8th Rifle Brigade - from Normandy to the Baltic - June 1944 - May 1945
A brief history of the 8th Rifle Brigade in WW2*
The 2nd Battalion The London Rifle Brigade (later renamed 8th Battalion The Rifle Brigade) started embodiment on 1 September 1939, the day of the German invasion of Poland and two days before war was declared on Germany. Conditions were not good. Companies were in scattered and inconvenient billets in the City area, so administration was difficult and training impossible. The remainder of 1939 and the whole of 1940 saw the battalion moving from various places in and around London to Cambridgeshire, Staffordshire, South-Wales, Monmouthshire and back to Staffordshire. Apart from vulnerable-points duties and guards against German parachutists, their main tasks were forming and training itself. The first Bren carriers were delivered to the battalion by mid 1940 but still the Mortar Platoon had no mortars and the Anti-Aircraft Platoon did not have the right mountings for using their guns. In November 1940 it became known that the Battalion was to become a motor battalion in an armoured brigade, the role they were to have until the end of the war.
Becoming part of the 11th Armoured Division
In January 1941 the battalion became part of the 29th Armoured Brigade of the 11th Armoured Division, whose sign, a charging black bull on a yellow field, was in due course to become one of the most renowned in the British army. Armoured units in the brigade were the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, the 23rd Hussars and the 24th Lancers (to be replaced in early 1944 by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment). Also in January that year the battalion’s name was changed into 8th Battalion The Rifle Brigade or, to be precise, into ‘8th Battalion The Rifle Brigade (London Rifle Brigade)’.
Training in England
By the beginning of April 1941 the battalion had received about half of their equipment as a motor battalion and by September their full complement of 15-cwt. truck. Armoured half-tracks were still a thing of the future. In November 1941 the division was inspected by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at Duncombe Park and by the end of that year the battalion was stationed at Scarborough.
With the approach of spring 1942 the tempo of training was speeded up, and at the end of April the 8th Rifle Brigade moved to Brighton. Armoured divisions in England were at this time in the process of reorganization on the basis of one armoured and one infantry brigade, instead of two armoured brigades as before. Also in late April or early May the battalion was called on to supply two large drafts, totaling well over a hundred other ranks, for service overseas (probably North Africa), and shortly afterwards a further draft of fourteen officers. Some time later, in the midst of a large exercise – Exercise ‘Tiger’, from 19 May to 1 June – another large draft was taken, which led to H Company being temporarily disbanded. In August the battalion moved from Brighton to ‘the bleak countryside’ of Norfolk and shortly after received its first anti-tank guns (2-pounders, to be replaced at the end of 1942 by 6-pounders). As a consequence No. 2 Platoon of E Company was converted to an anti-tank platoon. In September 1942 there was a full-scale divisional exercise and in October a large part of the battalion moved to West Ham for street-fighting exercises in the bombed-out area of the London Docks. Later that year Lieutenant-Colonel Treneer-Michell became commanding officer of the 8th Rifle Brigade. In 1944 he was to lead the battalion across the Channel to Normandy.
In February 1943 the battalion was about to embark for service overseas, in the Libyan dessert. Movement orders arrived, and on the 4th and 5th road and rail convoys left for their embarkation ports. By the evening of the 5th carriers had been loaded aboard ship, only to be taken off again the next day and sent home by rail. The cancellation of the move followed a decision taken at the highest level that no armoured divisions were needed in North Africa. After all this five days leave was given to all ranks. The remainder of 1943 was spent on further small and large scale exercises, including two very large scale exercises: VIII Corps Exercise ‘Hawk’, in which 11th Armoured Division took on the Guards Armoured Division, and then later on Exercise ‘Blackcock’. In September also the first course in waterproofing vehicles took place, an essential preparation for the subsequent seaborne landings in Normandy. By the end of the year and during the winter of 1943-1944, the battalion found itself in Hunmanby, North Yorkshire.
