From 22-28 October 1944, the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division, with supporting elements from 7th Armoured Division, 79th Armoured Division and 33rd Armoured Brigade, won a remarkable (and now largely forgotten) victory at the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
The city (whose name is often shortened to ‘Den Bosch’) was home to a German parachute training regiment and following the Allied breakout from France, had been designated as a ‘Fortress’ by the Fuehrer, to be held at all costs. The garrison of the Fortress became a painful thorn in the side of the Allied Operation MARKET-GARDEN during September 1944 and following the failure of that operation, remained a major threat to the left flank of the resultant ‘Nijmegen Salient’. With the loss of Nijmegen, the city now became the main supply hub for the German LXXXVIII Korps south of the River Maas.
In order to consolidate the gains made by I Airborne Corps and XXX Corps during MARKET-GARDEN, the Allied 21st Army Group now began a series of operations to expand the Nijmegen Salient and clear all German forces from the left bank of the Maas. Starting on 30th September, the British VIII Corps launched Operation AINTREE, attacking east from the salient to take the cities of Overloon and Venraij. Then, a few days later and far to the west, the British I Corps and Canadian II Corps attacked north from Antwerp, to clear the approaches to South Beveland and the north bank of the Scheldt Estuary. This was closely followed by Operation SWITCHBACK; an assault by 3rd Canadian Infantry Division against the ‘Breskens Pocket’, to clear the south bank of the Scheldt Estuary.
With the Germans already reeling from these successive and ongoing operations in the west and east, the British XII Corps now launched a further series of assaults in the centre, striking west from the Nijmegen Salient, with the intention of taking ‘s-Hertogenbosch and isolating, then destroying the LXXXVIII Korps (see map above).
As the 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland) Divisions launched frontal assaults against the towns of Tilburg, Boxtel and Vught, General Bobby Ross’ 53rd (Welsh) Division would take the prize of ‘s-Hertogenbosch by launching his assault from what would hopefully be an unexpected direction, thus driving in the left flank of the LXXXVIII Korps.
Attacking from the north-east, 53rd (Welsh) Division would push down the main ‘s-Hertogenbosh to Nijmegen road and railway, which ran along a strip of slightly higher, drier and heavily wooded land, with soggy polder land on each flank. This gave the division a frontage of approximately 4km in which to deploy, narrowing to 1km near the city – not ideal, but far better than the sort of frontages that had been available to XXX Corps during MARKET-GARDEN.
160 Brigade would attack on the right, straddling the railway. The 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment (2 Mons) would advance on the right (north) of the railway, along CUP Route through Kruisstraat and Rosmalen. The 4th Welch Regiment (4 Welch) would advance on the left (south) of the railway, along SPUR Route, through Nuland and Molenbeek. The 6th Royal Welch Fusiliers (6 RWF) would form the brigade reserve. Each battalion would also be supported by the Cromwell tanks of 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (5 Skins – 7th Armoured Division – minus ‘B’ Squadron), divisional engineers and specialist armour (Crocodiles, AVREs and Crab Flails) from 79th Armoured Division to deal with the numerous fortifications and obstacles.
71 Brigade would attack on the left of 160 Brigade. The 1st Highland Light Infantry (1 HLI) would be on the right of the brigade, astride PAN Route, which was the main road to Nijmegen. On the left flank were 4 RWF and in brigade reserve were the 1st Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (1 Ox & Bucks). Again, the brigade was supported by large quantities of specialist armour from 79th Armoured Division, as well as divisional assets and the Cromwells of ‘B’ Squadron, 5th Royal Tank Regiment (5 RTR – 7th Armoured Division).
