Recollections of War

Merlin Winston Jones

Memory is a fickle jade, living for nothing but pleasure. I find it hard to recall the unpleasant bits of my personal war, or even the minutiae of my service number, who commanded what, where and when certain actions took place. But perhaps at the age of 81 I may be forgiven these lacunae.
What remain most strongly in my mind are the little incidents of humour, of the pity rather than the glory of war, and the memories of the lads who fought with me, many of whom died in action, and others who passed into the oblivion of peace time. Where are they now? Perhaps I shall stand silent at the graves of some, if I attend the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of 's-Hertogenbosch, and later talk the nights away with others who were there, and who, like me, were lucky enough to survive. Holland looms large in memory, not only because most of my war action took place there, but because of the resilient character of its people. My first contact with this was at a humble level, yet remains most vivid. I had been flown out from England, where I was Adjutant of a training battalion of the Welch Regiment, to join the Division at Brussels.
Landing at night I was with others bumped up in a truck to the front, remember reporting to the CO of the 4th Battalion in a dimly-lit dug-out, with the thump of mortar and shell-fire going on. Assigned to C Company, it was then, or shortly afterwards, that I found myself for the first time in Holland. We had taken over a farm-house as headquarters; there was a tank hull-down against its walls, firing intermittently, and being responded to by a lot of incoming fire. In the signals room there was the chatter of radios, and a lot of rushing about, with messengers, their boots caked with mud, hurrying in and out. In the middle of all this pandemonium stood the farmer's wife, a stolid Dutch frau, holding a bucket of water and a wet sack. With this she patiently wiped off the muddy tracks across her tiled floor, following behind each incomer, and following again when he went out. The boys were apologetic, making signs of regret to her, which she ignored. But there was no time for such niceties, and they soon stopped. On her face was not so much resignation as defiance; with her world falling about her, and the fabric of her house being destroyed by shell fire, she stood as a symbol of her values - above all, her home must be clean. I thought then that it showed a most remarkable courage and resilience, and later contact with the Dutch, through the war and afterwards, only served to reinforce that impression. There was, for example, the case of the diminutive onder-ducker. At another village we liberated, beyond den Bosch, I was accosted by an ecstatic little man, who threw his arms around me and insisted that I go with him to his house. He was, he declared, an onder-duiker, one who had dived under, or gone underground. I had visions of daring deeds by night, of his blowing up things. Not a bit of it; proudly he showed me the cupboard, hardy bigger than a teachest, in which he had hidden for the all the years of the occupation, while German soldiers came and went below. Only when the coast was clear could he come out; the hours spent in such close confinement must have been excruciating. Discovery might have meant death, or at best removal to a forced labour camp, and that was his triumph - he had cheated them out of thousands of man-hours of work. That was his way of waging war, and I couldn't help smiling at his grin of impish delight as he told me of it. There are grimmer memories too. We attacked Reusel by night, searchlights shining on low cloud base giving us artificial moonlight. German resistance was stubborn, and I remember only too well a number of shots from roof-top snipers smacking into the brickwork by my head as we ran crouched towards the town centre. Opposite the big church, across the road, half-hidden alongside a house a group of the enemy was waving a white handkerchief, and it was suggested - or perhaps I was mad enough to volunteer - that I should bring them in. My batman said he'd come with me, and we ran across the road together. We got half way when they opened up with sub-machine-gun fire, and he was hit across the stomach. We crashed to the ground, keeping flat and still, and the firing stopped. God knows how we got back to safety, but we did, although he was very severely wounded. Much later, in a letter from home (for his mother had written to mine) I learned that he had died after reaching hospital in Wales.