On 10 February 1944, 29th Armoured Brigade with 8th Rifle Brigade were inspected by General Montgomery at Bridlington. The month was further devoted to intensive platoon training, including driving in and off landing craft and a Corps exercise at the Wolds area. With the coming of spring everyone knew that the final stage of the war against Germany must soon begin, and the inspection by the King, again at Bridlington, on the 22nd of March was a fair indication that the battalion’s time in England was drawing to its close. Shortly after the battalion left for Aldershot, the final stop before leaving for France. Range courses were fired, vehicles waterproofed, a skeleton exercise held to test communications with airborne troops, and, of course, there were games and sports. At the end of April the battalion’s White scout cars were replaced by half-tracks. A little over one month later, in the afternoon of 9 June, three Days after D-Day, at Tilbury docks, the battalion embarked for France, on M.T.s 107 and 88.
Normandy to Baltic
The voyage to Normandy was uneventful. By the 12th the convoy was off the coast of Normandy opposite Graye-sur-Mer, and the next day the battalion drove ashore, left the beach and concentrated inland at the little village of Cully. The battalion had arrived in Normandy just a week after the initial landings.
On 25 June Colonel Treneer-Michell came round to give the companies orders for Operation ‘Epsom’. The plan was for VIII Corps to cross the River Odon, capture Hill 112, advance over the Orne and then establish itself some six miles south of Caen. In effect the Battalion got as far as Hill 112, which it attacked and occupied for two consecutive day, until it was withdrawn on 29 June. There had been many casualties in this first action. Hill 112 was a place which apparently neither side could hold and would take a further 5 weeks and thousands of killed and wounded to be finally captured.
After replacement of casualties and of lost equipment and vehicles and some reorganization, including appointment of a new commanding officer: Colonel Tony Hunter – who was to command the 8th Rifle Brigade until the end of the war – by mid July the battalion was ready for Operation ‘Goodwood’, ‘the biggest battle ever’. The 11th Armoured, the Guards Armoured and the 7th Armoured Divisions were to move round in the utmost secrecy north of Caen across the Orne and advance in the path of a great rolling barrage across an area devastated by 3,000 heavy bombers and over the cornfields towards Falaise. Like ‘Epsom’ this operation did not go exactly according to plan. Although in the end the 8th Rifle Brigade, with the support of tanks, managed to get as far as Bras and Hubert-Folie and to capture the two villages, the 11th Armoured Division lost some 300 to 400 tanks. German losses in tank were smaller, but much more difficult to replace.
The third an final major operation in Normandy was Operation ‘Bluecoat’, just prior to the allied break-out from the Normandy bridgehead in early August 1944. In preparation the division had to move from the complete east of the British part of the bridgehead to the east, right next to the Americans. Early on the 11th Armoured Division made a breakthrough and advanced some 15 miles, from Saint-Martin-des-Besaces almost to Vire, only to be halted because that city lay in the American sector. 8th Rifle Brigade with the 23rd Hussars got a far as Presles and Le Bas Perrier, and a patrol even got to Chenedolle. For three days both battalions were besieged – and at one stage even completely surrounded by the Germans – on top of the Le Bas Perrier Ridge, until finally relieved by the 2nd Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division on the 5th of August. Even then the battalion’s troubles were not yet over. They remained in the area of Presles and the steady drain of casualties persisted for another five days.
From the second week of August the break-out of the Normandy bridgehead was a fact. Between 12 and 21 August 1944 the Germans lost some 450,000 men and thousands of vehicles in the battle for the Falaise Pocket and by 25 August Paris was liberated by French and American troops. By 22 August for the 11th Armoured Division and the 8th Rifle Brigade it was time for rest and refit, at L’Aigle, some 40 miles from the river Seine. In a remarkable short time L’Aigle had become a ‘rear area’. It was their first true rest after two months of hard battles and heavy losses, and since landing in Normandy ten weeks earlier.
