1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - Battle of the Autobahn (March 1945)
Although, this objective has always been referred to as ‘The Autobahn’, it was not really an Autobahn at all. It was merely the foundation for one, and was in fact a wide sandy channel cut in the top of a ridge and running roughly south-east to north-west. It appeared to have been ready for the laying of stone and concrete when work was suspended due to the war. The reinforced piles for the fly-over across the main Millingen-Anholt road had already been constructed. The approaches to and from the south were open and rose slightly, and were dominated by enemy positions in the spruce wood on its north side. This was to be a difficult attack.
Route taken by the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment
214 Brigade decided it was to be a two Battalion attack with 1st Worcesters on the right and 7th Somersets on the left. At the same time, to the right of the Worcesters, a similar and co-ordinated attack was to be undertaken by 51st (Highland) Division.
The Worcesters prepared to move at 11.00 hours following a battalion ‘O’ group which was held at 10.15 hours. It was fully realized that time for preparation was short. Battalion Orders gave only grouping and essential details for the attack and as the companies moved off to the assembly area the commanding officer and company commanders motored ahead in an attempt to carry out a quick recce of the ground over which the attack was to go. However, this proved impossible since time was too short, but it was possible to see the lay of the land in general and to tie up details.
Back in the assembly area the crash of 4.2 mortars ranging and registering could be heard.
The two assaulting companies, ‘A’ company on the right and ‘D’ company on the left, started their advance from the start-line about fifteen minutes late at 14.00 hours. However, the intense enemy machine gun fire caused ‘A’ Company even further delay and they were still on their start-line 40 minutes later. Meanwhile ‘D’ Company were steadily pushing forward but they also were encountering heavy machine gun fire and suffering casualties. One troop of tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards was supporting each Company. However, owing to the ditches and other natural hazards between the start-line and the objectives they were quickly bogged down in the soft ground and of little practical value.
‘C’ Company was in the centre slightly back and ‘B’ Company was kept in reserve.
Company positions and advance on the Autobahn (27th march 1945)
Private Eric Tipping
Private Eric Tipping of 16 Platoon, recalls the advance of ‘D’ Company:
“We moved to the forming-up area to start our attack. Our platoon would be leading. We moved across several small fields. There were no signs of the enemy so we pushed on without a shot being fired.
Eventually we came to much more open ground that gently sloped away for some distance, to a thick hedgerow. The platoon moved on over the very exposed ground but there was no sign of the enemy and it was so quiet. There was a hedge of trees about thirty yards ahead of us, which give us some cover.
However, as we started to advance from the hedges suddenly the enemy opened fire with machine guns. Several of the men in the platoon went down wounded and killed including the officer Lieut. M. C. Shawcross who was killed. I hit the ground close to the next member in my section, our heads were almost touching. The ground under us was just sunken enough to save us from being hit. I felt the bullets thudding into my small pack on my back! Calls for help came from the wounded.”
Private Alfred Ingleby
Private Alan George also with ‘D’ Company recalls what happened next:
“We dived for cover in a shallow ditch no more than a foot deep. Enemy machine gun fire continued, trees being shredded all around us. It seemed that everyone in front of us had been killed but then we heard a cry from someone who was wounded. Private Alfred Horace Smith (age 27) next to me said ‘I’m going to fetch him in’. He had no sooner knelt up to take off his pack and he was hit by machine gun fire and mortally wounded. By the time the stretcher bearers arrived sometime later he was confirmed dead.
Also among those killed was an 18 year old lad from Tividale, Private Alfred Ingleby, who had only recently joined the battalion.”
Major Peter Hall commanding 'A' company attacked on a two Platoon front moving himself immediately into the rear of the forward Platoons. Soon after crossing the start-line the attacking forward platoons came under very heavy and accurate machine gun fire from concealed positions on the autobahn banking. Severe casualties were being suffered. The action of the supporting tanks was largely neutralised by bad ground preventing their movement.
