Scottish Lion On Patrol Ch 11
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BEST, HELMOND AND BEST AGAIN

On September 21st the regiment passed through Lommel, crossed the Escaut Canal, entered Holland two miles farther north and drove on to the Eindhoven area, gazing with awe at the dark splendour of the uniforms of the Dutch police and sharing chocolate and cigarettes with the people who crowded excitedly round the vehicles whenever the column halted. The large town of Eindhoven, dominated by the Phillips radio factory, was part of the area which had been freed only a few days before by the airborne forces and XXX Corps in the dash to Nijmegen. A mile or two to the north of the town the Welsh Divisionto be relieved by the Scottishand the Germans faced one another across the Wilhelmina Canal. C Squadron patrols, sent out to glean information about the district for divisional headquarters, reconnoitred bridging sites south of Oirschot and Best, met Americans of the 502 Parachute Infantry Regiment, who were holding the Zon bridge four miles east of Eindhoven, and found that small groups of enemy were still fighting south of the canal.

When Lieut Gray's patrol reached the canal a deputation under a German officer crossed from the opposite bank with a white flag to discuss surrender terms. The officer seemed to be willing to surrender, but his companions persuaded him to decline, and after a very correct military parting the Germans rowed back across the canal. Events were to prove that both surrender and retreat were far from the intentions of the Germans on the other side.

The road from Eindhoven to the canal was wide and straight, and on the far side it continued straight towards Boxtel and s'Hertogenbosch in the north. About a mile beyond the canal were the Best crossroads, and beyond them the road lay between woods. At the crossroads one road went left and west through the small town of Best, across a railway and on towards the city of Tilburg. The road in the opposite direction ran between the canal and the woods, through the straggling hamlet of Vleut and by lonely farms, to St Oedenrode. American paratroops were fighting in groups in the area, but in the main the Germans held the canal line nearly to St Oedenrode, where the Nijmegen corridor stretched to the north. The Scottish Division's intention was to cross the Wilhelmina Canal and strike north towards s'Hertogenbosch to relieve the pressure on the corridor.

On the night of September 21st  46 Brigade crossed the canal south of Best, and by dawn the crossroads had been taken. The regiment waited along the road between Eindhoven and the canal ready to be called across to break out of the bridgehead - A Squadron towards Boxtel, and C Squadron west towards Oirschot. But there was no break-out. 'A' Squadron's patrols found the enemy firmly in position about a mile north of the crossroads, and when a counter attack, supported by heavy mortaring and airburst shelling, drove the Glasgow Highlanders from their foothold in Best it was obvious that there was no opening to the west for C Squadron. The regiment stayed south of the canal, setting up headquarters in the school at Aacht. Next day it waited again for "Tally ho", the words which were to unleash it, but again the wait was in vain. While the Lowland Brigade fought its way into the centre of Best, and 46 Brigade was engaged north and east of the crossroads, A Squadron patrols, sup-porting the infantry, searched both sides of the Boxtel road without finding any gaps in the German defences. These formed a continuous front through a flat country where the woods were thick and the few open spaces were divided into many fields bordered by ditches, high banks and lines of trees. It was a country suited to defence, and the infantry's progress was slow and costly. The regiment did not move its headquarters across the canal until September 27th, and then only to Vleut. By that time Best had been occupied as far as the railway, and the road east to St Oedenrode had been opened. But the Germans remained firmly planted in the woods just north of the road, in spite of the advice to surrender broadcast by Capt Rosdol, the division's intelligence officer, and shrieking rocket attacks by Typhoons, one of which, its tail shot away as it dived, went straight down into the woods. Every day A Squadron had patrolled forward from the bridgehead along the main road and up forest tracks, plotting the enemy's positions. C Squadron had guarded the bridge built by the Royal Engineers across the canal, and its assault troop had manned observation posts in the Bata shoe factory on the south bank of the canal, opposite Best. Having found the tracks too bad and the enemy too strong in an attempt to advance west, B Squadron moved on September 26th to St Oedenrode and patrolled between the River Dommel and A Squadron's patrols in the woods north of Vleut. On September 26th Tpr T. F. Cross and Tpr 1. T. M. Stewart were killed.

The regiment's move to Vleut on September 27th was to take up positions in the woods as infantry. This was done by C Squadron while B Squadron continued to send out its patrols from St Oedenrode and A Squadron, at first, rested south of the canal. R.H.Q., in houses strung along the road, was within hail of C Squadron headquarters in a farm across a small field, on the very edge of the woods, and two or three hundred yards inside the woods were the slit trenches of the squadron's forward posts. Sgt "Chunky" Davidson and his signallers at R.H.Q. got out the field telephones and cautiously laid cable through the woodland rides.

