Tag Archives: WW2

From the Beachhead to Belsen: The Humanitarian Mission of 113 Light AA Regiment RA

Belsen-survivors3What did you do in the war daddy? Gunners from 113 Light Anti Aircraft Regiment could truthfully answer – “We helped to save tens of thousands of lives.”

113 Light AA Regiment Royal Artillery was originally raised as 2/5th Battalion the Durham Light Infantry, converted to a Searchlight battalion RE before the Second World war, and then to a Light AA Regiment in 1941.

In June 1944 it landed in Normandy as part of 100 AA Brigade and defended the bridges over the Caen Canal, including Pegasus bridge and the gun areas north of Caen. In September 1944 it took part in Operation Market Garden, taking over responsibility for defending the Bridge at Nijmegen. After a cold winter in the Netherlands and Belgium it provided air defence for the bridge over the Rhine at Xanten.

2015-09-18 09.50.09 2015-09-18 10.11.09 2015-09-18 14.01.18By 16th April 1945 German air effort was weakening and the Regiment came out of action into a concentration area near Haldern East of the Rhine. The Allied spearheads were rapidly advancing through Germansy and the Red Army had surrounded Berlin. It might reasonably expect to have little to do until demobilised. 113 LAA the Regiment’s service was not untypical of any Light AA Regiment It had done its bit.

But things changed with the orders the next day to move to administration duties at Belsen Concentration Camp (42 miles North of Hannover) under command 10 Garrison, taking over from 63 Anti tank Regiment.

Belson .1Captain Pares, the Adjutant of 113 LAA wrote the following:-
“On 12 April 1945 following the break-through of Second Army after the Rhine crossing, the German Military Commander at Bergen-Belsen (Chief of Staff 1 Para Army) approached 8 Corps with a view to negotiating a truce and avoiding a battle in the area of Belsen Concentration Camp.

In occupation of the area were 800 Wehrmacht, 1,500 Hungarians with their wives and families, and certain SS Prison Guards. In the concentration camp were known to be 45-55,000 internees of whom a very large number were reported to be suffering from Typhus, Typhoid, Tuberculosis and Gastro-Enteritis. The electricity and water supply had failed: there was no bread and very little food.

The camp area consisted of the concentration camp and ½ mile North a large tank training centre with very extensive barrack buildings, a small PW camp attached in which were 800 Russians, and a military hospital.

In the interests of our own troops and the internees, and from the point of view of preventing, the spread of disease, a truce was granted on the following terms.

The German Military Authorities were to erect notices and white flags at all the road entrances, marked ‘Danger – Typhus’ on one side and ‘End of Typhus Area’ on the reverse, with a disarmed German post at each notice. German and Hungarian troops would remain at their posts armed, wearing a white arm-band on the left sleeve. The Hungarians would remain indefinitely and were placed at the disposal of the British for such duties as might be required. The Wehrmacht were to be released within 6 days and conveyed back to the German lines with their arms, equipment and vehicles. SS Guard personnel were to be removed by 1200 hrs 13 April and any remaining to be treated as PWs. SS Admin personnel would (if the Wehrmacht could prevent them running away) remain at their posts, carry on with their duties, and hand over records. When their services could be dispensed with, their disposal was left by the Wehrmacht to the British authorities, i.e. the Wehrmacht ‘sold’ the S.S.

About 50% of the inmates were in need of immediate hospital treatment. All of them had been without any food for 7 days, and prior to that living on the normal concentration camp semi-starvation scale of diet.

There were about 10,000 typhus-infected bodies, mostly naked and many in an advanced stage of decomposition, lying around the camp, both inside and outside the huts, which required immediate burial; and the daily death rate was 4/500.

The living conditions were appalling – people were sleeping 3 in a bed, mainly treble-bunk beds, and huts which would normally accommodate 60 were housing 600. There were no sanitary arrangements, and both inside and outside the huts was an almost continuous carpet of dead bodies, human excreta, rags, and filth.

There were some 50,000 persons to supply and feed, but the cooking facilities were totally inadequate. There were 5 cookhouses of varying size equipped with a number of large boilers, and the only containers available to distribute the food were a few large dustbins A large proportion of the occupants were bed-ridden, and many were incapable even of feeding themselves.

The inmates had lost all self-respect and been degraded morally to the level of beasts. Their clothes were in rags and teeming with lice; they had no eating utensils or plates, and at the time of the food distribution they behaved more like ravenous wolves than human beings.

There were 49 SS male and 26 female prison guards under close arrest and a Wehrmacht Hospital with 2,000 sick and convalescent German soldiers.

