Battle for Tripsrath - 19th November 1944

On the 19th November 1944, dawned to grey skies and heavy rain. The battlefield, which had always been bad, now became a quagmire, a sea of liquid brown mud in which no wheeled vehicle could move effectively. Therefore, all replenishment had to be carried out to the forward Companies by Honeys and Weasels. Some Sherman tanks, which had extended end connectors fitted to their tracks, were able to get forward and give support.

Pending the opening of a maintenance route through Geilenkirchen, it was proposed that the Worcesters should be served by a track from Gillrath to Rischden and on to Tripsrath. However, because of recent heavy rain this presented considerable difficulties as tanks, carriers and anti-tank guns became bogged down in the deep liquid mud. The forward Companies therefore found themselves without food and without anti-tank guns at first light on the morning of the 19th November.

Church and Presbytery House at Tripsrath as seen in prior to fighting in November 1944
(photo Louis Scully private collection)

Four Sherman tanks fitted with extended end connectors to their tracks, however, managed to get through and rumbled into the village at 05.00 hours that morning. All seemed to be going well until ‘B’ Squadron, 4th/7th R.D.G., reached the outskirts of Tripsrath. Three tanks were immediately knocked-out by S.P. guns and a fourth tank was Bazookaed by a very determined German using a Panzerfaust. A fifth tank survived this attack and remained in action the rest of the day. This action resulted in two tank officers and two troopers being killed with a further two officers and ten other ranks being wounded.

Captain Percy Huxter and Private Thomas Scully
(photo Louis Scully private collection)

Shortly after this attack the German who had fired the Panzerfaust was shot dead whilst trying to cross the street, by a Sergeant Guest from the Worcesters Anti-Tank Platoon.

The German 'Panzerfaust' was a very effective lightweight anti-tank weapon issued to the German infantry. It was capable of penetrating 200 mm of armour plate at 60 metres.

Captain Percy Huxter (‘A’ Company) and his batman and runner Private Thomas Scully both have vivid memories of this event as they were involved in getting two badly wounded men out of one of the burning Sherman tanks in the narrow street of Tripsrath.

 

Private Thomas Scully recalls: "The tank was on fire and there was danger of it exploding and we were still being fired on by the enemy. We eventually manage to drag two wounded men out of the tank to safety and gave them some morphine. It was some time before stretcher bearers arrived on the scene to take them away."

 

After these events, Captain Percy Huxter was told by his Company Commander, Acting Major Keith James, to make contact with the other two forward Companies. ‘A’ Company by then had consolidated their position in the northern part of Tripsrath.


Tripsrath Church severely damage by shell fire
(photo Erich & Hildegard Krämer given to Louis Scully collection)

 

Annastrasse, street in Tripsrath before the fighting
(photo Louis Scully private collection)

Captain Percy Huxter recalls, “I walked back, not seeing any of the enemy, and then I heard a number of Germans talking on the other side of a six feet high wall. They were obviously having a heated discussion and thankfully were unaware of my presence. I quickly removed the pin from a grenade, counted two, and lobbed it over the wall !! I heard a few screams and then it went quiet. I continued on my way.”

Just before dawn on the 19th a counter-attack by some 100 strong German Infantry came in on ‘A’ Company's position. The Worcester men dealt with this attack successfully and by daylight they saw at least forty dead Germans in front of their forward Platoon. They belonged to 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division.

‘D’ Company also found that the enemy, belonging to the 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had crept back into the school building at the most northern point of the Tripsrath, too close for comfort!

‘C’ Company set out at about 10.00 hours to clear their sector of buildings, and collected about twenty prisoners who had been sleeping in the cellars and who seemed hardly to know that there had been a battle the day before.

Another counter-attack came in at 11.00 hours from the woods (later to be referred to as Dorset Woods) at the other side of the main Geilenkirchen-Heinsberg road, which was about 500 yards west of Tripsrath. Out of the woods and down the axis of the road there came a Company of enemy infantry supported by two Tiger tanks and two Self-Propelled guns. They were advancing towards Rischden but seemed unaware of the presence of ‘C’ Company who were now on the edge of Tripsrath, for the enemy infantry moved down the line of the road in the ditch on the Tripsrath side and their armour presented inviting broadside targets for any anti-tank weapons. Annoyingly, for reasons already stated, no anti-tank weapons were to hand, and ‘C’ Company could only look on and watch this opportunity go slipping by. But all was not lost.
Our anti-tank guns and some Sherman tanks had managed to get up to Rischden, where ‘B’ and H.Q. Company were, and from there were able to engage the enemy Panzers whilst ‘C’ Company took heavy toll of the German infantry who never seemed to realize that they were being fired on from the flanks. Three of the enemy armoured vehicles went up in flames and the screams of the trapped crew of the one nearest the road were plainly audible. The remaining infantry and one enemy tank limped back into the cover of the woods.

One of the tanks had been hit by a P.I.A.T. bomb fired by Sergt. 'Bottle' Drew of 12 Platoon (‘B’ Company) using the weapon at “high angle” and the extreme range of 300 yards. He used two shots to get the range and luckily managed to hit the tank with his third.


