Holland, November 1944
51st Highland Division and the actions in Holland
14 to 26 November 1944
In addition to the 53 BR Welsh Division (53 WD), the 51 BR Highland Division (51 HD) had an important role in the advance to the Meuse. This Scottish division, under command of Major-General Rennie, would advance to the Meuse from Nederweert-Eind over a wide front, between Neer and Baarlo, from 15 November. She was supported by additional artillery and engineering units to build bridges over the many streams and canals, but above all by tanks.
Afterthe successful crossing of the Wessem-Nederweert Canal and the Noordervaart canal in the afternoon and evening of 14 November, support units were also put across the canal in the course of the night and morning of 15 November. The most important supporting unit for 51 HD was the 33rd Armoured Brigade (33 AB) which, like the 4th Armoured Brigade (4 AB), had to provide tank support for the 51 HD at 53 WD. The 33 AB, commanded by Brigadier Scott, consisted of three tank battalions, each with fifty-one Sherman type tanks. Each Scottish brigade was assigned a tank battalion. The 152nd Infantry Brigade (152 IB) was assigned the 1st East Riding Yeomanry (1 ERY), the 153rd Infantry Brigade (153 IB) was assigned the 144th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (144 RTR) and the 154th Infantry Brigade (154 IB) was supported by the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry (1 NY). The tank battalions were not able to cross the canals until the morning of 15 November as there had been problems with the construction of the bridges. This was also the reason why the advance of the two Scottish brigades on 15 November was late. That morning, priority was given to the units supporting the 154 IB, as Leveroy and Heythuysen were scheduled to join this brigade. The 1 NY therefore had priority when crossing the Bailey bridges. Six engineering units were added to 51 HD, all of which were busy building the bridges.
Building the Bailey Bridges
The bridge construction over the canals was already in full swing on 14 November, early in the evening. The 51 HD had six units available to build the bridges. The 262nd Field Company Royal Engineers (262 Field C) had started building a bridge over the Zuid-Willemsvaart near Nederweert in the early evening of 14 November. The bridge was finished in the night of 14 to 15 November around 02.00 hrs. The 275th Field Company Royal Engineers (275 Field C) also built a Class 40 bridge over the Noordervaart near the current Niesakkerbrug. This bridge was finished around 02.30. The 276th Field Company Royal Engineers (276 Field C) was busy strengthening the bridge over the locks at Hulsen and the construction of a Class 9 bridge at Schoor. The 621st Field Squadron (621 Field S) was constructing a Class 40 bridge at Schoor. The 274th Field Company Royal Engineers (274 Field C) was constructing a Class 40 Bailey bridge over the Noordervaart not far from the locks at Hulsen. Near the current bridge in the road from Ospel to Nederweert-Eind, the 757th Field Company Royal Engineers (757 Field C) finally got the task to also build a Class 40 bridge. The whole evening and night was spent working to get all the bridges in operation. At various places bulldozers were used to slide pieces of shore into the Noordervaart in order to make the span less large and the shore less steep. At the Wessem-Nederweert Canal this method was also used but was less successful as this canal was wider than the Noordervaart.
All bridges were ready for use around 09.00 on 15 November. The Royal Engineers now had their hands full with the maintenance of the bridges and keeping the entrances passable, the maintenance of the roads and the clearing of mines. The advance towards the Meuse could begin.
Liberation of Leveroy, 15 November 1944
By 08.30 hours, the 1st Battalion Black Watch (1 Black Watch) started moving from the area around Nederweert. No less than three infantry companies climbed on dozens of Kangaroo's of 49 RTR. She set off in column. Assignment for that day was to take Leveroy. The battalion was supported by tanks of the 1 NY. Because of the problems at the bridge construction the tanks could only connect later that morning. The 1 Black Watch, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hopwood, passed the Bailey Bridge at Nederweert-Eind around 09.00 hours. The infantrymen sat quietly on the Kangaroo's and half an hour later they passed the positions of 1 Black Watch and the 5/7th Battalion Gordon Highlanders (5/7 Gordons) at Nederweert-Eind. A few kilometres further on, at the triple jump to Kelpen, a patrol headed towards the Kelpen railway line to make contact with units of the Welsh Division. The rest of the battle group, consisting of sixteen Sherman tanks of the 1 NY, three Flail tanks, tanks to clear mines, and dozens of Kangaroo's drove carefully in the direction of Leveroy. As usual, Corporal Clague was the first to start exploring the area between Kelpen and Leveroy with his light Stuart tank. To the left and right of the road shells were fired at farms suspected of harbouring Germans. However, the Fallschirmjäger's main force, Bataillon Pilz, had already withdrawn from Heythuysen. The Leveroyer Heath was taken without difficulty. On St Helena's farm six pilots in hiding were freed and were flown to England the very next day.
At 10.45 a.m. Corporal Clague reached the centre of the village with his Stuart tank. In the Dekkerstraat near the Boerenbond two German observers were connected with a telephone to Oberleutnant Bolle in Heythuysen. Their task was to pass on all British movements. When they saw the Scots approaching, they fled behind a house. The Scots then fired machine guns at the two Germans, killing one and injuring one badly. At 11.00 am the complete 1st Battalion Black Watch entered the village. In the field between the destroyed church and the grain mill, dozens of tanks, armoured cars and trucks were set up. Around noon on 15 November, the British commanders met in Leveroy to discuss how best to take Heythuysen and Roggel. Soon Leveroy was taken under fire by German artillery. These shellings only increased in intensity. In the evening the school was hit by German shells. At that time soldiers of the A-Company 1/7 Battalion Middlesex Regiment were resting in the school. As a result of the shell strikes, ten soldiers were killed instantly.
Liberation of Heythuysen, 15 November
Vanwege het feit dat in Heythuysen het Regimentshoofdkwartier van het Fallschirmjäger Lehrregiment Hermann lag, kreeg het dorp in de verdedigingsplannen van de Duitsers bijzondere aandacht. Op 8 november werd op het hoofdkwartier van Oberst-Leutnant Hermann door een groep van tien hogere officieren nog de herovering van Liessel en Meijel gevierd met drie grote taarten en echte koffie. Intussen was de frontsituatie voor de Duitsers weer verslechterd maar dat maakte niet uit, een feestje zorgde voor afleiding van de harde werkelijkheid. Het dorp kwam in de daarop volgende week steeds meer onder vuur te liggen. Op 11 november begonnen Duitse pioniers in het dorp mijnen te leggen aan de Vlasstraat, langs de Baexemerweg, de landerijen van de Biesstraat, bij de Wingerd en tussen de Leveroyseweg en de Kreppel.
The15th of November broke out. From Mr Rutten's notes: 'At two o'clock and four o'clock tonight we are woken up by the howling of English shells. We look outside where the Germans are still retreating. When it is light it becomes quiet again in the street. This morning the grain mill of Van den Eertwegh will be blown up. There will be a huge blow. There is nothing left of the mill. Opposite the mill is an evacuated woman with three small children. Due to the air pressure, the cot has been moved from one side of the bedroom to the other. The children's beds are full of stones. Fortunately, the woman and the children remain unharmed. In the morning, Fallschirmjäger makes bulwarks of earth, wood, carts and poles in the Stationsstraat on the corner of the Hubertuslaan with the Kloosterstraat and on the Vlasstraat. On the corner of Kloosterstraat they make machine gun nests. The German staff has left our house. In the basement, Oberleutnant Bolle is sitting at a table on a telephone. He is in contact with several observation posts in Leveroy and on the Hei. Oberst-Leutnant Hermann has left for Swalmen. In the distance, I hear shooting coming closer and closer. On the Twente farm (Heide) there are Germans quartered who advise the citizens to go to the woods. They tell me that they have orders to pick up men but that they would rather not. Today 'Kommt der Tommie' they tell. One by one the barns of the farms on the Hei are fired at by the British. Other barns are set on fire by the retreating Germans'.The 7th Battalion Black Watch, supported by sixteen tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry (1NY), was designated to take Heythuysen around noon on 15 November. Using aerial photographs and new information from civilians, the situation around the village was discussed beforehand. It soon became clear that some minefields had been created around the village. It was decided to attack before dark. The A-Company 7 Black Watch would start the attack. At 15.00 hours the column left from Leveroy. Humber armoured cars and light Stuart tanks from the Derbyshire Yeomanry (DY) explored the area to Theelenhof around 14.00 hours. Left and right of the Heythuysen-Leveroy road light tanks and Brencarriers set up. Behind them were the Kangaroo's with the infantrymen of 7 Black Watch ready to push through. Wheat mites standing in the field were fired upon by the Scots to prevent Germans from hiding in them.
Just past the hamlet of Maxet, the problems for the Scots began. A platoon of Fallschirmjäger from the Bataillon Pilz (Bat Pilz) had dug in along the road. They shelled the approaching tanks and armoured cars with machine guns, panzerfäuste and mortars. Among the British soldiers were four injured and two dead. It soon became clear that, after the relatively easy capture of Leveroy, the liberation of Heythuysen would be much more difficult. Corporal Clague was again appointed as a scout. From his light tank he saw a minefield along the road. He drove his tank to close to the mines and then started excavating the mines with his driver. This reckless act was quickly punished when the driver got a German bullet through his hand. After these initial problems, Captain Eldridge of the 1st Troop Northamptonshire Yeomanry came into action at 3.30pm. With four Sherman tanks he drove up to one kilometre ahead of Heythuysen before meeting any opposition. The approaching British tanks were clearly audible at Heythuysen.
From Mr Rutten's notes: 'It is afternoon. In Heythuysen, German soldiers are manning civilians to go to the cellars. A soldier standing in front of me turns around and says: 'How is it possible that there are still civilians on the streets in the event of such a shooting? I warn the civilians to stay inside. That's where I hear tanks', says one of the Germans. Sind hier Partisanen', one of the Germans asks me. No', I answer definitely. The Leutnant comes out to listen. Heinz, nimm die Panzerfaust' he says. The soldier in question, who stood there talking cheerfully, is now looking straight ahead of him. He is aware of the dangers of this job'.
