VE Day: How Norfolk soldiers marched to victory
- Credit: Archant
The road to VE Day was long and hard for men of the 1st Royal Norfolks 75 years ago. As the nation prepares to commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe, Steve Snelling charts the triumphs and tragedies that marked the closing act in a six-year long conflict.
It didn’t take a military genius to work out that the end was near. Rapid advances and roads rammed with columns of bedraggled prisoners told their own story of the once-proud German army’s defeat and disintegration.
Everything was happening so fast, in a blizzard of headlines and a blur of images that would have seemed unthinkable just eight weeks earlier.
Pockets of resistance, fraught with hazard, remained to be mopped up but it was clear to everyone that long-sought final victory was at last within touching distance.
John Lincoln knew it. And so did every other man in 18 Platoon, D Company, 1st Royal Norfolks, who followed him across a swathe of exposed marshland in the early morning of May 4, 1945.
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Their orders were to patrol the fringes of enemy-held territory, but, as usual, the ‘intelligence picture’ was incomplete. Maps showed the high ground beyond a river to be freckled with gun positions, but, as Lincoln later wrote, “we had no idea what enemy, if any, might be this side of the river or if they would fight more strongly, in desperation, or give up.”
What was not in doubt was the certain fact that enemy observation posts were watching their every move. As they broke cover the tension was tangible. Lincoln had been two months away from the battalion, recovering from wounds received in a hellish first encounter on German soil, and neither he nor the men with him had any desire to become another grim statistic in the closing moments of a conflict that was all but won.
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With nerves a jangle, they moved along a farm track towards a small bridge straddling a dyke and then they had their answer. “Suddenly, without warning,” wrote Lincoln, “a salvo of air-burst shells exploded directly above us.”
Instinctively, he dropped to one knee. “For what seemed an age I froze there, not knowing what to do, my mind a blank from the sudden shock of the shelling, worsened by previous experiences and enforced absence from action.
“There was no place to take shelter, no place to go. What felt like an eternity was almost certainly no more than two or three seconds; the shelling did not continue and there was only one decision that could be made - to go on.”
Cautiously, uneasily, they picked themselves up and edged forward, “painfully conscious that we were… exposed to an enemy we could not see and totally uncertain of what lay ahead”.
The long slog that had begun on the beaches of Normandy almost 11 months earlier was not quite finished yet.
What in hindsight might appear a remorseless victory procession through France, Belgium and Holland en route to inevitable and comprehensive triumph in the heart of Hitler’s Reich had, in reality, been a prolonged struggle, intense and hard fought, which had exacted a heavy toll of the 1st Royal Norfolks.
By February 23, 1945, when the vanguard of the battalion, crossed the border into Germany, 212 officers and men had already been killed with hundreds more wounded.
The “finishing straight”, as the unit’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Barclay, put it, promised scant relief from the horrors and hardships that had marked their march across western Europe. And so it proved.
The battalion’s first encounter on German soil was evidence enough of the enemy’s determination to resist to the bitter end. Kervenheim on March 1 was a scene of carnage that rendered victory almost indistinguishable from defeat.
In capturing the dreary border village, the Royal Norfolks lost more men in a single 24-hour period than on any other day in the entire North-West Europe campaign.
All told, 42 officers and men were killed, almost half of them aged 21 or younger, in the sometimes desperate efforts to prise a battle-hardened force of German parachutists from a cluster of cottages and shabby streets that they had converted into a veritable fortress.
One company was reduced from 107 to 35 unwounded men in the space of a little more than two hours as they caught in the open by a storm of fire from machine-guns and mortars.
Ken Mason remembered that advance as the scariest action since landing on Sword Beach. One of the last survivors of that grim day’s fighting, he recalled losing his section Bren-gunner killed and his PIAT gunner wounded within the first 50 yards.
It was, he said, as though “all hell was let loose”. The air was thick with bullets, “buzzing like bees round a honey pot”. “We couldn’t see where the fire was coming from and we didn’t know whether to go forward or not.”
Blown up by a shell that shredded his back pack, he was lucky to survive with shrapnel wounds to his back and buttocks which prematurely ended his war.