158 Brigade, consisting of 7 RWF, the 1st East Lancashire Regiment (1 E Lancs) and 1/5 Welch, formed the divisional reserve. 1 E Lancs were given a special tasking, designated Operation SAUCEPAN. The battalion would be mounted in the Ram Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers of 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Squadron (this would be the Ram Kangaroo’s combat debut) and would have the brigade’s massed Wasp flamethrower carriers, ‘B’ Squadron 5 Skins, ‘A’ Squadron 53 Recce Regiment and yet more specialist armour and divisional assets under direct command. The plan was that once one of the leading infantry brigades had opened one of the three main routes into the city, Operation SAUCEPAN would spring into action, with the 1 E Lancs Battlegroup launching a rapier-like, narrow armoured thrust down that route and into the heart of the city.
On the extreme left of the operation, 7th Armoured Division, led by 161 (Queen’s) Infantry Brigade, would advance up the north bank of the Zuid-Willems Canal. The Sherman tanks of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry (1 ERY), of 33 Armoured Brigade would also be fed into the battle as it developed.
All of this was to attack behind ample artillery preparation and a detailed fire-plan, allied to pre-planned Wing-sized RAF Typhoon strikes on likely enemy forming-up points and further Typhoons available on call to attack targets of opportunity.
On the German side, Generalleutnant Freidrich-Wilhem Neumann’s 712th Infantry Division was deployed in depth, with six battalion-sized groups deployed on the north-east approaches to the city, through which the 53rd (Welsh) Division would have to fight. Fusilier Battalion 712 was deployed forward at Nuland, covering a wide antitank ditch and minefield. The two battalions of Grenadier Regiment 732 were then dug in south of the railway at Malenkamp and Molenhoek, while the 1st Battalion of Grenadier Regiment 745 was dug in north of the railway at Kruisstraat, supported by Training & Replacement Battalion 347 at Rosmalen. As a final back-stop, the 3rd Battalion of Parachute Training Regiment 3 held the suburb of Hintham and Fort Alexander. The other two battalions of Parachute Training Regiment 3 were positioned to block the advance of 7th Armoured Division up the Zuid-Willems Canal.
The above elements were supported by a weak artillery regiment, numerous flak and towed anti-tank guns and a small number of obsolete self-propelled guns. As the battle developed, these were reinforced by additional infantry, StuGs and Jagdpanthers from LXXXVIII Korps. The remainder of 712th Division (primarily the 2nd Battalion of Grenadier Regiment 745 and large numbers of Flak and rear-echelon troops) was held back in reserve, behind the ancient moats of the city itself.
This then, was the general outline scenario that I wrote for our annual game at The Tank Museum, Bovington. Richard de Ferrars then kindly visited the Public Records Office at Kew and dragged out a stack of new information, including War Diaries for all the units involved, Brigade Orders, artillery fire-plans, etc, etc, resulting in a complete re-write of the scenario… The ‘full-fat’ scenario can be found on the Battlefront: WWII Scenarios Page.
Historically, the battle was an overwhelming Allied victory, with the 712th Division being utterly destroyed during a week of hard fighting. As in our refight, it took 53rd (Welsh) Division two days to reach the walls of the city. Operation SAUCEPAN, always a risky plan, proved to be a failure, but the Cromwells of 5 Skins somehow managed to infiltrate themselves between German positions by driving along the embanked railway line! The appearance of British tanks in their rear broke German resistance west of the city.
On the night of 23/24 October, the Welsh Division successfully crossed the canals and moats and established a bridgehead within the ancient city walls. The Germans’ problems were further exacerbated by 51st (Highland) Division’s advance on Vught, only a few miles south of the city, which was crushing the weak German 59th Infantry Division. On the 25th and 26th, the Welsh Division continued to advance through the city, fighting bitterly from house-to-house and street-to-street, with a few canal-locks and bridges being the focal points of the most bitter fighting. With tank ammunition running low, even truck-mounted Bofors anti-aircraft guns were brought up to provide direct fire-support to the infantry!
Despite the fall of Vught to the 51st (Highland) Division on the 26th, General Neumann still refused to surrender and on the 27th launched a last-ditch counter-attack… The German counter-attack was slaughtered and the back of German resistance in the city was broken. German casualties are difficult to calculate, but they had lost at least 1,700 men dead and taken prisoner. The 53rd (Welsh) Division by contrast, had suffered only 145 dead and 705 wounded, which was considerably less than predicted and far less than the typical butcher’s bill for similar Allied offensive operations on this scale.
