In the summer of 1794, a wealthy British aristocrat raised an army of volunteers to defend the nation against the imminent threat of the French leader Napoleon. This army would eventually evolve into the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, a light cavalry regiment. Although they didn’t see action during the Napoleonic Wars, the Sherwood Rangers would prove themselves an indispensable asset during World War II.
One of the last cavalry units to ever ride horses into battle, this regiment transformed into a “mechanized cavalry” with the advent of tank warfare. The Sherwood Rangers guided their new steeds into many a battle, participating in some of the major campaigns of World War II: including the North African campaign, D-Day, and the Allied invasion of Germany. In September of 1944, they became the first British troops to fight on Nazi soil.
Historian James Holland’s latest book, Brothers in Arms, traces the experience of the Sherwood Rangers throughout World War II. Holland's meticulous research invokes handwritten letters, photographs, and other firsthand testimony. The result is a “sweeping chronicle” and “must-read for military history buffs” (Publishers Weekly) that covers everything from the troops’ relationships with each other and their loved ones back home to the details of the operations in which they participated.
Read on for an excerpt of Brothers in Arms, then download the book!
The regiment remained in Issum for a few days in case they were needed for further operations. They were not, however, and instead moved north back to Goch where they were to remain out of the line for the next fortnight as 21st Army Group prepared for Operation PLUNDER, the crossing of the Rhine at Wesel and Rees. The entire area west of the Rhine had now been cleared. Some 51,000 POWs had been taken during the twin operations of VERITABLE and GRENADE, and more than 38,000 enemy troops killed or wounded. The cost had been almost 16,000 dead or wounded to Canadian First Army, which included XXX Corps and, of course, the Sherwood Rangers. Everyone knew the war against Nazi Germany was nearing its endgame, yet the Germans insisted on fighting to the bitter end – despite irreversible defeat, despite millions dead, despite the reduction of the Reich’s cities to rubble; it wasn’t just Cleve and Goch that had been pulverized in recent weeks but Dresden and Pforzheim as well. Some 20,000 people were killed in Dresden; in Pforzheim the death toll was over 17,600 – which amounted to 25 per cent of the population – and it was estimated that 86 percent of the town was completely destroyed. The Ruhr cities and Cologne had been hammered yet again too. It was all so pointless. And soon enough the men of the Sherwood Rangers would have to dust themselves down, take a deep breath and head back into battle, each man hoping he would be spared and somehow make it through to the very end. Those like Stanley Christopherson or Stuart Hills or Neville Fearn or SSM Henry Hutchinson, who had been there on D-Day and were still standing, just had to hope that with the finishing post in sight, their luck would hold.
Montgomery planned for the crossing of the Rhine to be the last major set-piece operation of the war. As such, the planning of PLUNDER – the ground force’s crossing – and its companion airborne piece, VARSITY, was an immense undertaking. Risk was to be reduced as far as possible, which meant overwhelming force, as few casualties as possible and planning for every conceivable scenario. Perhaps this was a little overcautious, especially as the Americans to the south had unexpectedly managed to capture the Ludendorff bridge across the Rhine at Remagen on 7 March. On the other hand, much had been learned since D-Day and the Normandy campaign, the Allies had such huge resources at their command, and British – indeed, Allied – strategy had always been to use technology and mechanization as much as possible; ‘steel not flesh’ was the mantra. Stacking the odds in their favour and trying to reduce casualties was a laudable aim, especially since there was the prospect of the ongoing war against Japan to confront once Hitler and the Nazis had been vanquished. This was not the time to be cavalier with manpower.
It did mean, however, that there was not a lot for the front-line troops to do for a few weeks until PLUNDER and VARSITY were launched. Certainly, after slogging their way through the Reichswald and across the Rhineland, the Canadians and XXX Corps needed the rest. At any rate, it meant Stanley Christopherson could take his first leave since D-Day and head back to England for a fortnight, although he intended to use part of the time to see old comrades and catch up with Myrtle Kellett on various regimental welfare issues.
For the rest, however, there was the chance to take a few days’ break in Brussels in between maintenance, conferences to discuss recent operations and further training. Stuart Hills managed to get away with Dick Holman, Denis Elmore and Mike Howden. Like all British officers, they stayed at the Plaza Hotel, which had been specially requisitioned for them. They had three whole days and nights there, and established a very enjoyable routine. Get up around 10 a.m. Go across the road to the Tile Room above the W. H. Smith shop for waffles and treacle and coffee. Shopping from 11 a.m. to noon; first drinks of the day, followed by lunch and a trip to the cinema. More drinks from 6 to 8 p.m., then dinner. Then off to a nightclub until, maybe, five in the morning. Back to the Plaza. One night, Stuart Hills had dinner with a Wren friend he’d met, and invited her to join him, Dick and Denis at the movies the following day. ‘Dick’s language during the film was simply appalling,’ he wrote, ‘and I gave him hell about it afterwards.’
Peter Mellowes followed them a day or two later. His mother’s birthday fell on 16 March, while he was in Brussels, and she’d written asking for a photograph of him. He’d felt it was the least he could do, so he went to a studio, had it done properly and posted it back to England. On his first night there, he’d had a good soak in the bath and had just put on clean underwear when the loudspeaker system announced that the debutantes of Brussels were down in the lounge and would like to meet British Army officers for drinks.
