Close support tanks of 15/19th KRH giving infantry support with their 95-mm howitzers, in the Teutoburgerwald battle, April 1945.
(Ibbenbüren Ridge) – 11th Armoured Division
Some 12 miles west of Osnabruck runs a long thin strip of dense woodland, some 30 miles in length and 2 or 3 miles in width. The three key villages are Ibbenbüren, Holthausen and Tecklenberg. This is the Teutoburger Wald, which runs roughly north-west/south-east a mile or so to the east of the Dortmund–Ems Canal. It was a magnificent natural defensive position, armour was useless on the tree-lined slopes and infantry was just sucked into its lethal maw.
No fewer than seven companies of young dedicated infantry cadets from a NCO training school in Hanover were dug in along the Ibbenbüren Ridge. Fire support for the attackers was limited as the shells burst in the upper branches of the tall trees, falsifying the range. Landmarks were few and it was only too easy to get lost in the woodland thickets.
The first attack at 1430 hrs on 31 March was across the ‘new’ bridge at Birgte, built by 612 Field Squadron RE. It was led by 2nd Fife and Forfarshire and 4 KSLI and was not successful against mortars and machine guns playing upon the exits of the bridgehead. Bob Bignell, KSLI, adds: ‘It was quite a slog up the steep hill clearing the area … Lieutenant Cunningham became very annoyed because the Jerries kept firing till the last minute and then insolently put their hands up to surrender.’ A company 4 KSLI had done a fine job. From their vantage point on the heights they now commanded the German forward positions and forced the enemy to fall back, thus leaving the new canal bridge less exposed. But the KSLI had five men killed expanding the bridgehead.
Ibbenbüren was technically within 7th Armoured’s boundary. Since 11th Armoured had been ‘poaching’ ground recently by using roads and tracks belonging to 7th Armoured, it was felt that the north-west area of the ridge around Ibbenbüren should be cleared and handed over to them. It was not, however, to be. The two roads through the Teutoburger Wald are the Münster–Ibbenbüren highway and a secondary road which winds along the valley through Brochterback up the hill to Holthausen.
The battle that followed had two very different characteristics. 159 Brigade with 3rd Mons and 1st Hereford had the unenviable task of clearing the thick woods in the north-west area of the Ibbenbüren Ridge. Although 2nd Fife and Forfarshire blasted the outskirts of the woods with HE, and divisional artillery rained down stonks on the Hanoverian cadets, it was to little avail. Major Mitchell and Captain Goer were the Ayrshire Yeomanry FOOs with 3rd Mons, the latter ending up fighting as an infantryman.
Two gallant attempts were made by the Mons to dislodge the enemy from the top of the crest. The thick undergrowth reduced visibility to a few feet and in the forest fighting C and D companies were pushed back 400 yards by a sudden counter-attack. Fighting became confused, the companies were disorganized and, with no information, sections lost touch in the dense woods. Many officers and key NCOs were killed or wounded and enemy sniping was constant. Major W.P. Taylor, Captain V. Mountford and Lieutenant S.M. Driver were killed in the woods. D Company was attacked in the rear by an enemy group shouting: ‘Don’t shoot, B Company’. Late in the afternoon of 3 April, Colonal Sweetman agreed a temporary truce to get wounded back to RAPs and stretcher parties were kept busy. There was torrential rain all night and at dawn a very strong enemy attack on Battalion HQ was only just beaten off by a troop of the Fifes. Corporal E.T. Chapman, a Bren-gunner from Rhymney valley, won the VC for conspicuous gallantry and then took the mortally wounded Captain Mountford back to the RAP. Private Roy Nash was with D Company at the time and wrote:
Our radios were useless so the signallers were laying lines for field telephones. The wounded should find the wires and follow them back to the RAP. As we moved forward I said to Corporal Chapman that the wood was full of Germans. I could see footprints in the molehills and on the soil outside rabbit warrens, and a lot of dew had been knocked off the bracken. I spotted three Germans walking over to the right. I fired my rifle as fast as I could. I shot one, wounded the second but the other got away. We moved forward again up a hill down into an old slate quarry. As we neared the top of the far side, we were cut down by murderous machine-gun fire. It was the worst I had experienced in ten months of action. Many were killed and wounded and the terrible screams of the wounded and dying haunt me. I kept firing until I ran out of ammo. I lay down behind the wall, picked up thirteen empty bullet cases and pushed them into the ground into the shape of a cross. The German fire was still devastatingly accurate and many more of our lads were killed and wounded. [Roy Nash was hit and the back of his right hand had been blown off] Suddenly I felt pain, terrible pain, wicked pain and I cried, broken-hearted for my Mum. Corporal Chapman told me to lay down and that the stretcher-bearers were coming. He then picked up my Bren gun, put on a full magazine and said ‘I’ll kill the bloody lot of them, Waas’ (that was my nickname). I could see him firing hosepipe fashion from the hip.
