Crossing the Rhine









(County Down)



(Documents, photos & more)

Family Trees


Contents and Site Map



The next few months were a mix of action and preparation for the expected advance into Germany and across the Rhine. The Regimental History describes several occasions when they were withdrawn from the front line and regrouped elsewhere, sometimes for intense training for a specialist role in the campaign. Jim's letters seem to give broader hints of this activity than previously. Perhaps news travelled back to the UK more quickly now that troops could return home on leave and talk about their experiences. If the BBC reported on the progress of the latest battle there was little point in censoring a letter which mentioned the same event and would reach "home" a few days later. Jim apologised several times for the lack of letters or for their length, compared with Pip's to him. He was working long hours supplying spares to maintain tanks and other vehicles and driving long distances in often difficult conditions.

B.L.A. Belgium, 16 January 1945

“In the distance one can hear Jerry’s mortars thudding with monotonous regularity – I’m very bored with the war at present, and so sick of hearing explosions – they have been ‘noises off’ to me for so many years now that I’m sick inside with them. The sound that annoys me most is the crump of a shell bursting in the middle distance – I don’t know why that should be so, but it is.”

“Next Sunday men up to 125 go on leave – I’m 509 – it’s working quicker than I thought and at this rate of progress I should make it in early April – roll on the Ides of March (whatever they were).”

“It is still freezing – a continuous hard frost – apart from an occasional and very short thaw – which has lasted since the middle of December. Even petrol has frozen some nights but the old wagons put up with it well. We have anti-freeze in the radiators of course – effective up to -8o F. Yesterday was the first time she refused to start first pop and it took me from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to get her going which I did eventually by taking out the plugs and putting them in again almost red-hot. I burned my fingers in spite of thick leather gloves but she started OK.”

“The Russians light small fires under their wagons so they say and the driver sleeps beside it to keep it going all night – how I’d love to be in the Red Army! I wonder if Joe can fulfil his statement which stripped to essentials means that he intends this new offensive to finish the war? Personally I don’t care two hoots who gets to Berlin first as long as they get there but at times one would think these people here would sooner have the war on their doorstep for another two years than have Joe finish it. They dislike the Russians intensely partly because of their religion and partly because they have, I think, in spite of themselves, absorbed Jerry propaganda. Admittedly I’m a little cautious re Joe’s ultimate aims myself and I’ve no doubt whatever that a lot of his statements re his final aims and ideals are about as accurate as some of ours. That is for the future to decide. Anyway he’s doing well to begin with.”

Jim wanted to send money home via 'deed of gift' but the battalion had not had the forms for more than three months:

B.L.A. Belgium, 19 January 1945

“It matters not a jot that I might have a million pounds to my credit and you were to be imprisoned for failure to pay. I couldn’t send you the money – there are no forms.”

“It’s curious that you should mention the Greusens – I was there two nights ago and she was very pleased to know that you had received her letter. I explained that her address had been torn off and so you could not reply. I met there also my first burgomaster. He is the brother of the Belge Congo chappy (Mar. Greusen) and now there is one more place for us to go after the war, with, apparently, the freedom of his town thrown in! He is burgomaster of a town which you will be hearing of on the radio now, though still in Jerry hands. I can’t put the name here. He was forced to clear out at night three years ago when the Gestapo came to sort him out for refusing to collaborate. He had to leave everything including his wife and family and he has heard nothing of her or them since. She has been taken to Germany that much is certain, as the town has been evacuated of all civilians. He showed me several snaps of his house, a glorious place, but doubtless it will now be caput to all intents and purposes. So you see sweetheart, there are men and women worse off than us. I was very sorry for him when he said quite wistfully that he would give what little he has left to be able to write and receive one single letter from his wife just to know if she is alive or dead.”

“20th Freezing hard again after another snowfall last night so that once more we have a white landscape… The land here is very uninteresting, dead flat intersected only by dykes and tree-lined narrow roads which run straight in an uninteresting fashion. The trees are utilitarian, the roots serving to bind the soil and maintain a good foundation, as many roads are raised above the surface of the surrounding land. Coming here originally was a cheerless task as we scooted for miles through No Man’s Land, a cheerless, bleak desolation of empty fields and tracks, every farm and house almost, a burnt-out roofless skeleton surrounded by fragments of its interior, shattered farm-carts, collapsed barns, beds and furniture.”

