Chapter 19 – Toughest Scrap
At 0430 hours, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s five battalions advanced across muddy fields through heavy rain. “An eerie light was added to the whole scene by the searchlights, Jerry flares and burning farm buildings,” South Saskatchewan Regiment’s Major George Buchanan wrote. Private Charles “Chic” Goodman was one of two signallers in Major Fraser Lee’s ‘B’ Company headquarters section. Lee and his men were crowded into a Kangaroo. The Sasks were on 6th Brigade’s left flank. Their objective was a pimple-shaped feature dominating the highway running from Calcar to Xanten. In the centre, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal had less distance to travel—just beyond the intersection where the road to Üdem branched off the Calcar–Goch road. The French Canadians clung to the outside hulls of the Fort Garry Horse’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons’ tanks. To the right, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were in Kangaroos. Their objective was more high ground east of the pimple.
Private Goodman was excited. With the other signaller manning the wireless, the eighteen-year-old was free to look around. Everywhere, Kangaroos were moving. The racket was incredible. Engines roared, tracks clattered, shells shrieked overhead, explosions thundered, machine guns chattered. Goodman had never ridden into an attack. And he was “delighted because there was a Browning machine gun mounted on a spigot” in the Kangaroo. Goodman had appropriated the Browning and a good supply of belts of .303-calibre ammunition for it.
The Sasks reached the Calcar–Goch road quickly. About a hundred yards beyond the road, they started up the gradual slope in deepening mud. ‘B’ Squadron of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment was supporting the Sasks while ‘A’ Squadron worked with the Camerons. One tank mired in the mud, as did four Kangaroos. The men from these boarded others passing by. Intense small-arms and mortar fire started coming in. The Germans were firing off dozens of flares. Farm buildings burned on every side. Smoke became so dense that Saskatchewan Lieutenant Colonel Vern Stott signalled back for the anti-aircraft guns to double the rate of tracer fire to provide better directional guidance.
Through the smoke, Goodman saw the tree-lined road running from just south of Calcar to Üdem. A lot of Germans were marching southward, obviously evacuating Calcar. Goodman unleashed the Browning. “I kept shooting at them. No idea whether I hit any of them or not. But think I must have frightened some.”
As the Sasks closed on the pimple, they came under fire from four 88-millimetre guns on the summit. Captain George Stiles and ‘D’ Company piled out of the Kangaroos and charged the rightmost gun. Capturing it, they removed a demolition charge the German crew had set attached before it exploded. Captain H.A. Robertson and the battalion’s support company platoons riding on Bren carriers overran the position containing the other three 88s and also captured them intact.
‘D’ Company had carried on, sweeping through a group of burning buildings. Stiles saw a number of Germans had taken refuge in their cellars. Suddenly, “one kid in civvies, about fifteen years old, threw a grenade at our gang and wounded four,” Stiles recounted. “This [was] the first instance we…encountered of a civilian offering resistance. We let him have it.” It was 0650 hours. The Sasks were on their objective looking over the Calcar–Xanten road and paralleling railway.
‘B’ Company’s section set up inside a farmhouse. Three or four German soldiers lay dead on the main floor. Company Sergeant Major Frank Cunningham disliked using the house. “It’s going to be a big target,” he cautioned Goodman. “Let’s look at the barn.” The two men went over to the stoutly built structure, which had a lower profile than the big house. Cunningham pointed to a trapdoor leading to a cellar. “We can go down there when the shelling starts up,” he said. After opening the trapdoor, Goodman paused and peered into the dark interior below. He and Cunningham exchanged glances, considering. “Better throw a grenade down,” Cunningham advised. “Yeah, but this is a farm. We don’t want to kill women and children,” Goodman answered. Goodman shouted loudly, “Raus. Raus.” Up the stairs came “four of the biggest paratroopers I had ever seen. They were huge guys and the Sergeant Major and I were both little guys. We started escorting them back to where one of the platoons was holding prisoners. And one of the guys kept lagging behind. I thought, ‘The son of a bitch is up to something.’ So I fired a burst of Sten gun into the ground in front of him and he got the message.”
