The Capture of Goch, 1st Gordons
Goch, Reichswald, 18th February 1945
THE FOLLOWING DESCRIPTION OF THE 1ST GORDONS ACTION AT GOCH IS TAKEN FROM "SO FEW GOT THROUGH" by Martin Lindsay
All to-day has been spent in preparing for to-morrow's operation - the capture of Goch. I am scribbling these notes very late at night in what "must have been a coachman's room above the stables of a big schloss called "Grafenthal," at the south-east corner of the Reichswald. The Tac H.Q of both 152 and 153 Brigades are here. Roddy Sinclair, our Brigadier, has just got back, but there is to be no change in commanders till after the battle.
The plan is very simple.
Goch is to be attacked from the north-west. 15th Scottish are going for the far side of the river and 153 Brigade the near side. Of 153, 5th B.W. go first and take all the main parts of the town south of the river, up to and including the big square. They should have entered the town at 11 p.m. to-night. Then 5-7th Gordons are to pass through them and take on from beyond the square as far as the railway. Our objective is the area just south of the 5th B.W.-5-7th boundary. This includes the beginning of the main road leading out of the town to the south-west, with two road junctions, and there is a school, a factory and several largish buildings in the area. Air-photos show that the town has been very badly bombed and most of the streets are cratered or choked with rubble.
February 19th and 20th.
The day started with a Brigade L.O. waking me up pretty early to say that 5th B.W. had got into the town without any difficulty, that 5-7th Gordons had been committed, and that my Battalion had been called forward from Gennep and should reach Grafenthal about 9 a.m. This they duly did and the companies and transport were dispersed in the areas we had chosen for then the morning before.
The first two companies in the batting order were A and D and after about an hour I set off with their Company Commanders, Arthur Thomson and Casey Petrie, and Kenneth McDonald who has just taken over I.0. There was a lot of mortaring and shelling on the road into Goch and we twice stopped and took cover. There did not seem to be any great hurry, as one could see that the 5th-7th were not getting on very well from the number of their fighting vehicles which were held up at the roadside. We found the Black Watch Tac just inside the town and established our own near it. Akers and Neil were sent out at once to fill sandbags and put them on the sills of the two windows.
Bill Bradford told me that they had no difficulty in getting into the town and occupying the area astride the main road as all the Huns were asleep at the time in cellars. But when they tried to clean up a larger area in daylight, they soon found themselves in difficulties with snipers and spandaus. Companies of 5-7th Gordons were now fighting in what was nominally the 5th B.W. area and had scarcely entered their own objective. It was painfully obvious that first impressions were wrong and the enemy has every intention of defending the town.
The rest of the day was perfectly bloody. It just couldn't have been more unpleasant. As soon as the area of the square had been cleared, I decided to try to clean up the main street running south from it. It was obvious that the other two battalions were fully committed and could not do this, although it was really the boundary between them and should have been done before we arrived.
This street was the main one leading into our objective and A Company got to work. Almost at once their commander, Arthur Thomson, was killed, shot through the head by a sniper in the first few minutes of his first action while standing in a doorway talking to Bill Kyle, his second-in-command. Kyle took over and did very well, and the company made a certain amount of progress, but resistance stiffened and it was clear that no further advance could be made in that direction without heavy casualties. The street was badly cratered by debris so we could not use tanks or crocodiles, and any sortie by the bulldozer was met by aimed small-arms fire from snipers.
Meanwhile O.C. D Company, with his platoon commanders, tried to find a way across the rubble and fallen houses towards his company's objective - the big building in the north-east corner of the Battalion area. He soon came up against snipers and one of his officers, Harrison, the eighteen-year-old who joined us only two days before, was hit in the head, though I hear it is only a graze. While this was taking place the troop of tanks was trying to find a side-turning which would take them up to D Company's objective. The leading tank, while still on the main street 100 yards beyond the square, was hit by a bazooka and all the crew became casualties.
This detailed sketch map accompanies the account from "So Few Got Through" by Martin Lindsay
From "So Few Got Through" by Martin Lindsay
It was clear that we couldn't make much progress towards our objective from the direction of the square, so I thought that my best plan was to attack with the other two companies, C and B, through the housing estate to the west. At this time C Company was under cover in the row of houses 200 yards north of the first Battalion Tac H.Q., and D Company was in houses off the main street. Both companies were therefore close to the road junction which was chosen as their start point. It took one and a half hours to mount this attack, as in addition to the time required for recce, a troop of tanks and a troop of crocodiles were to support it and a smoke-screen had to be laid on to defilade the right flank of the two attacking companies.
