On 25th September 1944, having reached Driel, an attempt to cross the river Rhine in the area of W esterbouwing was made by men of the 4th Dorset regiment who had arrived in Normandy with the 43rd Division not long after D-Day. Having already suffered heavy casualties they were tasked now with attempting to reach men of the 1st Airborne division who were now heavily engaged in the Battle for Arnhem. At 1a.m. they set off. Out of the 315 Dorsets who crossed , 13 died & 200 were captured. L/Cpl Wally Smith was one of these men...
During the period before the 4th battalion crossed the river, we were briefed as to what part we would take in the withdrawal of the remnants of the gallant 1st Airborne Division. It all sounded a perilous task & as far as we knew even the Commander of the battalion Lt.Col Tilly wasn’t very happy about the task ahead…but we had a job to do.
As we laid in wait for the assault boats to arrive we were well stocked up with ammo & a few rations. It was raining heavily & it was cold & scaring. About midnight everything started to happen , the boats arrived & we received our orders to move to the river. Gunfire was quite heavy as if the Germans knew we were coming across but in we went. Several boats were swamped by the conditions & the current, which was very strong, made it difficult to keep together & make an exact landing, my boat was sunk a few feet from the bank & we had to scramble out very wet & bedraggled. Shook up but in true infantry style we kept going towards the wooded area. Officers & NCO’s were calling out orders, myself & my Bren gunner ( I was 2 i/c of the Bren) staggered up the slope & took position to the left of the main body who were going forward further into the woods.
We didn’t come up against any Germans but small arms fire was quite heavy up higher & an NCO got back to us & said Tilly had made contact with a German patrol & he had been wounded. As we moved further from our position we were met by a sergeant of one of the Companies who said we should make our way back to the edge of the woods & give covering fire to any stragglers coming back out .This NCO then went off into the area where our men were…it seemed like hours we were in those woods & when Harold & myself got about 10 yards or so out we started to dig in with our backs to the river.
By now it started to get light & we had the Bren gun set up ready for any trouble. About eight or so of the lads had joined us dug in along a line of about 200 yards. Now the Germans were raining stick grenades down towards us & a sniper was very busy to the left of us. The factory was still burning from last night & a lot of activity was going on. We could see Germans through the woods so we put a few short bursts towards the trees where the sniper seemed to be. This gave our position away with the Bren gun then the worst happened…Harold Wyer was hit & killed. The bullet hit him in the chest & came out of his back. He slumped across the gun & I pulled him flat but could do nothing for him.
This rendered the Bren useless but at the same time an occasional shot landed around me but I could not move. Throughout the day we were attacked mainly by stick grenades so our only chance was to move when it got dark. There was little sign of movement from the opposite side of the river except once when we saw a Red Cross flag being waved & a boat being carried as if to cross but they were very soon fired on & disappeared out of sight. During all this time the Germans never attempted to come out of the woods & engage us.
It was now dark & word got along the line to move out to the river. We crawled on our stomachs to the waters edge where a corporal was in the water with an assault boat. Firstly the wounded were put in then the NCO took six more, I would estimate about 10-12 men in all, before he said ‘Enough’ & they pushed off. He said to me that they would get a boat over for the rest , I think that about six of us were left. A couple jumped in to swim back & I thought ‘here goes I can swim so why not !’.
After a few strokes the current was taking me more down river than across it & through sheer exhaustion & tiredness I gave up. By this time I was quite a distance down river & quite near the factory which was still smoking. I then came upon another Dorset Bob Veal from B Company , he had been in the river but couldn’t make it so we both huddled up together. We felt in a bad way & it was then that we heard voices. Sure enough , it was a German patrol & it seemed as though they were coming straight for us. We could just see them in the distance & simply laid flat a yard away as they past over without seeing us.
Quite nearby a houseboat was moored on the river so we decided to climb on it & hide. After creeping down to the hold hiding were four more Dorsets so we said we would stay until as long as possible in case another crossing was to be made. After two nights myself & another did a recce near the boat to see if a row boat or the like could be tied up but no luck.
However on deck we did find a cask of fresh water & with the bottles of dried fruit belonging to the houseboat owner we survived for five days. The Germans must have seen our movements to get water & on they came ranting & raving. As they marched us off past the burnt out factory half a dozen captured PARA lads came out & gave us a cheer, they’d been clearing the burnt out tyres from the ruin.
Then it was off to Apeldoorn for interrogation , this was where we worked at the barracks before going off to a stalag (POW camp). This story is quite true & to the best of my knowledge, it had to be condensed otherwise it would fill ten pages.
L/Cpl Wally Smith
4th Batt, Dorset Regiment