Oliver Perks' Wartime Blog 14 - Sept-Dec 1944
September 1944: Instructions to move at dusk, on the Dutch border
After a bit we had moved up to the front line, which was near one of the canals on the Dutch border. Operation Market Garden (17-25 September 1944), which was the airborne operation commenced. We saw all the airborne going in over us, not far away, Dakotas going over and parachutes dropping, and knew that we would very soon have to be moving forward. What we were hoping to avoid was a night occupation of the gun position, which is always a terrible operation, and almost always ends up in a bit of a cock-up of one sort or another.
Anyway, as time went on the second in command had gone forward for instructions - and we kept thinking, "Oh well we won't move until the morning", and when we were more or less assured that we wouldn't move until the morning, the order came through: 'prepare to move'. So we knew we were in for it. As it was beginning to get dusk, we had the orders to move. We went across this canal or whatever it was on the frontier, and found ourselves moving into the gun position under rather difficult circumstances, which was not very exciting at all. We got our troop command first in a barn full of hay, in which I endeavoured to get some sleep during the course of the night.
Sleeping in a hay barn, incubating eggs
There was obviously a good deal going on. There was a counter-attack by the sound of it that came in to our right. And other things; we had a pretty disturbed night. When we woke up in daylight, we saw that really half the Regiment's guns appeared to be in one small field. I got out of the barn where I had been attempting to sleep in the hay and was followed out from where I had been lying by a chicken. I was a bit slow but our motor mechanic, Bombardier Watts, in true form immediately dashed in, put his hand in underneath and found four nice little eggs that I had been incubating, all unbeknownst. He wouldn't give me one, the rotten so-and-so.
Moving forward, restoring communications, and some rotten German pork for dinner
Anyway, then we moved on and the American Divisions, air-borne Divisions 82 and 101 had taken the bridge at Grave, I think it was, and at Nijmegen with the assistance of the Grenadier Guards. The Guards Division was leading the Thirty Corps. At one point we saw about eight tanks of the Irish Guards which had been knocked out by one German anti-aircraft gun. But the penetration was only the width of the road. So each night, the Germans cut the road, and in the morning, the British restored communication. On one evening, we were fairly well forward and had no communication with our rear echelon, our guns and ammunition and food. And we were wondering what we were going to do for a meal.
As we had occupied this position, an old German Wermacht soldier with a horse and cart arrived on the position thinking that he was bringing rations to a German Battalion, which was not there. So, there was our dinner. Well, it made a nice change because it was pork. And we all thought, well that's rather good - until three o'clock in the morning, when we were all violently ill. So that when it came to move in the morning, we were all in a fairly dilapidated condition. Except Gunner Mayer, my batman, who was a big, strong, sturdy fellow - a foreman concreter by trade. When he was trying to get me organised to move, I said to him "What's up with you Mayer? You seem to be in very good condition and we are all highly dilapidated." "Rotten German muck", he said, "I wouldn't eat that rotten German muck". So his British prejudices had saved him from a rough night.
Firing 5,000 yards to the rear
Anyway, we moved on. On one occasion we were firing on a target, sort of in the direction of Nijmegen and our zero line (that is to say, the middle of the area into which we were expecting to be firing), was down the middle. Targets were mostly within 10 degrees either side of the zero line. On this particular occasion we had a map reference target given to us which turned out to be about 5,000 yards immediately behind us. An artillery board is like a blank large-scale map, which you mark up so that if you are given a map reference, you can find which way you have got to point the gun to fire. So, we had to do this - it meant that the artillery board had to be all ripped up and re-constituted. And we fired a number of rounds at this target, at about 5,000 yards in the rear - I don't know what happened, we didn't hear any more and we didn't have any more targets closer. But it caused a bit of confusion at the time.
Nijmegen island, regimental HQ in an old farmhouse, sleeping in the cellar
Eventually we went through Nijmegen and across into what was known as the island, which was the large chunk between the Neder Rhine and the Vaal river. The river splits just to the east of Nijmegen and joins again a good deal further on. The land in between is all low-lying and not very nice and was known as Nijmegen island.
So, there we were for many weeks, a not very agreeable situation because there used to be quite a lot of shelling at night. By then I'd left the battery and been moved to regimental headquarters, and we had a rather dilapidated farmhouse that we occupied. Initially most of us slept up on the first or second floor. But as the shelling at night got rather more fierce, more and more people decided to move down to the cellar. One of my pals and I were the last two to try and stick it out and get a night's sleep upstairs, and by the time we had decided it was time to move, there was very little room left in the cellar. But we did get a better night's sleep. The chaps who were sleeping in a sort of barn outside, had this as well of course.
We did have one bit of luck. The regiment HQ troops were in a barn which didn't really have a floor. The floor was accumulated earth and manure. On one occasion a shell came over which landed there and it did what's called a [???] - the shell didn't explode when it hit the ground because it was so soft and boggy. So it went in and exploded about 6 feet down and made a hole down there. Nobody was injured so that was quite fun.