B.L.A. Belgium, 23 January 1945

“It’s still freezing hard and my last guard was passed in the main going round all our lorries starting them up and running them to keep them warm in a temperature nearly 20o below freezing… I got to bed finally at 3.30 a.m. to be awakened at 4 a.m. by a bloke who wanted to know if it was my turn on guard. Being unarmed myself and he bearing a sten gun, he is still alive but my language, which can coarsen at times like that of all common soldiers, would have drawn a reproof from you… "

B.L.A. Belgium, 25 January 1945

“There has been a little trouble for Mac over a certain piece of equipment looking like a piece of Heath Robinson apparatus, but much beloved by the powers that be. It is useless in action but is used for ‘training purposes’ when there is peace and quietness. Normally it gets in the way on our truck. We issued it out about three months ago and forgot all about it, but lo! last week the large cheese asked for it and of course it was ‘non est’… The major said ‘Where is it?’ and Mac told him it was issued to the previous major three months ago since when it has not been seen. Mac on being told he would have to pay for it riposted with the fact that the present major was then second in command and thus in charge of administration and should have seen it was returned to Stores. He was then told it was his job to go round the area the tanks have left and pick up such things if they have been left behind. Mac said how could he when the trucks left first? Besides, as he had himself never signed for it, officially he had never had it and couldn’t be charged for what he had never had, even if it had been a recognised piece of army equipment which it wasn’t anyway, and therefore had no price attached to it by the army at all.”

“All this was too much for the Cheese and the matter dropped. Yesterday he arrived in the jeep plus the mechanism! He had been all the way back to the windmill where it had been issued three months ago and it was still lying there – which just shows how useful it is to anyone!”

“Mac in revenge has just painted it a brilliant red with the twofold object of covering up the rust and making it offensive to the eye for easy identification if anyone again slings it away.”

Jim reported that they had moved “at last” to another village and he was billeted in a butcher’s cottage.

B.L.A. Belgium, 29 January 1945

“Honestly, sweetheart, it is a weird war – here we are living, more or less, a civilian peaceful life and yet it is the front line and until a few days ago Jerry would come in at night and leave mines on the windowsills, a harmless pastime. Objective obscure, but not one I would care to indulge in, in temperatures up to 25o below zero.”

“On at least one occasion the lady of the house was surprised one morning to find, in her cellar, four Jerries where a few hours before there had been only the usual apples, carrots and potatoes with, I suspect, the salted schwein.”

Jim realised from the tone of her letters that Pip was feeling low and tried to find positives for her to write about. He concluded: “You know, it’s very difficult to try to cheer someone up by pen and ink, it looks quite useless in writing… I’m very proud of you, you know, for the way in which you have kept plugging along for all these weary years and you’ll keep it up till it’s all over. You can’t do anything else you see, Pip, being Pip.”

He retold the experiences of someone on Leave: “Going home, he said, was fine – nothing was too much trouble, the train was heated, there was tea and buns at several places, hot meals, special trains, placards, and loads of civility and politeness such as ‘Now lads, this way please’, ‘Now there’ll be a ten minute halt here chaps but here’s some tea’, etc. Going back – woof – you were back in the army, hours of delay, freezing trains, shuntings and sidetracks, sleep anywhere if at all. Miles of marching and loads of ‘Step lively you men – d’you think this is a ____ picnic?’ You would have enjoyed his story.”

NAAFI Canteen

A NAAFI canteen 'somewhere in Europe'.

Jim continued the letter on February 2nd. “Have been unable to get at this letter until now – plenty work – in fact it is nearly nine o’clock now…” and then, having sent it, started another one with the same date and full of reaction to Pip’s news and questions from home.

According to the Regimental History they had a quiet time until 23 February when they set out for Germany to join the 11th Armoured Division. Meanwhile they found time to organise the marriage of their Doctor and a Dutch girl. After a civil wedding in the Burgermeistry at a village near Eindhoven, the wedding party drove back to Maesyck in ambulances and staff cars for a ceremony conducted by a Scots padre borrowed from the Scots Greys.

The Regimental History also refers to practice at the Lommel tank ranges and field exercises. Was the “plenty work” or the urgently needed lost equipment involved I wonder?