The Dutch people were still occupying their houses and farms, but over the area by day there was that stillness which descends when opposing armies are close, each hidden from the other and keeping constant vigil. At night the woods were intermittently alive with the chatter of small arms and the glow of tracer bullets. Night was the time of foot patrols. The lighted signs at R.H.Q. were a source of alarm to its neighbours until Sgt Hine, of the regimental police, was persuaded to mask them.

This is Capt Kemsley's story of his first night at Vleut :



I was turning in on the floor in a little house occupied by an old couple when the woman, a white-haired cripple with her leg in irons, hobbled in to me, weeping. I could not understand her, except that it was obvious that she was upset by the fighting. She made me follow her into the bedroom, where her husband was in bed. I gathered that he had been wounded by a mortar or shell. He was stone deaf and could not hear the firing which was upsetting his wife. She seemed to think that if I got into bed with them they would be safer, but by patting her shoulder and using the few words of German which I remembered from school I managed to convince her that nothing could happen to them. She went to bed and I went back to my blankets. Next morning she took me to a little chapel in the attic. Some days later we left the area, and when we returned the house was empty, with a shell hole in the roof.



The soldier who could be spared could leave the mud and tense quietness of Vleut, drive into Eindhoven in a quarter of an hour, take a hot bath or swim in the modern public baths and go to the pictures. Drivers always pressed hard on the accelerator when they reached the bridge over the canal. German shells often landed there, and Capt George Pearce, the technical adjutant, once had hurriedly to forsake his jeep for the ditch near the bridge. Tpr Templeman had a similar experience while driving his half-track between the Best crossroads and Vleut, and A Squadron suffered casualties from shelling as it went in convoy along this road. The regiment's casualties in this period included Cpl D. L Atkin, Tpr F. L. Griffiths and Tpr F. Taylor, all of whom were fatally wounded.

For six days C Squadron filled the gap in the woods between the 2nd Gordon Highlanders and the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders while on the right A and B Squadrons patrolled the muddy tracks to help the Lowland Brigade, fighting slowly forward to capture the village of Fratershoef, and to help 158 Brigade of the Welsh Division, which was north of the Dommel. One night the divisional staff feared that the enemy was about to attack the road in C Squadron's area but reconnaissance by Colonel Smith in his jeep revealed that the "danger spot" was serenely occupied by a searchlight detachment engaged in the old military art of "brewing up". The humour of his report was not appreciated by the divisional staff.

It was while the regiment was at Vleut that the L.A.D., working to the colonel's own specifications, made from sheet metal the portable latrine which was the pride of R.H.Q. and a source of wonder to all visitors. It looked like a sentry box and was called
the Thunder Box.

On October 2nd the 51st Highland Division began to take over the Best-St Oedenrode area so that the 15th Scottish Division could have its first official rest as a division since landing in Normandy one hundred days before. On October 4th the whole regiment was comfortably housed in the schools and halls of Helmond, ten miles east of Eindhoven. What a wonderful time the next fortnight was' Enough sleep; the benediction of hot baths; the gaiety of the dances in B Squadron's cafe; the place by the fire in hospitable Dutch homes; and the chance to do all those odd jobs which had been accumulating. Vehicles were "spring cleaned" . Weapons were stripped. The crusts of many meals were scraped from pots and pans, and many an obstinate portable cooker was persuaded to work again. Best battle dresses were pressed and worn, and, permission having been given for the wearing of collar and tie when walking out, shirts were sent to good Dutch wives to have tails turned into collars.

C Squadron had billets opposite a large monastery, and the "O.C., Monks" allowed the vehicles to be harboured in the grounds, behind a wall about twenty feet high and gates that were bolted at seven o'clock each evening. The bearded monks were the soul of kindness, bringing to the squadron frequent gifts of fruit. They were fascinated by the armoured cars, and during morning maintenance the "O.C., Monks" was continually chasing them back to their devotions. It was probably just as well that he did not catch the one who clambered into the turret and started swinging it round like a veteran of the campaign! A combined "C Squadron-Monks Squadron" photograph was taken, with the cars as part of it.