‘B’ Company had just finished deploying defensively when about forty Germans counterattacked at 0705. Major Lee had his men hold fire until the paratroopers nearly reached their lines. A deadly volley of fire killed about thirty and sent the rest running. The Sasks captured sixty-nine Germans, killed at least forty, and wounded another fifty. In the early afternoon, they observed about three hundred Germans marching in ranks of three eastward from Calcar toward Xanten. Artillery was called in. The German column scattered, a good number of dead and wounded left sprawled on the road.
Right of the Sasks, the tankers carrying Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal had found it virtually impossible to maintain course amid the thick, roiling smoke. Fort Garry Horse Lieutenant Lloyd Queen’s ‘B’ Squadron troop was on point. This put Queen, as his Military Cross citation stated, in “one of those rare occasions when the success of a major operation hinged upon the judgement of a junior commander.” Queen could only guide the force by regularly jumping out of the tank and walking ahead to take compass bearings. Queen’s work was soon done. Despite losing ten tanks to mud and another knocked out by a mine, the Fusiliers were tight on their objective at 0510 hours. Casualties were surprisingly few. But Major Gaétan Giroux was severely wounded when his ‘A’ Company met sharp resistance from a clutch of paratroopers.
While Blockbuster opened well for the Fusiliers and Sasks, the opposite proved true for the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Advancing on the brigade’s right with ‘A’ Squadron of the Sherbrookes, the Kangaroos and tanks wallowed through ever-deepening mud until running into a thick minefield alongside the Calcar–Üdem road. Finding safe passage through the mines would leave the Camerons far behind the battalions advancing on either flank, so Brigadier R.H. “Holly” Keefler ordered Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Payson Thompson to swing north and advance through the position just taken by the Fusiliers. At twenty-four, “Tommy” Thompson was the Canadian Army’s youngest battalion commander. He had recently married a Scottish lass from Kirkaldy, Fife. Three days before Blockbuster, Montgomery personally pinned a Distinguished Service Order medal on Thompson’s chest for bravery in the Scheldt Estuary.
Changing the axis of the advance worried Keefler, even as he accepted there was no alternative. “The carefully studied landmarks no longer served to guide them and…the visibility was becoming extremely bad, due to many burning buildings. At this point, the determination and resourcefulness of all concerned were to be taxed to the limit, as the immediate barrage support had disappeared.” Thompson ably swung his battalion about eight hundred yards northward. At 0700 hours, the Camerons passed through the Fusiliers and were “making good progress with the leading company fighting their way toward the objective.” Then an 88-millimetre shell slammed into Thompson’s Kangaroo. In the ensuing confusion, those who survived emerged with conflicting reports of what happened. Some thought Thompson was shot dead by a sniper’s bullet outside the Kangaroo. Others reported he was killed by the 88 shell. His intelligence officer, Captain K.A. Smith, was wounded by shrapnel. Casualties in the headquarters section were so heavy the battalion was left momentarily rudderless.
Major David Rodgers of ‘A’ Company was close to the battalion headquarters when disaster struck it. He took over and soon got the headquarters marginally functional. Then he led his company onward. It was 0830, and half the Camerons were meeting heavy resistance. Fire from a nearby building swept the battalion headquarters group. Realizing the surviving men there were going to be wiped out, Rodgers ran back from his company and charged the building alone. After killing the machine-gun crew, he went on to clear snipers out of two more buildings, delaying his company’s advance. His actions garnered a Distinguished Service Order.
Only thirty-four men of ‘B’ Company reached their objective. The Kangaroos carrying the rest had bogged down or become lost. With two Sherman tanks firing machine guns in support, the small group attacked the buildings before them. They took the position and 116 prisoners. Seven Camerons were wounded. Two might have died had Lance Corporal J. Plantje not rescued them.
Such were the vagaries of battle that while ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies had to fight hard, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies rolled into their objectives unopposed. The Camerons started digging in and preparing to fend off expected counterattacks. At 1800 hours, Major R.H. Lane—the second-in-command—arrived and took over from Rodgers.