Much of my remaining recollection of the fight at Reusel remains confused. I recall the big church, and the seminary behind it, the two connected by a narrow passage-way. At one time in the action we were firing at the Germans at the other end of the corridor, and they at us - pretty close-contact work. When they stopped we dared not move along the passage to follow up, not knowing if they were still lying in wait in the seminary. Getting out of the main body of the church was equally difficult, for by this time a few of them were firing through the entrance door from a slit-trench just outside. But somehow we did, for my next recollection is of a group of us taking cover behind a big tree on the corner of the street running alongside the church. It was edged by a ditch, from the far end of which a machine gun was firing at us. One of our officers (and try as I might I can't remember who) edged out to take a shot, and was immediately hit in the leg. Gradually the shooting stopped as the Germans retreated; the town was ours, and the advance to Eindhoven cleared.
The name of Zonk Lewis evokes many memories. He was a man of indomitable courage, of the head-downand-charge variety, as though war was just another game of rugby. He also had the most colossal luck. It was said that he swam across the Orne, walked around in a mine-field, and came back unscathed to report that there was nothing there! Another time, another place, he dived into a slit trench to take cover from a sudden stonk of mortars, to find himself face to face with one as it came through the wall of the trench. Amazingly, it didn't explode. But to be in a dugout with him was an uninsurable occupation. He was rather deaf, and liked to listen to music on his radio at full blast. It could act, I thought, as an irresistible audio-beacon to any German
patrol, and I much preferred the rigours of the open, as far away as possible!
I recall, in some limited detail, the attack on Nuland. The start-line for the section to which we had been assigned was a group of farm buildings, behind which we took cover from the heavy shell-fire that was coming down. In front of us stretched the hundreds of yards of open flat fields before the wooded slope below the town itself. To cross that under such shelling and in the face of machine-gun fire from the dug-in positions in the wood was not an inviting prospect, even with the support of the armoured flame-throwers on the flanks. I kept my runner close by me - he would be needed if we got bogged down. The time came, and we moved forward. In racing terms, the going was soft, but we floundered on in a dash for the wood, until the intensifying fire made us hit the ground. I looked round for my runner, but he wasn't there, at the moment of the start his nerve had deserted him, and he us. I was never more thankful for the support of those flame throwers; they kept coming, with great gouts of fire spewing out towards the German positions, and suddenly there were men erupting out of their trenches and running back through the wood, now starting to blaze. We ran on after them, scrambled up the steep slope, and suddenly found ourselves in possession of the outskirts of the town. Casualties had been fairly light, but I seem to remember that one of our officers had been wounded, but insisted on carrying on despite it. I don't recall much after that, except that I was among the section that captured Oberst Wust, the commander of the German 745 Grenadier Regiment, and his staff in the woods beyond the town. I had the pleasure of taking him back under guard to battalion HQ, and still have his personal weapon, a Walther PPK.
And my runner? He was picked up wandering about in a dazed fashion miles behind the lines, and eventually brought up before me for disciplinary action. It was of course a court martial offence, and a grave one, but I didn't have the heart to take it any further. He had lost his nerve, that's all, something, I thought, that could happen to anyone. I let him go with a reprimand and a caution.
Of 's-Hertogenbosch, the City, itself, I have but little recall. We had only a few days respite there from battle, I think, but that included, if memory serves me, the bliss of our first hot bath for ages. Is there, or was there then, a public baths, in a building below a bridge - perhaps a railway bridge? That is the picture that sticks in my mind. If not, it must have been at some other town, maybe Helmond? Certainly I must have been billeted somewhere near there, for I remember a Dutch family, the van der Steegs, taking me in for a meal at their home, and being very kind.
