I have been in contact with Richard for some time, and I was delighted that he was willing to share with me his experiences of the Reichswald campaign. I know it has been very difficult for Richard to relive those moments in writing this account, and for that, he has my gratitude. I have found no need to change the text in any way and I have made no changes. I would also like to thank Richard for allowing me to reproduce his experiences here. Bill Medland.
Richard Wright writes...
I was a 13 year old schoolboy when war started in 1939. Though I was 14 the following month I never imagined I would become a soldier on active service but such was the case. I am Richard Wright and it was because of that war service, mainly though not solely in the Reichswald area that I ultimately came to the notice of Bill, simply because I left a comment on a web site he runs largely concerned with matters Veritable. I was contacted by Leo, who lives in Holland and whose hobby is Operation Veritable and everything to do with that phase of the war and for perhaps four years we have corresponded on a regular basis and continue so to do.
I was working on a farm, a job I enjoyed despite it being extremely hard work but that came to an abrupt end when I was required to report for military service. My journey took me to the north of Ireland where I enrolled in an Irish Regiment and trained as an Infantryman. I must have shown some aptitude for slightly higher things because I was nominated for a course as Infantry Signaller/Wireless Operator and duly passed out in that role.
From enrolling there was a basic course of six weeks, a more advanced one of a further six and then the Signals course again six weeks. The basic course was mainly to change a young man, possibly and certainly in my case unwilling from a civilian to a soldier and I have to say that this was achieved in the most efficient way even to the extent of instilling in us a feeling of pride.
One further course when all the various trainees came together for ten weeks of intensive training culminated in my boarding a troop train and eventually crossing the channel to reach a transit camp in Bourg Leopold in Belgium.
However this was punctuated by the most important event in my life. Prior to going abroad I had 14 days embarkation leave and during that time Violet and I were married. This had not featured in our thinking, after all we were only19 years old but it was just a few months since our lives were turned upside down. I was going to face goodness only knew what; she was living in London and did so throughout the war and we both thought it was the right thing to do and indeed today, after more than 63 years of a perfect marriage we still think so.
The camp was the only such British camp and all troop replacements went there. There was no training, we were just awaiting posting and there were several thousand troops with movement in and out on most days. My short stay came to an end when I was to report to Helmond in Holland where I was billeted in a house in which a Dutch family lived and was there for two weeks.
I then moved closer to the Reichswald, though I didn't know that at the time because nobody ever told us anything. We just did as we were told and in the very early hours of February 8th 1945 I was told to report, with my radio to the Intelligence Officer who, with the driver of his Jeep and I set off for a map reference point which it transpired was just over the border between Holland and Germany. I knew this because the frontier bar was lying at the side of the road. I was in Germany. I would have preferred to be back on the farm!!
Incidentally, regimental loyalty counted for nothing at that stage of the war and I ceased to be a Rifleman in the Royal Ulster Rifles and became a Fusilier in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The fact that I was English made not a jot of difference and when the battle started we, the 53rd Welsh Division were between the 15th Scottish and the 51st Highland (Scotland) Divisions. .. There was another regiment from Wales, The Welch Regiment, (note the different spelling.) Add to that the fact that we were part of the First Canadian Army and the picture is complete. Not necessarily understandable but complete!
As already stated we (common soldiers) were told nothing and we stopped in a lane by a very high hedge alongside a field. I was not to know, but found out soon enough that on the other side of that hedge was a full battery of artillery guns whose presence became obvious when I heard the command 'Fire.' That was the start of what I found later to be a barrage of 1400 guns which seemed to go on until mid afternoon.
The IO told his driver to move forward and we went quite a distance mainly though not solely through an area of dense forest until we reached an agricultural area and a long track at the side of a field. I only realised how long it was as we went all the way down until we were stopped by a stream. I think I realised that this officer was required to find information about opposing troops and this thought became reality when on the far side of the stream, and certainly not more than 20 meters from where we were stopped was a long line of German troops. How they failed to see us I will never know but they were purposefully marching forward, not making a sound and common sense certainly told us to be just as silent.
When it was safe to do so the Jeep was turned round and we set off back the way we came but clearly we had been seen because for the entire distance we were fired at by a machine gunner. How he missed us was a mystery but a farm building appeared and I was never more pleased to get behind reliable cover than I was then. We were right in the German lines and though I forget how long we stayed there, though it wasn’t long but I do know that when we continued our journey all was quiet. When we reached our next stopping place we were shelled by 88's, something that happened on a regular basis and though one could never get used to it there was nothing to do but hope for the best. For most of the time, indeed I think all of the time these shells arrived as air bursts which made life uncomfortable.
At the end of Day one I was told to report to my own company, S Company, the one in which the various specialists were based and as wireless operator I carried out the exact role for which I was trained, Wireless Operator to the Company Commander of whichever company I was posted to for each attack.
Being in an Infantry regiment in a dense forest such as much of the Reichswald was was difficult in the extreme and our situation was not helped by the ever present mud which made the use of transport very difficult. Fortunately they found a very good method by which to bring up our single daily meal, tracked vehicles which covered the ground quite easily.
There were occasions when Churchill Tanks would give us support and it was comforting to have them so close at hand. They were certainly capable of giving any enemy troops a hard time if they were unwise enough to fire at us. It was fascinating in the forest to see a tank slowly moving forward and watch as fairly thick trees just lay down as it progressed. Also to watch a flail tank moving forward in a mined area and rendering mines useless. We were certainly well equipped though the very best vehicle was the huge one which arrived one day with pipes and shower heads. Sheer bliss.
