Major Barber's Battle for 's-Hertogenbosch in 1944
Tuesday 24th OctoberAt 8.50 a.m., Major Barber's C Company 7 RWF assaulted a German stronghold in a moated house that was a barricade before the attack on Hintham, suburb of Den Bosch, started. The house was captured, together with three 75 mm guns. The progress continued. B Company north of the main road, C Company south of it. By 12.30 p.m., they were both west on Hintham, in spite of fierce enemy resistance. Thanks to the good work of A Company 6 RWF in Hintham during the night, 7 RWF could now push thtough along the main road into 's-Hertogenbosch itself. The first bridge to cross the river was undamaged, but a few hundred yards further, at the Zuid-Willemscanal, a recce party found all bridges blown. But, to their surprice, the saw just in front, a double lock-gate intact and closed. On top of these gates was a narrow footpath. Flame-throwing Crocodiles of 141 RAC (The Buffs) started to wipe out the enemy on the far side. Supported by some Cromwell tanks of Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and with the use of smoke, A and B companies 7 RWF, under command of Major John Dugdale an Major Barber, stormed across the lock gates at 5.00 p.m., under point-blank fire from the enemy. Only one Fusilier was wounded. The oppertunist strategy of this bold assault resulted in a bridgehead of 250 by 150 yards wide, and was of great importance. During the night, 282 Field Company Royal Engineers erected a 40-class Bailey Bridge, in spite of spasmodic shell and mortar fire, which was used next morning by the rest of 7 RWF, 1/5 Welch and 1st East Lancs, together with all other supporting tank, anti-tank, signal and RASC units, to liberate the centre of the town.
Wednesday, 25th OctoberMy liberation day! I remember it very well and I shall never forget it. As a 19-year-old man I was evacuated from the outskirts into my father's bookshop on the market square in the centre. In the morning, five German tanks took strategic positions on the square and a German soldier forced our closed front door to put a Spandau machine-gun in the opening. Listening very secretly in the cellar to BBC radio, we knew that our liberators were in the outskirts at that moment, but only now and then some shells and mortar bombs feil in our surroundings. Full of tension, we waited hour after hour for the tank battle that could begin any moment. But, to our enormous relief, at 12.30 p.m. the German tanks and infantry went away! No Man's Land for the next few hours! We could now hear rifle, sten and bren gun fire coming closer and closer in our direction. Curiosity was stronger than fearówe left the protection of the basement and went into the back-alley of the shop. Peeping round the corner of the main Hinthamerstraat, I saw a picture that is still printed on my memory. At the far end of the street, about 300 yards away, I saw for the very first time after 4 1/2 years of Nazi occupation and tyranny our own Dutch national red, white and blue flag. It was so small that one could hardly see it. But there was another coming out of a window, and yet another. Closer and closer they came, till suddenly there was a real Tommy carefully peeping around the corner ot a side street, only 50 yards away from our position! He was followed by another 20 Fusiliers, and they were sneak-walking very close along the houses on the opposite side. Anxious to know what was going on, more people came out of their houses. We could see far away on our left one lonely German on a bike, swinging his pistol and commanding our firemen to stop their extinguishing of a fiercely-burning restaurant, which was a German Officers' Mess. We shouted to the Tommies "Careful you, there is a Bosch!" pointing in his direction. Within two seconds, the whole platoon went on their bellies and hundreds of bullets were fired at that German soldier, whom they could not see because there was a bend in that part of the streed. The German went very quietly and unhurt to his bike. "He is gone now!" we cried, and the platoon stood up and marched as liberators into the market square. Five Fusiliers with a Corporal came into our shop. One man did the same as the German Spandau machine-gun man did a few hours earlier. He put a bren gun on the same spot in the door opening. The others started to prepare their tea. It was four o'clock! The tension of the last 24 hours was broken and we were in the very first minutes of our liberation confronted with the ineradicable British tradition - tea-time! Let's stop the war! The reason that I'm telling this story so extensively is because, after 40 years, I found out that this "bookshop group" belonged to Major Barber's B Company! During the night we had an extraordinary get-together in the shop with "our liberators". Rum, tea, white bread after four years, chocolate, cigarettes and songs - of course, because they were Welsh. Some of the men spoke Welsh instead of English. Welsh language sounded like a mixture of Norwegian and Chinese in our ears. But it did not hurt our feelings of gratitude at all. At 10.00 p.m. the Corporal went away for a briefing with the officers in Company HQ. He came back just half an hour later. His face was serious. He commanded everyone to sleep early, because the next day would be difficult. Now, after 40 years, we know what he meant by "difficult".
Thursday, 26th OctoberMajor Barber and B Company were standing ready in a side-street near the station bridge, to cross the Dommel River, which separates the centre from the western part of Den Bosch. Then, suddenly, in a pause in the noise of the battle, he could hear someone playing a piano. Looking around, he saw, in a house behind a broken window, a beautiful girl who was doing her utmost to play that piano. In a circle around her were some more 7 RWF men, attracted by her show - a nice, relaxing moment before starting to fight again. In 1984, when Brigadier Barber was back again in Den Bosch to be filmed, he tried to find the house in that street. He could not find it. Two years later - last summer, 1986 - my wife Agnes had a visit from her friend. Pauline, who had not seen her in more than 20 years. We talked a lot, and also about the reunion of the 53rd Division last year, 1985. Our memories went back to 1944. Then Pauline said: "During the liberation battle, I was ordered by my father to put some heart into the soldiers by playing the piano," Bingo! Solution of the story: Pauline, also evacuated from our quarter into that street near the station bridge, was indeed that piano-playing girl. Last September, a few days before Brigadier Barber went into hospital, Agnes and I visited him in his home in Topsham. We showed him photographs of Pauline in 1944 and today. She is still very attractive. Brigadier Barber convinced us that he would write this story down as an article for the next issue of the Regimental Journal. Now that he has passed away, we feit that we should make this gesture.
Friday, 27th OctoberAfter bitter and fierce street fighting during the night in the western part of the town, B Company, which was still under Major Barber, were confronted by an unexpected German counter-attack at 8.30 a.m. Some German tanks and infantry crossed the railway sidings from the west and disturbed the plans of 7 RWF to finish that day the liberation of Den Bosch. One Panterjagd-tank came close to B Company. Only the open square in front of the station was between both parties. No anti-tank gun was nearby, so Major Barber decided to use a Piatóbut not as normal, in a horizontal way. Distance and position were too difficult for such a shot. Therefore the Piat was handled as a mortar. After some rangers, the fifth round was a direct hit and stopped the tank. For this and other actions in 's-Hertogenbosch, Major Bobby Barber got his MC.
Today, Foundation October 1944 and the people in 's-Hertogenbosch want to commemorate this brave Commander, Brigadier R.C.H. Barber, MC. Agnes and I were so lucky to see him shortly before he passed away. He proudly presented us with some honey produced by his best friendsóthe bees of Devon. He showed us his house, his workshop and his bee-hives. We had dinner and, although he was worried about the major operation he had to undergo, he was joking all the time in his very special way.
We lost a close friend. May the Lord give him eternal rest.
Lucas van Gent
Y Ddraig Goch, march 1987 | 85-87