The 6th Brigade’s attack had gone off exceedingly well. The army’s official historian declared: “It was an example of what detailed planning, a high standard of training and excellent morale can accomplish. At a cost of only 140 casualties (including three of the supporting armour) the brigade had taken between 400 and 500 prisoners and accounted for many enemy killed.” Brigadier Keefler reported that although the Germans launched seven counterattacks, none were successful. By noon, all brigade assignments had been achieved.
Left of 6th Brigade, things had gone less well for 5th Brigade. Le Régiment de Maisonneuve and Black Watch were partly intended to support 6th Brigade but more importantly to open a route through which 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s battle group could advance toward Üdem. Tank support was limited to the 1st Hussars’ ‘A’ Squadron. Its tanks, however, were entirely assigned to the Black Watch’s ‘B’ Company, which would enter the operation only after the regiment’s other three companies had won their objectives. No tanks were given to the Maisies because, as they were relieving the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry of positions taken earlier, they were not expected to meet stiff opposition.
This relief was concluded with clockwork precision by 0400 hours. From here, ‘D’ Company advanced into contested territory to occupy a U-shaped wood on the ridge just beyond the Calcar–Goch road. A 2,500-yard-wide gradually rising open field separated the company from the wood. Major G.F. Charlebois led his men forward in an extended line behind lifts of an artillery barrage. A hundred yards short of the woods, they were “met by a heavy line of enemy dugouts filled with fanatic paratroops.” With dawn breaking, the two forward platoons were caught “in the open and went to ground in shell holes and whatever slit trenches were available. To move for them was utterly impossible,” reported the battalion’s war diarist. Cutting around the left flank, the third platoon bypassed the dugouts only to be halted by a shower of grenades twenty-five yards short of the wood. The platoon took refuge in a nearby house.
Lieutenant Colonel Julien Bibeau reported ‘D’ Company’s situation to Brigadier Bill Megill, who judged it critical but not dire despite the fact that the company was being “shot up from all sides” and entangled in “a very slow infantry fight in close contact with the enemy.” Still, Charlebois’s men were “containing the locality and the trouble experienced…was not dislocating the advance in other directions. Consequently, all available tanks were kept disengaged in order to support [the Black Watch,] who had the vital job.” When that job concluded, Megill would send tanks to help rescue ‘D’ Company.
The Black Watch, meanwhile, had hit trouble from the outset. Ever since Verrières Ridge, in Normandy, where most of its men had been slaughtered in a badly conceived and executed attack, the Black Watch had been a hard-luck battalion. Difficulties had erupted even off the battlefield in a clash between the brigadier and its battalion commander. Megill had wanted fresh blood from another battalion, someone with a good, tough reputation for sorting out deadwood and keeping the best. Then Lieutenant Colonel Bruce R. Ritchie had been appointed. Despite—or perhaps because of—Ritchie’s deep Black Watch roots, the two men disliked each other. Megill criticized Richie’s leadership. He blamed the regiment’s officers for the disasters that habitually befell them, while many a Black Watch considered Megill the problem. In four days of fighting in October 1944, the regiment had suffered almost 250 casualties. When the smoke cleared, most of its experienced officers were dead, wounded, or lost as prisoners. Morale at all levels was poor. The men had lost confidence in their commanders, and there was little to inspire new officers and men inducted into the battalion.
The development of the attack on February 26 was typical of Black Watch operations. At midnight, Ritchie—accompanied by an artillery forward observation officer—selected ‘C’ Company’s forming-up point for his tactical headquarters. Returning to battalion headquarters, he was unable to find either his intelligence officer or signals officer there and sent a message that they were to go ahead and ensure the tactical headquarters was functioning upon his arrival. Organization of the headquarters was still under way when Ritchie arrived, and he was left scrambling to get the attack teed up. It was 0415 hours before the tactical headquarters opened for business. The attack was just fifteen minutes away. Although artillery support would be criticized after the fact, it is equally possible the FOO was unable to situate himself in time to summon accurate fire.
