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The Battle of Groningen – Holland April 1945

This battle completed the drive north of the Second Canadian Division in which I was a participant. The battle is well described in the reference I gave at the end of my previous article however; all war stories can only describe general conditions and the framework of battles with very few close-up personal experiences of individuals. Even then for every small story hundreds of others much more intense than mine will never be told.

There were several other incidents and fights that took place on the way to Groningen that I have not written about because I cannot be sure when they occurred. The two episodes prior to this I remember well because of the souvenirs I collected on the way and because of the significance and value of my fortunate meeting with Sergeant “Shorty” Heintzman. I will relate these missing adventures at a later date.

Arrival on the outskirts of Groningen
Our Forward Observation Officer (FOO) team together in our Bren Gun Carrier entered the city from the south. We were under fire almost from the moment we started into the first built up area. Our Captain had been given general orders to head for the main railway yards. We stopped at the corner of a street close to the wall of a house. The Captain took time to look at his map. He told us to keep low as we came out from the protection of the building turned right and raced several blocks to the east; then we would turn left close to the rail yards,

Just as Rocky our driver revved the engine and began to pull out, one of our tanks to our left on the street not a dozen yards from us fired his main gun. The shock of the blast blew several tiles off the roof of our protecting building and showered us with broken tiles. One hit Rocky and quite badly bruised his shoulder (luckily no broken bones). The tank commander realized what had happened when he saw the nose of our carrier and waved us on. We quickly completed our turn raced down the street and turned left meeting up with our infantry, accompanying tanks and several Kangaroos.

Crossing the rail yards
I was ordered to carry the #18 radio set and the Bren gun and go on the attack across the rail yards with one platoon of the infantry. Our Captain, and Bob Lowe my buddy signaler and our injured driver Rocky would continue on with the armor and the rest of the infantry, meeting up with us later. I was to stay in communication.

The railway yards seemed massive. They looked to be some 800 yards across and ran at least twice that distance to the left and right (there is a partial picture of them on the Battle of Groningen website I mentioned in the notes of my last article). On the other side of the yard were many railway buildings a single story in height that sat on top of a concrete platform designed to allow freight cars to load and unload easily. Behind them was a street with houses about three stories high with many windows overlooking the rail yards; a perfect place for enemy machine guns and snipers to pick us off as we crossed the tracks.

We spread out in some depth and as unevenly as possible to reduce our exposure to any enemy fire and began to cross over the tracks. There was a lot of firing going on but as far as I could see nothing from the windows. Crossing dozens of tracks meant I had to keep my eyes on the ground so I probably would have missed seeing them anyway.

Soldiers with radios on their backs and aerials sticking up are prime targets for snipers therefore I was zigzagging at an angle as I hurried along while hop scotching over tracks and switches etc. It took us about 15 minutes to work across the yard and while I could hear some enemy firing I couldn’t see any others being hit. I think we were very lucky and I was relieved when we reached the shelter of the service buildings and their concrete loading docks as we were then safe for the time being.

I found a corner near the outside door of a men’s locker room and called in our position to Bob Lowe. He acknowledged and told us to stay where we were. Many of the Dutch workmen’s lockers had been broken into and I was lucky to find a good pair of pliers with wire cutters because I had lost mine and badly needed them for running and splicing telephone lines. When we were in a position long enough we almost always ran a telephone wire and used our compact hand sets because the #18 radios were unreliable; batteries failed, their segmented aerials fell apart and they were easily jarred off net. Amazing how we still had such poor portable communication equipment at this late stage of the war. Our larger radios were excellent however, thank goodness.

Running the Gauntlet
After about an hour of waiting at the railway yard sheds Bob called that they were on the way to join us with the rest of the infantry. When they arrived they came with their trucks, accompanying Kangaroos, tanks and all their equipment. We then moved close to a canal but turned into a narrow street of civilian of homes before we reached it. There was a lot of firing and sounds of battle ahead at other end of the street but to our amazement the civilians didn’t seem to be aware of the danger. Out of the houses they came in their hundreds offering us tea, pancakes and all sorts of food that they could ill afford to give away having been starved for many months.

We had to get moving but they created such a mass of cheering, hugging, kissing, hand- shaking men, women and children we were stalled. They were determined to welcome their liberators regardless of the war going on not a stone’s throw away. Somehow the infantry extracted themselves on foot and left most of their vehicles behind because when we got to the main street running south they were out of sight as we ran at full throttle rocking and rolling down a very wide boulevard with machine guns and other missiles chasing us down the road.

It was a wild but frustrating run as I crouched down in the carrier with my Bren gun pointed at the upper windows of the houses and stores overlooking us, ready to fire at snipers but seeing none. I saw curtains move but dared not fire in case they were curious civilians. No doubt some snipers popped up and shot at us as we went by but we were not hit from above. The back of our carrier was struck many times. When we finally turned off to the left on a side street at the end of our half mile run we were hyped up but glad to relax for a moment. Rocky had managed all his fantastic driving in spite of his badly bruised shoulder; he must have been relieved to rest a while.

