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Crossing the Rhine

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:11 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

At a briefing, Ken discovers his unit will form a key role in treating and evacuating wounded on "the Big One" crossing the Rhine into the heart of Germany. He will be part of a 36 man recce party led by Captain Esmonde to set up 30 Corps' Casualty Evacuation Post (CEP) on the Rees riverbank, and then form an Advance Surgical Centre downstream from the town with 43 and 49 Field Surgical and 7 Field Transfusion Units.

The 22 March was spent loading 8 DUWKs with Casualty Evacuation Post medical equipment. Ken recalls the charged atmosphere. The excitement and apprehension was very reminiscent of D-Day. Over one million men would take part, on three fronts, Canadians to the North and veering West to free up the remainder of Holland, the Americans to the South, and British North East. There would also be 14,000 paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines to support the advancing troops. General Horrocks, the Commander of 30 Corps, visited, and spoke to them about their part in the crossing. The General had a reputation to lead from the front and was popular and well liked by Ken and his colleagues. It certainly lifted pride. The next morning, after collecting last-minute donations of blood plasma, the Casualty Evacuation party left for the DUWKs transhipment area, in Goch. As they moved to the assault assembly area, that afternoon, Ken could hear Allied planes bombing town and cities across the Rhine in preparation.

There were mixed feelings of excitement and some apprehension. Unlike the unknown and uncertainty of D-Day, they knew the Allies brought an overwhelming force to a weakening and retreating German army. One sobering thought countered this potential complacency. You could never underestimate how tenaciously a desperate German would be likely to fight in defending the Fatherland.

An Allied ground barrage of the assault bank commenced at 1700 and lasted 4 hours. The ground shook, and combined with the noise and vibration of the amphibious vehicles powering up to manoeuvre and streams of shells pouring overhead, proved both deafening and a little unnerving. The weather forecast was excellent and bright moonlight expected. They would cross in the early hours of the following morning. Amid mounting anticipation they were off! The noise of the engines was deafening. Ken's Red Cross marked DUKW slowly climbed and lunged down the steep embankment to the Rhine like a rollercoaster on the crest of a drop, and crossed with the 51st Highland Division, who had commenced the assault at 2100. It was some time before they could move due to the volume of men and equipment and limited crossing points, making landfall just before midnight. Much to Ken's relief, there wasn't time for him to feel seasick in the 4 minute crossing! A suitable site for the evacuation post was located by moonlight and tracer fire, near a tributary flowing into the Rhine to access water. It was very flat, open, and exposed. Options on a river plain were limited.

First they needed to ensure it was mine-free. Mines had been found nearby. No one could find the Royal Engineers. So with time being of the essence, Capt. Esmonde, a colourful character, who Ken adored and endearingly called "the mad Irishman", helped load his jeep with sandbags. He then proceeded to drive in ever-decreasing circles around the site to check it was mine free! At 400m downstream from Rees, they were exposed to shell, mortar and small arms fire. This would at least give them and the wounded some protection, and whilst medical supplies were downloaded. The CEP was due to be fully operational by 0900, when RAMC dedicated Buffalos/DUWKs would begin a circuit between both banks to bring back casualties for collection by field ambulance to medical facilities to the rear.

The CEP was fully established as planned, and casualties were soon flowing well across the Rhine. There was little enemy resistance initially. Ken saw flashes from a few machine gun nests which were soon taken out by the advancing troops. The enemy had regrouped to the less exposed towns and villages which saw more attritional street fighting and fanatical suicidal actions to take out Allied troops. Buildings had to be cleared with bayonet and grenades, with the ever-present presence of snipers and shells. This significantly delayed bridging operations. Casualties which were light to begin with, soon increased. However they coped well. An area had been set aside for any soldiers that died. Bodies were carefully wrapped in blankets to await collection by the burial teams. They would eventually be interred in Reichswald Cemetery (RIP).

History

Item list and details

Captain Esmonde's MC citation. Ken was part of the unit on the enemy bank of the Rhine treating and evacuating casualties.

Person the story/items relate to

Kenneth Stone 35 Field Dressing Station

Person who shared the story/items

Linda Petzing

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

My father

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID

90509