B.L.A. Belgium, 7 February 1945

“I’ve been out all day today working in a continuous drizzle of rain punctuated only by heavyish downpours – my beret weighs about seven pounds with accumulated water. I’m glad these days of my leather jerkin and wellingtons as the road outside is a shambles of liquid mud up to a foot deep. My fingers are full of minute splinters of steel from track connectors.”

He has heard rumours of the categories of men who may be considered for service in the Far East and is relieved to learn he isn’t among them.

“Speaking of the Far East it is rather amusing to read in the newspapers articles which give the impression that the Tommy loves the life and then compare it with an order that came out a few days ago. ‘Any man who deserts on or after Feb 1st 1945 will, on conviction, forfeit all his previous service’ – a canny preparation for what they expect to happen once Jerry collapses.”

B.L.A. Belgium, 12 February 1945

“You may have read that, after the war, I return to Civvy St. equipped with a natty suiting, a ‘at included, but, I think, minus a shirt or is it a collar and tie – anyway I return partially clothed and having the magnificent sum of £100 + placed to my credit in the Post Office Savings Bank.”

B.L.A. Belgium, 16 February 1945

“It is now 8.50 p.m. and I have just finished my bath – my third in fourteen days. It is so unusual for us to have so much cleanliness thrust upon us that we contemplated mutiny but the frau won’t hear of it. We get presented with bath and water and instructed to give her our dirty clothes – how can they be dirty after only a week?”

“All our clothes are minutely examined for flaws large or small and even a single pulled thread in a woollen vest is carefully darned in. She patched a towel last week which was actually issued in a sack of rags for gun cleaning!”

The billet was with a butcher who had no meat, and was selling eggs instead.

“His wife told me he was mobilised for thirty-three days altogether when war was declared and Jerry came through – she thought he was gone for ever but on the thirty-third day she heard a hammering on the door late at night and when she opened it he fell in gloriously ‘zig-zag’ saying ‘Ich comen back’ or something to that effect. She still cannot understand why he should have been tight – which just shows that women will never understand the army – I can think of no better reason for being tight myself.”

The Regimental History reveals that on 18 February they moved to Tilburg in Holland and Jim, despite censorship, managed to convey some of that information in his next letter.

B.L.A. Holland, 22 February 1945

“We are now in a new place entirely, many moons from our last happy hunting ground and I’m now living with a man from the ‘spoorwegen’ or railway. His eldest son is an interpreter attached to the British army, a fact he is extremely proud of.”

“Actually we are, I suppose, just killing time and waiting for the better weather and ground conditions. As you know, doubtless, the whole front is more or less a flooded area and nothing much can be done until the water drains away and the ground dries up. The combination of melting snow, rain and blown dams and canal gates has produced a sorry mess.”

Jim didn’t have long to wait. The Regimental History reports that “On 23 February, late on a cold grey evening, the Regiment pulled out of Tilburg, part of a long column of the Brigade.” The intention was to pass through the northern end of the Siegfried Line, the Reichswald Forest and Goch to Sonsbeck in preparation for crossing the Rhine.

Jim wrote of a broadcast from German radio aimed at Allied soldiers, and other propaganda attempts by both sides. He also described his role when the regiment was on the move.

“Mary of Arnhem is busily trying to make me more cheesed off with the war than ever. She is so concerned about me that I feel conceited. She has just announced that she will read the names of some P.O.W. ‘These lucky men who will at any rate, see the end of the war, alive and healthy – even if it does take rather a long time yet. Better late than never don’t you think? Now this man has forgotten to put his number – careless boy’. Etc. etc. A plausible wench is Mary.”

“The SM here has quite a large and interesting collection of Jerry propaganda stuff. One little booklet in particular amused me. (I have it now as a souvenir) It was written for the benefit of the Dutch re the coming Invasion and is illustrated with cartoons. The invasion fleet has flags and yachts – there is too much to describe – you’ll see it for yourself someday.”

Propaganda booklet

The cover of the propaganda booklet: Hurray! "The Second Front" Hurray!