Then, on 28 August 1944, it was time to cross the Seine, at Vernon. It was time for ‘the great swan’. By 31 August the battalion liberated Amiens, some 70 mile from Vernon. It was there that Sergeant Triggs of 13 Platoon, with his section of three carriers – one of which commanded by Lance-Corporal Don Gillate – captured the bridge over the river Somme. After Amiens thing went even faster and on 4 September 1944 the 11th Armoured Division liberated the city of Antwerp. In one week the 8th Rifle Brigade had progressed more than 200 miles, from Vernon to Antwerp. Earlier on, half that distance, from the Normandy beaches to Vernon, had taken them over two months. It seemed as if the German army was about to collapse. The riflemen felt sure that victory was in the air and that the end of the war was in sight. It seemed a matter of weeks.
The great expectations of early September were not to be fulfilled. On 9 September the battalion crossed the Albert Canal at Beeringen and on 20 September they crossed the border into Holland, to play their part in the closing stages of Operation ‘Market Garden’, guarding the eastern flank of that operation in the area around Helmond, Vlierden and Deurne. Sadly, Operation ‘Market Garden’ ended in failure. It also made clear that war was still far from finished.
Many people tend to overlook the winter of 1944-1945, apart maybe from the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, about which more later. The long winter months of patrols and slow advances across bogs liberally strewn with mines, over canals, from one church tower or one windmill to another over the charred ruins of villages are not unnaturally forgotten. Still, it was this type of action in which the battalion was involved during the remainder of 1944, during the period which is sometimes known as the ‘Watch on the river Maas’. It was fought, or sat out, in Holland, in and around places like De Rips, Venray, Leunen, IJsselstein and Swolgen. Finally, on 16 December the battalion left Holland and travelled to Poperinghe near Ypres, Belgium, for a well earned rest and in order to celebrate Christmas there. What a relief!
A relief however which did not last very long. Two days after arrival in the area of Poperinghe, on the 20th new orders arrived. The Germans had launched an offensive against the Americans in the Ardennes. The 8th Rifle Brigade and the 29th Armoured Brigade were resting. They were the only British reserve. Before they had finished breakfast they knew that by twelve o’clock the were to be on the move again, towards the Ardennes and the bridges across the river Meuse, at Namur (F Company), Givet (H Company) and Dinant (G Company and a large part of E Company). Apart from guarding the bridges, the battalion had to deal with a ceaseless volume of traffic, American columns and hordes of refugees, while in the meantime rumours were rife about spies and Germans disguised as monks and as American soldiers. Some spies and monks were indeed arrested by H Company but they appeared to be British spies and French monks. G Company managed to halt a jeep with three Germans in it – who indeed were disguised as American soldiers – by blowing up the jeep with a string of mines, pulled across the road when the jeep refused to stop when being halted. In the end enemy tanks got to within a few miles of Dinant, where some fighting took place between German panzers and infantry and tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment and the 8th Rifle Brigade. By Christmas Day, for no apparent reason the Germans had lost the initiative. Roles were reversed. Only by 14 January 1945, after some further fighting, in the bitter cold, at Boisselles and on Chapel Hill, near Bure did the role of the 8th Rifle Brigade in the Ardennes come to an end. Only then the battalion finally had its rest, and a belated Christmas dinner, at Bree in Belgium. It was their first prolonged rest since the invasion and the inhabitants of Bree showed a genuine friendliness and a hospitality remarkable even for Belgium.
The battalion’s period of relative inactivity continued until the end of March. During this period the 8th Rifle Brigade was stationed in various places in the south of Holland, such as Venlo, Roosendaal and Nijmegen, where H Company guarded the bridge against possible floating mines or other German attacks while the rest of the battalion were on ‘The Island’, under command of the 49th ‘Polar Bear’ Division. Even during this period of relative inactivity however, some members of the battalion got killed or wounded. Then, on 13 March the battalion moved to the area of Diest and Louvain in Belgium, to rejoin the 29th Armoured brigade, with their brand new Comet tanks.