Carefully the Scottish infantrymen left the Kangaroo's and spread out over the fields towards Heythuysen. It was half past five when the first Scots reached the village. The four Sherman tanks of Captain Eldridge saw the minefield in the potato field at the corner of the Kloosterstraat and the Leveroyseweg. Just in front of the minefield they stood and fired at the German machine gun racks between the houses. On the Kloosterstraat was a barricade made of covered light masts and a cart. A Sherman tank tried to push the barricade which did not succeed. A platoon of infantry approached the minefield but turned towards the monastery de Kreppel. Some Germans still fired on the approaching Scottish infantry, others already fled from their positions. Some surrendered. Guardmaster Nelissen tried to make it clear to the Scots at his house that there were mines everywhere. The Scottish captain would pass on the location of the mines to the tanks that were still standing just before the minefield. Moments later a Carrier hit a mine. There was a seriously injured person who had to be taken away with a tank. One of the tanks also drove onto a mine while manoeuvring. The houses of the Pouls and Lemmen families were set on fire. A Sherman tank drove from Kerrenhof to the Kreppel, but there were also mines at the crossroads just in front of the monastery. An explosion followed and the tank was switched off. Meanwhile the D-Company had been pulled through the fields south of the Heythuysen-Leveroy road to the village. With the help of a civilian, they managed to enter the village from the southwest, whereupon the remaining Germans permanently withdrew from the village. It was 6 pm when the rest of the 7 Black Watch entered the village in the dark. Entering the village was accompanied by heavy German artillery shelling which caused a great deal of damage and some casualties. A German soldier had been left behind in the basement of the girls' school. His rifle was on the radiator and he was deliberately left behind. Civilians took him to the Scots. The first thing he asked the Scots was: 'Ich werde doch nicht erschossen?
Photos taken in Heythuysen. Germans painted all kinds of slogans on the walls.
Notary's son Rutten extensively described the liberation of Heythuysen. After the entry of the Scots there were still Germans present in Heythuysen: 'It is now quarter past five. After the departure of the Germans we sit in the cellar for fifteen minutes. I hear someone walking in the yard in front of the house who doesn't have nailed shoes. I go up the cellar stairs. About twenty Scottish infantrymen are walking in our yard. They are wearing hats with red plumes and belong to battalion 7 Black Watch. One of them shakes hands and says: 'We are friends'. They ask what time the Germans left. Then they sneak past the houses again. Moments later I hear heavy nailed shoes in the house. I am not allowed to look. A little later I hear 'Scheisse'. Now I'm sure it's a German who supposes to find his comrades here. Some Germans break open the pavements in front of the mayor's house to lay mines under it. The Scots see them and shoot at the Germans fleeing into the gardens. At that moment, a German car comes from the Biesstraat and wants to turn off to Roggel. The Scots shoot at the car and the occupying officer Hans Knorr is immediately dead. The German shellfire at the village continues. German shells are falling again on the Kloosterstraat. A Scottish soldier is killed. Scottish officers report to our house. Both officers Major Rollo, deputy commander 7 Black Watch, and Major Forster, commander 126st Field Regiment Royal Artillery, would like shelter and a working area where about twenty people can stay. With us, they think it's too small. A little later they come back. The school is too noisy and there have been too many Germans, you can smell that, Major Rollo says. They would like to have a part of the basement. We are happy with the arrival of the liberators and are for their sake. They will immediately pretend to be at home. Colonel Cathcart, Commander 7 Black Watch, and Major Rollo are sitting at the table with some officers. They do not sleep much that night. They occasionally sleep on the ground under the table. Telephones are being installed and connecting equipment is being rolled out'.
Just east of Heythuysen, on the Walk, and in the direction of Roggel, a line of defence was built by the Scots. This was to prevent Germans from infiltrating the village during the night. Roggel was the next goal. The 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders (1 Gordons) was assigned to do this job.
Liberation of Roggel, 16 November
In the evening of 15 November German tanks appeared on the market in Roggel. Probably they were the Sturmgeschütze of the 902te Sturmgeschütz Brigade (902 Stu). Jan Levels lived at the market in Roggel and saw how the tower of the church was blown up. Immediately afterwards the Sturmgeschütze appeared: 'Early in the evening a German came to us with the announcement that we had to leave the house as the church tower was about to be blown up. The German, who was quite friendly, advised us to open the windows in order to avoid unnecessary damage. We lived opposite the church. We then left for a shelter. A little later we heard an enormous blow. When we came back to our house we saw that many windows had fallen and that tiles had been removed from the roof. The slates of the church stood upright in our garden. A little later I saw two German tanks entering the market. They fired some shells and then drove back to an orchard further down the village. After fifteen minutes there was a huge shower of grenades from Heythuysen. After half an hour another tank came and the game started again. It became too dangerous for us in the house. We went with our family to Wagemans in the Raadhuisstraat where they had a large cellar. It was only a two hundred meter walk but we had to lie flat in the gutter when grenades exploded around us. A terrible experience. Fortunately, we were finally able to reach the shelter safely'.
In Heythuysen it was clear that the Germans were still in Roggel. From the notes of the notary's son Rutten: 'The evening of 15 November. The whole Dorpstraat is full of lumps, stone and fallen off pots and pans. It is estimated that 1,500-2,000 shells were fired at Heythuysen. Ninety-seven windows in our house have been destroyed. German shells are falling again. Captain Tobutt has gone into the house of warden Nelissen. Every time the Germans fire grenades, he goes outside with a hearing aid. When the Germans have fired three shells, he knows their position. Then he goes to the tanks and Roggel gets a load of English shells. Captain Tobutt of the 7th Survey Regiment Royal Artillery is killed on 22 November by a German grenade near Neer. He is buried in the temporary military cemetery in Heythuysen. The German shelling killed Private A. Pearce of 7 Black Watch. That night the British artillery from Leveroy also shoots at Roggel. On 16 November around 08.00 hours in the morning a final German shelling of Leveroy follows. There are some wounded civilians and British soldiers'.
From Leveroy, the 1 Gordon left around at 08.30 hrs in the direction of Heythuysen. The infantry again had access to the Kangaroo's of the 49 RTR. D-Company left at 10.00 hours from Heythuysen in the direction of Roggel, accompanied by four Sherman tanks of the 144 RTR. Lieutenant Cunliffe of the 144 RTR was the commanding officer of the reconnaissance division, which took the lead with four Shermans, Brencarriers and a few Kangaroo's with infantry of the Gordons.
Mr Jan Levels saw the liberation of Roggel: 'In the morning it is awfully quiet, as if something was about to happen. Around 10.00 am we heard an incessant engine noise. Carefully we went outside. Suddenly a British tank with a jeep behind it drove through the Raadhuisstraat. Suddenly you heard people cheering everywhere. I saw people I had never seen in the village and people I had not seen for two months. From then on, an immense stream of vehicles drove into the village. Within a short space of time, enormous amounts of telephone wires were being laid. The next day they were cut again without pardon when bridge laying tanks had to pass through. On top of those tanks were soldiers with large cutters that cut everything'.
Major Martin Lindsey, deputy commander of 1 Gordons, told extensively about 16 November: 'We reached Roggel without any problems. The church tower had been blown up so we couldn't use it as an observation post. We sought shelter in a modern house in front of our headquarters. The lady of the house was a modern friendly woman and we thought this was a very nice place. But after lunch we were ordered to move on. We had to go to California farm, 't Fort, not far from Neer. Harry, Lieutenant-Colonel Cumming Bruce, did not like this place. Too close to the Zig Canal, a distance of about a kilometer and a half and therefore ideal for shelling. So Harry decided to house the real battalion headquarters in a house in Ophoven and only a small group in the farm California Farm. The infantry started digging in the fields between the farm and the canal. It started to rain heavily and shells fell and three wounded had to be removed. A liaison officer came to our headquarters and told us that the division had given the order to cross the canal the next day. We thought this was a bad idea given the circumstances. Harry went directly to Heythuysen for consultations. When he had just left we heard that one of the best officers, Charles Morley, had been killed on a reconnaissance of the canal bank. He had crossed the lock at the Neersebrug bridge and was shot dead by a German machine gun. Men of his platoon were able to recover the body later in the evening. He left behind a woman and a small son. Her pension will be one hundred and twenty British pounds. We had only two officers left in the platoon when we were supposed to have 12.
Without meeting any opposition, the reconnaissance department of 1 Gordons entered Roggel from three sides. Civilians stated that the last Germans had left Roggel around 04.00 in the night. Around 11.30 am the entire 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders had gathered in Roggel and there was consultation between the Scottish officers waiting for information from Lieutenant Cunliffe who had driven in the direction of the Zig Canal.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cunliffe's reconnaissance department had moved on in the direction of the Zig Canal. On the Helden-Roggel road they saw German pioneers laying mines. After some shells fired by the tanks the Germans disappeared. The liberation of Neer that was planned for the same 16 November did not go as expected.
Liberation of Neer
The liberation of Neer, which was also planned for 16 November, did not go as expected.
On 15 November it was clear in Neer that the front was approaching. German artillery fired at the advancing Scots near Leveroy and Heythuysen from the area around Neer. Sjaak Derks lived on the Sterrebos between Roggel and Neer: 'The shelling started in the afternoon of 15 November. Father Jan and Piet were grubbing up rutabaga on the heath. They did not trust the situation and quickly came home. In the evening there were flashes of fire and blasts of shells everywhere. Nobody knew what was going on. The cellar was cleared to allow as many people as possible to sleep in it'.
Throughout the night from 15 to 16 November, the inhabitants of Neer heard explosions. The jump commandos were destroying the bridges over the Neerbeek. At half past five in the morning it was also the turn of the church tower. Fortunately, with the help of the chaplain, pastor Obers was able to save the organ and Marianum from destruction. During the day, dozens of shells ended up in the village and along the Napoleonic road. As in any village, the intersections were the main targets of British artillery.
Sjaak Derks: 'In the morning it was quiet. The hum of vehicles could be heard from the direction of Roggel. As usual, father, mother, Pete and Jo went to holy mass in the morning. When they arrived in the village they saw that the church tower was no longer there. Part of the tower was in the cemetery and the rest had ended up in the church itself. After noon we heard that there were Tommies in Roggel. I went with some friends to Roggel. We walked to the Boshei. We were looking in the direction of Roggel when suddenly there were eight Tommies around us. We got cigarettes and they asked us the way to Kinkhoven. We offered to go but they thought it was too dangerous. We then walked to the Napoleon track ourselves. At the patronaat the Germans made a roadblock out of agricultural machinery. There were hand grenades attached to it. Germans were looking with binoculars in the direction of Roggel. These Germans saw us and wanted to talk to us. At that moment two Tommies came via Kinkhoven onto the Napoleonsweg. They shot at the Germans who ran further into the village. We quickly went back home'.