Resting in Helmond was not without its hazards. On the way through France Major Mills had acquired a caravan - an abandoned German four-wheeled trailer - which lumbered along in the wake of his half-track and incurred the frowns of the Royal Engineers when-ever it had to be disconnected and manhandled across any bridge too frail to bear the weight of both vehicles at once. The exit from the caravan was steep and not easy, and one morning in Helmond the major appeared at breakfast behind the blackest of eyes and the reddest of skinned noses. Capt Kemsley, too, suffered slight disfigurement when he stepped absentmindedly from the rear of an ambulance which happened to be moving.

On October 6th the people of Helmond flocked to the castle to see and hear the massed pipes of the 15th Scottish Division playing for the first time on the Continent, and two days later, a Sunday, the regiment marched through the town to church behind the pipers of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders.

The same day the regiment was placed under command of the 11th Armoured Division, and in the evening B Squadron, moving out to the area of Milheeze and Deurne, took up positions in marshy, wooded country on the eastern edge of the Nijmegen salient. These positions, which linked the 11th Armoured Division with the 7th U.S. Armoured Division on its right, were held by the squadrons in turn for eight days while the rest of the regiment remained in Helmond and, for the latter part of the time, the 3rd British Division advanced on Venraij from Overloon. In front of the squadron positions was a canal. On the morning of October 9th a foot patrol from B Squadron was ambushed while going towards it, and Lieut E. W. Goodrich, who had lately joined the regiment from the disbanded 59th Reconnaissance Regiment, did not get back. Later it was learned that he had been killed. On October 15th B Squadron patrols confirmed reports that the enemy had abandoned the canal line, and the 11th Armoured Division began building the bridge over which it crossed to join the 3rd Division. After C Squadron had spent a day keeping watch from the canal and B Squadron's I Troop had spent a night guarding the new bridge against attacks by saboteurs that never came, the regiment, complete in Helmond, came under command of the Scottish Division again.

The next orders were to return to the Best-St Oedenrode line as part of 227 Brigade Group, which was to relieve two brigades of the Highland Division and the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry. This was part of the redistribution of XII Corps formations for Operation Pheasant, planned to drive the stubborn Germans back from the western edge of the Nijmegen salient and out of s'Hertogenbosch and Tilburg. The 7th Armoured Division and the Welsh Division were to advance on s'Hertogenbosch from the north-east at dawn on October 22nd, and later the Highland Division was to attack from the east and swing south-west to Boxtel and Esch and V ucht. The Scottish Division was to help the Highland Division by clearing the Germans from the Best-St. Oedenrode-Boxtel triangle, and to drive west through Oirschot and Moergestel to capture Tilburg while the 7th Armoured Division made for Loon-op-Zand, to the north-west.  At dusk on October 19th the regiment went back into the gloomy woods of Vleut, more windswept, rainswept and muddy than before but still occupied by the unseen Germans, whose line had been pushed back about a hundred yards. The regiment found new holes in the roofs and walls of its billets, and new signs everywhere - " Stop here," and" Under observation run," and" Don't go beyond this point." It missed the chance encounter with the American paratroops, who had been met here before, ready to barter a furlined flying suit for a bottle of whisky and quite modest about their gallant part in the opening of the road to Nijmegen -" Jees, were we glad to see those Churchills arrive "

The trappings of the regiment's command post - the maps and map boards, talc, chinagraph pencils,
lists of codes, field telephones and lines, wireless head-sets and leads - were spread out in the same small front room, behind demure lace curtains and under the inevitable crucifix which looked down from the wall. Major Mills, visiting R.H.Q. one afternoon, saw from this room shells bursting all round the farm where his squadron had its headquarters, a field away. Hurrying
back, he found everybody safe and Capt Jack Lane not yet sufficiently awake to realise that he had won for himself a small niche in C Squadron's hall of fame by sleeping soundly through a racket which had sent all his companions scurrying for cover. C Squadron had returned to its old positions and a delicious crop of apples and pears, and this time the whole regiment was strung out as infantry in the woods, having taken over from the strength of a brigade. B Squadron reinforced by C Squadron's assault troop, occupied an unpleasant area called The Box, so close to the Germans that they could be heard coughing and moving in their forward posts. The Box was often under fire, and there Sgt Holland and Tpr Reetham were wounded. One burst of mortar bombs caused seven casualties in B Squadron's assault troop. On October 20th Tpr R. Dodd was killed.

