Attack on St. Michels Gestel and Vught
The following account of The Attack on St. Michels Gestel and Vught is taken from The History of the 7th Argylls by Captain Ian C Cameron
On the 21st of October orders for our next operation were issued. For the operation, our brigade had under command the 2nd Derby Yeomanry (initially), the 241st Anti-tank Battery, the 274th Field Company R.E., with one platoon of the 275th Field Company, B company 1/7th Middlesex, and 60 kangaroos, which were armoured vehicles for the purpose of conveying troops. As usual, in support of us were the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry.
The intention of the brigade was:
- 1. To clear the woods south of the Zuid Wilhelms Canal.
- 2. Secure bridges crossing the River Dommel at St.Michels Gestel and the Halsche Water at Halder, or crossing places and bridgeheads later in the event of the bridges being blown.
- 3. The 2nd Derby Yeomanry were to relieve the 7th Argylls in their area on the 22nd of October and the 7th Argylls were then to concentrate in the area east of Eerde.
The attack was divided into three phases. In phase 1 the 7th Argylls, with in support one half squadron of the 1st Northampton Yeomanry, were to clear the woods south of the canal. The 7th Black Watch, with in support one squadron and reconnaissance troop of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, were to pass through the 152nd and the 153rd Brigades and exploit to St. Michels Gestel to carry out the following tasks-in the second phase:
- 1. If the bridge was intact, to secure all approaches both east and west of the River Dommel.
- 2. If the bridge was destroyed, but little enemy opposition was encountered en route, to secure all approaches east and west of the River Dommel, and secure a bridgehead on the west bank to allow the 1st Black Watch to pass through.
In the third phase the 1st Black Watch, with in support one half squadron of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, were initially to hold the firm base, and be prepared to carry out the following alternative tasks later:
- 1. To relieve the 5/7th Gordon Highlanders in Weibosch.
- 2. In the event of the 7th Black Watch being successful in forming the bridgehead, to secure a bridge over the Halsche Water at Halder.
- 3. In the event of the 7th Black Watch being unsuccessful, to assault across the River Dommel at St. Michels Gestel and secure a bridgehead to allow bridges to be built.
The 2nd Derby Yeomanry were to hold a firm base and cover the right flank between Zuid Wilhelms Canal and the road Schijndel-St. Michels Gestel, and particularly the approaches from Dungen and Stokhoek.
The 7th Argylls were to be launched at 8 o'.clock in the morning of the 23rd of October, followed by the 7th Black Watch, who were not to be launched before 9 o'clock. Lastly came the 1st Black Watch, who were not to be launched before midday. The axis of advance was via Koevering-Heertveld-Weibosch-Schijndel-Schutsboom, and St. Michels Gestel. In all three phases of the attack considerable artillery support was available. On the afternoon of the 22nd of October Typhoons shot up enemy positions as a preliminary to the softening up by fragmentation bombing which was to come later.
On the morning of the 23rd of October the fragmentation bombing commenced and appeared to be extremely accurate. This was necessary, as the other two brigades of the Division had started their offensive at midnight on the 22nd of October, and any inaccuracy in the bombing .might have seriously affected them. The 7th Argylls were launched at the arranged time, but found the going rather difficult on account of mines which held them up considerably. Not until 11.30 a.m. did the 7th Black Watch set off.
To begin with they met little opposition, and by 1 o'clock had reached Brookstraat. The tanks in support of the 7th Black Watch encountered some enemy opposition at a road block, but this was soon overcome. About half an hour later the 7th Argylls had overcome the last of the mines, and. reached their objective without meeting any strong resistance. The Argylls were then placed under command of the 153rd Brigade, and in their place the 5/7th Gordons came under the command of our brigade.
The 7th Black Watch, although not hampered so much by mines as the Argylls were, met more opposition, and were continually running into enemy fire where small pockets of resistance were left behind by the enemy. One such pocket was encountered by the tanks at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but by 2.45 this was overcome. By 4 p.m. the 7th Black Watch had reached the river line and found the bridge at St. Michels Gestel blown.