The Black Watch had four objectives—road junctions with adjacent building clusters. Closest was code-named Gull, the one beyond Eagle, then Ottawa, and finally Raven. This last objective was “a built-up road junction one mile south of Calcar.” Megill’s intelligence showed Gull as “free of enemy prior to the attack.” So “it had not been considered necessary to bring down additional fire on that locality.” Instead, Gull and Eagle were “swept by a fast barrage” that was actually supporting the adjacent 6th Brigade attack. “In reality,” Megill reported later, “the enemy had moved troops into the area and, as soon as the companies proceeding to ‘Eagle’ and ‘Gull’ began their advance, they ran into fire from ‘Gull.’” ‘D’ Company’s Major E.W. Hudson was severely wounded. Hudson’s loss struck the Black Watch “a heavy blow,” wrote their war diarist, “for he was an excellent leader of his men, a most enthusiastic soldier, and what we need now is enthusiasm…through this campaign, the success of which depends so much on our punch and verve.” Ritchie told Megill it “was quite obvious that ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies…had to be reorganized with a fire plan to get onto ‘Gull,’ and it was also apparent that the position had to be secured quickly or the result would be a slowing down of the whole Corps battle.” The Black Watch’s only break so far was that ‘C’ Company moving behind a “slow barrage” had secured Ottawa and were digging in. ‘D’ Company, meanwhile, which had been leading the attack on Gull, fell back to ‘A’ Company’s position.
At 0745 hours, Major Bill Robinson of the 1st Hussars ‘A’ Squadron “received orders to push on immediately through to our objective regardless of previous circumstances.” Because the Black Watch’s pre-dawn attack had failed, the route required by 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s battle group remained closed. So the earlier plan whereby ‘A’ Squadron would advance to Raven in support of ‘B’ Company “had to be scrapped.” Robinson’s squadron was to mount “a direct assault with the tanks leading across the open fields around ‘A’ Company’s position and then straight on to the objective.”
A hurriedly attached artillery FOO promised a barrage by half a field regiment, and half a medium regiment would hammer Gull and Raven for fifteen minutes after the force crossed its start line. Robinson and the FOO estimated that when the artillery program ended, the tanks would be two hundred yards from Raven. The attack was set for 0800. As ‘A’ Squadron moved toward the start line, Robinson had the tanks heavily shell Gull.
Four Shermans bogged down before reaching the start line. Robinson regrouped, breaking the squadron into two troops of four tanks and a four-tank headquarters troop. The leading troop was to make straight for Raven rather than tackling the Germans at Gull, which the second troop would charge. A platoon of Black Watch’s ‘B’ Company would follow each tank troop.
Tanks and infantry found it heavy going up the muddy slope. Then three Shermans in the leading troop lost tracks to mines. Robinson ordered the headquarters troop to take its place. What was left of ‘A’ Squadron was still four hundred yards short of Raven when the barrage ceased. Robinson requested a five-minute extension. During the lag that ensued between request and resumption of the barrage, the tanks fired main guns and machine guns to support the infantry clearing buildings at Gull and heavily engaged paratroopers in adjacent dugouts. When the artillery barrage lifted a second time, the Black Watch and 1st Hussars rolled into Raven. The surviving tanks circled in order to fire in all directions while the infantry set up on the forward slope. It was 0830 hours. More than two hundred paratroopers from 6th Fallschirmjäger Division surrendered. The small force had also knocked out two 88-millimetre and two 75-millimetre anti-tank guns. No sooner had the position fallen than the Germans pounded it with “very heavy shelling and mortaring which proved the enemy had far more artillery than had been anticipated,” Robinson reported.
Robinson’s subsequent Distinguished Service Order citation commended the “skilful manoeuvring of his tanks to give intimate support to the troops assaulting the final position.” It also noted that because the Black Watch were unable to bring their anti-tank guns up to Raven, Robinson decided to keep ‘A’ Squadron with the infantry, remaining in place for more than eight hours despite the terrific weight of artillery and lack of cover for his tanks.
