"The War Illustrated" Sends its Own Representative to the Front

Capt. Norman MacMillan's First Impressions

The War Illustrated, Volume 8, No. 203, Page 707-708, March 29, 1945.

In response to an official invitation received by the Editor of “The War Illustrated” some time ago to make a personal visit to the British Armies now advancing into the very heart of Germany, we nominated Capt. Norman Macmillan, M.C., A.F.C., our well-known Air Correspondent, for this important task, and brilliantly has he discharged it. Although Capt. Macmillan, from his long and varied flying experience, is one of the foremost authorities on the War in the Air, he is also a devoted student of the War in all its aspects, and our readers will not merely be deeply interested in what he has to tell about his experiences in the forward zones, during a visit of considerable duration, but will derive much new knowledge about the course of the war which will help them to a better understanding of the struggle, so far as the British and Canadian armies are particularly concerned, and generally to comprehend the nature of the Allies' effort in the West as seen by a privileged and unusually well-equipped observer. Subjoined is the first of the series of articles which Our Own Representative will contribute to our pages.

If I was asked to say what was my basic impression of the war after visiting the British 21st Army Group and the Royal Air Force 2nd Tactical Air Force fighting in or from Holland, Belgium, France and Germany. I would answer without hesitation in the following words: The changed character of war.

No one who has not seen the present war in the field can fully appreciate how it is conducted. Those who visualize it through middle-aged eyes that in youth gazed on the scarred battlefields of the First Great War cannot comprehend how different war has become. The young men, aye, and women, too, who are immersed in this great conflict as the first grand-scale experience of their lives, take it in their stride and scarcely question that war can ever have been different since the days of the long-bow portrayed in the colour film of Henry V which many of them are flocking to see while on leave in London or Brussels.

In that film there is a scene of the English archers erecting a palisade of sharpened wooden stakes, driving them into the ground to stop the charge of the French horse; except for the materials there is not so great a difference between that scene and the concrete teeth of the Siegfried Line, and the purpose of both is the same. Yet at Agincourt there was fought a pitched battle in the space of Hyde Park. Today the battle line runs from the North Sea eastwards along the course of the river Waal (Rhine) as far as Emmerich, where it turns south to follow a long line, curving in salients and re-entrants, to the Swiss frontier. In places there are Allied bridgeheads across the Waal/Rhine, at other parts of the broad river the Germans are on one side and ourselves on the other.

It may be asked why we do not attack towards the north to drive the enemy our of the Netherlands altogether and free the great Dutch cities of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. From the area around The Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and from farther east, between the Dutch-German frontier and the Zuider Zee, come the V-bombs that fall in Southern England. Could we not end altogether the ordeal of England by capturing all Holland? Perhaps we could. But it would almost certainly be at a greater sacrifice of life and property among our own forces and among the Dutch civilian population.

Twice we have nearly captured that part of Holland without firing a shot. On the first occasion, when the Allied advance after the break-through at the Falaise gap carried the columns in one fast surge to Antwerp, the Germans began to pull our of Holland. They evacuated Breda and many other places. When they found that our swift advance had outrun our supplies, so that the spearheads had to halt, they returned and looted Breda.

Again, during the airborne battle around Arnhem, they prepared to evacuate Holland west of that Gelderland town. For the second time they returned. If they clear out for the third time, as they may be forced to do by the present penetration into Germany, they should not be able to return, and Holland will have been liberated without adding the total destruction of the principal Netherlands cities to the other miseries suffered by that unfortunate people. (I will tell you later of my impressions of the Dutch people I met, and what their rations were while I was among them.)

It was therefore a drive to the east that was set in motion by the Allied High Command after the counter-thrust by Von Rundstedt had been stopped and driven back. There was no second attempt to get across the Lek (the upper arm of the Rhine) at Arnhem. Instead, on February 8, 1945, the Canadian 1st Army (part of which is formed of United Kingdom troops) attacked from the Nijmegen zone, eastward and south-eastward, across the Dutch frontier into Germany, to clear the area westward of that part of the Rhine where it bends to the west from Wesel to enter Holland on its last course to the sea.

This opening move by Field-Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group (containing the Canadian 1st Army, the British 2nd Army, and the U.S. 9th Army disposed in that order from north to south) was succeeded by the all-American attack across the Roer river, farther south, in the direction of Cologne and Düsseldorf.

