Talk:Battle of Moerbrugge
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A First-Hand Account of the Battle of Moerbrugge
The Battle of Moerbrugge
by Arthur Bridge "C" Company, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders of Canada
Moerbrugge is a small community located a few miles south of the city of Bruges, in north-western Belgium. Since World War II it has been incorporated into the nearby town of Oostkamp. Moerbrugge is situated on the Ghent-Bruges Canal, a busy waterway serving that part of Belgium with barge traffic. It is deep and about 50 feet wide.
In early September, 1944, following the defeat of the German armies in Normandy and the rapid advances being made by Allied forces, most of us who were involved were of the opinion that the war would soon be over. Brussels and Antwerp had been seized by British forces; both places were far in advance of the Canadian forces which were designated to clean up the Channel Ports. Dieppe had fallen to the Second Canadian Division. The Third Canadian Division was heading towards Boulogne and Calais and recce forces were near Dunkirk and Ostend.
The Fourth Canadian Armoured Division, following the Seine River crossing, had reached the Somme River near Abbeville on September 3 and spent two days reorganizing.
The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, part of the 10th Infantry Brigade of Fourth Division, moved out and on the 6th of September were in the vicinity of St. Omer, encountering flying bomb sites that had recently been evacuated by the enemy but no resistance. The next day, the Battalion crossed the French-Belgian border at Oostcappel.
These were the days of liberation and the people in Belgium had been waiting expectantly for our arrival. Their reception and hospitality were terrific. There had been no opposition to our advance, although there were numerous stragglers from the German army who had been left behind and were quite happy to surrender.
“C” Company was directed to occupy some houses to cover the left flank of the Battalion. The civilians were still there and they made us very welcome. A citizen of the town invited several of us into his home and proceeded to pour us drinks of Benedictine. It was my first experience with this particular nectar and I found it to be quite enjoyable. Our host soon ran out of the stuff and sent out for more, and before long we were all feeling pretty good, as we shared with our host the joy of liberation.
When it became my turn for “two hours on and four hours off” guard duty, against a possible enemy counter attack, I was not in very good condition. Before I knew it, I had passed out in the trench we had prepared and didn't recover for six hours. Fortunately for all of us, there was no enemy action that night, so my misdeed went unnoticed, except by the man I was supposed to wake up to relieve me. He didn't complain.
Very early the next morning, the Battalion left Oostcappel by TCV (troop carrying vehicle) and drove uninterrupted by enemy action, arriving in the area of Oostkamp just in time to hear the explosion and see the smoke rising from what was the bridge across the canal at Moerbrugge, which the enemy had blown up.
Our Company was commanded by Major Bob Paterson, and our platoon officer was Lieutenant Henry Watson. Company Sergeant-Major was George Mitchell, and our platoon Sergeant was Phil Lawson. Due to the heavy casualties that had been suffered during the preceding month and the lack of sufficient reinforcements, all platoons were under strength. The names of other comrades are lost to me unfortunately.
We disembarked from our transport and began advancing toward the canal, which we were advised was our next objective. Since we had been moving forward for several days without meeting any serious resistance, we did not expect much of a problem, thinking that the war was almost finished. We were soon to be made aware of the reality of the situation! Our platoon was just to the south of the built up area of Oostkamp, and we moved across country, crossing first what appeared to be the embankment of a highway which had not been completed, then we found our way forward to Station Straat, encountering many civilians. They informed us that the enemy was on the other side of the canal, but we were still not concerned. I especially recall that we passed a bakery on this street, and the baker kindly gave me a loaf, which was very good and most welcome. One of the people we met who lived on the street told us that his children were in Oostkamp, where it was safe. We proceeded to the canal, to where the bridge had been blown, and here we encountered the first direct enemy action, as shellfire was directed at us. Our platoon was ordered to clear all the houses on our side of the canal, to the north of the blown bridge, while others cleared the south part. We didn’t find any of the enemy on our side of the canal, but the shellfire was increasing and we were suffering casualties. As our platoon neared the last house on the canal bank, an enemy 20 millimetre machine gun on the other side of the canal began firing on us. Lieutenant Watson called for our Bren gunner to go with him and another man to occupy the last house, which was a large brown brick house as I remember, so that they could be in a better position to fire on the enemy 20 millimetre. The three of them rushed across an open space to reach the house, while the rest of us provided covering fire. Unfortunately, the enemy gunner spotted them as they reached the side of the house, and before they could bring the Bren gun to bear, they were all hit. Lionel Morgan, our Bren gunner, was killed, as was the other man. Lt. Watson was wounded in the head, but managed to get back to where we were still trying to knock out the 20 millimetre. We were not able to do so before receiving orders to return to the bridge site to prepare for a boat ride in an old wooden row boat that had been found in the vicinity, to cross the canal and clear all the houses on the left side of the main street. “D” Company had already crossed over and they were to clear the houses on the right side. We were then to clear the area to the left of the church, and hold it while the engineers built a bridge to allow the tanks to cross and advance further.