Once the situation facing the Black Watch was resolved, Brigadier Megill had intended to send ‘A’ Squadron to assist Les Régiment de Maisonneuve’s rescue of its embattled ‘D’ Company. This company had been pinned for several hours in front of the U-shaped wood overlooking the Goch–Calcar road. With Major Robinson still supporting ‘B’ Company at Raven, Megill was short of tanks. He could send only a single 1st Hussars troop formed by the tanks that had bogged down earlier.
Lieutenant Colonel Bibeau had been waiting impatiently for his armour. When they arrived at 1400 hours, he personally led ‘B’ Company and the battalion’s Wasp flame-throwers into the attack. The Maisies advanced through fire from three sides, Bibeau inspiring his men by showing “complete disregard” for personal safety. He dashed through flying bullets, shrapnel, and nearby explosions to direct the Wasps and tanks into firing positions on enemy dugouts. “In some instances,” Megill reported, “the enemy preferred to stay in their slit trenches and fight it out to the end without surrendering.” When Bibeau’s force reached ‘D’ Company, he rallied the men there to come out of their holes and join an assault that cleared the Germans from the woods ahead. Bibeau’s bravery was recognized with a Distinguished Service Order.
The Maisies suffered heavily. Twelve men were killed, two more suffered mortal wounds, and seventy-nine others were injured. Ten ‘D’ Company men died and eighteen were wounded. Two ‘B’ Company platoon officers, Lieutenant J.A.M. Prudhomme and Lieutenant L. Guay, suffered wounds. Lieutenant G. de Merlis was wounded right beside Bibeau. A few days earlier, Bibeau had pulled strings to have de Merlis sent to England to attend an intelligence officers’ course. Although the officer had gone through six months of combat “scratchless,” Bibeau feared his luck was expended. He was hit by a grenade fragment and then a bullet to the leg. Fearing medical evacuation would deny him the opportunity to go to England, de Merlis convinced the battalion’s medical officer to bandage him up and pretend the wounds never happened. He gave the doctor a bottle of champagne in exchange.
Losses for the Black Watch were less severe than befell the Maisies¾thirteen killed and thirty-three wounded. For both battalions, however, February 26 proved the most costly day of 1945.
To the right of 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division’s 8th Brigade had also attacked the Calcar–Üdem escarpment. Brigadier Jim Roberts had wanted to employ Kangaroos but was rebuffed. There were not enough armoured personnel carriers to go around. “Our army should have made up at least one more ‘Kangaroo’ regiment,” he said later. “We, in the infantry, needed it badly and many Canadian infantry lives could have been saved by greater availability of this Canadian invention.” Even tank support was limited to only two 1st Hussars squadrons.
The brigade’s plan deviated from normal Canadian procedures whereby at least two battalions advanced shoulder to shoulder with tank and artillery support. Instead, each of the brigade’s three battalions would go forward separately at different times. The Queen’s Own Rifles would lead at 0430 hours and advance on the brigade’s right flank to capture the small hamlets of Mooshof, Wemmershof, and Steeg. The battalion’s line of advance was slightly to the northeast and timed to accord with 2nd Division’s 6th Brigade on its left. The argument for committing the Queen’s Own before the rest of the brigade was that its job was distinct from that of the other battalions. They were to take Keppeln, whereas the Queen’s Own was protecting 6th Brigade’s flank. Then, having gained the three hamlets, they would provide covering fire that would guard their sister battalions’ left flank.
Only at 0830 hours would Le Régiment de la Chaudière advance on the brigade’s left. Fifteen minutes later, the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment would move out in the centre. The Chauds were to seize the hamlets of Halvenboom, Hollen, and Bomshof, all directly east of Üdem. In the alley created by the two flanking battalions, the North Shores’ objective was Keppeln—known to be heavily fortified and astride the road branching off the Calcar–Goch road leading to Üdem. Each battalion’s line of advance was such that most of the time, the North Shores would be as much as 1,500 yards south of the Queen’s Own Rifles.