The electricity which came from Celle was cut off and the wiring sabotaged; the water supply which depended on it for pumping had consequently failed.

To prevent spread of Typhus and the other diseases it was necessary to keep all the internees within the Camp, yet the Hungarian guards were grossly lax and made little effort to prevent them from filtering out.”  More of Captain Peres Account here.

Over the next month 113 LAA took over the Wehrmacht barracks at Bergan-Belsen, which would become Bergen-Hohne Camp.   The typhus epidemic meant that the the concentration camp inmates could not be allowed to leave. They built cook-houses, buried the dead transferred the living to clean accommodation, guarded the SS men, and disarmed the Hungarians. Their soldiers can be seen in the newsreel shots. The War Diary entry for 26th April comments that over 8,000 bodies had been buried since their arrival in the camp.  The SS Guards interviewed for the newsreel seem to have lost the  SS Runes from their uniforms. These seem to have fallen into possession of the Gunners.

Victory march1On VE Day 9th May the Regiment paraded through Hohne Camp,. Starling at the corner of the Belsen Concentration Camp past British, US Soviet and US Senior officers who took the Victory march 3salute to the sports pitch where the 54 guns of the Regiment fired ten rounds single shot and ten rounds automatic to celebrate victory and peace in Europe.

At this point their work was only half complete. The last huts of Belsen Camp were burned with as short ceremony on 23 May 1945.

Belson 2
Last hut burning May 1945

After the traumatic work, 113 LAA Regiment were given ten days leave beside the Baltic and issued 6000 bottles of beer.

A tour for Spirit of Remembrance Image1baldwin battlefields logo

Wartime Wanderers Revisited

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Harry Goslin’s Original Grave (Courtesy W Goslin)

Last week, as the historian and guide for 103 Regiment (V) I took part in a special battlefield study to Italy, in the footsteps of the Bolton and Manchester Artillery on the battlefields of the Sangro and Moro Rivers and Monte Cassino, as part of Ubique 300. 53 (Bolton) Field Regiment were the nearest thing in the Second World War to the pals or sports battalions of Kitchener’s Army raised in 1914. In March 1939 Hitler reneged on the Munich agreement and invaded Czechoslovakia. The following weekend the team captain of Bolton Wanderers football club, Harry Goslin addressed the crowd and called for supporters to join the TA. It was not enough to deplore what was going on in the world. Hitler would need to be stopped. He and the team were joining up.

The story of what happened to Harry Goslin is told in an earlier post, written close to the 70th anniversary of his death. It was mainly based on general histories of the battle and material available on line.

Italy1100000Lanciano_with_markings
Map showing the attack by the 8th Indian Division on 14 Dec  1943, updated to show the attack from the South . (1) The “Impossible” Bailey bridge, built from the enemy side. (2) Position secured before the attack (3) 17th Indian Brigade attack (4) Canadian attack on Casa Beradi on the same day.

updated to show the

updated to show the

A visit to the National Archives and the war diary of 53 Field Regiment revealed more details about the story and the experience of the soldiers.

We can interpret documents such as fireplans.  Harry Goslin, the Bolton Wanderers fotball team captain was killed as an artillery forward observer in this battle
Fireplan Trace overlaid on 1943 1:50,000 map sheet.

The maps in the general histories portray the attack mounted by the 8th Indian Division on 14th December as an arrow from Villa Rogatti west north west to to Villa Caldari. The fire plan in the 53 Rd Regiment War diary shows a barrage by the divisional artillery supporting an attack north from the road between these villages, which curves first west then north. When superimposed on the 1:50,000 map the first line of the barrage is 50 yards north of the candy stripe road, an obvious start-line. 52 and 116 Field Regiments fired the lines of the barrage. 53rd Field Regiment fired a flanking barrage, three lines of shells fired at right angles to the main barrage to protect the left flank of the attack, exposed to enemy fire from the lateral road. All points calculated by hand in damp, cold dug out command posts.

members of 209 (Manchester) Battery pay respects to a Manchester Gunner in Sangro War Cemetery
Major T J Fox BC and members of 209 (Manchester) Battery, and the Captain General’s Baton  pay respects at the grave of a fallen Manchester Gunner in Sangro War Cemetery

The war diaries referred to the abysmal quality of the maps, with features up to 500 metres from their true location. It wasn’t much easier to find locations on modern maps. It is hard to find maps with more detail than 1:200,000 and the information on different publications can be contradictory, and at variance with the features on the ground.

