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In the Shadow of Arnhem
The Battle for the Lower Maas, Septemberâ"November 1944
By Ken Tout
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Ken Tout
All rights reserved.
Beggary and Bravery
The people branded as 'lunatics' stood and watched the sane men shooting each other and wondered. Was this some strange form of entertainment put on for their benefit by the establishment? Some perverse ballet? Some horrific cabaret?
The inmates were not to know, nor could they have appreciated, that they were about to be present at an act of bravery as incredible as any that might be found in the annals of the British Army. A new name was to be added to the elite roll of the bravest of the brave: names like that of John Frost at the Arnhem bridge, Leonard Cheshire, Lord Lovat, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, Lt Col 'H' Jones, John William Harper.
John William who?
Like a ready-made fortress le Depôt de Mendicité straddled the Allied line of advance on 29 September 1944. The rank and file of the British Army were notorious for their ability to mispronounce foreign names like 'Wipers' (Ypres) in 1914 or 'Bugger's Bus' (Bourguebus) in Normandy 1944. Now Mendicité, with its accented final 'tay', was a tough one, and instantly became the 'Monday City' for many. Few front-line soldiers in 1944 spoke French and therefore might not know that Mendicité meant 'Beggary': Depôt de Mendicité – the 'Beggary Deposit'.
Both John William Harper, 'Jack' to family and friends, and John R. Dean, 'Dixie' to his mates, were worried about the Monday City. It was just a blob on the map between Rijkevorsel (pronounced 'rake-for-sell') and Merxplas in north Belgium. They had been told that it was a lunatic asylum and that the loonies were still inside. So there would be no devastating air raid or huge artillery barrage to mash the buildings into ruins before the infantry attack. Nothing larger than hand-thrown grenades or small mortar bombs, delivered with pin-point accuracy by the company mortar sections, would be used.
The attackers, from the Hallamshires and Leicestershires, had at first envisaged a vast, solid, single building like a British asylum. When Harper's company were told that they had to find a back way in, they anticipated charging straight up to the edifice and smashing through doors and windows while under direct fire from defenders who would be using patients as protection. In fact the Depôt de Mendicité was a totally different proposition. It was more of the style of a huge military camp. The confusion was not confined to front line troops, for 1 Corps HQ itself reported the Hallams and Leicesters 'attacking a factory' that day.
The original name of the institution, founded in 1822, would have confounded even the most capable linguists in the attacking 49th 'Polar Bear' Division: Maatschappij van Weldadigheid voor de Zuidelijke Nederlanden.
King Willem I of the Netherlands (Belgium was then part of the Netherlands) had instituted a colony for tramps. In 1870 the hospitality was extended to include paupers, beggars and drunkards, and gained its 1940s name. Gradually parts of the compound were turned over for use as a civil prison.
It was the occupying German authorities of the First World War who set up a lunatic asylum there, providing secure accommodation for mentally ill people from Belgium and northern France, many of whom could, at that time, be treated only by restraint methods. Just before the Second World War, Jewish refugees were also offered shelter. Then with the 1940 German occupation Belgian and Dutch hostages were interned in the prison section.
Some idea of the size of the establishment may be gained from the fact that up to 6,000 persons could be accommodated there, of whom at the time of the battle 1,740 were prisoners. Only a relatively small percentage of the 1940s residents were classed as lunatics, the majority being vagabonds. But it is reasonable to estimate that several hundred occupants were mentally ill, and the prison also housed many who were criminally insane. This vast establishment, originally set up as 125 small farms for indigent families, lay as a physical obstacle across the Allied route and posed a unique humanitarian problem for the commanders planning their attack.
After the collapse of the German armies in Normandy, the Allies had rushed across France and most of Belgium in a drive towards the heartland of Germany. But in the north of Belgium the German resistance began to stiffen behind the many wide waterways and deep ditches of the low lands. Already men of the 49th 'Polar Bear' Division had been forced to fight bitter skirmishes around Rijkevorsel. Accompanying tanks of the Polish Armoured Division were held up by a bridge across a wide moat. The moat was part of the Mendicité complex, a twenty- foot-wide water obstacle designed to prevent inmates from exiting but equally effective in preventing invaders from entering.
So both Cpl Jack Harper and Sgt Dixie Dean had good cause to be worried. Jack Harper's platoon of the Hallamshires was to lead the way across 300 yards of open ground without shelter against undamaged, well-prepared defences. Dixie Dean with the 1st Leicesters was responsible for getting the vital mortars supplied for their daunting task as substitutes for Lancaster bombers and siege guns. Each company had two of the light 3-inch mortars. Each mortar section was commanded by a sergeant with a no. 18 radio set in touch with the company (coy) commander, so that speed and accuracy could be assured as the infantry advanced.
Dixie Dean, later RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major), remembers the battle vividly:
At dawn on Friday 29th September, the Bn attacked the Depôt de Mendicité which was a lunatic asylum and this was without doubt the most deadly action we had fought to date [they had fought through Normandy!]. The plan for this attack was given out by the Adjutant, Captain North. 'A' Coy to go south of the main road, 'B' Coy north, 'C' pass through 'B', then 'B' in reserve. ... 'A' Coy moving through the woods were the first to run into the enemy and Lt Guy was killed. ... They lost direction in the confusion and were pinned down for hours by the enemy.