Click on the picture to open a new window and see the whole booklet

Click here for a new window with a transcription and translation of the booklet

“I’m losing the nail of the little finger right hand, as a result of a bash thereon whilst attempting first aid on Bill Wooliscroft’s truck on the run up here. His brakes seized and burned out. Poor J.D. being Stores and moreover carrying a fitter, always travels last in case of breakdowns – presumably I never break down myself! It usually means that I move in spurts, stopping for breakdowns then tearing on to catch up, passing everything that has passed me in the meanwhile. Passing tanks and self-propelled guns – themselves doing up to 30 mph is awkward at times – particularly when they won’t give way on a narrow road but so far I’ve not piled up anywhere.”

The next few letters tended to be quite brief as often happened when his service was indeed 'active'; a few reassuring sentences and hints of action with no suggestion of details at all. Then the regiment were pulled out of the battle and moved back to Nijmegen in Holland. They were trained in the use of DD Tanks (Duplex Drive or Donald Duck – take your pick) fitted with inflatable skirts, as employed on D-Day. This time they would be used for crossing the Rhine.

B.L.A. Holland, 14 March 1945

“I’m terribly sorry that I’ve not written for so long but I have not had a minute to spare these last few days. I’ve been working on average until 10 p.m. each night. It’s nearly nine now as a matter of fact so even this letter is not likely to be a super-lengthy one.”

B.L.A. Holland, 17 March 1945

“We have been drinking large lumps of coffee lately as both Fred and Mac have had consignments from their respective spouses. We used to strain it through an oil funnel but Fred W used it for oil – a stupid thing to use an oil funnel for so now we use our teeth. It’s a foolproof method but slowish as the grounds clog the teeth easily and necessitate constant spitting. It’s not really elegant I admit but then who cares about a few common soldiery?”

“I’ve been experimenting with egg powder in the manufacture of omlettes but so far haven’t made a howling success except for the first one. I made that perched in a narrow space two feet high at 8 a.m. one morning after driving continuously since 11 a.m. the previous morning – how’s that?”

“It was a hell of a night – pitch dark raining, no lights and I fell asleep once at the wheel – nearly wiped up a large oak tree at the side of the road, had a petrol stoppage, lost the convoy as a result, had a cup of coffee from a kindly dame at 1 a.m. We finished our journey at 6.30 p.m. that night – that’s 31½hrs driving with about one hour’s break and I used to think six hours in CKC was good going!”

Near the Reichswald Forest

Jim's note on the back of the photo reads:

Near the Reichswald Forest,

The approach towards the Rhine



On the night of 23 March the assault on the Rhine defences began and in the early hours the Specials (DD tanks) floated across the river, driven by their own propellers, and climbed up the bank to support the infantry.

A letter from Comd 12 Corps to Cmd 4 Armed Bde confirmed the importance of their role: "There is not the least doubt that the presence of DD tanks on the far bank so early in the proceedings did in my mind materially contribute to the enemy's break-up on the line of the Rhine."

Jim was quick to reassure Pip, sending a letter dated the 24th.

spacer 700

B.L.A. Germany, 24 March 1945

“At present we are living in a bomb dump ex-Jerry – it looks more underground than it really is. I doubt if it would stand a clump on the nut from an 88.”

“You’ll have heard on the News by now that the Rhine ‘do’ is on – the weather is perfect and all being well things should begin to hum very shortly. I don’t think it will be so long before the Rhine is an also-ran like the Siegfreid.”

“Fred S has been minus since 10.30 a.m. when he left to go back to the other echelon in a 15 cwt. He may miss his fried sheep if he doesn’t hurry up. I expect he’s caught up in one of the 21st Army Group Specials – a convoy stretching for thirty or forty miles with nowhere to go – apparently. We got caught once in the beachhead before the Caen breakthrough and it took us about nine hours to do as many miles – that was the 7th Armoured switching from one side to the other in one of Monty’s shuffles. He seems to specialise in gigantic shuffles and on several occasions we have taken part in a colossal dash, involving tens of thousands of vehicles, across two or three countries…”

“One dash took us from Germany through Holland into Belgium and back to Holland without a stop. The line of vehicles was so long that it took four days of 24 hrs a day to pass any given point on route – average speed about 20 mph.”

I think it must have been this occasion which prompted the following in the Regimental History: “The horrors of battle were nothing compared with the horrors that were let loose on Diamond and Ruby routes during that night, and we sincerely apologise to all who were trying to make their way up against our string of monsters out of control.”

