Sunday, 7 November 2010

29th March 1945 - Crossing of the River Aa

During that night 1 KOSB passed through the Battalion and occupied Werth, and early next day 2 Lincolns took up the running towards the high ground East of Bocholt. Hard by a stream named on the map River Aa, their forward elements came under fire from the further bank, and subsequent probing gave the impression that the Aa was held and would need to be forced.

Of all the many actions that this Battalion has fought, none can have been so bleak in prospect and yet so successful in outcome as the forcing of the River Aa.

At 1700 hrs. on the evening of 29th. March, the Commanding Officer was ordered to carry out an assault river crossing five miles away, with midnight as zero hour.

We were to cross on the left hand side of the Main Brigade Axis, and no one had yet set foot on our own side of the river, for the Lincolns had come under fire from enemy on the right hand side. Thus not only was nothing known about the enemy on the far bank but it was by no means certain that the ground on this side of the river was clear of them.

Finally, complete ignorance prevailed about the Aa itself. None could say whether it was a fluent river or a babbling brook, and whilst one man suggested storm boats, another was fearful that assault boats would be grounded as soon as they hit the water.

"C" Company under Capt. Beavan, was immediately despatched to clear the area and secure the startline. An exhaustive search of houses and farms produced four prisoners, who, tired of war and all the irritations of retreat, had decided to wait behind for our arrival.

Most valuable was the discovery of two civilians who spoke English, and who gave us details of the River Aa. It was about 10 metres wide and knee deep, with steep banks which would take assault boats without difficulty. This was much needed information, and it was confirmed in far greater detail by an excellent patrol under Lt Harris, who actually paddled across River Aa in his determination to procure a complete picture of the river. At no time did he hear a sound of enemy movement on the other bank.

Soon, representatives from the Carrier and Infantry Engineer Platoons, supervised by Capt. Baudains, were down by the river searching out routes and clearing them of mines, and at the same time members of the Intelligence section taped out a startline some 200 yards back from the river.

Between 2200 and 2300 hours the assault boats were brought down on carriers along the tracks that had been cleared, and laid down against the tape. This arduous labour was undertaken by the Anti-tank Platoon and a Platoon of "C" Company, under the control of Capt. Gray.

Zero Hour had been put forward from midnight to 0100 hrs. to allow one more vital hour for preparations.

The plan was now for "A" and "D" Companies to initiate the assault, with "A" Company on the right going straight through to objectives just this side of the second stream about 700 yards beyond the first - while "D" Company consolidated a limited bridgehead which could pay particular attention to the exposed left flank.

"B" Company was then to cross on the left flank and pass through "D" Company to an area some 400 yards beyond, and in the third flight "C" Company with Tactical Bn. HQ. protected by Carrier Platoon, would cross to fill the gap behind "A" Company.

Excitement soon began. "A" Company crossed without incident and formed up on the river side of a steep embankment. Then, advancing across it, they discovered to their amazement that the Hun was dug into the further side of the embankment, and several prisoners were straight away "winkled out".

Swift progress was then made swift enough to catch two horse drawn trucks of a German support company slinking away to more peaceful surroundings. They were at once engaged, two of the crew falling into our hands wounded, and two others captured intact with their cargo of three mortars and a considerable quantity of ammunition.

On the left "D" Company crossed and established themselves quickly into a tight bridgehead. Soon, however, shooting began on the left flank when a sizeable patrol - interpreted at first as a counter attack came scurrying into our positions. It was "seen off" with remarkable spirit and "élan" by Sjt Cochrane who, with his men, succeeded in capturing the entire patrol.

Sniping from isolated enemy posts went on after. This, and two of our men, including a Sergeant, were hit while still on the home side of the river. One of these snipers was swiftly and effectively dealt with by Capt. Baudains, MM, whose Carrier Platoon was providing protection for the Battalion's left flank with six Bren Guns. Grabbing a 2" Mortar he put down six bombs all around the sniper, so demoralising him that he fell an easy prey to "D" Company on the farther bank.

Strangest of all, perhaps, were the adventures of "B" Company. The forward platoon, under Sjt Tipper, reached its objective without difficulty, and immediately cleared some houses of 12 to 15 Germans. The platoon then dug in.

Suddenly a German CSM emerged from the lee of a building, approached one of the riflemen who was digging in and began to march him off covering him with a pistol. Two shadowy figures were espied by the opposite end of the platoon and Rfn. Hayes, dissatisfied with the answer given to his challenge by the German, opened fire and killed him with a Bren. The other rifleman was thus saved from captivity and, though wounded, fortunately was not too seriously so.

Later on, still in darkness, another patrol bumped into this same platoon, and lost one wounded and one PW. No further effective pursuit could be carried out since at this time one of our own patrols was expected in from examining some foot bridges on a further stream.

The prisoners produced were extraordinary, both in themselves and the way they were captured. Perhaps the most distinguished was a tall, fair haired youth, who claimed to have lunched with the Fuhrer in Bocholt on the previous day!

Prisoners tumbled out of the oddest places. Major Bird MC, going round the platoons ventured to criticise one of the slit trenches dug into the river bank. On being informed that it was a German dug-out he examined it more closely, and found it contained two German soldiers, whom he promptly flushed out. Other prisoners were taken by OC "A" Company, the RAP Serjeant, and the Commanding Officer himself.

The final count was 55 PW; four wounded PW; two killed, and a substantial amount of equipment captured. As against this total, our own casualties were six wounded not an unsatisfactory balance.

Afterwards - as if to round off the success of the attack - we heard that Sjt Cochrane had won a Military Medal for this part in the attack.

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