154 Brigade - Final Brigade Operations
1st - 5th May 1945
FINAL BRIGADE OPERATIONS
154 BRIGADE ACCOUNT
1ST MAY 1945 - 5TH MAY 1945
THE final operation of the campaign started on 1st May, the Division being ordered to force a crossing over the River Oste at Bremervorde, which lies half way across the Weser and Elbe peninsula. After forcing this crossing the Division was to swing westwards and advance on and capture the well-known ports of Bremerhaven and Wesermunde.
152 Brigade started off the operation on the night of 1st May 'and secured a bridgehead over the Oste through which 153 Brigade passed the following day. They encountered stiff opposition and were engaged in heavy fighting throughout the day. 154 Brigade was then ordered to pass through 153 Brigade at first light on 3rd May and to advance on the axis Ebersdorf-Grossenhain-Lintig-Bederkesa.
7th Black Watch started off the Brigade advance followed by 7th Argylls who, by midnight, had entered Lintig. The enemy by now was offering only light resistance and a considerable number of prisoners were taken during the day. The main difficulties were the blown bridges and other demolitions, the approaches to which were, as usual, heavily mined.
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At 06.15 hours on 4th May a Red Cross envoy came into the 7th Argylls area and stated that Bederkesa wished to surrender. It soon became apparent, however, that although the civilian population might be keen to surrender and save .their town from destruction, the enemy troops in it had no intention whatever of giving it up.
The Brigade Commander was, at this stage, ordered to proceed cautiously and it later transpired that this order had' originated from the Corps Commander, who was aware that surrender negotiations were proceeding at a high level and was anxious to avoid any unnecessary casualties at this final stage of the war. No indication at all, however, of any such surrender negotiations had reached the Brigade at this time.
1st Black Watch were ordered to prepare to launch an attack against Bederkesa and went ahead with the necessary reconnaissance of possible crossing places over the canal which runs in front of that town. The operation looked as if it might be an unpleasant and difficult one and Lieut. Col. J. A. Hopwood made careful and detailed preparations for it. Col. Hopwood had commanded the Battalion throughout the whole campaign with conspicuous success and great personal gallantry. He was the only one left of the three original Battalion commanding officers who had been with the Brigade when it landed in Normandy.
About mid-day on 4th May, a patrol from the Derbyshire Yeomanry, operating under Brigade command towards Rinkstedt, captured a number of prisoners, including a senior officer who turned out to be the commander of a 'German regiment fighting nearby. This officer was called upon to surrender the village of Rinkstedt to save it from destruction, but in reply stated that he was unable to do this as any surrender would have to be authorised by his Division which, he stated, was the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division. (Note-This was a resuscitated Afrika Korps Division, into which all survivors of the Afrika Korps had been placed and was recognised to be one of the finest fighting formations of the German Army.) The German officer indicated that his Divisional Commander might consider surrendering and he was accordingly instructed to return to his Division forthwith with a view to surrender negotiations being initiated. The reply from the 15th P.G. Division was a request that a British staff officer should be sent to its headquarters. This was refused and it was arranged that, if the enemy sent a properly qualified staff officer to 154 Brigade headquarters, a staff officer from that headquarters would be sent to the German Divisional headquarters to explain the unconditional surrender terms. A local truce was agreed on to cover the period during which negotiations would be taking place.
A senior staff officer from the P.G. Division then appeared and was. brought to Brigade headquarters where he was informed, by the Brigade Commander, of the terms of unconditional surrender, as laid down by the Supreme Allied Commander. The German officer replied that he knew these terms would be unacceptable to his commander and asked if he might state his commander's views which were as follows;-
15th Panzer Grenadier Division, although considerably weakened, was still a reasonably equipped and well-disciplined fighting formation which would sell its life dearly and was certainly still a force to be reckoned with. Although fully aware of the major war situation his commander had instructed him to point out that, if 15th P.G. Division continued to oppose the Allied advance, the struggle would be severe and would no doubt cause heavy casualties to both sides. Since this could in no way alter the ultimate outcome of the war he was anxious to avoid this unnecessary bloodshed, but in return he considered that, for several special reasons, he was entitled to request that certain exceptions should be made, in the case of his Division, to the surrender terms. (These reasons, when explained, turned out to be largely based on the well-known theme of German military honour). The German officer said that the British wireless admitted that the 15th P.G. Division was the only German field formation now fighting on German soil as a complete and orderly formation, and he drew attention to what he called "the long and honourable association in warfare" which had existed between 15th Panzer Grenadier Division and 51st Highland Division. (Note.-As previously stated the 15th P.G. Division was a resuscitated formation of the Afrika Korps. The original 15th Panzer Grenadier Division was one of the three best-known German Divisions in the Afrika Korps and it and 51st Division had many times been opposed to each other in the North African campaign.) For this reason his commander wished to put forward the suggestion that his Division be allowed to surrender as a formation and be given an area, within the Allied occupied territory, in which to assemble for disbandment and demobilisation. He also suggested that the Division should be employed as a formation on police duties within Germany after the war and that the officers be permitted to retain their revolvers.