The latter battalion’s Lieutenant Colonel S.M. “Steve” Lett disliked the scheme intensely. He felt the Germans “had all that could be desired for a defensive position”¾flanks well anchored with Calcar to the north and Üdem to the south and the strongpoint of Keppeln between. “The country is open and flat. Behind this excellent tank country lies the horse-shoe shaped Calcar-Üdem escarpment, while still farther to the east lies the Hochwald, an ideal gun area.” Lett’s headquarters was in the hamlet of Wilmshof, just back from the battalion’s start line between two other hamlets—Hofmaunshof and Ebben. His hopes to effectively reconnoitre the ground ahead were scuttled by the “flat open country [being] completely under enemy observation.” It proved impossible to see the objective hamlets or any of the German strongpoints surely lurking just over the crest of the escarpment.
At 0330 hours, the battalion roused after what had been for most a fitful night’s sleep. Men gathered equipment while drinking hot coffee laced with rum and munching cold sandwiches. At 0400, the barrage started—hundreds of guns firing in support of both 2nd and 3rd Divisions. The men trudged through the chilly darkness toward the start line. They followed lines of white tape that brought each company to their precise starting point. Artificial moonlight reflected off thick cloud, creating a false dawn. There was no ground mist. The soldiers could see across the mile or more of open ground ahead. Its gradual slope was dotted with several farms. Everybody knew there were paratroopers waiting in their buildings.
Lett formed the battalion in standard formation, two companies up and two back. Major Allen Nickson’s ‘C’ Company led on the right and ‘D’ Company under Major Ben Dunkleman was to the left. Major Dick Medland’s ‘A’ Company followed Nickson’s, and Captain D.B. Hamilton’s ‘B’ Company trailed Dunkleman’s.
The first thing to go awry was that, as with 6th Brigade’s Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders to the left, the ground presented a boggy obstacle for tanks. Major John “Jake” Powell’s ‘C’ Squadron, 1st Hussars found it impossible to match the infantry pace. They were still wallowing toward the start line when Lett ordered the advance at 0440 hours.
“Right away they drew small arms fire,” Major Medland said. “The fight was on.” German artillery and mortars hammered rounds down behind the creeping barrage ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies followed. Several shells struck Medland’s ‘A’ Company as it approached the start line. Seven men fell dead or wounded. Medland could no longer see ‘C’ Company through the smoke, and no wireless reports were coming in from Nickson. The near constant sheet-ripping sound of MG42 machine guns and exploding grenade blasts told him there was heavy fighting out there.
‘C’ Company had been struck by murderous defensive fire from paratroopers holding nearby farm buildings and adjacent dugouts. No. 15 Platoon was pinned down until one section slipped out to the right and drove in with bayonets fixed to take the buildings from the rear. “Hand-to-hand fighting resulted. The rifleman’s sword, so seldom used in battle, here came into action. The enemy fought bitterly, tenaciously. The other two platoon sections came up, and eventually after suffering many casualties, were victorious.” With the remnants of No. 15 Platoon providing covering fire, No. 14 Platoon gained the second group of buildings beyond. This platoon was greatly assisted by the timely arrival of a troop of ‘C’ Squadron. As ‘C’ Company began consolidating on its objectives, German artillery and mortar fire struck, the first salvo killing the platoon’s lieutenant and sergeant. But the men held steady.
On the left flank, ‘D’ Company’s two lead platoons, Nos. 16 and 17, had quickly managed to seize their assigned clutches of buildings in the village of Mooshof. But no sooner were the paratroopers evicted than the predictable retaliatory artillery and mortar shower began.As No. 18 Platoon passed through Lieutenant Don McKay’s No. 16 Platoon, it strayed to the right behind a couple of tanks. This exposed McKay’s platoon to an attempted infiltration by paratroopers. A fierce gunfire exchange followed before the Germans broke off. Several artillery salvoes fell, badly wounding McKay and wiping out one entire section. What remained of the platoon fell back on No. 17 Platoon’s position.
Rifleman Norm Selby was pulling back slowly when Lance Corporal Edward William Fraser shouted, “Speed it up, you guys.” Dashing around the corner of a building, Fraser was passing a window when a German inside fired a Schmeisser burst. Fraser fell dead. Selby chucked a grenade through the window. A glance inside revealed the German lying dead, both hands still gripping the machine-pistol.