On 16 November the Scots liberated the Vlaas and the Boshei, but the village centre of Neer was also a goal for the Scots that day. In the early morning in Heythuysen, the A-Company of 7 Black Watch was given the assignment to go via Sint Elisabethsdreef and Leudalweg in the direction of Neer. In addition, a platoon would depart over the 'long path' through the woods in the direction of Neer. The two groups cautiously headed in the direction of Neer. Along the way they saw tank tracks in the mud at St Elisabeth's monastery, which made the Scots extra vigilant. About one kilometre past Zelsterhof a stop was made. Three Brencarriers carefully drove on in the direction of Kinkhoven where no Germans were found. When they turned onto the Napoleon's runway a little further, they were fired upon from Neer after which they immediately withdrew. Another patrol managed to get further into the village but also encountered resistance. It was decided to take the village the next day with tank support.
Corry Naus-Van Gorp described in detail in her diary how things were going the last days before the liberation of Neer. She had just become a mother.
We live on the Bergerstraat in Neer. We have people in hiding. On 15 November we will be billeted by Germans. It is 6 p.m., the gentlemen want 'Bratkartoffeln' but we don't have a pan that is big enough. I am on my way to get a bigger pan. I am arrested: 'Was machen sie here? They have to stay in Keller'. When I told them I was going to get a frying pan, it was good. That's when the worst night I've ever had started. The Germans come to the cellar with our bedding and flatter themselves there. There had to be straw too. Some had polka hair, not shaved, dirty and armed to the teeth. Real front soldiers. At 10 p.m. the announcement comes that the church will be fired upon with twenty-two shells as a test for the artillery. At 10.15 p.m. the shells thunder in the church tower, it is as if heaven and earth are decaying. By the morning of 16 November, six of them have to be on patrol after they have had a good drink. They say it is madness to fight. Thirty to forty of them against a thousand Tommies. A little later the commander of the Germans comes in and starts talking to me. Jo, my husband, ran away yesterday when the Germans came. The German asks where my husband is and I tell him that he has gone to family and I am worried. I get the impression that he feels sorry for me. A little later, Jo comes in. I am very happy. The German says: 'Gehen sie ruhig nach ihre Fau'. At 11 a.m., the Germans are told: 'Sofort geht it loose, der Tommie is still eight hundred metres from here'. The machine guns are placed against the windows. Shots are already being fired. Then the whistling of grenades and heavy blows. Then they leave. Our little one in the basket starts crying. It gets dark and the rain flows into the cellar. We feel so unhappy. The Germans are out of the house now. The roof of the house is full of holes. The room is a pigsty with half-eaten weck glasses, helmets, Panzerfäuste and pattern belts. Behind the house a dead pig and in the stable a dead ox. Would we be liberated? Just to be cautious, we stay in the cellar. The next day, November 17th, at about ten o'clock we see the first Tommies at the church. There's something in me that can't be put into words'.
In Neer there was still a rearguard, about fifty men, of the Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Fisher (Bat Fisher). Around midnight this group retreated to Hanssum. On the farm of the Schaeken family, just north of the village centre of Neer, were also German Fallschirmjäger present: 'On 16 November Germans came to our farm. A German officer told us that the Tommie would be arriving soon and insisted that all citizens should spend the night in the cellar for their own safety. In the barn there were four people in hiding who came out. The German soldiers looked anxiously at the people in hiding. They said nothing and also let the people in hiding go to the cellar. During the night, we heard the Germans walking around the house from the cellar. The next morning it was very quiet. When we came upstairs we didn't know what we saw. The Germans had left everything neat and tidy, they had turned off the kerosene lamps they had borrowed and put them back. The front door had even been neatly closed!
On 17 November the day started cloudy and misty, in the afternoon it started raining for a long time. In the early morning, 7 Black Watch was ordered to permanently occupy the village but it was not until the afternoon that the D-Company 7 Black Watch, under the command of Major Lowe, set off to occupy the village. They received support from four Shermans of the 1 NY. The four tanks under command of Sergeant Warren were ordered to give as much fire support as possible to the infantry. Private Charles Robertson belonged to 7 Black Watch and told his experiences in 2001: 'We got support from four tanks. We cautiously entered the village. There was no longer a German to be seen and we were greeted by an enormous artillery shelling. Fifteen wounded were quickly taken to Heythuysen, where a First Aid post had been set up. The bad weather and the exploding shells made us think that 'Down was hell on earth'.
On the Napoleon road the Germans had put up a barrier with hand grenades on it. This first had to be tidied up. A Brencarrier ran on a mine on the Napoleonsweg and burned out completely. In the afternoon the headquarters of Lieutenant-Colonel Cathcart was set up in a farm on the Ophoven. Major Peck and his B-Company were commissioned to occupy Kinkhoven. Major Lowe moved into his headquarters at Keizersbosch.
The 18th of November was also a depressing day. Cloudy with occasional showers. The whole day the village centre of Neer was fired upon with artillery and rockets, Nebelwerfer and Wurfrahmen. These shelling caused heavy damage to buildings and several civilians were injured.
Negen kilometer westelijk van Neer was er intussen een zware strijd losgebarsten rond de monding van het Afwateringskanaal in de Noordervaart.
Liberation of Heibloem, 16 November
The advance of the 152 IB parallel to the Noordervaart in the direction of Stokershorst was slow on 15 November. The area around Hollander and the 'Heitser' heath was purified by the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders (2 Seaforth). Towards the end of the afternoon 'Aan den Bergen', just north of Heythuysen, was reached. The 5th Battalion Camerons (5 Cameron) settled in Stokershorst at the end of the afternoon. The 5th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders (5 Seaforth) moved further towards the Zig Canal on 16 November. Just after noon, the first Scottish patrols crossed the Meijel-Roggel road in the direction of the Zig Canal. Heibloem was taken by 2 Seaforth around noon on 16 November. The supporting tanks of 1st East Riding Yeomanry (1 ERY) had great difficulty keeping up with the infantry in the muddy fields. The Regimental diary mentions: It was a depressing landscape. There were no roads only dirt roads. They suddenly turned into deep mud pools through which no one could pass. A big problem was the supply. The Bailey bridges over the canal were overloaded. Storage tanks had to be pulled out of the mud everywhere. Everything was soaked by the rain'.
About two kilometres south of Heibloem, in the hamlet of 't Nijken, Sjra Vullers saw the last Germans leaving: 'From Heibloem, in the morning of 16 November, some Germans came walking by cart. On the cart were stolen items and a large ham. Suddenly they saw a jeep crashing into the car. They grabbed their guns that were lying on the cart and started shooting at the jeep. The Scots in the jeep fired back and the Germans jumped into a ditch and ran off'.
The Scottish patrols continued through the forests of Waterbloem. The tanks could not continue as there was no bridge over the Roggelsebeek. After some searching a wooden bridge was found that was still intact. A Sherman tank drove over the bridge but damaged it in such a way that no vehicle could cross it. Approximately one kilometer from the Zig Canal, the Scots were shot at with machine guns and mortar shells. They decided to withdraw and await the advance of the 5 Cameron, which was advancing along the banks of the Noordervaart.
Due to the bad roads, the Camerons' vehicles could not leave Stokershorst until around 2.30 pm on 16 November. At 5.30 p.m., the Roggel bridge was reached where the construction of a Class 40 Bailey Bridge was immediately started. Patrols of the Camerons explored the fields just before the Zig
Canal. Lieutenant John Ross Lemesurier belonged to the reconnaissance department of the Camerons: He told his story in 1992: 'We were billeted in Heibloem on 16 November. That night, I had to carry out a reconnaissance to the mouth of the Zig
Canal to see where the crossing had the best chance of success. I explored the area with two men, but we did not see any Germans. I was back around 3am and was able to report that the best place to start the attack was on the left side of the lock as the ground was best there'.
The bridge in the road, the Roggelsebrug, to Beringe turned out to be destroyed. The commander of the 152 IB, Brigadier Cassels, decided to force a breakthrough in the early morning of 17 November. The Camerons had to cross the Noordervaart at the mouth of the Zig
Canal. A Field Company had to build a Bailey bridge over the Zig
Canal. At that time, the Zig Canal
was neither deep nor wide, but unlike today, the banks were completely bare so that any movement could be seen by the Germans.
Zig Canal obstacle, 17 November
During the night of 16 to 17 November it remained quiet. At 05.00 hours, heavy explosions could be heard in the distance. The tower of the church of Helden fell victim to a German Jumping Command. Around 07.45 an preliminary artillery shelling by the 127th Field Regiment Royal Artillery (127 RA) followed. A quarter of an hour later there was still no German reaction. The C-Company of the Camerons, under command of Major Melville, moved in the direction of the canal. Only now a German reaction followed. Lieutenant Henderson moved his platoon over the lock gate to the other side of the canal. Moments later the platoons of Lieutenant Smith and the Canadian Captain Merchant followed. The three platoons dug in on the other side in the open field. German artillery fire continued to increase in intensity.
Twelve 1 ERY tanks were to provide fire support from the south bank of the Zig
Canal to the Scottish infantrymen dug into the field defenseless. Despite the fact that these tanks fired hundreds of shells, the German shelling increased even further. At 09.15 Major Mainwarring of the A-Company contacted Major Melville, of C-Company, at the lock with the result that the A-Company also crossed the Zig
Canal and began to dig into the fields. This created a small bridgehead with the C-Company on the left and the A-Company on the right, which increasingly found itself in an impossible situation.
Sergeant Fitzmaurice of 1st East Riding Yeomanry was ordered to try to break the German resistance. A few Shermans managed to reach the destroyed bridge over the mouth of the Zig Canal. The first tank, however, ran directly onto a mine at the destroyed bridge. Sergeant Fitzmaurice was able to take out a German position until his tank was fired upon by four Sturmgeschütze who had emerged from the Kloutkoulen forest complex. His tank was hit but no damage was done. In a duel, Fitzmaurice's tank fired a Sturmgeschütz, after which the other pieces of artillery hurriedly withdrew into the forest area.