Ahead of the Canadian 1st Army lay the Reichswald, a German State forest, whose trees grow not on flat ground but on low rolling hills, ideal country for defence, where the new types of dugout defence posts with entrances camouflaged by trees and branches are difficult to spot. The Germans used this forest for storage dumps; they concentrated a heavy flak defence within it, so that R.A.F. pilots on sorties had a healthy respect for it on their outward and homeward routes; and the aircrews were glad when the Canadian 1st Army winkled the enemy out of it.

But I was writing of the changed character of warfare. It was well illustrated in the zone over which was made the initial attack that led to the capture of the Reichswald Forest. All around the eastern side of Nijmegen, wherever there was an open field, lay the skeletons of Waco gliders. Only when there were woods or farmsteads – this is farming country – or roads bordered with elm trees, there were no gliders. But on sloping hillsides, on grass fields, on rough ploughlands I saw them in great numbers, certainly running into some hundreds, with their wings torn, their fabric-covered fuselages ripped by the storm of bullets and shells and by the winds and snows of Nature. German artillery had shelled them to put them out of action. It was not hard to visualize the struggle for Nijmegen – the billowing canopies of the parachutists the twisting, turning gliders making for the ground and bucking to a standstill in very direction as their pilots put them down in the quickest possible way; the men outpouring quickly, clad in their airborne equipment, wearing small, close-fitting helmets, scattering and perhaps digging-in in shallow slit trenches. Behind them the valuable Grave Bridge over the River Maas was taken intact, although one span was later slightly damaged by a Jerry dive-bomber.

Hastily Scratched-up Earthwork

The most advanced of the gliders landed on a flat area below a dip down into the Rhine valley; there the drive halted, and the field of action became No Man's Land; on February 9, 1945, the corpses of both American and German soldiers still lay unburied on the battleground, in the open or behind hastily scratched-up earthworks.

Over that field the advance thrust its way in the attack that began at 10.30 a.m. on February 8 to the north flank of the Reichswald Forest. And the set grin on the upturned face of an American paratrooper's corpse somehow seemed to lose its horror, and to accord with the sense of triumph that the airborne battlefields of Nijmegen were at last all cleared of the invading Boche.

On the rising ground behind, batteries of 25-pounders barked, their muzzles recoiling into their armoured mobile carriages as a tortoise retracts its head within its shell. These mobile guns are part of the changed technique of war. Their shells whined away across the Rhine valley, broadly watered by floods which the Germans had purposely created, to burst among buildings only dimly visible in the winter haze enshrouding the farther side of the river.

Over the whole battle zone in front there was a stillness like the hush that portends a thunderstorm. There was no sound of small arms fire. As I went forward over the No Man's Land that had existed since the airborne action of September 1944, there was evidence of the great change in tactical warfare. There was no trench line. Three was no elaborate wiring system – just a thin solitary line of coiled wire pegged crudely down to the ground.

How different from the First Great War, with its fanatic barricades of wire and wood, its continuous trenchlines in depth one behind another, its communication trenches leading from the firing line! Here there was no communication trench, no front line trench. Merely a few slit trenches each a few yards in length; and on the side of the narrow road that ran across the farmlands, little circular hideouts were cut out of the steep but shallow bank of sandy soil. Little notices were stick into the ground by the roadside, like the Keep Off the Grass tablets in a public park. But these read Road and Verges Only Cleared of Mines. Mines have taken the place of trenches and wire.

What has brought about this difference in the waging of war? It is the internal combustion engine, whose power carries men and weapons up to the fighting zone and into action. that enables them to ride into war in armoured vehicles. Extensive earthworks are no longer valuable against this mobile fire power. The continuous line has given place to the screen of outposts, with perhaps a thousand yards separating the opposing armies' most advanced troops. In an attack these outposts are quickly driven in or overrun, and the mobile units cannot be stopped until they come up against the main defences of guns, armoured vehicles, pillboxes, anti-tank obstructions, and built-up areas situated, perhaps, several miles behind the men who manned the slit trenches and camouflaged hideouts. So it is the modern mobility of fire-power that has altered war. And Allied outbuilding of the Wehrmacht's surface and airborne mobile fire-power is now surely driving the German Armies inwards to defeat upon their own territory.

Articles in the Seeing the War at First Hand category

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