2015-07-22 14.50.40_cropped LR
After the ceremony, Major A J Gledhill, BC and members of 216 Battery pose behind Harry Goslin’s Grave photographed by Philip Mason Chaplain of Bolton Wanderers FC

But the 53 Field Regiment gun positions seemed obvious. Plotting the battery locations on the 1944 map showed East of the road between S. Vito Chietano and Lanciano. west of Treglia The best fit of the 1944 map with Google maps put the gun positions just to the side of what is now a road through the edge of a village. This made sense. The fire plans called for hundreds of rounds of ammunition per gun per day. The weather in December 1943 was bad with the fields and tracks reduced to mud. The War diary noted that it was difficult to extract the guns from their old positions and that it took six hours before two of the batteries were ready after moving a couple of miles. Gun positions would need to be close to the driest ground. An old lady remembered, “yes. The guns were just over there”. What is now an olive grove was a field in 1943.

Grave of Gunner Plummer, a 53 FGiled Regiment OP Signaller who fell on the same day as Harry Goslin.
Grave of Gunner Plummer, a 53 Field Regiment OP Signaller who fell on the same day as Harry Goslin.

There were also some VIPs. Harry Goslin’s son Bill and grandson Matt came to make a visit, their first to Harry’s grave, and to find out about what happened to him. Lieutenant Harry Goslin was mortally wounded as a forward observer, a task usually carried out by a captain troop commander. Harry’s normal role should have been on the gun position, either in a troop or battery command post or as a gun position officer. The command post officers were responsible for supervising the soldiers who calculated what direction the guns should point to hit any given target. This was difficult and tiring work, but not as dangerous as accompanying the infantry, with the higher risks from bullet, shell or mortar bomb.

Major John Young in the "Dorway to Valhalla"  The entrance to the German War Cemetery Caira
Major John Young in the “Dorway to Valhalla” The entrance to the German War Cemetery Caira

The 53 Field Regiment War Diary provides evidence of the pressure on the officers and soldiers who served at the sharp end. On1st December, after a week long battle on the Sangro Rover one battery commander had been evacuated with exhaustion The nearby 1st Canadian RCHA attacking on the right of the Indians lost four out of six FOOs over four days. Officers and signallers from the guns would have to take their turn at the OP. It was as a stand in OP Officer that Harry Goslin crossed the start line.

The Rapido Valley looing towards Cassino from Caira German War Cemetery
The Rapido Valley looing towards Cassino from Caira German War Cemetery

The attacks along the Adriatic coastal plain halted a month later on the next river line, the Arielli, with winter snow.  Four months later, the 8th Indian Division with the 52nd Manchester Artillery and 53 Bolton Artillery crossed the Apennine mountains  in secret to deploy South of Cassino.   Here the allies had tried battering a way through what was the strongest part of the German defences between December 1943 and March 1944.

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Memorial to the 36th Texan Division which suffered heavy losses attempting to cross the River Gari in January 1944. Four months later the 8th Indian Division, supported by the 52 nd and 53rd Field Regiments crossed the river near here.

The allies concentrated both of their armies to break through the German army on the front facing Rome.  This time the allies assembled a force of 1600 guns, including those of 52 (Manchester) Field  and 53rd  (Bolton) Field Artillery Regiments. These blasted a path across defences which had stopped the allies over the preceding months. Not without a hard fight or losses. The commonwealth War

Down time in the Adriatic sea., close to the mouth of the River Sangro
Down time in the Adriatic sea., close to the mouth of the River Sangro

Graves Commission records list 184 members of the Royal Artillery who died in Italy during May 1944. 110 are buried or commemorated in the Cassino War Cemetery. Twelve of the dead served in the 52 (Manchester) or 53 (Bolton) Field Regiments.gunner tours logo white on brown

China’s War with Japan – Rana Mitter, winner of the Duke of Westminster Award

china_war_with_JapanYesterday Dr Rana Mitter gave the lecture after receiving the Duke of Westminster Prize for Military History at RUSI for his book “China’s war with Japan 1937-1945- the Struggle for Survival” . His is fascinating not only does it tell the story of what has been a neglected corner, but it is also has much to say about the background to current day geo-politicval issues in Asia.

Much has been written about various turning points in WW2,. Such as the British decision, under Churchill, to fight on in 1940. Just as important was the decision by the Chinese Nationalist government to continue fighting after much of their country had been over-run. Had the Chinese surrendered in 1940, there would have been no quagmire holding down Japanese troops which could have been used in South East Asia , against British India or the Soviet Union. It is humbling to realise that the London Blitz started over a year after the sustained Japanese bombing of the Chinese temporary capital at Chongqing, – or Chungking as it was then known in English. Nor that the date 4th May 1919 was the 20th anniversary of a key date in Chinese history, the massed demonstrations in favour of modernisation. Nor was I aware that the Chinese Nationalist government were influenced by the Beveridge report which set out the post war welfare state.