Rond 10.00 uur werden de beschietingen op de Schotse stellingen in het veld, net ten noorden van het Afwateringskanaal, steeds zwaarder. Britse tanks gaven onverminderd vuursteun aan de honderdtwintig Schotse soldaten die zich in de modderige velden hadden ingegraven. Omstreeks 11.30 uur vielen er zware Duitse granaten op het kleine Schotse bruggenhoofd. Het bleek de opmaat voor een Duitse aanval met Fallschirmjäger van de Gruppe Wolff die gesteund werd door drie Sturmgeschütze van de 902te Sturmgeschütz Brigade (902 Stu). Groot nadeel voor de Duitsers was dat het terrein open was. Aan Schotse zijde ontstond er een gebrek aan munitie. Captain Filly de FOO, de Forward Observing officer, van het 128th Field Regiment Royal Artillery (128 Field RA) kreeg verbinding met zijn eigen regiment maar ook met het 67th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery (67 Med RA). Captain Filly zat tussen de Schotse infanteristen in het bruggenhoofd en seinde naar het 67 Med RA dat ze onmiddellijk vuur moesten uitbrengen op de velden vlak voor de half ondergelopen Schotse schuttersputjes. Het artillerieregiment was echter net onderweg naar nieuwe stellingen bij Heibloem. De 5.5 inch kanonnen werden in een recordtempo in stelling gebracht en een half uur later vielen de eerste granaten tussen de oprukkende Duitse Fallschirmjäger. De gevolgen waren verschrikkelijk. Er vielen veel doden en gewonden aan Duitse zijde. Onder dekking van een Rode Kruisvlag trokken de Duitsers zich rond 12.30 uur terug. In de namiddag kwamen twee bulldozers van het 275th Field Company (275 Field C) in actie om een deel van de oever van het Afwateringskanaal in het kanaal te schuiven zodat de voorraden gemakkelijker naar het kleine bruggenhoofd konden worden gebracht. Toch was de situatie aan Schotse zijde penibel. Veel gewonden, een gebrek aan munitie en half ondergelopen schuttersputjes. Er moest iets gebeuren.
Denis Hosgood belonged to Captain Merchant's platoon: 'We had to get this job done. I was a liaison with a radio set. There were only forty Germans defending the area. We walked across the lock to the other side. About one hundred and fifty metres from the bank, we dug into the open arable land. The A-Company came to help us but suffered heavy losses. Not much later we saw the enemy coming. A haystack had been set on fire. When we got fire from the right, Captain Merchant went to investigate and was shot dead. We could not see what was happening because of the smoke that blocked our view. We were short of ammunition. I tried to make contact but this did not work as a shrapnel had destroyed the batteries of my radio set. We retreated but there was Major Melville shouting: 'Put the bayonets on, we are not going back any further'. The supporting fire from the tanks and artillery finally saved us. It was a terrible experience.
The Scots in trouble
Lieutenant-Colonel Derek Lang, the battalion commander of 5 Camerons, gave the order to bring all available ammunition to the bridgehead. In the afternoon it started raining. German artillery fire continued, but only one attempt was made that afternoon to press the bridgehead. The Scottish foxholes quickly filled up with water. The situation slowly began to become untenable. Even the division commander Major-General T. Rennie appeared at the Roggelsebrug around 16.00 hours. Just at that moment a new German counter-attack started along the road from Beringe. The situation was serious. But also now the artillery was the saviour in distress. After fifteen minutes the Germans retreated. It was decided to cross the Zig
Canal in the night 2 Seaforth and to start the construction of the bridge over this canal as soon as possible. It continued to rain heavily, which did not make the stay in the mud pool of the bridgehead any easier. An advantage was that the German shellfire was reduced. The heavy fighting had cost the lives of eight Scottish soldiers, including the Canadian Captain Merchant, beloved among his soldiers. Twenty-nine were injured among the Scots who were evacuated in the evening.
German crisis situation
On the German side, too, it was very difficult to respond to events.
In the Kriegstagebuch of the Hübner Regiment, 24th Fallschirmjäger Regiment, and especially in the reports of the Bataillon Matthaeas , this is clearly expressed. The battles of this regiment will be described in the chapter of the 15 BR Scottish Division, but the diary also regularly pays attention to the links with its left neighbour, the Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Hofmann (Bat Hofmann). The Noordervaart was the unitary boundary between the two German units.
From the diary: '17 November 10.20 a.m.: The company of the Bataillon Hofmann leaning against the left wing of our battalion has lost its connection with the rest of its battalion and has now been placed under the command of the 3rd Company of our battalion. 12.00 noon: counterattack by the company of Hofmann, deployed with four Sturmgeschütze. One progresses to the forest near the Kloutkoulen.
13.35 hours: To reinforce the 21st Fallschirmjäger Regiment a platoon of the 3rd Kompanie is put over the Noordervaart.
15.00: From the northern bank of the Noordervaart our troops fire on the Scots at the Kloutkoulen.
16.00: New attack by the 21st Fallschirmjäger Regiment. This attack comes to kilometre marker 13.
8.40 p.m.: Heavy fire on Beringe. Later this will be shifted to Panningen. The enemy fired 40,000 shells at our battalion sector this day'.
Camerons bridgehead, 18 November
The 275 Field C started in the evening with the further closure of the Zig canal in the road Roggelsebrug-Beringe. After that the construction of a Class 40 Bailey Bridge was started. The construction went well. The 2 Seaforth had already started crossing the Zig Canal around 9.30 pm. At 05.00 in the morning the Bailey Bridge was opened, it was given the aptly named 'Cameron Bridge'. By 03.00 hours the 2 Seaforth had reached all its targets and the bridgehead of 5 Cameron had been further extended. Despite all caution, a German patrol managed to capture no less than thirty-two Scots from 2 Seaforth in the Kloutkoulen forest area at around 3 a.m. at night. In a hurry a search was launched but no one was found. Just after midnight, 5 Seaforth, from Heibloem, also set off through an enormous muddy mess to reach the hamlet of Zeelen. Strangely enough, the advance was not disrupted by German shells. Probably the German artillery was too busy moving the artillery pieces which now had to be moved quickly as they would otherwise be overrun by the Scots.
The group searched the farms and found thirteen Germans in a farm. Five surrendered immediately and the rest fled. In the rest of the farms another sixteen Germans were found asleep and taken prisoner of war. After it had become light on 18 November, the Germans began to realise that Zeelen had been captured and the hamlet was fired upon by German artillery. Two soldiers died on the Scottish side as a result of this shelling.
John Gibson belonged to B-Company 5 Seaforth and told about his memories of Zeelen: 'I was Bren gunner and nineteen years old. I was in the pit because I had lost my best friend three days earlier at the crossing of the Noordervaart. We dug into a forest near the Zig
Canal on 17 November. It was raining again. The next morning I was on a six-man reconnaissance patrol when we got to a farm we saw a civilian running quickly behind the house. It was as if he wanted to warn someone. Bill Wise and I stormed into the room of the farm. There were two Germans lying in a bed. The elder of the couple held up a flag with a red cross and shouted 'Red Cross'. But we found a machine gun, hand grenades and ammunition in the front room. Why Red Cross?
With this, the task of 152 IB was largely accomplished. The 154 IB and the 49 BR Polar Bear Division (49 PBD) would now take over their task. The 49 PBD had already started to move from the Stramproy area. The 5 Cameron left for Leveroy in the afternoon for rest. A day later, on 19 November, the other two battalions of the 152 IB were also taken out of the front line and rested in Heythuysen. On 19 November, two companies of 5 Seaforth would still clear the area at the crossing of the Deurne Canal with the Noordervaart from German stragglers. But no more Germans were found.
In the meantime, the Highland divisional headquarters had moved to Nederweert-Eind. Lieutenant James McBride was moved from 7th Battalion Black Watch to divisional headquarters after crossing the Noordervaart: 'I was platoon commander but was transferred as liaison officer to divisional headquarters and added to the staff of Major-General Rennie. On 18 November the divisional headquarters was transferred to Nederweert-Eind and on 23 November to Egchel. I was on the road all day to the various units and had to report problems to the General. I was a Canloan Officer. That is, a Canadian officer who had volunteered to serve in the British Army as there was a great lack of platoon commanders there. A total of 673 Canadian officers were recruited, three quarters of whom were killed or wounded'.
In the meantime, the German side had its hands full slowing down the Allied advance. Reinforcements were needed. But were there any?
Changes to the German chain of command
Significant changes in the chain of command under OB-West took place in mid-November. From 10 November, a new Heeresgruppe was to be formed comprising all the German units that were in the front line from Sittard to the North Sea. Command of this new Heeresgruppe H was given to General-Leutnant Kurt Student. The 1te Fallschirm Armee (1 FA) who was part of the Heeresgruppe H came under command of General der Fallschirmtruppe Alfred Schlemm. All German units in the Venlo Bridgehead fell under the 1 FA. This put an end to the control of Generalfeldmarschall Model, spiritual father of the Venlo Bridgehead and commander of Heeresgruppe B, over the German troops west of the Maas.
As indicated earlier, General-Major Von Obstfelder, commander of the German 86 Army Corps, and his subordinate Oberst Goltzsch, commander 606 Division zur besonderen Verwendung (formerly 344 Infantry Division), had already indicated on 15 November that the Venlo Bridgehead urgently needed reinforcements. Goltzsch's command post was moved from Kessel-Eik to Baarlo on 15 November but this did not prevent him from travelling regularly to Von Obstfelder in Swalmen to plead for reinforcements.
Von Obstfelder in turn visited General Alfred Schlemm who was just in office. He saw the seriousness of the situation and consulted with General-Leutnant Kurt Student and Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, commander of OB- West, to strengthen the Venlo Bridgehead. There were not many possibilities for reinforcement. Von Rundstedt decided to once again order the 47 Army Corps with two old known units, 9th Panzer Division (9 PzD) and 15th Panzergrenadier Division (15 PzG) to prepare to be deployed in two possible lines of attack. First of all in the direction of Geilenkirchen but also again in the direction of the Venlo Bridgehead! Eventually, both divisions were deployed at Geilenkirchen in mid-November as an Allied attack towards the Ruhr had begun there on 16 November. However, Von Rundstedt and Student had already taken the decision that the Venlo Bridgehead had to be evacuated but that fighting had to be slowed down considerably. At the same time some small bridgeheads on the western bank of the Meuse had to be defended. A precondition for these slowing fights, however, was the presence of new units with the right armament, Sturmgeschütze and Panzerjäger, to neutralise the Allied predominance in tanks. Two units were eventually found. The fuselage of the German defence still consisted on 16 November of the 606 Division zur besonderen Verwendung (606 ZbV) consisting of the remains of a motley collection of Fallschirmjäger units such as the Fallschirmjäger Lehrregiment Hermann, the Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Hofmann, the Kampfgruppe Becker and the still relatively strong 24th Fallschirmjäger Regiment (Hübner).
