerned. The remainder of the 17th was a time of intense activity for the battery commander, but not particularly for the troops which had reached their positions. Major Geddes however had to do the rounds and also recce position farther north at the request of Col Abel-smith, in case of any crossing in that thinly held area. On the afternoon the following day it became known that the whole of 91 Anti tank regiment was coming north to join the force on the Maas, 145 and 344 from Geldrop, and 146 from Venray. Col Abel-smith then sent Major Geddes off to recce the whole area from Schafferden to Oeffelt in order that he should be in a position to assist the C.O with some local knowledge. But the Colonel came north and having made a recce, formed his own plan for distibuting the now arriving batteries. This plan however was not acceptable to Col Abel-smith, and such modifications had take place that the evening passed in feverish activity heavily shrouded in the fog of war. By the end of it the Regiment was deployed from Langstraat to Cuyk in the order, from right to left: 344, 145,144,146. RHQ was established at Wanroij. There positions remained almost unchanged until the first week in December, except for the sudden removal of 146 for an unexpected operation described in the next chapter. It was a period utterly unlike any other in the campaign. there were no infantry on the ground within the limits of the regimental area, and in consequence, while our tanks and armoured cars roamed the occupied strip between railway and river by day, ther were quite unable to control it at night. In daylight the armoured cars patrolled the whole network of roads, while the M.10s moved down to the river bank in two of fours to knock down buildings thought to contain OPs on the far side of the river bank, or to engage opportunity targets in the fields whenever the enemy was seen moving about in any numbers. On our side OPs were set up in Sambeek church tower, Boxmeer church tower, the nunnery of Beugen (where the church had already been destroyed by the Germans), a windmill at Oeffelt, and the monastery of St Agatha half-way between Oeffelt and Cuyk. As soon as darkness began to fall the OPs were evacuated and all British forces pulled back to, or in rear of the railwayline except fro one troop of 146 which remained in the Oeffelt brick works with a squadron of the H.C.R., and 146 BHQ. which spent its nights in alarming solitude at Kreis Beugen railway station. Once the autumn nights had closed in the Germans came across the river in recce boats and roamed at will throughout the deserted no-mans land. At first they regarded this as a form of sport. They visited their girl friends, and they learned all the gossip about the British from those inhabitants of the undefended villages who wished them well. one German even came back to fetch his washing from the Boxmeer laundry. On the night of the 19th parties of German Engineers came across and reduced the churches at Oeffelt and Boxmeer to rubble. Our sappers, when they examined the ruins, declared that no small group of men could have carried sufficient explosive in one trip to destroy either of these buildings, so that it must have been brought over during several nights and hidden.
But like every party, the joke gradually wore off and these constant trips across the river became more nerve-racking. A German captured by 144 later declared that volunteers no longer came forward, and the patrols had become a detail. On our side many days passed in monotonous regularity. An indeterminate but probably quite large number of casualties were inflicted on the enemy, mostly when bodies of troop relieved one another in the defences dug into the water meadows just beyond the far bank, or when they were spotted going into any of the houses in the middle distance. Every building suitable as an enemy OP was knocked down except in the town of Gennep, where the Germans flew the Red cross on every building higher than a bungalow. There was a good deal of annoyance caused by the fact that a red cross vehicle was also apparently used as a ration, D.R.L.S, and general duties truck to service troops along those stretches of their road that were under observation, at any rate at a time when their casualties were spasmodic, the same ambulance was making a regular ten or twelve trips a day. Although much of our work was carried out without interference by the enemy, there were incidents. On the 19th march Lieutenant Jones was captured. He had gone from 145 Battery HQ to which he was temporarily attached, to visit A Troop of his own battery in Boxmeer. and his instructions contained a further clause that he should get as much of the general picture as he could while he was out. Before starting he called at the HQ of the local H.C.R. Squadron, and was told that there was no evidence that the enemy remained on the west bank during daylight in that area. On his way back from Boxmeer, Jones therefore stopped his carrier in the deserted village of Sambeek, and set off alone on foot towards the river. All was quiet, and when he first noticed that there were fox-holes along each side of the road and that from each fox-hole protruded the head of a German, it was too late for him to go back. He was waved on silently, the officer before whom he was haled, in answer to Jones startly inquiry, said that his platoon had been