However, the Dutch civilian populace had suffered terribly, with 253 killed and 2,100 wounded, 800 of them seriously. Nevertheless, the Dutch people remain eternally grateful for their liberation and a memorial to 53rd (Welsh) Division, shaped like a traditional Celtic Cross, stands in the city. I can also personally testify that as a Welshman, it is pretty hard to buy your own drink in the city! 🙂
So to the wargame… Richard de Ferrars provided most of the terrain and some of the troops, while Paddy Green and I provided lots of buildings and troops. Martin Small excelled himself once again in converting some ‘funny’ armour for me, while Ken Natt provided some ‘specials’ for the Germans:
Above: As the heavy and medium artillery of 3 AGRA pounds Nuland and the factory, 4 Welch Group breach the antitank ditch with the aid of AVREs, fascines, SBG bridges, bulldozers and a Churchill ARK. The Cromwells of 5 RIDG are soon across and providing close support to the infantry. Beyond the railway, 2 Monmouths Group advance along a very narrow corridor toward Kruisstraat.
Above: On the British left, 1 HLI Group, supported by a squadron of 5 RTR, cross the antitank ditch and bypass Nuland; heading for Maleskamp and Coudewater.
Above: Despite massive artillery preparation and smokescreens, the Sappers supporting 4 WELCH Group get heavily ‘stonked’ as they attempt to breach the minefields in front of Nuland. Nevertheless, the Sappers carry out their tasks despite heavy losses and soon breach the obstacles, allowing 4 WELCH and 5 Skins to move through into Nuland and the fortified factory complex.
Above: Hemmed in between the railway and the soggy polder land of the Maas valley, 2 MONS Group attempt to make headway along the Dyke Road to Kruisstraat, but are delayed by their own artillery barrage.
Above: Artillery preparation on Kruisstraat causes some disruption, but the German defenders remain largely intact and wait for the British to follow up their barrage.
Above: Grenadier-Regiment 745 is deployed in considerable depth, with a lot of heavy weaponry held in reserve – here we see the position at the Bruggen road junction.
Above: Jagdpanthers and StuGs mass behind the ramparts of Fort Alexander, ready to mount a counter-attack. The guns of Artillerie-Regiment 1716 are deployed in the fields around Hintham and the fort.
Above: Fort Alexander is a remnant of the outermost 18th & 19th Century defences of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, but still provides a good defensive position for the waiting Fallschirmjäger.
Above: A pre-planned strike by a squadron of Typhoons hits the Bruggen road junction. However, by sheer luck, the German commander has massed two entire flak companies in the immediate vicinity and the RAF suffers heavy losses for little gain. The lead Typhoon pilot pulls up after delivering his bombload. His squadron-mates are not so lucky.
Above: The Luftwaffe puts in an appearance over the battlefield.
Above: 1 HLI moves up through the woods and hedgerows towards Maleskamp. Suddenly there is contact with the enemy, as the lead Cromwell is destroyed by a waiting 88 (just off picture).
Above: With the fighting still going on in Nuland and the factory, elements of 4 WELCH and 5 Skins bypass the defenders and push on toward ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
Above: At the tip of the advance, the leading 5 Skins Cromwell pushes warily forward into the unknown.
Above: Füsilier-Bataillon 712 defending Nuland suffers terrible losses to artillery during the initial assault. 4 WELCH and the ‘Funnies’ make short work of the village itself and swing around to assault the southern trench-lines simultaneously from front and rear. However, the defenders of the factory are determined to go down fighting.
Above: Now beset from all four sides, the defenders of the factory continue to hold their ground.
Above: North of the railway, the first Cromwell to reach Kruisstraat falls victim to a German antitank gun. As the traffic jam continues to build up behind them, the British armour attempts to deploy off the Dyke Road, as infantry move up on the left. British Forward Observers and Forward Air Controllers meanwhile, attempt to find advantageous elevated positions atop the railway embankment and on industrial spoil heaps.
