Battle for Tripsrath - Worcesters head for Brunssum

By early November 1944 the American forces had taken Aachen and were about to launch their advance towards Cologne. However, before this action could get underway the left flank 9th U.S. Army needed to be secured and this task fell to XXX Corps, which included 43rd Wessex Division, now with the 8th Armoured Brigade under command. This planned action was given the codeword 'Operation Clipper'.

'D' Day for 'Operation Clipper' was set for Saturday, 18th November 1944 and Major-General Ivor Thomas, commanding 43rd Wessex Division, had already decided that for this attack he would use the whole of 214 Brigade plus one battalion from 130 Brigade, namely the 5th Battalion Dorset Regiment, under command of 214 Brigade. Meanwhile, 129 Brigade was given the job of holding the start line, which included the village of Gillrath, and the remaining two battalions of 130 Brigade were held in reserve.

214 Brigade was given the job of cutting off all exits from Geilenkirchen, a small German town on the River Wurm only about 4 miles from the Dutch frontier, and on the high ground to the east ran the Siegfried Line. The town of Geilenkirchen itself was an American objective and fell to the 84th U.S. Infantry Division supported by the tanks of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. For this action this American Division came under the command of XXX Corps.

Brunssum 1944As part of this impending operation the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment left its position at the village of Malden (Dekkerswald), just a few kilometres south of Nijmegen, early on the morning of Friday 10th November 1944, and headed south with the other Battalions of 214 Brigade. The morning was very cold when the battalion followed the now familiar road south, crossing the River Maas near Grave and then passing through the villages of Uden, Veghel, St.-Oedenrode and Son before arriving at Eindhoven. At Eindhoven they passed the damaged Philips factory and headed south across the sandy tracks to Valkenswaarde before crossing the Belgian border and arriving at Bourg Leopold (Leopoldsburg). The column then travelled southeast passing through Hasselt and Bilzen before crossing the Dutch frontier at Maastricht, back into Holland. They then moved north following the River Maas to the town of Geleen. The Worcesters finally arrived at the small village of Puth, 2 Km east of Geleen, very late that same evening but in spite of this received a very warm welcome from the local Dutch folk. The 43rd Division headquarters had already been established, close by in the Dutch mining town of Brunssum.

Although Puth was only a very small farming village nearly every man in the Battalion had a bed there that night. There were also a few American communications troops billeted in the local school, remnants of the Americans who had passed through the village earlier.

Captain Percy Huxter
(photo Louis Scully)

For the next two and a half days the Battalion rested at Puth awaiting further orders. The 129 Brigade, who had preceded the rest of the 43rd Division, were already established at the Dutch/German frontier and on the following day 11th November were already holding a line in the German villages of Stahe, Birgden, Gillrath and Hatterath, which they had taken over from the American 407th Regiment.

On the 12th November 214 Brigade was ordered to relieve 129 Brigade. Captain Percy Huxter of Worcesters ‘A’ Company was part of an advance party of about 10 men which went forward to arrange the handover. However, the order was later cancelled and the advance Recce party returned. The following morning (13th) the Battalion marched to the mining town of Brunssum, about 7 Km to the east.

The Battalion was now concentrated with the remainder of the 43rd Division in the densely populated mining area south and south west of Brunssum. There were deep and extensive concrete air-raid shelters constructed into the hill sides near the coalmines and these were to provide the first billets for the Battalion. Although the conditions were crowded and unclean this was more than compensated for by the hot baths and shower facilities made available at the big coalmines of 'Staatsmijn Hendrik' and 'Staatsmijn Wilhelmina'. For the next five days the Battalion enjoyed these facilities while waiting for 'Operation Clipper' to begin.

Major-General Thomas, held an 'O' Group (Orders Group) meeting at 09.00 hours on the 12th November in a school building at Brunssum. There he outlined the four phases of 'Operation Clipper', planned for the 18th November, to his Brigade Commanders, as follows:

Phase 1 – The 84th U.S. Division were to attack and capture the high ground east of the River Wurm at Prummern (timed for 07.00 hours).