Sergeant Aubrey Cosens took over the platoon. He was twenty-three and hailed from the northern Ontario village of Porquis Junction (now part of Iroquois Falls). Selby recalled that Cosens “wore a tank suit, lots of pockets, carried a pistol. I never saw him with a rifle or a Sten.” Despite No. 16 Platoon’s losses, Cosens led it in two attacks on the last three farm buildings. Each time they were beaten back. The platoon was in terrible shape. About thirty men had crossed the start line. Now just Cosens and four riflemen remained fighting fit.
Cosens was undeterred. Those buildings were going to be retaken. Ordering his four soldiers to provide covering fire, Cosens armed himself with a Sten gun and grenades. Then he dashed across twenty-five yards of bullet-swept ground to reach the tank commanded by Sergeant Charles Anderson. Cosens grabbed the outside phone attached to the tank’s hull and directed Anderson to attack the buildings with main-gun and machine-gun fire. After some heavy fire had been thrown out, Cosens told Anderson to ram the first building in order to collapse a wall. Trooper Bill Adams, the driver, was wary. “I was pretty careful about ramming those stone walls. Usually there’s some kind of basement. We wouldn’t be much use to anyone with a thirty ton Sherman tank lying around in a farm cellar.” As the tank slammed into the building, Cosens dashed through the opening created. The sergeant fought his way through “the three buildings in turn, alone, and killed or captured all the occupants.”
During his solo rampage, Cosens killed at least twenty Germans and captured about the same number. As the survivors of No. 16 Platoon re-established themselves amid the buildings, Cosens moved across a small clearing to report to Major Dunkleman. A shot rang out. Cosens fell, the sniper’s bullet striking him in the head and killing him instantly. Sergeant Aubrey Cosens was posthumously awarded the Commonwealth’s highest medal for valour, the Victoria Cross.
‘D’ Company had been badly mauled. Dunkleman counted only 36 out of 115 men still standing. It required assistance from the following ‘B’ Company to fully secure Mooshof.
On the right flank, ‘C’ Company had been equally shredded. Although unable to contact Major Nickson, Major Medland could see a close-quarters fight going on in the hamlet ahead. Deciding that ‘C’ Company likely had the situation in hand, he told his ‘A’ Company’s Nos. 7 and 9 Platoons to sweep out to the left and bypass ‘C’ Company’s position. “The Germans contested every foot. They put up one hell of a fight. They threw everything at us. We did the same to them. For a solid two hours it was sheer madness,” Medland said.
No. 7 Platoon’s objective was a fortified farmhouse concealing an 88-millimetre gun and several protecting machine guns. Lieutenant Donald David Chadbolt—just twenty-one—led the platoon. By 0600 hours, it had taken the building and silenced the German guns in a fierce battle that claimed Chadbolt’s life. Platoon Sergeant Joe Meagher suffered a bad spleen wound. Lance Sergeant Harold Clyne took over and led two men in a fight for a second building sheltering another 88-millimetre gun. They won the place at 0730, but Clyne was dead.
All ‘A’ Company platoons suffered terrible losses. Lieutenant Edward Leslie Nicholas Grant was killed in No. 8 Platoon’s fight for a first building. Sergeant Bill Lennox kept the platoon going and they won their objective. But at least half the men were killed or wounded.
Beyond the buildings taken by Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons stood another cluster. Twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant John James Chambers led a charge. Chambers had joined the regiment just two weeks earlier. He died in that morning’s fight. Despite suffering an arm wound, Corporal Bob Dunstan led the survivors in clearing the buildings. Corporal Bert Shepherd, a rough and argumentative veteran of D-Day, oversaw the platoon’s consolidation in the place.
