However, in the following morning, we noticed a strange difference in the atmosphere in the hotel foyer and were told that the Germans had launched an offensive in the area of the Ardennes and were making rapid progress toward the Belgian frontier. Our little party was informed that 43rd Division and 214 Brigade in particular were moving to a position near Liège to block any possible crossing of the river there. We were told to make our way to that area and join up with the Brigade as soon as possible. As we left Brussels, I had the distinct feeling that the people there were anticipating the possible arrival of the Germans within the city itself. Perhaps quite wrongly, I imagined they might well have been preparing to lower the Union Jacks. Of the next twenty-four hours I have no very clear recollection, except for the fact that the Military Police had the roads well signed and I was greatly relieved when I saw for the first time the Divisional sign of the Wyvern and was able to join up with 214 Brigade again.
As a Regimental Officer, it was difficult to realise at once exactly what was happening but it was nice to be among the familiar company of the DCLI. The German offensive was on a very large scale - apparently 15 German Divisions had been identified striking mainly at a weakened American Division in the south, thus splitting the Americans and ourselves. I welcomed the news that the situation had been resolved by placing the two American Divisions in the north, along with the British 21st Army group, under the Command of General Montgomery and that General Patten was taking charge in the south. We felt things were under control!
43rd Division did not actually take part in the fighting in the Ardennes battles because we were held in a reserve position should the enemy have crossed the River Meuse at Liège. At 214 Brigade Headquarters, we were told that the enemy was reported to have a force of used captured Sherman tanks, which we called Brandenburgers. We were also told to anticipate further airborne landings. However, none of these eventualities occurred and the operations prepared to meet them never went beyond the planning and rehearsal stage. Actually, the furthest the German offensive reached was about 12 miles east of the River Maas, at a place called Ciney.
It was on 23rd December when the weather cleared and the first opportunity occurred for our Air Bomber Command to intervene in great force. It was the most impressive display of our air superiority which more than any other factor convinced us on the ground that the German offensives were doomed to failure.
I must note here that the impression I had of the attitude of the normal soldier in the DCLI, and no doubt elsewhere, was that Christmas was to be on 25th December and that, however important the battle, it was not to interfere with celebrations.
The illustration is taken from a Christmas card sent to me by Tom Brewis, our Regimental Commander, with the inscription 'Thanking you for all your kind thoughts, your good excuses, and 'drunken' humour for the year 44.'
The majority of the Division was able to prepare for the great day and the cooks and quartermasters certainly played their part. I remember the carol singing in the streets with a piano, which had been produced from goodness knows where, being played by David Wilcox, then Captain Wilcox, Intelligence Officer with the 5th DCLI. The troops were in reasonably comfortable billets under cover in barns and garages etc and I experienced for the first time the comfort and luxury of a very deep feather bed which I found almost too hot after our existing conditions!
A special Christmas message from Field Marshall Montgomery himself was read out to all troops in the Division, a part of which said “who could have predicted on D-Day, 6th June 1944, that within three months the armies would be in Brussels and Antwerp having already liberated nearly the whole of France and Belgium and in six months from D-Day we would be fighting in Germany, having driven the enemy back across its own frontiers, but this is what has happened.”
Until 11th January 1945, the Division as a whole was in reserve. The time was spent very actively in bringing the reinforcements to the Infantry Battalions up to battle strength with very hard training including subjecting them to mortar fire while they were in slit trenches so as to “baptise” them to the bombardments which lay ahead of them.
The Divisional Artillery as a whole was, of course, still called upon to provide covering fire for the Corp when required but as a Gunner Officer I was not active with the DCLI again until 11th January. Weather conditions were dreadful and it was impossible for the tanks to move on any road surfaces as they slid sideways on their tracks until they hit the first obstacle near to them, either a ditch or a vehicle or preferably a building. On 11th January, 214 Brigade and 5th DCLI found ourselves on familiar ground which we had occupied during the hard fighting for the village of Hoven. The weather conditions were so bad that water cans froze solid and melted snow had to be used for washing. Self-heated soups were provided and the Infantiers had their boots and socks removed twice daily for foot massage. The 5th DCLI, in common with other Infantry Battalions, had sniper suits issued and there were ample supplies of scarves, gloves and warm underclothing. The Brigade remained in the Front Line without relief for sixteen days and it is amazing that there were practically no men reporting sick. The constant patrolling kept them physically fit and exercised. There was a bus service organised by Division to take a hundred men a day back from each unit to the Baths Unit at Brunssum, which was, of course, very much appreciated. 179 Field Regiment as part of the Divisional Artillery was active throughout this period against any sign of activity, offensive or otherwise on the part of the enemy.
My recollections of January 1945 are of continuous rain and freezing conditions, dreadful mud and some of the most horrific traffic jams with so many of our vehicles literally unable to move. Most of the infantry, certainly most of our own DCLI Battalion, were mounted on tracked personnel Carriers or tanks. My faithful old Carrier RF (Roger Fox) was particularly difficult to steer in these awful conditions and I had to heave on the wheel to assist the driver.
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