To the left of the Leicesters' position, men of C, the lead coy of the Hallamshires, looked out from the thick woods and studied their task. Capt Mike Lonsdale-Cooper with Lt Judge and Cpl Harper had no illusions about that pleasant green level sward stretching from the trees to a far embankment. Yorkshire 'Tykes', from the champion cricket county of the 1930s, they would have seen the area as an ideal place for a cricket match with long boundaries each end. Now their bowlers would have to demonstrate their skills at lobbing hand grenades. The bomb, which fitted in the palm of the hand, was normally lobbed rather than thrown direct, firstly in order to drop vertically beyond obstacles and secondly to allow three seconds for the fuse to activate, so that the enemy had no time to pick up the grenade and throw it back.
Dug deep into the far embankment and as yet invisible, the enemy had available, in addition to their own long-handled grenades, the awesome Spandau machine-gun (m-g). The defenders of the asylum had been reinforced by a fresh battalion and were lined up in considerable numbers around the perimeter. Facing Lonsdale-Cooper's coy may have been four or more of the rapid-firing m-gs, each of which could spit out over a thousand rounds a minute, or nearly twenty bullets a second, and every bullet potentially fatal. The rapid fire meant that the m-gs were not very accurate in comparison to a sniper's accuracy. Yet they produced a whirling cone of bullets, widening as they sped spinning from the muzzles, and forming a dense horizontal hail of death over a wide area of ground.
It might appear hopeless for men to attempt a 300-yard walk, or weaving trot, in the face of such fire, remembering that the weight of weapons and equipment made it difficult for even the fittest infantryman to sprint such a distance. But Lonsdale-Cooper and Judge knew there were also a few factors in their favour. As soon as the m-gs started to fire, their positions would be revealed and they would be prime targets for the Hallams' mortar bombs, which could be on target with less than a minute's notice. In addition the elite German units were congregated around Arnhem so that those defending the Depôt de Mendicité would be less skilled and resolute than the superhuman, infallible German soldiers of more recent Allied myths.
Rapid though it was, the Spandau could not fire incessantly without pauses to reload or to make changes of target, which could affect accuracy. Because of the great expenditure of ammunition those m-gs had to fire relatively short bursts. German hand grenades, too, were known to be fallible. Normal German Army units, as distinct from the SS, were being reinforced with poor quality 'dug out' men, some very old or very young for front-line duty. Ordinary enemy soldiers would be as fearful and ready to hide from hostile fire as were the attackers themselves.
Having said that, there was a real possibility that the entire Hallamshire coy could be wiped out or forced to go to ground, seeking shelter in the sparse contours of the rough field. There was no advantage in argument or delay. Judge and Harper and their comrades set off across that horribly open space the size of a test match cricket field. Immediately they were greeted by crashing, blazing torrents of fire, heralding high velocity bullets and jagged shards of iron as well as solid clods and stones wrenched from the ground by explosions. It was like walking through a cloud of smoke in which every particle was a shrieking, tearing sliver of sharp death.
As the wary, sweating infantrymen chose their own way forward, some hastening to gain the embankment, others diving, leaping up, swerving in fruitless attempts to become invisible, men began to fall. Roy Simon had been wounded in Normandy in June, had spent time in British hospitals, and now was back with his comrades for his first battle in Belgium. He was shot almost immediately. Another young recruit, nervously waiting to hear his first shots fired in anger, probably never heard the bullet that killed him. Lt Judge was hit in the neck and fell, incapable of thought or action. Harper walked on.
In his brief return to war Roy Simon had been a hero, modest though he was about it:
We were in a ditch on the edge of this wood and what happened next was Errol Flynn stuff. We were lined up and they were shelling us and Lonsdale-Cooper was at the side of me and he said, 'Right. Get ready', and he were looking at his watch. Then all of a sudden he blows his whistle and I gets half out of the ditch and nowt happens.
Nobody moved! And he says to me, 'Come on, Simon,' he says, 'You're one of the old lads, show them how it's done.' So I gets up and I shouts, 'Come on the Hallams, let's go' and I sets off running. ... We got half way across and I was running like the clappers with nothing to fire at, and everything seemed to be coming at us.
As men fell, some mates ran faster while others took more urgent evasive action. It mattered not which action the individual took. Death and wounding ranged everywhere, horizontally, vertically, diagonally. And as the advance shortened the distance remaining, it brought the attackers within range of the defenders' stick grenades. Then the infamous Nebelwerfers, groups of six mortar bombs with their 'Moaning Minnie' sirens, found the range and added to the inferno. In the lead, Harper, briefly noticing that Judge was down and that he was now in charge of the point attackers, walked on.
The 'running', as Simon described it, of a fully accoutred infantryman tends eventually to become more of a shambling, stumbling progress across uneven ground. The more active leaders could not move too far in advance of their less agile supporters. Five minutes could have elapsed during the erratic movement as the advancing ranks staggered, thinned, disintegrated, disappeared.
