Tripsrath - For the second time (January 1945)

Tripsrath area had changed considerably since the Worcesters left it in the previous November. There were now two Companies in the village, two Companies in Hoven Wood, and Battalion H.Q. and “Sp” Company in Hochheid. A thick blanket of deep snow now covered the countryside and the roads and tracks were packed hard forming a treacherous icy surface.

Worcestershire battalion defensive positions between 11th to 18th January 1945

In the village the fighting positions were roughly the same, but each Headquarters (Company and Platoon) had moved to better accommodation, as the practice was to withdraw the maximum number of men by day so that they might wash, eat and rest in comparative comfort and prepare themselves for the nightly vigil back in the village.

In Hoven Wood, however, the conditions were still poor with only shallow slit trenches invariably submerged in water or coated with ice according to the temperature, provided the only possible accommodation. Maintenance was again by night, ‘A’ Echelon serving the needs of the Battalion from Grotenrath about five miles back. Luckily, the Divisional Transport Pool again provided two Weasels to assist in transporting supplies through the waterlogged tracks, which were impassable even to jeeps.

The 7th Somerset L.I. were on our right in the area of Brugerhof and the 5th DCLI on the left in the area of Dorsets Wood with its Headquarters back at Rischden. The Brigade HQ was on the extreme right of the line and was neighboured to the south by 17th United States Cavalry Regiment.

The immediate enemy positions seemed to be Spandau Wood, the aptly named northern end of Hoven Wood, directly facing the right-hand forward Company, the 80 ring contour (see map on previous page) to the north-east of Tripsrath called “Kidney Feature”, and the hamlet of Konigshof on the main Heinsberg Road, north of Tripsrath.

German Panzer Tank North of Tripsrath (January 1945)
(photo Louis Scully collection)

On re-introduction to this sector one felt that the enemy had the initiative and that he had been allowed to get away with too much by our predecessors. He seemed to toss his shells and mortar bombs about with too much carefree abandon and with insufficient retaliation from our side. The enemy was also in the habit of firing leaflets into the British lines. These consisted of various invitations, to our troops to give themselves up by the simple walking 300 yards forward towards their positions. They caused much laughter and were in great demand either as souvenirs or for some other unmentionable purpose.

This state of affairs, however, was not allowed to continue for long, and the enemy must very soon have realized that there was a different formation facing them. The Worcesters Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Col. A. W. Vickers, was both energetic and belligerent, so that for every shell or bomb the Germans fired ten times that number were returned which had the required result.

From time to time the Germans bombarded Tripsrath with 8-cm. mortar bombs in batches of about thirty at a time.

The weather, already very cold, became colder. Anything from 26 degrees to 32 degrees of frost was normal and the danger of frostbite became very real. The men were ordered to remove boots and socks and massage their feet twice daily in order to stave off frostbite.

Private Thomas Scully (now with 'D' Company) recalls the weather conditions:
"It was bitterly cold especially at night so I dug myself a particularly deep trench and and made a makeshift roof of tree branches and any wood I could find so has to keep out the cold. I then settled down for the night. I must have fallen asleep not sure for how long but it had been snowing again and the roof of my trench was covered in snow. Suddenly, I heard voices nearby, thinking they were men from my own company I pushed the makeshift roof which by now had several inches of snow on top to have a look out. To my surprise there was a small group of Germans nearby talking to a tank commander. I decided to stay put and keep my head down, still concealed by the cover of snow I waited till they moved on, which seemed to be ages but in reality it must have been only about 20 minutes or so. When it was all clear I climbed out and made my way back to my company who had moved towards Tripsrath. Eventually, I linked up again with officer Captain Percy Huxter who said 'where the bloody hell have you been!!' apparently they had moved during cover of darkness without me noticing"

Automatic weapons froze up and had to be treated with low-test oil in order to prevent jamming. Water cans solidified and melted snow had to be used as a substitute for ablution purposes. With snow on the ground, white suits were issued for patrolling both by day and night. Everyone became extremely filthy and bathing parties were organized daily at the coalmine at Brunssum. Rum rations flowed in liberal quantity, especially in the Command Post.

There were several features, which served to alleviate the monotony of such an existence.

There was the unbounded energy of Lieut.-Colonel Vickers’ in pursuit of his offensive policy of hitting the German positions as often and as hard as he could. Aided by American Gunner F.O.O.s, who were attached to the Worcestershire Battalion, with seemingly unlimited call on fire-power.

There was 'Operation Blackcock', the clearing of the Sittard-Roermond Triangle, for which 'Operation Shears' had previously been designed but cancelled at the last minute. 214 Brigade sector was now the extreme right of the line and, so to speak, the bottom right-hand angle of the triangle, so it watched with interest whilst 7th Armoured Division, 52nd (Lowland) Division and other elements of 43rd (Wessex) Division rolled up the line on its left.