On 15 November, the 902nd Sturmgeschütz Brigade arrived on the western bank of the Maas via Roermond. Also the 2nd Kompanie 741te Jagdpanzer Abteilung with twelve Hetzer tank hunters arrived in Horn in the evening of 15 November to be moved to Nunhem later in the evening. The intention was to launch a counter-attack on the net liberated Heythuysen via the Leudal in the early morning of 16 November. Later that night, by order of Oberst Goltzsch, the attack was called off due to the lack of supporting infantry. However, both units would play an important role in slowing down fighting in the following days.
Another German measure was the landing of the Fallschirmjäger Kampfgruppe Becker via Venlo on the night of 15-16 November. The unit consisted of three so-called Gruppen which initially caused the British intelligence service major problems in determining its strength and chain of command. This Kampfgruppe was probably under the direct command of the 21st Fallschirmjäger Regiment of Oberst-Leutnant Loytvedd-Hardegg who tried to coordinate the fight from Maasbree. The Kampfgruppe commander, Major Becker, had already commanded 'fire units' east of Groesbeek in September and was an experienced officer. On the German front south and west of Panningen and Beringe the following German units had been deployed in the morning of 17 November from west to east: the 24th Fallschirmjäger Regiment which was behind the Deurne Canal with two relatively strong battalions. From the junction of the Zig
Canal with Noordervaart to the mouth of the Zig
Canal in the Meuse, Kampfgruppe Becker near Neer lay successively the remains of the Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Hofmann (Bat Hofmann) and the Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Fisher (Bat Fisher).
For the Scottish intelligence section of the 51 BR Highland Division, prisoners of war of the Kampfgruppe Becker were soon available to answer their questions. Kampfgruppe Becker consisted of the Gruppe Wolff with a strength of two companies in total about two hundred men. During the counterattack on the Scottish bridgehead of the Camerons, Gruppe Wolff suffered heavy losses. The strength of one of the companies fell from one hundred to twenty men in a matter of hours on 17 November! On 18 November the remaining soldiers were added to the Bat Hofmann. A second group was called Gruppe Roth. Here too the strength with three hundred men was not too great. This unit also suffered heavy losses on 17 November and was added to Bat Hofmann a day later. Also a Gruppe Kitze and Gruppe Lorenz showed up at the front. These units had a strength of one hundred and fifty to two hundred men and were incorporated into Bat Hofmann the following days. This battalion was weakened on 17 November and, according to prisoners of war, the four companies each had a strength of only thirty to fifty men, while one hundred and thirty men per company was customary. On 17 November the battalion was reinforced by the Kampfschule 344te Infanterie Division, commanded by Hauptmann Bürckle. This Kampfschule, consisting of one hundred and forty men, was annexed to Bat Hofmann in Panningen.
The 18-year-old Theodor Kremer belonged to Bat Hofmann and was assigned to the reserve company that was stationed in the hamlet of Hub with the Beumers family: 'Due to our own artillery fire there were several wounded that we had to collect. It was a terrible journey. The terrain was bad and full of holes and potholes. The wounded we had to salvage cried out in pain. And then that eternal rain. We were soaked and cold. Sometimes we had to drive the injured back to the lazaret with wheelbarrows. I had noticed that some people were staying on the farm illegally. I confided to the Beumers boys that I also wanted to go into hiding. On 17 November, a huge artillery fire broke out, killing several people. I went into hiding in a hole under a haystack. In the distance I could see that the British were building a bridge over the Zig
Help to the neighbours
Meanwhile it was decided to let the 152nd Infantry Brigade support the neighbour, the 15 BR Scottish Division. This division had crossed the Deurne Canal east of Meijel the same morning, on 18 November, but ended up in heavy fighting with Fallschirmjäger of battalion Matthaeas. From 2 Seaforth, the A-Company was ordered to cross the Noordervaart and together with four Shermans of the C-Squadron 1st East Riding Yeomanry, who drove via Beringe, attacked the Fallschirmjäger in the flank. It was 2.30 pm in the meantime. The battle for the village of Beringe was now in full swing.
Heavy fighting for BeringeThe Seaforth Highlanders ended up in a wasp's nest on the other side of the Noordervaart. They were attacked by Fallschirmjäger who, armed with Panzerfäuste and machine guns, caused many problems. Two tanks of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry (1 ERY) were knocked out. Meanwhile the A-Squadron East Riding Yeomanry had entered Beringe with fourteen tanks. Major Philips of the tank battalion saw that the infantry had not been followed, making the tanks very vulnerable. After an hour, however, help came from the Seaforth Highlanders. Two companies of 2 Seaforth were ordered to take Beringe together with the tanks. The D-Company had to take the southeastern part of the village. Here the Scots were engaged in a heavy battle just after noon. It came to heavy fighting with German 'Panzervernichtungstrupps' in the village. A Sherman was eliminated by Feldwebel Karl Klement with his Panzerschreck.
The A-Company was directed to the village for reinforcement. By 16.00 hours the Germans had been driven out of the village. With this the role of 1 ERY and the 152 IB had been played out. The 49 PBD, which was supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade, would take over the advance towards the Meuse on 19 November.
Peter Davies belonged to 1st East Riding Yeomanry and told his experiences: 'I was a tank gunner in a Sherman tank. It was a very difficult area for us because of the enormous mud. The Sherman tank attracted air behind the dome so we were constantly in a cold wind. We were constantly wet and drying our uniforms. We lost three tanks at Beringe and were deployed a few days later at Horn. Sometimes we could spend the night in a farm where we had good contacts with the locals'.
On the German side, 18 November was chaotic. The Kriegstagebuch of the Bataillon Matthaeas mentions that around 05.00 in the morning there was still no contact with the left neighbour the Bataillon Hofmann. The importance of Beringe for the German defence was clear. The Bat Matthaeas fortified the positions around the village. The line Beringe-Maasbree was established as a dividing line between both German units. Around 08.30 hours a group of Fallschirmjäger with Panzerfäuste Beringe crept in to take out the British tanks of 1ERY. By 10.00 a.m. heavy fighting started at Beringe. Four Sturmgeschütze of the 902 Stu were directed from Patershof to the village. The 2nd and 3rd Kompanie of Bat Matthaeas had a leading role in the fighting around Beringe. Around three o'clock, three Shermans managed to break through the German positions and advance one kilometre along the road from Beringe to Helenaveen. The valuable four Sturmgeschütze were then retreated in the direction of Koningslust.
Piet Janssen lived in Beringe and had not been evacuated on 27 October, like many inhabitants of the village: 'I had to leave on 27 October and went to Koningslust. The new accommodation was dirty and we secretly decided to go back the next day. The German sentry knew us and let us through. We were quartered by Germans. They were two Austrians who didn't feel like going to war anymore. Mines were being laid everywhere'.
Jan Tulmans from Beringe told his experiences: 'On 17 November we went into hiding with Van der Pas. We heard that the mill and the church tower were detonated. We saw members of a German jump command fleeing towards Patershof. The stables at Van der Pas were full of cattle. In the morning, feed had to be picked. Some went on the road. When they came back they told us that they had seen British people. We decided to take a look. At the Kanaalstraat we saw Britten disassembling mines. No Brit was venturing north of the Kanaalstraat. Then a motorcyclist passed us in fluent Dutch advising us to go back to the basement as artillery shelling was expected. It turned out to be a Dutchman who had fled in 1940. We quickly went back and indeed a shelling followed'.
Theodor put his uniform and rifle in the ground and was given overalls by Father Beumers and helped on the farm in the months that followed, waiting for his homeland east of Goch to be liberated.
Further south-east of Hub, the two other Scottish brigades had also crossed the Zig
The attack over the Zig Canal at Neersebrug, 17 and 18 NovemberBrigadier Sinclair of the 153 IB was due to appear at divisional headquarters around 09.00 on the morning of 17 November where he was told that his brigade had been chosen to carry out an attack over the Zig Canal as quickly as possible. In the afternoon, the commanders of the 144 RTR, the 1 Gordons and 5/7 Gordons and 5 Black Watch at 153 IB Headquarters were given an explanation of the plans to be carried out the same evening.
Roughly speaking, the plan was as follows:
By 4.30 p.m. all the company and platoon commanders had been given the plans and set off to explore the route to the canal bank. It was raining hard. At 5.30 pm all officers met in the kitchen of the Californian farm, now called 't Fort, about two kilometers west of Neer. The atmosphere was very cheerful when Harry announced the orders. He made jokes and brought everything in a light-hearted way. The officers sat on kitchen chairs, on the floor, on the stove and on the window sills. They all studied the cards and made notes. After an hour each one went his own way. Most of the officers then took the non-commissioned officers back to the California farm to inform them in a dry environment what was about to happen. I studied the artillery fire plan and made some changes. At nine o'clock the time had come and I was able to follow the course of the crossing from the farm'.
Crossing 1 Gordons, 'easy but very wet
Around 9 p.m., about three hundred Scottish soldiers marched through the muddy fields in the steadily falling rain to the Zig
Canal near the Neersebrug bridge. Occasionally a German shell fell but the bad weather caused the real problems. The Scottish infantrymen had ladders with them to get over the lock and after half an hour two hundred Scottish soldiers were already on the other side of the canal. Many soldiers were able to reach the other side of the canal quickly through the lock.
Yet there were also a few casualties, including Walther George: 'Mud, mud and mines. We had to go to the Zig Canal. We ended up in a mortar bombardment. A shrapnel drilled through my helmet and I had a head wound or the damaged helmet or shrapnel. The blood was dripping all over my face. I couldn't see anything. I thought a piece of my face had disappeared. Another soldier injured on his arm guided me through the muddy fields to the first aid station. The doctor reassured me that it was not a serious wound. Via a hospital in Eindhoven, I ended up in Brussels. In mid-December I was able to rejoin my battalion.
There was no German opposition. Thirty prisoners of war were made who were only too happy to surrender. Only eight were injured on the Scottish side, as a Scottish veteran stated on the spot in 1994: 'A very easy crossing but wet and cold'. By midnight, a Small Girder Bridge laying tank arrived. After some maneuvering the bridge was in place at 01.30 hours. The field roads towards the bridge were so bad that only larger tracked vehicles could reach the bridge. By morning a large part of 1 Gordons was concentrated in a small bridgehead on the north side of the Zig
Tjeu van Lier lived near the Neersebrug bridge: 'The chicken coops on the farm had been used by the forest partisans. Fortunately, they had just left when the Germans arrived. They started digging scaffolding around the farm. Then the Neersebrug was blown up. The boulders from the driveway to the bridge flew against the facade. Then the Germans started to put a dam in the Zig
Canal with large beams to raise the water level. A German non-commissioned officer was clearly tired of the war but did not dare desert as he feared reprisals against his family. An enormous artillery shelling followed on 17 November. We were in a shelter behind our house. The cellar was hit by two bullets, which threatened to collapse the roof. We had to leave quickly and were able to find shelter further on. When we came back the next day there were four dead Germans lying around the farm'.
