ACROSS THE RHINE TO VICTORY
January to May 1945
‘Through the early hours of the April 25th, the regiment’s batteries used up 36,000 rounds. By that evening, organised resistance in Bremen was collapsing.’
FOR the next fortnight, amid snow and deep frost, sporadic shelling, bombing, mortaring and nebelwerfer strikes followed as the Germans tried unsuccessfully to gain a bridgehead across the Maas. On January 5, a V-1 was spotted passing over at low level, followed by 15 more vapour trails. Next day, 17 were seen. Six shells landed on divisional HQ and others on A Troop area.
On the 7th, an RAF Mosquito which passed across the regimental area on reconnaissance over the German lines was shot down. The pilot was seen baling out and was assumed to have parachuted into captivity.
Two days later, 92nd LAA was again reorganised, with one troop in each battery being re-equipped with Mark I towed instead of self-propelled guns. Its strength was 36 guns and about 560 personnel. Towards the end of a snowy, foggy month, more rocket trails were sighted, and indirect shoots were carried out against German positions on the east bank of the Maas.
There was a brief respite for some of the men, who were given 72-hour passes and sent to Brussels to rest and recuperate. ‘I was billeted with a Belgian family in a large house,’ said Len Harvey. ‘They certainly made me feel welcome. My underclothes were washed clean and ironed and a hot bath was prepared. I was reluctant to get out of the bath tub because the hot water felt so good on my body. Now, over 60 years later, I cannot forget the kindness shown to me by this family during that short break from the front line.’
Early in February, as a rapid thaw set in, 318 moved to defend the Venraij-Deurne road and on the 8th an ME 262 was engaged. Next day, 3rd Division was relieved and two days later 92nd LAA moved to rest areas at Koersel, east of Diest, near Hasselt, Belgium. Here, regimental church services were held, and there was a visit by the regiment’s old CO, Brigadier Loder-Symonds.
On February 24, 3rd Division crossed the Maas to reinforce 30 Corps in Operation Veritable, the clearance of the Rhineland. Its job was to penetrate the Siegfried Line on the Xanten-Bonnighardt Ridge and clear the way for a breakout by the Guards Armoured Division. That same day, the 92nd moved from its rest area to Oisterwijk, near Tilburg, Holland.
Two days later, at 2.30am on Tuesday February 27, it crossed the German frontier at Hekkens and deployed around Goch, setting up headquarters in cellars on the south side of the town. Shoots were carried out on enemy-held woods south of Udem and there was a major indirect fire operation to support 185 Brigade’s attack on Kervenheim. In 20 minutes, 318 Battery poured 2,400 rounds on enemy trenches. Later, infantry observers reported ‘considerable execution.’
By March 3, 185 Brigade had breached the Siegfried Line along the Bonninghardt Ridge and German resistance was broken. RHQ of the 92nd moved to a farmyard in Kervenheim, while the troops were temporarily employed in road construction, traffic duties and guarding PoWs. Five days later, RHQ was established near Sonsbeck in a farmhouse on the Winnekendonk-Kappellen road.
On the 11th, as 3rd Division closed up towards the Rhine, the 92nd defended its line of march along the Xanten-Kalkar road, engaging three separate waves of enemy aircraft. The following day, the regiment moved north to Bedburg, near Kleve. On the 17th, three troops engaged attacking FW 190s, ME 109s and an ME 262, shooting one down. Several planes were hedge-hopping, too low to be fired at.
Between the 15th and 22nd, as the weather again turned icy and roads froze, planning and reconnaissance went ahead for Operation Pepperpot, the 3rd Division bombardment to support 51st Highland Division in Operation Plunder – Montgomery’s massive setpiece crossing of the Rhine.
Preliminary operations, dumping ammunition between Wissel and Honnepel, were carried out in great secrecy – under cover of early morning mists, at dusk, or beneath the swirling 20-mile smokescreen that blanketed the west bank of the river. ‘We grew to respect it for its complete cover, but hate it for its pungency,’ wrote Captain Almond.