Above: As the rearmost mortar positions of Füsilier-Bataillon 712 are engaged by infantry, the Cromwells push on towards the city. However, they soon run into the next German position – a strong ‘Pakfront’ of 88s, PaK 40s, self-propelled guns, Panzerschrecks and the German ‘secret weapon’… The division’s 4.2-inch mortars lay a smoke screen in front of the tanks as they attempt to deploy off the road.
Above: The second pre-programmed British air-strike arrives, hitting the vicinity of Fort Alexander. The German heavy armour is caught in the open as it moves forward. However, thick flak from quadruple 20mm guns puts the RAF off their aim and they cause little damage.
Above: A Typhoon streaks low across the German armoured column.
Above: As a Typhoon climbs out over Rosmalen, we get a good view down the long axis of the battlefield. The British are advancing from the far table edge, toward the camera.
Above: The Luftwaffe chases the Typhoons.
Above: Grenadier-Regiment 732 waits in Maleskamp for the British assault to reach them.
Above: With close assistance from some AVREs, 4 WELCH finally clears the factory complex and Füsilier-Bataillon 712 is annihilated.
Above: With the factory finally cleared, the traffic jam behind 4 WELCH finally begins to move.
Above: At the spear-point of 4 WELCH Group’s advance, the destruction of an 88 by accurate fire from the Royal Artillery encourages the Irish cavalrymen to do something rather rash… One Cromwell soon goes down to a 75mm PaK 40, while another two (including the British squadron commander) go down to the puny 47mm gun of a Panzerjäger 35R(f).
Above: With the leading tanks burning and their comrades under steady antitank fire, the British commander pushes up infantry and Crocodiles to take on the PaKfront. British artillery meanwhile, pounds the German positions, but to little effect.
Above: With several Cromwells burning in front, a Firefly now attracts enemy fire and a surviving Cromwell desperately seeks cover. However, help is at hand as infantry from 4 WELCH and Crocodiles from 141 RAC move forward.
Above: With Nuland cleared, General Ross decides to launch Operation SAUCEPAN! 53 RECCE is soon motoring up the southern PAN Route, with 1 E LANCS following close behind, safe in their new Kangaroos.
Above: Part of the PaKfront in close-up – a PaK 40 is flanked by two Panzerjäger 35R(f)s, while a StuG III B covers the flank.
Above: The ‘secret weapon’ (37mm PaK 36 on a UE 430(f)) opens up at the flank of a 5 RTR Cromwell! The Cromwell is disordered by the 37 and is then finished off by a Panzerschreck.
Above: As Operation SAUCEPAN drives forward past Nuland, the PaKfront, having held on for as long as possible is assaulted from all sides and is annihilated.
Above: Despite traffic jams caused by burning AFVs at the head of the column, Operation SAUCEPAN drives on through Maleskamp as the position is finally overrun by 1 HLI and 4 WELCH. However, increasing resistance at the Coudehard Sanatorium and Windmill positions force SAUCEPAN to grind to a halt and 1 E LANCS dismounts to force the dug-in German infantry out of their trenches.
North of the railway meanwhile, 2 MONS Group was still making headway through Kruisstraat, but progress was extremely slow due to the narrow frontage and depth of the German positions. With 1 E LANCS now becoming the main assault force south of the wailway, 4 WELCH was ordered to move north across the railway, in order to outflank the German positions. However, the day was now coming to a close and Phase 2 of the assault would have to wait.
Some of the team (from left to right): Richard de Ferrars, Martin Small, Paul Davison, Steve Uden, Ken Natt and Mark Davies. Missing In Action are Paddy Green and Gary Loosen. By a strange coincidence, Gary Loosen later found out that one of his relatives had died at ‘s-Hertogebosch and later attended the 70th Anniversary commemorations at ‘s-Hertogenbosch in October 2014.