It was particularly interesting to hear about who modern China has acknowledged the story of the nationalist Chinese part in the Second World War. How books films and ceremonies now commemorate events which could never have been mentioned a few years ago. For example. The hundred thousand Chinese soldiers who fought in Burma received no pensions or acknowledgement, of which around eighty are still alive. This year a memorial is being erected to their memory. It is a whole new dimension to the term “Forgotten army”

The conclusion of the lecture and the talk concerned the implications of modern China embracing the history of the war  against Japan.    China was one of the big four allies.  It paid a heavy price to survive and win.    It did not obtain the same territorial advantages gained by the USA and USSR.  Nor was there the same accommodation with the defeated enemies.  There is a sense of unfinished business.

16 MAY 1944 DID NEUTRAL SWEDEN KILL FLIGHT SGT DAY DFM?

Date: 10-MAY-1944
Time: 17:00
Type: Silhouette image of generic MOSQ model; specific model in this crash may look slightly different
de Havilland Mosquito FB.Mk VI
Owner/operator: 418 (City of Edmonton) Sqn RCAF
Registration: MM421
C/n / msn:
Fatalities: Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 2
Airplane damage: Written off (damaged beyond repair)
Location: sea 3 mile S of Ystad –    Sweden
Phase: En route
Nature: Military
Departure airport: RAF Coltishall
Destination airport:

Narrative:
MM421 – Missing from night intruder to Greifiswald 10.5.44
Public Record Office WO 208/3320 had his MI.9 report; he had left Stockholm on 16 June 1944, arrived in Britain 17 June 1944 and was interviewed on 18 June 1944.
“I was captain and first pilot of a Mosquito aircraft which took off from Coltishall on 16 May 1944 at about 1300 hours on a Day Ranger operation across Denmark, and covering German aerodromes on the Baltic. When approximately over Rostock we were hit by flak at about 1530 hours. One engine was rendered completely unserviceable, and the fuselage was badly damaged.

“It was obvious that we would not be able to reach base, so I took the only alternative of attempting to get to Sweden.
“When over Ystad we were fired on by flak, although it was obvious that we were in distress. This compelled me to fly out to sea again. I ditched outside the three-mile limit, exactly south of Ystad at about 1700 hours. The aircraft broke up badly, but we both got out safely. The water was so cold that I just managed to inflate my dinghy and got into it before becoming unconscious. When last seen my navigator was trying to get his dinghy inflated. When I came to about half an hour later there was no sign of him.
“I was picked up by a Swedish fishing boat, which also found my navigator’s body. I was taken ashore and to a hospital in Ystad. I was there till 22 May. On the second day a member of the British Legation at Malmo came to see me. On 22 May I was taken to the internment camp at Falun. After a trip to Stockholm to report the details of our accident to the authorities. I returned to Falun whilst negotiations were being carried out with the Swedes for my repatriation.
“At no time was any interrogation pressed on me, and I was treated with great consideration. On 11 June I was taken down to Stockholm and repatriated on 16 June.”
Crew:
W/Cdr (J/5756) Howard Douglas CLEVELAND DFC (pilot) RCAF injured
F/Sgt (1503804) Frank DAY DFM (nav.) killed.

Sources:
http://www.airhistory.org.uk/dh/_DH98%20prodn%20list.txt
http://www.rafcommands.com/forum/showthread.php?3359-Crash-location-418-Sqdn-RCAF-Mosquito-MM421-May-44/page2

mosquito418 RCAF is claimed to be the RCAF’s highest scoring fighter squadrons in the Second World War, in terms of both air-to-air and air-to-ground kills, and of both day and night operations.   Its night operations were carried out without airborne interception radar.  

There is an excellent well written account of the expereince of 418 aircrew, ” Terror in the Starboard Seat: 41 Trips Aboard a Mosquito, a True Story of 418 Squadron”  by Dave McIntosh.

This aircraft took off from RAF Coltishall, which continued to serve as an RAF airfield until its closure  in November 2006.  It is currently awaiting disposal with plans for reused as the site of a prison, immigration centre and housing.

20130927HolmseySouth59-001

The crew of MM421 were not based at Coltishall.  418 Squadron were based at Holmsley South airfield in the New Forest in Hampshire on the South Coast.  Presumably the day ranger operation in the Baltic needed to operate from East Anglia.  It is possible to visit the site of  Holmsley South where the is a memorial to the units which operated from the airfield.

20130927HolmseySouth16-001

http://www.newforestmilitaryarchive.org.uk/Site/RAF_Holmsley_South.html#0

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