The Brigade commander replied that the terms of surrender were those laid down by the Supreme Commander and that none of the special requests could be considered in any way whatever. The only possible exception might be with regard to surrendering as a formation and the Brigade Commander stated that, provided the Commander of 15th P.G. Division agreed to the terms of unconditional surrender, it would probably be possible to arrange for his Division to surrender as a formation in a specially allotted area for the purpose of being disarmed but that, once this was completed, no further responsibility as to its future fate could be undertaken. On no account would the German officers be allowed to retain their revolvers.
This completed the interview and it was agreed that, in order to facilitate further negotiations, officer representatives from both sides would remain in the village of Ringstedt which would be treated as neutral territory and from which all troops would be withdrawn. It was also agreed that the truce would continue until 22.00 hours by which time the emissary would return with the 15th P.G. Divisional Commander's answer. At 21.00 hours the RRe. announced the impending surrender of aH Field Marshall Busch's troops opposing 21st Army Group in North-West Germany. No information at all regarding this or, in fact, of any high level surrender negotiations taking place had yet been received through military channels. The German emissary returned at 22.00 hours and stated that his commander was unable to accept the terms of unconditional surrender but wished to prolong the truce until the results were known of the negotiations which were believed to be taking place between Field Marshal Montgomery and Admiral Friedeburg. The Germans appeared to be unaware of the wireless announcement that their army commander had surrendered and that a general cease-fire was to take effect as from 08.00 hours the following day, 5th May. This was accordingly communicated forthwith to the commander of the 15th P.G. Division and he was ordered, together with his Korps Commander, to meet the Brigade Commander at Ringstedt at 10.00 hours on 5th May to be conducted to a British headquarters, where they would receive orders from the Commander of 30th Corps. He was also informed that the existing unofficial truce would be extended until the general cease-fire at 08.00 hours the following morning. A message was received at 01.00 hours on 5th May confirming that these orders had been received by 15th P.G. Divisional Commander and that he and his Korps Commander would present themselves at Ringstedt as ordered.
No unforeseen events occurred during the night and the truce continued until the general cease-fire the following morning. The fighting activities of the Brigade in North-West Europe thus terminated almost exactly eleven months after the Brigade had landed in Normandy. During this period of eleven months fighting the Brigade had suffered 158 officer and 2231 other rank casualties, of which 38 officers and 419 other ranks had been killed. The latter figures, unfortunately, included many old and tried members of the Brigade who, before laying down their lives for their country in the course of the Brigade's long and arduous journey through Normandy, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, had, with the Brigade, taken part in the 8th Army's great and victorious battle which started at El Alamein on the night of 23rd October 1942; had fought through the western deserts of Egypt, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania; had helped to storm the Mareth Line and the Wadi Akarit; had swept through the rolling cultivated plains of Tunisia; had taken part in the great assault landing in Sicily, the first major combined operation of the 1939-45 War and the forerunner of the mightier assault to be carried out later in Normandy; and had fought through the hills, vineyards and olive groves of Sicily. These officers and men had shared to the full in the hard lot of the infantry soldier which, in all wars, is to fight on and on and on. It is appropriate, at this particular part of this narrative, to pay tribute to the splendid services rendered to the Brigade by its Field Ambulance-the 176th Highland Field Ambulance. But for the untiring, self-sacrificing and most efficient medical services provided for the Brigade at all times by this Field Ambulance, the proportion of casualties killed as against those who ultimately recovered would have been immensely higher. The Field Ambulance was commanded throughout the campaign by Lt. Col. H. G. H. Hope, M.C., who had served in the original 51st Division in France in 1940 as medical officer with 6th Black Watch. The Advance Dressing Station, through which practically all the Brigade's casualties were cleared, had throughout the campaign been in charge of Major A. R. Wilson, M.C.
AT 10.00 hours on 5th May the Brigade Commander, with an escort of armoured cars from the Derbyshire Yeomanry, met the German Generals at Ringstedt and escorted them to 51st Divisional headquarters. The German party consisted of Lieut. General Raspe, Commander Korps EMS; Major General Roth, Commander 15th Panzer Grenadier Division; a naval representative and several staff officers. At Divisional headquarters the terms of unconditional surrender were explained to the German commanders by the Chief of Staff of 30th Corps, The main points were as follows:-
(a) All German forces were to remain in the areas at present occupied by them and were to continue to be under command of their own officers for administration and discipline until disembodiment could be arranged.
(b) All ranks, including officers, were to be disarmed immediately and all arms, ammunition and military equipment were to be collected, dumped and handed over to British guards.
(c) All mines, booby traps and road blocks were to be removed and made safe and no further destruction of equipment, demolitions or evacuation of troops were to be carried out.
(d) All main roads and certain other minor roads were to be made serviceable immediately.
(e) Full details of the enemy Order of Battle, together with the location of all types of dumps of ammunition, supplies and equipment were to be furnished immediately.
These terms were accepted by the Germans who then returned to their own lines.
On 8th May the Brigade moved to an area east of Bremerhaven where it was to carry out the disarming of the German troops in that district.