In the early morning of 18 November, 5/7 Gordons also crossed the canal near the Neersebrug. They were ordered to push on to Egchel. A few hours later, three companies reached Keup and Egchel unhindered. Because of the many minefields and the mud, the pioneers had their hands full to get and keep the roads passable.
John Tough belonged to the D-Company of 5/7 Gordons: 'When we crossed the canal we saw a lone German Fallschirmjäger who quickly surrendered. He was wearing a soft fleece jacket that he had to hand in to our Sergeant Ness. This German also had many Dutch guilders with him'.
Two kilometres west of the Neersebrug, the crossing was less successful.
Crossing of the Zig canal, west of Roggelsebrug, 17 and 18 November
The 5 Black Watch had major problems all day due to heavy German shelling with 'Wurfrahmraketen' and the minefields. At 17.00 there was a briefing at Roggel at which battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Bradford consulted with the commanding officer of the 144 RTR and the 127th Field Regiment Royal Artillery (127 Field RA) about the plan.
An hour later, even more problems arose when three Flail tanks, which were supposed to support the attack, got stuck in the mud. It had to be a surprise attack in which the boats on Carriers would be taken to the canal bank. Three Crockodiles from 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (2 FFY) supported the canal crossing with their flamethrowers. New problems arose around 9 p.m. when several Carriers got stuck in the mud. The boats now had to be towed by the Scottish soldiers to the canal bank, in the pouring rain. The D-Company had to make the rush. German snipers were active along the Zig
Canal. One of the first victims was the Canadian Lieutenant Bill Cowan who was killed by a sniper before he could reach the canal bank. Uncleared minefields and bad weather made the conditions miserable. There were several casualties among the soldiers of 5 Black Watch. The crossing itself also proved to be dangerous. Bob Stoker was killed around 11 p.m. when his company crossed.
Tom Renouf was a friend of Bob Stoker and belonged to the A-Company. He told us what was happening on the spot in 1994: 'Led by Lieutenant Scott, we reached the canal bank, under an inferno of exploding shells. We were shot at with a machine gun. The canal was then much wider than it is now and there were no trees or bushes. We could only pray that we would survive this hell. Difficultly the boats were towed to the shore. When I wanted to crawl into a boat, a friend of mine was badly injured. When we were in the boats, the water fountains around us sprayed up. On the other side was a barbed wire fence. I crawled under this barrier but Bob Stoker crawled over it. He was fatally hit by bullets. This canal crossing was for me the most frightening event of the whole war'.
Major G. Pilcher was commander of C-Company and told his story in 1990: 'My company had to cross the canal in rubber dinghies, a rather daring undertaking. My company crossed the canal unscathed, unlike the D-Company. After days of dedication we were very tired and wet, we had to watch out for the Shu-Minen who showed up here en masse for the first time'. (43)
Just after midnight there were about seventy men from 5 Black Watch on the other side of the canal. Now two other companies were quickly brought to the other side of the canal. The area in the direction of Roggelsebrug was cleared of mines after which the construction of a bridge over the Zig canal could begin. By 06.00 hours the whole battalion was finally on the other side of the canal. Only four Germans had been made prisoners of war. At 08.00 hours it was clear that the Gordons had already moved on. Meanwhile, 5/7 Gordons were busy crossing the canal. At 10.00 hours 5 Black Watch were told that they could return to Roggel to catch their breath after forty-eight hours of misery.
ac Thiessen saw the fighting of 5 Black Watch from his house, which was only five hundred metres from the Zig
Canal: 'We were hiding with three brothers in a hayloft in a feeding silo. On 15 November, we were quartered in our house by seven Germans. A machine gun was brought into position near the haystack. Three men stayed with the weapon, one was on guard and the three others were resting. In the evening of 17 November the shelling started. Four tanks fired from a bush behind the canal on the German positions. In the night we saw Scottish soldiers sneaking from the canal to our house. Eighty Scots began to dig into an orchard behind the house. At Kubbe Steegs two fanatical Germans were killed by hand grenades. As a signal for their comrades in Helden, the Germans shot another haystack into the fire, giving them a target for the mortars'.
The 274 Field C started around 09.00 hrs at the Roggelsebrug with the closing of the canal by means of two bulldozers. Moments later the construction of a Class 40 Bailey Bridge was started. During the construction, a truck drove onto a mine in which nine Engineers were severely injured and one was killed. The area was immediately searched for mines. Due to this delay, the bridge could only be completed by midnight.
Lieutenant Jack Swaab was artillery observer for the 127 RA. The task of these observers was to direct the artillery fire to the right points via a radio link. Because they were deployed in the front lines, the losses among these observers were very high. Jack survived and talks about his experiences as an observer of 5 Black Watch: '18 November: Yesterday evening in the pouring rain to battalion headquarters. Another canal crossing. It rained enormously and it was cold. I walked out in front of my Carrier which was being driven by a liaison soldier. It was raining shells. I counted as many as a hundred in an hour. They fell all around me. Trees were pierced and the hot shrapnel mixed with the rain. Moments later our Carrier got stuck and we had to continue on foot. Then it became very annoying. At least fifty shells fell close to me. I was lying flat on the ground. The shrapnel flew over me. I always thought it would hit me. We crawled into a boat and reached the other side. In the end we reached the Observation post'.
Panningen and Helden were now within reach of the Scots.
The liberation of Panningen and Helden, 18 November
The situation in Panningen and Helden had continued to deteriorate in the days leading up to the liberation. Pius Reijnen wrote about this in his diary: 'Terrible things happen every day even too horrible to mention. The churches in Dorp, Helden, and Panningen are equipped with explosives and can fly into the air at any moment. Bolles mill and Spoormakers mill have both been blown up. There is no peace, no life. Ties Joosten in Egchel was harvesting beets. A grenade exploded. He was dead instantly. Head of the hull.
17 November: Terrible day. The Germans let the parish church fly in the air. Again people were killed by rockets'.
Pastor Huyben wrote in his diary: 'At half past nine the inhuman beings destroyed our beautiful church of Mary with dynamite. The church tower was completely filled with dynamite'.
Around three o'clock in the afternoon, residents of Panningen saw a German connecting soldier in the Beekstraat rolling up telephone wire. The little fat soldier in camouflage uniform went to work thoroughly. He had only just left when half an hour later the first Scots appeared on Hoekerstraat and Kerkstraat.
The 1 Black Watch was ordered to march in Kangaroo's in the direction of Helden. Since the few roads that were still somewhat passable were fully in use by the 152 IB, it took until 1 pm in the afternoon before the column with 1 Black Watch could set off. Just before Helden there was opposition from a group of Fallschirmjäger. The 1 Black Watch was supported by the C-Squadron Northamptonshire Yeomanry (1 NY) under command of Major Bevan. This unit drove fifteen Sherman tanks and a few light Stuart tanks through the fields in the direction of Panningen and Helden.
Sergeant Jack was at the forefront with three Stuart tanks. In the meantime it was 17.00 hours and forty prisoners of war had been made belonging to Bat Hofmann. To the right of 1 Black Watch, Egchel had already been liberated by the soldiers of 5/7th Gordons. Just before Helden there was little German resistance, but after a small firefight the Germans withdrew. The first Sherman tank of Corporal Serjant surprised a group of Germans who tried to flee the village with a cart. The cannon of the tank refused so the Germans could escape. The 7th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (2 Argylls) meanwhile set off from Roggel on foot towards Heibloem to walk via Cameron Bridge in the direction of Panningen. Panningen was reached without opposition around 18.00 hours. The front line came to a halt just north of Helden and Panningen. The liberation of Helden and Panningen had only cost eight injured on the Scottish side. A total of fifty Germans of Bat Hofmann were taken prisoner of war that day.
In the evening the headquarters of the 1 NY tank battalion was installed in a barn in Hub. An incident occurred there the same evening. Due to the rapid advance there were still Germans present at various places. Most of them surrendered. But not fifteen Fallschirmjäger who had been hiding heavily armed in a barn near Hub. They attacked British headquarters and managed to make twelve British prisoners of war, some of whom eventually escaped.
Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Forster was sleeping in a pigsty next to the headquarters. The next morning, when he heard rumours of the incident, he spoke to the first sergeant he met and asked, 'What nonsense am I hearing about a German robbery last night? Soldiers were said to have been captured, that is impossible, isn't it? The sergeant turned red with shame and said: 'Still, it is where I was one of the prisoners'. Jack Howell belonged to C-Squadron 1 NY and told his experiences: 'I became tank driver of a Sherman Firefly, a tank with a heavy 17-pounder gun. I saw Sergeant Jack's Stuart driving through the fields to Panningen right in front of me. He drove so fast that at one point we lost him. We were the first tank to enter Helden. We drove through a street and fired at houses without a clear target. In the evening we slept in a barn and our sergeant major told us to watch out as Germans were still active behind the front line. Sentries had to be set up. It did not come to that. We took it for notice and when he was gone we all went to sleep. The next morning we heard that Germans had entered the headquarters and made prisoners of war. That was a bit of a scare'.
The tension among the population in Panningen was great. The joy of liberation was all the greater. Jac Doensen: 'My sister heard that there was another raid. It would be crazy if they caught me just before the liberation. It became too dangerous in the attic of our house. Repeatedly grenades were smashed into it. Just behind our house there was an old giraffe's cellar. The cellar was dry and with some old bags and blankets it became more pleasant. My father put a wheelbarrow with manure on the lid of the entrance. A little later Tjeu van der Velden joined us. Around 11 p.m. we woke up with a huge bang. Next to us on a field the Germans had placed a heavy piece of artillery. Every five minutes they fired a grenade which caused the candle to go out because of the air pressure. Moments later it started raining and our cellar started to flood. Fortunately the Germans left with the cannon. Around 05.00 hours we could find shelter in the basement of the Beckers family. In the morning we heard cannon roaring. At the same time shells broke in. There was a ringing of glass. Mother started to pray the rosary. Then the sound of machine guns. We were also fired into the street. Further on the roar of engines could be heard. A little later we heard heavy vehicles thundering through the village. Mother said: 'I'm going to have a look'. It was quiet in the cellar. Everyone felt that something had happened. Mother came back and said: 'Jac, come and have a look, I don't know what I'm seeing'. I saw tanks and soldiers with brown uniforms. I shouted: 'The Tommies are there'. We laughed and shouted at our liberators'.