The task was now to get across the river, and at 6 o'clock in the evening a squadron of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry were ordered to guard the north flank while the 7th Black Watch made a crossing by class 111 raft. A certain amount of enemy shelling was encountered at the river crossing, but this did not deter the Black Watch, who had the class 111 raft completed and two companies across the river by 9.30 p.m. Later class 9 and class 40 bridges were constructed over the River Dommel near the site of the old blown bridge.
By 2 o'clock in the morning of the 24th of October the 7th Black Watch were all across the Dommel and meeting only minor opposition on the other side. The 1st Black Watch then began to cross, and they, along with a squadron of tanks, were successfully across by 5 o'clock in the morning.
It was decided to push two thrusts for the crossing of the Halsche Water at Halder, and during the afternoon a class 111 raft was constructed and the Ist Black Watch formed a bridgehead on· the other side with two companies. This crossing was subjected to heavy enemy shelling, and on the night of the 24th October a Kapok bridge and class 9 and class 40 bridges were built, and the remainder of ,the 1st Black Watch crossed. An early morning patrol from the 1st Black Watch bumped into enemy infantry, and it was then estimated that the enemy in this area were fairly strong.
As the country beyond the River Dommel at St. Michels Gestel was flooded, it was decided to develop the thrust made by the Ist Black Watch only, and so, at 8.30 a.m. on the morning of the 25th October, the 7th Argylls, with in support one squadron of the 2nd Derby Yeomanry, crossed the bridge and passed through the 1st Black Watch, their objective being the town of Vught. Their axis of advance was along the road running north to Vught.
The order of march was D company under Major Boyle leading. D company was supported by flamethrowers and two troops of the Ist Northampton Yeomanry. After this came the remainder of the battalion. Trouble soon started when a road block was encountered, and three of our tanks were knocked out by an 88-mm. gun. Considerable opposition was then encountered from enemy infantry, and numerous snipers who were hidden in the buildings en route. gave a lot of trouble. In addition the enemy shelling and mortaring was very heavy. About half-way to Vught, the battalion ran into very strong opposition and a pitched battle ensued.
It was later discovered on interrogating prisoners that the enemy were launching an attack at approximately the same time as the one launched by the battalion, and the unusual experience of two attacking parties clashing gave us a few anxious moments. Prisoners were taken on both sides, and the battalion destroyed a German self-propelled gun and an anti-tank gun.
A company were pushed forward to support D company on their left, but did not make much progress. Later B company were committed on the right and managed to advance a little despite heavy spandau and mortar fire. It was an exhausting day for the Argylls, and after having fought for every inch of their advance, it was decided to hold the battalion in their present positions until the morning of the 26th of October, when the 7th Black Watch would pass through. Consequently, the 7th Black Watch were concentrated at Hal in order to be ready to pass through the battalion in the morning. The next morning it was found that a number of the enemy were still in the battalion area, and prisoners came in most of the day.
Capt. Billy Thomson, the M.T.O., while making a reconnaissance for a suitable place for his A echelon, about 400 yards from Battalion H.Q., had a very narrow escape when some Germans opened up on his car. His driver was killed at point-blank range, and Billy was slightly wounded in the shoulder. He had no alternative but to take to his heels, and had the mortification of seeing the Boche drive off with his jeep, which he never saw again.
On the morning of the 26th of October at 9 o'clock the 7th Black Watch passed through as arranged, and occupied the town of Vught without much opposition. Here we found a large concentration camp and ample evidence of what used to go on inside, and it appeared that little had been exaggerated by the newspapers. The position in the town was still a little confused, and the 7th Black Watch were subjected to heavy shelling and mortaring from the area of " Fort Isabella," but by 3 o'clock in the afternoon this fort was also overcome.
The battle was now over and the brigade expected to have a few days' rest, and our battalion found comfortable billets in the area of a hospital south-east of Vught. On the 28th of October the battalion, along with the 7th Black Watch, were moved to a concentration area west of Helvoirt in order to make room for a brigade of the 53rd Division, whose intention was to make an assault crossing of the Aftwaterings Canal in the area of some blown bridges. At this stage the next phase of the operation was made known to us.