Mellowes was naturally a rather shy fellow and had barely spoken to a girl in two years. He was, however, introduced to a beautiful young woman called Simone Guillaume; they got chatting, hit it off, and she invited him to meet her parents. He readily agreed and the following night duly turned up at her home, suddenly very self-conscious about the state of his battledress; they were given fresh underwear every two weeks, but he hadn’t had his battledress cleaned or changed in eons. Only now, standing outside the Guillaumes’ very grand house in one of the smartest corners of Brussels, was he acutely aware of how much he smelled of fuel, oil and grime. Nerves gripped him, but Simone put him at his ease and her parents were charming. When he eventually left, she promised to come and see him off the following morning. And, at the appointed hour, there she was – the most beautiful girl he had ever laid his eyes on. ‘She gave me a very chaste kiss on the cheek,’ he noted, ‘and I went on my way on cloud nine.’
In Goch, meanwhile, Ernie Leppard and his crew were billeted in an old mews house at the edge of town. Where the owners were was not really much of a cause for concern. Leppard was just glad to find a house that still had a roof and, even better, a range in the kitchen. He liked cooking, and managed to scrounge some flour and make himself and the lads a few pies. But, like Peter Mellowes, he was also starting to feel a bit self-conscious about the state of his personal hygiene. He found an old tin bath and took it up to the second floor where there was a half-decent drawing room, albeit one which had had its windows blown in. He heated up a load of water on the range, then took it up to the bath, got himself undressed and stepped in. Just as he lay back, he suddenly realized two German women had come into the room. ‘And that was the first time I’d come into contact with German civilians,’ he said. ‘You know, the sudden shock of it.’ He reached for his revolver and was about to ask them what the bloody hell they were doing there when they ran off. He never saw them again.
Stanley Christopherson arrived back at RHQ on 22 March just in time for the flurry of final planning conferences for PLUNDER. ‘I have just got back to find a great deal of activity,’ he wrote to Myrtle Kellett the next day, ‘which I suppose is just as well; I don’t know at all where we will be when you get this letter.’ The weather had much improved since he’d been away. Spring was on its way, the hedgerow now flecked with green, the grass growing once more, buds appearing on the trees. She had asked him what more she could do for the regiment; he replied asking her for a consignment of socks – that was the one item, above all, of which they could never have too many. Christopherson had been rather smitten by Myrtle, and it was easy to see why: she was strikingly beautiful, supremely self-assured and glamorously well-connected. ‘It was lovely seeing you again,’ he added, ‘and I only wish that it could have been for longer.’ He signed off, ‘So much love, Stanley.’
That same day, he attended the final planning conference. Passwords were issued, exploitation plans were agreed, and Montgomery’s message to the troops was handed out on simple one-sided slips of paper. The Sherwood Rangers were not to be in the first wave of crossings; timings for them would be confirmed later, depending on how the operation went. PLUNDER was launched at nine o’clock that night, Friday 23 March, supported by more than 3,500 guns in an opening barrage at three crossing points: XXX Corps at Rees, XII Corps near Wesel, and the US XVI Corps from Ninth Army at Dinslaken to the south. Some 32,000 vehicles had been amassed for the operation, along with some 118,000 tons of supplies. To put this in perspective, the Sicilian campaign in the summer of 1943 had required 6,000 tons of supplies per day. Yet again, the heavy bombers were brought in: 195 Lancasters and 23 Mosquitoes hit Wesel, a town that had been hit throughout the war ever since 1940, although only heavily for the first time back on 16 February. After this final raid, however, some 97 per cent of the town was destroyed. Cleve had been ruined but Wesel was obliterated.
Both British crossing points were supported by 79th Armoured Division ‘funnies’: DD tanks, Buffalo amphibious tracked vehicles for boggy and flooded ground, and 8,000 engineers just in XXX Corps alone. All German civilians had been evacuated 6 miles west of the river; Winston Churchill, the prime minister, had insisted on coming over to watch, along with Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and security was extra tight.
All three crossings were easier than had been feared, although at Rees, General Tom Rennie, the commander of the 51st Highland Division, was killed by mortar fire having made it to the far shore. At 10 a.m. on the 24th, some 16,900 paratroopers from the US 17th and British 6th Airborne Divisions began falling on targets to the east of Wesel in what was unquestionably the most accurate and successful airborne drop of the entire war. Even so, casualties were still around 20 per cent; airborne operations were costly.
The Sherwood Rangers received their orders at 10 p.m. on 25 March. They were to move across the river at Rees at 3 a.m., in the order: B Squadron–RHQ–C–A. Almost inevitably, there were delays, however, and it wasn’t until around 7 a.m. that John Cropper inched Blue Light Special II on to the raft at the crossing point TILBURY. Several such points had been established using barrage balloon winches and steel hawsers to pull the ferries back and forth; a pontoon bridge, code-named LAMBETH, was being constructed across this 400-yard wide stretch of the Rhine, but was not yet completed, so the Sherwood Rangers went across by raft. Getting a tank on to one of these was not easy. ‘If it was not in line,’ said Cropper, ‘the first track to touch would lift one side of the raft and you had to start again.’ Cropper decided the best way to ensure the Firefly got on swiftly and safely was to stand at the far end of the raft and personally direct the driver. This worked, and they were soon on their way. It was a hazy spring morning. Gunfire and other sounds of battle could be heard from the far side. They all sat on top of the tank so that if it went in, they might have a chance of swimming clear. Halfway across a few salvoes whistled in and hit the water some 50 yards away, but they got across without mishap.
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