Captain Peter Gray, Signals Officer, devolved an ingenious system of broadcasting News Bulletins direct to the Companies by connecting the telephone system to a wireless set, and excitement rose to fever pitch as the picture took on a rosy hue.
It was expected that the final phase of 'Operation Blackcock' would include the assault on Hoven, Kraudorf and Nirm. In order to allow the passage of tanks the Worcesters were ordered to lift the extensive minefields laid forward of Tripsrath earlier by 52nd (Lowland) Division. Something like 1200 grenades (75 type) with their pressure plates removed were frozen in the earth under about six inches of snow. The Pioneer Platoon, led by the Pioneer Officer Lieut. J. (Johnny) Allum, spent nights reconnoitring, sweeping, lifting and reconnoitring again and by some mischance, when the task was almost completed and over 1100 mines had been removed, Lieut. Allum prodded a particularly sensitive one and blew himself up. Sergt. R. F. Edwards completed the job, for which he was awarded the Military Medal. It was probably one of the biggest mine lifting tasks ever carried out by an Infantry Pioneer Platoon.

The Signal Platoon spent an unpleasant night burying all the cable leading to Tripsrath as a precautionary measure against destruction by tank tracks.

There was much amusement one night when the following story was told:

Capt. Peter Gray

Sgt. R. F. Edwards

A huge crater was revealed on one of the many air photographs, which was issued before the attack; and the Sappers constructed a very large Bailey Bridge on sledges and named it ‘Sydney’ after the famous bridge in Australia. The unfortunate sapper in charge was ordered to lay it across a bomb crater on the Heinsberg Road. He drove this unwieldy contraption up and down the road all night, at the risk of being blown up by mines. To his astonishment, he could not find the crater and eventually decided to return back to base. After investigation it afterwards turned out that the crater was actually a speck of dust on the camera lens !

It was here for the first time the chatter of the 'Pepper Pot' was heard. This was something new and additional in supporting artillery and consisted of a harassing barrage from smaller calibre guns. A squadron of tanks would fire, indirect, 100 rounds of 75 mm. or 17-pounder each at the rapid rate. Bofors in a ground ro1e pumped clip after clip of 20 mm. into the enemy defences, and even the anti-tank guns raised their muzzles, made approximate calculations, and hurled their H.E. 6000 yards.

From the roof of the house in which Worcestershire Battalion Headquarters was established, some members of the Battalion watched the effect of this 'Pepper Pot'
on the village of Uetterath, some 2,000 yards north of Tripsrath, prior to its assault in the closing stages of 'Blackcock'.

As the villages in the Sittard-Roermond triangle fought and fell, and the Germans crept silently away to prepare more positions to the east of the Roer River, the Brigade front became quiet.

Captain Percy Huxter (now in ‘D’ Company as second-in-command), remembers driving back to Battalion H.Q. at Hochheid, in a jeep, to report the situation of ‘D’ Companies position in Hoven Wood. On his way back he was caught up in a battle between the Germans and the 52nd Lowland Division!! He realised he was way off route and immediately stopped and went into the nearest house to get information. As he opened the door, to his surprise he saw about 10 Germans all sitting on the floor. Before they had chance to move Captain Huxter was out of the house and back into his jeep, racing off up the road and finally found his way back to ‘D’ Company.

1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 'B' Company men
(photo Louis Scully collection)

Lieutenant Rex Fellows (‘B’ Company) recalls taking a two-man patrol across the no-man’ s land between Tripsrath and the small cluster of farm buildings known as Königshof. It took place during a bitterly cold night, when 30 degrees of frost was normal, and quiet movement in the hard crusted snow was impossible. The risk of being seen by the Germans was reduced somewhat by the wearing of white hooded suits, and the careful wrapping of weapons in white tape, but nothing could be done to deaden the noise of movement, and the daylight effect of brilliant moonlight could only be overcome by restricting movement to coincide with the occasional cloud passing across the moon (The only other protection was the power of prayer !! But Johnnie Ockmanoff, one of the trio, was an avowed atheist!!. The religion of Joe Banas, the third member, a Pole, was not known but whatever it was, it encompassed a deep seated hatred of the Boches !! The trio carried out many patrols together and Lieutenant Fellows feels he owes his life to the skill, dedication and experience of his companions).

Annastrasse, Northern Tripsrath leading to Königshof (1944)
(photo Louis Scully collection)

Lieutenant Rex Fellows tells his story :-

The patrol, in triangular formation - some ten paces between men - to avoid the concentrated noise of footsteps crushing the frozen snow - moved slowly out from the end of Tripsrath village, passing some of the forty odd snow covered body mounds of the Germans.

They had been killed when they attacked ‘A’ Company, in the initial, November battle, and were still lying there in the no-man’s land, which had resulted from the unchanged position of the front line in the interim period. The Company, commanded at that time by Captain K. R. H James, had consolidated beyond the objective by moving two platoons forward of the village. This not only reduced the effects of the inevitable counter-attack by fire, but also later, proved to favour them with the element of surprise.