While this attack was taking place, the Brigadier who by this time had resumed command, told me that he wanted us to send a company to the cross-roads (D) south-west of the housing estate, and another to Thomashof, a very large farm with many outbuildings. I said that I would do so before first light next morning; we both agreed that, with this heavy mortaring, it was necessary to get across the open ground under cover of darkness. With this extra commitment, it was obviously not feasible to take all the buildings within the Battalion's original objective, so I told George Morrison and Alec Lumsden that B and C were to hold only the main street down to the road junction and such houses just east as could be conveniently occupied.
D Company hadn't done much, so I told Casey that they would have to go to the cross-roads. I had no worries about this as old Casey is a thoroughly experienced officer and the Divisional Reece Regiment had been almost as far in the afternoon and reported that they thought the area was unoccupied. Except for making him conform to our timings, I gave Casey a completely free hand.
I could not take B or C for Thomashof as they had borne the brunt all day, and Alec Lumsden and George Morrison had both done so much already. That left only A Company. But I wasn't at all happy about sending A Company off into the blue on this night attack. Bill Kyle is a stout-hearted lad, but not very experienced. That morning he had had the unnerving experience of seeing his company commander killed while talking to him. There was only one other officer left in the company, Charlie Howitt, whose first action it had been. And one of the three platoons was commanded by only a corporal.
I gave a lot of thought to it during the evening and finally decided to command the company myself. I asked Kyle if he minded, and he seemed quite pleased. In a way I was rather glad to have this opportunity, which I regarded as an act of self discipline. Of late I have been finding it increasingly difficult to leave the nice, safe command post when there has been shelling.
Nothing was known about Thomashof except what I could learn from the air-photos. From these I saw that our objective consisted of one very large building with five biggish outhouses round it. In addition there were two smaller houses detached from and about a hundred yards our side of the main group. Several enemy trenches could be seen.
I made the simplest plan possible. The medium artillery would shell Thomashof during the night, scale five from sixteen guns-eighty rounds, each a 100 lbs. We would take the shortest route from the cemetery just in front of B Company, who would be responsible for patrolling this area to secure our start point. The I.O. would layout white tape for the first 200 yards, after which it was 1,100 yards by compass across open country. Corporal Henderson's platoon would take the first two houses, then Howitt's platoon would go for the main building, and Sergeant Cleveland's platoon and Company H.Q. for the two nearest outhouses. Zero hour was set for 4.45 a.m., but I afterwards postponed it till 5.45, which I thought would get us across the open ground in darkness but give us the benefit of first light to clear the somewhat alarmingly large buildings. I had the two officers and all the N.C.O.s in the Battalion Command Post and took great trouble in briefing them, and they all had a good look at the air-photos.
I sent a note to the Brigade Commander explaining the shortage of officers and N.C.O.s in A Company, and that for this reason I felt I should take command of this company night attack, and therefore could Grant-Peterkin come up during the night and take over his Battalion. Later the Brigade I.O. came up and said that the C.O. was in bed with a bad cold, so I told Alec to come and take charge from 4 a.m.
It had been arranged that I should join A Company at 5.40 About half an hour before that I came up from our cellar and stood on the pile of rubble outside, to take stock of the night: the brightness of the moonlight; the effectiveness of the searchlights; the strength and direction of the wind; the amount of enemy shelling and mortaring (still considerable), etc. I heard a lot of heavy stuff crumping down in the direction of Thomashof, so I told our medium representative to stop his guns firing. Just before I left the command post he told me that they had not fired since 4 a.m.
I went round the corner and joined A Company just as it was falling in. But the same heavy-calibre shells could still be heard crashing down ahead, and in the stillness of the night the loud resounding bangs were undeniably somewhat frightening. I walked a few yards ahead to a clearing, and then took a compass bearing on where I heard the guns firing. When I plotted it on my map I saw that it was from the south-east corner of the Reichswald, just where I knew the Scottish Horse, the Divisional Medium Regiment, was in action. So I told Kyle to get the company back under cover and ran up the street to B' Company's H.Q. to speak to Alec on the telephone. I told him that there was no shadow of doubt that it was our guns firing, and I gave him the bearing I had just taken. Alec replied that he had just told the gunners that all the guns in Second Army were to cease fire. So I ran back to A Company. Hitherto there had been odd shells dropping about the place, all fairly close, but as I was on my way back, an imperial stonk came down all round. Cornish, my servant, and I dived into a house just in time.
A few minutes later, when all was quiet again, I emerged into the street, dusty and sweating, and began to look for Kyle. Then I heard those same guns crumping their stuff down once more along our route. Each explosion sounded like the crack of doom as it resounded and echoed all round in the darkness.
For an instant I considered cancelling the attack. Then I told Kyle to form up the Company. We had already lost a quarter of an hour, and it was about 6 a.m. when we moved off: Corporal Henderson's platoon with Kyle responsible for the compass course, then myself with Howitt and his platoon, then Sergeant Cleveland's platoon, then Company H.Q. After going about 200 yards there was a salvo of mortar bombs and the column checked. After half a minute I went forward and found nobody ahead of us, and cursed the leading men for not having followed those in front. Then we found McDonald, the I.O., very cool and confident, and he walked with me to where the tape ended.