Phase 2 – 214 Brigade was to break through north of Geilenkirchen, cutting the road heading north-east out of the town (timed for 12.30 hours).

Phase 3 – 84th U.S. Division to capture the town of Geilenkirchen (timed for the following morning).

Phase 4 – 130 Brigade to strike due north and capture the villages of Waldenrath and Straeten.

It was at this meeting that Major-General Thomas highlighted the difficulties that the minefields, laid earlier by the American 84th Division during their advance, would cause. He therefore ordered his Brigade Commanders to remove some fourteen hundred land mines at the start-line of Operation Clipper.

Shortly after this meeting, Brigadier Essame, commanding 214 Brigade, briefed his Battalion Commanders in a top room at one of the coalmine buildings where his Intelligence Section had prepared a cloth model of the ground plan for operation Clipper.

The objectives of 214 Brigade were set as follows:

Village to be taken Battalion
Neiderheide 7th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry
Tripsrath and Rischden 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment
Hochheid 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
Bauchem 5th Battalion Dorset Regiment

On the morning of the 14th November the Sappers (Royal Engineers) of 204 Field Company began the task of lifting and moving the mines, mentioned earlier. For some reason Major Evill, company commander, decided to dump some of them near the Custom House on the German/Dutch border, where 129 Brigade’s H.Q. was established. Just after midday No. 1 Platoon started to unload the mines from a lorry, Brigadier Gerard Mole, commanding 129 Brigade, was nearby in his jeep and observed with some alarm that the mines were been carelessly handled. Brigadier Mole went towards them to protest but as he was approaching something happened and the whole stockpile of mines exploded killing 14 and seriously wounding 6 others. The explosion blew a huge crater some thirty feet across. Brigadier Mole was seriously wounded and was taken to the No. 3 Field Dressing Station at Brunssum where he died the same day.
On the 15th November, Captain Jock Bannister (Mortar Platoon Commander) Worcesters went forward with an 'R' Group (Reconnaissance Party) to Gillrath, a position currently held by the 4th Wiltshires, in order to view the area of the planned attack and work out details for a fire plan. On the way at the small village of Pannenschopp , held by the 4th Somersets, by chance he met an old school friend Captain Cedric Humphries (an officer of the 1st Worcesters who had just been posted to 4th Somersets). Such are the fortunes of war that Captain Humphries was to die only a few days later on the morning of the 18th when by chance a 105 mm enemy shell hit the slit trench he was in, instantly killing him and 2nd Lieut. Ken Oxland (an NSO who had only just been commissioned in the field).

The church tower at Gillrath gave an excellent view over the open ground to the village of Rischden. Most of the first day’s objectives could also be seen from brickworks at Gillrath. It became obvious that a frontal attack would not be easy as it was across wet and muddy open ground, as a result of all the recent heavy rain. It was going to be a long advance and very heavy going, with a section of thick wood to be cleared on the way. It was known that the Germans had planted mines in front of their position with trip wires.

On the same day the Sappers (Royal Engineers) were busy at work preparing the tracks across the waste ground near the FUP (Forming Up Point) at Gillrath. As a result of the continual rain throughout the whole of November most of the tracks were like a sea of mud and water. However, the traffic plan for the battle was worked out in great detail.

Capt. 'Jock' Bannister

Capt. Cedric Humphries

On the 16th November just before noon the sky above Gielenkirchen was filled with a large number of heavy bombers. In a joint operation, R.A.F. Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force bombed the German ground forces. The same evening at 18.00 hours the machine guns of the 8th Middlesex Battalion opened up on the villages of Tripsrath, Neiderheide and Bauchem, an operation named 'Pepper Pot', intended to soften up the enemy before the main attack went in.

The Worcesters’ attack plan was to be split into two phases. ‘B’ Company on the right and ‘C’ Company on the left were to take the village of Rischden and the intermediate strip of wood respectively. When these were secured, ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies were to go on through and take the village of Tripsrath itself. There was to be the usual intense fire plan and they were allotted a Squadron of Sherman Tanks from the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards (8th Armoured Brigade) for the task.

(photos Louis Scully collection)