Private Alfred Horace Smith
Lieut. Johnnie Davies
Lieut. Johnnie Davies (7 Platoon) recalls:
“During the attack one of the section leaders from my platoon, a Lance Corporal, went missing. He turned up again some time later only to receive a reprimand from me. It turned out that he had gone to relieve himself. This same Lance Corporal later did outstanding work during the Ahlhorn crossroads attack when he fought off a group of Germans with his bren gun as they tried to attack our company H.Q. position.
During the Autobahn attack my platoon (7) was on the right with Peter Wade’s platoon on the left. The attack was in daylight across an open area which was very boggy leading up to an autobahn which was still under construction. The autobahn itself was on a raised bank which was quite steep, about 15 feet high. The main section was the width of a 4 lane motorway but the area had grassed over as construction must have stopped some time ago.”
Lieut. Peter Wade recalls the advance:
“ ‘D’ Company on my left were late getting off their start line. We in ‘A’ were now well ahead in open ground with little cover and being hit by machine gun fire. Our tank support was bogged down in the soft ground and so we had no covering fire from them. The situation was now critical as we could neither move forward or back. I decided to throw a smoke grenade to provide some cover so we could move to a better position. As I knelt up to throw the grenade I was hit by machine gun fire in my thigh. I shouted across to Johnnie Davies who’s platoon was on my right and he made his way across to see what had happened”
Lieut. Johnnie Davies continues the story:
“Peter Wade shouted across to me he had been hit. I made my way across to him. When I got there Peter was in some pain and was worried that the bullets had shot his testicle and asked me to check. With some humour I confirmed that they were still OK and that the wound was to the top of his thigh. I did what I could for him. As the attack was still under way I had to get back to my platoon. I threw a smoke grenade and made my way back to the right, still under machine gun fire.”
Major Hall seeing the seriousness of the situation took direct control of the forward platoons and continued with the advance which allowed the first objective to be gained, capturing or killing about twenty five enemy.
Lieut. Johnnie Davies takes up the story again:
“We continued our advance up the side of the autobahn and were able to outflank a German machine gun post on the autobahn banking, circular redoubt about 8 feet high. As the enemy saw us coming they decided to run and I told my bren gunner to fire at them, they were about 400 yards away at the time. When we finally reached the machine gun position it was empty.
When we got to the other side of the autobahn most of the enemy had fled apart from a few hiding in some large trenches. These were taken prisoner.”
Lieut. Peter Wade
Mortar and shell fire now began to come down on the captured position but Major Hall, with complete disregard for his own safety and taking no cover, walked about for a quarter of an hour supervising consolidation.
During this time the company’s 2i/c Captain Freddie Lawson was standing directing some supporting gun fire from tanks that were still bogged down in the heavy ground. Whilst he was doing this he was hit by machine gun fire and killed outright. A short time later the Company Sergeant Major L. Thomas also became a casualty receiving a gun shot wound.
Major Bryan Elder, M.B.E.
Major Hall crossing open ground still under spandau fire from the flank returned to bring up his company HQ. He then ordered his reserve platoon to clean up the enemy resistance on the flank, cleverly co-ordinating the attack with tank support, and accompanying the platoon onto its objective.
Major Hall noticed some of his men lying wounded in the open in an area still under enemy machine gun fire from an unallocated position. Calling for a volunteer, Major Hall went out himself and with the assistance of Corporal Joseph Snape a tank commander in ‘A’ Squadron of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, who were providing supporting fire, and brought back one of the wounded. For his bravery Corporal Snape was awarded the Military Medal (sadly he was killed a few weeks later on the 18th April 1945 during the advance to Bremen). Major Hall was recommended for a Military Cross but just a few weeks later at the battle of the Ahlhorn crossroads he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) and it was decided by the Divisional Commander that only one medal would be awarded, that being the highest honour which was the D.S.O.
By 17.00 hours ‘A’ Company had succeeded in gaining all its objectives.
‘D’ Company under the command of Major Bryan Elder found themselves pinned down to the south and were not able to make their position until after dark when they lost contact with the enemy.
Enemy artillery reaction to the attack had been very heavy, but as the afternoon gave way to night it decreased considerably. Mortar Platoon who were already forward were followed by Battalion Headquarters and supporting arms at about 18.00 hours through the most appalling congestion in the streets of Millingen, where the 5th D.C.L.I. were endeavouring to push on in kangaroos and seemed to have fallen victim to someone’s change of mind, for every vehicle seemed to be trying to turn round at the same time.
