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||53rd (Welsh) Division
Intelligence Briefing For The 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division in Holland
WWI and Inter-war
On 2 July 1915 the Division was ordered to refit for service in the Mediterranean. Leaving the artillery and train behind, the rest of the Division left between 14 and 19 July and embarked at Sevonport and sailed via Alexandria, landing at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli on 9 August 1915.
The effects of month of savage fighting that typified this campaign, few reinforcements and the dreadful blizzard of November reduced the Division to just 162 officers and 2428 men (about 15% of full strength). Between 11 and 12 December the Division was evacuated and went on to Alexandria, where it began to arrive 20 December. From 1916 onwards the division was involved in the Palestine Campaign.
|On 26 March 1917, the 53rd Division bore the brunt of the First Battle
of Gaza where the three brigades, along with the 161st Brigade of the
54th Division, had to advance across exposed ground, withstanding
shrapnel, machine gun and rifle fire, to capture the Turkish
fortifications. Despite gaining the advantage towards the end of the
day, the British commander called off the attack so that the division’s
casualties, close to 3,500, were suffered in vain. 1917 concluded with
the capture and subsequent defence of Jerusalem.
active throughout the interwar years, the division served as part of the
Home Defence Forces of the United Kingdom between 1939–1940, fittingly
based to defend Wales and the borders.
|Preparation and Training
The Divisional badge, a red W on horizontal a bar was conceived by Major General BT Wilson who commanded the regiment upon re-mobilisation in 1939.
It was observed by Lieutenant Colonel Cole in ‘Heraldry in War’ that the emblem’s meanings were three-fold; Not only did the ‘W’ standing for Wales, it is a symbol of a Bardic Crown as well as the process of attack. The horizontal representing the firm base of the attack, the central, solid point representing the spearhead and the side members the outflanking movements.
|Early in the war the Division was posted on
several defensive assignments. In April 1940 the Division transferred to
Northern Ireland, where it remained until November 1941. It returned to
the mainland again to defend Kent and the South Coast between
1941–1943, when it was earmarked to form part of the British Second
In October 1943 the division was reorganised, its 159th
Infantry Brigade detaching to form part of 11th Armoured Division, with
the 71st Infantry Brigade taking its place.
The 71st Brigade
often jokingly referred to as the division’s ‘International Brigade’
being formed from The East Lancashire, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light
Infantry and the Highland Light Infantry Regiments.
Division’s crossing of the channel Brigadier Whistler of 160th Brigade
was flown off to Normandy to take command of the 3rd Division (Monty’s
Ironsides) on 23 June.
53rd Welsh Division landed in Normandy on 28 June as one of ‘Monty’s Green Divisions’ and was placed under command of XII Corps now defending the Odon Valley position and was held in reserve for Operation Epsom, the drive to Hill 112.
The division then went onto the line in the Hill 112/Odon area and saw heavy fighting as part of ‘Operation Greenline’, a diversionary attack West of Caen leading up to Operation Goodwood.
|In August the Division began to push out of the Odon region driving
along the river Orne adjacent to the Canadian sector as part of the
attempt to close the Falaise Pocket. It was during the fighting near
Balfour that Lieutenant Tasker Watkins won his Victoria Cross.
to the casualties suffered by the division in Normandy and the acute
lack of infantry reinforcements, some battalions were replaced and
reorganised. The ‘international’ regiments were mixed throughout the
division as a result.
During Operation Market-Garden the Division was located on the West flank continuing its advance with XII Corp starting on the Lommel Bridgehead and advancing on the Tilburg/’S Hertogenbosch axis.
After the week long grind the XII Corp had still hadn’t made their objective of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Over the following weeks the 53rd garrisoned ‘the island’ South of Arnhem. The taking of the Scheldt peninsula (Operation Pheasant) commenced on 22 October.
|The British XII Corps was tasked not only with
expanding the Nijmegen Salient westward, but also with destroying the
German fortress at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, thereby cutting the German 15.