Looking back, Peter Barclay would remember the battalion’s final campaign as “a series of sticky and not so sticky battles” in which Kervenheim stood out in all its grim malevolence as “a sod” of a struggle.
In the weeks that followed there would be more hard fights in which the battalion suffered more hard knocks, but none would ever be as hard or as bloody as that wretched day at Kervenheim.
Next stop was Haus Winkel, a country estate straddling the outer limits of a formidable set of defences known as the Siegfried Line. On paper, it appeared to present another potentially costly challenge. But, in the strangely schizophrenic way that came to characterise the fighting in Germany, it proved something of a walkover.
An audacious night infiltration two miles through enemy-held territory effectively unlocked the door to a position everything about which should have favoured the defence.
A military master class in the art of the indirect approach, Haus Winkel was a triumph of tactical skill over brute force, but the battalion’s third encounter on German soil was a very different story.
The fight for Lingen, a small, strategically important town on the east bank of the Ems Canal, was typical of so many of the little-known struggles that way-marked the road to victory during the closing weeks of the war.
Major Humphrey Wilson, the battalion’s second in command, thought it “an odd battle” that began with easy surrenders and ended with displays of near-fanatical resistance in keeping with what he called “a very Nazi town”.
In a letter home, he reckoned: “We got the sticky end against some rather tough paratroops… and about 50 of them held us up from all angles. At one period it really was a bit unpleasant as they kept getting behind us and bullets were flying in all directions, then they started shelling us and it was no fun.”
The savage battle that ensued was waged house to house against hidden snipers and unseen machine-guns in a struggle made memorable by an act of sublime heroism which, unusually, was caught on camera.
The grainy photograph shows a so-called Wasp flame-throwing carrier being driven at speed by Company Sergeant Ernest ‘Hoss’ Langford in the midst of a desperate attempt to rescue Major Jack Dye, who had suffered multiple wounds and was lying in the middle of a square dominated by enemy machine-guns.
Recalling the action decades later, Dye, a future colonel of the Royal Anglian Regiment and vice-lord lieutenant of Suffolk, admitted that he thought his ‘time was up’.
“I thought ‘Bloody hell, so near the end. And because they were still firing at me, the only thing I could think to do was pretend to be dead and I closed my eyes, just waiting for the fatal shot… It was like being in front of a firing squad and not knowing when the order was going to be given.”
One stretcher-bearer had already been killed making a gallant attempt to bring him in. Another was chased off by a hail of bullets splintering the cobbles around his feet.
Dye had all but given hope of salvation when he suddenly heard the clatter of Langford’s carrier approaching. “Despite bullets raining down on him,” said Dye, “Langford somehow managed to manoeuvre his carrier in such a way that the track was right up against me, shielding me from fire.”
While Langford unleashed a terrifying jet of fiery flame that engulfed the nearest enemy-held building just 20 yards away, a stretcher bearer dashed out from cover to half-carry and half-drag Dye to safety.
Of the 10 enemy soldiers seen to bolt out of the burning house, eight were killed or captured. Langford then repeated the exercise against a second, cellar-bound strongpoint with similarly lethal results.
Such were the injuries inflicted that some of the Norfolks found themselves almost pitying the very men who only moments earlier had been trying to kill them.
Mopping up continued into the evening of April 4, but the intervention of the 33-year-old Wisbech policeman’s son proved the turning point. In the words of the recommendation for his richly-deserved Distinguished Conduct Medal, an award second only to the Victoria Cross, he had “completely undermined” the enemy’s morale as well as saving countless lives in his own unit, Jack Dye’s among them.
Coming hard on the heels of the costly assault on Kervenheim, the ferocity of the fighting at Lingen was a further reality check that served to highlight the gulf between events ‘on the ground’ and the cock-a-hoop reports in the press forecasting the enemy’s imminent collapse.
As Humphrey Wilson cautioned: “There are still many tough pockets to be overcome, and mines in roads and booby traps, etc, are everywhere. I’m sure everyone at home thinks it is all over bar the shouting, but every day lots of chaps get killed or badly wounded in this frantic bash on through Germany.”
