Sunday, 7 November 2010

Preparation for the crossing of the Ochtum floods

This was the first occasion on which 2 RUR had been called upon to go into battle in Buffaloes.

As part of a Division which had planned and carried out the initial assault on the Continent, and later had specialised in assault river crossings, we had battle experience of every other type of amphibious craft. Some of us had attended a demonstration of the Buffaloes in February, and obtained some idea of its potentialities. None had actually used it, or assisted in its use.

This lack of knowledge and experience was, however, fully made good by the skill and co-operation of the officers and men of 4 RTR, who manned and controlled the Buffaloes. From them we learned all about the craft.

It could carry either 28 men, or a carrier, or a jeep, or an anti-tank gun, but not a 15 cwt. truck, or any of the more bulky forms of transport. It mounted a 20 mm gun and so, if necessary, it could defend itself effectively.

On the other hand, the armour basis was small, and the craft was reckoned to stop small arms fire and nothing else. The whole construction had been subordinated to the one purpose of producing a vehicle which could swim in deep water and heave its way across waterlogged and boggy ground.

The task which the Buffaloes were now set was well calculated to test them. Bremen, south of the Weser, was protected from attack by the line of the Ochtum canal, the last line of defence before the town.

In itself, it was not a formidable obstacle; but artificial flooding of its banks had submerged the land on either side - particularly the south side of it - to a total distance of about 2000 yards.

The water varied in depth from about four inches to the maximum depth of the Ochtum Canal; so that from the Buffaloes point of view, the pitch was likely to be at the best, uneven, and at the worst sufficiently boggy to bring them to a standstill.

Part of the course selected for the Buffaloes ran across a dummy airfield - now completely waterlogged - which had been bombed by the RAF, and it was felt that immense bomb craters might present some difficulty.

Finally all the flooded fields were intersected with cattle fences, and it was feared that if too much wire became caught up in the sprockets of the Buffaloes they might be unable to continue.

The uncertain conditions of the ground was one of the problems set to Captain Harris, the Buffalo Squadron Leader, and his men. The question of navigation was another.

The task of leaving a start line, crossing 2000 yards of water and arriving at a pre-arranged "debuffing" point was no mean one.

They were fortunate in having as landmarks, half way across the course, the large square buildings of the dummy airfields which on a light night could be picked out from seven or sight hundred yards distant. But even then the canal itself had to be crossed, and the "debuffing point", though considerably closer had still to be found.

It was not surprising that 4 RTR, who had driven the Highland Division across the Rhine, and the Canadians across the Ijssel, reckoned this to be the most difficult task that they had yet been called upon to undertake.

The axis for the Brigade attack was the main road running North from Brinkum, crossing the Ochtum by the bridge at Kattenturm, and so on into Bremen.

The village of Kattenturm lay astride, though mainly to the East, of the main road, and its Southern side was demarcated by the tortuous line of an embankment or bund, which also marked the Northern extent of the floods.

The bund ran away Eastwards from the bridge along the Canal as far as the most Eastern extremity of Kattenturm, finally reached Arsten, 2000 yards East of Kattenturm, while the canal trickled away towards the South East.

The water was however, right up against the bund even at the right angular hook in the bund which had been selected as the "debuffing" point, so that the Buffaloes had to drive to the bund and then back up against it in order that men and vehicles could both land dry.

Information about the enemy was extremely scanty, and was based more upon supposition and deduction than on reliable evidence. The vital thing was that the Bosche had not yet blown the Kattenturm bridge, though it was supposed to be prepared for demolition with a charge consisting of two heavy bombs. Therefore it was probable that he would have something deployed on the South side of the bridge, even though patrols from 8 Brigade had been to within 200 yards of the Bridge without discovering anyone.

On the bank itself air photographs revealed diggings, and the strength of the garrison was reckoned at a company. Most of it was thought to be covering the main axis, which, thanks to the flood, was literally the only roadway into Bremen in that sector and would inevitably be the focal defensive point.

Of German artillery nothing was known, except that it was not thought to be very considerable.

With this background, preparations for the battle began in earnest. The night 24/23 April was fixed for the attack, and as we first heard that we were to carry it out on the morning of the 22nd, there was, for a change, sufficient time allowed for every preparation to be conceived and organised.

In the afternoon 22nd. April the Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command visited an observation post in Leeste a mile South East of Brinkum and Brinkum itself. An excellent view of the expanse of floods, of the main road, and of the dummy airfield, was obtained, but Kattenturm and the bridge was obscured by trees, and even the "debuffing point" - the crook in the bund - was difficult to pick out.

Next morning, company and platoon commanders set off from Barrien and completed the same tour. Meanwhile the Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command were evolving, with Capt. Harris the Buffalo Squadron Leader, a loading schedule for men and vehicles into the Buffaloes.

A squadron of 47 Buffaloes was available for us, and this absorbed the whole fighting strength of the Battalion at a stroke. All that would remain to be taken across after the first run would be some carriers and a few jeeps.

The craft were allotted to companies, and the same afternoon each company practised loading on to its own craft, its men, its carrier, and its jeep. Each Buffalo had its number printed in large figures upon the front, back, and sides, and by the end of the practice every man knew exactly the number of his craft, its position in the column, and in most cases he had not been slow to meet the crew that was to motor him across the floods.

On the same day, the GOC 3rd. British Infantry Division spoke to all officers of the Brigade Group in Barrien, and outlined the higher plan or the capture of Bremen.

On the right 52 Lowland Division was to attack Bremen North of the Weser at the same time as 3 British Infantry Division was attacking on the South side. On our immediate right, 185 Infantry Brigade was attacking simultaneously along the axis Dreye - Arsten - Habenhausen.

2 KSLI was to attack Dreye at 2300 hrs. followed by 2 Warwicks attacking Arsten in Buffaloes at 0200 hrs - some two hours after our own attack had begun - along a track which in its initial stages, ran almost parallel to our own.

On the left, 51 Highland Division were launching a "Chinese Attack" on the railway North of Huchting, in the direction of Bremen. Sounds of tanks and gun preparations were to make it appear that the advance which had cut the railway line some three or four days earlier was now being resumed.

No comments:

Post a Comment