On the defenders' side there may have been some damping down of fire. Weapons became overheated. Ammunition needed to be replenished. Wounds had to be dressed. Dead bodies dragged out of the way. Pits, demolished by enemy fire, cleared of debris or new refuge found.
Above all the defender would be impressed by the success of his own fire as the vast majority of the attacking force sought refuge in depressions in the earth or lay about as dead or badly wounded bodies in full view. The vigorous attacking force, a clear, tempting target, had faded into a vague chimera with one or two indistinct figures still moving in the landscape. Just one slight man wearing a corporal's stripes still trudged on, near at hand and easy for someone else to shoot somewhere else along the unbroken line of the embankment defences.
There are moments of minor climax in battle when the defender thinks 'We've won that round!' And relaxes for a moment. Pauses before the next round. Takes a deep breath. Lights a fag. Has a puff. Passes it to a mate. Checks the gun. Urinates.
And then the vague figure with the corporal's stripes becomes a yelling monster leaping at the gun pits, throwing bomb after bomb which explode in all directions, spreading lethal splinters at cowering foes. Lobbing more bombs over the embankment where skulking defenders are bewildered by the sudden assault. Leaping up high and alone on to the embankment where he has no right to be, and which is supposed to be the domain of the defenders, and where he now dominates the slit trenches that had seemed so safe.
In battle there can be a kind of hysteria which inspires a wave of attackers to forget the odds and accomplish miracles. There is a similar hysteria which affects surprised defenders, causing sometimes instant surrender, sometimes confused flight, sometimes berserk response. The ordinary German soldiers, confronted by this apparition in their midst, wilted and suffered themselves to be overawed and scattered, dead, wounded, fleeing or surrendering. Harper, undaunted, climbed back over the earthen bulwark, shepherding four prisoners and still firing at those who were retreating.
With Lt Judge disabled, the coy commander had gathered men together in the shelter of the 'home' side of the embankment. Their orders were clear. Find a back way into the depot and exploit. Harper offered to cross the obstacle again to find out whether the moat beyond could be waded. As he descended at the far side on to the banks of the moat, the entire area was still being deluged by fire from several directions. Carefully he crouched down by the moat, or may even have stepped down into it, to test its depth. Nobody else was there to see, in any case. Clearly it was too deep to ford. He returned to Lonsdale- Cooper with his report. The major ordered him to get the survivors of his platoon on to the banks of the moat.
Harper, in the lead, crossing the embankment for the third time, found the German gun pits on that side still empty. Ordering covering fire at the buildings beyond the water, he encouraged his men over the obstruction and down into the pits, only one man being hit in the process. He then went walking along the bank, alone, totally exposed, looking for a possible crossing place of the twenty-foot-wide water obstacle.
On that side of the embankment the close-range crossfire from within the depot was, if anything, worse than it had been in the open field. There were more Spandaus located beyond hand-grenade range in or between the buildings. By some miracle Harper managed to move a considerable distance along the bank, still looking for a ford.
His quest took him beyond the battalion's boundary where he found an outpost of the Leicesters. They had located a ford and were able to point it out to him. Once more the corporal made his way back through the inescapable turbulence of air displaced by myriad hurtling projectiles and almost visibly ablaze with tracer fire and explosions. Enemy gunners, angry and baffled, continued to aim at the lone figure, and to miss, possibly due to the undisciplined frenzy of firing. Up to that point, because of the exigencies of battle and the finality of the outcome, there is no clear indication as to whether Harper, at some time or in some way, might have been wounded. It would have been typical of him to carry on anyway.
Capt (later Maj) Mike Lonsdale-Cooper had also risked his life, climbing over the embankment and venturing out on to the banks of the dyke. Jack Harper, mission accomplished, was able to direct the major to the vital ford. The back door to the 'Monday City' was open. At that precise moment, a chance bullet, or one fired with more precision by a more careful sniper, found him at last, and he fell grievously wounded. Mike Lonsdale-Cooper quickly realized that nothing could be done. There on the bank of the moat John William Harper, a reluctant soldier, had died.
Other soldiers of the Sheffield Battalion, the Hallamshires, fought and suffered as the unit probed into the asylum. Arnold Whiteley was accompanying Maj Cooper across the moat:
We made our crossing and as we ran across you could hear the bullets whizzing. We were well spaced out and it were only Maj Cooper who got hit. Of course, when we got under cover of banking on the other side, I said, 'Thank God nobody got hit', and he said, 'You speak for your bloody self!' He was shot straight through his left arm. Another six inches in and he would have been finished.
Excerpted from In the Shadow of Arnhem by Ken Tout. Copyright © 2013 Ken Tout. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Beggary and Bravery,
2. Mad Tuesday and Black Friday,
3. Arnhem – the Sore Thumb,
4. Antwerp: the Generals Forgot,
5. A Pocket of Small Change,
6. Chill Ghost of Autumn,
7. A Dutch Krakatoa,
8. Wet! Wetter!! Wettest!!!,
9. More Arrows on the Map,
10. Massing towards the Maas,
11. Guns towards the Fatherland,
12. Reflections on the Water,
Notes and References,