Armee’s line of communication with LXXXVIII. Korps, stationed south of
the Maas on the Scheldt.
For this task, XII Corps was reinforced by the addition of 15th
(Scottish) Division, who would be given the objective city of Tilburg.
The 51st (Highland) Division meanwhile, would take the towns of
Schijndel and Boxtel and would cut the German lateral lines of
communication between Vught and Tilburg. The 53rd (Welsh) Division would
attack from what they hoped would be an unexpected direction – from the
The division was battle-hardened from Normandy, but
had not suffered anywhere near the level of casualties suffered by other
British divisions in the killing fields of the Bocage. As a
consequence, it was experienced, seasoned and confident. It was also to
be well-supported by artillery and air power, as well as armour from 7th Armoured Division and specialist ‘Funny’ armour from General Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division.
the ‘Funniest’ of all were the newly converted Canadian Ram ‘Kangaroos’
– armoured troop carriers based on obsolete Ram tanks. These Ram
Kangaroos were to be used in action for the first time in this
operation, which was designated Operation ‘Alan’.
Support was also provided by the Cromwells of the 5th Royal Inniskilling
Dragoon Guards (‘The Skins’) sent to reinforce the 7th Armoured
following their losses in Normandy. The Skins were the only Regiment of
the 7th Armoured Division in attendance for the assault on the city.
Additional support armour support was also provided by the Shermans of
the East Riding Yeomanry (ERY) from 33rd Armoured Brigade and the
Crocodiles of 141st RAC (The Buffs).
The city, designated a ‘Festung’ or Fortress by the German high command, was a vital supply connection to the German forces left on the Scheldt as well as the only real withdrawal route from the peninsula. Even Hitler himself telephoned in the order to ‘Hold at all costs’.
In line with its importance it was garrisoned by some four battalions from 712. Infanterie-Division. Approximately nine companies were located in the town with the remainder guarding likely approach routes.
The 53rd Division’s start line was some 15km to the North East near Oss. The structure of the attack was;
160 Brigade to push to the North of the railway supported by the Skins, some Crocodile Churchills from the Buffs as well as ‘Flail’ Sherman Crabs from the Westminster Dragoons (79th Armoured Division).
71st Brigade to advance South of the railways astride the main Oss-‘S Hertogenbosch road.
158th Brigade was held in reserve along with the 53rd Reconnaissance Regiment and a squadron of the Skins to exploit any gaps in the line and to seize the canal bridges into the town, should an opportunity arise.
||At 0630 on 22 October the advance began well with the 160th Brigade
gaining some 5 miles (8km) and reaching Kruisstratt at 1.30pm. The 71st
Brigade, unsupported by armour, made much slower progress.
By 1500, the Divisional commander, Lieutentant General ‘Bobby’ Ross
decided to capitalize the gains of 160 Brigade. On the codeword
‘Saucepan’ he released the reserved 158th Brigade, spearheaded by the
53rd Recce Regiment and 1st East Lancashires mounted in Ram Kangaroos,
to push through their gained positions.
|Unfortunately 158th Brigade ran
into mine fields shortly after and the advance bogged down. 160th
Brigade were once again ordered to advance.
During the day’s
fighting the 71st Brigade saw some sharp action, with the 1st Highland
Light infantry (1st HLI) in the village of Nuland and the 4th Royal
Welch Fusiliers (6th RWF) were unfortunate to lose all their officers
who were hit while assembled to receive orders.
continued early on 23 October with 160th Brigade pushing on towards
Rosmalen. 71st Brigade continued slowly onwards through the forested
terrain which straddled the road South of the Railway. By afternoon the
Division was well placed to attack the city itself.
for the assault on the city proper the artillery programme ‘Chicago’,
consisting of some 200 guns (approx three quarters 25 pdrs, the
remainder Medium and Heavy guns), fired over 50,000 shells into the city
throughout the night of 23/24 October.