It was a lovely clear night with visibility a good 200 yards - rather too much for the job in hand, I thought. It was pleasant to be in open country after the dirt, dust and shelling in ruined Goch. Except for the column of silent men and a house burning away on my right, I might have been going to an early morning duck flight. Then there was another loud crump ahead, and I realised that although the gun in question was firing from the direction of the enemy, there was a remarkable echo coming back from the Reichswald, and this it was which had made me take a bearing to what appeared to be the position of our own artillery. Luckily that was a parting shot, and those particular guns fired no more.
All went well for a time, and the leading platoon had no difficulty in taking the right hand of the first two houses. I then ordered Howitt's and Sergeant Cleveland's platoons forward. It was just getting light, though it was too dark to distinguish friend from foe at twenty yards. One spandau was firing from 200 yards away, but not apparently at us. We seemed to have achieved surprise.
With Kyle and Company H.Q. I followed Sergeant Cleveland's platoon through an orchard, across a stream and up to the two nearest of the main buildings. Sergeant Cleveland's platoon entered the left-hand one, and we the right. Ours consisted of a large cattle byre with about six smaller rooms leading off it. By now there was a certain amount of firing taking place, for in several directions the enemy appeared to have come to life. It was still pretty dark and I was afraid of us shooting each other. I paired off the men with us and posted two at each of the four doors of the byre.
Kyle went outside for a moment, and when he returned he was shot at by his servant at five yards' range, and missed. Then there was a burst of fire from one of the men in a doorway behind me.
"You bloody fool," I shouted at him, as someone fell in the straw at his feet, gasping, groaning and choking his life away. But this time it was a full-blooded Hun, though unarmed and half-dressed.
I went to the window to read the battle. There seemed to be hardly any shooting taking place. It was clear that Howitt's platoon had not taken the main building for there was not a sound from there nor any sign of them in front.
I went across to Sergeant Cleveland's platoon next door. He told me that when anybody tried to cross to the next building they were fired on by two spandaus from dug-in positions in the garden behind. It seemed to me that the Company was not in any particular danger as the buildings they were occupying were substantial and the enemy were not showing any aggressiveness. But it was obvious that more men would be necessary to clear the remaining buildings. We were not through to the Battalion by either R/T or line so, after consulting Kyle, I decided to return and send up another company and some tanks.
On the way back I found that though Corporal Henderson's platoon had still got the first house, they were not yet in the second one, which was held by the enemy. Corporal Henderson was firing a piat at it somewhat ineffectively. I told him to use his smoke and rush the house, and then take the whole platoon across and join up with Kyle.
Cornish and I then had a very nasty time getting back over the open ground as it was light enough to be seen, and two spandaus fired at us. We ran like mad, taking it in short rushes from cover to cover. Luckily there were one or two small bomb craters in the largest field, without which I do not think we could have got across. As an additional insult somebody fired one shot from an anti-tank gun at us.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it took about two hours to get B Company off with some tanks and crocodiles. Just before they started one or two men from A Company came in to say that the company had been overwhelmed and they were the sole survivors.
Even with the armour to support them, B Company had quite a difficult time and some ten men killed in capturing Thomashof. They took about eighty prisoners. George Morrison, as usual, was exceedingly brave in what was a very nasty attack. He is very sick about the support given him by the crocodiles, only one of which would cross the open ground with his company. One of the new officers, Ventris, also did well, being wounded five times in the course of the battle and only giving up when George ordered him to do so. He had been with us only four days. "It was fun while it lasted," he said, as they took him away on a stretcher. I had made Alec and George toss up as to which company should do this attack. George lost, so Alec insisted in accompanying him to give him his moral support for the first part of the attack. What magnificent chaps those two are!
From one or two survivors and a stretcher-bearer who was taken prisoner and escaped, it seems that Howitt's platoon reached the front of their building and saw one or two men in the doorway. Thinking (God knows why) that it might have been some of the rest of the company, they challenged them, and the reply was a burst of fire. Howitt was killed - we found his body tonight - then the rest of the platoon scattered. The enemy was very strong and shortly afterwards put in several attacks, and the company was overwhelmed through lack of leaders. No doubt parachute troops or commandos would have made short work of the Huns in Thomashof, but our experience is that once the leaders get hit, the attack pegs out. Anyway, they fought well as we found eight or ten dead, and no doubt a number of the forty-three that are missing are wounded. I saw very little sign of damage done by our medium artillery. God knows what they were firing at.
I am feeling utterly exhausted, and depressed beyond words, as I think that the A Company disaster today was my fault. Firstly, I could have asked for a Typhoon attack on Thomashof yesterday afternoon, and secondly I should have insist that the place was too big to attack with one company, which was all we had available while still having to hold part of Goch.