On March 23, 92nd LAA added its weight to the greatest artillery barrage of the war in the West, involving more than 5,500 guns of all types. 318 deployed its Bofors 1,200 yards from the Rhine, west of Rees, aiming on the Emmerich and Vrasselt area – also the target for 317. 319 was based in a disused factory near Wissel.
Between 7pm and 8.55pm that night, the skies erupted in flame as each 92nd battery fired between 4,500 and 6,500 rounds across the river, helping pave the way for the assault troops. As the Bofors pounded away remorselessly, several overheated and suffered damage to recoil mechanisms and barrel wear. Parts had to be cannibalised to keep up the rate of fire.
There was a pause on the 24th to allow 21,000 airborne troops to land on the far shore. Then the regiment redeployed north of Wissel to pour fire on the sector of the Rhine between Praest and Emmerich. Over the four days from March 23 to 27, the 92nd fired a total of 32,000 rounds. D Troop of 318 also sent across 46 rounds from a captured German 88mm gun. ‘Everything that could fire was fired during that barrage,’ recalled Len Harvey. ‘The only time we stopped was when the gun barrels became red hot and had to be replaced.’
As the Bofors of the 92nd blasted the Germans, Bill Wills and a comrade were out in front of the guns trying to repair phone cables, some of which had been severed by ‘prematures’ – shells which exploded too early on leaving the barrel. It produced a hair-raising moment for the two driver-ops ‘We came crawling back only to see all the gun crews with their weapons at the ready and aiming at us,’ said Bill. ‘They thought it was a German counter-attack – by two of us!’
On the 28th, with 319 leading, the regiment crossed the Rhine, Germany’s last major geographical barrier, and moved to Neder Mormter before concentrating at Rees next day.
Now 3rd Division launched an all-out drive north-east to capture Bremen, Germany’s second port. With air attacks only sporadic, 12 three-ton lorries were detached from 92nd LAA and used to form a troop-carrying platoon to assist 185 Brigade’s advance. The greater part of the regiment and the towed guns remained behind at Rees and only RHQ and the three self-propelled gun troops – attached to the field regiments – accompanied 3rd Division in its pursuit towards the River Weser.
These left Rees on April 1 and advanced north via Werth and Haldern, then just within the Dutch frontier, passing through Lichtenvoorde and Enschede. Here, delighted crowds lined the road to cheer the troops on. But when the convoy re- entered Germany near Nordhorn on April 3, there was no such welcome, only a sullen acceptance of defeat. ‘The contrast was very great,’ the war diary noted.
For the most part, German resistance was collapsing. ‘It was now one advance after another,’ said Len Harvey. ‘We knew we were winning. The Germans had no more fight left in them – they were just giving themselves up. Their Home Guard, the Volkssturm, threw their weapons down and surrendered.’
On April 4, troops of 185 Brigade in assault boats crossed the Dortmund-Ems canal under fire and started moving on Lingen. The 92nd moved up to defend the bridges over the canal and the River Ems, and over the next two days the gunners were caught up in a ferocious battle with the Luftwaffe. On the 4th, they fought off waves of up to 15 FW 190s and ME 190s which made strafing and bombing runs as ‘heavy and accurate’ mortar fire stopped deployment of the Bofors on the east bank of the canal.
Next day, moving on to the Sudlohn area, more than a dozen ME 109s and FW 190s made machine-gun and skip-bombing attacks – one ME 109 and one FW 190 being shot down. Between April 4 and 6, the total kill was five enemy aircraft, plus one probable.
April 8 saw the regiment concentrated at Hungarian Barracks, Lingen. The following day, after moving through Rheine to Haldem, the 92nd started advancing with 3rd Division directly on Bremen. An FW 190 and an ME 109 were shot down as they machine-gunned the regimental area at Schwarforden on the 12th.
On April 15, with the 92nd at Apelstadt, 1,000 rounds were fired in support of 8 Brigade’s attack on Brinkum. Two days later, advance parties moved on to Bassum, Stuhren and Melchiorshausen and ammunition dumping started for an artillery bombardment to support 3rd Division’s drive to capture the sector of Bremen south of the River Weser.
