Ordinary Men in Extraordinary Times
The fascination of working within the archives at Bodmin Keep is seeing and learning first-hand the compelling human aspects of war. When I look at a photograph I feel closer to the reality and when I am able to link the image to letters written by those in the picture, the knowledge and admiration grows. It constantly astounds me that our soldiers, taken from the peaceful existence of their civilian lives and then thrust into a brutal war, can constantly demonstrate bravery and such a positive, cheerful outlook when faced with uncertainty and danger.
During the Second World War British soldiers endured operations in all terrains and weathers – from the hot, humid and hilly mountains of Burma (now Myanmar) to the dry, hot, flat spaces of the desert and the ice-cold mountain-tops of Italy.
In any conflict there are always the key moments that attract most of the attention, and the ‘highlights’ for the British in North West Europe during the Second World War would probably be considered to be; D-Day, Normandy, Arnhem, the Ardennes, crossing the Rhine and finally reaching the Baltic.
Operation Clipper, Blackcock, and Veritable
One of the lesser-known phases of the war in North West Europe took place between 18th November 1944 and 5th March 1945. Operations Clipper, Blackcock, and Veritable all took place between these dates, with an interruption due to the German attack through the Ardennes. The 5th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (5 DCLI) played a large role in all of these actions and suffered greatly as a result. Fighting in horrendous conditions, the battalion endured the winter weather which was exacerbated by the German destruction of the water pumps and dams so that the low land near the river became flooded.
There is not room within this article to give full justice to all the elements of three and a half months of fighting, so the picture below from the archive will act as a focal point, highlighting interesting aspects and hopefully relating points back to the actions of the 5 DCLI.
The image shown above (with added notations), appeared in the national press on 12th February 1945. Shown on the right hand side of the photograph are the tanks of B Squadron 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. They are moving up to the Nijmegen-Cleve road to the Reichswald on 10th February 1945. On the left there appears to be a column of 6 pounder (pdr) Anti-Tank (AT) guns being towed by Universal (Bren) Gun Carriers.
This image sums up fortitude, a positive attitude and bravery on an unimaginable scale.
Freezing conditions on The Cleve Road
Sadly, half of these men would be casualties within one month of the picture being taken, which makes the fortitude and merriment of these men all the more amazing. The fear of the unknown cannot have been far from their minds, which the cheeriness of this picture painfully contradicts.
It is almost possible to ‘feel’ the cold from the image, and even though the soldiers on the first tank are well wrapped up, with most wearing gloves and balaclavas, and all seem to have acquired longer leather jackets rather than relying on the blouson, the reports of this operation was that it was absolutely freezing cold. The resilience to merely survive in such freezing weather must have been near impossible, let alone prepare to go into battle too.
‘The Cleve road was absolutely jammed with vehicles, moving at a snail’s pace. It was horribly cold and I was frozen stiff, even in a zoot suit (#1) and jerkin.’ Trooper Austin Baker C Squadron, 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards.
In the picture the tank crewman in a beret standing on the left side of the leading tank is wearing a zoot suit, as is Ken Beetson (#2) who is in the Bren Gun Carrier on the left in spectacles looking directly at the cameraman.
There is a total of 12 men on the tank but four, wearing berets, appear to be members of the tank crew (#3) leaving eight members of 12 Platoon, B Company, 5 DCLI.
Alf Gillison (#4) stated that this image shows the unusual occurrence of ‘being given a lift up on tanks, about the only time we got a lift on top of a tank!’ and ‘I am sitting on the right of the picture with a pickaxe in my belt, next to me is Redman (#5) who was killed & also the chap sitting below him & others were also hurt.’
Allied equipment lacked the sheer power of German equipment and many examples of such inadequacy can be seen in the image. First there is the column of Sherman tanks, the more observant would have noticed that the lead tank has a 17 pdr gun (#6) whilst the remainder in the column have the 75 mm guns (#7). The Sherman Firefly, as those converted to carry the 17 pdr were known, were a British solution to the limitations of the 75 mm gun both in range and hitting power. Unfortunately, only limited numbers of the Firefly were available and these were usually distributed one per troop of tanks. Added to this, was the limited protection available in all types of Sherman, which the tank crew would have been well aware of, taking the precaution of adding spare wheels and tank track links to the front of the tank.
Another example of limitations of equipment is the 6 pdr gun on the left of the picture, being towed by the Bren Gun Carrier. Ken Beetson adds ‘I was of course on the 6 pounders you can just make out the trail of the 6 pounder to the rear of the carrier’ (#9). The gun shield (#10) can also just be seen and furthermore the barrel of the gun from the vehicle in front can be seen on the left (#11). This shows we have a situation where a tank with minimal protection was the Sherman and no amount of track or sandbagged protection would alter this. The anti-tank gun with a weak punch was the 6 pdr, although developments in ammunition improved its performance. Allied soldiers would have been fully aware of all of this and one can only admire the bravery of allied forces in constantly facing up to such odds.
Having looked at the conditions and equipment of the British Army we now turn our attention to a specific battle in which the soldiers of the 5 DCLI faced incredible odds and persevered. The following texts have been transcribed from originals in the archives.