By this time it was almost dark, but we were able to progress forward in the rear of the houses, through the gardens and back yards, suffering a few casualties from small arms fire and taking a few prisoners in the process. By the time we reached the high wall which surrounded the church on the corner, it was quite dark. Resistance stiffened there with the enemy tossing grenades over the wall into the garden we had reached. We of course responded by doing the same, but in the dark and strange surroundings it was very difficult to cope with the situation, so Major Paterson ordered us back to the next house (toward the canal), and then ordered our section of six men to go left through a field in which there were some hay-stacks, bypassing the church, in order to seize the houses on the other street.
We set out from the garden and dashed to the first hay-stack, where we paused to get our bearings. At this moment, an enemy machine gunner started firing in our direction using incendiary ammunition, which set fire to one of the hay-stacks behind us. The resulting fire illuminated the area like daytime, making it very dangerous to expose ourselves in order to advance further across the open field, so we waited a few minutes trying to decide what to do. Meanwhile, the enemy continued firing and the next thing we knew, our hay-stack was also afire. This of course made our situation impossible, so we had no choice but to return in haste to rejoin the rest of the company in the house and garden, second from the church. There we stayed for the rest of the night, preparing to advance early in the next morning, when we would be able to see where we were going and where the enemy was. “D” Company was in a similar situation on the other side of the street, and we had been in contact with them during the night, which did not pass quietly!
At daylight, as we prepared to advance, we discovered that the entire area was now crawling with enemy troops, who seemed to be everywhere and were most aggressive, again making it impossible for us to move forward. In fact, we had to take defensive positions, because the enemy began to counter-attack our positions, both on the street and from the fields to our left. Sergeant Lawson attempted to set up a Bren gun in the driveway beside the house we occupied, in order to cover the main street, but as soon as he took position, an enemy soldier with a Schmeizer machine pistol charged toward him and severely wounded him. Several others from our platoon were also wounded, both by enemy small arms fire and mortar or artillery fire, which was now becoming very heavy, both on us and on the site where the engineers were trying to build a Bailey bridge across the canal.
We succeeded in beating back all attacks on our position, but some enemy were able to infiltrate between us and the bridge site, which made our position very uncomfortable. “D” Company were experiencing the same sort of trouble on the other side of the street, and eventually we lost contact with them. Our wireless set quit working at this time, so we could not communicate with headquarters on the opposite side of the canal. I had taken signals training while in England, and understood some of the workings of the set, so I was assigned to assist Mac Sam, who was the official company signaller, to try to revive the wireless. We were then in the back garden of the house, near the lane which runs between the gardens and the field of burned hay-stacks, where we had been defending against the enemy counter attacks. There were numerous enemy wounded and dead in the field as a result of our fire. While we were working on the wireless (which we never did restore to working condition) several enemy stretcher bearers approached our position under a white flag, and Major Paterson allowed them to remove their wounded comrades without interference.
The house which was our headquarters contained civilians, and they were very helpful in attending to our wounded, whose number continued to rise. There were probably five or six of our men on the kitchen floor, which was stained by their blood.
I was ordered to the upper floor, where there was window facing the field offered a good view of the enemy, both in the fields and in the houses on the other street. Corporal Lorne Webb joined me there, and with our Bren gun, we were able to break up several enemy efforts to overrun us. While we were there, an enemy 20 mm machine gunner spotted us and began firing. Some of the bullets came through the opening we were using, but neither of us was hit.