During the night of 23/24
October the hamlet of Hintham was assaulted jointly by elements of
160th Brigade from the North and 158th Brigade from the East in order to
make up for the comparatively slow going of the 71st Brigade. The
remainder of each brigade made good progress into the city overnight
with a platoon from 160th Brigade even crossing the canal before the
bridge was blown behind them.
The remainder of 24 October saw one
squadron of the ‘Skins’ joining 158th Brigade in the city following a
head long dash down the steeply banked railway, under the sights of
German guns. The remainder of the Skins pushed along the Hintham road
with the 6th RWF into the city.
Later that afternoon the 6th RWF
made the assault across the lock gates, supported by the Skins’ tanks
and the Buffs’ Crocodiles and held the bridge against determined
counterattacks throughout the night while a class 40 bridge was
constructed by the supporting engineers.
|The battle had until now
gone more-or-less according to plan. During 25 October however, the
Division suffered several set-backs; The attempts to cross the canal in
the NW of the city by 160th Brigade were unsuccessful as the Germans had
reinforced the position overnight.
The 1st East Lancs were to
flank the city and drive towards the bridges in the SW of the city while
the 1/5th Welch Regiment were to clear the centre of the city. Both
these advances did not start until late in the afternoon with each only
reaching their objectives late in the evening, by which time all three bridges were reported as blown and partially destroyed.
plan for 26 October was for 158th Brigade to cross the partially
demolished bridges in the SW of the city. The 1/5th Welch were to rush
the bridge in the centre of the town with the 7th RWF in reserve, ready
to exploit either bridgehead. The infantry were now supported by the
Shermans of the ERY who had now relieved the Skins.
At 11am the
1/5th Welch rushed the bridge under smoke and mortar preparation, taking
25 prisoners and 2 MGs. These early gains were opposed with violent
counterattacks throughout the day. The East Lancs however took their
bridge in the southwest against only light opposition.
the East Lancs’ success, 7th RWF passed through the East Lancs’
bridgehead and fought their way towards the railway station. The East
Lancs meanwhile, pushed along the river and linked up with the 1/5th
Welch at approximately 10pm.
The 27 October saw mainly mopping up
in the West of the city until the Germans counterattacked with infantry
in company strength, supported by some five StuGs and three
Jagdpanthers. The infantry were halted by combined small arms and mortar
fire. The armour was engaged by all available guns and eventually seven
of the eight were either destroyed or captured.
The taking of ‘S Hertogenbosch is still seen as a fine example of infantry/armour co-operation in an urban environment.
special order the divisional commander, Major General ‘Bobby’ Ross
stated, ‘I do not think that any formation could have shown greater
enterprise and resourcefulness...’
Even the captured German
Garrison Commander, Major Riehl, stated that he had been surprised by
the speed of the Division’s advance and was impressed by the resolute
manner with which the infantry had crossed the various canal and river
crossings under fire.
In December 1944, now attached to XXX Corps, it was one of the British divisions that took part in the Battle of the Bulge as part of ‘Monty’s Long-stop’, helping to blunt the northern tip of the German salient.
The 53rd Recce Regiment was attached to the British 6th Airborne Division for the operation while the main body of the Division saw action at the very tip of the bulge South of Liège on the River Ourthe.
Ardennes, the division was sent north in February 1945, to take part in
Operation Veritable. Still attached to XXX Corps, the division slogged
its way through the Reichswald Forest and assaulted the fortified city
of Weeze beyond. It was during this bitter period of difficult fighting
in deep forest, waterlogged fields and shattered towns, all the while
mired in mud, that the division suffered over half its total casualties
for the war. Nevertheless, the division broke through the Siegfried
Rejoining XII Corps and crossing the Rhine during Operation
Plunder, the division saw action as part of the Exploitation Reserve
and broke out to the North East across the River Issel. The fighting
which followed, in the last months of the war, saw several bitter
battles against enemy formations that included determined Marine Divisions and even a Hungarian regiment, before ending the War in Hamburg.
Last Updated On Thursday, December 19, 2013 by Blake at Battlefront