Epic Stand at Hoven 1944 (transcribed)
The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry took part in the Anglo-American offensive of 18th November 1944, when the West Country men captured the village of Hochheid, cut the main escape route of the Germans in Geilenkirchen and pushed two-thirds of the way through the thick wood stretching north-east from Hochheid. The battalion held on there for four days, shelled incessantly by heavy guns, fighting and living under the most appalling conditions, in trenches half full of water. At the extreme tip of this wood, on rising ground, lay the village of Hoven which was strongly held by the enemy, and across the narrow valley, and overlooked from Hoven, stood Wurm, a vital objective for the Americans attacking from the south-west. The British commander thought that if Hoven could be captured, the task of the Americans on the other side of the valley could be greatly lightened, and he gave orders for the D.C.L.I. to attack the village.
The D.C.L.I. attack on this village stronghold of Hoven started at two o’clock on 22nd November, in pouring rain. The supply problem was difficult, as all ammunition and supplies had to be manhandled through the woods and all wounded had to be brought in on the backs of the stretcher-bearers. The first company to advance came under murderous fire from spandaus, mortars and 88’s from both flanks, and was practically wiped out. The next company fought its way forward to a position from which it was possible to neutralise the enemy fire with PIAT’s, mortars and Bren’s. At three o’clock another part of the battalion worked its way around the flank and fought its way into the village of Hoven at the point of the bayonet. Darkness descended and orders were received that the village must be held until twelve noon on the next day. During the night some food and ammunition was brought up to the tiny garrison, but all attempts at reinforcement failed.
When daylight came the Germans threw in everything they could muster, but they were driven off until, finally, the garrison had no more ammunition. At twelve noon they wirelessed to the British headquarters for all available artillery to be brought to bear on the village in the hopes of killing the Germans, who were in the open, the D.C.L.I. having taken shelter in the trenches and cellars. When the artillery fire ceased, seven of the D.C.L.I., all that remained, crept back to the battalion lines. The battalion had endured the heaviest shelling from the Siegfried line for twenty-four hours and had enabled the Americans to push forward.
The next day the Corps Commander visited the battalion and thanked officers and men for their gallantry. He said that he had almost every type of regiment in the army under his command, including Guards, but he had never, in all his service, met such a magnificent fighting battalion as that of the D.C.L.I. When the full story of the D.C.L.I. in the present war comes to be written, the name of Hoven will certainly occupy a very distinguished place in it.
Below – Intelligence Summary (transcribed)
CONCERNING THE BATTLE OF HOVEN FOUGHT BY 40 MEN OF “D” COY AND 20 MEN OF “A” COY.
EXTRACT FROM LETTER RECEIVED BY COMMANDING OFFICER FROM BDE HQ
The following extract is taken from the Divisional ISUM for 24 Nov:
“two deserters taken 883679 from 3 coy 21 SS PGR (.) pw uncertain whether bn is first or second of regt (.) bn reformed in frontier area a month ago (.) many personnel from SS police regts and non-German (.) after being in action ARNHEM area bn was withdrawn for a rest but was directed to this front detraining area ERKELENZ 21 Nov (.) whereabouts of 1 and 4 coys unknown (.) 2 and 3 coys came forward in TCVs to area HOVEN where these two coys attacked a.m. 23 Nov with 3 or 4 assault guns in sp (.) bn org three rifle and one hy coys (.) former org four pls one of which was hy (.) lt pls have 3 secs each of 10 men (.) hy pls have 4 MMGs (.) hy coy has 4 lt inf guns and some 81 mm mortars (.) rifle coy str approx. 140 (.) both coys had hy casualties on 23 Nov 3 coy being reduced to 30 (.)”
21 SS PGR is part of 10 SS Div, which had already been identified on the front of our Division on our right.
The prisoners complained bitterly of the very stiff opposition put up by the defenders of HOVEN. They say 36 English prisoners, nearly all wounded, were taken and Division are hoping to find out more about them”
Below – Extract from The Daily Telegraph Friday 24th Nov 1944 (transcribed)
BRITISH TOOK HILL VILLAGE WITH BAYONETS
DESPERATE BATTLE BEFORE THE
An unnamed battalion of British infantry yesterday performed one of the greatest single feats of the war in Europe to date when it captured a Siegfried Line hill village at the point of the bayonet in the teeth of the bitterest resistance the enemy could muster.
Their ranks were twice shattered by merciless machine-gun, mortar and shell fire, but the men grimly reformed and went forward up the hill to their objective.
It happened north-east of Geilenkirchen and this is the story.
The troops were ordered to fight their way onto a high hill, and capture the village of Hoven. Twice the ranks formed up for the attack and twice a curtain of German bullets, mortar bombs and shells broke them up.
The officers rallied their men a third time and gave the order to advance.
The men went across the start line and up the shell-scarred slopes to the tiny hamlet of Hoven. They dug the Germans out of the wrecked houses at the point of the bayonet and soon flashed the message “Objective reached”.
In a matter of minutes after the British had battled their way into Hoven the enemy counter-attacked with crack troops supported by maximum mortar and arty fire.
There was more desperate hand-to-hand fighting, then came the word “Enemy beaten off”.
The Germans came in again, lunging across field sown with their own mines. Again the attack was met and beaten off, but the Germans made yet another attempt to recapture Hoven and the hilltop at all costs.
This time the British task was complicated by the presence of 30 German Prisoners captured during the two previous counterattacks. But they managed to guard these men as well as hold their gains, and the line held.
Today Hoven is firmly in British hands.
A Second Army spokesman to-day paid unusual tribute to the men who took Hoven.
“This small battle is one of the great stories of British participation in this war” he said, “The acts of leadership and gallantry displayed carried us through everything the Germans could throw at us. It shows that we can take all he can hand out because he threw everything available at us”.
Written by, Andrew Sims, Archivist at Bodmin Keep