A short walk with the Brigadier (should have taken the jeep)
Well, we had to carry on there for quite a time. I do remember on one occasion, the Brigadier, who was rather a fierce Welsh Guardsman with a patch over one eye - we called him Big Chief One-eye (but not to his face). He appeared at Regiment Headquarters and said he wanted to look at one of the troop's batteries, which was a way down the road. As I was nominally an Intelligence Officer (a sort of dog's body in regimental HQ), I was deputed to take him. He said, "Do I need a jeep or shall we walk?" So I said, "Well, it's no distance to walk", as I walked there very frequently. But from the Brigadier's point of view, it was quite a long way. By the time we were about half way there (about 200 yards), he became rather crusty and said that I was wasting his time in not having taken the jeep. Anyway, we disposed of him eventually.
Watching the American Marauders and a parachute landing
Anyway, we were there for a while - it was fairly lively. On one occasion I was up on some liaison job or something with the infantry and the FDL's, and we saw the formation of American Air Force Marauder light bombers. The Marauder was quite an efficient military machine, but it was not liked by the pilots and crews; they called it the widow-maker, for obvious reasons. Anyway, a formation of these had just bombed and attacked the celebrated bridge in Arnhem, which was two miles down the road. And watching them do it, I saw that one of them - of course the Americans always bombed in tight formation - one of the leading flight had been hit and started smoking and we saw several parachutes come out and disappear. But one caught the wind and was slowly coming towards us. Eventually the chap came in just about 50 feet over my head, and landed in the battalion headquarters just behind. So he was a lucky one.
Polish battery, always firing
At one time we had a Polish battery under command, which was rather interesting. At the time ammunition was rather short, and we were restricted in the amount of firing we could do other than in emergencies. But the Poles were always firing. We discovered that they had discovered a core ammunition dump of, I think, 12th Corps. They would go along in broken English and so on, and get many rounds of ammunition to which they were not entitled. And so they were able to keep firing.
465 battery party - without the colonel who got drunk with the Poles
During that time the battery in which I had been, 465 battery decided to have some sort of an anniversary, rather a good party. The NAAFI had provided a certain amount of champagne that particular month, so they decided to have a party, to which I was invited - and also the colonel. Well, this party went swimmingly. And after it had been going for a bit, the sentry outside who had been instructed to look out for the colonel came back in and said, "It's very strange sir, I've just seen the colonel in his staff car go past and then five minutes later they came back the other way and didn't stop." Anyway, the party proceeded.
The following morning at breakfast in our regimental headquarters, the colonel said he'd been in a very difficult situation; he'd been invited to go and have a drink with the Polish battery, and their idea was that he should have a stiff whiskey and fire each of their eight guns in turn. Well, by the time he had fired about six - he had not actually been that close to a gun firing for quite some time - he was getting a bit tired. And he said, "I was torpedoed, absolutely torpedoed." Anyway, Bombardier Parsons, his driver batman was a most sensible chap. And as they drove to the party, he realised that the colonel was in no fit shape to go doing any more partying for the time being. So he drove along until somewhere convenient to turn around and drove back and assisted in putting the old man to bed.
November 1944: V1's on a low track and bombings of Antwerp
Towards the end of our time at Nijmegen island, we were under attack by both V1s and V2s mainly aimed at Antwerp. The V1s that we saw were ones whose altitude setting was wrong. So as they came over us they were much too low, and getting lower; fairly often flew into the ground and exploded in our regimental area, which was quite exciting at times. The V2s, which I think were also aimed for Antwerp; we didn't experience them, other than seeing them on a clear day. Looking east and seeing what looked like a vapour trail, an instant vapour trail going straight up, whereupon some at great height would change their direction, and eventually came down on Antwerp. Antwerp had some bad bombings in that respect. One cinema was hit by a V1 or V2 while it was full of troops, many of whom were killed.
Handover of Nijmegen island
Eventually we had been relieved from the Nijmegen island and another regiment came in. We told them all about the plans which had been made, in case the Germans blew up the dyke (between the Rhine and the Neder Rhine) and flooded the island. They didn't take it very seriously though; they pooh-poohed the whole thing. But they were rather embarrassed later on. I think about a month later, the Germans did blow up the dyke and a large part of the island became flooded, so they had a rather unfortunate experience.
December 1944: Breaking up of 50th Division
As time went on, various changes occurred and 50th Division, which had been at the thick of things almost throughout the war, was becoming pretty tired. There were great difficulties in getting reinforcements from the UK. So 50th Division was chosen to be broken up. And as a self-propelled field artillery regiment we became corps troops; that's to say a sort of spare independent army field regiment in the second Canadian Army, which we had entered into.