At dawn on October 24th Major Gordon picked up the field telephone in The Box and said "I hear no coughing this morning.". It was a message which began an advance which liberated a city; three days later, after a dash which B Squadron led, Tilburg was free. The colonel told 227 Brigade headquarters that he thought the enemy had withdrawn from the regi-ment's front in the night. He ordered C Squadron to patrol beyond B Squadron's positions, and A Squadron to explore the main road to Boxtel. Mines and booby traps were found, but not Germans. Brigade Headquarters, a little sceptical about the colonel's first message, decided from a study of night patrol reports that the situation had indeed changed, and at ten o'clock in the morning permitted the regiment to forsake its infantry role and become a mechanised reconnaissance regiment again. While A Squadron went up the Boxtel road, and C Squadron continued its patrols along the woodland tracks, B Squadron. began the advance through Oirschot and Moergestel to Tilburg.

Lieut Gordon Dalton has described the advance to Boxtel :



My orders were brief -" Get to Boxtel". My route was simple-straight along the Best-Boxtel road.  But after going about a mile and a half we saw two civilians jumping up and down on a fallen tree, waving a white flag, and found before us a road block consisting of more than a hundred stout trees and the usual booby traps. In the centre of the block was a concrete pill box. On either side were the woods.

Lieut Harry Green arrived with his carriers, and he took to the tracks to the left of the block while I went to the right. One of the carriers struck a mine, and the driver, Tpr Taylor, was killed, and Sgt Heath badly shaken. The Germans, however, had left a perfect detour on each side of the road block. Reaching the main road on the far side of it, we saw Lieut Green's carriers going flat out for Boxtel and gave chase in our cars, whose greater speed soon brought us level. The race was cut short when Lieut Green was ordered to consolidate on the railway crossing while we went into the outskirts of the town. We met no enemy, but came under fire from the Highland Division, which was shelling the town. After we had sent a message back to squadron headquarters and it had been passed on, the shelling stopped.

The bridge into the centre of Boxtel had been blown up, so an assault section crossed the river in an assault boat, pulled across by joyful Dutch people on the far bank. Soon afterwards the message" All clear" was received. I went back to my car to enjoy
my haversack rations, only to find that Dutch children had scoffed the lot. But my driver, L/Cpl Berry, never failed me, and only a few minutes elapsed before he appeared with "lunch for one, sir." Meanwhile the rest of the troop was posing for photographs. It was just as well that the colonel did not appear!

While we were waiting for the assault section to return, a member of the Dutch underground movement passed to me a written message from an American airborne officer who was with 120 men behind the German lines. He stated that they had casualties and would need transport. The civilian who brought the message gave me their location and the positions of three anti-tank guns which we should encounter if we went to the rescue. I sent the civilian back with the message "Keep smiling. Help coming."

To my regret, we were not allowed to free them. Instead, the matter was left to the Highland Division, as it was on that side of the river.

The assault troop returned, having confirmed that the Germans had evacuated Boxtel on the previous night, and in the dusk we went back to harbour. As we were pulling out amid murmurs of "Stay and protect us" a frantic Dutchman ran up, spluttering Dutch. Rather than stop to translate his outpourings, we hauled this somewhat elderly gentleman on to my moving vehicle and took him to R.H.Q., only to discover that he was simply expressing his worry that the Highland Division would shell Boxtel again during the night. Driving him back to Boxtel in a jeep through the darkness, I was so preoccupied with the problem of returning through the division's outposts without being shot that I forgot all about the blown bridge at Boxtel, and pulled up with screeching brakes and one wheel over the river. The local people hauled me back, and the jeep's speed took me back through our lines before they realised what the "tornado" was.



That day A Squadron headquarters, moving forward because the thick woods made wireless communication difficult, had come to the road block and taken a track different from those used by the leading troops. There was a dull bang as the command half-track hit something. There was another bang when Tpr Ives, the driver, got out to see if a tyre had burst, and a third bang when Tpr Balfour, one of the wireless operators, got out to find out what was happening. Major Gaddum left the vehicle on its other side; there was another bang. The half-track had struck a nest of shoe mines, some of the first the regiment had come across. This misadventure taught the regiment that the leading troop must mark clearly the route which it takes when a diversion has to be made. Major Gaddum, Tpr Ives and Tpr Balfour were all wounded, and Major Gaddum died as the result of his wounds.

Meanwhile B Squadron, followed by infantry and tanks, was racing towards Tilburg, in spite of road blocks, rearguards and blown bridges. But that is so much B Squadron's story that Lieut P. D. Peterson, who was in the van, shall tell it in the next chapter.

On the regiment's arrival in Holland Lieut K. A. Pearce joined A Sqn from the 59th Reconnaissance Regiment.


 

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