Such was the chaos and disorder afflicting Hitler’s fast-disintegrating Reich, he feared it was impossible for the German army to give up for the simple reason there was “no Government left capable of issuing the order and… no communications to the isolated bands of what’s left of the army to receive the order…”
As the battalion prepared to continue its advance “miles and miles” deeper into Germany he had little idea what to expect nor even any clue as to where they would “fetch up”.
In fact, their ultimate goal was the north German port city of Bremen, though first they had to overcome one more fortress town along the way.
Though no one knew it at the time, the capture of Brinkum over the course of two days in mid-April marked the closing battle of the Royal Norfolks’ war in Europe.
Variously described by historians as a “textbook” or “model” battle, it was another gruelling street fight in which their opponents, including a large number of die-hard SS troops, “had to be burnt, blown and blasted out of the houses they had converted into strong-points”.
In stark contrast to assurances that they would face little more than “a couple of Spandaus” [machine-guns], it quickly became “quite obvious”, as the unit was diarist observed, “that the Bosche [Germans] intended to fight every inch of the way”.
As with Lingen, it took a special kind of courage to defeat an enemy prepared to resist to their dying breath. Corporal Bill Simpkiss led a charge into an enemy-held house only for his Sten gun to jam at the crucial moment - not once but twice! He was then wounded in the face by a grenade thrown at him, but that didn’t stop him rushing into the building a third time, killing one enemy soldier and taking seven prisoners.
Brinkum was also the culminating action in a series of stiff fights stretching back to Kervenheim cited in the recommendation for Humphrey Wilson’s Military Cross. In the face of “short range” Spandau and sniper fire, he had re-galvanised an advance that had temporarily stalled.
Even with the support of a powerful battle group composed of artillery and armour, including flame-throwing tanks and self-propelled guns, it was, as the unit diarist noted, “a slow business but a thorough one”.
When it was over the Norfolks counted 60 German dead among the smouldering ruins with another 208 men captured at a cost of three men killed and 12 wounded. By the standards of the time, Brinkum was a cheap victory, though that would have been of little comfort to the families of Canadian-born Lieutenant John Laurie, Corporal Henry Alger and 18-year-old Private Rowland Plummer.
They were among the last six of the 279 men from the battalion to die on active duty between D-Day and VE-Day, a fearful enough toll that might have been even worse but for a remarkable piece of good fortune just days before the war’s end.
What Jack Pratt regarded as a miracle occurred on May 4. Bremen had fallen to a largely uncontested advance and the battalion had pulled back, with Jack’s seven-strong anti-gun team taking up residence in a house in a nearby village.
In the face of much “moaning and mumbling”, he had insisted on all of them occupying a single ground-floor room on the left of the building. A short while later, the last shells to target the battalion bracketed the house, one of them reducing to rubble the right-hand room without touching the other.
Though not a particularly religious man, he could not help believing that “someone was looking over us”.
Earlier that same day, John Lincoln might have been forgiven for reaching the same conclusion as he and his platoon returned safely from what would turn out to be the battalion’s last patrol of the war.
Apart from the shock of shells bursting directly above them, they had made no contact with the enemy beyond searching a few abandoned huts and hearing the sound of singing drift across the river.
Shortly after arriving back, he recalled a message reaching his Company HQ. It simply read: “Cancel all offensive ops forthwith and CEASE FIRE 0800 hrs 5 May 45. Further details later.”
VE Day, the first real day of peace, found the battalion enjoying what the unit diarist called ‘King’s weather’ at a former German barracks close to a poison gas manufacturing complex, leading Peter Barclay to remark: “Good job we polished the party off when we did!”
By all accounts there were few celebrations. “Everyone was remarkably sober,” observed the author of the Battalion News Letter, “and there were no Victory orgies” although it was predicted they would “make up for lost time later”.
After weeks of relentless fighting on the remorseless road to Victory in Europe, the overriding emotion was one of relief as peace brought with it the brief pleasure of “doing nothing” and space for reflection.
More than 60 years on, John Lincoln’s abiding memory of the war’s closing act was of a concert lit by candles and hurricane lamps which was followed by a more intimate gathering of officers. Theirs was a comradeship forged in war that would endure through peace, in many instances for the rest of their lives. “We just sat there talking,” he recalled, “thanking our lucky stars for our survival, but mostly of the friends we had known and had lost.”