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Of Polar Bears and Imps: An unpublished folio of notes compiled by Tom Anderton.


All books or 'whatever' need a preface:. As this can hardly carry the description of 'Book', it must be a whatever; it still needs a preface I For that purpose I am borrowing - with trepidation, from a book that all ex-infantrymen should have in. their possession, 'The Poor Bloody Infantry' by Charles Whiting. I have, delved deep into this wonderful book, and also;- 'Caen(anvil of victory)' by Alexander McKee, and 'The Long Left Flank' by Jeffery Williams. Borrow them from the library, or better still buy them, they are a good investment.

This book is not a history. It has nothing to do with politics, strategy, national interest, the grand design. If anyone reads an indictment into it of the policies and the men which led to the mistakes for which the infantry paid the price.--in their own blood - let them. It is simply the story of a gravely neglected, unglamorous breed - the infantry men of World, war Two.

It tells the story of young men of various nationalities, - in their own words - who had to learn the old, old lessons yet once again; had to learn anew what, their fathers had learned twenty odd years before - about cowardice and courage, cruelty and comradeship and sudden, violent death.

Nobody in world War Two paid a higher price for the failure of the politicians and the Generals, whatever their nationality than the infantry. Most battalions, engaged in the fighting, whatever the front, had a 100% turnover, due to battle casualties; some went as high as 200%.

The U.S. Infantry Division, for example, which fought, in Africa, Italy, and southern France lost a staggering 30,000 casualties in its three year combat career. A loss the size of the population of a small town. In a mere 11 months of battle in North-West Europe, the British 43rd Division suffered. 12,482 battle casualties. This meant that the rifle companies had a 150% loss rate, for nearly one third of the Division was engaged in administrative duties and never entered combat. Yet. in spite of the terrible casualties, with a young subaltern's life expectancy limited to 30 days in 1944-45 and that of the ordinary foot-slogger to perhaps twice that, there was a great, fine side to the infantryman's existence. In spite of the fear, the hardship, the tiredness, the hunger and cold, there was also the comradeship and that wonderful feeling of security which, in the darkest moments, they drew from the close proximity of staunch and reliable comrades. This feeling alone seemed to make their lives bearable. It was that comradeship of the time when they had been young and in constant danger that would remain with them always - those who survived.

They were condemned men from the start, and knew it. Going up the line for the first time, young private Wingfield of the Queens Royal Regiment was lectured thus by his section corporal: 'Now consider our case. We're in trouble 24 hours a day. We get used to the idea of danger until even death is the normal thing, so we build up a way of life, a state of mind, at first a resistance to death, a fight for life, but that finally becomes a submission and resignation to danger. You've heard the old gag, 'Any change in infantry is bound to be for the worst', If you accept that, you've conquered fear. Death doesn't worry you any more... We have little hope of survival. We accept that and spin our life out as best we can. We don't have any distractions like comfort. Our life goes along on a permanent level of tension. We're as good as dead. A slit trench, after all, is the nearest thing to a grave we'll be in while we're alive. It is a grave.'

Before the campaign in North-West Europe was over, that corporal would be dead and Lance Corporal Wingfield would be lying under shellfire with two tracer bullets in his hips, in no-man's land nearly dead. They had spun out their few remaining months of life. But death had come for them in the end, as it always did for those brave young men in field-grey, olive drab, khaki, what else could their fate be? For they were the 'PBI', as they called themselves in wry resignation 'THE POOR BLOODY INFANTRY'.

Alan Moorehead, the Australian war correspondent who had been watching Allied soldiers in combat from 1949 right to the end in 1945, wrote at the time, 'You could almost watch him (the soldier) grow from month to month in the early days. He was suddenly projected out of the shallow and materialistic world into a world were there were real possibilities of touching the heights and here and there a man found greatness in himself. And at those moments there was a surpassing satisfaction, a sense of purity, the confused adolescent dreams of greatness come true. Not all the cynicism, not all the ugliness and fatigue in the world will take that moment away from people who experienced it.


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The Fighting 49th (West Riding) Division: The Polar Bears

Shell-fragments striking your helmet are no fun after a sea-borne landing. The earl anxieties of the Normandy toe-hold weren't meant for troops with a touch of the green. Many men of the 49th had seen action in the fateful Norway Campaign, and they took up the monumental job in a hurry. They had come from the Artic monotony of Iceland, and one of the first to know they meant business was 'Lord Haw-Haw'. He called them 'Butcher Bears' early in the campaign. At the time the 49th were pole-axing Germans at Rauray. It was one of the first determined attacks to hurl the invading army back to the beaches. Tanks and infantry were thrown in; it was now or never for the Wehrmacht, and it failed. If aggressive defence is butchery, then 'Haw-Haw' was right, I prefer to call it guts! It depends, I suppose, on which side you're on. But stay with the 49th a short time, and watch men's faces. You will see the look of triumph-and achievement that has its origin in work well done. The Division, which makes its main call on the North-country, had no small part in the Normandy battle. Alter fighting in the 'Bocage' country, it launched its first full-scale attack against Fonteney-le-Pensil.

