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So our first task in Europe was one unfamiliar to a mobile reconnaissance unit : dig in. This we did, hampered by enemy shell fire, at great speed. The Germans shelled Escoville ceaselessly. They also crept upon us through the high standing corn of lush Normandy farms. For most of us, for me certainly, this was a first experience of close quarter battle and ferocious shelling.
I knew I had above all to maintain the morale of my troops. There were scares in the middle of the night that Germans had infiltrated and of course we had casualties from the shelling. I did have some very fine troop leaders, such as Geoff Clough and Desmond Owen, who had been in the desert fighting as had most of the troop sergeants and senior NCOs. We all held our nerve, some of us taking risks in exposure to danger which in retrospect were a bit foolhardy but which certainly contributed to the performance of the squadron. They say most men give of their best in their first action. Afterwards they know what it is all about, and courage is expendable.
After two days and two nights we were relieved by C Sqn. My squadron retired to a quiet orchard a mile back, alongside Regimental HQ. I got under my vehicle and went to sleep. Within two hours I was woken to be told that the acting CO, Roy Dunlop, wanted a word. I crawled out. "Very sorry, John," he explained "but C Sqn are in trouble in Escoville. Their Sqn leader went in his armoured car along to the east several hours ago and he has not returned. I want you to go back there for the night and hold the hand of their acting commander." That I did: and the night was without major trouble. But it was my third night under shellfire, without sleep. For bravery in the Escoville battle I won an MC – and I had myself successfully recommended Clough and Owen for the same award. Three Other Ranks won M.M.s. I felt I had proved myself and gained in confidence to lead my squadron successfully.
The bridgehead battles lasted much longer than we planned. There were all sorts of minor offensive operations, which were unprofitable and often ill-planned. The German Tiger tanks were a menace: 4 CLY for instance lost a whole squadron, killed or prisoner, to three or four bravely manned Tigers in Villers Bocage. 2 DY had landed in France some 700 all ranks strong: by the end of August our casualties were 190 killed, wounded and missing, including 18 officers.
XII BELGIUM, HOLLAND, GERMANY AND WAR’S END
The breakout from the bridgehead came at last in early August, the Germans suffering immense casualties at Falaise, then drawing back over the Seine the bulk of their forces. 2 DY took part in the battle for Le Havre then crossed the Seine near Elbeuf and helped chase the enemy across Belgium into waterlogged Holland. After several months of minor scraps in appalling conditions we reached Maastricht in December.
Then Hitler made his last throw. All the best of German armour was massed for a thrust through the Ardennes on the American front, the aim being to cross the Meuse, get behind the allies and attack Antwerp. On Christmas Day 1944 2 DY was in a British force sent from Maastricht (just as Christmas dinner was ready) via Liege into the Ourthe valley and to the area of Marche to help the Americans. In fact the latter fought bravely and recovered : DY fighting included a highly creditable and much publicised link up with US troops in the South to seal “The Bulge”. The Yanks suffered badly in the extreme cold. They would exchange a Jeep for a bundle of our warm battledress and I did several such deals. I then drew my own name out of the hat to proceed on home leave.
When I returned from leave in a bitter January to Regimental HQ in Marche it was already dark and I elected to stay there overnight in the house they occupied rather than rejoin my squadron in the line and most significantly, to sleep downstairs in the warm rather than in the communal cold bedroom upstairs. That last decision may well have saved my life for during the night the Germans dropped anti-personnel bombs which exploded on the windowsills of the upstairs room where slept all the HQ officers except one on duty by the radio and me. Everyone upstairs was hit, including the adjutant and intelligence officer killed, and three seriously wounded.
Among the wounded in Marche was Roy Dunlop who lost an eye. It was his second wound because he had been with me one early morning in Holland when the two of us were talking with Alec Langly-Smith as a Bosch 'Moaning Minnie' mortar bomb came over making its ghastly noise and landed between us. Alec and I fell into the ditch one side and were OK, Roy on the other was hit in the leg and evacuated.
