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A Day in April 1945 -North to Groningen (cont’d)

When we left the last scene of our story we were about 22 ¾ hours into our day, a very long and exhausting one. Our infantry was at our start line lying in tall grass waiting for our barrage to commence at 5:00 AM when the attack would begin. All was silent. We could hear the enemy talking, laughing and unaware of our presence.

Sergeant Heintzman (Shorty) who had agreed to show me the ropes in this my first attack on foot, had called me aside and moved both of us about 30 yards away from the main body of our infantry because some of the men were falling asleep and beginning to snore. He was concerned the Germans would hear them and take action against us. The moon was still up but the sky was beginning to show signs of the graying dawn.

Our plan of attack was to rush north along the east side of a 20-foot high railway embankment while our shells rained down on the German infantry camped on the west side of the tracks. As we ran in single file our artillery would increase its range and continue to pound the Germans as they tried to follow us or attack over the embankment.

The reason we had to run single file was because there was a woods beginning on the north side of the field on both sides of the tracks about thirty yards or so from our waiting infantry. The woods continued similarly on the enemy infantry’s side of the tracks. That was the scene. There was just ten minutes to go until our guns were to open up.

A Mistake
Without warning, one of our infantrymen with an itchy trigger finger opened up with a Bren gun. Never mind our worries about the men snoring – the jig was bloody well up! In about three minutes German mortars began to rain down on our shocked and scrambling infantry. The Germans as usual wasted no time in striking back.

We later learned that a German sentry had appeared on the top of the railway enbankment, lit up a cigarette and the Bren gunner had cut him down. We had a few minutes to wait for our artillery to open up and during those few minutes Shorty and I ran sraight north to the forest line and then cut west for the opening between the forest and the railway embankment to be ready for our attack. The mortars were wooshing in and exploding in the field anywhere from ten to fifty yards to our left, fortunately we weren’t hit. I think we broke all known speed records getting there.

By shear luck we met our team just as we arrived. The Colonel of the Essex took the lead, our Captain next, Bob our signaler and then Shorty and I followed by the infantry. Sadly a number of our infantry were killed and wounded because of the premature Bren gun miscue.

As we climbed halfway up the railway embankment our artillery opened up right on time. Now a long and physically demanding run began that was a real trial of our stamina. We tried to keep our heads lower than the railway tracks as we ran with the left foot higher than the right foot slipping and sliding on the rough dew covered turf and bare patches of ground, animal holes and drainage runnels. Our shells were roaring in and exploding close on the other side of the embankment. The nearness of their flashes and banging was ear shattering. The shrapnel from the shells that hit the forest trees slammed into the steel tracks and whizzed overhead as well as pinged off the telegraph wires that ran above us.

As I ran I glanced back to my right now and then and saw the odd soldier behind tumbling down the embankment either because he had lost footing or was hit. Soon I was gasping for breath. The fight to keep my balance while carrying the weight of ammo and an awkward Bren was wicked, especially as I hadn’t pushed myself physically for almost a year. I hadn’t realize how badly out of shape I was but sitting in a carrier or a truck a lot of the time hadn’t helped much.

I was about ready to drop exhausted when we came to a huge concrete culvert over a stream that ran under the embankment. Fortunately we took a few minute’s breather at the culvert while the Colonel and our Captain consulted their maps by flashlight, decided where we were and Bob called in corrections for our artillery. I was hoping they kept talking until I caught my breath.

When we got going again we had no alternative but to come up on top of the embankment and run either on the gravel beside the tracks or on the ties between the tracks or both. We were now fully exposed to any enemy fire and anything else they could bring to bear plus our own artillery’s shrapnel flying around. It was wild and wooly that’s for sure. But frankly, I don’t remember even worrying about the shrapnel or anything else; all I was focused on was keeping up.

We ran along up there for about half a mile with all the ruckus going on but at least it was a little easier running on the level and the firing somewhat slackened in spots as our artillery adjusted their range. Maybe the Germans were also having trouble keeping up, especially as they were on the receiving end of our barrage.

The Luger
Soon we came to a pathway leading down the embankment on an angle and could just see a shack’s roof through the trees ahead. The Colonel lead the way and we began to run faster as the gravity pulled us down the slope. The three ahead of us ran around a sentry box not bothering to stop and bang! – I ran smack into the biggest damn Kraut sentry coming out of the sentry box that I had ever seen. In that light, in that split second I swear that with his jackboots, long grey greatcoat and helmet he looked seven feet tall.