While waiting I was amazed at some of the Essex guys. There was a liquor store on the opposite side of the boulevard, at least a hundred yards across. The machine guns were still blasting down the street at anything that moved. When the firing stopped for a minute some of the guys would charge across the street to loot the liquor (“liberate” I meant to say). As soon as they ran, the machine guns opened up but they always got across fast enough to beat the bullets. This dodge the bullets, get the booze game went on for half an hour. I couldn’t believe anybody would risk his life for a bottle of booze.

Now I was ordered to go to a shed nearby and help the infantry search a group of German prisoners. There were about 30 there and six of us to search them as three other infantrymen stood guard.

At first the prisoners were quite sullen as we made them empty their pockets and throw everything on the concrete floor. But then a funny thing began to happen. Out of their pockets came what seemed to us to be dozens of “French safes” (condoms). Every damn Kraut must have had condoms tucked everywhere. Soon we began to kid them. They began to laugh in embarrassment. “What a bunch of frisky bastards,” we’d say making appropriate gestures. Then some who spoke English would translate to the rest. Soon we were all laughing, including the guards. A few of the prisoners actually rolled on the floor holding their sides. The whole scene was like a comedy theater. By the time the job was completed I don’t think anybody left that building without a smile. War does have its humorous or should I say very human moments.

Next I recall sitting in the carrier after another skirmish and having called in our artillery for support when some of the infantrymen came alongside and thanked us by proffering their liberated bottles of liquor. We took a few swigs; perhaps a few too many. My hands were full taking a radio message and writing it down when an Essex guy I knew said, “Dick, open your mouth,” and he poured a lot of brandy down my throat. It caused me to make a minor radio procedure blunder that cost me a week’s loss of pay because the Battery Major happened to overhear it back at the command vehicle. No sense of humour! He laughed when I explained the situation but fined me anyway.

The night came and the fighting slowed off. It was then I heard that a good friend of mine an Essex Captain, had his leg blown off when he stepped on a German shoe mine. I felt badly. He had lost a platoon of his men in a fight some months before and had refused to lead any more regular formations. Instead, he volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs in the infantry; that of leading a select team of advance scouts. Many times I had watched him away out in front of the infantry walking down country roads with his men fanned out each side in the fields attempting to spot the enemy or deliberately draw their fire. His luck ran out. At least he would go home to Canada.

Our final skirmish with the Germans in Holland
The following morning our FOO team was rushed to a canal in the south-east sector of the city where I later found out some of the Essex were trying to cross a canal bridge and we were needed to prevent the Germans from crossing from our side of the canal a little further south of the bridge to reinforce their comrades at the bridge itself.

It turned out our location was a modern but small two story high school about 400 yards from the canal. As we drove close to the school, a young Essex sergeant I greatly admired came running past holding his eye to his cheek in his cupped hand and heading for medical help. I cannot be sure of his name now but he was a hero to all who knew him because he was one of those very few natural warriors that appear in time of war and are the type of men around whom combat teams can be built. “Hi Dick he yelled, watch out when you go up the staircase, they are shooting through the window and got me there.” “Thanks Dave, I shouted back, good luck with the eye.”

We parked the carrier behind the school and ran an extension cord and microphone through a window to the upper floor. Bob stayed with our Captain and both joined the Major of the Essex upstairs. While setting up we ran as fast as possible up and down the stairs and were careful to keep out of sight but even then several bullets smacked into the wall in back of the landing as the Kraut sniper saw any shadow of movement. When done I was ordered to stay downstairs with the infantry.

The Shooting Gallery
It was a weird scene downstairs. The right wing of the school where we were was a chemistry lab with the usual black counter tables and stools, sinks, taps, Bunsen burners, glass faced cabinets etc. Large windows faced the canal but the glass had been shot out or broken out for ease of firing. Five or six riflemen were sitting on stools with their elbows planted on the counter-top firing at the enemy. There was also a Bren gunner sitting on a stool with his bipod balanced on the counter firing away. I sat down on a foot stool with my back against the wall and my Bren across my knees and watched the show.

The enemy was dug in on our side of the canal about 250 yards away. They were desperately trying to run up the canal embankment behind their trench and get down to the canal to cross in small boats that were out of our sight. One or two at a time would chance the run and then our guys would try and stop them. It was a difficult shot but our score was mounting up. Things were getting hotter with considerable returned fire. I was still an onlooker but itching to join in, however I was not authorized to do so unless ordered.