There was another desperate action in Holland which I recall, although I can't say exactly where. It involved an opposed crossing of a canal, (the Wessem Canal?) on the other side of which the Germans had dug-in machine-gun positions. The start-line was a tree-lined road some quarter of a mile back; trucks came along it to unload the heavy folding boats of wood and canvass, designed to hold a section of ten men. These were erected on the road, behind the trees, ready for the off. It was pouring with rain, the low ground we should have to cross was sodden and heavy. The men, lined up under the trees, their rifles reversed against the down-pour, were grim and silent - this was going to be no picnic. As I went along the line I noticed that one of them had his rifle resting on his foot - nothing unusual, as this was normal protection against water getting into the barrel. But, just after I had passed him there was a single shot, and he fell groaning to the ground. He was helped limping back to a truck, and would obviously take no part in the action. Accident, or, in fear of what was to come, a self-inflicted wound? I never knew. Within minutes our 25-pounders in the rear started up a heavy pounding of the German line along the far bank, responded to immediately by their own artillery on our positions. Fountains of earth sprang up in the polderland in front of us. Suddenly our gunfire lifted to let us advance; the German shell-fire didn't. Carrying those accursed boats, which seemed to weigh a ton, we slipped and slithered through the mud of the fields towards the canal. Men dropped, but the advance went on, and we were finally sliding the boats down our bank of the canal and launching them on to the water. The machine-gun sites on the other side had mostly been knocked out by the accuracy of our own stonk, thank God, or we should never have made it across, but we did, paddling madly under some erratic rifle fire to flounder up the opposite bank and overrun the German positions. A number of prisoners were taken, and our own casualties, relatively speaking, had been light.
The pity of war was never more closely brought home to me than at another Dutch farmhouse. When the break-through came, and we had pushed on towards the borders of Germany (with a diversion in December to the Ardennes - but that is another story), we halted for a brief 'brew-up' within its yard. Movement had been swift, with little need of shell-fire support, and the farm was undamaged. The
owner and his family came out to greet us with joy, and although communication was difficult their pleasure and relief at our arrival was self-evident. Some of my boys had started a little fire against the wall of a barn, just enough to boil a billy-can for the tea. Suddenly I saw to my horror that sparks from the crackling twigs were floating upwards, and were being sucked in by a draught through a broken window immediately above. The barn was stacked to the roof with hay. There was the sudden glare of flame inside, and in moments the whole building was a blazing inferno. The pitiful attempts by all of us to quench the fire with buckets of water from the well proved utterly futile, and we watched in helpless despair as the flames engulfed the barn and spread to the other buildings. I have never forgotten the look of blank hopeless agony on the face of that farmer and his wife and children as they stood and watched their home and whole livelihood go up in flames. The bitter irony of it was that the farm had survived the whole of the war, only to be destroyed at almost the end of it by a simple accident. I wrote him a statement to say that we, and not the Germans, had been responsible, in the hope that after the war he would be able to claim some compensation from the authorities. He shook my hand, with tears rolling down his face, as we left, and I felt his distress in myself. There was nothing more I could do, and of course, I don't know to this day whether he was recompensed.
War Is not always brutal; it has its more human side too. Crossing the German frontier, for the first time we had the thrill of seeing the white sheets of surrender hanging from the windows of houses, and a cheer went up - the end could not be far away. But the bitter fighting in the Reichswald was still to come, for the Germans were making a last desperate stand with everything they could muster. We over-ran a dug-out in a clearing in the woods from which firing had come, and to our astonishment there emerged from it several old men and a boy, trembling with fear. Our sergeant-major was furious: "You little bugger" he shouted, giving the boy a clip round the ear, then turning to us he said, as though to excuse himself, but spluttering with indignation: "That little bastard could have killed one of us!" His attitude was not one of hatred, but rather the anger of a father whose son had done something dreadfully wrong. Just then, about fifty yards away a German soldier broke from cover and made a dash for a muddy slope up into the safety of the trees. In a reflex action we all, I think, fired at him, but he wasn't hit, and kept on running. He reached the slope, slid, and fell - wounded, we thought, but no, in an instant he was on his feet again and slithering up the bank.
Again a burst of fire, and again, miraculously not one shot hit him. Once more he fell, and this time no-one fired. It was if a sense of sportsmanship had taken over and the men were willing him to win.