Enshrouding mist plus a German smoke-screen blotted the battlefield but a grip was held on the road to Tilly, and Tiger tanks were no barrier for the breakthrough to the road of Juvigny. Sore at the loss of Rauray, the Wehrmacht decided to talk back in no uncertain fashion. It cost them 40 tanks, and they didn't retrieve Rauray, although many of the Polar Bear units took a lot of punishment. Prisoners rolled into the cages in the thrust east from Falaise to the banks of the Seine, in a crow-flight of 50 miles. And then came Le Havre. Big casualty lists make inspiring reading for posterity but a clean quick job is more satisfactory to the man on the spot. You need perfect timing and co-ordination. Storming the coastal fortress of Le Havre must nave given our men in high places a headache. Le Havre was a threatening spear in the side of our pursuit forces. It had to fall, with armoured support, the 49th had a main role in an attack that history will recognise as a 'set-piece'. Only 36 hours after the assault began, the garrison fell, and out trooped 12,000 prisoners. It takes a top-ranking division to pull off such a feat.

I'm thinking now of Cpl Harper, of the Hallamshires, who won a posthumous VC. It happened on the Belgian canal lines. His battalion was clearing the Depot De Mendicite against the rap of bullets and bursting mortar fire, He led the assault on an enemy ensconced behind an earthen wall. Later he gave his platoon covering fire single-handed then reconnoitre a dyke, finding a ford under murderous Spandau fire. 'He was certainly a very brave man'.

Have you ever been on the 'Island', north of Nijmegan? They called it 'No man's water'. No, you didn't like it! Neither did the 49th, but they had to spend four months there; from the end of November until the beginning of April. Day and night patrolling went on under the worst of conditions. Twice there were short, but fierce, running battle started by the Wehrmacht who gave up after they had been badly mauled.

By blowing the dams in December, the Bosche had flooded nearly three-quarters of the 'Island'. Then a thin coating of ice formed, and the snow fell. With the thaw, each company or platoon occupied a small island, separated from the others by a swirling current of deep flood water. But aggressive sorties went on all the time.

The task here was probably the nearest approach in this war to the drudgery of the last. A static role; but this winter bog-down was the northern pivot for the Allied columns knifing into the vitals of Germany. On clear days, north of the 'Island', the forward elements of the division could see the fortified citadel of Arnhem. It had won both fame and ill-repute, as the battlefield of the 1st Airborne Division the previous September. It both menaced and tantalised. The thought of the men was , "I wish to blazes we could get cracking and take the place. Sitting here, week in and week out, gives me the 'willies'.

One afternoon the General called a conference and explained a plan, the object of which was the breaking out of the hated 'Island', and the capture of Arnhem. I wish you could have been there. Faces bore that rapture of danger, which doesn't make sense to the civvy. Tactically, the significance of the fall of Arnhem meant the freedom 0f 21st Army Group to drive along the real main road to Hamburg.

Searchlights cast an eerie light over the right of the assault. Rocket-firing Typhoon of the West Riding Squadron of the R.A.F. joined the artillery barrage, and salvoes of ground rockets fired at 350 a time. Sweating gunners on 25 pounders kept up the last 10 minutes at live rounds-a-minute. Buffaloes, manned by thy R.A.C., and storm boats came in to ferry the attackers across the 120 foot span of the fast-flowing Ijssel.

The Navy joined in too. In one instance, they disembarked a whole Battalion from landing craft in Arnhem itself. Yes, it was an all-in affair, but Nature's perversity and sheer bad luck couldn't be excluded. Treacherous ground bogged the approaching 'Buffaloes'; shell-fire broke the cables; wireless contact broke down; and the pontoon bridge floating down the river set out ahead of schedule. It passed a Bosche river-bank strong-hold only one minute after the place had been wiped out. But the Germans also had their troubles. A sudden switch in the 49th division's plans got them guessing and they placed their hardest hitting force in the wrong spot. The speed of the attack confounded them. 'Polar Bear' infantry surged through the crumbled masonry of the citadel in record time. Canadian armour filled the streets, crossing the class 40 bridge less than 12 hours after the attack began. The odd sniper was soon settled. North of Arnhem is Aldershot country. Released from months of water-logged existence, the 49th raced on to clean up the fugitive dots before them in a plan that followed the pattern of the Prince-of-Wales feathers. Four times after that came the order from high up, "Hey, not so fast, or so far",

Significantly, three live polar bears were found at Arnhem Zoo, and the 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment have two Polar Bear divisional signs sewn on their colours. They asked for them after the Arnhem show. The respect was mutual. What did the Germans think? On the 'V Day' clean up, when nearly 50,000 of them wound their way to the prison cages through the lines of the 49th Division, the General told a senior German officer, "You must realise that the 49th Division has fought and beaten your divisions in war. You will now do as you are told". The German officer paused thoughtfully. He pointed to the Polar Bear sign, and said, "Yes we understand, we know that sign."