Just before midnight on the 24th, the barrage opened – with the 92nd targeting two stretches of road in the Kattenturm area and the city’s airfield. As well as using its Bofors, the regiment also brought its captured German 88mm gun to bear. In addition, a Bofors was sited on heights outside the city and ranged across at the Weser, in case the Germans tried to send in submarines from further up the estuary.
Like the Rhine bombardment, the rate of fire was staggering. Through the early hours of the 25th, the regiment’s batteries used up 36,000 rounds – equivalent to 37 and a half lorryloads of ammunition. The guns of 319 needed seven new barrels. By that evening, organised resistance in Bremen was collapsing and ‘prisoners testified in no uncertain terms as to the effect of sustained Bofors fire in an area shoot’.
Four days later, the 92nd moved to Delmenhorst, west of Bremen, where 62 captured enemy AA guns and 33 panzerfaust anti-tank weapons were destroyed. A sentry of 317 shot a German air force unteroffizier who acted suspiciously after being challenged.
On Thursday May 3, the Bofors were fired in anger for the last time, when D Troop sank two enemy boats on the Weser and blasted a signal station on the far bank of the river. Next day, the Germans in North West Europe surrendered and the order went out to 3rd Division: ‘Cancel all offensive operations forthwith and cease fire 0800 hours May 5.’
It was the signal so many had waited so long for. Bill Wills, whose ability to speak German had led to him going out regularly on reconaissance missions, heard news of the capitulation while liaising outside Bremen with American troops whose positions the 92nd was due to take over. The U.S. soldiers gave their British comrades a barrel of sherry with which to celebrate.
George Baker, who by now had transferred to the 20th Anti-Tank Regiment, heard that the end was near while his unit was camped in a field near Osnabruck. ‘Somebody came round our tents in the early hours of the morning and said, “The war’s going to be over at such and such a time.” We didn’t believe him. But in the morning, we got it officially. We had made it – we had made it.’
The men of Guns F3 and F4 were relaxing when Lieutenant Coombs suddenly appeared and to their surprise sharply asked Sergeant Bill Hewitt of F3 why they were not manning their gun. He was told: ‘There’s nobody fighting, Sir. The Germans are surrendering everywhere. There’s no opposition any more.’ But the officer sternly insisted: ‘Sergeant, man the gun.’
The men obeyed.Then next second, Lieutenant Coombs started laughing and said: ‘Now you can stand down. The war is officially over. The Germans are signing their defeat this morning. Well done, lads.’ A cheer went up – and it was time to celebrate.
‘We went over to a big house nearby, turned out all the civilians and put them in the cellar,’ said Len Harvey. ‘We took over the house for our own use. Johnny Chadwick went to his kitbag and took out a small accordion. Nobody knew he had it, or could even play it. He started with all the war songs – Dolly Gray, Tipperary, etc – and out came bottles of wine and the two sergeants brought in bottles of whisky.’
Then, 11 months after the men of F3 had saved their rum issue on the landing craft taking them to Normandy, resolving to use it to toast the end of the war, it was time to drink it. Driver Ike Parry had kept it safe in a flask. ‘We drank and sang most of the night,’ said Len. ‘We really enjoyed ourselves. The civilians down in the cellar must have been terrified at what they were hearing.’
Absent comrades were never far from their thoughts. ‘We diluted the rum and wished that Sergeant Fletcher, Joe Lavender, Lance Sergeant Benn and Gunner Leo McCarthy were there to drink with us. This was the happier time that Sergeant Fletcher said we should keep the rum issue for.’
The 92nd moved to Gesmold, south-east of Osnabruck, where it took control of the district around Melle. VE Day was marked with a service of thanksgiving and a day’s holiday.
From Sword Beach, the regiment had travelled some 600 miles, firing 95,627 rounds of 40mm ammunition at air and ground targets. In the air, there were 117 separate engagements, expending 18,878 rounds of 40mm ammunition and 8,687 rounds of 20mm ammunition.
The 92nd’s final tally of enemy aircraft destroyed in North West Europe was 48, and probably 21 others. Along with the single confirmed kill in England, that made possibly 70 German planes in all – no mean total. During the campaign, two officers and 18 men were killed and four officers and 42 men wounded.