Medland established his company headquarters in the farmhouse taken by Chadbolt’s platoon. A quick count revealed that he was the only surviving officer in ‘A’ Company and commanded just forty-two men. That included two non-commissioned officers, Company Sergeant Major Charlie Martin and Corporal Shepherd. The building was crowded with wounded men. ‘A’ Company had lost three officers and twenty other ranks killed. Another thirty-nine were wounded. Among the dead was Rifleman Ole Herman Thorell, Medland’s wireless operator. He, Medland, and Medland’s runner/batman had been running forward by bounds through heavy fire when the major saw a German helmet to his left. Medland shouted, “Down.” He and the runner dropped to safety, but Thorell was hit by a Schmeisser burst. Medland crawled to him. Thorell was dead, the wireless set riddled by bullets. Medland and his runner mercilessly hunted and killed the German. “When you’ve lost in action somebody like Thorell you become a different person,” Medland said.
With the wireless lost, Medland managed to get a message relayed through the artillery net being used by forward observation officers. He told Lieutenant Colonel Lett that he needed the company’s jeep and carrier to evacuate the wounded. He also wanted extra Bren guns, ammunition, and rum. Medland got all that and also a new wireless with signaller attached. When Medland raised Lett, the battalion commander told him ‘A’ Company must finish the battle by taking Steeg. Medland protested that Steeg was a ‘C’ Company objective. Didn’t matter, Lett replied, ‘C’ Company was done. Medland, Martin, and Shepherd got busy on a plan. The major had expected an argument from Shepherd, normally always up for griping and playing barracks lawyer. Medland could see that Shepherd “thought I’d gone over the edge.” But the corporal kept his silence.
Medland asked Lett for tanks only to learn that ‘C’ Squadron had been sent to help the North Shores, who had attacked Keppeln and been caught in a firestorm. Lett sent Segeant Wilf Mercer with the battalion’s Wasp flame-thrower carriers and promised to try calling in some Typhoons. He also promised heavy artillery support.
Mercer told Company Sergeant Major Martin that the Wasps would go forward with the leading section. They had to get in close to be effective. Shepherd led that section of a dozen men. Martin had the rest of the company divided into a following section and a small fire group that would remain with Medland.
“I can’t describe my feelings as they moved out,” Medland recounted. “We were all filthy and covered in mud. Bert and his men were being asked to behave as if they were five times as many. They went into the job with courage and heart. Shepherd had been with us from the start, one of the best marksmen in our 3rd Division, irreverent but always reliable, and this was a case where his regard for duty was over-riding his common sense.
“So I was feeling very badly, staying with my cover-fire group, my signaller and the artillery FOO, ready to coordinate support for this brave but rather feeble group.” Martin headed out to follow Shepherd’s group. “He didn’t say anything, just gave me a hand wave.”
The remnant had about five hundred yards to cover—open, bare ground. In a matter of seconds, 88-millimetre guns knocked out all the Wasps save the one with Mercer aboard. It struck a mine that tore off a track. Mercer was pinned in the wreckage by a mangled leg. Two riflemen and Martin ran to his aid. Martin drew a morphine syringe while the two riflemen tried to free Mercer. When they were unable to do so, Martin jabbed the syringe through Mercer’s uniform and injected the morphine. Mercer was shouting at them to get away, to leave him. Any moment the flame-thrower’s fuel would cook off. They would all be burned alive. Somehow they freed Mercer. The four men were twenty yards from the Wasp when it exploded. Their clothes were scorched, but they were otherwise unharmed.
As the riflemen and a stretcher-bearer carried Mercer from the field, Martin turned back to the attack. And there before him was the most beautiful sight. The two sections were closing on Steeg, and all over, white pieces of fabric were waving. A huge throng of Germans, far outnumbering the ragtag group of Queen’s Own Rifles, stumbled out of buildings with raised arms. “To a battered and shattered under-strength rifle company the sight of those flags was like rain in the desert.”
It was about 1500 hours, and the battle was done. In the various company areas, survivors dug in and prepared to weather the inevitable retaliatory shelling and likely counterattacks. Four officers and twenty-eight other ranks were dead. Another five died shortly of wounds. Three officers and sixty-one other ranks were wounded. The Queen’s Own counted three hundred Germans taken prisoner and an unknown number killed. Those who survived generally agreed that February 26 was “their toughest scrap” of the war.