B.L.A. Germany, 27 March 1945

“Everything here is fine and dandy – at present I’m in an ‘ole which was a couple of hours ago a deserted Jerry rifle position… It’s the third ‘ole we’ve dug in the last three days but so far we’ve only managed to sleep in one – thus do we move.”

“I saw something rather amusing yesterday. A bunch of prisoners were being marched down the road in their usual columns of three. They looked the usual way of all POWs, tired, bedraggled, broken, dragging their little All with them in sacks and bags. They were a motley lot of Paratroopers, S.S., Wehrmacht, Volkssturm, Landsturm, and L.O.K. (sic) At the end was a diminutive Welshman with a rifle over his shoulder. His battledress was nearly as bad as mine – that’s saying something – his tin hat was askew and the bits of camouflage were hanging over his eyes and neck – his shell dressing was dangling from it down his back. He was very bandy, about 5 ft 3 high and moved with a rolling motion. He nodded to us with a toothless grin and said, indicating the crew in front with his head ‘The Master Race’.”

“I contrasted it with what I saw once just as we crossed the Belgian border – one solitary S.S. prisoner was stalking along the road, behind him came a Belgian boy of the Army of the Interior, no more than sixteen, I should say – he had a rifle at the ‘long point’ with his bayonet unwaveringly pointed three inches from the Jerry’s kidneys and a look of intense concentration on his face. He was trying to keep pace with the Hun but it was a bit of an effort. It was his day definitely – one could see that – he’ll never forget it I suppose.”

B.L.A. Germany, 31 March 1945

“As you can tell, doubtless, by the News we are having a busy season just now. Everything is going very well indeed and there is less than ever there was for you to worry about. I don’t think there is any harm now in telling you that, contrary to the radio reports, the old mob was the first tank battalion to cross the old Rhine,…”

“We have just pulled into a farmyard – they have very largish farms here – all quite prosperous looking. So far every civilian claims to be anything but a Jerry, and there is no doubt that a large proportion are genuinely foreign labour. There are numerous Ities (can’t mistake them), Belgians, Dutch, Poles, French, Russians, Czechs – every damned race there is. Someone is going to get a big headache when the time comes to sort them all out particularly as many won’t have a country any more in any case.”

B.L.A. Germany, 7 April 1945

“We have been standing by to move all day, an unsettled situation which always annoys me intensely. It is a state of affairs which has persisted since we crossed the Rhine and usually ends with a hurried move in the evening. I dislike night moves – truly are we nicknamed ‘The Night Fighters’. This time we are, I believe, awaiting the erection of a bridge somewhere. Last time it was because one of our tanks fell through one – Jerry built.”

Jim had bathed in a Mobile Bath. “The water is pumped from a river which looks like the Serpentine on August Monday as there are hordes of sculling and canoeing squaddies on it although the guns are bonking a couple of miles away and two bridges droop into the river.”

“This town – the first one of any size I’ve been in, in Germany – is like all the small towns and villages I’ve seen to date, an utter shambles. The worst destruction in Blighty pales to insignificance in comparison. I doubt if one single house or building is undamaged and yet the people are busily reroofing now and are actually cleaning the gutters of mud and filling little holes in the road. They are all well dressed, well fed and well shod – every woman wears sheer silk stockings but there is no doubt that much of it is loot from the Occupied Countries. The overall damage I’ve seen so far is appalling. Whole towns and villages are completely wiped out to an extent that it is impossible to see where the roads were originally. So far I’ve seen one factory in working order. It ceased production only 24 hrs before we entered it – all Dutch women labour.”

“… there was great jollification when the rumour of Goering’s death came out. They seem to fear and hate the Gestapo and S.S. as much as the Dutch and Belgians do.”

“The more I see of Deutschland the more I wonder how they keep going at all. They are as smashed, as crushed as ever a nation could be and yet they’re still in the field. Their public services, utilities and communications were shattered months ago and yet they live and eat and laugh just the same. I think wholesale looting has kept them going up to now, and if this is so, then God help Germany now, and in the years to come when that supply has dried up. Her worst time is still to come.”

Previous page Spacer 20Index to all letters pages Spacer 20Next page


Top of Page