dun into its present positions for over a fortnight. Although this small bridge-head escaped the notice of all armoured car patrols, there was a well-known eney post in 146 Battery area throughout our stay. It was established in the ferryman's cottage at the west end of the Oeffelt-Gennep ferry. We were forced to leave it alonge owing to our lack of infantry, and it was not enough of a nuisance for us to dismount our tank crews for the purpose of clearing it out. It was difficult for armour to attack the place, because this area was overlooked from the eastern of the Gennep railway bridge where the enemy had anti-tank weapons specifically sited, nor was there any point in tanks being risked for this purpose since they could not hold it and the enemy would have returned the following night. Those who did venture down the Groote straat generally came back in a hurry. Captain Scott in a carrier was narrowly missed by a solid shot from across the river. Later an S.P. also dominated the road from the same area, and the Houshold Cavalry lost an armouredcar there when one of the inhibitants of the ferrymans cottage stepped out of the hedge and bazookaed it. The place was finally cleared up much later when the whole area had been taken over from us by infantry, two parties attacked at night, one penetrated into the cottagr and fought a spirited action with the other party outside!, during which confushion the Germans slipped away, never to return. A more serious incident occurred on the 25th october. In answer to a urgent call from the Household Cavalary, Lieutenant Hackston took two M10's and his own crusader down to an advantageous point where the road runs along the top of the floodbank just south of Beugen to assist in the discomfiture of an ememy company which was boldly moving into postions in the meadows opposite in the early afternoon. This was a most exposed point to which G troop had been sveral times in the past it was not thought that the enemy would tolerate being dominated from the higher bank indefinitely. I joined one of G Troops's M.10s on the right flank, just north of 144 Battery who were having a go at the same target. We had a good shoot, and began to withdraw. At this point, in turning round to go home, Lieut. Hackston's Crusader and Sergt Quinlon's M.10 both went up on mines which the enemy had laid along the grass verges. They stood helpless in full view while on the bank exactly opposite, a hundred and seventy yards away, was a machine-gun manned by a German who was presumably feeling vindictive, since his predecessor had been flushed and killed by Sergt Quinlon a few days before. By a miracle the crews of both tanks were got out and under cover without loss. Lieut. Hackston then sent them back on foot while he and Sergt Quinlon stayed to watch over the crippled vehicles. It was then 1500 hours, and by 1630 at that time of year is was pitch dark. Recovery could only be carried out in daylight, and the mistakes which followed - all of which were made by me - were largely brought about by the losing race against time. The worst mistake from which the others sprang was that in my anxietey to get things moving I set off to get Capt. Butcher and the A.R.V. myself instead of sending someone else and sitting down quietly to make a plan. The light was already fading when Capt. Butcher and I went up to the two tanks on our stomachs and made a hurried plan. The M.10 sent round to the flank failed to give the supporting fire expected, and when the A.R.V. backed upto the first tank the German machine-gun waited until Serft De'Ath of the L.A.D. got out to fix the tow-chain and then gave him the works. The reply came instantly from Sergt Quinlon, who leapt on to the top of the floodbank and, with complete disregard for the bullets flying round him, replied with his favourite Schmeisser until the German gave up and kept his head down. But Quinlon could not go on firing for ever, and his last magazine was exhausted before Sergt De'Ath had time to complete his work. With a string of brisk oaths Quinlon, thoroughly roused, flung his now useless weapon in the direction of his enemy and retired to cover. The attempted recovery had failed. On the presumption that we should try again on the following day, the next problem was to prevent the enemy from mining and booby-trapping the cripples during the night. The C.O. now arrived and took command. Under his authority I sent Lieut. Hackstton with a dozen men - as many as he could muster on the spot - up to the tanks at 1800 hours. Again speed confused the issue, and I was guilty of sending too small a force with inadequately organized communications. In the middle of the night the Germans crossed the river and attacked in what seemed to be about company strength; they could be heard working round the small party, rustling and talking in the hedgerows. In the first exchange of fire two of G Troop's men were desperately wounded; one of them, with his jaw shot off, was taxed beyond his physical endurance, and his inarticulate cries were used by the enemy as an aiming mark. Since the two casualties would have be evacuated and to do this would require four more men, the position of the small force was untenable and they started to withdraw. Lieut. Hackston led, threading his way by ear through the enemy troops who could still be heard rustling in the bushes talking in whispers.