We returned from the Ardennes to Holland, re-equipped and crossed the German frontier to take part in very severe fighting for the Reichswald forest in early February. This was the area of the Siegfried Line. The Germans were defending their native land and did so defiantly. Such place names as Goch and Gennep (where Bill Davies won another MC for B Sqn) will be remembered by all who took part in these desperate battles. We seemed to be in action nearly every day suffering a steady stream of casualties – but we were inexorably making way toward the last great obstacle before entering the heart of Germany – the Rhine.
We reached that great river in March and 2 DY went over, on a floating Bailey Bridge hastily erected under fire by our engineers, with no trouble, on the last day of that month. We streamed on eastward, of course not welcomed as in France (sometimes) or Belgium and Holland (always) but by sullen bewilderment.
We had had a little light relief in Bentheim on the Dutch/German border, where at the station siding an engine was found with steam up and an ex engine driver in our ranks got it moving up and down the line to loud cheers. Then we found a magnificent black Mercedes in a garage carrying a huge swastika on its bonnet so clearly belonging to a high Nazi official. We took that on squadron HQ strength and kept it until war's end. Then our miserable control commission insisted all such perks must be handed in. Alec Langly-Smith's brother, a naval officer, had earlier offered to take it home for me via Cuxhaven but I missed the boat!
At 'O' (Order) Group meeting on the evening of 3 May the Brigadier in charge gave orders for 4 May. "And, Major Harris, you will have under your command two troops of tanks, for which you have been campaigning to operate alongside your armoured cars since the Bridgehead in Normandy. Their commander is sitting behind you". I turned : it was Jack Hawkins, with whom I had joined 4 CLY in 1939, almost exactly six years before.
May 4 was a day of triumph. Odd pockets of die hard Germans gave fight but we had our tails up. That evening one of my troop leaders came up on the radio to say that he had a German major carrying a white flag with him – who said his superior officer wished to surrender the 15th Panzer Division, along with the 21st the best armoured divisions in the Wehrmacht, with which allied soldiers from throughout our then Empire had done battle from Alexandria to Tunis, from Normandy to Bremerhaven. I thought, at first, my officer was pulling my leg, but not so. Similar approaches were being made on other fronts. The war in Europe was over.
My C.O. came up to me next day to say how well B Sqn had done. Walter Serocold was of the Reconnaissance Corps of modern creation without the near 200 year old traditions of the Derby Yeo. Modest of stature and retiring of character he had joined us in the Bridgehead taking over a regiment who expected the appointment of one of its own (Roy Dunlop). But Walter was to prove a very able and much respected commander. He had a good brain, was very steady in a crisis and a notably fair man, who never threw his weight about unless justified. He was brave as they come and would be my first choice among the colonels under whom I soldiered.
There followed six months of occupation, stationed near Hamburg. The official policy was one of "non-fraternisation" with the Germans. Whoever conceived that did not know the British soldier! For myself there was little to do. I spent a lot of time organising horse racing at Stade with captured ponies.
Having joined at the beginning of the war I was in an early release group and was demobilised in mid December. For the last two months or so following Walter's departure I had become second-in-command of 2 Derby Yeo. to Alec Langly-Smith. He and I were both awarded a bar to our MCs for our leadership in the chase through Germany. I had had a 'good war' without a scratch.
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My regiment had finished the European war quite close to Belsen and I talked to many of our people who had been there. What they said left me in no doubt that our war was one of the most just in history. The cliché that the Allies saved civilisation just happens to be true. I am proud of my country's contribution – of course modest compared with America’s men and materials, not to mention the Russians, but let it never be forgotten that but for those airmen in 1940 there would have been no chance to earn those subsequent victories.
That's enough of the war. I will end by admitting that after a few beers I am quite capable of making jingoistic noises about my small part in it all. But in the cold light of dawn I know it was not small but miniscule. And having just read George Macdonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here telling the tale of an infantry man’s hand-to-hand epic against Japs on the Irawaddy I know anew how lucky we where to fight the Werrmacht (and never the SS ). GMF’s book ranks in my mind with Cyril Joly's Take These Men about the Desert War.