We were running short of ammunition by this time, and Major Paterson ordered that all ammunition available be provided to the Bren gunners, so we scurried around and retrieved all that was on hand, filled the Bren magazines and passed them on to the two or three Bren gunners who were still in action. Enemy pressure continued very strong for the rest of the day, with the situation looking grim for us. We hadn’t eaten a meal for over twenty four hours, had little or no sleep, were almost out of ammunition and had many casualties in need of medical attention. Toward the end of the day, Sergeant Major Mitchell, together with Corporal Jim Holmes, made their way back to the bridge site and were able to return through the enemy with much needed food, ammunition and medical supplies. As well they brought the Medical Officer of the Lincoln & Welland Regiment, Capt. MacKenzie, who looked after the wounded.
We hung on to our precarious toe-hold, receiving ever increasing artillery and mortar fire, along with the persistent counter-attacks, as night once again came upon us. We actually held out little hope for relief from our difficult situation, and were prepared for the worst. Apparently, though, the enemy was in worse condition than we were, and were unable to continue their attacks. Although the artillery fire continued throughout the night, the enemy infantry held back, to lick their wounds no doubt, and the night passed noisily but reasonably peacefully.
The engineers were at last able to work on the bridge during the night, but I will never fully understand how they managed to do it with so much shell fire aimed at them. We were tired, hungry, and out of cigarettes, but we survived the night on the alert.
The bridge was finished and at first light we were delighted to hear the noise of the Sherman tanks of our old friends, the South Alberta Regiment, driving up the main street with their guns blazing. They passed us by and kept on going, turning left at the cross road, shooting everything in sight. I remember asking the first tank man I saw for a cigarette, and he threw me a package of tobacco and papers, so I was able to enjoy a much needed smoke.
In 1984, I returned to Moerbrugge and took a picture of the back of the house that we had been in during the battle, and the bullet marks were still clearly visible by the window.
The tanks continued forward, meeting and overcoming much enemy resistance, and “C” Company (what was left of it) moved forward and occupied houses at the corner of the first street to the left of the church.
Our platoon was in a house which had been severely damaged by shell fire with most of the roof tiles missing. There was a nice double bed all made up in one of the upstairs rooms, with several large shrapnel holes in the blankets. I was allocated to cover the field to the left with the Bren gun from an upstairs window, which provided a good field of fire. It was not very warm at this time, so I took one of the damaged blankets from the bed and wrapped it around myself to keep warm as I took my position. Once again, overcome with fatigue, in a few short moments I was sound asleep. Fortunately, the enemy had vacated the area and launched no further attacks on our position, so my misdemeanour went unnoticed.
We were relieved by troops of the Algonquin Regiment, who accompanied the South Albertas clearing the enemy from the roads and fields to the east, while we were allowed to have a short rest after our ordeal, get some food and catch up on some sleep, passing a peaceful night.
The following day we had the sad duty of collecting our dead, under the direction of the Chaplain, Hon/Capt. Charlie Maclean, and preparing them for burial at a small field near the cross-road.
After that, we moved forward over the ground the tankers had fought for, to the vicinity of Sysseele. Much damage had been done to the homes in the area and the dead bodies of the enemy were everywhere, as were knocked out tanks. The farm house which we occupied had thick stone walls, and a tank shell had gone straight through it - in one side and out the other, leaving its path of destruction. The lady whose house it was returned while we were there, and I will never forget her grief at the sight.
We discovered a large wooden crate full of bottles of French wine in one of the out-buildings, and needless to say, we didn’t ask to whom it belonged! The wine flowed freely that day.
Reinforcements reached us also on this day, and we were almost back to full strength. You often don’t get to know your new comrades as they all too frequently became casualties themselves within a few days. That was the end of the battle for Moerbrugge for the Argylls. We were next ordered to prepare to follow the Algonquin Regiment who were to seize a bridgehead over the double canal at Moerkerke. But the Algonquins were not able to hold the ground they had gained, so we were not called upon to cross.