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Potted history of "The Imps"

Among the first battalions of the British Army in action against the Germans in this war were the 4th Lincolns, who fought in the battle of Steinkjer in Norway on April 19th 1940. They returned to England early in the following month and after a quick refitting went to Iceland for two and half years training as mountain and snow troops. After eighteen months training in England, the battalion landed on the Normandy beaches on D plus 4. On June 13th they went into the line, taking over from an East Yorkshire battalion at Point 103, overlooking Tilly-sur-Soulles.

They broke out of the bridgehead on June 24th, and after a stern but successful battle captured Fontenay-le-Pensil and were in the line continuously for a month of hard defensive fighting in the Tessel-Bretteville area,

On July 26th they moved to the Caen area and fought with distinction in the areas of Semouville, Bourgebus, and Troarn. From then on the battalion was always in the van in the advance to the Seine, which was reached at Guillebeuf on August 28th. It took part in the clearing of the Foret de Bretonne before crossing the river at Caudebec.

When the division was directed to Le Havre the battalion captured Gaineville, guarding the approach from the south, and on September 12th and 15th pushed into Le Havre: itself and captured the dock area.

A move up to Kessel in Belgium took place on September 18th, and the Lincolns were soon in action on the line of the Antwerp-Turnhout canal where they made their famous text-book crossing by night. It was followed by bitter fighting at Poppel on the road to Tilburg. On this action the Divisional Commander sent his personal congratulations and those of all units of the Division.

Towards the end of October the Lincolns under command of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, took part in the spectacular thrust north from Baarle Kassau to link up with the Poles in liberated Breda. They rejoined their brigade at Roosendaal and captured Willemstad in early November, bringing the drive to the Kaas to an end. They later played a prominent part in the push towards Venlo and the liquidation of the Maas pocket.

At the beginning of December the battalion moved to Nijmegen and until April was occupied with tedious task of holding the 'Island' bridgehead over the Waal between Nijmegen and Arnhem. After its task in the final clearing of the 'Island' the battalion concentrated south of the Ijssel before playing an important part, in the capture of Arnhem on April 13th. It then moved west until, at the beginning of May, it was in the area of Wageningen, where, the surrender terms were signed.

On May 7th the battalion marched into Utrecht amid unforgettable scenes of enthusiasm.

These are the bare bones of the drama of the long conquest which has led to the Ruhr. Now the spotlight takes you around some of the actions in which the Lincolns have made their great reputation in action.

After the division's great success at Le Havre we all went on a long motor drive. It was the drive, through the remainder of France and the greater part of Belgium, and there we were as happy as sand-boys with that beautiful operation on the French port, and all thrilled by the welcome with which the natives welcomed us.

For two days we travelled - and then we coached the canal country. There across one narrow strip of water he was waiting for us to appear so that he should know the moment to disappear. We had a bridge over in no time and were on the way once more.

The next canal was the Antwerp-Turnhout canal. It was different here. All the bridges had been blown and it was obvious that Jerry had no intention of letting anybody across.

We had our own ideas about that, of course, and when we knew that we had been picked to force a bridgehead, so that the rest of the brigade could go through, we were just plumb happy.

Two other battalions had got the same orders and the crossing places selected were several thousand yards apart, Enemy positions were grouped regularly every hundred yards or so on the far bank. We were told midnight September 24th, and given four and half hours to complete the job. The night was pitch black!

Five hundred yards apart, the two assault companies - A and C - slid into their boats and crossed the water. Crossed so silently that somebody angrily whispered to know what was delaying them, when they must have been landing on the other side.

And just as silently they passed through the located enemy positions and made their objectives. It was grand work on the part of the company commanders, to find their exact areas, considering you couldn't see your hand before your face.

Then Major Gordon Newsum led his D company through, to form the apex of the bridgehead, the job was all but finished.

Everything had gone without a hitch. We had one or two clearing up jobs to do in the dark but we managed these with very few casualties. Behind us the bridge builders were working for all they were worth und by first light the canal was spanned.

And by that same first light we could see the positions of the Bosche behind us and in the immediate vicinity of the bridgehead. There was quite a brisk little battle before we had 3 officers and 91 other ranks in the bag, and the enemy decided to call it a morning.

The other two battalions had failed to cross the canal, and we had the satisfaction of seeing the acorn grow into the oak as the entire division passed through our bridgehead in the next two days. The job was done.


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The Zetten Memorial

The Zetten Memorial The Zetten Memorial The Zetten Memorial

The liberation monument consists of a slight inclination with a dug-out, a large V on top, a dark slit trench as a sign of the many civilians and soldiers who he buried in this area; then, as a shinning positive, seemingly rising from the slit trench the reflecting V, made of stainless steel as a sign of liberation and freedom, a black granite tablet with inscription and five tiles with coats of arms of Allied countries. Great Britain, the United States, Belgium and Canada; these tiles representing the countries who played an important role in the liberation of this part of the Betuwe The significance of the Dutch coat of arms here is a homage to the Dutch soldiers and civilians who fought and suffered during the war and were killed. The monument has been adopted by the Rev. van Lingen school.

Zetten Map

Of Polar Bears and Imps - Index - Top of This Page

The Lincoln Imp Polar Bear, 49th Division, Divisional Flash

Of Polar Bears and Imps - Index - Top of This Page

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