One company was cut off on the top of the hill and when the Dorsets of 131 Infantry Brigade came to their rescue they trapped two companies of the German NCOs and killed them all. The Mons eventually took 100 prisoners, but by the time they were relieved at 1100 hrs on 4 April, their casualties – forty-one killed, eighty wounded – were the heaviest in any action. That was the end of the magnificent Mons. Their casualties in the whole campaign were sixty-seven officers (twenty-five killed) and 1,089 ORs (242 killed). They had three commanding officers killed in action and C company had six consecutive COs killed. The battalion was taken out of the line and was withdrawn to Wesel to join 115 Independent Infantry Brigade in guarding the Rhine bridges and assisting thousands of DPs in the area.
The General wrote: ‘Unfortunately 3rd Monmouths had now fought their last battle with the division. They had received very heavy casualties during the campaign. We were very sorry to see them go.’ A few days later their place was taken by the 1st Cheshire Regiment.
The Herefords had an equally difficult time between the bridgehead and wood clearing. During their attack on the wooded pass leading to Ibbenbüren they made little progress against the Hanover NCOs. Reg Worton wrote of his reactions: ‘It was a training camp. We saw some stragglers, very young boys and if they did not put their hands up empty we shot them.’
At one stage A Company had reached the high ground in the woods but were counter-attacked three times and were finally surrounded. They fought their way back to the southern edge of the wood. It was a painful battle for the Herefords. Two officers, Lieutenant Spittal and Lieutenant Hopkinson, were killed and two more wounded; thirty-nine ORs were killed or wounded and thirteen taken prisoner. The battalion was glad to hand over to 7th Armoured Division on 3 April. It took a further three days for the infantry of 7th Armoured Division to make the final clearance of the north-west sector of the Teutoburger Wald.
The 29th Armoured Brigade attack was altogether different. 15/19th Hussars, bit between their teeth, galloped their Comets due east from the bridgehead at Birgte on 2 April and took the village of Brochterback. One squadron stayed there and the other charged north up the road to Holthausen to assault the key pass. Despite many attacks by bazooka men no Comets were knocked out, and ‘elan’ carried them up the long winding hill.
Ted Deeming wrote later:
The road or ‘gorge’ was a bazooka man’s paradise and the only answer was to run the 1½ mile gauntlet at the Comet’s top speeds. That all of C squadron’s tanks reached the top, some 7–800 feet high, without being hit was incredible. Probably the bazooka men had not learnt the rules of ‘aim-off’. They seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of panzerfausts – it was later calculated that one was fired at every other tank – but thank God they had no access to Teller mines or the support of anti-tank guns.
On the next advance 2 miles west, 15/19th Hussars enjoyed a good day’s heavy shooting and killed or seriously wounded at least 150 Germans between 1130 and 1830 hrs. Near the top 23rd Hussars with 8 RB passed through 15/19th Hussars, wended their way through the undefended steep and narrow gorge, and entered the small town of Tecklenberg. It was quiet and no flags were flying, and battle soon raged. No quarter was given and the ‘Volksturm’ fought alongside the regular German troops. The tanks battled their way slowly down the narrow, twisty streets. Riflemen cleared houses and fought through trim cottage gardens. By nightfall the shattered town, in ruins and burning, was cleared. But following up behind were A1 Echelon, who were violently ambushed in the narrow gorge, and with assistance from 8 RB the Germans were beaten back into the woods. 23rd Hussars had three officer casualties that day.
Back at the bridgehead FW 190s, Stukas, Heinkels and ME 109s bombed and strafed the Herefords and the Fifes, but divisional AA plus every rifle and Bren belted up noisy deterrent barrages and four planes were shot down on 1–2 April. About a dozen bombs were aimed at the vital Birgte bridge, but fortunately none hit it. On the 3rd the enemy sent a platoon down to within 200 yards of the bridge but they were liquidated by the reserve squadron of the Fifes.
Meanwhile, from the shattered remains of Tecklenberg, 11th Armoured prepared for another ‘cavalry’ charge.