Their position, in open country would appear to have been unknown to the enemy, who, as they advanced, were taken completely by surprise. After a 1500 yards of slow and careful movement, with every sense strained to the limit, I heard a slight noise from somewhere behind and turned round to see both men, for some reason much further back than arranged. Private Banas was in the act of throwing another snowball (to attract my attention), but seeing me look back, started pointing to the ground, again and again!

The dreadful truth dawned very quickly, I was in a minefield!!

As I stood, frozen to the spot, looking back towards the others, a German soldier suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere. He loomed surprisingly large in the bright moonlight, but must have been some twenty paces away as he came up from the ground - presumably from a trench - to my left and to the rest of the patrol’s right.

The shock of his sudden appearance was eased by the realisation that he was slowly shuffling away, and not towards us.

He obviously hadn’t seen or heard anything of our movements and was totally unaware of our presence.

The others saw the German at the same time, and I was alarmed to see Banas raise his gun to shoot. I was greatly relieved that they saw my frantic hand signals telling them to hold fire. I was still numb from the realisation that I was trapped in a minefield - frightened to move my feet let alone dive for cover, or crawl away from the enemy fire which any such action would surely have attracted. I decided to re-trace my steps, reasoning that I had not detonated a mine because the pressure plates were frozen up, or that, in fact, there were no mines along the route I‘d taken. (The only other way, was to chance running, as fast as possible, over the top of the frozen surface - an optimistic alternative, thinking that speed would prevent me from going through the crust. I knew that the cold had robbed me of the speed and agility to do this).

The others waited whilst I slowly and very carefully extricated myself from the minefield, retracing every step with great precision. It was not difficult - the footprints were clearly marked in the snow, and the moonlight became friend instead of foe. I was frightened, and it was a relief to rejoin the others, after a carefully trodden walk which probably took less than ten minutes but felt like a lifetime!

When I got back to my companions, they pointed out the ‘Achtung Minen’ signs, which had warned them of my predicament. Had we been ‘bunched’ together, as we advanced, instead of adopting a well-spaced triangular formation, the signs could have remained unseen by all three-patrol members, and the outcome might have been very different.

It was not the most successful of patrols - the original plan to recce’ the Königshof buildings being abandoned, but the information gained by the chance location of the minefield, and defensive positions, was useful information for later patrols, and for the eventual capture of Königshof by ‘A’ Company, who took seven prisoners in the operation.

One of these prisoners would never know how close he came to our patrol. Nor would he know how close he came to death! Banas, acting on his own initiative, would undoubtedly have shot him!

Every member of the patrol however, knew that the weather conditions gave the enemy a distinct advantage and the wisdom of mounting the operation on that particular night became the subject of long discussions.


Worcestershire positions and attacks on the 24th and 25th January 1945

On the 24th January, Worcesters ‘A’ Company (now commanded by Major T. F. "Freddie" Hughes) moved to the north-east corner of Dorsets Wood to relieve a Company of the 5th D.C.L.I. which was expecting to put in the final attack of the operation within the following two days and, as the result of favourable recce patrols, ‘B’ Company moved out to occupy “Kidney Feature”, whilst “A'' Company dispatched a Platoon and successfully seized Königshof without casualties and took seven prisoners.

Aerial view of Hoven on the left and Kraudorf on the right (1944)
Hoven is at the edge of the woods and had only a few farm houses.
The village on the right, where you can see the trenches in the field, is Kraudorf.

On the 25th January, the village of Hoven was reported to be unoccupied, so the Worcesters Commanding Officer directed ‘C’ Company to occupy the northern end of Hoven Wood and then passed ‘D’ Company through them into the village. During this operation one N.C.O. was wounded by a Schü mine.

Corporal F. H. Bozward (‘D’ Company, 17 Platoon) recalls, “Somewhere near Tripsrath (Hoven Wood), we were dug in on the edge of a wood. The weather was very bad, snowing and cold. Nothing was going on except a few patrols down to the village about half a mile away. 

The weather got better and the Company was ordered to move in on the village. We went through the wood into the village, and there didn’t seem to be any enemy there. Suddenly, walking down the road, bold as brass, came one of our lads. ‘They’ve all gone’, he said, ‘I’ve had a bloody good look all round’. His name was Taylor and because all Taylors are called ‘Tanky’, we always called it ‘Tanky Taylor’s Village’

The Tripsrath area had now ceased to be a battlefield. On the 26th January the men of the 1st Battalion Worcestershires concentrated in Tripsrath and Rischden and, proceeded by a Recce Party, moved the next day to the area of Hulsberg in Holland. Once again the men enjoyed the baths at Brunssum and took time out to watch various cinema shows.

The battle of the Sittard-Roermond Triangle was now over and the final attack, which had been planned and prepared for, was now found to be unnecessary. So ended this adventure of the war.

On the 31st January 1945, the Worcesters eventually took the road again and journeyed back into Belgium and headed north to Beersse (near Turnhout) and awaited orders for the final phase of the war.

Corporal F. H. Bozward