One of the infantry guys in frustration then turned to me and growled, “Do you know how to use that bloody gun!” “I sure do I said.” “Well get that damn thing going he shouted, or I’ll do it for you!” “OK I said, but I have to get my captain’s permission,” I could sense the rifleman meant what he said so I figured I better get out of there fast. I ran upstairs and explained the situation to my captain. “Sure he said, go have some fun, help them out.” So I raced back downstairs, grabbed a stool and had the infantry Bren Gunner move about four feet from me to give me a clear view of the German trench.

Next, I adjusted my sights for the proper range and opened up with a small burst designed to kick up dust at the top of the mound of dirt the Germans had dug out and used as a barrier in front of their trench. I had to make one more small adjustment and the next burst was perfect. My infantry Bren gunner pal was impressed. He was a lot more impressed as we began to knock down most of the escaping Krauts. It was just like a commercial shooting gallery and each time we scored a shout went up from our fellow riflemen. I sensed it couldn’t last because the Germans always struck back when they got a touch annoyed.

All of a sudden a great blast of flame, bricks, glass and dust burst through the wall of the school right in front of us. Both the other Bren gunner and I were blown off our stools and wound up thrown against the back wall covered with dust, debris and glass. When the smoke cleared and we could see again we were relieved to find nobody had been hurt. The Panzerfaust had hit the school wall exactly in the four foot space we had left between us. We swore heartily at the Krauts and laughed at our luck. War is an adventure if you don’t get killed.

That ended the fight as the Germans quit soon after and we pulled out. We were informed the bridge was captured by the Essex and we had done our job. Although our fight was over, the battle for Groningen was left to others to finish off the next day. I recall we had orders to help clear a German Marine barracks south of us but instead it was decided our entire Second Division was needed back in Germany. We rested overnight and pulled out for das Reich the next morning.

The Adventures of Ross Rolls and Sergeant Bois
In my story of The Kangaroo and the Badger I told of my surprise meeting with an old high school friend of mine. The Kangaroo’s historian William Miller, noticed the article and was trying to locate Ross Rolls and identify him from a Kangaroo regimental group photograph. I was able to confirm Ross’s identity in the group photo. (See his picture on the left). We still cannot locate Ross. Can anyone reading this help? If so, please let us know. We know he survived the war but nothing more. He lived in Scarborough, Ontario Canada, near the Scarborough Bluffs when he enlisted.

New information just came to light of Ross’s last known adventure in action. He and his sergeant did take part in the Groningen battle and their Kangaroos carried some of the Essex Scottish infantrymen into that city. From the details of my article I would think it was their group of three Kangaroos that picked up our infantrymen at the Railway yards.

Yesterday, Mr. Miller sent me this personal account of their action related by a telephone conversation with a former Kangaroo Driver from A Squadron, Troop 4 – Cpl Carl Atkinson. Mr. Atkinson confirmed prior information recently obtained of Ross and his Sergeant’s near capture and escape and added other interesting details of his own experience.

Carl Atkinson’s statement of June 30, 2011
I do, I think that’s the one? (Photo on the left of the wrecked Kangaroo “Phyllis” (Ross’s) destroyed by a Panzerfaust). We were just the three (Kangaroo) carriers enroute, the officers volunteered to go in on this push. We went into the town and there were people on the street, both sides. So we turned to the left and everything was… there wasn’t anyone on the street at all. So we got started down that street; I must have been the last tank in line. We started down that street and we came under fire. I don’t recall who was with me at the time; my officer said, “Driver Reverse.” So he ducked down into the tank and I reversed looking up at the wires for the electric street cars and when I came to the corner I went by and then I went back the way we came.

So, as I remember it, at least one tank got hit and Bois, he and his driver got out of tank and went into one of the houses and they were gone all night. And they slipped back and forth into different houses and one of the places they got into the Germans were in one room and they (Bois and Rolls) were in another! So then they, at sometime found some women’s dresses and wearing the dresses went across the street. Then that next morning they walked out and rejoined our unit again. I don’t know what happened after that.

I and my officer were okay, and the next day, our officer volunteered again, so I guess we volunteered too? This time we went to a train station I think it was, grouped up with the infantry. Before we left, my knees, with nerves was jumping so, I could hardly put my foot on the pedal. That nervous! So then I prayed and we left and went in with two other Kangaroos and dropped our infantry off. We were to machine gun the second story and up and the lower stories were for the infantry. So we got by and we were alright, Nothing happened on that run.”

Can You Help?
We would like to find Ross Rolls (and other Kangaroo veterans) if still alive because the Kangaroo Regiment is having a National Reunion and Presentation of the Regimental “Guidon” Friday, Saturday and Sunday, September 9th, 10th and 11th in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. If you have any information, pease contact:
letters@canadafreepress.com or rfield000@sympatico.ca or wj_miller@shaw.ca
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Comments

Comment from Glattejern Ghd
Time April 5, 2014 at 3:12 p04

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Comment from admin
Time April 23, 2014 at 3:12 p04

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