As he scrambled over the bank and into the wood there was a cheer from them -maybe a heart-felt "There, but for the grace of God" The company reached the forward edge of a section of the forest, beyond which there was open land, with a farm-house a couple of hundred yards away. Alongside it a Tiger tank was hull-down, firing into our position. Support was called up, and I remember a Canadian tank trundling up to get a shot. Despite warning of the enemy position the commander advanced too much out of cover of the trees, and was immediately hit by the Tiger. It then made its own mistake of advancing on us, got out into the field, and at once was deeply bogged down in the soft ground. The crew climbed out, and were running around, easy targets for our Brea guns. There was some action taking place to the right of my position, and thinking that an enemy attack was coming in from that side I and my batman went to have a look. We came to a wide rectangular section where the forest had been cleared, so it was open to view from the enemy farmhouse base. Deciding that it would take too long to go round under cover I left Thomas to cover me from the edge of the clearing and ran across it. Once I was out in the open three mortar bombs landed in quick succession alongside me, and I was hit, first in one leg and then the other and a hand. Dragging myself along on my elbows I managed to get in under one of the felled trees, and shouted to Thomas to get the stretcherbearers.
Now some people are lucky - I certainly was; I looked at my watch to see how long it would take them to reach me - and saw the time was exactly 13.00 on the 13th. February 1945. I've never considered that number sinister, since then. And that was it, as far as my war was concerned. The stretcher-bearers came, ran out under fire to pick me up, and there followed the jolting down through the shell-shattered forest in a truck to the first field dressing station, thence to base hospital, and finally to Alderhey in Liverpool. I was still on crutches, convalescing, when the war ended. It had taken a good slice out of my life, first a couple of years in the Territorials preparing for it, in a Rifle Regiment, the Queen's Westminsters. Called up on 2nd September 1939, after a few months of the 'phoney war' I volunteered to join a new type of unit, thought up by Churchill and called the Independent Companies, for 'a dangerous enterprise in Northern areas'. These were the fore-runners of the Commandos. My Company, No. 5, was with others that landed on the Norwegian shore, at Mosjoen, without great-coats, blankets or groundsheets, in the winter of 1940. Churchill himself wrote..'The Cabinet heartily approved all measures for the rescue and defence of Narvik and Trondheim. The
troops lacked aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, transport, and training. The whole of Northern Norway was covered with snow to depths which none of our soldiers had ever seen, felt, or imagined. There were neither snow-shoes or skis - still less skiers. "We must do our best" And that I think we did, taking toll of the enemy in ambushes until finally brought off in a destroyer from Harstadt, well within the Arctic Circle. Returned to UK to reform, we were for a time on the Isle of Wight, preparing for raids on the French coast. Sandhurst followed, and then a posting of my choice to my own countrymen in the Welch Regiment. The 18th Bn. were at various times on airfield and coastal defence, while being trained for overseas action. As Adjutant my duties involved war exercises and administration, including a spell at Brigade, interspersed with various courses on sniping, mortars, and mine clearance. As a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none I can't say that these activities had any effect on the course of the war. Those who claim that they itched to get into action are either fools or knaves; I must confess that I was content to put my battle experience into the essential job of training raw recruits. But when suddenly my posting came I went cheerfully enough - Army discipline doesn't leave much room for introspection - after sending a cryptic telegram to my wife, "There was a sound of revelry by night." Her own knowledge of English literature provided the rest of the quotation ..."and Belgium's capital had gathered then, Her beauty and her chivalry", - from Byron's "Eve of Waterloo." Unlikely to hear from me for some time, at least she would know which theatre of operation I was in, It is fashionable nowadays, among the bien pensant, to deride patriotism, forgetting, or choosing to ignore, that it was the sacrifice of those who fought in that spirit which preserved the "cynics" freedom to question it. We were soldiers "but for the working day", yet I daresay that if pressed most of us would confess to a modest pride in the part we played to protect our own country and liberate others. I see no reason to be ashamed of that.

MWJ. Major 4th Battalion The Welch Regiment 30th April 1994

Produced by John H Roberts, Hon Sec 43rd Light Infantry Old Comrades (1st Bn (43rd) The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry 2WW - 71 Brigade, 53rd Welsh Division) in support of Luc Van Gent MBE and the visiting 1st Royal Welsh group to Den Bosch. October 2012.

Erfgoed 's-Hertogenbosch (0824.660)