Fortunately, he was as stunned as I was. He had a Schmeisser slung across his chest, a Luger pistol in his belt and a potatoe-masher hand grenade jammed into the top of each jackboot. I hesitated. The Kraut threw his hands in the air – thank God! Shorty, who was right behind, brushed past me in a flash and moving like a cat with one swift movement jammed his Sten gun into the Kraut’s stomach with one hand; reached around the Kraut’s side with his other and extracted that beautiful much-prized Luger.

I silently cursed my stupidity. The damn things were worth about 200 English pounds in London on the black market (about a $1000 at that time), if you dared smuggle them in (not too difficult). But I sure felt no envy of Shorty because he was worth every cent of the prize figuring he probably saved my life back at the start line. We disarmed the guard, sat him down on the ground, hands behind his neck. Shorty told him to wait there until he was picked up. We disabled his Schmeisser and threw the grenades into the bush.

Continuing our run along the path we were soon back up on the tracks and struggling to catch up to our infantry. The firing began to ease. After a mile or so we broke out of the trees and into the first suburb of Assen and caught up with everybody.

It was impossible to tell how many Germans were behind in the woods or elsewhere so the Colonel chose a nearby solid looking house as a headquarters and our Captain and Bob remained with him. The infantry were ordered to set up a defensive perimeter around a cluster of houses and prepare for a possible counter-attack. I was ordered to assist the infantry. Our 24-hour day had ended but as usual, no rest for the wicked. Looking up some records I believe it was the 13th of April 1945.

I was about to enter our headquarters to help set up its defenses when Shorty said, “No, No Dick we dig slit trenches out here about six feet from the house in front and on the two sides facing the enemy and fight outside. It’s too easy to be blown up or burned out inside if they have heavy artillery or tanks or get close enough for a Panzerfaust. If they decide to attack tonight we need to have our sentries outside and awake.”

Some breakfast was brought up while we were digging and we kept at it for an hour or so when we learned that all the enemy forces had pulled out of Assen and fled north towards Groningen. Soon after, our FOO team left to find billets nearer the town for the night and rejoin Rocky and our carrier. Our regiment and guns were also billeted and parked nearby. I said goodbye to Shorty and thanked him profusely for helping me but unfortunately we never met again. He had taught me a lot. Before the war ended I participated in eleven more attacks on foot and his lessons were invaluable.

The Liberation of Assen – the Celebrations
We were given the rest of the day to celebrate with the Dutch citizens of Assen. I really don’t recall how that worked or when we pulled out again. I only remember participating in the festivities and watching the crowds. I took the picture on the left of the whirl of the joyous Dutch as they centered on captured Dutch collaborators.

Assen celebrates Liberation!


Some of the despised women were forced to kneel and their heads were shaved of all their hair. For these women it was a mark of shame that took a long time to live down. The men faired worse as they were beaten with fists and clubs as they passed through the crowd. Several were dragged along with ropes around their necks while the crowd clapped and jeered at their former tormentors. I did not take any photos of the retribution because it was very unpleasant.

There were lots of girls hugging and kissing us and ladies of the town plied us with cookies and tea and even offers of powerful Dutch Gin. The kids as usual were awestruck and determined to shake our hands and get our autographs on pieces of paper, their clothing or even on paper Guilder notes. We exchanged addresses with many of the people we met in the expectation that we might be back before too long but Groningen was just 15 miles away and we moved on, all too quickly the following morning. All in all, I am sure you will agree it had been an exciting day and a half.

Note: I have been remiss in not mentioning that the units our guns supported, in addition to the Essex Scottish of Windsor (the “Essex”), were the Royal Regiment of Canada (the “Royals”) from Toronto and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry from Hamilton (the “Rileys”).

These Regiments were all from Ontario. The Royals and the Rileys entered the town from different directions but as I previously mentioned I knew very little of what others were doing outside of my immediate surroundings. It is just the way it was unless you were in a senior command role. I do know the tanks were from the Fort Garry Horse (Winnipeg) and that our famous Kangaroo regiment was also on the scene.

In addition there were supporting armor and other units that also entered Assen about the same time. Personally, I have always been proud to brag that I was the fifth man in line to liberate the town. Perhaps I can be forgiven this minor display of personal ego enhancement.

For an interesting historical overview of the Battle for the Liberation of Groningen please see:
http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/history/battlehonours/northwesteurope/groningen.htm

I will relate my experiences in that battle in my next article. I also have some surprising information to relate to you as to what happened to Ross Rolls, my old school chum of The Kangaroo & The Badger tale during the Groningen battle – news that only recently came to light and was sent to me by their regimental historian.

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