Last came the indefatigable Sergt Qionlon, who could not be kept quiet but urged on the laggards before him with a stream of uncomplimentary language. But he did more than shepherd the small flock before him, for he carried one of the now dying casualties, a Bren, its magazines, and two boxes of grenades. Lieut. Hackston carried in his pocket the firing mechanism of the M.10's 17-pdr. The next morning, before any further plans could be made, the enemy solved the problem for us by bringing up an S.P. and blowing the two tanks to pieces. The two poor fellows who had been hit were burried by the railway, and the Dutch covered their grave with flowers. Sergt Quinlon who had set the seal on a career of constant bravery, which was happily to continue until the end of the war, was later awarded the M.M. The only sequel to 146 Battery's discomfort was a punitive raid the following day on the same site, which was beaten up by M.10's of 144 Battery, mortars and 25-pdrs. The enemy replied with small-arms fire and a few shells, and honours remained even. On the 29th October 146 Battery pulled out in a hurry for duties farther south, where a crisis had arisen. The remaining batteries spread out to cover the vacated area. From the beginning of November the enemy's artillery became much more active. Boxmeer was now shelled daily, and looked sadder and sadder as one by one its buildings tumbled to the ground. St. Agatha's Monastery near Cuyk was also severely damaged. There were casualties in 145 Battery, and also the house in which Lieut. Flucker had his H.Q. received several direct hits, to the alarm but fortunately not the damage of the occupants. 344 also had casualties in the southern part of the sector, and was forced to move several of its guns which had been pin-pointed by mortars. During this period Gnr. Hastie, the most devoted of D.R.'s, distinguished himself by never failing to deliver his messages. When his motor bike bogged down in the mud he always arrived eventually on foot, and his pertinacity became well known. The enemy was more active here than on any part of the Regiment's front. The Germans themselves became very cocky and took to walking about in the open, chiefly, no doubt, because their trenches were flooded. They took no notice of shells and mortars, but accurate rifle fire causes a scramble for even the wettest hole. After the decision had been postponed several times, the civilian population of all villages east of the railway were evacuated between the 8th and the 11th November. The purpose was twofold. Since the enemy's activity was increasing, it was obvious that there would be numerous casualties if the civilians remained, and there was also no doubt that some of the Dutch were German sympathizers and formed a fifth column of existence of which could not be tolerated. The picture was the same as all evacuations the world over. "Piled-up carts, the horse straining at the load; the dog chained and frightened underneath; the father, silently despairing, leading the horses; the mother, with tired feet, coming along behind, perhaps arguing with a cow; the children seated on a couch on the cart, anxious and uncomplaining . . ." was Tom Gedde's description in his diary. At the same time the slender defences in this area were considerably strengthened. The Netherlands Brigade was brought up to occupy the villages and prevent looting, a field regiment came forward, and the newly arrived 63 A.-Tk Regt was dismounted and put along the river bank as infantry - for them an unhappy baptism of fire.
During the whole of this period each battery had had attached to is a party from 63 A.-Tk Regt, and is was apparent to all ranks that they were there for a purpose. The peculiar way in which the affairs of the two regiments were being handled was carries one stage furthe, when the two C.O.'s were called to appear again before General Dempsey without the C.C.R.A. 8 Corps being informed that the interview was to take place. It was at this meeting that the plan was put forward that both regiments should be broken up and combined to produce one fully trained unit by the 1st January 1945, as I have already described. On Friday the 10th November the end of the 91st loomed nearer, for on that day the Corps Commander, Lieut.-Gen. the battery commanders each in turn privately. The battery commanders were to see him once more, on the 28th November, when he relinquished the command of 8 Corps, the be succeeded by Major-Gen. Barker, late G.O.C. 49 Division. In his speech he spoke the epitaph of the unit; he said, "I am very grateful to the 91st A.-Tk Regt, and will say only this: that if I were ever to be in another battle, I should like to have them with me."
For a short while longer life continued in much the same way, though is was obvious that no more than an uneasy truce reigned. There were two regrettable casualties. On the 16th November a jeep containing Capt. Aitken and Sergt McAndrew of 144 Battery collided in the dark with a Dutch lorry which was on the wrong side of the road and had no lights. As a result both were evacuated home, never to return to the Regiment, Harry Aitken with both legs broken and McAndrew with a broken hip. As Captain G, Harry was succeeded by Lieut. Dickson. On the 19th at Overloon Capt. Ian Lang, who had stopped on the road to help a battery commander of 20 A.-Tk Regt over his broken-down jeep, was caught in a sharp artillery concentration. The Major was killed instantly. Ian was hit by a large piece of steel in the back; his driver, Gnr Thompson, regardless of the shells which followed, lifted him into a 15-cwt., the occupants of which were under cover, and drove him to a dressing station, but when they reached is he was dead. The 21st November was marked by another change of personnel. On that day the Rev. E.H. Hunter, C.F., left us to take up appointment in Guards Armoured Division, and was succeeded by the Rev. K.N. MacRae, who came to us from a battalion of the Seaforths. In a very short time our new padre became to us all that a good padre can be, and we were very proud of him. On Friday the 1st December R.H.Q., 145 and 344 Batteries, and the whole of the 63rd left the Maas for Geldrop, which had been chosen as the location for the hand-over. 144 and 146 moved on the 10th and the 11th December to villages nearby. The strange interlude of the Maas was over. The tragic hour of disbandment had arrived.