Lieutenant Rex Fellows
, commanding 12 Platoon recalls:
“The enemy tanks stopped and one began to traverse its gun turret slowly across the front of 12 Platoon, but appeared not to have seen us. It then dipped its gun on to Lieutenant Jerry Millinson’s leading 10 Platoon and opened fire pounding the area of 10 Platoon with H.E. until hit by a P.I.A.T. bomb fired with uncanny accuracy and great bravery by 12 Platoon’s Sergeant 'Bottle' Drew, aided by some enfilade fire from Tripsrath. 10 Platoon suffered many casualties in that short bombardment”

Some alarm had been caused at Battalion H.Q., which was still established in the cellar of a house in Rischden, when it was suddenly set on fire by one of the enemy's shells. Major Thomson, who had now taken over command from Major Ricketts, continued to command the battle from it until the heat became so unbearable and he was forced to move his H.Q. to a house farther down the road.

Acting Major Keith James

Lieut. Peter Wade

Lieut. Rex Fellows

It was one of the thousands of shells mentioned above, which landed in the ‘open mouthed’ entrance to ‘B’ Company’s HQ - a dug-out constructed by the Germans with access on the far side and therefore protected from our attacks from the South or West. It was obviously vulnerable from attacks from the North or East, and so it turned out. Major Ricketts’ runner and batman, Private Joe Snape, who had come to us from the Staffs, was killed outright together with Private Leslie Tovey. All the occupants were severely shaken and the Major had great difficulty in containing his grief at the sad loss of two fine men.

Later that day the Royal Artillery anti-tank guns arrived and covered the Worcesters positions, and the Gunner and Mortar Observation Posts established themselves. During the following night (20th Nov.) the maintenance route through Geilenkirchen was opened up. Geilenkirchen had fallen to the Americans after being successfully outflanking the Germans.

It was after quite a short interval that the Worcesters felt the weight for the first time of the guns of the Siegfried Line. The guns were numerous and of large calibre, and apparently well supplied with ammunition. The enemy had our range and the Battalion felt the full force of their bombardment while sitting in cellars and slit trenches. Brigadier Essame later said “The 1st Battalion Worcestershire had endured bombardment in the village on a scale comparable to that of the First World War.”

Casualties from shelling are rarely high if one is below ground and so it was in this case, but the nervous strain and the accompanying lowering effect on morale are unavoidable. For five days and four nights the Worcesters sat and “took it all”, and although the War Diary, which merely says “Heavy enemy mortaring and shelling throughout the day”, seems to pass it off rather lightly, it was one of the most trying ordeals which the men of the Battalion experienced throughout the whole campaign.

Private Jack Roberts (‘A’ Company) recalls “At Tripsrath, on the morning of the 20th November, after a very heavy bout of shelling on our position, a private by the name of Edwards shouted to me, ‘Robbo, look what these German bastards have done to my greatcoat!!’ I gave it a glance and what I saw were a lot of holes made by shrapnel. My reply was, ‘It’s a good job you hadn’t got it on!!’. For some reason he’d left it on the side of the slit trench whilst shelling was going on”.

Private Cecil (Joe) Bainbridge (‘D’ Company), batman and runner for Major Bryan Elder, remembers the occasion well “We suffered a terrific bombardment by the Germans from the Siegfried Line for five days and nights. It only stopped for one hour each night while the Germans fed. I was lucky to avoid getting blown up twice! Some of the younger men who had recently joined the Battalion found it difficult to cope with”

Literally thousands of shells poured into Worcesters positions while they curled up in their slit trenches. To appear above ground was to invite disaster so that such movement was kept to a minimum. It was only at night time that the men were withdrawn in small parties to the comparative comfort and safety of cellars in the damaged houses to wash and shave and have some food. Food was issued during the hours of darkness, dinner at 20.00 hours and breakfast at 04.30 hours, at which time sandwiches were issued for midday.

Communications suffered as usual from the heavy shelling and the Signal Platoon, led by the Signals Officer, Capt. P. E. Gray, surpassed itself in its efforts to maintain them.

Major R. C. Thomson (York and Lancaster Regiment) was only attached to the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, he was never taken-on-strength of the Unit, and, in fact, his entire stay with the Battalion did not exceed ten days, but five of those days were the most hazardous the Battalion had experienced.

Lieut. S. W. "Jerry" Millinson

Sgt. C. H. "Bottle" Drew

Private Jack Roberts

Private C. "Joe" Bainbridge

(photos Louis Scully private collection)

 

Aerial photo showing Tripsrath and Rischden (18th November 1944)



German Military Staff Car captured by the Worcesters in Tripsrath
(photo Louis Scully private collection)

Lieut. Peter Wade, (Commanding 11 Platoon), recalls what happened:

"After ‘B’ Company had captured the village of Rischden, Major John Ricketts ordered 11 Platoon to advance and re-enforce ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies who were holding Tripsrath. At the time we were continually been shelled by the Germans, which lasted for some 3 days. It was during this shelling that I was wounded in the arm from a stray piece of mortar shrapnel. After things quietened down I was evacuated to a Military Hospital at Louvain near Brussels on the 24th November 1944. It was here that I met up again with Captain Wally Leadbeater who had been wounded in the foot but had the added problem of undergoing an operation for appendicitis. After recovering we both took the opportunity of enjoying 48 hours leave before rejoining the battalion on the 30th January 1945 at the Belgium village of Beersse near Turnhout. This time I was posted to ‘A’ Company."


Lieut. Peter Wade visiting the spot at Rischden (August 1992)
where he was wounded by mortar shrapnel on the 22nd November 1944
(photo Louis Scully private collection)

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