Just east of Helden, in the direction of Kessel, the front line was situated on the edge of the Heldense bossen. During the following night both Helden and Panningen were heavily shelled by German artillery with twenty wounded among the Scots.
The civilians also had to deal with these shellings: Jac Doensen: 'The Tommies handed out cigarettes and chocolate. An unparalleled opulence. Then all of a sudden gunfire from the direction of Maasbree. Moments later shells fell everywhere. From Helden Dorp the strikes moved to Panningen'.
German patrols meanwhile explored the frontline east of Helden. But the British were also active. The fact that there were still Germans wandering around Panningen and Helden we saw before. A special incident took place during the night of 18 to 19 November near the hamlet of Hub. A squadron of armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry (DY) reconnaissance division, of the Highland Division, was billeted there. One of the Daimler armoured cars got stuck in the mud. While salvaging the armoured car, two soldiers from the reconnaissance division, Sergeant Plant and Sergeant Lewis, were captured by a group of Germans. Sergeant Plant later stated: 'Suddenly a group of Germans was standing in front of us. They were clearly lost and asked if we had a compass. I showed them my compass. We were forced to take them back to the German lines, above Helden. I led them to Helden because I knew there were troops of my own there. I also tried to walk in circles. The German officer was aware of this. But before he could react we were discovered by Scottish sentinels at Helden. In the confusion we were able to escape and in the early morning we were able to reach the hamlet under our own positions again'.
In the morning of 19 November Helden patrols from the reconnaissance department DY left with some armoured cars in the direction of Baarlo and Kessel. Just north of Panningen on the Ninnesweg up to Everlo, the front line got stuck. In Helden Dorp the bulkheads moved up to the junction Baarloseweg and Stogger.
In the following night, from 19 to 20 November, it was quiet in Helden en Panningen. A German patrol managed to penetrate through the Helden woods to the southern edge of Helden. They were discovered by a British patrol, after which two Germans were taken prisoner of war.
The battle around the Zig
Canal and then around Helden and Panningen had cost the lives of forty-five Allies on 17 and 18 November. On the German side, there were an estimated one hundred and twenty-five deaths. Dozens of civilians also fell victim to shells and mines. But the Meuse had not yet been reached. Kessel and Kessel-Eik were still in German hands.
Liberation of Kessel and Kessel-Eik
On the morning of 19 November, a patrol of the Derbyshire Yeomanry left from Helden in the direction of Kessel. On the way, the five Daimler and Humber armoured cars were held up by a huge crater smashed into the road surface. Mines had been laid around it so that the British armoured cars could not go any further. In the end, the crew members managed to get around the barricade on foot and arrived in Kessel around 15.00 hours. No more Germans were found in the village but the village centre around the church was not yet explored. The patrol withdrew from Kessel after an hour. There were only observers left at the important intersections with the Napoleonsbaan. The actual liberation of the village would only come a day later. South of Helden a patrol of 7 Argylls went through the Helden woods to Kessel- Eik and Spurkt. The 7 Black Watch sent a patrol from Neer over the Napoleonsbaan to the Zig Canal and made contact with the 7 Argylls. Later in the evening, the 5/7 Gordons marched from Egchel through the Heldense bossen in the direction of Kessel and Kessel-Eik.
In the diary of an unknown inhabitant of Kessel-Eik the last days before the liberation are described: 'On 17 November at 09.00 in the morning, billeting took place again. I was in hiding with some other men. They were Germans from the 'Funkstelle'. We quickly dived into the cellar. The liberation could not last long because grenades had been falling around the house for several days. My wife was afraid that the Germans who were with us would discover me. During a shelling, a German entered the cellar. My wife convinced him that there was no more room in the cellar. After a while he came back and saw us hiding in the corner. He wished us good morning and looked at the cellar and came to the conclusion that the cellar was too small. He left without asking any questions. In the evening all hell broke loose at Van Heugten's lock on the Zig Canal. The drum fire lasted until 9.30 pm. The Germans with us became very nervous. They always walked to the front door to see if any Tommies were approaching. Just after midnight a German came running into the house and shouted: 'Wir müssen abfahren'. A little later another German shouted that they really had to leave now. The Tommies had broken through. The Hauptmann entered the room and wished us 'fell gutes'. That's how the last Germans left Kessel-Eik'.
In fact, on 18 November a kind of no man's land arose in Kessel and Kessel-Eik. J. Zeelen, who lives on the Napoleonsbaan between Kessel-Eik and Kessel, told us about this: 'Just before the liberation, we were quartered by Russians who were in German military service. They mainly took care of the horses that the German army owned or had advanced to a large extent. In addition, there were some elderly Germans in the house of a care unit. We had a large cellar and all the people in the area had found shelter there. The evening before the liberation the Germans were half drunk. They were not bothered and showed us pictures of their children. In general they were friendly soldiers who were tired of the war. On the night of 17 to 18 November they had all suddenly left. They had left a lot behind, including a sausage mill and various items of equipment. On Saturday 18 November it was unreal quiet, there was not a soldier to be seen. There was no war noise to be heard. It was not until the next day that the first Scots appeared on our farm'. (29)
The unclear front situation around Kessel on 19 and 20 November is also well reflected in the notes of H. van Knippenberg from Kessel who was hiding in the woods near Kessel: '19 November: Tension is rising. The Tommies are in Helden. At half past six we leave the hiding place on our way home. At a quarter to six we run into germans. Back to warn the others. We take another road and get home all right. We drink coffee and go back. But it's light and there are Krauts everywhere. We try it in two places. The Krauts see us and we are followed. We take off and hide in a field of dense pines. An hour later we try again but again we bump into Krauts. In a bush we bump into a Kraut shouting 'Halt'. He asks us for our proof of identity, which we give him. He asks what we are doing there. I tell him that our house has been destroyed by jumping from the church and that we are taking cover for grenades. He believes us. We are not allowed to go to Helden but are sent to Venlo. In the end, we could come home again. In the evening we sleep quietly at home in bed between the Germans and the Tommies.
November 20th: I would like to go to the Tommies. With a group we go to the Dijk where we meet the first English and smoke our first cigarette. We tell everything we saw yesterday to a British officer'.
On 20 November Kessel-Eik and Kessel were definitively occupied by 5/7 Gordons. Officers of the battalion explored the banks of the river Maas in Kessel but were quickly discovered by German observers. As a result, they had to crawl three hundred metres through the mud to escape the German fire. Lieutenant Fuller of 5/7 Gordons drove his jeep in Kessel on a mine and was badly wounded. The roads had become even worse because of the heavy rain. A reconnaissance platoon of 5 Black Watch had to drive from Roggel to Kessel and took three hours. At Hub, an artillery department got completely stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out of the mud with the help of tanks.
On 21 November, two large combat patrols were formed from Kessel to take Donk and Kessel-Hout, just north of the village. The weather was very bad, a lot of rain and wind. Both hamlets were located about two kilometres north of the village.
Just before Donk it went wrong. The Scots were ambushed, killing four Scottish soldiers and injuring twelve. John Tough saw it happen: 'Sergeant Gregory and three others were killed by a machine gun. Some Germans had hid in a haystack with this machine gun. A platoon of B-Company filled up with fire. There were also many wounded. We were just behind this platoon. We surrounded the haystacks but the Germans managed to escape'.
Immediately after this incident, reinforcements were brought in, including eight tanks of the 144 RTR. As soon as the German Fallschirmjäger heard the tank engines, they retreated and Donk could be taken without resistance. A disadvantage was that the tank noise also attracted the attention of the German artillery, resulting in heavy shelling. The intake of Kessel-Hout was therefore postponed by one day.But it's light and there are Krauts everywhere. We try it in two places. The Krauts see us and we are followed. We take off and hide in a field of dense pines. An hour later we try again but again we bump into Krauts. In a bush we bump into a Kraut shouting 'Halt'. He asks us for our proof of identity, which we give him. He asks what we are doing there. I tell him that our house has been destroyed by jumping from the church and that we are taking cover for grenades. He believes us. We are not allowed to go to Helden but are sent to Venlo. In the end, we could come home again. In the evening we sleep quietly at home in bed between the Germans and the Tommies.
November 20th: I would like to go to the Tommies. With a group we go to the Dijk where we meet the first English and smoke our first cigarette. We tell everything we saw yesterday to a British officer'.
The positions of 5/7 Gordons were taken over in Kessel-Eik and Kessel during the day by the 5 Black Watch battalion. It kept changing between the units of the Scottish 153 IB.
The next day 22 November, the A-Company of 5/7 Gordons set off and was able to take over Kessel-Hout without any problems. The supply of supplies, food and clothing went ever slower because the roads became almost impassable due to the many caterpillar vehicles. Kangaroo's of the 49 RTR had to be used to bring supplies from Heythuysen to Kessel.
Liberation of Baarlo
A German jumping command ensured that the church in Baarlo was provided with explosives in three places in the tower, the nave and the Angustorentje. Meanwhile, on 19 November a patrol of Derbyshire Yeomanry armoured cars had set off from Helden in the direction of Baarlo. Via Onder they drove in the direction of Baarlo where they were shot at by some Sturmgeschütze who were hiding in the edge of the woods at the current Midden Peelweg. The six armoured cars quickly withdrew in the direction of Onder. Around 6 p.m. they were attacked at dusk by a group of Germans supported by four Stürmgeschütze. The crews of the lightly armed armoured cars were immediately supported by Scottish infantry of 1 Black Watch and artillery. After half an hour the Germans withdrew.
On 20 November, Brigadier Oliver was ordered by his division commander at his headquarters in Helden to capture Baarlo and the hamlets of Bong, Rinkesfort and Zoeterbeek. Thirty Kangaroo's of 49 RTR were made available and B-Squadron 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry with some Flailtanks. The attack is due to begin on 21 November. On 20 November, to the left of the 51 HD, the 49 PBD was also pushed into the front line. This division gathered at Panningen on 20 November. Because of the successful advance of 51 HD there was only room for the 49 PBD to deploy two instead of three brigades. Clear agreements were made about the unity boundary between the two divisions, which ran just north from below via Rinkesfort, Zoeterbeek and Op den Hert to Hout-Blerick.
The hamlet of Bong is located to the east of Baarlo, Rinkesfort and Zoeterbeek lie between Baarlo and Maasbree. The area between Baarlo and Helden was wooded and therefore extremely suitable for defence. The previous day it appeared that German Sturmgeschütze had been arrested at the edge of the woods in the direction of Baarlo.