When we left the main forest area we became for the first time opposed by the massive King Tiger’s which the German’s brought into the battle and on one occasion on a dark night I was in a trench, within a few metres of one of them and directly in its line of travel but inexplicably it changed direction at the last moment. A close encounter indeed.
It was simply a case of fighting our way through, and then out of the forest and at that time another battalion went through us and we went away from the front though we returned shortly after and continued toward the Rheine. I learned later that the plan was that each of the allied armies would advance up to the western bank and rest there until the time came for the river to be crossed and in my case that happened at Xanten where we waited in an open area close to the river though with no idea what was going to happen next. It soon became obvious because we watched as 3500 planes and gliders (I learned the numbers much later) appeared flying very low and due east.
The crossing was easy. Unknown to us a pontoon bridge had been put in place and we just drove over onto the far side. There was a most interesting situation immediately across the river caused by the fact that we had so many vehicles but there was no road, it was deep country but that was soon rectified by a bulldozer which tipped the lines of a main railway line down the embankment and an instant road was available.
It was a totally different situation after the crossing when we moved in trucks instead of on foot. Within hours of crossing the river we saw literally thousands of prisoners; long lines of thoroughly dejected men who probably were secretly rejoicing in the fact that for them the war was over.
My memory is vague on this phase because we seemed to reach, clear and pass so many smallish towns or villages though from a purely personal point of view I can recall being injured and being told by the MO that I would have to go to hospital simply because I was having difficulty walking. I have tried so many times to understand my next act because it was so ridiculous that rational argument doesn't seem to apply. I asked if I could be given a role where I would not have to walk all the time; not difficult because as I just mentioned most of our movement was in vehicles and I was again told to report to the IO who by now had abandoned his jeep, simply because they gave scant protection and was using a Bren Gun Carrier, a tracked vehicle, the sides of which were 6mm steel.
As before I was in the back except when I was the only occupant and had to be sat at my radio at all times and then I sat in the front of the vehicle. That was when I had the luckiest of a number of lucky escapes because a snipers bullet touched the aerial of my set and from that moment on I lowered my head below the side. I understand there was no clutch on a Bren Carrier's transmission and I was getting in on one occasion when the driver started to move. He didn't know I was still climbing in and I fell awkwardly and this time hospital was the only choice because I couldn’t walk and that was where I went...and where my active service role ended.
Being transformed, in just a few short months from farm worker to soldier seems to be an odd arrangement though needs must when the devil drives and by pure coincidence I arrived at the beginning of Operation Veritable, described often as one of the fiercest battles of the war in the west and along with thousands of colleagues I had no choice but to do that which I had been trained to do. There seems to be an inevitability about the ever present danger which faces a front line soldier in World War Two type warfare: snipers and air bursts but also, the bane on my life the awful Spandau machine gun which was responsible for my worst experience though I came through it OK and that seemed to be the belief. Take reasonable precautions, keep your head down and just ‘hope for the best.’
Another worry, though not one I faced much was Moaning Minnie’s, as we called them. We sent plenty of mortar shells the other way but the German version had whirring vanes which made a most unpleasant sound. I suppose if you tell yourself the noise couldn’t hurt you then all you are left with is the shell itself which may or may not ‘have your name on’ so it seemed to be a pointless exercise making such a din.
I think it true to say that after the Reichswald there were so many signs that the enemy was a severely, almost mortally wounded beast and judging by the number of white sheets hanging from houses the civilian population had had more than they wanted of war and destruction. Obviously they were still capable of a few surprises and I had one experience where I thought some civilians were being friendly when in fact they tried to lure me into a trap from which I would certainly not have emerged but I realised what was happening and left. There were army signs saying ‘No fraternisation’ and I certainly obeyed them from that point. There were cases, though I had no experience of it where a very young child would approach a soldier and ask for chocolate. As the soldier was off guard the child would bring a revolver from behind his back and shoot.
Seeing us, the Canadians and Americans pouring forward in huge numbers and in modern transport while German guns were being pulled along by horses was surprising. A worrying aspect, explained after the war was the way even a few enemy troops would stay until the very last moment before giving themselves up and we had an example of this when a handful of SS men troubled us throughout the hours of darkness intermittently firing Spandau’s from, as we discovered later no more than 100 metres but the moment it became light they came in with their hands up. I can say now there were those among my colleagues who wanted to shoot them though I never saw such things happen.
One thing which puzzled me was the way we seemed to use total destruction as a weapon of war. We had so many guns and huge numbers of shells and if there was evidence of opposition it was just blasted from the face of the earth along with any buildings which might offer shelter. Driving through Germany as I have done several times in recent years one is fascinated by such as church steeples, always newly (after the war) built because our artillery were told there was a lookout in there, or bridges, every single one of which was newly built from ground level. I stood on the Mohne Dam where it was breached; I saw a major road in a country area which just ended in a field.
I drove through the town of Essen where every building was newly built and I was reminded of the night I watched as artillery guns almost encircled Bocholt and fired continuously for several hours probably because a few people had refused to surrender. I took no pleasure in seeing it as it happened but was heartened by one amazing sight.
The day after Kleve surrendered we went through in vehicles, though only after bulldozers had cleared the roads. There was no building above ground level, it was total destruction but I went there a number of years later and it was as though there had never been any damage; it was difficult to contemplate how what I saw in 1945 had been transformed into what I saw then but it was quite uplifting.