The peaceful existence had to come to an end and on 28 March the 11th Armoured Division again set off for the front. On 30 March the advance began, and since rapid progress was expected the companies went out to join their armoured regiments, F Company with the Fife and Forfars, G Company with the 3rd Royal Tanks and H Company with the 23rd Hussars. The first stubborn resistance was encountered at Holtwick, where H Company has some trouble in clearing the village. Still, by the end of the first day 28 miles had been covered and some 400 prisoners had been collected besides a great deal of abandoned equipment. The advance went on like this and sometimes resistance was met from scattered, disorganized infantry and the German equivalent of the Home Guard. The latter generally put up some show of fight at first before they realized the advantages of giving up before their village had been flattened by British shell fire.
Then, on 2 April, at Tecklenburg resistance stiffened. Tecklenburg is – or was – a pleasant village. Its inhabitants were foolish enough to decide to defend their homes to the last, no doubt persuaded to do this by members of the NCO’s School at Hanover, who put up a most spirited resistance. The local Home Guard joined in and many other civilians besides. It was the first and only village in which civilians took a significant part and the only one where they had to be shot or taken prisoner.
On the morning of 5 April a race developed for the Weser, between the Division’s 159th Infantry Brigade and the 29th Armoured Brigade. The leaders were urged to press on regardless of any risk. Trouble for the 8th Rifle Brigade really began as they reached the town of Stolzenau. As they reached the bridge there it was blown up and the middle of the bridge collapsed into the river. The crossing then had to be done in assault boats, while other troops tried to cross the collapsed bridge on foot. In spite of some casualties, a bridgehead was established and at first the situation looked promising. It was then that the Luftwaffe made its final significant appearance. A strange assortment of aeroplanes bombed the area and caused casualties. Even Stukas, the arch-enemy of Dunkirk days and the early years of the war, looking curiously slow and old-fashioned, now made their reappearance, accompanied by aircraft of all sorts and descriptions. Next day the bridgehead was attacked by German infantry and again by the Luftwaffe, causing further casualties. During the afternoon and the next night the bridgehead was reinforced by Commandos, who by next morning finally took over from the 8th Rifle Brigade. In the fighting around Stolzenau the battalion had lost some fifty casualties at a time when everyone was beginning to feel that their chances of getting through unscathed were improving with each mile of the advance.
The fighting, even after the Weser, was far from over. Fierce resistance was met on the 9th at the village of Steimbke, and again on the 16th, in particular by F Company at Reiningen. Other events which made a big impression during these final stages of the war of course were the liberation of concentration camp Bergen Belsen – although that in fact was only by-passed by the battalion – and later on the sinking of the Cap Arcona at Neustadt. It was there also, that the 8th Battalion had finally reached the Baltic, just before VE Day.
The battalion ended the War in Schleswig, close to the border with Denmark, where they settled down in Schloss Gottorf. It was to be their home for the rest of their existence. Schleswig Holstein was a pleasant part of Germany to occupy, in close proximity to Denmark, beaches, water-meadows and large woodlands. Battalion members were gradually demobilized and finally, in April 1946, the 8th Battalion ceased to exist. As the ‘The London Rifle Brigade, 1919 to 1950’ tells us, it meant that: ‘though many well-remembered war-time associations were broken, at least war was over and temporary Riflemen could return to the pleasanter ways of peace.’
*): largely based on ‘The London Rifle Brigade, 1919 to 1950’
Immediately after the war E, F, G and H Companies each published a booklet – roughly 100 pages – describing their exploits during the campaign through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. It seems the 8th Rifle Brigade was quite unique in this respect, as usually such histories were only produced at battalion or divisional level. Possibly also HQ Company of the 8th Rifle Brigade published their own history.