The plan was to start on 21 November with 1 Black Watch as unit to take Baarlo. The goal was first to reach the junction with the Napoleonsweg and then to liberate Baarlo up to the Meuse. The 7 Argylls would advance behind the Black Watch battalion to the hamlets between Baarlo and Maasbree.
The infantry column of the A-Company 1 Black Watch was transported in Kangaroo's and accompanied by eight tanks of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. The whole battle group departed from Onder, which was secured to the east by the Derbyshire Yeomanry after the German attack the previous evening. The first target was Bong. The road to Baarlo was extremely bad. Jeeps, lorries and motorbikes could hardly move forward. Only the caterpillar vehicles were able to move. Shortly after the column was on its way it was fired upon by German artillery. This happened so fiercely that Captain Hamilton of the battalion staff during a visit in 1994 declared that this was the only moment in the war that he had seen his battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Hopwood, put on his helmet. At the forest edge of the Kesselse Bergen the column was again under fire, now by three Sturmgeschütze and Fallschirmjäger with Panzerfäuste. The Shermans managed to put two Sturmgeschütze out of action. At every bend in the road to Baarlo another Sturmgeschütze of the 902 Stu was set up to slow down the advance. Some Germans were killed and the rest retreated through the woods in the direction of Baarlo. After a smoke screen was laid by the Scots, Bong was reached around 15.00 hours. The alarmed D-Company moved east of the road Baarlo - Helden into the woods. The C-Company took over the attack and reached the Napoleonsbaan around 17.30 hours. The A-Company then headed into the village. Ten German Fallschirmjäger of the 6th and 7th Kompanie of Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Jäger were made prisoners of war. In the evening the whole village was searched by both companies, A and C, but no more Germans were found.
An accompanying Sherman tank of the 1st Northamptonschire Yeomanry was set on fire at the intersection Napoleonsbaan and Bong by a German Sturmgeschütz, which was concealed north of Napoleonsbaan. The crew members managed to escape, mostly slightly injured. Derick Kinley, the liaison, and Ken Lyke, the driver, were in this Sherman tank and told their story during a visit in 2002: 'The Sherman did not have a good name because it caught fire quickly when it was hit by a grenade. We were at 4th Troop B-Squadron 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and drove four tanks to the big junction in the Napoleonic runway. Along the way we had come across German artillery firing at us from every bend in the road from Helden to Baarlo. Now we carefully drove towards the intersection. Suddenly a huge blow and we knew we had been hit. Fortunately, we were able to get out quickly and we only had some burns that were not too serious. After a brief treatment at the first aid station, we were able to return to our own unit'.
Major Davies-Colley, commander of the C-Company 1st Battalion Black Watch gave the order to move in the direction of De Berckt after the Sherman had been disengaged. He picked up memories in 1988: 'The Sturmgeschütz had to be switched off. I ordered two platoons to advance along the Napoleon's runway and to take out the artillery. This almost succeeded. The civilians we still found in Baarlo were in cellars. We were very well received. Especially the Janssen family, who had set up a small hospital in their cellar, still stands before me. Here I was also handed 19 German prisoners of war who had been captured by the resistance. After the war we went back to Baarlo three more times'.
This freed the village of Baarlo but not yet the forests south of the village. There were still Germans in the woods. Baarlo suffered heavy artillery and mortar shelling. The mines also caused problems. Nevertheless, the Scottish losses were small given the circumstances: seven wounded and two killed, Corporal J. Cameron and Corporal T. Jackson.
Jos Zegers from Baarlo described the days around the liberation in his diary: 'Saturday 18 November: at three o'clock again in the cellar because of the whistling and striking of shells. To shorten the time, we played a game of cards. By the morning the weather started to roar again. The front was approaching, the English were supposed to be down by now. Today a disaster struck Baarlo. The rotten Krauts have blown up our church, which is already eighty years old. First, at a quarter to eleven, the big towers, the nave, then the rear part. Both windmills were also blown up. Last night's shells ended up at the monastery and at Sheng Beurskens. We are heading for another restless night.
20 November: Last night shells were smashed into several places.
21 November: The whole afternoon evening and night in the basement, grenades were constantly being beaten up. When it was quiet you could go to the toilet.
22 November: Towards morning shells were smashing everywhere. At 09.00h Dré comes to tell us that the Tommie came around 17.00h yesterday. At castle Erp was fought. At hotel de Molen an English tank was shot on fire. On the Rijksweg the Germans made trees jump. Near Hover they captured two more Germans. We were unstoppable. For the first time we were given English cigarettes and I was allowed to look into a tank. Like shy dogs, people came crawling out of their hiding places. All morning it was quiet, but in the afternoon German shells fell again'.
In the monastery De Berckt the last days before the liberation were also recorded in a diary. On 21 November there was still no liberation there. One of the Fathers wrote: '20 November: The night's rest was extended to 08.00 hours. Otherwise we don't know what to do so early in the dark. The autumn storms are yawing from all sides. Mines have been laid at the beginning of the road to the Napoleonic road. Until 11.00 everything went relatively quietly. There was a lot of artillery shooting but no shells came to us. We felt relatively safe through the mines. Every side road is now undermined. The farm is now empty. At a quarter to one five shells fell near the house, the chapel and the moat.
21 November: At 7 a.m. the shelling of Baarlo starts. Father Provincial wanted to go to the sisters in the village but had to return because of the many shells. We got a lot of visitors from Germans, they demanded food. The leader was a cheeky fellow, but Father Kühne shouted back just as loudly. The cellar was searched for radios. At a quarter to four the second visit. They came from Steyl. They took tobacco and cigarettes with them. In the evening the Germans again brutally demanded room for the wounded. The number of overnight visitors is now fifty-seven. Throughout the night, German soldiers around the monastery are crowded with as many as a few hundred men.
22 November: At 02.00 hours the gatehouse was claimed. Around 05.00 hours most Germans left. The Germans tell us that the Scots are already in Baarlo. After a Holy Mass we spent the whole day in cellars. Today remarkably quiet.
23 November: In the morning continuous gunfire in Baarlo. In the afternoon three people in English uniforms come to Bongers by road. But they turned out to be Dutch partisans. The Napoleonsbaan to the Johanneshoeve would be free of Germans. But there would still be Germans hiding in the woods'. (60)Later in the afternoon, 7 Argylls left from Eghel straight through the woods to Rinkesfort, which was reached around 16.00 hours. They were escorted by eight Shermans. The Argylls had been relieved earlier in the morning in Kessel by soldiers of 5/7 Gordons. After Rinkesfort was taken, this hamlet was heavily shelled by the German artillery that was now standing in the Elmpterwald. An hour later Zoterbeek was also reached by the Argylls.
New German units?
In the meantime, another battalion had appeared on the German side in the front line. It was an old acquaintance to British intelligence; the Fallschirmjäger Bataillon Jäger (Bat Jäger). Two companies of this battalion had been deployed at Venray and from 21 November onwards reinforced the extinguished German units. General Von Obstfelder was still making frantic efforts to strengthen the bridgehead, but General Student had already made his decision. The bridgehead had to be given up with the condition that some strong bridgeheads west of the Meuse had to remain intact. The Ardennes Offensive was in preparation and almost all the reserves were earmarked for this purpose. As a symbolic act, the weak 85 Infantry Division and the 244th Sturmgeschütz Brigade were sent to the Elmpterwald east of Reuver to reinforce the new Meuse frontline to be formed.
The 1 Black Watch remained in Baarlo, with regular patrols in a northerly direction to Castle de Berckt from 22 November. Mine fields had been laid out in various places, resulting in several casualties on the Scottish side. Also 7 Argylls was active in sending out patrols, supported by Stuart reconnaissance tanks of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, to test the German positions around Hout-Blerick. On 22 November a strong Scottish battle group was assembled, supported by Stuart tanks. In the pouring rain Op den Hert, two kilometres north of Baarlo, was reached. Here a tank was running on a mine which provoked heavy German shelling. The Scots retreated. On 23 November a reinforced patrol set off again. This time accompanied by mine clearing Flail tanks. Approximately one kilometre southwest of Hout-Blerick the accompanying Flail tanks got stuck in the mud. The contours of the German Bridgehead Blerick quickly became clear. We were now waiting for the plan of attack on this bridgehead. This order would not be carried out by the Highland division.
From the hamlet of Op den Hert, northwest of Baarlo, wounded soldiers were evacuated on 21 November. Civilians also had to help with the removal of the wounded soldiers. The Görtz-Theelen family was in the shelter when Germans entered. It was brutally demanded that transport be arranged by cart and horse immediately. Two of them were badly injured and had to be transported to Blerick quickly. Father Henri was summoned to come along. The horse-drawn carriage was supposedly nowhere to be found. Eventually a harness was borrowed from the neighbour. Görtz had to pick up the wounded. He had to go over Schafelt and the heath to Blerick because it was not possible to go over the Rijksweg, because there were already Tommies there. The shells smashed all around him and he had the greatest difficulty controlling the horses. A German army doctor came along. Zigzagging between the minefields. The wounded suffered enormously. The blood seeped through the floor of the cart. The moaning and screaming was not to be heard, said Görtz. At the barracks in Blerick there was a Red Cross post. Here the cart was given a Red Cross flag and the soldiers were given an injection. Görtz had to continue to Grubbenvorst. After Blerick he heard nothing more on the cart. The soldiers had died. (60)
On 26 November, 1 Black Watch in Baarlo was relieved as the last unit of the 51 BR Highland Division by a battalion of the 53 BR Welsh Division. The Scottish Division had fought hard for almost two weeks to reach the river Maas and was now sent to the front area between Arnhem and Nijmegen.
Waar blijven de bevrijders!
With special thanks to Hugo Levels and Eric Munnicks, I received approval for sharing this story with you all. The text was made for the second book (of 4 ) " Waar blijven de bevrijders ". These books are written in Dutch. This might chance in the future, but for now, no English variant is available. If you like to get more details about the books, please contact Eric through this Email address.
From 14 till 16 November, the war correspondent / photographer was in our area taking pictures for Life magazine. Most of the photos above are from the Life magazine Archives.
Because the timeline only goes as far as Heythuysen, some photos are placed with a later date in this story to give the impression of mud, fog and feel for the men of the 51st Highland Division.
All rights reserved for Life magazine and the Imperial War Museum.
Not all photos are taken in the village where placed in the text or from the 51st. From several areas there are simply no photos made or known from this period in time. I tried to give the best impression with the photos from the archives.