The Worcesters, command post was eventually established in a farm at Hegeshof about 600 yards south of the autobahn just off the main Millingen-Anholt road. ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies, who had been following up, now consolidated in the rear of the forward companies. The objective was achieved.
Lieut. Peter Wade finally recalls:
“It was two to three hours before I was evacuated to our RAP as it was virtually impossible for the medics to get to me until after nightfall. Eventually, I was collected by our stretcher-bearers and carried back to our RAP on a stretcher strapped on top of a bren gun carrier. This particular battle resulted in remarkably few wounded amongst the casualties — you were either dead or unscathed.”
Battalion HQ and Company positions by 19.00 hours 27th March 1945
Incidentally it was not until early evening that the Worcesters learned that the 51st (Highland) Division’s attack, which was to have gone in at the same time as theirs, did not start until 17.00 hours. The Worcesters had battled all the afternoon in ignorance of that fact but it was now quite clear why ‘D’ Company had been pinned down from the south.
One of the outstanding features of this battle was the smooth way in which the Battalion deployed for battle in the very short space of time allowed. This was largely due to past experience, training and ‘knowing the drill’ of the Second-in-Command, Major John Ricketts, D.S.O., who brought the Battalion forward, and to Company Commanders who completed Orders and grouping in the minimum possible time.
Casualties were relatively high, due almost certainly to the absence of cover between the start-line and the objective and to the inability of the tanks to give really close support. Radio communica¬tions were extremely poor and contact with the assaulting companies was lost for long periods.
Major Gordon Reinhold, M.C., who was previously the Brigade Major with 130 Brigade before joining the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, was later recognised for his achievements and awarded the Knight Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau with Swords (an Order of The Netherlands). His citation read:
“…………During the operations following the assault crossing of the Rhine, and the trust north, from the bridgehead through Anholt and Hengelo to Oldenzaal, Major Reinhold was commanding the 1st Worcestershire Regiment and during the period it led to notable success in a particularly bitter engagement in the area of the autobahn at Vehlinger on the 27/28th March 1945.
Throughout all these operations this officer’s skill, personal courage and cheerfulness under all conditions have been an inspiration to those with whom he worked.”
Advance towards Anholt
At 08.00 hours on the 28th the Brigade Commander held a further ‘O’ Group at which the Worcesters were ordered to continue their advance to the line of the river Issel west of Anholt. The 7th Somersets were to conform on the left.
‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies were given this task and, apart from a little shelling, crossed the Autobahn and reached their objectives the only casualty being Lieut. Ken Hill who was wounded. A number of enemy prisoners were taken; they were deserters who had hidden in the woods.
Tactical Air Force was very active during the afternoon and this helped to keep the enemy quite quiet while the Worcesters advanced, but they witnessed a sad sight when one of their own Air O.P.s was shot down by a direct hit.
As the Worcesters advanced various small bridges were seized by forward patrols but there was no more sign of the enemy.
Meanwhile ‘A’ company right and ‘D’ company left remained in the rear on the autobahn.
Battalion Headquarters was now moved forward to a large building about 1 mile south of Anholt in a wooded area on the main road to Anholt and here on the 30th March the Commanding Officer Lieut.-Colonel Tim Hope-Thomson rejoined the Regiment, duly wedded.
The following day the whole battalion embussed at 08.30 hours and advanced slowly arriving at Sinderen at 11.35 hours, the leading troops having been held up by a large crater.
The house near Anholt which Capt. Huxter and Private Scully
were ordered to check for enemy during the advance near Anholt
(Photo Louis Scully collection)
Private Thomas Scully in the boat
During this advance Captain Huxter and Private Scully were ordered to check out a house near Anholt. As the house was in the middle of a small lake they had to row across. The house was empty and it looked as if it had been vacated in a hurry, there was food still on the table.
During the night the Worcesters learned that they would be in the lead of 214 Brigade for the advance north the next day.